|1757 Hours, August 30th, 2552
Asźod, Reach, Epsilon Eridani System
"Well, there goes our ride."
The air grew cold within the confined space of the Pelican dropship as the yellow arrow representing their last hope of fleeing this forsaken planet rose upwards and vanished entirely from their sensors. The Pillar of Autumn had been the last notable military evacuation ship listed on this entire continent, and they had missed their window to board it. Of the eight SPARTAN supersoldiers crammed into the battered craft, only one smiled.
"It's a shame," said Jax-007, clasping his hands together, "But there's nothing we can do about it. We'll just have to find another ship."
"From where?" grumbled Alex-A121, glaring at the older Spartan from behind his orange visor. "I hate to say it, but I think it might just be time to dig in and either wait out the Covenant, or go down fighting."
Over the past week and a half, the survivors of Spartan Teams Sigma, Upsilon and Tau had come to accept that they were fighting a losing battle. It was nothing new to them, having fought on many worlds that had since been reduced to burnt glass. For the first time, however, they were completely alone in this conflict. Several days ago, they had lost all contact with their superiors, and any attempts to reconnect with the UNSC's groundside forces had been met with failure. What little success they had was with survivors like them; shattered Army regiments, civilian refugees and frontier hermits somehow unaware that their planet was under attack. The Spartans had helped where they could, covering evacuation ships and engaging in limited counter-offensives against the Covenant, but it had become all too clear that Reach was lost.
"What now, Chief?" a tan-armoured SPARTAN-II said, crossing his arms. "It's your call."
Clad from head to toe in black MJOLNIR armour, Master Chief Petty Officer Kane-098 found himself privately hating the role of leadership that had been thrust on him only months ago. Looking back towards the holographic tactical map that had been set up in the cargo bay and the waypoint that still marked the besieged ship breaking yards of Asźod as their destination, he could see few choices left for his fellow Spartans. Kane turned towards the cockpit, where Louie-A199 and Martin-A136 were dutifully keeping their ship as low to the ground as possible to avoid detection.
"Keep on course. If we're lucky, we might find something else in those ship breaking yards that'll get us offworld."
"Or die trying," his comrade snorted.
"If you've got a better idea, Marco, then I'd love to hear it."
Marco-035 held up his hands apologetically before taking a seat opposite Nelson-A122 and Jordan-A111, who hadn't spoken a word the entire trip. Kane suspected that they may have been sleeping. Suppressing a sigh, Kane ambled forwards into the Pelican's cockpit and peered forward. The land around them for miles was nothing but arid mesas and rocky outcrops stretching as far as the eye could see. For a moment, Alex's suggestion seemed like a good one; the eight of them could survive in the wilderness; dodging all but the most thorough of Covenant patrols was child's play to most of them. Of course, all of that would amount to nothing when their foe chose to simply glass the entire area. For all their training, equipment and sheer determination that had won so many victories on the ground, there was nothing they could do about the Covenant's superiority in space warfare.
No, Kane thought, We'll not die like cornered rats in some hole. We'll escape, and live to fight another day.
A voice from below broke Kane from his reverie. He glanced down at Martin-A136, their co-pilot. "We're coming up on the ship breaking yards now, Chief. Lotta Covenant in the area, too."
"They would've found us eventually," he straightened up. "Keep low and don't move in over the complex itself unless ordered."
The Asźod ship breaking yards were a sprawling web of industrial offices, automated factories and docking bays, meant to not only break down ageing or irreparably damaged warships for disposal, but to refit them as well. While most UNSC vessels tended to undergo repairs in orbital stations, some found it quicker and easier to simply land at a spaceport or a facility like this one instead. The Pelican drifted over the edge of the yards, moving above the husks of battleships left here to rust. In the distance, down in the dusty plains that stretched out below the main facility, a battle was still raging between what remained of the UNSC's local forces and the Covenant. It would be over by the end of the day. Suddenly, a shrill alarm sounded as the Pelican's detection systems indicated the approach of Covenant aircraft.
"We've got banshees incoming," called their main pilot, Louie. "It's just a patrol, but they'll have called for backup already."
Kane nodded. "That's our cover blown, then. Go loud and try to shake them, but we'll have to touch down soon."
With the battle for Reach coming to a close, the Covenant were out for blood. Any aspiring warrior in their military was now desperate to prove his worth, and if it meant hunting down a few enemy soldiers in the name of glory, then that would do. A dropship full of Spartans, however, would have every single alien on the continent heading their way. Kane re-entered the cargo bay and detached his SR99 rifle from the overhead rack, rousing Nelson and Jordan with a swift rap of his armour-plated fist on a nearby seat.
"Look alive, Spartans, we've a fight on our hands."
The others sprang into action immediately, snatching up weapons and stowing extra ammunition into their belt pouches. After over a week on the move, they had snatched every weapon they could carry and crammed it into the back of their little dropship, not wanting anything to go to waste. At Kane's behest, Marco thumbed the release for the dropship's rear hatch, which clanked open. Orange evening light flooded the darkened bay, illuminating the supersoldiers as they prepared to act as the Pelican's rear gunners. A familiar whine drifted over the rocky cliffs and twisted chunks of starship metal, meeting their ears long before its source flew into sight. A trio of banshee fighters streaked after them, competing to see who would score the first hit on the fleeing human craft. Nudging his fellows aside, Kane knelt by the exit hatch and steadied himself for just a moment before raising his rifle.
"It's a long shot, even for you," Jax remarked, wiping some dirt from his crimson gauntlets.
Kane ignored the jibe, and gently squeezed the trigger. At a distance of over a thousand metres, his armour-piercing round smashed through the lead banshee's wing, throwing it off-balance as it span and crashed into the side of a wrecked frigate. Realising that they were under attack, its wingmen began to sway from side to side in a vain attempt to dodge the marksman's fire. Kane fired three times, expending his magazine and blasting the craft out of the sky with precise hits to their propulsion drives. As Kane stood and reloaded the weapon, both Jax and Marco swiped two fingers horizontally across their visors. It might as well have been a round of applause, though it did little to improve their leader's mood. There'll be a thousand more where that came from.
"Chief!" Martin called from the cockpit. "We're picking up a distress signal from nearby!"
"Who from?" Kane asked, stowing away his rifle.
"Not sure, but they're military."
"Can we raise them over the COM?"
The SPARTAN-III took a moment to check their craft's long-distance communications as Kane rejoined him in the cockpit, then gave a thumbs-up. "Whenever you're ready."
"Patch them through."
After a few seconds, Martin connected both the Pelican's intercom and their TEAMCOM system to the incoming caller. Static filled their ears for a moment, only to be replaced by the distinctive sounds of a firefight. They listened intently to the staccato of gunfire and whine of plasma bolts, accompanied by the heavy breathing of their caller, who seemed to be on the move. Kane frowned, and was close to asking Martin to cut the connection to these seemingly doomed soldiers when a familiar voice spoke up.
"Sorry about that, Covvies were throwing grenades," said their contact, sounding more annoyed than frightened. "Whoever you are, I'm Sergeant Major Mack, 10th ODST. My men and I are currently pinned down by Covenant forces en-route to slipspace-capable transport and need assistance, over."
Of all the people we run into... Even Kane couldn't help but crack a smile at their sheer good luck. If there was one non-Spartan unit that Sigma Team could count on as reliable allies, it was Whiskey-04, Mack's unit. Over the last twenty years, they had served alongside each other on multiple occasions and had saved each other's lives more than once. He activated his own COM system at once.
"Sergeant Major, you're in luck; this is Sigma Team. We're heading towards your location now, so hold out as long as you can, over."
There was another long pause, though this time Kane and the others were sure that it wasn't because Mack was on the move. The ODST laughed, and after firing off a quick burst towards his attackers, replied.
"That's the best news I've heard all day, Sigma. You boys get over here and we'll shoot our way off this rock, okay? Mack out."
The COM cut off, and the Pelican suddenly sped up, gaining altitude as it shot over a series of messy scrapyards. More red blips were closing in on them now; fliers from multiple directions. Tiny flashes from below indicated that Covenant infantry had joined the fight against them too. At this rate, they wouldn't last long in an aerial battle. A waypoint flashed up on Kane's HUD, indicating the location of Mack's men amidst a group of warehouses on the outer edges of the massive ship breaking complex. The trooper hadn't mentioned his squad's leader, Captain Embry, leaving him to assume the worst.
"Prepare to set us down," Kane addressed Louie and Martin. "If we don't get out of the air now, we're not going to make-"
There was a burst of green light to Kane's left side as an energy projectile collided with the side of their dropship, which lurched violently to one side. Saved from falling only by his magnetised boots, Kane attempted to turn back into the cargo hold as the Pelican took another direct hit, this time to one of its rear thrusters. Louie pulled hard at the yoke, rescuing them from falling into a death spiral but doing little to halt their rapid descent. The other Spartans clung to anything they could in the back, Marco cursing loudly about opening the rear doors in the first place as they plunged towards the nearest warehouse roof.
"Hard landing!" the pilot cried out, trying to bring their nose up and extend the landing gear simultaneously.
The roof of the warehouse was mercifully thin, and softened the final impact ever so slightly as the Pelican smashed through a pile of empty shipping containers like they were made of tin. Aside from some minor grumbling, all aboard were fine, and within a minute the Spartans had extricated themselves from the wreckage. Armed to the teeth and within half a mile of their destination, they felt much more comfortable now that they were on the ground, if anything.
"As landings go," Marco remarked, prodding the Pelican's hull with his boot, "I've had much worse."
The sound of approaching Covenant aircraft soon forced the Spartans to move, jogging through the abandoned warehouse in twos with weapons at the ready. Though the Covenant had thoroughly overrun the area, likely in an attempt to bring down the Pillar of Autumn before its escape, even they could not cover every inch of ground in these vast scrapyards. At the first sign of an approaching patrol, the Spartans quickly melted into the background, taking cover until a dozen or so of the squealing cannon fodder commonly known as 'Grunts' had plodded past, likely all wishing to be the first to the Pelican's crash site. If Kane wanted them dead, they would have fallen in seconds, but now was not the time to bring any more attention their way. The eight supersoldiers moved in complete silence, communicating with hand signals and status light flashes to minimise the chance of detection as they raced towards the distant firefight. It was only after a quick sprint through a deserted office building that put them above the battlefield that any words were exchanged.
"There's Whiskey," Marco pointed towards a hastily-set instacrete bunker outside the entrance to the nearest deconstruction facility. "We should get down there."
Kane slowly made a fist and held it up, instructing the eager Spartans to freeze. "Don't rush in."
Most of Whiskey-04 seemed to be taking cover around the bunker, judging by the distant muzzle flashes. The Covenant infantry engaging them - all Grunts and Jackals - were similarly dug in around piles of scrap, though they clearly outnumbered the troopers. The alien corpses littering the space between their cover and the building seemed to be the source of their hesitance. Along the main path to their right, a sudden flash of movement caught Kane's eye as the armoured bulk of a Wraith tank quietly advanced towards them. With a quick hand signal, the SPARTAN-II gestured for one of his fellows to pass up a twin-barrelled M41 missile launcher; only one had been rescued from the crash.
"As soon as I fire, move."
Steadying himself as he had done aboard the Pelican, Kane prepared his shot. Oblivious to their presence, the Wraith continued up the road before coming to a sudden halt. As its deadly plasma mortar began to align itself, Kane squeezed the trigger and loosed his first missile,aiming for the driver's canopy. The second was already on its way by the time the first struck its mark, blowing the tank's gunner to smithereens and taking several huge chunks out of the vehicle. Though the first impact had likely killed the driver, as it made no attempt to fire on its target or escape, the second succeeded in reducing the Wraith to a pile of burning metal. The nearby infantry could only stare in shock, which quickly turned to fear as they realised exactly what was charging across the asphalt towards them. They did not put up much of a fight.
As the last alien fell shrieking into the dirt, Kane and the others approached the plasma-scorched bunker, where Whiskey had gathered. Reduced to only ten men from the platoon-sized force Sigma had last seen a few months back, they looked like they'd been through hell to get here.
"Chief," Richard Mack stepped forward, wiping some grime from his gauntlet as he shook Kane's hand. "Thanks for another close save. This all of you?"
Kane nodded. "All that's left."
"Where's Wulf?" Mack asked, recognising the SPARTAN-II's.
"He didn't make it. Captain Embry?"
"Same. He and half the platoon doubled back to buy is some more time, ran into some real nasty Elites. That was about an hour ago."
"Anyone else around here?"
The trooper shook his head. "Nope, not since the Autumn left. Before the long-range COM went down I heard that anyone left behind was going to give the Covenant a bloody nose down in the valleys, but I doubt they'd last long. There was talk of Spartans heading that way too, so I thought it might've been you guys."
"We've been out of contact with command for a few days," Kane said, wondering who might have joined the last stand many miles away. "Besides, we're looking to leave. Where's the ship?"
If Mack took any offence to Kane's sudden bluntness, it didn't show. Waving for the Spartans to follow, he and the rest of Whiskey made their way towards the factory building's lobby, which housed only a badly burnt desk and a large cargo elevator. Halfway through the room, a computer the troopers had rigged up let out a piercing wail.
"Sensor alarm," Mack jogged over to check the console and froze as he checked the readout. "Shit, we've really shaken the hornet's nest now."
"Is it bad?"
"I'm guessing that someone out there reported seeing a Spartan, because this thing's picking up incoming targets from almost every direction. We'll never get airborne if they swarm us."
Kane nodded, and turned to his team. "Nelson, Jax, Alex, Jordan, head back out there and provide some cover."
"Hold on," Marco suddenly piped up. "We can't leave the four of them out there against a Covenant army."
Jax rapped his fist against his friend's pauldron and snorted. "I know you'd love to do the job yourself, but don't be greedy; we've got to have some fun too."
Marco shrugged, clearly annoyed but unwilling to argue, and the rearguard team left without another word. Mack and his men led the Spartans into the cargo elevator, which creaked ominously under their weight as it slowly clanked its way down through several abandoned floors. If the signs were anything to go by, then this particular building specialised in the deconstruction of smaller warships before either scrapping or recycling their parts to make newer vessels. They eventually came to a halt in the sub-basement, and emerged into a cavernous room with a retractable roof of thick metal. Before them, bathed in red emergency lighting, was a Paris-class heavy frigate. Though it bore obvious battle scars across its hull, it seemed to be in perfectly good condition. Across the starboard prow, three words sat in faded white lettering: BRIGHT NEW DAY.
"Hell of a name, ain't it," Mack laughed, continuing along the platform towards the main airlock dock. Though most followed suit, Kane and Marco paused for a moment, staring out at the frigate.
"Well I'll be," Kane muttered in disbelief. "This old ship."
"You know it?" Mack called back.
"Of course we do," said Marco, "And so should you. This ship got us off Fargad."
Mack shrugged. "Can't say I've got a good memory for ships."
"It's not just that," the Spartan shook his head. "Sorry if we're a little surprised, but that frigate's gotten us out of a lot of fights over the years, including Harpa."
Mack stopped for a moment at the mention of the planet's name; his father had died there earlier this year. Eventually, he simply shrugged again and made his way aboard, Spartans and Helljumpers in tow. The bridge was still manned, albeit by a skeleton crew of engineers and low-ranking crewmen who were shocked at the sudden appearance of four fully-armoured Spartans. While Whiskey-04 had held their ground up above, they had been prepping the ship for an emergency launch as best they could. Though they lacked an AI or any seasoned Naval personnel familiar with the ship's operation, Kane was quickly assured that they could get the Bright New Day into orbit and out of the system using the navigational computer.
"We'll have to make a slipspace jump the minute we're clear of the planet," Kane explained. "The orbital situation's pretty dicey from what I've heard and we'll have to forego standard procedure."
The ODST nodded, removing his helmet to wipe his forehead. "As long as we survive takeoff, we'll be fine. If we'd been a couple of days later, then there'd be no slipspace drive at all, so let's be thankful that we've been this lucky so far."
'Lucky' was the last word Kane would choose to describe the past few weeks. Eight Spartans had died among Sigma, Upsilon and Tau, and not always in the name of some greater good. If they wanted to avoid any more senseless slaughter, then they would have to escape this madness today and flee towards the one place he knew their military still held: Earth. There, they would receive new orders, and life would make sense again. At Mack's command, the crew finished their preliminary checkups, and primed the ship's engines for takeoff. Several thrust couplings had been attached to the ship's hardpoints, which would give them enough lift to launch them up and away from the shipyards in under a minute. If the long-range sensors were anything to go by, then they likely had less than an hour before Covenant battlecruisers completely overran any resistance in Asźod. Linking the ship's controls to the roof above, which showered the ship with dirt as it slowly retracted, he pinged Jax's personal COM.
"Little busy here!" SPARTAN-007's voice crackled through, accompanied by the vicious roar of an Elite warrior. The sound of a shotgun blast burst through the channel, signalling that his noisy foe had been silenced.
"Jax," Kane said calmly, "Gather the others and retreat to our position ASAP, we are leaving."
"That might be a problem."
"Because the Covvies just moved an armoured division up towards you and we can't take that thing head-on. We've pissed them off enough for them to throw every hunter-killer team they have at us, though."
"Is there any way you can get back to us?"
There was a brief pause, punctuated by more gunfire and a shout from Alex. The ground overhead rumbled suddenly, and Jax let out a sigh.
"We've just lost Jordan; he just took half a building with him, by the looks of it. Nelson's cut off from us and pretty badly hurt and Alex and I are running dry. Kane, it might be better if you leave and we-"
"Not an option," Kane cut him off. "I don't care how, but you get back to us right now, Spartan. That's an order."
Jax, being Jax, laughed. "We'll see what we can do."
With the roof cover gone, the UNSC Bright New Day released its docking clamps and fired up its additional thrusters. The Frigate quickly rose from its subterranean home, point-defence guns already swivelling to blast hapless enemy dropships out of the sky. Below them, most of the northern ship breaking yards were already ablaze, with Covenant soldiers pouring like ants from cover to chase down whatever human defenders remained. From the bridge, the Spartans could see the final stages of the battle in the far-off valleys and foothills, where desperate holdouts fought to the last man. If any hails for rescue were being made towards the warship, then none were getting through. Kane had done all he could on this world, and could only save his own. Alarms blared as they continued to rise, indicating the approach of enemy ships. Though most Covenant craft had been dissuaded from following the Day after its initial volleys, two tiny Banshees streaked out from the ruins, weaving through anti-aircraft fire as they approached the frigate.
"Kane!" Jax's voice buzzed over TEAMCOM, "We're heading your way in a couple of stolen banshees, so cut the damn fire!"
A few panicked button presses from the crew later, and the point defence guns ceased their automated fire. The ship's hangar doors slid open, and stayed that way just long enough for a pair of battered alien fighters to skid to a halt inside. Alex and Jax were safe, though Nelson, like so many others fighting below, had vanished. There was nothing they could do for him. The Bright New Day continued its ascent, dropping its couplings as it broke through the atmosphere and burst into orbit. Sat in the captain's chair, SPARTAN-098 gave out one simple order.
"Get us out of here."
As Reach burned, one ship quietly slipped away.