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Fan Fiction

Not Exactly Human Ch.2: Day of Infamy
Posted By: QuantumSheep
Date: 29 May 2008, 1:18 am

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August 30th, 2552, Space Construction Dock Seven, orbiting Reach, 2:52am

Jeff had woken up at about midnight, left home fifteen minutes later and had made his way to the shuttle launch pad. The shuttle had taken him to Space Construction Dock Seven, a large, orbital station acting as a cage to the Winter Sunshine. The front and back ends weren't caged in, though, so the ship itself could actually fly out.

Jeff arrived on the orbital station and placed his luggage on an automatic rack which would then transport it to the ship via the luggage chutes which were connecting the ship to the station. There were other connections as well, of course.

He started wandering through the grey corridors, the floors carpeted with a soft grey carpet and pictures of all kinds of ships strung up on the walls. He had never been a fan of being on ships, preferring to keep to the ground, but right now he couldn't care less.

He encountered a few technical personnel wandering around, doing their own thing, such as examining computer panels. There weren't many marines in this part of the station, although one did brush past him listening to an MP3 player.
Jeff managed to download an easy-to-read map of the station and tried to find where the mess hall, or canteen, was. He found it, a fair walk from where he was right about now.

He put away his data-pad and started on his way to the mess hall. He looked at each of the framed pictures on the wall, most of the very first ships ever to use Slip-space. They looked rugged and were small compared with what was being made today.

It seemed the pictures were in historical order, the first one being that of a sixteenth century sailing ship. This kind of thing was typical of interior design for a dull space station such as the one he was on right now. It was to fill up the bland space that you got inside a ship which had only been built to help build proper ships.

Jeff entered an elevator and was about to close the door when a technician came running down the corridor, waving at Jeff in a gesture which obviously meant not to shut the door. Jeff didn't and let the technician aboard, who was young and dressed in the typical yellow and grey uniform which showed his was part of the engineering staff.

'Hey there,' the technician said. He looked at Jeff's uniform and saluted when he saw that he was a Sergeant. 'You must be here to get aboard the Winter Sunshine?'

'Yes, that's right,' Jeff said.

'I'm one of the technicians aboard the ship,' the man said, 'Harold Wilkes.' He held out his hand and Jeff shook it in typical greeting.

'So, Sergeant,' Wilkes said, 'you look like a seasoned soldier. No wonder they picked you to come on the ship.'

'What do you mean?'

'Nothing,' Wilkes replied. He grinned and pressed the button on the panel in the elevator for the recreational floors. 'They would have to pick the best for the job, I suppose.'

Jeff nodded. Looking at Wilkes, he realized that making new friends on the ship wouldn't be so hard after all.

The elevator started up and Wilkes glanced around. He was carrying a small case which was tucked under his right arm.

'What's in that?' Jeff asked, nodding over at the case.

'This?' Wilkes said. He held it out and opened it up. It was an old style wooden case, unlike the steel ones that so many people used nowadays.

'This mission is going to be a dangerous one,' Wilkes said, 'so you can never be careful.'

Jeff couldn't see what was inside from where he was standing due to the lid facing him, but Wilkes reached inside and took out a shiny, glistening handgun. It was an old style revolver, squeaky clean and with a black pistol grip.

'How did you get that aboard the ship?' Jeff asked.

'It wasn't very hard, I just forgot to put it in a luggage chute,' Wilkes said. He paused and held it up. 'It's a Magnum .44 revolver. Antiques by now, but you can still find them around. It was given to me by my father.

Apparently it can punch through a personal shield with relative ease, but I am yet to see that actually happen.'

Wilkes put the weapon back into the case and closed it.
Bringing antique weapons along didn't sound like too smart an idea, but if the revolver was as powerful as Wilkes made it out to be, then it would be a good addition to anyone's arsenal.

'You must be Sergeant Ganszo,' Wilkes said, glancing at the name tag on Jeff's uniform, 'what's up with the last name, anyway?'

'No idea,' Jeff replied, 'not that I really care…'

'Yeah, well, I suppose people have stranger names than that. I've heard a bit about you, considering you got all those medals and stuff,' Wilkes said, 'you must be a pretty good soldier if you have survived through as many missions as you have.'

Jeff didn't think he was that good at his job, more lucky than skilled. Too many times he had been one of the only survivors in a mission, having to watch comrades die around him.

'I'm just lucky,' Jeff replied as the lift came to a halt.

'Yeah, but I have heard about your tactics and how you often go "gung-ho" on the enemy. I mean, how could you survive taking on an entire Covenant squad by yourself? You're just like one of those Spartans…'

Jeff paused. He had never thought of himself like that before. No one had ever called him a Spartan directly, and he sure as hell wasn't one. Why would he want to be a genetically engineered freak anyway?

'Wilkes, buddy,' Jeff said, slightly annoyed, 'I'm not at all like those genetically engineered super soldier freaks. I'm an honest-to-God marine, and I'm going to stay that way for good.'

'Whatever you say, Sergeant,' Wilkes said, stepping out of the elevator. He started down the corridor but stopped and turned around. He grinned.

'I'll see you around, Sergeant,' Wilkes said.

Jeff waved back and closed the door of the elevator. It continued up a few floors before arriving at the mess hall deck. He stepped out of the elevator and found himself on a walkway looking over what appeared to be a typical mess hall, tables and chairs scattered around the room. Some were occupied by marines and technicians, but many were empty.

Looking from his vantage point, Jeff couldn't see Jones anyone amongst the tables and chairs. He would probably be here soon enough, so Jeff headed down the stairs and approached one of the fast food outlets on the far end of the mess hall.

He remembered that he hadn't actually had a decent breakfast yet so he walked over to a vending machine on a nearby wall and inserted enough money for a bowl of cereal. Taking it, he sat down and began to eat.

Geez, he felt tired. Going to bed at five in the afternoon and getting up a midnight sure had its draw-backs. He felt like he hadn't slept for more than a day.

Trying to keep his eyes open as he ate, he could remember what Gerry had said about the Slip-space drive and what Jeff had read that night which made him feel quite unsure about this mission.

The ship was a potential death-trap, and if that was the case he would expect to encounter a lot of bad-ass marines on it as well.

Jeff finished off the bowl of cereal in about five minutes and discarded it into one of the rubbish bin drones which were slowly patrolling around the mess hall.

Now he would have to wait even longer before returning to Earth, but he was back on the job, he should be grateful for that. The Covenant had done much to him in the past and he was always eager to return the favour.

Iris would be wondering why he was taking so long. She could wait, and Jeff was pretty sure she wouldn't decide to go off with another man. That would be quite unlike her, and she was after all, a Commander in the navy. She out ranked him, probably because of all the promotions he had declined.

Jeff could very well be a Sergeant Major by now, or a Lieutenant, or something more than just a regular wet-backed grunt. But he had always preferred to be on the frontline rather than in an office several planets away from it.

After another few minutes, Jeff began to doubt Jones' arrival. Perhaps he had gotten lost or something, he didn't know. But as he was about to get up and leave, Jones entered wearing his typical non-regulation dark vest and grey shirt. He spotted Jeff and his eyes lit up. He grinned and sat himself down across the table from Jeff.

'How's it going?' He said, as he sat down, 'I suppose nothing interesting has happened here since you've arrived? Since life has gotten pretty damn boring down on Reach.'

'You always ask me whether anything interesting has happened since the last time we met,' Jeff said, 'and the answer is always—'

'No,' Jones said, finishing Jeff's sentence. He laughed and reached into one of the pockets on his thick black vest, taking out a chocolate bar and opening the wrapper.

'You're eating chocolate at two thirty in the morning?' Jeff asked.


'So, I just don't think it's that healthy…'

'It's just one single chocolate bar,' Jones said, 'big deal. You're not going all health-freak on me now, are you?'


'Good. Keep it that way, man.'

Jones finished off the bar and discarded the wrapper into one of the rubbish bin drones as it passed by the table.

'I'm surprised you're in the squad I'll be commanding,' Jeff said, 'it's a bit lucky, don't you think?'

'Again, Jeff, so what?' Jones said, 'you always bring up crap no one else could care about. Don't question the luck involved, just take it as it comes.'

Jeff supposed that Jones was right about the luck and all. It was just a bit of a coincidence considering their history together in past missions. He didn't think any commanding officer would want them together in the same squad after what happened last time…

'I've been hearing a lot about this new ship,' Jones said, breaking Jeff's train of thought, 'how it's got technology reverse engineered from Covenant stuff. Doesn't it seem odd they would only incorporate the Slip-space engine
technology and not everything else such as the weapons and computer technology?'

'Maybe they're trying to perfect that stuff…' Jeff said.

'It doesn't add up. I'm going to find out who designed this drive from this so-called Covenant technology and have a good talk to them, since it is fairly likely that they will be on the ship,' Jones said. He paused. 'Nothing seems to add up anymore, man. Too much stuff is going down that doesn't make any sense. Is it just me, or since Sigma Octanus that there has been a sudden lull in the war?'

'A lull?'

'There haven't been any battles or anything since Sigma Octanus last month,' Jones said, 'it's like the Covenant is having trouble finding us or biding their time.'

'Do you expect a major battle every month?' Jeff asked, 'I suppose you wouldn't call that a "lull", would you?'

'Probably not. Usually in an interstellar war, stuff is happening every day.' Jones paused again when Jeff didn't respond. 'I've been reading up on stuff and looking back on all the statistics, it's amazing how badly we're doing in this war. Billons of people have died and we've only one a few battles.'

'I know about all this,' Jeff said, 'and I don't have to be reminded of it. On this new ship, we'll probably score a few more victories.'

'Yeah, I suppose…Although it won't come without a cost, man. There is always a cost,' Jones said. Saying this kind of thing was surprisingly deep for Jones.

At that moment, a familiar group of people entered the room. Jeff rolled his eyes when he saw them. As soon as they entered, the guy in front, Frank Hastings, started heading over to their table. Another argument with this guy, Jeff thought. It was annoying, but sometimes quite amusing. Then again there wasn't much you could do about a thick, angry ODST Lieutenant.

Jones saw Frank and his squad coming and turned around to face them. He always seemed to have a way of pissing these guys off.

'What the hell are you doing here, Ganszo?' Frank asked, pointing a threatening hand at Jeff, 'I thought you tried to get back into the ODSTs. Why are you here?'

'I didn't get into the ODSTs,' Jeff replied, 'but I did get a post aboard the Winter Sunshine.'

Frank raised an eyebrow.

'Well, if that's the case, I'm stuck aboard the same ship as you,' Frank said, 'and that means you better not get in my way, especially if we're out in the field together.'

'Whatever you say,' Jeff said, 'I don't know why you have such a problem with me still. What happened years ago was in the past. Maybe we could put that all behind us and forget about it?'

'Don't shovel me that crap,' Frank said, annoyed, 'Jeff, I never liked you and I never will.'

'Understandable,' Jeff said sarcastically, 'considering I punched out all your front teeth.'

Frank suddenly had an angry expression on his face. He couldn't do anything to Jeff, though. He reached into a pocket in his uniform and took out a small cylindrical plastic container. He unscrewed the lid and popped a few of the capsules inside into his mouth.

'Doping up, are you Frank?' Jeff asked, grinning.

'No, this stuff stops me from breaking your neck,' Frank said.

'I would like to see you try,' Jeff said.

Frank ignored him and put the container back into his pocket. He was about to walk away with the rest of his squad when he turned back around.

'Don't get cocky, Ganszo,' Frank said, 'you're always lucky to survive a mission. You ain't got nothing that helps you out in the field. If you're ever with me, you can consider yourself on your own.'

'That's fine with me, Frank,' Jeff said as Frank and his squad members walked away.

At about three thirty they were able to board the Winter Sunshine. Jeff and Jones took one of the air lock tubes into the ship. It was a large ship, mainly long and wide. Its engines took up most of the space on back.

Jeff and Jones were walking through the tube as marines and technicians milled past. Everyone seemed to have a job to do at the moment apart from the two of them.

'Jones, there's something about the Slip-space engine that I heard,' Jeff said as they walked through the tube, brushing past a pair of marines.

'What?' Jones asked.

'Apparently the drive is actually unstable,' Jeff said, 'so that means the moment we jump could be the last thing we ever do.'

Jones paused.

'What are the chances of anything bad actually happening with the drive?' Jones asked.

'I have no idea.'

They came to the airlock door which slid open as they approached. An MP was standing near it and Jeff and Jones flashed their identification papers at him. The MP marked their names off the roll on the data-pad he was holding in one hand.

'I heard that this ship has all the latest military weapons and gadgets on it,' Jones said, 'maybe we could go down to the firing range later, try some of the stuff out.'

'Maybe,' Jeff replied.

They entered into one of the corridors that run along the side of the ship. Helpful colour coded signs on the walls pointed to wherever, whether it be 'Engineering Service Lift A7' or 'Computer Room A3'.

'Where are we meant to go?' Jones asked as they stopped by the wall.

'We're meant to go and get our luggage first, obviously,' Jeff said, 'then we have to find our quarters. Since you're going to be in my squad, yours will be close to mine.'

'Our luggage should have been taken to our quarters anyway,' Jones said,' all we have to do is find them.'

Jeff looked down the corridor. The interior design was much more refined than that of the Space Dock, the walls with a metallic finish, most colored grey but some a brighter cream colour. The floors were mostly tiled, but some were carpeted, and this would be more the case in the living areas.

'Let's just go for a walk,' Jeff said, 'if we find anymore MPs we'll get them to tell us where we're meant to be.'
The pair of them started heading down the corridor, following it along as it ran along the side of the ship, past computer terminals, pipes and wires and turned to head more towards the centre of the ship.

It shouldn't be that hard to find their way around, but the ship seemed bigger on the inside than it did on the outside, which was a common misconception with ships like this one. There were way too many rooms and corridors in the larger cruiser ships that contributed to the fact that sometimes people actually got lost in engineering mainly, staying there for weeks on end. That's why they had vending machines down in engineering now, since getting lost there and starving to death was a very real thing. Of course, Jeff would never end up doing that.

The two of them came to an elevator where an MP was standing guard. A vending machine was nearby, so while Jones was fiddling with it and trying to get it to work, Jeff approached the MP.

'Ah…I'm First Class Sergeant Jeff Ganszo and my friend and I need to know just exactly where we're meant to be,' Jeff said. The MP gazed at him for a moment before taking out a data-pad and pressing a few buttons on it.

'Sergeant Ganszo, sir, you're meant to be on Deck Seven, Living Areas. The rest of your squad is already there,' the MP replied, putting the data-pad away. 'Just use the schematics that I hope you have on a data-pad with you to find your way there. It shouldn't be too difficult.'


Jeff turned around to find Jones. He was still fiddling with the vending machine, hitting the machine on the side in frustration.

'What the hell's the matter?' Jeff asked.

'It's not letting me have a hot chocolate,' Jones said.
The MP glanced at Jones and laughed.

'None of the vending machines work properly yet,' he said, 'the only thing they give out is chicken soup, as well as water. I wouldn't have any of the soup, if I were you though. Heck, this ship hasn't even got an AI!'

'No AI?' Jeff asked. Usually all ships would have some sort of AI running the complicated stuff, like calculations and engine checks. No AI meant that someone had to do the hard work themselves and put their ship at a disadvantage.

'We were meant to get one yesterday,' the MP said, 'but there was a mix up. This ship's way ahead of schedule, everyone's been working hard to get it running. The paint on some of the walls isn't even dry yet.'

'Isn't that a bit disorganized?' Jeff asked.

'Go tell that to the Captain. He's the one who's been making everyone work so hard.'

Jones pressed the button on the vending machine for chicken soup and the stuff started pouring into the cup that he was holding beneath the nozzle of the machine. He stopped the stream and took a sip, spitting it out and turning to Jeff.

'Yeah, it's crap,' he said, taking another gulp.

Jeff and Jones stepped through the door ahead and followed the winding corridors of the ship along to another lift.

'I think the people running this ship are pretty crap at their job,' Jones said, 'we've got no annoying talking computer hologram thing and all the drink machines dispense really disgusting chicken soup.' He took a sip from the cup in his hand and screwed up his face with the taste.

'Then why are you drinking it?' Jeff asked.

Jones paused and looked at the contents of the cup.

'I'm thirsty for something other than water, I suppose,' he said, 'I doubt there is actually real chicken in this stuff.'

They stepped into the lift or elevator, whatever you want to call it, and Jeff looked at the schematics of the ship on his data-pad. Their quarters were meant to be a few decks up, so he pushed a button to go up three decks and the doors closed.

As the lift started moving, Jones finished off the soup and dropped the cup in the corner of the lift.

'Aren't you going to pick it up?' Jeff asked.

'When the lift's stopped,' Jones replied.

When the lift did stop, the doors opened into a wider corridor with grey-blue carpet and light blue ceilings with white panelled walls. Doors were about ten meters apart down the corridor, each one labelled with a numbered sign.

'We're meant to be here somewhere,' Jeff said, stepping out of the lift. Jones threw the empty cup into a rubbish bin drone as it was patrolling the corridor and they started searching for the right room.

Coming to a particular door labelled 'C-25/7', Jeff was sure this was the right one. To be sure, he checked the information on his data-pad.

'This is it,' he said, turning to Jones who was standing just behind him, 'I wonder if they actually stuck me with a useful squad.'

'Knowing High Command back on Reach and judging by your reputation,' Jones said, 'they probably didn't.'

Jeff stuck his pass-card into the panel next to the door. It took a few seconds to confirm his identity before the door opened. Behind it was a large room lined with bunk beds. A door was at one end as well as some tables and chairs. About seven young marines were sitting at the one table, playing cards.

Some looked up when they heard the door open and it took them a few moments to realize who was coming in. As Jeff stepped inside, the marines jumped out of their seats and saluted, obviously caught off guard.

'Sergeant, sir,' a marine said as Jeff approached the group, 'we know it's you since we all saw your picture in the files.'

'Don't bother saluting me,' Jeff said, pulling up a char. Jones walked in and dumped his bags on the top bunk of a nearby bed.

The marines dropped their salutes and relaxed.

'I'm Private Ekholm,' the marine said, 'you're a bit late.'

'I know,' Jeff replied, 'this ship is way too big. Besides, you guys shouldn't bother saluting me. I'm just like you, another marine. Just continue with the card game.'

Ekholm and the others sat down and resumed their game of cards. Jeff turned around and looked at Jones.

'What are you doing?' He asked.

Jones was skimming through his data-pad. He looked up towards Jeff.

'I'm looking through the troop manifest,' Jones said, 'seeing if anyone I know is on the ship…'
He looked back down at the pad and grinned.

'I found someone. Chief Engineer Heinrich Rommel. He and I go way back,' Jones said. 'Do you mind if I go find him?'


'Thanks,' Jones said, pocketing the data-pad, 'meet me down in engineering later. I'll introduce him to you. He's a great guy.'

Jones exited the room. Jeff turned back to the marines.

'Just a question,' Jeff said. The marines turned to him. Jeff looked at each of their faces. They were probably just in their twenties, young and probably having no prior experience. 'Have any of you got any experience in the field?'

'No sir,' Ekholm said, answering for all of the marines, 'but we've had enough training—'

'Training isn't the same, especially if it's the Covenant you're fighting,' Jeff said. He paused. 'I'm going to go and find Jones. If anyone needs me, well…I honestly don't know where to go now. I think I'll just take a walk.'

'Be sure to be back here when the ship leaves, sir,' Ekholm said as Jeff started for the door.

Jones arrived in the engineering section after managing to find his way there. Usually engineering was at the bottom of the back of the ship and consisted of the engines, all the stuff to do with the engines, the Slip-space engine and the armaments for the ship. A massive cargo hold ran through the bottom of the ship, consisting of ramps and walkways.

Jones came into a corridor running along the main Slip-space engineering section. Windows lined the side of the corridor which looked down into the main engineering room, technicians in yellow and grey and yellow and red uniforms milling about in the large room, checking computer panels and pipelines.

As Jones went down the corridor, it began to widen out a bit and split off into different directions. One lead for the Slip-space engine itself, but you couldn't go in there without authorization and without a radiation suit.

He approached a marine who was standing guard by the door leading to the Slip-space engine, if you could call it that. It had never occurred to Jones that you could call a glowing ball of pure energy an 'engine'.

'Hey, you know where Chief Engineer Heinrich Rommel is?' Jones asked.

'He's in examining the Slip-space engine thing,' the marine replied, 'I'm afraid I can't let you in, though. Why do you want him?'

'No particular reason,' Jones said, 'he's just an old friend.'

The doors slid open and out stepped a young looking guy with dark brown hair and bright, brown eyes. He was in a radiation suit but had taken the head-piece off.

'Did someone ask for me?' The man asked with a slight trace of a German accent.

'Heinrich!' Jones exclaimed when he saw him, 'it's me. Jones!'

The man took a moment to remember who Jones actually was.

'Wow, Jones, I saw your name on the troop manifest but I didn't think you would bother looking for me,' Heinrich said. They shook hands and patted each other on the back.

'How long has it been, man?' Jones asked, 'a year? Two years?'

'I don't know,' Heinrich said. He looked back through the glass double doors and past the decontamination chamber. 'I could take you in for a tour of the drive…'

'No thanks, man,' Jones said, 'I don't like that idea.'

'It's perfectly safe,' Heinrich said. They started walking back down the corridor, turning down another one and entering a locker room. Heinrich slipped out of the suit, his uniform on underneath, and stored the suit away in the locker marked 'Rommel'.

'I was one of the people involved in designing the drive,' Heinrich said. He stepped over to a vending machine and turned back to Jones.

'You want anything?' He asked, 'like chicken soup?'

'No thanks,' Jones replied.

Heinrich got himself a cup of chicken soup and began slurping the contents. He didn't seem to mind the taste.

'That drive is based on captured Covenant technology,' Heinrich said, 'it's the result of a decade of hard work. I'm the one who's meant to be getting it to work, but it's proven to be a bit hard to work with.'

'What do you mean?' Jones asked.

'Well, for starters,' Heinrich said, gulping down the contents of the cup, 'it's a type of highly unstable plasma energy. The Covenant has obviously mastered it but we're far away from making this type of energy safe to use. If things aren't done right, this ship could blow into atoms upon entering Slip-space.'

'Sounds great,' Jones said sarcastically, 'anything else?'

'If you walked into the room where it was without a radiation suit on,' Heinrich said, 'you would be killed in less than a minute. The radiation it emits is pretty intense. Even in a suit you can only average about fifteen minutes at a time in a suit before you have to get decontaminated and take a five minute break.'

'Then why work with such dangerous technology?' Jones asked. If this Slip-space technology was so dangerous, why would they put it into a UNSC ship? Why not give the people making it a chance to make it safer?

'It was all High Command's idea,' Heinrich said, sitting down on a bench in the locker room, 'we need all the advantages we can get in this war. It could very well have taken another decade for this technology to become much safer but God knows what will happen in the next ten years of this war, if it lasts that long.'

'Right.' Jones paused. 'Have you been up to anything else other than helping get this thing to work properly? Like, I don't know…have you got a girlfriend?'

'I did, I did,' Heinrich replied, 'but it didn't work out. It's no big deal anyway.'

Jones sat down on the bench opposite Heinrich's. The locker room smelt like a mixture of disinfectant and wet paint. The benches were still wrapped in plastic and the paint on some of the lockers wasn't even dry.

'How long till we're leaving?' Jones asked.

'A few hours. About five thirty this morning,' Heinrich said. 'With this ship, we could probably take on a few Covenant ships by ourselves.'

'I wouldn't take that chance,' Jones said, 'we'd get blown to pieces.'

'If we ever needed to,' Heinrich said, 'and we probably will have to sometime during this mission. You do know that it's been considered "suicidal" by most high ranking UNSC people?'

'Yes, but I couldn't care less what a bunch of cranky old farts thought,' Jones said. He grinned. 'Have you ever noticed how like Admirals and Colonels and stuff always seem to be cranky and old? I think that's kind of funny.'

'Of course I've noticed,' Heinrich said, 'they're the ones ordering everyone else around. I suppose they can be cranky if they want to.'

'Heinrich, you want to come down to the firing range later? Pop off a few shots?' Jones asked.

'Sure, except my schedule for today's pretty full,' Heinrich said, 'how about tomorrow, maybe?'

'I suppose. Jeff will be there as well.'

'Jeff? Your friend?'

'He's a great guy. He and I go way back,' Jones said, 'you two should get to know each other.'

'You need all the friends you can get during a war, Jones,' Heinrich said, getting up and patting Jones on the shoulder, 'because one day, they may be the only ones there to help you.'

Captain Bob Turnwell was standing in front of the main view-screen as images and statistics started appearing on the screen. Engine checks, armament checks and other kinds of checks were being done and the results sent directly to the bridge. They had to be ready to leave at five thirty this morning.

Bob was your typical Captain, in his grey Captain's uniform and with greying hair and weary eyes. He had been through plenty of battles, some having better results than others. He had seen people die but having spent years in the military, he was used to that kind of thing. The deaths of comrades didn't seem to faze him anymore. Nothing did.

That's why he had the nick-name of 'Mr. Cool' since he was always calm and collected, as well as cool for that matter. He never batted an eyelid at anything, unless it was his wife. She seemed to faze him a lot. Not that it happened very often anymore, since she wasn't on Reach and never would be. She was back on Earth, doing God-knows-what. She was probably spending their lives savings on a holiday of some sort, Bob thought.

He hadn't spoken to her since he had last been on Earth, which had been more than a year ago. Being a Captain was a busy job, and there weren't many ways of contact between worlds in separate systems, unless you sent a letter or something on one of the mail freighters, but that cost money.

Bob always carried a small case on his belt which contained a small, old style antique pistol. A 'Colt' as it was once called, which was plated in silver and had a white pearl pistol grip with the name of his great-great-great grandfather etched on it: 'Dalton Turnwell'.

Bob carried it with him at all times and had killed plenty of enemies with it when he had had the chance. If there was nothing left in his rifle, he would whip out the pistol and hope to gun some aliens down.

Most battles in this war weren't ground battles. No, they were space battles which proved to put every human ship at a disadvantage. Covenant technology was far superior to that of the humans and usually space battles against the Covenant ended badly.

Marines never got much of a say in these battles. It was more the ship's personnel and the Captains and Commanders.
Bob was confident that this ship would hopefully be the first of a new generation of ships which would turn the tide of the war. He was also confident they would leave on time, which meant the Slip-space engine had to be powered up and ready to go ten minutes early, since it took a few minutes to prepare the ship to enter Slip-space.

Despite what the people down in engineering had been telling him about 'unstable' plasma coils, another result of reverse engineering which helped power the Slip-space drive, Bob knew that they would be able to successfully enter Slip-space without any harm coming to the ship and its crew. He was in command and if he was in command, nothing bad would happen.

He looked at his watch. This particular watch had been built with only one thing in mind: telling the time. Not like those new ones which could do pretty much everything but the kitchen dishes. This one was digital and displayed a set of numbers on its small screen: the time. And the time right now, according to the watch was 4:27:37am. Twenty-seven past four and thirty-seven seconds (and counting). Bob smiled. You could always rely on a coordinated watch.

He looked at the main view screen again. Putting a few fingers on some of the boxes containing statistics, he moved them out of the way and switched to a view showing what lay around the ship on the short range sensors.

A diagram of the immediate area appeared, showing nearby UNSC ships and a few civilian ships such as freighters and shuttles. The Space Construction Dock the Winter Sunshine was in protected the ship on both sides, leaving only the front and back visible. It was much like a web.

He switched to a view of the long range sensors. The Winter Sunshine had been fitted with practically every piece of experimental and/or reverse engineered technology that the UNSC had. That would be everything, considering Bob doubted simple rebels could have and experimental weapon or engine of any sort.

The long range sensors went over to Reach's two moons and well past them. The ships flying around the system were represented as dots with labels coming off of them. He could see the Pillar of Autumn a little around Reach.

Twenty orbital MAC guns were represented as bigger dots with bigger labels. These would be Reach's first and probably last line of defence if the planet was ever attacked. He doubted all these ships could hold out long to a massive Covenant fleet.

This thought got him thinking about another piece of experimental technology that the ship was fitted with. Scanning outposts were lined throughout the edges of the system, fitted with scanners which scanned Slip-space itself. The Winter Sunshine was fitted with an improved version of that Slip-space scanning technology. All he had to do was order one of the technicians to put it up on the view-screen. He doubted anything interesting would be there, though. Maybe a few freighters and clouds of space dust, but nothing interesting.

It was still worth a look though. He was about to turn to the technician off to the left, Steve he remembered the man's name as, but was interrupted by a Texan-sounding voice behind him.

'Captain Bob Turnwell!' The voice exclaimed. Bob turned around and saw a middle-aged man in a Colonel's uniform standing a few meters behind him. The man was carrying a wooden case tucked underneath his right arm while his left hand was holding a bottle of whiskey.

'Do I know you?' Bob asked, trying to find the right piece of his memory which contained the identity of this Colonel.

'Colonel Timothy Vance,' the man said, stepping forward. He held out his right hand and Bob shook hands. One question was now on Bob's mind, however.

'What the hell are you doing on this ship?' Bob asked, his voice its usual calm and collected tone, 'I don't remember anyone telling me about a Colonel coming on board.'

'I outrank you, Captain,' Vance said, 'so you will address me as "sir", do you understand?'

Before Bob could reply, Vance hiccupped and took another gulp of whiskey from the bottle.

'Why have you brought alcohol aboard this ship…sir?' Bob asked, still trying to figure out why Vance was on the ship.

'This?' Vance held up the half-full bottle of whiskey. 'This is what keeps me going, Captain.'

'What do you mean?'

'I mean that if I don't have this stuff, I become sober and actually care about this job,' Vance said, 'and hell, I don't want to be sober!'

Bob suddenly remembered where he had heard this Colonel's name before.

'Colonel Timothy Vance, once commanded an ODST unit back on Reach,' Bob said, 'you're the one that everyone calls a "crackpot". Why are you aboard this ship? When did you arrive?'

Vance just stared at him before taking another gulp of whiskey. He dropped a small bag (Bob hadn't seen it on him until now) and took out a folded-up chair. He looked around the floor for a good spot, unfolded the chair and placed it on the floor. He sat down looked back at the Captain.

'Where the hell do you sit?' He asked, 'everyone else on this bridge has a chair.'

'Again, Colonel, why are you aboard this ship?' Bob asked. He took a deep breath, trying not to let this seemingly pathetic excuse of a Colonel get on his nerves.

'You have to say sir,' Vance said, 'otherwise I might not answer.' He sounded slightly immature when he said this, as if trying to tease the Captain.

'Okay: why are you aboard this ship, sir?' Bob asked, 'are you happy with that?'

'Are you happy with that sir?' Vance said, 'that's what you have to say.'

Bob stepped forward, took a deep breath and then sighed.

'I don't have time for this, Colonel,' Bob said, 'for the last time, why are you aboard this ship?'

'Someone told me to give this ship an inspection and see if the ship, the crew and everything else to do with it is ready for the mission,' Vance said.

'I wasn't told about this,' Bob replied, 'you better not be lying to me, Colonel…'

'I'm not lying,' Vance said, raising his eyebrows and trying to sound innocent, 'I'm merely doing what those Fleet Command and High Command people back down on the surface told me to do. They even arranged a shuttle for me, which was very kind of them but I just think they want to get rid of me.'

'I can understand why,' Bob muttered under his breath. He may have been calm and collected, but he did have a habit of talking back.

'What was that, Captain?' Vance asked.

'Nothing. All I said was that they were probably doing to right thing,' Bob lied, 'now, are you going to get round to doing your job?'

'I already have,' Vance said, 'I just thought I would pop in here last and tell you what I have discovered about your ship and its crew.'

'You didn't even tell me you had come aboard the ship and instead went off inspecting things?' Bob asked, 'someone should have told me you were aboard and maybe things may have been a bit more organized.'

'It was a surprise inspection, Captain,' Vance said, finishing off the bottle of whiskey and throwing it carelessly to the metal floor. It didn't break but made a loud noise and rolled off to one side of the bridge. Vance had been watching its movements with some interest.

'That means there's either a slope in this floor or your ship's artificial gravity is off by a little,' Vance said, turning back to the Captain. 'I also know that every drink machine on this ship only supplies water that tastes like disinfectant and chicken soup that tastes like someone's taken a piss in it. Do you think your crew can live on drinks likes that?'

'It's not my fault, for one thing,' Bob said, 'we weren't supplied with everything else and the water tastes like disinfectant because we've had to put disinfectant in it. It's to kill any bacteria that may grow in it in the water tanks. Add the fact that it's recycled from any toilet flushes and you have yourself water that's only there to quench thirst and keep people alive, not to please people's taste buds.'

Vance had been staring at the ceiling throughout what Bob had just said. Once Bob was finished, Vance looked at the Captain.

'What about the chicken soup?' He asked. Bob sighed with some relief that the incompetent Colonel had been listening to some extent.

'The soup? I have no idea why it tastes that bad,' Bob replied, 'maybe some prankster did take a leak in it, I don't know. Does it matter? How many people drink chicken soup on this ship anyway?'

'I saw plenty of marines with it,' Vance said. He paused. 'Another thing: your "smart" AI which you don't have. Why don't you have it? Did someone piss on that as well?'

Bob frowned at this crude joke.

'We were meant to get it yesterday but there was a mix up,' Bob said.

'Did you get anything from this mix up?' Vance asked.

'Yes, we did. Nothing useful, but I have a list on my data-pad of what we received instead.'

Bob took out his data-pad and found the right list. He began reading it out.

'Three hundred and twenty frozen chickens, meaning we'll be having a lot of roasts available at the mess halls around the ship,' Bob said, reading from the list, 'twenty chain-saws. God knows what we'll use them for.'

'Did you say chainsaws?' Vance asked, his eyes lighting up as he raised an eyebrow.

'Why does it matter?'

'Because, you could get one and cut up a Covenant bastard with it,' Vance said, using his hands to mime holding a chainsaw and swinging with it.

'That's sick,' Bob said.

'No it's not. Why do we have to be nice to the Covenant when all they want to do is cause death and destruction wherever they find "non-believers"?'

'Infidels?' Bob said.

'Yes. I doubt anyone one hundred years ago thought we would end up waging a holy war with an unstoppable collection of alien races.'

'There's more stuff on the list. Do you want me to read it out?' Bob asked.

'Don't bother,' Vance answered. He reached into his jacket and took out a cigar. Sticking it into his mouth, he lit the end with a lighter and began puffing on it, giving himself a 'tough guy' look.

'Smoking and alcohol isn't such a good combination,' Bob said.

'Says who?'

'Says me and anyone else with some common sense in them,' Bob said.

Vance ignored this remark and continued bringing up problems he had found in the ship.

'The Slip-space drive. That's a big matter,' Vance said, taking the cigar out of his mouth and blowing out a stream of smoke, 'according to your Chief Engineer…What's his name? Something German…'

'Heinrich Rommel?'

'Yeah, that's it,' Vance said, nodding, 'he said that if this ship were to enter Slip-space right now, we would all die horribly and have our atoms scattered throughout the Slip-stream.'

'He told me all he has to do is calibrate the plasma coils to supply the right amount of power…'

'Which won't be done until lunch time,' Vance said, 'he told me that, afraid that if he told you he would probably get in trouble.'

Bob frowned. Lunch time? That was way past the schedule. They were meant to leave in just under an hour. He would have to talk with Rommel about this.

'What do you say now?' Vance asked, 'you won't be able to leave on time.'

'There's always a way around this things,' Bob said, 'anything else you want to tell me about? Is there something wrong with the walls? Did a grain of dirt catch your attention and you're going to complain about that?'

'Actually, I saw some guy come onto the ship in muddy shoes,' Vance said, 'but that's besides the point.'
He got up; put the cigar back into the corner of his mouth.

'This ship ain't ready to leave or enter combat for that matter,' Vance said, 'but, I haven't got the authorization to stop an important ship from leaving. Just be careful out in the field.'

He started walking away, stopped a few meters away and turned around.

'I'm going to get something to eat. Nobody is allowed to touch my chair, alright? I'll be back before this ship is scheduled to leave.'

He walked out of the bridge, Bob noticing he had a slight drunken swagger.

Bob turned back to the main view-screen. He decided there wouldn't be much point in using the high powered Slip-stream scanners. It would be good to see if they worked, though.

He checked his watch. Five o'clock. Half an hour till they departed the station and jumped to Slip-space. Half an hour until they embarked on a potential suicide mission.

Bob sat in Vance's fold-up chair and stared at the main view screen. To his left and right, technicians sat at computer panels doing their jobs of checking systems, stabilizing the ship's power, anything to do with the ship.
The folks down in engineering would be directly responsible for any malfunctions to do with the engines, especially the Slip-space one. Bob didn't like entrusting his life to other people, but right now everyone aboard this ship was in danger of dying horribly. If something went wrong with the Slip-space engine…Well, things would happen and the people down in engineering would be to blame.

Well, right now all he needed was something to do. Testing all this new equipment would provide some time wasting. He turned and looked at a technician sitting at a computer console behind him. This was Steve and he was the one who was in control of the main sensors and was able to relay the information straight to the main view-screen.

'Ensign, could you start tests on all our scanners?' Bob said, 'I want to see if all this new stuff works.'

'Yes, sir. I'm on it,' Steve replied, fiddling with some controls. The view-screen changed, showing boxes of statistics and code as well as images of everything the scanners were picking up. The Slip-stream scanners, however, picked up something quite interesting.

Bob got up and stepped closer to the view-screen. If he wasn't mistaken, the blobs on the scanner were gradually disappearing. That meant that whatever they were, they were leaving Slip-space.

He looked at his watch. Ten past five. Twenty minutes to go but now it seemed there was an unexpected occurrence.

'What do you make of that, Ensign?' Bob asked, turning back to Steve.

'Well, my best guess is that they are ships. Energy readings show they aren't ours,' Steve said, 'and they all seem to be leaving Slip-space.'

'Start scanning the system,' Bob ordered, 'we need to find
out just what they are.'

Minutes passed as Steve put on the results of the long range scanners. An image of the entire system appeared and there seemed to be plenty of dots closing in near one of Reach's moons. Way too many.

'How many of them are there?' Bob asked.

'Three hundred and fourteen, sir,' Steve said, 'they're definitely…'

'Incoming transmission!' Someone exclaimed from nearby. Bob stepped over to the computer station to the left of the main view-screen.

Time was seventeen past five. Bob had a feeling that leaving at five thirty wouldn't be much of an option.

United Nations Space Command ALPHA PRIORITY TRANSMISSION 04592Z-83
Encryption Code: Red
Public Key: file /bravo-tango-beta-five/
From: Admiral Roland Freemont, Commanding Fleet Officer, FLEETCOM Sector One Commander/ (UNSC Service Number: 00745-16778-HS)
To: All UNSC ships in REACH, JERICHO and TANTULUS systems
Classification: Classified (BGX-Directive)

/start file/
Covenant presence detected on REACH system's edge coordinates 030 relative.
All UNSC ships are hereby ordered to cease all activities and regroup at rally point ZULU at best speed.
ALL SHIPS are to enact the Cole Protocol immediately.
/end file/

'Holy shit,' Bob muttered under his breath. He switched the message off of the computer screen and turned around. He looked at Steve.

'They're Covenant ships,' Bob said. He looked at the others on the bridge. Most seemed to know something was wrong and were looking at him.

'I need the Cole Protocol enacted immediately,' Bob said, 'and this ship is to be put on red alert.'

As soon as he said this, red lights around the room and the rest of the ship began flashing. Alarms sounded and he saw the expressions on some of the faces on some of the people in the bridge change to one of quiet surprise and then to a determined look. His bridge crew was determined. They were the best of the best, after all.

'Sir, we can't purge the databases from here,' a technician to Bob's right said, catching his attention, 'there are still locks on in the system. They were going to be removed when we got an AI, but since we didn't they're still there. Someone has to go down to Central Processing and wipe them from there.'

'Are you sure there's another way?' Bob asked.

'We could use the combat AI Windtalker, but even then you would have to put him into the main computer down in Central Processing. He could do it in a matter of minutes, probably seconds.'

'Then get me that blasted combat AI Windtalker,' Bob said. He looked back at the main view-screen and through the window behind it. There were UNSC ships flying around in the space outside, stars as the back-drop. However, they were all heading in the same direction. Bob realized that their ship was a sitting duck in the Space Construction Dock.

'Get us out of this dock,' Bob said.

'But the docking cables are still attached,' the technician said.

'No buts,' Bob said, 'give the order to have the cables removed once there's no one in them. We need to leave. Now.'
Bob turned back to the main view-screen, pressed a button on the computer panel to its left and opened a communications link to engineering.

'Rommel?' Bob said into the link.

'What is it? I heard the Covenant's attacking and everyone down here's a bit nervous…' Rommel's voice replied with slight radio static.

'I need you to start powering up the Slip-space engine. If the battle goes our way, we won't be needing it today. But if Reach becomes the next Pearl Harbor…' He trailed off. 'Just get that Slip-space thing online and safe to use!'

'I'll have to take a few chances, Captain…'

'Just take those chances and make sure in fifteen minutes we can use the damn thing!'

'Yes sir!'

The communications link ended and the Captain proceeded to put out an announcement to the rest of the ship. Today wouldn't be a good day for humanity.

Jeff had been sitting in one of the mess halls when a man in a Colonel's uniform had come in. He looked familiar and Jeff then remembered who the guy was.

The Colonel seemed to spot him too and so sat opposite Jeff on the same table after getting a packet of chicken sandwiches.

'Colonel, I didn't realize you would be on the ship,' Jeff said as the Colonel sat down.

'I didn't think you would be on it either, Sergeant,' Vance said, 'it's been a long time, but no see. You were good in the ODSTs. You should rejoin.'

Colonel Timothy Vance had been in the ODST unit that Jeff had joined up with months after being recruited into the military. Vance had actually been a good Colonel back then, but he always had a taste for whiskey. Now it seemed the Colonel had gone off the rails, Jeff hearing about how his marriage had broken down and how he was booted out of running an ODST unit and to a dodgy desk job.

Vance planted the large wooden case he had been carrying onto the table and began eating.

'What are you here for, anyway?' Jeff asked.

'I was inspecting the place, seeing if it was ready to go,' Vance said, taking a bite out of his chicken sandwich, 'and it sure as hell ain't ready. There is no AI, the Slip-space engine thing isn't safe to use and the paint in some places isn't even dry.'

'Shouldn't you have been expecting that, considering the entire ship and its crew is ahead of schedule?' Jeff asked.

'Well, I couldn't care less if they decided to go or not. I'm just telling them that if they decide to go, there'll be plenty of risks. A heck of a lot.'

Vance bit into the chicken sandwich; began chewing and then swallowed. He grinned and something seemed to be funny to him.

'Instead of an AI, this ship received a shipment of about three hundred and twenty frozen chickens,' Vance said, 'do you call that organized?'

Jeff didn't know whether to answer, although the Colonel seemed to think it was funny. He decided to go along with the Colonel's conversation.

'Well, there'll be more roasts…' Jeff said, but was interrupted by the Colonel.

'That's what the Captain said, I think,' Vance replied, 'or did I say that? I honestly can't remember…'

He finished off the first sandwich and started on the other one.

'How long are you going to spend on the ship?' Jeff asked.

'I'm not staying on here when we leave, I can tell you that,' Vance said, 'I'm going back down to Reach and I'll probably watch some television…something that doesn't involve potential death.'

When the alarms started going, Jeff didn't know what to think. Either something was wrong on board the ship itself or there was a problem elsewhere…

As everyone else in the mess hall started getting up and moving out of the room, Vance flicked open the wooden case but Jeff was at an angle which blocked out the contents from view because of the lid.

'Attention everyone,' the Captain's voice came on over the loudspeaker, 'a Covenant incursion force has been detected in the system and moving to Reach. The Cole Protocol has been applied and everyone is to move to their assigned battle stations.'

'Well I'll be,' Vance said, taking out an antique double barrelled shotgun from the inside of the case. He flicked it open and loaded two shells, one into the back of each barrel. Jeff reckoned that this was one of Vance's personal weapons.

Vance saw Jeff looking at the weapon and so flicked the barrels back on and pointed it at the table. He looked down the sights and then at Jeff.

'Beauty, ain't she?' Vance asked, placing the weapon back into the case.

'She?' Jeff asked raising an eyebrow.

'I call her Faith,' Vance said. He took a bottle of whiskey out of the case and unscrewed the top. He burped and then started gulping down the contents, downing a third of the bottle before taking it away from his lips.

'Why have you named a shotgun?' Jeff asked.

'Because, she and I have been through a lot together,' Vance said. He patted the shotgun which was now lying inside the case.

'Right…' Jeff didn't know whether the Colonel was either drunk or crazy. Probably both. No wonder he had been kicked out of running an ODST unit. The man had a reputation for being a slight crackpot. Now he was someone who fuelled themselves up on alcohol and had gotten very close to an inanimate object. Possibly not the kind of person you would want to rely on during a firefight.

'What else do you have in that case?' Jeff asked, getting up to take a closer look.

Vance reached in and took out about five syringes, stuck onto a plastic belt. Each was filled with a clear liquid and each was labelled 'XM20'.

'What the hell are they?' Jeff asked.

'XM20,' Vance said, 'one of the most powerful military drugs you can get. Hell, one dose of this stuff and you'll be trippin'. Two doses in a short amount of time would probably kill you.'

Jeff remembered hearing the name 'XM20' someone before. He remembered where and then realized why Vance would even bother carrying the stuff around with him.

'Isn't that stuff illegal?'

Vance laughed.

'For one thing, son, I don't even use the stuff,' Vance said, 'I got a hold of this stuff some years back. Apparently it's meant to heighten your senses and make you unable to feel any pain at all, but I'm not willing to try…'

'Well, how about I take it?' Jeff asked.

Vance raised an eyebrow.

'You sure? You're not going to go nuts or anything when you take it?' Vance said, holding out the syringes. To be safe, each syringe had a plastic cover on so you wouldn't end up accidentally injecting yourself.

'I'll get rid of it for you,' Jeff said. He probably would if he ever got the time, although Jeff had been an avid user of some of the minor military drugs that were supplied to them in his early days. The stuff that would calm your nerves or make you have a burst of energy. He never got overly addicted to them, and they had been banned (again) in 2531.

Vance handed Jeff the syringes which he placed into a small ammunition pouch on his belt.

Vance got up and started walking towards the mess hall's exit. He stopped and turned around in the doorway.

'I'll be seeing you around, Sergeant,' he said, taking another gulp of whiskey, 'right now, I have to speak with the Captain and find out the extent of the situation.'

Jones and Heinrich Rommel had been sitting in the locker room in engineering when the alarms started and the announcements rang out.

'Holy shit,' Jones said as the announcement finished, 'Covenant incursion force? In the Reach system?'

'It sure as hell sounds like it,' Heinrich said. He got up and started for the door.

'Where are you going?' Jones asked.

'I need to make sure that the Slip-space core is ready,' Heinrich replied, 'you should head to your battle-station.'

'But I don't know where that is,' Jones said.

'Then just get back to your quarters. I have to head back to the core and make sure it's ready for a jump, if we need to escape.'

'We don't know the size of the incursion force,' Jones said, getting up and walking over to Heinrich, 'it could only be small, man. That way we wouldn't have much to worry about.'

'Small? The Covenant never do small,' Heinrich said, 'how about if you help me out with the core? All you have to do is follow my instructions. I and my team will need all the help we can get if we're to get this ship ready for a possible jump.'

'Will they be difficult instructions?'

'Easy enough so you can handle them,' Heinrich said, grinning.

Suddenly, there was a lurch as the ship began moving. Jones stumbled and had to put his hands against a nearby locker to support himself. Heinrich grabbed the side of the doorway.

'We're moving,' he said, stating the obvious.

'Is that all you could get from that?' Jones said, 'it means we're going into battle.'

There were the sudden faint sounds of tearing metal as the docking tubes which had still been connected to the ship from the Space Construction Dock ripped off.

'Is the Captain nuts?' Heinrich said, 'they'll vent atmosphere.'

'They'll vent what now?'

Heinrich frowned and stared at Jones.

'Just come with me. There's work to do,' Heinrich said, 'and hopefully this ship won't be blown to pieces while we're doing it.'

Jones followed Heinrich back out into the corridor and down to the glass double doors which lead into the Slip-space core room. Heinrich flashed his identification at the marine standing guard there and the doors opened. As Jones went in to follow him, the guard placed an arm in front of him. Heinrich stopped and turned around.

'Don't worry about him,' Heinrich said, 'he's with me.'

The marine lowered his arm and Heinrich and Jones continued into a narrow corridor. Hanging from one of the walls were about three radiation suits. Heinrich took two down and threw one to Jones. He caught it and looked down with a scornful look on his face.

'I didn't think I would have to go into the core room itself…' Jones said.

'Look, there's only four other people working in that room doing a twenty man job,' Heinrich said, 'and that's because everyone else either doesn't know what to do with the core and how it works or they're tied up doing something else. Do you want to help or not? All we have to do is spend fifteen minutes in there before coming out and taking a short break in the decontamination chamber.'

'Alright, I'll do it,' Jones replied, 'as long as I don't get irradiated enough to die horribly.'

Heinrich slipped into the suit and Jones followed suit, making sure that everything on the suit was sealed. He wasn't a claustrophobic person so being in the suit didn't bother him…much. He would prefer to be out of it though.
Jones followed Heinrich through a set of double doors which went into a small, compact room. His movements were slightly restricted due to the bulkiness of the suit. As well as that, the sounds of his own breathing were amplified inside of the suit, which was quite creepy.

The doors sealed as they entered the room and steam began to vent from the walls. It was another few minutes before the decontamination cycle completed and the double doors ahead of them slid open, leading down another short corridor and into a massive room.

The room was circular and upon stepping out, the glowing, shimmering fifteen meter high Slip-space core made Jones gasp with awe. He had seen pictures, but had never expected to see it in real life.

It was one massive, hovering and glowing ball of blue-white energy. It made a continuous humming sound and rings of metal were keeping the energy in shape, their sides visible sometimes as the energy fluctuated and change shape.

'This is the Slip-space core?' Jones asked, 'it's like nothing I've ever seen before. Are you sure it's safe to use?'

'It damn well is,' Heinrich said, grabbing Jones by the arm and pulling him in the direction of a set of computer panels. Four other people in radiation suits were scattered about the room, checking panels and things.

The computer panel Jones and Heinrich were at was right at the rails that surrounded the ball of energy. Staring at the energy, it was almost hypnotic. Pretty soon Jones felt himself reaching out for it. Heinrich grabbed his arm and pulled it back.

'I wouldn't do that if I were you,' Heinrich said, 'your hand will get broken down to its component molecules and scattered throughout the core.'

'I just found myself doing it,' Jones said, 'it's weird…'

'That's because the energy affects the nervous system. Just don't look at it directly and you'll be fine,' Heinrich said, 'right now we have to get this thing stabilized and safe to use.'

Captain Bob Turnwell had known that not all docking tubes had been unattached, but there had been no time to waste. The Covenant fleet was visible now, close enough to the planet to be a major threat.

Around him, red lights flashed and technicians were talking hurriedly, flicking switches and telling things to each other.

The Covenant ships were just a mass of metallic purple blobs as they began closing in towards the planet, human ships flying to meet the attackers. Trails of plasma torpedoes and human nukes and missiles were flying throughout the area.

'Ensign, how much damage was caused by the docking cables?' He asked, turning to look at their engineering bridge crew member, a young man by the name of Ross.

Ross looked up from his terminal and at the Captain.

'We vented atmosphere on Decks 12 and 15, but only in small areas which have been sealed off and are being repressurized now. No one was lost, sir,' Ross replied.

'That's good, Ensign,' Bob said. He turned to their weapons officer, an Asian man of Chinese descent who was sitting at a terminal on Bob's right. His name was Malcolm.

'What's the status on our weapons?' Bob asked him.

'Both MAC cannons are fully charged an all Archer missile pods are ready to fire, sir,' Malcolm said.

'Be ready to target the nearest unengaged Covenant vessel on my command,' Bob ordered, 'and then fire a salvo of two MAC rounds at the target. Remember, Ensign, we have two guns. One must charge as the other fires, that way our firing rate can be constant. How many MAC rounds do we have on the ship?'

'About fifty, sir.'

'Plenty,' Bob said.

They were heading out of the Space Construction Dock, heading for rally point Zulu as was written in the message that had arrived minutes before the Covenant fleet had appeared. Earlier, when he had decided to check the Slip-space scanners, the Colonel had interrupted him. Maybe if it wasn't for that drunken fool they could have had an earlier warning.

The orbital MAC platforms, all twenty of them, were beginning to move into position. They were visible on the main view-screen as well as two of them visible through the front windows. They were pretty much just large cannons which had all the necessary facilities attached to the base of the gun itself. Reach was a blue sphere which part of it was taking up the lower left corner of the view from the front windows.

'How long till we get to rally point Zulu?' Bob asked.

'About twenty minutes, sir.'

The Covenant fleet had spread out now, traces of lasers and plasma torpedoes flying towards the human ships. MAC rounds and missiles tore towards the Covenant ships. Bob saw one of the Covenant ships, a cruiser; get impacted by three MAC rounds which slammed into one after another. The first one drained its shields; the second one blew a massive hole n its front and sent it reeling backwards. The third one hit the under-belly and then blew it back into a barrel roll, rolling upwards through space and falling into two halves.

It was quite amazing to see entire ships get blown to pieces in a matter of seconds and Bob had a feeling this entire battle was missing something. Then he remembered.
He turned around and reached into his jacket pocket. He retrieved the disc and threw it to Steve, who caught it.

'What's this, sir?' Steve asked.

'Music. It's too tense up here otherwise,' Bob said.

Steve inserted the disc into one of the nearby consoles and the song 'Blinded by the Light' by Manfred Mann's Earth Band began playing, quite loudly.

'That's more like it,' Bob said, tapping his foot to the rhythm.

'Sir, there's a pair of cruisers on an intercept course for us,' their navigation officer, Ensign Goodman, said. He sneezed and sprayed spittle across his computer console. With one sleeve he wiped it clean.

'Ensign Chang,' he said, turning to Malcolm, 'target the largest of the vessels and prepare to fire the MAC rounds on my signal. I want a follow up on the vessel with Archer missile pods A1-A14.'

'Yes, sir,' Malcolm said, keying in the commands. 'Largest ship targeted, sir. It's a cruiser.'

'Fire on my signal…'

'Sir!' Someone shouted from nearby, 'three plasma torpedoes are locked onto us!'

Bob didn't falter. Instead, he looked at the main view-screen and saw the three traces of enemy fire coming their way. One would deliver a crippling blow to the ship, two would utterly destroy it and three would finish it off.

'I want the emergency thrusters ready,' Bob
ordered, 'prepare to fire them just before impact.'

'Aye, sir.'

The three Covenant vessels were closing in on them now. Bob glanced at the main view-screen and then gave the order.

'Fire the MAC rounds!'

There were two dull thuds from beneath them as the dual MAC cannon fired. Two streaks of white hot metal shot through the void outside, both rounds slamming into the front of the Covenant cruiser which had been leading the two smaller destroyers. The ship listed to starboard from the impacts, its front half shattering into pieces, smoke pouring out as it vented atmosphere. The hulk of the ship hit the side of the destroyer to its right and both ships were sent spiralling away, smoking wrecks. The fourteen Archer missiles flared through the void, leaving smoking white contrails behind them. They impacted the remaining Covenant ship and made its shields flare, but otherwise didn't do anything else.

'How long till torpedo impact?' Bob asked.

'Thirty-seven seconds, sir,' came the reply.

'Fire starboard emergency thrusters five seconds before impact,' Bob ordered.

'Sir, that will send the torpedoes hurtling straight for Space Construction Dock Seven…'

'Don't question the orders!' Bob exclaimed, 'besides, that place would have been evacuated by now.'

'Are you sure, sir?'


There was silence for the next few moments until there was a sudden, violent lurch from the right side of the ship. The entire ship boosted sideways, the blue-white of the plasma torpedoes rushing past, passing through where they had just been. The plasma torpedoes tried to correct their course but slammed into the Construction Dock, vaporizing most of it and sending the remains, most of which were chunks of molten metal, spiralling out into orbit above Reach.

'ETA to rally point Zulu?' Bob asked.

'Ten minutes, sir,' Malcolm replied.

The remaining Covenant destroyer had been engaged by another human vessel, a destroyer, and both were exchanging fire. Bob looked at the fight and then decided to act.

'Let's help them out, shall we?' He said. 'I want a MAC round straight into that Covenant bastard.'

'Yes, sir.'

There was a dull thud as one of the MAC guns fired, the white streak travelling through space and hitting the side of the destroyer. It rolled away as a massive hole was blown through its hull, leaving the human destroyer mostly intact save for a few pulse laser caused holes in its side.

'Seven minutes till rally point Zulu,' Malcolm said.
Just as he said this, there was a bright flash in the windows. Bob squinted and saw that one of the orbital MAC platforms had been blown to pieces. Another followed soon after as dozens of Covenant ships began closing in towards the planet.

The doors at the other end of the bridge opened and in stepped Colonel Timothy Vance with his usual drunken swagger. He walked over to Bob and then sat himself down in the fold-up chair.

'What the hell's going on?' Vance asked, taking a gulp of whiskey from the bottle in his left hand, 'I've been hearing all kinds of noises.'

'Reach is under attack by the Covenant,' Bob replied.

'No kidding,' Vance said, glancing at the main view-screen and then at the view outside, 'we're fucking screwed. I mean, just look at all of them.'

'Another MAC platform's gone, sir!' Malcolm shouted.

'See what I mean?' Vance said. 'So, until this planet's safe, I'm staying on this ship.'

Bob didn't like that idea, but it was no use trying to send a superior officer back down to a possibly doomed planet.

'What is that music?' Vance said, hearing the music that was playing throughout the bridge. The song was now onto 'Fortunate Son'. 'How old is that stuff?'

'Twentieth century stuff,' Bob replied, 'now, if you shut up maybe we can all concentrate on the battle at hand.'

'Whatever,' Vance said, 'but if I die, I'm blaming it on you.'

'Sir, two more Covenant ships,' Steve said, 'two destroyers. They're heading on an intercept course for us.'

'Yeah, let's take these bastards down!' Vance exclaimed.
Bob shook his head and stepped over to the communications console to the left of the main view-screen. He opened a link down to engineering.

'Chief Engineer Rommel, are you there?' He said.

'Yes, I'm here,' Rommel's voice replied, 'what is it?'

'I need the status on the Slip-space core.'

There was a pause and then the sound of heavy breathing.

'Give us another five minutes,' Rommel said.

'Right. I'll call back in five minutes,' Bob said, glancing at his watch and closing the link.

'You're not actually thinking of running away, are you?' Vance asked.

Bob ignored him and turned to Malcolm.

'Power up the MAC guns and fire one round at each destroyer,' Bob ordered, 'if that doesn't take them out, charge them again and fire one at each again.'

'Yes sir,' Malcolm replied. 'Guns charged and ready to fire.'

'Target each of the cruisers and fire away.'

There were another two dull thuds as the MAC guns fired. On impact, each round tore through the shielding of the Covenant destroyers and blasted a large, ragged hole through their hull. The shield had absorbed the brunt of the impact, however, and both ships continued on their course. Their lateral lines glowed blue and a volley of pulse laser fire erupted from their sides.

The ship shook violently and Bob steadied himself on a computer console. Vance just sat in his chair, obviously not at all fazed but the fact they had just been hit with enemy fire.

'Jeez Captain,' Vance said, 'trying to get us all killed?'

'Emergency thrusters starboard,' Bob ordered. He turned to Steve. 'Damage report?'

'Sustained damage from Decks Six to Nine. Breached areas sealed off, although fourteen personnel were in those areas,' Steve said, reading from his console.

Fourteen people lost. That wasn't much in the long run, but what the hell would Bob tell their families if they ever survived through this day?

'Sir, another orbital MAC platform's just been destroyed!' Malcolm exclaimed, 'we're receiving reports that a lot of our ships are being destroyed.'

'Let's make a last stand here!' Vance exclaimed, 'die like a bunch of heroes!'

'You're crazy,' Bob said. He stood up. 'Fire those blasted MAC guns again before they shoot back.'

'Yes, sir,' Malcolm replied. Another two thuds from the bottom of the ship and both destroyers were blown to pieces which scattered throughout the void.

Bob turned to face Vance. The Colonel seemed to be enjoying himself and going through that bottle of whiskey quite fast. He burped loudly and then stared at Bob.

'With all due respect,' Bob said, trying not to annoy the Colonel, 'but none of us need you to shout and commentate on this battle. If you don't want to get blasted to pieces with us,' maybe you should just…be quiet.'

Vance didn't seem to care about what Bob had to say. Instead, he finished off the bottle of whiskey and dropped it to the floor, letting it roll over to where the previous one still lay.

'I never said you had to listen to what I say,' Vance said, slurring some of his words.

Bob shook his head again and then turned back to the main view-screen.

'ETA to rally point Zulu?' He asked aloud.

'Two minutes, sir,' Goodman replied from his station.

On the main view-screen, it was clear the Covenant were winning. Blips representing human ships were gradually disappearing, first growing inside before fading away. The Covenant fleet was fairly close to the planet and Bob saw another MAC platform disappear from the view-screen. They would have to get out of here if they wanted to live through this, he knew it.

He opened the communications link to the Chief Engineer once again.

'I need that Slip-space core made useable now!' Bob said, 'do your best, Rommel.'

'It's taking longer than I expected, sir. Maybe you could send a few more people down here to help out progress would be made faster,' Heinrich replied.

'I'll send five engineering members down there right away. We're going to have to make that core safe to use in the next five minutes,' Bob said.

The link ended and Bob gave the order to send five more engineers down to the core room.

'Sir,' Goodman said, 'we're at the rally point now. There are a few vessels here, but it seems most are retreating…'

'What about the Covenant?' Bob asked. He turned back to the main view-screen. There were plenty of blips representing Covenant ships and not as much as there had been for the human vessels.

'There are twenty Covenant ships in firing range, sir,' Goodman replied, 'the rest are mopping up any resistance around the planet. They're winning…'

The bridge suddenly went quiet. Reach would most likely fall unless by some last minute miracle humanity won. They wouldn't be getting that miracle and one of the last strongholds for humanity would be no more.

'Any communications coming in?' He asked.

Steve looked up from his console.

'There are some, sir,' he said, 'I'll put them on now.'

The static filled voice of what sounded like someone aboard a burning ship came on.

'The planet's defences are being destroyed…' The voice said, 'we have no other option to retreat. Live to fight another day. There are only three MAC platforms left…Continuing the battle now is useless…I…'

The signal cut out, filling the bridge with the noise of static.

'Turn it off,' Bob ordered. The noise stopped. He stood thinking for a moment. Once that Slip-space core was ready. They would escape. They would do this despite the Colonel's complaints. He was in no state to be in charge.

'Can you find the Pillar of Autumn?' Bob asked.

Steve looked down his console, tapping buttons and reading through the information.

'No sir. Neither can I find any traces of her, meaning that she may already have jumped to Slip-space or has been destroyed completely,' Steve replied.

'Then we'll follow suit,' Bob said. Once again the communications link to engineering was switched on.

'Rommel, tell me now that the core is ready,' Bob said. He hoped it was safe enough to use. They didn't have much choice. Eventually the Covenant would actually start attacking them once the planet was a smouldering, lifeless ruin. If they were mopping up now, it wouldn't be long before they started a complete bombardment of the planet.

'You could use it now, sir, but there would a high chance of something going wrong,' Rommel said, 'there's still a few things that need to be fixed…'

'Sir, we have five Covenant ships coming for us!' Goodman shouted, 'all of them are firing a salvo of plasma torpedoes. I'm picking up ten of the torpedoes, locked onto us.'

'How long before impact?' Bob asked.

'One minutes and twelve seconds,' Goodman replied, 'there's no way we can get out of this one.'

Bob spoke back into the link.

'I'm using that core now, Rommel. No matter what's got to be done with it,' Bob said, shutting off the link. He turned to face the crew members.

'We're jumping to Slip-space,' Bob said, 'I want a randomized vector calculated and keyed into the navigational controls. We're getting out of here.'

Vance raised an eyebrow.

'You're actually running away?' Vance said, 'I didn't think you were that kind of person, Captain.'

'You don't know me very well, Colonel,' Bob said.

'Vector calculated, sir,' Goodman said, 'should we enter Slip-space?'

'Impact in forty-seven seconds,' Malcolm said.

Bob paused. There was no time to waste.

'Activate Slip-space entry,' Bob ordered.

There were a brief few seconds of nothing happening when the main view-screen switched off and a massive blue-white flash engulfed the ship. All of a sudden, there was just blackness outside. Bob felt a dizzying sensation for a few seconds before it eased.

'We're in, sir,' Goodman said, 'no trace of the torpedoes.'

Bob took a sigh of relief. He looked at Vance, who had gotten up with his case tucked under one arm.

'If this technology is all it's cracked up to be,' Bob said, 'we should be out of Slip-space fairly soon.'

Vance stepped over to the Captain and poked a finger into his chest.

'That means you're stuck with me,' Vance said, 'and that means I need a damn room.'

Jeff was hanging around his squad's quarters when Jones entered, looking exhausted and only slightly annoyed. The rest of the squad had been sitting and playing cards ever since they had entered Slip-space. That had been only a few hours ago and apparently they had suffered some damage from the battle of Reach.

'You look like you just ran a marathon,' Jeff said as Jones entered. Jones sat down in an empty chair near the table and turned to Jeff.

'I had to help my friend down in engineering,' Jones said, 'and that meant I had to go down into the Slip-space core room and fix stuff up there. Meaning I had to put on a radiation suit and listen to his instructions. Everything I did down there with him and his team helped us enter Slip-space safely.'

'What exactly where the problems with the core, anyway?' Jeff asked, 'because it seems a bit stupid installing something which isn't going to work properly.'

'It was unstable,' Jones replied, 'and I'm no expert, but I think that it wasn't built properly. Being reverse-engineered and all, I think they may have taken a few short-cuts.'

'Just who is your friend down in engineering?' Jeff asked, 'if he's involved with the core, he might be one of the people involved in designing it.'
Jones paused.

'You think he could have made those short-cuts?' Jones asked.

'It's possible,' Jeff said, 'so, who is he?'

'Chief Engineer Heinrich Rommel,' Jones replied, 'he and I were good friends until I had to come to Reach. Now I have a chance to, well, hang out with him again. You should get to know him, he's an okay guy.'

'Maybe later,' Jeff said. He looked at the squad who didn't seem to have a care in the world at the moment. He turned back to Jones.

'Do you have any idea where we're headed?' Jeff asked.

'No, it's on a randomized vector,' Jones said, 'so we could be well away from Earth by now. This new Slip-spaced core-engine thing is unpredictable.'

'No doubt the Covenant is following us,' Jeff said. There could probably be a dozen ships on their tail, having taken pursuit from Reach. That meant that as soon as they came out of Slip-space, the Covenant ships would probably be there already, or if this new Slip-space technology was as good as people made it out to be, the Covenant ships would arrive just after them.

Jeff turned to his squad. They didn't seem to pay him much attention. They looked like they needed to do something other than sit around playing cards.

'Squad!' Jeff shouted. The marines jumped out of their seats, turning to face him and saluting him. That had given them a bit of a fright.

'Go down to the nearest firing range and spend an hour and a half doing target practice,' Jeff said, getting out of his seat, 'we're heading into the unknown and we need all the practice we can get.'

'Does that mean we're heading into battle again, sir?' Private Ekholm asked.

'We most likely are,' Jeff said, 'now get going. We haven't got all day.'

The marines dropped their salutes and started out of the quarters, passing through the door and disappearing into the corridor.

Jeff turned to Jones, who was sitting down and almost
falling asleep.

'Jones, are you still with me?' Jeff asked.

Jones opened one eye.

'What?' He asked, opening the other and stretching, 'you're not going to get me to run laps or something, are you?'

'No, you look like you need a rest,' Jeff said, 'but maybe you should get me to meet this friend of yours sometime.'

'He's busy, being the Chief Engineer,' Jones said, 'but I'm sure we could have a firing range competition or something like that sometime.'

Jeff nodded and started for the door.

'Where are you going?' Jones asked.

'First, I'm finding out how long this trip through Slip-space will be,' Jeff replied, 'then I'm going to figure out whether to stay out in this ship or go into cryo-sleep.'

'Cryo-sleep? You're kidding,' Jones said with some disdain, 'I hate cryo-sleep. I would prefer to spend my time out here, thank you very much.'

'You know, I've heard stories of people going insane if they spend too much time by themselves aboard a ship,' Jeff said as the door opened.

'And you seriously think I'm going to go nuts, considering I'm not going to be by myself and only in the ship for a short time?'

'No, I'm just saying it to scare you,' Jeff said, grinning. He exited the room.

Captain Bob Turnwell sat in his office, which was located in a room join to the corridor just outside the bridge. It was that close so the commanding officer of the ship could go to and from the bridge quickly, if the need ever came by.
Bob had left the bridge a few minutes after they had entered Slip-space. He had started with reading up on any information on the Covenant and then took out a glass of old wine from 2524 and had poured himself a glass which now stood half-full on his desk.

Models of pioneer ships were stuck on one of the walls and framed pictures of family members were on the opposite wall.
Usually a Slip-space journey meant that most of the crew went into cryo-sleep, which Bob hated anyway. This time was different, however, since they would be exiting Slip-space earlier than they would if it had been an ordinary human-made Slip-space engine.

They had the Covenant partly to thank for the Slip-space technology, although looking back on the history of the creation of this new Slip-space technology, there were a few gaping holes. Bob couldn't remember hearing about any Covenant ships that were captured successfully, but if this had been the case then maybe it was kept secret by ONI or something. That was probably why this mission was deemed so top secret, but thanks to the attack on Reach by the Covenant, that mission was now scrubbed.

Earlier in the year it had been worked out that humanity's life-span was only a few months. Now with Reach gone, those months had now gone down to weeks. Things weren't looking good, but at least right now, they were safe, travelling through Slip-space and will probably wind up somewhere they had never been before. They were leading the Covenant away from Earth, at least.

He had a feeling wherever they did end up, they would have to fight. Being stuck with a Colonel unfit for command was a bit of a snag, though. Knowing Vance, he would try and take command and probably make an idiot of himself.
The right thing that High Command should have done was discharge the Colonel. That way he wouldn't be on this ship with them right now.

Wherever they were headed, there was no doubt a bunch of Covenant ships were following them. That meant they would have a few options: if they arrived close to a hospitable planet, they could evacuate there and make a better stand. If they ended up in a part of uncharted space with nothing like a hospitable planet near them, they would probably be blasted to pieces by the Covenant ships. Even if they did arrive close to a planet, there was nothing stopping the Covenant from blasting them to pieces before they got a chance to evacuate. He would have to think of something to get them all safely through all of this.

There was the sound of some static before a voice filtered in through the intercom on the wall.

'Sir, could I please enter?' The voice asked. It was Ensign Malcolm Chang, 'there's some things you need to know.'

'Enter,' Bob said. The static ceased and the doors slid open. Malcolm stepped in and the doors slid shut.

'Anything I should know, Ensign?' Bob asked.

Malcolm coughed and cleared his throat. He seemed a little edgy, but so would most other people if you were going through Slip-space and into the unknown.

'We've detected about a dozen Covenant ships on our tail in the Slip-stream,' Malcolm said, 'but they seem to be having a fair bit of trouble keeping up. Sir, we could very well have to fight them in space.'

'I know that, Ensign,' Bob said. It was a grim prospect but obviously Malcolm was in here to tell him something important, otherwise he wouldn't bother coming in.

'There's not much chance of us making a stand, sir,' Malcolm said, 'thing is, the Slip-space jump has chewed through a lot of the ships power and short circuited the MAC gun capacitors. We can't use the dual cannon anymore, sir.'

'That's not good,' Bob grumbled. There wasn't much chance of making a good stand now.

'We can't jump to Slip-space again, sir,' Malcolm said, 'the Chief Engineer warned me another jump like the one we already did could result in the ship falling apart.'

'It isn't looking good then, is it?' Bob asked. It sure as hell wasn't looking good from what he could see. He was the Captain and he seemed to be out of options.

'No sir, it isn't,' Malcolm replied, 'but there may be a positive to all of this. A way to survive, sir.'

'Then say it,' Bob said.

'The combat AI, Windtalker, has managed to infiltrate a Covenant Slip-space communications system. It seems we're going in the direction of a planet quite special to them. It is an Earth-type world from what we know,' Malcolm said, 'although we don't know the extent of the Covenant presence there.'

Bob raised an eyebrow. It was obvious what they would have to do, then.

'Have you set a course for this planet?' Bob asked.

'One step ahead of you, sir,' Malcolm said, 'although it'll be September eleventh before we arrive there. Another eleven days in Slip-space.'

'This is beginning to sound good, Ensign,' Bob said. They could evacuate to the planet after exiting Slip-space and make a more formidable stand there. 'I want everyone on the ship alerted to this fact. We may have to be ready to evacuate quickly.'

'Aren't you going to go into cryo-sleep, sir?' Malcolm asked.

'What's the point, Ensign?' Bob asked, 'an eleven day journey isn't that bad. I doubt the engineering folk will go to sleep for the journey.'

'They aren't, sir,' Malcolm said, 'they're going to try and fix the Slip-space stuff up.'

'Makes sense,' Bob said, 'anything else I should know, Ensign?'

'Well, some of the marines are planning to host an auction in the main mess hall in a few days,' Malcolm sad, grinning, 'although I doubt they would have much to sell.'

'An auction?' Bob asked, raising an eyebrow.

'Yes, sir, the items will include pieces of the ship that were damaged in the battle, about the size of your hand,' Malcolm said, 'as well as things that marines don't want anymore.'

'Who organized it?' Bob asked. At least the auction didn't involve killing and trying not to get killed.

'The ODST Major, Golding,' Malcolm answered.
Major George Golding lead the ODST forces posted on the ship and was an eccentric and likeable character, dressing up in a green-black cowboy outfit despite what people told him about regulation uniform. He was from Ohio and was an expert tracker, although that wouldn't help him if they ended up in a space battle.

'Is that all, Ensign?' Bob asked.

'That's about the extent of the situation,' Malcolm said, 'we could very well end up getting blasted to smithereens once we jump out of Slip-space. We have eleven days to plan what to do next, but we really won't know until we get out of Slip-space. This planet could be well-controlled by the Covenant.'

'I understand that, Ensign,' Bob said, 'but we'll have to take our chances. You may leave now, Malcolm.'

'Yes sir,' Malcolm said, turning around and exiting the office.

The fact that they had set a course for a possible heavily controlled Covenant planet had given them a chance of surviving the next week. They would evacuate down to the planet and work out something once they were there, but they would need to get rid of the Colonel. He was too much of a burden and wasn't meant to be on their ship. How they would do this was beyond Bob, although they could simply arrange an 'accident' to occur because absolutely no one else outside the ship would know about it.

Bob just hoped the Colonel died in a firefight. With him out of the way, they would have an easier job of making a stand on the planet without the interference of Colonel Vance.

The week went by without incident and Jeff had considered going through the uncomfortable process of cryo-sleep but had then decided against it. He didn't like the idea of lying naked in a tube pretty much frozen with nutrient filled liquid being pumped into him. It didn't seem very pleasant.

He was sitting in the mess hall, the auction now finished, as the other marines with him filed out and headed off to do their own thing. Major George Golding was preparing to leave, having spent an hour and a half as an auctioneer auctioning off items such as broken circuit-boards and pieces of the outer armour plating that had been damaged in the battle. Other things that went on sale were the personal effects of some marines who didn't want them anymore, such as picture frames and stuff you wouldn't usually want. Everything had been sold, some stuff quite cheap, and it seems that the so-called 'Major George Golding Retirement Fund' had received plenty of money.

Jeff didn't know the Major very well but judging from his broad shoulders, medium statue (about six foot and five inches), choice of outfit, his hat, his moustache and his personality Jeff could get to know him and befriend him quite easily. The Major was head of the ODSTs on the ship and Jeff had once been an ODST, albeit for a short time. His outfit, a dark, green-tinged cowboy outfit which included the jacket, shirt, trousers and boots as well as a hat showed that he wasn't one to conform. His cowboy-style hat matched the outfit completely and his Texas-look and moustache helped him look like someone who would probably prefer to be out hunting right about now.

He was meant to be an expert tracker, not that would help you much in a mainly space engagement war. He seemed like the kind who would be good at that.

'Son, could you help me move this thing?'

Jeff looked up, his train of thought broken. The mess hall was mainly empty now and the Major seemed to be having some trouble pushing a large cart along, filled with fragments of the outer armour that had been damaged and retrieved during the battle. These were obviously the ones the Major hadn't chosen to sell or simply hadn't got a chance to.

The Major was looking at Jeff, his Ohio accent helping with his hunter-style image.

'Are you just gonna sit there and stare or are you actually going to get off your ass and help me?' The Major asked.
Jeff got up and stepped over to the Major, stopping beside him and easily pushing the metal cart out of the little gap in the floor it had got stuck in.

'You're strong, son,' the Major said, 'those fragments sure are heavy.' He held out a hand. 'I'm Major George Golding.'

'Sergeant Jeff Ganszo,' Jeff said, shaking hands with the Major, 'I've heard about you.'

'I've heard about you too, son,' the Major said, 'you were once an ODST. What the hell made you quit? No one has ever quit the ODSTs, son, unless they die or get too old.'

'Sounds pleasant,' Jeff said, grinning.

The Major slapped him on the back in a friendly manner.

'You should get back into it. You're always free to come into my unit,' the Major said. He began to gradually push the cart along and towards the nearest door.

'You didn't buy anything, did you?' The Major asked,
stopping and turning around, 'I do have a few things I didn't sell which may be worth taking a look at.'

'Like what?'

The Major took out a familiar looking small wooden case from the cart.

'Where did you get that?' Jeff asked. He recognized it as the Magnum revolver case belonging to Wilkes, the technician he met when he was aboard the Space Construction Dock.

'One of the guys who was killed on board this ship when we got hit during the battle, this is his,' the Major said, 'quite an antique, son.'

He opened it and took out the shiny metal revolver inside. He examined it closely before putting it back.

So Wilkes had been one of the ones killed? Now the Major was hawking his stuff. It seemed that everyone had already moved on from the battle, seeing that hardly anyone had mentioned Reach in the past week.

'Someone died and you're already selling their stuff?' Jeff

'It ain't that bad, son,' the Major said, 'besides, it's a nice weapon. I would think a starting price of five hundred, maybe six hundred.'

'I'm not buying it,' Jeff replied apprehensively, 'it's not like you need it, anyway.'

'You never know,' the Major said. He put the case back on the cart and pushed it over to the door.

'I'll see you around, Sergeant,' the Major said as he left the room. He was right about him seeing Jeff again sometime in the future.

The eleventh of September came and Bob had spent most of the morning on the bridge. Crew members were coming out of cryo-sleep, not that Bob was one of them.

Sitting on the Colonel's fold-up chair, Bob waited for when they were going to exit Slip-space, which could be any moment now. The new Slip-space technology was meant to be as accurate as the Covenant's. He would find out if that was true soon enough, since the Slip-space technology hadn't been tested in action until now.

He turned to Ensign Goodman, their navigations officer. It was ten past ten according to Reach time on the eleventh of September. Reach time properly didn't exist anymore.

'How long till we exit Slip-space?' Bob asked.
Goodman looked up from his console.

'About fifteen minutes, sir,' Goodman replied, 'we're on course as well. The Covenant ships following us will be out just after we arrive.'

'Great,' Bob mumbled quietly. They were at risk of being fired upon once the Covenant ships appeared, so they would have to act fast enough for that not to happen. However, they needed to go through proper protocol when approaching a possible enemy world. Send down a few probes, take samples of the atmosphere and scan for enemy activity. They would need to find out whether the planet was hospitable to humans first and what the extent of the enemy presence on it was.

'What about our databases, sir?' Malcolm asked. Bob turned to him. 'If they can't be shut down from here, when will we get round to doing it?'

Bob paused. They would need the combat AI Windtalker to wipe the databases from Central Processing, and someone would have to first put the AI into the databases manually. A simple combat AI couldn't pass through all of the security locks set in place by ONI (Office of Naval Intelligence). If they had gotten a proper one when they were meant to, the Cole Protocol would have been completed already.

'I'll get someone to do it later,' Bob said, 'right now we have to find out how large the enemy presence on the planet is before we can start evacuating there.'

'What about us, sir?' Goodman asked, 'will we evacuate as well?'

This was a good question and Bob could sense the young Ensign's anxiety.

'You can if you want, Ensign,' Bob replied, 'but as the old
saying goes, "a Captain always goes down with his ship".'

'You're not actually thinking of staying on the ship when everyone else has gone, sir?' Steve asked from behind.

'This ship is my responsibility,' Bob said, 'and if I can, I will try and get it down to the surface.'

There was a brief silence on the bridge. Suddenly, Goodman grinned and looked at the Captain.

'You won't be able to do that yourself, sir,' Goodman said, 'I'll stay with you.'

'And me,' Steve said.

'As well as me,' Malcolm said.

Pretty soon the entire bridge crew had volunteered to stay on board. Bob wasn't about to stop them in a hurry. He wondered if many of them had thought about what could happen to them as the ship was blasted apart. Being disintegrated and/or vaporized didn't sound very pleasant.

'We'll be exiting Slip-space in one minute,' Goodman announced. Bob didn't really know what to expect: a Covenant armada or just a large planet to appear in front of them.

Even if they did get down to the planet, what would they do after that? They couldn't go back to Earth with the Covenant around, the Covenant would follow them straight back to Earth. That would mean the rest of humanity would be destroyed. No, they would need to hold out as long as they could. Things weren't looking too positive for them at the moment.

'Thirty seconds until we exit Slip-space,' Goodman said.

'Power up all working weaponry, including Shiva warhead launchers and Archer missile pods,' Bob ordered, 'if there is a welcoming party I want every weapon to be targeted at something.'

'Fifteen seconds,' Goodman announced.

There was a slight hum from the ship and seconds later a blue-white flash engulfed the ship before they appeared before a dark, starry back drop. A large, blue-white sphere took up most of the front windows. There were no Covenant ships in sight.

Thank God for that, Bob thought. No welcoming party. The Covenant ships following them would be in normal space pretty soon.

'I want a probe sent down to that planet on the double,' Bob ordered.

'Yes sir,' Goodman replied, 'we also seem to be detecting a lot of energy signatures coming from the planet. Some are Covenant while others are unknown.'

Some Covenant, but what could the others be? Who else could be on that planet? This seemed a bit odd.

'The probe will give us the information we need,' Bob said, watching on the main view-screen as a small blip shot forth from their position, representing the probe, 'Ensign Malcolm, I need you to scan the surrounding area. Find out where the hell we are.'

'Yes sir,' Malcolm replied, keying in commands on his terminal. A few moments later he came back with the results.

'Sir, we're well into uncharted space,' Malcolm said, 'that new Slip-space technology brought us far enough away from charted space for no surrounding constellations to be known. We're in the middle of nowhere.'

'It's not exactly nowhere with this planet here,' Bob said to himself. If they were well outside UNSC space; that meant their chances of ever getting back to Earth were even lower than before.

'The results for the probe are coming back, sir,' Goodman said, 'want me to transfer them to the main view-screen?'

'Do it,' Bob replied.

Photos and information started appearing on the main view-screen. Bob split up the important information from everything else.

It seemed the planet had Earth-like gravity and an Earth-like atmosphere. Photos of mysterious looking structures like none Bob had ever seen before had been taken by the probe. Most were overgrown in the lush jungles of the planet, but a few photos showed some out in the middle of lakes and on the sides of hills. The entire planet was dotted with the same architecture-style buildings, some emitting the energy signatures they had picked up before.

There were some minor Covenant installations as well, but there were only a few photographs of these. Apparently this was all the information the probe had sent before it had been destroyed by Covenant weapons fire. One Covenant installation looked to be built into some of the old ruins, a training ground and tank garage in one. The recognizable shapes of Wraith tanks were visible in the high altitude photos.

The planet was safe enough, with about six major continents and many tropical islands. Every continent had at least three Covenant installations on it. They would go to one fairly close to where the planet's equator would be, being fourth from the nearest star.

'I want all evacuation groups to go to this general area,' Bob said, highlighting a part of the photographic map, 'that way we can easily rally ourselves.'

'There are a few minor Covenant installations there, sir,' Goodman said, 'and it's mostly jungle as well. Are you sure this is wise?'

'It's jungle. The Covenant isn't used to fighting on the ground, let alone in thick jungle,' Bob said, looking at Goodman, 'they like to fight in space. We won't be giving them that liberty. We'll use guerrilla tactics if we have to.'

'Sir!' Steve shouted, getting Bob's attention, 'we're detecting several Slip-space ruptures a few kilometres away. It's the Covenant, sir. About seven ships: three cruisers, two destroyers and two frigates.'

Bob looked at the main view-screen. Blips representing the ships appeared, moving into position about ten kilometres away.

'It's the welcoming party,' Bob said, 'but they're late.' He turned to Malcolm.

'Are there any weapon's signatures appearing on the ships?' He asked the Ensign.

'None, sir,' Malcolm replied, 'they're not firing on us, which is strange.'

'Must be our lucky day, then,' Bob said.