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Longsword R: Midway
Posted By: Sterfrye36<Sterfrye36@yahoo.com>
Date: 14 August 2008, 11:23 pm

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      The Daemon had just been the beginning.
      The following days developed into a blur of ludicrous simulation exercises that always seemed to beat the Jolly Rogers like red-headed stepchildren. There had been a bombing mission on a forested planet where the Covenant seemed to have set up every anti-air gun in their arsenal over an impossibly small, maneuverable convoy. Next, there was an escort mission of a wing of old Rockwell B-763 Cutlasses over a target that had ridiculous amounts of plasma flak and fighter support. As if that weren't enough, Grit decided to screw with them by sending them out on a recon mission in deep space that lasted for hours with absolutely nothing happening. James, unaware of the pointless mission's length, had failed to bring along enough movies to entertain himself, and therefore spent most of his time thinking of unusual and disparaging nicknames for the AI.
      But today was different. Today, they had an actual mission.
      A mission consisting of sitting around for hours on end waiting for other UNSC ships to arrive. Conscious of the duration of this exercise in inanity, however, James brought along a good six hours worth of movies and his music player. This time, he would be prepared for whatever came his way.

       "Exiting Slipspace in three...two...one...now."
      The white nothingness of Slipspace resolved itself, as the Maverick reentered normal space. The first thing that Captain Reeves noticed about their destination was the rocks.
      Lots of rocks. They had emerged into an asteroid field which surrounded a small planet on all sides. The dwarf planet was totally unremarkable, almost indistinguishable from some of the asteroids orbiting around it. It was a dull brown color, and pockmarked with craters from eons of abuse. The dying star it orbited gave the thing an eerie red glow that seemed to create a generally depressing atmosphere.
      "Monitor all frequencies. We don't know who or what's going to be getting our attention." The Mav's communications officer, Hayes, nodded.
      "Aye-aye, sir, we're listening. I'm reading a lot of echoes and shadows from inside the field but nothing solid yet."
      "We're not transmitting anything, are we?"
      "No, sir. Radar is in sniff mode and all other sensors are passive. If whoever it is knows we're here, it's because they found us on their own."
      "Good. Keep me informed."
      "Aye, sir."
      An asteroid field. Interesting. And, for that matter, dangerous. Everything he had been told back in the academy had told him to never steer into an asteroid field unless absolutely necessary. The asteroids had a nasty habit of colliding with whatever ship wandered in too close. He remembered a picture of a small pleasure yacht that had once been taken out for a spin in an asteroid field by some joy riders. It was found days later, riddled full of holes, all passengers dead. It was almost like someone had done nothing but blast away at it with a shotgun from every possible angle.
      ONI being ONI, Reeves was sure they had their reasons, but still...this was crazy.
      "Sir, I've got something. Audio only and it's faint, but it's definitely there."
      "Put it through."
      Hayes did. A raucous cacophony of static assaulted the bridge crew's ears for a few moments until Hayes isolated the frequency and locked it down.
      "Howdy," came a voice with a thick, Texas drawl. "Maverick, this is Midway control. Please bring your course to vector one-one-zero and proceed through admission corridor one. Acknowledge." Hayes looked up from her position in the pit with a questioning look. Reeves just shrugged and nodded.
      "Midway control, this is the Maverick. Acknowledged. Standing by." The view out of the bridge rotated and shifted as the Maverick swung around to take on the new course, which faced its nose towards the planet.
      "Here we go," Reeves muttered to no one in particular.

      A small rock. That was it. A feeling of severe disappointment had washed over James the moment he'd gotten a good look at the Valkyrie. Just a stupid base hidden inside a small planet in an asteroid field in a totally unremarkable system. Figured.
      He'd been sitting in his F-602 Sabre for over three hours now. The boredom hadn't been nearly as bad as he'd expected. Multiple ships had rendezvoused just outside the asteroid field at more or less regular intervals, all from different directions. Already there had been a few ships that had surprised him: the Moser-class carrier Texas, the Irving-class destroyer Dragon Slayer, a smattering of older Midkiff-class corvettes like Flye and Dreamweaver. He'd heard of all of them before, ships that had survived insurmountable odds or possessed unusually good luck. The Dragon Slayer, for instance, had survived a three on one engagement by overloading one of its MAC cannon rails just as a plasma torpedo came within a scant few hundred meters of it. The resulting magnetic interference had dissipated the containment field that the Covenant had used to guide the torpedo, thereby allowing the destroyer to escape and fight another day.
      Now this new arrival. James couldn't quite figure out her make; the cameras on the outside of his bird were stretched to their very limits and were giving him a faint, fuzzy picture, at least when there wasn't a rock in the way.
      Only half-listening to the communications between Midway control and the newcomer, James almost missed the name of the ship which was already part way through the approach corridor.
      The Maverick.
      James was stunned. The Mav was here? So that was why Becker had behaved like he'd expected to see the Swordsmen again. This was great, if the Mav was here, then...
      James caught himself and shook his head. No, this was fantastic! If Marcus was still alive he could contact him and talk to him about God once more. James knew that there was a good chance Marcus might just rebuff him again, but it was still worth a—
      "Heads up," Griff's voice came crashing into James's victorious vision. "Slipspace rupture outside the asteroid field." A pause, then: "Enemy signals confirmed. Jolly Rogers, come about to vector two-nine-zero. ROE: weapons red; do not fire unless fired upon. Sensors identify enemy force as follows: four CCS cruisers, three carriers, seven destroyers, nine frigates, six corvettes, a few supply vessels, and a big blip..." Grit's voice trailed off.
      "Tentatively identified as a Daemon."

      Force Master Daedalus stood stoically on the bridge of the Covenant carrier Hushed Vengeance and looked vacantly at the hologram readout, only absent mindedly reading what scrolled across it. He let out a low growl. Why in the name of the Ancient Ones had he been assigned to this command? He'd been given this post after distinguishing himself above the Human's last stronghold as the Shipmaster who destroyed one of the Humans' lead orbital defense platforms. It earned him this post, one that would normally go to a mid-ranking Sangheili commander. The Hierarchs had been so impressed by his nearly suicidal charge that they had ignored Sangheili protests and allowed all of the ships under his command to retain all of their technology and weapons. He'd even been given command of the best fighter group in the entire Covenant Navy: the Necromancer unit, twenty of the best Jiralhanae fighter pilots who ever lived. Yet here he was searching an unoccupied system, simply mining magnetic materials for Babylon.
      Evidently the Hierarchs had not been able to totally mollify their Sangheili protectors. Still, the fact that the Sangheili had been unable to stop his appointment was a telling sign; Tartarus had managed to gain the Prophets' favor. Babylon was proof enough of that, though the fact didn't make it any easier on his warrior's senses. He longed for battle once more.
      The console beeped; the probes were returning their finds. Daedalus studied them with the same tired look he had given countless other readouts.
      He let out a huff of irritation. It was one thing to do his duty as the Covenant demanded, but here...
      Well, he thought as something in the readouts caught his eyes. This is an unusually large deposit of the mineral. Excellent. This should be more than enough to finish furbishing Babylon and I can finally get back to fighting the damned humans. He keyed another button on the display.
      "Bring the Reaper to the front and order it to begin harvesting. We'll be done in only a few cycles if everything goes well and then we can return to Babylon." He didn't have to add and to battle.

      Grit was working very fast. The odds of survival were not good. The enemy force was numerically almost equal and much more heavily armed. He checked the systems; five more minutes before he could safely activate the Santana Translight Engines. He'd begun the emergency cold startup as soon as the signals had come in but five minutes in this situation was still going to be a long time. How had the Covenant even known they were here? The interference from all the magnesium was so intense in some areas that UNSC equipment had to be specially shielded in order to prevent damage. There was a chance—a slim one, but a chance—that the Covenant had just wandered into the system. Possible, but unlikely.
      A sensor near the edge of the field pinged him. The Daemon was moving to the front. So much for just sitting this one out, Grit thought grimly. They're just going to blast us all before we even get a chance to fight back. Damn it! His emotion subroutines got the better of him. There were contingency plans for a situation like this—a thing he probably obsessed a little too much over he'd admitted to himself time and time again—but he didn't like putting this one into action. It called for a delaying action, just long enough to get the Valkyrie up and running. He had a few tricks up his sleeve, and if the humans could hold out for that long, it wouldn't matter how large the enemy force was. He threw open a COM to all the UNSC ships that had been assembled.
      "Boys, we've got company. All ships come to vector two-nine-zero. Launch Longswords from VF-32, VF-213, and VF-142. Flye, Dreamweaver, and Odessa, move out in front of the fighters, get close to the enemy super weapon and carriers and drop their shields. Use your new ordnance. Once you've dropped it, get away out of system on the coordinates I'm transmitting to you, now; if the rest of the fleet does not show within twenty minutes, retreat to Earth. Jolly Rogers, you are to engage the Covenant ships in descending order in terms of threat level. Be advised, asteroids will begin breaking orbit and attacking the Covenant fleet; stay clear of any incoming but press your assault. Catclaw, Shotwell stick with the main group and screen against Seraph attacks and boarding craft. All other ships, standby. ROE: weapons green, cleared to engage. Valkyrie will be up in T-minus four minutes and forty seconds. As soon as she's up, prepare to jump out of system on new coordinates to a fall back point. Midway control out."

      "Flye, Dreamweaver, Odessa, this is Jolly Roger Leader. You're the tip of the spear, we're the shaft."
      "Dreamweaver, acknowledged."
      "Flye, understood."
      "Odessa here. Leading the way."
      To James it was like a roller coaster from hell. There were pre-determined paths through the field, outlined by a series of red, box shaped "gates" that appeared on the COFFIN's screens. They were difficult to follow, fluidly twisting and turning all over the place like an ancient serpent, an effect that was a byproduct of relying on magnets to repel the asteroids and keep the paths open. They were pretty roomy for his Sabre, but the space could get crowded quickly; James could only imagine how the corvettes ahead were managing to navigate through here.
      The corvettes blew out of the asteroid field, straight into the enemy fleet at top speed. The strange thing was that there was no immediate fire from the Covie ships, but that suited the corvettes' captains just fine. Small, orb-shaped objects were ejected out of dual ports on each side of the corvettes as they raced through the enemy fleet. They were entirely unimposing: dull gray colored, featureless. Their six foot diameter made them look like gigantic marbles or ball-bearings or even massively over-inflated beach balls.
      Of course, none of those objects were designed to destroy Covenant shielding and electronics through electromagnetic pulse.
      These were MK68 Bulldog mines, nicknamed "Juicy Js" because of their plump appearance, and they were deadly in capable hands. They weren't nuclear but were instead powered by an explosively pumped flux compression generator to produce pulses of tens of terawatts, exceeding the power of a lightning strike by orders of magnitude. This power allowed the Bulldog mines to create a large magnetic field around them an instant before they detonated which contained the EMP blast in a limited area and allowed them to be used tactically. The corvettes had just lain over two dozen strung out all over the enemy formation.
      The simultaneous detonation of twenty-seven mines was nearly blinding, like a sea of cerulean fire. Shielding flickered all over the Covenant fleet before dieing pitifully. The corvettes were already well out of range of their weapons and were turning around to deliver more of their toys if needed. The Jolly Rogers were free to play, even if it was just for a moment; once the Covie ships brought up their shields, it would be impossible for the Sabres to injure them as they simply did not have enough firepower to sneak a shot past those shields near a pulse laser turret.
      As James shot out of the field in his Sabre, the Daemon quickly filled the forward COFFIN screen, like some sort of megalith. He selected his ASM-54 Copperhead missiles by voice command, hesitating a moment as he remembered the last time he'd attempted to launch one of these missiles. It had locked up on the rails, totally failed to even leave his bird. His resulting attempt to flee the combat zone had nearly killed him.
      But it was only a moment. The other pilots fired. So did James.
      "Jolly Roger Four, bruiser!"
      The fighter rocked slightly as the missile punched out of the main bay easily, giving James a small amount of relief. Its rocket motor ignited and the missile sped away on a quickly disappearing trail of smoke. It wasn't long before twelve missiles slammed into the Daemon's unprotected hide in the machine's theorized weak point: the joins where the diamond shaped structure connected to the hexagons. There were no secondary explosions as the Sabre invisibly flashed past towards the others ships in the enemy fleet.
      "Jolly Roger Leader to all units: break by pairs and engage. Fire at will!"

      Daedalus charged back onto the bridge, soaking wet and trailing water. Soap was clearly evident all over his fur and a towel was haphazardly tied around his waist. After delivering the order to begin harvesting operations, the Force Master had retired to his personal quarters to bathe. He'd been neglecting the chore because he'd secretly been hoping to run into some humans and didn't want to take the chance of being caught off guard. Of course, this was exactly what had happened, and he'd nearly been electrocuted by his bath's short-circuiting lights.
      "Status report!" he roared as the smell of burning and melted circuitry reached his nostrils.
      "Enemy forces came from out of the asteroid field!" reported a Jiralhanae with some smoldering patches of fur obviously caused by the explosion of a nearby console. Another Jiralhanae had not been so lucky; the console had exploded in his face, driving a long piece of metal straight through his right eye socket and into his brain. He lay on the floor unmoving, blood pouring from the wound like a fountain.
      "Three heavily armored corvettes laid some sort of bombs which detonated and destroyed our shielding. We have multiple systems out: lighting and life support in aft decks seven, eight, and nine; our pulse lasers along our fore quarter have been completely disabled. Sensors are functioning only at thirty percent and are experiencing multiple errors. Engines have been shut down and are attempting emergency restart. The battlenet is in chaos, I'm having difficulty assessing status of our other ships. The Reaper has reported heavy damage in its joints from multiple missile impacts, missiles launched after the detonation of the bombs!
      "Impossible!" roared Daedalus. "The only thing we could see out there were those corvettes! Where did those missiles come from? No matter, restore our shields immediately. Quickly, do it before—"
      A series of explosions from deep within the ships knocked the Force Master off his feet and sent him tumbling into the wall. By some small miracle the dutiful Jiralhanae was still on his feet, bellowing information at the top of his lungs.
      "Missile impacts! Damage reported on aft decks fourteen through seven. Engineering is now reporting that the engines have taken explosive damage and can only function at forty percent once they're restarted."
      "Launch all fighters in this fleet!" Daedalus ordered as he staggered back to his feet, trying to toss wet fur out of his eyes. "Order the Necromancer group to destroy those corvettes!" He stumbled over to the holographic readout once more.
      "Order the Reaper to blast a path through this field, I don't want to take any chances with any human traps. We're going in. The humans had to come from somewhere, and I want revenge."
      "Force Master, increased magnetic activity within the field. Asteroids are breaking orbit and heading right for our fleet!"

      Some of asteroids near the edge of the field had been fitted with one-shot super magnets created from the magnesium found in this very field. Once given a signal, they would activate and push against each other in a controlled manner, adjusting their trajectories to attack enemy ships. They weren't even fitted with any bomb. The field had a pretty good rotational speed, and the rocks selected had been among the most massive ONI could feasibly fit with a super magnet. In principle, the defensive scheme—simply named Guard—operated just like a MAC. Still, it had initially been scoffed at by many in ONI until Grit had proven their worth in simulation after simulation. Their natural camouflage and surprise factor made the rocks a perfectly sound strategy.
      Unfortunately, none of the simulations Grit had run had a Reaper in them. The Reaper was a machine designed to harvest deposits of valuable resources from interstellar rock and was equipped with an extremely powerful gravity generator used to capture free floating debris so that the oversized plasma cannons could melt the awkwardly shaped material into liquid form. The generator could then reshape the liquids into convenient sized cubes for easily collections and processing. The machine was hardly a weapon of war. Its shipmaster, however, was ticked.
      The generator managed to catch a good amount of the asteroids in its artificial field, bringing them to a dead stop. The plasma cannons opened up, utterly obliterating the improvised missiles into a glowing, liquid, molten mess.
      The rest of the rocks flew past in an almost comically slow fashion past the Reaper and pounded the Covenant fleet. One asteroid nailed the lead CCS cruiser, the Obfuscating Platitude and crushed its nose back in on itself like an aluminum can. A pair of destroyers were hit hard, leaving a massive dent in their sides. A frigate was unlucky enough to take a direct hit on her belly, cracking her in half down her spine like a giant peanut.
      That didn't stop the launch of the majority of the Seraph fighters. They began to pour out of docking bays all over the Covenant fleet; first a trickle, then a swarm. They recklessly sped into the asteroid field while the Reaper selectively blasted rocks out of their way. Of course, there were a handful that managed to accidentally stray into the fire and were vaporized instantly. By and large, however, the fighters made it into the field without issue.
      All except for a group of five craft that no human eyes had ever beheld. They were longer by about two meters, more angular than the piscine-shaped Seraphs. Indeed, their basic profile was more pyramidal. Their jet black coloring would have made them difficult to spot were it not for the extreme edges of the craft, which were painted a brilliant gold. Plasma cannons were evident along their wings, three to a side. Two plasma missile launchers sat in the chin of each machine, ominously larger than their little cousins on the wings. A stinger like protrusion jutted out a good meter off the tail.
      The vehicles were going in the opposite direction, directly after the trio of human corvettes trying to exit the system and make the jump to Slipspace. The fighters caught up with the human ships quickly, their tremendously powerful engines and smaller size enabling them to accelerate far beyond anything the corvettes could manage.
      The new enemies flew in a diamond formation, each ship perfectly equidistant from the next, all perfectly aligned at the same relative altitude. Plasma missiles simultaneously glowed in their launching ports before blasting out, blue teardrops of death that slammed into the lead corvette without mercy. Armor plating melted off of the superstructure and flash froze in the vacuum. A series of plasma bolts landed just above amidships and chewed through the hull easily; an explosive decompression launched debris into space, including a few human who violently contorted as their bodies were torn apart by the sudden change in pressure.
      The corvettes opened up with their meager point defense systems but couldn't seem to catch the fighters in a crossfire. Each time the three of them would come close to boxing in an enemy, the fighter would spin away and a new one would come in on a different vector. Their attack was clock-like, absolutely flawless.
      It didn't take long for the damage to become critical. The Odessa didn't explode but simply died. Its lights flickered and its engines slowed to nothing. The fighters adjusted their weaving pattern to take on the starboard most corvette but they were too late; the Flye and Dreamweaver jumped into Slipspace and vanished.
      The fighters wheeled around, back towards the asteroid field. They had already gotten their first kill of the day, but the real hunt was about to begin.

      "Shotwell, Catclaw, confirm birds for gorilla in killbox alpha," Midway control—whatever the heck that was—spoke over the tactical net. Marcus Easley had scrambled with the rest of his squadron and was sitting in his C709S Super Longsword in a combat air patrol pattern around the Maverick. He now deeply regretted not shaving over the past week; his newly grown beard was making it difficult for him to find his chin-mounted microphone controls and was itching like crazy. Still, he'd gotten quite a ways into the Old Testament, trying to make sure he understood every word he'd read of it.
It was, frankly, a whole lot more complicated than he'd remembered. Just trying to keep all of the families straight was maddening. He'd actually drawn a flowchart in order to keep it all in order and was still as confused as ever.
      "Shotwell here, birds affirmative."
      "Catclaw, birds affirmative."
      Marcus still didn't understand what was going on. His dreams were normally disjointed, hazy fragments that he could later sort out as various things he'd been thinking about that day, assuming he could remember his dream at all. This dream, however...had been unlike anything he'd ever had, too real to be ignored. His eyes briefly flicked to his left hand grasping the throttle. That cross...
      He shook his head. Thinking about theology now would only get him killed.
      The Catclaw and Shotwell were at the head of the makeshift UNSC fleet, preparing to meet the Seraphs and boarding craft head-on. They were both Aegis-class light cruisers, ships specifically designed for anti-fighter operations. They were only slightly heavier than destroyers in terms of tonnage, but their size wasn't what made them unique; that honor belonged to their weaponry.
      Due to their mission profile, Aegis-class cruisers lacked a MAC gun. Instead, they relied on their ten multi-cell S-PAC 98 Sea Anaconda SAM launchers and ludicrously large number of fifty millimeter cannons for point defense. The SAM launchers were arranged so there were two launchers to cover each hemisphere; two in the front, two on top, two on bottom, and two on the starboard and port respectively. They could hit targets from quite a ways out with high amounts of accuracy before enemy fighters could close to within a few kilometers. If the enemy ever got past that outer defense envelope and closed within the missiles minimum effective range, they would have to deal with the gigantic eighty-eight millimeter flak cannons at medium range and the fifty-millimeter guns that the ships had for their point defense system. When they had an enemy fighter in front of them, a position where they could bring every single one of their SAM launchers to bear, there was a good chance that the fighter was going down. They were a fighter pilot's worst nightmare.
      And they had the Covenant right where they wanted them.
      "Shotwell, birds away!"
      "Catclaw, birds away!"
      A total of two hundred S-PAC 98 Sea Anaconda missiles broke out of their polycarbonate shells and blasted away from the Aegis-class cruisers like an angry swarm of bees. Watching on his radar, Marcus saw the missiles accelerate rapidly, straight towards the swarm of Seraphs in the killbox. The two gigantic blips on his radar, one white for the missiles, the other red for the Seraphs, intersected then disappeared, replaced by hundreds of enemy contacts as the Covenant fighters broke formation, trying to avoid the missiles.
      For some Seraphs it was no use. The S-PAC 98 Sea Anacondas slammed into the lead ships, crushing their shields with kinetic energy before their warheads exploded. Others managed to dodge the opening salvo by diving, climbing, or turning at the last moment, but not many. Just by looking outside of his cockpit at the distant fireballs, Marcus estimated that at least eighty percent of the missiles had found their mark.
      "Swordsman Leader, this is Midway control. We have roughly two hundred bandits inbound. Buster to their location and engage. You and the other squadrons on station will provide fighter support until the Valkyrie is up and running in T-minus two minutes thirty seconds. Just hold out until then." Marcus keyed his chin mike only to get a loud blast of static in his ears. He cursed, became embarrassed but didn't know why, and tried to find the correct key. After his third attempt, he finally got it.
      "Midway control, this is Swordsman Leader. What kind of support will we have?"
      "I'm afraid the Aegis cruisers are all your going to get, but it'll take them a minute or so to fully reload their Sea Anacondas. The Guard system is keeping their capital ships out the field by continual repositioning, but the enemy's super weapon is really putting a strain on maintaining that blockade. The other ships are being held back to protect the Valkyrie. You're on your own, but I will continue to provide support."
      "Roger, Midway control. Swordsman Leader out."
      Whoever he is, thought Marcus, he's putting a lot of faith in just a few squadrons. The directive to "buster" to the Seraphs was brevity code to fly at maximum continuous speed, an order that seemed to betray either a fatal overconfidence or lunacy. Even with the undeniable success the Aegis cruisers had just achieved, the three Longsword squadrons—the VF-32 Swordsmen, VF-142 Ghostriders, and VF-213 Black Lions—were still heavily outnumbered. Given the Longswords' loadouts, they would have been better suited to trying to down the Seraphs from a long range with their powerful ASGM-10 "Boa" missiles, nick named "flying telephone poles" for their mammoth size. Their hypersonic speed, achieved only moments after launch made it difficult for enemies to evade them because they closed with their target so quickly. Their power was horrendous, even though they carried no warhead. Instead, they relied on their mass and sheer kinetic energy to punch right through Covenant shields and destroy the enemy. There were only a few weaknesses: the missiles were designed to be used at a long distance; if they were launched too closely to a maneuvering target, they wouldn't be able to match its moves. Plus, the missiles had no active radar of their own but instead relied on the launching craft's radar to help guide them in on their target. Lastly, a Longsword could only carry a few—no more than four—in the main bay and hope to still be effective in combat because of their massive weight.
      "Black Lion Leader to Swordsman and Ghostrider Leaders. Recommend we stiff arm 'em."
      "Sounds good to me, Black Lion Leader. How about you, Swordsmen Leader?"
      "Me too, Black Lion Leader. Let's do it" A few seconds of silence passed.
      "Swordsmen Leader, do you copy?" Confused, Marcus looked outside of his cockpit at Black Lion Leader who appeared just as confused as he did. Marcus realized that he'd hit the wrong button and quickly keyed the correct one under his chin.
      "Yes, I copy. Let's do it."
      "Swordsmen, fence in. Buster." Easley spoke over the squad's tactical channel, giving the squadron orders to make sure their switches were set to begin combat. "Lock 'em up, activate SYSLINK with VF-213 and -142 and standby." Easley matched actions to words, locking his radar onto the distant enemies and commanding his Longsword to form a data link with the other aircraft in his squadron. A moment later, the connection was completed and he could see which of the bandits had been locked onto, his targets in small red boxes, his squadmates' and the others' boxed into gray ones, all of them cut into fourths, by a cross—
      Marcus started and shook his head. He was reading way too much into what he was seeing. Every time he'd locked on with a Boa before, the same targeting indicator had come up. Why was he suddenly taking notice of it now? He began to curse but thought the better of it, instead yelling angrily across the COM as the Longswords flew at one hundred percent military power to engage the Seraphs.
      "Swordsmen, launch on my mark. Three, two, one, mark! Swordsmen group, fox three!"
      Marcus's Longsword rocked as it simultaneously released all four Boas from the main bay and they blasted away, their engines quickly becoming dozens of burning pinpoints against the darkness of space. The Black Lions and Ghostriders released their ordinance a split second later, and the Boas sped past the Aegis cruisers and hammered the remaining Covenant fighters in a beautiful chain of yellow explosions, knocking many out of the fight and severely disorganizing them. As if things couldn't have gotten worse for the Covenant, the Catclaw and Shotwell opened up with their flak cannons and point defense guns.
      As the Longswords dashed towards the fight, somebody said with a thick southern accent, "Hell, this is like an old time turkey shoot!"

      "Ignore the human fighters and anti-fighter ships. Hunt only bigger prey unless you are engaged." Regulus heard four clicks in reply signifying his wingmates knew exactly what was expected of them. The Necromancers flew right into the heart of the dogfight and emerged from the other side unharmed, having simply blown through the melee and past the Aegis cruisers, going too fast to be effectively fired at. They made straight for the clustered human ships, taking advantage of an error in the humans' defensive strategy: the pests had their two specialized ships out on ahead of the main group as a screen in order to shield the capital ships from attacks. However, they'd left no intermediate defenses, meaning that the Necromancer team had nothing to stop their advancement on the human fleet.
      His sensors sounded a low rumble, notifying him of new contacts. He had been wrong, there were intermediate defenses but he couldn't see them for the massive amount of confusion the Seraphs had caused his sensors. The Brute fighter pilot took a quick estimate of the enemy's strength and rate of closure before deciding they posed little threat. At their speed, it would take the enemy fighters some time to decelerate and turn around. Speaking to his wingmates again, he let a nearly apathetic tone sneak into his voice "Fire if you wish, but we will only make one pass." A quartet of clicks again sounded in his ears.
      Regulus fired as soon as his sensors achieved a lock-on, sending a pair of plasma missiles straight towards one of the fighters on the outside edge of the humans' formation. The bolts were upon the craft before it could act, and the leftmost part of its fuselage took a major hit. As he and the other four Necromancers raced by he felt debris ricochet off his shields.
      Interesting, he thought amusedly. I thought that humans built their fighters tougher than that. He spoke once again over the Necromancers' battlenet, "Necromancer Thirteen reporting a kill."
      "Necromancer Four reporting a kill."
      "Good shooting, Aeolus. When we come within the range of the humans' defensive weaponry, activate your countermeasures."
      Four clicks again answered in reply.

      "What the hell were those?"
      "Shit, they flew right past us!"
      "Damnit, they nailed Ghostrider Three! He took a direct shot to the cockpit, no way he ejected!"
      "Lion Eight is EVA, requesting immediate SAR scramble!"
      "Lion Eight, Midway Control. Roger, scrambling SAR assets off the Texas. Standby." Marcus keyed his COM.
      "Midway Control, Swordsmen Leader; we've got leakers, type unknown. Request permission to engage!"
      "Swordsmen Leader, Midway Control; permission granted."
      "Swordsmen, turn and attack. Take those things out fast, whatever the hell they are," Marcus ordered as he yanked back hard on his stick, bringing his Longsword into a tight half-loop before rolling "upright." The Swordsmen quickly joined up and punched their throttles back up to full military power.
      By the time they'd managed that, however, the Necromancers were already on the human fleet. In their initial pass they avoided the massive amounts of metal spit out by the fleet's autocannons, effortlessly side slipping and jinking out of the way. The Dodge class supply ship Riley wasn't so maneuverable. Ten plasma missiles—two from each of the Necromancers' fighters—mauled the hapless vessel, punching through its thin armor like hot knives through butter. It exploded in a horrendous yellow fireball, taking its valuable provisions with it.
      The Longswords reached the human fleet in just a few seconds, but the yellow-tipped enemies had already gone to work, blasting away with impunity.
      "Swordsmen Leader, this is Six. I'm gadget bent, the radar's not functioning correctly."
      "Recycle the system, it's probably just—"
      "Leader, Five; I'm—" the channel erupted into static without warning.
      "Swordsmen," Marcus stated, getting no response, only loud white noise. He glanced up at the radar in the upper-right corner of his HUD; it was awash in strange colors and phantom contacts, totally useless. He let out an angry curse. They're jamming us! Radar and communications!
      Marcus realized that he and the rest of the Swordsmen were blind and deaf, and common sense would call for them to withdraw and try to regroup. But with how those new fighters were tearing up the human fleet, he knew they couldn't.
      The Swordsmen dove into the fireworks after the five foes.

      "I do not believe it," Quarell 'Sulamee stated flatly as he stared at the nearly ancient, battle-scared Sangheili across from him: Esab 'Uhcumee.
      And he was legend. His tactics had brought many early victories against the humans, maneuvers that 'Sulamee had been required to study upon entering the military, maneuvers that were given as textbook examples of the art of war. He was celebrated, favored by the Prophets, had everything he wanted. He'd vanished with his task force while out searching for human planets and was never heard from. It was assumed that he'd been ambushed by a numerically superior human force and had been unable to use his superior tactical mind to his advantage. Entire cycles of mourning had been ordered throughout the Covenant.
      And yet here he was, shattering yet another part of what 'Sulamee thought he knew. Despite the fact that he'd apparently joined the Separatists and was worthy of nothing but contempt, 'Sulamee could not quite keep the awe from his voice. Or, for that matter, the honorifics.
      "You," 'Sulamee continued, "you were one of the greatest military minds to ever serve the Covenant. What in the name of the Prophets are you doing, Excellency?" His question was greeted with a condescending laugh that was jarring coming from such a renowned war hero.
      "What am I doing? Trying to correct a mistake I made a long time ago."
      "What mistake?"
      "What's the word the humans use...clueless. Yes, that's what you are," 'Uhcumee chuckled. "Serving the Covenant. That was the greatest mistake of my life."
      "You heard me. The blind devotion to the promise of the Great Journey, the inability to hear or even acknowledge opposing points of view, the death penalty for those who dare doubted—"
      "As they should have been!" 'Sulamee interrupted more strongly than he'd intended. "They were blasphemers."
      "Blasphemers? Or the truly enlightened?"
      "Blasphemers, of course. They deny the Great Journey."
      "As do I." 'Sulamee realized his error and tried to backtrack.
      "No, you don't. Can't. The humans must have captured you, tortured you, brainwashed you." The statement was made in a pleading tone; 'Sulamee was all but begging 'Uhcumee to say that he'd been coerced into this—this charade. But it was no use.
      "The humans did no such thing. I came to them of my own free will, having happened upon this unpleasant and otherwise unremarkable little planet. Initial observations said there was nothing down there, but as the humans say, I wanted to leave no stone unturned."
      "What does that even mean? Excellency, you're speaking madness; the Great Journey will free us all."
      "Free us? From what, our hierarchal society, our outdated social mores? Any religion that requires the amount of fanatical devotion that ours does is wholly indistinguishable from a prison regardless of what the Prophets say..."
      Back in the corner, standing a comfortable distance away, Emile de Becque and Lieutenant Cable stood unobtrusively and watched. Cable leaned in towards his partner.
      "Good idea bringing in 'Uhcumee in on this one. We ought to have 'Sulamee within a few days. You scare me sometimes, de Becque." The Frenchman managed a soft snort.
      "Thanks, my friend."

      Damn, Glenn thought for the umpteenth time. These guys are good! After much difficulty he and another Swordsman had finally managed to slip in behind one of the new Covenant fighters. However, as soon as he'd tried to lock on with his AIIM-22 Diamonbacks, the fighter had simply outturned the Longsword and managed to extend, accelerating at a pace that would have been borderline impossible for a pair of Longswords to copy, especially in this lead storm the point defense systems were putting up.
      "This is Swordsman Eight, does anyone read me?" He got a blast of static for his troubles. It was no good, the jamming on these fighters was so severely overpowering that he couldn't even reach his wingman, that pompous jerk Steven Olive, wherever he was. Right now he was joined up with Zoë Park, or at least he thought he was. The jamming was making it difficult to even figure out which Longsword was who.
      His threat receiver screamed at him and he reflexively corkscrewed out of the way, trying to stay with Zoë, follow the new fighter, and avoid whatever was coming at him. Odds were there was no incoming enemy fire, of course, but the damn jamming was making life extremely difficult by causing false lock warnings. Glenn gritted his teeth and punched up his throttle in an attempt to catch his ad-hoc wingman and foe but it was no use; the Covie fighter had out accelerated him and whipped around, passing him in a maneuver that Beard had never seen before, even out of a Covenant pilot.
      They were untouchable. As soon as Glenn had even come close to getting a lock with his severely limited radar, they'd break off. They were slowly but surely tearing the human battle group apart, switching targets easily and without hesitation if one became too tough to hit.
      A quick blare from the speakers in his helmet warned him of an incoming shot—too late. Plasma bolts impacted on top of his right wing, knocking the Longsword into a wild spin and activating warning lights all over his cockpit. He ordered the computer to stabilize his bird, hoping that the Covenant fighter wouldn't pursue and finish him off.
      Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the new Covie fighter flash past, hot on Zoe's six—but trailed closely by a Swordsman who had a comically drawn eraser on its nose.
      Easley was on its tail.

      Easley pulled the trigger, sending a salvo of plasma bolts at the enemy, who'd been a bit too preoccupied trying to blast Glenn and Zoë to bits and hadn't noticed the squadron leader drop in behind him. Time seemed to move in slow motion as the bolts flew right on towards their intended target—which evaded at the last second, the bolts missing the craft by a handful of meters. It broke off and extended, easily out-accelerating the Major's Longsword. So close! Easley thought. I almost had him!
      By that point, however, it didn't matter.
      The Valkyrie was up.

      Grit watched the clock anxiously, double and triple checking the new Santana Translight engines and the weapons systems. Everything was green. As soon as the timer hit zero seconds, Grit brought the engines online and felt the deep, throbbing hum reverberate throughout the Valkyrie's hull. Had he bothered projecting himself holographically in the bridge, he would have been smiling like a poker player who'd just been dealt a royal flush.
      He activated the engines and the Valkyrie simply warped out of existence inside the rock with a brilliant white flash.

      "Force Master, Slipspace rupture inside the field!"
      "Just one? Check your readings again," Daedalus ordered. Why would the humans be retreating? he wondered. The battle is flowing in their favor right now.
      A sense of unease crept over the Jiralhanae. This wasn't right. There had been no reason for the humans to be in this system at all, let alone with a sizeable force. Something they wanted to protect must be here...but what? And why only one Slipspace rupture? Why wouldn't the humans all be retreating at once?
      "Excellency, the readings are correct. I've correlated them with the sensors from Indolent Instigator and Disparate Task. I'm positive there was just one rupture—no, wait, there's another one..." the Jiralhanae trailed off.
      "Well?" Daedalus demanded. "Where is it?"
      The answer came in a nuclear fireball as the Reaper blew apart in an immense, orange explosion, sending large pieces of the harvester flying in all directions and crashing into the remaining ships in the Covenant task force.
      "What in the Prophets' name?!" Daedalus howled as the Hushed Vengeance was clipped by a piece of debris, sending him flying from his position against the consoles. Amazingly, the sensors operator had managed to hang onto his station once more.
      "More Slipspace ruptures inside the Seer's Wisdom and Divine Passion!"
      "Retreat!" Daedalus ordered as those two ships also exploded in nuclear detonations. "Jump back to Babylon now!"

      Regulus heard the Force Master's panicked order. He didn't like it, but he was a soldier and would comply with it.
      "Break off your attacks. Form back up and we'll make the jump out of system." Four clicks answered him in return. Even as the Necromancers extricated themselves from the dogfight, one image was burned in his mind: the art on the tail of the fighter that had managed to get a shot at him, a golden, jewel encrusted sword.
      Rex Tremendae, Daedalus thought. Yes, that would do as a name. Hopefully they'd get a chance to meet in the future.