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Scoop by kr142616

Scoop - Chapter One: Downed
Date: 1 May 2009, 3:40 am

Chapter One: Downed

Rear Admiral Johnathan Sheppard:
The Security Committee has come to the decision that GNA will be allowed one correspondent attached to a marine unit on Fidelity. Statistics show your theater has the current lowest casualty rates, and as you know, battle lines have remained stable. This may be the morale boost we need. If GNA is right and something is going on there, though, do not let it come out. End it quickly and quietly, as necessary.

-from the desk of Fleet Admiral Lord Terrence Hood, Chairman, UNSC Security Committee

0035 hours, January 20, 2549 (Earth Standard Time) – 0835 hours (Fidelity Local Time)/ UNSC Dropship Alpha 382, en route to Camp Lexington, Fidelity

      Aaron Hayes, for maybe the third time since leaving the September, felt his stomach grumble. Space travel wasn't kind to him, never had been, and he tried to distract himself. The Pelican's engines rumbled dully in his ears, more felt than heard, and the seats were uncomfortable, especially in the GNA-issued armored vests. Only the best for their correspondents, he thought with a grunt. Five years he'd been planet-hopping across the Colonies, and all they could manage was a too-large, uncomfortably warm antique, back from before even the Insurrections thirty years ago.

      Five years since he'd gotten his first break as a freelance journalist caught on the front lines of the war. Since he'd seen the face of the war for the first time, catching sight of the enemy and seeing how alien they really were. He'd seen cities burned, soldiers and civilians alike murdered. He'd seen the end of a world.

      It'd been the best thing that ever happened to him.

      The correspondent grimaced. Fucking spaceflight, he thought as his stomach lurched again. Trying to keep his mind off of is stomach, Hayes glanced at the other occupants of the troop bay: a pair of marines sat across from him, occasionally exchanging words, and a third marine snored loudly, closer to the cockpit.

      Hayes hit a key on his watch. The red light in his eyepiece lit up, indicating he was recording, and Hayes adjusted his frames, focusing on the pair of chatting marines. Ideally the correspondent would have let one of his free-floating cams loose to record on its own, too, but there were only so many angles you could get in a cramped troopbay. Mentally, he shrugged.

      "Excuse me," he said, smiling pleasantly at the two marines. "Do either of you mind if I ask you a few questions? My name is Aaron Hayes, with—"

      "GNA, right?" a drawling voice asked. "Don't usually let you journo types onto the front lines, do they?"

      Hayes turned his attention to the corner near the cockpit, where the once-snoring marine sat. He had a wide-brimmed hat pulled low over his face, slumped in his seat like it were a recliner and not the uncomfortable folding seat it was, and for all appearances he was asleep.

      "No, sir, they don't," Hayes replied, feeling a little smug. "I'm the first official one."

      "That right?" the man drawled. "I've seen a few journos here and there, and you know what?" The Texan looked up from underneath his hat, smiling. "They don't last."

      Hayes smiled patiently at the Texan NCO, managing to keep a straight face and holding in a derisive laugh. Don't last? Five years ago I watched Amethyst burn, and it made my career. I've spent every minute since trying to come close to that, and this walking stereo type has the balls to say I won't last?

      "Don't mind him, sir," one of the marines, the one on the left, said, smiling kindly. "The sergeant there's fond of giving civvies a hard time." From his corner, the Texan grumbled a dismissal and pulled his hat back low. "He's been like that since he boarded."

      "How long ago was that, marine?" Hayes asked innocently, focusing his camera again to include just the one marine.

      "A few days after us, sir. The September's been jumping all around the Colonies, picking up and dropping off stray units."

       "No need to call me sir, marine, you're not much younger than me," Hayes said, flashing bright white teeth. "I'm just a reporter." From his corner, the Texan snored loudly.

       "Now, tell me a bit about yourself."

      "Alright," the marine replied. "My name's Private First Class Joseph Lewis, from Reach." Lewis had that neutrality of tone and expression Hayes had found soldiers were so good at. And they always say their rank. It's like it's part of their name.

      "How long have you been in the corps?" Hayes asked.

      "A little over three years," the private replied.

      Aaron nodded, going for a thoughtful look. "Where's the rest of your unit, private? You didn't say where the three of you boarded, did you?"

      There was a brief flicker across Lewis' otherwise blank face, and another snort from the Texan that said you damn well know he didn't say. Lewis continued, though.

      "We're joining our units planetside. Each of us have been assigned new units here on Fidelity."

      "Why new units?"

      "Sorry, sir. Operational security," Lewis replied, looking sincerely apologetic.

      Hayes dropped his smile for a more sober look, leaning forwards. "You can tell me where you came from, private. I can guess the rest."

      Lewis hesitated, looking like he was about to speak, when the pilot's voice interrupted over the troop bay's speakers.

      "Entering Fidelity's atmosphere," the pilot said matter-of-factly, the dull rumble growing in intensity. Hayes felt his stomach's rumble grow in turn, but he managed to keep the discomfort from his face. "We'll be landing at New Boston in no time."

      Aaron turned his attention from the cockpit back to the two marines. The one he'd been speaking to, Private Lewis, still looked hesitant, while his friend was starting to look hostile. Screw it, Hayes thought, leaning back again.

      "It's all right," he said, not quite keeping the annoyance out of his voice. "I'll find out eventually. It's my job."

      The private's hesitation vanished, his face again to polite neutrality. "Do you have any more questions, then?" he asked. The relief in his voice was obvious.

      Hayes was about to oblige when the second marine interrupted. "I do, for you," he said, nodding towards Hayes and leaning forwards himself.

      "And what's your name?" Hayes asked, smiling again. He adjusted the camera's focus to remain on both the marines now with a few taps on his watch.

      "Lance Corporal Ben Giles, sir," he said.

      "And you want to ask me questions?" Hayes asked, feigning curiosity but already constructing a response. He knew the question. It was one he got a lot.

      "Yes, sir," the corporal replied. "Do you think you're helping humanity in your line of work?"

      Straight to the point, huh? "What do you mean, corporal?" Aaron asked innocently, practiced smile still on his face.

      "Your job," the corporal said simply. "You report on the war. All of it."

      "Ah," Hayes said. "Do you want this conversation to be off the record?" he asked.

      "Off, on, I don't give a shit," the corporal said, waving his hand dismissively, as if he were swatting a fly.

      "Off, then," Hayes said, keying his watch again. The red light in his view blinked off. "You mean I report on what ONI covers up." He once again leaned forwards. "I report on the losses."

      "Yes, sir," the corporal said, and Lewis seemed suddenly engrossed in the metal grating of the troop bay's floor. "There's a reason for covering that up. We need the morale."

      Aaron laughed. "You marines get on fine without the morale. You know full well the scope of this war."

      "What about the civilians?" Giles spat. "If you reported half the stuff that goes on, the amount of fear that would spread—"

      "Fear?" Hayes laughed. "They should be afraid! This is a war of extinction, and very few seem to get that."

      "If the Innies knew how the UNSC was faltering—"

      "They'd what?" Hayes said with a sneer. "Throw a few more angry rocks at the UNSC barracks? They're all but gone, along with half the Colonies."

      The corporal's eyes smoldered. "Your agency is spreading fear, sir," he said heavily.

      "And your government is spreading lies," Hayes quipped back dismissively. "So, to answer your question, yes," he said. "I'm helping humanity to fully realize the gravity of its situation."

      The corporal stared pointedly at Hayes for a few seconds more, and leaned back into his seat, armor plates clacking.

      Naïve bastard, Hayes thought, switching his camera back on. If a government's willing to hide its losses, what kind of other shit do they keep secret?

      "We give 'em hope, journo," the Texan said, as if reading Hayes' thoughts. "People give in too easy if they think they can't win. People need that."

      "That'll be a comfort when the boys in black come knocking at my door late one night," Hayes replied, and the Texan again snorted, undoing his restraints to shift into a more comfortable position.

      Glancing one last time between the marines, decided he had enough footage for now. He removed a datapad from his pack on the seat next to him and synced it with his camera rig. The brief conversation he'd had with Lewis, along with previous footage, transferred over, and, satisfied, Aaron began reviewing the footage of his voyage to Fidelity.

      Before he could so much as press play, though, the dropship lurched violently, Hayes' stomach with it. He heard the Texan curse loudly. The bay's white light flickered and was replaced by red emergency lighting, and the entire ship began to shudder.

      "We've been hit," the pilot said, managing to maintain an even tone. "If we're lucky we'll touch down just a short while from New Boston. I've still got some control of this bird. Just hang on."

      Thing are heating up already, huh? Hayes thought. The correspondent shoved his datapad into his pack when the ship lurched again, even more violently, and his vision exploded into black.

      Staff Sergeant Francis Quitidamo sat in a camp chair, book in hand. Slowly he turned the crisp pages, letting the words sink in. Rain pooled on the tarp above him, heavy drops spattering against the section barracks. Still, he flipped the pages, engrossed. Not enough paper books anymore, he thought to himself. Some things need to be bound.

      Quitidamo heard footfalls approaching, loud splashing ones, and a heavy thud as a body slumped into the camp chair across from the sergeant. For several more seconds he read in peace.

      "A paperbound book, sarge?" the marine asked, his voice friendly. "Odd. Don't see much of those anymore."

      "One to talk, Wingnut," Quitidamo said gruffly, not looking up. "Where you been?"

      "Taking a nap," Winger said. "Beautiful weather, huh?"

      The staff sergeant glanced up from his book. "You were sleeping in the rain?" he asked, voice level.

      "Yup," Winger said cheerfully. "It's more comfortable than it seems. You just need to watch you don't sleep with your mouth open." The private winked. "Or you'll drown."

      "I can only imagine how you figured that out," Quitidamo replied, not needing to look up to see Winger's goofy grin. "Don't go doing that, though. I'm lucky I've got you and Salbatore. Most are lucky to get one NSG boy."

      "Aw, sarge, I love you too," Winger said, the seat creaking as he stood up. "Well, I'm off to take a shower."

      "A shower?" Quitidamo asked, back again to his book. "You were just out in the rain."

      "Said it was comfortable, not sanitary, sarge. Mud gets in all kinds of places." To demonstrate he wiggled his toes, eliciting an obscene sucking sound from his boots. Then, straightening, the marksman left, his splashing footsteps drowned out among the heavy rainfall.

      Quitidamo shook his head. Salbatore needs to keep a closer watch on him. He wouldn't let it bother him, though. Winger was harmless, and reading was one of the few pleasures he had left on Fidelity. He'd be damned if he didn't enjoy it. Something always tried to make sure he didn't, though.

      After scarcely a minute, as if on cue, the whir of a Warthog interrupted the sergeant. Quitidamo ignored it, flipping the page with care, until he heard a splash of mud and rain, and looked up to see the platoon sergeant, First Sergeant Harrison, approaching. Reluctantly, Quitidamo stood up.

      "Staff Sergeant, I've got a job for you," Harrison said in lieu of a greeting. "I need you and your men to respond to a downed Pelican. Covenant AA team's on the loose again."

      "Alright, sergeant," Quitidamo said. "Location?"

      "They're a few klicks out, in the woods. There's a crash beacon; here's the coordinates," he said, handing Quitidamo a datachip. "Take your section out in your HRVs, and a flatbed for the survivors."

      "Yes, sir," Quitidamo said. "How many contacts?"

      "Not enough to worry about, intel says," Harrison replied. "But watch yourselves, anyways," he added, smiling knowingly. "Them getting past intel is worry enough."

      "Understood," Quitidamo answered, easing his finger out of his book's pages and removing a bookmark from the back flap.

      "Thank you, sergeant," Harrison said. "Have a smooth run there."

      Quitidamo nodded by way of reply, sliding the bookmark between the pages and turned to enter the barracks. His book would have to wait for now.

      "What did he say his name was?"

      Hayes slumped groggily to one side, head pounding, held in place by the straps across his chest. The correspondent heard a click and pitched forward, slamming into metal grating. He gagged, but nothing came up, much to his relief.

      "Hayes, I think. Yeah, said his name was Aaron Hayes."

      "Hayes!" the first voice said urgently. "Shift it! We're in trouble!"

      Hayes pushed himself from the grating, realizing he wasn't on level terrain. His head was throbbing. Then it hit him. He wasn't on solid ground at all, but still in a UNSC Pelican's troop bay, and—

      Shit, he thought. We were hit.

      With a jolt, Hayes was pulling himself to his feet, accepting the hand offered him by one of the marines. He couldn't remember if it was the hostile one or his more polite friend. Both now wore identical blank, no-bullshit expressions.

      "We were shot down," one said, the one that had remembered his name, his voice urgent but calm. "Pilots didn't make it. Texan, either." The second marine nodded to the sergeant, his body in a heap across the troopbay, limbs at awkward angles.

      The first marine bent over the body, pulling the Texan's dogtags from his neck, and almost as an afterthought, reached over and placed the man's hat across his face. He then looked over the sergeant, pulling an M6 from its place at the dead man's hip and sliding a magazine in. "Take it," he said, tossing the weapon to Hayes.

      "Thanks," the correspondent replied, noticing the red record light still lit in his eyepiece as he caught the heavy pistol. Great, he thought. This'll make some good footage.

      Hayes turned away from the first marine as he began rummaging through a survival kit, removing an assault rifle and several magazines. The correspondent found his pack thrown across the troop bay, and opened the top, shifting around inside until his hands found a roughly spherical piece of metal and plastic. Bingo.

      "Anything useful?" the second marine asked, seeing the look of satisfaction on Hayes' face.

      The correspondent rose, tossing the sphere into the air. At the top of its arc it began emitting a soft whirring and remained in place, a dark optical lens trained on the marine. "My freecam," Hayes said, smiling.

      The second marine's face remained blank, but when Hayes turned to the first he wore a scowl. Ah, Hayes thought. The other one's Lewis, then. The first marine—Giles—opened a belt pouch, placing the Texan's and pilots' dogtags inside. He turned back to the cockpit and removed a submachine gun, tossing it to Lewis.

      "Let's go," he said, and Lewis and Hayes both nodded. They'd need to find cover fast. Someone would come looking for survivors.

Scoop - Chapter Two: Bravo Sec
Date: 4 September 2009, 4:57 am

Chapter Two: Bravo Sec

"Make sure to watch tomorrow when, for the first time, a member of the media reports with official UNSC sanction from the front lines of the conflict. Our Senior Defense Correspondent, Aaron Hayes, will be reporting from Fidelity."
-Emily Aldrich, GNA Earth

0107 hours, January 20, 2549 (Earth Standard Time) – 0907 hours (Fidelity Local Time) UNSC Dropship Alpha 382, en route to Camp Lexington, Fidelity

      The heavy raindrops spattered off the armor plating of the marines next to Hayes. The two lay silent in the mud, their eyes, like Hayes', on the downed Pelican, smoke pouring from the troop bay. All three tried to ignore the metallic emergency blanket beside the dropship, glistening in the rain. It was serving now as a makeshift body bag for the pilots and that Texan sergeant; Giles had dragged the three from the troopbay, not satisfied with their tags, or the risk of the Pelican catching fire. And now the three sat, waiting to see who came to find them.

      This'll make a great opener, Hayes thought, smiling despite himself. He'd barely been in-system before he was shot down, certainly a new experience in his five years jumping the colonies. And Fidelity was supposed to be one of the safer fronts, in equal parts excitement and worry. He couldn't imagine the footage he'd be getting in the coming weeks.

       "What're you grinning at, jackass?" Giles asked, scowling at Hayes. The correspondent was starting to think it was the marine's default expression.

       "Just earning my pay," Hayes said, shrugging sheepishly. It wasn't that he wasn't afraid. But Goddamn, he thought.

       "We're down two pilots, a marine, and a dropship, stuck in the middle of fuckin' nowhere, and you're worrying about your paycheck?" Giles nudged the other marine, Lewis, next to him. "Texan was right," he said. "Asshole ain't gonna last the week."

      Lewis didn't reply, his eyes firmly aligned down the sights of his submachine gun. After a moment, Giles grunted and turned back towards the dropship, too, and save the rain, their puddle was silent.

      Giles shook his head. "Not a week."

      Corporal Vidal Salbatore jostled in his jump seat, watching the scenery pass from the rear of the troop carrier 'Hog. Next to him sat Winger, his eccentric spotter, smiling blithely.

       "Lovely weather, huh, Sal?" he asked, the rain sliding off his already-soaked blonde hair.

       "Not for me, Winger," Salbatore said, remembering the temperate air of Camp Acapulco on Oro. Fidelity had much the same weather, but New Boston was cold, a lot further from the equator. The marksman looked straight ahead—or rather, behind. It was much less depressing seeing the dreary weather they'd already left, rather than that they were driving into.

       "How's our time, Quid?" Private Elen Katsaros shouted, despite being the fact that she was seated immediately to the staff sergeant's left and was broadcasting clear on the unit's comms.

       "ETA two minutes, Katsaros," Quitidamo replied, the irritation in his voice clear over the Bravo Sec comms. He'd never liked the nickname the unit had given him, but he'd quickly accepted it, if only to avoid confusion between himself and the two other sergeants in Bravo.

      Salbatore frowned, his thoughts drifting to the downed Pelican. This was an unusual bout of activity in the New Boston theater. Contact with the enemy had been at a minimum the past several weeks, with only small skirmishes with Covenant patrols out near the limits of UNSC-held territory. In what was a remarkably rare occasion, the battle lines were static, with neither side giving nor taking any ground in orbit or planetside, and neither eager to commit forces without an assured victory.

       "Heads up," Quitidamo said over the comms, snapping Salbatore back to the task at hand. The trio of 'Hogs slowed to a stop. Pulling himself up with the roll cage, the marksman turned to look ahead over Sergeant Diez, the section second in command and their current driver.

      Smoke immediately caught his eye, and he traced it back to the battered hulk of their downed dropship. Bingo. Flames flickered in the troopbay, and a silver glint flashed a few meters out. It was hard to tell, but the bay appeared empty.

       "Command, this is Bravo-One," the staff sergeant said, leaving the channel open for the squad to listen in. "Visual on Alpha three-eight-two, badly damaged. No sign of survivors."

       "Roger, Bravo-One," the reply came. "Keep looking. We've got a high-profile passenger listed as on Alpha three-eight-two. Acknowledge."

       "Acknowledged, Command," Quitidamo answered. "Wilco." With that, he terminated the transmission.

       "Why the fuck weren't we told there was a VIP onboard?" That was Cadwaller, Quitidamo's driver, whining from the first 'Hog, Bravo-One. Salbatore couldn't help but agree with him, though. It would've been nice to know beforehand.

       "Because intel sucks," Sergeant Ward replied from Bravo-Two. "Think it's the civvie, or one of the marines?"

       "Doesn't matter." The staff sergeant grunted. "Can't see any bodies from here."

       "Might still be around," Katsaros chimed in, still shouting despite the comms.

       "Right," the Quitidamo said. "Bravo-Two, dismount."

       "Roger, sir," Ward replied, and to his left Salbatore saw Ward jump from the passenger seat of her 'Hog,

      Salbatore didn't get to hear the rest of Quitidamo's orders. Without warning, his world was spinning and his whole body shook with a crash.

      After what could have been seconds or minutes or hours, Salbatore opened his eyes. He was leaning against the roll cage of Bravo-Three, the 'Hog on its side. What the hell hit us? he thought, the words bouncing around his head as his vision cleared.

             Then he felt another bang on his helmet. The marksman spun around to see Winger holding out a BR55. "Lucky you were wearing that," he said, winking as he tapped Salbatore's helmet again.

       "Knock it off," Salbatore said, accepting the battle rifle and shaking the stars from his head. "And thanks."

       "No problem, boss," Winger said, shifting the S2 AM on his shoulder and cradling his own battle rifle. "Come on, let's find Diez."

       "Shit. Either of you see where that came from?"

       "No," Hayes replied, squinting through the rain, hoping to make out something, anything. "I was looking at the Pelican."

       "Same," Lewis answered. "Definitely fuel rod, though. Portable, not Hunter, and shot across the dropship." Hayes managed to hold in a sigh of relief. He'd seen a Hunter pair, once, and it wasn't one of his fonder memories of the past five years.

       "The 'Hogs alright?" Giles asked.

       "Closest to us took a hit near the front, flipped back down the hill," the quiet private replied. He'd lost all awkwardness as soon as the shit hit the fan, completely in his element.

       "Lucky," Giles said. "And the other two bugged out?"

       "One did, then dismounted by the treeline. Other's still up there, but empty."

       "Smart bastards," came Giles' reply. "Don't wanna present a target."

      Hayes glanced sidelong at the two marines. He was impressed how they were handling themselves. The correspondent had been in enough tight places to keep his fear down, and was still feeling himself sweat. Giles and Lewis, though, they were as level-headed as the best of them. This'll make great footage, Hayes thought, suppressing a smiling. He'd lost count of how often he'd repeated that to himself since the crash.

       "Think we should turn IFF back on?" Giles asked after a moment.

       "No," Lewis replied, nodding. "We've got contact."

       "Contact," Winger muttered, lowering his optics. "Grunts, four."

       "Copy, boss?" Salbatore asked over the comm..

       "Got it," Quitidamo replied over the unit comms. "Just Grunts?"

       "And a couple Jackals," Winger answered. "Don't see any anti-air or anti-armor, though."

       "Shit," Diez muttered, the most eloquent he'd been besides the occasionally, "He's right, staff sergeant."

       "Shit's right," Ward chimed in. "We don't know what took 'em down, do we?"

       "Rhee's got her launcher, just in case." Quitidamo said, not reassuringly in the least. Salbatore, Winger, and Diez were without any kind of heavy weaponry except the sergeant's GL25, and the 25mm grenades wouldn't do much to stop a Wraith.

       "Alright, Bravo," Quitidamo continued. "One and Two are gonna search the area, try and find our VIPs and the AA team. Diez, you take Three and find a better position. Roger?"

       "Wilco, Quid," Ward answered.

       "Yes, sir, staff sergeant." Diez turned to Salbatore deferentially, who nodded in reply. Diez knew Salbatore and Winger knew their craft, and the marksman appreciated it.

       "Alright, let's go," Salbatore said. He began to lift himself up when he noticed a new sound. A slight sizzling had joined the monotone of pattering rain.

      Curious, Salbatore picked up the S2 and rolled over to stand up. He saw a ghost of movement in the air before a shimmer of light removed a good portion of his rifle's barrel. Without consciously thinking, he fired.

      The marksman's teeth rattled as the rifle fired, and before him appeared an Elite, shields flaring as its active camo dissipated. The alien staggered back but growled, its grip tight on its energy sword as it continued toward Salbatore. Shit, the marine thought. Lucky shot, rifle's wasted, not gonna get a second chance

      Before the Elite could take another step, though, it was hit with a wall of lead as Winger emptied his rifle into its chest, Diez adding his M6 to the mix. With a wail, it toppled backwards, energy sword winking out.

      For a moment, none of the three said a word, the sound of raindrops only interrupted by the rasp of breath in Salbatore's ears. Then Quitidamo broke the silence.

       "Diez, what the shit was that? We heard the S2, even in this downpour." Before he could answer, though, Salbatore was interrupted by the staff sergeant's exclamation of, "Aw, fuck!"

      Before Salbatore could respond, though, the whine of plasma fire split the air, the rest of the Elite's unit emerging from the treeline.

      A roar sounded through the rain, followed by the staccato sound of what would only be automatic weapons fire. Hayes' head jerked to the source of the sound, somewhere off to his left near where the trio of Warthogs had been parked, when across the clearing more weapons fire joined the fray. By the time he turned back to the group of Grunts and Jackals by the downed Pelican, they were gone.

      "Not good," Giles said to himself. "We need to help these guys."

      Lewis simply nodded. He looked across the clearing, then towards the hillside, where the initial gunshot had broken the silence. Then, he stood, beckoned to Hayes and Giles, and took off, following the treeline.

      Hayes let out a quick sigh of relief. As much as he didn't want to throw himself into a gunfight, he'd much rather not cross the open clearing to whatever mess was going on there. As soon as he could think to be relieved, though, Lewis dropped, Giles following in turn and Hayes only an instant later.

      The marines didn't need to tell what they had seen. Ahead was an assortment of Grunts and Jackals, the Grunts huddled around one Jackal's shield while another hung back, firing from some kind of rifle. A few dozen meters off, on the edge of the hill, a trio of marines returned fire intermittently, hugging the dirt. Neither group was making much in the way of progress.

      Lewis looked to his partner, bringing up his submachine gun. "All you," he said. "I'm not gonna hit much from here."

       "Got it," Giles replied. "Firing," he said, and suited actions to words.

      Hayes was left to watch, the handgun useless in his grip. He was no soldier, and while he could shoot, he wouldn't trust himself to hit anything. Instead, he made sure he got the best footage he possibly could. His freecam floated above it all, its multiple lenses catching the alien attackers, the defending marines, and his own trio.

      On his own headset, the correspondent watched as Giles' first volley took a Grunt full in the side, downing it. Before any more of his or Lewis' rounds could find their mark, though, the Jackal in the rear threw down its carbine, a shield springing to life on its arm. The birdlike creature ran forward, skidding to a stop in front of the dying Grunt and the rest of the unit.

      Giles swore, but kept firing with Lewis. With their attention divided, the aliens' return fire slowed, until Hayes heard a muffled thump from the hillside. An explosion tore into the first Jackal and its shield collapsed, leaving the aliens exposed. The second tried to shift its shield to take some of his comrade's burden, but not before another grenade detonated, showering the remaining aliens with shrapnel. A pair of bursts from the hillside put down the remaining dazed Grunt.

      Giles and Lewis remained motionless. "See anything?" Lewis asked Hayes, pointing to the sky.

       "Uh…" Hayes switched to his freecam's view, scanning the clump of alien bodies for movement. "They're pretty still. Can't see too far into the trees, though."

      Lewis nodded and stood, Giles following, Hayes again being left to trail behind. As impressive as it was, the pair's nonverbal communication was getting on his nerves. As he caught up, he saw Giles policing weapons and grenades from the bodies, and the just-recently beleaguered trio of marines approaching from the hillside.

       "Thanks for the help," one said, a corporal carrying a ruined sniper rifle. "Corporal Salbatore," he said. His IFF tag flashed for just an instant across Hayes' view before it disappeared again, noting him as one CPL VIDAL R. SALBATORE.

      The spokesman glanced between the three, his eyes lingering on Hayes, before he turned to the sergeant next to him.

       "You're with us," said the sergeant, a wiry, dark man whose IFF flicker identified him as SGT ADRIAN A. DIEZ. "Our unit's in trouble." His black eyes sought out Hayes in particular, and the correspondent grimaced. So it's gonna be one of those assignments? he asked himself.

       "Well let's get moving," Giles said. "Lead on, sarge."

      I should be reading my fucking book, Staff Sergeant Quitidamo thought with a mental sigh. A burst of plasma sizzled over his head, and next to him Cadwaller ducked out of reflex, then shrugged sheepishly. Quitidamo grunted, cursing whatever VIP who'd decided to get himself shot the fuck down on what was otherwise shaping up to be a good morning.

      A tree over, Katsaros returned suppressing fire from her M247 SAW. She might as well have been blind, but the staff sergeant caught her smile as a Grunt squealed in terror. Not dead, but the suppressing fire was doing the trick.

       "What's the count, Cadwaller?" Quitidamo shouted, poking his head out from behind his tree only to dart back behind over under a barrage of plasma.

       "I've got two Jackals, three Grunts, fourth bleeding out. Elite Minor hanging back."

       "Good eyes," the staff sergeant grunted. The private's counted matched his own. "Ward?"

       "Two Jackals, two Grunts, Elite Major. Shit's looking rough, Rhee can't get a shot off with her launcher, and they're hiding behing our 'Hog anyways."

       "Fucker," Quitidamo growled. "Diez, Sal, where the hell are you?"

       "Coming, sir," came Salbatore's reply. "Picked up some strays, and our VIP."
       "First good news today," the staff sergeant muttered to himself, a globule of plasma sizzling angrily as it slammed into his cover. "Hear that, everyone?" he shouted, switching to the section comms. "Stay alive till we're home and we're set!"

      There was a chorus of affirmatives, and the staff sergeant opened up a channel. "Command, this is Bravo-One. Survivors have been located, as has the VIP. We are still under heavy fire, though. Request air support."

       "Negative, Bravo-One," the voice of Command replied. "Intel is showing your location is hot. Stand by."

       "Stand by? Dammit, how many more of them are there?" Quitidamo shouted, more to himself than anyone else.

      As if someone, somewhere were determined to make sure his question did not remain rhetorical, the rumble of Covenant Wraith's propulsion drive joined the cacophony of whining plasma and alien chatter.