|1754 Hours, August 14th, 2552
Circumstance orbit, Epsilon Eridani System
"We've broken through the atmosphere. Taking the training wheels off now, rookie."
Sat in the pilot's seat of her GA-TL1 Longsword, Second Lieutenant Erika Ruskin exhaled slowly as the fighter's assisted piloting module shut down, leaving her in complete control of the craft. After many months of physical training, simulated flights and a few atmospheric operations undertaken across Circumstance's skies, this would be her first operation in space. She'd been looking forward to it since her first day out of the academy.
"There's a COM buoy up ahead," the calm voice of Major Hila Belinsky filtered through nearby speakers. "Keep in formation and head towards it."
"Affirmative," Ruskin replied, gently turning the flightstick. The Longsword shifted, falling into place between the two others flanking it as a waypoint flashed up on the cockpit's local map.
As the fighter shot through space, Ruskin had to make a conscious effort not to look away from her destination. If there was one thing the Air Force stressed to its prospective pilots, it was to not get distracted by the stars. Nonetheless, she had to admit that the Epsilon Eridani system looked beautiful. Glancing to her left, she sighted the far-off green dot that was the planet Reach, home to the UNSC's military centre and the training ground of most recruits before they went out to fight for their colonies. While a life operating a tiny ship in the endless expanse of space deterred many, the young pilot found a life of flying among the stars appealing; she had ignored the warnings from family and friends, peppered with terms like 'high attrition rate' and 'inferior technology' after announcing her intent to sign on to become a pilot. Realising that she was starting to lag behind her wingmates, Ruskin tapped her controls and surged ahead towards their waypoint.
"Easy does it," spoke her co-pilot, Shaw. Unlike her, he'd seen some action against the Covenant, and had a prosthetic arm and leg to show for it. "You're doing fine."
"Good to hear it."
"We'll probably do a quick run into the asteroid belt, then head back."
"Is that all?"
Shaw shrugged, quickly double-checking technical readouts. While most Longswords possessed a crew of four, lack of personnel and the fact that this was little more than a trial run meant that he had to take on the position of navigator and systems operator for this flight.
"When I did my run, we headed all the way to Tribute and lapped around Emese. Apparently there's been some communication problems with it and Reach lately, so that might be why we're not going so far."
Or the Major doesn't think I'm ready yet.. Ruskin was a cautious pilot, and while her killcount had been high in simulated battles with the Covenant, she'd been blown to smithereens almost as many times. Thankfully, most pilots had several more months of practical experience before they were assigned to a ship and fleet. After heavy losses over Sigma Octanus IV, the 9th Tactical Fighter Wing had been stuck on Circumstance while it repaired and replenished its fighters and personnel. The trio of Longswords rounded the COM buoy simultaneously and wheeled about, drifting back towards Circumstance.
"Right, that's stage one completed," Major Belinsky spoke up once again. "Now we can-"
Suddenly, the holotank in Ruskin's cockpit flashed red as text scrolled across multiple readouts. Shaw leaned over to check one, and visibly paled.
"Multiple slipspace ruptures across the system," he announced grimly. "Covenant signatures."
Ruskin found herself gripping her fighter's controls very tightly, her throat constricting. They've found Reach. All those tales of being blown in half or vaporised in the cold darkness seemed to flash before her eyes, scenario after horrible scenario playing out in her head at the thought of dying out here to the Covenant before Belinsky began to bark orders over the COM.
"All ships, return to base at once! We're to rendezvous with the rest of our unit back on Circumstance and wait for further instruction."
"Will we be sent out to defend Reach, ma'am?" asked Ruskin, already knowing what the answer would be.
"That's more than likely." There was a brief pause, and her voice took a slightly more apologetic tone. "Sorry, rookie. Looks like you'll be seeing action against the Covvies sooner than you thought."