“Accursed Demons!” Zuro slammed a fist against the control pad, denting the metal.
It had been a near thing, and Zuro hated the Demons for it. Had he not been inspecting the troops in the muster bay, he would have been trapped in the Command Centre with them, and slaughtered with the rest of his bridge crew.
He selected four warriors as an escort, and stormed through the corridors. Unggoy scrambled out of their way or were brutally flung, as Zuro vented his rage on the bystanders.
The door to the Command Centre was barred shut, likely a response to the damage the Demons had wreaked. He motioned for two of the warriors to lever the doors oopen, and when that failed, he slashed its control panel with his energy sword. There was a thin whine, and the warriors shoved the doors out of the way.
Zuro gaped. The warriors dropped their weapons in shock.
Carnage. Destruction. There was no word to describe what had happened.
Zuro’s bridge crew lay dead, their golden armour slicked with blood and gore.
“Police their weapons and check for more Demons. They may be lying in wait for us.”
As the warriors went about their grisly task, Zuro moved to the control panel. He tapped a few glyphs – the thrusters had been set to full burn, the ship was rotating, and four decks had been vented of atmosphere. If the demons hadn’t known what the glyphs meant, then it was extraordinarily good luck for them. Four hundred Unggoy and forty Sangheili had been ejected into the vacuum.
But the blow was worse than that, because they had disabled their shields. They were, as the human phrase went, “sitting ducks.” Easy targets.
There was a moan, and Zuro spun around.
One of the crew members who had been sent sprawling against the floor was trying to move, trying to stand. One of the warriors gently raised the Sangheili to his feet.
Zuro’s navigator had been mortally wounded. Even to Zuro it was plain to see that he had been lucky to survive – a blast straight against his chest had pumped dozens of tiny projectiles into many vital organs. He would not survive long, and he had to stop trying to expend his precious lifeforce apologising.
Zuro set a reassuring hand on the sangheili’s shoulder. “Hush, ‘Tanaklee. Be at peace. You are alive, and that is more than can be said of the others.” He ordered the warriors to bring the navigator to the medical bay, and then turned again to the others.
All dead. Clean, efficient, and brutal. Most wound not have felt the pain,a nd he was glad of that. But there was brutality there that hinted at more than mere cold calculation. The killers had hated their enemies, and had taken pleasure from slaughtering Zuro’s crew.
He would not forgive them for that. Not ever.
He tapped a glyph and opened a COM channel to the muster bay. “Zealot, are our troops ready?”
“barely, Fleet Master. We have teams scouring the ship, searching for more of the-”
“Recall your teams, Tulo. They are not here. If they remained aboard this ship, we would know about it – they would attack the engine rooms, or the barracks. They have fled, and we must be content with survival. You launch as soon as your teams are secured.”
“Excellency, is that wise? If you intend to remain, and provide orbital assistance-”
“Unfortunately, Tulo, I have no such intention.”
There was a pause as Zuro’s Zealot took in the implications.
“Then may the Gods have mercy ion your soul Tulo. Because if this is made in error, and my troops are slaughtered because of you, then I will not.”
Zuro shared the sentiment. If more Demons returned to the ship, they would have a better understanding of the ship’s layout. They would do MUCH more damage. And Tulo’s warriors would not be there to stop them.
There was only one alternative – not be there.
“I’m beginning your launch now, Zealot. Spirit and Phantom dropships are permitted to launch – insertion pods are launching now. May honour light your way brothers.”
Stanley stared in shock and surprise. And then he grinned.
“Will you get a load of that, Commander?”
Commander Grumman smiled slightly. “Its quite a show, certainly.”
The enemy cruiser had rocketed away, spinning out of control, trailing frozen atmosphere in its wake. Whatever the Spartans did, it had taken a few minutes for the enemy to correct, and even then, their movements were erratic.
The ships TACMAP of the situation tagged and tracked two small objects emitting UNSC recovery tags.
“Tell the Livingston that their package is returning to sender. We’ll move in and finish off the ship.”
“Aye aye sir.”
The carrier moved in like a shark attacking its prey, missiles firing and its twin MAC’s pumping off rounds as soon as charge had built up. The cruiser jerked at each hit, its shields still down. It was an opportunity Stanley hadn’t had for a long time, and he was going to make the most of it.
“Enemy ship has sustained damage to seventeen decks, and has lost four of its seven plasma turrets.”
“Fire off pods M through R, and land a MAC round through its centre. Put it out of-”
The enemy ship had turned around suddenly, propelled as it vented the remaining air in its portside hangars, blasting itself starboard – facing the Aeneas. Stanley flinched.
“bring us about, 012 by 034 degrees, present minimal target!”
“Enemy weapons aren’t heating – ship is accelerating!”
Damn! Covenant always went down with a fight – taking as many UNSC personnel out as they could! The bastard was going to ram them, and take them both out!
“activate emergency portside thrusters when the target reaches four hundred meters, train CIWS system to rake them as they pass, and then get a firing solution – I want to take it out before it can come around for another pass!”
The Covenant ship accelerated. Her commander must be particularly zealous – or perhaps he simply didn’t care anymore?
Stanley did. And he’d be damned if he’d let the Covie S.O.B. get its way.
The cruisers propulsion thrusters flared, and the ship rocketed towards them…and Stanley barely had enough time to shout “now!” before the emergency thrusters kicked in, throwing the ship portside, out of its trajectory, and bringing it around to broadside the Covenant ship with missiles.
There was a flash of blue…and then nothing.
“What just happened?” he asked, confused. Then he swore realising what had happened.
“They played chicken! Damn them, they played chicken as a diversion to buy time to charge their slipspace capacitors!”
This was wrong. The tactic would have been smart for a UNSC commander, but Covenant ship leaders NEVER ran away. Not when they coud sacrifice their lives in the glorious pursuit of whatever xenocidal mission they undertook.
For one to flee after such a feint was unheard of. And that the Covenant could change twenty-year-old tactics so rapidly shocked Stanley.
“There’s more, Captain,” said Tinuviel unhappily. “Before it jumped, the Cruiser launched thirty seven dropships, and approximately four thousand orbital insertion pods, as well as four Scarab diggers.”
“They’re well out of weapons range now, sir.”
He’d been outmatched and outflanked by a damned Covenant ship captain. He’d failed to destroy the ship, and worse had allowed thousands of Covenant to land on the planet.
Tinuviel’s voice returned over the bridge’s speakers. “The other ships are following suite – they’re dropping their passengers and running. As if they don’t care that we still hold the orbital perimeter. What are they after?” she wondered aloud.
“I don’t care. Bring us about, into geostationary orbit above New London. Scramble the dropships to land the 427th and 83rd Regiments, and order the 506th Battalion to insert. I want boots on the ground in four hours, or we’ll lose the city.”
Stanley watched as the Livingston swooped into high orbit of the planet, catching the Spartans in capture meshes, and accelerated downwards into the planets atmosphere, where the Aeneas could not go. Frigates and Destroyers followed it in, while the larger Cruisers and Carriers took up other geosynchronous orbits above the planet, launching their own ground forces.
This was unexpected, but not unplanned for. And the UNSC planned for everything.
“SOEIV pods are launching, dropships are away.”
Stanley hoped the ground battle went better than the space battle. Because if the Covenant had more surprises like that to pull off, then the UNSC was going to have a harder time than they had thought.
The muster bay rattled as it entered the planets atmosphere. Qur’a clung to his crash meshing tightly, not enjoying the sensation.
The machines were new, a hundred times larger than a single occupant orbital insertion vehicle that individual Special Operations troopers normally used. It was designed as an expendable insertion vehicle, landing two hundred warriors and their equipment in areas capital ships dared not brave and where Dropships could not hold enough troops to retain.
Qur’a hated the design. It made them all one huge target. Worse, it was unwieldy and unguided, and relied on anti-gravity suspension to stop them from jarring into the ground. A sudden deceleration could kill its occupants with no warning, wasting them all.
But in spite of all that, Qur’a still felt the thrill of battle flow in his blood!
“Zealot, once we land we shall establish a base of operations!” he shouted over the thunderous roar from outside. “Your warriors shall move in to secure it, while we begin our operations!”
“Ensure no humans remain, Commander. I am not in the mood for a hunt. I want to launch counter-attacks as soon as I can.”
“Yes Zealot! Defences should be established upon your arrival!”
One of Qur’a’s eyes was fixed outside one of the view ports, now covered in flame from the friction of their descent. The other remained on a small screen, showing their descent.
The ships were disappearing. Qur’a bared his fangs at that. Without them, the humans would own the sky, and that gave them a lot of power. But they had power anyway, enough to wipe out the Covenant task force with little effort, and control the sky anyway. It was logical to save as many ships as possible. But to Qur’a, it did not seem the honourable thing.
The individual pods had been launched first, accelerating out of the trajectories of the larger drop bays. After they had been cleared, the massive blocks of alien metal and energy shielding had been detached, hurled at the planet for entry, reorienting themselves just in time. Now they were overtaking the pods, accelerating past them.
Qur’a silently swore as the thought occurred to him – were they being used as shields? Obstacles to prevent the humans from hitting the smaller pods? They had shields, yes, but they were not unlimited in their strength, and would eventually fail!
He just had to hope that the Zealot, Tulo ‘Kotarqee, was a more honourable warrior than most Zealots Qur’a had met.
The other warriors in the drop bay were similarly secured into their seats by crash webbing. Most wore the blue or red armour of regular infantry – three hundred or so, members of ‘Kotarqee’s Kr’Rana Legion. But a hundred wore the black armour of Special Operations Commandoes, the Covenant’s elite warrior force. They were Qur’a’s warriors, the famed R’runu Warrior Creche.
The nearest one, strapped beside him, turned to face him. “what plans have you made, Commander?”
Juno ‘Joralanee was his second-in-command, brilliant, and an adept sword fighter. She was also female, making her unique in the Creche, but had held her own or better against even his best male warriors. He had picked an excellent protégé.
“We land, secure the surrounding area, and then convert this heap of scrap metal into a base. And if we’re lucky, we’ll survive.”
“What of the humans? Surely they will have a substantial presence on the ground?”
“They shall. But we must secure at least an initial beach-head and regroup zone, or else we shall be scattered across the planet in pockets, easier to pick off. A single region serving as our base will be better defended, better supplied, and better equipped.”
She nodded at the wisdom of this, but her face told Qur’a that she still held some doubts about the feasibility of it.
So did Qur’a. But he’d rather perform heresy than admit it.
Rakatus sneered. “Such cowardice. Look, Erebus – Sangheili Shipmasters, the pride of the Covenant, fleeing from humans.”
Erebus snorted, but in derision. “They are numerically superior, packmate. Even we would fare little better against so many – is it not written, “many pebbles crush the giant boulder”?”
“still,” Rakatus said, defensively. “It does my heart good to see the Sangheili humbled, even at the hands of the humans.”
Erebus had to agree. He had been alarmed when they had emerged from slipspace – facing a human fleet four times the size of their own.
Fortunately, their ship was equipped with an active camouflage unit, one that had been loaned to them by the Department of Acquisition, bending light around them until they were, for all intents and purposes, invisible to the naked eye. Radar and other sensors would still pick them up, but they would be hard pressed t detect them with the ships radar-absorbent coating and small radar cross section.
The ship was a special design the Ministry of Ceremony had been working on, a gift from the Covenant to the Jiralhanae. They had not been happy when the Ministry of Tranquillity had repurposed it, fitted it with stealth systems and weapons, and given it to the command of Rakatus and the rest of Erebus’ pack.
Erebus did not command the ship. He was not the Chieftain of his pack, but he was still high in the social order, just below Ashkenazus, the real Chieftain. But he had aspirations, and his ties with Ministry officials had brought him this far in only a few Cycles. Ashkenazus was old, and tough, but he had the tactical ability of a Thorn Beast and as much political aptitude as an Unggoy.
Erebus would do better. MUCH better.
They had powered down after the battle had begun, using their momentum to slip past the humans unnoticed. Erebus had considered asking Rakatus to return to the battle, to engage the human ships and draw their fire long enough for the other Covenant ships to launch their passengers. But he had enjoyed watching human starfighters swooping down onto the Sangheili dropships and insertion pods, picking off almost a quarter before they had even entered the atmosphere.
Besides, giving orders to a Ship Master when you were his guest was not a wise move.
“We have cleared the humans orbital perimeter,” reported another Jiralhanae at the Tactical Ops station. “Stealth measures remain uncompromised. We are invisible to them.”
Erebus grinned. “Excellent. By your leave, Ship Master, I shall ready my pack for deployment.”
Rakatus gave Erebus a sideways look. “What of Ashkenazus?”
“What of him?”
The other warrior returned the grin. “Very well…Sub-Chieftain. May your title lose one syllable quickly.”
Erebus had learned much from the Prophet of Acquisition. He had learned that the San’Shyuum were beginning not to trust the Sangheili – the war against the humans had been expected to be swift and decisive, not a drawn out war spanning twenty seven Cycles. The Sangheili had so far proven incapable of crushing what the Prophets regarded as vermin worthy only of extinction.
And Acquisition had decided that it was time to hand the reigns over to warriors with more aggression and less tendency to ponder the reasons for this holy crusade. The Jiralhanae’s time had dawned at last.
And Erebus would ensure that the future for his people was a bright one.