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The Hephaestus Equation IV
Posted By: Dirty Commie<dirtycommie99@hotmail.com>
Date: 13 December 2002, 10:02 pm

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      He was enthralled by the unbridled violence of the scene. The volcanoes and lava flows that covered the surface of the moon seemed to be fighting against the dark, empty cold of space for its survival. The metaphorical nobility of such a thought was lost on Tal, however; to him, it was nothing less than a cosmic incarnation of hell itself. The magma and fire clashing against each other seemed to be killing each other over and over, only to reborn again in the hearts of the hundreds of thousands of endlessly erupting volcanoes. The moon was fascinating, yes, but Tal still wanted to be away from there as soon as possible.
      His wish was granted minutes later as the six raiders engaged their thrusters, rudely pushing the volcanic moon out of sight of the small viewports. The other five ovoid craft accelerated simultaneously.
      Tal glanced at the green digits of the mission clock: +13:04. He leaned back against the vibrating wall and checked his equipment for the final time. Besides the standard body armor, communication headgear, Assault Rifle, pistol, and pair of frag grenades, he had been issued a wicked combat knife, four extra grenades, and enough ammo to take any ten planets in the galaxy. The bad omens were piling up. Too little ammo meant a poorly planned operation; too much ammo meant an operation that goes to hell three seconds after beginning.
      Raiders were designed for high-speed boarding of enemy ships during combat. In that aspect, they had large circular hatches on the underside that could adhere to almost any surface. Raiders were also disposable, one mission and done. That meant no reinforced armor for the boarding party. After making contact with the enemy vessel, the ship automatically cut through any armor plating with no less than six fusion cutters, opening the way for the thirty soldiers waiting inside, armed to the teeth. Tal had twenty stony-faced marines in his raider, with eight extremely nervous techs in the back. Richards had been assigned to Green team to replace a sick commander there, Tal was in Blue. The others were Yellow, Black, and the double-sized Red.
      Contact! A voice said in his ear as a loud metallic thump sounded from the underside of the ship. Everyone covered their ears in unison. Tal looked around, feeling out of place, and followed suit.
      Hands were feeble shields, however, against the deafening roar of the ship's automated fusion cutters boring through the reinforced hull of the space station.
      When the din finally ceased and the green light on the hatch lit, Tal was dimly aware of everyone in the ship shouting. Or at least it looked like they were shouting; he couldn't hear anything except a painful ringing. All the other soldiers in the raider were apparently accustomed to this, and assembled into two lines opposite the smoking hatch. Then to Tal's surprise, they began dropping through, one at a time. Tal hurried to the back of his line while the techs struggled to strap on all the myriad equipment they had been issued.
      As soon as the entire team had lined up (including the pilots, they weren't flying anywhere now), the radio double-clicked the all-clear signal. Nobody could hear the clicks; of course, they were alerted by the radio LED light on everyone's eye-HUD blinking twice. The insertion proceeded smoothly from there.

      As Tal dropped ungracefully to the floor of the interior, two things immediately surprised him.
      One, the entire hallway the team had cut into was illuminated by incredibly bright lights very similar to human fluorescent lights. Except that they were a solid block of white, extended from halfway up one wall, around the ceiling, and halfway down the other wall, which made them about three thousand times more annoying than their human counterparts. Tal hated those lights.
      Two, the mission didn't go straight to hell three seconds after it started. That took at least a minute.
      You'd think having such a bright hallway would alert you to the presence of enemies. You'd think a pair of cloaked elites would move just a little bit, just enough to give themselves away. You'd think they wouldn't wait until you were right in between two white-hot plasma swords to attack. You'd think even with these advantages, you could avoid losing half your force before someone thought enough to pull a trigger.
      You'd think.
      Tal had been lucky. His earlier confusion in the raider had forced him to the end of the marching line inside the station, so he saw the lead pair of marines get cut to blackened shreds from relative safety. But the safety margin diminished rapidly. Three more pairs of marines were cut down before they could raise their rifles, but the fourth pair finally got the idea to shoot at the invisible Covenant.
      "Back up! Back up! Go backwards!!" Came the cry over Tal's radio (which he could hear quite well by now). The remnant of the team began to backpedal down the way they had come, shooting and cursing. But they were too slow; the fourth pair was killed before everyone had begun moving. They were now down to twelve marines.
      By now, Tal's legs were straining from backpedaling so fast, so far. He could tell the rest of the team was getting similarly tired, but the damned elites just wouldn't go down! Just as Tal was contemplating trying to use one of his plentiful frag grenades, a small, sparking cylinder flew over his head. It bounced once on the smooth ground and immediately discharged a long stream of yellow and red sparks. Tal finally recognized the thing, it was a phosphorous flare. He instantly recognized the genius of the idea.
      P-Flares were fairly primitive (and Tal wondered who would pack flares on a mission into a space station) and inefficient, but it worked like a charm. When the elites stepped through the curtain of sparks, their shields were shorted out. It seemed like an act of God. Another thing about P-Flares; they're hot. So hot in fact, that several of the sensitive microchips on the plasma swords melted and fused together, ruining them. Both swords flickered once, and died.
      The charging elites never even noticed that they had been stripped of all concealment and protection. Being torn apart by 180 shells in under a second tends to make you forget things.
      When the blue bodies (or what was left of them) finally fell to the floor, all the soldiers just stopped running and fell down to catch their breath. Eventually some got around to congratulating the diminutive tech that had thrown the fatal flare. Tal got up to inspect the mutilated corpses of the two sword-wielders. He had sensed something strange about them.
      Sure enough, there was something strange about them, other than their bodies being little more than confetti below the shoulders. The faces of the pair were covered in golden symbols and lines, similar to tattoos, except they veritably glowed of their own accord. Also, even though it was hard to make out on the alien face, they were unmistakably scarred all over. At first it seemed as if they were extremely lucky veterans, but an underlying pattern soon became evident. The lines and shapes were radiating out from the eyes, it was quite unsettling when it became clear, and Tal called over some of the techs to look at the unusual designs.
      Everyone clustered around to get a good look at the alien visages. Most shook their heads in confusion, some just stared, one man piped up in the back with something that perked up the ears of everyone in the squad. Then he repeated it.