December 27th, 2551
Hanger of REN Excelsior, in space above Equis
“Sweet Regalia . . .”
“We’re going in there?”
“Yes.” SPARTAN Naomi-010, who was leaning on a supply crate, turned to see her squad leader, Joshua-029, addressing a nervous-looking group of Royal Equestrian Navy soldiers standing beside the pelican they were to board momentarily. “We’re going in there. Just stick to your training and follow orders; we’ll make it out alright.”
Naomi pulled the bolt on her assault rifle and stood, walking toward the group. “Are we ready to go?” she asked.
All the Equestrian soldiers turned to look up at her. She didn’t really like the look in their eyes. All the confidence, nervousness, and trust. As though they expected everything to be okay just because she and the rest of Gold Team was there. Some of them were going to die. Badly.
“Just about,” Joshua said. “We’re just waiting on Grace and a squad of marines to get here.”
The ERN soldiers dispersed – talking, checking weapons and armor, glancing about nervously. Still watching them, Naomi flicked one finger beside her standard Mark IV helmet, telling Joshua to switch to a private comm. channel. He obliged.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“Are we sure this is a good idea?” Naomi asked. “Half our team have never faced Covenant before, and we’re taking them with us to board one of their ships. This sounds like a recipe for heavy casualties.”
“I know,” Joshua replied. “But we’ve got our orders and they have theirs. The princesses want their new soldiers exposed to combat. Especially since they have Covenant right on their doorstep. So, here we are. If things go wrong, the three of us’ll have to pick up the slack. You know how it goes.”
Naomi didn’t say anything, but gave a small nod of her head. Orders were orders. Even if those giving them didn’t know what they were getting themselves into. On the other side of the hanger, a pair of pneumatic doors slid open and out walked Grace – carrying a pair of large cases under each arm – and two squads of marines. The group made their way over to where Naomi, Joshua, and the ERN team were gathered.
Grace gave them a short nod. “Sir.”
“Everyone’s present,” Joshua said. “Get ready to move out. Here’s the plan –” he gestured to the two ships behind him “– we’re boarding these two pelicans that’ll take us aboard the Covenant ship. Squadrons of Longswords will escort us, distract the enemy fighters, and neutralize the Corvette’s weapons and thrusters. The Excelsior will do the same. Once we’re inside the ship, we fight to clear out the hanger. Then, we plant and arm the high-yield explosives that Grace brought along, get out, and set off the bombs.”
He pointed to the two cases the other SPARTAN had brought with her. Grace opened one, showing the group gathered the several M168 Demolition Charges housed in the case. “This’ll be enough to crack the ship’s hull from the inside,” she said. “This should be a quick op, provided that anti-communications spell Silvia and Dr. Halsey created is still working.”
“There’s no reason to indicate that it hasn’t,” Joshua said. “Alright, everyone; let’s move out!”
With a chorus of “sir, yes sir,” the various marines and ERN soldiers began filing into the two pelican dropships. Naomi was a bit surprised at how well the two species were mingling. Humans chatted with Equestrians, Equestrians showed off their wings and their Magic. Everyone seemed to be getting along. After hearing from Vinh what had gone down at the Crystal Empire, Naomi hadn’t been sure that bringing together humans and Equestrians for such an important mission was a good idea, but perhaps she was wrong. Maybe it really only was a portion of the population that had a problem with humans after all. That was good, given that she was likely to be spending a good deal of time on the planet now that Gold Team’s new assignment was protection of the Equestrian leadership. She wondered how long that would last.
She ended up in a pelican with the two squads of ERN troopers and Grace, while Joshua and the marines filled the other pelican. The bay door slid shut, sealing them all inside.
“Everyone settled?” came Joshua’s voice over the comm.
The various soldiers in the two dropships began reporting affirmatives. Naomi flicked her acknowledgment light green once and saw Grace do the same.
“Pilots – get us moving.”
In her seat, Naomi felt the floor beneath her move and felt a slight dip in her stomach and knew they had taken off.
“Spartans, do you come in?” came a new voice over the link. “This is REN Excelsior Actual, do you copy?”
“We read you, Excelsior Actual,” Joshua replied. “You ready to see some action?”
Naomi looked out the small window at the top of the bay door and indeed saw the huge, bulky Defender-class ship trailing behind them in space. Longsword fighters were being launched from its two hanger bays and moving to form up around the Pelicans.
“Yes, sir,” said Excelsior Actual. “We may be new at this, but we’re ready to support you.”
“T minus five minutes until we reach the corvette,” called the pilot. “It’s hidden behind a neighboring gas giant.”
“Copy that,” Joshua replied. “Comms check, everyone.”
All the troopers on the line began to sound off. After she confirmed her ability to hear and be heard, Naomi checked her assault rifle a second time. She knew it was working fine, but she just felt like she needed to do something to keep busy. In a few minutes, she was going to be shooting and getting shot at. She had to somehow prepare for that. All these years she’d been at war and still wasn’t totally comfortable in combat, SPARTAN or not.
Naomi stood and walked up toward the cockpit. She ducked through the narrow doorway and gazed out through the viewport on the front of the ship. They were passing beside a huge planet full of swirling, blue gas. Somewhere ahead of them, she could make out the Covenant ship, standing out blue and purple against the black of space. The radio in the cockpit was buzzing.
“I don’t think they know we’re coming yet.”
“Hold your fire until you see their fighters getting close.”
“Squad one – protect the dropships. Squad two – cripple the ship. Engage all enemy fighters on contact.”
As they got closer, Naomi saw purple pinpricks of light shine near the Corvette. They began getting closer and larger.
“Multiple contacts on approach,” she broadcast over an open channel. “Space Banshees and Seraphs!”
“Copy that, ma’am,” one of the pilots replied. “Move into formation, everyone!”
Naomi gripped the side of the doorway she was standing in. If they were lucky, both Pelicans would make it through the battle and land on the Corvette, dropping off all the troops. If not, they were going to be blown to bits in space and there was nothing she or any of the others could do about it.
“You may want to take a seat, ma’am,” said the copilot. “Things are about to get very bumpy.”
Wordlessly, Naomi turned and strode back to her seat in the troop bay and strapped in. No sense in being thrown around the ship when the pilots decided they needed to perform evasive maneuvers.
“We’re on approach?” Joshua asked.
Naomi nodded. “The Covenant’s sent out a few squads of ships to deal with us – we must’ve registered on their scanners. The Longswords are moving to engage now.”
“Then we wait.”
“Then we –”
The ship rocked violently, and Naomi gripped the bottom of her seat to steady herself.
“Is everything alright?” called one of the Equestrians.
“Things are heating up out here,” replied one of the pilots, “but we’re holdin’ together.”
“We just need to wait until the Longswords disable the engines and some of the outer guns,” Joshua said. “Then we can land on top of the ship.”
It was a long wait. The Pelican rocked and shook every few seconds, and Naomi could feel rather than hear the nose-mounted auto-cannon being fired at enemy fighters. All the while, she heard pilots’ voices over the comm. link; shouting, screaming, calling out orders and positions.
Eventually, came the call she desperately wanted to hear.
“Guns and engine are down! I’m setting us down on the roof landing pad.”
After a few seconds there was a slight thump, and everyone was clambering out of their seats, fumbling to get their weapons ready.
“Everyone – pressurize your helmets,” Joshua ordered. “We’re on the upper landing pad; still in space.”
Once it was clear that everyone had done as he’d ordered, a light on the roof of the troop bay flicked green and the bay door slid open. Naomi rushed out and found herself standing on a large, circular pad on the top of the Corvette. Above her, she saw into outer space. Dogfights were still going on all around them. Purple Banshees and Seraphs jetted this way and that, contending with the stingray-like, gray Longswords. In the center of the pad, there was a large, mostly open area covered in a blue light.
“C’mon everyone; follow me,” Joshua ordered over the radio. “We need to get down there and find the main hanger to let the second Pelican in.”
He stood on the edge of the area covered in blue light and stepped onto it, sinking right through it and into the depths of the ship, his fall slowed by the lack of gravity all around them. Naomi followed suit, waving for the Equestrians to follow. She dropped through the blue energy field and was immediately under fire.
Blue and green plasma filled the air, a few bolts glancing over her armor. She leveled her assault rifle and began to return fire, all too aware that as long as she was in the air with no means of propulsion, she was an easy target. Covenant grunts lined the walkway around the perimeter of the room, wearing their signature methane-filled masks and firing plasma pistols at the soldiers descending into the room. Several of the grunts fell, spraying the sloped, purple walls with their neon blue blood, letting out high-pitched yelps of pain.
Naomi’s boots hit the ground, and she took cover behind a sloped half-wall on the circular, raised platform in the center of the room that she had landed on. The first few Equestrians touched down just behind her, mirroring her own actions.
“What in Tartarus are those things?” cried one of the soldiers, glancing around his own cover at the grunts that were still firing at ERN troops dropping in from the roof. “They look like they’re – urk!”
And suddenly a long, pink crystalline shard was protruding from both sides of his neck. Surprised, Naomi whipped around and instantly opened fire on a white-armored, blue-visored Elite Ranger wielding a needle rifle. The remaining ERN soldier beside her grabbed his fallen comrade’s DMR and fired with her. The elite’s shields broke suddenly, and the soldier sent a bullet straight through its visor.
It jerked and floated upward, purple blood spilling from inside its helmet.
“Stay alert,” Naomi urged, rising and firing once more upon the grunts across from them. “Don’t get caught off guard!”
It was a short firefight. The humans and Equestrians had the element of surprise on their side, and it was clear the Covenant was struggling to mount a counter to their sudden appearance and assault. As the final shell casing bounced into the low gravity air and the last Elite floated off, lifeless, Naomi, Joshua, and the remaining soldiers met by a large door on one side of the room.
“We lost six,” reported a marine staff sergeant. “Four Equestrians and two marines.”
“We’re halfway there,” Joshua assured him. “If our scans are correct, the hanger is just down the hallway beyond this door. We just need to secure it, let the Pelicans in, arm the charges, and get the hell out of here.”
“Sir?” piped up one of the ERN soldiers, a Unicorn of slight stature. “Isn’t this asking a bit much? I think we’re in over our heads here.”
Naomi almost felt embarrassed for him. He clearly didn’t understand the severity of the situation. A few of the more veteran marines grumbled among themselves. Joshua turned to look directly down at the Equestrian.
“Of course we’re in over our heads,” he said. “We’re always in over our heads. That’s our job. If we don’t take out this ship, it’ll call its buddies, who will waste no time in destroying your home, your people, and your planet. Do you want to stop that from happening?”
The Unicorn just nodded, taking a step back and bowing his head.
“If that’s settled,” Naomi said, stepping forward and causing the pneumatic door to slide open, “let’s get going.”
She and Joshua took the lead, walking slowly down the curved, purple hallway, weapons raised and ready to fire. The marines and ERN soldiers followed close behind them, showing the same attentiveness as the two SPARTANs. After taking a turn and another twist, another door opened in front of them, revealing a large, circular room.
On either side of the room was a large wall of light blue energy, protecting the interior of the ship from the black vacuum of space. Just in front of the group was a small platform with ramps leading up to the right and left, as well as one leading down into the main area. All throughout the room were Covenant soldiers. Grunts, Jackals, and Elites, all of whom were wearing the Ranger gear associated with Covenant soldiers operating in space-like conditions.
“Hold up!” Joshua ordered over the com. link, holding up one hand to signal to the rest of the team. “We’re here.”
Naomi followed his lead as he took cover beside one of the ramps just ahead of the door. The other troopers formed up around them.
“What’s the plan, sir?” asked a marine. “There’s a lot of aliens out there.”
Joshua and Naomi peeked out over the top of their cover, then glanced at each other. He nodded at her. They had a classic SPARTAN maneuver.
“We’ll set up a killzone,” Naomi told the soldiers. “That way we expose as few soldiers as possible. Are any of you trained snipers?”
Three soldiers raised their hands. Two Equestrians and a human. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Good,” she said. “You three will head up to the platforms above us with three other soldiers. Stay in cover and use your rifles to pick off weak, select targets. If you’re using sniper rifles, they should punch through Elite’s shields and kill them in one hit if you shoot them in the head.”
There was a low murmur as the soldiers all got themselves into position. Each of the snipers took one companion and ascended to the upper platforms. The rest of the group stayed where they were, making sure their weapons were ready and that they themselves were as well. After a minute or two, confirmation came in over the comm. link that everyone was in position and ready to go.
“Snipers,” Joshua said, “pick your targets. We’ll move as soon as you fire.”
In the momentary silence that followed, Naomi glanced around. Milling about, she counted perhaps two dozen Grunts. Maybe less than half as many Jackals. A dozen or so Elites. Dotted around the room, her eyes alighted on several purple crates filled with glowing, blue plasma. She recognized them as crates that were highly explosive when hit with grenades or bullets. Those could come in handy.
Three muffled shots rang out in unison and three Elites fell.
“Open fire!” Joshua ordered, and he, Naomi, and the ragtag band of soldiers that accompanied them stepped out and began unloading hot lead into the aliens in the hanger.
The fight was short and bloody.
Caught off guard, the Covenant made easy prey. The Grunts went down quickly; some before they even managed to fire off a shot. The Elites tried to rally their forces, but they were being shot down left and right. Some from a sniper’s shot, some by either Naomi or Joshua. Blood stained the floors and walls. Blue, purple, and red.
Naomi saw one Equestrian soldier slump to the ground, clutching at several scorched blasts in his armor. A marine disappeared in an explosive pink cloud as several needle rounds combined and reacted in her chest. Naomi shifted her aim and sent several bullets into the plasma crate beside the Jackal that had done it. The crate glowed extra brightly for a moment, then exploded in a blinding blue shower of sparks, killing the bird-like creature.
“Naomi,” Joshua’s voice broke in over her comm. “You’re closest. Hit the switch to power down the shields.”
An orange marker appeared in Naomi’s HUD, directing her gaze upwards. Just above her was a platform similar to the ones on the opposite side of the room where they’d entered.
“On it,” she affirmed. Squaring her legs, she pushed off hard from the ground. Due to both the power of both her armor and muscles, as well as the low gravity of the hanger, she soared upwards, easily reaching the platform. Waiting for her was an Elite ranger wielding a plasma repeater.
Upon seeing her, the Elite let out a barely audible roar and turned the weapon on her. Reacting quickly, Naomi reached out and grabbed the gun, turning it upward; away from her torso. It went off, sending a volley of blue plasma bolts into the ceiling. She kicked out, hitting the alien in the knee and causing its shields to flare. Surprised, it staggered backward, releasing its grip on the rifle. Naomi quickly flipped the weapon around and trained it on the Elite’s face. She pressed down the trigger and emptied round after round into it until if flopped to the floor, lifeless and riddled with plasma burns.
Naomi looked out over the hanger from her elevated position. All combat had ceased.
“Are we all clear?” She asked over the link.
“We’re all clear,” Joshua confirmed. “Hit the switch.”
Naomi turned to a small, holographic control panel just beside her. One button was flashing. She pressed it and it turned a shade of light red. After a second or two of nothing happening, there was a hiss and she felt her suit depressurize. Apparently, pressing the button had activated the local gravity generator. In addition, the blue shields on either side of the room flickered. She supposed that meant that they were safe to pass through now.
“Pelicans,” she reported over the team’s comms, “you’re safe to enter the hanger. But make it fast – we only have a few minutes before reinforcements get sent in here. We need to be gone before that happens.”
“Copy that, on our way.” It was Grace.
Moments later, the pair of dropships glided into the hanger bay, setting down in the middle of the room. Naomi joined Joshua and the remaining marines and ERN soldiers in the main area and waited as Grace and her team disembarked from the second drop ship. Grace set her packages on the floor and opened them.
Inside each case were four M168 Demolition charges. She began handing them out to marines. “Set these around the room. Give them a five-minute timer. Put two on each side of the bay doors, then set the rest wherever you think is best. Look for pillars or anything else that might be load-bearing. The rest of you – set up a perimeter and call at the first sign of any unwanted guests.”
When she had finished, she closed the cases and tossed them back into the Pelican’s troop bay. She looked at Naomi and Joshua.
“Casualties?” she asked.
“Three Equestrians and four marines,” Joshua reported solemnly. “A few wounded on both counts.
“They’re performing better than I expected, these Equestrians,” Grace admitted. “They follow orders well, they fight to the best of their ability, and they have a decent understanding of military protocol.”
“I expect the princesses have been borrowing some training from the UNSC playbook,” Naomi said. There was no way that had adapted this quickly to modern military techniques without some outside assistance.
“Well we can all agree it’s doing them good,” Joshua said.
A marine rushed up to them. “We’re all finished, sir.”
“Alright everyone – pack it in!” Joshua called out.
“Sir! We got contacts in the main hall!”
“Damn it,” Naomi cursed. “We don’t have time for another firefight.”
“Move! Forget about the Covenant, just get on the dropships!”
_ _ _
Covenant Encampment on Equis
Roth ‘Lukomee sat in the command center of their little outpost on this strange new planet. He knew he should be getting some much-needed rest, but something was keeping him awake. He could not say what. So, instead of sleeping, he sat, gazing at the holographic map of the planet that was being projected in front of him using a holotable.
His peace was interrupted when a minor burst into the room. “Shipmaster!” he growled. “I have urgent news!”
Roth sprung to his feet, startled. He leaned over the table. “It had better be, for you to disturb me at this hour.”
The minor rushed forward and began inputting a code into the holotable. “I assure you; this is of the upmost significance!”
The hologram of the planet faded. Instead, a visual of Torr ‘Utzomee, the general he had left in charge of the ship, appeared.
“Shipmaster!” Torr said, urgency apparent in his voice.
“Torr,” Roth said. “What is it that you have to tell me?
“Our ship is under attack, sire,” the general told him. “The humans have launched an assault on us with new ships we have never seen before! We believe they are working with the inhabitants of this planet.”
“Impossible,” Roth said, waving one long-fingered hand. “Nothing we have seen thus far indicates any level of high-technology on their world.”
“Nevertheless, here they are,” Torr said. “I am not sure we can hold them off with our limited forces.”
“Have you attempted to call for reinforcements?”
“Several times,” Torr confirmed. “We keep receiving confirmation, but no one has come!”
Something was wrong.
“Is there anything you can –”
The hologram of Torr suddenly vanished.
“What’s going on?” Roth demanded. “Raise him again!”
“I am trying, sire,” the minor fretted, furiously typing on the holopad. “There is no response!”
“Shipmaster!” called a voice outside the command center. “Come at once! There is something you must see.”
Growling agitatedly, Roth swept past the minor and the holotable and exited the tent. What could possibly be the matter now?
Outside, Toho was waiting for him, looking up into the clear night sky.
“Toho?” Roth asked. “What is it?”
In response, Toho pointed upwards. Roth followed his gaze.
There, visible against the stars and planets, was a purple cloud of energy that almost rivaled the moon in both size and scale. Instantly, Roth knew that the explosion was his ship. Why else would he have suddenly lost contact with Torr? All of his extra vehicles, his equipment, his backup troops, and most importantly, his ship, were all gone.
The Shangheli lifted his head up, opened his mandibles, and let out a furious, breathtaking roar.