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HALO: Iron Cross by UNSC Trooper

HALO: Iron Cross [Chapter One]
Date: 5 December 2007, 7:20 pm

0838 Hours, August 17, 2537 (Military Calendar) /
Epsilon Eridani System, planet Reach, Military Reservation 01478-B
Close Quarter Combat Tactical Drill

      Scott crouched behind a concrete wall, keeping his head at just the right angle for the bullets to miss him by a few inches. The sunlight reflected and twisted off his faceplate. Apart from the dim illumination projecting from the spotlights suspended on the fence surrounding the field, there was no other lighting source in the entire complex. Individual flashlights were out of the question.

      Combat in low light environments was never a problem, however. Scott's training made it all too clear: "As long as you can see the enemy's silhouette, keep on track with your mission."

      His hands were shivering, but why? He had been through these kinds of drills at least a dozen times before. He had developed almost perfect targeting skills over distances only the eyes of a vulture could see, and his service record was no less impressive – squad leader on Tribute and Minister, and a promotion to corporal on Mars.

      But this time it was different, Alpha Team was cooking something up. Their skirmishers were nowhere near the perimeters Lieutenant Antonio Silva ordered them to fend. The snipers were completely out of sight. That can't be good, Scott thought as he leaned over and glanced at the bunker behind him. "An invisible sniper always means trouble." he remembered Silva's exact words.

      The combat barriers were abandoned; maybe Silva told them to play a game of hide-and-go-seek instead of Capture the Flag. "Probably a practical joke, but I'm not laughing," Scott mumbled incredulously.

      He took a deep breath, crackled his fingers and switched his radio to TEAMCOM frequency - standard training procedure for friendly tactical support.

      "This is Bravo-12; can anyone hear me, over?" Scott said. His teammate's response was almost immediate.

      "Copy Bravo-12; Scott, where are you?" Mike replied. His voice was leveled, cool. As always, Mike assessed difficult situations in a way no one else in the platoon did. Attentiveness and consideration were his two main qualities – they were what made him, and his team, keep a clear view on their objective and their actions.

      Scott weighed his reply carefully, and looked at his surroundings. One misguided direction was enough to blow the team's cover. "I'm a few yards south of the Defense Bunker. I'm looking at it right now, over." Scott replied.

      Mike hesitated, "Roger that. Do you see any snipers?" he said. This time, his voice grew slightly disoriented. Scott could feel it. Mike was always doubtful with a good reason – it meant something was terribly wrong.

      "Negative; can't see squat." Scott replied. "Rally with Diana at the Barricade point, proceed with caution, over and out." He said. The Barricade point was the only secure position on the immense training ground where both teams' flags were visible.

      "Copy that, over." Mike responded and shut off the COM channel.

      Scott grabbed his MA2B, and held it steady just above his thigh as he leapt past the combat barriers. He shackled off a huddle of one meter wide impact craters encrusted into the dusty ground. Hundreds of stun grenade residues lay severed everywhere Scott could see.

      He wiped his faceplate and gazed at the Warthog parked outside of the defense bunker. It was customized for training purposes, stripped down to its skeleton and relieved of its M41 machine gun. There were so many modified versions of Warthogs, Scott couldn't remember them all.

      As he moved towards the vehicle, a sniper bullet swiftly raced across his shoulder, leaving a trail of thin smoke behind its trajectory. Scott flinched, and dropped to the ground so violently his knees hurt. Where did it come from? He thought. Silva's words strolled through his mind once more; "An invisible sniper always means trouble." The words were now clearer to Scott than ever before.

      He tried to lift his head up, only to be seen by the sniper again. Another round flew scarcely a few inches clean over his head. He still couldn't see the rifleman. The lack of luminosity only made matters worse.

      Scott's forehead started sweating, and anxiety slowly took over his body. His reflexes were wide awake and his muscles started straining inside his thick suit.

      He gripped his assault rifle with both hands, couched his elbows onto the ground and began crawling into the Warthog's shadow. He didn't even know which way to aim his weapon. The sniper had just, "disappeared". Scott wasn't surprised – snipers were always one foot ahead of unsuspecting victims; that's how they'd earned their reputation in the first place.

      Scott's adrenaline kicked in, he rose to his feet and sprinted along the combat barriers. The tall building ahead was carved with peepholes and hatches; the perfect place for a sharpshooter. This is it, he's in here somewhere, Scott thought as he raced into the building.

      There was no hint of movement inside the empty hallways. The concrete walls were painted with funny looking caricatures and cartoons. Of course, that wasn't the staff's concern; these walls hadn't been washed ever since the complex was built.

      Scott walked through the empty hallways, his footsteps barely hearable. He strolled up the partly devastated stairway as he placed his right hand on the banister, and held his rifle in his other hand.

      His anxiety increased, but he managed to forbear it. Damn, it's dark as hell in here, he thought to himself, clenching the rifle in his hand.

      Scott's habit to use a flashlight made him reach for the back of his belt; but he didn't carry anything today, not even a combat knife, so he drew back his hand.

      He set foot on the first floor; there were five rooms scattered along the corridor. The emergency fire exit was on his left side and the former stairway on his right side. He leaned to his left and cast a long gaze at the hallway.

      He spotted a man wearing a red armband: one of Alpha Team's snipers, a tall, black-haired ODST wearing no helmet and holding the long-barreled sniper rifle to his shoulder.

      Scott stood still, observing the sniper's movements and planning his attack. Hand to hand combat? No. The soldier was a practical bag of muscles, standing over six feet tall; he was sure to throw Scott right out of the window with little trouble.

      Scott settled for the old-fashion shot to the head, taking the soldier out of the game for good. He swung his rifle to his shoulder, took aim, and pulled the trigger. The paintball silently exited the barrel and impacted the man's head. Blue-colored paint gracefully splashed over the sniper's face, leaving a horrific bruise on his left cheek.

      The pain caused the soldier to fall on the ground, dropping his rifle, screaming and laying his hands over his head. The paint dripped off his face as he carefully tried to stand up. He kept his eyes closed, preventing the paint from blinding him. He turned to his left, but couldn't see who shot him, "You're dead meat, pal!" He barely managed to mumble a few words.

      Scott didn't like it; delivering almost fatal blows to uncovered regions of a man's body was immoral, but training regulations proved otherwise and rarely followed ethical principles.

      He quickly banished the thought. His feelings weren't allowed to influence his judgment – not when his team depended on him. Scott left the building, and made his way through the crowded cluster of barbed-wire fences.

      It was getting increasingly warmer in his thick bodysuit. Drops of sweat poured down his back and his face. He stopped in the middle of the field for a moment, and took off his helmet.

      Scott took a deep breath of air as the wind stroke his humid face. The air was cold, even though the sun had already risen. Scott ran his gaze down his arms, legs, and torso. No paint marks, that's good, he thought.

      Two dissimilar silhouettes appeared behind Scott; a tall, robust man and a short, slender woman. They were both dressed in ODST bodysuits, but missed their helmets. The man approached Scott and tapped him on the shoulder.

      "The barricade is clear." Mike said as Scott turned around. "But, we do have a problem." Diana continued, "They're carrying the flag around everywhere they go. We've got a crazy flag on our hands."

      "That shouldn't be too much of a problem." Scott said as he lowered his rifle, "They have a huge disadvantage. They're using up all of their skirmishers to guard the flag bearer, so basically the field is ours. All we have to do, is deliver the final strike." He explained.

      "Right, but how do we find them?" Diana said as she threw a suspicious gaze at Scott.

      "Roger and David are patrolling the southern section. We're going to follow the path to alpha team's base, and retrace their steps." Scott replied.

      "Sounds good to me, let's move." Mike nodded. Scott took a last glimpse of the building where the sniper was hiding out. He raised his rifle and gave the "Move out" signal to Mike and Diana.

      Their movements were synchronized; every gesture they made had to be almost perfectly timed and planned out. "A team is just like a house of cards, take one piece away, and the entire house will tumble down like a rock", Scott thought of what Silva had told them during their first drill.

      They treaded lightly on the paved pathway, closely watching each other's backs. Four watchtowers were aligned along the road, their spotlights still casting a weak illumination on the ground.

      Alpha team's base was visible. It was a small, circular-shaped shelter mounted with stationary machine gun turrets. Three Warthogs painted in red were parked outside of the base and a few shotgun rounds lay on the ground.

      Mike holstered his rifle and slowed down as they approached the base. An unusually awkward silence surrounded the shelter. Training on the Military Reservation was never this silent; today was definitely going to be different. Scott rose up his right arm and motioned the "Halt" signal.

      They scrutinized the base, holding their weapons steady and keeping their eyes peeled. Scott turned to the flag post and spotted the empty prop. The flag was missing.

      "So how exactly do we retrace their steps?" Diana remarked.

      Scott cast a gaze at the Warthogs, "We could probably use some wheels." He said. Mike took a glimpse of one of the vehicles "In that case, I'm not driving." He said.

      "I'll drive." Diana replied. "Good. Mike, you take a hold of the machine gun, I'll sit on the side seat." Scott said as he climbed into the vehicle, followed by Mike on the M41 and Diana in the driver's seat.

      She started the Warthog. The engine filled the air with the sound of gas running through the filter and tires chafing the dirt off the ground and throwing it into the distance. The pieces of rocks hit the undercarriage and vibrated the Warthog as it raced across the booby trapped field.

      Scott teetered in his seat as Diana sharply turned and straightened the vehicle's heading. Mike almost lost his grip of the machine gun's handle in the violent stir.

      The Warthog bounced off the impact craters, skid into a combat barrier and dangled itself into one of the barbed-wire fences. The crash caused Mike to loosen his grip, and fall right out of the gunner seat. His backbone hurt, but fortunately there were no fractures. He stood up and looked at Scott and Diana. "That was one hell of a ride," he said, "but I think we're getting closer."

      Scott leaned over to his right, removed one of the barbed wires from his suit and jumped out of the side seat. Diana hopped out of the driver's seat, apparently not suffering any wounds from the crash.

      A small, round object appeared to fly across the blue sky. It became increasingly larger in size as it drew dangerously close to the Warthog. It fell on the ground. "Grenade!" Scott yelled and ran away from the projectile. Mike and Diana followed behind him, and dodged as the grenade splashed away its paint all over the vehicle.

      If they would've been a few seconds late, the game would have been over. Scott looked at his team mates; no one was hit by the paint. He retrieved his rifle and checked its ammunition.

      A squad of four skirmishers revealed themselves out of the combat barriers. They began firing blind rounds at Scott, Mike and Diana. The three ODSTs' returned fire. Mike hid behind an empty crate and reloaded his rifle. Scott carefully picked his shots, but his hands didn't seem to cooperate. The MA2B slipped out of his hands a few times as he threw away the empty magazines.

      Puddles of paint splattered on the ground as Alpha Team's skirmishers continued to fire their rifles with no apparent target, missing the three ODSTs' by at least a couple of meters.

      Scott rested his back against an overturned combat barrier. It was hard for him to breath; he gasped for air. He felt like his lungs had just closed shut; a panic stroke – he had experienced them before, ever since he inhaled a massive amount of smoke in the mess hall fire onboard the "Atlas".

      He steadied his breath and calmed down. If he was going to win this game, he had to keep his mind clear. He noticed one of the skirmishers was reloading his rifle rather slowly; this was his chance. Scott ran up to the enemy's position, the adrenaline was pumping through his heart and flowed through his blood.

      The skirmisher stopped and watched as Scott charged towards him in his ODST bodysuit. He stiffened his feet and lowered his rifle. He waited.

      Scott raised his weapon and swung it across the skirmisher's face. He missed. The man grabbed Scott's arm, blocked his foot and threw him on the ground. His bones felt like they were being crushed by an immense pressure as he hit the rough sand. His chest bone pressed his lungs. Luckily, Scott hadn't dropped his rifle. He fired a paintball on the man's abdomen. The skirmisher was out of the game.

      Scott rose on his feet, took aim and shot the other two skirmishers. They threw their helmets on the ground and fiercely kicked them into the distance.

      He motioned the assault signal to Mike and Diana. They spotted Alpha Team's flag sagged into a hole in the sand, guarded by two men. The flag was colored in red, depicting a cobra in the middle of a black box.

      "We'd better move fast, those guys don't seem too happy seeing us here." Diana said. Mike nodded, "Agreed" he replied.

      "Fire!" Scott shouted. He shot a few rounds at the guards. The paintballs missed them and the guards returned fire. Scott dodged the first round of shots, and crouched further into the enemy's range of fire. Mike trotted in behind him.

      A grenade hurled down in Scott and Mike's midst as they fired their last rounds of ammunition. The grenade exploded, splashed its liquid away, and took Mike and Scott out of the game.

      Scott dropped his rifle, turned around and slowly walked away. His enthusiasm had suddenly passed off. We lost, they won - Big deal, he thought, Wait, the game isn't over yet. He looked at Diana still wielding her MA2B, but too afraid to shoot the guards. She was on her own, and she had to take on two men twice her size.

      Her mind muzzled between two decisions – taking on the men and risk getting shot, or accept her team's defeat. She never felt comfortable taking risks, but all that had to change.

      She primed her weapon, made ready, and started to run as fast as she could towards the two guards. Her long, red hair waved through the air as she fired her rifle.

      Lieutenant Silva calmly sat in his third-floor office and looked out his window, his eyes fixed on Diana as she attacked the guards. He frowned and placed his hand over his mouth. This wasn't what he had expected. He set Alpha Team's traps perfectly; there was no way Bravo Team could find their flag. Alpha Team – his favorite team – was about to lose. Despite his efforts and careful planning, the game already reached a turning point – one he hadn't foreseen. What's next, taunting me by waving it around? Silva thought.

      Diana shot both guards in the head once. They cleared the area, making way for Diana to pick up the flag, wave it around and dig it back into the sand. Bravo Team won.

      Silva turned his sight to an officer sitting in an armchair in front of him. He coughed and put on his raincoat. "Jack, make sure you lock the door when you get out. I'm leaving early today." Silva said.

      The man rose on his feet and gestured a wondering expression on his face. "May I ask why, sir?" he replied.

      Silva took one last look at him, "I just found out who we're sending in on Mamore." he said as he walked out of the office and closed the door shut behind him.

HALO: Iron Cross [Chapter Two]
Date: 13 December 2007, 6:18 pm

"Our army is strong, our army is unified; our army is Earth itself." – Unknown Major, The Rainforest Wars, 2162

0628 Hours, July 11, 2537 (Military Calendar) /
Solar System, Europa, Friesberg Armory, Special Weaponry Preserve A-32

      Rear Admiral Stanforth walked through the eerie corridor, holding his hat to his thigh. The sounds of his footsteps echoed off the hollow walls. He reached for his side pocket and retracted a small piece of crumpled paper. He barely managed to read the letters through the cluster of coffee stains.

      "R.A.M.S. U.N.S.C.M.I.S. 2834936" His authorization code read. Odd that such important personal information was mishandled. Between Stanforth's endless parties thrown at his apartment in downtown Mexico City, his job wasn't exactly listed as one of his top priorities. Even at a time when the United Nations Space Command was fighting two wars – one against dictatorship-driven rebels terrorizing the outer colonies and another against a massive alien civilization – didn't Stanforth care about his moral duty as a commanding officer of Earth's ever-shrinking military forces.

      His position in FLEETCOM was often a controversial discussion subject at board meetings in Sydney and Mechanite Mountain. While his service record appeared to be acceptable, his methods of command proved otherwise. The incident in the Sigma Octanus IV system where he had accidentally fired upon a friendly cruiser exiting Slipspace scarred his career forever. The Navy was no place for screw-ups, and Stanforth had to learn it the hard way.

      Stanforth scrutinized the paper; he felt his eyelids getting increasingly heavier. His lack of sleep hindered him from concentrating on doing just about anything. He stopped in front of the locked door, rubbed his eyes, took a deep breath and punched the authorization code into the console.

      The metallic door made a hissing sound, its lights winked and it slid open. The Admiral took one step forward and looked around the immense chamber. The room was surrounded by hundreds of shelves and tall lockers. A graceful melody of electronic equipment and computer engines resounded through the chamber. He put the small piece of paper back into his pocket.

      A young officer approached Stanforth and saluted politely, "Good morning sir, glad you could make it." He said. The Admiral returned the salute. He didn't say anything.

      "The deposit is over there, please follow me." The officer said as he gestured towards one of the shelves.

      Hidden deep inside a frozen mountain on the Jovian moon of Europa, the "Friesberg Armory" was a top-secret UNSC Defense Force weaponry supplier. But it was no ordinary armory. It held the secrets to something that hadn't been talked about in three hundred years.

      Stanforth followed the officer. He had suddenly awakened from his sleepy mood. Perhaps it was the sour smell of age-old equipment that sparked his interest in finding out what exactly happened here while he was gone.

      The officer directed the Admiral to one of the long lines of shelves. The props were holding an awkward looking type of bolster for what seemed to be a bomb. The bolsters were empty.

      "This is the hanger for one of the bombs." The officer said as he turned and made eye contact with Stanforth. "As you can see, the panel was hacked."

      Hacked - how could someone hack into a deposit for nuclear weapons? Surely the dozens of technicians working in the armory were the only people who knew the codes for the control panels. It sounded like an inside job; but who could have done it?

      "You mentioned one. I can assume there are more." Stanforth acknowledged. He frowned at the man.

      "Yes sir, there are more – one hundred more." The officer replied. Stanforth raised his eyebrows. The words stroke the Admiral like a thunder bolt. He stared at the officer, silent. He rested his elbow on his left hand, lowered his head and closed his eyes. The word "court-martial" suddenly strode through his mind. Jesus, how do I get out of this one? He thought.

      The officer grew worried about Stanforth's reaction, "Sir, are you alright?" he asked with a careful tone.

      The Admiral lifted his head, "A hundred nukes have just disappeared on my watch, how the hell do you think I am?" he shouted, hardly restraining his anger. "What options do we have at the moment?" he queried.

      "Investigations are currently underway." The officer said, nodding to the Admiral, "ONI Section One has our backs covered, and funds are being transferred as we speak." He continued. A strange silence followed, interrupted only by the continuous murmur of electronic equipment.

      The Admiral threw him a suspicious look. He couldn't let this incident go public, not after everything that's been happening in the outer colonies. Stanforth walked away from the officer, stopped and gazed at one of the computer screens. The images of the murdered naval personnel onboard the Daytona raced through his mind; their corpses mutilated, surrounded by puddles of blood made his skin crawl. He turned towards the officer.

      "Let's pray it wasn't the rebels." He said. The officer nodded and lowered his head, as if something had bothered him. Stanforth couldn't help but wonder why the United Rebel Front would be interested in ancient nuclear bombs – they were inefficient, and not nearly as sophisticated as UNSC-manufactured warheads.

      Above all, these bombs used to belong to the Frieden secessionists back in the twenty-second century, and represented the backup plan for liberating the Jovian Moons from UN leadership. The plan was foiled, however, when the UN destroyed their development platforms on Io, putting an end to the rebellion.

      Stanforth calculated how long the investigations would last, tapping his lower lip with his finger. Blue-prints, grids and thermo-graphic maps of every single outer colony had to be provided. Numerous cruisers and carriers traveling in and out of the Solar System had be checked and re-checked for black market items. It would cost the UNSC a small fortune.

      There was no movement in the room, both the Admiral and the officer stood still in front of one another. Stanforth flattened his long hair, put on his hat, patted his coat's sleeves and waited for the dust to pass off. He lighted a Sweet William cigar, blew the smoke out of his mouth and headed for the door.

      The officer watched Stanforth walk toward the exit, "Sir?" he said.

      The Admiral turned around, grabbed the cigar with two fingers and lowered his hand. His voice was calm, "Those damned ODSTs' on Reach better live up to their reputation. I have a job for them. At ease, Corporal!" He said and saluted the officer as he walked away.

HALO: Iron Cross [Chapter Four, Part 1]
Date: 10 January 2008, 7:44 pm

"If we get any lower, we ain't gonna' need any freakin' parachutes!" – Unknown paratrooper, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, Easy Company, June 6th 1945.

1710 Hours, December 2, 2537 (Military Calendar) /
Hellespont System, planet Mamore, Designated Dropzone 1A

The hatch of the Pelican hissed open, slowly descending to its maximum width and gently wavering in the air as the craft roared through the dark blue vacuum. The strong winds violently shook the unstable handle bars on the sealing of the aircraft. The vacuum began to drain the air out of the bay, and small pieces of ice started settling on the metallic fuselage.

Scott looked at his combat suit; the plastic material was slowly stiffening from the humid cold. His shoulder patch was covered in fine layers of dusty ice. The inscriptions and the ODST logo became barely readable. Nothing unusual, after all, they'd just made contact with the freezing currents of space.

He gently strained his right hand muscles, clenching the handle bar firmly in his palm. He hadn't frozen yet, but if he would have to endure much more of the frost, his entire body would become a chunk of arctic ice, stuck in the crammed chamber of an orbital craft.

His fingers felt numb, scarcely holding a grip of the MA5B's support hole. He felt like his mind was leisurely fading into the void, and his eyes slowly began to fall under the control of his tired subconscious. A thick voice suddenly echoed past his ears. He raised his head.

"Drop zone in range, we jump on my mark!" Lieutenant Silva shouted as he counted the seconds on his wristwatch, standing in front of Scott and repeatedly gesturing his hands. Scott shook his head, opened his eyes and quickly glanced around him through the blurry faceplate of his helmet. The circumference of a planet and a field of stars met his gaze. He remembered why he was here.

Four troopers stood behind him, some of them holding on to their comrades' suits as the Pelican turned and stirred the cabin. Silva gestured at them to advance toward the ramp. Scott shook his head, slowly stepping closer to the opened hatch. He stopped, leaned forward and gazed at the moving clouds below him.

The light on the top of the hatch lit yellow, displaying the word "Open". The Lieutenant tapped Scott's shoulder, gestured the thumbs-up signal and began counting down the seconds on his left hand. Scott watched as Silva rose up three fingers. "Three, two, one, clear!" he shouted. Scott bent his knees, spread his arms and pushed his feet over the lowered ramp. His heart started pumping, and his stomach felt like it was being pressed by a tremendous pressure. He kept his eyes fixed on the edge of the planet as he fell through the long layers of clouds.

His body left an empty and deformed hole through the clouds. The intensity of the drop suddenly increased as the layers of thin fume slowly passed behind him. The ground was visible, and the tops of trees came into focus. Scott set his hand on the blue twined handle of his backpack.

The edge of the planet became longer in diameter, and the orange sun started lighting his uniform. He squeezed his finger through the small orifice of the handle, and pulled the backpack open. The Falcon Wing made a loud crumpling noise as it deployed itself in the air. The words "Helljumper from Reach" were tagged on the chute's cape.

Scott's arms were pulled upward as the parachute caught the air under its hood and slowed down his rapid descent. The ice on his bodysuit started to melt, easily soaking the black material. He didn't feel the cold anymore, and little drops of water poured down his faceplate.

He looked up. Five other canopies rained down from the sky. Scott wondered if they would get spotted while gliding on the way down. These parachutes are invisible to the naked eye once deployed; the drill instructor's words brought him some comfort as he dropped closer to the trees.

He grabbed the chute's ropes tight, and struggled to keep his legs straight. The orange light of the distant sun shone on Scott's faceplate. He instinctively set his left hand over his face, covering his eyes. The MA5B was hung around his shoulder, constantly shaking as the gentle winds pushed him back and forth.

The trees were only a couple of hundred meters away. Scott raised his legs slightly, lowered his head into his chest, and assumed the landing position. He gripped the ropes even tighter, and relaxed his feet muscles. He fell past a tall tree and dropped on the ground, his parachute dangling into the cluster of solid branches. The soil was muddy and covered in red leaves, nothing similar to what he'd seen on Reach.

The blood started pumping through his legs again as he rose up on his feet. He shook his head, took a deep breath and looked around the dense forest. He reached for the back of his suit and retracted the position locator. The device was jammed.

He glanced at the sky. The other canopies looked like raindrops, increasing in size as they gradually passed below the layers of gray clouds. The silent tweeting of insects resounded across the forest. A long blue river streamed just a few meters ahead of Scott; that might be a problem.

Five consecutive bumps suddenly disturbed the silence. Scott turned around. The tall trees were shaking as Diana cut her parachute's ropes, releasing herself from the dangling canopy and falling on the ground. Behind her, Lieutenant Silva, Mike, David and Roger fell into position just below the sharp branches of the trees.

Silva rose to his feet, clutched his assault rifle with both hands, and steadied it above his shoulder. He took a quick glimpse of Mike and the other troopers. He counted them: Five. He lowered his weapon and advanced toward Scott, carefully observing the surroundings for any foreign movement.

Scott motioned the all-clear signal as his comrades approached him. Diana swung the sniper rifle over her shoulder and wiped the dirt off her helmet. The forest seemed to murmur a graceful melody of wiggling trees as the wind blew through their leaves.

The Lieutenant reached for his helmet and pressed a small button. He opened the TEAMCOM channel, "Corporal, type up the confirmation message on your laptop and send it to Reach HIGHCOM: Drop was successful." He said. Scott pulled the laptop out of his backpack and lifted the cover. He sat down, dropped the assault rifle, placed the small computer on his lap and began typing the message. His fingers were almost impossible to follow as he hit the buttons on the keyboard. He lifted his head and met gazes with Silva.

"Message sent, sir." He acknowledged as he closed the computer's hatch and scrambled to pick up his weapon. Silva nodded and turned toward the other soldiers. He crouched and picked up a thin wooden stick. It was covered in dirt and water, but it didn't bother him.

The ground was completely covered in seared leaves, and tiny worm-like creatures crawled inside their small holes. Silva set his hand on the soil and removed the leaves from a patch of dirt, slightly leaning his head. He took a quick look at his wristwatch: If I blow this, they'll have my throat, he thought.

He looked at the troopers … and hesitated. The lives of millions of colonists on this planet were in the hands of his squad. He couldn't screw it up; he had to regain control of the nukes. The murmur suddenly fainted, and a tranquil silence quickly couched itself upon the virgin forest. A few stars were scattered on the light-blue sky as two birds flew away into the distance. Silva coughed, and cleared his throat.

He dug the stick into the soft ground and began drawing geometrically-perfect squares, lines and circles. He laid his left hand between two lines, carefully measuring them. The rebel base's schematics were printed in his mind after hours upon hours of studying and evaluating tactical decisions in his office. He could almost touch the barbed-wire outer wall of the compound as he circled the stick above a long line.

"This is the barbed-wire fence." The Lieutenant said, tapping the stick on the line. Barbed wire: Why would they use barbed wire instead of reinforced concrete? "Before you jump to any conclusions, this might actually be a diversion." He continued. The troopers were silent; not because they didn't have any questions to ask, but simply because the Lieutenant seemed too concentrated on briefing them about the structure of the compound. Accurate intelligence is a soldier's friend.

Silva moved the stick along a pathway, "The main entrance gate is heavily guarded. Estimates suggest that at least ten to fifteen commandos are patrolling it right now." Diana raised an eyebrow as she leaned over the handle of her sniper rifle, her face suddenly grim. The thought of taking out ten gunmen as her team moved into the compound raced through her mind: Anything could go wrong. She didn't say anything. The team's priorities were more important than her fears.

The Lieutenant turned to David and Roger. He drew a line into the dirt, "Roger, David, buckle up," he said and moved the stick to the other side of the outline. "You are going to secure the rear entrance to the facility." He made eye contact with David, "Don't worry, security is weak." David felt somewhat relieved to hear that. Yet, he couldn't know what he was up against until he saw it with his own eyes, and the briefing so far wasn't looking too pretty.

The soldiers exchanged gazes, nervously holding their rifles in their hands and taking quick peeks at the back of the forest. Silva pointed the stick to the center of the compound, his hands trembling easily as he assessed the plan once more. He gently tapped his helmet with his gloved index finger. The leathery material made a soft beating noise as the tip of his finger touched the plastic faceplate. Silence surrounded the woods. Scott wished he could see Silva's expressions under his helmet. It would give him a better grip of the situation.

"The packages are hidden inside the material deposit," Silva's thick voice became louder, momentarily disturbing the empty silence, "so you'd better watch where you're shooting those assault rifles. If one bullet blows though the armor of one of those things, we'll all be going home." He continued. Scott crouched beside the Lieutenant and laid his finger on one of the circles, "We'll need Mike to take out the towers." He said.

Mike tightened the SPNKr missile launcher's belt around his shoulder. "I've got all the firepower you need right here." Mike replied as he flexed his right arm and softly tapped the heavy machine. Scott gave a subtle approving nod and turned his head toward the Lieutenant. He felt uneasy for some reason, but he tried to hide the apprehensiveness. No one spoke. The silence frustrated the soldiers. Despite being in the middle of a forest, there was no sound apart from their own breathing inside their helmets.

Silva threw the stick on the ground, scattering small pieces of mud as it hit the dirt. His feet felt numb and his muscles tingled as he rose up. He lowered his right hand and swept the wet dirt off his black camouflage trousers. The water made contact with his skin. Great, now I'm going to catch a cold, he thought, slowly tightening his mandible muscles. His MA5B lay covered in mud. Little drops of water dripped down the leaves of a tree and splashed off the plastic casing of the rifle. The Lieutenant looked at the troopers once more. He couldn't see their faces. "Recheck your ammo." he said as he gestured the move out signal. Scott fell in, followed by his comrades carefully weighing their steps along the short, dark green bushes.

Mike was the slowest. He never got used to carrying the monstrous rocket launcher on his back. He preferred small arms and tactics: something he didn't quite manage to achieve in basic. He didn't have the gut to bitch though, not while his career depended on him keeping his mouth shut.

The sun started to set, and the dim light of day suddenly became even dimmer. The low-lit forest seemed dead – for now. Sunlight reflected off Silva's dark faceplate, and slowly appeared to pour down the chin of his helmet as he moved. His feet began to dry off from the water.

The temperature was acceptable: not too cold and not too hot; one less thing to worry about in a mission that seemed ridiculously dangerous even for a squad of battle-hardened troopers. David held the radar in his hands, attentively checking its frequency. His gloves were thicker than usual, making it difficult to control the machine. He didn't want to take any chances ever since he almost lost three of his fingers on a recon patrol on Harvest.

The small radar made synchronized mechanical sounds as it scanned the squad's surroundings. Scott placed his hand over a rotten tree-trunk and leaned over. He reached for his boot and retracted the combat knife. He couldn't remember why he hung it on his boot instead of his belt. I must've been drunk or something, he thought: a highly credible possibility.

Diana held the sniper rifle steady above her shoulder. The long barrel pushed the cluster of tree branches away from her path, clearing the Oracle scope's line of sight. Her footsteps made intermittent noises as she moved farther into the jungle. She lowered her head for a few moments and looked at the ground. Water.

The river ahead was overflowing, and the banks quickly started to drown in the raging waves. Scott was surprised. A moment ago the water was calmly flowing downstream. Silva raised his right arm. The squad stopped, and stared at the river. There was no way to cross it, except by foot.

Silva turned toward the team and gazed at the soldiers. He looked at their silhouettes; he needed a fat trooper to lead the way through the river. "Hey chubby," he shouted at Roger, "take point through the river. We'll follow in behind you." He continued. The soldier raced in front of Silva and stopped. Roger seemed to be the fattest marine in the squad, and stood the best chance of not getting carried away by the water.

The Lieutenant grasped Roger's jacket tight with his right hand. His fingernails hurt. "Everyone grab a hold of the man in front of you!" he said as he turned his head around. The marines clenched the backs of their comrades. They had to work together as a team.

The Lieutenant gestured the "move out" signal, and rested his rifle beside him. He strained his lips. Everyone was silent, slowly walking toward the blue-colored waters that streamed ahead. They weren't afraid; they couldn't drown anyways, not with their helmets on their heads. Scott's faceplate was fogged by his heavy breathing. His legs made contact with the cold water. The soldiers started shivering. They had to keep moving, and fast.

The water reached Roger's waist. He stuck his right hand out for a large rock in the middle of the river. He stretched his arm until his fingers found contact and grasped the edge of the reef. He was freezing, but he still tried to transfer his weight over to his shivering legs. Silva followed behind him, keeping his strong grip of Roger's uniform even stronger as he advanced into the depth of the river.

Mike started losing his grip of Scott's thick jacket. He frowned, closed his eyes, and strained every muscle in his body until he found the strength to keep walking in the deadly waters. A second passed by. His left leg slid under the slippery riverbed, and fell on his knees. For a moment his subconscious shut off, as if leaving his body prey to the water. Scott grabbed Mike's arm just before he hit the ground. Mike rose on his feet again and recovered from the fright. He locked gazes with Scott, "Thanks", he said. Scott nodded in response and smiled slightly inside his helmet before turning his head forward.

The soldiers treaded slowly, their footsteps splashing in the water and their arms lifted, clenching the backs of their comrades. Silva's legs couldn't stop trembling, "Hurry up!" he shouted at Roger. The fat shock trooper tried to dash his pace. Sweat started pouring down his forehead.

He saw the bank of the river and dug his hands into the soft dirt. His muscles strained, and he started pulling his body out of the cold water. It wasn't easy: he had to push Silva's body weight as well. He struggled. Roger's hands sank into the dirt holes as he tightened his feet muscles. He lifted his right leg and slowly crawled out of the streaming river.

Silva set foot on the ground and looked at his legs. He felt like they'd been frostbitten. The air in his helmet suddenly warmed up. That was good; it meant his body was regaining its previous warmth. He exhaled and shook his arms and legs.

Scott, Mike, Diana and Roger stepped out of the freezing waters. David followed behind at an awkwardly slow pace, taking off his helmet and rubbing his eyes. Diana set her left hand on her helmet. Her head was aching. She closed her eyes, detached her helmet and threw it on the ground in a moment of pain. She could still carry out her task even without a helmet. Her black hair was stuffed with sweat as she tried to touch it with her hand.

David focused on the radar. The small marker was pulsing in the middle of the display. This thing isn't picking up squat, he thought as he frowned at the machine. The rebel base was nowhere in sight, and the radar wasn't helping the troopers either. Fortunately, the weather wasn't too bad … yet.

The Lieutenant lifted two fingers and motioned the "Standby" signal. He crouched. Instinctively, Scott did the same thing and opened his eyes wide as he turned his head towards his left and right sides, his rifle nested in his glove-covered hands.

Silva remained still, his breath barely distinguishable in the almost "deafening" silence that seemed to surround the forest. There was no sound or movement. The Lieutenant finally turned to Scott, stretched his right hand and pointed toward their one o'clock direction.

Scott nodded subtly, "Move out, I'm taking point!" he shouted, his voice resounding off the leaves of the trees as he looked at the soldiers over his shoulder. A few seconds passed and he spun to his feet. His footsteps scattered a huddle of large pieces of wet dirt as he ran across the field. The trees were blocking his line of sight, but it didn't matter. He slalomed through the cluster of closely-grown trees and slipping occasionally, found a straight path to the squad's target.

Thousands of bugs crawled on the ground. The soil looked like a moving carpet as the creatures busied themselves. The soldiers paid no attention to them. Silva followed behind Scott, scarcely keeping pace with the Corporal's speed. No wonder Scott always won morning sprints on Reach.

Mike looked at his wristwatch: Two minutes to infiltrate the base, deactivate security, and secure the warheads. Hah, there's no way in hell we can pull it off, he thought, almost screaming the words out loud. He'd never been too optimistic about high-risk missions. He banished the thought and kept running.

The leaves were swept off the ground as Scott started running even faster. As the troopers advanced deeper into the forest, the woods appeared to be untouched by human civilization. Silva wondered if the rebels had even set foot into these woodlands.

Scott tried to fix his gaze on the trees ahead. He spotted a building in the distance. He strained his eyes and stopped abruptly, his feet sliding several meters in the wet and slippery leaf-bed and falling onto the ground. He lifted his right hand and gestured for the soldiers to stop.

Silva motioned the crouch signal as he bent his knees and rested his hands on the mud. Scott turned around, clenching his rifle's handle firmly. "We've got contact at twelve o'clock," he said as he retracted a small binocular from his pocket and handed it to the Lieutenant. He pointed toward the distance. Silva wiped the fog off the lenses and lifted the binocular to his eyes. He magnified the view and bit his lower lip.

The building was surrounded by a line of barbed wire fences. Two Warthogs were parked outside of the entrance gate. Several commandos walked toward the vehicles and saluted a tall man before strolling inside the small fort and closing the gate. The four watchtowers were swarming with men arming the machine gun turrets.

Silva lowered the binocular. A moment of silence followed. Scott raised his eyebrows, "Sir?" he queried. The Lieutenant felt like his mouth was glued to a tree and his hands were tied to street pole; an unfamiliar analogy, but that was the only thing he could feel. He scratched his neck and attempted to adjust his breath.

The Lieutenant scrutinized the troopers' gestures. Mike's SPNKr launcher was out of the question.. There was only one option which could eliminate the threat of being spotted: Sharpshooting. He gazed at Diana's sniper rifle: The perfect tool. He faked a smile and revealed a smug look on his face.

Diana approached Silva, her head lowered and her weapon steadied above her shoulder as she stepped over the soppy leaves. The Lieutenant looked at her eyes. Why did he see her face? She was supposed to wear a helmet. "Where's your helmet, soldier?" he asked, his thick tone dead serious. Diana hesitated; telling a commander that you didn't want to wear a Marine Corps item could get a private sent home. She wanted to go home, but not now. The only thing she could do was lie: "I lost it, sir".

Silva frowned. He didn't believe her and she felt it. Whether or not a private was lying to a Lieutenant was of no importance to the mission. Silva let it go. "We've got guards in the towers." He said. Diana instantly understood what she had to do. She nodded. "Think you can handle it?" Silva asked, his voice slightly shifting to a calm tone.

"Hell yes, sir!" the young sharpshooter exclaimed, her enthusiasm easily noticeable in her honest voice. She bedded her right knee on the ground, her leg slowly sinking into the mud as she leveled her rifle. She held her finger on the trigger and peeked through the Oracle scope. Dusk settled over the tree tops. Diana took a deep breath, exhaled and cleared her lungs. "One shot, one kill", she murmured as she fixed her target. The mission depended on the first blow. It was time.

HALO: Iron Cross [Chapter Four, Part 2]
Date: 13 January 2008, 4:07 pm

1743 Hours, December 2, 2537 (Military Calendar) /
Hellespont System, planet Mamore, Designated Dropzone 1A

The wind blew through Diana's hair as she adjusted her line of sight. A man's head came into view. She pulled the trigger and the weapon gently jostled her backwards. The bullet exited the long barrel and impacted a guardsman's head. Blood splashed around his colleagues and covered the windows. Diana remained silent, still looking through her scope. She pulled the trigger again: another man fell and one of the windows broke apart, scattering small pieces of glass inside the tower's room.

The soldiers watched as Diana reloaded her rifle and fired three rounds. The sound of gunshots ripped through the forest. But did the rebels hear it? The woods had suddenly awakened as nearby birds flew out of the trees and into the depth of the jungles. For a few moments, the forest was silent again. The sun was setting fast overhead.

Diana removed her finger from the rifle's trigger and lifted her right arm, holding the weapon steady between her left hand and her chest. She raised two fingers, barely covered by her ragged glove. Her hand tilted as she pointed toward the distant sun: the "all clear" signal.

The troopers acknowledged the sign and picked up their rifles. Lieutenant Silva ran toward their target, his legs sliding on the wet ground. He touched his chest plate; the knife was still there. His breath suddenly intensified as he struggled to save his energy.

Scott's mouth was dry, but he still sprinted behind the Lieutenant. His water bottle was in his backpack, but he couldn't stop for anything. He had to keep running, or risk getting separated from the squad. His long hair fell over his eyes.

The team approached the entrance path of the compound and stopped behind a tall bush. The Lieutenant looked at the watchtowers: several commandos had climbed up the stairs to investigate the deaths of their comrades. That was good, they were distracted.

Curiously, the Warthogs' engines were still running. Perhaps the rebels' leader was there to check the garrison's maintenance and would be leaving shortly afterwards. Silva's suspicions however, weren't always accurate. He whispered over the COM, "The gate might be open. Let's move."

Scott immediately ran up to the massive metallic entrance. Short wires and display screens covered either side of the walls. He couldn't make anything out. "David, move into position." Scott said. The private reached into his backpack and retracted a palm-sized device. He opened its hatch, pulled out two wires, and connected them to one of the control panels. He ran a bypass and a beating sound echoed in his ears.

The gate slowly opened. Two buildings were revealed as the doors cleared the squad's view. David grabbed Roger's arm and pushed him back against the wall. Silva leisurely paced into the compound's large field, keeping his head ducked as he crouched and hung his weapon around his neck.

There was a peculiar silence inside the facility, and nothing seemed to move. Scott reassessed his objective: the development station ahead had to be secured. The field in front of him was crammed between the building and the line of walls. He looked over his shoulder and gestured the "fall in" signal to Mike. They sprinted across the tight strip of the field. Mike's back was aching.

They approached the station's door. Silva and Roger advanced up to the nearby storage rooms. Three militias walked out of the building, armed with light machine guns. Scott recognized the weapons; they were widely acclaimed throughout the rebel community despite their inefficiency in combat. The UNSC had nicknamed them "Confetti Makers".

These men were unusually well-dressed for commandos: Tight jackets, elegant sports trousers, neatly cleaned leather boots, and they wore a red armband around their upper right arm. They walked with an obvious pride, their backs straight. A second passed, and the commandos glanced to their right side. They made eye contact with Scott and Mike.

The militiamen pointed their machine guns toward the two ODSTs, their faces suddenly grim and coated in hatred. Scott primed his rifle and shot the first rebel. Mike drew his MA5B and fired it at the two other men, first their legs, and then their stomachs. Blood dripped out of their wounds and soaked their clothes. Their lifeless bodies fell on the concrete ground, their legs almost shredded to pieces by the bullets.

Scott stepped over the corpses and walked inside the building, his weapon leveled just above his thigh. Several tall generators surrounded the room and computer-like machines lay in its midst. Mike scanned the machines carefully, leaning over their corners and checking their screens. He tapped one of the generator's casings, making a hollow sound as his hand hit the metal.

"Standard equipment for uranium enrichment procedures." Mike remarked. "Are you sure?" Scott queried. He didn't want to risk blowing up machines that didn't pose a direct threat to the UNSC. Mike nodded.

The rocket launcher was still hung over Mike's back. He swung the launcher over his chest and loaded a missile into the barrel. He walked out of the building. Scott followed behind him. "Stand back!" Mike shouted as struggled to lift the heavy launcher over his shoulder and fixed his target. He pressed the trigger.

Smoke rocketed out of the weapon's rear as the missile flew out of the barrel, leaving a thick line of grey fume behind its path. The building burst. The room was engulfed in flames and large explosions which sent the equipment inside rocketing upward, and plummeting back down on the ground.

Gunfire resounded. "Target neutralized." Silva's voice spoke inside Scott and Mike's helmets. Roger and David ran out of a small building on the edge of the line of walls, and entered another room.

Scott pointed two fingers toward the storage deposit: their primary target and the location of the stolen warheads. Mike acknowledged the gesture and sprinted ahead. Scott cast a glance at one of the dead commandos. He crouched and looked at his red armband: a white circle was labeled onto the fine material, and a strange cross was traced in the middle. He'd seen this cross before in history classes on Reach. He remembered what the people on Earth had called it five hundred years ago; an iron cross dating back from a certain "Second World War".

He ripped the band off the dead man's arm, bent it twice and put it in his pocket. Might be something HIGHCOM would want to see, he thought. Scott stood on his feet and followed Mike's footsteps up to the explosive deposit's entrance door. He took a deep breath, slid his faceplate open and whispered to Mike, "Pick your targets carefully."

Mike murmured a sound of acknowledgment and nodded rapidly. Scott took one last glimpse of his reflection on Mike's faceplate and closed his visor. He clenched the rifle in his hands so tight, that his finger bones started to hurt. Mike reached for the door's handle and slowly pushed it backwards. The door opened and Mike pushed it away swiftly, scrambling to regain a hold of his rifle with both hands. He walked into the room.

Four militiamen sat at a table on the other side of the chamber, quickly reacting to the ODSTs' intrusion and screaming to their comrades as they rose from their chairs. One man fiercely pushed his seat into the table as he rose to his feet and fired his M6D pistol.

Scott rolled to the ground and steadied his rifle as he crouched. He fired his weapon across the room, struggling to avoid hitting the warheads placed just on top of several shelves to his right. Mike sprinted to the table, firing a full round at the rebels. He hit two of them.

The other commandos took cover behind the table and momentarily ceased firing their MA2B's. An awkward silence followed. No one fired their weapon. A man's voice echoed off the walls, "Clear!" A fragmentation grenade flew over the table and across the room. It landed beside Mike's foot. He dodged and rolled over to his left side. Shrapnel scattered across the chamber as the grenade exploded.

Scott felt like his eardrums had just been hit by a shovel. Dizziness swarmed across his vision. The surroundings suddenly wiggled as he covered his head with his hands. He regained control over his senses. "Parker, are you there? Parker, respond!" Lieutenant Silva's voice barked over TEAMCOM. Scott almost hadn't noticed Silva was calling him by his last name. He didn't reply.

The men behind the table fired their M6D's at Scott. He ducked and waited. They ran out of ammo. This was the perfect moment: he ran across the room, jumped over the table and grabbed one of the commandos by his neck. He punched him once, pinned his right elbow into the man's stomach and threw him over the round table.

Mike shot the other rebel. He fell on the ground, his right hand still holding the pistol. Scott leaned over and took a glimpse of the documents lying on the table: journals, photographs and paperwork all covered in blood. He crammed as many papers as he could into his backpack and gazed at his wristwatch.

"Warheads are secured, sir." Scott opened the TEAMCOM frequency and acknowledged. A moment of hissing static followed. "Copy that, Parker. Fall into the extraction zone on the double." Silva said. A few scattered stars shone on the sky, night had fallen. Scott exhaled relieved and stepped outside of the building. He took off his helmet, wiped his sweaty face and touched his hair. I really have to get a haircut, he thought to himself as he swung his rifle on his shoulder, but not too soon.

HALO: Iron Cross [Chapter Five]
Date: 21 January 2008, 8:40 pm

"Fascism is not defined by the number of its victims, but by the way it kills them." -- Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980)

2140 Hours, December 3, 2537 (Military Calendar) /
Hellespont System, planet Mamore, Unknown Orbital Facility

The northern continent of the planet came into the window's view. There was nothing special to see, apart from the ancient field of stars glowing behind the outline. The air inside the pressurized chamber was still. Maps and grids of various cities lay suspended on the blue hollow walls and a large desk lay in the middle, flanked by two chairs on either side. The brightness of the spotlights reflected off the recently-swept sandstone floor, almost covering the entire room in a brilliant vision of luminosity. Tranquility surrounded the place. There was no hint of movement.

Small drops of water trickled out of a pipe's orifice and splashed into the sink on the right corner of the room. The leathered armchair stood behind the desk, its wheels turned to squinting angles. Fine layers of dust settled upon the luxurious furniture. Statues and sculptures were sitting on top of the shelves, almost oblivious to the centuries that had passed ever since they were handcrafted.

A large picture was hung on the right-hand wall of the room. The framework was painted in red, and overlapping black circles were traced along its margins. A man's face emerged from the old painting. He looked relatively young; his startling eyes were depicted in a pale blue color and seemed to gaze into the distance in an apparently relaxed mood. His thinning black hair was combed to his left side, and his short mustache had an unusual print to its appearance, but matched the color of his hair. A handful of workers on this platform knew who he was: a man that used to live on Earth a long time ago, before space travel was even conceived – a man that led a war against the world, a man that grew to be despised by his nation and his enemies … a man that most people prefer not to think of.

The screen above the entrance door flickered to black. The door silently slid open and a strong breeze crossed the entrance and lifted the dust off the desk. Papers began to fly and drift through the chamber as the wind carried them away.

Two consecutive bumps sounded as soon as the door closed itself shut. Colonel Wolfgang Reichard stepped on the floor, his leather boots leaving traces of fresh mud on the white crockery. He was particularly elegantly-dressed today. A green beret covered his hair: something he hadn't worn for five years. A black string holding a patch to his left eye ran along his pale face. He reached for the bottom of his thick blue jacket and pulled it downward. The coat covered his torso perfectly, revealing an uncommon set of abdominal muscles that strained against his rubbery jacket.

He took his gloves off and looked at his bruised right hand. The scratch marks encompassed his palm. He tried to clasp his hand, but instantly felt his skin hurt. A sudden pain raced across his body. He relaxed his arm muscles and spread his hand. The pain had gone. I'll never get rid of these bruises, he thought as he slowly paced toward the desk, his muddy feet softly slipping on the slithery ground and his eyes still gazing at his wounded hand.

The room was a mess: Piles of dirty clothes, small pieces of broken glass and papers lay on the floor, still. The smell of sweat engulfed the air inside, making it almost impossible to breathe without turning on the air cleanser.

The Colonel picked up his beret and threw it on his desk, smashing a bottle of water as it hit the table. He reached for a large rectangular machine pinned up on the left wall and pressed a button. Clean air started blowing out of the cleanser's tube, waving his long blonde hair as the winds rushed through the chamber.

Reichard walked behind the desk and sat down on the large chair, his hands gripping its plastic arms tight. He reached for his chest pocket and retracted an unopened pack of Sweet William cigars. The package was wrapped in a neatly-colored cardboard box, tied to several knots around its corners. Colonel Reichard opened the pack with a swift move of his left hand and threw the wrapper into the recycle bin lying beside the desk's right leg.

He gripped the cigar with two fingers, lifted his right arm and inhaled the smoke into this mouth. The cigar's end slowly started to burn the tobacco, raising a thin trace of fume that weightlessly floated into the air. The Colonel rested his elbow against the table and locked his gaze on the door, his eyebrows easily arcing as he blew the smoke out of his mouth.

Silence dripped into the chamber. Reichard cast a long and observant glance at the COM panel. Its green lights were flickering. He coughed and adjusted his voice's tone, barely making any sound as he hit the COM's button. "Marrick, have the guests arrived yet?" he asked, his tone dropping into a hint of nervousness as he tapped the table with his left hand.

A moment passed and a man's weak voice rang in the COM's small speaker, "Yes sir, I have directed them to your office." The man replied. Reichard lifted his eyebrows in content and took his finger off the button. The lights on the ceiling buzzed a random melody of electric circuits. The Colonel couldn't stand their humming, yet, there was nothing he could do about it except nerve himself each time he heard the sound.

Footsteps resounded across the hallway; strange that the room wasn't phonically isolated. The door hissed open, and the Colonel's glance was suddenly interrupted. He rose to his feet, still holding the cigar with his right hand. The ash fell on the floor and on his trousers, softly burning the cotton material. He frowned as the ash made contact with his skin: a split-second soreness swept through his body. He tapped the cinder off his trousers.

Two men walked into the chamber: Sergeant Rostock and Sergeant Grant. Their right arms were partially covered in red bands and their faces lost in a strange oblivion. They took their coats off, patting the dust off their shoulders and adjusting their black ties, scarcely noticing the Colonel's presence. Sergeant Rostock glanced at Reichard and walked up to his desk. He stretched out his right hand, a grim expression crossing his face. The Colonel grabbed the man's hand and clenched it tight. His forceful grip discomforted the tall man as he drew his hand back and stretched it inside his pocket, relaxing his muscles.

Sergeant Grant followed behind him, grabbed a chair and sat down beside the left side of the Colonel's wide desk. Reichard felt uneasy. Certainty seized control of his thoughts: certainty that something had gone wrong. He exchanged insistent gazes with Rostock who stood in front of him. "I presume you already know the purpose of our meeting." Colonel Reichard said; his accent dipped into an old German dialect as he rested his back on the leather-covered rear of the armchair. The rubbery material screeched as he chafed the back of his jacket against the fine leather.

Grant crossed his legs, waiting for Rostock's reply. He was an outlaw, a fugitive hiding out from the UNSC in frontier colonies. He could still remember his early days in the UNSC Marine Corps; a twenty year-old looking for combat patrols against rebel strongholds. He'd never thought that someday, he would become part of the United Rebel Front. He smiled enthusiastically.

Rostock glanced nervously at the surrounding furniture: a splendid mixture of antiquities and luxury items that screamed extravagance. He didn't like it, but it wasn't his place to make unnecessary comments towards a commanding officer's tastes. "Sir, we've encountered some rather unexpected problems planetside." He said, struggling to keep his voice leveled and inferior to the Colonel at the same time. He feared him because of his rank and reputation among the community.

Reichard frowned, his expression suddenly coated in a subtle anger. "What kind of problems?" he queried, his tone calm, and glaringly deceiving. He clenched both hands and bedded them below his chin, staring at the jittery Sergeant with a keen gaze.

Sergeant Grant sat quietly, his deep murmuring breath only shrewdly heckling the silence. He coughed and crossed his arms as he scrutinized the Colonel's gestures. Rostock weighed his response carefully as he looked for the right words. Reichard's patience grew thin, and Rostock could feel it.

"Sergeant, I asked you a question!" Reichard exclaimed, barely restraining himself from falling into another anger stroke as he clenched his hands even tighter. His fingernails stabbed his flesh.

"According to our ground surveillance service," Rostock finally said, "A team of six individuals have infiltrated one of our development encampments and have disabled our packages." He broke eye contact with the Colonel.

"Six individuals?" Reichard queried in disbelief, "How can a six-member team take out one of our compounds?" he said as he rose to his feet, pushed his chair backward and rubbed his chin with the tip of his fingers. "We've provided our stations with top-notch security equipment, armament—"

"We've become sitting ducks for the UNSC." The Colonel's reply was cut short by Rostock's abrupt remark. Reichard pinned his hands on the desk and lowered his head just below his shoulders. He was confused, panicked, but above all, worried that his plans might be threatened by a handful of men working for a government he came to despise.

He steadied his breath, trying to regain his cool and straightened his spine. He put his hands behind his back and gestured toward the large display screen sitting on top of one his drawers, "Show me who did this." He said with a confident tone dropping in his voice.

Rostock nodded subtly and reached into his green side pack, clearing the delicate stuffing and retrieving a small disk. He twirled it through his thin fingers, opened the plastic hull and reached for the display's control panel. The disk was small enough to fit inside his palm. He typed a synchronized code into the keyboard and backed away from the panel.

The screen snapped to life, a dark blue color flickering in its midst. Rostock softly gripped the remote control with his right hand, pointed it at the display and pressed a button. A clear image appeared on the screen. Reichard strained his eyes as he drew closer to the tall Sergeant. The image started to move, switching angles and pictures of a large facility hidden in the depths of a forest. The Colonel recognized that place; he'd visited it once on a routine inspection of the stolen nuclear armaments. He kept his gaze fixed on the footage as he crossed his arms and bent the wide wrinkles running on his forehead.

The view changed again, showing six men dressed in combat suits sprinting about the courtyard of the compound, firing their weapons and rolling through the dirt as they stopped and picked their targets once more.

A man's silhouette came into focus. He carried a rocket launcher and aimed it at one of the buildings. Reichard frowned, "Hold!" he shouted within a second's notice as he rose his right arm and motioned for Rostock to pause the footage. The Sergeant acknowledged Reichard's gesture and pressed a button on the remote control. The image stopped moving.

The Colonel walked closer to the display screen, attentively observing the man's clothes, weapons, and appearance. "I'll be damned," he remarked as he turned and glanced at Rostock and Grant, "Isn't this Blue Team, the one that killed Howard Graves?" he queried, his tone eager of an immediate response. His question was well-founded; he'd been one of the first officers to hear about General Grave's deadly venture with a supposed "ghost team" that recovered a considerable amount of UNSC nuclear warheads six years ago.

Grant rose up from his chair and awakened from his intense mental meditation. He knew what Reichard was talking about, and he didn't restrain himself from showing it. "No it's not." Grant said as he scratched the top of his head, "Although they might look similar to the team you're referring to, they're UNSC Special Forces. Orbital Drop Shock Troopers to be exact." He paused, raising his right eyebrow as he looked at the man depicted on the screen, "As a matter of fact, they belong to the UNSC Marine Corps."

Reichard gazed at Grant, surprised, and confident over the Sergeant's knowledge of the UNSC's military organization. He knew that Grant had served with the UNSC Marine Corps most of his lifetime, and didn't question his assertion. He nodded respectfully, silent.

The Colonel shot one last gaze at the display. He turned to Grant, casting mutable glances at the Sergeant's expression and the rank insignias bounded to either one of his shoulders. Reichard never got a chance to promote Grant, but now he'd met the perfect opportunity. Tranquility dropped around the three officers, and the view of Mamore in the window began to change as the orbital installation hovered peacefully above the planet's atmosphere.

A moment passed. None of the men spoke. The dripping sound of the broken sink stirred Reichard as he budged his feet and strolled back to his desk. "Grant, you're the most experienced officer in the field." The Colonel said. Grant threw Reichard a penetrating glance, "I suppose, sir." He shrugged; his voice somewhat uncertain as he looked at the Colonel's overlapping wrinkles.

Reichard reached for Grant's left shoulder, his hand slightly trembling as he strained his arm muscles and tapped the Sergeant insignia pinned to his grey uniform. He retrieved his grasp, and looked at the iron cross tied to the Sergeant's hat. Memories ran through his mind. Thoughts of how he could change the colonies and the peoples' way of life raced across his judgment. He wanted to achieve something his ancestors failed multiple times in mankind's bloodied history. He exhaled and handed Grant a white folder and a handgun from his drawer.

"I'll meet you tomorrow at the diner. I expect you to be well-briefed on your assignment." The Colonel said. "Jawohl, my Colonel!" Grant shouted in a breath. Reichard aligned his feet and gestured an ancient salute to the two Sergeants: a salute that described the ideological bond between two men facing each other. Fascism.

HALO: Iron Cross [Chapter Six]
Date: 9 March 2008, 8:03 pm

"Everything which the enemy least expects will succeed the best." – Frederick the Great

1023 Hours, December 8, 2537 (Military Calendar) /
Epsilon Eridani System, planet Reach, Olympic Tower Sector C-14

Olympic Tower, I've never been here before, Lieutenant Antonio Silva thought as he strolled past the tall, partially renovated stairway. Small cranes and hoists lay dust-covered along either side of the corridor ahead, their rusty joints creaking softly as the workers jostled them further away into the hall. The walls were empty, dominated only by paint stains and long cracks which spanned across the wide ceiling. The place looked like it was about to collapse under the weight of the metallic roof.

A short, chubby worker dressed in a raggedy pair of mottled trousers crossed Silva's view and motioned a discreet salute, both his sleeves bent around his scratched elbows. The gesture impressed Silva, and he knew that he looked imposing enough to strain even the slightest sign of appreciation from anyone under his command. He turned his head and followed the man's peculiar moves. Should've he returned the salute?

Silva steadied his feet and touched his wristwatch. He raised his eyebrows; he noticed he was already a minute late for the meeting. He hastened his pace and retrieved his identification card from his jacket's left pocket. The cranes seemed to be increasingly less crowded against the corridor walls as the Lieutenant sprinted toward the meeting room. He approached the entrance. A tall marine stood motionless in front of the door, his eyes half-closed, displaying a grim appearance across his pale face. He stretched out his right arm and unclasped his hand. "Identification, please." He said, his voice resembling the calm tone of a repentant priest. Silva handed the marine his identification, smiling subtly. The man scrutinized the card, silent and cool, holding it with one hand, and gripping his assault rifle with the other.

He made eye contact with the Lieutenant and returned the plastic card, "Major Strauss has been expecting you, sir." The marine remarked, moving one step to his left and keying the door open. "Thank you, private." Silva replied, sliding the card back into his pocket and slowly stepping inside the room. The door closed as the Lieutenant inhaled the stale air engulfing the screwy chamber. It smells like … politics, he thought, risking a few steps further inside.

The floor was dirty; fresh trails of mud ran across the room from one end to another, empty bags and food lay rotten on the concrete. A large set of windows were carved into the right-hand wall, overlooking a vast plain that seemed to elapse into the blue horizon, crossed only by a small river flowing into the midst of a cluster of forests in the distance. The "Olympic Tower" as it was called by naval personnel, was a one hundred-floor skyscraper standing in the middle of the FLEETCOM Headquarters.

The room didn't appear to be standing out in any way; an average-sized table was placed in front of a holoboard suspended on the front wall, two disorderly rows of chairs were aligned on both sides of the chamber and a tray filled with breakfast snacks sat untouched on the counter. A servant clothed in a white uniform attended the drinks; two vodka cocktails and three glasses of non-alcohol beer.

Anxiousness took a hold of Silva as he walked up to the northern end of the table, trying to adjust his thick voice into a confident tone. There was nothing special about this meeting; he felt it was just like any ordinary black operations assembly. He got used to the drills, and this didn't seem to be any more different.

An athletic-built man approached the Lieutenant and spread his right arm, stretching his hand in a vertical stance. He grabbed Silva's hand tight and shook it easily, "I am Major Nicolas Strauss," the man said, his dry lips hardly making any move, "I believe this is your first time in Olympic Tower?" he queried, arching his left eyebrow.

Silva slightly relieved the Major's hand grip, "Indeed it is, sir." For possibly the first time in his life, his voice was leveled to his commanding officer. Strauss twitched the corners of his mouth, "In that case, I will make sure you are properly served." The Major replied as he motioned for the young servant to bring the food tray closer to them. The Lieutenant shook his head, "Oh no sir, that won't be necessary, I've eaten quite well when I left." He said.

The Major shrugged, "Suit yourself, Lieutenant," he acknowledged, gesturing to one of the chairs lined up on the edge of the table, "Take a seat." Silva grabbed the chair's rear and shoved it away from beneath the table. Two other officers sat beside Strauss, locking gazes with the Lieutenant as he couched down. The Major pointed toward an old man dressed in an Army uniform, "This is Captain Ericson, he was the commander of a Colonial Militia battalion on Harvest during the Insurrection," he took a moment to breathe, "and during the Covenant siege." He continued. Ericson nodded to Silva, his white eyes and long wrinkles tied into an almost symmetrical fashion revealed decades of front line combat.

Strauss turned further along the left side of his seat, "The man sitting beside Captain Ericson is Staff Sergeant Waller, with the second ODST battalion, 105th." He said. Silva glanced at Waller and nodded respectfully, startling his sleazy eyebrows and miming a shrewd sympathetic smile. Waller wasn't bothered by the Lieutenant's scurrilous gesture. Everyone knew the Sergeant's name; moreover, they associated it with the commander of "Fox Team's Lunatics", a small-sized ODST squad reported missing while plundering a civilian night bar somewhere in North America on Earth.

The monitor on the Major's right side flickered, catching his otherwise over-worked attention. A strong wind gust hissed through the cracked window and blew the crumpled yellow tissues off the dirty food plates coated in greasy spots of tomato sauce. Strauss slammed his hand on the plastic file folded in two disproportionate segments. He grabbed a glass of water and moistened his lips. The folder was already opened halfway through the data that ONI forwarded him a few days ago. He flapped over a few pages and rested his hand. He lifted his head and searched Silva's face.

The Lieutenant's usual glare had disappeared by now, falling into a common condition that neither one of the officers inside the room could conceal. The Major placed the tip of his index finger on the file's spine and pushed it toward Silva. He watched the Lieutenant turn the folder to meet his gaze, folding the pages' twisted corners straight.

Strauss rubbed the sweat off his cheeks, hunching his neck even lower, "I'm sure you're familiar with the United Rebel Front to at least some extent." He said, cloaking his voice in serenity. Silva nodded, easygoing, confident on his knowledge concerning this special type of 'insurgents', "Why yes sir" he mumbled, "my platoon disarmed one of their nuclear deposits on Mamore." He continued, scratching the hair on the back of his head.

The Major strained his mandible muscles and pointed toward the picture painted on one of the file's pages. Silva followed Strauss's gesture and cast a long glance at the image: A man dressed in a rebel uniform, his hazel eyes staring at the pistol he held in his right hand, and carelessly hanging his black beret on one finger. "This is Colonel Wolfgang Reichard," Strauss said, sliding his finger downward and tapping the Colonel's criminal record just below the picture, "the leader of what we believe to be a sub-cell of the United Rebel Front." He added.

Silva frowned, obviously flurried by the Major's blunt statement, "A sub-cell of the URF?" he sighed, "Sir, with all due respect, we know too little about the URF as it is," his tone suddenly intensified, "the Office could barely even detect their presence until six years ago, let alone ascertain their structure." He paused.

Strauss arched the puckers on his forehead, "Lieutenant, I suggest you evaluate your position," he remarked with a heedful voice, "the data I've provided you with shall make it a lot clearer if you just read it," he continued, straightening his back and pointing to the page in front of the Lieutenant. Silva shook the disagreement away and ran his finger through the paragraph-wide record on Colonel Reichard. The text was impressive; information on the Colonel's background, whereabouts and current position within the rebel community lay printed and inked on a page, as if waiting for a spy movie geek to come along and taste it.

      Name: Reichard, Wolfgang
      Section Head: People's Occupation Government, (UNSC Designation: United Rebel Front)
      Service Tag: Unknown
      Rank: Lieutenant Colonel
      Date of Birth: 02.07.2491
      Location of Birth: Io, Jovian Moons, Solar System
      Height: Approx. 178 cm (5'10'')
      Weight: 74 KG
      Blood Type: A Negative
      Eye Color: Brown
      Hair Color: Blonde
      Comp: Germanic
      National Origin: German
      Psychological Report: Negative/Approved for Service
      Appointed Service: Command of regimental equivalent militia or insurgent armed forces. Skirmish and ship boarding       actions.
      Command Field: National Socialist (neo-Nazi/Fascistic/neo-Frieden)
      Legislative Misdemeanor(s): Auto Theft (Io, 2510); Opposing arrest by UNSC Military Police (Io, 2512); Murder of CAA       Inspection Officer (Earth, 2514); Murder of UN Arms Guard (Earth, 2515); Escaping Arrest on-board UNSC Carrier       "Magellan" (Epsilon Eridani System, 2517); Construction of illegal highly explosive material and/or attack mines (Coral,       2524); Murder of UNSC marines on Tribute, supporting Insurrectionist militias on Harvest (Tribute, Harvest, 2524);       Tactical assistant of General Howard Graves (Victoria, 2531); Nuclear Arms Theft (Europa, 2537); Bombing of       Silverborough (Mamore, 2537)
      Current Residence: Troy (confirmation needed!)

Everyone in the room looked at Silva's disoriented expression. How could ONI get their hands on this kind of information, from blood type to current residence? Major Strauss bit his lower lip, searching for the right word, he jabbed the folder closer to him, "Appearances may be deceiving, Lieutenant." He said, attempting to delay his remark for just a few seconds, "This guy's been tackling the UNSC for a long time." He continued. Captain Ericson heard in on the conversation from a distance. He wiped the smug look off his face and walked up to Silva, "I've seen footage of this Colonel Reichard staging attacks on our frigates twelve years ago." The Captain said, "It seems the Insurrection was the first time he really made his presence known to the UNSC."

He paused, took a sip out of a glass of water, and cleared his tobacco-burned throat. Silva set the folder aside, and for a moment, listened to the Captain's story. "I could say I've met him once, in 2524 on Tribute during a raid led by a certain Sergeant Avery Johnson." Ericson's voice could breach through reinforced concrete, "The first time I saw him I …" the Captain closed his eyes for an instant, and then regained his awareness, "wasn't sure what to do. He looked as though he wanted to rip me apart and flush my guts down a toilet. I've never seen so much hatred culminating into one person, rebel or not. Those fiery eyes, those skin-stripped fingers, and the coagulated blood around his neck …" The Captain stopped and hissed a breath of air into his lungs, "I hesitated, and turned away from his line of fire. I just wanted to get as far away as possible from him and his men." He added before bobbing his hands into his pockets.

Silva could feel the Captain's fear, could visualize his encounter with Reichard almost too vividly. By the looks of it, the Colonel seemed to be a very influential man, especially amongst his own brass. Strauss scratched the bridge of his nose, nodding his head as he threw Silva a piercing glance, "Reichard has been experimenting in practically every field starting from combat knives to mass destruction armament. It comes to reason to think that crime is in his blood." The Major poured himself a cup of coffee, blinking rapidly as he tried to hand Lieutenant Silva his upcoming duty. "More importantly, Lieutenant, this son of a bitch managed to resurrect a belief system that our ancestors tried to fight off." He continued, clenching the hot cup in both his thick hands. "Are you familiar with the term 'fascism,' Lieutenant?" He queried.

Silva tightened his lips, "I've attended some history classes sir, and yes, I am familiar with World War Two, and the Frieden movement, although the two are not entirely interchangeable." He replied. Strauss curled the coffee with a teaspoon, watching the trails of liquid flow clockwise in his ceramic cup, "They sure aren't," he said, "this is the sub-cell I mentioned earlier; a fascistic section of the URF." He added, moving his gaze toward random parts of the room. "Fascism wasn't brought up by any UNSC intelligence committee since the early 2200's. Fact is we thought we pounded them off for good."

Sergeant Waller pinned his elbows against the table and drew closer to Silva, "We might be facing a potential Vladimir Koslov of the twenty-sixth century, or even worse, a new 'Chancellor'." He said with a gruff voice, "If estimations are correct, the Interplanetary War which we know happened in the Solar System might now be sparked around interstellar space." Strauss broke in, laying the cup of coffee down on the table and crossing his arms, "That's where you come in, Lieutenant Silva. The UNSC isn't prepared to fight the Covenant and the rebels all at once. We need stability, what with all the population surges that have been taking place." He remarked clawing his cup's handle with one finger and softly puffing it cool.

The monitor flickered once more, displaying the Marine Corps logo: the UNSC crow gripping two large anchors beneath the globe. Silva gazed around the chamber and made eye contact with the young waiter sitting at the other end of the table juggling food plates on his forearms, a long white napkin swung over his right shoulder. The Lieutenant's neck was stiff, and his hands felt cold. He didn't like this place, not when he was being ordered on a suicide mission against an insane Colonel. No, these missions deserved to be assigned to war veterans stretching on the last thread of their lives, not thirty-year-old officers in the making.

A moment of silence passed, "Lieutenant, your platoon performed flawlessly on Mamore." Strauss said, tilting his head to his right-hand side. Silva flinched, eyes wide open. He'd thought Strauss hadn't learned about his incursion on Mamore yet. "This is why you will undertake the following assignment." The Major said.

"I'm honored, sir." Silva mumbled, his mouth half-opened, aware of the fact that he would have to put down a man that everyone in the UNSC feared. "Don't think I'm simple, Lieutenant. Behind this mustache, I'm a tacit man, and I can sense your annoyance." Strauss said. The other officers giggled at the Major's remark. He paced away from the table, grabbed his suitcase, and retrieved a small handbook. The words "Operation: BERSERKER" were tagged on its plastic cover.

Silva strained his eyes, but he couldn't see what the Major pulled out of his case. His eyesight seemed to be worsening by the day. Strauss turned his head backward and cast a quick glimpse at Silva. He strolled toward the table, swiftly flapping the handbook's pages with no synchronicity. He threw the book on the table, incurious. "I hope you haven't read anything lately, Lieutenant, because this manual holds the key to your team's success." He said, fondling his short mustache, "Your objective is to infiltrate the Colonel's residence on Troy, assassinate him and terminate his command." He continued. The mission was planned in advance, and the Navy even had time to conceive a handbook for this particular operation. Silva didn't like playing by the book, though, he always trusted his gut on everything and it usually paid off.

The glaring blue sky outside was gradually fading into a grayish shadow as crowded clumps of atmospheric clouds covered the sun's light rays. Strauss let out a sigh, "Your assignment will commence tomorrow at dusk. That will be all." He said. Silva rose up from his chair, grabbed the book and crammed it inside his interior chest pocket. He walked up to the officers, shook their hands and without a word, left the chamber. The gusts rocked the windows back and forth. Lightning resonated in the distance. Silence surrounded the room.