|0971 Hours, March 3rd, 2553
Camp Graceful, Ankat, Inner Colonies
For the past few months, it had seemed like all of mankind was holding its breath.
As Sergeant Major Richard Mack Junior entered the field hospital, his arms and backpack laden with salvaged medical supplies, he found himself facing a sight that made him doubt the rumours that the war was over. The wounded lay in neat rows, most sleeping on cots while those in critical condition got surgical trolleys. On the other side of the room were three lines of black body bags. A pair of tired-looking corpsmen rushed over immediately, snatching first aid kits and intact biofoam canisters from the armoured trooper before returning to their patients without a word. Making a futile effort to kick some mud off his boots, Mack crossed the room and passed into the emergency care suite. With only a single immobile occupant, the workers here had left the place empty while they saw to incoming casualties.
"Hey Rilo," Mack called softly as he approached the corner bed, reaching for the privacy curtain. "You still with us, buddy?"
"S'pose I am," a hoarse voice replied.
Pulling the curtain aside, Mack removed his mud-spattered helmet and set it down on a table before pulling up a chair, which creaked audibly under the full weight of his bodysuit and battle armour. Before him, hooked up to half a dozen intravenous drips and covered almost head-to-toe in bandages, was Corporal Arthur Rilo. When they'd met barely a month ago, he had been a cocky young NCO who'd taken to fighting the Covenant invading his homeworld with a smile on his face. Now, the Marine was near-unrecognisable, with half-healed plasma burns stretching up what was left of the right side of his body. Most of his right arm had been vaporised, and his legs had been amputated below the knee. To make matters worse, he was dying, but the Corporal seemed to be taking it all in stride.
"Feeling all right?" asked Mack as he took off his gloves.
"Hardly feelin' a thing, sarge. They've got me pumped full of just enough shit to keep me alive, but not enough to finish me off."
"That's because you're a fighter, Rilo. It wouldn't be fair if we let a grade-A badass like you die without making the rest of us look bad."
The Corporal's face twisted into a grin, though Mack could see through the usual Marine bravado. They'd banter all they wanted, but he was looking at a dead man.
"Heard the docs talkin," Rilo pointed out of a nearby window with his good arm. "Somethin' about reinforcements an' sendin' those Covvie bastards packing."
Rilo reached out towards Mack, his bandaged fingertips brushing against the collar of his armoured suit. He didn't have the strength to pull Mack forward, but the trooper obliged and leaned in.
"Did we win, sarge?"
Mack smiled. "Of course we did. Didn't I tell you that when the Helljumpers touch down, we mean business?"
While for most, the horrors of the Human-Covenant War had ended, the fighting was nowhere near over. After a narrow victory on Earth, the UNSC had rallied its forces to push back against the confused, splintered remnants of the Covenant Empire, which had collapsed and splintered into a thousand tiny factions after the loss of its leadership. While most were simply consolidating power or joining whatever looked like the winning side, there were those who sought to continue the war by any means necessary, leading to the sudden invasion of Ankat a month ago. It had taken the UNSC three days to send an attack force, and since then Mack had led an entire platoon of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers to push the alien invaders off the planet. Were it not for the likes of Rilo and his comrades, they might not have survived the first few days as Jiralhanae raiding packs swept across the land, seeking to wipe out all human life on the colony. Perhaps it was desperation that drove them, but in his twenty-five years in the military Mack had never seen the Covenant fight so viciously for what amounted to a fairly insignificant border world. Now only six remained in his platoon, and the sole survivor of Ankat's Marine Corps regiment lay in a hospital bed before him.
"Sarge?" Rilo spoke without looking at Mack, his grey eyes focused on the ceiling. "Don't s'pose you've got a pad or radio nearby? I'd like to hear what's happenin' before..."
As he trailed off, Mack stood up, nodded, and rushed out of the room, jogging through the medical bay and out into what passed for Camp Graceful's main courtyard. Across from him, he could hear the distinctive heavy beats of flip music emanating from a garage, where a group of mechanics worked to dismantle a wrecked Warthog frame. Moving with all the subtlety and grace that his heavy combat armour afforded him, Mack crept through the open door and spied a boxy radio set on a workbench. With the mechanics distracted by their task, it was a simple matter of gently picking up the set, creeping back towards the door, then switching it off and running as fast as his legs could carry him as a chorus of annoyed shouts rose from the garage. Not checking to see if he was being followed, the trooper skidded as he entered the field hospital, nearly bowled over a corpsman, and was back in Rilo's room mere moments later.
"Got one," he panted, setting the radio down by his helmet on the table. "You wanted news?"
"Anythin' that tells me what's going on," Rilo rasped. "I'd have gotten it myself, but..."
Rilo gestured towards his absent legs, rolling his eyes comically and raising his eyebrows. Mack snorted, and began to tune the device. Three days ago, he'd last seen Rilo with an assault rifle in one hand and a stolen Jackal energy shield in the other as they led a desperate attack on an enemy tank column that would have levelled Camp Graceful otherwise. They had won, and Mack had gotten through with only a few minor burns to show for it, but Rilo hadn't been so lucky. Having leapt onto a Wraith tank, the Marine had put an entire magazine into its driver before another one hit it with a plasma mortar. The fact that the Marine hadn't died then and there was a miracle, but all the emergency surgery and painkillers in the world couldn't stop the inevitable. While his men awaited transport in this lonely outpost and UNSC reinforcements blasted the Covenant out of the sky, Mack had resolved to stay with Rilo, because he was sure as hell that nobody else would.
"Right, I've got it!" Mack exclaimed, having finally tuned into a currently-broadcasting station. After a brief crackle, a calm. newsreader's voice filtered through.
"...and once again, our top story is the official cessation of hostilities between humanity and those representing the former Covenant Empire. Presiding over a special ceremony today was Fleet Admiral Terrence Hood, who-"
Mack glanced up as the sound of stamping boots grew closer. The curtain was yanked aside, revealing an angry woman in a dirty mechanic's jumpsuit, carrying a large wrench that was assuredly not in her hands for fixing things.
"Hey, give us back-" she began to advance on Mack, only to notice Rilo in the corner. "Oh."
The newscaster continued. "-with twenty-eight years of war now over, our future remains uncertain, but as we continue to rebuild, we can only hope to maintain peace for as long as possible."
As the broadcast ended and the radio transmission faded into static, Mack reached over and switched it off. The mechanic, whose anger had been stopped in its tracks, seemed genuinely surprised as the ODST handed it back to her. Behind him, there was a harsh, grating sound that could have been laughter, or a general cry of celebration.
"Well I'll be," Rilo whispered, tears brimming in his eyes. "We made it."
A moment later, he let out a long sigh, lay his head back, and closed his eyes. Several seconds passed, and the monitors all around the Marine let out a chorus of beeping as he flatlined. Mack sighed, picked up his helmet, and stood to one side as a pair of corpsmen rushed in, already carrying a black body bag. Nobody questioned the trooper, who watched in reverent silence as they moved the corpse out of the room. Once they were gone, and he had given his friend his dues, Richard Mack Junior turned to the mechanic, who still held the radio.
"Looks like we really did win," he said with a tired smile. "I don't know about tomorrow, but nothing in the world's gonna stop me from celebrating tonight."