|2209 Hours, March 2nd, 2546
Gress, Outer Colonies
Gress was burning.
From a cave entrance in the rocky slopes of the Telai mountains, the last defenders of the planet sat and watched as the distant city was slowly turned to glass by Covenant ships. Thousands had been slaughtered in the brief ground engagement before the human defenders had finally broken and retreated. In orbit, the fleet had been decimated by the alien attackers, wrecked hulls of warships left floating in pieces while the remainder of the UNSC fleet had been pushed back across the system.
The war was entering it's twenty-first year, and now there were no illusions, even among the public, that humanity was actually winning. The casualties were already in billions, and with the apparent loss of Admiral Cole a few years before, morale was at an all-time low, even with the heavy censorship administrated by the Office of Naval Intelligence. There had been many victories, but each had come at a price. The Covenant may have had their superior technology and destructive weaponry, backed up by a fanatical devotion to the destruction of their foe, but humanity, on the other hand, had the power of ingenuity and adaptability, as well as a centuries-old talent for warfare. As such, many projects had been devoted to devising new and efficient ways of fighting. Currently, the results of one such project were observing the destructive power of their foe.
"Well, that's another planet gone."
"We did all we could, Jax."
"I know Chief. Gave those bastards a hell of a time getting through that valley to the capital though. Nice use of the FENRIS back there, Marco."
"Yeah, next time you toss a nuke at the enemy, set the timer a little higher, okay?"
"Yeah, as long as you lot move your arses and get in the bird quicker next time."
Jax laughed, and checked his transceiver. A few members of Sigma had managed to acquire another Pelican as they escaped the city earlier that day. He hoped that they had survived.
Half a dozen figures sat on the rocky outcrop that jutted out of the cave mouth, overlooking the devastated valley below. Though their faces were usually concealed behind opaque visors, most of them held their helmets under their arms. One, wearing blue armour and being noticeably taller than his comrades, threw down a heavy metal box before sitting beside it. Another Spartan, in silver armour, opened it and began handing out small packets.
"MRE's, Resk?" he asked. 041 was stamped on his chestplate in black print, slightly above a recent plasma burn. "Thanks, but a few nukes would have been better" The other Spartan, Resk, shrugged, and looked around at the starlit sky. "Eh, I'd take food over a WMD any day, even if we're on a burning world." He seemed reasonably content with the situation, in spite of the destruction going on a dozen miles away.
"We pulled something out of the bird, at least," said Jax, finally tearing his eyes away from the distant glassing. "I was worried we wouldn't make it, with 'ol Nef flying us in."
"Well Jax," a deep voice intoned from a helmeted Spartan in the cave entrance. "I'm sure that with your piloting skills, we'd have gone straight into the mountain and not be sitting here having a picnic."
Jax chuckled at this, and looked over at the other side of the makeshift camp, where one of the Spartans sat, fiddling with a radio transceiver, attempting to repair it with the basic tools they had. "Any luck, Jacob?" he called. A man in dark green armour, with a distinctive mohawk hairstyle, looked up and shook his head before returning to his work on the battered radio. Since the nuke had obliterated that Covenant army, comms had been a mess. Jax clicked his tongue a few times and looked around at his teammates before returning his gaze to the city being glassed in the distance.
"Anyone else getting pretty sick of seeing this? Wouldn't mind a few more times when we kick ass and stay to enjoy the scenery."
No one replied. After a few seconds, Jax sighed and picked up his helmet before standing up and stretching. Taking out his shotgun, he turned to the camp. "I'm going for a walk in the woods. Might be some Covvies that we didn't kill still snooping around. Anyone coming?"
Resk jumped up and hefted his heavy machine gun, which he had restocked with enough ammo to mow down half a Covenant legion with. "Let's hunt," he said plainly, striding off after his best friend into the night. Though it was unlikely that any enemies had survived the bloody fight in the valley below, they had to be sure that there was nothing left alive down there. Another thirty seconds passed before Wulf, who had discarded his half eaten MRE, spoke up.
"Jax was right, y'know. No matter how many we kill on land, They can just burn us out from orbit. We've already lost New Llanelli this year, just a matter of time before they hit Earth."
"They'd have to get through Reach first," intoned the tan-armoured Spartan, Marco. "Technological superiority or not, we'd give them a bloody good fight before they take the place."
"Still, we haven't got that many places to run to, is all I'm saying. Fargad, Reach and Earth are the biggest military places we have left. We had double that number a decade ago."
"Wulf" Master Chief Petty Officer Fenn-145 stood up, a confident smile on his face. "I know you, you're a fighter, a damn wolf." Wulf sighed and shook his head at the bothersome comparison, which had been made far too many times for his liking. Fenn continued. "Mark my words, we'll win someday. Hell, none of us may live to see it, but we'll win. Doesn't matter what they use against us because in the long run, humans are better at fighting and surviving than them." This seemed to raise the silver-armoured Spartan's spirits somewhat. From the cave entrance, Nef-015 clapped several times.
"Nice inspirational speech, Chief. Not the best I've seen, but pretty good all the same."
"Glad to see someone likes them. Want to join us, Nef?"
"No, I'm fine here." Fenn shrugged. Nef had always been a loner, even in training. He had been like that. At least he wasn't being as surly as he usually was. Fenn was pretty sure that his reasonably good mood was attributed to an impressive laser shot earlier, which took down three banshees at once. A sudden crackle from the radio brought the attention of everyone over. Fenn stood up, and Jacob-076 tossed the radio over to him. He activated it, and spoke.
"To any nearby UNSC ships, this is Sierra One-Four-Five of SIGMA Team. We are in need of immediate evac, I repeat, we have a team of Sierra's on the ground needing pickup."
There was no response for a few moments until a voice broke through the static. It was resounding, speaking with a clear and authoritative tone. "This is Commander John Hawkins of the UNSC Albumasar. Sigma Team, we've picked up some of your team, and have your location, but cannot maintain our position for much longer. We will need you at the pickup point the moment the dropship lands or we will leave you, is that clear?"
"Crystal, sir," Fenn responded, and shut off the radio. On his HUD, a navigation marker half a mile away popped up, on the summit of a grassy hill above the forest. He immediately activated the COM as the rest of Sigma packed up and prepared themselves. "Jax, Resk, get back here. We've got to move right now or we'll miss the pickup point, do you read?"
An explosion in the forest below, followed by a string of expletives over the COM and the buzz of machine gun fire seemed to answer. "Chief!" Jax shouted as he blasted away with his shotgun. "We've got half a damn army down here. Get going now, we'll catch up to you in a while." The Spartans looked to their leader for orders. Fenn swallowed. Resk and Jax would never allow the other to die, and they weren't suicidal to stay behind to 'buy more time'. He turned to the rest of the team. He was their Chief, and they needed orders.
"Right, lets get running. Jacob, you're on point. Wulf and Marco on flanks."
With a final look towards the glow of burning city in the distance, Fenn noticed that the Covenant cruiser had stopped it's relentless glassing, and had begun making it's way straight towards them. Just another reason to sprint faster. He began moving behind Jacob, who was the fastest in the team, keeping a lookout for any Covenant that might have gotten past the others. The Spartans ran through the long grass, leaping over fallen trees and rocks while keeping in formation. He checked the COM again.
"Jax, Resk, we'll be there in thirty, what's your status?"
Resk responded, speaking in his eerily calm voice as he mowed down wave after wave of enemy infantry. "We're moving back, Chief. Be there in less than a minute, give or take. I'd go faster but I'd rather not lose my weapon." Typical Resk. He'd get there with his beloved gun and clamber aboard without a word, closely followed by Jax. The extraction area was in sight. Fenn and the others clambered up the hill, only slightly fatigued, and listened out for the telltale roar of a Pelican's engines.
"Chief!" Marco called over, looking down the sights of his rifle. "Sighted wraiths moving through the valley we nuked. Geiger counter must be ticking for 'em, but they'll have us zeroed in pretty soon. Plans?
"Have faith in evac, Marco. You know how Pelican pilots love to make an entrance."
"It's not that I'm worried about, it's just that I've crash landed in enough, and I'd prefer not to go down twice in a day."
A flash of red and blue caught Fenn's eye as the other two Spartans backed out of the forest, guns blazing. They reached the top of the hill where the other Spartans were positioned in no time. Fenn began to fire with his assault rifle at the grunts who emerged from the treeline, bringing down five before he had to reload. There was a deafening roar from above as half a dozen missiles impacted the forest below, setting it ablaze as a Pelican dropship descended, it's rear doors opening. Sigma Team backed into it one by one, hopping onto it's blood tray without a word. Fenn, as usual, was the last in. He gave one last look to make sure his team was in before clambering into his seat. They had made it out of another one. The dropship rose, taking them away from danger.
"Well," panted Jax. "That was fun."
"I thought you were the one going on about how you were sick of losses and retreats?" said Jacob, removing his helmet.
"Hey, if there's one thing I can do, it's look on the bright side. There'll be other battles to fight. We'll win in the end."
He began to whistle an archaic tune from an old movie he had forced the others to sit through years ago. Fenn couldn't help but smile at the constantly cheery Spartan.
"That's exactly what I said earlier Jax. Doesn't matter how long it takes, we'll win this war, one way or another."