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Attack On Installation 06: Finale
Posted By: Jake Trommer<wedgefan@comcast.net>
Date: 6 August 2009, 9:40 pm


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Attack on Installation 06
Chapter 24
2400 Hours, July 09, 2553 (Military Calendar)
Installation 06, Tharidanis system

      The ground around Installation 06's control room was invisible.
      This was not due to some magical Forerunner technology, but rather due to the fact that every single square inch of ground in a half-kilometer radius was covered by a dead body, Covenant or otherwise. And if not from bodies, from mechanical debris, courtesy of Shade turrets, Hunter armor, and the bizarre purple spiked comm boxes that had been in Covenant service since Installation 04.
      General Hugo Silva stood in front of the door to the control room, surveyed the spot where a little more than half his battalion had lost their lives, and laughed.
      It wasn't a pleasant sound, high-pitched and with more than a touch of madness to it.
      Master Gunnery Sergeant Pete Stacker, standing with fellow ODST Lieutenant Colonel Brian Henderson and Installation 04 veteran Corporal Chips Dubbo, was scared.
      "Colonel, he's lost it," he whispered.
      Henderson, eyes inscrutable behind his helmet's polarized visor, nodded. "Yes, I think he has. But he's also just sane enough to...well, frankly, I'm not sure if he's sane to begin with."
      Chips Dubbo, grimly silent until now, suddenly started. "Hey, Colonel, where's the Sergeant Major?"
      Henderson mutely jerked his thumb over his shoulder at a torso missing its appendages and head. The name emblazoned on the chestplate read "Sharpe".
      "Oh," said Dubbo.
      Meanwhile, out on the battlefield, General Silva's maniacal laughter had ceased. The commander of the ODST corps advanced on his command group. "Colonel, report."
      Henderson gulped. "The entire facility is secure, Sir, but we can't operate the mechanisms in the control room. If this ring has a self-destruct system, there's no way we'll be able to activate it from here."
      Silva's visor was depolarized; behind it, his eyes had a glint that Stacker didn't like. "You mean to tell me I sacrificed more than half my battalion for nothing?"
      Henderson stiffened. "They were my men too...Sir."
      Silva laughed. It was even more unpleasant than when he had been standing knee deep in corpses. "Of course they were! But they were under my command. So. We must find another way to destroy this damned place."
      Henderson's visor flashed to transparency. His eyes showed more fear than Stacker had ever seen on a Helljumper's face. "Sir, isn't our job to save the UNSC forces left on this ring?"
      The General's laughter abruptly ceased. "I don't give a damn what HIGHCOM says, Colonel, this ring must be destroyed."
      "General, what about our duty to our comrades?"
      Silva shook his head like a horse bothered by flies. "Our comrades-in-arms will be best served by our destroying of this ring."
      "But...General, what about the men still stranded on this ring?"
      "They knew the risks assaulting this facility."
      In a flash, Henderson yanked his pistol from his holster, and shoved it against the General's visor. "General Hugo Silva, I am relieving you of command, as per---"
      The Lieutenant Colonel never got a chance to finish his sentence. The General extended the spring-loaded knife in his knuckleplate---there was no SHINK noise, as the movies were fond of portraying---and shoved it into the bodysuit covering the Colonel's throat.
      "So you too, see fit to dishonor my son's memory," said the General, kneeling as Henderson fell to the ground, gurgling as his uniform darkened with blood. The battalion commander was mouthing something. Somehow, Silva understood.
      "Why?" mocked Silva, chuckling. "My son's memory demands that I destroy this place, and I shall..."
      The life had by now gone out of Henderson's eyes. Stacker and Dubbo exchanged worried glances.
      Silva turned to look at the two troopers. "...No matter who gets in my way."

***

      On the bridge of Shadow of Intent, Fleet Admiral Sir Terrence Hood appraised his situation.
      It wasn't good, but then, declaring a rebellion against a legally established government tends to put people in nasty situations.
      "So let me see if I understand you correctly," Hood said to the seniormost naval NCO on board the assault carrier. "Of the commands we sent our transmission two, precisely two have decided to assist us?"
      Senior Chief Petty Officer Donald Grath, round face looking miserable as always, gave a glum nod. "Yes, Lord Hood. Fleet Admiral Theodore Harper and the Terran Home Guard---"
      "Oh, Margaret is not going to like that..."
      "And Colonel Marcus Easley and Rapid Response Task Force 21."
      Hood sighed. "I probably should've expected this."
      Senior Chief Grath blinked. "Sir?"
      "I spent too much time doing my job and not enough playing politics...Ted's an old buddy of mine from my first command, and I've known Marcus since Luna."
      "So you're saying only your friends have decided to join us, Sir?"
      "That's correct. Did you send the coordinates?"
      "Yes Sir; out in the Trojan Asteroids?"
      Hood nodded.
      "Sir, isn't it dangerous being that close to Earth?"
      The Fleet Admiral shook his head. "I doubt Margaret expects us to regroup that close to Earth."
      "If you say so, Sir."
      The Elite manning the communication station swivelled to face Hood. "Lord Hood! Transmission from the ODSTs!"
      "Good. Put General Silva on the horn."
      Bathed in the blue glow of his screen, the Elite's face looked grim. "Sir, it is Gunnery Sergeant Stacker."
      "Is it, now."
      "Yes Sir...he says he has news."
      Terrence Hood had worked with Stacker for some years now, and 'news' for Pete tended to be something big. And not necessarily in a good way.
      "Put him through," said Hood.

***

      The bridge of Berlin, normally a raucous hive of activity owing to its use as the nerve center for the stranded humans, was dead silent. This probably had something to do with General Silva's declaration.
      Lieutenant Freyyr, Berlin's paunchy, bald commander, blinked incredulously. "You...you can't be serious. You're going to destroy this cruiser? How the hell will we leave this ring; how the hell will we even survive if you blow her to pieces?!"
      "I have my orders," replied General Silva, arms folded over his chesplate. "I'm to neutralize this ring by any means necessary, at any cost."
      "Like shit you do!" spat the naval Lieutenant. "You're a goddam General, you can modify your orders as you see fit!"
      Silva stiffened. "You really believe that?"
      "Of course I do!" barked Freyyr. "Goddammit, General, there has to be another way to destroy this place that won't ruin me and my crew!"
      The commander of the ODSTs shook his head. "I'm doing what must be done."
      "But what about my men? What about your men? This isn't one of the old Halcyon-class, you make this baby go nuclear, you won't have any time to get out!" cried Freyyr.
      Silva cocked his head, like a dog pondering a curious but ultimately inconsequential bit of information. "I have my orders. Colonel Henderson!"
      Stacker, standing at Silva's side, coughed.
      "Ah, yes, that's right," said the General in a light tone. "Very well then. Pete?"
      The Gunny stiffened. "Yes Sir?"
      "Get an engineering team down to the ship's reactor core; override the safeties. On the double, Master Gunnery Sergeant."
      Stacker pressed one hand to his comm headset, ensuring the transmit button was held down, and prayed Hood had heard everything. "Roger, Sir." He turned around to face his fellow Installation 04 veteran. "Dubbo! Get a team together; head down to the engine core, on the double!"
      The Chi Ceti IV-born Corporal blinked. "Gunny...are we really---"
      "On the double, Corporal!"
      Whatever non-verbal cue Stacker had given must have worked; Dubbo relaxed slightly. "Roger, Gunny."

***

      "Turn that off," Hood said to the comms Elite.
      As the Sangheili warrior complied, he turned to face Senior Chief Grath. The naval NCO looked grimmer than usual. "What now, Sir?"
      Hood inhaled slowly. "We move. Get Hocus, have her get her squadron down there and start evac'ing the Berlin's survivors before Silva's plan is enacted."
      "Sir, it seems like Stacker's going along with it. Can we be sure that he won't actually destroy the Berlin?"
      By now, the Admiral had stood up, and was motioning for his new aide to accompany him to the pelican crews' ready room. "Yes, Chief, we can," he said as they entered the bustling corridor leading off of Shadow of Intent's bridge.
      "What makes you say that?" panted Grath, trying to keep up with Lord Hood's fast clip and avoiding the multiple Elite and human crewers bustling up and down the corridors at the same time.
      "Pete barely escaped the first Halo with the skin of his teeth after a similar situation, Senior Chief," replied Hood, shouldering his way past the most corpulent Elite he'd even seen, no doubt the ship's cook. "I have no doubt he would like to avoid a similar situation."
      "I'll take your word for it," replied Grath, making the turn into the considerably less crowded pilot's country with an almost palpable air of relief.
      Hood smiled. "You don't have a choice in the matter, Chief, so I'm happy you concur," came the sardonic response.
      By now, they were in front of the ready room for the Pelican crews, a slapdash affair filled with several rows of seats optimized for humans in front of a podium. Two large plasma screens were behind the podum, and pilots rigs and squadron posters hung on the walls. Spitballs, wads of tape, and food wrappers covered the floors. The podium was currently occupied by the petite blond figure of Hocus, the trim figure of Warrant Officer Shilds silohuetted against the control board for the display screens. The rest of the Pelican squadron---the 69th "Drillers" according to the patches on their flightsuits---were the audience, paying various degrees of attention, ranging from the obviously asleep, to idiot-savant levels of attentiveness.
      Grath, a veteran of the lower decks, took it all in stride. Hood, on other other hand, hadn't been out of flag country in quite some time, and was quite appalled. "Chief, is this really how they normally keep this place?"
      The naval NCO chuckled. Officers, he thought to himself. I'd forgotten.
      "Yes, Admiral," he said aloud. "They normally don't have the Chairman of the UNSC dropping in on them for a chat."
      Hood had to chuckle at that. "Point taken. Well. Shall we interrupt their cozy little briefing, Chief?"
      "Admirals first," was the deadpan reply.
      Hood opened the door, and stood calmly in the back of the room for a full thirty seconds before Warrant Officer Shilds spotted him, executing a beautiful double take. Hocus, so engrossed in her briefing, didn't notice.
      "Umm...ma'am..." was all Shilds meekly ventured.
      The dropship pilot and squadron leader shot him a look of mild irritation; her co-pilot simply cocked his head in Hood's direction.
      Hocus's jaw dropped open enough to swallow her pilot's helmet, but she recovered fast enough to bark out, "Attention! Admiral on the deck!"
      The pilots and copilots of the 69th shot to bewildered attention, wondering if their squadron leader was having a little joke at their expense. That was when Hood chose to advance to the front of the room. "As you were," said the Admiral.
      "Something I can do for you, Sir?" asked Hocus, looking bewildered.
      "Come out in the corridor for a second, Lieutenant," said Hood. "We need to discuss your next mission."
      Hocus hesitated for a second, but nodded. "Yes Sir," she said, turning to face her pilots. "Drillers! The Admiral needs me for a second. Try not to let Ladykiller over there destroy the place." The pilot in question laughed, and Hocus nodded to the Admiral.
      The three---Warrant Officer Shilds, ever the good co-pilot, had joined them---moved into the hallway where Senior Chief Grath was waiting.
      "I'll make this brief," said Hood. "General Silva wants to destroy the ring by way of the Berlin's fusion reactor, and he's not concerned about collateral damage."
      "And you want us to evac as many people as possible?" asked Hocus.
      "That's right," replied the Admiral. "Can you do it?"
      "We're going to have to reckon with Silva's loyalists."
      "Pete Stacker is now the unofficial second-in-command of the battalion," replied Hood. "There will be people on our side."
      Hocus was still leery. "Sir, even so, a little less than a battalion's worth of ODSTs is no small adversary."
      "LT, we have to do it," broke in Shilds. "We owe it to Stacker at the very least."
      Hood and Grath shot the Warrant Officer an appraising look. The man stared back with a studiously blank expression.
      Hocus bit her lip. "All right. I'll start drawing up op orders---"
      "No," interrupted Hood. "You launch now. I don't know how close Silva is to causing that wildcat explosion, and I'm not eager to find out. Get your birds in the air on the double. Am I understood, Lieutenant?"
      Hocus and Shilds stiffened to attention and saluted. "Sir!" they chorused. "Yes Sir!"

***

      "Who's on our side?" growled Stacker.
      Dubbo gestured at the company's worth of ODST troopers in the engineering section, not destablizing the reactor as Silva had ordered, but setting up defensive positions instead.
      "Just Alpha Company?" was the incredulous response.
      The Corporal nodded. "And not even all of them. Their Captain, officers, and senior enlisted staff refused to go along with it; the shortfall's been made up by the rest of the battalion's enlisted personnel."
      "Jesus," muttered Stacker. "Whatever happened to all the good officers? Lieutenant McKay would never have gone along with something like this..."
      "Melissa..." Dubbo mocked.
      Stacker looked at Dubbo. "Not funny, Corporal. We could've had something if she hadn't gone to Luna."
      "Come on, Gunny, you know as well as I do talent like that would've been wasted as an enlisted man."
      "I know," replied Stacker, "but that doesn't make it any less annoying for me."
      The comm headset slung over Stacker's scarred brow crackled to life. "Gunny, report."
      It was Silva.
      "Working on it, Sir, there's quite a few safeguards for my engineers to get through..."
      "As quick as you can, Gunnery Sergeant."
      "Yes Sir."
      Dubbo, directing the setup of the few SAW gunners who'd sided with Stacker, shot a glance at the Gunny. "We won't be able to hold off Silva forever,"
      "I know," replied Stacker, looking grimmer than he had since Installation 04. "We just have to hold out long enough."

***

      Hocus slid into the pilot's seat of her Pelican, smiling as she felt the dropship's engines raor to life. Warrant Officer Shilds, as usual, was in his seat in the back, fingers dancing across the comm and sensor boards. "We're in the green, LT."
      "Roger," replied Hocus, clicking the comm over to the squadron frequency. "Alright, Drillers, you've been briefed on your mission---"
      "Hocus?" came the voice of one of the other Pelican pilots.
      "Yes, Drifter, what is it?"
      "Are we authorized weapons-free if Silva tries to shoot us down?"
      Hocus was keenly aware of Marine Sergeant Nomuri, her Pelican's crew chief and operator of the rear-mounted AIE-468 heavy machine gun, who hadn't really done much during the whole campaign, and frankly rather resented it, listening in from the troop bay. "Well, Lieutenant?" he called up. "What is it?"
      The Pelican squadron leader hesitated...but the answer was fairly obvious. "Only if we're fired upon."
      A new voice cut into the channel: Shadow of Intent's Elite landing signals officer. "69th Pelican squadron, cleared for hard drop."
      "Roger, LSO," replied Hocus. "Standing by."
      "Drop in five---"
      From his spot on the machine gun in the troop bay, Sergeant Nomuri let out a war whoop. "We're on an express elevator---"
      Shilds shut the door connecting the cockpit to the troop bay.
      "Two...one...mark."
      The clamps holding the Pelican in the Assault Carrier's starboard hanger bay were relased, and with a dull clang, the dropship simply plummeted out of the hangar bay, hurtling into the ring's atmosphere.
      "Shilds," growled Hocus, "gimme more power to the maneuvering thrusters if you want us to make it through this drop!"
      "Roger LT," replied the other, adjusting the power allocation.
      They were through the ring's atmosphere by now, and the plateau that had been the Berlin's home for some time now was visible through the cockpit canopy, along with the cruiser herself.
      "Hocus," came the voice of Drifter again, "we have eyes on the cruiser."
      "Roger," replied Hocus, "hailing now. Shilds, get---"
      "Channel open now LT."
      "Berlin, this is Kilo 023 and the 69th Pelican dropship squadron. We're here to evac all personnel to the Shadow of Intent, over."
      The voice that crackled back was not that of Lieutenant Freyyr's; it was a hard, rough voice that rather grated on Hocus's ears. "This is General Hugo Silva. There's no need for that, Kilo 023, have your dropships turn back."
      "Sorry, General, but my orders come from Lord Hood."
      "Kilo 023, I cannot permit your ships to land."
      Berlin's landing bay was now looming through the cockpit canopy, Hocus cast a worried glance at Shilds, then realized her mirrored visor would somewhat nullify the import. "Shilds, tell Nomuri to get the bay open."
      "Yes Ma'am."

***

      On Berlin's bridge, General Silva tapped the comm angrily. "Kilo 023, this is your last warning, if you land---"
      Static was his only reply, then---
      "Any and all crewmen and troops on the Berlin, this is Lieutenant Sara Anderson of the 69th Pelican Squadron. We are here to get you off this ring. Head for the primary hangar bay and board a Pelican. Time is of the essence, take only your essentials. Out."
      Silva stood stock-still for a few seconds. Then, swearing, the General turned to face one of his company commanders. "Captain, get the battalion down there and block off access to those dropships!"
      The man, the name "Knaun" stencilled on his chestplate, cocked his head. "Sir, shouldn't we evacuate the crew if we're going to make this ship go nuclear?"
      "Captain Knaun, I will not be defied in so blatant a fashion. Do not let anyone on those dropships!"
      The ODST officer was practically shaking in his boots. "Sir, yes Sir!"

***

      "LT," came the voice of Sergeant Nomuri. "We got a problem!"
      Hocus, eyes glued to Kilo 023's sensors, frowned. "What sort of problem?"
      "An ODST sort: they're cordoning off the troop bay!"
      "What?"
      Hocus and Shilds scrambled aft to the troop bay. Indeed, a company of ODSTs, grim black armor making for a stark contrast with the hangar's burnished steel, had set up a perimeter around the dropships.
      "They're carrying M7 SMGs," Shilds noted. "Crap against Covies but great for crowd control...this is gonna be trouble, LT."
      "Look!" cried Nomuri. "Here come our would-be passengers."
      The ODSTs stood fast as the Berlin's crew and Marine compliment started to pour into the hangar bay, muttering angrily as they found their way blocked by the Helljumpers.
      "Hey!" Hocus shouted at the thick black line. "Let 'em through! What the hell do you bastards have to gain by keeping them on here?"
      The ODST captain apparently heard, for he issued a series of hand signals, and two platoons of the shock troopers about-faced inwards, pointing their SMGs at the Pelicans and their waiting crews.
      Hocus bit her lip. "Nomuri, get on the HMG. For that matter---" She shut up for a second as she clicked on her helmet comm. "All crews, get your crew chiefs on their HMGs. We're not gonna go down without a fight."
      All around the hangar, whirring sounded as the dropships spun up their bay-mounted machine guns. The ODSTs began to shift nervously, some playing with the controls on their SMGs.
      "Not good," said Hocus. "Definitely not good."

***

      "Stacker, report!"
      "Workin' on it, Sir, these bastards were not messing around with their safeguards."
      "Well hurry it up!" barked the General. "We don't have time; these damn Pelican jocks are going to ruin everything!"
      There was a click and the line went dead.
      Dubbo, crouched behind a partition, waiting for the attack that would come when Silva realized that the team wasn't trying to overload the reactor, shot a look at Stacker. "I think our ride just showed up."
      "Agreed," replied Stacker, slamming a magazine into his battle rifle. "But how're we going to defend this place if Silva shows up?"
      "Gunny, if Hocus evacs everyone, there won't be anyone left for Silva to kill."
      Stacker shook his head. "We can't take that risk, Dubbo."
      Dubbo said nothing.
      One of the ODSTs who'd taken up a defensive position shot a look at the senior NCO. "Orders, Gunny?"
      "Abandon positions," Stacker crisply replied. "We're going to the hangar."
      "What about me?" interrupted Dubbo.
      Stacker shot his old comrade a mournful look. "Do what you think is right."

***

      ODST Captain Knaun was sweating inside his armor, not a pleasant sensation at all. Neither was staring down the barrels of a squadron's worth of rotary cannons.
      "Sir!" said one of his men. "Look! It's Gunny Stacker and Alpha Company!"
      Knaun smiled at the sight of the company's worth of Helljumpers marching in good order into the hangar bay. "So the General did see fit to send us reinforcements. Lieutenant, hold the line!"
      The ODST Captain advanced up to the senior NCO. "Master Gunnery Sergeant, good to see you. If your team will hold position here---"
      "No need," came the jaunty reply. "I'm gonna talk to these rocket jocks, see if I can get 'em to stand down."
      If he hadn't been wearing a helmet, Knaun would've wiped his brow in relief. "Thanks Gunny. I owe you one."
      "Dont mention it."

***

      "Hocus, look!" said Shilds.
      "What is it?"
      "It's Stacker."
      Hocus peered out the back of the troop bay, and indeed the Gunnery Sergeant was advancing towards Kilo 023. "Something I can help you with, Gunny?" she called.
      "We need to get the men off this rock, it won't be long before Silva---"
      There was a sudden sound, the rattling of an M7 submachine gun, and Stacker fell to the ground clutching his leg.
      In the troop bay of Kilo 023, Sergeant Nomuri squeezed the trigger of his HMG.

***

      Captain Knaun smacked the ODST who'd opened fire on the back of the helmet. "What the hell were you thinking, you idiot?"
      "Sir, he was collaborating with the enemy---"
      "The enemy?" the Captain all but shrieked. "They're on our side, he was going to talk them down!"
      The other ODST didn't have a chance to reply, because the hail of rounds from the Pelican-mounted HMGs tore him in half.
      Knaun threw himself to the ground twitching involuntarily as the deckplates around him were stitched with bulletholes from the Pelicans' weaponry. The Captain was vaguely aware of yelling over the helmet comm, his own: "Shit! Shit! Shit!"
      The other ODSTs were shouting over the comms as well:
      "MEDIC!"
      "Get to cover!"
      "What cover, there is no---"
      That last was punctuated by a brief gurgle, and silence.
      Knaun raised his head enough to see that the Pelicans hadn't sealed their troop bays. What he had to do next was distasteful...but what Silva would do to him if he didn't was worse.
      "All ODSTs, stand to! Rush those dropships!"

***

      Hocus was getting one particularly nervous Berlin crewer situated in the Pelican's troop bay when Sergeant Nomuri, still manning the HMG, let out a cry. Rushing back to the gun position to see what was wrong, the Pelican pilot skidded to a halt, horrified.
      As one, the ODSTs stood to like a single black mass, charging for the dropships, wildly spraying fire from their SMGs. Sergeant Nomuri, even behind the bullet shield of his mounted machine gun, looked fearful.
      Hocus stood transfixed, until an SMG round slammed into the rear of the Pelican's troop bay. "Sergeant, light those bastards up!"
      The Marine NCO once more squeezed the trigger of his HMG, and the gun thundered to life. Sweeping the tribarrel assembly across the hangar, Nomuri uttered a faintly audible chuckle.
      Hocus had drawn her sidearm, not quite believing the medieval tactics being used by the ODSTs: not a single one had yet to get closer than ten meters from the dropships. In such a ridiculously one-sided engagement, she had no desire to get involved.
      Of course, that was when an M7 round slammed into her chestplate, knocking her to the deck of Kilo 023's troop bay. Swearing quiety, she staggered to her feet, drew her sidearm, and opened fire.

***

      Captain Knaun had not been in the vanguard of Helljumpers charging the dropships, and for that he was devoutly thanking God as he saw his men cut down like so many weeds.
      The Captain knelt to one knee, trying to get a comm call to the General, when a new noise, the crack of an M6-series pistol, sounded above the rattle of the machine guns.
      Something, no doubt the explosive slug, slammed into Knaun's chestplate and fragmented. Coughing, he collapsed on his back, and tasted blood.
      "Gunny!"
      Knaun's company operations chief hurtled over to his captain and knelt down, projecting an air of worry even through his polarized visor. "Hang tight, Sir. Doc Jaye will be here---"
      "Forget me," coughed the Captain, sounding somewhat bemused at the blood that had splattered his visor. "Just get General Silva, tell him what's going on---"
      The crack of the M6 once more rose above the thundering machine guns, and a clean hole blossomed through Knaun's visor. The Captain fell dead in his ops chief's arms.
      The Gunny spared a single glance at Knaun's body before getting on the radio with Silva.

***

      "General Silva, the Pelicans are firing on us!"
      The ODST officer swore at the comm for the second time in far too short a timespan. "That does it! If you want something done right..."
      Lieutenant Freyyr, standing near the exit to the bridge, shot Silva a glance. "General...what are you doing?"
      "I'm going down to engineering to overload your reactor. If you believe in a god, I suggest you pray to him."
      An M6D flashed into the middle-aged naval officer's hand with astonishing speed. "I can't let you do that, General."
      Silva let out an insane laugh. "What is this, argue-with-the-general-day? Stand down, squid, before I lose my patience."
      "No," Freyyr replied, and pulled the trigger.
      But the Lieutenant hadn't fired his weapon in a while, and the M6D is no popgun. The recoil so surprised the navy officer that the round went wide, and the recoil caused the sidearm to smack him in the forehead, laying him out cold.
      Silva spared the man a contemptuous snort before shooting him as he walked off the bridge.

***

      Captain Knaun's ODSTs were long-dead, and the first wave of would-be evacuees was on board the dropships, but more Navy crewers and ODSTs-cum-riot-police were still coming.
      Stacker, seated in one of Kilo 023's rear cockpit seats, looked at Hocus. "Hocus, we gotta go!"
      "We can't leave these people!"
      "We don't have a choice," was the sad reply. "We can either save who we have now, or all die. It's as simple as that."
      Hocus swore, but the logic was all too clear. "This is Hocus to all Pelicans. Start powering up your engines."

***

      General Silva stalked into the engine room, pistol at the ready. Nobody emerged to greet him, and his visor showed no hostiles.
      Of course, that was when a burst of submachine gun fire chattered out of nowhere, slamming into the wall next to hin. "Who the---"
      "G'day, General!" came a cheery voice. "Sorry, but we're closed here at the engine room."
      That was it, the General realized. Dubbo. That damned obnoxious Alpha Halo veteran that Pete lugged everywhere with him.
      "Corporal!" Silva shouted. "I'm giving you once chance to stand down. If you don't---"
      A note of seriousness entered the mockingly cheery voice. "I saw what you did to Colonel Henderson; I can guess."
      On Silva's HUD, his visor had tagged a silohuette standing near the reactor controls. "Well, you're probably wrong," replied Silva, "your demise is going to be considerably slower."
      And with that, Silva drew his M6G and loosed several rounds at the silohuette, and was rewarded with seeing the man drop onto his back. Relaxing, Silva advanced.
      Dubbo wasn't dead, not yet, though blood coated his armor and face. "You're one tough bastard, General, I'll give you that."
      "And you don't know when to quit," replied Silva, chuckling. "I'll give you that."
      The grimmest excuse for a smile the General had ever seen spread across Dubbo's face. "Thanks," said the Corporal, and opened up with the remaining rounds in his SMG's magazine.
      Silva collapsed onto the control board, his armor clanking loudly.
      Dubbo eyed up the body and nodded appreciatively. Letting out a cross between a cough and a chuckle that caused more blood to appear on his face, he remarked, "I'll see you all soon...Mendoza...Jenkins...Bisenti...sorry I didn't have your backs...we might all have made it out if I had..." and collasped, dead.
      Silva, on the other hand was not. He didn't have much time, but the General was right where he needed to be.
      Some quick computer work and a few slices with his knuckleplate knife did the job quite nicely.
      General Hugo Silva settled back against the control board, and waited for the end. And to see his son again.

***

      Kilo 023's engines had flared to life when a sudden rumble rocked the Berlin.
      "Oh, shit..." muttered Shilds.
      "Shilds, all power to the engines, now!" cried Hocus.
      A muted roar surged through the Pelican's cockpit as the power sent to the thrusters increased. Hocus shoved the dropship's throttle forward, and the ship shot out of the hangar like a bullet.
      "How long until it blows?" barked Stacker.
      Hocus stood the dropship on its tail and sent it clawing for space. "Shilds?"
      "We've got one minute!"
      Hocus shot a look back at her copilot. "How long until we make it into space?"
      "A minute and a half!"
      "All power to the engines, then! I didn't make it through three of these damn rings to die in some nuke explosion!"
      "You made it through another ring besides the Ark?" Stacker inquired.
      "I was there for the first one; I was the one who got you and Dubbo off, remember?"
      "Oh, yeah..."
      The Pelican pilot shot another look at her copilot. "Shilds, all power to the engines!"
      "I already did it, LT!"
      "Shunt it from nonvital systems!"
      "Roger---ETA, now fifty seconds."
      "How long until she blows?"
      "Fifty seconds!"
      "It's a race, then," growled Hocus, and opened the throttle of the dropship all the way.
      "What the---"
      "What is it, Warrant Officer?"
      "Silva really fucked that cruiser over, she's going nuclear now!"
      It was all Hocus could do to keep from screaming. "Send power to the engines from everything you can get, divert from life-support if you have to!"
      Shilds' hands danced across the control board. "Done. Berlin is gonna go nuclear in ten..."
      Now Hocus did let out and animal howl, shoving the throttle forward as far as it would go. "Come on, dammit, come on..."
      "Six...five..."
      "Shut it, Shilds, will you?!"
      In the cockpit's third seat, Pete Stacker closed his eyes, and wondered how it would feel to see Zulu and Charlie teams again after so long.
      "Ma'am, we're in space!"
      "What?"
      "We did it, LT, we're out of the atmosphere!"
      "Thank---"
      Hocus never got the chance to finish that, because the brightest light she had ever seen washed over her Pelican, and her visor polarized so much she could barely see her dropship's controls. A sudden hiss of static and a yelp from Shilds informed her that Kilo 023's non-EMP hardened systems had gone dead.
      Then, suddenly it was over. The hiss of overloaded systems still sounded in the cockpit, there was some panting in the troop bay, some crying, some hyperventilating, but everyone who had come on board the Pelican was still alive.
      "Kilo 023, this is Shadow of Intent LSO. Slave your systems to us, we'll guide you in. Tell your squadron to do the same."
      "Roger," replied Hocus, and relayed the message. Reclining in her pilot's chair, she tugged off her helmet, and shot a glance at Shilds, who'd done the same. "Well, Dan, we did it. Seems like we earned ourselves a happy ending."
      The other smiled at the use of his first name. "Care to get some coffee with me in the mess hall, LT?"
      Hocus chuckled. "Sure, I don't see why not."
      Master Gunnery Sergeant Pete Stacker, sitting in the rear seat next to Shilds, snapped to attention and executed the best salute of his long career, honoring the comrade he'd known for so long. He didn't cry, but a close observer could discern a glimmering in his eyes not attributable to the lighting.

***

      "The dropships are aboard, Lord Hood."
      "Very good, Senior Chief. Let's get to work, then. We have a government to take back."

FIN





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