Halo: First Strike
By Eric Nylund
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2010 Microsoft Corporation
All rights reserved.
0558 Hours, August 30, 2552 (Military Calendar) \ UNSC vessel Pillar of Autumn, Epsilon Eridani System Near Reach Station Gamma.
SPARTAN 104, Frederic, twirled a combat knife, his fingers nimble despite the bulky MJOLNIR combat armor that encased his body. The blade traced a complicated series of graceful arcs in the air. The few remaining Naval personnel on the deck turned pale and averted their eyes — a Spartan wielding a knife was generally accompanied by the presence of several dead bodies.
He was nervous, and this was more than the normal pre-mission jitters. The team's original objective — the capture of a Covenant ship — had been scrubbed in the face of a new enemy offensive. The Covenant were en route to Reach, the last of the United Nations Space Command's major military strongholds.
Fred couldn't help but wonder what use ground troops would be in a ship-to-ship engagement. The knife spun.
Around him, his squadmates loaded weapons, stacked gear, and prepped for combat, their efforts redoubled since the ship's Captain had personally come down to the mustering area to brief the team leader, SPARTAN 117 — but Fred was already squared away. Only Kelly had finished stowing gear before him.
He balanced the point of the knife on his armored finger. It hung there for several seconds, perfectly still.
A subtle shift in the Pillar of Autumn's gravity caused the knife to tip. Fred plucked it from the air and sheathed it in a single deft move. A cold feeling filled his stomach as he realized what the gravity fluctuation meant: The ship had just changed course — another complication.
Master Chief SPARTAN 117 — John — marched to the nearest COM panel as Captain Keyes's face filled the screen.
Fred sensed a slight movement to his right — a subtle hand signal from Kelly. He opened a private COM freq to his teammate.
"Looks like we're in for more surprises," she said.
"Roger that," he replied, "though I think I've had enough surprises for one op."
Fred focused his attention on John's exchange with Keyes. Each Spartan — selected from an early age and trained to the pinnacle of military science — had undergone multiple augmentation procedures: biochemical, genetic, and cybernetic. As a result, a Spartan could hear a pin drop in a sandstorm, and every Spartan in the room was interested in what the Captain had to say. If you're going to drop into hell, CPO Mendez, the Spartans' first teacher, had once said, you may as well drop with good intel.
Captain Keyes frowned on the ship's viewscreen, a nonregulation pipe in his hand. Though his voice was calm, the Captain's grip on the pipe was white-knuckle tight as he outlined the situation. A single space vessel docked in Reach's orbital facilities had failed to delete its navigational database. If the NAV data fell into Covenant hands, the enemy would have a map to Earth.
"Master Chief," the Captain said, "I believe the Covenant will use a pinpoint Slipspace jump to a position just off the space dock. They may try to get their troops on the station before the Super MAC guns can take out their ships. This will be a difficult mission, Chief. I'm ... open to suggestions."
"We can take care of it," the Master Chief replied.
Captain Keyes's eyes widened and he leaned forward in his command chair. "How exactly, Master Chief?"
"With all due respect, sir, Spartans are trained to handle difficult missions. I'll split my squad. Three will board the space dock and make sure that NAV data does not fall into the Covenant's hands. The remainder of the Spartans will go groundside and repel the invasion forces."
Fred gritted his teeth. Given his choice, he'd rather fight the Covenant on the ground. Like his fellow Spartans, he loathed off- planet duty. The op to board the space dock would be fraught with danger at every turn — unknown enemy deployment, no gravity, useless intel, no dirt beneath his feet.
There was no question, though: The space op was the toughest duty, so Fred intended to volunteer for it.
Captain Keyes considered John's suggestion. "No, Master Chief. It's too risky — we've got to make sure the Covenant don't get that NAV data. We'll use a nuclear mine, set it close to the docking ring, and detonate it."
"Sir, the EMP will burn out the superconductive coils of the orbital guns. And if you use the Pillar of Autumn's conventional weapons, the NAV database may still survive. If the Covenant search the wreckage, they may obtain the data."
"True," Keyes said and tapped his pipe thoughtfully to his chin. "Very well, Master Chief. We'll go with your suggestion. I'll plot a course over the docking station. Ready your Spartans and prep two dropships. We'll launch you —" He consulted with Cortana. "— in five minutes."
"Aye, Captain. We'll be ready."
"Good luck," Captain Keyes said, and the viewscreen went black.
Fred snapped to attention as the Master Chief turned to face the Spartans. Fred began to step forward —
— but Kelly beat him to it. "Master Chief," she said, "permission to lead the space op."
She had always been faster, damn her.
"Denied," the Master Chief said. "I'll be leading that one.
"Linda and James," he continued. "You're with me. Fred, you're Red Team leader. You'll have tactical command of the ground operation."
"Sir!" Fred shouted and started to voice a protest — then squelched it. Now wasn't the time to question orders ... as much as he wanted to. "Yes, sir!"
"Now make ready," the Master Chief said. "We don't have much time left."
The Spartans stood a moment. Kelly called out, "Attention!" The soldiers snapped to and gave the Master Chief a crisp salute, which was promptly returned.
Fred switched to Red Team's all-hands freq and barked, "Let's move, Spartans! I want gear stowed in ninety seconds, and final prep in five minutes. Joshua: Liaise with Cortana and get me current intel on the drop area — I don't care if it's just weather satellite imagery, but I want pictures, and I want them ninety seconds ago."
Red Team jumped into action.
The pre-mission jitters were gone, replaced with a cold calm. There was a job to do, and Fred was eager to get to work.
Flight Officer Mitchell flinched as a stray energy burst streaked into the landing bay and vaporized a meter-wide section of bulkhead. Red-hot, molten metal splattered the Pelican dropship's viewport.
Screw this, he thought, and hit the Pelican's thrusters. The gun-metal-green transport — reinforced to carry more than twenty Spartans — balanced for a moment on a column of blue-white fire, then hurtled out of the Pillar of Autumn's launch bay and into space. Five seconds later all hell broke loose.
Incoming energy bursts from the lead Covenant vessels cut across their vector and slammed into a COMSat. The communications satellite broke apart, disintegrating into glittering shards.
"Better hang on," Mitchell announced to his passengers in the dropship's troop bay. "Company's coming."
A swarm of Seraphs — the Covenant's scarablike attack fighters — fell into tight formation and arced through space on an intercept course for the dropship.
The Pelican's engines flared and the bulky ship plummeted toward the surface of Reach. The alien fighters accelerated and plasma bursts flickered from their gunports.
An energy bolt slashed past on the port side, narrowly missing the Pelican's cockpit.
Mitchell's voice crackled across the COM system: "Bravo- One to Knife Two-Six: I could use a little help here."
He rolled the Pelican to port to avoid a massive, twisted hunk of wreckage from a patrol cutter that had strayed too close to the oncoming assault wave. Beneath the blackened plasma scorches, he could just make out the UNSC insigne. Mitchell scowled. This was getting worse by the second. "Bravo-One to Knife Two-Six, where the hell are you?" he yelled.
A quartet of wedge-shaped, angular fighters slotted into covering position on Mitchell's scopes — Longswords, heavy fighters.
"Knife Two-Six to Bravo-One," a terse, female voice crackled across the COM channel. "Keep your pants on. Business is good today."
Too good. No sooner had the fighters taken escort position over his dropship than the approaching Covenant fighters opened up with a barrage of plasma fire.
Three of the Pelican's four Longsword escorts peeled off and powered toward the Covenant ships. Against the black of space, cannons flashed and missiles etched ghostly trails; Covenant energy weapons cut through the night and explosions dotted the sky.
The Pelican and its sole escort, however, accelerated straight toward the planet. It shot past whirling wreckage; it rolled and maneuvered as missiles and plasma bolts crisscrossed their path.
Mitchell flinched as Reach's orbital defense guns fired in a hot, actinic flash. A white ball of molten metal screamed directly over the Pelican and its escort as they rocketed beneath the defense platform's ring-shaped superstructure.
Mitchell sent the Pelican into the planet's atmosphere. Vaporous flames flickered across the ship's stunted nose, and the Pelican jounced from side to side.
"Bravo-One, adjust attack angle," the Longsword pilot advised. "You're coming in too hot."
"Negative," Mitchell said. "We're getting to the surface fast — or we're not getting there at all. Enemy contacts on my scopes at four by three o'clock."
A dozen more Covenant Seraphs fired their engines and angled toward the two descending ships.
"Affirmative: four by three. I've got 'em, Bravo-One," the Longsword pilot announced. "Give 'em hell down there."
The Longsword flipped into a tight roll and rocketed for the Covenant formation. There was no chance that the pilot could take out a dozen Seraphs — and Knife Two-Six had to know that. Mitchell only hoped that the precious seconds Two-Six bought them would be enough.
The Pelican opened its intake vents and ignited afterburners, plummeting toward the ground at thirteen hundred meters per second. The faint aura of flames around the craft roared from red to blinding orange.
The Pelican's aft section had been stripped of the padded crash seats that usually lined the section's port and starboard sides. The life-support generators on the firewall between passenger and pilot's compartment had also been discarded to make room. Under other circumstances, such modifications would have left the Pelican's troop bay unusually cavernous. Every square centimeter of space, however, was occupied.
Twenty-two Spartans braced themselves and clung to the frame of the ship; they crouched in their MJOLNIR armor to absorb the shock of their rapid descent. Their armor was half a ton of black alloy, faintly luminous green ceramic plates, and winking energy shield emitters. Polarized visors and full helmets made them look part Greek hero and part tank — more machine than human. At their feet equipment bags and ammunition boxes were lashed in place. Everything rattled as the ship jostled through the increasingly dense air.
Fred hit the COM and barked: "Brace yourselves!" The ship lurched, and he struggled to keep his footing.
SPARTAN 087, Kelly, moved nearer and opened a frequency. "Chief, we'll get that COM malfunction squared away after we hit planetside," she said.
Fred winced when he realized that he'd just broadcast on FLEETCOM 7: He'd spammed every ship in range. Damn it.
He opened a private channel to Kelly. "Thanks," he said. Her reply was a subtle nod.
He knew better than to make such a simple mistake — and as his second in command, Kelly was rattled by his mistake with the COM, too. He needed her rock-solid. He needed all of Red Team frosty and wired tight.
Which meant that he needed to make sure he held it together. No more mistakes.
He checked the squad's biomonitors. They showed all green on his heads-up display, with pulse rates only marginally accelerated. The dropship's pilot was a different story. Mitchell's heart fired like an assault rifle.
Any problems with Red Team weren't physical; the biomonitors confirmed that much. Spartans were used to tough missions; UNSC High Command never sent them on any "easy" jobs.
Their job this time was to get groundside and protect the generators that powered the orbiting Magnetic Accelerator Cannon platforms. The fleet was getting ripped to shreds in space. The massive MAC guns were the only thing keeping the Covenant from overrunning their lines and taking Reach.
Fred knew that if anything had Kelly and the other Spartans rattled, it was leaving behind the Master Chief and his hand-picked Blue Team.
Fred would have infinitely preferred to be with Blue Team. He knew every Spartan here felt like they were taking the easy way out. If the ship-jockeys managed to hold off the Covenant assault wave, Red Team's mission was a milk run, albeit a necessary one.
Kelly's hand bumped into Fred's shoulder, and he recognized it as a consoling gesture. Kelly's razor-edged agility was multiplied fivefold by the reactive circuits in her MJOLNIR armor. She wouldn't have "accidentally" touched him unless she meant it, and the gesture spoke volumes.
Before he could say anything to her, the Pelican angled and gravity settled the Spartans' stomachs.
"Rough ride ahead," the pilot warned.
The Spartans bent their knees as the Pelican rolled into a tight turn. A crate broke its retaining straps, bounced, and stuck to the wall.
The COM channel blasted static and resolved into the voice of the Longsword's pilot: "Bravo Two-Six, engaging enemy fighters. Am taking heavy incoming fire —" The channel was abruptly swallowed in static.
An explosion buffeted the Pelican, and bits of metal pinged off its thick hull.
Patches of armor heated and bubbled away. Energy blasts flashed through the boiling metal, filling the interior with fumes for a split second before the ship's pressurized atmosphere blew the haze out the gash in its side.
Sunlight streamed though the lacerated Titanium-A armor. The dropship lurched to port, and Fred glimpsed five Covenant Seraph fighters driving after them and wobbling in the turbulent air.
"Gotta shake 'em," the pilot screamed. "Hang on!"
The Pelican pitched forward, and her engines blasted in full overload. The dropship's stabilizers tore away, and the craft rolled out of control.
The Spartans grabbed on to cross beams as their gear was flung about inside the ship.
"It's going to be a helluva hot drop, Spartans," their pilot hissed over the COM. "Autopilot's programmed to angle. Reverse thrusters. Gees are takin' me out. I'll —"
A flash of light outlined the cockpit hatch, and the tiny shock-proof glass window shattered into the passenger compartment.
The pilot's biomonitor flatlined.
The rate of their dizzying roll increased, and bits of metal and instruments tore free and danced around the compartment.
SPARTAN 029, Joshua, was closest to the cockpit hatch. He pulled himself up and looked in. "Plasma blast," he said. He paused for a heartbeat, then added: "I'll reroute control to the terminal here." With his right hand, he furiously tapped commands onto the keyboard mounted on the wall. The fingers of his left hand dug into the metal bulkhead.
Kelly crawled along the starboard frame, held there by the spinning motion of the out-of-control Pelican. She headed aft of the passenger compartment and punched a keypad, priming the explosive bolts on the drop hatch.
"Fire in the hole!" she yelled.
The Spartans braced.
The hatch exploded and whipped away from the plummeting craft. Fire streamed along the outer hull. Within seconds the compartment became a blast furnace. With the grace of a high-wire performer, Kelly leaned out of the rolling ship, her armor's energy shields flaring in the heat.
The Covenant Seraph fighters fired their lasers, but the energy weapons scattered in the superheated wake of the dropping Pelican. One alien ship tumbled out of control, too deep in the atmosphere to easily maneuver. The others veered and arced up back into space.
"Too hot for them," Kelly said. "We're on our own."
"Joshua," Fred called out. "Report."
"The autopilot's gone, and cockpit controls are offline," Joshua answered. "I can counter our spin with thrusters." He tapped in a command; the port engine shuddered, and the ship's rolling slowed and ceased.
"Can we land?" Fred asked.
Joshua didn't hesitate to give the bad news. "Negative. The computer has no solution for our inbound vector." He tapped rapidly on the keyboard. "I'll buy as much time as I can." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Halo: First Strike by Eric Nylund. Copyright © 2010 Microsoft Corporation. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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