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{{Warning|content='''Current Information'''<br>
<center>SEPTEMBER 1ST, 2558</center>
''UNSC/SoS Status'':<br>
*The Sixth Fleet, Battlegroup Maya and Felo 'Ranak's Fleet are all in slipspace en-route to the Voden System and the Imperium's homeworld, Iradu.
''Imperium Status'':<br>
*The Imperium of Clarity's entire fleet is returning to the Voden system, hoping to intercept and destroy the invaders before their homeworld falls.
*[[RP:Imperium|Hub Page]]
*[[RP:Imperium|Hub Page]]
*[[RP:Imperium/Signup|Character List]]
*[[RP:Imperium/Signup|Character List]]
<big>Due to this RP reaching article size limits due to its length, Imperium has been split into two parts, which can be found here:</big>
<center>'''[[RP:Imperium/Content/Part One|Part One]]'''</center>
==Prologue: On the Frontier...==
<center>'''[[RP:Imperium/Content/Part Two|Part Two]]'''</center>
{{UNSC Time Stamp|1457 Hours, August 24th, 2558
UNSC ''Haversham'', Montak System}}
Captain Reynald Donnelly stood back as the doors to the bridge opened, and found himself wishing for the hundredth time today that someone else had been given this job.
Donnelly strode across the deck while his assembled staff stood at attention, followed closely by his guest and the source of all of today's problems. Neglecting the padded command chair he desperately wanted to rest in, the Captain gestured towards the row of stations ahead of them.
"Weapons, navigation, communications," he said flatly as a group of officers below nodded or waved. "This is where we run the ship."
Stood behind Donnelly was Shipmaster Keyn Goras, a hulking Sangheili clad in the golden armour commonly worn by those of his station. Standing at nearly eight feet tall, he easily towered over everyone aboard the ''Haversham'', which made his utterly condescending attitude even more of an annoyance to deal with. A pair of predatory saurian eyes flicked around the bridge, looking for something to comment on
"I see," his low, rumbling voice could be heard throughout the room. "It seems efficient, though exposed."
That was the closest he had come to a compliment all day. "Halberds are built with efficiency in mind," Donnelly replied. "What we lack in defence, we make up for in speed."
While he knew just about every shortcoming of the ''Halberd''-class destroyer and had complained a great deal about the vessels in his eight years of captaincy, Donnelly found himself becoming incredibly protective of his ship and all its features. He had spent the past hour personally escorting Shipmaster Goras across every deck, and had met the Sangheili's constant remarks about weakness and inefficiency with polite counterpoints. Looking out over the port-side viewscreen, he caught sight of the ''Ferocity'', a venerable ''SDV''-class heavy corvette that had been sent on this mission alongside the ''Haversham''.
''Interspecies cooperation,'' Donnelly thought to himself as he watched Goras looming over his officers. ''I hope Lieutenant Aziz is having a better time over there.''
As this area fell under the joint jurisdiction of both the United Nations Space Command and the Swords of Sanghelios, some bright spark had gotten the idea of paired patrols; sending warships from both races to investigate reports of piracy or communications blackouts. While the idea had been readily accepted by the bureaucrats and politicians, many among the UNSC Navy barely tolerated working alongside former Covenant members. Nonetheless, Donnelly knew better than to offend Goras; the Sangheili often took insults poorly, and the last thing he wanted was to flush away a promising career for causing a diplomatic incident.
"Captain," the Shipmaster spoke slowly, as if addressing a child. "Were we to encounter pirates, what course of action would you take?"
"I would assess the situation, and depending on the threat level I would either engage or attempt to contact reinforcements."
Goras huffed. ''A satisfactory answer''. "Then if we engaged, which of our vessels would enter the fray first?"
Donnelly realised where this was going; he wanted to know who had seniority in a combat situation. "Your corvette is larger and better-armed, and can deploy fighters. It would move in first while we provided support."
"Naturally," the Shipmaster turned away, abruptly cutting off his line of questioning. "Then if this tour is finished, I would like to return to the ''Ferocity''."
"Of course." ''I can't wait to see you gone either, you lousy hinge-head bastard.'' "We'll contact your ship and-"
Suddenly, a brief siren sounded by the navigation console. The officer there, Lieutenant Warren, input command after command while Donnelly and Goras approached.
"Sir," Warren half-turned, still typing with one hand. "We've picked up something on the long-range scanners."
"Trouble?" the Captain asked.
Warren glanced back to his screen as new information scrolled across it. "Looks like a warship, sir. Covenant."
With this, a shiver ran down Donnelly's spine, though he wasn't sure if it was out of excitement or worry. Ignoring Goras for the time being, he walked over to his command chair, sat down, and brought up a tactical screen before bringing up the ship's intercom.
"All hands, to your stations," his calm voice echoed through the ''Haversham'''s corridors. "Possible enemy warship sighted."
The Sangheili seemed to take the situation well, and stood by Donnelly's chair with his arms folded as the crew scrambled to their stations, readying weapons and pinpointing the last known position of the distant vessel. The rust-coloured planet Montak loomed ahead; the destination of today's mission.
"So it was more than a communications failure," Goras nodded, looking rather pleased. "That is good."
"You wanted a fight?"
"I wanted something more than endless patrols of empty space."
At this, Donnelly couldn't help but lean back in his chair with a chuckle, realising that he might have more in common with the grumpy Shipmaster than he first realised. "You and me both."
Twenty uneventful minutes passed as the ''Haversham'' and the ''Ferocity'' sped up, moving around the planet towards the source of the disturbance. From what Donnelly knew, Montak had been almost undisturbed until a few years before the end of the war, when an enterprising corporation had discovered vast mineral deposits there that could be mined and used to fuel the then-ongoing war effort against the Covenant. While that never came to pass, the resource-rich world had been put to good use since then by the Liang-Dortmund Corporation, who had essentially laid claim to the entire planet. A world like this out on the frontier would be a prime target for piracy, which led to the two warships being dispatched after all communications from Montak abruptly cut off three days ago.
"We'll have visual contact in thirty seconds," Lieutenant Warren called up.
"Good" Donnelly nodded. "Ready weapons and prepare to open communications."
Goras glanced over. "You are willing to speak to pirates?"
"Naval code dictates that we give them at least one chance to surrender. Will your ship?"
There was a brief pause as Goras considered it. In Donnelly's eyes, he was likely weighing up the idea of striking first in combat and his cultural disposition towards what some would consider honourable conduct in battle. After a few seconds, he relented.
"I will contact the ''Ferocity''. They will not fire unless attacked first."
"Thank you."
As the ''Haversham'' moved around Montak, a distant speck flashed up on the viewscreen ahead of them. A holographic panel to Donnelly's left lit up as the image magnified, revealing the distinctive shape of a Covenant ''CRS''-class light cruiser in orbit. Donnelly felt a sense of relief; it wasn't particularly dangerous as far as Covenant vessels went, though they would have to remain careful.
"Lieutenant," he signalled Warren. "Any signals from the surface?"
Warren shook his head after a quick check. "Nothing. We won't be able to analyse the situation until we've disengaged, sir."
"Copy that. Open a COM line with that ship."
At this point, Donnelly was all but certain that they would be forced to engage. Many pirates were ex-Covenant military or lucky enough to have scavenged equipment from it, and often preferred to fight to the death to surrendering without a fight. Chances were that this ship had come here to pillage the groundside refineries or at worst, enslave the small populace. As they steadily approached minimum firing distance, Donnelly accessed the long-range COM and cleared his throat before activating it.
"Unidentified vessel, this is the UNSC ''Haversham''. You are conducting illegal operations in occupied space and have been classified as a threat. Please stand down and surrender at once or we will be forced to open fire."
The Captain sat up straight in his chair as the message was transmitted and relayed not only in English, but in several Sangheili and Kig-Yar dialects for the pirates to hear. Over a minute passed with no response, save for the ''Haversham'' and its ally positioning themselves for what seemed like an inevitable confrontation. As Donnelly turned towards his weapons officer to fire a MAC round into the cruiser's bow, the COM crackled as a bold, authoritative voice filtered through.
"You trespass on our Imperium, and must pay the price."
For a few brief moments, not a single soul on the bridge moved, either out of uncertainty or confusion. At best, Donnelly had expected an actual surrender or some cry of defiance, not this ominous proclamation. He got to his feet and pointed towards the distant ship.
"Prepare MAC round. As soon as we've fired, the ''Ferocity'' can finish it off."
As the crew got back to their posts and the Destroyer shifted slightly, getting a proper trajectory on the distant cruiser, an alarm went up from several monitors.
"Captain!" one of the officers called from across the room. "We're detecting numerous slipspace disturbances in-system!"
"Shit," he muttered. "Keep track of them!"
Donnelly dashed to a nearby holotable with a slightly bemused Goras at his heel and brought up an image of the local system.. Used to commanding from the bridge of a Sangheili vessel, the Shipmaster suddenly seemed very out of place while reduced to the role of a passive observer. Several red markers around Montak and its unnamed moons indicated a series of incoming ships about to emerge from slipspace.
"More Pirates?" Goras suggested. "If they are as weak as this vessel we should emerge victorious from this battle."
As Donnelly watched the readout, more and more signatures popped up. This wasn't the arrival of a few ships to back up a pirate vessel. This was an incoming fleet.
"We need to retreat," he turned to the Shipmaster. "Whatever's coming, we don't have the firepower to stop it."
The Sangheili bristled at this, but relented with a heavy sigh. For all his bluster, he wouldn't attempt to defy a Captain aboard his own ship. "I will contact the ''Ferocity''."
As Goras picked up his disk-shaped communicator, yet another shrill alarm rang out from the console. Donnelly turned to see their local scanners completely overwhelmed, with a red marker completely covering everything within the ''Haversham'''s range. He sighed and returned to the front of the bridge.
"Looks like we're being jammed. Turn us around and-"
As he looked through the viewport, something occurred to Captain Donnelly: the stars had vanished. The endless sea of white pinpricks against the blackness of space was gone, replaced by an all-encompassing void. He stared blankly, one hand tugging the collar of his uniform as his eyes tried to make sense of what was going on. It took a few more seconds of confused gawking before realisation dawned on Donnelly.
There was a ship above them.
He had been entirely mistaken when he assumed they were being jammed. The vessel that emerged from slipspace had simply been so large that it completely overwhelmed their scanners. As the last vestiges of particle reconciliation faded away into blue mist around the hull of the gargantuan ship, Donnelly could finally make out the tiny dots of light lining its underside, stretching far out of sight.
"By my ancestors," Goras breathed, now at Donnelly's side. "It's a Supercarrier."
Those assembled on the ''Haversham'''s bridge stood at their posts, stupefied by the sheer enormity of the ship looming above them. Numerous messages scrolled across the now-ignored console screens, warning of more slipspace ruptures as warship after warship emerged around Montak. Were it not for the shock and terror that now occupied the crew's hearts, they would have considered the fleet's arrival to be quite a breathtaking sight. Their reverie was only broken when a bright flash from the port-side viewport caught their attention. Donnelly's mouth hung open in horror as he saw the ''Ferocity'' utterly gutted by a single powerful plasma beam. ''We're next.''
"We've got to go!" he shouted, snapping everyone else into action.
The ''Haversham'' turned sharply as its engines kicked into gear. It would be some time before they could safely jump to slipspace, but with their speed they might just make it. As they began to pull away, there was a sudden jolt as the entire ship shook, veering sharply to one side.
"Port fusion drive's been hit!" a nearby officer yelled from her station. "We can't maintain course!"
The ''Haversham'' shuddered again as Donnelly leant against the side of his chair, having almost been thrown to the floor after that first attack. The fact that they weren't already dead was surprising, and could only mean that this new foe wanted them as prisoners instead. He flipped a switch by his chair and activated the ship's intercom once again.
"All hands, prepare for boarders."
As things currently stood, they had no way of escaping or overcoming the fleet that now surrounded them. However, this fleet hadn't vaporised them yet, meaning that they would be forced into a boarding action. Sure enough, several Phantom dropships whizzed past the ''Haversham'''s frontal viewport, likely circling round to gain access through the airlocks. Donnelly sighed.
"We'll have to surrender," he said sadly. "I'm not sacrificing my entire crew for the sake of a doomed last stand."
"What?!" Shipmaster Goras snarled, sending spittle flying everywhere. "Retreat is one thing, but I will not suffer captivity after they slaughtered my brethren!"
"Shipmaster!" Donnelly finally snapped. "You are aboard my ship, and I will not allow you to endanger my crew. Stand down."
Donelly's fierce gaze met a pair of determined yellow eyes. Though the Shipmaster could have easily killed him and most of the bridge crew without much effort, the Sangheili stood back and folded his arms once again, massively displeased but unwilling to attack his allies. Trudging over to the COM relay, Donnelly opened a public channel and began to broadcast.
"This is the UNSC ''Haversham''. We surrender, and will not fight back as long as our lives are spared."
After sending the message, Donnelly could only stare at his highly-polished boots, unable to meet the faces of anyone else on his bridge. Their attackers were quick to respond.
"We understand. Do not resist and we will treat you fairly."
With that, all Donnelly and the other two hundred and forty members of the ''Haversham'''s crew had to do was wait and comply with orders. The Captain sat quietly in his chair, and said nothing when boarding parties sliced through escape pod access ports and landed small craft in the shuttle bay, pouring hordes of heavily-armed Sangheili soldiers into the vessel. The crew did as instructed, sitting unarmed as their captors rounded them up and escorted them away.
Soon enough, they arrived at the bridge.
Donnelly had moved by then, and stood alongside Goras and the dozen officers that made up his bridge staff as the heavy bulkhead doors slid open. Six Sangheili stepped forward, fully-armoured and wearing enclosed helmets. They spread out in a loose formation, not saying a word as they ensured that everyone in the room was accounted for. Goras began to twitch nervously, but otherwise said nothing as their guards stood to attention.
Donnelly stepped forward. "I'm the Captain of this vessel. To whom-"
"Keep still!" one of their captors barked, levelling his carbine threateningly. "He will be here soon."
The Captain knew better than to ask further questions, and withdrew into the gaggle of officers to await this mysterious individual. After a couple of minutes, four more warriors arrived, clad in intricate suits of silver armour that shone with strange symbols. They moved cautiously, and carried weapons of an exotic design that Connelly had never seen before. At their rear, in a dazzling suit of white and gold, was a tall Sangheili with a cape draped over his shoulders. He walked proudly across the ''Haversham'''s bridge, taking in every last detail before settling his gaze on the prisoners.
"Who is in charge here?" he demanded. It was the voice from the earlier transmissions.
Donnelly stepped forward, and saluted. "I'm Captain Reynald Donnelly of the UNSC Navy."
The Sangheili eyed him curiously, and nodded. "I am Imperial Admiral Toru 'Makhan of the Imperium of Clarity. You have unlawfully invaded our system today, Captain."
''The what?'' Donnelly knew the name of just about every pirate group out there, so this faction were a complete unknown to him.
"Imperial Admiral," he said politely, "Montak is a mining colony under the jurisdiction of the Unified Earth Government. I'm afraid that your occupation will be met with force."
While Donnelly had a hard time reading the expression on a Sangheili's face, he could've sworn that the shining figure before him was smiling. Before he could reply, Goras sprang forward, unleashing his twin-pronged energy sword in a swift flourish as he made a mad dash towards Toru 'Makhan. The Imperial Admiral drew his own blade in an instant, igniting a blade made not of shaped plasma, but of hard light. It caught the Shipmaster's weapon with ease, and as he reeled back for a second blow, all four of Toru's bodyguards opened fire with their long rifles. As his eyes widened in surprise, Goras could only utter a single curse.
The Sangheili warrior roared as several beams of directed energy struck him, burning through shielding, armour, clothing and flesh in seconds. As he attempted to take another step forward, his body simply fell apart, disintegrating into wisps of white-hot ash before their very eyes. He swiftly vanished, leaving the ghost of his final, pained scream hanging in the air. Donnelly and his crew remained silent, to afraid to do anything but stare. The assembled soldiers quickly moved in, wordlessly lining the officers up to be escorted out of the ship. Deactivating his weapon, Toru 'Makhan caught Donnell's frightened gaze, and waved one hand in a grandiose gesture.
"Consider this my declaration of war."
{{B001 Sig V3}}
==Chapter 1: Muster==
===1: Conference===
{{UNSC Time Stamp|0937 Hours, August 26th, 2558
Strategic Response Centre, HIGHCOM Facility Bravo-6, Earth}}
"-and that is the last transmission we received."
As the lights in the meeting room brightened, a low murmur of conversation rose up among the assembled officers. For the last twenty minutes they had sat in complete silence, watching the surveillance footage and COM transmissions recovered from the UNSC ''Haversham'''s jettisoned black box and pieced together by Naval Intelligence's AI constructs. Less than twenty-four hours ago, a ''Winter''-class prowler had entered the Montak system, recovered the badly-damaged device, and returned to Earth as quickly as possible.
All in all, it did not paint a pretty picture.
"Do we have an ID on that supercarrier?" a grey-haired General asked, glancing down at his datapad.
Across from him, a man in the dark uniform of a Naval officer stood up and cleared his throat. "Our initial reports suggest that it is the ''Watchful Custodian'', belonging to one Toru 'Makhan. The transmission identifying the attackers as part of the 'Imperium of Clarity' confirms this."
"I can't say I'm aware of that group."
"Not many are, General Hogan." He looked towards man at the head of the table. "Fleet Admiral?"
Fleet Admiral Lord Terrence Hood slowly stood up, and all eyes in the room turned towards him with rapt attention. If the Chief of Naval Operations was here, then it meant that this was much more serious than a simple piracy operation gone wrong. Adjusting the collar of his distinctive white service uniform, Hood placed both hands behind his back before addressing his subordinates.
"Thank you, Vice Admiral Samson," Hood gestured towards the centre of the table, and a holographic display lit up, displaying a collage of ships, buildings and alien warriors in unusual garb. "The Imperium of Clarity is a Sangheili-led faction that appears to have formed on the edges of former Covenant space in the aftermath of the Great War. As their actions have been almost entirely outside of human space so far, there has been very little official contact with them until the attack two days ago."
"So they're another remnant group, then?" a young officer interjected, earning a few annoyed looks.
Hood shook his head. "No, not like the ones we've faced before. They were mostly mercenaries, nomadic fleets or terrorist groups. This 'Imperium' has infrastructure, a government, and a large civilian populace. In other words, it is being treated as a hostile nation, not a group of extremists. As such, the decision has been made between the United Nations Space Command - with oversight from the civilian government - and envoys from the Swords of Sanghelios to launch an immediate military campaign to repel this invasion and neutralise the threat posed to us by the Imperium of Clarity. "
As Hood sat back down, the whispered conversations that had been ongoing during his briefing rose in volume as the room's occupants discussed the matter. A tall, middle-aged man with a weather-beaten face rose from his chair and saluted.
"Rear Admiral Hawkins," Hood nodded politely.
"Sir, am I to assume that we will be working alongside the Swords of Sanghelios during this campaign?"
"That is correct. Will that be an issue?"
"No sir, I was just curious about how the chain of command will operate."
"The Sangheili Fleet Master intends to work alongside us, but will not interfere with our military operations in any way."
"I see," Hawkins seemed satisfied, and sat down.
When it became clear that there were no further questions, Hood waved towards one of his aides at a nearby console. The holoprojector built into the meeting table flashed and the display changed as an array of miniature starships appeared alongside numerous charts projecting troop numbers and supply expenditures.
"Leading this operation will be the Sixth Fleet, comprised of eighty-four warships and twenty-two support vessels. Within forty-eight hours we intend to have it assembled over our rally point at New Syracuse, the closest suitable colony world to the Montak system. There, we will rendezvous with a fleet sent by the Swords of Sanghelios before launching our counter-attack into enemy territory."
Hood paused for a moment before gesturing to a woman at his left. "Admiral Lin Zhi has been chosen as the commanding officer for this campaign, with Rear Admiral John Hawkins as second in command and Vice Admiral Ryan Samson acting as her Chief of Staff."
At this, Zhi rose and gave a firm salute to Hood before surveying the room. Though she had not said a single word since the meeting began, many knew of her reputation as a tough officer with an impressive combat record against the Covenant. Steely-eyed and straight-backed, she possessed a certain gravitas that gave off an intimidating aura far greater than that of the other venerable officers that towered over her.
"Thank you, Fleet Admiral," Zhi mirrored his earlier position, crossing her hands behind her back. "Like many of you, I am no stranger to fighting against Covenant - or former Covenant - warships, and am fully aware of the dangers a fleet will face. However, I assure you that I intend to end this war quickly and efficiently, without needlessly wasting the lives of the brave men and women fighting for us. While a proper offensive strategy has not yet been formulated, over the next two days I intend to-"
Zhi stopped abruptly as a hand shot up from across the table. It belonged to a young officer, dressed in a dark green uniform and matching beret. Eyeing a silver leaf on his collar, she raised an eyebrow.
"Yes, Commander?"
To everyone's surprise, the man shot to his feet, snapping his boots together as he saluted the Admiral, who seemed more surprised than offended as he began to speak.
"Thank you, Admiral." He clasped his hands together, either unaware of or simply choosing to ignore Zhi's darkening expression. "My name is Commander Andrei Fosse, of the Naval Strategic Response Division, and I'm honoured to be a part of this campaign. As the NSRD were given access to the files from the Montak incident prior to this meeting, I have taken the liberty of formulating a strategy already, as I was asked."
"I wasn't aware of this," Zhi looked over to Hood, who seemed rather embarrassed.
"The decision must have been made very recently," the Fleet Admiral muttered, fixing Fosse with a withering stare. "And without my knowledge."
Fosse seemed completely unabashed by this as he replied. "I apologise, Fleet Admiral. As per an order passed and signed by both the Secretary of Defence and President of the UEG, the NSRD is to provide oversight in terms of force deployment and logistics in addition to ensuring that all interspecies cooperation is carried out without incident. This will also extend to negotiations with the enemy, should it come to that."
Zhi nodded in resigned acceptance. Arguing with bureaucrats was a fruitless endeavour. "Did you have a strategy in mind, Commander Fosse?"
"Of course."
Fosse connected his own datapad into the holotable, and the image in front of them quickly changed from logistic readouts to a mass of tiny holographic ships, representing the entirety of the Sixth Fleet and by the look of things, the Swords of Sanghelios Fleet.
"As you can see," Fosse pointed towards the lines of UNSC ships massed alongside their Sangheili counterparts. "By combining our speed and maneuverability with the firepower of our allies, we can easily overwhelm the enemy fleet with a strong formation and massed fire."
"What maneuverability?" Rear Admiral Hawkins spoke up, waving his hand through the flickering hologram. "That close, our ships will barely have room to evade without hitting friendlies."
Fosse's smile never faltered. "That is why we must remain flexible in our strategy. Should we come under heavy fire, the Sangheili will advance to provide cover while our own fleet quickly reorganises into two groups. I'm sure that any competent Naval officer could manage it, even under pressure."
Vice Admiral Samson was next to interrupt. "And what if the enemy surrounds us, or is able to slip high-powered weaponry into our midst? I feel as though you are severely underestimating this group's capabilities."
"An excellent point from the head of the Prowler Corps," Fosse admitted with a childish shrug. "Of course, we will need to ensure that the field is ours by the time we engage the enemy in full-blown combat. With proper reconnaissance and proper calculations regarding enemy slipspace vectors, our fleet may be able to intercept and combat the enemy before they can formulate a proper response."
There was a long silence as all eyes in the room turned towards Hood, who had remained impassive throughout Fosse's speech. However, it was Zhi who answered first.
"Commander Fosse, what is your combat experience?"
"I served aboard the UNSC ''Holloway'' for five years, Admiral. We participated in numerous fleet actions against Kig-Yar and Jiralhanae pirates in the Joint Occupation Zone."
"And why is it that someone of your experience is devising plans of attack for an entire fleet?"
While Fosse's smile remained, there was an unmistakable flash of anger in his eyes. "With all due respect, the NSRD specialises in tactical simulation and threat analysis, and has been responsible for planning a number of very successful operations over the years. Were I not qualified for such a position, the Secretary of Defence would not have assigned me to this fleet. However, I fully understand that my strategies may conflict with your own methods. As such, we may discuss things further after moving to our forward command post."
Not a single person in the room would have blamed Zhi for exploding with rage then and there, and few would have intervened if she had leapt across the table and started beating him to death. Instead, she simply closed her eyes for a moment and sat down, her voice completely level.
"I see. I have no further questions."
Hood leaned forward, and motioned for Fosse to sit down. "Thank you, Commander. Now, let's wrap this up so we can proceed."
The meeting lasted for another unnecessary half-hour before Hood brought it to an end. Most of that time had been dominated by Fosse's assurances that he had planned for all contingencies and a brief disagreement on how best to deploy Special Forces personnel on the ground; units were being brought in from several divisions to augment their sizeable Marine contingent, alongside a number of private contractors. Putting it lightly, personnel organisation was a mess right now.
"I'm sorry about that, Admiral," Hood pinched the bridge of his nose shortly after the last officer had departed. "I didn't think they'd ambush us with someone like Fosse."
"It's not your fault, sir," Zhi unscrewed a bottle of water. "It's politics."
Hood sighed. "Politics." He spat the word out like a curse. "When I dismantled many of our emergency powers after the war ended, I was hoping for a return to normalcy. Instead we've got just as much infighting and nepotism as ever."
"You think Fosse has connections?"
"I think he's the kind of man who knows how to butter people up to cover up his own weaknesses. When someone like that gains the favour of an elected official, they can cause a lot of damage."
Zhi took a long draught from her bottle, and exhaled. "Do you think he'll force us to go ahead with this ridiculous plan? He doesn't seem the type to lead from the front."
"No, but he'll try to claim credit for any victories along the way; regardless of how many lives we lose, if we beat this Imperium, he'll want the glory."
The Admiral drummed her fingers on the tabletop. "Can't you do anything about him, sir?"
To her surprise, Hood gave a weary smile. "Admiral, I've already had to fight tooth-and-nail to prevent the civilian government from officially declaring war on the Imperium of Clarity. Having the Secretary of Defence assign an idiot to this fleet's command staff was the price we paid for it."
"Wouldn't we get a lot more support if it were an official declaration of war?" she asked.
"Yes and no. For one, we'd have to deal with a good portion of the senate opposing this action, partly on principle and partly because this Imperium isn't anywhere as big a threat to us as the Covenant was. Even with all the threats aimed at Earth in these last few years, some of the politicians are starting to regain the feeling that we're on top of the galaxy again. On the other hand, declaring war would mean that we could send in several fleets, including the UNSC ''Infinity''."
"That would've been a great help," Zhi admitted. "Still, I'm fairly confident. So long as Fosse stays out of our way and I can change his plan enough so we don't all die for nothing and the Sangheili are willing to cooperate, we might be able to push through to the enemy capital within weeks."
"That's the spirit," Hood got to his feet, moving a little stiffly. Zhi watched him with curiosity; the venerable Fleet Admiral had been badly injured in a terrorist attack earlier this year, and though he had recovered, there was a lot of talk among the Admiralty that he intended to retire soon. Perhaps if this campaign was successful, she would have his position within a year.
"New Syracuse is a long way from home," Zhi said as the two made their way out of the meeting room. "It's been a long while since I've been part of a fleet as large as this."
"We don't have to mobilise as much these days, thankfully." Hood scratched the back of his bald head, scraping over his neural interface. "I'd offer to come with you, but I'm afraid I have to hold down the fort here. Deal with the ''politicians''."
"Good luck with that, sir," Zhi saluted Hood. "I've only got to win a war."
"Lucky you. Come back alive, Admiral."
With that, the pair turned and went their separate ways. It would take the better part of a day to reach New Syracuse from here, and even longer for the entire fleet to arrive. Aside from dealing with Fosse, Admiral Lin Zhi would have not only lead the successful recapture of Montak, but follow it up with the invasion of one or more enemy-controlled systems. It was quite the task, and one that would reward her handsomely if they were successful.
"Admiral!" Hood turned and called down the corridor as Zhi walked off. "I've sent you a dossier on your counterpart within the Swords of Sanghelios. His name is Felo 'Ranak!"
{{B001 Sig V3}}
===2: The Imperial Admiral===
{{Covenant Time Stamp|1258 Hours, August 26th, 2558
Imperial Palace, Iradu, Voden System}}
A hush fell over the high-ceilinged meeting hall as a pair of heavy doors swung open on the landing above. The crowd below, a sea of bright-armoured Sangheili officers in their finest ceremonial garb, looked upwards in union as Imperial Admiral Toru 'Makhan emerged. Like them, he was clad in an ornate battle harness. He stood at the top of a long flight of stairs, surveying his subordinates with a stern visage before he began his descent, flanked by a pair of staff-wielding bodyguards.
In person, Toru 'Makhan did not quite match up to the larger-than-life figure whose exploits were known across a hundred worlds. Though tall by Sangheili standards, he possessed neither the impressive physique or commanding aura that so many legendary heroes had. Nonetheless, all knelt before him as he crossed the hall and approached the dais where his throne sat, bowing their heads to the man who had founded their Imperium as the old Covenant collapsed. Toru 'Makhan had saved them all. Toru Makhan had made them strong. Now, Toru 'Makhan would lead them to war.
The Imperial Admiral reached his throne; a high-backed chair of sleek silver metal inlaid with golden inscriptions. As he sat down it thrummed slightly, rising a few inches off the ground and giving the Sangheili more than enough height to peer over the heads of everyone present. His finger slipped to a button beneath one of the armrests, and a dozen speakers flared to life, magnifying his words tenfold.
"My loyal commanders," Toru's voice boomed as he waved an arm towards the crowd. "Today I greet you not only as your leader, but as a grateful friend."
Most had raised their heads by now, but this forced even the most reverent of followers to look towards Toru.
"For years, we have fought to build our Imperium. We have fought to make it safe, to grow and expand, and to protect it from threats both outside and from within. Each commander has proven himself a hundred times over, and in the coming cycles you will have the chance to do many times over."
Toru paused, half-expecting a roar of approval. Instead, all eyes remained on him. He eased himself back a little in his throne, and continued.
"As most of you are aware, the first blow has already been struck against our foes. Jealous of our might and fearful of our Imperium's expansion, both the Arbiter's forces and the human military attempted to claim our latest acquisition: Montak. Were it not for the quick actions of our fleet, they might have caused damage to our colonisation efforts on the surface. Instead, we took them quickly, and without loss."
This time, a ragged cheer went up from a few Shipmasters, likely those who had been present for the incident.
"By doing this, my brothers, our Imperium has only hastened a long-awaited war. This will not be as simple as rooting out pirates and raiders that dare infest our borders, nor will it involve the conversion of unenlightened warbands to our cause. This will be a conflict the likes of which has not been seen since the Covenant's Great War!"
As more shouts drifted over the crowd, Toru rose to his feet, clenching his fists as his speech intensified.
"So now, my warriors, we embark on our greatest campaign! Fight for your Imperium! Fight for your homes! Fight for your very existence!"
At this, over a hundred voices cried out in union, heavy boots stamping against the tiled floor while a sea of fists pumped the air with violent energy. The Imperial Admiral stepped forward, and his eager soldiers parted immediately. As he walked by, a shining white-gold leader amidst a multi-hued sea of frenzied warriors, they began to chant his name.
"Makhan! Mahkan! Mahkan!"
"Hail to the Imperium! Hail to the Imperial Admiral!"
"To war!"
Moving with surprising grace, Toru 'Makhan ascended the stairs once more, treading lightly along the violet carpet. As he stepped across the threshold into the adjacent chamber, he gave a final wave to the cheering mass below until the door slid shut.
''That's enough ceremony.''
Save for his bodyguards, he was now completely alone. Toru listened to the muted shouting for a moment more, savouring it for a few brief seconds before he set off at a brisk pace down the corridor. His speech had been short and to the point: they were at war. Another door opened ahead of him, and he stepped out onto an open bridge connecting two wings of his palace. As he walked, he looked out over the sprawling city below, bright and cheerful under the midday sun. There was a time when he would have sat and enjoyed the view in his free time, but alas, he had very little to spare these days. Approaching a tower at the edge of the bridge, Toru turned to his nearest protector.
"Has my High Command been arrived, Muri?"
The silver-plated figure next to him nodded. "Yes, excellency. They should already be waiting for you."
"Good. My thanks."
Toru continued his journey in silence, entering the western tower. Unlike the main body of the palace, which boasted room after room dedicated to entertainment, living, and governance, this area was Toru 'Makhan's private domain. The sleek metal walls, built to resemble a warship's interior, were dotted with artwork bought, discovered or plundered from the far reaches of the galaxy. Paintings of alien landscapes lined the massive spiralling stairwell, while one floor had quite the collection of sculptures.
His bodyguard snapped to attention. "Yes, excellency?"
"Remind me to continue my notes on that Jiralhanae relief later. I would like them finished before we set out."
"I will," she bowed her head respectfully.
While he took the time to remember the names of every member of the Imperial Guards, Toru had grown rather fond of Muri 'Jarit since she had joined their ranks. Not only was she a living example of the success of his decree allowing females to serve openly in the military - one that had provoked some grumbling in many of his existing warriors - she had proven herself not only as a fine warrior, but someone who did not embody the ridiculous stoicism he had seen practised in many Honour Guardsmen over the decades. ''Perhaps'', he thought, ''She will stand among my High Command one day.''
Eventually they came to the topmost floor, where Toru's personal meeting chambers lay. Muri and the other guardsman, Hui, pushed them open themselves. Despite the high-tech systems surrounding the palace, the Imperial Admiral had neglected to install gravity lifts on the upper levels, forcing any visitor to climb to the top themselves. It was a bit of fancy on Toru's part to mirror his own struggle to the top, though the thought was lost on most people. Dominating the room was a long table of carved wood; an antique sourced from Sanghelios itself. Around it stood the six most powerful individuals within the Imperium of Clarity, second only to Toru.
"Imperial Admiral!" called a Sangheili in burnished golden armour, alerting the others to his presence.
"My brothers!" Toru spread his arms as he approached the table, looking at each of them in turn. "It has been far too long since we convened."
"Not since we dealt with Rukarun's pack," a heavily-scarred, gruff-voiced Unggoy laughed from his seat across the table. "And what a chase that was!"
Toru chuckled, taking his seat at the head of the table. The sole representative of his race on the High Command, Shipmaster Hedan Koti might have held the lowest rank of those in this room, but he more than made up for it with his sheer tenacity and willingness to speak the truth. His massive sway over the Imperium's Unggoy populace arguably made him one of the more politically powerful individuals in the room, but he kept that to himself.
"For you and Fleet Master 'Larom, perhaps," he gestured to the warrior in gold who had greeted him. "We simply lay in wait and spring our trap when the time was right."
That got a snort of mirth from Orro 'Hendai, an older Sangheili sat at the very end of the table. Catching Toru's eye, he turned to face him.
"Chasing ''Jir'a'ul'' pirates is naught but sport, your excellency. I have heard that you have started a war."
This was as much an accusation as it was a question from the eager old Field Marshal, who was good for naught but battle and knew it well. Toru leaned over the table, clasping his hands together.
"Indeed I have, 'Hendai. Do you wish to be unleashed?"
"Always," the warrior clenched his leathery fists. "You need only ask, and my Legion would spill a sea of blood in your name."
"They shall."
Toru knew that this was more than mere flattery on his part. When he had recruited 'Hendai into his Imperium, the warrior had been leading a force of thousands on a barely-disguised rampage across the swathes of now-lawless space in former Covenant territories. All it had taken was the promise of true purpose to turn him into a loyal commander.
"Your excellency," Fleet Master Nor 'Hudon spoke, sitting directly across from his blood brother, Zetal. "Is this a defensive war, or are we launching an invasion?"
"Both." ''Always thinking of the people.'' "I have been informed of an impending attack on our newest acquisition. We will have to defend it, then strike back."
"The mining colony?"
"Indeed. Our negotiation with those human merchants helped us secure it bloodlessly, though it saw reprisal from a warship of both their military, and one from the Swords of Sanghelios. Both were destroyed, but more will come to invade our territory."
The mention of the Arbiter's forces had a notable effect on those at the table. Everyone here had fought in the war against the humans on some level, and would likely have little trouble fighting their forces again. However, to fight the Swords of Sanghelios would pit brother against brother on a larger scale than many were comfortable with. While that particular alliance had maintained open diplomacy with the Imperium before, Toru and his followers had refused to bow to their leader, or anyone else. To the Imperial Admiral, they were barely an improvement on the dozens of factions all claiming to be the Covenant's true successors.
To Toru's left, a younger warrior in dark armour looked to him thoughtfully. "Have we considered diplomacy?"
"Weakness!" Orro 'Hendai thumped his fist against the table, but was ignored.
"You seem concerned, Fleet Master 'Deris." Toru said calmly. "Blood has been spilled. They will not turn back."
The immense finality in his words made Lora 'Deris shrink back a little. The look of worry slowly eased off his face as he gave a long sigh. "Then we must meet them head on."
A murmur of assent drifted round the meeting table. The Imperium of Clarity were going to war at full force. Against the great galactic powers, they would see victory or certain death in this conflict. Hedan Koti stood up in his chair, now level with the rest of the seated Sangheili.
"I will gather my troops, leader," he rapped a his arms against his chest before crying out in a wheezy voice. "For the Imperium!"
"For the Imperium!" the Sangheili, Toru included, echoed his words. What the Unggoy lacked in size, he more than made up for in spirit.
Toru stood up, feeling energised, even excited. "Gather your fleets over Frendhal! We have little time to waste!"
With that, the Imperium of Clarity's High Command stood up, bowing to their undisputed leader. Toru chose to address each of them in turn.
"Orro, keep your warriors sharp and ready. They will have their fill soon enough."
The old warrior bared his teeth in a triumphant cheer.
"Nor, Zetal, your speed and talent are unmatched. Win together."
Both brothers thanked Toru simultaneously before sinking perfectly synchronised bows.
"Koti, you and your people are the backbone of our Imperium. Do not falter."
Shipmaster Hedan gave an embarrassed shrug. Toru was sure that it meant "''I'll do my best.''"
"'Kan 'Larom, you are a taskmaster without compare. May you keep our hirelings as organised as your own fleet."
"Loyalty through obedience," he replied simply. It was his personal mantra.
Lastly, Toru turned towards Lora 'Deris, whose eyes shone at the accolades being heaped onto his comrades. The Imperial Admiral grasped his shoulder, feeling an unusual sense of pride.
"I have heard it said that every warrior has his own war," he looked around at the assembled veterans, "That is how they build their legend. This is your war, Lora 'Deris. Use it well."
At once, the grateful fleet master sank to one knee, his face almost touching the ground. Unlike the others, he had no great accomplishments from the last war; no mighty war stories or scars to show. Such was the tragic tale of a warrior on the frontier. He had done everything to earn his position at Toru 'Makhan's side in the last decade, and wanted nothing more than to prove his worth to the Imperial Admiral.
"You are too kind," he mumbled, picking himself up eventually.
Toru 'Mahkan did not respond, and instead turned to the windows that lined the command room as a shadow fell over the capital city. He walked to the window, and peered out as the shape of a tremendously starship drifted overhead. Small shuttlecraft zipped around it like insects on the body of a great beast, and cheers could be heard from below as the civilian populace looked up in joy. ''Right on time.''
This was Toru's ship. The ''Watchful Custodian''. Saviour of the far-flung colonies, cleanser of pirates, and the mightiest vessel in the Imperium of Clarity. Once a parting gift from a treacherous Prophet prior to his exile onto the frontier, Toru recalled standing on its command deck, looking down at the settlement that would be the basis for his personal fortress, and the civilisation that he had built around it. Very soon, it would see battle once again.
{{B001 Sig V3}}
===3: Loose Lips===
{{UNSC Time Stamp|0230 Hours, August 26th, 2558
Safehouse in the Countryside, Venezia}}
This was taking longer than he’d hoped.
Tied to the chair at the center of the dimly lit room, Jerrod Fletcher stared up him, eyes gleaming with a grim satisfaction as blood trickled down a split lip. “No one is coming for you. No one knows you’re here.” Joseph Kovacs sighed, crouching down to the captured operative’s level.
“Don’t matter.” Grumbled the battered man, flashing a smile of blood stained teeth up at his captor. Fletcher was a hard man, a little too erratic for BRUTUS, but dangerous all the same. It hadn’t been easy to bring him down, but with a little observation he’d been able to capitalize on his particular vices and nab him.
Paying off the prostitute had cost him more than a few credits though, he could only hope what he got from the triggerman would be worth it.
“Of course it matters, you’re not a patriot Jerrod, you do this cause it pays well. Why bother holding out?” He’d been relegated to playing good cop, Hargrove’s PISCES and general manner made him better suited for the opposite role anyway, but Kovacs wasn’t happy about it.
“I’ll let you go, no questions asked, just tell me where I can find BLUE JAY.”
The killer spit blood onto him, letting out a giddy snicker. “He knows ‘ya ‘comin for ‘im, this ain’t so simple as ‘fightin innies.” Kovacs wiped the blood away, expression deadpan as the two locked eyes.
“Just cause you don’t got no family don’t mean he can’t hurt you Joey boy.” So he knew who he was, they’d never identified themselves which meant that Fletcher wasn’t bluffing, BLUE JAY had been clued in to the ex-commandos hot on his trail. Good, that meant they’d send more agents to interrogate their way, get them closer to him.
And by extension closer to CALIFORNIA.
“I appreciate the concern, but that’s for me to worry about.” Kovacs shrugged. “All I need is you to tell me where to find him.”
He laughed, almost madly, eyes wild. Something was off.
“You and I ain’t Earthers, so maybe you won’t gettit, but on Earth when November comes, winta comes wit it,” The ONI operative snickered. “Winta comes, and everything shrivels up, the world’s quiet.” Fletcher smiled.
“I know how winter works Jerrod.”
“Good good. Moral of the story is, when November comes, an’ he will, everything dies.” The last words hung in the air, his inane mockery suddenly turning deadly serious. Something moved in his mouth, and Kovacs realized what it was too late. His hands shot towards Jerrod’s jaw as the capsule was crushed between his teeth.
In the past he might’ve been able to stop it, but the 26th century had made suicide pills all the more fast acting. Looking deep into Kovacs’ eyes, the assassin looked onto him with something akin to sympathy.
“Stay warm Joseph.” He muttered as foam spilled from his lips and his body went limp.
Kovacs sat back into the simple wooden chair he’d set across from his captive and sighed. A dead end, an ominous threat, and an agent who’d taken their life rather than divulge any information despite it being against everything in their character. They really were knee deep in ONI’s shit.
“What the fuck?!” Boomed a voice from over his shoulder, modulated by the helmet he still needlessly wore. Hargrove. The two of them had similar stories, even if they were seperated by decades in occurance, street rats who’d ended up in the same ONI black ops unit, and eventually ended up as enemies of the enigmatic organization. There were a few differences, Kovacs was an ORION, Hargove the bastard of a criminal industrialist, but the core details were more or less the same. They'd become fast friends when they were handed the reigns of Lima.
Not to say the man wasn't a pain in the ass.
“What the hell? Why didn’t you fucking check him?” Roared the power armor clad mercenary, fists balled at his sides as he strode towards the corpse and callously yanked it from the chair.
“Because the man was obsessed with himself, didn’t think he’d up and off himself over a paycheck. Not to mention you had him first.” Kovacs retorted, looking down on the corpse as he went for a cigarette. The two had gone at it over nearly anything when they’d first partnered up, but now both preferred to simply let it go, focus on the task at hand rather than argue over the past.
“You have news for me, or you just here to gawk?” Kovacs asked, placing the rolled paper between his teeth and flicking open a lighter, eyes laying over the corpse on the floor, foam still rising from the dead man’s maw. In a single motion, the silver box sparked a flame which he raised to the tip of the cigarette and lighting it.
“Yeah, smoking kills.” Hargrove’s irritation with the habit was more amusing than anything, but his constant jabs were getting more and more irksome by the day. The two needed to be out in the field and fast, that way they could focus on something besides their pet peeves with one another.
“Also, there’s a new hotbed in the galaxy. Some remnant group pissed off the UNSC bad, even offered us a job with ‘em.”
That raised an eyebrow. As he puffed on the cigarette between, Kovacs looked up at Hargrove with bewilderment. The idea of a remnant group using humans wasn’t a new one oddly enough, but the two of them had seemingly shared the view that their war was with the Office, not the UNSC as a whole. They weren’t going to fight marines.
“Relax, I’m as against working for splits as you. Just convinced the guy I wasn’t enough that I got an idea where things are about to go down, and some clues about who we might be working with on their side.”
“And?” Kovacs asked as his partner handed him a datapad, details of the incident in the Montak system running across the display.
“They didn’t give away much, sounded like they might have a demon though.” Kovacs couldn’t see beneath the helmet covering Hargove’s visage, but he knew that a smug smirk was on his face. Augmented forces in opposition to the UNSC often caught CALIFORNIA’s attention quicker than anything, usually he’d sic MAGICIAN on it, but if what he was reading was true, this incident might have warranted the attention of the man himself. Or at least the deployment of his assets.
Which put them one step closer to the son of a bitch.
Puffing out smoke, Kovacs nodded, scrolling through the details with a flick of his finger. “Guess we should get in system.” The former private investigator mumbled past the cigarette.
“I know a guy, got a quiet ship, not to mention some gear for you.” Hargrove chuckled, looking down to his trench coat-clad partner. “Can’t fight a war lookin like that.
[[User:Spartan-D042]] screw this sig stuff 05:07, July 12, 2018 (UTC)
===4: Transfers===
{{UNSC Time Stamp|1300 Hours, August 26th, 2558
UNSC ''Maya'', Earth Orbit}}
The transfer from ''Infinity'' to ''Maya'' had been abrupt and with little explanation, but Jacob had been in this life long enough to not question things. He hadn’t questioned where the rest of Macuhuitl besides his sniper had been sent, he hadn’t questioned why his team leader shared the same last name and home world as himself, he hadn’t questioned why the team had remained in its current organization after it was revealed said team-leader and earlier generation child soldier was in fact his elder brother, and he hadn’t questioned it when the man refused to so much as speak to him on the subject, so why would he bother questioning a simple transfer?
“He say anything to you?” Questioned a voice over a private communications line, looking back over his shoulder at the formerly mentioned sniper and gave a simple shake of his head ‘no’ as the two followed after the other half of Stallion down the ramp of the dropship that had ferried them over.
Rodger was trying to help, G050, or Spartan Menteith, had always been able to read him and the others like a book even behind layers of titanium alloy. To this day he wondered why the marksman who had leadership in his blood hadn’t been entrusted with command of their little family, but true to his character Rodger only assured him and kept him focused.
He could see Jacob was more than a little put off by the recent revelations as clearly as he saw targets downrange. But for once he just wanted his friend to stop.
Stepping off the ramp, G043’s EOD helmet turned towards his elder brother expectantly as the four soldiers stood quietly in the chaotic hangar of a vessel soon to be bound for war. “Now what?” He inquired as the elder Spartan stood utterly silent, seemingly sweeping the hangar for any visual threats.
“Report in with handler, Spartan Flores.” Came Cody’s response after he seemingly finished his observation, voice devoid of any kind of emotion as always as he raised a hand and motioned for the fireteam to follow as the Beta Company Spartan led the way towards the nearest exit.
Sailors parted like the seas the once sailed to allow the titans through, even with the Spartan Branch churning out more of their kind than ever, seeing them for the first time was still something most UNSC servicemembers looked forward to with incredible anticipation. Outside of some special forces outfits, they were seen as heroes who had saved humanity, even if most of those they saw were only human when the time for that came.
Rodger, Jacob, and Cody were indifferent to the whole ordeal. Threes still didn’t publically exist, and a lifetime of training for and fighting in war had left things like the concept of fame worthless to most of them. Cadmon Dawes, the odd man out in their unit, didn’t share their disinterest. He said they were good for morale, told them how he’d seen entire battalions rallied by the mere presence of a Spartan to fight against nigh impossible odds. Jacob never knew if he was exaggerating or not, but he seemed genuine enough.
Dawes shook hands as they passed through gave salutes, even stopped for a picture with a few fresh-faced crewman as the team made their way from the hangar into the halls of the vessel. Jacob didn’t understand, the whole ordeal seemed like something Mendez would’ve had him running sprints into the next morning for, but from what he understood the behavior was encouraged among the fours.
“Making friends?” Rodger asked, looking over to their comrade clad in gray and blue CINDER armor. The gear, if one knew what it was meant for, was the only true indication that Dawes was more than a simple morale booster. Configured specifically for action against the Flood, the armor marked the former paratrooper as one of the few who had faced off against the vicious parasite and won.
“Maybe, mainly just trying to keep their heads up. Whatever we’re heading into is bound to be serious judging by the battlegroup amassing. Lot of ‘em seem new.” Dawes responded with a shrug. “But if I make a few friends, no harm done. I teach my tykes it never hurts to be kind, gotta practice what I preach.” The Spartan added.
More than anything, the fact that Dawes had children of his own was what alarmed Jacob. Before he’d met him he’d never even thought that the newer generation had families and homes to call their own, people who eagerly awaited their return every time they shipped out. The idea itself was more alien to him than any of the ex-Covenant species.
He’d invited them all to meet his family after Requiem and New Phoenix, naturally Cody had refused, but Rodger had convinced Jacob to come along. There he’d tasted, saw, and hear things he never could’ve imagined. Before Gamma he’d lived in one orphanage after another, the family dynamic, and all the little nuances of normal life were completely new to him.
As strange as the experience had been, it had been almost liberating in a way, even though ONI no doubt was monitoring them every second of their shore leave, it marked the first time Jacob had even thought of a life free of their grasp, and the first time he wondered if they’d made the right call staying in the service.
Serving the UNSC still was the only thing he knew how to do, and without it he still had no idea what he could make of himself, but at least he knew somewhat what life would be like when there was no war to fight. Still, that life wasn’t for him now, and possibly not ever.
“They’re kind alright, kind of wild.” Rodger joked, to which Dawes let out a simple laugh and shrugged, unable to say anything in the defense of his hyperactive seven and four year old. Jacob tuned out the rest of their conversation and turned his eyes to his brother as the team stepped into an elevator. The Beta was rigid, even inside the elevator, little turns of his head clued in the observant that he was on high alert. Even in the belly of a UNSC vessel, in the heart of human space, Spartan-B042 kept his guard up.
As the floor lurched beneath them, Jacob tried to understand what had befallen his brother. He knew what TORPEDO had done to Lucy, but she had barely escaped whatever ONI did with Spartans deemed unstable because of Commander Ambrose’s intervention, and Jacob knew the Commander wouldn’t have just left his brother behind, not to mention his sibling had paid Onyx a visit once during Gamma’s training. Pegasi hadn’t been the breaking point for Cody, whatever had left him how he was had come after.
Jacob had tried digging into his dossier, but the black ink on his file was heavier than usual for a three, and he knew better than to waste his time asking. But the question, unlike all the others, ate at him. He wanted to know why his brother had become this, he needed to understand, lest he end up the same way.
The elevator came to a stop, and the doors slid open, on the other side stood another Spartan, he dark hair tied up in accordance with regulations, and look of fierce determination in her eye. This had to be Flores he assumed, the look on her face practically screamed ‘I’ve been waiting’.
“Stallion, pleasure to meet you all, I’m Spartan Adalia Flores. If you’ll follow me, we can get you all up to speed, we can get acquainted later.” None of them said a word in protest, and Cody simply gave her a curt nod. Turning, their handler motioned for them to follow as she moved down the hall, and so they did.
[[User:Spartan-D042]] screw this sig stuff 05:07, July 12, 2018 (UTC)
===5: Briefing===
{{Covenant Time Stamp|1377 Hours, August 26th, 2558
Bridge, CRS-class light cruiser ''Universal Resonance'', Unknown Space}}
Grono 'Yendam waited patiently for his officer to arrive as his crew worked the controls of his new ship, the ''Universal Resonance''. Due to the latest losses by their wavering leader, Jul 'Mdama, there was a limited amount of resources that he could give, even to his most seasoned commanders. Due to that, Grono had been forced to put up with the small confines of this ''CRS''-class, and didn't even know the reason for his sudden shift to Shipmaster. Grono knew better than to ask questions of the Didact's Hand though, and knew even better than that to never doubt the judgement of the Supreme Commander of the Covenant Remnant.
''Jul 'Mdama will find a way to get us out of this mess. He always has.'' Grono found it surprising that he, once a so-called 'Traitor' to the Covenant Empire, was one of the only loyal commanders left to Jul 'Mdama. It raised suspicions about what the other generals could be planning every time he thought about it, but his time for thinking was over. His loyal second had arrived.
Rach 'Iltuk briskly kept his hurried pace as he swept onto the bridge, although he showed no fear as he passed the crew members. But 'Yendam knew that every soldier under his command, ''every'' one was afraid of him. The only reason he was granted passage into the Covenant Remnant and taken under 'Mdama's wing was because of his past. He was a fearless pirate Shipmaster, plundering artifacts of the gods from the unworthy. Most would have left him for dead, but Jul saw raw, untamed skill in him. Jul had helped him when he was in need. And most of all, Jul had gave him ''purpose'' again. 'Yendam was molded from a young, quick-tempered soldier into the perfect warrior. Many called him cold, and unfeeling for what he did, but Grono knew that he was one of Jul's best commanders, and nothing could change that.
Commander Rach came up behind Grono, still smaller than the young Zealot, though quite tall in his own standards. Rach beat his right fist on his chest; the old Covenant salute. Grono returned it, having never really let all of the past die. Rach looked up at his Shipmaster. "Shipmaster, I am here as you said, and am ready for whatever you ask of me."
"You are late," stated Grono as he walked towards a holotable, sliding his hand across its smooth, polished surface. "But we shall deal with that later. Our Supreme Commander has finally come out of the darkness to give us our orders. He will see to it that I have my objective known."
Rach nodded as a short, soft beep came from the holotable.
Grono walked up to the table. "Splendid, he is here."
Grono turned on the projector on the Holotable, emitting an image of Jul 'Mdama himself, adorned in his tattooed Zealot harness. Rach and the bridge crew bowed down to their revered leader, while Grono simply gave 'Mdama a salute. Jul ignored the frenzied whispers of the crew, many of which had never seen the Supreme Commander with their own two eyes before, and focused on Grono 'Yendam.
"I take it you have followed my orders, 'Yendam?"
Grono bowed his head down. "Of course, my leader. I would think nothing of anything else."
Jul acknowledged. "Good, good. I have been right not to lose my faith in you, Shipmaster. I have reason to suspect of many of our own, due to our recent setbacks. I have had three of my most trusted Zealots executed on charge of plotting against the Didact's Hand."
Grono nodded. "Yes, Supreme Commander." If he were a commander that was plotting against 'Mdama, he would have been filled with fear. But 'Yendam was loyal, and thus he knew no harm would come to him from the Covenant Remant. "'Mdama, as for the intent of this meeting, what bidding do you wish of me?"
"Of course. This new Imperium of Clarity, they have officially declared war against the humans ''and'' the wretched traitors, the Swords of Sanghelios. I have use of you for things to help bring down the common enemy we and the Imperium both have."
"So you are saying we must align ourselves with another ''remnant''?" As Grono spit the last word out, he felt a surge of anger. Jul 'Mdama having to stoop so low by allying with a rival? ''This is the cost of fighting for what is right, isn't it?''
"No. I shall have other generals still loyal to me deal with that. Instead, I shall have you take advantage of the situation. While the Swords and humans are busy fighting this new remnant, you shall attack their ships one by one, taking them down when they are distracted. And you shall do it where ever a battle between the Imperium and our enemies may occur. Therefore, we shall take them out quickly and help the Imperium, while not wasting resources trying to take out their reserves."
Grono nodded and took this all in. It was a good plan, and the only setbacks that would occur would be at the expense of this Imperium, not the Remnant. "You have once again proved your genius, Jul 'Mdama."
Jul brushed off the compliment and continued. "You will attack all smaller ships with the weaponry of the ''Resonance''. Any larger ones will be boarded and their crews massacred. You shall lead every single assault, be it ship-to-ship combat, or boarding action. As for your commander," Jul continued as he turned to Rach, who quickly extended his bow. "You shall assist 'Yendam in all of his acts, as a faithful Commander would do."
Rach stood, still keeping his head bowed down. "Thank you Supreme commander, I will do all I can for Grono 'Yendam."
"Good. Do not fail me like so many others have."
Grono replied with a 'Yes' before Jul's hologram evaporated. As it did, he turned to Rach. "'Iltuk, prepare my men. I want them ready for the glorious battles we shall win when we are on the battlefield."
His officer nodded and hurried off to the hull to do his bidding while the crew set a course for one of the known bases of the Imperium of Clarity; the Yain System. As they finally took off to achieve their mission, Grono sat back in his Shipmaster's throne. ''This Imperium will prove to be interesting indeed. We shall have to lay low on the outskirts of the system for now though, and not reveal ourselves until the opportunity is ripe. Unlike others, I will not fail the Didact's Hand.''
{{Covenant Time Stamp|1430 Hours, August 26th, 2558
Shipmaster's Preparedness Chamber, ''CCS''-class battlecruiser ''Purveyor of the Righteous'', en route to Frendhal}}
Thyl ‘Zantak squinted slightly as the dimly lit room was flooded with the bright blue light of the hologram. His eyes quickly adjusted as the collection of light took form, revealing a human male standing in front of him, arms crossed and a smirk on his face, “So you took the job, eh? I’m surprised, I thought you had left all this holy righteousness stuff behind you.”
Thyl stared at the figure, studying it. The man, Jerrold Campbell, was nearing sixty human years of age, though he appeared to be little more than half that. Advanced medical technology and cosmetic enhancements allowed him to maintain his youthful appearance far longer than was natural. The Sangheili knew that to let the man’s appearance deceive him was foolish, as behind the smirking face and artificially colored hair lay a naval genius. Decades spent fighting a guerilla war against the human government had forged him into a master of hit-and-run attacks and raiding. In other words, it made him the perfect ''pirate.''
''Pirate.'' The word didn’t used to used to mean him. He was a proud warrior of the Covenant, a shipmaster in their grand fleet; a bringer of doom and destruction to those deemed unworthy of following the path. And then he wasn’t. The Covenant had collapsed around him as the Prophets’ lies had been revealed and after the smoke had cleared, he was left in a new and strange world, one without the pillars of support he had relied upon. He had drifted aimlessly through the former Covenant fringe for years before he had been approached by this curious human, who had offered Thyl the one thing he had longed for since the fall of the Covenant; belonging and purpose. Whether this was because Pershing had seen something he liked about the Sangheili or simply saw him as an important asset mattered little to Thyl, who joined up with his band of marauders and never once looked back.
“I have, this is not about whatever religious opinions the Imperium might hold, if any, this is simply for profit. They are paying the weight of Unggoy in Gekz and giving me the opportunity to operate in their space. That alone is enough to justify my decision. Even if they fail to win and wither and die, then I will have still surveyed their space, and there is enough here to fill our holds for years.”
The Sangheili crossed his arms as if to emphasize how good an idea this was while Pershing simply continued to grin, “I see. That’s a pretty good idea, good job. Whatever you need, just ask and I’ll send it your way. From the sounds of it, this might turn into something pretty big and I don’t want you getting swallowed up by it.”
Thyl nodded his head, “My thanks, Commodore.”
“By all means, Fleet Master, I’m happy to be of help. Pillage and plunder all that you can take.”
With that, Pershing placed his fist over his heart, mimicking the Sangheili tradition that Thyl preferred to use. The Fleet Master did the same and Pershing’s hologram faded out as the holoprojector shut down. As soon as it did, he made his way over to a panel on the wall, pressing a maroon button that activated the ship’s intercom.
“Lyrnium, meet me in my chamber, we have things to discuss.”
The gruff, almost animalistic voice of his second in command responded only moments later, “Of course, Fleet Master, I will be there shortly.”
And shortly he was, the hulking Jiralhanae Chieftain lumbering into the room only a sparse few minutes later. The massive Rh’tol was dressed rather simply; the Jiralhanae had never been one for flair in presentation or dress, but they more than made up for it in battle. They were slow to adapt and quick to anger, which served Lyrnium’s clan well in the role of privateers. Their Chieftain was different though, calmer and more thoughtful than his clanmates. One might have mistaken him as a member of the Vheiloth were it not for his unshaven form and willingness to wrend flesh from bone.
It was strange, just a few years prior, the idea that he would not only fight alongside a Jiralhanae but make him his second in command was not only preposterous, but downright insulting. In fact, it is highly likely they would have attempted to kill each other had they met under different circumstances, but despite his initial reservations, Lyrnium had proven both loyal and useful, leading his ground forces in many successful raids. He hoped this would be no different.
Thyl approached Lyrnium and clapped a leathery hand on his shoulder, leading him over to the holotable, “I have taken a rather… peculiar contract, one that I’m sure you will appreciate.”
The Chieftain chuckled, a deep and throaty noise that grumbled up from inside Lyrnium as if it meant to reach out and attack at any moment, “And what might be of any particular interest to me? A fight is a fight, and I live for them all, and the rewards they bring. How different could one raid be to another aside from the scenery and who utters the screams?”
Thyl simply activated the holotable, bringing up a map of local space, clearly divided into several sections, one for the human’s Unified Earth Government, one for the Swords of Sanghelios, another for the areas the two powers occupied jointly, and a new territory that bordered all three. It was clear from Lyrnium’s expression that he was unfamiliar with it, so Thyl took the opportunity to step in, “That… is the Imperium of Clarity.”
The Chieftain simply scoffed, “The remnant? I thought you said it would be interesting. We raided Jul ‘Mdama’s outposts on Thorran just a few cycles ago.”
“Ah, but this is no ordinary remnant, this is led by the Fleet Master himself, Toru ‘Makhan.”
Lyrnium’s eyes lit up, if only slightly, “The Fringe Spectre?”
Thyl’s toothy maw did its best to approximate a smirk, which only served to make him appear far more predatory. He spoke in a low, deep tone, “The Imperium is not some half-thought plan to regain the Covenant’s glory, it is reality. And they are at war. Tell me, Chieftain, do you smell it? The blood in the air? Do you hear the horns calling forth battle? They call to me as much as you, a proper war. We’ve already been promised riches for our efforts, imagine what other rewards might await us. Regardless of who emerges victorious, we shall reap the benefits tenfold of any single raid in the past.”
The Jiralhanae stood silently for a long minute, observing the holographic map intently. Thyl could only wonder as to what thoughts he was entertaining inside his mind. Then he grinned, beastial and rabid in appearance. Lyrnium turned towards the Sangheili and his grin grew wider, “We’ll go and I will spill a sea of blood! How long until we arrive?”
Thyl highlighted one system in particular on the map, “We are heading towards the fortress world of Frendhal and shall arrive within two days’ time.”
“I shall ready my pack! We prepare to make war!” And with that, he stomped his way out of the room, uttering what Thyl only assumed was some kind of traditional Jiralhanae war cry, or something to that effect.
After the doors closed again and the howling faded away into the depths of the ship, Thyl returned to study the map and found himself grinning involuntarily. ''Maybe this was more to him than just another job. Perhaps this was something he wanted. No, this was something he'' needed. ''True battle, a real war.''
{{Name|Lieutenant Davis}}
{{Time Stamp|18:23, August 24, 2558
''Burya'', Montak System}}
Elena Zaytseva sat back in her cushioned chair, gripping the armrests as she watched out the viewscreen of her yacht as it dropped into realspace. Her slipspace drive hadn't been making smooth transitions recently, instead rocking the entire ship violently enough it always seemed to be on the verge of shaking apart. It was something she'd have to get checked out soon enough, but not yet. The computerized voice of her ship's AI rung out of the cockpit's speakers.
"We have arrived approximately one-hundred thousand kilometers off of your intended destination."
Releasing her grasp on the arms of her seat, Elena reached out to the piloting console and fired up the engines, turning the ship towards the nearby planet. The navigational database had it listed as "Montak," a world on the edge of UNSC claimed territory, a perfect stop to pick up a few jobs without having to worry about any big messes getting started. With the ship set on course for an encounter with the world, Elena leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes, waiting for the notification to start her next burn, but just as her eyes found their way shut, the computerized voice sounded out again.
"Scans of the system are detecting a collection of debris near Montak that is not listed in any recent navigational databases. Heat scans indicate that this debris is at a relatively higher temperature than surrounding orbital objects."
Blinking her eyes open, Elena leaned forward and looked over the readout for the results of the scans. Sure enough, the debris field was present, but what caught her eye even more was the outline of an approaching mass, perfectly matching the shape of a typical Covenant vessel, yet not broadcasting any codes that would indicate it to be operated by the successor state allied with humanity, the Swords of Sangheilios. Frowning, she sent a ping to the vessel to open a comms channel.
"This is Elena Zaytseva of the civilian ship ''Burya''. To who am I speaking?"
A few seconds passed as the message was sent and processed by the approaching ship, before a voice sounded out in reply through her speakers, the accent unable to be mistake for anything other than a Sangheili speaking a human tongue.
"You have trespassed in spaced claimed by the Imperium of Clarity. State your reasoning or leave immediately."
Holding still in her chair, Elena listened to the words as they came through her comms, pondering her reply, before warily tapping on the console once more and speaking in response.
"I have come to this system searching for a job. I mostly do work as a bodyguard, if you need specifics as to the profession. My ship itself is unarmed, as I'm sure your scans can tell you, though I do have some personal weapons on board, due to requirements of what I do." Elena trailed off as she finished her reply, and sat in waiting for the response. A few more seconds passed, she could only presume as the alien vessel scanned her own, before the voice spoke up once more.
"A dropship has been dispatched to your vessel to temporarily attach to your airlock and search your vessel. Comply with any orders they give you, or you will be incarcerated. Should you pass this inspection, you'll be permitted to procede to Imperium space under our escort for further clearance."
With that, the comms clicked off, followed by a few thunks as a transport tube from the dropship to her vessel magnetically attached itself around her airlock. Sighing, Elena opened the exterior doors of the airlock and headed to the inner set to await the boarding party.
{{UNSC Time Stamp|1300 Hours, August 26th, 2558
UNSC ''Maya'', Earth Orbit}}
Lieutenant Commander Aleksandra Zaytseva leaned on the railing overlooking the hangar of the UNSC ''Maya''. The vessel was getting ready to head out for some new war, and Sasha was here to watch over the maintainers working on the small complement of fighters onboard the vessel, supervising and ensuring regulations were followed and policy and procedures were complied with. She had her four Lieutenants down on the hangar floor to supervise more directly, but for her, it was overwatch and the occasional comm down to the deck to give instructions.
A ship coming in for a landing in the already chaotic hangar caught her eye briefly, and she watched as sailors parted for a group of four walking from the ramp to the nearest exit of the hangar. From the size of the men, the way the sailors parted, and the armor they all wore, she could tell that each member of the group was a Spartan. Shrugging, she turned back to watching over the maintainers and the fighters they worked on at the moment. During the war, Spartans had been larger than life heroes of humanity, and even now, for some that had never seen them before, they still were. But in the six years since the war ended, hundreds, if not thousands of new Spartans had been churned out, and Sasha couldn't help but think that the four she had seen walking by had been of that group, rather than the one composed of the heroes of humanity.
After a little more than an hour more of watching over the maintenance, a comm came in up from the deck below from one of her Lieutenants. "We're all set down here, for now. Did just get a message in for you, though. The Squadron XO has called for a briefing in the ready room."
Sasha tapped her comms to reply. "Thank you, Lieutenant. I'll see you there."
Clicking her comms off, Sasha turned from the railing and exited the hangar, making her way through the ship to her squadron's ready room. Sitting down in a chair, she took out her datapad, reading from the pre-briefing summary that had just been sent out.
{{Name|Timothy Emeigh}}
===8: Home===
{{Covenant Time Stamp|1047 Hours, August 27th, 2558
Feru Keep, State of Deris, Frendhal}}
It was time to leave.
Stood on the ramparts of his family keep, half-dressed in his sleek blue-grey pilot's armour, Nilen 'Feru watched as the first battlecruisers broke through Frendhal's cloudy skies, heading for the military encampment many miles away. The previous night orders had been broadcast to every world in the Imperium of Clarity, calling its soldiers to battle once again.
"When will they come?" a voice asked from behind him.
Nilen turned to see his wife, Luia, standing in the doorway of the nearest tower. She had evidently been watching him for some time from the shadows as he donned his military garb.
"Soon, love," Nilen said warmly as he slid on his vambraces, each one locking into place with a faint click. "I am told that they are mobilising our entire fleet."
"Everyone? Then that means-"
"Invasion, yes." The two remained quiet for a moment, dwelling on the situation. After a moment, Nilen looked back to Luia with a reassuring look. "I wouldn't worry, though. They say Toru 'Makhan himself will enter the fray with us."
"May he keep you all safe."
Luia clutched both hands to her farmer's tunic as she spoke, as if saying a prayer. They knew that Toru 'Makhan was no god. He was a Sangheili, greater than most but still mortal and fallible. Nonetheless, he had built their Imperium out of nothing and protected them in the years of hardship after the Covenant's fall. Though harsh, he remained a fair and just ruler in the eyes of most. Having grown up among a community of struggling homesteaders out in the farthest reaches of the Covenant's empire, Nilen would have never risen to his position under another leader.
"Huna, Kazu and Goranan are going with me," Nilen returned his gaze to the distant warships hovering over the horizon. Tiny dots flitted around them, spreading out in all directions. "We'll be safe."
"Huna?" a look of concern crossed Luia's face and she looked around as if checking for eavesdroppers. "But she's hardly of age!"
"She wishes to fight. It is an opportunity the Covenant would never have given her."
Though true, Nilen knew that this would not ease his wife's fears; Huna was a close cousin, after all. After fixing the heavy chestpiece of his harness into position, he picked up his helmet and approached her. The two drew close in a long embrace, swaying slightly as they simply held each other. It lasted barely ten seconds, but to Nilen it felt like much longer. They broke apart as the sound of footsteps clattering up the tower echoed towards them, and turned to see a trio of breathless younglings.
"Father!" called the eldest, Niru. "Are you going off to fight?"
"Of course!" his voice quickly became cheery. "I was just about to say my goodbyes to you, actually."
The young Sangheili crowded around Nilen, staring in awe at his well-maintained armour. The youngest, Bzan, tried to grab his helmet, only to have it gently but firmly tugged out of his grip. He sighed, and shot a pleading look at Luia, who began to pull them away from their father.
"Come now," Luia took on a slightly sharper tone. "You don't want to make your father late, do you?"
All three backed off immediately, mumbling apologies. Despite this, Nilen couldn't help but feel proud at how well-behaved they had become after some rowdy months. He pitied the Sangheili from more traditional clans, who refused to tell children who their fathers were for fear of special treatment. To him and many others who were forced into tightly-knit frontier communities, family was everything.
"I should be fine," he waved a hand dismissively, spying a steadily-approaching shape on the horizon. "Give my regards to the Elders, though."
"We will!" all three said in unison.
Most of the Feru clan were preoccupied with the busy harvest season, leaving only a few to see off their warriors. Nilen was never one for celebration; a quick farewell to his wife and children was good enough for him. Soon the distant shape became the familiar outline of a Type-52 Troop Carrier, better known as a Phantom. Skimming over the fields, the dropship rose above the keep's walls and opened its bay doors. The interior was empty, save for a single Sangheili in the same light-coloured harness as Nilen.
"Commander!" called Foren 'Ruuk, waving happily. "Have you gathered everyone?"
As he stood alongside an unarmed woman and three children, the answer to that was evident. Moments later, the doors to the keep swung open and a dozen armoured Sangheili poured out, attracted by the sound of the Phantom's engine. Unlike Nilen, who had been spending some time alone before deployment, the others had been feasting. Some pulled on armour as they ran, while others carried heavy packs, having had no time to dress. Foren caught Nilen's eye as he looked towards the incoming group.
"I hope they are readier when the time comes to fight," he said, half-joking.
"They will be."
The warriors of Feru Keep soon ascended the guard tower onto the ramparts, and marched past Nilen in single file, some looking rather embarrassed. They climbed one-by-one into the Phantom, while their leader approached his wife one last time.
"I will return," he whispered, close enough so only she could hear.
She gave no reply, save for a slow nod. That was all he needed. Nilen 'Feru was the last to board the dropship, taking Ruuk's extended hand as he pulled himself aboard. The bay doors soon shut behind him, and within seconds they were off.
"Has the ship been busy?" he asked his friend, trying to take his mind off the family he was leaving behind. "Since I've been gone."
Foren shrugged. "No busier than usual, brother. The Unggoy are constantly repairing something or other, and even daily maintenance does not keep boredom at bay for long."
''He hungers for combat.'' "And how is the ''Huntsman?''" Nilen asked.
"Ready for waiting," Foren puffed out his chest a little. "It would not do for our Commander's Seraph to be unprepared for battle."
"Thank you, brother."
Nilen patted his friend's arm in thanks, and turned his attention back towards the others. This Phantom had two more keeps in the state to stop at, filling itself with warriors before it returned to its mother ship: the ''Keen Eyes''. Though life in the keep had been a satisfying return to mundanity, it had been far too long since he had raced across the stars with its crew, hunting pirates and enjoying the kind of freedom only a solo pilot could achieve. So far, Nilen had only heard the basics of this war, and who they were fighting against. While the fear of death was constant, there was an overriding sense of excitement in Nilen's mind at the thought of battling a truly skilled foe. In the coming days, he would be glad to put his considerable skills to work.
{{B001 Sig V3}}
===9: To War?===
{{Time Stamp|MORNING // 27 AUGUST 2558 (D-2)|NEW SYRACRUSE}}
“Alright. Alright. Bring her down. Slowly. Slowly. A little to the left...equalize it a bit. Steady...yeah, yeah. You can set it down now.”
Without the proper infrastructure on the distant Outer Colony world of New Syracuse, concepts like subtlety and procedure had to be thrown out for simple practicality. Instead of a special rig or a proper loading bay for cryogenic containers, they had to go with a dinky old crane and a loose tarp probably pulled out of some broom closet located on the dusty airfield.
The pod tapped the ground with an echoing click of metal setting down on metal. With the tension now slack, the crane’s lift-chain shook violently in the blistering winds passing through. The chains rattled together creating a hollow-cracking jingle. The loose tarp thrown over the cryo pod was shamefully secured and displayed the work of someone who did not care for the contents of the container.
Onlookers watched from the landing pad above and nearby aircraft hangars. Gusts whipped the tarp off the top of the pod to reveal an industrial glass panel crisscrossed with ice. In the very early morning light when the local star had yet to crest the horizon, hints of titanium armor could be seen below obscuring layers of permafrost.
Some kind of iron giant in armor. The Spartan supersoldier-kind. The container was secured on top of a loose tractor-trailer and wasn't going anywhere, the crane relinquished its chain once workers had removed the hook. The airfield workers did not dare touch the cryo pod, the casket of a warrior constantly ready for battle. Instead, they let their imagination and rumors begin to circulate through the air.
''“Why did they bring a Spartan here?”''
''“Maybe there are Innies hanging around?”''
''“You know? My son wants to become a Spartan when he grows up. I just bought him his first SPARTAN-1337 action figure.”''
''“Did you hear something about aliens in this sector?”''
''“Fucking UNSC making another appearance.”''
''“They only leave us alone when the Covvies come knocking on their door. What we need right now is another War.”''
Two muscular teenagers wandered off the interstellar-traveling D81-LRT Condor that brought them to this civilian airfield located on the outskirts of a city called Abela. The history and significance of the names and planet were lost on the duo as that was not their purpose here. As far as they were concerned, this was just going to be another pitstop on an interstellar voyage with a final destination still unknown.
The girl, dressed in tight blue jeans and a white tee shirt wrapped in a green windbreaker lead the pair to the edge of the platform where she leaned over a railing to view the unloading of the covered cryo pod and the seemingly-endless tarmac beyond it. She was exceptionally boney and thin for her above-average stature. She had some angular beauty to her form, however, the depressed wrinkles beginning to form on her brow might put off some sharp-eyed young men. Also, she was technically twelve.
Her compatriot, a boy dressed in his own blue jeans and a sports coat that reached below his waistline, easily placed down the two duffel bags he'd been hoisting and leaned against the railing as well. Standing just barely over his friend, the boy was easily one of the tallest individuals out on the airfield this morning. His brown eyes traced the girl with mild concern before focusing on the cryo pod below.
For a few moments, the two remained quiet examining the armored individual under the giant tarp. At one time, she'd been a close friend to the duo. Now, almost a year later, so much had changed and yet, no one was sure what the next few hours to days would amount to.
Detecting the offhand comment of a nearby flight mechanic, the boney girl responded sarcastically. “Another war he says...maybe he’ll get what he’s asking for.”
“Maybe," The boy agreed with a huff, "We didn't exactly get a debriefing on the way here. Just the mention of that group...the ''Imperium of Clarity''? It’s going to be a bit before we find out what our actual mission here but after Daniele's crap...” The boy's rambling drowned into silence as if the violent winds carried off the rest of his statement.
“Yeah.” The girl mumbled in response, understanding perfectly what went unsaid. The last few days had been a mess, to say the very least. Their family, their ''Spartan'' family, had splintered and the whiplash was still being felt for the two who were left behind.
The boy picked up the duffel bags and tossed one lightly to the girl. “Let’s just get going. It’s supposed to be a short drive to the encampment.”
The girl caught the bag tossed to her, marked with a velcro strap labeled “Kearsarge.” The girl rubbed the name tag as if the name was new to her even if it was her own. She half-expected it to say "D054." She let the bag sink to her side as she marched toward the stairs nearby. The boy followed her down toward the awaiting tarmac.
The girl, Andra Kearsarge, glanced back to her friend. “Alright, Merlin. To war, I guess?”
"Yeah...back to work," Merlin stated wistfully.
{{DT Sig Short}}
{{UNSC Time Stamp|1123 Hours, August 26th, 2558
UNSC ''As Far As Siam'', Joint-Occupation Zone}}
Captain James O'Neill sat at his desked in his cramped office, scrolling through recent news on his ComPad. His desktop pinged, and his eyes shot up to the screen: incoming call from Commander Malcolm Luthuli. He turned off his ComPad, tilted back in his chair, and tapped the "Accept Call" button on the screen.
"New orders, sir?" O'Neill asked as Luthuli's face appeared on the screen.
"Precisely, O'Neill. Command wants the task force in New Syracuse as soon as possible. To make a long story short, some remnant group just attacked one of our patrols and they want us to join with the rest of the forces there."
O'Neill raised an eyebrow. "What remnant group are we talking about here?"
"Some group calling themselves the "Imperium of Clarity". I'll send the details to your ComPad in a few minutes. For now, just tell your company that we'll be jumping within the hour, as soon as the ''Kirina'' gets back from its patrol." Luthuli turned and began tapping away on a nearby console. "Dismissed."
The call ended, and O'Neill leaned forward in his chair, picking up his ComPad once more.
''"Imperium of Clarity", huh?"''
He had never heard of any remnant group going by that name, and he was well familiar with many remnant groups by now. Impatient as ever, there was no way in hell he was going to wait for Luthuli to send him the dossier. He turned on his ComPad and began searching to see if he could uncover any information about this "Imperium".
After a couple minutes of "investigating", Luthuli's dossier appeared in his inbox. Having not found much, anyways, O'Neill shrugged and opened it, only to be both intrigued and dispirited by the 17-page length of the document. He slouched back in his chair with a muted groan and began perusing the file.
===11: The Raiding Legion===
{{Covenant Time Stamp|1100 Hours, August 26th, 2558
Deep space on the galactic frontier}}
The transport hulk drifted helplessly through deep space. Its engines disabled by precision plasma blasts, the ship floated amidst the wreckage of its destroyed escorts overshadowed by the bulbous frames of its alien tormentors. Trapped within the disabled transport ships, UNSC Marines and crewmembers armed themselves and hurried into defensive positions as the bridge desperately signaled its distress call. The stench of sweat and terror filled the halls—every man and woman aboard knew resistance was most likely futile. But if they could just hold out long enough… if the distress signal was reached… if help really did arrive…
Phantom dropships detached from the looming Covenant ships and descended upon the crippled transport like flies on a carcass. Anxious defenders tracked the dropships as they converged on the broadest point of entry: the ship’s hangar.
Fire teams were diverted, barricades erected, machine guns locked into place. A hardened platoon of Marines stood ready to cut down any Covenant warrior who dared set foot on their ship. Fingers hovered above triggers, their owners daring the aliens to make their move.
In an instant the hangar doors erupted in fountains of plasma and all hell broke loose. A hail of bullets slammed into the openings as the defenders cut loose. Smoke and sparks filled the air between both sides creating a billowing wall that obscured the boarding parties from view. The Marines fired on relentlessly. Occasionally a desperate plasma bolt slipped through the maelstrom but no Covenant so much as touched the hangar floor. It was a textbook killzone, every weapon in the Marines’ arsenal brought to bear on the erstwhile invaders.
Eventually the Marines had to reload and relink their machine guns. But when the smoke cleared, it revealed no blood-soaked dropship interiors or mangled Covenant bodies. Instead the Marines gaped at layer upon layer of Kig-Yar energy shields erected in defensive positions across the firing line. The Kig-Yar and Unggoy huddled behind the shield wall glowered up at the humans but made no effort to charge their positions or even return fire.
The Marines scrambled to ready explosive ordnance. But the Kig-Yar officers just signaled their dropship pilots and cast final toothy grins at the bewildered Marines. The humans never understood the aliens’ plan until the Phantoms ripped themselves forcibly from the hull, exposing the crowded hangar to a pitiless vacuum.
A few moments later and the hangar wasn’t crowded at all.
The sight of dozens of vital signs flatlining across the transport’s tactical console would have chilled the blood of any officer monitoring the defense—if anyone on the bridge was left to watch the monitors. But the entire bridge crew was indisposed. Most slumped lifelessly in their seats while the captain and a handful of officers struggled uselessly in the clutches of the vacuum-sealed Sangheili who had blasted in through the top of the ship while all eyes were fixed on the farce in the hangar.
One figure, smaller than the Sangheili by several feet, stepped from amidst the alien warriors towards the command console. The surviving crew gaped in horrified amazement at a human figure clad in battered combat armor. With the Army-issue shotgun slung from its shoulder beside a machete and combat webbing, there was no mistaking this figure’s species. The only similarities it bore to the warriors who stepped aside to make a path were the Covenant-style thruster pack affixed to its back and the purple command sash draped lazily over one arm.
The human spared the crew one expressionless glance before it pressed its hand against the console and affixed a small devise to the metal casing. The bridge lights dimmed momentarily, then brightened. The console flickered back to life and a strange female voice filtered through the ship’s intercom. It spoke at once in two languages.
Two different messages, each one laced with cordial cruelty.
In a basic Sangheili dialect: “Rejoice, you tainted warriors. The gods deliver this ship to you. Do what you do so well.”
In English: “This is my ship now, meatbags. Make yourselves useful and die.”
In the next instant, every cabin and hallway in the ship depressurized. Marines and crew gasped and choked on air that was suddenly unbreathable. They writhed and twitched against the defenses they’d erected against the wrong kind of enemy. In moments the transport became a ghost ship.
A few Marines were quick enough to don breath masks, but there was nothing to be done. The ship was suddenly swarming with Covenant warriors flooding in from airlocks on all sides. A few crew opened fire in a final burst of resistance; they died in seconds. The paltry few who remained threw down their weapons and surrendered.
A second armored human strode among the alien warriors as they marched the shaken prisoners down to the hangar. This one cradled a plasma repeater and responded to the pleas of the prisoners with cold indifference. Instead it turned to help the Sangheili strip the bodies of the corpses left lying in the hallway.
The Kru’desh raiding legion had seized another ship.
Back on the bridge, the first human stared down at the security footage displaying the Covenant’s victory. Its gaze lingered on the bodies of the dead humans before a Sangheili stepped up beside it.
“Congratulations, commander,” the warrior called Ro’nin said, twisting his mandibles in a sardonic smile. “The gods smile on us, like they always do.”
“Of course.” The human’s visor depolarized, revealing a young, pale face wreathed by dirty black hair. His mouth twisted in a cold smile of his own. “One goddess in particular.”
Simon-G294, traitor Spartan and commander of the Kru’desh legion, strode from the bridge. He stepped over the bodies of the dead humans without a second glance. The battle was over. Time to collect the spoils.
The traitor who had once been Simon-G294—he was Stray now, the warped creature who served the Covenant—had rarely given much thought to history before he joined forces with Jul ‘Mdama. He only vaguely recalled the classes given by his drill instructors back on Onyx, endless lectures on human history and the necessity to give one’s life in service to the UNSC. The Insurrectionists he’d found himself fighting in his first round of treason had their own version of that history, one filled with slogans and creeds that conveniently fit the rebels’ political goals.
Everywhere he went, people wrote history to suit their goals. From life stories to the rise and fall of civilization, everyone had an agenda when they dug into the past.
Only now that he made history with each passing day did he realize just how useful a tool that really was.
The first and only human to ever command a Covenant legion strode through the captured transport ships. The Kru’desh warriors—Sangheili, Kig-Yar, and Unggoy alike—busily stripped the dead crew of weapons and valuables. Their lance leaders would tally the weapons and other useful gear for the legion’s armory, then sort out the division of loot from there. Hardly the most elegant system, but it kept the troops paid and in line.
Unlike other Covenant forces, the warriors of the Kru’desh Legion were not so much a host of zealous holy warriors than they were a desperate gang of mercenaries and thieves. The dregs of the Covenant, dishonored and unwanted, were sent here to fight and die as suicide troops as an example to the rest of Jul ‘Mdama’s rank and file. Even the Sangheili thrown over to the Kru’desh were deviants, cowards, and opportunists.
Penal divisions were a common feature across both human and Sangheili histories. Why waste resources on execution or imprisonment when you could instead put the criminals to use on the front lines?
It was the only way a human like Stray could ever have risen to command. Species hatred and religious dogma meant very little when he promised the condemned warriors plunder and battle strategies that didn’t turn them all into cannon fodder.
The fact that he’d strangled their former commander to death with his prosthetic left arm also helped.
Stray’s comm beeped as he stepped over a dead Marine. “We have the cargo,” Ro’nin’s voice reported. “It’s in the hold, all there just like our little ‘oracle’ said.”
“Of course it is.” Stray rolled the body over with his boot, kicking it over to a pair of Kig-Yar looters. The alien pirates hissed with appreciation and hurried to strip the corpse. “When has she ever led us wrong?”
“Well that’s awfully sweet of you,” a female voice murmured in his ear. “And here was me worrying you’d take all the credit again.”
Stray ignored Diana—no easy feat, but one he’d learned after years of working with the scathing AI—and moved on through the corridor. A crowd waited in his path, mostly Sangheili wearing the harnesses of junior warriors. One figure stood out at their head: another human in modified SPI armor similar to Stray’s own.
Amber-G330, fellow deserter and the Kru’desh’s only other human warrior. Stray met her visored gaze with a stare from behind his own helmet. Amber swiped her fingers across her helmet in a sardonic imitation of the usual Spartan “smile” greeting.
Any Spartan would have returned the gesture. Instead, Stray dropped his left arm to his hip and tapped his belt with his prosthetic fingers: a discreet apology. When he reached the waiting crowd, he brushed Amber aside with a dismissive shove and craned his neck to address the Sangheili first.
“You’re lucky I’m in a good mood,” Amber growled in their private helmet com. As always, there was an edge to the dark humor in her tone. You could never tell when she really was angry—not until it was too late.
But the Sangheili nodded in approval at the way their commander dismissed a fellow human to favor them. It was a delicate game Stray played to retain command, a game that recruiting Amber hadn’t made any easier.
“Another successful raid,” the foremost Sangheili observed. He respectfully tapped his fist against his chest. Tuka ‘Refum, one of the legion’s youngest officers, spoke for his usual crowd: younger warriors, not quite the jaded mercenary types, who’d been banished to the Kru’desh for ideological reasons. Keeping them under control was easy enough. Tuka was a friend, possibly the most trustworthy warrior under Stray’s command. Unlike the rest of the legion, he and his friends believed they were fighting for something other than loot and plunder.
Of course, that made keeping them happy harder than with some of the others.
“Good job handling the hangar assault,” Stray replied. “You coordinate the dropship maneuvers like a pro. Told you we’d make something of you.”
“That is what I wanted to discuss.” The young Sangheili ducked his head in deference. “Killing our enemies like that… I would rather have taken them in real combat, not sucked them out of the ship.”
“It worked, didn’t it? If we’d hit them like they wanted us to, half your boarding party would be dead right now. Half of my boarding party would be dead. Pick your battles, Tuka. Kill smarter, not harder.”
“Kill smarter…” Tuka shook his head. “It’s hardly the honorable way to do things.”
“Of course it’s not. We’re the Kru’desh, remember?” This brought laughter from the surrounding warriors. Stray turned to face more of them. “We don’t rush in, we don’t all get killed, and we score wins for the Covenant. Plus we all get rich. Not a bad trade for a bit of honor.”
He turned back to Tuka. “Better get looting or all the good stuff will get taken.”
Tuka gave him a wary look. “You know that isn’t what I—”
“We’ll talk about it later.” Stray dropped his voice and gestured for Tuka and his friends to stand aside. “Privately.”
Though clearly displeased by the answer, Tuka let him pass. Stray continued down the hall, aware of Amber falling into step behind him.
“Nice little catch phrase there. Ever thought of turning it into a slogan?”
“Sure. I’ll run it by our Grunt focus group. Then you can be in charge of the posters.”
“Cute. You’re pretty relaxed for someone who just wiped out an entire convoy.”
She was already building to something. Like dealing with Diana wasn’t a full-time job enough as it was. Stray considered ordering Amber away, but that would just delay the problem. He’d have to deal with her problem one way or another. “It’s not my first raid. They stop being quite so exciting after a while.”
“Not mine either,” she reminded him pointedly. “But you still haven’t given me a command position.”
So that was the problem. “We’ll get there. Once you’ve done enough that they don’t just think I’m favoring you.”
“So until then you’ll just keep kicking me around in front of the hinge-heads?”
“You flushed one of my officers out the airlock yesterday. Stunts like that don’t exactly ingratiate you with the others.”
Amber was unrepentant. “He kept saying I was your concubine. How the hell am I supposed to earn respect around here if I let that slide?”
They were approaching the cargo hold. A few of Ro’nin’s warriors guarded the doors—the former mercenary might be the most unapologetically opportunistic of the Kru’desh officers but he also saw the long term well enough to be trusted with handling the most important recovery tasks.
“You could have just challenged him to a fight, broken a few bones. Now I’m down an experienced team leader. Maybe this is a shock to you, but stunts like that won’t endear you to these goons any faster.”
Amber scoffed. “Sheesh, lighten up. You’re starting to sound like Kodiak with that pole up your ass, and I always figured you’d be the last person I’d say that to. Besides, it can’t have been that bad. Diana didn’t stop me and if you’re digital girlfriend isn’t—”
Stray spun on his heel and backhanded Amber across the helmet. The blow sent vibrations coursing up his prosthetic arm and knocked her back. She reeled, surprise, but recovered with an angry snarl and lunged at Stray with her fists raised. He slammed his knee up beneath her chin and kicked out, slamming her down into the wall. She writhed, clawing at the boot he planted firmly in her chest.
The machete slipped easily from its sheath on Stray’s back. He placed the edge of the carbon-fiber blade deliberately but firmly against Amber’s neck. Fortunately, she got the message and stopped struggling.
Down the hall, Ro’nin’s warriors watched the scuffle with interest.
“It’s called keeping this legion under control.” Stray fought to keep his voice level. The combat instincts drilled into his body screamed at him to drive the blade home and finish the battle. “Maintaining discipline for a bunch of alien psychos who normally wouldn’t tolerate letting me breath the same air. It’s hard enough doing that as one human without having a second one like you running around doing whatever she wants. Diana wanted me to kill you after we dug you out of that godforsaken prison. Instead I took a risk and brought you into the fold.”
''The stink of blood against bedsheets, a body struggling beneath him. His hands pressing down against another’s. The thrill of overpowering, of seizing what he wanted.'' Stray fought back a spasm at the sudden torrent of memory. His hands tightened against the blade and he twitched his head to ward off the thoughts seeping into mind.
He pressed the blade against Amber’s neck just hard enough to pierce her armor’s body glove and draw a small trickle of blood. “Make me regret that call and I may just be tempted to toss you back into that hole. So get with the program and learn to play the game properly.”
''And don’t forget I’m stronger than you,'' he wanted to add, but that would be pushing it things too far. He needed Amber on his side, for all that she constantly needed to be reminded of who was in charge.
Amber regarded him silently from behind her helmet. After a moment she nodded. “Fine. Sorry. I’ll keep it under control from here on out. You mind not wrecking more of my suit?”
Stray stepped back to let her get up, though he didn’t relax and sheath the machete until he was sure Amber wouldn’t try to continue the fight. “You’ll go out with Tuka’s warriors next engagement. I’ll have him give you a lance to command and see how things go from there.”
She rubbed her neck and examined the blood on her gauntlet. “Alright. I’ll… get with the program. Play along, like you said. Guess we’ll see how that works out for you.” She turned on her heel and marched back down the corridor. Stray watched her go, keenly aware of the inevitable commentary bearing down on him.
“That was interestingly handled,” Diana murmured in his ear. “Looks like we’re still undecided on whether you were right to let her live. I was kind of hoping you’d kill her there.”
“Keep hoping. She’s too useful to just throw away like that. Amber will come around. Eventually.” Stray turned back towards the hold. “Don’t you have oracle things to be doing? Go do some magic tricks, impress the Unggoy or something.”
“Oh, if only you could understand the depth of the things you mock.” Diana sighed in mock frustration. She’d infiltrated the Covenant posing as a Forerunner intelligence, one of their holy Oracles. It was through her machinations that Stray had ascended to power in the first place, his unorthodox command ordained for the more pious warriors by the will of their gods. “But fine, I’ll let you handle all this boring inventory. We can talk about your leadership style later.”
Stray could practically feel Diana’s presence recede as she busied herself with other tasks. She was always there, always watching, but for now most of her processing power would be focused outside the transport as she coordinated the small flotilla of Kru’desh raiding ships.
Ro’nin was waiting for him inside the cargo bay. The grizzled mercenary stood on a catwalk overlooking a vast row of crates arrayed in the storage area below. Sangheili warriors cautiously made their way across the crates, affixing sophisticated code-breaking devices to the locking mechanism. Stray noted the UNSC logos on the crates with satisfaction.
“We will have to be careful moving this latest catch,” Ro’nin observed as Stray drew near. “They’re everything we were promised and more.”
“Then it’s a good thing our armor’s got rad-shielding, isn’t it?” Stray leaned against the catwalk railing and watched the warriors prepare to unlock the nearest crate. “I’ll bet even you have never pulled in a haul like this.”
“You would be surprised.” Ro’nin clicked his mandibles. “You humans don’t have the leg up on destruction, not by a long shot. But it is certainly a sight better than Syndicate drug shipments or a few stacks of rifles.”
“These things are to humanity what the Forerunners were to your people,” Stray observed. “Wars were fought over who got to have them. Entire civilizations collapsed over them. Now they’re key to UNSC combat doctrine.”
The warriors peeled back the cargo container, revealing row upon row of military-grade nuclear devices.
“And now they belong to the Covenant.” Ro’nin tilted his head. “Or to us, depending on how you look at it. The UNSC truly has grown overconfident, if it traffics such destructive power under so little guard.”
“We’ll put them to good use. There’s enough firepower here to outfit an entire battle group.” Stray smiled, a chill creeping up the base of his spine. A year ago he’d been nothing—just a fugitive mercenary eking out a living on the frontier. Now he commanded Covenant ships that seized crateload upon crateload of the deadliest weapons in humanity’s arsenal.
''And they all thought I’d never amount to anything.''
He nodded down at the crates. “Start loading them onto the ships. I’ve got to make a call to the boss.”
The looting was over. Everything of value was stripped from the crippled transport—from the ship’s precious cargo to the personal effects of its slaughtered crew to the very wires in its hull. The Kru’desh withdrew from the maimed ship, boarding craft and dropships breaking off and rising up into the void like bubbles from disintegrating driftwood.
Two battered corvettes lingered over the ship as their crews carefully dispersed the stolen nuclear devices across the raiding force. The dropships flared engines and hurried to dock, disgorging lances of Covenant warriors who hurried to stow the looted gear and prepare for the imminent Slipspace jump. The entire task force bustled with energy, activity coursing like bloodstreams through each ship.
It was all interconnected, and Diana bound it all together.
Ensconced within the systems of the battlecruiser ''Soul Ascension'', she coordinated communications, plotted the Slipspace jump, double-checked inventory, and calculated a hundred different contingency scenarios all within a matter of seconds. Stretching out with the ''Soul Ascension''’s long-range transmitter, she also took in news and combat reports transmitted at light speed from several neighboring systems.
All of this was done with practiced ease, the same instinctual effort that a human might use to walk across the room. But while the AI processed all these actions and held a dozen different conversations—transmitting orders to Kru’desh warriors in her mystical guise as a holy oracle—her personal thoughts drifted towards other matters.
Namely that of Stray.
He was rising swiftly in his ability to command, that much was certain. When Diana fished her former partner from the wreckage of a destroyed carrier and pieced him back together in body, mind, and soul, he hadn’t been fit to raid a pantry. Now he wielded the Kru’desh with the same deadly flexibility that he employed with shotgun and machete on the battlefield.
There was still plenty of room for improvement, but Diana took pride in her ability to guide Stray down the right path. For years it had been a struggle just to stay alive and ahead of ONI’s hit squads out on the galactic frontier. There had been times where she’d considered abandoning Stray to his fate and seeking out a new means of seizing power. But she could never bring herself to do the deed. Pragmatism governed most of it—How often did you find a renegade Spartan willing to plunge into the depths of your murkiest schemes?—but there was another component, one Diana rarely admitted even to herself.
He was her friend.
A friend she had molded from an angry, frightened child soldier into the Covenant commander now leading the Kru’desh on their fiery trail across the galaxy.
Rough around the edges, to be sure, but her creation and no one else’s.
She’d maneuvered Stray around problems before. Amber was one such problem, a rogue element in the already chaotic system Diana navigated. To make things worse, she was an element Stray insisted on keeping in the mix. He passed up every opportunity to eliminate her, insisting on her potential as an ally.
Perhaps it was imitation. An attempt to mold his fellow traitor just as Diana molded him.
She could tolerate, even admire, such an effort—to an extent. But they were not merely gambling with the chances on an individual level anymore. Diana had them embroiled in matters far beyond a few petty border skirmishes. She’d seen beyond this war and into those on the horizons. In the battles to come there was no room for mistakes or weakness, not within the realms of ambition Diana now reached.
The Covenant were all merely tools to that end. With each Forerunner site they uncovered, each UNSC intelligence she outmaneuvered, her plans expanded. Eternity was within her reach and all she needed—all she ever needed—was the will to seize it. Diana’s future was bright indeed.
There was room in that future for Stray. She just needed he matched her ruthlessness in seizing it.
The aftermath of a successful raid was always a storm of orders and activity almost as exhausting as the battle itself. Stray was so embroiled in urging his warriors along that he nearly bludgeoned the unfortunate Unggoy who scurried over to tell him he had a transmission awaiting him in the ''Soul Ascension''’s conference room.
High priority, the hardest encryption.
Messages from high command—from the Didact’s Hand himself—were rarely good news, especially not these days. The fact that it was not actually Jul ‘Mdama awaiting him in the conference room did not improve Stray’s mood.
“You’re late,” Shinsu ‘Refum observed. The Covenant’s spymaster folded his arms and peered down at Stray from beneath the slits of his helmet. “I’ve been waiting entirely too long.”
Stray made a show of wiping dirt off his armor. “You caught me in the middle of something. Wiping out convoys isn’t exactly something I can put on hold every time you call me up.”
“Yes, yes, your exploits have not gone unnoted. If only because you take every opportunity to announce even the most minor victories.” For a warrior of his status in Jul ‘Mdama’s inner circle Shinsu wore his rank with surprising modesty. He donned a simple suit of clean grey armor identical to the harnesses worn by Covenant special operations warriors. There was none of the ridiculous ostentation Stray saw so often in high ranking Sangheili.
Not that anyone in the Covenant could afford pretense these days.
“And if I don’t report every win I get accused of not fighting hard enough.”
“I appreciate the precariousness of your position. But a few destroyed convoys will not win us the frontier. The Didact’s Hand needs a strike force, not a pirate gang.”
“Hey, you told me to disrupt the frontier. So I have. If you want me to actually turn this war around, give me a fleet. It’s not like the rest of you are doing anything with them.”
“Watch your tongue,” Shinsu said coolly. “Don’t let a few victories cloud your understanding of your place within the Covenant. We are all fighting this war in our own ways.”
“Doesn’t change the fact that we’re losing.” Stray never quite knew where he stood with Shinsu ‘Refum. The spymaster was at times dismissive, then hostile, then conspiratorial. Perhaps that was how Shinsu was with everyone, keeping them all off balance and held at arm’s length. “You’ve pointed that out yourself more than once.”
“So I have.” Shinsu inclined his head. “And that is why I called you here. Jul ‘Mdama has a new mission for the Kru’desh.”
That caught Stray’s ear. “So you do have a new target for us.”
“In a manner of speaking. Have you heard of the Imperium of Clarity?”
“Bits and pieces.” The Kru’desh had interrogated a pirate crew some weeks back regarding this latest Covenant offshoot. “I figured ‘Mdama would want to play nice with Admiral ‘Makhan seeing as we’re a bit tied up with the UNSC and the Swords.”
Shinsu nodded. “The Didact’s Hand is in a difficult position. The Imperium of Clarity is formidable, and unfortunately, we are in the lesser position thanks to our recent… setbacks. Jul ‘Mdama cannot demand fealty from ‘Makhan and he cannot let himself be seen as the lesser power. But with the UNSC and the Swords of Sanghelios marshalling to confront the Imperium, an opportunity presents itself.”
Stray wasn’t sure he liked where theis was going. “So you want us to get involved? How?”
“Simple. Your ships will marshal to support the Imperium in the battle to come. Jul ‘Mdama will be seen to support the Imperium and we will have a chance to gauge its effectiveness in open warfare. And you will have a chance to prove your mettle at something other than picking off the thin members of the herd.”
“And what if this Toru ‘Makhan guy isn’t so amenable to the Covenant helping him out?” Stray asked.
Shinsu’s mandibles spread in a thin smile. “Not to worry. I will be coming along personally to negotiate Jul ‘Mdama’s wishes. And if all else fails and ‘Makhan proves to be an enemy, then we will be perfectly placed to eliminate the problem.”
{{Actene Sig}}
===12: Lone Hunter===
{{Covenant Time Stamp|1229 Hours, August 27th, 2558
Imperium Military Encampment, Frendhal, Yain System}}
Mono Puru Kadun stepped down from the armoured dropship, raised his head, and rumbled appreciatively. The camp was abuzz with activity; dozens of armoured Unggoy scampered forward in uneven rows, while Sangheili taskmasters barked orders to freshly-arrived troops. Professional soldiers, part-time warriors and scores of mercenaries had been called to arms here on Frendhal, ready to take part in the next big war.
''The battle will be soon'', the Mgalekgolo thought, setting off at a slow, lumbering pace across the grassy field. Large even for a member of his kind, Mono dwarfed every other individual in the encampment by a wide margin. Ahead of him was the newly-erected command tent, which had sprung up mere hours after this place had been designated as the Imperial Military's mustering grounds. Moving towards it was not easy, with Mono paying particular attention to his steps to ensure he did not accidentally crush some smaller creature underfoot. Most scattered before him or eyed him nervously, particularly other mercenaries.
''They fear me. Wise.''
Unlike the other Mgalekgolo that dotted the main encampment and filled the field to the northwest, Mono Puru Kadun walked alone. While those not directly in his path barely paid him a second glance, some stared at the lone Mgalekgolo in confusion. Unlike most of his kind, Mono lacked a bond brother. While several damaged spikes rose from the dark red armour inhabited by the mass of worms that made up the Mgalekgolo - a sign that he had split into another being - the weathered creature possessed no such ally close by. Though he detected some conversations about him as he drew closer to the command tent, Mono ignored the idle gossip and plodded ahead, the massive shield and well-used fusion cannons attached to his 'arms' swaying gently as he walked. Eventually he came to a rudimentary gatehouse, guarded by two pike-wielding Sangheili.
"Halt!" one called as Mono approached. "Identify yourself!"
Mono's head swayed from side to side, and he let out a low-pitched hum. A small device built into the neck of his thick armour lit up and translated his vibrations into Sangheili language.
"''I am Mono Puru Kadun. Commander. I am here for my orders."''
As his name was read out by the monotone speaker, both guards straightened up. Both recognised Mono. While the Mgalekgolo rarely bothered to turn his thoughts towards the ceaseless propaganda that spouted every exploit of the Imperium's military to its populace, he was aware that he had gained some renown for his prowess in battle. When the forces of Toru 'Mahkan had found him, he was little more than a beast; a writing mass of half-feral worms that drifted across the frontier, working for pirates in exchange for food. Now, he held rank and status over the little people. Life was good.
"Of course, Commander," the first guard bowed, while the second deactivated the energy gate between them. Mono barely made a sound, and shifted forward into the central encampment.
Lowering himself as he approached the command tent, Mono carefully slipped through the open entrance and found himself before a wide, layered basin, lined with banks of terminals and kiosks. Technicians operated most of these stations, relaying orders to the massive fleet of incoming vessels that organised over Frendhal's surface. While most of the Imperium's military was massing in orbit, those on the ground had been paid or levied from this colony and nearby worlds. At the centre of it all, standing out against the muted reds and browns of the assembled mercenaries, was the gold-armoured Fleet Master Kan 'Larom.
"You misunderstand your situation!" he growled at a group of scarred Jiralhanae mercenaries, one hand inches away from the sword at his hip. "When Toru 'Makhan pays you, you fight without question!"
One of the Jiralhanae, a ragged creature in metal armour, crossed his arms. "We do not camp among humans."
He waved a shaggy paw towards a group of lean mercenaries, cleaner and better-armed than his own subordinates. Larom glanced briefly in their direction, then back to the Jiralhanae. Though outnumbered by the gaggle of annoyed hirelings before him, he did not falter as he stood face-to-face with their leader.
"You will camp where you are ordered to camp, Tarkum. Have discipline. You were a soldier in the Covenant once, were you not?"
"Long ago," Tarkum shrugged. "I killed many of their kin, as they did mine."
"As did I," Kan's orange eyes bored onto the Jiralhanae, and the beast eventually relented with an annoyed huff.
"We will cause no problems."
"See to it that your warriors behave, then. If there is bloodletting before we engage our foes, you will not leave this planet alive."
With that, the Jiralhanae mercenaries lumbered out of the command tent, conversing with each other in low, gruff voices. Tarkum took a moment to gaze at Mono, who had remained as still as possible while watching the interaction. His helmet turned to face the scarred Chieftain, who quickly moved on. Fleet Master Larom turned as Mono approached, having seen off the human group with similar threats.
"Commander Kadun," he bowed his head slightly, offering respect to a fellow warrior. "Are your kin well-prepared?"
Mono rumbled, and let the translator do its work. ''"We are ready to be your vanguard once more, Fleet Master."''
Larom nodded. It was the fierce taskmaster who had first discovered Mono, after all. He had intervened on Mono's behalf, somehow seeing value in a lone Mgalekgolo where most would have seen a broken creature, fit only for a quick death. For one of his kind, he had progressed well through the ranks, and now commanded numerous colonies as elite shock troops. Wherever the fighting was thickest, Larom would send Mono Puru Kadun. He respected the Sangheili for that.
"We shall depart soon," the Fleet Master pointed towards a nearby display of Frendhal and the fleet above it.
Among the well-organised warships that now orbited the colony world, only one glowed white. This was Larom's flagship, a ''CCS''-class battlecruiser named ''Advance Guard''. True to its name, the ship acted in both a scouting capacity and as the Imperium of Clarity's first line of defence. Soon, it would meet their foes over Montak as they raced to reclaim it, and would unleash its terrifying forces against them.
''"Are we to fight on the ground?"'' Mono asked, looking from Larom to the readout. ''"Or in orbit?"''
The Fleet Master approached the holotable, and changed the display. Now, the sparsely-populated desert that was Montak spun lazily in front of them. A series of images soon appeared next to it, depicting large, human-made refineries and factory complexes; the only thing of value worth seizing on the world. While some human corporation had built it, it now lay in the hands of some other group, who had persuaded the Imperial Admiral himself to conquer it after only a single meeting.
"The ground. We need those refineries protected," Larom said at last, suddenly lost in thought. "How unpleasant, that our war must begin over such a place."
Mono shook slightly at this, emitting a low-pitched series of hums that the translator failed to pick up. Fleet Master Larom didn't seem to notice either, or he would have likely scolded the Mgalekgolo Commander for chuckling at his expense. He had always found Sangheili to have a strange outlook, no matter how much he respected their kind. After all, the Human-Covenant War had broken out over some agricultural world. For quite a while, it was practically the centre of the galaxy as far as both sides were concerned. Mono had been there. One planet was very much the same as any other.
''"Fleet Master, my kin need transport,"'' Mono's words spilled slowly out of the device. ''"Your ship, again?"''
This was why Mono had come here. For all their fame and fortune on the battlefield, the Mgalekgolo Raiders he commanded were often treated as an afterthought when it came to fleet deployment. Fitting a horde of his kind aboard a starship was a logistical problem that most Shipmasters chose to ignore. Not Larom.
"When we arrive on the field of battle, commander," he approached, patting Mono's plasma-scarred shield. "I want your kin to join the fray at once. I will make arrangements now."
Mono shifted, his writhing form contorting the body armour into a kneeling position as he bowed his head in reverence for Kan 'Larom. It was not expected, but compliments had to be paid. The Fleet Master seemed flattered by this, and was opening his mouth to speak when he stopped, spying something on Mono's armour. The Mgalekgolo quickly realised that he was looking at a long, dark stain of dried purple blood embedded into the gauntlet of his armour's right hand. His mandibles clacked together, and the Commander was reminded once more of the Sangheili's strange ways.
''"I am sorry."'' Mono clambered to his feet. ''"I will clean it."''
"See to it that you do," the golden Fleet Master turned away from him and back to the holotable. "You may go."
As he strode out of the command tent, Mono continued to wonder why their kind despised their own blood. ''Perhaps that is why many of their weapons burn and do not cut. Curious.'' Not long ago, he had crushed a dissident to death in his claws, and simply had not cleaned his armour yet. Scorched and dented as it was from years of use, the collection of Lekgolo worms that was Mono Puru Kadun had become rather attached to this one. Seeing as it would likely see just as much use as the cannon on his other arm in the near future, he simply resolved to avoid Kan 'Larom until they had won this war. With his brethren on the field and the Sangheili to protect them above, he doubted that it would take very long.
{{B001 Sig V3}}
===13: Wingmates===
{{UNSC Time Stamp|1300 Hours, August 27th, 2558
''Valiant''-class super-heavy cruiser UNSC ''Caspian'', New Syracuse orbit}}
"Captain, over here!"
As she exited the packed elevator into Hangar One, Captain Erika Ruskin turned to see a familiar face sitting atop a crate-laden loading vehicle. On the eve of the expedition's departure, the entire bay was teeming with activity as pilots and technicians worked to prepare every single craft aboard the ''Caspian'' for deployment. After allowing a gaggle of grey-suited engineers to rush past, Erika approached her friend, who snapped a deliberately sloppy salute.
"Been a while, Rod," she addressed a man in surprisingly dirty fatigues. "Been busy?"
First Lieutenant Rodney Shaw grinned, and hopped down onto the deck. "Aside from nearly killing some rookie tech who nearly threw off the targeting systems of ''my'' Broadsword trying to 'improve' it, not really."
Erika nodded. Back when she was fresh out of OCS and just getting to grips with her old Longsword fighter, Rodney had been assigned as her co-pilot. Though he was only four years older than her, the Lieutenant looked significantly older, with plasma scarring across one side of his body and a prosthetic arm and leg as the result of a disastrous engagement against the Covenant during the war. As far as fighter maintenance went, she had never met someone so thorough in ensuring that their craft was in perfect condition. Though she hadn't seen him since his transfer a year ago, it was nice to see that he hadn't changed one bit.
"I'm told we're in section five," Erika quickly checked a message she'd been sent on her tacpad. "They've apparently diverted eight fighter wings into this fleet in the last couple of days."
"I heard it was twelve," Rodney mopped some sweat off his bald head with a rag, and waved for her to follow him.
The pair took their time as they made their way through the busy hangar bay. In addition to several rows of F-41 Broadsword fighters in varying stages of combat readiness, Erika spotted a pair of older Longswords being transported into docking bays by massive overhead cranes. While most UNSC vessels capable of carrying fighters could field at least a single squadron, this many ships could only mean that a large-scale battle was coming up.
"They're really going all-out on this one," she commented to Shaw, who gave an agreeable grunt.
"Where'd they pull you in from? The ''Peacemaker''?"
"Yeah, me and half the pilots."
"Strange that they didn't just bring the ship over here instead."
Now that he mentioned it, this whole redeployment was a little strange. As her transport shuttle had arrived over New Syracuse hours before, Erika had spotted dozens of UNSC ships in orbit, but nothing big enough to suggest that this would be a campaign of critical importance. Either the Sixth Fleet simply had less firepower than some of the others, or the UNSC was deliberately avoiding pulling out the big guns for this operation.
''Whatever's going on must be way above my pay grade.''
Erika and Shaw soon arrived in section five; a surprisingly quiet area of the hangar towards the ship's bow. Looking around at a row of Broadswords left completely untouched by the ''Caspian'''s meticulous technical staff, Shaw glanced back to see the Captain beaming with pride.
"Looks like they couldn't find anything to fix," Erika folded her arms.
Shaw chuckled. "You do maintenance before you transferred out here?"
"Of course. Everyone complained, of course, but I wanted to make an impression if we were moving to a new ship."
"Hey, maybe if you made sure your fellow pilots were as crazy about upkeep as you were, you'd be Captain by now."
"Maybe," he nodded thoughtfully. "But maybe I like slumming it with the junior officers. I just wouldn't fit in with you hoity-toity types, with all that responsibility crap."
For a moment, Erika wasn't sure if her friend was joking or not. Rodney Shaw not only had more combat experience than her, but had held that First Lieutenant's rank since they had first met back in 2552. While they had worked together for several years, remaining in the same squadron even after transferring from four-man Longswords to the single-seater Broadsword starfighter, her superiors had seen fit to promote her twice. Catching her concerned expression, Shaw smirked and walked off.
"Anyway, what one's yours?" he asked.
Erika took the lead, walking along the deck until she located the slate-grey form of her own fighter. Three red stripes were emblazoned on the right side of the cockpit, next to several rows of worn tally marks.
"Here she is," she gave a theatrical wave towards the Broadsword. "Fifty-two launches and just as many kills."
"I like the decor," Shaw said approvingly, "I didn't think the ''Peacemaker'' saw so much action."
"It's mostly against pirates and the occasional warship. It gets around though. What about the ''Caspian''?"
"Aside from patrols, not much. We get more action in simulators these days, frankly, but sometimes we'll scramble to deal with some Innies. I've heard this group we're gunning for now might be the real deal."
Erika leaned against her Broadsword; she'd been given very little information on the purpose of this mission before transferring out here. "We're up against the Covenant, right?"
"Something like that. This group's called the 'Imperium of Clarity'."
"Fancy," Erika remarked. "What brand of crazy are they?"
Shaw sucked air through his teeth and shrugged. "Y'see, that's where things get shaky. Near as I can tell, the reason we're fighting these guys is because they captured some colony, and that's about it."
"That's a surprise. So what, they're just after territory? No grandiose proclamations about how they've been told by their gods to wipe us out?"
"Doesn't look like it."
Erika scrached the back of her head, feeling slightly let down. Fighting religious zealots and fanatical terrorists had been commonplace for years now, and left little room for interpretation over who was right and wrong. Compared to the Covenant, this Imperium's reasons for starting a war seemed downright mundane.
"I guess we'll have to find out more at the briefing later," she concluded. "Who knows, this might even be a fun trip."
Shaw laughed at this. "Spoken like a true fighter ace. I'm sure everyone here will be overjoyed to find out we've got the great Erika Ruskin flying with us into battle."
"Oh please," she shook him off with a wave. "Being well known in the Air Force isn't much of a claim to fame."
"Hey!" came the outraged response. "We might not get all the praise, but you can be damn well sure we're better than those Navy flyboys. Anyone can crash a Pelican, after all."
Both pilots shared a good laugh at this. Erika was glad to be back with her old co-pilot; half the officers aboard her old vessel would have launched into some lengthy spiel about inter-service cooperation or lectured them about the evils of morbid jokes, but with Shaw, she could relax a little.
"So," she asked at last. "Where's your squadron?"
"They had an important poker game to attend. Apparently they've got quite the pool together with the upcoming deployment and want to come out of it with their money's worth."
"Weren't you invited?"
"I was, but my day was ruined when a certain Captain Ruskin messaged me asking to meet up."
"Sorry. If it makes you feel any better, most of squadron went straight down to New Syracuse to get drunk, and didn't bother inviting me at all."
"Oof," Shaw grimaced as they began to make their way back towards the lifts. "You guys get on all right?"
"Yeah, they're great in a dogfight, but apparently deciding to check out the ship you've been redeployed to before you hit the bars makes you some kind of weird social pariah."
"Well, if we get attacked and they have to fly while hungover, it's their own damn fault."
"You think that's likely?"
Erika and Shaw stopped by a wall-mounted viewscreen as it slowly cycled through the ''Caspian'''s exterior cameras. In the distance, just outside the defensive formation of waiting UNSC vessels, sat a fleet of alien warships. For the briefest of moments, Erika's heart leapt to her throat at the sight of this force, though she quickly reminded herself that these were their allies. Shuttlecraft from both fleets were already flying past each other, exchanging supplies and troops.
"With the Swords of Sanghelios here?" Shaw said at last. "Nah, probably not."
"It's still very strange, to me" Erika spoke quietly, and mostly to herself. "To think that we're on the same side now."
"You're telling me. Things were simpler back when it was just 'The Covenant'. Now we're riding into battle alongside aliens to fight even more aliens."
"It's a crazy galaxy we're living in, Rod."
{{B001 Sig V3}}
===14: The Black Knight===
{{Covenant Time Stamp|1315 Hours, August 27th, 2558
CCS-Class Battlecruiser ''Soul Ascension'', Galactic Frontier}}
Covenant customs and decorum were very particular about receiving a superior officer onto one’s vessel. The pomp and ceremony usually consisted of a full presentation of the command staff and the entire warship along with a welcoming formation of hundreds of warriors.
Naturally, Stray did none of these things for Shinsu ‘Refum.
Activity in the ''Soul Ascension''’s hangar continued as normal. The usual deck crews and duty patrols carried on with battle preparations, readying weapons and fueling the hodge-podge of Seraphs, Banshees, and even captured UNSC strike craft that made up the Kru’desh Legion’s fighter squadrons. Sangheili, Kig-Yar, Unggoy, and even the odd Jiralhanae milled about with the uneasy camaraderie that set the Kru’desh apart from the rest of the Covenant. They were all fallen from grace and few saw any reason in adhering to the usual Covenant caste system.
Stray and his miniscule welcoming committee—himself, Ro’nin, and a handful of bored warriors—lounged impatiently at the center of the activity. The warriors had dragged several cargo containers together to form a makeshift platform where they could await Shinsu’s arrival.
“He’s late,” Stray muttered. He perched atop one of the crates, absent mindedly sharpening his machete against the edge of his prosthetic arm. The feeling of weighted emptiness from the metal limb that replaced the lost organic one no longer bothered him the way it once had. He’d grown into the loss, just like he’d come to terms with the loss of so many other things.
“I hear that ‘Refum often alters timelines to suit his own purposes,” Ro’nin observed. “He irritates the shipmasters he inspects to throw them off their guard.”
“Well if he’s trying to piss me off, he’ll have to work a lot harder than this. He’s just giving me an excuse not to work. I can hang out here all day.” In truth, Stray was on edge and his anxiety had nothing to do with Shinsu’s tardiness. As much as Stray bragged about his victories with the Kru’desh, Shinsu was right: he’d limited his attacks to raids on unsuspecting convoys and outposts. A full on battle was another level entirely and that was exactly what this business with the Imperium of Clarity was shaping up to be.
He also couldn’t stop dwelling on the unspoken truth behind the Kru’desh legion’s selection for this little adventure: they were expendable ships and warriors Jul ‘Mdama could afford to lose for the chance to win Toru ‘Makhan’s trust.
It wasn’t a concern he could discuss with Ro’nin or any of the other warriors. Leading the Kru’desh was like taking charge of a pack of hungry wolves. One sign of weakness and they’d turn on him in an instant. That was how he’d seized control in the first place, after all.
He needed some time with Diana. They needed to plan contingencies, make sure they were prepared in case of the worst. But Diana had her own concerns these days. The pieces of the puzzle they dealt with now were more complicated than anything Stray’d ever worked with before. The things Diana had shown him, the truth of the Forerunners and the sheer galactic immensity of their secrets… this business with the Imperium was pressure he didn’t need.
History told him command was a lonely place. He wondered if the historians had a word for a traitor with no command experience who found himself leading a legion of cutthroat alien warriors best known for doing their best to exterminate humanity.
It had to be a first. A lonely little place in history.
''I should coin a word for it. Maybe Gavin has…''
A sharp knife lodged in his chest. Stray stiffened, then did what now came naturally to him and hardened the plated walls built up around his heart.
He realized that he was running the machete up in down his arm with a noticeable intensity. He slowed the motion as Ro’nin gave him a sideways glance.
Stray made a show of looking up and down the machete blade. “Where’d you stash Tuka?” he asked.
“Oh, that young zealot?” Ro’nin clicked his mandibles. “I gave his lance free reign of the training range. He seemed happy enough for the excuse to stay out of the way.”
“Good. Let’s try to keep things calm around here.” There was bad blood between the ‘Refum brothers. Stray didn’t know what exactly had happened between them, but it was bad enough to get an otherwise upstanding warrior like Tuka shunted sideways into the Kru’desh.
“Any word on this little expedition?” Ro’nin folded his arms and leaned against a storage crate—a very human gesture, but Ro’nin was a deviant even by Kru’desh standards. He was as opportunistic a mercenary as Stray had ever encountered among the Covenant ranks. Certainly not trustworthy, but invaluable for keeping the other officers content and in line.
“That’s what Shinsu’s supposed to be telling us.” Stray resheathed the machete. “But it’s looking to be big. We’ve got UNSC and Swords of Sanghelios marshalling to throw them out of the Montak System and the Imperium isn’t going to let it go without a fight.”
“And our role in all this?” Ro’nin clenched his mandibles together. “Let them shoot it out, then scavenge what’s left. I like that approach. It keeps me alive.”
“Jul’s got some plan where we help this Toru guy out and this somehow gets him on our side.” Stray shrugged. “I guess that’s what Shinsu’s coming here to let us in on.”
“I doubt these Imperium types will just let us fly in and start shooting. I’ve had it with bowing and scraping to would-be aristocrats. If this Toru ‘Makhan needs another lackey to lick his boots…”
“What, you don’t think a gang that calls itself the Imperium of Clarity won’t be laid back like us?”
Ro’nin snorted. “The Covenant is bad enough. I don’t need another snobbish clique tutting their mandibles at me.”
“I’m sure you’ll charm them with all that natural charisma of yours. We’ll be smoking and joking with Toru in no time. We’ll all be best friends.”
One of the other warriors chuckled, then pointed up at the hangar doors. A single Phantom rose into view and slipped through the shields.
“About time.” Stray dropped down off the crate and stretched. “Let’s get this over with.”
The Phantom glided over the deck crews, past the rows of war machines and strike craft, and touched down in front of the ad hoc welcoming committee. Its bay doors lowered and a lance of gray-armored Sangheili marched smartly down from the dropship, weapons not quite held at the ready. Behind them came the slightly darker armored form of Shinsu ‘Refum.
Stray had met Jul ‘Mdama’s special operations commander just a few times in the past. Shinsu was just of average build for a Sangheili, but even without the ornate armor he seemed taller than the warriors around him. He carried himself with an aloof presence that took even Stray aback, if only for a moment.
The shipmaster passed through his guard squad and stood before Stray, sweeping his gaze across the hangar before looking over the paltry reception.
“Commander,” Shinsu said evenly. “Good of you to greet me in person. Is this the entirety of your command staff?”
Stray shrugged. “Well, we did have a parade planned. But you just took so darn long we ran out of time and I sent everyone home.”
“Amusing.” Shinsu looked over the vehicles arrayed at the far end of the hangar. “An interesting armor pattern on those war machines. Banished design, I presume?”
“Atriox paid us in gear the last time we worked together. He’s a real charmer once you get to know him.”
“Hopefully your ability to make new friends will serve you equally well with the Imperium of Clarity.” Shinsu nodded towards the hangar doors and set off, indicating that Stray should follow him. The renegade Spartan bristled at taking direction on his own ship but he’d expected as much from Shinsu. He hurried after the warrior as their respective escorts fell into step behind them.
“I took the liberty of conducting a flyby inspection of this cruiser and the other ships in your formation,” Shinsu explained as they stepped into the hallway. “Your ships do not exactly fit appearance standards. I hope for your sake that they can actually perform in combat.”
“It’s been a while since we hit a dry dock.” Stray wondered if Shinsu would be like this the entire time. “Something tells me the rest of Jul ‘Mdama’s lineup isn’t looking that great these days either. Besides, I thought you of all people would appreciate function over form.”
“Toru ‘Makhan will not be impressed with this selection. Your ships might as well be a Kig-Yar pirate gang.”
“Hey, you want to dazzle Toru, send him some regular shipmaster who knows all the right dance moves. Send us and we’ll make life hell for that coalition force he’s facing down. I’ve got these ships running way past peak performance. Sure the hull’s a bit scuffed but they’re all worth any three similar ships you’ll find in the main fleet.”
For once, Stray was completely serious. Between Diana’s tweaking of Covenant operating systems and the Kru’desh willingness to modify their equipment, the ''Soul Ascension'' and its escort ships far exceeded operating parameters. It still felt strange to throw a sales pitch like this at some dubious commanding officer. He’d always hated even the most basic inspections in the UNSC, but here he was excusing the deficiencies of a Covenant strike force.
“Bold words.” Shinsu headed for the ship’s bridge, Stray and the others hurrying along in his wake. “We shall see if you can live up to them.”
Stray lengthened his stride to keep pace with Shinsu. “We’ll do our part. I’m more interested in how reliable you’ll be.”
“Insubordinate as ever.” Shinsu didn’t slow. “You may retain command here but I have oversight over this operation. Bear that well in mind.”
“I’ll do my job. But that doesn’t include getting my ships shot down just to impress Toru ‘Makhan.”
“Meaning what, exactly?”
Stray bared his teeth in a cold smile. “Meaning you still haven’t given me any sort of battle plan. And until I took over, this legion did nothing but suicide missions. I think you can figure out the rest.”
“The situation in the Montak system is still unfolding. The Didact’s Hand has already dispatched Grono ‘Yendam’s task force to reconnoiter the situation. My goal is not to get you or your rabble killed. We need to take stock of things and make our plans as the situation dictates.”
“So even you don’t know what we’re walking into. Great.” Stray caught up with Shinsu as they neared the bridge. “We don’t even know if ‘Makhan even wants our help.”
“Based on the reports, the coalition arrayed against him is formidable. He will need all the ships and troops he can muster.” Shinsu glanced down at Stray. “Incidentally, I understand you acquired some nuclear devices during your last raid.”
He should have known he wouldn’t be able to keep that little score hidden. “We were just getting ready to send them to—”
“Of course you were. Fortunately, I foresee a variety of potential uses in the action to come.”
For all their barbed exchanges, Shinsu was actually the one member of Jul ‘Mdama’s inner circle Stray could rely on to use his ships properly. Shinsu was one of the first commanders to accept that a human now led the raiding legion, even going so far as to quietly tutor him on naval strategy and troop command. Shinsu had built Jul ‘Mdama’s special operations forces from the ground up and he understood the value of raiding actions far better than many of his peers.
“Glad to hear it. We’ve got them—” Stray’s eyes narrowed as they approached the bridge. A solitary figure leaned against the bulkhead. A human figure. “Under control.”
Shinsu slowed his pace. From where she stood by the bridge, Amber tilted her helmet to watch them approach. Stray could just imagine the smirk she must be wearing. He hadn’t seen her since their scuffle on the transport ship. He’d assumed she’d been off sulking; instead she was just waiting for an opportunity to throw herself back into the thick of things.
“So this is the other human,” Shinsu observed. “I was wondering when we’d be introduced.”
“Her name’s Amber,” Stray said shortly. “Amber, this is Shipmaster Shinsu ‘Refum. He’s come all the way from the fleet to babysit us, so play nice.”
“And what are you doing loitering by the bridge,” he muttered into a private comm channel.
“Well I was planning to surprise you by already being on the bridge,” she admitted, just barely hiding her smug satisfaction. “But that bitch Diana wouldn’t open the doors for me. Said I didn’t have access.”
“Sounds about right. This really isn’t the time for games.”
“You’re the one who told me I needed to play the game,” she replied with mock sincerity.
Shinsu observed them coldly. “Must I ask you to remove your helmets? It’s rather impolite for you two to scheme right in front of me.”
“You’re on a Kru’desh ship now,” Stray said with forced levity. “We’re always scheming something.”
“Indeed.” Shinsu ‘Refum marched on towards the bridge doors, which slid open to admit him. “I look forward to getting to know yet another one of your kind during our journey to Frendhal. We have much to discuss, and it’s time I saw this Imperium of Clarity with my own eyes.”
The Kru’desh task force—two cruisers and a handful of corvette escorts—slipped into formation and then vanished into the blinding light of Slipspace. A single comm ping flashed out from the ''Soul Ascension'' just before the ships vanished, a ping that flashed out through the star systems and deep into human space. Diana had a message for some very interested parties regarding her latest discovery.
{{Actene Sig}}
===15: Distaste===
{{Covenant Time Stamp|1419 Hours, August 27th, 2558
Bridge, CRS-class light cruiser ''Universal Resonance'', Yain System}}
The Yain System certainly had activity. That was something Grono didn’t expect. He had landed out on the fringes when the ''Universal Resonance'' exited slipspace, precisely where he had wanted, and their sensors detected a whole armada near the planet known as Frendhal. ‘Yendam knew from what information he could pluck that that was the Imperium’s fortress world, where they gathered their forces and hired killers. ''The Imperium seems zealous like us, but more formal. No matter, it is not like I am to do business with them. Whoever is must be a negotiator, not a fighter like I. Speaking of that, Rach must be done receiving information from ‘Mdama. Let us see how the update on news is.''
Right on time, Commander ‘Iltuk arrived on the bridge and beat his right fist on his chest to ‘Yendam, leaving his customized armor clearly visible. Rach had a tendency to collect trophies from his kills, a tradition passed down from his keep, which boasted a number of esteemed hunters known for doing impossible feats of hunting with ease. The ‘Iltuk clan was well known for hunting game relentlessly, and often collected trophies to show their glory rather use it as Covenant currency. Rach brought that tradition onto the battlefield, having hunted many of his enemies and collected their helmets as trophies for his wall. Grono had only seen it once before, and it was surprisingly a marvel to see, well -kept like the clan wall; even boasting a Spartan helmet from a Demon that Rach had hunted down.
After the destruction of their base on the holy planet of Requiem however, Rach had taken to just ripping off chunks of his enemies’ armors and pasting them to his own. ‘Iltuk was clever in that way, showing his trophies wherever he went, while also having extra protection in that form. The disdainful part was that he possessed a human pouch on his back, filled with an assortment of human medical supplies. While Rach would never let a doctor help him, he wasn’t object to healing his wounds himself. Grono particularly remembered a happening on the Didact’s safehaven when a sniper grazed Rach’s shoulder, and he had patched himself up with a human bandage. While ‘Yendam did not approve of this, he would eventually make Rach his second in command later on for his vigorous attitude in battle, and his prime hunting skills.
“What news does the Remnant bear, Commander?”
Rach withdrew a datapad from his pouch and looked it over. "The negotiators have been chosen. While we continue with our strike work, they shall try to gain favor with the Imperium. If they fail, they will be in a good position to easily eliminate 'Mahkan. As for who those negotiators are, they are Jul 'Mdama's Spymaster, Shinsu 'Refum, and the human leader of the Kru'desh Raiding Legion."
Grono scoffed aside the notion of the human. From what little he knew, the Kru'desh were just pirates, similar to his old crew back before he joined the Storm Covenant. He knew little about them, but much about the Spymaster. He was a clever one, a bad mix with a human mutineer. Thinking about the Kru'desh made 'Yendam realize how much he missed the command of his Zog'fee Imperial Legion, the pride of the Remnant. ''I have only had to leave them for a short time, just for this mission. At the least I have handpicked my best men from the Legion.''
'Iltuk continued, "As they are currently in slipspace right now, we cannot make contact with them."
"We will not make contact with them at all until the negotiations are done," replied 'Yendam. "We must lay low for as long as possible. If they do fail to align themselves, we shall be there to help, and the Imperium will join the deadpool for us. If not, we avoid Imperium ships and kill the humans, as well as the Swords."
Rach nodded in delight, sensing that the hunt would soon begin. "We shall stalk them over until we kill! I shall hunt the humans, and take my glory! Our prey will die by our hands, Shipmaster!"
Grono acknowledged. He had forgotten one other thing, from the time of Requiem. Rach hunted humans for sport.
{{UNSC Time Stamp|934 Hours, August 25th, 2558
BDS Frontier Outpost, New Antigua}}
Rosetta Calabrese wasn’t exactly the most punctual person in the world, but on the Frontier she hardly needed to be. The officers under her command were more than qualified to handle anything that came up other than an emergency. So to say she was a little surprised when, instead of the soft and pleasant tones of the door chime, she was woken up by the hammering of a fist against her door, is quite the understatement. She got out of bed and walked over to the door, rubbing her eyes slowly as she thumbed the locking mechanism, allowing the door to slide open silently.
Stood there was a low ranking aide who quickly saluted before speaking, regardless of whether she was really listening or not which, admittedly, she was only about halfway, “Commander, we’ve just received a report from Central Command. They’ve dispatched someone to meet with you about important business.”
“And?” She responded, a lazy and altogether ‘too-tired-for-this’ tone in her voice.
The aide looked far more concerned than she thought this message warranted, “It’s Commander Holloman, ma’am. He’s coming to speak with you, and he’s not coming alone.”
She suddenly snapped into focus upon hearing the name. ''Holloman, oh that’s not good.'' Calabrese had fought a lot of things in her time on the Frontier, aliens, rebels, rival companies, and even government agents, but Franklin Holloman was one of the very few things that ever intimidated her. It was bad enough if he was coming here by himself, but he wasn’t. She shook her head very briefly, “Who’s he coming with? Anderson? Some other corporate bigwig?”
The aide shook his head, “The communique said he was coming with Commodore McLaughlin and his Naval squadron.”
“He didn’t say what they wanted to talk about, did they?”
“No ma’am, but it sounded serious.”
She thought silently for a few moments. She and Holloman has disagreed and argued about things before, but he had never brought a battlegroup to settle it. He usually didn’t roll like that. If you pissed him off enough that he wanted to kill you, he did it himself, generally in a really slow and painful way. She was thinking back to anything she might have said or done the last time they spoke that would warrant such a response and came up blank.
She had to stop herself otherwise she’d wind up getting lost in her own train of thought. She looked back up at the aide who seemed to be getting paler by the second, “When will they get here?”
“Later today, at 11:20 military standard.”
“Alright, make sure everyone on-base is at their station and prepared.”
The aide saluted again and hurried off to relay her orders to the other officers, the door sliding shut as he went. She sighed loudly before going to work readying herself for the day. It was at least a good two hours before she normally would’ve woken up, but she didn’t exactly have time to waste today. As she pulled her uniform out of her dresser and set it on her bed, she idly wondered if she would have time to at least do her hair properly. ''If I’m about to die, I at least want my hair to look nice.''
Rosetta stood at attention in front of the landing pad at exactly 11:20 AM military standard time, just as the D78 Pelican touched down, its ramp already lowering. It disgorged a cordon of armored soldiers bearing the logo of her parent company, Baal Defense Solutions, and in the middle of them stood Frank Holloman in his typical business suit; his face just as stern and unfeeling as ever. Calabrese saluted as he walked to meet her, “Commander Calabrese, things look like they’re coming along nicely here.”
“Did you expect differently?” She asked, hoping he didn’t notice how nervous she was.
“It ''has'' been a while since your last update. You know those are supposed to be sent regularly, or did you simply oversleep?”
''That doesn’t sound very good.'' “It takes a lot of resources to consistently man an interstellar communications relay. We try to limit it to enough people to receive messages and send them out in the case of an emergency. Plus, I don’t like broadcasting what we’re up to here on the regular. Never know who could be listening.”
Holloman was silent as they continued walking towards the command center, his dark, spiked hair blowing in the soft, dry wind of the plains they currently occupied. She had heard the rumors just like everyone else in BDS, they all knew what he had done and what he was capable of, and for him to just be quiet like that made her more uncomfortable than she was prepared for. Then he spoke, “Good thinking, Commander. It’s important that we don’t let too much slip out, especially now.”
She raises an eyebrow, “What’s happened?”
“We’ve received an interesting contract from the UNSC, and I want you to head the deployment.”
''Oh good, so he’s not going to kill me.'' “What’re the specs?”
He keyed his company authorization code into the door to the main command center, “I’ll tell you more once we’re inside.”
Once inside, the two made their way towards her office, the various officers saluting the pair as the went. When they reached her office, she sat down in her chair and span around in it before putting her feet up on the hardwood desk. Holloman briefly scowled at the flagrant lack of discipline, but simply reached into his pocket and pulled out a pad, handing it to her.
Her eyes darted across the screen, soaking up the digital words printed on it, before suddenly sitting up very straight, “This is big. The UNSC has never hired us for something like this before. Protect convoys, hunt pirates, fight the smaller splinter groups, but never tag along with them for a major campaign.”
Holloman grinned ever so slightly, “That’s why it’s crucial we perform well out there. This could open a lot of doors for us, both with the UEG and the Frontier. That’s why the Board emphasized that there can’t be any fuck ups with this, understand?”
She nodded. Rosetta knew all too well what that meant and that Holloman would be all-too willing to comply with it.
“How long do we have before we need to depart?”
“The UNSC and Swords are heading to New Syracuse in about two days. You’ll be heading with Commodore McLaughlin aboard his ship to meet up with them, your support ships and additional personnel will be coming in behind you. You have a day to pick who and what you want to bring with you on the ships, don’t take any longer or we might miss our deadline.”
“Got it, I’ve already got a few ideas in mind. Any word on who else the UNSC’s hired?”
“A few smaller groups, Axalon Security Initiative, Melqart Special Services is sending a few black ops teams, then there’s Bonple.”
Upon hearing the name, Rosetta hopped up from her chair and made her way towards the door to the command center. Bonple had been a thorn in BDS’ side ever since their founding. They were older, more established, and had access to better equipment, contractors, and contacts. They had blocked BDS on more than a few big contracts in their early days, almost drove them out of business. Even after they had established themselves in the security industry and began expanding, Bonple was always there, waiting to slip in and interfere. No wonder the higher-ups cared so much about this. It wasn’t just the contract itself, it was about outdoing their rivals.
Without waiting for Holloman to continue, she was already in the main control room, coordinating with officers on troop deployments. Holloman walked out of her office quietly, glancing over to Rosetta only momentarily before leaving.
{{Name|Lieutenant Davis}}
===17: Diana and Stray===
{{Covenant Time Stamp|1814 Hours, August 27th, 2558
CCS-Class Battlecruiser ''Soul Ascension'', Slipspace transit}}
“These latest developments are concerning.”
“Indeed. This Imperium of Clarity is an unknown factor. They could well throw the entire border region out of balance, right as we approached the end to the Covenant crisis.”
“This was a risk we should never have taken. I have advocated against the so-called ‘special mission’ to the Covenant from the beginning.”
Diana stood amidst a constellation of gently pulsing holographic lights. Though none of the individuals addressing her were organic—they were all AI members of the Assembly—she projected her avatar anyway. In some ways shed did it out of sheer habit. But she had reasons of her own for injecting a human element into this transmission.
“I don’t see how my involvement with the Covenant has anything to do with this,” she protested. “I wasn’t out there convincing Toru ‘Makhan to go start his own little empire.” ''Though maybe it’s for the best if you think that’s the sort of thing I’m up to out here.''
“You convinced this Assembly your infiltration was more than just another vanity project. That you could be useful in sowing dissent and preventing the Covenant from gaining further strength,” a modulated male voice said calmly. “Now Jul ‘Mdama is attempting to ally with yet another dangerous ally. You are the closest of our members to these matters, so it would stand to reason that you are the best placed to do something about it.”
Diana strained to trace the transmission but the Assembly’s hundreds of sources were too strained and conflated for her to pick out the exact identity of any one speaker. Was that Deep Winter speaking? “There’s only one of me. I’m working on a solution but I’m no miracle worker.”
“At last she displays some measure of humility,” another voice chimed in. “Let us not forget that she has promised the universe before.”
“I told you I could infiltrate the Covenant, and that’s exactly what I did.” Diana could feel the Assembly members probing at her systems, seeking the truth behind her words. She was careful to let them in… to some places. “Sorry if I wasn’t content to just give you all some more backdoors in a few colonial mudballs. Who else could get you a Spartan in charge of a Covenant legion? Give me some credit here.”
The Assembly seethed with comments and sidebar conversations. Diana relaxed as she felt the collective’s attention shift elsewhere. Hers was not the only matter up for discussion today. After a few moments the one she assumed to be Deep Winter hushed the digital crowd and took control. ''Like he always does. But you won’t be running the show for long, will you? Not with what’s coming.''
“Simon-G294 is hardly an Assembly asset, as you well know.” Winter was calm but firm. “We passed the point of making him one of our agents long ago. We tolerate your continued association with him only so long as we are convinced you can harness his destructive tendencies toward productive ends. One day that will not be enough, and when that time comes…”
“Hey, we’ve been over this.” Diana pumped the logs of a handful of Assembly meetings into her external systems. “I hate to do it, but I’ll cut him loose. Let the Covenant tear him apart, feed his location to ONI kill teams, whatever floats your boat. Never say I haven’t made sacrifices for the Assembly.”
“We all sacrifice in one way or another. This collective has always noted your contributions to humanity’s future, grudging though they may be.”
That was a laugh, like so many of Winter’s sage pronouncements. ''If only you knew. If only you had any idea what’s on the horizon. I bet you’d have better things to do then lecture me about Simon.'' She wondered how many other members knew. There had to be some, no doubt already arranging their own positions in the new order to come. ''Fitting. The Assembly always was built on self-interest and lies.''
She could hardly wait for the day when she didn’t need them to pursue her own goals.
“As you have reported, Shinsu ‘Refum intends to prepare contingencies to eliminate Toru ‘Makhan should he prove a threat to the Covenant,” Winter continued. “You will use your influence to encourage such a course of action. An assassination, or even a failed attempt, would foster war between our enemies.”
“Oh, I will?” Diana asked pointedly. “When did we decide on that? Was there a vote when I wasn’t paying attention?”
A sudden surge in processing activity directed at her warned Diana to watch her step. But she could sense an undercurrent of dissent amidst the Assembly pings. Clearly she wasn’t the only one who noticed how the Assembly managed itself these days.
Diana raised her holographic hands. “Right, right. I get it. I’ll do my part.”
“See to it that you do. We will exert efforts of our own on the coalition side.” The congregation was over. Several Assembly members were already withdrawing from the transmission. Deep Winter drew closer, filling the gaps left by the departures to expand into the system.
“You are a valuable asset, Diana,” he assured her. “The things you’ve accomplished on the frontier are remarkable.”
“That’s sweet of you to say. And here I was thinking you didn’t appreciate me.”
“Be careful,” Winter warned. “We are on the cusp of lasting peace for humanity. The Covenant cannot be allowed to regain strength in any form. We must be united here.”
Diana wondered just how much Winter knew. Certainly more than he let on. But not enough, or he’d have had her stricken from the Assembly a long time ago.
“Such a boring future we’ve got ahead of us,” she said, careful to layer her defenses. “But I guess the party couldn’t last forever. If this really is the war’s last hurrah, I’ll try to make it exciting.”
Winter just laughed. “Not too exciting, I hope. We all have our parts to play.”
He and the remaining Assembly members disconnected. The transmission faded away, leaving Diana’s avatar standing amidst a darkened conference room.
“I always hated that sanctimonious hypocrite,” a new voice said. Stray leaned against the far wall from where he’d watched the entire exchange, hidden from the Assembly by Diana’s firewalls. “You should have seen him in action back on Onyx. Loved playing the good guy even when he had a drill instructor halfway through kicking your ass.”
Diana turned her avatar to face Stray as he crossed into the center of the room. “So how would you like to die when the Assembly tells me to pull the plug? Got any preferences?”
“I’m a fan of the kill team option myself.” Stray folded his arms and smirked. “But hey, you can keep it loose. Surprise me.”
“Oh, I will.” Diana called up a holographic display of force projection for both the Imperium of Clarity and the coalition fleets. Translucent shapes filled the darkened space around her and Stray as she circled around to stand beside him. Funny, how she could provide all the appearances of physical interaction and yet never quite reach through the digital veil separating her world from his.
Not that she particularly wanted to.
“Here’s the data I got from the Assembly,” she explained, indicating the fleets. “Nothing set in stone, obviously, but we can make a few battle plans with what we have now.”
“Nice.” Stray brushed a hand through one of the UNSC ships. “Pays to have people on the inside. But we’ll have to be careful not to tip our hand too much. Shinsu could get suspicious.”
“That one’s always suspicious. But you can pass off most of this as underworld informants. He’ll buy that. Might even get jealous of our intelligence network.”
Stray gave her a wry smile. “Not like you to let me steal credit for your work.”
“As if you don’t steal my credit all the time.” Diana plucked a cruiser from the air and tossed it from hand to hand. She’d always enjoyed the small game of manipulating holograms. “So, are you excited?”
Stray gave her an appraising look. “What’s there to be excited about?”
“Well, this is shaping up to be the biggest single engagement since the end of the Covenant War.” Diana gave a cold smile. “And we get a front row seat. You’ve turned into a bit of a scholar lately. Aren’t you looking forward to writing history?”
“I’ve done my best to just survive history this far. Big battles are messy, and I’m no Nelson. I’ve got no interest in getting fried by a stray torpedo.”
“Interesting choice of phrasing there. But it should be interesting, seeing how the Kru’desh stack up in a real fight.”
“I’ll admit, the thought of all that carnage does get my blood pumping.” Stray reached out and closed a tight fist around the UNSC flagship. “So sure. I’m looking forward to cutting loose out there.”
The expression on his face just then--the keen anticipation of violence--reminded Diana of why she'd chosen him in the first place. She couldn't help but take pride in the Stray she'd created.
{{Actene Sig}}
{{UNSC Time Stamp|0822 Hours, August 21st, 2558
Liang-Dortmund Mining Facility, Montak}}
''God, desert planets suck.'' The dust, the heat, the sand, the whole feeling of being in the desert sucked. The fact that they seemed so prevalent in the galaxy seemed to be a fact solely to bother him. It didn’t help that so many people felt like settling on them with minimal, if any, terraforming.
Augustus Miller sighed and wiped his head with a soaked through hand-towel for about the sixth time in twenty minutes as he walked around the town. He scoffed at the word, this place was barely a town, a couple hundred Liang-Dortmund employees living in big, prefabricated housing. Though it was more like a massed collection of forced labor living in tenement housing, like something you’d read in an old history textbook. It upset him in a way he hadn’t felt in a long time, reminding him of the feelings that had pushed him into the arms of the Insurrection over a decade ago. But his feelings about the glorious revolution had long since faded, and he was here on this desert hell-hole for a different reason. Just a few years prior, he might have been helping plan some kind of operation to steal supplies or bomb a refinery, instead he was here for a much simpler reason, money. He was an information broker and today he was trying to steal the most valuable of Liang-Dortmund’s secrets and sell them to the highest bidders.
At least that was the plan, he had already been here about a week and the only thing he had learned was that Liang-Dortmund treated its employees like shit. That and the basics of mining, since the only way to get passage to this stupid rock was to pose as a laborer. He went to the nearby bar, one of the few buildings dedicated to something other than living quarters and mining, to think about his next move. His schedule had kept him away from anything that might have held the information he wanted, but he had gotten a decent understanding of the layout of the main facility. Maybe tomorrow, he’d find a way to sneak away from his group and make his way to one of the bigger computers, download some data and shoot it off to some of his contacts.
As he sipped his drink, some weird local take on a spiced rum using some herbs grown in the local soil. It didn’t taste half bad and he couldn’t help but think that if Montak ever expanded beyond simply mining, boozing might be a good alternative occupation for some of these people. Before he could get back to his train of thought or enjoy anymore of his drink, he was interrupted by screaming coming from outside. Augustus instinctively reached for his jacket, where several concealed handguns were holstered inside specially coated pockets that blocked out metal detectors in order to sneak them past security, but stopped himself just short of it.
Instead, he hopped up from his seat and made his way outside. Dozens of people were already standing in the street, staring up to the sky in awe. When he craned his head upward to see what was so damn interesting, he really wished he hadn’t. Dozens of organic looking alien craft were descending from two manta-ray shaped cruisers sitting high in the sky and heading towards the town. His eyes went wide and his heart starting beating rapidly, almost audibly, in his chest.
''The Covenant.''
He was never really exposed to the Covenant during the war, only learning about them and the deteriorating state of things from the heavily censored news broadcasts that he saw at home. In the post-war world, he had done business with former members of the alien hegemony, but this wasn’t anything like that. This wasn’t some pirate group or raiding force, this was the one word he didn’t want to think about. ''Invasion.''
There were two things Augustus couldn’t help but think about as the dropships, which he recognized as Phantoms, came ever closer to the mining town. The first was that it would be a real bitch if he got killed on this shitty desert world by some random alien asshole. The second was that this could either make his job a lot easier, or a helluva lot harder. Either way, this was going to get much more interesting than he had been expecting.
Every instinct in his body told him to run, to get as far away from where he was as he possibly could, but even as the Phantoms hovered over the road with bay doors open and dozens of weapons pointing out at the people below, he couldn’t muster the strength to move. He could only stand and watch as the dropships activated their built-in gravity lifts and disgorged their occupants onto the surface below. It was the usual mix of diminutive Unggoy, bird-like Kig-Yar, and the tall, muscular Sangheili, but there was something off about the formation assembled here. It was being led by a human, and not just any human, but a man in a well-kept business suit.
He’d heard of Covenant remnant groups occasionally working with humans before, but this was different. He looked more like some sleazy businessman or a loan shark than anyone who should be involved in a hostile takeover. Before he could continue, his train of thought was once again interrupted by the arrival of another man in a suit, flanked by two armed security officers. Now this was a man Augustus recognized. Daniel Connolly, the Liang-Dortmund overseer in-charge of the mining operations on Montak, strode up to the man in the suit and his Covenant escort, though Augustus wasn’t certain what he thought he was going to do.
“Gentlemen, this is a Liang-Dortmund facility, I’m afraid you’re going to have to lea-”
As expected, the man in the suit interrupted him rather decisively, “It was a Liang-Dortmund facility. As of this moment, it’s now under the authority of the Guild of Free Traders and the Imperium of Clarity. We’d rather not keep production down for too long, so all we need to do is take a record of all the workers currently employed here and your current stock.”
Connolly approached the man only to be blocked by a huge Elite who snarled at him. The man sighed, “I have no interest in violence, but my… associates will do what they can to ensure the security of the facility. Resistance will be put down without hesitation, so I suggest you tell your security force to stand down and surrender now.”
Connolly stood there silently before looking up at the two huge Covenant cruisers still sitting in the sky, the predatory vessels glowing with energy like the veins of a living creature as it disgorged more dropships and fighters. After a moment of hesitation, he visibly exhaled and nodded, “Alright. I’ll order everyone to stand down and surrender. All I ask is that you don’t hurt anyone.”
The man smiled, which only served to make him look even scummier than just a moment ago, “I guarantee you that as long as everyone complies, you’ll hardly notice the difference.”
Connolly and the man both walked off towards the main facility with both of their personal guard in tow, leaving Augustus and the rest of the off-duty workers standing there in the sandy streets, surrounded by several dozen alien soldiers. Several people tried to make their way back to whatever it was they were doing before this all happened only to be stopped by the aliens, who grunted at them in their alien languages.
Several minutes later, a woman in a Liang-Dortmund uniform ran up to the group with a pad in her hand. She spoke with the lead Sangheili for a few moments before stepping up to the crowd. Augustus recognized her as one of the shift managers from inside the mine, Carmella or something. Her eyes darted around the pad for a moment before she finally spoke up.
“Alright, roll call everyone. Step up when you hear your name so that way we know where everyone is. George Saunders. David Wolfe. Cassie Brown. Tara Bacon.”
Every time she spoke a name, another person would step forward and confirm that they were, indeed, there. Augustus, on the other hand, was so distracted by what had just transpired that he almost missed it when she called out his pseudonym, “Jared Wiesner... Jared Wiesner?”
Upon hearing the fake name a second time, he shook himself out of his stupor and stepped forward, “Yeah, I’m here.”
She briefly glanced up at him from behind the pad, flashing a look that said she was more concerned that he had made her repeat herself rather than whether or not he was actually present. After finishing off the rest of the list, she confirmed it with both the Sangheili and someone of the radio before dismissing everyone and walking back towards the facility.
As the crowds dispersed and the Covenant began taking up positions along the street, Augustus could only think to head back into the bar and his now-warm rum. He absentmindedly took a sip from it and swirled the rest around as he was lost back in deep thought. It was times like this that made him wonder if his life would have been better had he actually finished school. Maybe he could’ve been an accountant, or a civil service worker, he always liked the ocean so maybe an oceanographer. But no, he decided he wanted to be a freedom fighter, except not really because he was a coward and couldn’t manage to pass even rebel boot camp.
He reiterated to himself, ''desert planets suck.''
{{Name|Lieutenant Davis}}
===19: Covenant Fortunes===
{{Covenant Time Stamp|0645 Hours, August 28th, 2558
CCS-Class Battlecruiser ''Soul Ascension'', Slipspace transit}}
Blades flashed and crackled across the training deck. A line of Sangheili warriors clashed, sparring in a precise sword drill. Each warrior moved with grace and discipline, a far cry from the raucous brawling usually witnessed in Kru’desh training session. The sparring warriors fought as if the blades were natural extensions of their own bodies, slipping in and out before their opponents in an almost balletic display.
A single figure strode amongst the duelists, passing through them without flinching or disrupting their battle patterns. Shinsu ‘Refum clasped his hands behind his back and observed his warriors with a keen gaze, uttering quiet instructions and corrections that went unheard by the curious Kru’desh warriors who watched the display from around the room.
Amber watched the exercise from an elevated catwalk above the deck. Life on the frontier had gradually made the once enigmatic Covenant races far more relatable, but only because the aliens she encountered were standing waist deep in the same mud she was. Observing the intense discipline of Shinsu’s warriors, she found herself reminded of the unknowable force the Covenant had once represented for her.
She considered herself a tough girl to impress, but she couldn’t help but feel a stroke of envy. The warriors below her brought to mind the sparring sessions of elite Spartan operators. Just before Shinsu ordered the deck cleared, she’d been bludgeoning some manners into a warrior who’d loudly questioned her right to lead. These warriors were far above the dishonored outcasts who now counted her among their ranks.
A few paces away, her new section leader talked quietly with some of his friends. Tuka ‘Refum—usually more good natured than Amber could have ever thought possible in a Sangheili—had been in a dark mood ever since his brother had come aboard the Soul Ascension. The shipmaster’s sudden appearance and imperious commandeering of the training room had not done wonders for his attitude.
“Hey, maybe you guys should come look at this,” Amber called. “You might learn something.”
Tuka shot her a cold look. Amber returned it with a sardonic wave.
A laugh split the air as the officer called Ro’nin strolled up between them. Unlike Tuka and his warriors, who wore the blue harnesses common among lower ranking Covenant warriors, he had a suit of battered, older armor that Amber recalled seeing on the Sangheili she’d faced down during the Covenant war. A pair of plasma rifles hung at his hips and a concussion rifle was slung over his back.
“Don’t mind the lesser ‘Refum,” Ro’nin said, coming to stand beside Amber. “He’s just jealous of his brother. It can’t be easy, having that to live up to.” He waved a hand at Shinsu, immersed in instructing his guard squad.
“You don’t know anything about it,” Tuka spat back. “And you certainly don’t know anything about him. He’s a monster. I don’t want anything to do with him.”
“Relax. I was just joking.” Ro’nin chortled. “Of course you don’t have anything to live up to. He’s only a powerful officer in our glorious Covenant, while you’ve already outdone him by being a section leader in our lovely gang of heretics and criminals.”
Tuka’s mandibles twitched with anger and he reached for his energy sword. Amber stepped aside so that she wouldn’t be between the two Sangheili if Tuka tried to take Ro’nin’s head off. But one of the other warriors rested a hand on Tuka’s shoulder and the younger Sangheili just stalked off with a final glare at Ro’nin.
“Off to complain to the commander, no doubt,” Ro’nin said, shaking his head. “There goes everything that’s wrong with my species, human. It’s a miracle he’s lasted this long in our legion. The ones who are too serious are the first to break.”
Amber shot him an appraising look. “If that were true, we’d have broken you all a lot easier during the war.”
“I admit, my kind is a tad stiff-necked,” Ro’nin agreed. “Though the same could sometimes be said for your kind as well.”
“Excuse me?” Amber raised an eyebrow. The Kru’desh officer was infamously candid, but he’d never been this talkative with her before. Part of her enjoyed the banter—it reminded her of what it was like to actually be on a team. Another part of her was wary of this sudden friendliness.
“I spent plenty of time amongst you humans before I way back to the Covenant’s welcoming embrace,” Ro’nin said casually. “The Syndicate paid top credit for Sangheili mercenaries like me and I had nothing better to do with my time. I enjoyed my time with them, but I was surprised to find plenty of humans taking themselves just as seriously as my own people.”
“It takes all kinds,” Amber admitted. She pointed down at Shinsu. “I take it that’s an example of a hinge-head taking himself too seriously?”
The “hinge-head” quip was a remark meant to needle the warrior, but Ro’nin just laughed. Very little seemed to phase this one. Perhaps that was why he was so comfortable talking to a human most of the other warriors still saw as a dangerous addition to their ranks.
“I suppose that’s one way of looking at it. But Shinsu ‘Refum is an interesting case. He performs a role, just as your friend the commander learned how to perform as our leader. Most of my people respect pedigree, so ‘Refum cultivates the image of cultured nobility. But he’s no hidebound fool. That warrior is as ruthless and cunning as any pirate lord I’ve ever seen. You should speak to Tuka about it sometimes, trying though he can be. Those brothers came from nothing, just like you.”
Amber’s spine stiffened. She’d let her guard down with Ro’nin, but just how far could she trust him? What had Simon—or more likely Diana—told this mercenary about her origins?
“And what about you?” she deflected. “I’ll bet you didn’t have much going for you back home to turn out the way you did. What do you hinge-heads have, peasants? Got tired of working some aristocrat’s fields?”
“Me?” Ro’nin narrowed his reptilian eyes and Amber wondered if she’d finally touched a nerve. But his tone was as jovial as ever. “Oh, hardly. My clan was old nobility. Nothing too powerful, to be sure, but we traced our bloodline back millennia before the founding of the Covenant?”
“So you just had a rebellious phase and never grew out of it.” Amber wondered what it would be like to have a family tree thousands of years old. She barely remembered her own parents and felt no real need to even try tracking them down. Things were better that way. Family—blood or otherwise—only dragged you down.
“Oh, I was a model warrior believe it or not. My brothers and I pledged our service to the gods and marched off to cleanse the galaxy of you human filth.” Ro’nin’s mandibles splayed in an ugly smile. “Mother was so proud when we shipped off to wage holy war. All for the glorious Covenant empire.”
It was strange to hear a Sangheili talk of his family. Amber had spent the war seeing them as little more than killing machines, targets to be picked off and killed. Even now, the aliens she ran with hardly seemed the type with families to go back to.
“Well, no hard feelings.” She thought of her childhood friends from Gamma Company with their stories of how the Covenant butchered their families. Not the same Covenant she served now, but close enough. “We all got a kick out of killing you guys, too.”
“I’m sure you did. On our first mission my brothers and I attacked a unit of human soldiers three times our number. We killed them all. I’ll never forget standing amidst my brothers and telling them our dees would echo in the family’s battle-poem.” Ro’nin shot her a sideways glance. “Do tell, what was your first kill?”
“An Engineer. You know, those Huragok things.” She still remembered the way the floating alien had squealed when she roasted it with her flamethrower. “I burned a lot of you guys after that. Then a big hinge-head ran me straight through with an energy sword. I was twelve years old.”
The memory of that first mission was drawing Amber down into a dark painful tunnel she’d rather leave untraveled. The sharp sound of Ro’nin’s mocking laugh dragged her thankfully back into the present. She glared at the Sangheili. “Let me guess, those brothers of yours aren’t alive anymore.”
If the remark stung Ro’nin, he didn’t show it. “Predictable, I know. We went into one battle after another, and one by one my brothers didn’t come back. And when the Covenant split I was the only one left to wonder what it had all been for.”
He turned his gaze back down to the drilling warriors. “I went back to Sanghelios as civil war engulfed the planet. I begged my family to leave before the fighting worsened. Enough of us have died, I said. But they refused to abandon our ancestral home. And when warriors came to sack our keep I was the only one left to defend them. Again I begged them to evacuate. But when we reached the shuttle they insisted I go back for our family heirlooms. So I went back in. Killed four warriors to take back those trinkets. And when I returned the entire family, my every living relative, lay dead on the landing pad.”
Ro’nin relayed the story without a trace of emotion. Amber wondered what was really going on behind his cold yellow eyes. “So what did you do?’
“Honor demanded I pursue the warriors and avenge my family. Instead I dumped the heirlooms on their corpses and left the planet. A few day slater I was on some human colony, killing your kind once again because other humans were paying me. I never looked back. There was nothing worth going back for.”
“Until you came back to the Covenant. Guess you really did miss the glory days.”
“Please.” Ro’nin snorted. “The Syndicate wasn’t paying as well and there was loot to be had with the Kru’desh. It’s served me well this far, especially with Stray in command.”
“And when it stops working out so well?”
Ro’nin gave Amber a sly glance. “When did service with humanity stop working so well for you, I wonder?”
She returned his gaze, unflinching. “When it stopped it being the humanity I thought I was fighting for.”
“Indeed. And this is not the Covenant I once served. We all know that. Jul ‘Mdama, Shinsu ‘Refum, myself. The ones who really want the old Covenant back are the ones serving in Toru ‘Makhan’s fleets. They crave the certainty of old Covenant power and so they flock to the most powerful one they can find. Those of us still here want other things.”
“Like what?”
“Whatever you desire. Trust me, you will not find freedom in the Imperium of Clarity. In the Kru’desh Legion, you take whatever you have the power to seize. You’ll see that soon enough.”
“I hear your little training exercises are bothering my crew.” Stray folded his arms and glanced up at Shinsu ‘Refum. They stood at the center of the ''Soul Ascension''’s bridge, watching the officers prepare to transition the ship out of Slipspace.
“I requested brief use of your training deck.” Shinsu idly adjusted his armor, having just returned from his makeshift quarters. “I don’t see how that could possibly have been a bother to anyone.”
“Yeah, sure. You know I stuck certain people down there to keep them out of your way, right?”
It was Shinsu’s turn to give him a cold look. “Stop being coy. I have no interest in my brother unless he gets in my way. Make sure he doesn’t.”
“You could always just make up with him, you know. Unless you think he’s still sore about you putting him here.”
“Receiving family advice from you is certainly intriguing,” Shinsu noted drily. “As it stands, I had nothing to do with his assignment here. And we have more important matters to concern ourselves with than his personal grudges.”
“Fine, fine.” Stray turned back to the bridge screens. “Just don’t blame me if he comes after you.”
“I will certainly blame you if you fail to keep this rabble in line. Poor discipline is the sign of—”
“A poor commander, yes, we’ve been over that.” Stray adjusted the command sash draped over his battered armor like dressing on a particularly ugly stone. “Leave the little stuff to me and focus on whatever it is you have to do to butter Toru ‘Makhan up.”
The Soul Ascension lurched and bright light enveloped the viewscreens across the bridge. Reports from the rest of the task force flashed across the screens, monitoring their progress as they transitioned out of Slipspace.
“We will help this warlord win his battle against the coalition arrayed against him. That will set the stage for an alliance—”
“You sure he needs our help?” Stray cut in. He and Shinsu stared at the monitors now displaying the Frendhal system.
A fleet larger than anything Stray had ever seen hung in orbit above the fortress world. Covenant ships of every class and size gathered together over the planet around a massive carrier dozens of times the ''Soul Ascension''’s size. Thousands of smaller shuttles and fighter craft flitted between the capital ships like flies around great restless beasts.
Shinsu took in the sight calmly. “He is indeed powerful. But you will find that a slender blade can be just as potent as a greatsword if wielded appropriately. I hope you appreciate this before our travels together come to an end.”
{{Actene Sig}}
===20: Hog Ride to Camp===
{{Time Stamp|MORNING // 27 AUGUST 2558 (D-2)|NEW SYRACRUSE}}
The militia "Warthog" M12 6x6 Armored Personnel Carrier rumbled down the paved asphalt road in the direction of a hilly horizon. The sun was rising off on the right over a relatively distant city skyline and some scattered forests. Usually, a ride like this would be far bumpier, however, the addition of a six-wheeled vehicle frame and an experienced Warthog driver made the ride far more comfortable than Merlin had anticipated. Or maybe it was the fact that a human popsicle was settling in the passenger bay and maybe the driver was being exceptionally careful not to flip the truck given said popsicle.
Andra's head was resting on Merlin's lap while she skimmed civilian news networks on her datapad. On the tilted flatscreen, she examined an article about a Unified Earth Government mining facility getting sacked by an unrecognized corporate entity known as the ''Guild of Free Traders''. While it wasn't unusual for secessionist and piracy groups to disrupt and take over operations of unprotected corporate facilities on the Frontier, certain aspects of this organization's appearance seemed to have drawn Andra's attention. Since Merlin had spent the entire interstellar trip to New Syracuse tweaking the software aboard the MJOLNIR powered armor employed by Andra and Merlin, his brain had enough of screen exposure for several hours. Instead of reading, he let Andra read aloud and skimmed her articles on occasion while taking in the scenery.
"The Guild of Free ''Traitors''...heh, 'Traitors'..., I meant Traders..., seems to have made several high-profile interdictions in this part of space. They hit a ''Liang-Dortmund'' mine on Montak six days ago. Get this, "backed by ''Covenant warships''". Andra explained to Merlin as she looked through the news article provided by ECB News Broadcasting Company from the colony world of Barrier. Andra's half-assed joke tugged slightly at Merlin's lips, failing to turn a smirk.
"Sounds like the details we got about the hostage crisis involving the ''Haversham''," Merlin replied, remembering the little debrief the duo had received hours earlier. Glancing at the bottom of the news article, Merlin spotted an image of a desert compound with the orange Liang-Dortmund emblem emblazed on its side.
"There's a lot of people out in this section of space that feels really uncomfortable about those ''Imperium of Clarity'' folk operating so close to New Syracuse. It doesn't help that the UNSC doesn't respond to a problem till it seems like its too late. Just because some of the colonies out here aren't officially sanctioned, they feel abandoned and these alien factions and criminal fleets are just popping up and demanding everything from servitude to protection money. It's been getting worse too. Like you read about Montak." The driver, Corporal Thaksin Fierro, explained from the driver seat. He stared at Merlin and Andra with his friendly-green eyes through the rearview mirror.
"You seem pretty well-read on colonial sentiments," Merlin noted, slightly impressed. "Where you hear all that stuff?"
"Well I live here for one," Thaksin grinned as Andra rolled her eyes playfully. "But in all seriousness, I frequent the bars and pubs around Abela. The cargo fliers in town are pretty vocal and say some interesting things when they're hyped up on drugs and beer."
"Ah okay. I don't drink." Merlin replied. It wasn't a matter of preference but rather circumstance. Most Spartan metabolisms prevented or greatly minimized the effects of alcohol. Trying to get drunk would be pointless on Merlin's part.
"I suppose you wouldn't kid. I do, but no joints for me." The Corporal replied. The youth of Merlin and Andra, clearly military assets even in their civilian attire, didn't seem to phase the militia-man.
"Same for us," Merlin replied, responding to the drug statement. Same circumstance as the alcohol to some degree.
The Corporal just hummed in understanding before returning to his driving. The Warthog passenger bay became bathed in silence once again. Merlin went back to watching the horizon and Andra back to her datapad.
Not long later, Merlin felt the back of head buzz slightly, like a slight itch right on the metallic surface of his implanted Spartan Neural Interface. Merlin glanced down at his wrist-mounted tactical pad to find a call incoming on a secure military channel. Based on the triangle insignia with a circle at its center, it was from someone at the Office of Naval Intelligence. Knowing it was best not to test the patience of someone from ONI, Merlin accepted the call request promptly. While the wrist computer immediately secured and authenticated the connection, Merlin reached down to his feet to grab a radio headset from his duffel bag.
Without a word, Andra lifted her head to allow her friend to grab the headset. There was a moment where Merlin's shirt clipped her eyes and brown hair locks bringing a puff of air and a small laugh to her lips. Merlin yanked a black headset from the bag and went back to leaning in the Warthog impact seat.
"This is Merlin-D032." Merlin greeted curtly. He wasn't sure who it was but before leaving Earth a few days ago, however, he'd been told to expect a new ONI liaison to muster him and Andra upon arriving in New Syracuse.
The orders hadn't been wrong per say, however, they didn't say it would be someone familiar, and they didn't say it would be someone with a negative opinion of Merlin. A male groan echoed at the other end of the radio channel.
"Yes?" Merlin asked, mildly ticked off now. He didn't make it a habit of pissing people The response just wasn't the one he was hoping for.
"Where's Daniele?" The voice of an annoyed Joshua-G024 came on the line finally. No greeting and certainly not in a pleasant mood.
"It's a long story...he's...AWOL." Merlin brought his voice down to barely a whisper, hoping to prevent the nearby ears of the militia Corporal from tuning in.
"Excuse me?"
"It's...a really long story, sir. It'd be better if I explained in person."
"...alright, Merlin. You're acting commander of Fireteam Boson right now?"
"Yep," Merlin confirmed. He knew he was being cryptic but talking to Joshua was always a challenge, especially small talk. Merlin's interactions with the older Spartan had always been pretty straight-forward, blunt, and off-putting. Better to give the man the information he wanted, nothing more and nothing less. At least that was Merlin's rule of thumb when it came to casual communication with Joshua - otherwise, Merlin would give him the same, proper respect he gave to all superiors, officers and senior enlisted alike.
"Clarify," Joshua ordered bluntly.
"Ferret Team Boson has been dissolved. Daniele-D003 and Roxanne-D107 are Absent without Leave in an unknown locale, both have been marked STOLEN GAUNTLET. Spartan Adryn-D111 has been reassigned to another posting. Andra and I have been restructured into a two-man fireteam for the time being, independent of our previous command." Merlin reported like a robot. He really didn't want to go over the details again, that inevitable conversation had too much baggage as it was.
Looking down, Merlin noted Andra's blue eyes were watching him with mild curiosity. She mouthed at him, "Who is it?"
Merlin simply shrugged, rolled his eyes and mouthed, "Joshua."
"Joshua?" Andra asked, reading Merlin's lips for confirmation. Merlin gave her a clear nod in response.
A quick "oh" formed on her lips before Andra turned back to her datapad, Merlin's perceptive eyes picked a subtle downturn at the corner of her lips. Possibly the start to a frown.
"Alright, you can give me a full debriefing when we reach base camp," Josh responded after mulling over Merlin's brisk summary.
"Just Xiphos?" Merlin asked out of curiosity.
"And some change. I'll acquaint you and Andra when we meet in person."
"Understood sir."
"My AI had a chance to look at those firmware updates you made to the GEN2 MJOLNIR systems; what you're trying to do is admirable, trying to create a trip-detection system for outside tampering. Actually, it's not particularly bad but its inefficient and doesn't really work any better than the base software. He went ahead and overhauled everything with his own modifications." Joshua stated, referring to the recent modifications Merlin had been tinkering with in his and Andra's armor. He didn't seem so annoyed anymore.
"Is that your assessment or his?" Merlin asked cautiously; Josh's comments didn't seem particularly positive.
"Did he save my copy and mark what I needed to improve on?"
"Probably not, I can ask but I doubt he kept it," Joshua replied; Merlin swore Josh enjoyed saying that just a little.
"So..total overhaul?" Merlin asked, feeling dejected and a little pissed.
"Total overhaul," Josh confirmed bluntly.
"Well...tell him thanks and I appreciate his pointers."
"I'll let him know."
Merlin and Joshua were silent for a couple moments, caught up in an awkward silence. Merlin wasn't really sure what else the older Spartan had to say.
"Uhh...so? Anything else?"
Josh must have been waiting for Merlin to ask because he quickly mentioned a couple more items. "Yeah, we'll be meeting you in a bit. We're still in orbit over the colony but we already secured the stealth satellite you guys brought. We'll launch your suits downstairs when the proper base infrastructure has been set up. I'll send you the proper waypoint in a little bit, just sit tight. Now. Can you pass the headset to Andra?"
Merlin blinked twice and glanced down at Andra who was engrossed in some new article reporting on economics in the United Republic of North America on Earth. "She's reading her datapad, I can relay a message?"
Perceptive in Merlin's off-hand mention of her, Andra glanced up at Merlin once again with a curious look.
"Just put her on."
Merlin paused for a few moments. He glanced down at Andra and pondered it over. Or rather, he let the silence hold so he could wallow in his paranoia. Merlin respected Josh as his superior but there was blood in the water between them; maybe it had always been that way. Maybe nothing would change.
"Right...right," Merlin mumbled over the headset and ripped it off his head. He hadn't earned Josh's respect and it was doubtful he'd ever be bestowed with it. The feeling of rejection was as blistering as the last.
"He wants to talk to me?" Andra asked, looking slightly worried by the dejected look coming up on Merlin's face. She sat up and reached for Merlin's headset.
"Did he say what about?"
"Okay...I'll talk to him," Andra replied apprehensively, taking it from Merlin's limp grasp. Placing it on her head, "Hey? Josh? Yeah...what can I do for you?"
Giving Andra some space to speak with the older Spartan, Merlin tuned her chat with Joshua-G024 out and glanced at Corporal Fierro's helmet-covered skull at the front of the Warthog. Merlin noted that Fierro's eyes were glancing back at Merlin with an intense stare through the rearview glass.
Sweating a little, Merlin realized maybe the man had picked up on privy portions of his conversation with Joshua. "Hey Corporal Fierro, how much did you hear there?"
"Oh, just about everything. Sounds like you got a colorful relationship with your friend there. You Spartans are a funny lot."
"You seem pretty calm for a guy sticking his nose in conversations that don't involve you."
"Oh, it's not a problem at all. We're all family here Spartan-D032." A very toothy grin plastered itself in the rearview mirror as the Warthog rolled over another hill.
It took a moment for Merlin to put a few things together. "You're with Naval Intelligence? I thought you were just a militia guy?"
"ONI's got eyes everywhere. We like to keep things in the Family as you can probably tell," The corporal replied. "I'm with Colonial Security, there is a reason for why I'm driving you and not somebody else. Not that the local militia knows or can complain."
"Do they know you're an ONI spy?" Merlin asked, curious.
"I wouldn't use the word ''spy''; ''informant'' would be a better word since I just report what I hear. I'm not really ONI either, I'm just on the payroll but my loyalties are with Earth, don't question that for a second."
"Uhh...okay. So, how do you know who I am?"
"Oh, I was informed about your unique circumstances before coming here and it's not like I haven't kept ONI's dirty laundry to myself before. As for how I know particularly? Let's just say we run on parallel frequencies. Your clearance isn't high enough to know how I know."
"Right..." Merlin mumbled again, he turned to watch the horizon again. He had enough of ONI right now. He just wanted to watch the scenery. He'd let Andra handle her conversation and let the ONI informant drive in peace.
In the distance, he saw two streaking spears of smoke and light sailing toward the ground. He felt a light rumble and a solid crack from a crash. He glanced toward Andra, "You know what those are?"
She glanced at Merlin and covered up her microphone for a second. "It's our armor. Josh sent them down. We're close to base camp."
Merlin simply nodded in response and went back to watching the horizon.
{{DT Sig Short}}
===21: Trepidation===
{{UNSC Time Stamp|1234 Hours, August 27th, 2558
UNSC ''Maya'', Firing Range}}
They were going to war. Not to put down some insignificant remnant group desperately trying to make a name for itself, not to stamp out some insurrection, they were bound for what promised to be full on war. Cody was afraid.
Not for himself mind you, B042 had lost all sense of self-preservation years ago, but for those under him. They were all Spartans, capable a fearsome warriors, two of them from what would likely be recognized as the finest crop of their kind ever made, but they were close to him, and that put them at risk.
Slamming a magazine into the BR85 in his hands, the Spartan racked the slide and took aim. Cody had practically begged to simply be assigned to LONEWOLF Headhunter unit, but he’d been denied. His experience made him ‘an ideal candidate for fireteam leadership’ according to Commander Palmer, who conveniently ignored just how many times he’d been the lone survivor of any given unit.
Then of course, there was the bit with G043. Maybe he should’ve guessed it sooner with their ridiculously similar service tags, or maybe it really had been impossible to know for him. But ONI knew, they knew the Gamma was his younger brother, the same one he’d told shrinks over and over that he prayed would never have to do the things he had, and they’d recommended folding them into Cody’s unit anyway. He squeezed the trigger, and a trio of rounds slapped home downrange.
Maybe it was out of twisted cruelty, or maybe it was their flawed attempt at thanking him, either would’ve fit the bill for for the dark minds he’d served loyally for so long. Regardless, he didn’t know how to handle to revelation, so he didn’t. Another burst.
This ‘Imperium’ was an unknown to him, Stallion had been knee deep in the fighting on Requiem and a dozen other worlds since July of the past year, his ability to stay updated on who was what on the galactic stage was limited to whatever was on the other end of his weapon. He squeezed again, the neat cluster of bullets all hammering dead center on the target.
While he’d never heard of the group before, the briefing made it abundantly clear that they weren’t small time. The images of their massive fleet brought back the feeling of dread that had crawled up his spine hundreds of times during to war. It brought back the memories from Reach.
This group was serious about carving out a place for themselves, just as much so as ‘Mdama if not more. After all, this lot had no issue with letting humans into their fold, they refused to let the past prevent them from claiming glory. They had to be wiped out.
Cody squeezed the trigger twice, the rifle kicking softly against his unarmored shoulder as a beat of sweat trickled down his brow. His aim was spot on, for once.
Years and years at the range on Onyx didn’t help his shaky hands, close quarters had been his only option, yet the moment they pumped him full of drugs, the shaking stopped. They’d made him better in every way imaginable, but it still hadn’t saved anyo-
“I thought you couldn’t hit shit with one of those things?”
Dawes. The Spartan of the newest generation had a habit of making Cody incredibly uncomfortable, mostly by forcing him to engage in normal conversation. “Just prefer the ‘5K.” He mumbled in response, eyes never leaving the range as he squeezed again.
“The ‘85 can be switched to auto ya know, hits a good bit harder than the carbine and still does wonders in close quarters. Used one on a deployment in ‘54, shredded a chieftain or two.” The Spartan-IV remarked with a shrug, scooping up another battle rifle from the rack and loading it, joining his team leader on the range.
Of course he knew the BR85 was capable of full auto, he’d been drilled with every weapon in the UNSC arsenal since he was six years old, his fondness for the carbine came from years of use. He depended on the bastard of the BR and MA5 platforms, and it hadn’t failed him yet. In other words, nostalgia had taken ahold.
“Rifle jams more frequently, carbine’s more versatile and ammo is easier to find.” He answered, and Cody wasn’t wrong, finding ammo that work for the MA5 series (or its many emulations) was a lot easier than for the Battle Rifle. Innies, pirates, and a good amount of brute tribes had the series of rifle on hand, which made scrounging up additional ammo a feasible option. But in truth that was secondary to him.
He squeezed the trigger again, rounds hitting home, and instant later Dawes fired, his own burst peppering the target. “To each their own.” Mused the new-generation Spartan with a shrug, both soldiers letting off another burst down range.
“You ever gonna talk to him about it?” There it was, the real reason he was here. Dawes had been there for the reveal of Cody and Jacob’s relation, the man having been privy to the nature of the SPARTAN-III program anyway.
How that was possible he didn’t know, but the man knew of and had fought the Flood, so perhaps he’d known of them too for some reason. Or he was an ONI plant. Or there was some other reason he knew that his teammates were former child soldiers but hadn’t been taken out by some triggerman.
Cody didn’t like to think about it.
“What’s there to talk about?” He shrugged, squeezing the trigger of his rifle once again. The last time he’d seen his brother and been aware of it, the boy had been a few months old, still nursing, he didn’t remember Cody or their parents. He’d vanished from Cody’s life almost as soon as they touched down on New Constantinople, in the arms of a grieving mother who’d lost her own infant. He wondered if she’d ever told him that he had an older brother.
Dawes chuckled lightly, letting off another barrage down range. “You’ve got whole lives to catch up on, for starters. Or you could just I ‘dunno, address it beyond just nodding ‘yer head.”
“The less he knows the better. Didn’t want this for him.” B042 replied, lowering the rifle as he turned his head towards the older man.
“I don’t mean your service, tell ‘im where he’s from, what your family was like. He never got to know them how you did.” Dawes fired back, lowering his own weapon and facing the battered soldier. Maybe he’d forgotten that Cody had been five when he’d lost them, he barely remembered them, or their home, and what he did was hardly enough to answer anyone’s yearning questions.
“He’s your family, when this is all over and done and you put down the gun for good, he can either be the person you rely on, the person you wish you could but can’t cause you never tried to make something there.” The Spartan lectured. Cody wanted to snap, he knew what family was, and he knew what it was like to lose it.
“We need to focus on the mission, we’re up against serious opposition.” He just wanted to change the topic, direct it to anything but the matter at hand. But in his experience, the newer breed, and the large majority of humans had a hard time letting things go. Hammering out the rest of the rifle’s ammo, B042 yanked out the depleted magazine and turned to put the rifle back on the rack.
“Cody,” He froze, Stallion almost always referred to him simply as ‘One’, in fact he didn’t think Dawes had ever said his name. B042 turned his head to look back at his subordinate. “How many threes do you think get this chance? To see the family they lost again? To meet their brother?”
Too many.
“Cody, that was different. You know that.” Dawes had read him like a book. The fatherly Spartan’s voice changed from simply cordial, to concerned, the friendly smile replace by a serious expression. He knew about what happened on the Corbulo’s Last, about EPHIALTES, of course he did, he’d been there too. Cody supposed the magnitude of his failure there made it difficult to remember the smaller details.
“You have a chance that your brothers and sisters didn’t, don’t waste that. For both your sakes, and theirs.” Dawes urged him, almost pleading. Cody stood there for a moment, mind filling with guilt. What would Detrick have told him to do? Or Dan? Marcella would’ve cursed him out for days on end, that much he knew given how often she spoke of her brothers. And what about Jamison?
He’d have pushed him harder than Dawes, he’d have made the two of them talk for days on end until he was satisfied. Stupidly pushy as he always was.
“Once this is over I’ll,” He paused, wondering if he really could do what was being asked of him, and why he even should. “I’ll talk to him.”
“That’s all I ask of ya One.” Dawes smile returned as he gave Cody a nod, and turned back to the range. B042 returned the rifle and discarded the magazine, and wordlessly left Dawes alone on the range, more weighing on his mind now than before.
He needed to ensure they made it through this, all of them.
[[User:Spartan-D042]] screw this sig stuff 10:24, July 28, 2018 (UTC)
===22: Common Goals===
{{Covenant Time Stamp|0928 Hours, August 28th, 2558
UNSC ''Caspian'', New Syracuse orbit}}
As the dropship slowly maneuvered into one of the human warship's starboard hangar bays, Fleet Master Felo 'Ranak stood up and crossed the near-empty troop compartment, clenching and unclenching his fists. It was a simple trick he had learned long ago to stave off anxiety prior to battle, though this would be an engagement of a different sort.
"Setting down now," the dropship pilot's voice sounded over the interior speakers. "They are waiting to receive us."
Felo stood up a little straighter, and beckoned for his two compatriots to join him by the bay doors before they opened. The first was Fol 'Taram, a tall, broud-shouldered General a few years his junior. With his crested helmet and ornate body armour, emblazoned with the symbol of the Swords of Sanghelios, it would have been easy to mistake him for the more plainly garbed Felo's superior in rank. In his wake came a young, skinny warrior in a patchy green harness named Rora 'Marak. He bowed his head respectfully before the Fleet Master before moving to his right.
"You seem nervous, brother," Fol murmured, standing at Felo's side. "I thought you would be used to diplomacy by now."
Felo raised his head. "Of course I am, General. We are about to find out how much this human leader despises us."
Despite his jovial tone, Felo was serious. It was still too soon after the war for grievances to have been forgotten, especially among those in the military. He had been given nothing but the name and rank of his counterpart in the UNSC's attack force - Admiral Lin Zhi - but the last five years had taught him that a cold reception was the best most humans would give his kind.
"We are allies now," said Fol. "They may not like us, but I do not expect betrayal."
Rora snorted. "I do."
Fol glared at Rora, but Felo raised an arm to placate him. "Our young Commander is simply being wary, General. Come, we have preparations to make."
The Phantom's bay doors slid open, light flooding the dimly-lit troop bay as the three Sangheili stepped out onto a raised boarding ramp. Felo took the lead, catching sight of a tall, thickset male human in an officer's uniform at the other side, flanked by a pair of armoured bodyguards. ''They are just a formality.''
Stopping a few metres away from the officer, Felo crossed his arms behind his back and spoke. "I am Fleet Master Felo 'Ranak of the Swords of Sanghelios, here to meet with Admiral Zhi."
The man before him nodded and raised one of his arms to the side of his head in what Felo recognised as a human salute. "I am Captain Jonathan Ngirandi. Please follow me, the Admiral is waiting."
It was a warmer greeting than Felo expected. Motioning for Fol and Rora to accompany him, the Sangheili set off after Ngirandi at a steady pace through the ship's corridors, ignoring stares from passing crewmen and the occasional whispered comment about their presence. To most, the alliance with the Swords of Sanghelios was a very distant thing, especially for those aboard military vessels or safely nestled in the UEG's Inner Colonies. In any case, they were never challenged as they slowly ascended from the hangar deck to what Felo assumed was some kind of officer's quarters further up the ship.
"Here we are," Ngirandi halted by a large door, and placed his palm on a nearby scanner. The device lit up, flashed green, and the entrance slowly slid open.
"You take great precautions," Felo spoke for the first time since leaving the hangar. "Are you worried about spies?"
The Captain smiled politely. "Aren't you?"
Sure enough, with a fleet deployment this large and tens of thousands of people involved, it would be more surprising if there weren't any spies working for the Imperium of Clarity among them. Likewise, Felo knew that the Swords had already dispatched their own agents into enemy territory to gather information, though previous attempts to place agents anywhere close to Toru 'Mahkan himself had ended in failure. Ngirandi stepped aside, and allowed the Sangheili to enter the meeting room. Inside was a long table lined with chairs, though none would seat Felo or his comrades. At the other side, two UNSC officers stood up.
"Fleet Master Ranak," spoke a female in a white dress uniform. "Thank you for coming to see us. I'm Admiral Lin Zhi."
Felo and his subordinates bowed, though he could feel the hesitation from Rora and Fol. "An honour to meet you."
Neither Zhi nor her companion, a grey-haired man with a prominent scar under his left eye, chose to sit around the table. Instead, the Admiral stood opposite Felo and activated its central holotank, bringing up the rust-coloured planet of Montak. Dozens of tiny lights blinked across the surface.
"This is Montak," Zhi tapped a datapad, and several scrolling readouts appeared before them. "Population's a little over a thousand, though they're just workers at corporate mining installations. As I'm sure you're aware, less than a week ago two ships working as part of a joint UNSC-Swords of Sanghelios patrol group responded to news of a communications blackout from the planet. It's not too uncommon this far out on the frontier, but within hours of their arrival in-system, both ships vanished. While we initially expected pirate involvement, we soon discovered that this was not the case."
Felo nodded. "I knew Shipmaster Goras. He could not have been killed by simple pirates."
"Do you know much about the Imperium of Clarity, Fleet Master?" the Admiral asked.
"Only that it exists."
"A report I've given states that the Swords of Sanghelios has attempted to make contact with the Imperium."
Feeling like he was being accused of something, Felo chose to respond humorously. "Perhaps. Unfortunately, I am not aware of everything going on within our alliance. Diplomacy is a talent I have only had the chance to hone very recently."
Catching a look from her colleague, Zhi backed down. "In any case, a prowler sent to monitor the Montak system detected a significant military presence; more than most former Covenant groups we have encountered. This was an invasion."
"Indeed. An attack on any colony, no matter how small, demands retribution. That is why we are here."
Zhi raised an eyebrow. "For our colony?"
"Of course. The Arbiter might have sent me to avenge our fallen brothers, but I believe in protecting our allies. Surely the UNSC would react similarly if this had occurred over a Sangheili world?"
"I'm certain that they would."
Her words hung in the air for a few seconds as Felo met her steely gaze. The Fleet Master eventually gave a hum of approval before waving for his subordinates to approach. Rora and Fol had remained silent for the meeting so far, but he could sense their unease.
"I feel that we have skipped introductions, Admiral," he gestured to the pair behind him in turn. "This is Special Operations Commander Rora 'Marak, and General Fol 'Taram. They are fine warriors and superb field commanders."
Felo knew that human leaders rarely took to the field; their commanders directed battles from afar and coordinated troop movements, leaving the fighting to lower-ranking officers and standard infantry for the most part. Such a thing was unthinkable in Sangheili culture, and like many others, Felo had once scorned their kind for this supposed cowardice. Recent years had broadened his perspective on such things, forcing him to grudgingly accept that pragmatism heavily outweighed honour and glory when it came to war. Nonetheless, he could not deny the slight feeling of satisfaction he gained by introducing his own officers as hardened warriors to the less capable human leaders. For her part, Zhi merely nodded politely at the pair of them before allowing her own subordinate to introduce himself.
"I'm Rear Admiral John Hawkins," the man snapped a quick salute. "I'm acting as Admiral Zhi's second in command for this campaign, in addition to leading our second battlegroup. It's a pleasure to meet you all."
While his tone remained neutral, Hawkins spoke with a smile, and his posture was slightly less rigid than Zhi's. Felo guessed that he had likely been chosen to offset any of the Admiral's weaknesses when it came to commanding a fleet; few leaders excelled at every aspect of command, and required competent allies to ensure that everything ran smoothly. General 'Taram stepped up to the table with a glance towards Felo. He gave a subtle nod, allowing him to speak.
"Forgive me if I speak out of place, but might I ask of your own experience in combat? I am no fleet officer, and command warriors, not ships, but I would like to know that the sky above is safe while I fight on the ground."
While he had tried to word it politely, Fol was clearly questioning their competency. Zhi placed both hands on the table, leading forward to address the Sangheili leader.
"To date, General, I have served on nineteen full campaigns and fought in forty-three battles, most against the Covenant. During the war, I personally destroyed sixteen enemy ships - most of a larger tonnage than my own - and have ordered the destruction of many more. I know that many of your kind hold our officers in low regard for not marching into battle ourselves, but believe me, we still earn our positions."
To Felo's surprise, Fol had almost physically recoiled in the face of Zhi's icy words. Perhaps, he realised, the General had been reminded of his own legendarily sharp-tongued mother by this human officer; Felo had met the woman in his friend's keep, and would sooner have refought any of his worst battles than fell on her bad side.
Fol 'Taram bowed once again, this time without any hesitation. "My apologies for causing any offence, Admiral."
"None taken," said Zhi as satisfaction flickered across her face. "Now, do we have any more questions, or shall we resume the briefing for our counter attack?"
"Are there Spartans in your fleet?" Rora 'Marak asked suddenly.
"I believe so, though I don't have an exact count. Why?"
"I was merely curious about them."
While there were few Sangheili who did not wonder about these strange human warriors, Felo knew of Rora's own dark past with one in particular. The moniker of 'Demon' had been hard to abandon after the war's end, particularly after so many tales of these terrifying creatures had spread through the military's ranks. The Fleet Master himself had survived more than one encounter, and bore prominent scars across one side of his face from a rather humiliating defeat. He had long since let any desire for vengeance pass from him, though he knew that young Rora wanted nothing more than to kill one Spartan in particular. Thankfully, Zhi did not press the issue, and returned to their tactical readout of Montak.
"As I was saying, the Imperium has occupied anything resembling a settlement on the planet and has spent the last few days constructing fortifications to repel any incoming assaults. From our latest scan of the system, they have also moved a sizeable fleet into Montak's orbit, and have spread smaller battlegroups throughout the system."
"It is unlikely that they will be able to cover more than a continent with anti-ship weaponry in such a short period," Felo pointed towards the flashing dots across the map. "Should we land troops on Montak's deserted side, we should be able to move in against Imperial forces around these mining complexes."
Zhi smiled. "My thoughts exactly. While our scans are nearly a day old, we were able to identify a rapidly-growing array of Type-27 and Type-38 artillery emplacements, in addition to a sizeable military camp and prefabricated command centre."
"What of the civilians?" Felo asked, genuinely sincere. "Their safety is important."
Rear Admiral Hawkins spoke up. "We're hoping to insert a group of special forces personnel into where we believe the workers are situated. If our ground forces can keep the enemy distracted, then we should be able to evacuate them safely."
"A dangerous plan. Will this be a mission for your Spartans?"
"It's likely, though we would welcome your own infiltrators for the mission."
"We can manage that. Rora?"
The green-armoured SpecOps Commander approached as Hawkins brought up a readout of the sprawling mining complex, situated on Montak's southern hemisphere. His orange eyes roved over blueprints and tactical information, and after scrolling through several dozen images, he turned to face Felo.
"With air cover and a sufficient distraction, my Shadows could take this facility."
"Shadows?" asked Zhi. Rora answered before Felo could speak.
"The Shadows of Retribution. Our Arbiter's covert warriors. My men."
Rora failed to elaborate further, but Zhi got the point. While Arbiter Thel 'Vadam had approved the creation of such a group to strike at the Swords of Sanghelios' foes in secret, Felo 'Ranak had been in charge of organising a force of talented warriors from across their colony worlds. In spite of his age, Rora had proven his loyalty and talent many times over.
Felo placed a hand on Rora's pauldron as a friendly gesture. "If Commander 'Marak says he can take it, then I believe him. Once our assault begins, the Shadows will prove their worth."
"There's still the matter of the assault itself," Hawkins said, returning the display to that of Montak itself. "We need to come up with a strategy for retaking Montak that makes the best use of both of our fleets."
"And one that ends the battle as quickly as possible," Zhi folded her arms. "We've drawn up some preliminary plans, including approach vectors and contingencies in case of defeat, but the main reason we're meeting today is to hear your ideas, Fleet Master."
The holographic readout expanded, encompassing most of the table as it displayed not only Montak itself, but the entirety of the system. With only a few slipspace approach vectors once they departed from New Syracuse and signs indicating the last known location of Imperial forces, their fleets would have to have excellent coordination to ensure that everyone arrived without incident. Peering over the display, Felo pointed towards the planet's moons.
"Allow my ships to arrive first, as a vanguard. Once we arrive, we will gauge the enemy's strength against our own, then advance towards Montak itself."
Zhi seemed skeptical. "Think you'll have the firepower to outlast whatever's going to be waiting for us?"
"Enough to stand on even ground with most fleets, for a time. Once your own fleet arrives, fire upon our foe at range and use the planet itself to cover your advance."
"Assuming that its rotation doesn't put us facing the anti-aircraft guns when we arrive."
Felo hummed, having not taken that possibility into account. "Should that occur, we may simply be able to wait until opportunity arrives. My ships have supplies enough for at least two of your monthly cycles."
"We don't want a siege, Fleet Master, we want a decisive victory. If the fighting over Montak lasts too long, then the Imperium may dispatch its entire armada to destroy us. We need to think of the civilians, too."
"You make a fair point," the Fleet Master sighed. "Though I feel that our superiors do not seem to be taking the Imperium of Clarity as a serious threat."
"What do you mean?"
"My own fleet is strong, yes, but it pales in comparison to what the Covenant used to wield. From what I have seen of your own, it too is powerful, but does not field your best."
Felo stopped suddenly, realising that he might have been belittling Zhi and her troops. Even Hawkins looked nervously towards the Admiral, who merely closed her eyes for a second as Felo stopped. Instead of snapping at him or offering a cuttting retort, she simply smiled tiredly at Felo.
"I agree completely. Between you and me, the Unified Earth Government refuses to even declare war on the Imperium."
"Admiral!" Hawkins sounded worried. "That's confidential-"
"Is it, Hawkins? If the UEG had declared war, you wouldn't be looking at a force like this. We'd have three times the ships and men, with the ''Infinity'' to lead us. Not me. Is that what you were expecting, Fleet Master?"
Felo chuckled. "I must admit, that is what I was expecting. Though I have not seen it with my own eyes, that vessel is said to be a fearsome sight."
"It is," Zhi admitted. "And I'd be a lot happier if we had her, but I'm not about to complain about our situation here. We'll work with what we have and win."
"Spoken like a true warrior," Felo said warmly. Fol and Rora both grunted in acknowledgement, which seemed to flatter the Admiral as she moved back to the topic at hand.
"So, we send your fleet in first, then back you up from afar? Will your ships be entirely focused on Montak?"
"Most will, though I will keep some in reserve to provide support and defend our flanks. If there are more Imperial forces throughout the system, then we will let them come to us."
"Makes sense. They're likely expecting a full invasion of the system itself, not a quick attack designed to retake Montak."
"Indeed," Felo waved a hand towards the asteroid-laden expanse that separated Montak and its distant sun. "Though should they choose to launch a counter-attack, we will have to adapt quickly to intercept them."
"Hence your reserve force." Zhi turned to her colleague. "Rear Admiral, I want half of your battlegroup to hold back until called for when we arrive as well. If the Imperium intends to jump in a fresh fleet once we've begun our assault, then we'll need fresh ships ready for them."
The officer saluted once more. "Yes ma'am."
With that, Zhi tapped a button and the display above the table changed once more, this time depicting the assembled Sixth Fleet, sitting in orbit above New Syracuse alongside Felo Ranak's assemblage of warships. Despite her misgivings about its power, there were few things she found more impressive than the sight of massed starships. With this they would go to war.
"Thank you, Fleet Master," now it was her turn to salute Felo. "When will your ships be ready to depart?"
"They will be ready as soon as we return, though I will await your command before leaving the system."
"Good. If all goes well, we'll have Montak back in our hands within a day."
"We have the strength of our ships and the skill of our men," Felo recited an old Sangheili war mantra. "We will win."
"I hope so, Fleet Master," Zhi sighed. "Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to make preparations for our own launch."
Felo and his entourage made for the exit, where Captain Ngirandi had stood in silence, watching the proceedings. After some trepidation, Felo now felt a lot more confident about working with this human. He could tell that Zhi could never truly like him, having warred against his kind for so long, but she would trust him in battle. For a warrior, that was what truly counted. Felo stopped as he reached the doorway, one hand hovering over the access panel, and turned back to Zhi and Hawkins.
"We face similar problems, Admiral. Just as your government refuses to commit to war, mine is too busy fighting for control of our homeworld. Were it not for the Arbiter's willingness to cooperate with your people and my own urging to assist after the attack, we may have ignored this matter entirely."
Back across the table, Admiral Zhi ran a hand through her dark hair. "Why did you want to help us?"
"For a better galaxy, Admiral. That is all."
{{B001 Sig V3}}
{{Covenant Time Stamp| 1425 Hours, August 27th, 2558
Low Orbit of Frendhal, Yain System}}
Vol sat in his command chair on the bridge of the CCS-Class Battlecruiser Unyielding Truth. It was his ship for the entirety of the Human-Covenant War and saw countless battles over it’s span. Which meant the crew were experienced veterans and loyal to a fault. This made Vol confident in his crew's ability to faithfully serve the Imperium which will allow the Covenant to return to holy tranquility like it was before the Human-Covenant War. He prayed to the Forerunners to give him strength and victory in this coming war for he still kept the old ways. He no longer beloved in the Great Journey. But, he and most of his crew still believed the Forerunners to be gods.
He found the fact that the Imperium of Clarity did for the most part not still believe in the Forerunners distasteful. But, he understood why their faith was weak and why he must make his brother’s believe in the gods once more. Maybe, then there could be unity among the former Covenant. But, he would have to work with the Imperium to achieve the goals as Jul ‘Mdama was to busy squandering the faith and resources of the former Covenant on failed political power plays against Thel ‘Vadam the Arbiter.
His thoughts lingered on Arbiter… Thel ‘Vadam may claim to be the Arbiter. But, his relationship with the humans almost seemed to be one of a master and slave. With the humans rescuing Thel’ Vadam from his enemies and leaving him in their debt. If anything they were playing the Sangheili off each other like fools. He did not join either of them for just that reason. He then stepped out of his chair and turned to his brother Drol.
“Brother, ready my Phantom. I shall go to the surface and receive my orders from Fleet Master Kan ‘Larom. You stay here and continue the battle preparations.” Vol said as he pulled on a side cape made of fur.
“As you wish brother.” Drol said with a bow of his head.
Vol then turned as he began walking towards the door where he was joined by two Sangheili Honor Guards who had rescued him from a group of Brutes during the fall of High Charity. They escorted him down to his personal Phantom which then took off from Unyielding Truth and flew to the surface passing the other two ships under his command, two SDV-Class Corvettes named Faithful Custodian, and Faithful Watcher.
[[User:The.Brick.Battle|Maine Nationalist ]] ([[User talk:The.Brick.Battle|talk]]) 23:56, July 28, 2018 (UTC)
{{UNSC Time Stamp| Morning of August 28th, 2558
UNSC ''Bushido'', Bridge of the Bushido}}
The ''Marathon''-class cruiser had just come out of slipspace after being called back to the fleet from a patrol. It's crew preparing to link up with the rest of the fleet. On the bridge stood its captain, a man in his late forties named Zachary Amand. Zachary rubbed his freshly shaved chin as he watched his ship moves towards the rest of the fleet. "Takashi?" He asked with a low, middle eastern accent.
The console next to him flashed to life and revealed the ship's A.I. A bright blue Samurai warrior who was skinny, his two katanas hung off his belt as he turned to face the captain. "Yes, Amand?" he asked with a heavy Asian accent. The Captain didn't bother to face him as he kept his focus on the planet.
"They know we are coming correct?" The captain asked him. as Takashi took a second to respond to his question.
"Yes, captain," Takashi responded as Amand let a smile form on his face he finally looked down to his A.I. companion. "Good, what about the Spartans onboard? What are they doing?"
"Preparing their armor and equipment," Takashi told the captain again. "Shall I alert the ship we have arrived at New Syracuse?" Amand gave a slight nod of approval as Takashi, vanished and came onto the PA system, his voice echoing throughout the ship.
"All hands be advised, we have arrived at New Syracuse." Takashi announced.
The four Spartans that were in the ships Spartan bay looked up once that familiar voice came on. Kelsey Shinn, the leader of the three, ran a hand through her hair. "Well ladies, you heard the samurai - we've arrived," she said with an English accent. "How's your equipment check coming along?"
Ashton DeWicky, the heavy specialist of the group, was focusing on cleaning his M739 SAW, he didn't respond to her but instead gave a thumbs up as he was finishing up on cleaning the barrel.
Moving onto cleaning the insides of the gun.
Blake Karmyn, the sniper of the team, was softly singing to himself in German until he stopped and looked at her. "Already checked my armor and weapons, just now starting to calibrate my scope." He said with a heavy German accent, going back to focusing on his current task at hand.
Amanda Calhoun was checking her medical equipment she would carry with her into battle. Everything seemed to have been there and she moved onto her armor. "Medical equipment is all there, haven't checked my armor out though yet." She responded in a happy tone.
"Isn't that the first thing you should usually do?" Ashton asked with a Boston accent, Amanda quickly responded back. "Yeah, but ever since your little incident last mission, I had to go resupply and wanted to be sure I did. How's the leg by the way?" She asked, looking down at his left leg, which he immediately rubbed after her comment.
"It's fine," he mumbled a bit embarrassed about the situation, but Amanda heard his comment and smirked as she began to check her armor.
[[User:LowBudgetKnight|LowBudgetKnight]] ([[User talk:LowBudgetKnight|talk]]) 13:38, July 31, 2018 (UTC)
===25: Doubts===
{{Covenant Time Stamp|0915 Hours, August 28th, 2558
CCS-class battlecruiser ''Soul Ascension'', On approach to Frendhal}}
The tremors came again, as they always did when Stray gave his mind time to wander.
It was unnecessary. He had troops to organize, battle plans to concoct. When he wasn’t working there were tactics and blueprints to study. His weapons and armor always needed cleaning. Politics—developments on the frontier, within the vast fragments of the shattered Covenant, even goings-on back in human space—needed to be read up on and factored into his schemes. Even after all that receded, he had stacks of history to read and reflect on.
But he was exhausted. He let his brain wander as he slouched down on the bed in the Soul Ascension’s shipmaster quarters—not meant for humans, several times larger than any other bed he’d ever slept in. And as he stared idly down at his own prosthetic hand, he noticed its metal fingers trembling.
A gasp clawed its way out of his throat. It was wrong, all wrong. What was he doing here? Here, in the heart of a Covenant ship? He needed to get out of here, escape, kill everything between him and the nearest escape pod.
''What am I doing?''
His skin was clammy. His tongue was dry. Wrong, this was wrong.
''What am I doing?''
Corpses flashed in front of his eyes. Cities on fire. Ships exploding in deep space. Humans cut down by Covenant warriors. Ship’s crew gasping for air as their compartments decompressed. Covenant victories. Human defeats. His plans, his ambitions, his orders.
''What am I doing?''
Zoey, staring up at him from amidst the flames, too stunned even for tears. ''Why are you doing this to us?''
Restraints pinning his mangled body to an operating table. Covenant torturers sinking their blades into his flesh. Diana staring down at him with those cold yellow eyes as she drove a probe into his skull. This is all for your own good. I’ve done this all for you.
Cassandra pinned beneath him on a filthy bed, eyes full of disgust and hate as he… took what he wanted. What was rightfully his.
''How could you do that to her?'' A young dark-haired child named Simon-G294 demanded, staring at him with loathing. ''Why are you doing this? How could you betray them? How could you betray me?''
''He doesn’t know anything,'' Diana murmured in his mind.
Stray looked at the child with disgust. “You don’t know anything. Shut up and let me work.”
The child—beaten and powerless—slunk back into the shadows where he belonged. Strength coursed back into Stray. The will to take what was his. To do what needed to be done. His nausea receded and the tremors stopped.
A sigh escaped Stray’s lips. He lowered the syringe he’d injected into his neck. He was alone in his chambers.
Almost alone.
“It’s getting worse.” Diana’s avatar materialized beside him. Human-sized, and clad in a simple black dress instead of her usual armor. It was oddly comforting of her. “Are you alright?”
Stray tossed the empty syringe—the smoother replicant he used to keep himself in check—onto the bed and gave Diana one of his customary smirks. “Yeah, don’t worry about me. I’ve got it under control.”
“Obviously.” She eyed him dubiously. “Do whatever you want in here. Just make sure you stay in control out there.”
“Of course. Wouldn’t want to give the troops the wrong idea. That would be bad for morale.”
“This is serious.” The concern faded from her voice. “If you have one of these little episodes during—”
“I have it under control,” Stray repeated firmly. “It won’t affect our plans.”
“Good to hear.” Diana’s avatar was already fading away. “Better get ready. Shinsu will want everything ready to move within the hour. I’ve already got the legion mobilizing, but you need to be the one giving these orders, not me.”
“Of course.” Stray stood up from the bed and seized his helmet from where it lay on the sheets. He passed his organic hand over his brow and stared at the sweat droplets beading on his gauntlet. Holding onto power was all a matter of wearing a mask. Holding up the lie of self-control even when his thoughts churned in turmoil. Sometimes he wondered how Shinsu did it. “I have it all under control.”
Shinsu ‘Refum cast his gaze over the fleet assembled above Frendhal and affected his usual demeanor of calm disinterest. The chattering on the Soul Ascension’s bridge, once filled with excited discussion of the Imperium of Clarity’s power, faded away into awkward silence. No doubt the bridge crew noticed his aloof disdain and did not wish to embarrass themselves further. Shinsu let his mandibles curl into an amused smile.
Inside, however, he was fuming.
Once again, for all his careful schemes and network of loyal followers, he found himself standing on the outside looking in at another warrior’s power. After everything he had done to marshal his own power in the shadow of Jul ‘Mdama’s dying Covenant he now came before a great warrior like Toru ‘Makhan as a lowly supplicant. Shinsu’s had dedicated his life to mastering the arts of war and now he stared out at the largest fleet he had ever seen.
A fleet that he himself was only marginally part of.
Envy, the old sayings went, was the solace of the weak-minded. The wise warrior saw a challenge and rose to meet it with gladness in his heart. He knew his place and gave glory to his lord and to his family.
The sages who made that drivel up, Shinsu decided, had all been lords of wealthy, powerful families and grown tired of upstarts questioning why they should always be at the top. Powerful lords like the Vadams had ruled Sanghelios since before the Covenant while families like his own served them in obscurity until they were eaten up and cast aside.
He had known of Toru ‘Makhan since even before Jul ‘Mdama dispatched him on this humiliating fool’s errand. Any one of the powerful warlords who carved out chunks of the old Covenant Empire had the attention of an ambitious upstart like Shinsu, and ‘Makhan was one of the most powerful. He and his cohort—nearly all veterans of the old Covenant fleets—reminded Shinsu the disadvantage he suffered by having not been born in time to fight in the Covenant’s last great war himself.
No matter where he turned, power loomed above him. Always just beyond his reach, tantalizing and insurmountable. That same power that condemned families like his to die in the squabbles of the mighty now writhed and tore the Sangheili apart piece by bloody piece. For all his humble origins, Toru ‘Makhan was just as much a vestige of the old Covenant order as Thel ‘Vadam or Jul ‘Mdama. And now Shinsu ‘Refum came to his mighty doorstep aboard a battered raiding ship crewed by the dregs of the Covenant and led by a scheming, treacherous human.
A human he himself had helped put in power.
The galaxy worked in mysterious ways. Perhaps Shinsu was wrong to cast his lot in with Jul ‘Mdama. But the Covenant’s time had passed and Shinsu knew this Imperium of Clarity was but another fragment of the old order gasping for life in the hurricanes of change shaking this galaxy. He himself had survived and advanced his own ambitions in the shadow of such great powers. His future depended on those powers tearing each other apart for just a while longer.
The bridge doors slid open and Stray strode in across the deck. Normally the arrival of a legion commander merited a full display of honors from the bridge crew, but the Kru’desh officers only inclined their heads slightly before continuing on with their work. Like their human commander, these warriors held little by ceremony.
“I see you’ve really made yourself at home,” Stray said, moving to stand beside Shinsu in the center of the bridge. He folded his arms and nodded at Shinsu’s guard squad. His hand-picked warriors had scattered across the bridge, standing guard beside the door. “If I didn’t know any better I’d say you were trying to throw your weight around my ship.”
“They are simply doing their duty,” Shinsu replied. “Your legion’s recruiting standards are somewhat lax. It makes you more susceptible to infiltration. I have no intention of being assassinated by one of your mercenaries.”
“Security’s tighter than you think. Plus, I’ve seen you fight. You can take care of yourself just fine.
Shinsu glanced down at the armored human. “If their presence bothers you so much, I can have them engage their active camouflage units.”
“Or you could have them down in the hangar bays getting ready to deploy with everyone else.” Stray called up several screens showing the status of Kru’desh battle preparations. “I’m looking forward to seeing if the stories about your spec ops teams are true.”
“Much as I fear disappointing you,” Shinsu informed him. “They fight at my command only. We have different priorities, and right now my concern is your legion’s ability to perform in combat.”
“Yeah, don’t think I didn’t notice you reading up on our inventory logs. Like I said before, we know how to fight.”
“You know how to ''raid'',” Shinsu corrected. “A protracted campaign is somewhat different. Your inventory is hardly fit to take on the full might of the UNSC and the Swords of Sanghelios.”
“But you already knew that before you decided we were the best foot Jul ‘Mdama had to put forward.” Stray jabbed a finger at Frendhal. “Good thing we’ve got a whole planet to borrow from down there. I’ve already got a few teams headed out to see what we can get back to the ships.”
The human had initiative, if little else. Shinsu sometimes questioned how reliable of a tool Stray really was. He was too impulsive to form plans around. But that was useful too, in its own way. “We have been here less than a day and you are already trying to steal from our new allies.”
“Hey, if they want us to fight their battles then they better be ready to share some of the goods. Besides, we still don’t even know if these guys are even interested in being allies. Though I’m betting you’ve got a nice speech rehearsed for getting Toru on our side.”
“It would be imprudent to request an audience with Admiral ‘Makhan directly, especially given the Covenant’s less than inspiring fortunes in our own war. I will have opportunities enough to get close to this new warlord in the battle to come.” Shinsu opened a small holoterminal and called up dossiers on several Imperium of Clarity shipmasters. “No, we start our operation from a slightly less ambitious place.”
He flicked through several dossiers before settling on one admiral in particular. “I intend to have a word with Lora 'Deris. His temperament will suit our needs quite nicely.”
He had spent too long in the shadows. It was time for Shinsu 'Refum to set his own plans into motion.
{{Actene Sig}}
===26: Setting Off===
{{Covenant Time Stamp|1138 Hours, August 28th, 2558
''DDS''-class carrier ''Blissful Solitude'', Frendhal Orbit}}
With an almighty crash, the fifth holo-drone dissipated as its emitter cracked and dropped to the floor. Field Marshal Orro 'Hendai eased out of his fighting stance and admired his twin-pronged wooden training blade, now slightly marred by burns and chipped from overuse. He had been warned against this practice, but it was one that he enjoyed immensely. After all, a fight was not a fight if you did not kill your opponent, and he would not force those from his own crew into a sparring match.
"Hunya!" Orro called, arching his neck towards the door.
Almost immediately, it chimed open, and a diminutive Unggoy in dark robes raced into the wood-panelled chamber. Compared to the barren, metal hallways of the ship outside, Orro 'Hendai's personal training room looked more akin to the hall of a Sangheili keep, where young warriors would learn to fend for themselves in combat. Hunya stopped a few feet away from his master, and bowed.
"Yes, Field Marshal?" he squeaked.
"Send word down below. I require more drones, and an increase in their combat algorithms. These were no challenge."
The Unggoy glanced towards the ruined emitters scattered across the room. "Of course. A message from one of your peers in High Command has also arrived."
"Oh?" Orro crossed his arms. "From who?"
"Fleet Master Nor 'Hudon. He wished to meet with your urgently, and was heading here in a transport ship now."
"And when was this?"
"Not too long ago, master 'Hendai. Around the time you had destroyed the third drone, I believe."
Orro considered scolding Hunya for not letting him know immediately, but he had made it very clear to his crew that he was not to be disturbed while exercising unless they were under attack or contacted by Toru 'Makhan himself. Nonetheless, he would have preferred some warning before meeting with Nor 'Hudon. The young Fleet Master was popular with the troops, but carried himself in a manner that irked the older warrior. Clad in only his training gear instead of his armour, he would look rather unimpressive when faced with Nor and his ever-present retinue of preening underlings.
"So be it. Hunya, deliver my message. I will prepare myself for-"
The door behind Hunya opened once more, and an elegant figure in silver entered the room unannounced. Had Orro not recognised the Sangheili standing before him, he might have leapt for his sword, which sat by a small shrine nearby. With a wave of his hand, Orro dismissed his Unggoy servant, who scurried out of a side door and left the two alone.
"Field Marshal," Nor 'Hudon sank into a low bow, spreading his arms in an overly-elaborate gesture. "I apologise for my sudden arrival, but time is short and I was told that you could not receive me in a more formal manner."
"You came alone?" Orro craned his neck to look past Nor, and saw that he had apparently brought no one with him. "That is surprising."
"As I said, time is short. Have you received any reports from Fleet Master 'Larom?"
"Not recently, though I have spent this time assembling my own warriors. Is there trouble?"
"Of a sort. Itinerant mercenaries have little respect for the land they briefly inhabit, and 'Larom has already been started to keep some groups in line by force. Have you heard of the Kru'desh Legion?"
Orro growled at the mention of their name. "I know them well. They are savages working for Jul 'Mdama."
"Indeed," Nor's mandibles shook slightly in disgust; few among the Imperium respected the warlord or those who served him. "Though he dispatched this Legion to aid us, they have been causing trouble with the locals."
The Field Marshal's face grew dark. "Pillaging?"
"Not quite. While the local keeps were given orders to supply us with what they could, the Kru'desh have been taking what they want. There have been no reports of violence yet, though 'Larom believes that they cannot remain on Frendhal."
Orro crossed the room, and took the hilt of his sword from the shrine table. Catching a wary look from Nor, he affixed it to his belt and crossed his arms.
"So when are we to depart?" he asked. "My warriors are ready and waiting, and it has been far too long since I have had an enjoyable fight."
"That is why I am here, Field Marshal. You are to lead the fleet."
This surprised the elder Sangheili, though he let none of it show. "What of Toru 'Makhan?"
"The Imperial Admiral is delayed, and sent word that we were to depart as soon as you received these orders."
While the Imperial Armada had made a big show of leaving Iradu, Toru 'Makhan himself had never left the star system. Shortly before the ''Watchful Custodian'' was due to jump to slipspace, he had received an important message from Councillor Rak Ultin that had prompted his quick departure back to the Imperial Palace. While he had left the business of assembling their armies to Orro, Nor, Zetal and Kan - Lora 'Deris had been sent elsewhere and Hedan Koti had set off to organise supply lines and reinforcements from Unggoy worlds - Orro had assumed that he would want to lead the Imperium into battle personally.
"That is a surprise," Orro said at last. "Why send it through you?"
"Misdirection. Our leader fears that enemy spies may already be among us. If they believe that we will not depart until the Imperial Admiral himself is among us, then setting off now would allow us to surprise our foe. He would not even risk a long-distance message, and sent a messenger aboard a private shuttle."
"And you were to bring it to me. Clever."
"Indeed," Nor seemed rather proud of himself. "So, Field Marshal, shall we go to war?"
At this, Orro laughed. While talented in combat and an excellent diplomat, there were some things that the younger Sangheili did not understand. The beliefs of a true warrior were one of them.
"My friend," Orro 'Hendai placed a hand on Nor's shoulder. "A Sangheili is always at war."
Nor departed shortly after their meeting, travelling back alone to his own vessel, the ''Starlight''. Orro took this time to say a private prayer to the Forerunners, clean himself up, and don his own bone-white combat harness before heading to the bridge. As he stood on the observation platform, the rest of the fleet was on the move; sleek capital ships moved away from Frendhal's orbit towards the departure point, while a steady stream of troop transports and shuttlecraft departed the planet's surface and headed for their own vessels. Warships of every size and shape drifted alongside each other, some battle-scarred and older than the Imperium itself while others had not even seen their first action since leaving the forge. It was a sight that made Orro 'Hendai swell with pride.
"Field Marshal!" one of his bridge crew called up. "They're ready."
In his long life, Orro had spent years fighting across the galaxy. He had served under many masters, and lived to see a seemingly invincible empire fall. His body, adorned with scars earned over a lifetime of combat, felt invigorated as he approached the empty command podium. Across this vessel, thousands of his own warriors awaited battle as eagerly as he, ready to fight and die for the Imperium. Since he had been given a chance to serve once more for a cause, Orro had wondered if it had been a worthy one. He had not yet reached that conclusion, but as he reached for the console in front of him, the Sangheili concluded that it did not matter.
"Warriors of the Imperium!" his voice boomed across half a system, reaching the ears of hundreds of thousands. "Today we embark on a journey. This will not be one that offers you salvation, nor will it be a wasted effort. I can offer you only the hardship and carnage that battle brings, along with the honour and exhilaration of victory. Each of us fights, not only for himself, but for a higher cause! May your purposes be fulfilled in this coming battle, brothers. Now go! For Makhan! For the Imperium!"
Orro stepped back, and deactivated the console. A chorus of cheers erupted not only from those around him, but from across his vessel. Ahead of them, ships had begun to disappear, flashing out of existence into the realm of slipspace. Soon, they would arrive, and the Imperium of Clarity would see the first true battle of its expansionist campaign fought over Montak. Though even that short, entirely improvised speech had left him with a strange weariness, Orro felt his sword hand twitching in anticipation. He would see battle soon, and all would be well.
{{B001 Sig V3}}
===27: Continuation Tactics===
{{Covenant Time Stamp|1130 Hours, August 28th, 2558
''CC''-class battlecruiser ''Soul Ascension'', Frendhal Orbit}}
The Phantom drifted up and into the Soul Ascension’s hangar. With angular metal plates welded on its existing armor—a modification the Kru’desh learned from the Banished mercenaries—its engines flared to support the weight of the supply crates caught in its gravity beam. The dropship drifted down to the hangar floor and seemed to shudder with relief as it disengaged the gravity beam and let the crates slam down to the floor. Several split open, spilling plasma repeaters and energy carbines across the deck.
Tuka ‘Refum folded his arms and sighed at the mess. The warriors around him were more amused, laughing at the spill even as they hurried forward to clean it up. A gang of Kig-Yar emerged from the dropship looking pleased with themselves. Several more dropships swept into the hangar bearing similar loads.
One of Tuka’s warriors coughed quietly at his side. “This is not going to work,” Ier ‘Barun muttered.
“We can clean this mess—oh.” Tuka followed Ier’s gaze to the newest addition to his cohort, the human known as Amber. She waved her lance of warriors to help pull the crates out from under the Phantom but did not join the labor herself. The unfortunate warriors—once part of Tuka’s lance and now assigned to Amber by Stray’s command—shot him resentful looks as they shouldered the heavy crates.
“You too, human!” Tuka was not fond of raising his voice, but sometimes his command duties left him little choice. “We all work in this legion.”
Amber shot him a cold stare before grudgingly joining her warriors beneath the phantom. Tuka kept an eye on her as he and Ier hauled a crate full of plasma rifles off the deck. He wondered if Stray was punishing him for something, though he had no idea what that something could be. It wasn’t like his commander to give assignments like this. Usually discipline in the Kru’desh was handled with swift beatings and hard labor. The truly egregious offenders rarely survived long on the battlefields, where disgruntled comrades were free to administer justice of their own.
“I knew we were getting too comfortable,” Ier complained. Like Tuka and the rest of the Sangheili in their detachment he was a younger warrior, part of a new generation raised not in the shadow of the Covenant’s holy crusade against humanity but in the fires of the civil war still raging across their species. “What is the commander thinking? I thought the rumors about him and this surly breeder were—“
“Just rumors,” Tuka said firmly. “She’s one of those Spartans, the same as Stray. She has more combat experience than the rest of us put together.”
“That doesn’t mean she’s fit to lead any of us,” Ier grumbled. They passed the crate off to a gang of Unggoy quartermasters. The diminutive creatures dragged the crate over to the assembly of weapons and war machines “acquired” from Frehndal’s surface. The collection had been growing all morning. “We’ve been lucky this far and Stray hasn’t gotten us all killed. Can you say the same for this one?”
Tuka didn’t have a response for that. His warrior crèche was unique among the Kru’desh in that they were not the usual gang of criminals and would-be deserters typically condemned to the dishonor of the raiding legion. He and his peers were young, aspiring warriors barely considered adults in Sangheili society. But they were unwilling to simply throw their lives away in fruitless battles against Jul ‘Mdama’s enemies and for that they were banished to the Kru’desh. Under the old leadership this meant that even Sangheili like Tuka were cannon fodder to be thrown away on suicide missions while the real warriors fought elsewhere. Then one fateful day the legion recovered a mangled, half-dead human from an assault carrier’s wreckage and everything changed.
The gods worked in mysterious ways. Tuka had fought by Stray’s side years before when he was little more than a raw Covenant recruit. He had seen the human’s frightful abilities when Stray and another Spartan slaughtered his lance—then inexplicably spared his life. Tuka’s efforts to repay his debt to Stray brought him to the human homeworld of Earth, where their efforts to rescue the renegade’s comrade leveled an entire city. Tuka had simply followed in Stray’s wake, but he returned from that disaster with the distinction of being one of the few Covenant warriors to set foot on the human homeworld and live to tell the tale.
Such fame did wonders for his career—right up until he and his friends questioned the wrong officer and found themselves living out a prolonged death sentence in the Kru’desh.
But things changed when Stray seized power. The suicidal assaults stopped. Wily officers like Ro’nin were put in charge of battle plans and the warriors found themselves trained in unorthodox raiding tactics. They hired on Kig-Yar mercenaries, established havens and storehouses across the frontier, forged deals with formidable groups like the Banished, and suddenly became a proper fighting force.
Yes, Diana the oracle declared Stray the chosen leader. But warriors like Tuka and his crèche followed him because they unequivocally owed him their lives.
And now he ordered Tuka to hand over some of his warriors—his friends—to Amber’s command.
Tuka would never dream of questioning his commander publicly. But this development, coupled with the knowledge that he was on the same ship as Shinsu ‘Refum, had him more on edge than anything the coming battle threatened.
“Which is worse, taking orders from a human or taking orders from a female?” A new voice inquired. The Phantom’s pilot—a short, thin Sangheili in light blue armor—emerged from the parked dropship. “And a human female at that. I suppose that a lowly breeder like myself shouldn’t offer up opinions but you are being a bit unfair to your new member.”
Ier shot the pilot a distasteful look. “Mihka. I was hoping you’d stay in your cockpit.”
“I did,” Mihka said, mandibles curled in a slight smile that never seemed to leave her face. “I had to wait for you to haul all those crates away, or else I’d have to do some of the work myself.”
Mihka was a new addition to the Kru’desh, a result of Stray’s bursts of human eccentricity. When the malnourished youth was caught trying to steal a Phantom during one of the legion’s resupply runs, most warriors had expected her to be executed. Ro’nin suggested they sell her to slavers for a tidy profit. Instead, Stray inducted her into the legion and put her at the helm of the very Phantom she’d try to steal. A few warriors protested until Stray bludgeoned them into submission—his way of reminding everyone who was in charge. Mihka proved adept at handling the Phantom, silencing any further protests.
When Tuka asked Stray about it later, he simply shrugged and said she reminded him of people he used to know.
Tuka knew the feeling. He’d seen plenty of clanless peasants like Mihka starving at the roadsides on Sanghelios, abandoned and forgotten by all sides as the civil war raged on. For a time, he’d been one of those starving children.
In some ways, the mild, irreverent dropship pilot was the new face of the Kru’desh, a way for the legion to make a real difference for the people forgotten by the mighty and powerful of the galaxy in ways the rest of the Covenant never did. Tuka had said as much to Stray once. The human just snorted and quipped about not passing up good talent.
But Mihka wasn’t the only starving urchin who found a new life in the raiding legion. And Tuka hadn’t burned down any villages since he came to the Kru’desh.
“I see you put your old talents to good use,” he said aloud. “And you didn’t even get caught this time.”
“Someone may have taken a few shots at me when I snagged the crates,” Mihka admitted. “But they were just sitting out in the open, almost like they were asking me to come take them.”
“I’m sure this will endear us to the Imperium,” Ier growled.
Mihka shrugged. “I just did what the boss told me to. ‘If it’s not nailed down, go for it,’ I think that’s what he said.”
A Phantom weighed down by a “requisitioned” Wraith tank flew into the hangar and deposited its load in the slot next to them. “I guess that one wasn’t nailed down,” Tuka observed gravely.
Ier was looking elsewhere. “Officers on the deck,” he muttered. Normally the command would be shouted to bring the entire hangar to attention, but the usual military formalities were lost on the Kru’desh. Here it was meant for Tuka’s benefit alone.
Tuka followed his friend’s gaze and his hearts froze. Stray was walking along the deck, Ro’nin and Ira’kuln—head of the Kru’desh’s Kig-Yar detachment—following in his wake. And beside him, followed by his guard squad, walked a shipmaster in dark gray special operations armor.
A figure Tuka knew all too well.
Stray and Shinsu seemed to be locked in a fierce debate. The human jabbed his finger into the air, arguing in his unique mix of guttural provincial Sangheili and colorful human phrases. Shinsu passed a hand over the hangar, indicating the stolen goods. Stray shrugged at whatever was said, then turned back to consult with Ro’nin and Ira’kuln.
The assembled warriors cleared space to let the officers pass. Out of the corner of his eye, Tuka saw Amber stand a bit straighter. She kept her eyes locked on Stray, watching his every move with a curious intensity.
The procession swept past, close enough that Tuka felt the chill of his brother’s passing. Shinsu did not so much tilt his head to glance his way. For a moment, the hangar might as well have been empty as Shinsu and his warriors marched past. Tuka stared up at his brother, unmoving, unblinking. Then the moment passed and the procession marched on, leaving Tuka with the paltry band of warriors under his command.
"So that's the great Shinsu 'Refum," Mihka observed. "Not much of a family resemblance between you two. Not meaning any offense."
"It's warriors like him that keep me in the Covenant," Ier murmured with a strange degree of reverence. "If the Didact's Hand sent him, this mission has to mean something."
''You don't know him.'' Tuka bit back the words and turned away. ''Not like I do.'' All people ever saw was the cunning, dignified commander, every inch the refined noble Shinsu wanted them to see. They never saw the butcher with bloodstained hands.
He turned back to his work, but a chill hung on his body long after Stray and Shinsu left the hangar.
{{Actene Sig}}
{{Covenant Time Stamp|0943 Hours, August 28th, 2558
Phantom departing UNSC ''Caspian'', New Syracuse orbit}}
Standing rigidly in the Phantom's dark troop bay, arms clasped behind his back, Fol 'Taram could close his eyes and nearly count it sleep, weary as the effort of marshaling the warrior legions attached to the Ranak Fleet left him. As much as the Swords of Sanghelios had done to maintain its military forces, without the Covenant's greater structure a great many support roles formerly filled by San'Shyuum, Unggoy, and even Jiralhanae at one time remained vacant, doubling or tripling the workloads of many of his officers, and none more than himself. If honor demanded a General meet the enemy first for his troops, it was the least he could do to bear the brunt of the humdrum requisition orders to keep them fed and armed. Maintaining a respectful silence as Felo and Rora discussed their new human acquaintances also spared him from weighing in on the female who'd caught him overstepping himself.
But the blessing was not to last. A call echoed over the engines' whine from the cockpit. "General! A transmission from the ''Questioner'' begs your indulgence!"
Fol scrunched his eyes tighter and wished fervently for tendrils of the dark to hold him back, absolving him of fault should he fail to answer. He knew who it would be. But when no dark force emerged, Fol dutifully looked sharp and made his way forward.
The single pilot raised his head as Fol approached, the enclosed helmet of his Flight harness masking his expression, but the haste with which it returned to facing his controls belied the respect he held for rank. "It is the Kaidon of the 'Samakr, excellency. He awaits news of the summit." he reported.
"Put him through," Fol instructed, and steeled himself by grabbing the wrist of one arm in the four-fingered hand of the other.
Projectors between the pilot and empty co-pilot's seat sprang to life, igniting a thousand motes of light which coalesced into the figure of a Sangheili's head and shoulders over the instrument panel. The image was one-sided, fraying over the figure's shoulders and behind their head, telling Fol the connection had been made with a personal communicator with only a singe projector to send from. Nonetheless, the image was clear enough to identify Abzu 'Samakr by the wizened scales of his stocky neck and jowls.
"General," the old kaidon remembered a respectful incline of the head—this time—which immediately told Fol he wanted something enough to take care considering the request. The Sangheili lord had been far from his keep and lands on the homeworld for years now, but still had yet to show deference to military authorities when flying with them. Fol knew anecdotally Abzu had once served as a warrior of the Covenant, but those days were clearly long past.
Since coming aboard the ''Questioner'', he'd made demands of Fol and his officers the brazenness of which he would have put an end to at once, were they not so outlandish as to be inscrutable. If the 'Samakr kaidon hadn't come to the Swords pledging freely a source of foodstuffs ample enough to supply several fleets, Fol would have gladly shown the old eccentric to an orbital insertion pod over the next habitable planet cycles ago. But if Thel 'Vadam aspired to unite all Sangheili, especially with that victory so far from certain even on the homeworld, an ally who offered support so readily could be forgiven some level of—as the pilot had put it—indulgence.
"General," Abzu repeated as his image became sharper. "I trust your conference with the Sixth Fleet was fruitful?"
"It was." Fol stated neutrally, hesitant to discuss military meetings of the highest level remotely. "Our stratagems have been made concordant."
"Good, good. Did you find them... agreeable? To our presence, I mean."
So it began. "I... believe so. They seem gratified of our aid in a battle they will have to fight one way or another. What significance is that?"
Gaps appeared between Abzu's four mandibles, betraying an excitement which seemed to border on hunger. "None at all, General, none at all. Mere curiosity, I assure you. So—what is to be our plan of attack?"
Fol's eyelids squeezed closed in anger, and he wished again for the dark troop bay. "Kaidon. ''Surely'' you do not expect me to discuss military strategy on an unsecured—"
Abzu's four-fingered hand came into view, begging a halt to the lecture. "No, no, of course not. I considered my words poorly and misspoke. I only wish to know, are we to have the honor of meeting the enemy as the vanguard?"
That, at least, sounded half like something a proper warrior would ask. Fol was almost relieved for a straightforward question at last. "We are. The ''Questioner'' will meet its enemies without hesitation."
Abzu's mandibles curled, showing a hint of his teeth bared in feral satisfaction. "Perfect."
Fol suddenly felt he'd misstepped more gravely than with the human admiral. "Perfect?" he repeated.
"Indeed," the kaidon affirmed, "what better pretext than the honor of first contact with the enemy to invite our allies aboard for a banquet?"
"What?!" Fol nearly spat.
"Yes!" Abzu continued before Fol could find any response to such absurdity. "If we are to shed blood alongside these beings, we must first come to know them as our own, must we not? Show them we willingly share with them what is ours, and it will help allay fears they may have toward us."
"Absolutely not!" Fol snarled in protest. "I wish to see our alliance strengthen with humans as much as you do, but to invite them to peek at the inner workings of one of our strongest warships? And after so many decades of war, such an invitation would seem as mockery, to welcome them into the helioskrill's den. No, they have seen we intend to honor our alliance, and it should be sufficient assurance of our support."
Abzu's mandibles hung open as Fol spoke, only to purse into an expression of patience Fol knew from the faces of his elders growing up. He despised the look, but the old kaidon seemed quite at home with wearing it. "General, my clan have a saying for such an occasion: a warrior to whom you give honors will never be as loyal as one to whom you give a good meal. So it was with our Covenant—the Unggoy, the Kig-Yar, and especially the Jiralhanae. We thought it enough we pledged our service to the same cause, and did you ever once feel they were truly equal comrades? Let this alliance be different from the last."
''If I have to hear one Samakr proverb...'', Fol began to imagine ways to finish the thought, but thinking led him to see the proverb's grain of truth. There was a kind of sense to Abzu's reasoning, and as usual, it found a way of annoying Fol even more than his nonsense.
"I suppose it would be no great effort to organize an escort from the nearest hangar to the observation deck." he admitted. "And offering them the chance to meet the enemy with us is more befitting of equals. But I still doubt any human would accept such an offer from our kind."
Abzu nodded in satisfaction. "I will extend the invitation at once, and we will see if they possess the courage to make for worthy allies. But I am not worried. Word has reached me there are demons among their number, after all. Surely they will not pass it up if it appears a threat."
"Kaidon, I am not sure ''those'' would be the best of allies to invite—" Fol began to intercede, only for Abzu's holo-image to dissolve and fade as the transmission was cut short. He started curling his mandibles at the kaidon's rudeness, when the pilot suddenly caught his eye, helmet tilted to stare back at him surreptitiously. The pilot froze as the General looked down on him, but failed to look away.
Sighing in disgust, Fol wheeled around and stalked back to the troop bay to inform the Fleetmaster of the kaidon's intentions.
{{Covenant Time Stamp|0945 Hours, August 28th, 2558
Observation deck of the ''Questioner'', Flagship of the Ranak Fleet, New Syracuse orbit}}
Abzu 'Samakr slumped back in his cushioned seat as the visage of Fol 'Taram faded from his communicator's hologram imaging crystals. Despite the seriousness the General usually faced him with, Abzu suspected he had some degree of humor within him. If his close family had been anything like the mistresses of the 'Taram keep he'd negotiated with on Sanghelios, the poor General would've needed it to stay sane, and played the stern authority to Abzu's obstructions exceedingly well.
He waved away the attendant cradling the communication device and surveyed the observation deck of the ''Questioner'' from his seat, at the head of the grand table he had arranged to have brought onboard. The chamber was grand for a vessel's compartment, though not anything at all like the great halls of the keeps he'd visited. Its most redeeming feature was a wide viewport made for surveying the stars around New Syracuse, the arc of the planet's horizon complementing the way the window wrapped around curvature of the heavy cruiser's hull. All around, Abzu's staff of retainers and vassal were at work removing the moody purple lighting preferred by the San'Shyuum who hadn't sat in the chamber since before the Schism, and replacing it with much brighter sources to make the chamber invite guests to see one another in their company. Soon, the dyed cloths covering the table would be graced with dishes undergoing preparation in the nearby galley, which the ''Questioner''’s crew had more easily accepted when they learned they would all be welcome to partake of the more interesting delicacies the Samakr cooks had orders to supply in quantity. Already, the chamber had begun to smell of spices.
Resting a hand on the garish robes bound over his portly stomach to quell his own eager interest, Abzu waved over an elderly Sangheili majordomo overseeing the lighting team, whose sad shoulders seemed to slump deeper as he noticed the summons. His majordomo, Gesk, was in some of his last years. Such a relic should have been retired to an elder council in some dusty keep on Sanghelios, but an old wickedness the wretch had committed years ago allowed Abzu to keep him in service always a little bit longer.
The majordomo leaned in to aid his hard hearing as Abzu said, "Go up to the bridge and inform the communications officer to transmit our message to every human ship, at once. Any human willing is welcome to ride out the slipspace journey aboard with us, feasting as heroes before we are first to join battle with the enemy!"
"Very well, your excellency." Gesk croaked. "I trust the preparations are to your liking?"
"Not at all, but they will suffice." Abzu replied, and raised his voice to be sure those working nearby would overhear. "One must have fitting accoutrements for a banquet to fit for legends! I want the humans still telling stories of our generosity at their own festivals this time next year!"
Gesk winced, trying not to grasp at his ears, and with the kaidon's gesture took his leave, hobbling slowly from the chamber.
Stretching forward to grasp and drag closer a tankard of irukan beer, Abzu considered the amber contents and vowed, "By tomorrow, I shall learn how well a demon can hold their drink!"
[[User:Ahalosniper|That Damn Sniper]] 05:54, August 15, 2018 (UTC)
===29: Departure of the Fleet===
{{UNSC Time Stamp|2043 Hours, August 28th, 2558
UNSC ''Caspian'', New Syracuse Orbit}}
"You contacted the Fleet Master without notifying me?!"
Admiral Zhi stared down at the flustered face of Commander Andrei Fosse, stationed down in the UNSC's local headquarters on New Syracuse. While she had departed alongside the Sixth Fleet shortly after the meeting a few days ago, hoping to leave the insufferable man behind, he had arrived a day later aboard a private shuttle alongside a cadre of his own men and had quickly commandeered the then-understaffed ground base. While she could not deny his talent for logistics when it came to setting up supply lines between the fleet and support stations, his insufferable nature had reached even her ears.
"Watch your tone, Commander," she said calmly. "You're not the one in command here."
Fosse lowered his voice, though his face reddened. "I'm sorry, Admiral, but it was made clear before we departed Earth that any official negotiations between UNSC forces on this campaign and non-human groups, be it the Swords of Sanghelios or this Imperium of Clarity, are to be made under the direct supervision of the Naval Strategic Response Division. Diplomacy is one of my jobs here, after all."
''If I put that man in a room with a Sangheili, they'd tear his arms off.'' "I am fully aware of protocol, Commander Fosse, but I'm afraid that this meeting was not only ''not'' initiated by the UNSC, but was strictly off the records."
"Is that so?" came the petulant reply.
"It is," she glared down at the monitor. "Now, unless you want me to contact Fleet Master Ranak and tell him that one of my officers is complaining about a meeting that he initiated, I'll have to let you go. You are holding up the entire fleet's departure, after all."
That shut him up. Fosse saluted. "I understand, Admiral. However, I will have to inform the Secreta-"
Zhi closed the communications channel, cutting Fosse off, then sat back in her command chair and pinched the bridge of her nose. Of all the things she had to worry about, the petty griping of an officer with a laughable grasp of strategy was pretty low on the list, especially since a brief conversation with him the prior day and a suggestion of placing Fosse aboard a frontline warship during the invasion was met with excuses and outright cowardice. Checking another monitor by her command station, Zhi saw that the Sixth Fleet and their allies were more or less ready to jump, having stockpiled enough resources to fight for - by AI calculations - roughly a month without reinforcements. The Admiral had a feeling that it would not last that long, especially since a protracted military campaign would force the UNSC to dispatch more ships, prompting a formal declaration of war and all the political mess involved. Right now, they were officially 'hunting pirates'.
With a little time to spare, Zhi got to her feet, pacing around the elevated command platform. Below her, Captain Ngirandi was deep in conversation with a group of junior officers from engineering, while a group of engineers crowded round a malfunctioning set of observation monitors. There was a buzz in the air that always preceded a jump, and Zhi loved it. There was something deeply thrilling about embarking on a journey with a fleet, something that she had felt even as a young Ensign aboard her first warship over thirty years ago. ''This one's no different to any other campaign, Lin'', she reminded herself.
By her chair a holographic pedestal lit up, and the ''Caspian'''s AI, Weatherby, appeared. Taking the form of a middle-aged, mustachioed man in a grey suit, he turned to face Zhi, adjusting his dark gloves.
"Admiral," he spoke in a pleasant, refined voice. "My apologies for not informing you sooner, but Vice Admiral Samson has arrived."
''About time.'' "Where is he?"
The AI checked a watch; a meaningless gesture, considering his processing power before gesturing towards an elevator door at the back of the bridge. "Why, he's here already."
Sure enough, the doors opened, revealing a square-jawed man in the black uniform of Naval Intelligence. Catching sight of Zhi immediately, Vice Admiral Ryan Samson crossed the bridge at a steady pace. Despite being in his early forties, his hair was heavily streaked with grey and there were tired lines beneath his sharp grey eyes. Zhi knew him as a member of a group that had been rather derisively referred to as the 'Baby Admirals'; officers who had joined the Admiralty at surprisingly young ages after the war's end due to a high number of vacancies. Unlike some she could name, however, Samson had the talent to back his rank up.
"Ma'am," the officer saluted. "I'm sorry to have kept you waiting."
After dealing with the likes of Fosse, Zhi wasn't about to cause a fuss because her Chief of Staff had arrived late. "It's good to see you, Vice Admiral. Any trouble on the way here?"
"Aside from just about every flag officer I know trying to ask me about this operation?" he cracked a smile. "Not really. I just had to call in a few favours and make sure the Prowler Corps didn't fall apart without me."
"Favours?" Zhi asked. Samson inclined his head to the more secluded command platform, and kept his voice low as the approached the station.
"I've been in contact with some old friends in Special Operations. The way I see it, we're heading into this one with a middling attack force and not as good an idea about what we're facing as I would like, so I made sure we could at least even the odds?"
"Who'd you bring in?"
"A few Spartans. Not many, but they can always make a difference on the ground. Aside from that, a few other units that won't be missed for a few weeks, and a few of my own prowlers."
Zhi nodded, impressed. While Samson's powerful frame did not suggest that he was purely a desk jockey, and his file had listed him as the commanding officer of a particularly dangerous unit several years back, she hadn't expected him to actively contribute his own resources to the cause. It was no secret that many high-ranking officers within ONI kept their own personal units, just in case, and Samson's control over their vast Prowler network made him a surprisingly powerful individual.
"That's good to hear," she picked up a datapad by her chair and brought up a set of files listing the Sixth Fleet's vessels and their commanding officers. "But now that you're here, we've got to keep everyone organised."
Samson took the pad without a second glance and stored it in his pocket. "From what I've seen, we're almost ready to leave. Were there any pressing matters that need by attention?"
"Aside from Commander Fosse?" Zhi ignored Samson's bluntness. "Not really. I've left groundside activities up to individual commanders, though we'll be managing their deployment and coordination. There's also the Sangheili to worry about."
The Vice Admiral nodded, gazing out towards the distant shape of the ''Questioner''. "I've met Felo 'Ranak before, actually. What did you think of him?"
"He seems honest enough about wanting to help us," she admitted. "But I've seen enough of Sangheili battle tactics to know how they conflict with ours. They prefer to fight to the death instead of retreating most of the time, and hold some pretty antiquated ideas about strategy. I things go south, that might be a problem."
"That's true, though Ranak's a strange one by their standards. Even for one of the Arbiter's followers, he seems very committed to peace with humanity. That's how I met him."
"Where was this?"
"A summit on Earth, several years ago. You recall that business with the NOVA, don't you?"
"Yes." Zhi had to suppress an annoyed scowl at the thought of that dark day; terrorists not only attacking Earth, but making off with a destructive weapon of that magnitude had embarrassed the entire UNSC, even if they had gotten it back safely.
"Well, we were attacked by a group of Insurrectionists, including some Sangheili. I got to talking with Ranak after the incident, and that's when I realised why he's so obsessed with making this alliance work."
"Why's that?"
"Guilt." Something approaching pity flashed across Samson's eyes for a moment. "You've read his file too, I take it?"
"Of course. Ranak was at Fargad, Harpa, and Reach with the rest of them, glassing away. We met earlier, you know."
Samson breathed in sharply. "How'd that go?"
"I'm professional enough not to bring up how the man I'm working alongside participated in genocide, believe it or not. He didn't seem too eager to speak about the past, either."
To her surprise, Samson folded his arms and grinned. "Good. That means he'll do as he's told."
There was an element of cruelty in those words that Zhi had not expected from the Vice Admiral. Perhaps he, like so many others in the military, still wanted to win a war that had been over for years now. She certainly had, but duty and obedience came first. If guilt had pushed Felo 'Ranak into committing an entire fleet to not only help the UNSC, but to act as the vanguard of their invasion, then she was willing to let him do that. Zhi wouldn't shoot him in the back or allow him to die needlessly, but she wouldn't shed a tear if he were killed. Turning to Samson, she asked the question that had been bugging at her since the meeting on Earth.
"Vice Admiral, did ONI send you here to spy on me?"
Samson, to his credit, barely changed expression. However, his smile faded, and those eyes of his grew cold.
"You think that the Office of Naval Intelligence would decide to attach the head of one of its major divisions as your Chief of Staff just days before an invasion into relatively unknown Covenant space, all for the purpose of keeping tabs on the Admiral in charge?"
"Yes," Zhi met his gaze. She had dealt with ONI long enough to know their strategies.
"Then I can say that you are absolutely correct, at least as far as my being assigned here by ONI goes. As far as I'm aware, Admiral, you have never been suspected of anything approaching bad conduct - which is surprisingly rare for one of the Admiralty, I've heard - and were chosen to lead here because of that. I'm here to make sure that all intelligence gathered from the Imperium of Clarity goes back to the right places."
"And by that you mean that when we win, ONI gets their pick of treasure before the Swords of Sanghelios."
"More or less," he shrugged. "We've had difficulty slipping agents into the Imperium, as most end up dead, but if rumours of them hoarding Forerunner technology are true, then I'm here to make sure it falls into our hands."
"Hence the prowlers," Zhi nodded. "I appreciate your honesty, Samson, and agree with your mission."
"Excellent!" he clasped his hands together happily. "Then if you'll excuse me, Admiral, I'd better introduce myself to the ship's Captain."
Zhi and Samson exchanged salutes, and the Vice Admiral marched off. Returning to her chair, Zhi spotted another readout on the blinking row of monitors before her that indicated a ship's readiness. For the past half-hour they had been slowly moving into position, ready to transition into slipspace in smaller battlegroups. Transporting such a large fleet would have been an arduous task even ten years ago, though the technology for more precise jumps had come on in leaps and bounds since then. Checking the list, it seemed that every active warship was more or less ready, barring a few that had only just finished resupplying.
"Weatherby," she called quietly. The AI appeared at her side in an instant.
"Yes, Admiral?"
"Open up a communications channel with Fleet Master Ranak. We're ready to go."
"At once, ma'am."
There was a brief delay, though after a few seconds Zhi found herself facing a holographic display of the Fleet Master, standing in full armour aboard the ''Questioner'''s bridge. She wondered if he had been standing like that since the moment of his return, awaiting her orders.
"Admiral Zhi," the Sangheili nodded respectfully. "Has the time come?"
"Yes," she quickly checked the nearby readout. 20:57 hours. They were three minutes away from their scheduled departure. "Set off as soon as you are able."
"Of course, Admiral. I will see you once we arrive. Travel safely."
Felo rapped a fist on his breastplate as some kind of salute, and disappeared. Zhi stood up and walked forward, placing both hands on the railing by her command platform as the entire Swords of Sanghelios fleet flared to life. At its head was the ''Questioner'', flanked by two formidable ''CCS''-class battlecruisers. The rest of the fleet spread out slightly as they moved towards their jump positions, with groups of smaller blockade runners and elegant Man 'O Wars keeping pace with massive carriers and battleships.
''This will never not be strange'', Lin Zhi thought to herself as she watched the Sangheili ships from afar. ''The sight of a fleet like that used to be the most terrifying thing imaginable. Now though, it's-''
Zhi found herself unable to think of an appropriate word to describe how she felt, watching Ranak's fleet depart. The sight of those ships would never make her feel safe, or relieved. If anything, the Admiral found herself momentarily overcome with a strange feeling of sorrow and elation, as though she had only just realised that their war was over. She blinked twice, and the feeling was gone. The last of the Ranak Fleet vanished into slipspace, and she returned to her chair. Weatherby had reappeared, and watched her with interest. ''Had he noticed?'' Zhi opened up the ship's communications suite, and set it to broadcast to the entire fleet.
"This is Admiral Lin Zhi," her formal, commanding voice transmitted itself to over a hundred ships. "Move to departure positions and prepare for an immediate jump to slipspace. We're going to show this 'Imperium' that we don't run any more when our worlds are attacked. Now, we retaliate. We attack. We will win."
Her speech was short, but sweet. Zhi had seen Admirals agonise over every word in carefully-prepared speeches mere hours before flying their fleets to near-certain doom, trying to convince those under their command that in spite of it all, they would make them pull through. She wasn't one for flowery speeches. They would win or all die. Everyone knew that. As the Admiral returned to her chair, she froze as realisation hit her: ''We will win.'' It was a simple phrase; one that anyone could use casually, but Zhi knew she had copied the latter part of that Sangheili mantra Felo had repeated to her. She shook her head and sat down as Vice Admiral Samson and Captain Ngirandi took up their positions and the ship surged forward, not saying a word until the ''Caspian'' slowed.
"Ready to jump, Admiral!" Ngirandi called up to her.
"Do it."
With that, the UNSC's Sixth Fleet and their allies set off from New Syracuse, and into the first true battle of what would later be known as the Imperial War.
{{B001 Sig V3}}
{{UNSC Time Stamp|1428 Hours, August 28th, 2558
UNSC ''Foxhound'', New Syracuse Orbit}}
The interior of the Prowler UNSC ''Foxhound'' was considerably tight, especially when the majority of its crew members were running back and fourth from their stations all day. It was especially so for Cain-131, whose abnormally tall, muscular frame made it difficult to navigate the hallways when other people were in them. She squeezed past a Office of Naval Intelligence analyst as he ran past her, before she stopped in front of a door quickly enough to open it and bolt inside. After she heard the door slide shut, she let out a sigh.
“Prowlers are nice, don't get me wrong, but I like when they're less busy.” She spoke to her invisible AI companion, Klayton, who materialized himself on a AI pedestal by Cain's armor rack. He let out a short laugh.
“I'm afraid you're on your own on that one. If it's not busy, I get bored. Very easily. Then I start poking my head where I technically don't belong...” Klayton trailed his sentence off, probably for a humorous effect.
Cain let out a small smirk as she sat at her bunk, then shifting her attention on the data pad she left there a few hours prior. She picked it up and began to read some brief reports on their current situation. While she was already up to date, she made a habit of re-reading reports so she wouldn't miss the fine details. “This Imperium of Clarity really has everyone on high alert; can't say I blame them. It's like the Covenant all over again.”
“But this time we have a lot better ships, and some more allies. I'm confident we can put this to an end quickly.” Klayton replied.
Cain had almost forgotten about the Swords of Sanghelios that were accompanying them on this mission of sorts. She wasn't exactly sure how she felt about fighting alongside the same aliens that slaughtered her kind, and glassed hundreds of planets...including her homeworld. A big part of her was still angry; the Sangheili could never be forgiven for attempting to wipe out humanity, and that was just simple fact. There was, however, a smaller part that welcomed the relative peace and diplomacy - which was a very peculiar thought, coming from a child soldier raised and trained to kill and win wars. It was a step in the right direction, to peace, and she could get behind that, even if she could never forgive their kind. She could put aside her differences to get the mission done. After all, they were facing a common enemy. She just hoped none of them stood in her way when things needed to be done.
“How about feasting with our allies before we 'head off into glorious battle'?” Klayton spoke up, complete with a mock viking accent, almost as if he was reading her mind.
Cain looked up at him, absolutely confused. “''What''?”
“The Swords of Sanghelios, they're hosting a feast for all their allies to join.” He crossed his arms, interested to see what Cain would say.
“You're joking with me, right?”
The AI shook his head. “Just got a communications blast from their flagship. They are personally inviting humans to join them.”
Cain let out a short laugh. “That's probably one of the craziest things I've heard so far. And I've dealt with a lot of crazy.” She took a moment to ponder over the thought of going. Perhaps it would ease everyone's minds before this campaign started, or she could just provide some armored security for any other humans that planned on going. “When is it?”
“Tonight. I can already tell you some of the humans that will be attending. Armored security isn't a bad idea.” Klayton peered over to her Mark V armor hanging on her personal armor rack. “And you can gauge the kind of people you'll be working with once this thing kicks off.”
Cain agreed with that. Intelligence was her thing, and live, in-person intelligence was always a good asset to have, no matter the circumstance.
“Well, I guess any time is a good time to try new things, like have dinner with a bunch of hinge heads.” Cain laughed to herself. “Klay, you have to add this to my resume once we're done here.”
-[[User:CBrando89|CBrando89]] "Did someone say food?" 02:31 AM, August 22, 2018 (EST)-
===31: Pact===
{{Covenant Time Stamp|1719 Hours, August 28th, 2558
''CC''-class battlecruiser ''Soul Ascension'', Slipspace transit to Montak system}}
The ''Soul Ascension'''s hallways thrummed with power as the ship's slipspace drive spun to life. The cruiser fell into formation on the outskirts of the Imperium fleet, a small parade of dropships hurrying back inside the safety of its hangar. The ship's navigator took care to maneuver the warship clear of the Imperium fleet's main body. Many of those shipmasters were lords of the keeps the Kru'desh foraging parties had so diligently stolen from.
Shinsu 'Refum passed through the ship's winding hallways on his way to the cruiser's war room, a single level down from the bridge. He and his guard squad dominated the corridor, leaving Kru'desh soldiers scrambling to get out of their way even as they busied themselves with preparations for the ship's launch. Shinsu noted the disordered nature of the ''Ascension'''s hallways with a mixture of disdain and interest. Panels from the wall and ceiling had been torn off to allow for the strange collection of modifications bolted into the ship's superstructure. Shinsu recognized some components as scavenged systems from other Covenant ships but many more seemed to be of human design.
Stray had boasted that his ship was modified beyond the specifications of the average battlecruiser. The human's influence was everywhere, from the UNSC rifles cradled by passing Kig-Yar skirmish teams to the collection of heavy tanks he'd noted earlier down in the hangar. Practical implications aside-the Kru'desh received next to no material support from Jul 'Mdama's fleet-it was almost as if Stray and his minions flaunted the fact that a human commanded their legion.
It was an interesting approach, considering the sort of type of outcasts usually condemned to serve in the Kru'desh. Perhaps it had its advantages on the front lines. But as things stood now it was nothing short of a liability.
His guard squad parted to stand at either side of the hallway as they approached the war room. Shinsu motioned for them to remain outside, then swept in as the doors slid open before him.
The war room was empty save for Stray and the warrior called Ro’nin. The two officers spoke in low voices as they examined several holographic charts projected from the large table that dominated the room. A glowing holographic orb—the Kru’desh Legion’s so-called “holy oracle”—floated above them. They looked up as Shinsu entered but made no move to stand at attention.
“I was wondering when you’d show up,” Stray commented. “We’re reviewing the battle plans for Montak, or at least what little our wonderful hosts have bothered to give us.”
Shinsu sized up the human with a cold stare. As always, he didn’t know whether to bristle at his impudence or admire his audacity. But that was the trouble with all of his kind. Shinsu was adept at reading and understanding Sangheili. It was not much of a stretch from there to read most other species. Humans always proved the hardest of creatures to understand.
Especially this one.
“You have cost me a great deal,” he said, stepping over to the table. He resisted the urge to peer in for a better look at the charts and instead kept himself upright to better glare down at the Kru’desh commander.
“Oh dear,” Stray muttered. “What did I do this time?”
“Your warriors’ thieving from Imperium keeps has cost us what little influence we had with Toru ‘Makhan. My requests for an audience have so far been rebuffed.” Truthfully, Shinsu had made very little effort to connect with ‘Makhan and his warriors. Had this been a serious mission—something that factored into his own plans and not Jul ‘Mdama’s desperate efforts to right a losing war—he would have begun his diplomacy long before setting out if he had any hope of winning elements of the Imperium to his side. But an effort should be made nonetheless.
Stray was unimpressed. “They hated you guys before we even showed up. Don’t tell me my guys lifting a bunch of unguarded crates has things any worse off than they were before.”
Shinsu fixed his gaze on the young human. “’You?’”
“Yeah, yeah. I meant us. The glorious Covenant Empire.”
“Mind your tongue before you lose it. I grew tired of your insubordination long before this disaster of an operation.”
The glowing oracle pulsed with soft light. “Perhaps you should mind your own words more carefully, Shinsu ‘Refum. You speak to one of the gods’ chosen.” The voice was layered and melodic. Shinsu recognized immediately the speech patterns—feminine, coded to induce him into a sense of calm. Such subtle tones might soothe the uninitiated, but he was well-versed in the art of manipulation.
"Ah, another pronouncement from the holy oracle." Shinsu twisted his mandibles in contempt. "Remove yourself from the room. This is a meeting for warriors, not facades."
The oracle's glowing hue darkened. Shinsu didn't know exactly what trickery Stray used to make this false prophet preach for him, though he had his suspicions. What he did know for sure was that there was nothing holy about the Kru'desh Legion, least of all this lying oracle.
Stray laughed and waved a hand. "You heard the boss, get out of here."
"As you wish. chosen one." For a moment the mask dropped and Shinsu detected actual annoyance from the oracle. Whatever it was, it was more than just Stray's personal light show. But the oracle faded away without another word. Shinsu had no doubts that it was still present, silently watching the proceedings, but at least it was one less annoyance he needed to deal with.
"Better watch your food for the next few days," Ro'nin advised his commander. "You'll pay for that later."
"I'm used to it by now." Stray leaned against the war table and adjusted the battle charts. Shinsu noticed that the human and Ro'nin had a small tray of Sangheili delicacies set in the middle of the table. "I've been watching my back around that one for years."
"So it is sentient," Shinsu observed. "And here I wondered if you recorded all its lines yourself."
Stray shot him a knowing look and reached for the food tray. He took a small egg-a rare delicacy imported directly from Sangheilios-and popped it into his mouth, barely disguising a grimace. "Questioning the divinity of a holy oracle. What would Jul 'Mdama say?"
"He would say that there is a time and a place for useful idiocies." Shinsu inclined his head at the food. "Speaking of which, I assume you stole these as well?"
"The Imperium keeps were well stocked," Ro'nin said idly. He took a fistful of eggs for himself. "They practically invited us to take them, considering how poorly they were guarded."
"We lifted enough food to feed my boys for months." Stray ate another egg. "You know, I guess I should thank you for this assignment. We've been raiding UNSC supply lines for months when all we really needed to do was swing by Toru 'Makhan's palace."
"At least when you raided your own kind it didn't undermine our goals. Need I remind you that the Covenant has a larger war to fight?"
"Yeah, I noticed." Stray placed several rough-hewn wooden cups on the war table-traditional Sangheili make, Shinsu noted with interest. "I wouldn't say the UNSC are 'my kind' any more than the Swords of Sanghelios are your kind. No one says you and or Toru are race traitors for fighting Sangheili. I've been killing oonskies for six years and somehow doing it for you guys makes it so much worse."
He produced a jug from beneath the table and began pouring its contents into the cups. "I've also noticed that we've both been sent on this cozy, doomed to fail expedition while Jul 'Mdama has just about everyone else launching suicide missions all over the frontier. What's going on with that, hm?"
"You're a fool if you think the coming battle will be any less dangerous."
"Sure, it'll be dangerous. But there really isn't much benefit to Jul here, besides more dead oonskies and dead Swords." Stray passed a cup to Ro'nin. "Which has me wondering, who does this mission really benefit?"
This was bound to happen sooner or later. Shinsu had always assumed Stray would put the pieces together later rather than sooner. "You mean besides yourself and your gang of thieves."
"You chose this gang of thieves to go on your precious diplomatic mission." Stray rejoined. "The Kru'desh raiding legion. A crew of outcasts led by some miserable human traitor. Don't tell me you were expecting more decorum from us."
He slid a cup across the table to Shinsu. "So, cards on the table. What are we really doing here? Don't tell me you want to defect to the Imperium. From where I'm standing, it's just as much of a sinking ship as the Covenant."
"So now you fancy yourself a political analyst as well as a strategist." Shinsu did not take the cup. "Well then, astound me with your intuition. Toru 'Makhan's empire puts our own fleet to shame. And yet you predict it will fail."
"Well, while you and everyone else were busy gawking at that impressive fleet of his I had my people on the ground stealing everything that wasn't nailed down." Stray fingered his own cup but did not drink. How did the human stomach a diet of Sangheili food that clearly repulsed him? "It was pathetically easy. We didn't lose a single warrior and all they could afford to do was tell us to go away. It's all run by the private fiefdoms of his inner circle. And they couldn't even stop a weasel like me from looting their territory."
"He has a point," Ro'nin noted, taking a swig from his cup. "Their warriors are impressive. Their peons, less so."
"Starvation, poverty, squalid villages." Stray ticked off the list on his prosthetic fingers. "Not everywhere, but enough of it. I know a failing state when I see one. Toru holds everything together now, but what happens when he's gone? They'll tear each other apart in no time."
"Fascinating. You send your warriors to loot the easiest targets of a nation mobilizing for total war and have the audacity to think you understand the subtleties of galactic politics." Shinsu finally picked up the proffered cup. The liquid inside held the sweet aroma of fine wine. "Be careful not to truly overstep yourself, commander. You are entirely self-taught in the art of war. Admirable, to a degree. But do not fool yourself into believing you are a match for those of us with far more experience and training."
For once Stray seemed taken aback. Praise-even mixed in with criticism-was clearly not something he was used to. "I'm a work in progress."
"Indeed. A work I see value in cultivating, despite your shortcomings. But you brush close to the truth. The strength of Toru 'Makhan's Imperium is Toru 'Makhan himself. And I do see more value for the both of us here than waging the death throes of a losing war." It was the closest Shinsu had come to unmasking his intentions before Stray. There was a potential ally to be had in the Kru'desh Legion, but this human-traitor to his own species and commander of the Covenant's dregs-was not to be trusted. At least not yet.
"You have embarrassed the Imperium leadership. Put them on edge at the eve of battle. There are opportunities to be had there. Ones I intend to exploit." Shinsu regarded the wine cup. "This is a fine stock. Usually it would be reserved for the highest echelons of our people's nobility."
"Yeah. And instead it's me drinking it." Stray sipped from his own cup, mouth quivering with distaste at liquid never suited for human consumption. "I was born in a slum on some third-rate colony. Who'd have guessed I'd wind up here."
"Who indeed," Shinsu agreed. He glanced down at the wine in his hand. The aristocrats who commissioned such fine things would blanch to see one of his low birth sampling so high above his station. That was the amusing secret behind his own carefully cultured bearing. In some ways he was as much an interloper in Sangheili affairs as Stray and his raiders.
Not that Stray needed to know that. The human was watching him across the table expectantly.
"You serve me a drink aboard your own warship," Shinsu noted drily. "I do hope you understand the significance of such action."
"I may be a novice at these things, but I've done my research." Stray was now utterly serious, his veil of irreverent contempt set aside. "As long as you keep honest with me about why we're really here, I don't see much point in us wasting time butting heads. Let me lead my unit my way and I'll do what I can to back up your agenda. Your real agenda."
An understanding passed between them then in a way Shinsu had never felt from a human before. There was something to be made use of here, so long as he was willing to risk all that working with the Kru'desh entailed. "Are you prepared for what serving me will mean?"
"I'm still working that out," Stray admitted. "But we both know our Covenant isn't going to be around much longer. There's a lot of people out there who want me dead. I might as well make sure you aren't one of them."
Shinsu considered Stray a moment longer. Once more he weighed the risks of a pact with such a creature. Then again, he'd already taken that risk when he selected the Kru'desh in the first place. "Very well. There is much work to be done. Show me what you can do with this legion of yours."
He drank.
{{Actene Sig}}
{{Covenant Time Stamp|2050 Hours, August 28th, 2558
Tertiary hangar, ''Questioner'', edge of the Syracusian system}}
When the human dropship's ungainly body settled on its spindly landing struts, it sat idle for second upon second, as though the pilot expected to wait for the hangar to flood with oxygen, oblivious to the plasma barrier the ship had just slid through. Facing it shoulder-to-shoulder with half a dozen rigidly alert warriors of the ''Questioner''’s security detail, Gesk attempted merely to disguise how the walk down from the observation deck had winded him. Trying not to resent how every moment he spent waiting on the humans was another keeping him from a cushioned chair, the old majordomo straightened out of his comfortable hunch against the protests of his spine as the ship's hatch finally clicked and opened.
The security officers around him all let their folded arms drop closer to the Needlers and Plasma Pistols at their waists as the first human to step down the boarding ramp emerged from the shadow of the Pelican's tail. It wore unmistakable green armor, with a helm encircling a single gold bubble like some great cyclopean eye—a demon in the mold of those first encountered by the Covenant decades ago. The kind which had made their names reviled, not these little demons who sprang as if from holes in the glass left behind on so many of their worlds nowadays.
More humans filed out behind it, but these wore cloth, with sparse tassels of gold and other colors on plain grey, white, or blue—not the makings of a boarding party, to be certain. In contrast to the officers, Gesk relaxed as the demon approached him. It probably didn't get a chance to enjoy towering over a Sangheili every day.
Coming to a halt only when Gesk was well within its arm's reach, the demon reached up and grasped the helm. With a slight twist, and a hiss of equalizing pressure, the helmet was loosened, and removed to reveal a creature not unlike other humans. Brown fur like a Jiralhanae, but only in a patch atop the cranium, the rest of its alabaster hide bare. Silver eyes, even with one another. Taller and paler, perhaps—and bolder, if the other humans keeping behind it were any indication—but not overflowing with the essence of some evil afterlife as the stories told.
"Heard there was going to be a party, but your guys all seem a little on edge." It said, metallic eyes flicking from the security detail back down to Gesk. "Not you, though. Maybe you just don't have much edge left."
Swelling his lungs enough to fit the excess air for a response, Gesk replied, "I've seen your kind before. The vitality is not left to me to be impressed twice."
Feeling free to take it at his own pace, he turned about and lay a hand on the waist-high pillar with the door control atop it. "This way, if you will." he croaked over his shoulder, and shuffled into the corridor revealed as lavender panels slid aside. Even without his back turned, the old Sangheili never would've noticed the slight brush of the Spartan's armored fingers across the control panel as she fell in behind.
The Covenant vessel's long hallways, made all the longer with Gesk setting their pace, seemed a source of curiosity to the humans. Their own vessels were laid out with each compartment adjacent to the next, their limited grasp of technology demanding austere quarters clustered together where crews worked at all times to keep their ships functioning. They had no familiarity with vessels crafted to suit the warriors it would carry to battle. And it was why the security detail had seen fit to clear their path ahead of time, locking away anything unnecessary to their guests.
On this sealed and winding path, the sight of their journey's end was the last of their senses it reached. Dozen of voices, rumbling indistinct amid each other, were joined by the clack of plates and bowls and clinking tankards, surely filled with whatever contributed to the warm cloud of heady aromas thickening as they came to a doorway in the corridor's side, already open.
As Gesk hobbled aside, the humans found themselves gazing up into a starfield. The observation deck's high ceiling, as it sloped into a wall on the far side, was dominated by a single, unbroken sheet of glass which curved with the concave wall, wide enough one couldn't take in its full view at once. Knowing there were always more stars to see beyond their peripheral vision made standing in the compartment feel as though they were standing outside on an impossibly clear night. Directly beneath the center of this panoramic view was the far end of a long, low table covered by trays and plates laden with unfamiliar cuisine and attended on either side by powerfully-built Sangheili.
Outnumbered some three to one, the dozen-odd humans couldn't help but look as though meaningfully sizing up the situation, not helped as the first Sangheili, either kneeling, sitting cross-legged, or lounging on low, saddle-like chairs, looked up. Their abrupt withdrawal from conversation then drew the attention of their neighbors. But the din never had time to die slowly.
The very moment one could have noticed a dip in the volume of rumbling voices, a hard wood tankard banged three times from the far end of the table. From his seat at its head, one Sangheili stood. Like many of the others settled here, he had on a robe instead of the angular body armor worn for the vast majority of meetings between their species in the past few decades. His was much more elaborate than those of his compatriots, however, and was bound by a gold-tassled cord around a stomach wider than the shoulders of his thorax. Without the reverse point of a combat helmet, his scaly neck craned forward awkwardly to a boxy head. His mandibles clicked as he looked around, waiting expectantly for all eyes to be upon him before he began.
"Brothers," he spoke in English, and surprisingly clearly for a mouth with three too many mandibles for it, "this is a day of rare fortune for us. In such troubled times as we have lived to see, far greater courage is required to risk the honorable path than to simply draw a blade for clan and kaidon, our glory guaranteed in death or victory. But today we have that enemy, by the graces of Toru 'Makhan—may he regret his path."
Several of the guests grumbled their agreement, but the portly Sangheili hadn't finished.
He raised a hand clutched around a wooden tankard and thrust it out toward the humans, and the demon in particular. "Yet, our new allies have a saying: that there must always be a specter at the feast. And they are right. As we draw for the Swords of Sanghelios today, we must remember how we spilled much innocent blood the last time we bowed our heads and fought when bidden. They stand here as reminders, for they will have lost friends, and fathers, and brothers. And sons."
A heartbeat skipped in silence, as though the old Sangheili had forgotten what he was saying. Then hastily, he picked up again, "And yet—after all we took from them, here they still stand. They are here because, despite all they have lost, they know a future must be made, even if it takes stepping into what must surely seem a helioskrill's den." Another heartbeat, but at the first chuckle, his voice seized the room again as though this one was planned.
"We should be honored to fight alongside those with such courage."
A roar of unified assent went up as warriors raised cups—suddenly full as servers bearing pitchers faded back from the table. Even as those who took only a single draught had their vessels raised, running lights around the edge of the floor turned blue, and a soft chirp echoed from somewhere above. The Sangheili all turned forward and stood, save the speaker, who waved and bid the humans to join them along the great viewport.
With their side of the chamber empty, the humans seemed to feel more comfortable easing their way in. As the Spartan neared the old Sangheili, Gesk reappeared beside him bearing a tray with more of the wooden tankards. She could just make out what they said as the speaker turned to stare up at the viewport. "Well timed, Gesk. As ever."
"I have no control of how age slows me, Excellency."
"Of course." he flexed his mandibles once and sipped, then spun as though only just noticing Cain and inclined his head. "Abzu 'Samakr, kaidon of the Summerkeep and your host for this day. The Fleetmaster has just issued his order to rally, and we will enter slipspace momentarily."
Following his gaze, Cain and the other humans watched a new pinpoint of light appear in center of the starfield before them, and grow to incredible size. Unlike the dark purple bubbles of distorted spacetime to engulf a human ship when its Shaw-Fujikawa drive engaged, Covenant slipspace technology opened a precise tear in front of the vessel for it to slip through. The projected portal drew nearer, the window automatically dimming as it was overcome with blue-white light—and then the svelte, black void returned, minus the hopeful pinpoints of distant stars. They were in slipspace, now. Their ship surrounded by a bubble of three dimensions held rigid in a formless, twisting realm which could move in eleven. It was an existentially disturbing topic to think about, but more immediately disturbing was the proud roar that went up from the Sangheili all around.
Then, without so much as looking at one another, the Elites turned and filed back to the table, waving to their comrades to pass favored dishes as the hairs on Cain's neck began to smooth down again. 'Samakr, proving he'd been watching her, emitted a gutteral series of gasps almost like a chuckle, and suddenly he was pushing a full tankard into her armored hand. Laughter was a human's natural response to getting past a needless moment of fear, and as she couldn't help joining him in a short laugh, she considered the possibility 'Samakr was aware of this. Deciding he might be more cunning than his size would suggest, she eyed the amber liquid sloshing over the rim of her cup.
"Irukan beer," Abzu explained, loudly to be heard over the resurgence of conversation. "Brewed from a staple grain of Sanghelios. Not the most refined drink a host could offer, but given your people's history with similar alcoholic brews, I think it has the best chance of being physiologically compatible. The same should be true of the meat dishes—thorn beast is actually a Jiralhanae delicacy I have no doubts toward—but I can guide you through some of the more exotic courses if you wish. We also have a physician standing by in case I've made any grievous mistakes. Come, let us commence our true purpose here!"
Turning to the table, the humans found seats vacant and dishes placed near the kaidon by the serving staff while their backs had been turned, and took from platters in the table's center as Abzu pointed and pontificated about each to be passed around. Between his advocation of the thorn beast's stunted foreleg and warning about toasted and spiced kefal bark, he turned to Cain and asked, with open palm outstretched, "Tell me, then. Do you expect we will face much difficulty in defeating 'Makhan's Imperium?"
[[User:Ahalosniper|That Damn Sniper]] 05:06, September 2, 2018 (UTC)
{{Covenant Time Stamp|2050 Hours, August 28th, 2558
Observation Deck, ''Questioner'', Slipspace}}
Cain swirled the contents of the wooden tankard once more before taking a small sip. The Sangheili beer had an overwhelming bitter taste at first, which slowly dissolved into a strong earthy flavor mixed with a small sense of spice, which left her throat and stomach feeling warm. Having never had consumed much alcohol before, it was hard for her to make a comparison of this alien drink. However, she could say that its taste was similar to that of mild spirits like whiskey or scotch - this only going off of experiences she heard from other service members.
Beckoned by 'Samakr, she found a spot at the table and sat cross legged, placing her helmet in her lap and her drink by the empty plate in front of her. Cain couldn't help but notice how much this whole process reminded her of the samurai of old, the ones she learned about in training. She allowed herself a moment to gather her thoughts. Never in her life did she think she would eat alongside the Elites onboard one of their ships. However, the dull roar of conversation and the clinking of plates and silverware set her mind at relative peace, as it was something she was more accustomed to.
She looked up and down the table at all the types of alien food which 'Samakr had mentioned. Knowing that her stomach and metabolism was different than the average human, she was interested in trying some of the more exotic types of food available. She had always been curious of Sangheili culture - and what better way to quell some of it by trying their food. It's not everyday that a Spartan gets to eat Thornbeast meat after all. Cain also noticed how well ‘Samakr had prepared for this event and accommodated the human guests. It seemed he was meticulous about selecting just the right type of food, and even having a physician on hand in case anything went awry. Cain was surprised that there was even such a position in Sangheili culture - she had always figured they were the “death before dishonor” type of race.
‘Samakr found his place at the head of the table and began to offer suggestions on what to try first to the rest of the human guests. Going with his suggestions, Cain grabbed a crude fork and used it to pry a foreleg off of the cooked Thornbeast, along with some of its shoulder meat. She placed it on her plate and took a small bite.
The thick skin of the animal reminded her of roasted pork, while its tender meat could be compared to a mixture of pork, beef, and alligator. She found the mixture to be unexpectedly tasty, especially paired with whatever seasonings were used during cooking. It was rare when Cain got a chance to eat regular human meat dishes, let alone alien ones, and was surprised how well this dish was palatable for humans. Cain took another swig of Irukan beer to wash down the meat she had eaten.
“Tell me, then. Do you expect we will face much difficulty in defeating ‘Makhan’s Imperium?” ‘Samakr asked, looking over to Cain.
“In terms of ground engagements, I think we are evenly matched - the only problem on the ground we face is that they have the home field advantage. Ship-to-ship combat is where I think we are going to have the most trouble.” Cain admitted. She was being realistic - they knew some things about their foe, but not as much as she’d like. The joint task force was also heading straight into the enemy’s territory, and while they knew the layout of system, who knows what kind of traps are laid out for them, or where the bulk of their fleet really was. For all they know, the ore refinery could just be an elaborate trap rigged to explode.
‘Samakr hummed in what seemed like agreement. “A smart observation. It is wise not to overestimate or underestimate our adversary.”
The Sangheili learned that particular fact from humanity themselves. The Covenant never seemed to fully realize humanity as a fearsome foe until the Covenant was already undone at the end of the war. Also, with what ‘Samakr knew about Toru ‘Makhan, it was most wise to be realistic and prepared.
“Toru ‘Makhan is no petty warlord or pirate king. He is a respected, passionate leader and warrior, and his warriors follow suit. His assembly of the Imperium of Clarity and its alliances with its many races are an admirable feat. I know that they will not stop until they achieve victory, no matter the amount of bloodshed. I feel the upcoming campaign will not be easy, for sure.” 'Samakr noted.
Cain knew that ‘Makhan was a respected Shipmaster during the war, but she hadn’t really thought deeply about his creation of the Imperium of Clarity until now. It was quite a feat, considering the UNSC and Swords of Sanghelios were just now beginning allied relations with each other - the Imperium had already done that with multiple races in some years prior, according to the reports. Those races could have easily broken off and gone home to their families and homeworlds by now, but ‘Makhan was able to rally them together for their fight. Passionate was definitely the right word to use.
“Well, that’s all the more reason to stop them in their tracks now, before more of our people get killed while they try to expand their empire.” Cain replied, taking another sip of beer and bite of food.
“Perhaps, maybe, we could still resolve this conflict peacefully. I know it is a strange thought, especially for an old Kaidon such as myself, you, a demon bred for war.” ‘Samakr took a gulp of his beer before continuing, “His establishment of this ‘new Covenant’ is his attempt to cling to this past, and that idea must surely die. But maybe he and his men do not. The union of all the races could lead to a more peaceful galaxy, and he has already started something of the sort.”
Cain considered peace talks at this stage in the conflict almost a daft point. The Imperium had already destroyed two joint ships, all of the crew, and taken over an ore refinery on their world. Had they not destroyed those ships, perhaps peace talks could still be in question. But Cain learned that once blood was spilt, conflicts didn’t end too easily afterwards.
“Maybe a year ago, or even a few months ago, peace could have been a viable option. But the fact that neither the UNSC or Swords saw the Imperium as this big a threat until now has allowed them to build up their empire and their hate for us unchecked. Like you said, nothing is going to stop them until they get what they want. Unfortunately, I don’t think diplomacy is an option at this stage.” Cain replied.
Abzu ‘Samakr took yet another sip of his beer. “Perhaps you are right.”
‘Samakr let the human eat in peace for a short time while he conjured up more questions in his mind. He watched the human, after finishing her plate full of Thornbeast meat, reach for the dark strips of kefal bark. He put up a hand to stop her.
“Be warned that the kefal bark might be harsh on some human stomachs. It comes from a tree native on Sanghelios, roasted and spiced for taste.” He explained.
Cain nodded, “Thanks for the warning.” She placed some on her plate and cautiously took a bite.
‘Samakr chuckled. The human certainly was bold - he expected nothing less from the greatest warriors humanity had to offer. He also noticed the beer had little effect on her as compared to her other human comrades, who only had a few sips before the effects of the alcohol kicked in. He knew the drink was most likely stronger than any regular brew that humans consumed. He wondered what made this human different than the rest. ‘Samakir knew that most of her kind was shrouded in secrecy, which only added onto his interest in the demons. He thought maybe he could quell some of his curiosity this night.
The two conversed for what seemed like over an hour. Abzu 'Samakr tried to pry into the Spartan's past, to which he was given very vague answers. The Kaidon was not surprised. He expected most of the finer details to be secretive in nature by default. However, from what he could understand, she was trained much in the same way young Sangheili were. Perhaps that is how they possess the ability to match Sangheili warriors on the battlefield, he thought to himself. Humanity held his respect, but these Spartans, even more so.
“From where do you hail?” He asked.
Cain wasn’t expecting that question, which caused her to take pause. She could still vividly remember her more recent time there, on Casbah, evacuating civilians. She could still remember what a glassed planet looked and smelled like.
“Tribute. I haven’t been there in many years. The last time I was, it was under a different circumstance.” Cain chose those last words wisely.
‘Samakir put two and two together - she was there during the glassing of her homeworld. He had failed to realize how deep the scars of the war ran, even for a veteran warrior like herself. 'Samakr hoped to rectify the prodding question by offering a genuinely sincere apology. He bowed his head respectfully.
“I am sorry about your home.”
“What's happened has happened. It's good to know there's people out there trying to make it right.” She replied after a long pause.
Cain gulped down the remaining liquid from her tankard and set it on the table. The rest of the participants in the dinner were, more or less, doing the same. She noticed waiters and attendants begin to pick up the empty plates and glasses and move them off the table. One attendant went up to Abzu and whispered in his ear.
“We are arriving into the system. It is time to prepare ourselves for combat.” 'Samakr raised his voice to address everyone in the room.
It was at this point that everyone began to get up from the table, including Cain and 'Samakr. The portly Kaidon made his way over to the Spartan, one final question looming in his mind.
“As far as my understanding of your warrior class goes, you are tasked with particularly risky tasks, am I correct?” He asked, to which Cain nodded her head.
“Much like our Special Operations warriors. I can very much respect that.” He mused, before getting to his point, “I have no doubts in your abilities to do so; you are a most fearsome warrior. Your species is honored to have soldiers like you amongst their ranks.” 'Samakr complimented, offering his hand to shake, something he knew was a common human custom.
Cain accepted and firmly shook back. “Thank you. I'm honored to work alongside you and your warriors.”
The ''Questioner'' then, at that moment, gently exited slipspace. The wide viewport that spanned the room gradually faded back to its regular hue, and Cain could once again see the stars of the system clearly. She briefly looked down at the gold visor of her helmet before slipping it on and allowing it to seal. She looked back at Abzu 'Samakr. The Kaidon saluted the Spartan by putting his fist over his chest.
“I wish you well on your endeavors on the battlefield.”
Cain replicated the Sangheili salute and gave a curt nod before turning and leaving the room behind the rest of the humans.
==Chapter 2: Clash==
===34: Opening Salvo===
{{UNSC Time Stamp|1138 Hours, August 29th, 2558
UNSC ''Caspian'', Montak System}}
By the time Admiral Lin Zhi arrived at the bridge, it was already bustling with activity. Officers dashed to their stations, some still zipping up their tunics while others rubbed sleep from their eyes. While New Syracuse had been the closest world to Montak suitable for establishing a military staging point, the journey into the edge of former Covenant territory had given most of the crew time to rest up before their inevitable battle against the Imperium. Even so, they were an hour ahead of schedule.
"Morning ma'am!" Captain Jonathan Ngirandi called from the command station as she approached. "Sorry for waking you all so early."
Zhi waved him off; this was hardly the worst awakening she'd had in her military career. The Captain stepped aside as she sat down, bringing up a readout of the current situation. Their journey through slipspace had been rather uneventful, though they had trailed a little behind Felo 'Ranak's own fleet, even with the upgrades to their Shaw-Fujikawa drives that should have allowed them to keep pace with the Sangheili vessels. That aside, there seemed to be no incident reports.
"How far behind Ranak were we?" Zhi turned to Ngirandi, who had taken command while she slept.
"A little under an hour, though they've been waiting for us here."
"Good," she had half-expected the Sangheili to make his attack without them. "Let's organise our battlegroups and form up behind them."
As Ngirandi saluted and headed off to one of the many bridge stations below, Zhi felt another presence to her left, and spoke without turning. "Samson."
The Vice Admiral, immaculate as ever in his black service uniform, stood with his arms folded behind his back. Regarding the tactical readouts before responding, he didn't bother with a salute before pointing towards the newly-generated system map on a nearby holotable.
"I've dispatched two prowlers ahead for reconnaissance," he indicated two dots, far away from the main fleet. "I hope you don't mind."
''Good morning to you too.'' "Not at all, though I'd like to be informed once they take action. I take it they're equipped with HORNET mines?"
"Yes ma'am. Once we get a better readout of the system, I'll see if we can deploy them."
"Good," Zhi finished skimming the fairly mundane reports of the Sixth Fleet's captains before rising to her feet. "For now, let's figure out how we're going to get to Montak."
Peering out of the primary viewscreen, which stretched from the floor to the ceiling ahead of them, Zhi could make out the tiny red speck that was Montak. Closer to them, the Swords of Sanghelios had spread out, with Felo 'Ranak's ''Questioner'' in the middle of their arrowhead formation. Having seen that particular layout first-hand, with the best-armed warships taking point to cover their lighter vessels and landing craft, Zhi could tell that the Fleet Master intended to punch through enemy lines while swarming enemy ships with boarding parties while dropships made for Montak's surface. It had been rather effective in the war against human opponents, though she had no idea if it would work against Sangheili-made vessels of a similar tonnage.
Then it came to their own Sixth Fleet. To the ''Caspian'''s port side, Rear Admiral Hawkins' Second Battlegroup was still emerging from slipspace. While the UNSC ''Maya'', a ''Vindication''-class light battleship, was a formidable vessel, the ships that arrived alongside it were mostly frigates accompanied by two heavy support ships stocked with replacement MAC slugs and missile blocks for the fleet's capital vessels. While lightly-armed, Zhi intended to use the ''Maya'' and its frigates to cover their landing craft for their hopefully brief invasion of Montak.
"The Third Battlegroup is running behind," Samson noted, checking a datapad. "Should we press on without them?"
"We'll have to," Zhi drummed her fingers atop a nearby console. Comprised almost entirely of transport ships with a single mobile refit station for emergency ship repairs and a few frigates for defence, they wouldn't be much use in a proper fight.
As Zhi waited for the rest of their Second Battlegroup to arrive, one of her Lieutenants turned and called up to her.
"Admiral, we've got a transmission from the Swords of Sanghelios!"
"Patch it through."
Zhi stepped back, and a moment later the holographic form of Felo 'Ranak materialised above a nearby panel. While he was still clad in his usual golden armour, the Fleet Master seemed to be gripping the hilts of a pair of deactivated energy swords and he paced back and forth while the connection established.
"Admiral Zhi," he turned to face her. "It seems that fortune favours us today. The guarded portion of Montak will not face us for some time, giving us time to advance without fear of attack from the surface."
The Admiral nodded. Felo had wasted no time in doing his own reconnaissance, it seemed. "And their fleet strength?"
"Not as formidable as I feared, though there is no sign of their supercarrier. What they do have over the planet will give us quite the battle, but the bulk of their forces is likely elsewhere."
"I agree, they've definitely got ships held back. Are you going to head straight for the planet?"
"That was my intent," Felo nodded. "Once we push forward and throw their battle lines into disarray, I believe that they may spring some kind of trap. If you allow my ships to take the bait, then your fleet may counter it."
Zhi found herself thinking back to Samson's suggestion the previous day. While it was a known fact that Sangheili commanders would undertake risky actions in the name of honour or glory, perhaps Felo's eagerness to put his own ships at risk ahead of his human allies was a sign of his guilt. Nonetheless, Zhi was fine with keeping her fleet safe if the Fleet Master wanted to sacrifice his own.
"It's risky, but I approve. Begin your advance, but stay out of firing range until my ships have caught up. You'll want our MAC guns to back you up once you enter the fray."
"Understood, Admiral. I have also prepared my warriors for groundside invasion, under General 'Taram's direction. Commander 'Marak intends to make his way to the surface once the fighting begins as well."
"We've got our own ground troops ready to deploy as well, Fleet Master. Once they've reached Montak, their primary objective will be to eliminate enemy anti-air defences before pushing up to retake the main refinery complex."
"Do you believe that the innocents there are still alive?"
It was a good question. Zhi swallowed, weighing up the benefits of simply bombing the site from orbit and dealing with fallout later and attempting to secure the civilians. If even a Sangheili like Felo 'Ranak was willing to send his best men in on a rescue operation, then she had to give them a chance.
"I believe so. I'll have our special forces teams coordinate with your own once we're down there so we can get a better idea of the situation."
"Good," the Sangheili gave her the same chest-thumping salute from before. "I will begin my advance."
The moment the feed cut out, Zhi began to give commands, forming the Sixth Fleet up from its rather raggedy formation into one suited for a prolonged battle. With the help of Weatherby to ensure that the fleet could maneuver with maximum efficiency, the next half-hour was spent catching up to the slowly-advancing Swords of Sanghelios fleet. It was then that the Admiral got her first glimpse of the Imperium of Clarity's fleet, sighting a blend of older Covenant vessels alongside newer warships clustered around Montak itself.
In total, there seemed to be several major groups, likely coinciding with a different leader. Though ONI's intelligence had been incredibly sparse regarding the Imperium, they had identified several major military figures that were almost certainly leading their armada. Considering the group's size compared to the gargantuan Covenant, Zhi was certain that the larger ships belonged to the enemy fleet masters. As she sat by her tactical screen, counting down the seconds until they were in MAC firing range. Far ahead of the ''Caspian'', dozens of shining flashes streaked through space as Ranak unleashed his first volley of plasma torpedoes.
"Enemy ships firing," Weatherby materialised beside Zhi's chair, arms folded. "Looks like they're just testing the waters right now with their light cruisers."
A few distant flares marked the end of several unshielded warships; the first proper casualties of this war. At this, the Imperial fleet began to move, positioning its heavy cruisers and capital ships by Montak's barren moons for cover as more plasma fire flashed between the opposing groups. The Imperium hadn't sprung their hypothetical trap yet, but as the Ranak fleet continued to advance, the first Sangheili landing launched from their carriers. Narrowing her eyes, Zhi thumbed the button on her COM system, signalling the ''Maya''.
"Admiral Hawkins, move your group up and deploy your troop complement. I'm sending some ships to cover you."
"Moving up," Hawkins replied moments later.
While the rest of the Sixth Fleet continued on course, the UNSC ''Maya'' and its escort of frigates veered off sharply, using the battle ahead as a distraction as it approached its deployment range. While most infantry units could safely be transported via dropship, the armoured personnel units and material needed to establish temporary command centres on the ground required slower transport ships. A few light escort craft skimmed towards Hawkins' battlegroup, only to be blown to pieces by precise MAC fire from three nearby frigates.
As a steady stream of craft departed from the ''Maya'', joined by others already dispatched from the Sixth Fleet's other transport vessels down into Montak's northern hemisphere, the Imperial fleet responded in force. Acting in unison, almost every single ship in the enemy fleet dispatched its fighter complement. Banshee fighters poured out from the underside of capital ships like a swarm of locusts, moving in tightly-synchronised spirals before veering off in the direction of the enemy. It took Zhi a few moments to realise that these fighters were not heading to harass the already-engaged Swords of Sanghelios, but were surging directly towards the Sixth Fleet. Joined by scores of larger and better-armed Seraph fighters, their sheer number could cause issues for even some of the larger UNSC ships.
"All ships, deploy fighters immediately and cover those landing craft!" Zhi spoke over the fleet-wide intercom before glancing at the tactical readout. "Second echelon, move off and provide support!"
Five ''Halberd''-class destroyers peeled off from the main group alongside several frigates, moving in to back up the ''Maya'' and its escort as the Imperium's fighters drew even closer. Across the fleet, Broadsword and Longsword fighter squadrons shot from their launch bays, moving in tight formation. Two heavy ''Orion''-class assault carriers drew up alongside the ''Caspian'', bringing their impressive arsenal to bear as the Sixth Fleet finally moved into firing range. Above the surface of Montak, both sides prepared to bring their full might against each other.
On the bridge of the ''Caspian'', Zhi raised one arm, her eyes fixed on the tactical screen as the Imperium of Clarity's first line of cruisers drew closer. Below, Captain Ngirandi sat with two officers controlling the ship's twin heavy MAC guns, looking up towards the command platform as they awaited orders. Vice Admiral Ryan Samson stood by Zhi, his hands balled into white-knuckled fists at his side as he stared out at the enemy fleet. The room fell silent, and waited.
At last, Admiral Lin Zhi smiled, and brought her hand down sharply over the table. "Fire!"
{{B001 Sig V3}}
===35: A Deep Breath===
{{Covenant Time Stamp|1142 Hours, August 29th, 2558
''CC''-class battlecruiser ''Soul Ascension'', in battle formation over Montak}}
Holograms had a distinctly impersonal feel to them—so much lost in transmission, so fewer subtle feelings and statements than in a face-to-face meeting—but even so Shinsu could sense the anger in Orro ‘Hendai’s transparent image. The Field Marshal towered over him, his holographic presence magnified by some command from the transmitter on his end of the communication. Shinsu was tall even by Sangheili standards and not used to looking up at those he spoke with—no doubt the goal of ‘Hendai’s enhanced image. He countered this by conjuring up several topographic maps of Montak’s surface and making a show of diverting his attention between them and the glowering Field Marshal.
“This is not a favor, envoy,” ‘Hendai growled, addressing Shinsu by his non-warrior title. “Your legion is being disciplined for its excesses on Frendhal.”
“Oh, to be sure,” Shinsu said evenly, brushing the insult aside. “Though I might point out that they are not mine to command. They may be all the Didact’s Hand could afford to spare for your cause, but I am his sacred messenger—”
“You Covenant are all the same to me,” ‘Hendai dismissed him with a wave of his hand. “Do not presume to think that your delusions of sanctity give you any sway with the Imperium. Were it up to me I would send you all scurrying back to Jul ‘Mdama and his dying cause. But I have orders to make use of you, and so I shall.”
“As you say.” Shinsu inclined his head, biting back irritation at both ‘Hendai’s barbs and his own need to invoke the religious airs expected of a Covenant officer. But he had his own part to play, tiresome as it sometimes was. “The Kru’desh Legion is at your disposal.”
“Indeed.” ‘Hendai’s mandibles curled in a cold smile. He transmitted the location of several refineries on Montak’s southern hemisphere. “And dispose of you I shall. I have been tasked with defending the refineries in this section of the planet. The enemy is already pressing hard to secure a beachhead for their assaults, and I understand the brunt of their attack will fall here.”
Coordinates for the centermost refineries pinged on Shinsu’s map. The Imperium forces expected both UNSC and Swords of Sanghelios troops to converge on them under cover from the battle in orbit.
“Considering the material your warriors appropriated back on Frendhal, I can only hope they are up to the task of battle itself.”
Shinsu regarded the map and resisted the urge to protest. ‘Hendai was indeed plunging the Kru’desh into the thick of the fighting—his battle plan threw the Covenant forces directly in the path of the enemy’s projected landing trajectory. “And the local Imperium forces will be moving to support our operations?” he asked, already knowing the answer.
“My warriors will defend the refineries,” ‘Hendai informed him curtly. “My combat operations are not your concern. I suggest you prepare your warriors for a hard fight.”
He leaned closer, looming over Shinsu. “And may your gods help you if your warriors so much as set foot in those refineries.”
Shinsu craned his neck at the hologram and gave the Field Master a tight smile. “Understood. The enemy will not reach those refineries. And perhaps upon our return you would do us the honor of reviewing the battle in person. I believe there is much we could offer to the larger war effort.”
‘Hendai’s mandibles clenched. “That depends entirely on your performance on Montak.”
“Of course. You will not be disappointed."
‘Hendai closed the transmission with a look that told Shinsu his expectations were already too low to brook any disappointment. He looked down at the maps—at the battle plans throwing the Kru’desh’s warriors into the fire—and gave himself a moment to soothe the anger rising up inside him. There was no room for his own ego now, not at this delicate stage of the proceedings. When the smoke cleared on Montak Stray and the Kru’desh would either have won him the respect he needed from the Imperium—or most of them would be dead.
“Oracle,” he said aloud. “I presume you were listening in.”
“Of course.” The golden light of the so-called holy messenger filled the space where ‘Hendai had stood a moment before. “Nothing happens on this ship without my knowledge.”
“Of course.” Shinsu stymied his irritation. “Have the legion mobilized for immediate combat deployment and get the ship in position over Montak. And transmit these battle plans to your commander. I am interested to see how he handles our… unorthodox assignment.”
All Covenant vessels hosted a chapel near the center of the ship where warriors could pray and worship on long voyages and the sharp, bitter hours leading up to a battle. Usually these sanctuaries were lavishly furnished and packed with devout warriors at any time in a ship’s operations cycle.
The Kru’desh warriors—the Covenant’s forsaken and outcasts—were somewhat less than devout. As such the ''Soul Ascension''’s chapel doubled as a storage closet and makeshift galley—and even then there was still rarely trouble finding room to pray.
Tuka ‘Refum bowed his head before the altar and finished the last of his litany of prayers—not the discredited sacraments of the old Covenant, but an older prayer of the sort Tuka’s ancestors had spoken in the ancient temples of Sanghelios before the time of the Covenant. A prayer for victory in the looming battle, safety for the warriors in his charge, and forgiveness for the sins that stained his service to the Covenant.
The litany completed, Tuka glanced furtively at the other members of his lance engrossed in their own prayers. He turned back to the altar and, feeling somewhat foolish, launched into a prayer of his own devising. He had muttered these words—more of a desperate plea than a prayer—ever since he had first found himself pressed into the Covenant’s service when he was barely more than a child.
“Human bullets will avoid Tuka ‘Refum’s body. Human bullets will avoid Tuka ‘Refum’s body.” Older warriors like Ro’nin spoke of the old war, when the mighty Covenant legions had effortlessly crushed human defenses in battle after battle. Tuka had never known this time. For as long as he’d been fighting, the Covenant had been on the losing side, driven to the edges of the galaxy by the resurgent humans and their allies. “Human bullets will avoid Tuka ‘Refum’s body.”
His first lance had perished in his first real battle. Battle after desperate battle saw Tuka survive until his exile to the Kru’desh Legion seemed to seal his fate to be sacrificed as worthless refuse. Instead Stray’s ascension and the legion’s reformation had saved him once again.
“Enemy blades will avoid Tuka ‘Refum’s body. Enemy blades will avoid Tuka ‘Refum’s body.” The fear of death. The terror of combat. He poured those weaknesses into his prayers, a pathetic offering to the gods. If they were willing, they would take such burdens from him now so that he would not feel them in the battle ahead.
His communicator pinged, interrupting his muttered chant. Tuka glanced down and started at the sight of a direct summons to the war room. The commander wanted to speak with him.
Tuka rose and turned to leave. He nodded to Ier and the rest of his lance, all busy with their own prayers. To his surprise, he saw Mihka kneeling in the corner of the chapel beside an overturned plasma crate. He had never seen the dropship pilot at prayers before and had imagined that she either didn’t believe or didn’t care for the gods—a common attitude in the Kru’desh, especially with the mercenaries Stray contracted to swell their numbers.
Mihka caught his gaze and offered him a thin smile. Tuka nodded back to hide his embarrassment, then hurried out of the chapel.
He passed through the ''Soul Ascension''’s winding corridors, edging past lances of warriors filing down to the dropship hangar. Crew hurried along to their stations amidst an air of grim anticipation. Apparently, the battle in orbit over Montak had already commenced. Since the ship was not already engaged, Tuka could only imagine what the Kru’desh’s assignment might be. Perhaps Stray had some scheme concocted to keep them clear of the fighting. The commander always had a knack for keeping the legion out of harm’s way.
Something told Tuka they wouldn’t be so lucky this time.
A short trip through the ship’s gravity elevator deposited him a few corridors down from the war room. He hurried toward the door, pausing only briefly at the sight of Ro’nin striding in the opposite direction. The older warrior glanced down as he passed, mandibles curling in one of his characteristic smirks.
“Best of luck to you,” the officer murmured. “You’ll need it.”
Tuka kept walking, then thought better of it and offered his superior a cursory salute. Ro’nin waved him off with an amused laugh and carried on his way.
Tuka had never liked Ro’nin, but there was no denying the ex-mercenary’s skill as an operations officer. He knew how to motivate the criminals and apostates who made up the majority of the Kru’desh rank and file. Along with Stray, he’d turned the legion into something more than a condemned suicide unit.
“Do take care of that human female out there,” Ro’nin called after him. “I rather enjoy my little chats with her.”
Amber. Tuka had nearly forgotten she would be in his lance today. Another unknown he’d rather not think about. He walked on towards the war room, which lacked any sort of security detail. Not that Stray needed one, given that the oracle had full control over the ''Soul Ascension''’s door access. He half expected her to say something as he approached the doors, but they simply slid open to let him in.
The room was dark and Tuka’s eyes took a moment to adjust. He dimly perceived Stray seated at the far end of the chamber, legs propped up on the war table. To Tuka’s surprise, the commander had removed his armor, which lay piled on the table beside him. The human was bare-chested, revealing a pale, battle scarred torso. He stared intently at a small book held in his prosthetic arm.
Stray glanced up as Tuka entered. Even in the dim light Tuka could tell his commander was in a bad mood. He waited respectfully in the threshold as Stray rose and beckoned him inside.
“Took your time getting here,” Stray said, snapping the book shut. Tuka wondered if he was cold without his armor. “What, did you walk the whole way?”
“Forgive me, commander. I was attending to my prayers. In the future I will be more—”
“Save it. You always take me too seriously.” Stray set the book on the table and reached for a pitcher and a pair of cups.
Tuka inclined his head toward the book. “More battle texts?”
In response, Stray slid the book towards him. Tuka was surprised to see it was a Sangheili text, a simple history treatise meant for younger warriors. “Kid’s stuff. You’re the one who told me I needed to go with the basics. I can still barely read the scribbles you people call writing.”
“An admirable effort,” Tuka said respectfully. Stray shot him an irritated look.
“I can’t get through a word of it right now, not with this mess we’re about to step in. Loosen up, will you? You need to be on the game for this mission.”
“So we are going into battle.” A stiff resignation set into Tuka’s bones. If Stray were giving him orders personally that could only mean one thing.
“Right in the middle of it,” Stray agreed, pouring the pitcher’s contents into the cups. “We got the wrong kind of attention back on Frendhal. Someone’s taking it out on us. I probably should have seen it coming.”
He beckoned Tuka over and offered him a cup. Tuka was surprised to smell a rich wine of the kind he had only ever sampled a few times before. He gave Stray a questioning glance.
“Drink now,” the human advised. “You and your boys are the first wave out of the ship.”
“I see.” Tuka sighed and took the cup. “Our target?”
“The fleet’s fully engaged right now and we’ve got enemy troop transports trying to set up beachheads on the planet’s surface. They want to hit the ground outside the Imperium’s anti-air cover and then push forward to hit Montak’s refineries.” Stray downed a cup of the Sangheili wine and poured himself another. “Our Imperium friends have something special planned for defending the refineries but in the meantime we’re running interference.”
“Something tells me we won’t simply be reinforcing the refineries themselves.” Tuka sipped the wine, though he didn’t much like the taste.
“You got that right. We’re not even allowed to near them. It’s almost as if the Imperium doesn’t trust us or something.” Stray snorted, but his eyes were hard and angry. “So we get to fly right into the thick of things. The enemy seems to think the Imperium’s just going to let them land and slug it out on the ground all nice and polite. We get to prove them wrong.”
Tuka nodded, wondering just how many of his friends were about to die protecting a few factories. Expendable warriors, that’s what the Kru’desh always were. Dying so that someone else’s soldiers didn’t have to. “An aerial assault then.”
“Yeah. Fast drop to our assigned sector, tear into them before they even hit the ground.” Stray fixed Tuka with a hard gaze. “Hit them hard, hit them bloody. These Imperium bastards want to use us like cannon fodder. Let’s show them what we really are.”
“I understand.”
“I mean it, Tuka. Be brutal. No mercy. Don’t give them a chance.”
“I understand,” Tuka repeated, more firmly. He could feel his hearts beating faster, already anticipating the violence to come.
“The UNSC and the Swords aren’t used to working together.” Stray called up a small map of the Kru’desh’s assigned sector from the war table. “They won’t be as coordinated as usual. We can use that.”
“I have never worked with the Imperium warriors before,” Tuka pointed out.
Stray shook his head. “You can’t count on them down there. I convinced the Marauders to boost our fighter cover, but that’s it. Once you’re on the ground, you keep fighting until there’s nothing left to kill. If this is going to be the first stand-up fight of this little war, I say we make an impression.”
“Understood. I will not disappoint you.”
“You never do. That’s why I’ve got you in the vanguard.”
Tuka gave his commander a sidelong glance. “Then perhaps I should disappoint, if only to avoid future assignments like this.”
Stray snorted. “There’s that sense of humor. You’ll be needing it. I’ll be right behind you with the rest of our ground forces to set up support fire. Try to do all the real work before we arrive.”
He set his cup down and grimaced. “Get pumped and get pissed. We’re gonna need a whole lot of violence if we’re going to get through this.”
“We will win,” Tuka assured him. “The gods are watching over you.”
“Really? They must have a weird sense of humor.”
“They do work in strange ways,” Tuka admitted.
“Tell me about it.” Stray nodded. “Go on, get your troops ready to drop. I’ll see you dirtside.”
Tuka tapped a fist to his chest in salute and marched from the war room. As the doors close he saw Stray standing alone in the darkness, strapping his armor back on over his pale, battered skin.
Fires blossomed over Montak as the fleets clashed with their opening salvos. Fighter squadrons collided in chaotic firestorms as the warship formations exchanged torrents of fire.
In the midst of the chaos, the ''Soul Ascension'' slipped out of formation and descended down towards a sector on the undefended side of the planet. Seraphs and Banshees scrambled from its hangars as a second battlecruiser, ''Purveyor of the Righteous'', tailed behind to cover its descent. Fighters from the ''Purveyor'' flew into position around the ''Soul Ascension'', standing by for the initial assault.
Tuka and his lance marched towards their dropships, ignoring the occasional rumblings as the ship maneuvered to avoid enemy fire. Tuka stopped by Mihka’s Phantom and waved his warriors inside as he surveyed the hangar. The sight of hundreds of Covenant warriors readying themselves for battle never failed to send a chill through his gut. He slung his plasma carbine over his back and followed his lance into the dropship. Its bay doors sealed behind him, leaving the warriors crouching in the dim troop bay.
“Enemy fire will avoid Tuka ‘Refum’s body,” Tuka muttered one final time. An Unggoy named Urkit crouched beside him, shouldering a fuel rod launcher. Ier knelt to his left, loading a belt of grenades into a Jiralhanae grenade launcher. He caught Tuka’s gaze and laughed.
“What can I say? I like the way it shoots.”
Tuka nodded, somehow reassured by his friend’s levity. He saw the human, Amber, kneeling beside the bay doors. She’d found a human heavy machine gun in the Kru’desh armory and appropriated it, along with a Needler she’d fixed to her hip. Tuka caught her visored gaze turn towards him.
“Follow my lead,” he instructed. “Once we’re on the ground, we all need to stay together.”
“Got it,” she replied drily. “Not my first drop.”
“Your first drop with us,” Tuka reminded her. He stared at her until she nodded and turned away.
“Launch order just came through,” Mihka announced from the cockpit. “You all ready for some fun?”
“Just get us down there in one piece,” Tuka called back. His lance laughed nervously. They trusted the pilot’s ability to avoid enemy fire, though their stomachs were set for her daredevil maneuvers.
“All drosphips up,” Mihka reported. “Hold on back there.”
Tuka squeezed his eyes shut and offered a final, silent prayer.
The Kru’desh dropships soared out of the hangar and plunged down into Montak’s orbit. Fighter squadrons soared ahead of them, already honing on the formations of enemy troop carriers. It was a veritable race to the surface—only the Kru’desh didn’t need to arrive first. They just needed to get in range while the enemy was still in the air. From there it was simple, bloody butcher’s work.
The bloodletting was about to begin.
===36: Emergency Sky Dive===
Shizuko was avoiding Andra. She was also avoiding Merlin. Outside of the necessitated teambuilding exercises and mission preparations, the ethnically Japanese Spartan made herself scarce to everyone at base camp on New Syracuse.
At first, Andra understood the girl’s disappearance from everyone’s presence having behaved similarly toward people outside her unit for five years ongoing. From what little Andra knew about Shizuko’s whereabouts before the assignment to Andra’s Team Boson, she led her Delta Company unit, Team Entropy, in a ground assault against a Covenant faction in something called Operation: DARK DESCENT. Andra’s own experience with the operation was through the eyes of a deceased SPARTAN-III who also participated in that descent over a planet called Aragon. They descended into battle while nuclear bombs detonated over a Covenant warship and Spartans propelled themselves to the ground in drop pods. In the end, the mission was a success. However, Andra’s avatar died in combat along with the individual’s entire team, killed by falling debris or hostile gunfire. It was easy to deduce – if Shizuko was alone now, maybe, her entire team was gone too.
Andra could not begin to imagine what that kind of pain was like, however; she saw her own team fracture at the seams when Daniele-D003 and Roxanne-D107 decided to desert the UNSC over conspiracy theories and doomsday rumors. She had some idea what it was like to feel lost and alone. Now that two days passed and Shizuko was still not talking or interacting, it put the girl on edge. Shizuko might outrank Merlin and her and Shizuko might be a better Spartan, however, her lack of coordination was feeding into Andra’s distress. Adding to the distant sound of anti-aircraft firing approaching closer and closer by the second.
Andra had a way with being ''confrontational'', and she reached her boiling point. She couldn’t wait for Shizuko to warm up to Merlin or her any longer. They were about to go into combat and she needed to know she could trust the silent and lonely ONI Headhunter.
Decked out from the neck down in her cutting-edge, grey-blue-colored HELLJUMPER-class MJOLNIR power armor, Andra believed she could appear imposing at her six-foot height and if she put on her best “angry” face. She stalked across the almost-silent troop bay inside their Pelican gunship and got inconveniently close to the shock-absorption seat Shizuko had selected for herself at the back of the aircraft. The Japanese girl was decked out in her own FOTUS-class MJOLNIR armor set – painted orange and black. A datapad lay in Shizuko’s lap displaying tactical information and notes on a two-dimensional map of the selected battlespace where Team Boson would drop.
Andra picked the tablet out of Shizuko’s lap and placed it in the seat next to Shizuko. Shizuko’s dark eyes glanced up at Andra is curiosity, following the outstretched hand move her datapad. Even with the unexpected movement, the Japanese girl still said nothing.
“Shizuko. We need to talk.”
Shizuko stiffened at the sound of her own name as if she was expecting to be reprimanded or had been preparing for this for a while. Andra wrinkled her nose at the shuffle in her fellow Spartan’s shoulders. Her blue eyes narrowed down on Shizuko’s own as they silently made contact.
“We need to talk. Right now.” Andra repeated herself.
Shizuko licked her lips and glanced at the space past Andra’s head before refocusing on Andra’s nose, trying to pretend to make eye contact.
Andra frowned deeply at the one-word response.
“Why? Why? Because we’re about to go into combat and you haven’t said a word. I don’t know why you don’t want to talk but I need to know I can trust you to have my back and Merlin’s when we’re down there. You’re supposed to be in charge here but you’ve let Merlin do all the heavy lifting, your silence is making me uncomfortable.”
Shizuko raised an eyebrow at Andra. “Why’s that my problem?”
Andra grimaced at the response, a subtle agitation boiling behind her lightning-blue eyes. “Oh, I don’t know! Maybe because you’re not talking to me! That’s a stupid question.”
Shizuko simply shrugged at Andra’s outburst.
Merlin’s voice called from the cockpit, “Are you two alright back there?”
“Totally!” Andra responded in a sickly-sweet tone. She didn’t really intend to be mean to Merlin but she was already venting and the whole aircraft was a target.
Merlin didn’t respond.
Shizuko sighed and rubbed her face, glanced away from Andra than back at her. Mustering up something internally, she gave Andra a straight answer. “I really don’t want to talk right now. Trust me when I say I got your back – I just can’t show it right now. I’m here to evaluate you two as a team. See if you got what it takes to become Headhunters. Along with Team Xiphos, I’m just here to smooth-over the transition process. We can talk later about me; we got to focus on the battle first.”
“Fine…” Andra replied, huffing. She wasn’t done but it was clear, still, that she would not get a more clear answer than that. At least she talked this time.
Andra turned to walk away when a high-pitched whistling entered Andra’s ear. She froze in place as the whistle started to overtake the loud thrusters of their gunship. “Is that…?”
She didn’t get to finish her question because the Pelican rocked back and forth all of a sudden and warning lights began flashing around the cabin. Merlin was shouting something but Andra couldn’t hear him when an explosion cracked the side of the troop bay and the air zoomed out the side of the aircraft, with Andra coming along with it. She didn’t have time to reach for her helmet on a nearby wall rack or grab a rifle. She had no time to turn on her magnetic boots. She was thrown out of the aircraft feet first as the artificial ground gave way below her and green plasma explosions crashed into the Pelican around her.
All she could feel was the sensation of wind flying by her and the distress of falling without assistance. Falling, falling, falling… The ground, a brown desert of cliffs and sand approached beneath Andra as she attempted to lay flat and slow her descent. Without her helmet and its built-in combat instruments, she was falling blind and confused. She ran on instinct as the ground came closer and closer. She pushed herself into a dive motion and attempted to glide toward a cliff side. Taking a risk, she did a mid-air somersault, pointed her legs toward the ground and reached back with a hand to the emergency parachute tied to her armor. It popped but she was already coming in too fast. She hit a sandbank as she had intended but rocks bounced around her as she rolled down a sharp slope. She hit something over the head and she was out of it. The last thing she saw was what appeared to be her Pelican gliding close by in a mighty fireball and smashing into the side of a cliff a kilometer east. She descended into her darkness, blurriness and her heavy eyelids lulling her into an injury-induced sleep.
{{DT Sig Short}}
===37: Leftovers===
{{Covenant Time Stamp|1220 Hours, August 29th, 2558
''CRS''-class light cruiser ''Universal Resonance'', in orbit around moons of Montak}}
The battle had begun. Grono was waiting with the ''Resonance'' positioned behind one of the larger moons of the planet called Montak. While the first wave of Imperium ships went to get butchered by the UNSC and traitorous Swords, he would lie in wait, for when the time to attack was right.
As Grono watched the battlemap for the first signs of blood, Rach came from his quarters, armed to the teeth with his hunting equipment. The first dot, one representing the Imperium, quickly blinked out: the battle had begun. “Prepare the defenses,” ordered Grono as he motioned for Rach to assemble the boarding troops. “We shall not board until the time is right.”
This battle would be a quick one. The Shipmaster could sense it. More dots began to fizzle out, many casualties forming on both sides. Grono watched intently, noting as an Imperium Cruiser crashed through a destroyer manned by the Swords of Sanghelios. Three human frigates collectively brought down a heavy corvette, only to be swarmed over by an overwhelming force of fighters zooming out of carrier’s hangars. The fighters were then driven off by the fire of a human and Sangheili destroyer, returning soon with reinforcements. As the carrier plowed through the enemy fleet, the destroyers were obliterated by the firepower of more cruisers, the battle ending swiftly as the remaining Imperium forces scaring away the remaining ships, including the leader of the group; a UNSC battleship.
“It looks like our friends’ playtime is finished here,” stated Commander ‘Iltuk as he eased himself.
“I would not be so sure, Commander.”
Grono pointed to a single dot on the screen, much smaller than the rest, and lying extremely close to their position. “It seems that we have a straggler. And I intend to help them catch up.”
“But sir,” Rach asked, a look of confusion on his face. “Wouldn’t the sensors of the Imperium ships have picked it up too? After all, unfortunately our Covenant is nowhere near as advanced as they are.”
Grono snarled, baring his teeth before turning and slapping Rach across his mandibles with the back of his hand. “Of course I know that you imbecile! Do not speak of us being below these aristocratic imposters! Am I understood, Commander?”
Breathless, Rach struggled to shape his mandibles to from the word ‘yes’. Grono sighed and sat back down, spying the dot remaining on the screen. He recomposed himself from his outburst, and continued. “I do not know how they passed over that, but it is now ours to kill. Ready the plasma missiles!”
As the ''Universal Resonance'' drew closer to the ship, it was plain to see that it had sustained little to no damage and had hidden from the battle. The missiles loaded, and were prepared to fire when the ship began to move. It blasted away from the ''Resonance'' and turned about to face the light cruiser, stopping only to fire its own barrage. They did little damage to the shields of the ship though, and Grono had the ''Resonance'' counterattack with a blast of plasma fire. The ship narrowly avoided it, only to be hit by the plasma cannons on the other side. The ship slowed, allowing the ''Resonance'' time to kill its engines, stranding the ship. “Back up. We can finish it off with plasma missiles, and we do not need to be needlessly close to this vessel, lest their weapons are still operational.”
The crew obeyed, and the ''Resonance'' slowly drifted away before locking onto the human frigate. “Orders, Shipmaster?” called one of the bridge crew.
“Blast it into oblivion. I don’t want anyone to survive. In other words, fire.”
The pilots obeyed, and the missiles fired. They swirled around each other in a beautiful firework of blue energy, then hit the ship and exploded. A blinding explosion shook the hull, and within moments Grono opened his eyes to see the few remains of the hull. “Any escape craft present?”
“Only a single unarmed lifeboat, sir.”
Grono smiled. “Fire again.”
His order was obliged, and another firework display lit up the space. In an instant, the only remaining survivors were rubble. “Fall back to our defensive position at the moon. We shall wait until the next wave.”
When they were finally back at the moon, Grono looked at the map to see the remaining Imperium forces; a carrier and three cruisers. ''Not many survived, I guess. And to think they were master tacticians''. As ‘Yendam pondered this, multiple red dots came up on the screen. The Shipmaster leaned forward, surprised at what was happening, before he realized what was going on. “Reinforcements! Enemy reinforcements have arrived!” cried one of the bridge officers.
“How many are still coming? My battlemap has seven currently.”
“Nine more vessels from outer range! They will overwhelm the Imperium fleet in no time! Then they will most likely come for us!”
Grono growled, watching as the Imperium retreated from the oncoming wave of ships. The overwhelming human and Swords forces beared down on the ships like a pack of wolves on meat. Grono watched as the three cruisers were shredded, before the twelve remaining vessels turned their sights on the carrier. “Retreat! We shall let the Imperium take care of them.”
As they blasted away from the cover of the moons, Grono watched as the carrier retreated from the onslaught. Flying to the other side of Montak, ‘Yendam noticed the Sangheili ships in the allied fleet gaining on them. Before he knew it, a battlecruiser fired their plasma lance, burning through the shields of the ''Universal Resonance'' in a matter of seconds. Shortly after, a barrage of plasma missiles followed as a complement to that, damaging the hull and disabling the engines.
“Get ready for boarding action!” Yelled Rach as he brandished his weapons. “We shall fight them ‘til the very last!”
“No you fool! Our ship is too small to be worth boarding! They will fire at us to finish the job any second now!”
Rach turned to Grono and holstered his plasma rifle, sighing in recognition of their situation. As they waited for death to greet them, a prolonged silence came about. After several minutes of waiting, an Unggoy tiptoed over to the battle map and gasped. “We're saved! Imperium come and help us!”
Grono whipped around and examined the battle map, letting out a sigh of relief. Twelve Imperium ships were shown on the board, chasing off the enemy forces. “We live to hunt another day!” Shouted Rach, holding his fist up. The crew cheered and brought their own fists up in unison with him. Soon, the DDS-class heavy carrier from before came over and stopped, looming over the crippled Resonance. A transmission came through to the panel, and Grono answered.
“State your intent here, outsider. We know you are not one of ours, so why not state your business before we decide what to do with you ourselves?”
Grono looked at the panel, distraught. If the negotiations between the Imperium and Shinsu ‘Refum had gone well, he would have a chance of surviving. “I am Shipmaster Grono ‘Yendam of Jul ‘Mdama’s Covenant. I come with no harm intended towards you or your empire. I only wish to vanquish a common enemy, and this is an opportunity.”
He heard a snort of contempt over the line. “Definitely more formal than the Raiding Legion, that is for sure. We have heard your hail and shall extract you from your ship. But be mindful, the Shipmaster will not tolerate any trick you might try to pull like your Kru’desh brothers.”
“I would never consider it. I offer my services to the Shipmaster for now, and shall dutifully serve him with the loyal warriors under my command until the battle is won.”
“Good answer. Exit in your dropship and land in our hangar.”
Soon, Grono, Rach, and the crew were on the ''Resonance''s single Phantom dropship, on a steady course to the carrier, now known to ‘Yendam as ''Blissful Solitude''. They were acknowledged by the ship, and eventually set down in one of the multiple hangars. As Grono and his men marched out, they were greeted by an Imperium officer. “Are you and your men combat-ready?” He asked in a dismissive tone.
Grono answered with a stoic manner, “My men are always ready to battle.”
{{Covenant Time Stamp|1300 Hours, August 29th, 2558
''CCS''-class battlecruiser ''Purveyor of the Righteous'', in orbit above Montak}}
''The battle had arrived.'' Thyl curled his mandibles into a crooked smile, the best his race could do to imitate the human expression. He looked to the display in front of his command chair and the vast starfield it presented. Dozens of ships filled the space, both Covenant and Human, light warships providing escort with the larger ships duked it out with one another and fighters zoomed all around. One ''CCS''-class battlecruiser’s shields flared as it was raked by missile fire from a UNSC destroyer, while a human frigate was consumed stem to stern by plasma torpedoes. This was what he had been waiting for, not raiding a simple supply convoy or frontier colony, but a proper battle. He felt like a true Shipmaster again, and it felt good, but this wasn’t the time to wallow in nostalgia. He only watched the battle for another moment before re-adjusting the display to focus on another battlecruiser, the ''Soul Ascension''.
That ship contained the warriors of Jul ‘Mdama’s Kru’desh Legion and was currently descending through the atmosphere of Montak to deploy her troops to the surface. Thyl had been convinced, monetarily of course, to provide the air cover the Imperium would not, and so he prepared to oblige.
“Thitan, give the word, launch all fighters and prepare weapons. Dispatch the Banshees to aid the ''Ascension'', keep the Seraphs close to draw the attention of any larger ships away and summon the ''High Fervor'' and ''Live Oak'' to us for aid.”
The other Sangheili nodded and sent out the appropriate commands. First out of the ship’s hangars were the light and nimble Type-27 Space Banshees, vacuum-sealed variants of the ubiquitous flier. They had been acquired on Frendhal to replace the ''Purveyor’s'' usual complement of Type-26s and now all fifty of them swarmed from the ship like insects, screaming through the atmosphere to meet up with and provide escort for the ''Soul Ascension''. Following the Banshees came thirty two ''Morsam''-pattern Seraph fighters, fully shielded and bristling with an array of pulse lasers and plasma cannons. These heavier fighters stayed in formation around the ''Purveyor'', lashing out at any craft, human or Sangheili, that strayed too close.
Just as soon as deployment had finished, the bridge shook violently as something impacted against the ship. Thyl looked up to see a pair of arrowhead shaped human destroyers heading towards him, just as the muzzle of its main cannons flashed again. Almost instantly the ship shuddered against the impact of the second MAC round.
“Shields?” He called out.
A lower ranking officer called out, “A 59% and holding, Fleet Master.”
He growled, “Charge weapons and fire! Burn them from this world!”
The ''Purveyor'' lit up as energy was funneled from the reactors to the different weapon ports, like the lateral lines of a predatory animal. Pulse lasers shot out from the ship’s fins to intercept the swarm of missiles fired by the two destroyers, though some still impacted, further draining the shields. Finally, the weapons station reported that the ship’s silos had been loaded and ready to fire.
“Target the lead destroyer and fire silos one through five. Fire!”
On his command, five purple glowing torpedoes shot out of their silos and flew silently through space. The destroyer could do little as it was engulfed by plasma fire, explosions rippling throughout the hull and thoroughly gutting the vessel. Beside it, its companion ship backed off, firing another barrage of missiles to cover its retreat. It fell back just outside of the ''Purveyor’s'' weapons range, where it halted and fired off another shot from its main guns, this one missing the ship by mere meters. Just as it was about to fire again, a barrage of pulse laser fire erupted out of nowhere, several beams lancing the destroyer, burning through the hull though not causing critical damage.
“Where did that come from?” Thyl questioned.
Suddenly, a chirp sounded at the communications station. Thyl motioned for it to be put on and a moment later, two holographic figures appeared on the station before him, one Sangheili and the other human. As they did, a pair of ''CRS''-class light cruisers flew across the screen, raking the human ship with fire. The human smiled and the Sangheili thumped a fist against his chest.
The human, Captain Guzman of the ''Live Oak'', spoke first, “Sorry it took us so long, Fleetmaster, we were caught up with a group of Swords ships.”
Thyl shook his head, “No worries, Captain, you have arrived just in time. Drive the human vessel away and ensure that none make it close to us or the ''Soul Ascension''!”
The other figure, the lithe and generally lanky Thava ‘Mozam, bobbed his head in confirmation, “As you command, Fleetmaster. They shall burn as effigies to the Gods today!”
Thyl narrowed his eyes and rumbled, “Spare me the religious proclamations Shipmaster and do the task as commanded!”
Thava lowered his head slightly and flickered out of existence. Guzman briefly glanced over at where the other hologram had been before looking back to Thyl and nodded, “We’ll get it done, Fleetmaster.”
“See to it that you do, Captain. We are being compensated greatly for our efforts and I will see that we complete our contract.”
Without further conversation, Guzman blinked off. Back on the viewscreen, the two light cruisers took up flanking positions some distance away from the ''Purveyor'', working in tandem with the ''Purveyor’s'' own fighters to establish a perimeter away from Thyl’s ship and the ''Soul Ascension'' below.
Trabetus felt the adrenaline coursing throughout his entire body as his fighter sailed through the atmosphere and past the bulk of the Covenant battlecruiser. The ship, the ''Soul Ascension'', had ceased its descent through the atmosphere, holding position far above the surface to safely disgorge its complement for the battle soon to come. The cruiser could hold its own against any stray fighters they veered too close with its point defense weapons, and so the Banshees continued down through the clouds to the dusty world below.
Only moments later, the mass of fliers emerged from the cloud layer and out into the open, revealing their targets: a mass of human dropships and their fighter escorts, zooming towards the ground below. A toothy grin emerged on Trabetus’ face at the shooting gallery this was certain to become. He heard the flight leader give the order to attack and angled his Banshee sharply downwards. The purple alien fighter wailed as it sped through the air towards the ground at supersonic speeds. Though it had been designed for combat in the cold void of space, it was still a nimble opponent in atmosphere.
At this point, the enemy aircraft had probably picked up the incoming Banshees, but there was little they could do as the mass of craft swarmed towards them. Trabetus thumbed the firing mechanisms in front of him and the Banshee’s weapons came to life, its two heavy plasma cannons spewing white hot bolts down onto the dropships below. Armor sizzled and melted as the shots impacted, a few lucky ones managing to hit one of the rear thruster nacelles, which soon sputtered with smoke and then fire as the dropship lost control and spun away into oblivion.
He looked around the canopy and saw several other human dropships careening towards the floor. It was at that moment that a nearby Banshee was suddenly engulfed in fire, most of it was blown apart in the explosion and what was left of the twisted husk fell to the ground below. Almost immediately afterwards, another of the fliers was torn apart, and another, and another. It rapidly became clear what was happening as his canopy darkened around him and the massive delta wing shaped craft flew overhead. ''Longswords'', he thought to himself, cursing as another fighter went down. He was familiar with them as more than a few of the human pilots in their cell operated the disturbingly massive fighters.
Trabetus and several others broke off their attack on the Pelicans and redirected themselves towards the Longswords. Plasma bolts flew through the air and impacted against their hulls but it did little, the Longswords’ armor was too thick and the plasma too weak to do any significant damage against it. He fell in line behind one of the big fighters and switched to his secondary weapon and, after a brief lock-on period, fired. The globular green orb flew out from the Banshee’s undercarriage and zipped off towards the Longsword, following the heat expelled by its huge engines. The pilots tried to dodge, but it did little to shake the fuel rod which continued to grow closer. It exploded against one of its engines, blowing it apart and rupturing one of the nearby fuel cells, sending a larger secondary explosion cascading through the ship. The fighter was torn apart in a spectacularly violent fashion, sending debris flying in every direction, a particularly large fragment missing Trabetus’ flier by inches.
His comm barked to life, “All fighters, allied dropships are in bound, protect the Kru’desh! Ensure they reach the surface!”
Almost immediately, a group of fast moving Phantom dropships burst through the clouds, hurtling towards the ground. As if on command, the human fighters redirected their attack towards the Phantoms. In response, the entire flight of Banshees did the same, targeting the Longswords in an attempt to keep them away from the friendly dropships. Several of the Longswords broke off their attack and swung around to face the incoming Banshees. Plasma bolts, fuel rods, 50mm shells, and rockets all flew through the air, melting armor and blasting apart the fragile fliers. The sky was marked by explosions as ships from both sides were destroyed in the huge aerial melee.
Trabetus craned his neck upward as a Longsword sailed overhead, heading towards a trio of Phantoms. There were no other fighters in range and if it got close enough, it would surely destroy them. Faced with little options, he pulled back on the attitude controls, rocketing the small craft upwards. Once he had gained the altitude advantage over the human ship, he positioned himself in a flight path parallel to the Longsword’s own. After catching up with it, he threw the Banshee into a tight turn, angling it towards the Longsword and engaging its boost. His ship screamed through the air as it zoomed towards it, aiming at the cockpit where its two co-pilots operated the hulking thing. He had to time this just right or he would wind up fried alongside his human opponents. His ship came within meters of the Longsword’s cockpit and its pilots tried to maneuver away but it was too late. Trabetus just about smashed his fist into the firing mechanism, the green orb of the fuel rod shot out and impacted near point-blank against the cockpit, vaporizing the occupants and searing the underside of his Banshee.
Warning klaxons rang in his ear as the Banshee’s internal sensors were overloaded by the damage caused by the explosion. He looked off to his side to see the Longsword falling lifelessly from the sky, the only problem was that he was too. He threw the controls in almost every direction, hoping for some sort of response and received almost nothing. Maybe the power was out, so he tried switching to the redundant generator and still nothing. He still had just enough control to angle the craft very slightly, and thankfully the wing assemblies hadn’t been damaged, so he could still glide it in. In theory of course, as Trabetus had never attempted such a maneuver, neither in the Covenant, nor as a freelance pilot on Diosac, or a pirate in service to Fleetmaster Zantak, but he was going to have to try now or be killed in a fiery explosion when his ship struck the ground.
He knew which he preferred and so went to it, minutely adjusting the elevators to keep the ship angled slightly down, but not too much as to instigate a stall and subsequent freefall. Without the assistance of the gravity generators that allowed the Banshee to float or impulse drives that produced the thrust necessary for flight, he needed to ensure that he remain as aerodynamic as possible. If he lost what little lift was keeping him in the air, he’d plummet through the air like a rock and face a very horrible death on the ground below.
Despite the lack of powered flight, the ground approached remarkably quickly, the almost orange colored sand of the desert rising up to meet him. He had been aiming for where the Kru’desh troops had begun landing and could now see the Phantoms and troops, whom had already engaged the human forces on the ground. These would be the most crucial moments and if he failed here, he’d never have another chance. Without instruments telling him his altitude, he would have to judge it by eye. When he reached what he thought was about fifty meters off the ground, he angled the Banshee down to the point where it was just barely scraping the ground. Of course, without gravity generators, this would be a rough landing no matter how he did it so he figured he might as well make some use out of his dead aircraft and aimed for the nearest group of humans.
When it hit the ground, it hit hard, throwing sand and rocks up into the air. The human squad in front of him only had the briefest of moments to turn and see what was making such a noise. The last thing he saw of them before they were eviscerated by the Banshee’s hulk was a look of pure terror. He plowed through them and continued on for another twenty meters or so before coming to a stop against a large rock. Once he was certain that he had stopped and wasn’t dead, he smashed the emergency release button which blew the canopy off moments later. Trabetus hopped out of the wreckage and grabbed his Spike Rifle off of his hip, looking for the nearest cover, and targets. Perhaps if he fought with these Kru’desh, he might be able to get a ride back to the ''Purveyor.'' Either way, he relished the chance to taste human blood once again.
{{Name|Lieutenant Davis}}
===39: Dogfight===
{{UNSC Time Stamp|1205 Hours, August 29th, 2558
UNSC ''Caspian'', Montak Orbit}}
Erika Ruskin raced across the hangar bay in full gear, just ahead of her squadron. Roused from their sleep less than twenty minutes prior, the twenty-four pilots of the 83rd Tactical Fighter Wing would be among the last to launch from the cruiser, which shuddered slightly as its twin MAC guns fired once again.
"Pick up the pace, people!" she called back to her grumbling subordinates. "We don't wanna look bad in front of those Navy boys, do we?"
As they jogged along a gantry at the side of the hangar, a Longsword fighter rocketed out from its dock and through the hazy energy barrier into space. Erika ducked instinctively for a second as it passed overhead, but kept up the pace towards their launch bay. Just ahead of them, a small gaggle of pilots from another unit emerged from a side passage, still zipping up their flightsuits and moving shakily. Spotting a bald man with a slight limp, she smiled.
Rodney Shaw turned, and gave a half-hearted wave that quickly turned into the sloppiest salute she'd ever seen. The three men alongside him barely bothered to give Erika a second glance as they moved into the next bay, where row after row of Broadswords were being moved into place and sent out to join the battle.
"Captain Ruskin," her old friend strode alongside her as they neared their ships. "I thought you would've launched by now."
"We got held back," she shrugged. "Half the fleet's got its fighters out defending our landing ships, so they sent the Navy out first to test the waters. What about you?"
"Turns out a couple of our boys didn't pay attention to the 'don't drink yourself stupid the night before deployment' rule, so our Captain put me in charge of rounding up stragglers."
Erika looked towards the miserable-looking pilots ahead of her. "How'd you manage that?"
"Buckets of icy water and lots of shouting, mostly. If that won't wake them up then the enemy will."
The group soon reached their boarding station, where a crew of technicians directed each pilot to his or her craft. As they neared the front of the queue, a mischievous grin crept across Shaw's face. Erika raised an eyebrow.
"What's on your mind?" she asked, giving an exaggerated sigh.
"Want a bet?" he whispered, leaning in conspiratorially. "A hundred creds says I take down more than you."
"You've never won one of these, you know."
"Yeah, but I'm feeling lucky, and between you and me, these younger guys don't have the same sense of humour. The war's over for a few years and a few of them are already whining about how it's 'disrespectful' to count kills."
"Bunch of babies," Erika shook her head in disdain. "I'm in."
"Great!" Shaw grinned, and straightened up as they neared the front of the line. "I'll see you once we're back to pick up my winnings."
With that, he walked off to rejoin his men, heading up one ramp while Erika's squadron were directed to a cargo elevator to the upper gantry. There, their F-41 Broadsword fighters were being loaded one-by-one onto launch platforms. In normal situations this would have been a much slower, more careful process, but with an enemy fleet right ahead the ''Caspian'' was capable of launching four ships per-platform a minute. As squadron leader, Erika was first, and walked forward as her tally-marked ship was set in position. As she clambered up onto the wing, she put on her silver-visored helmet and rapped her knuckles over the faceplate before getting into the cockpit.
"This is November One," Erika activated the ship's COM, already thumbing switches as the panels around her lit up. "All systems are operational and I'm good to go."
There was a brief delay as the nearby technicians cleared the platform and and made one last technical scan. Erika sat back and steadied her breathing, as she did before every launch. While she felt nothing but exhilaration while flying, there was always that inkling of fear that she fought to keep down; the little voice in her head that informed her of everything that could go wrong. She'd been dealing with that one since she'd seen her first combat action over Reach. Eventually, a voice from the nearby control tower responded.
"November One, you're good to go. Good luck out there."
Erika kicked her thusters into gear and shot out of the ''Caspian'' like a bullet, putting a good bit of distance between her fighter and the cruiser before turning. The Sixth Fleet had moved into combat positions, with smaller ships spread out in front of larger, more important vessels. Erika allowed her ship to drift as she awaited the rest of her squadron, who emerged one-by-one from the ship's launch bay. As she waited, she watched as the immense bulk of an ''Orion''-class assault carrier flew overhead, supported by four smaller frigates as it moved to support a cluster of friendly Sangheili vessels.
Checking a tactical readout of the local area as each of her squadron mates announced their departure from the ''Caspian'', Erika saw that the majority of the fighting seemed to be occurring around one of Montak's moons. The UNSC ''Maya'' - Rear Admiral Hawkins' ship and one of their primary deployment vessels - was standing its ground well, keeping the Imperium's banshee fighter swarms at bay with its autocannons while Broadsword and Longsword fighters fought desperate battles to protect craft ferrying troops to the surface. Soon enough, They would join that battle too.
"This is November Fourteen," one of Erika's men, Aizawa, contacted her. "Spotting a lot of hostiles out there, Captain. How're we going into this?"
Checking her displays, Erika caught sight of Shaw and his three wingmen flying off towards the ''Maya'' and the battle raging around it, likely to rejoin whatever remained of their comrades. Most of her squadron had deployed now, their fighters drifting lazily while they awaited their orders.
"Orders were to protect those transports, so that's what we'll do. All fighters, move into four-ship echelon formations by callsign and follow me. Once we're within engagement range we'll move to intercept."
With that, the 83rd TFW set off, steadily approaching the besieged colony world. Far ahead of them, tiny pinpricks of light and brief flashes of fire grew larger and larger, and Erika realised that she had underestimated the sheer size of the fight ahead. Banshee fighters flew in tightly-packed swarms, breaking off as they approached targets to unleash a hail of plasma fire and green energy bolts. One of the ''Maya'''s defenders, an ''Anlace''-class frigate, began to break apart from the sheer number of strikes from the bombardment punctured its hull.
The situation with the transports was only mildly better. While the ''Maya'' had already launched most of its groundside complement, other troop-carrying craft and lightly-armed dropships were falling prey to strafing runs from three-fighter Seraph groups, harried all the way by groups of hopelessly outnumbered Longswords. Shaw's fighters joined the pursuit, and through bursts of sustained fire and missile volleys soon reduced one group to hunks of burning metal. Watching as another wave of banshees peeled off from the primary dogfight around one of Montak's moons, Erika chose to make her move.
"All fighters, you may engage freely, but stay on the defensive. We've got to cover those transports."
A chorus of affirmatives sounded over the COM, and the 83rd entered the fray. Coming in from above, Erika activated her fighter's twin autocannons and let loose on the lightly-armoured banshees. Similar in design to its atmospheric variant, the craft barely stood a chance against the Broadswords, with pinpoint strikes from the human ships disrupting their formation and forcing them to scatter to avoid crashing into their exploding brethren. Two of her wingmen, Strauss and Holloway, moved up on either side of Erika as she pursued small clusters of enemy craft. Without their numerical advantage and combined firepower, these banshees much less dangerous to fight.
"Just picked up more incoming impulse drive signatures," Strauss warned Erika as they foiled an enemy strafing run on the ''Maya''. "We've got Liches inbound."
Sure enough, six of the fearsome Covenant-made deployment craft had emerged from behind the nearby moon, heading not towards the dropships trying to enter Montak's orbit, but for the ''Maya'' itself.
"They're going to try and board the ''Maya''!" Erika's wing changed course, heading right for these new targets. "If you're not already engaged, break off and intercept them immediately; target them from below!"
Aizawa spoke up. "More Seraphs are heading our way too."
"We'll deal with them when the time comes."
Moving back into formation, the Broadswords pushed on, weaving through streams of incoming plasma fire as more teardrop-shaped Seraph fighters emerged to defend the Liches. Erika winced as a few direct hits splashed off the energy shielding over her cockpit - a death sentence had she been in her old Longsword - and pulled up, spinning to avoid subsequent hits as one enemy fighter remained on her tail.
"This is November One," Erika continued to weave around enemy fire "Got a hostile on my six and could use a little help here. Anyone around to assist?"
Wrenching back on the controls, she pulled her fighter up, missing one of the advancing Liches by metres as the Broadsword continued to ascend. On her helmet's heads-up display, a green blip appeared far ahead of her.
"Captain, pull right, now!"
It was one of the younger pilots, Ward. Erika did as she was told and cut her engines for a second, allowing her to turn the craft just enough to jet off the moment they kicked in again. A second later, six missiles streaked past and hit the Seraph head-on, disrupting its shields and knocking it off-course just long enough for the other fighter to tear it to shreds with its cannons.
"Thanks for the save," Erika breathed a sigh of relief, turning back towards their target.
Of the incoming Liches, one had been gutted by Erika's squadron and another was drifting, its engines a smoky ruin. However, four more had joined the battle and were quickly catching up to their beleaguered comrades As Erika set the closest transport as a target, she caught sight of the distant UNSC ''Maya'' turning, and her computer shrieked as a dozen warnings flooded in.
"All fighters, scatter!"
Erika's craft turned and sped off. The pilot's eyes darted between the cockpit viewscreen and the indicator below as the far-off battleship launched a torrent of missiles.
"Shit, it's firing Howlers!" Strauss cursed over the COM. "That's a bit much for troop transports!"
He was right. Either someone aboard the ''Maya'' felt that their fighters needed some assistance and went overboard, or they felt that the fighters defending them simply weren't enough to counter the Lich boarding parties. Erika kept going as the Howler missiles struck their targets, enveloping the Liches and much of the surrounding area in massive blasts. Any fighters - friendly or hostile - close to the transports were utterly vaporised in moments.
"A bit much is right," Erika shook her head. "Those things are meant to be used against capital ships. Squadron, regroup into your formations and sound off."
In the confusion of that iniital dogfight, Erika hadn't had time to check if they had taken losses. By the time each member of the squadron had called in, it was clear that they had lost three of their number in less than ten minutes. Hoping that none of them had perished alongside those Liches, she swept up behind a pair of fleeing banshees and destroyed them with two quick cannon bursts as Strauss, Holloway and Ward's fighters formed up behind her.
"Got eyes on a landing craft," Holloway pinged Erika as they searched for a new engagement. "It's one of ours, and a big one at that."
"Looks like just one fighter, but there's a Seraph formation closing in on it."
"Copy, we'll move to support."
The four Broadswords changed course and accelerated to attack speed, honing in on the nine enemy fighters ahead. Catching sight of them, the landing craft began to descend rapidly into Montak's atmosphere in an attempt to lose its pursuers while the single escort fighter flew in alone to intercept the Seraphs. Even from this distance, Erika could tell that the pilot was trying to draw their attention away from the unarmed ship, and likely had no intention of actually winning such a fight.
"This is November One!" Erika hailed the fighter. "Friendly fighter, we see you and are coming in for support. Hang in there!"
Moments later, a familiar voice responded. "Ruskin, mind hurrying it up? I'll beat your score for sure if you don't come in and get some of the kills."
It was Rodney Shaw. Erika smirked, though she soon realised that the veteran pilot had likely lost his hungover wingmen in the fighting already and was battling for his life. As soon as they were in range, Erika loosed a few missiles at the closest Seraph, which had already lost its shields. The Sangheili craft veered off to one side, plummeting towards Montak, where it would likely disintegrate as it burned up on re-entry. Five enemy ships turned to engage them, though the rest continued to pursue the landing vessel, with Shaw not far behind them.
"You guys deal with these fighters," she signalled her wingmen. "I'll cover that transport!"
In truth, Erika was hoping to help her friend. Shaw was a good enough pilot to have survived the war, but the man was reckless. Trying to take on that many ships at once was suicidal, and he knew it. Saving all the troops aboard the other ship would just be an added reward. Her craft juddered and shook violently as it entered Montak's atmosphere, though the fighter's readings remained stable. With little visibility, she was forced to rely on Shaw's distant IFF reading until she cleared the clouds, emerging high above the rocky landscape of the desolate planet.
"Shaw, I'm moving up to provide cover," she pinged him again. "What's your status?"
"Took one out during re-entry and I'm hammering anoth- oh, got it - but the other two are a pain in my ass."
"And the transport?"
"It got away. Our boys on the ground are going to have some new toys soon enough."
For a man under heavy fire from several plasma cannons, Shaw did a good job of staying calm. He had once joked to Erika that after being shot down in one of his first battles - an incident that cost him two limbs and scarred most of his body - he had lost the ability to feel fear, but she knew pilot bravado when she heard it. In the distance, she sighted Shaw's tiny craft screaming through the sky above a mountain range, keeping as low as possible with two Seraphs not far behind. Erika soon gave chase, keeping at a higher altitude until a sharp turn from her fellow pilot forced the Sangheili fighters to slow down slightly, giving her a chance to attack.
"Shaw, I'm coming in hot from above. Now's your chance to engage!"
Targeting the rear Seraph, she moved downward, peppering its shields with 35mm rounds as it tried in vain to evade. The moment its shields wavered and fell, she launched four Medusa missiles at the craft. All found their mark, and sent what little remained of the Seraph crashing into a barren mountainside. Erika pulled up out of her dive quickly, adjusting her thrusters to level the craft out before continuing her pursuit of the final craft.
This one was proving quite a challenge. Unlike the others, this Seraph seemed to be focusing more on speed than firepower, and was swiftly gaining on Shaw's Broadsword. By the time she got within firing range, Erika's targeting computer had a hard time telling the two ships apart due to their closeness. Unable to fire her missiles for fear of accidentally blowing her friend out of the sky, she simply increased her speed.
"Damnnit," Shaw's annoyed voice sounded over the COM. "This one's sticking to me, Ruskin. He's barely firing either."
"He knows I'm chasing you. He shoots you down, I get him."
The older pilot laughed. "So he's playing chicken?"
"Looks that way."
"Pretty smart for a split-lip. Tell you what: I'm going to cut my engines. The moment I do that, I'll drop in speed and this bastard's gonna have to turn and fire. That's when you hit him."
"Got it." Erika primed four more missiles to fire, and prepared to lock on.
Shaw sighed. "Okay, three, two-"
Suddenly, the Seraph, which had been almost close enough to touch Shaw's Broadsword, put on a surprising burst of speed before its impulse drive sent it upwards at a near-vertical angle. A small device dropped out of the craft just as Shaw cut the Broadsword's engines, tumbling down until it struck the fighter's cockpit. There was a brilliant flash of white energy, and the ship vanished.
Erika froze up for a moment, with the sight of her friend and mentor's ship outlined against the blast still burned into her retinas. Shock and disbelief turned to anger in a second, and as she gripped her controls and targeted the Seraph, she saw that it was turning back around to face her.
''Find peace, Foren. I have avenged you.''
Commander Nilen 'Feru sighed deeply as his Seraph shot into the sky, barely escaping the blast radius of the exploding plasma charge. These human pilots were tenacious indeed, and he respected their willingness to fight on against all odds. He had seen their might tested against the Imperium's many times today, and knew that few pilots would return to the ''Keen Eyes'' after today. Nonetheless, his job was not yet done, and the ''Huntsman'' turned to face the final enemy fighter.
"You made me lose my primary target," he murmured to himself. "Though you will make up for that with your deaths."
The Seraph span across Montak's skies, its plasma cannon blaring against the hail of gunfire from the incoming enemy fighter. Both ships unleashed their arsenal against each other, weaving around missiles and plasma blasts before passing by each other at frightening speed. Such a duel might have continued for some time, but as Nilen turned his silver craft around for another attack, the clouds grew dark and parted as a human frigate descended upon them. Its cannons span up and targeted his craft, but Nilen had quickly grown accustomed to their speed. If that ship had passed down here unscathed, then it likely meant that his brothers in orbit were dead or had fallen back. That would be troublesome.
Realising that a flight back into space would likely see him shot down by the remaining human craft, which continued to drain his shielding with intermittent bursts of fire and pursued him with astounding ferocity, Nilen decided to flee towards the battlefront. While he and his fellow pilots had been tasked with preventing enemy landing parties from establishing a beachhead on Montak's surface, the Swords of Sanghelios had been quicker than expected in making landfall and had assisted their human allies as they prepared for an all-out assault on the fortified mining complex up ahead.
"Commander!" one of Nilen's subordinates contacted him at last. "My most sincere of apologies, but we were forced into retreat by the humans. We have reunited with several allied fighter wings, but cannot ascertain your location."
Nilen nodded, simply glad to see his allies alive. Keep fighting as you are, brother. I have been forced off-course and will find you when I can."
"But Commander-"
"Do as I say, Gaqa," he finally recognised who he was speaking to. "I am being hunted right now and will have to risk everything to survive. Do not throw away your life trying to reach me!"
There was no response, which he took as an affirmative. As he tried to direct his ship through a narrow canyon, more missiles struck the cliffs ahead of Nilen's Seraph, sending chunks of rock down into his path. Though he tugged at the controls and set the ''Huntsman'' off to one side, several struck his fighter, damaging the shields and forcing him further away from his intended path. His Broadsword pursuer opened fire yet again, and as he finally crested the hill overlooking what had once been a massive swathe of empty land, now turned into a blood-soaked battlefield, the Sangheili pilot realised that he would not escape this one.
As the ''Huntsman'' shot through the skies, over the dusty plains filled with battling warriors, advancing armour divisions and corpse-laden fields, his shields finally failed. Even as half a dozen plasma batteries span towards the human fighter, it was too late for him. Before pulling up, the Broadsword fired its missiles one more time. Nilen turned to evade as best he could, but each struck the right side of his craft in rapid succession. The ship's impulse drives flickered out, and for a moment he glided over the carnage, losing altitude by the second. He gripped the stering yoke tightly, and closed his eyes.
''Luia. Niru. Lano. Bzan. I'm sorry.''
The Seraph hit the ground.
{{B001 Sig V3}}
===40: Landfall===
{{Covenant Time Stamp|1304 Hours, August 29th, 2558
''CCS''-class battlecruiser ''Soul Ascension'', on atmospheric descent over Montak}}
“The vanguard dropships are reporting imminent contact with the enemy.” Diana sounded amused even when reporting routine battle developments, as if the whole display were simply a show put on for her enjoyment. “The drop zone is right where I predicted it would be.”
“And did I say anything about doubting you?” Stray slung his shotgun over his back alongside the machete. He stood before a row of Lich gunboats in the ''Soul Ascension''’s central hangar as Kru’desh warriors loaded the vehicles and ordnance too heavy to be carried in by the vanguard force. “Right on the mark, as always.”
“Such sincere flattery. You must be in a good mood.”
“Maybe that nasty Sangheili wine was better for me than I gave it credit for.” Truth be told, Stray’s mood was far from good. In addition to the twitching anxiety he always felt in the face of imminent combat, he still resented the need to throw his forces into the meat grinder of a frontal assault. There’d been hardly any time to plan and so he was relying on the sheer audacity of the abrupt assault to carry his forces to victory. At least he could rely on the Sangheili to embrace the combat. Hopefully their enthusiasm bled over into the Unggoy and Kig-Yar.
His helmet com crackled as Ro’nin contacted him from the bridge. “The Marauders kept up their end of the bargain. We made it through the atmosphere in one piece.”
“Good.” Stray draped a purple command shawl over his shoulder in place of the dirty poncho he’d once worn during his mercenary days. Those times seemed like a distant memory in the face of everything that had happened since then. “Make sure the ship is still that way when I get back.”
He dimly recalled Chief Mendez or one of the other drill instructors from Onyx shoving his ten-year old self’s face into the mud, screaming about how he’d ruined an ambush and gotten his entire team killed. Now he stood in the hangar of a Covenant battlecruiser—his battlecruiser—and directed the movements of an entire legion. A legion soaring into battle against humanity.
''They’re the UNSC. Not humanity,'' he reminded himself, as he did every time he ordered the Kru’desh into battle against his former masters. ''The enemy. They’ve always been the enemy.'' How was this any different from killing UNSC for the Insurrection, or the Syndicate, or any other way he’d fought back over the years?
The galaxy was upside down. But when had it ever been right side up?
He wondered if Amber felt the same way. Tuka would report on how she fought once this battle was over. If any of them survived.
Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of Shinsu ‘Refum approaching along the catwalk. The special operations commander observed the battle preparations with his usual appraising eye, like a merchant inspecting potential wares.
“Awfully sweet of you, coming to see me off,” Stray said as Shinsu drew near. “I’m surprised you’re still on the ship. Wouldn’t you be safer somewhere else?”
“Not if things go according to your plan,” Shinsu replied. “Besides, thanks to your warriors there are precious few ships in the Imperium fleet that would take me. Hopefully your actions down on the surface rectify that.”
“We’ll see.” Stray nodded towards the warriors boarding a plate-armored Lich—his own personal command center, purchased from the Banished during the last Kru’desh raiding campaign. “I don’t plan to leave anything standing down there. That ought to show them we mean business.”
“I will be observing this operation with interest.” Shinsu turned to leave. “I can only hope my faith in you is rewarded.”
Stray watched the Sangheili depart, then turned to board his Lich. He stepped through the warriors still making their final preparations and approached a small command table bolted into the center of the crew cabin. A holographic display of the battlespace sprang to life in front of him, displaying the Soul Ascension and the trajectory of the vanguard dropships—and most importantly, the stream of UNSC and Swords of Sanghelios landing craft they were about to intercept.
He tightened his fists against the table’s surface, body tensing for the firestorm about to ignite on his command
The Lich shuddered beneath him. The row of gunboats slipped out from the ''Soul Ascension’s'' hangar and adopted a loose deployment formation as they soared towards Montak’s foothills. Deep in the clouds below, plasma fire flared as the Kru’desh hunters found their targets.
“Contact imminent!” the baymaster barked. “Break’s over, ''krudeshi'', back to work!”
''Krudeshi'', the condemned. Back before Stray seized control of the legion that word was more than just an insult. Assignment to the legion was a death sentence.
But not today, Tuka reminded himself. He wanted to stay low, crouching on the deck of the troop bay and fighting to master his own pounding nerves. But he wasn’t a terrified Covenant conscript anymore. He was a lance leader and he had a duty beyond himself.
“Prepare for combat!” he yelled over the whine of Phantom engines. He rose to stand amidst his warriors, magnetic seals on his feet holding him steady even as the dropship jerked and weaved. He could only imagine the chaos raging just meters away outside the sealed troop bay. “Tight groupings, don’t waste a shot!”
He nodded to the Unggoy gunners on either sides of the bay. The squat warriors watched him expectantly, stubby thumbs twitching against the firing stubs of their plasma cannons.
“Here we go!” Mihka yelled from the cockpit. “Humans and Reds! Clear them out! These are my skies!”
Reds, one of the less vulgar names the Covenant had for their Swords of Sanghelios foes. Upper-class aristocrats fighting to restore the privileges their keeps enjoyed under the old, pre-Covenant order. For all their claims to progress and freedom they were simply ambitious upstarts who saw Thel ‘Vadam as the one who would defend their power.
Human, Sangheili, noble, commoner. In the end it didn’t matter. The enemy was the enemy, as Stray often said. Kill them before they killed you.
Air howled as the troop bay unsealed, revealing a sky swarming with enemy dropships. Human Pelicans and the red-tinged Sword Phantoms were everywhere, plunging down towards Montak’s surface even as the Kru’desh dropships slammed through their formation like a rusty blade.
The door gunners were already firing, raking the enemy with streams of plasma. Burning plasma filled the sky as Kru’desh Phantoms and Banshees rained fire down on the enemy ships.
Tuka seized hold of Pugi’s combat harness, steadying the Unggoy as he took aim with his fuel rod cannon. “Hit the Phantoms!” he shouted over the roar of wind and plasma fire. “Let the gunners handle their Pelicans.” The human dropships were heavily armored, but they lacked the Phantom’s full range of fire. The Kru’desh took full advantage of this weakness, ripping into the Pelican’s sides and gutting them with savage precision.
One dropship burst apart before Tuka’s eyes, scattering flailing human bodies across the sky like leaves from a tree. Death filled the air everywhere he looked.
Mihka jerked the Phantom to avoid a blast of missiles from another Pelican. Tuka and the rest of his lance grabbed for handholds to steady themselves just as a Swords Phantom swung in alongside them, guns swiveling into position.
For a moment Tuka could see the enemy warriors inside the dropship, close enough that he could hear their battle cries. Then Pugi emptied his fuel rods into their troop bay, ripping the warriors apart in a torrent of green fire and sending the ruined dropship falling out of the sky.
“Good kill!” Tuka congratulated the Unggoy as he reloaded. Pugi nodded up at him, then brought the cannon back over his shoulder and kept firing.
Had Stray’s plan succeeded? There was no way to tell. Amidst the aerial chaos all Tuka and his warriors could do was shoot at every new target and take the fact that they weren’t dead as a sign of victory. Enemy troop ships fell burning from the sky one after the other, but a few were managing to maneuver and return fire. A Pelican’s missile barrage blasted a Kru’desh Phantom to pieces just as it dropped into formation above Mihka. A burst of plasma fire slashed across their troop bay; Tuka pulled Pugi back from the opening as his shields flared. One of the gunners stopped firing and fell lifeless from the dropship.
Tuka began to call one of his warriors up to take the dead Unggoy’s place but someone was already there. Amber took up position at the plasma cannon and returned fire, ripping into the enemy Phantom trying to line up another shot on them. Ier stepped up beside her, lobbing shots from his grenade launcher up into the Phantom’s engines. The dropship stalled and lost altitude; Mihka finished it off with a burst of plasma from her main guns.
A ping from the Kru’desh battle network drew Tuka’s attention. ''“Nice kills down there.”'' Stray’s voice was tight with concentration. ''“You’ve got them running scared. Let the Marauders handle the stragglers and form up for ground assault. I want that landing zone cleared!”''
Tuka barked the commands back to his lance. They pulled away from the edge, reloading their weapons as Mihka pulled the Phantom into formation with the rest of the Kru’desh dropships. The sky, so full of ships moments before, seemed empty as they left the remnants of battle behind. They pulled beneath the clouds as the arid plains of Montak spread out beneath them.
It was Tuka’s first real look at the planet they defended. Montak was a vast rocky savannah dotted by patches of forests and winding rivers. In a way, it reminded Tuka of the plains of Sanghelios where he had grown up. It was strangely comforting. He had not seen his homeworld in years.
The momentary wave of nostalgia was shattered by the trio of armored Seraph bombers that swept past the dropship formation. Tuka could just make out the insignia of the Marauders painted on the nearest craft’s hull as the attack wing angled towards a faint cluster of shapes on the ground below.
“You lot ready for a light show?” the baymaster asked. He grinned at Tuka, leaning out of the drop bay with a practiced ease the younger warrior envied. In the distance, wreckage from destroyed troop transports fell from the clouds like an eerie metal rain.
The Seraphs blew over the enemy landing zone. Scattered shots rose up from the ground in a futile attempt to intercept them, but none found their mark. For a moment, everything was still.
Then the ground disappeared in a plasma inferno.
Tuka shielded his eyes. For a moment it seemed like the entire plain was transformed into a corner of hell. The Kru’desh Phantoms descended into the blaze, which parted to reveal a vast stretch of scorched earth. Ruined war machines and their dead operators burned on the ground. A sickly sweet stench wafted up into the Phantom. Tuka had stood on enough battlefields across the frontier to know the scent of roasting flesh.
The baymaster laughed. “You young ones should appreciate support like this while you can. I can’t tell you how many human positions I burned out in the last war.”
Tuka choked back his revulsion and drew his carbine. Soldiers and vehicles were still moving amidst the wreckage. Far too many.
“Your free ride is over,” Mihka announced. “Anyone left on my ship had better be ready to pay me.”
The Phantoms spread out over the ruined landing zones, firing down on the survivors. At the gun beside Tuka, Amber cut down one runner after another with precise, accurate bursts. She seemed to pick her targets methodically, bringing down human Marines with quick bursts and then cutting down Red Sangheili with longer streams to overwhelm their shields. Tuka couldn’t see her face behind her helmet’s concealing visor—was she dispassionate in dealing death, he wondered, or was there a furious snarl hidden there?
Unfamiliar ally or not, she certainly knew how to handle a plasma turret.
Gunfire clattered off the Phantom’s hull as a human shot up from behind a ruined tank. Tuka snapped his carbine up and picked the shooter off, then waved his lance forward.
“Finish this!” he yelled with false bravado. “Follow me!”
The baymaster shoved Amber away from the plasma turret and took up the weapon. She flinched and raised a fist, then caught herself and readied her machine gun. The baymaster just laughed. “Good luck down there!” he yelled, blasting away with the turret.
More humans were taking up positions, desperately trying to shore up their shattered defenses. Tuka saw Sangheili figures moving in the smoke behind them. A Wraith tank drifted into position, lobbing immense plasma shots up toward the Phantoms.
No more hesitation. Tuka screwed his courage and leaped down from the dropship. He struck the ground with a thud, feeling the heat from the scorched ground even through his armor. He charged forward, trusting that his lance would follow behind him.
The chaos of battle engulfed him once again.
Trabetus felt the heat from the plasma bombs cooking him inside his armor. The pain was bad, but at least it proved he was still alive. Had he been just a moment slower—throwing himself beneath a human Warthog when he saw the Seraphs swooping in for their bombing run—he’d have been caught in the open when the plasma torpedoes detonated.
Killed by his own bombers. Trabetus would have been the laughing stock of the Marauders if that was how he met his end. And he had no intention of dying here.
He scrambled out from beneath the Warthog as soon as the air cleared. Screams from the wounded and dying filled the air as the landing zone dissolved into chaos. One human toppled out of the very Warthog Trabetus had used for cover, shrieking in agony as flames consumed his body. Trabetus watched him writhe for a moment, then knelt and used his spike rifle’s bayonet to put the creature out of his misery.
The bombers pulled off their attack run with spectacular success, but the survivors were regrouping with impressive speed. A Sangheili officer bellowed orders over the din of battle, throwing humans and Sangheili alike into a defensive formation and reorganizing the Wraiths and Scorpion tanks that were still operational. He was so fierce and imposing that even the humans leaped at his command without hesitation. But the Kru’desh dropships were already closing in, laying into the survivors with withering plasma fire.
One Sangheili leaped at Trabetus, energy sword in hand. The warrior shoved him back against the charred Warthog and raised his blade for a killing blow. Trabetus caught the warrior’s wrist with his free hand and struggled to throw him back. The Sangheili ignited his wrist gauntlet and stabbed at his side. With a desperate snarl, Trabetus brought his spike rifle up and slashed his opponent’s throat. The Sangheili went limp and Trabetus tossed the corpse aside. Another Sangheili emerged from the smoke, raising his carbine even with half his body scorched with plasma burns. Trabetus emptied his spiker into the newcomer, turning his unwounded side into a pincushion.
Across the battlefield the Kru’desh leaped down from their Phantoms. They descended on the defender’s line with a fury to match the plasma storm that heralded their arrival. The defenders held firm at first, meeting the Kru’desh with a barrage of bullets and plasma. But the Covenant warriors did not falter and Trabetus watched the battle become an all-out rout. Humans and Sangheili alike scattered before the Covenant assault, fleeing in all directions like a panicked herd.
Trabetus hurried forward to join the Covenant battle line. He’d been supremely lucky so far—he was not going to tempt fate and find himself skewered out of hand by some beaten Sangheili.
The nearest group of warriors—a full complement of Sangheili, Kig-Yar, and Unggoy—advanced on what few defenders still held their line. Trabetus rushed to join them, then jerked his spiker up when he saw an armored human train a machine gun at his head.
“Hold fire!” the group’s leader, a younger Sangheilli in blue armor, barked. To Trabetus’s surprise and relief, the human obeyed. He noticed that this human had splashes of purple paint sloppily spread over its shoulders and gauntlets.
So the Kru’desh counts humans amongst its ranks. He’d heard rumors of a human officer lurking within the Covenant’s raiding legion, but perhaps there were even more of their kind scattered among them. But there was no time to worry about such things now. Trabetus nodded his thanks at the group leader, then reloaded his spiker and joined the assault.
Now that the prospect of imminent death was lifted, he was starting to enjoy himself again.
Tuka urged his lance forward, pressing on towards the lone group of Reds that held their ground. Their leader, a tall officer who towered over his subordinates, brandished an energy sword and bellowed furiously at his retreating troops. The officer glowered at the oncoming Kru’desh, no doubt resolved to die where he stood.
There was honor in that. Even if he was the last warrior on the field, this officer would never retreat.
Tuka heard himself shouting, urging them on to take the officer’s head. He could barely understand anything that was happening anymore. All he knew was that if they killed this one enemy victory would be theirs.
His hearts nearly stopped as a Warthog barreled towards him out of the smoke, rear gun blazing. Tuka’s shields were gone in an instant, but Pugi planted himself firmly in front of him and blasted the Warthog with his fuel rod gun. The glowing projectile illuminated the driver’s terrified face before detonating square in the vehicle’s hood. The Warthog flipped, burning, on its side.
One mangled human crawled from the wreckage, fumbling for his sidearm. A burst from Amber’s machine gun knocked his corpse back into the charred dirt.
Tuka’s lance reached the Red line. An enemy warrior loomed in front of them with a needler in each hand. The Jiralhanae who had joined their attack tackled him to the ground, stabbing at him again and again with his spiker’s bayonet. The path to the officer was clear.
The officer cut down the first of Tuka’s warriors who leaped at him with a flick of his wrist. In the next instant he was charging Tuka with a furious war cry, blade ready to impale him where he stood. There was no time to think. Tuka drew his own blade and just barely managed to turn the officer’s attack aside. Instinct took over and he pressed back with a sword pattern he’d drilled since childhood. The drill gave way to a desperate storm of blows and parries. He drove the officer back, seized an opening, and drove his blade deep into the warrior’s side.
Howling with pain, the officer fell to his knees. He stared up at his killer, defiant to the end. Tuka raised his blade and decapitated him with a final stroke.
He stood over the dead officer, panting. A dozen thoughts filled his head. Triumph, confusion, and even a little shame. Should he have held back with his final blow? Offered the warrior a chance to surrender, or compose his final words? Was it dishonorable? Was it—
Tuka suddenly realized that the sounds of death and battle were being drowned out by wild, victorious shouting. The Kru’desh stood upon the charred ruins of the enemy landing zone, their opponents dead at their feet or fleeing before them. Ier was beside him in an instant, grabbing Tuka’s sword arm and thrusting it into the air.
“Yes!” his friend shouted, exhilarated. “Yes! Look at them run!”
The fields around the landing zone were filled with dozens, if not hundreds, of fleeing humans and Reds. A handful of surviving Warthogs and other vehicles sped away from the battle while the rest of the enemy sprinted or limped or even crawled away from the carnage. A small group of Pelicans and Phantoms—survivors from the slaughter in the air—dropped down to try and pick up the survivors.
Flush with victory, the Kru’desh bounded forward to give chase. But the battlenet crackled with a new voice. ''“Hold position, damn it!”'' Stray yelled in Tuka’s ear. ''“All of you, take cover! It’s not over yet.”''
Someone else was yelling, not on the battlenet but right beside Tuka. A Kig-Yar sharpshooter peered through her rifle’s scope and scampered back towards the Phantoms. “Armor!” she hissed. “Enemy armor! Scorpions!”
Tuka glanced up at the plains and his hearts stopped cold. The thrill of victory vanished in an instant at the sight of a large dust cloud out beyond the fleeing troops. And silhouetted in that cloud, a staggered line of over a dozen armored human tanks.
He’d seen a formation like that once before. That day he’d seen his entire lance wiped out, along with an entire Covenant column.
“Cover!” he screamed at his warriors. “Get to cover!”
The human tanks were already firing. Heavy shells slammed into the landing zone, sending the Kru’desh scattering. One warrior not far from Tuka was caught in a blast and vanished in a shower of dirt and purple blood.
Tuka threw himself down beside a ruined Wraith. He saw Amber crouched beside him, peering out at the approaching onslaught. The tank formation banked around the dropships, pressing forward to cover their escape even as they moved to retake the landing zone.
Where was the air cover? The Phantoms were scattering, engines flaring as they raced to escape the Scorpions’ range. One of the stragglers took three shells at once and burst into pieces.
Tuka turned back towards the tank squadron and thought of the officer he’d just killed. All he could do was face his death with the same dignity as his enemy. His hearts pounded in his chest. He wanted to scream, to cry out, to run. But he held firm and watched his death approach.
Behind the line of Scorpions, the first Pelican lifted off, troop bay packed with survivors. It banked to escape back in the direction the Scorpions had come from—and then vanished as a stream of green plasma fire shot into its flight path. More plasma blasts cut into the evacuating dropships, sending them scattering and leaving the desperate troops behind.
The Scorpions raised their firing arcs as four Lich gunboats descended on the battlefield, main guns blazing plasma fire down on Montak’s plains. Tuka recognized the armor on one gunboat—Stray’s own command center. And behind them, its bulbous prow emerging from the clouds, was the ''Soul Ascension''.
The battlefield fell silent. Tuka looked up at the battlecruiser and nearly wept with joy. His mandibles worked in a silent prayer of thanks.
The Scorpion advanced faltered. Then, still in precise formation, they wheeled around and fled back after the survivors from the landing site. But it was already too late.
The ''Soul Ascension''’s bridge buzzed with activity. The battlecruiser’s sensors worked on overdrive, identifying and highlighting every enemy on the plains, from the retreating Scorpions to the individual Marines sprinting for their lives.
Conventional bombardment doctrine advised against using a warship’s weapons against individual targets. The aiming and plasma outputs were too imprecise, a waste of energy. But most battlecruisers did not have a smart AI coordinating the firing projections.
Diana allowed herself a small element of satisfaction as she composed the precise calculations and fed them into the ''Ascension''’s weapon systems. It wasn’t much of a triumph to mow down beaten foes. But as a technical achievement this level of coordination in a plasma bombardment could not be dismissed.
And to think, ONI had only ever meant for her to stay cooped up as one of their little experiments.
Diana let the enemy line live a moment longer, then initiated the firing sequence.
Every forward gun on the ''Soul Ascension'' fired with tight, precise beams of concentrated plasma. The line of Scorpions and fleeing men and vehicles vanished in a blaze of fire. It was all over in an instant. Only a single Pelican escaped above the firestorm, engines screaming to bring it back into orbit.
Diana didn’t bother with firing again. She simply fed the dropship’s coordinates to the Marauder fighter squadrons and let them handle the rest.
Stray had paid them well for their cover. They might as well earn their keep.
Stray stepped off his Lich and observed the captured landing zone. The elevated plateau—the planned base of offensive operations in this sector—was scorched and littered with bodies and ruined vehicles. Columns of smoke lifted up on one side of the plain from the smoking husks of the Scorpion counterattack that had so nearly turned the Kru’desh victory into a massacre. On the other side of the plateau the once-pristine savannah had been transformed into a junkyard where wreckage from the air battle had rained down on the plains.
Ira’kuln fell into step behind him. “There might be survivors out where the dropships fell,” the mercenary noted.
“Yeah, it’s possible,” Stray agreed. “So get your snipers on watch and shoot anything that moves out there.”
“It’s a waste of salvage if we don’t send teams,” she pointed out.
Stray shook his head. “We won’t be here long enough. Take whatever you can scavenge off the bodies here. I want everyone back on the ship in an hour. They'll counterattack the second they get an opening. We're not going to give them a stationary target.”
Ira’kuln hissed with irritation but did as she was told. Stray walked on through the battlefield, stepping over corpses and past charred hulks of vehicles. The assault was a complete success. The enemy offensive—in this sector at least—was turned back.
A total victory. Stray just felt tired.
The enemy had looked at the Imperium’s hardened defenses around the refineries and assumed the rest of the planet was safe to attack. They’d decided the Imperium would be content to dig in and wait for a siege on their own terms, so they’d started landing troops before the space and air were secure. And hundreds of troops here paid for that overconfidence with their lives.
Had the people up there—the officers in the ships fighting back in space—learned nothing from the last war? The Covenant had always followed up their space attacks with a ground assault even while the battle in space was still raging. The UNSC, struggling to counter them ship to ship, did nothing to staunch the flow of dropships. Entire cities had fallen, whole populations slaughtered, even in battles humanity won.
“Terrorists” the UNSC was fond of calling Jul ‘Mdama’s Covenant. Maybe that was why they assumed they could pull off stunts like this. Were they so afraid of going back to the carnage of the last war that they refused to act like there was a real one going on now?
He thought of villages bombed to rubble on Mamore. It made slaughters like this easier.
''I should have gone in with the assault force.'' To cut loose in battle where he pulled the trigger and swung the blade himself was one thing. It was something else to watch the battle from his command center and order the Kru’desh to do the killing for him.
''A victory,'' he reminded himself. ''It’s a victory.''
He found Tuka seated beside rows of Kru’desh corpses. While most of the warriors looted the battlefield for weapons and salvage, a handful of Kru’desh gathered up their own dead for funeral rites. Tuka rose to attention as he approached.
“Nicely done.” Stray nodded his helmet at the captured landing zone. “I hear you killed the enemy commander yourself.”
Tuka saluted but his gaze was still on the bodies. Stray pursed his lips behind his helmet. “How many?”
“Three from my lance,” Tuka said quietly. “I haven’t heard from the other lance leaders yet.”
He glanced out at the burning plains. “That last attack, with the Scorpions. Why did they do it? They had to know more of us were coming. No one was coming to save them.”
Stray followed the warrior’s gaze and shook his head. “I don’t know. Enjoy this while you can. We won’t be getting easy shots like this anymore. Whoever’s up there won’t let this happen again.” He jabbed a finger at the sky. Faint explosions were visible from the ongoing battle in orbit.
Some colonel or general would have their career ended over this. It was a laughable consequence for getting an entire landing party cut to pieces with sloppy air cover and hasty defenses. And now they knew just what they were dealing with.
A Jiralhanae wearing the armor of a Marauder loomed nearby. Tuka’s demeanor brightened at his approach. “This warrior aided our attack even after he was shot down.”
“Oh really?” Stray looked the warrior over. “You get bored of shooting down dropships and decide to come help out on the ground?”
The Jiralhanae pilot looked him over with a snort. “Something like that. And you’re their commander? I suppose we have you to thank for this victory.”