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Posted By: UNSC Trooper<unsctrooper@hotmail.com>
Date: 22 May 2008, 4:44 pm

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By UNSC Trooper

0700 Hours, July 27, 2537 (Military Calendar)
Unknown System, in orbit above Asteroid K7-49

      The craft tilted sideways as Robert came to his feet, clutching the upper handle bar to his right. His rubber under-suit creaked as he lifted his arm. Steadying his footsteps, he advanced to the edge of the opened hatch, leaning forward and glancing at the clouds of smoke that elapsed along the Pelican's rectangular wings. The fume suddenly began to dim, the zooming noise of the nearby dropships went calm, and the aircraft ceased to vibrate.
      For a moment, Robert took advantage of the apparent tranquility and opened his team's mission log on his heads-up display. The briefing of Spartans Robert-A002, Shane-A095, and Jane-A186 consisting Team Wolf Pack popped on the screen. Next to them were the rest of the teams that formed Alpha Company – scarcely three hundred SPARTAN-III's.
      After following a Covenant frigate through the vastness of peripheral UNSC space, the Office of Naval Intelligence had discovered an asteroid the Covenant fitted as a mobile naval yard, lurking a little over a dozen light years away from humanity's frontier. Facing a potential assault, Section Three devised a plan to neutralize this Covenant industrial haven by using a company of SPARTAN-III's to infiltrate and clog as many reactors as possible. The asteroid had been designated as "K7-49".
      The mission was risky; landing on an object moving back and forth, little space for maneuvering, cramped between countless factories, rivers of molten metal and volcanic debris crossing the rough ground, and the crushing force of flexible Covenant firepower. Yes, this was a mission for super humans: Spartans.
      The Pelican flew out of the dense smoke, and possibly a hundred other aircrafts became visible, clustered in sloppy formations against the dark blue field of stars. Robert frowned; he'd never seen so many of the bird-like dropships together in one place. Even the crafts' pilots were noticeable with little effort, bracing their joysticks as they tried to avoid crashing into one another in the dizzying welter.
      Strange buzzing noises resonated, seeming to approach the craft ever-faster. Just as Robert leaned over the Pelican's left side searching for a clear view of the asteroid below, intermittent plasma fire raced past the craft, impacting the dropships that followed behind him. The Pelicans burst in flames, parts of their fuselages falling away from formation, bodies drifting into the void. Shane and Jane flinched out of their seats and turned toward the destruction. The Pelicans opened fire from their chin-mounted cannons, and a light show nothing short of a boisterous thunder strike commenced.
      Robert froze for an instant, staring at what remained of his comrades. The sight was terrifying, but he didn't mark his feelings out. That was what Lieutenant Commander Ambrose taught him; if you're too busy weeping your friends, bear in mind that the enemy is never too busy to stop firing at the rest of them. The words echoed in his head for a while.
      Shane tapped Robert on the shoulder nervously, fixing his gaze on one of the severed Spartans kicking his feet in an attempt to guide himself away from the plasma rays. The Spartan's figure slowly melted into the darkness, and Shane retrieved his hand.
      A sudden explosion jerked the three Spartans off their feet, and the Pelican began swaying to the left as one of the engines spitted a thick line of fire and gasoline in its wake. As Robert juggled his feet back up, the craft's pilots screamed in his speakers, chaos engulfing the cockpit: "We've lost number one, say again we've lost engine number one. Dave, you'd better start looking for a place to ditch this thing," the pilot shouted.
      The mission had kicked off with a bad start: not only were some of teams already dead, but the remaining Pelicans would have a difficult time finding a strip of rock to land on. The asteroid's surface was perfectly visible as the aircraft lost altitude. Hundreds of furnaces sputtered bulks of cinder and smoke upward, an entire webbing of latticework pillars hindered a clear landing, stationary guns fired at the incoming aircrafts, easily a dozen Covenant warships hovered in orbit, and a massive amount of Jackal fire teams moved across every corner of the factories.
      Courtyards came into view, downed Pelicans burning on the facilities' rooftops as Grunts tore the armor off the dead bodies. The three Spartans exchanged gazes for a few seconds, holding on to the suspended rails in the bay. A peculiar silence crept between them, which was unusual. They were still kids after all, thirteen year-olds, and they always talked, regardless of the surroundings or the difficulty of the operation in question. Communication was what made them work as a team – what kept them alive every minute.
      The pilot's voice sounded in their helmets' speakers again, "Landing gear is down, brace yourselves," he warned, severity dropping in his tone. For the first time since the battle began, the silence between them broke. The three held hands together, "We're gonna' make it." Robert reassured them, calm in his voice.
      Shane looked at Robert, raising an eyebrow, "Who said we wouldn't make it?" he asked derisively. The Pelican started to vibrate, falling into a gradual nosedive. The pilots yelled, and the Spartans' loudspeakers hissed as the screams grew louder. The craft scratched a rooftop, and within a few seconds, hit the rocky terrain. Sparks ignited the leaking fuel as the Pelican's steel layer slid several meters, coming to a halt in the midst of a deep, reddish crater, nose swamped into the basin's sand-like edge.
      Robert opened his COM frequency, "Team Wolf Pack has landed, repeat, Team Wolf Pack has landed." He said. He knew his confirmation message would probably be ignored by the other teams. Static whizzed in his helmet for a few seconds, followed by sudden hollers coming from possibly a hundred voices. He realized that the other teams were already engaged, shouting orders, "Bandits on our six, open fire now!" one of the Spartans screamed, gunfire whirring in the background.
      Jane stepped out of the bay and bounced onto the stony ground. The dust swept from beneath her legs. Robert and Shane followed behind her, magnifying the horizon through their heads-up displays. Flames burned in the distance, plasma bolts and bullet rounds flying from side to side, dirt carried into the air as chunks of fragmentation grenades exploded.
      Robert could see Spartans in Semi-Powered Infiltration armor sprint between columns of Grunts, pinning the short aliens to the ground with submachine-gun fire. He noticed that none of the taller, more combat experienced creatures were in sight: the "Elites" as the UNSC called them. ONI had anticipated this however, and Alpha Company came prepared for a surprise attack.
      Alarms resounded throughout the facilities. Shane turned to his left, and the thermal indicators on his HUD winked red as three reactors came into view, their images blurred by a thick mist of black smoke. He patted Robert's left arm and gestured into the distance. Jane zoomed in on the image, "I think I can see three of those reactors they mentioned." She remarked, her voice eager.
      Robert eyed her momentarily, and he remembered what Colonel Ackerson had told him before they left Camp Currahee; thirty plasma reactors have to be disabled before you can get off that rock, so take your time, enjoy the landscape, and when you're ready, blow them sky-high. Robert hadn't thought about the number until now. His impatience drowned in Ackerson's words, and he realized that he might not live to see Commander Ambrose congratulate him and his team when they got back to Onyx.
      He fell silent. Jane pushed his arm gently, "Rob, what the hell's the matter with you?" she inquired, worried about his instant blackout.
       "Nothing," he replied disgruntled, shoving her hand away from him, "we can't take those things out on our own." Regaining his temper, he opened the TACCOM frequency. Countless outcries barked in his speakers once more.
      He tried to tune the chatter out, but the shouting continued. "This is Team Wolf Pack requesting assistance from any nearby units, over." He said, holding his breath for several seconds, listening in on the random activity. "Roger, Team Wolf Pack, this is Team Julius, what's your status, over?" a grim voice responded.

      Robert secured the channel and leveled his tone, "We are combat effective, and we need to disable three reactors, they should be located on your nine o'clock position. Think you can give us a hand, over?"
      He cleared his throat, and the voice sounded in his helmet again. "Affirmative, Team Wolf Pack, we're on our way, over." The channel turned off.
      Robert raised his SMG, checked its cartridge and glared at Shane, "We're getting some support, let's move." He said, emphatically. Plasma grenades began landing beside the Spartans, exploding into balls of blue fire after a few seconds. As the team crawled up the edge of the crater, five squads of Jackals swept through the courtyard ahead, lisping orders as they leaped over the cracks covering the scorched ground.
      One of the aliens twitched in the team's direction, waved to his comrades and charged his plasma pistol. Traces of the strange green liquid splashed on Robert's armor. The Semi-Powered Infiltration armor, unlike its predecessors, had no protective shields. Not in any practical sense. Robert had to find cover fast, or his already weak armor casing could drain down to nothing, exposing his body to the heated plasma materials that the Covenant used as ammunition.
      He rolled down on the dirt and ducked behind the bank of a narrow, cooled lava river. Steam hovered over the solid volcanic ash. He remembered the rivers from ONI's reference files, and he felt somewhat awkward lurching inside one of these things. Shane and Jane exchanged fire with the Jackal squad; bursts of SMG rounds met plasma bolts, and the shrieking aliens headed for cover. The Jackals fell on the ground one after another as they dropped their shields. The circular objects evaporated instantly once the creatures lost their grip.
      Robert spun from behind the small hill, and sprinted toward the remaining creature howling for backup as it turned and made for a partially-constructed building just fifty meters away from the complex of reactors. He dove forwards, grabbed the Jackal by its neck and snapped it out of the skull's socket like a thin twig, a brief crunching noise screeching from the alien's body before it hit the ground.
      He wiped the Jackal's blue blood off his faceplate, and locked gazes with Shane. No one spoke; Shane never saw Robert kill a being this vigorously, but he was sure it would help make their day a bit easier.
      The horizon was dominated by a layer of small meteors clustered together to form a sleazy asteroid belt, barely distinguishable by a few playful rocks that occasionally flew out of the belt's alignment.
      Jane clipped a magazine into her submachine-gun, and looked at the other teams in the distance. They were winning; Hundreds of Grunts scattered away as bursts of SMG fire breached their columns, Jackals fled the battle, most of them missing body parts, and fragmentation grenades plummeted corpses into the air, sending them afloat into the vacuum overhead.
      She grinned and let out a subtle chuckle as her HUD zoomed in on random parts of the battle. For the first time since Alpha Company got accepted into the SPARTAN-III Program she felt proud of herself, and the rest of her comrades for what they and Lieutenant Commander Ambrose had achieved. She felt, in a sense, that these kids saved her life and gave her a purpose to fight for.
      As the aliens slowly retreated, three tall figures approached Robert and his team. The dust settled, and the tallest of the three Spartans raised two fingers as he sped across the field. Robert's COM sounded, "Team Wolf Pack, you'd better keep up, 'cause we're not stopping for anything."
      He recognized the voice, "Good to see you, Team Julius." He pinned the SMG against his shoulder and started trotting toward the reactor complex, patting Julius's squad leader on the shoulder in content. The two teams' movements were perfectly synchronized as they covered the dirt.
      They ran along an asphalted driveway. The reactors were visible, rivers of molten metal flowing away from their vents. A pair of Grunts popped from the courtyards and manned two plasma cannons sitting in front of the entrance. Overheated liquids rained on the Spartans as they lowered their heads. They didn't slow down for a heartbeat, sprinting in zigzags to avoid getting hit.
      Red lights and warning messages winked on Jane's display; a plasma bolt had made contact with her right arm, burning through the rubber under-suit. She couldn't back away now, when her team needed her the most – but she feared that the liquid might melt the rubber and depressurize her armor. Wedged between continuing the fight and retreating, Jane chose the first option, and ignored the alarms ringing inside her helmet.
      Robert searched for the Grunts' faces. Hidden behind shields similar to those of Jackals, the plasma cannons could protect its occupant from almost any kind of ammunition. Crouching beneath the cannons' range of fire, Robert retrieved a grenade from his waist, removed the pin and hurled it next to one of the alien machines.
      The Grunt yelled, shrapnel impaling its legs, arms and methane tank. It rolled on the ground, wiggling its arms and gasping for air. Robert could almost feel sorry for the short, chubby-faced creature as it squealed for help. Almost.
      The thermal indicators on the Spartans' heads-up displays glowed red. Shane stopped for a moment, and looked at the distress messages popping up on his display. Concerned, he raised an eyebrow, and his heart started racing inside his chest.
       "There's an awful lot of radiation coming from the cores." He said, pointing toward one of the massive, pulsating contraptions tangled to several access pipes and conduits.
      Robert stepped over a downed pipe, passing a few meters clear of a puddle of muttering lava, "The armor can hold," he turned to face Shane, "if anything happens to our electronics, we'll abort." He replied with a steel voice. The network of coolant conducts vibrated, seemingly stirred by the pressure coming from the other thirty reactors.
      A mushroom of fire took shape in the distance, dark red flames stretching over the sky. Wind gusts smashed small pieces of debris against the Spartans' suits. The TACCOM frequency opened in their helmets, hundreds of voices cheering as though the mission had already ended. Robert overheard one sentence that brought him some comfort through the deafening noise, "To all teams, four reactors have been destroyed." The hissing voice said.
      Relief coated the Spartans' minds, but they still had a mission to accomplish. Three reactors still lay ahead of them, intact.
      Team Julius slipped through the gratings of pipes like shadows, measuring their paces, scanning each section of the yard. Robert signaled for Jane to approach one of the cores. Scattered traces of steam flowed out of the conduits, gathering into a dust-like cloud shadowing the entire complex.
      With a massive Covenant force preparing its attack, and numerous reinforcements on the way, Robert had no time to plan things in full detail. His objective was all he could think about as long as the asteroid's rugged sand crunched beneath his boots, and his friends' lives were in his hands.
      Jane swung the SPNKr rocket launcher over her shoulder, searched for the core's central mechanisms, took aim and pressed the trigger. The missile glided out of the two-sided barrel and impacted the core's gelatinous hull. A bright, pink light blazed across the Spartans' faceplates as molten metal and plasma splattered over the courtyard surrounding the three reactors, pipelines shredded out of their sockets.
      Robert covered his face, and the light slowly faded away, revealing a landscape of industrial debris and destruction behind its majestic wake, a screaming noise that seemed to fall into a ghostly pattern humming as the conduits blew their last vapors of steam.
      He unstrained his muscles. Relaxing his mind and taking a deep breath, he set his right hand on Jane's shoulder, tapping it in a friendly, affective motion.
      She kept her eyes fixed on the core's burned foundation, and lowering the heated rocket launcher, she thought of the other teams. She wanted get off this rock, get this mission over with, and feel the cutting breeze of Camp Currahee's surrounding mountains strike her cheeks again. She wished she could go home.

2358 Hours, July 29, 2537 (Military Calendar)
Zeta Doradus System, aboard UNSC Point Of No Return, in orbit around Onyx

      Colonel Ackerson walked through the dimly-lit corridor leading to Vice Admiral Parangosky's office, his Army-issued leather boots slogging the concrete floor. He felt like he was trapped in a tunnel, growing ever-narrower as he treaded further along the row of double-layered neon lights aligned on either side of the corridor.
      He could have done something to avoid this, and make his career seem a lot more pleasant. He could have refused ONI's offer to use him as an Army attaché, and he could have spent the rest of his life on the field as he'd always wanted, training young soldiers, meeting the enemy face-to-face with a rifle in his hands, not dragging bulks of intelligence reports from one part of the galaxy to another. No, he hated his job, and he certainly hated hunting down traitors. In his opinion, the only good way of dealing with back-stabbers was by force of arms.
      Memories flooded his mind, but he couldn't do anything about it except cram them in the corner of his conscience. He missed his family; missed the way his daughter's long, blonde hair fell over her blue eyes, and he missed sitting at his coffee table, talking to his wife.
      Rubbing his hands together, he stopped in front of the reinforced metallic door. The words 'V.A. Margaret O. Parangosky' were tagged in a bright, glassy white color. He leaned to his right, lowering his head to meet the angle of the retina scanner.
      The green laser beam flickered in his left eye for a few moments, and he blinked in rapid succession as his eyelids moistened with tears. He straightened his grey coat, patted the dust off his shoulder pins, took a deep breath and exhaled. The door silently parted, and Ackerson stepped over the grating, paying no mind to the clipping sound his boots made.
      He revised the order of business which this meeting was scheduled to discuss, and planned his approach of the three officers sipping out of their cups of coffee on the round table in the middle of the room.
      He wasn't surprised; as usual, Captain Gibson sat to Parangosky's left and Rear Admiral Rich to her right. The front seat was always reserved for Ackerson, and he was forced to constantly swallow her senseless, at times annoying, mumbling of words. She afforded to be irritating, however. Her position within Section Three granted her the luxury.
      Rear Admiral Rich raised his head and looked at Ackerson, touching his wristwatch, "This is a first," he said sarcastically, "you're late, Colonel." He added, exchanging gazes with Parangosky and Gibson. Their expressions concerned Ackerson, and for a split second, he felt the urge to rush out of the room and forget about this assembly. He contained his feelings, and walked up to the table, clenching his right fist.
      The three naval officers remained silent as the Colonel dragged the chair from beneath the table, and pulled his slackened khakis to his thigh. Resting his elbows on the table-top, he cleared his throat, "I apologize for the delay," he said, voice even with the firmly locked gazes of his superiors, "it won't happen again." He added, gesturing the slightest of grimaces.
      Parangosky raised an eyebrow, and her elderly figure instantly crabbed with multiple wrinkles arcing over her forehead. "Apology accepted," she said, her tone affectionate, "but don't get used to it, regulations are here to be followed." She added, voice similar to that of a peevish mother arguing with her child.
      Ackerson nodded in insight, "Yes ma'am." He responded, sympathy in his tone.
The Vice Admiral stretched her back against the leathered chair, "I understand that your SPARTAN-III Alpha Company has been transported away from Onyx." She said, fondling with her thin grey hair.
       "That is correct." Ackerson replied shaking his head. Captain Gibson coughed softly, pouring himself another cup of coffee.
      Parangosky's right hand dropped on the table, "Where exactly did you send them, Colonel?" she queried with a demanding tone.
      Ackerson fussed in his seat, twitching the corner of his mouth, nervous that the shrew might want to shut his Spartans down. He would deserve it too, after years of covertly spying on Doctor Halsey's super-soldiers, "It's complicated ma'am," he explained, tightening his hands together, "and judging by the amount of information we've received from patrolling vessels, we can only assume it would have been a matter of time before the outer colonies—"
       "Try us, Colonel." Rear Admiral Rich broke in, a sudden impatience dropping into his voice. Ackerson let out a sigh, his hands almost trembling of suspense. This was his project, his work, and his property. Naturally, he hated being bashed by people outside his own branch of the military, but these three officers had provided everything he needed for his blackest of black ops.
      He swallowed and continued, his mouth dry, "After New Harmony was lost we managed to locate a mobile Covenant outpost just a few light years outside of UNSC space. This of course, was possible by means of telemetry probes." He stopped for a moment.

      Parangosky's enthusiasm dropped, and she stared blankly at the Colonel. "Please carry on." She said impulsively.
       "Further reports indicated that it was in fact, an asteroid fitted for Covenant drilling and fabrication of war vessels." Ackerson recovered from his annoyance. "That would have meant that within a time span of a month, most of the remaining outer colonies would be outnumbered and outgunned by an innumerable amount of Covenant fleet groups." He added, "The CMA wouldn't stand a chance, and neither would the Colonial Militia."
      Parangosky appeared intrigued, but she wasn't too surprised by the Colonel's statements. She knew that the outer colonies were as good as gone, with or without an additional Covenant invasion. The rebels had succeeded in destabilizing the colonies to the point where usage of nuclear warheads wasn't such an absurd idea. The incident at Far Isle in 2492 spoke for itself.
      She whispered something to Captain Gibson and then turned to the Colonel, "Given that predicament, I assume that you've sent Alpha Company to do the job." She said.
      Ackerson scrutinized her expression, "Yes ma'am," he complied, "The officer in command of Camp Currahee, Lieutenant Commander Kurt Ambrose, has agreed to prepare Alpha Company for an orbital insertion on the asteroid." He felt he was getting his voice heard, and continued, tone even, "I might also add, Vice Admiral, that Commander Ambrose, with the help of Chief Petty Officer Franklin Mendez, have done an exceptional job of training those children in all forms of physical, and technological warfare." He exhaled, "To be quite honest, I am very happy with the way the program started."
      Parangosky chuckled, "You should be, Colonel," she commented, her voice shadowing over Ackerson, "we've provided you with every resource you needed." She continued laughing.
      Captain Gibson hunched closer to Ackerson, "What we would like to know, Colonel," his voice grew anxious, "is how the operation has evolved." He paused for a few seconds and gestured to Parangosky and Rich, "We are all eager to know how your SPARTAN-III's have performed."
      Ackerson motioned a quick nod, "The operation is still in progress." He said plainly, "Two days ago Alpha Company landed on the asteroid. Their primary objective is to deactivate thirty plasma reactors." He smiled subtly, remembering his first visit to Camp Currahee. Images drew in his mind. It wasn't every day that he'd see four-year-old children running through obstacle courses, dodging incoming machinegun fire. "So far, they've disabled seven reactors. Resistance, surprisingly, didn't pose a problem." He said.

      Reaching into his chest pocket, he retrieved a small, rectangular paper envelope folded several times, symbols scripted on its front and back sides. "These are field images taken by their individual camera recording systems." He remarked, sliding the envelope toward the Vice Admiral on the table's slithery metallic top.
      She grabbed it, unfolded the paper, and browsed through the pile of high-resolution photographs. Her gaze raced from one picture to another, seeming to skim them through rather than check their details. They were all depicting the same barren ground, skyscraping furnaces flickering against the pitch-black field of stars, and armored figures lighted by the yellow blaze of their weapons.
      She lifted her head and rubbed her eyes, budging her eyeglasses over the bridge of her nose. "Very impressive, Colonel," she stated, "I trust this undertaking will at least do something to save the outer colonies." She added, honesty in her voice. It was the first time Ackerson and the Vice Admiral met eye to eye, and, despite their differentiating careers and ranks, were united in their effort to protect Earth's citizens.
      Rear Admiral Rich snapped out of his seat, his face suddenly grim, "Screw the outer colonies, Margaret. They're a step away from getting nuked by the CMA!" He turned to Ackerson, "Resources are resources and business is business, Colonel. Just how many Spartan-III's are engaged in this mission, and how much has it cost Section Three to get them to that damned rock?" He asked violently, smashing his fist against the table, eyes appearing to burn with anger.
      Ackerson couldn't believe what he was hearing. Clearly the Rear Admiral wasn't concerned about the people he was assigned to defend. His deranged gesture told Ackerson everything he needed to know about Section Three, and corruption was an understatement.
      There was an instant drop of tranquility in the room, and Ackerson slowly rose to his feet, glaring into Rich's infuriated expression. "Screw the outer colonies, sir?" He asked rhetorically. He wanted to play with the Rear Admiral's anger, and he was in the mood to tease his pride, "Millions of civilians are dying every year as a consequence of repeated Covenant assaults," he demonstrated, his tone slowly springing to anger, "and all you care about is ONI's money?" Ackerson let out a grimace, laughing slightly in an effort to hide his fury, still gazing into Rich's eyes, "You sir, are not worthy of the UNSC Navy's uniform." He remarked calmly, straining his eyes.
       "Colonel, you are out of line!" Parangosky warned, right hand hitting the tabletop.
      Rich didn't flinch, "Maybe you would like to discipline me then, Colonel." He replied ironically, "Just like the Army disciplined you." Rich's dislike of the Colonel's military branch was evident in his tone.

      Ackerson felt he could break the Rear Admiral's nose, but thought better, "The Army doesn't draft charlatans, sir." He remarked, his smile suddenly fading off, clenching his mandible muscles tight.
       "Colonel, one more personal attack and I will have you arrested!" Parangosky's voice grew louder, and almost as though she wanted to protect Ackerson, pulled on Rich's jacket and jerked him back down on his seat.
      The two receded, breathing rapidly to regain their senses. Even after that brief outburst of arrogance, Ackerson still needed to tell the ONI officers everything they needed to know about the operation.
       "Precisely three hundred Spartans are engaged in the mission." He mumbled, sipping out of his glass of water, "However, a large number of drop crafts were lost during the deployment." He concluded, setting the glass aside.
      Rich's eyebrows sprang up again, "Christ, three hundred?" he inquired, resting his head against his right hand, subtly massaging his temple. "You sent your entire force of SPARTAN-III's on a suicidal deployment?"
       "I believe we have discussed this before, Admiral." Ackerson remarked, "The program itself was intended to train a new generation of Spartans into 'new' forms of unconventional warfare," 'New' wasn't exactly the word he was looking for, "and with your permission, the program was initiated."
      Rich nodded in acknowledgement, "Yes, and I've come to regret it." He closed his eyes and dropped his head on the chair's back, trying to slow his racing blood pressure.
      Parangosky eyed Ackerson thoughtfully, "Whatever turns out of this mission, you must understand that it was your call only." She explained, "It's your program, your creation. I need not remind you that you and Commander Ambrose are the only ones responsible for everything that occurs at Camp Currahee, Colonel. This meeting is over." She added swiftly.
      Rising from her chair and cramming the envelope back into Ackerson's chest pocket, she walked the Colonel out of her office. Today's meeting put the spotlight on ONI's true affairs, and Ackerson knew them all along. Silent, he strolled to his room and crashed on his armchair, waiting for the next field reports on Alpha Company's mission to pop up on his computer screen.

0954 Hours, August 2, 2537 (Military Calendar)
Unknown System, Asteroid K7-49

      The small, stony cavern was carved deep within the sharpened top of an artificial-like hillside. Chunks of vehicle-sized rocks detached from the mountain's abrupt rims and dropped several hundred meters to the ground.
      Robert felt Jane's hands shiver with a sudden violence as he glanced out of the cavern's widened outlook, numerous bursts of fire spanning along each extremity of the industrial complex's fields. Scattered fire teams of Spartans attempted to cover one another, breaking positions, flanking, catching the formations of Elites by surprise.
      He set his right hand on Jane's bleeding arm. Seven days ago her armor had been punctured, and the elastic under-suit slowly gave way to the vacuum. By now, she could feel her body had almost completely frozen, her lungs were pressured and she had a difficult time breathing steadily. She gasped for air continuously, holding her arms together tight, tucking her body into a ball. The pain had exhausted her, and her eyes started to moisten, tears dripping down her cheeks. She thought about her home, and remembered the first time she met Robert and Shane; they used to fight on a daily basis, until the Lieutenant Commander broke in and sent them sprinting several miles through Camp Currahee's forests.
      Robert wished he could do more to ease Jane's suffering, but he felt powerless glancing in her blue eyes. He sat by her right side and clenched her hand – a brotherly gesture would have to do for now.
      Through the powdered air, Shane watched the battle rage. Today was different; the legions of Jackals and Grunts had fled the field in the face of consequent losses, and twenty seven plasma reactors had been disabled. Despite Alpha Company's mission being fulfilled in a theoretical sense, danger still lurked ahead of them: a counter-force of Elites and numerous squadrons of Banshees had dropped a few hours ago. If there was something this breed of aliens was known for was living up to its name; they yanked like ghosts through a cluster of trees, rapid, agile and efficient. Their firepower had a flaw, plasma rifles tended to overheat within a few seconds of successive firing, and that's precisely what gave the Spartans an advantage.
      Shane frowned, following the Elites' patterns cross the rocky terrain. It didn't look good; the aliens took the higher ground and the Spartan fire teams began to jumble through the skirmish. They were surrounded, and that meant among other things, that the entire company was cut off from the extraction craft.
      Three consecutive booms rang in the distance: Explosive fuel rod fire crushed through a Spartan fire team, the Covenant equivalent of SPNKr missiles. Shane noticed a new group of aliens backing the Elites' columns; they were shielded in some kind of metallic armor, and their right arms were glowing green. The Spartans jumped, fell on the ground and rolled, absorbing the impact. As soon as they came to their feet they primed their MA5K's, but the rounds twisted off the creatures' armor.
      Shit, Shane thought. This would be a problem. Combined artillery, infantry and air offensives left no room for maneuvering. The marvelous show of explosions continued to glitter against the dark horizon.
      There was no way out of this mess, and with the extraction craft's landing zone overrun, the Spartans' trip home would be blocked out. Shane holstered his arm against the cavern's wall and lowered his head. Thinking in situations like these rarely made a difference, but he was still hopeful. He wanted to get off this piece of space debris as much as everyone else.
      He flashed back to his early lessons on Onyx. Lieutenant Commander Ambrose used to let them watch old war movies in Camp Currahee's recreational area. He'd seen so many he wasn't sure which one applied to this predicament; black and white films depicting invasions of beachheads, ship-to-ship combat on seas, ancient warriors crossing rivers and meeting the enemy in open ground. But there was another, clearer motion picture he remembered – a small squad of soldiers dressed in green uniforms, crawling on their stomachs through a patch of tall grass, rifles ready to fire, scurrying to set up a temporary landing zone. The Lieutenant Commander had told him that this movie was filmed during a certain "Vietnam War" that took place some centuries ago on Earth.
      He wouldn't die here. No, his job wasn't over yet. This was just the beginning. The beginning of a nightmare.
      He opened the map of the asteroid on his HUD. With such extensive information on the asteroid's topography, defeat wasn't something the Spartans could accept. There had to be a way out of here, some hillside or ridge that could provide them a foothold.
      Shane scanned the map for a while, breathing calmly, scrolling up and down the display. Several hills met his sight, accompanied by tall mountains, plains, and craters. A red triangular indicator pointed toward the location where he stood: one of the few mountain ranges spreading from the rock's surface.
      He magnified the map on a thin strip of dirt that stretched between two hills. He squinted, and typed a command into the console. The altitude of the hills snapped on his screen: fifteen meters, enough to give the Elites a hard time on their own ground. He smiled gladdened. Once they controlled the elevation, they might have a good chance of fitting the area into an emergency landing zone for the extraction craft. Just like the soldiers in the movie, he thought.
      Shane keyed his COM and turned to Robert. Jane was still trembling, grabbing on to Robert's hand as tight as she could. She wanted to cry, but she knew better than that. Shane crouched next to her, setting his hand on her helmet. He hated seeing her like that.
       "She's losing oxygen." Robert said, concern dropping into his voice. "We need to get her out of here, fast." He grasped Jane's hand tighter.

      Shane nodded in response, punching another command into his heads-up display. "I have a plan, Rob. But I need your, and everyone else's help." He remarked carefully. Jane locked gazes with Robert, a moment of hope glittering in their eyes.
       "Let's hear it." Robert replied almost instantly, letting out a sigh as he crossed his arms. He wondered just what exactly Shane had thought of. His team-leading capabilities shrank into Shane's words for a few seconds, and he had to give him credit for that.
      A loading bar popped on Shane's screen, gradually turning from dark red to light green: his TEAMCOM uploading system. He'd pinpointed the two hills on the asteroid's topography map, and sent it to Robert and Jane. "You see that arrow?" Shane asked. Robert nodded. "We need to set up a temporary landing zone for our extraction craft." He explained, keeping his voice calm. He had to; his plan was the only hope of Jane ever seeing the light of morning. "Those two hills are aligned precisely the way we need them to be. From what I gather, they appear to be overlooking one of the reactor complexes, meaning that there's a strong possibility that the Covenant have placed at least one plasma turret on both hills." He continued.
      Robert liked the prospect, and looking into the map, he could guess what Shane's plan required. Explosions resonated. "So we take them," Robert approved, blinking rapidly. "How?"
      Shane strained his eyes. He hadn't thought about Robert's last question. Spontaneity was his asset, though, so he elaborated. How hard could it be? He drew two curved arrows around the hills on his HUD, saved the image and uploaded it into Robert's display once more. "We flank them with suppressing fire, advance up the elevation, and if we're lucky we'll take out the Grunts on the turrets." Again he explained calmly.
      Robert frowned inside his helmet. Loosening his grip of Jane's hand, he rose to his feet. He stood a full a head taller than Shane. "There's something you forgot." Robert remarked, voice growing slightly annoyed. "They have the high ground. And suppose the turrets are manned by Elites."
       "Not a problem." Shane grabbed a fragmentation grenade from his belt lock and juggled it around in his right hand. "This will pretty much take care of their defenses." He paused for a second. "As for the Elites, we've got sharpshooters scattered all around the place."
      Robert nodded grimly. He trusted Shane's plan, but he questioned its persistence. If the Covenant concentrated their entire response force on those hills, they might as well all run for the mountains and hide in caverns.
      Jane listened closely on the conversation. She struggled to overcome the pain, but she felt like she was dying. The surroundings seemed to wiggle as her consciousness slowly faded. She tried to stand on her feet, but fell smashing her back against the wall. Robert grabbed her arm instinctively and helped her up.
       "If the shit hits the fan—" Jane said, her voice gruff, trying to shake the dizziness out of her head.
       "I know, you get my share of desert when we get back to camp." Shane admitted, half smiling, chuckling at the thought of Jane growing fat from all the candy she'd received from him every time his plans led them into a trap.
      But this time it was different. This wasn't training, and his idea would likely get them home, or have a rescue team retrieve their bodies inside a well-sealed coffin - if they ever found them.
      Three hundred meters beyond the cavern several Elites regrouped and charged toward the hard pressed Spartans. The Semi-Powered Infiltration armor suits glistened greenish tinges against the dull red surface of the now-cooled lava rivers, and viewed from high ground, appeared as tiny spots of grass emerging from the barren dirt.
      However, the Spartans needed a more common name for the butte. Shane's history lessons kicked in once more. "We should designate the area before we tell the others." He searched for the right word, setting his thumb on the lower side of his helmet. "I'd call it the Alamo." He suggested.
      Jane strained her forehead. "The Alamo seems like a mighty elegant word for a couple of hills if you ask me" She remarked, gulping down on her suspicion.
      Robert switched to TACCOM frequency. Static hissed through his helmet. A second later, booming noises and guttural barks flooded his speakers. He brought up Alpha Company's roster, selected each of the individual entries and uploaded the hills' location to the rest of the Spartans' HUD's. "The Alamo it is." He agreed.
      Several acknowledgement lights flickered on his display – they'd received the map. He adjusted his voice and readied the plan. "This is Spartan-A002. The map I've just sent you contains the location of a hillside we can use as a temporary landing zone." Robert announced. "Those hills are our ticket home. We have reason to believe they are also fitted with plasma turrets." He stopped.
      Five seconds of silence followed. "We read you Spartan-A002. Have the hills been cleared?" A voice finally asked.
      Robert breathed. "Negative. We need to clear them ourselves." He sighed, trotting up to the cavern's edge. "Caution is advised: The turrets could be controlled by Elites." He pointed out. Covenant Spirit dropships fell in line above the battlefield, plasma bolts spitting out of their rear cannons as Banshee squadrons swerved overhead. Acknowledgment lights flickered on his display again: the company was ready for a last stand, and in a moment's notice, everything came down to the two remote elevations.

0954 Hours, August 2, 2537 (Military Calendar)
Unknown System, Asteroid K7-49, near designated attack zone "Alamo"

      The pathway was flanked by two prolonged, circular plains rising over the crater-filled dust. They didn't seem to look like hills, rather an elevated strip of land abruptly spanning upward. The distant asteroid belt crossed the hills' imperfect horizon lines, plasma shots tracing away from the butte.
      Robert felt his stomach tingle, something rare among Spartans about to engage the enemy on open field. For some reason he was nervous, more so that his hands began to tremble slightly, and his heart started pounding, sweat dripping down his back. It was natural. This was their last chance to get back to UNSC-controlled space; their last chance to see their friends' faces smile in happiness.
      He held his MA5K's scope directly in front of his visor as he settled down behind the sharp margin of a crater, Shane and Jane following in his path. Alongside the large hole, three other teams crouched in positions, rifles shouldered. They waited; the only sound resonating in their helmets was their own breath, and the buzzing noise of their blood pumping through their arms and torsos.
      Shane assessed their plan: flank the hills and clear the butte with assault rifle fire and fragmentation grenades. If anything would go wrong, a sniper rifle group had their backs covered from behind a mountain side several clicks away from their position. The plan was flawless in Shane's opinion, and he hoped it would stay that way until they could overwhelm the Covenant defenses.
      Banshees swooped over their heads, missing them by a few meters. Robert ducked instantly. They pulled up and raced to aid their comrades.
      The Spartans looked at each other, quiet. Robert signaled for one of teams to move around the first hill. "Team One, assume left flanking position." He said, raising his index finger and gesturing to the hill's left hand side. The team flinched, hunched their heads into their chests and trotted to the "Alamo's" rim.
      One of the Elites on top of the hill approached a Grunt, grabbed it by its neck and threw it out of the plasma turret's gunner seat, roaring an apparent order. Shane wasn't surprised; he'd read about the Covenant's hierarchy and the way Grunts were considered nothing more than frontline bait. The alien squealed and crawled away from the Elite's sight, stroking its methane mask, coughing rapidly.
       "Team Two," Robert signaled, switching his finger's direction to the second hill, "flank the other butte." He touched Jane's shoulder. "We'll take the middle." He ordered.
      Shane, Robert and Jane made their way along the crater's basin as Team Two readied themselves to fire. A burst of assault rifle rounds crackled from the Alamo's right side: Team One had begun the attack. The plasma turrets opened fire and slowed the team's advancement. On the left side of the two hills, Team Two carefully crawled up the elevation on their stomachs.
      Robert ducked, rolled, and primed his assault rifle. A squad of Grunts sprang up and down the hill, barking as they loaded their plasma pistols. One of them hurled a plasma grenade at Robert. He took cover, and waited for the grenade to discharge. His heads-up display flickered as the projectile diffused a wave of electromagnetic impulses toward him. He was lucky – if he had fallen a few meters closer to the grenade, his SPI armor system would have shut down from the shockwave.
      Piercing rounds of MA5K fire raced from both sides of the hills, and slowly, the few squads of Grunts fell to the ground as they scrambled to man the plasma turrets. The Elites screamed and howled, intermittent blue liquid bursting out of their plasma rifles. Jane took point, and aimed her rifle observantly at the tall creatures. She'd never come face-to-face with one of these Covenant warriors before. The only thing she learned from fighting the Covenant was that Jackals are easy targets without their shields, and Grunts can scatter into multiple directions if properly dealt with. None of those rules applied to these fearsome creatures, though.
      One of the Elites suddenly stretched its right arm, a light blue sword materializing from its hand, crystalline sparkles shimmering on its transparent surface. The alien marched toward Shane, Robert and Jane, its mouth separated into four large jaws jagged with a series of sharp, triangular teeth.
      The team fell from cover, rifles ablaze. The Elite flinched as the bullets snapped off its shields, body turning and twitching. Despite its appearance, the creature didn't feel any pain. The shields recharged and the alien resumed its attack.
      Robert steadied his pace, loading another magazine of ammunition into the MA5K's charge. He looked around; Teams One and Two had crammed the Grunt squads into a tight middle section of the hills. Suppressing fire flew from one side to another as the short aliens fell squirming and yelling.
      He eyed the Elite's movements, and attempted to synchronize with them. Robert sprang to his side as the creature spurned its sword a few inches away from his faceplate. It growled. Balancing its body weight for another strike, it flung its arm vertically across Robert's silhouette. He ducked, fell on his back and tripped the alien to the ground.
      Swiftly, the creature came to its feet and prepared for a decisive hit. Just as the Elite raised its arm, a successive burst of MA5K fire punctured its neck, dark blue blood dripping from its veins. Weakened, the warrior flew back and dropped.
      On the left flank of the butte, Team One maneuvered around the dead bodies of Grunts, grabbed the corpses and shielded themselves behind them as they moved. Plasma impacted the dead Grunts' methane tanks, the odd gas leaking out of the fissures. The Spartans moved further, and the remaining Elite growled as piercing rounds of assault fire sliced through its muscles. It tumbled, regained its strength and tried to articulate a call for help – but nobody heard it. Team One surrounded the wounded creature, hesitant to put an end to its agony. They could imprison it, take it onboard the extraction ship, and deliver it to High Command alive. They knew that the ONI brass couldn't wait to get their dirty, black hands on an alien war prisoner. The Covenant had done it to humans, why wouldn't the UNSC return the favor?
      Ironic that these battle-hardened warriors fell on their knees in front of a species they despised. The sight was a breath-taker, though, from a tactical standpoint, and Robert realized he and his team were part of an event that would most definitely be recorded in human history: against overwhelming odds, a Navy Special Operations unit successfully prevented an alien invasion. This would surely give the Spartan-III's the credit they deserved when the time was right to let humanity know about them, plus a likely chance that a monument similar to the Argyre Planitia War Memorial on Mars would be erected in their honor.
      One of the Spartans approached the Elite's back, drew his arm around its neck and choked the ailing creature, forcing the air out of its lungs. It yelled in pain, squirming, stirring its arms and trying to break free from the Spartan's iron grasp. Robert patted his comrade's shoulder softly. "Save your energy for the resistance, we need this one alive." He said, retrieving his hand. The Spartan loosened his grip, and the Elite started breathing again … but it was too weak to fight back. Every molecule of tissue and muscle in its body screamed for revenge, but it knew better than to take on nine power-armored figures. It leaned its head.
      Robert knelt next to it, locking his gaze on the alien's almost human eyes. He didn't know whether the creature could understand his language, but he tried to communicate with it. "You're safe with us. If you cooperate, we will take you out of here." Robert explained, but his tone surpassed even his own authority. The Elite didn't move, seemingly not understanding, or pretending it couldn't hear the human. Finally, it shook its head sideways, silent. Its body language spoke hundreds of words, though. It wasn't about to give up, even if the enemy was a step ahead of it. Its kind never ran from a battle, and the Elite knew that the humans had no way to get off the asteroid. Reinforcements would arrive – thousands of them.
      Robert stepped away from the creature. For better or worse, they had successfully taken the Alamo and captured one of the enemy soldiers. HIGHCOM would get an earful of alien battle tactics from this hostage. Luck was on their side.

      Banshees swooped down and crossed the two hills. Strange that they didn't open fire. Perhaps the alien fliers knew that one of their comrades was in danger, and assumingly, had another plan to rescue him.
      Shane brought up a small, rectangular panel on his HUD, a vertical line blinking at the edge of a white box. He tapped several numbers divided by dashes and forward slashes into the text area, and hit a circular button on the top of the panel. His team's coordinates had just been sent to the extraction craft and the technical crew on Onyx. A red light winked, confirming the transmission.
      Jane clutched her head into her hands, breathing rapidly as she rested her back against a dead alien body. Her vision blurred, and her right arm had swollen twice the normal size. She asked herself how long she could keep her awareness together. She had to stay alive the next few minutes, at least until the extraction ship arrived. Her eyes moistened as she strained her muscles and made to her feet.
      The ground shook, and in the distant light-filled horizon a dozen Covenant warships bombarded the asteroid, taking out both human and allied forces alike. Spartans ran from side to side, rolling on the ground, their armor coated in a luminous layer of liquid-like fire.
      Their under-suits burned, and hollers began hissing in Robert's speakers: a combination of brutal screaming, crying and barking of commanding squad leaders. He closed the TACCOM channel. He couldn't bear the sound, even though that's what he'd been training for; the sounds of war.
      Covenant Spirit dropships approached the elevation, their U-shaped silhouettes shadowing over the scorched ground. The Spartans and Elites ceased fire for a few seconds, looking up at the incoming vessels laden with reinforcements. The ships' hatches opened, revealing a towering column of Elites armored in golden, blue and black colored bodysuits, swaying their plasma rifles carelessly through the air.
      The aliens growled, flinched, and hopped out of the landing bay. The creatures' "almost human eyes" suddenly turned into a gaze of hatred, sorrow, and solidarity as Robert tossed a short glance at them. The Elites grouped together, like lions closing in on their prey, cautious, observant and deadly. They were legends, and they stood up to their reputation: their species was, as far as the Covenant hierarchy indicated, the cultural center of the alliance.
      They moved forward, and behind them, several other squads took position. Two … four … six … eight. Robert spun across the hill, head lowered, tracking the Elites' advancing paces. Why didn't they fire?
      He opened the TEAMCOM channel. "Jane, man that turret, double time!" He ordered, pointing toward the idle plasma cannon, its seat hovering silently over a circular platform.
      Jane shook her head, struggled to overcome whatever wounds still hindered her strength, and climbed into the turret's gunner seat. It was comfortable in there; a leather-like material covered the seat's bottom and back sides, making it seem like sitting in an armchair, away from something as violent as a battlefield. Lucky Grunts.
      Robert walked to Shane's side. Holstering his assault rifle, Shane crouched a few meters away from the hill's smooth edge. He held his finger an inch away from the weapon's trigger. The Elites held fire, gradually hastening their steps. A few seconds passed, and five plasma grenades appeared in the leading squad's hands. They pressed a small, round button on the grenades and hurled them toward the three teams of Spartans fingering their weapons on the buttes, blue hale streaming in the alien projectiles' wake.
      Jane grabbed the turret's handle and readied herself to fire … but there was no trigger. Stupid. She didn't get used to the cannon's controls. Piece of alien junk, she mumbled, dabbing the turret's metal barrel desperately until her fingers found contact: two short triggers hanging from the main barrel's sides. She pressed the locks as hard as she could, and pinkish plasma liquid spattered out of the cannon's muzzle. She loved the feeling, it was nothing compared to handling a Warthog's anti-aircraft gun. Adrenaline rushed through her vanes as she steered the turret toward the advancing Elite squads. The anxiety helped her forget about the pain.
The alien fire teams switched positions, ducking, aiming their rifles, barking orders, tumbling, and then regaining their balance. Plasma grenades rained down on Robert and Shane. They spun, rolled and gracefully came to their feet again, blue explosions engulfing most of the ground. Team Two's point-man dropped as one of the grenades stuck to his chest plate. The projectile burst, sending him afloat, his SPI armor system fried: one casualty. A good sign.
      Team Two gathered into a small circle for a moment, tapped each other's armor plates, and scattered again. One of the Spartans approached the captured Elite, grasped its wrists and smashed its head down. The alien growled briefly, and swallowed on his urge to fight his captors. The other two Spartans knelt alongside the hill's front elevation.
      The charging Elites hastened their paces into a gradual sprint, and a few seconds later, they armed another round of plasma grenades. More foot soldiers marched into formation, but there were no other species aside from Sangheili. This was trouble, and Robert knew it. If the Covenant was directing its entire force toward the Alamo, the extraction zone would be overrun in a few seconds short of a minute. The extraction craft wasn't that fast.
      The overhead plains looked like a wobbling sea of elongated, armored figures growing larger in size, increasingly numerous dropships blazing over their heads. Covenant cruisers appeared, thick, orange light beams straightening down from their bellies. Upon closer observation, the beams seemed to burn the ground they hovered over. The skeletons of the plasma reactors melted in a few seconds, and the remaining Grunts crept away from the light's warmth.
      Robert had seen it before, right after he left Harvest. He could still picture the burning forests and waters in his mind. Where there had once stood flourishing cities, turned into leveled grounds of rubble, ashes, and stretching waves of fire.
      The cruisers moved closer to the hillside, passing by the columns of Elites, and zigzagging away from the battle. The Spartans shook their heads dismissively as they breathed out in relief. Why hadn't the cruisers finished them off? The Covenant afforded to sacrifice ground troops, but the beams came so close to the buttes that the Spartans could feel the heat even through their thermal-isolated armors.
      Would the Covenant care that much for their captive comrade? Was he a Fleet or Special Operations Commander?
      Robert set this option aside in a corner of his mind. The captive was no more than one of the UNSC's – humanity's – enemies. The alien was lucky to still be alive in the Spartans' presence.
      From across the plains, lights flickered on top of the mountain ranges. Alpha Company's snipers were in position. They scanned the cluster of Elites through their Oracle scopes. One of the groups risked a series of blind shots, but the crowded formations of Covenant soldiers didn't flinch. They fired again: headshots. A dozen aliens fell within a few seconds, but the columns reformed. The Elites charged, more than before.
      The Alamo was already lost, despite the combined firing force of Jane's artillery and Robert's infantry. Somewhere in their subconscious, though, they knew it would come to this. They'd fulfilled their mission, tried to get home but faced overpowering forces. What more could a soldier want?
      The sniper firing continued, straight trajectories of SRS99C-S2 bullets racing into the temples' of the aliens and making their way out, blood flying behind their traces. The cruisers had detected the sharpshooters' movements, and aimed their light beams toward them. The rocks burned as the fire beams impacted mountainsides, slowly climbed, and cast a thick blanket of liquid fire over the sniper groups. The Spartans turned, threw their rifles and covered their helmets as the beam melted through their armor. Their bodies liquefied.
      On the far side of the hill, one of Team Two's Spartans strengthened his knee against the captured Elite's skull, clenching its hands tight into a loose ball. Swiftly, the Elite yelled, strained its thigh muscles and knocked the Spartan off balance, doubling the armored human over. It rose, grabbed an abandoned MA5K assault rifle from the dirt, and pressed the trigger, its large hand grasping half of the weapon's casing. The Spartan rolled, barely avoiding the rifle's bullets. The Elite didn't slacken its grip, and with its other hand, activated its energy sword. The blade ripped through the Spartans' armor, and chopped his torso in half. With its guard out of the way, the creature could concentrate on fighting its other captors.
      A Spirit dropship landed a few meters away from the butte, a pair of massive, Covenant Hunters dropping to the ground, their arms shielded and their mounted fuel rod guns glimmering. They fired their cannons at Jane's turret.
      She tried to budge the turret's muzzle to face the Hunters. Two successive bursts forced her out of the seat. She floated several meters, and landed on an elevated chunk of rock, blood pouring out of her mouth.
      The Hunters advanced, discharging their cannons at Teams One and Two. The Spartans scattered, but didn't regroup again. Their bodies plummeted upward as the ground exploded: half of the Alamo was lost.
      An Elite fire team crawled on the butte, plasma rifles blazing: the Alamo was lost. Fragmentation grenades hurled from side to side of the buttes. Slowly, Shane, and Robert fell back. Team One's squad leader kept firing from the other hill. Two bursts of fuel rod fire sent the team tumbling off the elevation, squads of Hunters positioning themselves where the Spartans had stood.
      As the last three Spartans retreated, Covenant Hunters blocked their path. Robert and Shane pulled Jane from the ground, holstered her on their arms, and dragged her away from the hulking aliens. A plasma bolt impacted Robert's armor and burned through the under-suit. He collapsed. Dropping his weapon, he screamed and reached for his pistol; an M6 handgun.
      He stared at Jane, her body fell along with his. Only, she wasn't moving anymore. He looked at his HUD; her heart rate blanked out. He stood for a few moments, remembering a similar situation he'd read about. Thermopylae … Thermopylae, his thoughts wandered, why us, why now? He tried to stand up again, but more blood rushed out of his wound as he strained his muscles. The pain brought him down, head smashing the dust off the ground.
      Elites swarmed the hill grounds, exchanged several guttural yells and carried the Spartans' bodies away from the buttes. As they approached one of their dropships, the creatures boosted the human bodies into the air and threw them into the launch bay. They growled in satisfaction.
      The captured Elite had assisted the Hunters squads as the battle ended. Despite his jaws being dislocated, he mimicked a soft smile. He'd done what few other warriors of his kind had succeeded. Evading capture from the enemies, untangling his way out of a human guard's grasp … this would surely make him a hero, proud to return to his home world victorious.
      Through the commotion, the Elite joined his comrades clad in black combat armor. They cheered, laughed and joked. As the dust settled, a figure approached the Elite, its golden armor twisting the distant sun's light off its abrupt edges: the Ship Master of the vessel the captured Elite had traveled onboard.
      The group of Elites parted as the Ship Master walked with an evident pride. Raising his head, he locked gazes with the Elite, briefly touching the MA5K assault rifle it still held. The Ship Master shouted, clasped the rifle, and snapped it out of the Elite's hand. The cheering had stopped, and the rest of the warriors stood inert. This wasn't a moment of glory. It was something else.
      The Ship Master glared at the Elite with angered eyes. Finally, he opened his mouth. "Traitor." He muttered confidently. Arming his energy sword, he severed the Elite's head off its body. The others stared at the murder, stunned, they didn't dare say a word.
      Turning his head, he cast a quick glance at the spectators. He looked at the surroundings for a second, and noticed Shane's body hanging from the butte's edge, dust sweeping off his green armor. The Ship Master set his hand under Shane's head, and watched his silhouette's reflection in the helmet's wide, dark yellow faceplate.
      He raised the human's head. "Your destruction is not the will of the gods," the Ship Master's voice hummed, "it is your own will." Calmly, he lowered Shane's head again, and kicked the body off the hill's margin. Passive now, the Ship Master started strolling to his vessel, gazing at the show of meteors playing about in the sky. A price had been paid, one worth dying for: the legend of the Covenant.