Halo: Fall of Equestria

by Big-Mac-115

First published

The final frontier of the Human-Covenant war brings chaos where no man, or pony, thought it could go

The year is 2756, roughly 200 years following the human victory against the Covenant Empire in the Great Interstellar War. We know for a fact that the Covenant, while they were massively corrupted, they were NOT by any means crushed altogether. Over the past two centuries, our UNSC Navy fleet has been assigning unmanned scout craft to and around the homeworlds of the major species of the Covenant Empire, and - while they appear to be living individually for the majority - new intelligence and scans of major systems still in "Covenant controlled" space suggest an ominous and inescapable truth: the alien menace has managed to regroup covertly, and they have massed a fleet FAR larger than anything our galaxy has ever seen before. We would assume that their most likely motive is vengeance, however other pieces of intel suggest that their intended target is not in fact Earth - or any of her colonies within UNSC controlled regions of space - but another, far more distant planet, lying on the outstretches of the Milky Way galaxy. Although their intentions are otherwise unknown, we cannot take any chances and allow the Covenant to advance to this new planet. A medium fleet of UNSC warships has been assigned a scout - and if all goes well - interception mission of this new planet, hopefully cutting off the Covenant in time to stop whatever plan they may have.


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Staff Sgt. William H. McLendon

March 19th, 2756
1307 hours
Outer reaches of the Prometheus-Five system, aboard UNSC Halcyon-Class cruiser "Hellhound", en route to "New Arcadia".

>>//Journal entry #1//<<

Well, since we're going to be arriving at our destination later today, I figured I might as well jot down my first journal entry. I am Staff Sargent William Howard McLendon, ten-year veteran of the United Nations Space Command Marine Core and squad commander of the 407th Orbital Drop Shock Trooper (ODST) scout division..... Not much of an intro, but you get the idea (I've never been good at intros). Anyway, according to the ship's captain, Rear Admiral Mikel A. Barrat, we're gonna be dropping out of slipspace sometime within the next couple hours. And God, am I glad to hear it. We've been stuck aboard this hulk of metal that the Core calls Hellhound for almost four weeks straight in slipspace, nothing to see, nothing to do, so you can imagine me and the rest of the crew's reaction to the news that we'll be able to actually see something other than the pitch-blackness of slipstream space. 'Course, regular space isn't much better, but it sure as hell beats the nothingness of.... Well, NOTHING.

If all goes well, we're supposed to be dropping out within a few-hundred thousand kilometers of this new planet that the UNSC calls New Arcadia. ONI (Office of Naval Intelligence) tells us we're just gonna be doing some research and reconnaissance of the place, seeing if it's inhabitable for life and able to sustain future colonies, samples of the soil, see what kind of life that may or may not live there, the general stuff like that. I call bullshit on that. They said that the details of the mission are classified, and when the spooks say "classified", everyone knows they mean "you're going to be hot-dropped into a battle zone with limited ammunition and reinforcements, because we're too much of a buncha pricks to give you the proper weaponry and equipment you need, in fear that we might ruin the surprise". I swear, they do this just to screw with us. Obviously that's not true - they're ridiculous, but they're not stupid enough to send a fleet of ships far outside the reaches of UNSC space just for a damn good laugh - but I can't help getting that feeling sometimes. I'm sure there's SOME sort of threat to take care of, probably just a group of Insurrectionists that tried to find a new place to live, and they want us to kill them. Typical. Whatever though, I don't mind that kind of work, so why am I complaining? 'Sides, hunting down the Innie bastards is better than just coming here for research or whatever it was that we're supposed to be doing.

As long as it's taken this tin can to travel to the planet, I must say she's a beauty. Although not quite as new as some of the other ships in the UNSC's Navy - but what'd you expect, they ain't gonna give some ragged scout fleet a set of brand spanking new Halcyon-Class VII cruisers - she's DEFINITELY got what it takes to handle herself, not only in a gunfight, but we've got enough new technology on here to do just about anything this job might require. It's one of the few upsides of the whole human-Covenant war of the late 2500s: apparently, based on research I've done and things I've learned, our technology then was even SHITTIER than it is now, and I figured that a hard thing to imagine. So, after we defeated the Covies, we salvaged technology from their ships, weapons, armor, ect. and adapted it to our own liking (I should say 'they', rather, because I sure as heck wasn't there). But anyway, thanks to their brilliant minds, they actually managed to not just replicate, but IMPROVE the Covie tech, upgrading it from "Wow, this is some pretty neat stuff here" to "Holy shit! I wouldn't want to fight that!". So, of course, yours truly is once again the strongest force in the galaxy. I say that with pride, because I'm sure there's a ton of other races out there in the universe that are fighting just for survival, and how many of them can say they're the best? Not many.

Well, while I'm ranting about our ship's tech and how it came to be, I should probably mention the rest of the fleet. We're traveling in a five-ship fleet composed entirely of Halcyon-Class IV light cruisers, a bit overkill if you ask me, even if we are dealing with the Innies (funny how they overstock us on ships and equipment, but understock us on weapons, huh? You'd think there'd be some middle ground, but no). It sure as hell is an excessive amount of firepower for a "scouting" mission, but, you know the Core: deploy a full convoy of M-1200 Main Battle Tanks to swat a fly. Anywho, we're actually making record time, once again thanks to our alien menace friends. A shipboard AI back during the war - her name was Cortana, I think? - managed to hack into some of the Covies' ships, accessing their schematics, memory base, encryption codes, and intell on weapons tech. But the most important thing she discovered was the programming of the ship's slipspace drives, FAR advanced compared to our Shaw-Flamboyant (can't remember the name) slipspace drives. The Covies had long been able to outrun and out maneuver our ships, both in and out of slipspace, but that discovery changed it for the most part. After the discovery, the mechanics and builders of the Shaw-Flaubert engines called themselves stupid and narrow-minded for never thinking of it like that before; apparently, the Covenant drives were not even that much harder to construct than our own, even though they were immensely more powerful and capable. I ain't no engineer, so I can't tell you jack about the details of the whole thing, but I can tell you that whatever the Covies did differently, it sure as hell worked for them (well, more or less... They did get it handed to them in the end). Funny thing is, we would have won that war even if we never got our hands on those schematics. It actually wasn't until about fifty years ago that the technology was successfully duplicated and improved upon to the liking of ONI, so the fact that this ship even HAS one of the new drives in place of a Shaw-Flumblebirth is beyond me.

Well..... Actually, it's not that outlandish now that I think of it. We ARE exploring a distant planet in another system after all, and it would have taken several months to travel to this new planet with one of the old slipspace drives, so I guess it makes sense. The faster the trip is, the less they have to pay us, so I guess the price for getting new engines outweighed the price for a bigger payday for us..... I'm going to have to say ONI can shove it up their asses. (I hope one of them finds this and reads it) Anywho, not only did Cortana manage to get the slipspace schematics, but she also got a look at the Covie weaponry, which we haven't quite mastered to the Covenant's full capability yet, but we're working on it. The ships in this fleet actually have small prototype plasma lasers that aren't quite as powerful as our standard MAC rounds, but they have a damn good effective range. Almost twice that of our MAC guns, in fact. Another thing that ONI says that they're going to be working on - and I don't think I hold them to this; they hardly live up to any promises they make - is the development of heavy shields, similar to the ones that the Covies used to have on their craft. Not that they're all that necessary anymore, the only threat we really have at this point is a handful of scattered Innie colonies, but it's a nice bit of reassurance the next time you may find yourself in an asteroid field for God-knows-whatever reason. The UNSC has done a pretty good job on duplicating the shields on a small scale (our ODST power armor has been outfitted with light shields, similar to those of the legendary SPARTANS), but I guess they just haven't managed to recreated them powerful enough to cover an entire battle cruiser. Which I can't really blame them, these ships are over a mile long. I can hardly imagine the energy and amount of time it would take to design one of those shields to fully cover one of these behemoths.

Hell, while I'm on the topic, I might as well mention our armor. Seventh-Gen ODST Mk XIII Semi-Powered Infiltration armor. BEAUTIFUL stuff (although the designers apparently never thought we'd have to sit down..... Ouch). Full-body light energy shielding, capable of sustaining several hits in succession before collapsing entirely. Derived from the original SPARTAN II Mk V MJOLNIR power armor, it's not QUITE as tough as that, but hey, you can't just go around mass-producing shield technology that costed a hundred and seventeen million dollars a suit (at least, that's what it was back then). Each one of our suits costs around three million, still not cheap, but with a pocketbook as big as ONI's, who cares? And besides, it's less danger we're put in on the battlefield, so it's a win-win (unless you're an enemy of the UNSC, then you can kiss your ass goodbye). Also a reinvention of the SPARTAN armor, the ODST Mk XIII helmet is outfitted with a new-and-improved Heads Up Display (HUD), which now has some neat little features such as tactical maps; thermal, electrical and night-vision modes; improved eye-to-weapon links, increasing the preciseness of the HUD, to allow for greater accuracy; a full-radius activity sensors, capable of picking up not only motion, but thermal and electrical energy as well ; and last but not least (and this feature is reserved mostly for snipers and marksmen), an auto-targeting and leading system for targets at extreme range. From what I understand, the optics in the helmet basically track your enemy's movements if they're running, calculates the range and travel time of the bullet, and tells you where you need to aim in order to make the perfect shot. Pretty cool, but not quite as cool as the features we close-quarters guys get: In our armor itself, we actually get a nifty little overdrive feature that allows us to use the armor's reserve energy in our shields, giving us an exponential increase in damage resistance for a limited time. How long that time is, I have no idea; we've never had a chance to test it first-hand yet (and I don't think I look forward to being in a situation where I might need to use it). But still, a nice feeling of security it brings. Downside is, you can only use it every once in awhile, and after you use it, your shields are completely drained until the system can recharge. The techs said that the recharge time could last anywhere from three to five days, so you better be sure you have a damn good reason to use it. On another note, something that both designated marksman, and regular CQC troopers like me have in common is our armor's onboard computer system that interfaces with our neural implants, making our reflexes faster, our coordination better, and most impressively, we can control and interact with parts of the armor just by thinking of it. Say, for instance, you wanted to open a secure COM link with just one or two members of your squad. You just look at them and think about it, and the COM channel opens, and you can talk to them via secure radio frequency. Or, say you want to mark out a target or designate a location for the rest of the team to see, you simply concentrate on the location on either a map or visual sighting of where you want said marker, and it places a beacon. Pretty neat shit, right? Well that's nothing compared to this: our armor's inner skeletal structure is composed of the same reactive metal crystal as the Mk VI MJOLNIR. Amorphous micro-capillaries of the stuff run throughout the suit, scaling and amplifying force. So basically, it doubles the wearer's strength and potential movement speed. Coolest thing in the galaxy if you ask me, and of course, it came from the SPARTAN project. You know, I really have no idea why the other ODSTs hate the Spartans so much. I mean, for one they don't even exist anymore, and realistically if it we're for Halsey and her Spartans, we wouldn't have most of this technology to begin with, not to mention we would have lost the war!

Damn, captain just announced we're exiting slipspace in thirty. I was just about to talk about our weapons, too. Oh well, gotta get moving to the hangar.

Staff Sgt. McLendon, out..... Time to see what this new planet has in store for us.

Chapter One: Contact

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War is an abominable thing. It is bloody, vile, oppressing, heinous, and vexing. But worse than war is the idea of defeat. With defeat, comes hopelessness for whomever experiences it, and without hope, comes things far worse than a simple war could ever bring. However, let this be certain; no civilization, large or small, is defeated when lives are lost, when physical possessions are plundered, or the place of one's homeland is destroyed. Defeat, in all it's hideousness, comes only when the morale is oppressed. When hope is lost. When all will to defend and protect is taken. Only then will defeat prevail. And with a reason to fight, be it personal gain or the better will of a whole, anyone can bring hope. Anyone can sustain the moral of their people. Anyone can be a soldier, anyone can defend and protect, and most importantly, anyone can win a war.

And without a reason to fight, defeat has already conquered.

Chapter One: Contact

March 19, 2756
0949 hours
Royal Palace, Canterlot, Equestria

Where is the Princess? Dauntless glanced around her courtroom for what felt like the hundredth time, and flicked a stray lock of dark purple hair out of his eyes. He felt bare, and almost incomplete, without his hemet and armor; normally he would be wearing it, especially when requested in the Princess's presence. But she had called upon him on such short notice this morning, waking him up at about six-thirty in the morning by sending one of her combustive letters into his barracks. She had a knack for doing things like that.

He and his squad of four other royal guards; Stalwart, Sunspot, Specter, and Ruhig Tödlich, had been standing in formation for the last three hours, chins held high and motionless at a crisp attention, and they were growing tired. They had been summoned by Her Majesty, requesting their presence in the matters of discussing a mission she had for them, and though she didn’t disclose exactly what this “mission” entitled, if the order came from Princess Celestia herself, they knew it had to be of the utmost importance. At this point, Dauntless had begun to think it was another one of her little jokes (she had been bestowed the nickname 'Trollestia" for a reason), but he and the rest of the team didn't DARE run the risk of leaving early in case she did in fact show up; it would probably mean demotion at best, the end of their careers at worst.

However, just as he began to think he'd been royally played, he heard the massive door to the courtroom open behind him, followed by heavy hoofsteps. Not daring to turn around and break his saluting stance, he had to assume it was Princess Celestia, and he spoke up on behalf of his troops. "Ma'am, 22nd Royal Security Regiment, reporting as ordered, ma'am!"

A chuckle came from behind them. "At ease, soldiers!" Luna mocked in a deep voice.

Dauntless was slightly startled at her presence, and he and his squad turned around to face her. "Princess Luna! We are here on strict orders to see Princess Celestia. Have you any idea where she is?"

"Oh, you mean you got a letter from her saying that she 'had a mission that she needed you to accomplish, and she needed to see you in her court at once'? THOSE strict orders?" Luna smiled slyly.

".......Yes, ma'am. How did you kn-"

The princess of the night chuckled. "Good, glad to see my hornwriting matched hers enough for you to think it was indeed her."

Actually, Dauntless didn't check the hornwriting; orders were orders, and they weren't to be questioned. He kept this to himself, though. "Your Majesty, with all due respect, you have wasted our valuable time by summoning us here without legitimate reason. Have you an actual request of us, or are we simply here for your amusement?" He said this last sentence with a biting tone; he didn't like the fact that he lost the last three hours just standing here doing nothing.

She smirked. "A bit of both, actually..... What? Is there a problem with wanting to spend some time with Equestria's best group of soldiers every once in a blue moon?"

"When we could be doing better, more important things, yes there is a problem."

The princess sighed. "Ugh, you guys are no fun. Anyway, yes I do have a small assignment for you."

That's more like it. For a moment, I thought I was going to have to start calling her "Princess Lunnoyance". He laughed silently to himself.

Luna circled around in front of the five guards as she spoke. She was large, taller than most other ponies in Equestria in fact, but by comparison she was still dwarfed by these five massive stallions. "You're probably not gonna like this, but you all know my nephew Prince Blueblood, right?"

Yes, unfortunately... Everypony in the royal palace hated that little brat, Dauntless and his team being no exception. "Yes, ma'am. Why do you ask? Does he need a good flank-kicking?" He knew it was okay to joke around and loosen up a bit; Princess Luna regarded the Royal Guards as more of personal friends rather than militants, and they felt the same way about her.

"Well of course he does! He ALWAYS does! And you're always welcome to do so, any time you wish. I won't stop you!" She laughed. "Anywho, he wanted me to ask a favor of you. Mind you, I know you're probably not g-"

"Ma'am, permission to interject?"



Princess Luna frowned and drooped her shoulders. "Aww, c'mon! You haven't even heard what I have to say!"

"You said 'Prince Blueblood' and 'favor'. That's all I need to know."

".....Touche. But, even still, listen. Evidently he and another of his acquaintances was visiting Ponyville lately, and his little friend wandered into the Everfree Forest, got lost, and now he hasn't heard from him since. Blueblood mentioned his name was Eminence, and he said he wished for you to go look for him. You know, 'search-and-rescue mission'!" Her voice dripped with fake enthusiasm.

"Well, if he wandered into the Everfree forest, not only is that his own stupid fault, but he's probably dead by now as it is. When did he go missing?" Dauntless had heard this sort of thing many a time: stupid kid wanders into the forest, gets lost, never heard from again. Ponies got lost in the Everfree all the time, and nobody ever even bothered to look for them because it's almost a guarantee that they're dead already, so why should some little spoiled rich kid that is friends with Blueblood have the most elite squad in the country come looking for him?

Luna tapped her chin. "Umm... He said a week? I think. Yeah I know his chances are low to say the least, but still, can you do it? It is not like you have anything better to do as it is."

Dauntless sighed loudly and rolled his eyes.

"Look, I know you're probably not gonna to find the kid, but can you at least go so you can say you tried? Apparently it was one of his closest friends, and as much as I dislike Blueblood, he IS still my nephew. I don't want to see him go into a depression or something. Pleeaassee? Out of the goodness of your heart?" She puffed our her lower lip, making the puppy dog face. It was a face Dauntless couldn't resist, and she knew it.

".......Ugh, I SUPPOSE we could make a couple passes over the forest... But if we find him, and IS by the grace of Celestia still alive, he's going to wish the hydras and manticores had gotten to him first."

"THAT'S the spirit! Besides, you don't even have to actually rescue him. As long as the effort was made, HOPEFULLY Blueblood won't be whining about it as much."

Yeah, right... Now that he though of it, as much as Dauntless hated Luna's nephew, he had to have a little sympathy for him; he had lost many good squadmates, friends... Even family members in the line of duty, so he understood how Blueblood probably felt right now.

"Men, back to the barracks and get ready. We're leaving in one hour. You have till then to prepare. Move out!"

Every stallion in his squad except Ruhig Tödlich saluted with a booming "Sir, yes sir!", and then they all trotted briskly through the door in the direction of the barracks. Dauntless watched them as they exited, then his eyes returned to Luna, who was smiling broadly.

"Thanks, Dauntless. I know it's probably hard to do this, considering how obnoxious Blueblood is to you guys."

Dauntless waved his hoof dismissively. "Naahh, I don't much mind doing it. If it's any consolation, I can sympathize with him a little bit. I've lost too many good men - most of them being either close friends or relatives of mine - in combat. I know how it feels to lose someone close." He paused for a moment. ".......You think he would want me to talk to him? Blueblood, I mean."

Luna winced. "Ehh I don't think that'd be such a great idea. He's sensitive enough about it as it is, and you know how the whole 'authority figure' thing just rubs him the wrong way. I think the best you can do is just try to find his friend for him. That's about all he'll respond to."

"Understood. I am going to return to my quarters with the rest of the squad to prepare. Good day, Princess."

He turned to leave, but Luna stopped him. "Wait! Once again, thank you. I'm sure Blueblood himself would thank you as well, if he wasn't too busy moping..." She rolled her eyes.

"It isn't a problem, ma'am. Like I said; I know where the boy is coming from. I've seen too many good men die for a lost cause. And I'll do everything in my power to keep from losing more."

The princess smiled softly. "Well, that's... Very noble of you. Good luck, Dauntless. Although, I know you hardly need it. And I'm sure I'll be hearing back from you soon." She gave him a wink.

Dauntless blushed slightly. "Thank you, ma'am."

"Quite welcome....... Now, uhh, dismissed! Go to it! Uhm... Break a leg, or whatever it is you guys say!"

The stallion couldn't help but laugh out loud at this. "'Dismissed' will do just fine."

* * *

March 19, 2756
1029 hours
En route to Ponyville, Equestria

"Boss, permission to speak?"

"Go ahead."

"Why the hay are we out looking for this colt? You and I both know he's long dead by now."

Dauntless stopped in mid-flight, turning around and grabbing Sunspot's collar armor with a hoof, and angrily brought his face closer.

"Because it's the right thing to do. Imagine, for whatever reason, you lost your mother. Or your brother. Say you went and requested the help of the Royal Guard to assist you in finding her. Say they laughed at you and told you right to your face 'she's already dead, kid. Might as well forget about it.'..... Is that what we do? Is our job to turn down ponies that come to us in their times of need? Does that sound like Celestia's Royal Security Force to you?"

Sunspot blankly stared back into Dauntless's eyes. "No, sir. That is not what we do. You're right." Dauntless released his collar from his grasp with a forceful shove.

Specter spoke up. "Dauntless, with all due respect, sir. I know the true reason is not because 'it's the right thing to do', even though it is indeed: The reason is because you are defending Prince Blueblood. Why? It is uncharacteristic of you."

It never failed: Specter could see right through anypony's emotions, no matter how much they play it off, or how much they try to hide them. He always managed to probe through their minds with his. Darn-near telepathic..... And almost creepy.

Dauntless shook his head. "I can't give you a straight answer to that, I really don't know myself. I suppose it is because I don't like the idea of another pony dying for nothing: we all know how it feels to lose someone close. We've all lost friends and family in battle, and I don't think anypony - even somepony like Blueblood - should have to experience that. I know you all know exactly what I am talking about: there is a difference between a life spent, and a life wasted, gentlemen."
There was momentary silence as Dauntless's words sunk in to the consciences of his men.

"Then sir," Specter spoke out again, "let us waste no time."

Dauntless and the other three nodded in agreement.

The remaining fifteen minutes of the journey to Ponyville were silent.

They arrived at the small populace at about a quarter to eleven, and landed in the town square, where they were met with looks of both concern and fear by many of the citizens.

"So wheredye suppose we start lookin'?" Stalwart asked in his thick Scottish accent. "Ye think we should just head right into the forest, or should we do abit o' askin' around first?"

"It'd probably be best if we interviewed somepony to get a general idea of where he was last seen... But I'm not sure anypony here is in the mood for talking. At least to us." Sunspot replied, surveying the wary looks of the ponies, most of which were clearing away from the square.

This sort of reaction was typical: small-town ponies like this seemed to think of the Her Majesty's Royal Guards as some alien invaders rather than sworn protectors. Of course, when they were about six times more muscular and easily two to three feet taller than the average pony, who could blame them?

"Hold the phone, looks like somepony decided to be friendly enough to introduce themselves." Stalwart gestured to a purple unicorn who was approaching them, seemingly unfazed compared to the other inhabitants of Ponyville.

"Good morning, sirs!" She greeted them, grinning. "We noticed you seemed to be looking for something. Is there anything we can help you with?"

"'We'? I think it's just you. Nopony else seems to want to be of any assistance." Dauntless replied.

The unicorn laughed uncomfortably. "Right... Sorry about that. Anyway, I'm forgetting my manners. My name is Twilight Sparkle, and this is-" She glanced over her shoulder, looking for somepony who wasn't there. She turned around and called out to the missing pony. "Fluttershy! Don't be disrespectful! Come say hello!"

Dauntless followed her gaze, and found himself looking at a yellow pegasus several meters behind Twilight Sparkle, who was shaking and seemed ready to bolt away.

"My apologies, you'll have to excuse her. She's a bit shy, as you can tell." Twilight sighed.

Dauntless shrugged. "You say it as if cowering from us is an unusual reaction. Don't worry, we're used to it. Now, since you asked, we actually could use your help with something. We're looking for a certain unicorn, his name is Eminence. We were told he was here about a week ago with Prince Blueblood. I'm sure you've heard of HIM, yes?"

The unicorn rolled her eyes. "Yeah. I haven't met him, but I don't like him. He was a jerk to one of my best friends at the Grand Galloping Gala. From what I hear, he's a stuck-up snob and a real pain in the flank."

Dauntless laughed; he found it hysterical that even ponies from this small town and that had never even met the prince hated him. "Well, you heard right, Miss Twilight. Believe me, I do not think kindly of him either. However, we're here on orders to find the aforementioned acquaintance of his that has gone missing. He supposedly wandered off into the Everfree Forest. We were wondering if maybe you had seen any ponies that looked of royalty anywhere around?"

Twilight gasped. "Oh my... That's awful! I wish I could be of more help to you, but I haven't seen or heard of anypony like that. I didn't even KNOW Blueblood was in town... I hope you find him, though. Eminence, that is." Her brow furrowed in concern. "Actually, I have a fairly extensive knowledge of the Everfree, and I could possibly use my magic to help you locate him. Would you like me to come with you?"

"Well, I appreciate the offer, Miss Twilight: but I'm afraid I cannot allow it. Really, ponies are encouraged not to go into the forest as it is, so I can't take you in there, even under our watch. It would be..." He searched for the word. It wasn't unlawful, but the Princess surely wouldn't smile upon the idea of taking this unicorn into the Everfree and possibly risking her life to look for some lost pony.

Then it hit him. "Wait, you said your name was Twilight Sparkle?"

She tilted her head and nodded, slightly confused at the sudden change of subject.

"YOU'RE the one Celestia always talks about!" Sunspot called forth with excitement.

Dauntless shot a warning glance back at him for speaking out of line. "Yes, we have heard many great things about you. She calls you her 'prized pupil', her 'prodigy', the 'Element of Magic', is it?"

Twilight blushed. "Yeahhh that's me I guess."

"Well, it is an honor to meet you, ma'am. My name is Dauntless, and this is Sunspot, Specter, Stalwart, and Ruhig Tödlich." He gave each of them their respective nods as he said their names. "We are 22nd Royal Security Regiment."

"Top o' da mornin' to ye, malady!" Stalwart boomed with a wide grin.

"Hey, how's it goin'?" Sunspot cooed in a seductive tone, which earned him a jab in the ribs from Stalwart.

"Greetings, Twilight Sparkle." said Specter in his usual, monotone voice.

Ruhig Tödlich only gave a quick nod of acknowledgment.

"You'll have to excuse him." Dauntless said. "He lost most of his ability to speak in a fight, so he rarely talks."

"Eh, I know how that is" Twilight said with a shrug, and motioned back toward Fluttershy, who still seemed terrified and on edge.

"Speakin' o' that," Stalwart interjected, staring at the yellow pegasus, "I think I just might try to talk ta her. Maybe get her to calm down a wee bit."

Dauntless glared at him, but Stalwart simply shrugged. "What? She seems like she could use somepony ta talk to." He walked casually in the direction of Fluttershy, who quickly took several unsteady steps back, stumbling on the last one.

Dauntless rolled his eyes. He knew there was no point in trying to stop the read-headed stallion. Stalwart considered orders hardly more than friendly requests, and he really didn't see himself getting into a heated argument with Stalwart anytime soon; he was even larger than Dauntless, and even though he outranked him, Stalwart wouldn't think twice about getting phyisically violent with a superior officer. He had done it before.

He then remembered why they were here in the first place, and that they had a job to do. "Well, all things aside, back to our original conversation. I appreciate the notion that you would like to help us in our search Miss Twilight, but I don't think the Princess would think kindly upon the idea of me taking her prized pupil into the Everfree, regardless of the reason."

"I understand." She gave a respectful nod.

Dauntless nodded back. "Alright. Gentlemen! Let's move! Stalwart, that means you too."

"Aww, but I was just gettin' acquainted!" He called over from near Fluttershy, who seemed to have calmed down significantly in the brief moments the two had been talking.

He narrowed his eyes at Stalwart. He need not say anything; his expression did the talking for him. Get over here before I tell everyone in earshot that you still sleep with a teddy bear.

Stalwart knew that these threats weren't empty, so he trotted over to Dauntless's side once more and took his place among the ranks, muttering something under his breath.

"Well thank CELESTIA! I was starting to think the flirting would NEVER end." Sunspot exclaimed as sarcastically as possible.

"Hmph! And YOU'RE one ta talk?" Stalwart scolded. "Does 'hey, how's it goin'?' ring a bell?" He mocked Sunspot in the same seductive tone he had used on Twilight.

"Well at least I didn't go out of my way to try to get some from that pegasus!"

"Now you listen here; I wasn't tryin' ta 'get some', I was just makin' a friendly gesture, somethin' that the likes o' YOU wouldn't know about if it came up and bit ye right in the a-"


They immediately stopped squabbling and snapped to a crisp attention. "Yes, sir!"

Dauntless turned back to Twilight. "Disregard anything those two say. They tend to forget who they are sometimes." He said with a hint of embarrassment.

Twilight laughed uneasily. "It's fine. I understand that males can't help but have the urge to flirt sometimes; it's natural."

"But that's just it. These are supposed to be my trained, disciplined soldiers, NOT some group of teenagers out looking for their next date." He said this with a stern glare back at his troops.

Twilight shrugged. "Well, I suppose that's not any of MY business. Maybe you should knock them over the head more often, to keep them in line!" She teased.

"Oh, I'm likin' this idea!" Stalwart said excitedly, and with that, he slammed his hoof down on Sunspot's helmet, hard enough to make it ring for a good five seconds.

Sunspot was too stunned by the blow to respond immediately: instead he stood dazed for a moment before turning to his attacker, who just grinned broadly.

"What? 'Twas the lady's idea, not mine."

Dauntless had given up at this point: he simply stood staring at the ground in front of Twilight, rubbing his temple with a hoof until they were finished. "Are you two going to be like this every time we leave the palace? If so, I'll just take Specter and Ruhig next time."

This was enough to silence the two stallions.

"Again, I apologize for the UN-EXEMPLARY behavior of these two." Dauntless shook his head in disappointment.

Twilight just laughed. "As improper as it is, I must admit it's considerably entertaining."

"Yeah, well, as much as I know they'd like to be, they're not comedians. ESPECIALLY when we're on assignment."

"Well, like I said, perhaps a good kick in the flank would be in order for them every so often and DON'T DO IT!" Her eyes widened as she saw Stalwart look at Sunspot with a devious smile.

"Anywho, good luck to you guys! I hope you find whomever it is that you're looking for!"

Dauntless smiled warmly. "I do too, Miss Twilight. I do too. 'Twas a pleasure meeting you! Hope we cross paths again soon!" With these last few words, he and the other four guards took to the sky with their powerful wings, and began flying toward the Everfree.

* * *

March 19, 2756
1104 hours
Town Square, Ponyville, Equestria

"That was... Interesting." Twilight thought aloud as she watched the five stallions as they glided over the buildings of Ponyville, away from her and Fluttershy, and in the direction of the forest. "Alright, lets go, Fluttershy."

She looked over her shoulder at the pegasus, who was sitting on the ground and still shaking slightly as she also watched the guards depart. "Fluttershy, don't worry. They're gone. And besides, it's not like they were ever going to hurt you in the first place."

She warily pulled herself off her rump, and continued walking with Twilight to Sweet Apple Acres, where they were to be having lunch with the rest of the Apple family later today. "I... I know, I just... They were so big and scary-looking. I know they meant no harm, but they're just so loud, and they seemed a little bit hostile, I guess..." She paused. "But... I like the one with the accent who came over and talked to me. He seemed really nice..... Well, of course, aside from always harassing the blonde one... But I guess that's just what boys do....."

"Well, they're all nice in their own way." Sorta... She wasn't sure if the one that they called Sunspot was "nice" in any way, considering that he had little to say but sarcastic and disrespectful remarks.

But something about them seemed familiar, like she already knew that particular team of royal guards on a personal level. Had she read about them somewhere? Had she studied them without recalling it? Had she met them before? She hadn't a clue. Their names struck a bell, too. She knew that the leader's name, "Dauntless", meant fearless and brave. But she also felt like that name meant something else, like she SHOULD remember it, but couldn't.

Then it dawned on her. "Of course! 22nd Royal Security Regiment! I KNEW they sounded familiar!"

This sudden outspoken epiphany earned a confused and frightened look from Fluttershy.

"Oh, sorry. I was just thinking about that group of soldiers, and something brought to mind about them. Then I remembered that they're the ones that Princess Celestia always talks about! She boasts about them quite a bit, actually. According to her, they're about the best team of militants in Equestria. I just wish I had remembered that when they were here, I would have brought it up! Wow, I actually feel kind of honored to have met them, don't you?"

Fluttershy's eyes wandered uncomfortably "Umm, well... I suppose... They seemed..... Okay..."

Twilight was a bit disappointed at her lack of enthusiasm, but she understood; Fluttershy had never been big on anything that had to do with war, conflict, or any sort discordance at all.

".....What was the big one's name again? Fluttershy asked sheepishly. "Stalwart, right?"

Twilight nodded.

"...Stalwart..." Fluttershy repeated quielty to herself, and smiled. "He hardly had time to introduce himself before the one with the purple mane said they had to go."

"Yes, but you have to understand, they didn't come here to socialize: they're on a mission to find a missing pony. They only stopped to ask us if we had seen him. They were in a bit of a hurry."

Speaking of being in a hurry, Twilight remembered that they told Applejack that they would be at Sweet Apple acres by eleven fifteen, and they had probably lost about ten minutes talking to the guards.

"Oh no, c'mon, Fluttershy! We're going to be late!" She picked up the pace to a brisk trot, followed by Fluttershy, to the apple farm, where she planned to spend the rest of the day eating, playing, and generally having a good time together with her best friends.

But plans change.

* * *

March 19, 2756
1810 hours
Everfree Forest, Equestria

Dauntless's fears were being realized. He knew from the start that there was little chance of finding the missing friend of Blueblood, but he tried to be as optimistic as possible up to this point. They had been flying over the Everfree in their standard overlapping search pattern for several hours now, with no sign of anypony so far, and though they still had only searched about half of the forest, there wasn't much hope left; they were now several miles from Ponyville, and the farther and farther they ventured from the town, the thicker and more dangerous the forest got. If they hadn't had success by now, they weren't going to have any at all. But still, they persisted. He thought it was ironic that he had been reluctant to even try to find him when Luna had first suggested it, but now it had turned into such a personal objective. He still wasn't sure why, either.

"Specter, see anything?" Dauntless asked desperately.

"Negative." He replied.




He shook his head.

Dauntless sighed. "And I KNOW you haven't seen anything Stalwart, because you would be having a hyperactivity attack right now."

"Too right, mate."

"Boss, believe me, I wanna find this colt just as much as the next pony, but..... I'm sorry, but there's just no hope at this point. We've looked over almost half the forest, and there's just nopony here. I think we should just go home." suggested Sunspot.

Dauntless sighed. As much as he didn't want to admit it, the young stallion was right. At this point, they were surely wasting their time. Besides, at least we tried, right? He shook his head. No, trying isn't good enough... But there was simply just no hope left.

"Alright..... Let's turn around boys, we're heading b-"

Dauntless felt somepony tap his shoulder, and he turned to see Ruhig pointing a hoof toward the horizon in the distance. He followed his gaze, and saw what looked like..... Smoke? Yes, it was smoke, slowly trickling out of the treeline and over the forest. He felt his heart rise in his chest, almost threatening to leave him. Could it have been a campfire set by the missing colt? A signal for help? He hadn't a clue. But whatever it was, they were going to investigate.

"Men, I think we may have found something."

They made a beeline for the spot where the smoke seemed to originate from, and descended below the treeline, and into the dark canopy of the forest. However, upon reaching the ground, they found something that surprised and disheartened them: a small hut, or what was left of it, stood in a clearing of burned trees and scorched undergrowth, about a hundred feet in diameter. They speechlessly and unknowingly spit up and began wandering about, surveying the scene, taking it in with both caution and worry. There were patterns of black, charred bark on the trees, almost as if somepony had splashed molten lava about the litte clearing. Small bushfires still danced on the ground, but the were of no immediate threat; they were too small, and looked to be about ready to die on their own. The small house itself stood in small segments. Only parts of it were still standing, the majority looked as if it had been blown apart with a considerably-sized explosion. Which may or may not explain the strange burnmarks on the trees and ground... Dauntless thought absent-mindedly.

"Well I'll be damned..." Stalwart said grimly, and motioned for Dauntless and the others to come join him on the other side of the clearing. They did so, and what they saw made their hearts drop like stones; there, in a small crater-like depression in the forest floor, was the body of a pony. Or was it a pony? No... Dauntless recognized the telltale black stripes and off-white body of a zebra. His eyes played grimly over the corpse: most of her coat around her back and flanks had been singed off, revealing bare skin that was red, splotchy, and covered in heat blisters. Her face wore and expression of shock, her mouth hagning open and her eyes staring cold and lifeless at the forest in front of her. Around her neck and front legs were dozens of gold bands, many of which had been melted together and become just large, twisted masses of metal. But near her chest and stomach was the most disturbing sight. Her entire lower half from the navel down was missing, the flesh and bone that would and should have been connecting the two halves was also blackened and burned to a crisp. Some of her organs were spilling out from her abdomen, the red, raw flesh a gruesome and gory sight that made even Dauntless, a hardened and desensitized soldier, want to throw up. Feeling his stomach turn over inside of him, he had to look away and breath through his mouth to get rid of the rancid smell that the burning flesh produced. He couldn't begin to imagine what - or who - could have done this. The only thing that he could think of was possibly an attack by a rouge dragon, but he wasn't so sure, because if that was the case, it probably would have consumed this body. He consulted his expert. "Specter, what's your analysis on what could have happened here? This is like nothing I've ever encountered before."

The lean, brown-maned stallion just stood silent, still looking about at the forest around him and the body.


He shook his head. "The pattern of burn marks and rate of the depression of the fire is inconsistent with a possible forest fire, and fact that there is still a body left unconsumed rules out the possibility of a dragon attack." Once again, is was almost as if he read Dauntless's mind. "And there is no weapon or force on Equestria that I am aware of that could cause such an explosion as the one that was inflicted upon the dwelling of this individual. Or, I am assuming that is her dwelling." He shook his head. "I do not know."

Hearing these words come from the mouth of Specter was terrifying; he ALWAYS knew. He ALWAYS had a hypothesis. But now, he just didn't know. But, nopony knew everything, so with a slow nod Dauntless said "Alright. Men, stay alert. We don't know who or what did this, and they may still be nearby." It occurred to him that this incident had to have happened recently..... VERY recently, since there were still small fires going on the ground and the charred marks on the trees still glowed slightly red with embers. He also wondered why this zebra was here, this deep in the forest. He wondered how long she could have been out here, and how she had survived. Well, up until now... The forest was a tough environment, not only because of the beasts that lived here and could easily kill and eat a pony, but resources were also very limited. Then he remembered.


"Come again?" Sunspot said, confused by the sudden and un-germane statement.

"Zecora. She is... Well, WAS, the only pony under Celestia that was ever granted permission to live here in the forest. I remember reading about when looking through some files at the Palace. Celestia only allowed her to stay here because she claimed there were herbs and other ingredients that she used for spells and potions, and they could only be found here. Deep in the Everfree.

"Celestia almost didn't allow it, but being such a powerful and intelligent enchantress, Zecora said, and proved, she could take care of herself. For the most part, at least." He avoided looking at the corpse again. "Well, we had best get burial detail. Specter, document the victim and time of discovery, and label the incident as 'unknown death', and send it to Celestia. We'll have to get an investigation team out here eventually to-" his words were cut off by a loud grunt behind him. He turned around, and found himself facing Ruhig. ".....Did you say something?"

The brown pegasus shook his head.

Dauntless cocked a brow; Ruhig Tödlich wasn't one to speak out of line. Hell, he's hardly one to speak at all... He brushed it off, though. "Anyway, we had best be getting back to Canterlot. There's nothing more we can do here. We'll note the coordinates and schedule and investigation of the scene."

"Sir, what about the colt that we came all the out here lookin' for?" Stalwart reminded him.

Dauntless's stomach twisted even tighter; he had forgotten the original mission of searching for Eminence.

".......It's as Sunspot said: there's hardly a chance he's alive by now. Especially with whatever creature did this," he motioned to the zebra's mangled body once more, "still wandering around the forest. We... We failed. Not only Zecora, but Eminence. We failed them." Those words tasted like vinegar coming out of his mouth. We failed. The mere thought was detesting.

He took one last wary glance back at the scene, and with a lump still in his stomach, Dauntless and the rest of 22nd Royal Security Regiment took to the sky once more, on their way back to Canterlot, where they had a new mission: find out what did this, and stop it before it could harm any more citizens in Equestria.

Little did they know how hard this mission would be.

Two pairs of beady, red eyes watched them from the shrubbery as they departed.

Once the five creatures had flown away, the smaller of the two brutes snorted and re-holstered his plasma rifle, turning toward his commanding officer. "Why could we not just kill them? Now they are simply going to return to their capital and notify their leaders of our presence!"

"Patience, young one. It hardly matters; our presence on this planet will be obvious shortly as it is."

"Yes, but NOW they have time to prepare!" he huffed.

The massive, nine-foot-tall brute captain stood up and deactivated his active camouflage, all the while glaring down at the younger. "Bastehm, your tongue is going to get you into heaps of trouble if you do not keep it in check."

He huffed one more time before apologizing. "Forgive me, master."

They climbed out of the underbrush and walked toward the middle of the bare patch of burned turf, where the body of the white-and-black striped alien still lay in the crater caused by their plasma grenades. "So what do you suspect these creatures are? Forerunners?" Bastehm asked, looking down into the hole with disgust at the hideous foreigner.

"Doubtful.... They would possess more superior technology than they have displayed in the time we have been watching. We have been here for weeks, and have not seen so much as an electrical appliance, let alone any sign of Forerunner technology."

"Then this will be easier than we had originally anticipated." He grinned a sharp, toothy grin.

"Aye, but alas; we must be patient. We mustn't attack before the fleet is ready."

"Then what do you call that?" He asked, pointing toward the half of the body that remained in the crater.

Malmee shrugged. "Insurance. She would have tried to run and tell the rest of the population of our discovery."

"Then WHAT does it matter?" Bastehm hissed. "Those other five are on their way to do the same right now!"

"Watch your tone, boy," Malmee growled. "You almost gave away our position back there as it was. It if were not for our active camouflage, they would have surely spotted us when you did your impatient mumbling. It would be beneficial to you if you learned to keep your mouth shut." He paused. "Although, you do have a point. However, it does not matter; the rest of our ships will be dropping out of slipspace within the hour, and our assault on this world will begin."

As if on cue, the sky suddenly grew darker, and three-dozen Covenant battle cruisers, corvettes, and light destroyers entered normal space, just a couple hundred thousand feet above the surface of the planet. The two looked up at this sight, and smiled wickedly.

Malmee held his wrist up to his mouth and spoke into his COMM system. "This is scout unit 107-B, hailing Regret's Sentence: the rest of the fleet is inbound and ready to proceed with the operation. We will begin our attack on the nearest populace via our Phantom in approximately one cycle. Do you copy, over?"

"This is captain of Regret's Sentence, we read you. Any significant findings to to report from the ground?"

"Affirmative, captain. They possess limited technology and appear to be unarmed as a race." He said this on the verge of excitement and hysteria.

A booming laugh responded from the other end of the COMM link. "Then the overthrow of this planet and activation of the installation will be a most swift victory." With a click, the link was disconnected.

The two brutes strode with purpose back to their Phantom dropship a few hundred meters away in another clearing, where a platoon of a dozen grunts, ten jackals, and four more brutes awaited them. Upon return, they all shared a rousing battle howl, and lifted off, preparing for their surprise attack of the town that the natives of this planet called "Ponyville".

Stage one of the invasion was in progress.

Chapter Two: Preparations

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Chapter Two: Preparations

March 19, 2756
1813 hours
Aboard UNSC Halcyon-Class cruiser "Hellhound", en route to "New Arcadia"

"All hands, report to your designated hanger bays and prepare to enter normal space. All hands to hangers, prepare for slipspace departure."

Yeah, yeah, we're comin'. Calm your tits. "C'mon, we better get moving." Staff Sergeant McLendon picked up his pace from brisk walk to a jog, and motioned for his two squadmates to do the same.

"Sarge, we don't gotta run; we still got fifteen minutes." Sergeant Hand said, his voice slightly weary.

"It wasn't a request, it was an order. And maybe you'll think next time before you screw around in the gym instead of sleeping all night."

Hand groaned, and pulled his legs harder to keep up with his team.

They weren't running late, but McLendon didn't want to end up having Captain Barrat on him for not being present, were they to drop out of slipspace earlier than scheduled for some unforeseen reason. They dodged and weaved through the technicians and engineers that were busy in the hallways, moving supplies and preparing equipment for when they descended onto the planet. He peered into some of the crates and racks as he passed them: food, medical supplies, what he assumed was either mining or testing equipment, and occasionally he spotted a container of MA5-F assault rifles and ammunition. The presence of these weapons incited his mood to rise a bit; it was another sign that this was probably more than just a 'scout mission' like the Office of Naval Intelligence had endowed. They wouldn't normally employ the use of such heavy armament, unless there was a more clandestine meaning to it all. McLendon had always been the kind for action, and he wasn't fond of the notion of coming here for a simple pioneering mission.

He glanced at a sign ahead: >HANGER B/ LEVEL 1< This was their stop.

He tapped a series of numbers on the control pad next to the door, and it slid open with a hiss of steam, revealing a vast, open hanger area bustling with activity. More technicians loading and fueling Osprey dropships (the successor of the outdated Pelican transport), pilots running flight checks on their Vulture heavy gunships, Marines and Navy personnel toying with their standard-issue M6-J sidearms in anticipation. Looking around at all this, the McLendon again got the feeling that there was much more to be said about this upcoming mission than had been let on by ONI. He shook these thoughts as he saw Sergeant Aylward - another of his squadmates - wave him over from near one of the Ospreys. He nodded and ran to her, Sergeant Hand and Private Beck following.

"Took you boys long enough," she said as they approached, her voice elevated to be heard over the noise of the hangar.

"Yeah yeah, can it." He motioned to the transport ship. "This our bird?"

"Yup. Pilot's running his pre-flight diagnostics right now. We'll be among the first to land, we're leaving as soon as we drop out of slipspace."

McLendon nodded. "Any change on when we're entering normal space?"

She shrugged. "As far as I've heard, it's the same: eighteen thirty." Looking past McLendon, she noticed Hand panting slightly and out-of-breath. "You spend all night in the gym again?" she accused.

Hand gave her the finger, and she replied with a laugh. "Well you're the dumbass who's going to be paying for it for the rest of the day, so it's not MY problem."

"Corporal Neihoff, what kinda equipment are we carryin'?" McLendon asked, stepping between the sergeants.

"Funny you asked," the big man said, and scooted off the crate he had been sitting on. He flipped two clamps on the front and it swung open, revealing an impressive display of armaments. "Most of it is our standard scouting loadout and equipment, but they set us up with a few extra..... toys." He effortlessly hefted a SPNKR-4 rocket launcher out of the crate.

"Whoa..." McLendon was genuinely surprised. "Why would the UNSC give us anti-vehicle for a scouting mission?"

"Because we're not scouting, like I told you," Aylward interjected, and shot a glance at Beck, who had been absentmindedly loading his M6's magazines until now. She smirked, and he groaned in response, dropping to the ground and beginning the three-hundred pushups he now owed her for losing their bet.

McLendon ignored the exchange and returned his attention to his weapons specialist. "So what else are we looking at here?" he asked, peering into the box next to Neihoff.

"Welp, while on the topic of anti vehicle," he replied with a grunt, heaving another heavy weapon out of the container. It took McLendon a moment to recognize the weapon, but once he did, he sighed and rolled his eyes. "A damn Spartan Laser? REALLY?"

The corporal grinned like he had just won a million-dollar jackpot. "Mhm. Can't go wrong with the Mk 6 GNR! And we've got four fully-charged proton packs for it." He placed the laser back in the box as carefully as he would his own child, then produced three M7-L sub-machine guns with silencers and holographic sights pre-attached. "Apparently they're preparing us for anti-personnel, too. I seriously don't understand how they can tell us that there's no threat to be had on this planet with a straight face."

"Have you guys EVER considered that maybe they're supplying us in surplus just in case there ARE potential threats on this planet?" Hand interposed.

McLendon wanted to say something back, but couldn't find the words. Hand had a point: this was an unexplored planet, and only exo-atmospheric probes had been sent here previously, so the surface details of the planet were probably unknown and inconclusive. Unable to formulate a counterstatement, he simply responded with a "watch your tone, or you'll be joining Beck with the pushups," and reached for one of the MA5-F assault rifles out of the container. There was an under-barrel M3-19 40mm grenade launcher on it. "Jesus..." he muttered, turning the rifle over in his hands, more fascinated with the high-explosive attachment than the gun itself. Before now, he figured they were under-stocked on weapons as usual, given that he had seen nothing of these arms during the course of the entire journey.

He wasn't sure whether he should be anxious or excited; for one, they would never be stocked with such an extensive array of armaments if they were simply exploring this planet (the UNSC would barely supply them with their sidearms and maybe an assault rifle or two if this was the case). So he knew there had to be SOME form of combat involved, which he thought might make this a somewhat interesting and enjoyable endeavor. But on the other hand, even the Insurrectionists would hardly require such firepower to combat. Maybe an Innie stronghold? A headquarters? Again, he was nervously excited.

He placed the MA5-F back into the crate on its appropriate weapon rack, and directed his attention to the boxes of ammunition and accessories next to them. They were just as various as they were numerous: armor-piercing, anti-material, high-velocity and even a few cases of explosive reactive rounds. His eyes shifted to the assortment of suppressors, flashlights, foregrips, bipods, and optics for their weapons. Toward the bottom of the container were two sniper rifles: a standard SRS 99E-S5, and its bolt-action equivalent, the SRS 105B, with slightly extended barrel for increased accuracy at extreme range. "Well, they sure as hell wanted us to be prepared," he said, his voice distrait.

Neihoff noted his facial expression and laughed hardily. "You look like a little kid in a candy store, staff sergeant."

McLendon shook his head to clear his thoughts, and brought up his wrist to check the time on his tac-pad. Eighteen twenty-three. They would be entering the realm of normal space in seven minutes.

"ODST 407th squad! Roll call!" McLendon shouted.

"Sergeant Courtney Aylward, reporting sir!"

"Corporal Neihoff, aye sir!"

"Private Beck, reporting," he groaned, and pulled himself off the ground after finishing his one-hundred and fiftieth pushup.

"Sergeant Hand, reporting as ordered."

"Private Bradley, aye aye!"

McLendon turned around and noticed the private for the first time since they had arrived at the launch bay: he already had his helmet on, his armor powered up, and was screwing a suppressor and foregrip onto one of the MA5-Fs.

"What? Nothin' wrong with being ahead of the game," Bradley said through his helmet's speakers, and shrugged.

McLendon shook his head and addressed the rest of the team. "I'm assuming Sergeant Calum is getting preparations set on board?" He motioned toward the Osprey, who's main power systems were warming up.

"Yup, and speak of the devil," Aylward replied, and ponted toward the cargo bay of the ship.

"Pilot's ready for dustoff as soon as Captain Barrat give the order," he said as he bounded down the loading ramp of the aircraft.

"Well why aren't you up there helping him load the equipment?" Hand inquired. "He tell you to go away because you were being annoying?"

"Hey I didn't ask you, alright?" Calum retorted. He faked a cough, badly disguising the word "yes".

McLendon nodded. "Alright team. Load up and suit up. We don't know what's down there, so prepare yourselves accordingly." He leaned over the box of weapons and grabbed one of the M7-Ls for himself, and attached a flashlight in addition to the silencer and sight that were already present.

"That's for me, right?" Aylward said jokingly as she strode up next to him, retrieving one of the SMGs for herself and also attaching a flashlight. "I like the way you think, sarge."

McLendon reached down to the bottom and uncovered the SRS 99E, and tossed it to Sergeant Hand, who accepted it willingly.

"Now now, let's not be greedy. Make some room for me, here," Neihoff said, and retrieved one of the MA5-Fs, along with several extended magazines and all of the boxes of explosive reactive ammunition.

Beck huffed. "Look at you, Neihoff? Telling US not to be greedy? Maybe I wanted some of those?"

"Finders keepers, bro. Maybe ya shoulda gotten over here sooner and not been doing them pushups." He and Aylward high-fived.

The private cursed under his breath and reluctantly scooped up a few boxes of standard 7.62x51mm rounds, a 4x scope, and an assault rifle.

McLendon motioned for Calum to join them in loading up their arms, but he respectfully declined with a wave of his hand. "Nah, I'm good. Unless... Maybe... There's a shotgun in there by any chance?" he said nonchalantly, glancing with fake interest about the interior of the ship.

"No, sorry, not this time." McLendon replied somberly.

"Eh, then I'll be fine as is. I've got all I need right here." He patted the M6-J on his hip.

McLendon shrugged, and tossed another box of SRS 99E magazines and ammo to Hand. He collected a dozen of the M7-L's pre-loaded caseless ammunition mags, and filled the pockets and pouches of his rig with them. He also retrieved two spare M6-J clips and loaded them with 12.7x40mm armor-piercing rounds, and slid them into the pockets on his holster.

As a final thought, he picked up three M9 HE grenades, clipping them to his belt. He stood up and spoke out, louder this time to be heard over the growing noise of the Osprey's engaging engines. "Well, everyone ready?"

"Yes, sir!" came a unanimous call in return. They stood at attention, magazines loaded and weapons prepared, suits sealed and helmets on. McLendon's eyes played over each of them proudly: Sergeant Hand with his SRS 99E sniper rifle, a deadly marksman that was just as patient as he was accurate. Corporal Neihoff with his telltale assault rifle, his person loaded with more ammunition than most would ever think of using. He was a real get-shit-done kind of guy, the type that found just as much fun in getting shot at as returning the fire. Sergeant Aylward, silenced M7-L in hand, the sneakiest, most deceptive, cunning marine he knew. He'd seen her kill a man instantly with nothing but a her index and ring fingers, not making the slightest noise. Private Beck, while although nervous-in-the-service, he was quite possibly the damn best technician and medic the UNSC had, capable of fixing anyone or anything that wasn't already totaled. Private Bradley and his MA5-F, loaded with accessories, such as the silencer, foregrip, scope, flashlight and laser sight. Typical; he tended to outdo himself, but it was compensated for by the fact that he was always one step ahead of everyone else. He was by far the fastest and most quick-witted of them all, which made him an excellent hand-to-hand fighter. And finally Sergeant Calum, although he was obnoxious and loud almost all of the time, he made for an excellent tool of psychological warfare. In fact, McLendon once recalled him running into a room full of hostile Insurrectionist soldiers with nothing but a combat knife, screaming "LEEROOOYYY, JEEENKINNNSSS!!!" To this day, McLendon hadn't a clue what Calum meant by that verbal outburst, but hey, it worked, and apparently Calum knew it would: he had ended up killing four of them before they had time to pick up their weapons, and the ones that survived dropped to the ground instantly in terror. He smiled as he thought of this, and all their different aspects that made them such a perfect team.

McLendon nodded in satisfaction, and glanced down at his tac-pad again. Eighteen twenty-eight.

"Alright people, let's get the rest of this cargo on board, and watch the fireworks." Everyone in the Core referred to the phenomenon of exiting slipspace as "fireworks" because of the mind-stretching spectrum of light and radio waves, both visible and invisible to the eye. He engaged his armor, and squatted down next to the crate, motioning for Neihoff to assist him. With the combined strength of them and their power armor, they lifted the heavy equipment container as if it was no more than thirty pounds. The two soldiers loaded it into cargo bay of the Osprey and secured it.

"I assume the rest of the equipment is already on board?" McLendon asked.

Aylward gestured toward the other end of the hold, where there were a few more metal crates of various sizes.

The staff sergeant acknowledged, and un-clipped his helmet from his belt, securing it on his head. He sealed it to the rest of his suit, then powered on the Heads Up Display. His field of vision came to life with various numbers, meters, sensors and controls that flashed before him. He felt the familiar warmth and tingling as the suit linked with his neural implant at the base of his skull, and felt the activity around him slow slightly. It was an effect of the armor: all impulses from his senses, as well as his motor neurons, now passed directly from his armor to his brain, essentially shortcutting his central nervous system for the most part and quickening his movements, reaction time, and thoughts. He drew his pistol from its holster and aimed it. Instantly, his suit registered and linked the weapon in his hand with his HUD, drawing a small blue ridicule that represented the spot where the bullet would go were the weapon to be fired. Satisfied that his armor was functioning fully and correctly, he re-holstered his sidearm, checked the time - eighteen twenty-nine - and addressed 407th.

"Alright ladies and gentlemen, let's get ready to see where we're going to be spending the next few weeks." With that, he and the rest of the elite team turned toward the main entrance to the hanger, looking into the black void of slipspace that they were about to exit.