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Fields of Glass: Prologue
Posted By: J. D. Ford<fordyman@comcast.net>
Date: 20 August 2010, 4:54 am

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Halo: Fields of Glass
J. D. Ford
19 August 2010

"Through the travail of the ages,
Midst the pomp and toil of war,
Have I fought and strove and perished
Countless times upon this star."

-General George S. Patton, Jr.


0540 hours, 30 August 2552 (Military Calendar)
Armor Depot Charlie-Two-Six,
Outside Arthur C. McKenna Spaceport,
Terrace City, Planet Circumstance,
Epsilon Eridani System, FLEETCOM Sector One

      Hadrian Rice shivered in the cold morning air that always seemed to bypass anything warm he managed to snug on under his coveralls. The chill wind went a step further and cut right to the bone. Despite his tall, lean frame, he wasn't a big guy. Hardly any body fat meant he felt like a walking, talking ice sculpture on Circumstance.
      The planet was a little farther out from Epsilon Eridani than, say, Reach—her sister world. Colder. Lower light levels, even at midday. Strangely enough, it had a slightly higher civilian population, though far fewer military facilities. Maybe one explained the other. The civvies hadn't been on the best of terms with the government before the war with the Covenant.
      His hand trembled a little as he pulled a small tin case from a pouch on his combat harness. The morning was even colder than usual, and the brown-gray armor of his Scorpion—the UNSC's Main Battle Tank of choice—sported a paper-thin coating of frost. His numbed fingers worked on autopilot, extracting a thin black cigarillo from the case. It somehow made its way between pursed lips.
      Rice's thumb idly rubbed across the faded nine-tailed fox stamped on the lid of the thin cigar case. His brother, Chris, had given it to him before they shipped out to different duty stations. Chris had joined the Marines; Hadrian, the Army. They'd almost gotten into a fight over it—typical brotherly love.
      A loud tone sounded from below, and he almost slipped off the slick hatch collar. His COM unit had been on the fritz lately. He couldn't get it to sync with his helmet systems or neural interface. Frequently that meant dropping back down into the belly of the tank to answer any call. It was frustrating as hell, and the techs hadn't been able to track down the annoying, damnably elusive glitch.
      Rice swore under his steaming breath, pocketed the cigarillo, and rocked back into his command chair, stabbing the control that dropped the seat into the tank. A few flurries whipped after him, courtesy of a storm system blowing in from the east. They were expecting at least two feet of snow. That wouldn't slow down his Scorpion, but it would make trudging between the barracks and the mess a helluva lot more interesting.
      He jabbed at the COM panel with a gloved finger, missed the control, and swore viciously, ripping off the cold weather gear to try again. Another chirp sounded, followed by a tone sequence that he'd never heard in a tank. Not even a simulator. This message was being piped in from an orbital platform. Retransmitted from offworld.
      Hell of an expensive collect call.
      Rice felt a cold knot form in his gut that had nothing to do with the inclement weather. A computer voice rattled off something about priority point-to-point status and asked him to authorize the link. He hesitated for a moment, then keyed the channel open.
      "Hadrian!" his brother's voice sounded, too loud, in his helmet speakers. They picked now, of all times, to start working? A video signal resolved on his primary monitor, twitching with interference. The man on the screen was a little shorter than Rice, a little heavier, but they shared the same piercing blue eyes and brown, almost black, pin-straight hair.
      "Chris?" Rice blurted, his mind racing. His brother was stationed on Reach, a member of the Marine security contingent at CASTLE Base. Their communications specialist, to be precise. He must have broken every reg in the book and stolen someone's soul to make this call halfway across the bloody solar system. The distance was so great, in fact, that it would take half a minute for his brother to hear his elegantly monosyllabic response.
      Chris's voice dropped to little more than a whisper. "Hadrian. Thank God I got through to you. We've got fucking terrible lag at this point in solar orbit and I can't wait for a reply—just listen. The Covenant have attacked Reach. They're hammering the orbital defenses and we just got word of incoming landing craft slipping between the cracks. It's a full-scale invasion. Look, I don't have much time...we're expecting an assault any minute, and the ack-ack's lighting up the sky like New Year's." An explosion rocked the camera view, and Rice saw a cloud of dust rain down on his brother's head. Chris winced visibly and glanced over his shoulder, then grabbed the camera lens to hold it steady.
      "Keep your head down, little brother. I don't know how well they trained you in the Aaaar-meee, but this Marine is scared shitless. Stay alive. Do whatever it takes. I don't want Mom getting two COMs on the same day." An explosion rocked the room and an intense light flared, turning the video signal into little more than snow. "Love you, Hade." Chis turned away, his MA5 raised and pumping out a blistering hail of rounds off-camera. Something buzzed across the room and smashed into the lens. There was another loud blast, a series of thumps, and a bloodcurdling scream, but he couldn't tell if it was Chris or someone else.
      The transmission died.
      "What the hell was that, El-Tee?" Sergeant Ernst Ortman's muffled voice called from his position forward on the tank's chassis—the gunner's hatch. All Rice could see of the man was his unbuckled left boot, planted firmly in the skid tray of the sergeant's elevated gunnery chair.
      Rice ignored him, staring hard at the blank monitor and glowing orange text that read, "SIGNAL LOST." He sank back heavily in his chair, tears rolling down his cheeks.
      "Lieutenant?" Ortman called again, sensing something was wrong. "You okay, boss?"
      Rice blinked, snapping back to reality—though it felt more like being dragged across a bed of nails behind a Warthog. His mind was churning, trying to process and effectively deal with what he had just seen and heard. It was pretty much a losing battle.
      He cleared his throat, but there was still a tremor in his voice. "I hear you, Ernie. Clear the main gun for action. Bring the TAC online."
      "What?" Ortman said, almost choking. They were technically inside the city limits, though the base was pretty much isolated from the civilian population centers, placed right on the city-side edge of the spaceport. That wasn't a simple coincidence, either. The UNSC liked having its armored units positioned smack dab between the only potential terrestrial "threats"—the civvies—and their only means of getting off Circumstance. The thinking behind that was a little cold-blooded, actually.
      What had Ortman's panties in a twist was the standing order to load ordnance only with the express permission of the unit CO, unless they were conducting training maneuvers on the designated firing range twenty klicks away.
      "Fuck that," Rice whispered, powering up the scopes that gave him a variable 360 degree view of his surroundings, and made driving the sixty-six ton monster that was the M808B Scorpion a little easier. Or rather, made it harder to flatten innocent "crunchies" under the tank's quadruple treads. "You heard me, Ortman. Bring us to combat readiness. Now."
      "Yessir." Ortman slammed his gunnery chair down from the hatch, flicking switches on his console before the lift even hit its base with a loud, reverberating clang. "Mind telling me what's going on, El-Tee?"
      Rice wiped the tears from his cheeks, smearing grease from the hatch coaming under his eyes like war paint. "The Covenant just hit Reach."
      Ortman swiveled in his chair, locking suddenly wide eyes with Rice. "You're shitting me."
      "I am not 'shitting you,' Sergeant. The Covenant are kicking our ass and nobody on this miserable ice ball even knows about it yet." He pulled up the IVIS, or Intervehicular Information System, and cross-linked a channel directly to the company commander. "Bulldog Six, this is Bulldog Two-One Actual...FLASH, FLASH, FLASH." A few moments passed before he got a reply. It was pretty damn early, even for the Army, and Captain Darryl Musser didn't usually wake up until his third cup of coffee. He probably wasn't done with number one yet.
      "Bulldog Two-One, this is Bulldog Six Actual. Better be really fucking important...send it."
      Rice almost snarled at his superior. "The Covenant just hit CASTLE Base on Reach. Force strength unknown, but significant enough to overwhelm the orbitals." He paused to bring his seething temper under control. A sound filtered over the channel—something like Musser spitting scalding coffee all over his console.
      "Let me get this straight, Lieutenant," Musser's voice practically dripped with sarcasm. And coffee. "You're saying WE are under attack. Right now. And no alert has gone out, with no word on the TACNET?"
      Rice ground his teeth. "It's the signal lag, sir. I got this back-channel. My brother." He was pretty sure Musser knew Chris was stationed at CASTLE. Several moments of brooding silence passed.
      "Understood. I'll kick this upstairs, but you better not be fucking with me, Rice, or I'll have you mucking yellow snow out of my treads for a month." Musser hesitated, his voice softening. "Your brother...?"
      Rice worked his jaw. "I think he's gone, sir. It was...bad."
      Musser sighed. "Copy that, Two-One."
      "Sir...request permission to deploy my platoon according to the existing defense BP, pending further orders. I don't want to get caught with my dick hanging out. Sir."
      Musser actually chuckled. "Command is going to have my ass. Then again, you've got a point. Permission granted, Lieutenant, with conditions. Don't get overzealous and blast the first thing that drops through the cloud cover. Wouldn't want some admiral aboard his personal yacht having his breakfast rudely interrupted. Bulldog Six Actual, out." The private freq closed with a faint beep—Rice's damn headphones were off again.
      He growled, turning up the gain on the console speakers.
      "What's going on, El-Tee?" Ortman called over his shoulder.
      "Are we combat ready, Sergeant?" Rice shot back.
      "Almost, sir. I'm releasing the safeties on our weapons manually. Thirty seconds."
      Rice nodded as he switched over to his platoon freq. "Bulldog Two-One to all victors. I want Readiness Condition One in no less than four minutes. Repeat, REDCON One in four mikes. This is for real, people...Two-One, out."
      His platoon sergeant and XO, SFC Thomas Allen, opened private channel. "What's the word, boss? I've got nothing on the TACNET. Should I know something?"
      Rice grunted. "You and the whole damn army, Thom. The Covies just hit Reach."
      "Fuck." Allen enunciated the word better than anyone else Rice had ever met. "Your brother's on Reach, isn't he, sir?"
      "He was."
      "Hell...I'm sorry, El-Tee."
      Rice shook his head. He knew there were tears welling up somewhere in his soul but anger burned them away long before they reached his eyes. This was not the time for mourning. "Thom, I need to forget him until this is over...until we kill 'em all."
      "Hooah, sir."
      "Get the boys moving, Sergeant."
      "Roger. Two-Four, out."
      Rice grimaced as he brought the Scorpion's main power plant online. The engines snarled, vibrations shivering up the backrest of his chair. "Ortman...we're oscar mike." He switched back to the platoon freq. "All victors, roll out. Form up on me as soon as we clear the depot. Waypoint locked in...now."
      A chorus of acknowledgements filtered in through his COM and popped up as color-coded symbols on the IVIS that linked not only his tanks, but the rest of the company—the whole division, if you had full access. The rest of the unit was probably wondering just what the hell he was doing.
      "Bulldog Two-One, this is Hammer Six...what in the seventh fucking circle of hell are you doing?" That would be the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Yamazaki. The "Old Man" had caught-on pretty quick. "And why in God's name are your weapons reading hot?"
      Rice suppressed a morbid chuckle as he toggled his COM. "I'm moving to a more defensible position, Colonel."
      "Defensible? Son, you have well and truly lost your fucking mind, not to mention your commission. I order you to stand down and RTB. Repeat...return to fucking base!"
      Another voice broke in over the command channel—Captain Musser. "Colonel, Lieutenant Rice is following my orders. I'm flashing new intel to your lace. Stand by."
      Rice accelerated and his tank crunched through the security gate like it was made of tin foil, startling the yawning guards right out of their comfy, little, heated prefab shacks. Sparks flickered beneath his Scorpion's tread nacelles.
      "Sorry!" Ortman yelled, his voice pumped through the external speakers. Rice just shook his head.
      "What the hell is all this, Musser?" Yamazaki growled. The command channel was still live. Rice could hear everything, and his superiors didn't seem to realize, or care. "I've got none of this shit coming down from On High."
      Musser chuckled grimly. "For once, Colonel, the shit is rolling uphill."
      "You've both lost your fuck—ME!" The battalion CO's voice was drowned out by an automated message that overrode every single active military transmission on the planet.
      Rice grunted. That was the unmistakably, inhumanly perfect voice of PlanDefCom's smart A.I., Marius. The construct rarely made such sweeping announcements, but it was hard to forget that impossibly cultured voice. Rice had only glimpsed the coordinating construct's holographic form once, at an important briefing when he first arrived on Circumstance.
      The artificial intelligence always took on the appearance of a Roman general, though he chose to wear formal robes rather than ancient battle armor. He sported a beard cut in some unfamiliar, antiquated style, and had assumed as many of the historical and rumored characteristics of his namesake as possible. Rice had found it all to be more than a little distracting.
      He grimaced as they crossed from the service road onto the edge of McKenna Spaceport's vast tarmac. From there they could move, almost unimpeded, to any point on the outskirts of the city—in a straight line. The downside was a distinct lack of cover, though he doubted anything would help if the Covies started dropping plasma torpedoes and projector beams on their heads.
      "Why the hell didn't we get the word sooner?" Musser growled over the command freq.
      "Hold on, Captain," Yamazaki said, sounding distracted, as if he were holding two or more conversations at once. In fact, he probably was. "Just got word from my S2...detection and communications assets in the system were compromised. The Covenant found a way to cut us off from HIGHCOM and the in-system relays."
      He paused, his tone suddenly laced with something between disgust and satisfaction. "Looks like Lieutenant Rice's unauthorized 'back-channel' COM link was the first to break through the blackout. Our intel freaks picked up on it almost immediately, but they were busy fighting enemy cyber-attacks of their own and trying to verify the authenticity of the transmission. In short, things are totally FUBAR up there."
      "Orders, sir?" Musser asked simply. Rice remained silent. Better to avoid being noticed until he was sure they weren't going to have him shot on sight, though it seemed unlikely now that the proverbial shit storm had blown into the legendary wind turbine.
      Yamazaki growled like a tiger who'd just missed pouncing on its midday snack. "Get your boys geared up, ASAP. I want Alpha Company moving in less than thirty mikes, you understand? We need to secure the spaceport and key strategic positions around and within the city. No telling how soon the Covenant will start hitting us from orbit. Standby for detailed mission directives. And Rice?"
      "Good initiative, son. Don't do it again."
      Rice fought the loud, reflexive gulp rising in his throat. "Yessir."
      "Yamazaki, out."
      Musser grunted. "Dodged a MAC round, there. Listen up, Rice. You're my first 'toon out of the gate, which you unceremoniously trashed...that'll go in my report, by the way." A world-weary pause. "I'm sending waypoints to your IVIS. Take up defensive positions around the Aerospace Traffic Control Center. We've still got a lot of birds up there and the Old Man doesn't want them getting run over by the Longswords that just got scrambled in low orbit. I want you to link with the FDC and direct artillery and anti-air if necessary until we can get an observer out there."
      "Roger that, sir," Rice replied curtly. "Second platoon is en route to Objective Alpha. ETA, seven mikes."
      "Understood. Good luck, Rice. Bulldog Six, ou—" the channel dissolved in static as the world went utterly silent. Rice's screens flashed silver, then vomited pure white light into his eyes before cutting out entirely. He felt the Scorpion shudder as it clipped a small shuttle parked on the tarmac, but kept the throttle wide open. He didn't remember seeing anything in their path that would damage the vehicle or slow it appreciably.
      His scopes were totally down, and a growing vibration was passing through the tank. Something rocked him hard against his restraints—angry warning alarms sounded inside the cockpit. The tank went into a shuddering skid that felt like the rear end was lifting clear of the ground. Then the aft treads slammed down again with a loud groan of protest and caught. Rice jammed the throttle wide open as soon as he had traction.
      Anything that could shake a Scorpion was probably a Very Bad Thing.
      "Bulldog Two-One to all victors," Rice shouted over the building roar. "Sitrep!" Static hissed in response. His displays still refused to snap back online, returning only visual clutter and residual burn-in, like afterimage in the human eye.
      "I'm blind as a bat, El-Tee!" Ortman shouted. "Permission to pop the hatch and switch to manual targeting?"
      Rice checked his external sensors—the few that were still working. They showed no dangerous background radiation other than an occasional spike, and only slightly elevated external temperatures. The tank wasn't in the middle of a firestorm. That was good. One of his directional displays popped back to life. Back in business.
      "Okay, Ernie. I've got eyes on again. You drop an' dog if you see any sign of another flash, you get me?"
      "Got you, El-Tee," Ortman replied, almost cheerfully. He stabbed a key that elevated his gunnery chair and the manual targeting controls, simultaneously popping his hatch. An acrid smell mixed with burned ozone flooded the compartment.
      "Second Platoon, this is Rice...respond!" He jerked the Scorpion to one side to avoid the civilian analog of an Elephant heavy-lifter. He tried to get his display to switch to rear view, where whatever it was that had struck the surface still burned, casting long shadows in front of them. The electronic eyes were stubbornly refusing to cooperate.
      "What do you see up there, Sergeant?" he called over the local channel. "Where are the others?"
      Ortman coughed loudly. "I've got Two-Four rolling parallel...fifty meters to our left, El-Tee, but he's pretty busted up. Looks like they collided with something."
      "What about Two and Three?" Rice called, a cold feeling surging through his guts.
      "Negative, sir," Ortman said, stunned. "I don't see them." The gunner's legs twisted as he turned around, looking behind them. "Oh. My. God."
      "What is it, Sergeant?" Rice barked. "Tell me what you see! Ortman!"
      The gunner dropped back into his chair and lowered it halfway, turning to face him. "Depot's gone, sir." He swallowed, his face suddenly pale. "Actually...I think we just lost the whole fucking base."
      "What?" Rice stabbed the display controls again, desperately. The image on his screen split, then the lower half shifted with a flicker of distortion, finally giving him a rearward visual.
      Ortman was right.
      "Glassed," Rice breathed mournfully. "They fucking glassed it." Even as the words slipped from his lips he saw a large shadow ripple through the lowest clouds, partially lit by the intense fires burning on the ground below. "Fucking bastards."
      "El-Tee?" Allen's voice called weakly over the platoon channel.
      "Sergeant," Rice replied, not bothering to conceal the relief in his voice. "Thought you'd punched it back there, Thom."
      Allen coughed, his voice little more than a rasp. "Thought we had, too, sir. Overpressure wave hit us hard, threw us completely through the hull of a little pond-hopper...unfortunately for the transport."
      "My screens are online, El-Tee," Ortman said loudly. "Buttoning up." His hatch closed with a loud clang.
      Rice nodded, turning his attention back to his platoon sergeant. "What's your status, Four?" Rice punched up his TACMAP, checking how far they were from the Traffic Control Center. If it was still standing.
      "We're pretty shook up, El-Tee. I think I've got a concussion, and Lawrence definitely fractured his arm, but we'll live. Ready to rock their world, sir."
      "Roger that, Sergeant. Form up on me as best you can. We'll make for the TCC. They've got a subsurface facility that might give us some cover...for a while at least."
      "Contact!" Ortman yelled. "Bandits, two o'clock...I count four, make that six, Banshees! Closing fast!"
      Rice grinned savagely. "All victors, lock on lead bandit!"
      "Target!" Ortman yelled.
      "Confirm!" Rice replied, giving the order to fire.
      "On the way!"
      The Scorpion's 90mm main gun fired, the fierce concussion almost jarring Rice's teeth right out of his jaw. Their first shot struck the lead Banshee a little left of center-of-mass, but Allen's gunner, Lawrence, had fired almost simultaneously and with equal accuracy. The Covenant aircraft simply burst apart in a rapidly expanding fireball and cloud of burning debris.
      "Fire at will!" Rice roared, angling the tank to one side to avoid enemy return fire—blue-green bolts of plasma that rained down at them, chewing into the tarmac. A small transport was nearly cut in half by a shot from a Covenant fuel rod cannon.
      "Yeah!" Ortman howled as he knocked another one out of the sky. "Take that you purple fuck!" A third Banshee crashed and burned, but the Scorpion shook as plasma fire raked its armor. The air inside instantly warmed several degrees as a near miss from a fuel rod cannon kicked the vehicle to one side.
      The loading system thunked loudly behind him as Rice threw the tank into a skidding turn to avoid a grounded civilian freighter. Plasma tore into the ship's fuselage as they thundered past. "I've got one on my tail," Rice growled across the platoon freq.
      "Got it, El-Tee. Hold course."
      Lawrence's thready voice trickled over the COM. "Aaaand...ka-boom." The fourth Banshee disintegrated, showering Rice's tank with bits of alien metal and burning components.
      "Almost there," Rice called out. "Two hundred meters to the Control Center." Ortman swung the turret around to fire behind them as the two remaining Banshees swooped down, each rolling outward as they fired to avoid the Scorpions' main guns.
      "Shit," Allen growled. "Cannon's down. Malfunction in fire control."
      Rice swore as Ortman fired again. Missed. "Un-fuck that gun, Thom, they're right on our tail!" A fuel rod shot clipped the front-left nacelle, rocking his Scorpion like an amusement park ride that had a tendency to give its passengers heart attacks. The tracks screamed in protest.
      "ON THE WAAAYYY!" Ortman howled, firing again. The 90mm tungsten round punched through the cockpit of the Banshee, squirting its pilot's remains out through the massive exit "wound." But the last Banshee was still howling down at them. The main gun cycled loudly through its reload—too slow.
      Rice closed his eyes.
      Autocannon fire ripped off the craft's right propulsion pod. It banked sharply to the left, out of control. A pelican dropship screamed overhead, soaring over the Traffic Control Center, now just a scant hundred meters away. Several garrison Marines were outside, firing their weapons up at the Banshee. The enemy craft hit the ground, hard, tumbling and skidding across the plasticrete surface before it collided with the side of the building. For once one of the damn things didn't explode.
      "Hell yeah!" Ortman crowed. "Chalk one up for the flying circus!"
      Rice grinned, popping his hatch as he elevated his command chair. The Scorpion ground to a halt in front of the TCC, its engines winding down noisily. He nodded to the ranking Marine noncom and turned to see Allen's tank stopped dead about fifty meters away.
      The platoon sergeant and his gunner were standing in their open hatches. Lawrence had one hand on the M247 machine gun mounted beside his turret. The other arm hung limply at his side. Allen locked eyes with Rice, threw him a jaunty little salute. Rice grinned back at him.
      A shaft of green-white light as wide as a football field lanced into the tarmac about two thousand meters behind Bulldog Two-Four. Rice's eyes turned wide as saucers as the projector beam traversed across the ground toward them. His mouth opened to shout a warning, but Allen's smiling face simply vanished as his body, Sergeant Lawrence, and their Scorpion were burned to ashes.
      Instinct or something equally primal caused Rice to just drop down into the belly of his tank and slap the hatch control. He caught a glimpse of Ortman doing the same before a giant, invisible hand picked up his tank and threw it through the nearest wall of the TCC. The lights went out, and Rice found himself being battered around the cockpit like a ragdoll. Ribs cracked, flesh tore, and he felt an arm snap like a twig.
      He knew he was screaming, but he couldn't hear anything over the deafening, terrifying roar of the Covenant weapon. It took him ten minutes to realize the tank had stopped rolling. Another five to process the fact that he wasn't dead.
      He lay there, amazed and relieved to be alive—until he heard a faint whimper.
      Rice levered himself "up," which was now toward the deck plating of the overturned tank, and coughed wetly. He tasted blood in his mouth. A lot of blood. Probably a punctured lung, since every breath felt like someone was stabbing him with a screwdriver. "Ernie?" he called weakly, though it came out as a mumble through split lips.
      He reached down to a thigh pocket with his good arm and pulled out a glowstick. The ancient technology still worked wonders in emergencies. He cracked the stick against a mangled support strut and held it up, squinting into the darkness.
      Ortman lay across the roof of the compartment—now the floor—his back clearly set at an unnatural angle. His chest heaved visibly, and blood bubbled at his mouth. Rice swore viciously and crawled over to his gunner. Every inch was pure agony.
      "Ernie?" he called, trying to sound soothing as he leaned over Ortman. The young sergeant looked up at him, his lips moving soundlessly. Then death clouded the gunner's eyes and his last breath rattled out.
      Rice slumped back against the bulkhead with a choking sob, his shoulders shaking. A vibration rippled through the armor, but he didn't care. He'd lost everything in less than an hour. His brother, his men...everything was gone. Now all he had to do was wait until the Covenant finished what they started, or he ran out of oxygen. Whichever came first.
      He sat in pain and silence for what seemed like a long time. Not that he cared. The few remaining minutes he had to live were hell. What came after, be it oblivion or paradise, would surely be comparative bliss.
      A loud thump rang against the Scorpion's hull. Then another. And another. They were too regular to be debris from the building falling down on him. Rice felt a flicker of hope as he scrabbled for the arm of his shattered command chair and slammed it against the bulkhead three times, as hard as he could.
      No response.
      "I'm alive!" he rasped, fully intending to yell. "I'm alive!"
      Silence passed for several moments, then the Scorpion lurched wildly. The whole thing just flipped, tossing both Rice and Ortman's body against the far bulkhead.
      He cursed loud and long, barely catching himself on a console. There was a wrenching sound, like the scream of tortured metal, and the gunner's hatch ripped free. Light from a powerful lamp lanced down into the dust-choked compartment, and a large human hand reached down for him.
      Rice felt tears stain the grime on his cheeks as he reached up and grabbed the Marine's armored gauntlet. It lifted him bodily from the tank. He thought his shoulder was going to separate from the socket, but the soldier lowered him carefully over the side. Arms cradled him gently, all the way to the ground.
      "How is he?" a deep voice asked from above him. It had a strange, filtered quality, and he realized it was speaking through an ODST's helmet speakers. Rice squinted up at the soldier who had pulled him out of his Scorpion.
      That wasn't Helljumper armor.
      "He'll live, Gabe," a feminine voice responded, mere inches from his left ear.
      Rice gaped at the Spartan standing on the vehicle's crumpled ceramic-titanium armor that was still hot and smoking from the blast. The super soldier's head snapped to one side, tracking something in the distance. Then the armored figure hopped lightly to the ground and knelt beside them.
      Rice twisted around, realizing another Spartan held him in her lap. He stared up into her mirrored visor, awed by his abrupt and totally unexpected rescue at the hands of the human race's most revered heroes.
      "Where...did you come from?" he asked weakly.
      She ignored him, instead looking up at her partner. "Do we leave him here?"
      The other Spartan shook his head. "No. And I don't give a damn about protocol. He's coming along." He glanced down at a large container strapped to the armor plating on his thigh, studying an illuminated readout. "The A.I.'s matrix is stable for now, but we have to get moving. They're going to finish glassing this sector any minute."
      The female Spartan nodded, looked down at him. "Can you walk?"
      Rice grimaced, then nodded. "Yeah."
      She helped him up. A spear of pain shot through his left knee, which promptly buckled. She caught him before he could fall into the mounded rubble of the Aerospace Traffic Control Center. The Covenant energy projector beam had carved a straight line all the way across the complex, leveling huge sections to either side. Rice shook his head, marveling that he had survived the strike.
      "Carry him," the male Spartan said curtly. "Let's move."
      Rice wanted to protest but she didn't give him the chance, scooping him up with one arm, the other holding a massive M6D in an equally large, armored hand. Without a word, they trotted through the rubble, picking their way across the devastated landscape with little difficulty. When they emerged on the other side, Rice caught sight of a Pelican resting on its landing skids. The ship looked unscathed, and he thought it might be the same one that killed that last Banshee.
      They boarded the dropship quickly, the one she had called "Gabe" moving forward to the cockpit. The female Spartan strapped him into a crash harness in the blood tray—the crew compartment. She pulled a medkit out of an overhead compartment and selected a hypo from its contents.
      "What's your name?" Rice asked her, staring unflinchingly into her golden, opaque visor. The Pelican's engines rumbled, lifting them clear of the ground. He realized she didn't stand as tall as the Spartans he'd seen in bootleg holos. Neither of them did, and their armor was definitely different, though he wasn't familiar enough with the ultra-secret technology to recognize anything specific.
      The Spartan reached up and unsealed her helmet, pulling it free. She was younger than he'd expected, with dark hair shaved close to her skull. Her eyes were brown, almost black. She flashed him a small smile and jabbed the hypo into his good shoulder—"good" being a compromised term at this point.
      "Get some rest, Lieutenant. We're taking you home."
      Rice felt drowsiness begin to take him and he leaned forward into the crash harness. It was the most comfortable he could remember being in a long time.
      "Home?" he slurred, struggling to look up at her. Darkness swallowed his vision, but he heard the clomp of armored boots heading toward the cockpit. Heard her turn back to him and utter a single word.