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Hawk Chronicles: Chapter 2b
Posted By: Vector40<brandon@berkeleyhigh.org>
Date: 17 October 2001, 4:50 am

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     The cabin was rocking gently from side, swaying peacefully in the airstream. Banning had his eyes closed, leaning back against an equipment bag, dozing, lulled into a sleepy interlude by the rhythmic hum of the engine.
     "Yo! Up in back!" Storm's voice filtered up from the pilot's section. He rolled over grumpily, heard the lowered pitch of the jets, and sat up, feeling like a corpse.
     "Five minutes on the LZ!"
     "All right! Leave me alone."
     "Oh, okay. No problem. Raynor? You feel like carrying him?"
     Carson's answer was lost in the noise, but couldn't have been charitable.
     "Get up, John. The Covenant are ringing, and we wouldn't want them to go away disappointed, would we?"
     "Jesus! Okay, okay, I'm up." Banning swung his feet over the edge of the bench, groping around for his rifle.
     "On yo' shoulder, sir."
     Of course. "I knew that."
     Even Macedon was smiling, deep in his raised collar. Banning scowled.
     "Christ, you guys. It's fucking tiring running around like this. Can't we just retire and grow cotton somewhere?"
     "Oh, ri-"
     The explosion threw the entire cabin of the Pelican to the right, spinning the floor at an insane angle. Banning was tossed into the air, barely managing to roll with it as he was smashed into the ground. He skidded to a halt, looking around desperately for somewhere to grab. He snatched a strip of webbing in a deathgrip. "Storm!"
     "I told you! They're knockin'! There's a grid of Plasma AA laid here!"
     "Crap it. Can we make the LZ?"
     "Oh, damn straight! You remember who you're talking to?"
     Another airburst slammed the walls obliquely. "Hold on!" cried Storm.
     The heavy, ungainly Pelican seemed to transform, agilely sliding laterally. Banning felt the floor slipping away from him and clung to the security of the webbing as the entire interior of the Tilt-Jet Aircraft began to twist in the air. A screaming sound came from outside, as Storm completed a perfect barrel roll and sharply canted the jet to the left.
     "Storm, you'd better tell me that was for more than just showin' off for the Covenant!"
     "We've got a couple of interceptors on our tail!" she shouted back. "I just took us through a pass at the end of the ravine. They weren't so lucky. One of them clipped a wing and crashed against the wall! The other made it."
     Banning shook his head. They couldn't dogfight with a free-air fighter in a fat-bellied transport, no matter how flashy Storm got. "Take us down!"
     "Okay! I'm about to the LZ anyway!"
     "Take us down!"
     The nose of the jet pushed over steeply. The aircraft plummeted. Banning felt his stomach float somewhere around his neck, clutching at his grip as he was buffeted into the air sickeningly.
     A whooshing sound came through the walls, then an anticipatory silence, and the jet crunched heavily into the earth. He crumpled to the deck, letting his knees absorb the shock.
     "No shit, Storm!" Wilder bellowed back.
     "Out! Out, out, out!" Banning lashed his rifle's sling around his forearm and slapped the butt, pushing the crowd toward the exit, which folded open. They swarmed out, struck by the sun. They were nearly on top of the treeline.
     "Perimeter! Mace, Wild, Hack! Get the rear, Storm!" She had dropped out of the door last, pounding the fuselage with a palm. Immediately, the transport began to rise, translating along the ground and angling up, as the Marine co-pilot took control and slammed the thrusters back, trying to clear the space before the fighter circled back.
     Banning looked idly up at the looping Covenant interceptor. It was small, insubstantial, with pointed angles and sharp edges that looked like they would snap off at the first touch of pressure. It was beginning to reapproach.
     He turned. "So, who wants it?"
     Hackenberg waggled a hand. "I'll give it a try."
     "I can do it," said Carson.
     Banning considered for several moments, scratching the grizzled hair on his neck idly. "You take it, Mace. I don't want to mess this one up. It's a one-shot, one-drop job."
     Macedon looked blank. "Okay."
     The fighter was looming closer. Mace appeared to study it, locking it in his gaze solidly.
     The aircraft shot overhead, the muffled sonic boom nothing but a mild whistle.
     Banning had been watching Macedon do it for years, and it was still a challenge to see anything but a blur. He gave a slight twitch, shifted his shoulder back, and
     the fighter, traveling at several times the speed of sound, made a wild, awkward wheel in the air and plummeted into a mountain-top, trailing smoke and vapors from the gap in between the forward and rear shields.
     Macedon's handgun holstered itself beneath his cloak.
     Wilder had been following the downed flight of the jet with intense eyes. He frowned, perplexed. "Was that the cell?"
     Macedon shook his head slightly. "The transmission box. If I blew the energy cell, it'd be visible for miles."
     Banning grinned. "Nice work. I'd like to do this one without the entire Covenant army on us."
     "I didn't know you could get the trans chamber from the center divide," said Wilder, using the term for the small band of several inches between the protective fields for the front and rear hemispheres, the only vulnerable spot in the shielded Covenant vehicles. He still looked unsure.
     "It's a little bit tricky. You have to work the shot around the cell. The angle is fairly narrow."
     Banning broke in. "Fellows, I'd love to stay here and debate Covenant mechanics all day, but we need to move. They'll have reported this position."
     "We'll hit the treeline. Storm, how close were we to the LZ when we bummed down?"
     "Close. A few miles into the ground cover, east."
     "Okay. Let's get there."
     He lifted his assault rifle and chambered a round with a metallic clunk. They walked into the trees and were swallowed.

     The leafy foliage above them was spread thinly among the wide branches, letting in hot, filtered light and giving the impression of a greenhouse. The air smelled of moist bark, decomposed earth, and an unusual scent that reminded Banning of burn umber; something indigenous, no doubt. The others spread out reflexively, maintaining a loose perimeter and a guard on their flanks. He had to catch Storm's eye and shake his head to keep her from running off to revel in some unnecessary recon.
     He felt a brief pang of worry, which he reassured himself was a commander's prerogative. She probably shouldn't be on this mission; her wound was still fresh. For that matter, neither should Mace?he ought to be recuperating. Hell?he smiled vaguely?neither should he. But, hell, you did what you had to. When it came down to it, they were soldiers in the end, warriors to the blood, and even if they could afford to ground a member of their own every time they got scratched, it would take the Devil himself?plus a hand-picked team of minions, probably with rocket launchers?to keep him or her from coming anyway.
     Which reminded him. He turned and snapped his fingers. Hack moved up the line, heeding the signal; Wilder slipped in behind him unnoticed to fill his position.
     "What's up, boss?" Hackenberg pitched his undertone to carry.
     "You got it?"
     "Oh, yeah. Right here. You want to see?"
     "No, no. But keep it handy. I'm going to want you on demo this time."
     His eyes fell. They had discussed it in the brief, but had left the final option to be made in the field, as they often did. "You sure? I mean, you might-"
     "I'm sure. A sniper is not what is called for here."
     He sighed, melancholy. "Yeah, okay." He dropped back to his spot, mouthing "Demo" at Wilder, who tried to suppress a smile.
     They moved on. Some of the trees seemed to be secreting a kind of soppy, viscous liquid; it was pooling around their bases in hollows that they had to avoid stepping in. Not that they were particularly upset about getting wet?but Banning had discovered, upon stomping in one of the puddles, that the stuff had tendencies remarkably like glue. They had to stop while he yanked the boot free and put it back on.
     Alert though they were, the trek through the forest-cum-jungle became mindlessly dull after only a few minutes. Banning turned his head idly, watching the group plod along. Hailman was stepping heavily, looking a bit winded; he'd pulled the short straw, so to speak, and his pack had gotten the charming addition of the emergency beacon. Mil-spec approved, it wasn't overly heavy, but with the wide dish, the damn thing had to be three feet across. Carson was walking alongside him, getting his jollies by occasionally breaking into a brief run or sprinting in circles around Hail. "The big son of a bitch isn't even sweating," Hailman snapped savagely onto Banning's private channel.
     Steve was meandering along their left flank, looking morose about missing his chances to get some more sniping in. Through the mask, though, his usual cheery grin kept breaking through unbidden. It took a nuclear winter to get him glum?which was not mere conjecture.
     Trailing the pack, and completing the back end of their security, Storm and Mace were walking together. Just behind them, Wilder dogged along. He still looked upset about that hacking business, but he had a watchful eye out nonetheless, as well as a vaguely protective gleam in his eye when his glance came across Storm. Come to think of it, so did Mace... Banning dismissed it. Something for another time.
     They passed the clearing where their original LZ had been without stopping. There was nothing special about the spot, which had been assigned more or less arbitrarily by the Marine clearinghouse for Special Ops.
     Time passed. The trail had begun to thin at about the same speed that the sun was dying. Half an hour into the trudging journey, Banning suddenly froze, lifting his fingers from his gauntlet where he had been fooling with the program.
     He looked up. The forest was quiet.
     Cursing himself, he pressed himself back into motion again. Idiot. "Rattlesnake," he called back softly down the line.
     Raising his hand to the side of his head, he slowly scratched just behind his ear, managing to tap his subdural comm as he did so.
     "You see them?" he muttered without moving his lips.
     "Roger that," Storm whispered.
     "Give me an estimate," he said. "Hail?"
     "Just one."
     "Storm? Left."
     "Mace? Right."
     "Wild, up? Carefully."
     Banning pictured him adjusting his hat, perusing the treetops as he did so.
     "Oh, shit. I make four, Bird."
     Banning took five seconds to think, two more to check it, and twitched his jaw. "All right, everyone. Give me a three count, then split open. Napalm drill, here. Move to the treeline like the trail was on fire. Storm and Wild, the flyers are yours. We'll handle the ground-pounders. Suppressing fire, Raynor."
     Heavy breathing answered him.
     Counting to three was an essential attribute of the experienced soldier of fortune, especially one who wished to live to collect his pension. The cluster of Hawks broke open within a tenth of a second of each other.
     Trusting in his team's training, Banning bent his knees and spun around, leaping towards the overgrowth at the edge of the trail. As he lifted, both of his hands found the quick-release tabs at the ends of his bandoleer, pulled the straps, and decanted dual smoke canisters into his palms. As he hit, rolling, he tucked in his elbows and flung the grenades into the center of the trail.
     Indulging himself with a bit of motherly protectiveness, he noticed contentedly that the wide-cut path was as empty as if it had been abandoned for years.
     Half a second later, the grenades burst, a double whom-whomp! that filled his ears. A heartbeat, two, and the air exploded with reflexive plasma fire as the ambush snapped.
     A line of red-hot needles ran along the ground toward him, too quickly for his eyes to track. He sprinted two feet, jumped for a low-hanging tree branch, looped through the air in a U-shaped arc, and dropped low. Whirling the ballistic nylon sling around the front of his arm, he swung the stock of his rifle around, bringing up his other hand and pinwheeling the butt into his shoulder. Dropping the bipod with a slam, he keyed up the thermal tracker and sited in through the wide, broad-angle crystal plate across the trail.
     Covenant do not exude heat, he heard the Marine armorer say. But in order to survive in an oxygen-breathing atmosphere, they require a small bio-energy pack, which they wear across their chests. Their weapons draw from this, too. That gives off a signature.
     Quite neatly, too, he saw. At least three small plumes of red were bursting hot and vibrant in his scope, and he slipped a HEAP load onto the rack with a touch of his thumb and raked a stream of fire across the largest concentration of them. The explosive med-cal rounds pounded against the sturdy trunks of the trees, smashing off splinters and making a sound like a woodpecker.
     Then he ducked, as a glowing stream of energy flickered above him, close enough to char the air.
     Flipping up the bipod, he rolled, staying below the line of the ground-hugging shrubbery lining the path. More concentrated plasma fire scorched after him, seeking to touch and hold him in its savage grip.
     Fuck this, he thought angrily. He wasn't about to sit here all day, engaging in the jungle equivalent of trench warfare. "Raynor, crank it!"
     The spitting sound of the minigun increased exponentially. Some of the smaller of the hardwoods were actually beginning to collapse. Rocking to his feet, Banning flipped a setting on his rifle, adjusted the feed ramp two notches, and then, body low and legs pumping, sprinted for his life across the trail.
     God looks over fools, drunks, and the Silver Hawks, as those unlucky enough to have come across them were wont to say. He made it unscathed.
     Reaching the opposite side, he turned and began to dive?but caught his foot on a protruding root, instead falling flat on his face. Turning it into a sloppy roll, he brought himself around, dropping supine. He keyed a switch. The rifle began to spit a red, flickering light from one of its modules; in its cone of luminescence, two grunts could be seen, manning a hand-driven portable gun platform, atop which an Elite was pouring a barrage of scathing death across the trail. All three were glowing red.
     If and when Banning ever learned to read the expressions of the faceless aliens, he was sure that he would have seen looks of utter astonishment.
     Dialed up to three times the usual rate of fire, one tracer in five, he dispatched most of the clip at the same rate the Covs fell like chainsawed birches.
     Then, pulling himself into a backward half-somersault, he threw his weight up, flipping to his feet. He dropped into a sarwa, twisting his knees, and caught the belt of webbing from his rifle with his left arm. He pressed the barrel under his arm, pinning it to his abdomen with his elbow.
     Squeezing his muscles rigid, he pressed down on the trigger.
     A wide-spread triangle of fire flared out, emptying the clip behind him. As the final round clicked out, there was a whump, and a grenade thumped away.
     He dove for cover as the concussion wave reverberated past.
     He was reloaded moments later, and rolled out, training the sights downward. Only the crumpled corpses of two more grunts, shattered and bleeding, rose to greet him.
     "Clear!" he bellowed, half through the air, half on his comm.
     "Clear!" "Clear!" "Clear!" The reports came in, carrying crisply in the dry evening.
     "Clear!" Number seven.
     "That's a wrap, people!"
     Not lowering the assault rifle, but relaxing his grip a little, Banning walked out back into the trail warily. The dense smoke was still lingering in the air, but beginning to disperse with the traces of breeze.
     Carson was hunched at one corner of the trail, smoking mini resting on a broken stump. He was grinning. Banning got the distinct impression that the log had not fallen on its own.
     Steve drifted in from one edge, poking his head around a hefty trunk. Apparently, he had decided none of his weapons were sufficiently suited for his task, and had doubled his sniper rifle over as a brutal but particularly effective club. Effervescent blue blood stained the butt.
     Mace was standing in the middle of the trail. Bullet and plasma burst impact craters lay all around him. He flickered a dark, painful almost-smile.
     Swiveling his head around, Banning frowned. Where-
     A moment later, he heard a swooshing, and two heads suddenly dropped into his vision. He snapped his eyes up, startled.
     Storm and Wild were hanging, suspended, from the fragile web of branches in the overhead canopy. Wild had what seemed to be an impromptu sling, consisting of an arm-length tie-down cord, which he had buckled to his ever-present harness and looped over some branches. Storm was merely held by her knees, hooked around a sturdy cross-piece.
     She was holding two knives, soaked to the hilts in blue fluids. Wild stretched a little, unhooking his harness, and Banning could see the pistols in his wrist holsters.
     As he watched, Storm slipped off, fell into a graceful swan dive and airborne flip, and landed with a minimal impact, which she absorbed with her knees. Wild dropped away a moment later, hitting hard and rolling with a PLF*.
     Hail was sitting against a tree, his one-armed rifle over his shoulder. He was picking his teeth nonchalantly with a piece of string, and called out at Banning "That it?"
     "I think so. Nobody saw a stray?"
     Heads shook.
     "Okay. Got everything?"
     Heads nodded.
     He looked around.
     "Then let's go."

     "Hey, O'Neal, move your feet."
     Grady shoved at the man with his heels.
     "My ass, dude. I was here first."
     "Yeah, and I'm bigger than you. This ain't no trial court. Move over."
     Grudgingly, Peter O'Neal bent his legs a little, allowing Grady to stretch out. It was a bitch having only one bunk in the cell, especially considering that even under better circumstances, it probably wouldn't have fit either man. The old springs creaked under their weight as he settled down.
     "Hey! You two!" The pitched whisper drifted across the narrow hall, made thin and crinkly by the filtering of double force-shields.
     Looking over, Grady glared at Blake with an irritated eyebrow. "What the hell now, Ed?"
     The man gestured to the figure that lay on the ground beside him. "Armstrong's leg is getting worse, Hang. I think we're going to have to make our move."
     He shook his head. "Talk to Paul."
     "If he says we go, we'll go."
     Grumbling, Blake was about to call again out again, across to the third cell, when another voice echoed against the walls.
     The booming foghorn slammed against Grady's head like a high-pressure stream of water. Shaking himself violently, he tried to clear his senses, feeling overwhelmed as always. "F- Jesus, Blake, did you have to do that?"
     He looked at him darkly. "I'm just trying to save Dan's leg, asshole."
     "But, shit, do it quietly! It's bad enough that those fucking slug things have goddamn built-in amps?but if I have to listen to any more of this jacked-up Shakespeare, I'm going to shoot myself."
     Blake shook his head. He rose to his feet and padded to the entrance of his cell. "Fine, don't get your panties in a wad."
     Leaning as close to the high-power field as he dared, Blake peered out down the corridor, trying to see as far as he could. "It look like ol' wind-bag is gone. Maybe-"
     "Excuse me, Mr. Johnson?"
     Snapping his head around in surprise, Blake crashed his head directly into the charged energy-shield. Voltage surged through his neck and back. He twitched like a drawn fish for several seconds before jerking away convulsively, collapsing to the floor in a limp heap.
     Grady, staring, didn't notice.
     Groaning on the ground, Blake grabbed at his bed, found a loose spring, and managed to haul himself up against the wall, where he propped his weight. Perspiration was running down his face, and his limbs trembled.
     "Son of a-"
     At last, he raised his gaze up, looking out the transparent gate, and saw the man.
     A trench coat? he thought, bewildered.
     Oh- no, it was an anti-personnel fire cloak. He'd seen one of those in a shop on M5. But-
     He was tall, heavily built, but with a graceful lilt to his stance that made him look like a dancer. Blake found himself staring into the man's face, trying to divine something from the hard, dark, expressionless depths. The eyes...
     The eyes-
     The man cleared his throat. "Mr. Johnson?"
     Blake shook himself. "Uh?yeah, Blake?Blake Edward... uh, Edward Johnson. Who- who are you?"
     The man didn't answer. He was looking upward, above the shielded entrance of the cell where the field met the ordinary reinforced duraluminum.
     Blake heard a sizzle, and a little smoke drifted into his view. Suddenly, there was a massive surging of power in the air, and a faint puff of equalizing atmospheres as the entire grid of the shield snapped and disappeared.
     The head, shoulders, and finally torso of a man dropped below the threshold of the newly-opened gap, and a cheery face beamed out at him. "Come on, then."
     The man in black stepped into the cell quickly, moving to Blake's side and helping him up. He bent to take hold of the sleeping?or unconscious, he wasn't sure which?figure of Armstrong on the floor, settled him in his arms, and carried him out.
     As Blake stepped from the cell, he turned and looked up. The head he'd seen, a spritely, blonde-haired, sharp looking man, was... apparently, stuck to the ceiling. He was wearing a dynamic climbing harness with easy familiarity, and through its loops there was the securing hooks of three snap-bolts that were divoted into the hard surface overhead. He was positioned in front of the grid maintenance panel, set into the wall, and various wires were running out of it. Blake caught a whiff of something burnt.
     The man did something to the divots and slid noiselessly from his perch to the ground. He turned down the hall and tossed the item he'd been holding with a gentle lob. "Yo, Hail! It works great! You can do the rest."
     Blake shifted his gaze down the long passageway, lined with prisoner holding cells.
     Three more men were there, guarding the crossway with alert faces enough weapons to level a city.
     And behind him, he heard a hiss, and he turned again to see another field flicker and fade away?and no sooner had it gone then Paul Carpenter, his C/O, stepped out with an alert look and a spark in his eyes. Blake saluted automatically.
     And so did the man in front of the field panel, snapping hand to forehead with crisp precision.
     "Silver Hawks, sir, on mission from Third Fleet Marines."
     "Respectfully relinquishing command to Seventh Recon."

* Author's Note: Parachute Landing Fall

     They pounded down the halls, trading stealth for speed.
     Carson was carrying the comatose Armstrong, loping alongside the others and puffing slightly. Wild, sprinting lightly, gave him a smirk.
     Banning, at the head of the line, clattered to a halt. He looked back; Carpenter was standing before a door, one of the many that studded the corridor.
     "Our weapons are in here, Captain."
     Banning looked around uncertainly, then jogged up. It only took him a few seconds to be sure of the obvious:
     "The damn thing's sealed."
     He turned, doubtful. "Are you sure they're in here?"
     "Quite sure, Captain."
     He shook his head. "Not going to work. Not unless we stick around here for a few minutes too long. We need to roll." He dropped his hand to his hip and drew out his pistol. "Here."
     They sorted themselves out. All the Hawks had one backup weapon or another. Soon, each of the conscious Recon members were armed.
     "Are you ready, Captain?" Carpenter asked.
     Banning nodded. "Yeah. Let's-"
     His words were cut off by the ripping slap of Mace's pistol.
     Carpenter was on the ground. Aiming.
     From one frame to the next, Mace twisted, and the shot slid past his face by inches.
     Then, everyone was moving. O'Neal had his shotgun to Wilder's head- he, in turn, was dual-drawn on both O'Neal and Carpenter. Carson's mini was a foot from Blake's face, and Grady had his borrowed subgun looped under the long reach of Storm's blade. The scene was frozen with tension?and then Banning yelled, "Stop!"
     Everybody turned to look at him. He eased his palm from the grip of his rifle.
     And pointed over Carpenter, where the folded form of the grunt was bleeding silently into the ground.
     Nobody spoke. And then Carpenter, rigidly pointing his gun at Mace, let his arm go loose and collapse.
     Everybody relaxed.
     He stood, keeping his gaze fixed on Mace, and approached him. His pure, hard, cobalt blue eyes were glistening.
     Then he extended his hand.
     Mace shook it stiffly.
     They both nodded.
     And moved off.
     Carson, watching them pass him, shook his head as they headed out.
     "Cold fucking bunch," he said.

     kreeeeeep! kreeeeeep!

     "I hate these fucking alarms!" Hackenberg bellowed, uncharacteristically enraged. He rushed past another box, pounded a tumbler of shaped Edging on it, and blew a fist-sized hole through the center.
     "Leave it!"
     "Fuck that!"
     "Leave it!"

     The two Elites on sentry at the door fell under a hail of fire.
     The group streamed past the bulkhead. The last one through, Hailman, slammed the heavy door shut and dogged it.
     "Come on!"
     And they burst free into the daylight, bristling with weapons and aiming in all directions, alert and ready to take down-
     The compound was empty.
     Carson did a double take, whipping his head around in surprise. "What the fuck?"
     Banning was scanning the barrel of his rifle back and forth rapidly, searching for a target. "Where-"
     The wide, open grounds of the base was deserted. Not so much as a dog wandered the blank, protected "streets" between the buildings and walls.
     Wilder was whispering out of the side of his mouth to Carson. "Am I the only one who remembers the ass-sized army we had to walk around to get here?"
     Carson looked like he needed something to blow up. "I remember."
     They all turned to look at Hackenberg. He was standing broadly, his hands apart like he was trying to keep his balance.
     "Uh?huh? Oh..."
     Banning glared at him curiously. "What the hell?"
     He had his eyes closed. Knees bent. He licked his lips. "Tremors."
     Looks were exchanged all around. Then: "Tremors?"
     Hackenberg flicked his eyes open. "Tremors. I grew up on Sirius 7, Bird. Quake country. In the mountains, no less. You get a feel for it?you have to know when to?to?" He rocked back suddenly, almost falling over. Hailman caught him, hauling him back to his feet.
     Everyone was swapping varied quizzical expressions, some more concerned than anything.
     Wilder cleared his throat. "Uh, Steve... Are you sure, uh... you're not..."
     "Wait, wait, wait, wait..." The men of the recon team had been hanging back, staying uninvolved; the voice startled everyone.
     Carpenter took looked back, surprised. "O'Neal? You have something to add?"
     The man had a stance similar to Hackenberg- legs cocked, eyebrows furrowed, arms askew.
     "Man.. I remember the Valley on Venus... just like this..."
     He looked up. "Just-"

     The immense, thunderous explosion smashed through the surface, pummeling out waves and waves of echoing, punishing force. The ground slammed back/forthbackforthBACKBACK, hurtling them all from their feet as it slanted at an insane angle.
     Banning hit hard, slamming his chin against his rifle butt and splitting his lip. He rolled over immediately, freeing the gun and pivoting it up. As if at the range, he dropped his elbows, pressed stock to shoulder, and pressed his face tight into the rear sites, looking down the length of the base, where there was nothing but empty earth-
     -and it was splitting-
     The ground was screaming, protesting, and... crumbling away in a massive, trembling fissure. Banning watched, awed, as ten, twenty, thirty meters of the earth disappeared into blackness.
     And was filled, by a giant, bellowing monster.
     It was huge, black?shining black?a thick, cleanly cut, swept, flowing monstrosity that held a resemblance to a colossal, articulated, beautiful-
     "What the hell is that?!" bellowed Wilder, a hint of terror entering his voice.
     The words slipped out of Banning's mouth, parched, dry, desperate:
     "Thor's Hammer."
     Then the first blast came, and he snapped back to himself and rolled away.

     Scintillating, humming, moaning, razor-edged but lovingly caressing, the burnt-blue-green-blue beams of haunting destruction lanced out unremittingly, scorching the hard, packed dirt and the dry, moving air.
     The eleven men swarmed, coagulated, burst again, thickened, swarmed once more, trying, desperately, to evade the aching touch of the hammer's blows. The singing ship hovered, spun, drifted and swiveled in the sky like a dancing flight of seagulls, whirling and floating without any apparent means of impetus.
     Banning ran, his mind blank of any thoughts other than of driving his feet, his legs, himself. Splitting left, then left, running hard forward, breaking left hard and looping, a long U, turnSTOP?back to the right, all the speed he could muster. Seeing a wide hump in the ground, he exploded forward and dove six feet, slamming his shoulder, and falling behind it. He brought his rifle up as fast as he could, pounded out random shots onetwothreefour567bambambabababbbb-
and, instinct breaking strong into his mind, scooped up the rifle and kicked off the knoll, rollingrollingrolling as fast as he could?just before a massive, sun-beam thick ray of clarity-yellow and energy-blue cleaved through his cover like a rainbow through a cloud, splitting it like the wind, cutting above his head by impossibly close feet.
     On his feet, Harpy-plagued, he burst into a sprint again, spinning around in a wide, open circle. His mind threw out fifty different routes every second, crossed out half of them, then another half, and five more, then two and one and one until he had it and he executed?always trying to avoid patterns, eschewing the natural tendency of the human character to make logic, pattern, design. He made a mistake once, and the beam that spoke came inches from severing his legs at the hip. A last-instant, vicious breaking flip saved him, realizing his mistake in time?barely.
     His muscles burned. He jinked left twice, twirled, stepped backwards suddenly, and almost ran into Hackenberg. They pushed off each other urgently, but not before Banning slapped at his back urgently, pointing.
     He got the message. They split, ran, and rejoined, Hackenberg skidding forward, as Banning dropped in front of him, in a kneel so long he was almost in a splits. He braced his arm, his elbow, both reinforced, against his chest, as he heard Steve throwing off his pack and yanking out the rocket launcher, raising it t-
     Divinity struck.
     The Wrath of God tore into him with a thousandweight of sheer, impossible force, a mountain driving into a single, hard point the size of a fist. His gauntlet, the droplet of glowing energy, flared fiercely like a star, absorbing the power of a nuclear missile in an instant, overloaded, and transferred the rest to kinetic energy.
     Banning arm cracked backwards like a thrown switch, slapping into the rear of his ribs?in the wrong direction, the arm already broken, but still with enough force to break two ribs. He completed two full rolls backwards, stopping with a lump, splayed out on his stomach, looking at Steve's back, seeing him freeze in mid-fire, stunned, aware that in a moment, he would-
     And it spoke again,
and, like a meteor met with a missile, was erased by a second, angled cut of slanting light. Banning managed to shift his eyes, left, to see Mace standing in a two-handed stance, holding his pistol-
     and Hackenberg awoke, and lifted the launcher to his shoulder, achieving a snap-lock in a half-second, and squeezed.
     A long, streaming finger reached out, so quickly it blurred, blurring, blurring into the side of the monstrous, imposing ship, the hammer, Thor's Hammer...
     Exploded on the side and nothing. Charred metal, almost, no paint to scratch, a few discolorations?the hull untouched, the strength unopposed, the soul left unchallenged. Hackenberg was quicker, this time, the unofficial mercenaries' motto echoing in the air and in his ears-

     and if you shall die, be it yet so
     Shirk not your duties, to taste the blow
     But if it be not time, the end of ye luck
     Watch ye your ass, and when ye hear whis'ling, duck!

     He let himself go boneless, limp and flaccid, falling moments ahead of a spectrum-merging javelin of redemption.
     Well drilled, and quick too. Even as he fell, the reload was in his hand, then in the breech before he hit, and he split his legs wide, tilted back, and fired-
     -As Mace, again, felt the motion of a shot and danced it back, contacting and erasing it from existence twenty feet away, but feeling the heat nonetheless-
     And the rocket streaked forward, and touched, and was rebuffed.
     Hack fell one way, rolling, and Mace fell the other with a cartwheel, both avoiding the shot, but it impacted an arm's-length away from Banning, and he started to worry-
     and well so. For a second later, he was swept up by a thick grasp, and he turned his gaze up wearily to see the crisp face of Paul Carpenter, and they ran for only a second before the spot where he had lain was devastated by a crater.
     The next shot was meant for Mace?so much so that, addled with endorphins, Banning swore he saw his name inscribed on the round?and the impossible angle, aiming at what was essentially a one-dimensional object, might have been considered a simple challenge by Mace normally, but he blundered, and his counter-shot slipped past by a millimeter?but it must have pushed it off-course, or else his last-ditch dive to avoid the shot in less than a heartbeat was successful, or else his cloak diffused the blow enough for him to slide away, partially?but the thunderbolt of power only tore into his shoulder, burning, breaking, but leaving muscle and bone largely intact.
     But he did not cry out, or make any noise at all, and Banning saw why?not to call any attention at all to the figure beneath the ship, behind, and tiny, but undetected in the Hammer's crusade to delete Mace, Hackenberg, and Banning.
     Mace flipped his gun to his left hand, and the next shot ripped apart the blazing beam of sustenance as soon as it left the ship, two hundred feet from him.
     The next shot made Banning cringe?for Mace was reloading, doing so whisper-fast, but it caught him in the middle, charged clip still in his opposite hand-
     and he spun, tumbled, and cast up his cape, swirling it in a cloud of black, and Banning heard the voice slam through his comm piece, "close your eyes!" He clenched them shut, just as the shot impacted among the folds of the reflective, refractive, maze-bending fabric, bounced, and bounced, and bounced, and suddenly split, searing into his eyes with a white light that left an afterimage behind the lids.
     He opened his eyes again, blinking rapidly, and saw Mace on the ground, panting, rising-
     But his attention drew away, to the ship, and below, where he squinted, trying to make out-
     -but then he saw the flare of light gathering, ghost-glimmer quick, and he knew it was coming straight for him-
     An arrow-straight, soaring, crisscrossing grid of streaming red lines, patpatpatting, ricocheting and cracking through the air, filling it with buzzing, hissing, snapping bullets in a thin crimson veil. Behind it, rolling, spinning, diving among the shots, the purple, living streak of driven fury, in a climbing vertical arc that would reach the sun?
     ?but as it crested, pulling even with the terrible, resounded, effulgent gun, the small, compact figure leaning out, holding the pistol, and?
     ?the whirling, blessed ball, piercing through the folds of chance and fate, streaking perfectly in a glance of light, the tiny, metal bullet, carved with the crested, silver bird, a hawk?
     ?breaking, bursting, in a flurry of scattering light and lost power, in the port, the maw, the barrel of the mighty hammer's voice?

     Banning flinched involuntary, but looked back, and watched as the huge, ascendant, omnipotent beast slowly flared, perched on a torch of suspension, then turned translucent, and, heaving, plummeted into the earth.


     Limping, bleeding, torn and struck, the eleven men and women drew in. As each arrived, they took stock, seeing to immediate wounds and other concerns, as well as establishing their individual whereabouts during the battle.
     Paul Carpenter had been a locust, never stopping, never ceasing his momentum, worrying at the ship with small-arms and hoping for a lucky hit.
     Hailman, along with Eddie Blake, had been the luckiest of the bunch. The two men had chanced upon an old, sensor-proof bunker at the edge of the compound, and darted inside as soon as they felt they were unwatched. They had spent the rest of the battle trying to contact the others over jammed particle lines and inform them of the safe haven.
     The unconscious David Armstrong had been carried with them. His condition, a combination of wound-exacerbated fever and an open shot wound, had begun to worsen- Wilder called in an emergency medevac, with a full escort.
     Mace had light burning across his entire torso, where the broken beam of the Hammer had retained enough power to sear his unshielded body. He shrugged off help.
     Hackenberg was unharmed, except for superficial cuts and a near-miss from the cannon that had blistered the flesh.
     And when Hanger Grady, Peter O'Neal, Wild and Storm and Carson finally found their way in, Banning looked at them all, but it was Wilder who spoke at last.
     They had, individually or together, stumbled across the same point in the fire-swept killing field- a spot where the ground had fallen away, near the uncovered bay of the Hammer. They had coordinated the attack, with shouted words, quick exchanges, and a final, frustrating wait until the moment when the ship was sufficiently distracted for them to have a chance of success.
     Then Carson, Grady, and O'Neal, along a phalanx of the base's stationary batteries, had sent up a wall of fire that blazed with a heat far, far beyond that of the stolen Covenant flyer, piloted by Storm, manned by Wild, and capable of approaching the height of the main gun and reversing the flow with an implosive light-bullet.
     They sat, stunned, for several moments before Banning hesitated and said, "But- how did you know about the turrets? And the flyer? And-"
     Wild interrupted him. "And the vulnerability of the gun, and the fact that the ship only sees in infrared."
     Banning raised an eyebrow. "Yeah."
     He shook his head and jerked his thumb behind him.
     Banning turned, as did the others, and jumped, seeing the thirteenth man for the first time.
     The cyborg. The cyborg. That damnable cyborg.
     Wild spoke in a low, tight voice, aware that no eyes were on him. "He showed up. Gave us the gun codes. And the flyer. Told us about... everything."
     Unable to find words, Banning was speechless. Carpenter, however, spoke out into the thin air with a clean, smooth, calm tone.
     "Is this true?"
     The cyborg was still, but Banning felt the fathomless gaze shift. Then, a slow nod. Not cautious so much as aware of the wasted effort of extraneous motion.
     "Then we thank you." Carpenter sounded like he was giving an absolution. Or a knighthood, Banning thought.
     The green beast was motionless for a moment. Then, easily, it turned, and began to walk off.
     Only to have Wilder?whose expression had been growing darker and darker?wheel about and sprint after him.
     He caught up and slapped him on the helmet with a ringing, gong-like sound that made Banning cringe. Somehow, that seemed so impossible dangerous.
     "Hey! I'm talking to you!"
     The machine ground to a halt, and Wild skidded in front. He jabbed a finger at its chest, inexplicably outraged.
     "You- you..."
     A pause, gathering his fury. Then:
     "It was you, wasn't it?"
     Silence. Wilder narrowed his eyes.
     "You! You booted me out of the HaloNet system! You burned me off of my piggyback!"
     Banning flinched, involuntarily. The voice, deep and sibilant, boomed out, commanding, immobile.
     Quivering, Wilder just shook. Then, he demanded, "HOW?"
     Steely, resonating, hard. "Old friends."
     Silence again. Then, without a word, he turned and began to walk off.
     Wilder turned and bellowed peevishly at the retreating figure, "Since when did you become a fucking Marine net admin?!"
     Without turning, the voice came back. "I never said I was."
     "That's what your tag said!"
     "Yours," returned the voice, "said you were a level four autotech."
     Stymied, Wilder stopped, his hand hanging at his sides. Finally, the green shape already twenty feet away, the whispering booms of overhead sub-sonic transports echoing in the air, he cried, "Why?"
     The figure, fading into the dusk, said nothing. Until, drifting back, the bone-shaking intonation reached out, quietly touching their ears with a feather's caress.
     "Some things you are not meant to know, this soon in the game..."

     And he was gone.