0500 Hours, February 12, 2535 (Military Calendar)\ Lambda Serpentis
System, Jerico VII Theater of Operations
"Contact. All teams stand by: enemy contact, my position."
The Chief knew there were probably more than a hundred of them—motion
sensors were off the scale. He wanted to see them for himself, though;
his training made that lesson clear—"Machines break. Eyes don’t."
The four Spartans that comprised Blue Team covered his back, standing
absolutely silent and immobile in their MJOLNIR combat armor. Someone
had once commented they looked like Greek war gods in the armor . . .
but his Spartans were far more effective and ruthless than Homer’s gods
had ever been.
He snaked the fiber-optic probe up and over the three-meter high stone
ridge. When it was in place, the Chief linked it to his helmet’s
On the other side he saw a valley with eroded rock walls and a river
meandering through it . . . and camped along the banks as far as he
could see were Grunts.
The Covenant used these stocky aliens as cannon fodder. They stood a
meter tall and wore armored environment suits that replicated the
atmosphere of their frozen homeworld. They reminded the Chief of biped
dogs, not only in appear-ance, but because their speech—even with the
new translation software—was an odd combination of high-pitched squeaks,
guttural barks and growls.
They were about as smart as dogs, too. But what they lacked in
brainpower, they made up for in sheer tenacity. He had seen them hurl
themselves at theirenemies until the ground was piled high with their
corpses . . . and their opponents had depleted their ammunition.
These Grunts were unusually well armed: needlers, plasma pistols, and
there were four stationary plasma can-nons. Those could be a problem.
One other problem: there were easily a thousand of them.
This operation had to go off without a hitch. Blue Team’s mission was to
draw out the Covenant rear guard, and let Red Team slip through in the
confusion. Red Team would then plant a HAVOK tactical nuke. When the
next Covenant ship landed, dropped their shields, and started to unload
their troops, they’d get a thirty-megaton surprise.
The Chief detached the optics, and took a step back from the rock wall.
He passed the tactical information along to his team over a secure COM
"Four of us," Blue-Two whispered over the link. "And a thousand of them?
Piss poor odds for the little guys."
"Blue-Two," the Chief said, "I want you up with those Jackhammer
launchers. Take out the cannons and soften the rest of them. Blue-Three
and Five, you follow me up—we’re on crowd control. Blue-Four: you get
the welcome mat ready. Understood?"
Four blue lights winked on his heads-up display as his team acknowledged
"On my mark." The Chief crouched and readied himself. "Mark!"
Blue-Two jumped atop the ridge—three meters straight up. There was no
sound as the half-ton of MJOLNIR armor and Spartan landed on the
She hefted one launcher and ran along the ridge—she was the fastest
Spartan on the Chief’s team. He was confident those Grunts wouldn’t be
able to track her for the three sec-onds she’d be exposed. In quick
succession, Blue-Two emptied both of the Jackhammer’s tubes, dropped one
launcher and then fired the other rockets just as fast. The shells
streaked into the Grunts’ formation and detonated. One of the stationary
guns flipped over, engulfed in the blast, and the gunner was flung to
She ditched the launcher, jumped down—rolled once— and was back on her
feet, running at top speed to the fallback point.
The Chief, Blue-Three, and Blue-Five leapt to the top of the ridge. The
Chief switched to infrared to cut through the clouds of dust and
propellant exhaust just in time to see the second salvo of Jackhammers
strike their targets. Two con-secutive blossoms of flash, fire, and
thunder decimated the front ranks of the Grunt guards and most
importantly, turned the last of the plasma cannons into smoldering
The Chief and the others opened fire with their MA5B as-sault rifles—a
full automatic spray of fifteen rounds per second. Armor piercing
bullets tore into the aliens, breaching their environment suits, and
sparking the methane tanks they carried. Gouts of flame traced wild arcs
as the wounded Grunts ran in confusion and pain.
The Grunts then realized what was happening—and where this attack was
coming from. They charged en masse. An earthquake vibration coursed
through the ground and shook the porous stone beneath the Chief’s boots.
The three Spartans exhausted their AP clips and then, in unison,
switched to shredder rounds. They fired into the tide of creatures as
they surged forward. Line after line of them dropped. Scores more just
trampled their fallen comrades.
Explosive needles bounced off the Chief’s armor, detonating as they hit
the ground. He saw the flash of a plasma bolt—side stepped—and heard the
air crackle where he had stood a split-second before.
"Inbound Covenant air support," Blue-Four reported over the COM link.
"ETA is two minutes, Chief."
"Roger that," he said. "Blue-Three and Five: maintain fire for five
seconds, then fall back."
Their status lights winked once, acknowledging his order.
The Grunts were three meters from the wall. The Chief tossed two
grenades. He, Blue-Three, and Five stepped back- ward off the ridge,
landed, spun, and ran.
Two dull thumps reverberated though the ground. The squeals and barks of
the incoming Grunts, however, drowned out the noise of the exploding
The Chief and his team sprinted up the half-kilometer sandstone slope in
thirty-two seconds flat. The hill ended abruptly—a sheer drop two
hundred meters into the ocean.
Blue-Four’s voice crackled over the COM channel: "Welcome mat is laid
out, Chief. Ready when you are."
The Grunts looked like a living carpet of steel-blue skin, claws and
chrome weapons. Some ran on all fours up the slope. They barked and
howled, baying for the Spartans’ blood.
"Roll out the carpet," the Chief told Blue-Four.
The hill exploded—plumes of pulverized sandstone and fire and smoke
The Spartans had buried a spiderweb pattern of Lotus anti-tank mines
earlier that morning.
Sand and bits of metal pinged off of the Chief ’s helmet.
The Chief and his team opened fire, picking off the re-maining Grunts
that were still alive and struggling to stand.
His motion detector flashed a warning. There were in-coming projectiles
high at two o’clock—velocities at over a hundred kilometers per hour.
Five Covenant Banshee flyers appeared over the ridge.
"New contacts. All teams, open fire!" he barked.
The Spartans, without hesitation, fired on the alien fliers. Bullet hits
pinged from the flyers’ chitinous armor—it would take a lucky shot to
take out the antigrav pods on the end of the craft’s stubby meter-long
The fire got the aliens’ attention, however. Lances of fire slashed from
the Banshees’ gunports.
The Chief dove and rolled to his feet. Sandstone exploded where he had
stood an instant before. Globules of molten glass sprayed the Spartans.
The Banshee flyers screamed over their heads—then banked sharply for
"Blue-Three, Blue-Five: Theta Maneuver," the Chief called out.
Blue-Three and Five gave him the thumbs-up signal.
They regrouped at the edge of the cliff and clipped onto the steel
cables that dangled down the length of the rock wall.
"Did you set up the fougasses with fire or shrapnel?" the Chief asked.
"Both," Blue-Three replied.
"Good." The Chief grabbed the detonators. "Cover me."
The fougasses were never meant to take down flying tar-gets; the
Spartans had put them there to mop up the Grunts. In the field, though,
you had to improvise. Another tenet of their training: adapt or die.
The Banshees formed into a "flying V" and swooped toward them, almost
brushing the ground.
The Spartans opened fire.
Bolts of superheated plasma from the Banshees punctuated the air.
The Chief dodged to the right, then to the left; he ducked. Their aim
was getting better.
The Banshees were one hundred meters away, then fifty meters. Their
plasma weapons might recycle fast enough to get another shot . . . and
at this range, the Chief wouldn’t be dodging.
The Spartans jumped backwards off the cliff—guns still blazing. The
Chief jumped too, and hit the detonators.
The ten fougasses—each a steel barrel filled with napalm and spent AP
and shredder casings—had been buried a few meters from the edge of the
cliff, their mouths angled up at thirty degrees. When the grenades at
the bottom of the barrels exploded, it made one hell of a barbecue out
of anything in their way.
The Spartans slammed into the side of the cliff—the steel cables they
were attached to twanged taut.
A wave of heat and pressure washed over them. A heart-beat later five
flaming Banshees plummeted over their heads, leaving thick trails of
black smoke as they arced into the water. They splashed down, then
vanished beneath the emerald waves. The Spartans hung there a moment,
waiting and watching with their assault rifles trained on the water. No
They rappelled down to the beach and rendezvoused with Blue-Two and
"Red Team reports mission objective achieved, Chief," Blue Two said.
"They send their compliments."
"It’s hardly going to balance the scales," Blue-Three mut-tered and
kicked the sand. "Not like those Grunts when they slaughtered the 105th
Drop Jet platoon. They should suffer just as much as those guys did."
The Chief had nothing to say to that. He wasn’t his job to make things
suffer—he was just here to win battles. What-ever it took.
"Blue-Two," the Chief said. "Get me an uplink."
"Aye aye." She patched him into the SATCOM system.
"Mission accomplished, Captain de Blanc," the Chief re-ported. "Enemy
"Excellent news," the Captain said. He sighed, and added, "But we’re
pulling you out, Chief."
"We’re just getting warmed up down here, sir."
"Well, it’s a different story up here. Move out for pickup ASAP."
"Understood, sir." The Chief killed the uplink. He told his team, "The
party is over Spartans. Dust-off in fifteen."
They jogged double-quick up the ten kilometers of the beach, and
returned to their dropship—a Pelican, scuffed and dented from three
days’ hard fighting. They boarded and the ships’ engines whined to life.
Blue-Two took off her helmet and scratched the stubble of her brown
hair. "It’s a shame to leave this place," she said and learned against
the porthole. "There are so few left."
The Chief stood by her and glanced out as they lifted into the air—there
were wide rolling plains of palmgrass, the green expanse of ocean, a
wispy band of clouds in the sky, and setting red suns.
"There will be other places to fight for," he said.
"Will there?" she whispered.
The Pelican ascended rapidly through the atmosphere, the sky darkened
and soon only stars surrounded them. In orbit, there were dozens of
frigates, destroyers, and two massive carriers. Every ship had carbon
scoring, and holes peppering their hulls. They were all maneuvering to
They docked in the port bay of the UNSC Destroyer Resolute. Despite
being surrounded by two meters of titanium-A battle plate and an array
of modern weapons, the Chief pre-ferred to have his feet on the ground,
with real gravity, and real atmosphere to breathe—a place where he was
in control, and where his life wasn’t in the hands of anonymous pilots.
A ship just wasn’t home.
The battlefield was.
The Chief rode the elevator to the bridge to make his re-port, taking
advantage of the momentary respite to read Red Team’s after-action
report in his display. As predicted, the Spartans of Red, Blue, and
Green teams—augmenting three divisions of battle-hardened UNSC
Marines—had stalled a Covenant ground advance. Casualty figures were
still coming in, but—on the ground, at least—the alien forces had been
A moment later, the lift doors parted, and he stepped on the rubberized
deck. He snapped a crisp salute to Captain de Blanc. "Sir. Reporting as
The junior bridge officers took a step back from the Chief. They weren’t
used to seeing a Spartan in full MJOLNIR armor up close—most line troops
had never even seen a Spartan. The ghostly iridescent green of the armor
plates and the matte black layers underneath made him look part
gladi-ator, part machine. Or perhaps to the bridge crew, he looked as
alien as the Covenant.
The view screens showed stars and Jerico VII’s four silver moons. At
extreme range, a small constellation of stars drifted closer.
The Captain waved the Chief closer and as he stared at that cluster of
stars—the rest of the battlegroup. "It’s happening again."
"Request permission to remain on the bridge, sir," the Chief said. "I .
. . want to see it this time, sir."
The Captain hung his head, weary. He looked at the Master Chief with
haunted eyes. "Very well, Chief. After all you’ve been through to save
Jerico VII, we owe you that. We’re only thirty million kilometers
out-system, though, not half as far as I’d like to be." He turned to the
NAV Officer. "Bearing one two zero. Prepare our exit vector."
He turned to face the Chief. "We’ll stay to watch . . . but if those
bastards so much as twitch in our direction, we’re jumping the hell out
"Understood, sir. Thank you."
Resolute’s engines rumbled and the ship moved off.
Three dozen Covenant ships—big ones, destroyers and cruisers—winked into
view in the system. They were sleek, looking more like sharks than
starcraft. Their lateral lines brightened with plasma—then discharged
and rained fire down upon Jerico VII.
The Chief watched for an hour and didn’t move a muscle.
The planet’s lakes, rivers, and oceans vaporized. By to-morrow, the
atmosphere would boil away, too. Fields and forests were glassy smooth
and glowing red-hot in patches. Where there had once been a paradise,
only hell remained.
"Make ready to jump clear of the system," the Captain or-dered.
The Chief continued to watch, his face grim.
There had been ten years of this—the vast network of human colonies
whittled down to a handful of strongholds by a merciless, implacable
enemy. The Chief had killed the enemy on the ground—shot them, stabbed
them, and broken them in his hands. On the ground, the Spartans always
The problem was, the Spartans couldn’t take their fight into space.
Every minor victory on the ground turned into a major defeat in orbit.
Soon, there would be no more colonies, no human settlements— and nowhere
left to run.
Copyright 2001 by Eric Nylund