They're Random, Baby!

Fan Fiction

Attack on Installation 06, part 23
Posted By: Jake Trommer<wedgefan@comcast.net>
Date: 20 June 2009, 12:45 am

Read/Post Comments

Attack on Installation 06
Chapter 22

0800 Hours, July 07, 2553 (Military Calendar)
ONI Headquarters, Sydney, Austrailia

      Captain Jonathan Nielson hated meeting with Admiral Parangosky.
      ONI's headquarters were singularly unimaginative in architecture, and Nielson, a former student of that discipline, found it extremely irritating. It was a large cube-shaped building on the outside, and its interior was even more bland. Steely grey was the only color present, and everything was designed for utility first and creature comforts second. Nowhere was this more evident than in the office of the woman that most considered to be more powerful than even Lord Hood, Admiral Margaret Parangosky.
      Parangosky's office, in direct contrast to the rest of ONI headquarters, was painted entirely in black. Some claimed it was some super-special-spy paint---a notion which most ONI officers found laughable---that blocked listening devices; others thought that it was a metaphor for the black depths of the Admiral's soul, a practical joke from whoever built ONI HQ. And inside that black hole of an office were three things of note.
      The first was what was probably the most advanced vidcomm system in the whole UNSC, one that was rumored to be able to contact ships in Slipspace. The second was a book case with a frosted glass cover, an intentional feature on the Admiral's part, denying even the miniscule psychological advantage that might be gained over her by knowing the literature she read.
      Rounding out the unholy trinity was the Admiral's desk, a massive affair that mounted the most advanced computer system outside of HIGHCOM's rig, but whose true purpose was to showcase the grandeur of the most powerful woman in the UNSC.
      Parangosky was a grim woman, and looked the part, ancient-looking and harsh. Put one toenail wrong with her, you'd be busted down to E-1, thrown into the UNSC Marine or, God help you, Army infantry and sent right to the hottest battlefront of the war. Nielson knew that from experience.
      The Captain accepted a respectful salute from the two ORION veterans guarding the Admiral's office. Even though some in ONI thought soldiers of that caliber would be better utilized in the field, Nielson knew Parangosky would accept nothing less to guard her life.
      The doors to the Admiral's office hissed open, and Nielson entered, immediately snapping to attention and rendering a salute, concealing his surprise at the room's extra occupant.
      Parangosky was tapping away at her computer, no doubt condemning some poor soldier who'd gotten on her bad side to a horrific demise.
      The room's second occupant was the infamous Colonel James Ackerson, looking quite a bit worse for the wear after his being held hostage by the Brutes. Even more worrisome was the fact he was toying with an M6F sidearm.
      Ackerson looked at Nielson. "He's here, Admiral."
      Parangosky looked up from her computer and finally returned Nielson's salute. "Excellent. Captain, please take a seat."
      "Thank you, Ma'am."
      The Admiral customarily did not bother with pleasantries. "Have you heard of the rebellious Elites bedeviling our colonies?"
      Nielson nodded. He hadn't---surveillance of Covenant species wasn't his area of operations---but he had no doubt he was supposed to. "Yes Ma'am."
      Ackerson leaned in close to Nielson; the man looked even uglier up close. "They've found a Halo ring."
      "Shit," was all the Captain could think to say.
      "They've gotten completely out of hand," Parangosky growled. "We never expected they would do this."
      "Begging the Admiral's pardon, but what do you mean?" Nielson was afraid he would not like the answer.
      "We created the Rebel Elites," replied Parangosky. "ONI recognized that there would always be anti-human dissent amongst the Covenant, and we also recognized that humanity simply cannot stay away from each other's throats without some evil overaching foe threatning us."
      You mean you did, Nielson thought. Then a memory struck him---the colony world of Paris IV, rebuilt after the Covenant War, massacred in an attack by dissendent Covenant forces. Oh my God...those people...
      Clearing his throat, he managed to grate out: "an extremely bold idea, Ma'am."
      Parangosky snorted. "Spare me the sycophancy; if I want that, I'll talk to Captain Gibson. I know you think it's a horrific idea, but I also know you'll do what I order you to do. That's why I chose you for this."
      "Chose me for what, Ma'am?"
      "A few days ago, Brett Harsoth and his ship stumbled across this ring and the Covenant forces there. Without a human, the Covenant could not activate the ring, but Harsoth somehow contrived to crash-land his cruiser on the ringworld. If the Elites find out they need a human, and take one prisoner..."
      "We're all dead," growled Ackerson.
      "It gets worse," continued Parangosky.
      Ackerson stopped pacing the room, and committed the unforgivable sin of leaning on Parangosky's desk. The Colonel gave a sardonic smirk. "It always gets worse."
      "Lord Hood and Fleet Master 'Vadum are launching a rescue mission, and are taking some of our best Marines and ODSTs, including an ORION veteran."
      "Stacker?" hazarded Nielson.
      "Yes," confirmed the Admiral.
      "That's all quite worrisome, Ma'am, but what is it you want me to do?"
      "Terrence will at some point disobey me. That is a given, considering what his mentality regarding stranded soldiers is. When that occurs, I want you to terminate him, 'Vadum, and Harsoth."
      "Ma'am, are you---"
      "I am quite sure, Captain. Can you carry out my orders?"
      I'm going to Hell for this. "Yes Ma'am."

2230 Hours, July 09, 2553 (Military Calendar)
Tharidanis System, Installation 06

      Captain Nielson felt the pistol buck in his hands, and stared in disbelief as Admiral Harsoth threw himself in front of Lord Hood. Two holes blossomed in the Vice Admiral's chest, making for a stark contrast with his dress whites.
      Lord Hood was drawing his service pistol, but Fleet Master 'Vadum was already leaping into action with the speed only a Sangheili was capable of, energy sword blazing to life in his hands.
      Nielson knew his days were numbered, but he also knew that if he faltered, what Admiral Parangosky would do to him would be a fate worse than death. So he fired again.
      This time, Hood couldn't avoid the round. The venerable Admiral dropped, a single blood-red hole blossoming in his gut.
      Nielson had just enough time to pray for divine forgiveness before Half-Jaw was on him.
      The Sangheili warrior actually drop-kicked the ONI operative to the ground with one hoof. Even through the Recon-variant ODST armor that he'd received as a Section 1 field operative, Nielson could still feel the wind get knocked out of him.
      'Vadum loomed over Nielson, stomping one hoof down on the Captain's chest, energy sword glowing blue in his hand. "Why?" growled the Fleet Master.
      Behind the Sangheili warrior, Nielson could see medics racing Admiral Hood to sick bay. Curiously, they weren't showing as much attention to Harsoth. At least one part of his mission had been a success. Which meant...
      Nielson polarized his visor, and for 'Vadum, that was reason enough to terminate the ONI operative's existence. Two blue points pierced Nielson's chest, and the Captain spasmed.
      In the last moments the Captain had to him, he called up his helmet's mission logs, and had his helmet comm send them through Shadow of Intent's comm relay to ONI HQ on Earth. Admiral Parangosky would know he'd done his job. Then he activated the dead man's trigger of his armor's self-destruct system.
      And even though he'd betrayed some of the best commanders the UNSC had, Nielson knew he could die with a relative degree of peace, knowing he'd carried out his orders.
      Two seconds later, Rtas 'Vadum, veteran of more campaigns than most Sangheili put together, followed suit and left this mortal coil.

2240 Hours, July 09, 2553 (Military Calendar)
ONI Headquarters, Sydney, Australia

      Ackerson did not like the look on Parangosky's face. When Maragaret got that look men died. Painfully.
      "Well, at least the Fleet Master and Harsoth are dead," he ventured.
      Parangosky's face went from painful-death to hell-on-Earth. "Yes, Colonel, but Hood is still alive."
      "I'm sorry, Ma'am, just trying to look on the bright side."
      "Don't, Ackerson, it doesn't suit you in the slightest."
      "Sorry, Ma'am."
      The comm on Parangosky's buzzed. "Yes."
      The voice on the other end was that of Master Sergeant Nolan Byrne, the commander of the ORION veterans defending ONI HQ. "Ma'am, the Arbiter is here as you requested."
      Parangosky inhaled. "Good. Send him in."
      The doors leading into Parangosky's office hissed open, and the Arbiter entered.
      If the Sangheili leader had any sign of age, he wasn't showing it. He was still clad in the battle armor that all who had held his title wore, and a deactivated energy sword handle was affixed to one leg. His inscrutable eyes sought at Parangosky and Ackerson in turn, seeming to size up the Admiral as an unknown, and relaxing somewhat when they settled on Ackerson. The Covenant warrior clearly did not see him as a threat.
      "Admiral," growled the Arbiter.
      Ackerson blinked as Parangosky had a rare uncertain moment. "Mr...erm...Arbiter..."
      "You will address me as 'the Arbiter'," interrupted the Sangheili leader.
      The Colonel could feel the conversation slipping away from the Admiral. "Yes, Mr...the Arbiter."
      "Why have you called me here?"
      Parangosky's fists clenched. She isn't used to being on the lower rung of a conversation, Ackseron thought. This won't end well.
      "To inform you that ONI has decided to declassify details of one of our black operations due to some if it pertaining to your position as current ruler of the Covenant."
      The Arbiter stiffened, and when an Elite did that, Ackerson knew, the proverbial shit was about to hit the fan. "What are you referring to?" grated out the Sangheili leader.
      "What I'm referring to," replied Parangosky, "are the rebel species in the Covenant who wish to continue their campaign against humanity. Haven't you wondered why you had so little dissension other than them?"
      "We exiled them," said the alien warrior-leader. "Denied them ships, weapons, how---" The Arbiter's face grew more alien than Ackerson had ever seen it, and it was all the more scary for it. "You did this," he grated out. "You have permitted these fanatics to roam the galaxy and kill helpless humans and Covenant who did not ally with them, you---"
      "Are keeping humanity stable and secure," interrupted Ackerson. "Arby, without some grand looming threat, humanity is at its own throat. Giving your fanatics their weapons and ships removed dissent from the Covenant, and gave humanity something to focus its fear on."
      The Arbiter looked incensed at the nickname, but somehow managed to keep his warrior's wrath under control. Instead, he shot a piercing glare at Parangosky. "Is what your subordinate says true, Admiral?"
      "Yes," Parangosky replied unapologetically. "And there's more."
      "Something," growled the Sangheili's premier warrior, "tells me I am not going to like this."
      "No," replied Parangosky. "You will not. Fleet Master 'Vadum is dead."
      The Arbiter stiffened at the news. "How do you know this?"
      ONI's commander indicated the computer screen. "That is a mission report from an Office of Naval Intelligence field operative by the name of Captain Nielson."
      The Arbiter seemed to relax as much as an Elite could. "Ah, so he witnessed his death."
      "No, he caused it," Parangosky bluntly replied.
      Ackerson saw the Arbiter's hand blur for his sword handle almost before it happened. The Army officer snatched at his M6F, but by the time he had the barrel in line with the gap in the Arbiter's helmet, the Sangheili's energy sword had already blazed to life, the points barely a centimeter away from Parangosky's neck.
      "Explain," ordered the Arbiter.
      Something flickered across Parangosky's eyes, something that Ackerson had never seen there before. It was fear.
      Seeing it on Parangosky's face, Ackerson began to feel it himself.
      "It was...necessary," Parangosky managed to grind out; she wasn't much one for apologizing. "We had to do it. It would keep humanity and the Covenant peaceful...it would just be a conflict out on the border worlds. If Hood and 'Vadum managed to annihilate the threat, we'd have chaos again."
      "But you did not reckon on them finding a holy ring," replied the alien warrior-leader.
      "No," replied Parangosky, by this time sweating considerably less. "We did not."
      The Arbiter gave the alien equivalent of a sneer. "And now that your plan has gotten away from you, the solution is to simply kill everyone."
      "No," repeated Parangosky. "The plan is to kill anyone and everyone who knows how to activate the Halos."

2250 Hours, July 09, 2553 (Military Calendar)
Tharidanis System, Installation 06

      Major General Hugo Silva stalked the aisles of Shadow of Intent's drop bay, surveying his men.
      The Helljumper battalion all stood at attention in front of their pods, weapons of choice held at their sides in a parade-ground-perfect position of attention. Not a man spoke, nor through any depolarized visor could Silva discern a twitch, yawn, or other inappropriate gesture. These men were the best.
      As well they should be, the commander of the ODST corps thought to himself. My son was one of the best, and yet he still died on one of these rings. I will see this damned place destroyed.
      Silval turned to face the ODST who had been standing by his side. The man's chestplate bore three chevrons, four rockers, and a star in the middle. "Sergeant Major," said the General. "Put the men at ease."
      The Sergeant Major carried out the command with one of the best parade-ground voices in the UNSC: "Battalion! At-ease!"
      Armor and weaponry clacked as the ODSTs spread their feet the prescribed twelve inches, posting their weapons at a slight angle next to them.
      Silva looked at his Sergeant Major and nodded.
      The Sergeant Major inhaled once more: "Battalion commander---post!"
      An ODST bearing a Lieutenant Colonel's oak leaf on his chest plate snapped his battle rifle to his chest, advanced two steps forward, executed a crisp right-face, and advanced up to the General and his senior enlisted man. "Lieutenant Colonel Brian Henderson, commanding officer 1st ODST Force Reconnaisance Battalion, reporting as ordered Sir."
      Genneral Silva surveyed the man. Through his depolarized visor, a war's worth of lines webbed the Colonel's face; his eyes were those of a man who had seen far too many of his comrades go to their deaths before they should have.
      But for all that the man had still remained with the Helljumpers, still commanded a line battalion...was still every inch a soldier.
      "Colonel, have you received my orders?"
      "Yes, General. I have."
      "Do you understand them?"
      "No, General."
      Silva started---he'd thought he had had a better grasp of Henderson's character than that. "Perhaps you had better elaborate, Colonel."
      "General, your battle plan makes no provisions whatsoever for the evacuation of Berlin's survivors...or for that matter, defense of the Berlin herself." Henderson looked grim. "Call me stupid, Sir, but I think rescuing our comrades should be a priority."
      "This is my battle plan, Colonel, not yours---"
      "General, with all due respect, what has Admiral Hood had to say about this?"
      Silva tensed; he'd heard the gunshots while still inside the troop bay. "Nothing as of now; the Admiral is...indisposed."
      "Then who's commanding Shadow of Intent?"
      The General had just about had it with this presumptious battalion commander. "Some low-ranking split-chin, I presume. And you will execute my battle plan as provided, Colonel...unless you would like to find out firsthand whether or not Private Jenkins's experiences were a fluke occurance?"
      Sweat broke out on the battalion commander's face; he'd no doubt heard about that little incident. "Yes Sir. I understand, Sir."
      "Good. Sergeant Major, you can handle the rest of the drop preparations."
      John Sharpe nodded. "Colonel, if you'll resume your post..."
      Henderson blinked; Silva might as well have slapped him in the face. But his former Sergeant Major was now the General's right hand man, so all Henderson could do was walk back next to his pod, and snap to at ease. As he did so, his eyes tracked Silva, and had the Helljumper General seen them, he would not have liked the look within.
      For his part, Silva was stalking out of the drop bay, intending to see how the only major obstacle to his plans for the ringworld was doing...and hoping that Admiral Hood was merely incapacitated and not dead.


      Corporal John Tower had barely enough time for a panicked yell and a burst of fire from his SAW, and then the mass of Lekgolo worms was on him.
      Sergeant Adrian Shephard, crouched down behind the barricade that was the only thing between the ODST, Marine and one seriously pissed off the Hunter, dumped the rest of his M6C/SOCOM's second-to-last magazine into the amorphous orange blob.
      He must have hit a vital spot, for the worms let out a sonorous cry and fell, lifeless.
      That was when the second volley from the surviving Hunter's assault cannon smashed the barricade to pieces.
      The aural buffers of Shephard's helmet kicked in, damping the noise of the explosion. The helmetless Corporal Tower wasn't as lucky; blood was pouring from his left ear.
      "Fall back!" Shephard cried, praying Tower heard him.
      The SAW gunner scrambled to his feet, clutching at his M498 like it was the only thing keeping him alive. Which, for that matter, it was.
      A green glow illuminated the room once more, and the two Marines hurtled around the corner.
      "Shit," panted Tower. "Now what?"
      Shephard clicked his HUD's VISR mode online. The brooding red outline representing the Hunter was standing still, assault cannon fully charged and ready.
      "He's just standing there," the Sergeant growled. "No way in hell I'll be able to penetrate his armor with him on the alert like that...I'll need a distraction."
      Underneath the grime and dried blood, Tower's face had gone pale. "Dammit, Sergeant..."
      "It's our only chance, Tower."
      The Corporal was regular Marine infantry, not ODST, but he certainly didn't lack for courage. "Alright...I'll draw his fire."
      "Thanks, John."
      "You just get those rounds in there!" the machine gunner replied, abnormally irritated. "I survived the damn Covie War, I don't want to die doing some mop-up mission on this damn ring!"
      "Yeah," said Shephard. For a second, the NCO thought he heard the sound of combat boots clattering down the corridor. For a second, he thought Gunny Stacker and the Chief had finally come to the rescue. But only for a second.
      He must have looked forlorn, because Tower gave him a strange look. "You alright, Sergeant?"
      "Yeah...just hearing things...All right we go on three. Ready?"
      Tower yanked the charging lever of his SAW. "Ready as I'll ever be."
      "Right...one...two...THREE! Go go go!"
      The two marines hurled themselves around the corner, Tower's SAW already chattering. Rounds bounced off the Hunter's armor, and the creature gave a derisive laugh just as Shephard realized he'd miscalculated: he'd assumed the Hunter hadn't charged its assault cannon.
      The Hunter in question was considerably more savvy than Shephard had assumed. He'd had his assault cannon charged since its targets had disappeared around the corner.
      A green stream of molten plasma hurtled towards the Marines. Tower, SAW still blazing, let out the most horrific cry Shephard had ever heard as his face melted. The cry stopped abruptly---the stream of death had gotten the Corporal's lungs.
      Shephard was luckier, relatively speaking. He was just cut in half at the waist.
      Doing his best to ignore the pain searing through his body, the Sergeant struggled to bring the barrel of his pistol in line with the Hunter's exposed worms. Summoning all the energy he had left, and then some, he squeezed the trigger, emptying the magazine.
      The rounds bounced off the Hunter's chestplate.
      A sudden feeling of dizziness shot through Shephard's head. He was dimly aware of collapsing completely, pistol slipping from his hands. He was also aware of the fact that he was going to die.
      The Hunter, standing over his hapless victim, suddenly let out a grunt and crouched into its defensive stance. Battle and assault rifle rounds suddenly began to slam into the creature's armor. Shephard dimnly registered the loud crack of an M6D, a strange splash from the Hunter's exposed flesh---and then the hulking walking tank collapsed, narrowly missing Shephard with its shield arm.
      Shephard heard shouting, combat boots clattering, and suddenly Master Gunny Stacker was standing over him. "Shephard? Shephard, is that you?"
      The ODST blinked once at a sensor on his HUD, depolarizing his visor.
      Stacker swore. "Hang tight, Marine, Hocus is standing by. Don't worry. We'll get you medevac'ed faster than you can---"
      The world was spinning for Shephard; a warning was flashing on his HUD; the Master Gunny sounded like he was underwater. Shephard tried to move his lips, tried to apologize for losing his squad, but it was no use.
      That was when everything went black.


      "Where to, Chief?" asked Hocus.
      The Master Chief, sitting in the third seat of the Pelican's cockpit, shook his head. "To whoever's in command now."
      Hocus bit her lip; she'd seen Shadow of Intent drop into the ringworld's atmosphere not too long ago, but she didn't know whether or not Hood was still aboard. Warrant Officer Shilds, setting next to the Chief, looked terrified of the armored warrior. "Chief, the Shadow of Intent just showed up not too long ago, but we have men down there still. First Sergeant Anselm and Gunny Stacker's teams."
      The Master Chief twitched; Hocus had once heard that he considered every man left behind a personal failing, but still...
      "No," said the Spartan. "I have a mission."
      "And what kind of mission would that be?" asked Shilds, all but covering his mouth afterwards.
      The super-soldier ponderously swiveled his helmet to face Kilo 023's co-pilot. "I have to get Cortana and her information on the Halo rings to Admiral Hood. And ensure that this ringworld is neutralized."
      Shilds was rather bold today. "Gunny Reynolds and a team of Elites already took care of that," he said, waving his hands dismissively. "All the pulse generators are disabled."
      The Master Chief twitched again. Hocus suppressed a worried gulp; if the Spartan lost control of himself---
      Fortunately, the retrieval team's CO chose that moment to send his request for evac. "Kilo Two-Three, do you copy? Come on, Hocus, talk to me."
      The Pelican pilot thumbed the comm board. "I read you, Gunny. Comin' in now."
      "Hocus...you be advised, there's too many of us to fit on your dropship. Pick up First Sergeant Anselm and his team, and give my boys some supplies. We'll use the Hogs to get back to Berlin."
      Hocus surveyed the remnants of the Warthog squad that had been the facility's first line of defense. Of the ten Hogs, there were about five still operational. "Gunny, how many men do you have? There's only five Hogs driveable."
      "Fifteen, plus a few I'll send along with the First Sergeant."
      "Copy, we'll get them back to Berlin."
      Shilds threw a look at Hocus. "Ma'am, the Chief's mission comes directly from HIGHCOM; doesn't that take priority?"
      "Warrant Officer, Gunny Stacker's men need our help."
      "But the Chief's mission has priority."
      The Master Chief stolidly sat in his seat, staring straight ahead, but Hocus had no doubt he was listening.
      Hocus could see Stacker's team mounting up on the Hogs, and she could hear the clanking that was First Sergeant Anselm and his men clambering into the back of the Pelican. "Shilds..."
      "He's right," grated out the Chief. "My mission does indeed have priority."
      Hocus looked from Shilds's face to the Chief's mirrored visor. "What is this, a mutiny?"
      "No," replied the Chief. "We're doing the right thing."
      "I hope so," said Hocus, turning the Pelican skyward.


      Master Gunnery Sergeant Pete Stacker watched as the Pelican hurtled into the sky, shading his brow with one gloved hand; his NCO's cap did little to keep the sun out.
      Behind him, Corporal Chips Dubbo experimentally spun the barrels of the LAAG, the whirring noise cutting through the air. "All Hogs are functional Gunny. Dunno if I can say the same for the LAAGs."
      Stacker playfully shoved his fellow Installation 04 veteran off the mount. "Well, we'd better find out soon. We have to haul ass back to Berlin."
      Dubbo clambered into the driver's seat, revving the motor as he did so. "Well, we'd better get going, then."
      Stacker snugged his cap against his head, gave the barrels a spin, and nodded. "Punch it."
      Five motors roared to life in the grassland, and five vehicles hurtled into motion, forging their way towards safety and, with luck, a way off of the ring.


      Major General Hugo Silva clambered into his drop pod, revelling in the pneumatic hiss as the hatch slammed shut. The two comm screens on either side of the central glass pane crackled to life with the depolarized helmets of Sergeant Major Sharpe and Colonel Henderson. "Gentlemen," said the General over the command frequency. "The time has once more come. Drop in five. Sergeant Major, would you care to do the honors?"
      There was a shimmer as the visors of his command staff polarized, and then Sharpe's voice crackled over the command frequency: "Troopers! We are lean, green, and very very mean!"
      Silva nodded his approval at the age-old rallying cry; the General enjoyed tradition like that. "Lieutenant Colonel, commence countdown."
      "Yes Sir. Five..."
      Silva settled back into the meager cushioning of his drop pod, smiling. "Well, Agathon, it's time."
      The voice of the dumb AI assigned to the Helljumper battalion crackled through Silva's helmet; he'd had his armor upgraded to support an AI some time ago. "So it is, General. I'd like to point out that your plan will account for a number of friendly KIAs that could be avoided otherwise."
      Silva snorted; he hadn't expected the AI to understand. "Just do what you're told, Agathon, and we'll get through this OK."
      Henderson's voice said "one" into Silva's ear, and the General braced his legs against the walls of the pod, gripped the controls, and readied himself for the drop.
      A series of sharp beeps sounded in Silva's ear, and the HEV shuddered as the explosive bolts connecting the pod to Shadow of Intent went off. The General felt the familiar vertigo that he loved so dearly. "Agathon, please flag the Berlin's crash site on my map."
      "Yes General."
      Silva, observing the map that had suddenly popped up in his HUD, nodded. "Good, now map-flag the ringworld's control room."
      "So you do have some guilt over this..."
      "Just do it," growled the Helljumper General.
      "Done. Your two locations are quite a distance away, General."
      Silva gave a grim nod. "The mission takes priority. Remove the Berlin's data."
      The AI's voice had a distinctly disapproving tone. "Done, General."
      On the comm screen to the right of the HEV's middle pane, Colonel Henderson started. "General, are you seeing this?"
      Silva glanced at the HEV's altitude counter; the ODST battalion was now nine thousand meters of the deck. "Seeing what, Colonel?"
      Sergeant Major Sharpe broke into the conversation. "General, take a look down below."
      Silva did so, and was stunned to see five Warthogs hurtling headlong into the battalion's mile-wide drop zone. "Oh hell."


      Pete Stacker was the first to hear the drop pods approaching. Swivelling his LAAG around on his mount, Stacker thought he heard something over the wind howling around him; in fact, it sounded a lot like the familiar sound of an HEV hurtling into the atmosphere. For a second, the Gunny thought he was having a flashback to his previous drops on the first two Halo rings discovered. Then he looked up.
      Dubbo looked back from his position in the driver's seat. "Yeah, what is it Gunny?"
      Stacker just jerked his head skywards.
      "Oh fu--"
      The curse was cut off as the first drop pod slammed into the ground directly in front of Stacker's Hog. Dubbo had barely enough time to yell for his LRV's occupants to hang on before he spun the Hog's wheel hard to the left, almost throwing Stacker off of the LAAG.
      Drop pods smashed into the ground around the Warthogs like so many artillery shells, throwing up dirt and foliage against the vehicles' windscreens, making it practically impossible for the drivers to see.
      As the lead Hog, Stacker's had the worst of it. "Where are they, Gunny?" cried Dubbo.
      "Go left! Now right! Your other right, dammit!"
      A horrific cry sounded from behind Stacker as the last Hog in line took the brunt of an HEV landing on top of it. Stacker, who'd rotated his LAAG to face the source of the sound, watched in horror as the LRV crumpled like a tin can. Something that might have once been a human fell out of the wreckage. "Shit!"
      "Gunny, I need directions!"
      Stacker spun his LAAG around from viewing the demise of the last Hog and looked up. "Break left, now!"
      Dubbo spun the wheel, and the Hog bucked in response. "Gunny, she ain't built for shit like this!"
      "If the Chief could drive his off a damned Halo into the hangar of a fricking frigate, we can navigate through an ODST drop zone!"
      The Corporal let out a cry as he gunned the Hog to make it underneath a landing drop pod. "Gunny, how big are ODST landing zones?"
      "Normally, about a mi---" Stacker was cut off as the third Hog in line was clipped by a descending drop pod. The vehicle was launched into the air, executing a barrel roll that would have better suited a Longsword or Seraph. Stacker saw one of the occupants, the gunner, fly out and struggle to his feet unharmed. That was when a second drop pod came hurtling down, and crushed the man.
      "A mile?!" bawled Dubbo, still valiantly trying to avoid the descending HEVs.
      "Affirmative!" cried Stacker. "We should be coming to the edge---Dubbo, break right!"
      It was too late; the only way the could have avoided the oncoming HEV would be to have not been there in the first place, but Dubbo had another plan in mind. Not even bothering to exhort his occupants to hold on, he hurled the vehicle sideways, the Hog's wheels struggling for traction as it still hurtled towards the area where the HEV would land. The Corporal slammed his feet down on the brake, but Stacker knew it was too late. The Gunny braced himself for an explosion, and was not disappointed.
      Approximately two seconds after said explosion, Stacker realized he was alive.
      The explosion he'd heard had been the HEV they'd narrowly avoided collision with blowing its hatch off. In the pod, battle rifle in one hand, stood a thickset Helljumper, his grim black face visible through his depolarized visor, and the two stars of a Major General shining on his chest.
      Stacker had never thought he'd see the day when he would meet the commander of the ODSTs. "General Silva, Sir!"
      The ODST General looked down at Stacker. "Well, I'll be damned, Gunny Pete Stacker. My son told me a lot about you."
      Stacker blinked; he'd only been an E-7 in Major Antonio Silva's battalion, hadn't even had a billet like First Sergeant or company ops chief. "He---he did, Sir?"
      Silva nodded. "Said you were one of the best NCOs in the battalion and that he wished he had seven more like you."
      "Oh..." It took a lot to fluster Stacker, but this did the job just fine. "Thank you, Sir."
      "It's good to see you, Gunny," continued the General, "I need someone with Halo experience for my mission."
      Stacker looked at Dubbo and the other Marines in the surviving Hogs. "What about my men, Sir?"
      Silva waved his hand dismissively. "I'm sure they'll manage fine."
      The Gunny bit his lip. "At least let me take Dubbo, Sir. He's been on every campaign I have, including the Halos."
      Silva's intense gaze swept across Dubbo. He evidently liked what he saw, because he said, "Fine. But the rest of your boys are on their own."
      Stacker gave an apologetic glance to the next-ranking NCO, a bronzed man wearing battered Marine armor, a cigarette cluthed between his teeth. "Sorry, Staff Sergeant."
      The other revved the motor of his hog. "No problem, Gunny. See you back at the Berlin."
      Something passed over Silva's face at that. "Anything wrong, Sir?"
      The ODST general's visor shimmered as it polarized, cutting off Silva's face from further scrutiny. "No. We'd better get moving. Fall in with my command staff."
      Stacker nodded. "Yes Sir."
      The command staff, marching in the middle of the Helljumper formation to minimize their exposure to hostiles, consisted of a very disgruntled Lieutenant Colonel Henderson, and a slightly less irritated Sergeant Major Sharpe. Stacker, who'd worked with both on previous drops, decided to find out what was wrong.
      "The General's battle plan is what's wrong," growled Henderson when queried. "He's not pulling out the troopers stranded on Berlin. He's so obssessed with destroying this ring that he's leaving them to die."
      Stacker and Dubbo exchanged worried glances. "What about Shadow of Intent?" asked Stacker. "Couldn't we send in a few dropships?"
      Sergeant Major Sharpe looked grimmer than usual. "There was an assassination attempt against the Admiralty, Lord Hood's the only one probably still alive...as of now I don't think Shadow of Intent's in any shape to do anything more than defend herself."
      This time, the two Installation 04 veterans were too busy picking up their jaws to exchange worried looks.
      Stacker, as usual, recovered first. "Damn."
      "Yeah." Sharpe angrily yanked the charging lever of his BR-55.
      By now, the battalion had flowed around the conversing troopers. General Silva, leading from the front as was his custom, turned around. "Hey! What're you waiting for, Colonel? A god-be-damned invitation? Get your ass and those of your command staff in gear!"
      Stacker sighed and began to trudge ahead. "Colonel, what is your mission here?"
      Henderson looked grimmer than Stacker had seen any member of Silva's battalion, even after the Flood had been unleashed. "Our mission here, Gunny?"
      "Master Gunny, actually. But the question still stands."
      The short-bird Colonel gave a weary smile. "Our mission here is simple Gunny, and precludes rescuing those stranded on Berlin.
      Chips Dubbo, who'd heretofore kept quiet, finally could no longer shut up. "But what? What is your mission?"
      Sharpe and Henderson exchanged sad smiles. "Our mission," the Sergeant Major began, "is to destroy this ring, at all costs."