Disclaimer: I do not own either Strike Witches or Halo. Strike Witches is owned by Shimada Fumikane and Halo is owned by Microsoft Studios.

Author's Notes: Whoof, where do I being? I believe this is now my third or possibly fourth rewrite by now? I swear though that this is the last rewrite. I've gotten a hang on where I want the story to go now, and I do intend on finishing it.

I would like to give my thanks to Bucue for all the help. Thanks for putting up with my barrage of questions and for being my beta reader. To you readers, please check out "Witches Rangers and the 141" if you like Strike Witches and Call of Duty. And Ghost, don't forget Ghost. Because he's awesome.

I would like to give my thanks to Deadman'sHand92x45 for his help. His knowledge of military and history is extensive and has proved to be valuable advice. Though his Strike Witches fanfic "Clocktower" is no longer up, his current stories are still pretty good. If you like military fanfics done right, you should check his stories out.

At last, ladies and gentlemen, let the tale begin anew…

Prologue Part 1- Explicit Nomen

March 8, 2575

Lance Corporal Jakob Branley just barely managed to catch the scream of an incoming mortar round over the racket of gunfire.

"Mortar!" Branley yelled.

The members of Fireteam Vanguard ducked down into their shared fighting hole as the high explosive shell struck the ground nearby with an earth-shattering boom, sending a shower of dirt and rock soaring into the air. Branley groaned as he saw pieces of metal among the debris and wondered what got hit.

"Fuck!" yelled Private First Class Taiga Daidouji, the fireteam's automatic rifleman. She quickly propped her M247H2-LB back up over the top and resumed laying down suppressive fire. "Who the fuck decided we had to defend this shithole against half the Chicken Marine Corps all by our fucking selves?"

Branley carefully peeked over the edge of his trench to survey the damage, and then quickly ducked back down as spurts of dirt from incoming bullets sprayed up all around him, and he cursed to himself at the mess they were in. They were outnumbered at least a dozen to one by the Kig-Yar, and now one of their 12.7mm auto-guns [1] had been taken out by a lucky mortar round, rendering it into little more than a pile of scrap mounted on a now-useless automated tripod.

Thus, Vanguard's only source of suppressive fire came from their sole remaining auto-gun and Daidouji's machine gun, which she was madly firing at the distant flashes. Their grenadier rifleman's underbarrel grenade launcher was also proving to be useful for suppressing fire, which he was using in indirect fire to lob grenades on top of said flashes.

"Just shut up and keep their heads down or they'll be shooting down our own heads!" Branley shouted.

"What do you think I'm trying to do you jacka-"

There was suddenly a meaty, crunching sound followed shortly by a thump. Branley looked around the corner of the fighting hole to see Daidouji lying on her side, minus most of her head. A sound like cracking thunder echoed over from the distance as Daidouji's lifeblood ran into the dirt, followed shortly by return fire from their auto-gun.

"Sniper!" Branley shouted, quite unnecessarily as his remaining teammates had ducked already. "Tak, Taiga's MG! Now! Auto-gun, ignore the sniper for now and suppress the enemy infantry!"

"Roger. Engaging target, out," the auto-gun's computerized voice intoned in his helmet as it swung back towards the blinking lights of rifle fire, followed shortly by the sound of ripping cloth as it delivered massive volumes of fire with unerring calm at them. Spurts of dust went up in the distance as 12.7mm HEIAP rounds shot into the distant lights, which went out as their sources took cover or died as they were shredded by explosive bullets. Some remained flashing though as the Confederate Marines who weren't under fire at the moment continued to pour fire on Vanguard's position.

Meanwhile, Private First Class Tak Jol, normally the team's grenadier rifleman, snarled in frustration as he was forced to take up the role Daidouji was supposed to fulfill. The 15 kg weight of her general purpose machine gun further added to his anger as he scrambled to set up the general purpose machine gun amidst the spurts of dust around him trying to prevent him from doing exactly that.

Branley stood up to lay down suppressing fire on the lights still blinking. As he did so though, he saw the dark forms of several Courser infantry robots break from cover in the distance, running on all fours to maximize their speed.

"Connie bots! Incoming!" Branley shouted as he opened fire.

The Coursers were quick and agile. They darted back and forth as they ran, making them impossibly small and difficult targets for Branley's assault rifle. So instead, he aimed for the blinking points of light where the Eayn Marines were providing suppressing fire for their bot comrades. The combination of fire from him and the auto-gun made them keep their heads down as Jol set up his machine gun, and Branley was sure he got one of them when his rifle clicked on empty and Jol began finally opening up on the charging Coursers.

The bots dived into cover when one of their own had its body shattered by 12.7x99mm armor-piercing rounds, and Jol kept his fire on them to make them stay in cover and to prevent them from using their own machine guns to suppress Vanguard's position.

"Sar! Get those bots!" Branley shouted over the jackhammer pounding of Jol's machine gun.

"Can't!" Private First Class Sar Fen, the team's designated marksman, shouted back. The massive SRS99K bucked in her hands before she ducked back down to avoid the return fire. "Sniper still there! Keep watch!"

Branley muttered a curse under his breath. He knew she was right. As long as that sniper was still out there, he would still be a threat to them. They needed to take out that sniper or else they were-

Suddenly, he realized that there was a weirdly deep humming sound filling the air in an almost inaudible rumble. He peeked over the top of the fighting hole, and saw large sleek shapes emerge from over the top of the distant rise. As they halted there, he realized what they were.

"Predators! Get down!" he shouted before pulling Fen down with him.

It wasn't a moment too soon, for as soon as they'd hit the ground Branley's world suddenly erupted in fire and thunder. Superheated earth and shattered rock rained down on him and Sar like a deluge, and the built-in Geiger counter of his suit went crazy from the sudden burst of radiation.

As soon as the shaking stopped, Branley got off Fen and carefully poked his rifle over the edge to let the rifle's camera see what was going on without exposing himself too much. All around them were very large craters where the hovertanks' particle beam cannons had hit, still glowing with residual heat and radiation from where the streams of relativistic atoms had smashed into the ground. Of Jol and their brave little auto-gun, there was nothing to suggest that they'd even existed in the first place.

In the distance, the enemy infantry were opening up back up with MG fire with a vengeance now that both sources of suppressing fire had been silenced, while the hovertanks were noticeable absent. They had likely retreated back under the rise and were recharging their particle cannons for another strike.

"You have got to be fucking me," Branley said. He then noticed Fen setting her sniper rifle up on the edge of the trench. "Sar, what are you doing?" he asked wearily.

"No give up. Kill one more before die," Fen answered with a tone of grim determination.

Branley stared at his markswoman with admiration for a moment before aiming down his own rifle at the distant enemy. "Now that's the spirit. Let's go out with a bang-"

Then came a roar as the hovertanks reappeared, but from a completely different direction than they'd first appeared. Instead of emerging back above the hills ahead, they popped up from the hills to the left. Fen hastily swung her sniper rifle in that direction, and a single boom erupted from it before everything vanished in fire and thunder.

UNSC Fearless, War Games Simulation Room

Somewhere in low orbit over Reach

Branley's eyes snapped open with the shock of his virtual death. He spent several seconds getting his breathing under control, and to convince his body that it had not been ripped apart by high-energy particles.

'Calm down, Jakob Branley,' he told himself as he took deep breaths. 'Think happy thoughts. Think peaceful thoughts. Think about lying on the beach in the warm sun. Think about cleaning your rifle down to every last part. Think about the night spent preparing for the big Normandy event the SCA hosts annuall-'

"Yo, Jakob. You going to take a nap in there or something?"

Branley opened his eyes and looked up at the annoyed face of Daidouji. Her thin face had a sour frown that clashed with her elfin-looking Asian features, but matched perfectly with the annoyance in her voice. Next to her was Fen's brown face, who had an odd combination of curiosity and concern on her face. On Daidouji's opposite side, Jol was there with his jaw slightly open and showing some of his sharp fangs. Branley had learned long ago that this was how Kig-Yar imitated a human smile with their avian/reptilian faces. Personally, he thought it looked more like a smirk.

"No thanks, man," Branley replied as he got up from the VR console, stretching as he did so. "I'd rather take a nap on a pincushion."

The console was shaped like a reclining chair, and looked as cushy as one too. Unfortunately, the cushioning wasn't actually as soft as it looked. After a couple of hours lying in one back pain was a given, which was still pretty decent given that the chairs were over half a century old and have seen an untold number of backsides in that time.

Fen reached over and gave the arm of the VR console a few pats. "Why so not comfortable?"

"Well, they used to be. But you know what they say about how time erodes everything."

Every member of Vanguard snapped their gaze upwards towards the sound of the voice. The source of the voice came from a woman with blue hair. And blue eyebrows. And blue eyelashes. Indeed, the only visible parts of her body that weren't blue were her skin, the whites of her eyes, and her irises, which were a bit on the greener side than her hair.

The woman was sitting on the railing of the second floor, dangling her feet and waving them like a kid. The grin she had on her face though, reminded Branley of a character who also grinned like that from a book he'd read back in junior high. Something about a disappearing cat.

He thought Sergeant Major Shinon Asada wouldn't have been out of place in Wonderland as he snapped to attention. "Ma'am," he said, the other three members of Vanguard following suit.

"At ease, kids. I actually work for a living, you know," Asada said, before dropping down from the railing. She landed perfectly on her feet without the least hint that she'd just dropped down from about two-and-a-half meters. "Alright, now that we got the formalities over with, let's talk about what happened on this training exercise. First of all, you all get a 'well done' from me for surviving that long against such overwhelming odds. Really. 3 minutes and 12 seconds is a pretty long time for that scenario. Now let's find out what went wrong on this training exercise. Branley?"

"Ma'a-er, Sergeant Major. We needed to bring more auto-guns. A lot more auto-guns. One or two auto-mortars as well."

"Thanks for the heads-up, Captain Obvious," Daidouji said sardonically. "I'm sure we could've set them all up in the short time given to us, and still have been able to dig out our fortifications. If we had some magic wands, maybe."

"It's Lance Corporal Obvious," Branley corrected, knowing full well how petty it sounded. "And I didn't see you saying anything when we chose our equipment for that mission."

"Well, I'm the grunt. I'm supposed to just fire my machine gun. You're the leader. You're supposed to know these things beforehand."

"Yeah, but you're supposed to be offering advice to your leader too."

"That's a job for a noncom, which you're supposed to be. Unless you got promoted by kissing ass."

"Why you-"

Before Branley could say or do anything further, he felt a familiar three-fingered hand grasp his shoulder. "Calm down. No need to get excited," Jol said calmly.

At the same time, a dark-skinned hand reached up and pinched Taiga's face. Very tightly. "No fight, okay? Friend no fight, Taiga," Fen said in a tone that somehow contrived to be both plaintive and stern at the same time.

"Ow, ow! Ogay, ogay, I'll sdop! I'll sdop!" Daidouji said as Fen pulled on her cheek. Daidouji rubbed the pinched spot with a dour look on her face. "Sheesh! Who do you think you are? My mom?"

Fen grinned at her. "No. Just friend with concern for friend."

Branley heard Daidouji grumbled something about nosy friends, but the rest was too low even for him to make out.

Asada merely looked at them with an amused look on her face. "You guys should get together and form a comedy group. You'd have the audience spitting out their drinks in a jiffy."

"Thanks, though our normal audience tends to fall over instead of drenching nearby objects, though they can do that too with enough applied pressure," Jol replied cryptically.

Asada smiled broadly at that. "I see. Okay, let's jump ahead to our post-battle analysis." She sat down on one of the VR chairs and crossed her legs, as though she were relaxing on a beach somewhere. "Individually, you kids did fairly well. Your last stand was pretty impressive too. Your marksman even got a kill before it all ended."

Fen beamed happily at the compliment.

"However, the accomplishments of the individual mean nothing in modern warfare. You could kill a hundred soldiers by yourself, and it could mean nothing in the course of the battle. The barbarians learned that the hard way against the centurions and their legions.

The blank looks from everyone made Asada cover her face in shame.

"Okay kids, you have homework now. Look up the rise and fall of the Roman Empire on the shipnet. If you aren't able to at least tell me who Julius Caesar was by the time you're done, you'll be getting a hundred laps around the ship in full armor. With the exoskeletons offline.

No one was smiling now. Even Fen's grin has vanished and was replaced with a look that was as neutral as everyone else's.

"Okay, back to business, let's note what you guys did well. Branley, your marksmanship was pretty good, and you didn't panic when you realized you were facing overwhelming force. That's one of the best things you can have as a leader.

"Daidouji, you didn't let the enemy fire faze you and kept up your own fire, even as you were being pinned down. Sometimes sheer stubborn pig-headedness counts for something."

"Hey!" Daidouji yelled in protest.

Ignoring her, Asada continued. "Fen, your marksmanship was excellent. You stayed cool whenever you aimed, and you didn't let a single shot go to waste. Heck, your last shot even punched through a weak point in the Predator's belly armor and killed the chin gunner. I knew there was something I liked about you."

Fen's grin returned in all its glory.

Which left Branley wondering about Asada's comment about Fen's marksmanship. "Hey, does that mean my shooting wasn't all that great?" he asked.

"Oh, relax. Your marksmanship was still well within the UNSCMC's standards," Asada replied.

Jakob started to thank her, when he stopped mid-word and actually thought about the compliment. The backhanded nature of it hit him so hard, it twisted around and hit him in the front.

"However," Asada said before Branley could say anything. "While you didn't miss, you had precious few chances to actually shoot anything thanks to the fire the enemy was pouring on your position. Not missing is a good thing, but don't you think it'd be better to be able to shoot uninterrupted?"

Fen's smile had faded by this point, and her nod was accompanied by a solemn face.

"Good!" Asada said with a smile before turning to Jol. "Jol, you were pretty inventive in your use of your rifle's grenade launcher. You targeted concentrations of infantry and forced them to continually reposition to avoid getting caught in an airbust. I'd pick you to cover me for storming any palisades any day."

Jol ruffled his mane feathers in pride, and Branley decided not to pursue his grievance.

"But perhaps next time, you should focus on the enemies that were visibly threatening your teammates instead of merely the largest concentrations of troops," Asada added.

Jol's feathers folded back in disappointment, and Branley decided to think about rethinking his decision.

"However!" Asada said suddenly and loudly, making everyone in the room pay attention to her. "Keep in mind that this was a simulation. Simulations are there to ensure that whatever mistakes you make, you'll live and learn from them. So! Who can tell me what you learned from this exercise and what you'll do the next time you face a situation like this? Well?"

Several moments passed by in silence as mental gears spun without traction, like tires spinning in wet mud.

Asada sighed. "Okay, let me ask you guys this: what was the objective of the exercise?"

"'Inflict as much damage to the enemy as possible,'" Branley repeated from his memory of the pre-mission briefing that was conducted by the virtual officer just prior to the simulation.

"Right. And what method did you choose to accomplish that?"

"Find an easily defensible location and hold it for as long as possible," Branley responded.

Taiga snapped her gaze to Branley. "That was your idea of an 'easily defensible location'?!" she asked incredulously.

"We were dug in on top of a hill!" Branley countered.

"Yeah, but there were hills everywhere! We were just one hill surrounded by a bunch of other hills! The enemy hid behind some of those other hills and hit us from their oh so wonderful cover!"

Jol raised a clawed hand. "Hold on, now. What if we had dug fighting positions in all of the surrounding hills?"

Daidouji turned towards Jol with an unusually thoughtful expression on her face. "Wouldn't that take forever to dig?"

"It needn't be too elaborate. Just a few foxholes on each hill. The central hill could be a fallback position in case of determined enemy attack or artillery."

"What if the enemy takes a hill? It'd be hard to dislodge them after we'd practically handed some nice fortifications to them on a silver plate."

"We could put an auto-gun on each hill to deter such brazen advances. We could also spread some antipersonnel mines around each position to further deter the enemy. Remember, it's a simulation. We don't have to worry about clearing out the mines afterwards."

Daidouji nodded. "Huh. Makes sense. Looks like your chicken brain is good for something after all."

"And it looks like you aren't such a mindlessly rampaging feline carnivore after all," Jol shot back.

"Did you just indirectly called me a tiger with fancy words?"

"Really? Now what would give you that idea?"

They were both interrupted by clapping from Asada. "Bravo, you two. Looks like you work well together. You should listen to each other more often."

"Yes! You could be friends if you try," Fen added cheerfully.

Daidouji gave Jol a look like one would give to an annoying pigeon that had just relieved itself on one's car, while Jol gave her a look like one would give to a stray cat scratching up one's very important documents.

"Not a chance in hell," both of them said simultaneously.

Fen growled in frustration at them, while Asada just laughed at the show.

"Okay, that's enough, Brian and Vernon. You two can fight over Arlene later [2]," Asada said after she'd finally finished laughing. She then turned to Jakob when she said: "Okay, Branley. Did you learn anything from this so far?"

"Yeah. I need to learn more about fortifications," Branley replied.

"That too, but it's not just that."

"Uh, I need to listen to my teammates more?"

"More?" Daidouji asked in disbelief. "You didn't ask at all."

"I thought you were the one who was saying something about how you were the grunt that's only following orders?" Branley pointed out.

"Would've been nice if you'd asked," Daidouji muttered under her breath.

"She is right though, for once," Jol added, ignoring Daidouji's protest at the last phrase. "Perhaps the fortifications could've been improved if you'd bothered to ask for our opinions as well? I believe someone once said that 'a good leader listens to his men'."

Branley sagged, rather like a balloon that had anticipated being popped by a needle and was saving the needler the trouble. "Yeah, that should've been something I thought of."

Branley felt a hand gently land on his shoulder, palms-first.

"Cheer up, Branley," Asada said cheerfully. "This simulation was supposed to be a learning experience. Not just for your team, but for you as well. Better to make mistakes in a simulation than in real life, eh?"

Branley started to feel a little better. "Yeah, I guess."

"Good! Now we can get started on what I brought up earlier."

Branley wondered for a moment about what she meant, then the fact that he hadn't really answered her original question came back to him like a forgotten boomerang.

"So was defending the location the correct answer?" Branley asked hopefully.

"No," Asada answered bluntly. "Remember, your orders were to inflict as much casualties on the enemy as possible. There was nothing in the briefing about defending the area to 'ze last drop of blood'."

Silence filled the room, taking its time to crawl into every nook and cranny.

"So what you're saying, Sergeant Major, is that Jakob here messed up big time?" Daidouji asked with a raised eyebrow.

Branley couldn't look Daidouji in the eye. He couldn't look anyone in the eye after that.

"What I'm saying is that Branley here misinterpreted some orders that were vague at best and confusing at worst," Asada replied. "If an officer had given me an order like that, I would've either demanded some clarification or tell her to stick it up her ass."

Everyone in the room stared at her with a look reminiscent of concussed basking sharks. Their mouths were certainly gaping open enough to gather quite a bit of plankton.

"Look, I know there is the chain of command. Yes, officers' orders should be obeyed. That doesn't mean you stop thinking. If you're given a stupid order, then you improvise. You do whatever you have to do to carry out your mission, regardless of orders. This is why we enlisted are supposed to be told about the big picture and why we have to do what we do. It's so that we can effectively carry out the mission without precise orders, or even in the face of stupid or insane orders.

"In this case, when you're given such vague orders, you're supposed to ask for clarification and ask about the overall goals of the mission. If none is forthcoming, someone in command is talking through their brass. You understand?"

Branley raised a hand. "Sergeant Major, what exactly are we supposed to do in this case if the officer still insists we carry out the mission despite the lack of details? Do we disobey the orders, or what?"

Asada gave a grim smile. "That's a tricky one. You can appeal to a higher ranking officer if the orders are that screwed up, but if none are available, then you use your best judgement, carry out the mission as best you can, and get as many of your guys out alive as possible. Just…do what you feel is right. Now officially, this is not standard procedure, so I never told you this. Clear?"

Four heads bobbed up and down in silence.

Asada's grim look transformed into a bright grin. "Good! I hope you kids never get into a situation like that, but if you do, good luck. And don't hesitate to ask for your senior's advice, eh kouhai?" She directed that last word, which meant "underclassman" in Japanese, at Daidouji, who scowled in response.

"Alrighty, then! You are all dismissed! See you at mess," Asada said with a wink before spinning around and exiting the simulation room.

Silence filled the void left by Asada's passing, but it was a happy kind of silence. The kind you get after a gravball match was over and done with.

"Well, that was…interesting," Jol began after a few minutes.

"More like fucking weird," Daidouji added in her own colorful flavor.

Branley sighed and then sagged once more. "Well, looks like I'm going to have to study again."

Fen patted him gently on the shoulder. "There, there. Always next time," she said.

"Next time though, we could be playing for keeps," Branley said dejectedly.

It was at that point that Daidouji had had enough. She hooked one lithe arm around Branley's neck and practically choked him with it. But in a friendly way.

"You mopey idiot. What you need is some good hot food to get you back up and fighting. Come one, up and at 'em! Let's go get some grub!"

And thus, Daidouji dragged away a mildly protesting Branley while Jol and Fen watched in amusement.

"Well, shall we adjourn to the mess hall then, sister?" Jol asked her in Essh'k.

"That sounds great, brother," Fen replied in Essh'k as well, though it came out slightly garbled in her case, not that most humans could tell. "I'm pretty hungry from all this exercise."

"You're hungry from simulated exercise?" Jol asked incredulously.

"Hey, it still uses brainpower and therefore energy. Wasn't there a study that said people who conducted intellectual activity used up more energy than someone who lazed about all day?"

"Well, yes. But not enough to warrant eating more."

"Yes, but…"

And the friendly argument continued between the rather unorthodox brother and sister as they followed their comrades out the door.

UNSC Fearless, Conference Room

UNSC Fearless'sconference room could only be described as "comfy". It consisted of a room the size of an ordinary living room where, at the center, sat a C-shaped holotank wrapped around a smaller rectangular holotank. Projected above the rectangular holotank via the built-in holographic projector was a slowly revolving emblem of a golden manticore rearing up on its hind legs and roaring defiantly at an unseen foe. The words "UNSC FEARLESS" and "FFA-506" surrounded the emblem on the top and bottom respectively and the phrase "EXPLICIT NOMEN" laid below the emblem emblazoned on a banner in gold letters, comprising the ship's motto. The twin emblems of the UEG and the UNSC were displayed on the wall like background images: not getting in the way, yet always there when you looked. Seats were securely bolted into the floor around both holotanks, with more seats folded in a pile in nearby lockers in case they were needed.

At the head of the rectangular holotank, Captain Hanna Cutter, captain of the UNSC Fearless, was reading a copy of a 250-page report detailing the specifications of a new class of FTL drive. As she read it, the 40-year old Reacher ruffled her vibrant red hair as she attempted to make sense of the ridiculously long and detailed report in front of her. The light emitted by the TACPAD the report was displayed on glinted off the eagle on her peaked cap.

Sitting beside her was her executive officer, Commander Bethari. The Indonesian officer merely sat calmly with her hands folded over her TACPAD, whose blank screen indicated her finishing reading the report some time ago, and waited for her captain to actually finish reading. Her poker face was quite adept at hiding the annoyance she felt for waiting so long.

Sitting across from them were three civilians, not counting escorts. Two of them were men. One was a blue-eyed, brown-haired man sporting a 5 o'clock shadow and a pair of what looked like archaic wire-rimmed glasses. The other was a grey-eyed, black-haired young man wearing a black lab coat that fitted him like a scarecrow's outfit. The former was reading manga on his COMPAD, while the latter was reading a novel instead on his own COMPAD. The only things the two men shared in common were that they were the only males here, and the only two humans leading the civilian team.

The third being was a massive queen Yanme'e who towered over her coworkers by a good meter and a half or so. Her distended abdomen filled with fertilized eggs stretched nearly three meters long, and she was nervously cleaning her antennae, waiting for the captain to finish reading.

The queen was surrounded by half a dozen Yanme'e of the drone caste: males whose only purpose was to care for their queen, help her move, and occasionally provide sperm for her eggs. Flanking either side of the queen were four Yanme'e: two of the royal guard caste and two of the soldier caste, each armed with nothing more than a sidearm and melee weapon each and were at the moment busy having a staring contest with their UNSC marine counterparts while simultaneously looking out for threats. One copper-colored Yanme'e soldier was twitching her antennae in amusement as her opposing UNSC marine tried to control her twitching eyes in trying to outmatch compound eyes in the ability to not blink.

After a while, Cutter closed the program and set it down with a clink of metal on metal. "So this new slipspace drive, is supposed to work by essentially punching a hole through time and space. Am I correct Doctors Voroshilov, Emmerich, and…" Cutter paused for a moment to recall the Yanme'e queen's ungodly long name, and then proceeded to try and pronounce it the best she could. "Kirikaz chi Brizikaz chi Plamok, was it?"

"The human ship-queen that is named K!tir is allowed/permitted to refer to me as Kii!ri!khz to permit ease of communications which is desirable for you and I," the Yanme'e queen replied. Her voice was an electronic monotone emerging from a translation device embedded in the queen's upper thorax. And the syllables that made up her name bore little resemblance to the one Cutter had mangled just now.

Cutter carefully did not squirm at the sight of the queen's waving antennae. She did not want to seem like she was offending the queen, but the Yanme'e's appearance just creeped her out on so many levels. Still, she steeled herself and pushed the primal feelings of disgust out of her head by focusing on her job.

"Dr. Kirikaz, then. So can any of you answer my question of how that new slipspace driver of yours is supposed to work?" Hanna asked.

Dr. Voroshilov raised a thin hand. "I would be able to answer your question, Captain Cutter, though it would be incorrect to refer to it as a slipspace drive considering that it only makes partial use of slipspace."

Cutter simply stared at him. "So if it only partially uses slipspace, how does this…"

"Space-Time Rupture and Travel System Prototype No. 25."

'You just had to give it a 17-syllable name, did you?'

Out loud, Cutter asked, "By any chance, do you have a shorter name for it?"

"Affirmative. You may refer to it as the Hermes Transdimensional Engine, or the Hermes Drive for short."

Cutter blinked at the unusual name, and looked to the other scientists.

Dr. Emmerich grinned and mouthed "Cool, isn't it?" to her.

Dr. Kirikaz was inscrutable, or at least it looked that way to Hanna. If the Yanme'e queen was using body language to tell her something, Hanna had no way of knowing it.

Cutter pressed onwards with her questioning. "The Hermes Drive, how does it work?"

Now it was Voroshilov's turn to blink. "The information was in the report. You did read it, did you not?"

Cutter gave her executive officer a look that said, "Can you please explain it to this guy?"

"Dr. Voroshilov, while your report was meticulous and detailed, it was also completely uninformative," Bethari explained with a bluntness akin to a runaway train slamming into a wall of wet mud.

Dr. Voroshilov blinked twice. "Exactly how is the report uninformative? I specifically gave the full details of every prototype I had completed in there and-"

"And that is why the report is uninformative. Simply put, the main problem is information overload. Combined with the liberal use of jargon, it made most of the report incomprehensible to all but academics," Bethari explained, watching Dr. Voroshilov frown slightly at her. "Now why don't you try again, but this time summarize it in layman's terms. Or do I have to explain what 'layman's terms' means to you?"

Dr. Voroshilov sighed. "Very well, if I must." His eyes became unfocused as he thought about how to deconstruct his report and reconstruct it into something even his father would have understood. It lasted less than a minute. "The basic theory behind my-"

"Our Hermes Drive," Dr. Emmerich interrupted.

Dr. Voroshilov sighed in exasperation. "Very well, if you insist, even though I did most of the theoretical work and-"

"Doctors. Focus," Bethari sternly ordered.

"Fine, fine." Dr. Voroshilov said. "Our Hermes Drive involves opening a breach in the space-time continuum in slipspace. First, the ship equipped with the Hermes Drive must enter slipspace through the use of a Shaw-Fujikawa Translight Engine or a Covenant analogue. Then, and only then, would the Hermes Drive be used. There are two stages to the operation of the Hermes Drive. First, a large quantity negative mass particles-"

"What?" Cutter interrupted.

Dr. Voroshilov looked quite annoyed at having been interrupted multiple times, but he did try to explain it. "Negative mass particles are particles that have negative mass. It is self-explanatory. For example: a kilogram of negative hydrogen would have a mass of negative one kilograms."

Cutter tried to wrap her head around that concept. "But that's…impossible, right? How can something have negative mass? And just to be clear, it's not antimatter, right?"

"Negative. Antimatter has an opposite charge and particle properties to normal matter and when it comes into contact with normal matter, mutual annihilation occurs, resulting in the destruction of both substances along with a significant amount of energy. Matter with negative mass exhibits no such destructive properties upon contact with normal matter. It does, however, exhibit unique properties upon space-time that makes it useful for a variety of purposes besides my Hermes Drive. Now may I continue with my explanation?"

Cutter, already regretting her decision to ask for clarification, just nodded.

'Note to self: politely ask Bethari for some of her science magazines so I can catch up on this crazy shit,' she thought.

"As I was saying, first, a large quantity of negative mass particles is generated by the Hermes Drive, then it is collected and formed into a bubble around the ship via a special electromagnetic field. With this bubble in place, the ship immediately begins to warp space-time within slipspace and quickly translates so high up into slipspace that it actually breaches the boundaries of this very dimension, allowing it to traverse a once-theoretical region that I have dubbed Extra-Dimensional Space. You see, it is-"

Cutter quickly held up a hand to interrupt Dr. Voroshilov before he launched into another lecture. Honestly, her brain would have melted if she had to endure another drawn-out explanation like before. "Alright, let's just skip the technical details so you can tell me why you selected my ship for this experiment of yours?"

"That was actually my doing," Dr. Emmerich spoke up before Dr. Voroshilov could. "Mikhail here originally wanted to perform the test using a ship with a massive reactor to handle the power requirements, but the team convinced him that it would be better to simply build a smaller version with lower power requirements. It was much easier to sell the idea to HIGHCOM when the test rig was a frigate instead of a carrier like he wanted."

"Which reminds me," Cutter interjected. "Why did HIGHCOM approve this experiment on a UNSC warship?"

"I believe it has to do with the results of my tests with my Hermes Drive on my-our-drones earlier," Dr. Voroshilov quickly corrected, seeing the glare from Dr. Emmerich.

"And what were the results? And seriously, spare me the details and just give me the ending."

Dr. Voroshilov sighed, and continued. "The results of all previous tests with the Hermes Drive were as follows: all drones successfully entered slipspace, successfully activated and used the Hermes Drive, and successfully exited slipspace at their destinations with no lag time observed by outside instruments. In other words, the drones arrives at their destinations instantaneously–or as near to instantaneous that outside instruments could not measure the difference–regardless of distance traveled."

That got both Cutter and Bethari's attention instantaneously, or as near to instantaneous as to make no difference. "Did you say the drones arrived instantly? Without regard to distance?" Cutter asked.

Dr. Voroshilov looked even more annoyed at having to repeat himself once more. "Affirmative. The longest jump made was from Earth to Harvest. The monitoring stations at both Earth and Harvest recorded the time lag to be zero, or as near to zero as to be undetectable to the instruments. In order to positively confirm this, I would require more sensitive instruments, but that is another issue I shall reserve for another time."

Cutter's eyes widened in shock. Harvest was on the very edge of UEG-controlled space: located at over 100 light-years from Earth in the Epsilon Indi system. To be able to travel that far a distance instantaneously would be a tremendous breakthrough. Cutter was already imagining how many battles would have turned out had the UEG possessed this kind of technology.

She was still imagining when she heard Bethari ask: "What were the conditions of the drones?"

"The drones successfully exited slipspace unharmed, albeit significantly older than the rest of the universe," Dr. Voroshilov answered.

That snapped Cutter out of her thoughts. She knew that Bethari knew from experience that every silver cloud had a lead bottom somewhere, and mentally kicked herself for being taken in by the promise of new tech. "How significant?" she asked.

"It varied from drone to drone and was in direct proportion to distance traveled. In the case of the Earth-Harvest drone, it appeared the drone's onboard instruments recorded that 25 hours, 17 minutes, and 49 seconds had passed in transit. I shall have to find a way to rectify this problem later."

'Little over a day. Not bad,' Cutter thought.

Considering that, even with diplomatic courier ships equipped with the most powerful slipspace drives the UEG had developed so far, the voyage from Earth to Harvest still took a little over 71 hours, "not bad" was quite possibly the understatement of the century.

Cutter sighed in defeat. Even she had to admit, this Hermes Drive was the most promising tech she'd ever heard of. "Okay, then. I got nothing left to say. I say go ahead with your project, pronto."

Everyone took that as the signal for the meeting's end. Cutter extended a hand. "Well, it's been nice, Dr. Voroshilov. Let's hope the test turns out well."

Dr. Voroshilov stared at Cutter's hand as if it was a strange organism he found sitting on his keyboard. Then, hesitantly, he grasped the offered hand. Cutter noted the strength of the grip. It wasn't particularly tight–she'd met people who'd try to crush other people's hands when they're shaking them out of some inferiority complex; this wasn't one of them–but Dr. Voroshilov's hand felt like it was made of Titanium-A for all its thinness. Apparently, Bethari felt the same way, as she quirked an eyebrow up in surprise.

"Negotiations have been concluded. I'll be off to attend to the Hermes Drive. Good day then," he said simply before walking out the door.

Next was Dr. Emmerich's turn to shake Cutter's hand. The brown-haired scientist's grip was far weaker than Voroshilov's had been, and was sweaty and clammy to boot. Cutter wondered exactly how nervous Dr. Emmerich had actually been at this meeting, for all the calm he outwardly projected. Bethari had been outwardly as polite as always, but one glace to Cutter had told her that Bethari was not enjoying the feeling of nervous sweat on her hand at all.

"Thank you for having us on your ships, Captain, Lieutenant. Uh, don't mind Mike. He's always like that. With everybody," Dr. Emmerich explained. Seeing both officers' looks, he added before leaving, "Trust me, we have odder people on our team. Mike is actually one of the least odd ones."

Last was Dr. Kirikaz, which Cutter was not looking forward to. The Yanme'e queen seemed to be familiar with human customs, seeing as how she held out a chitinous hand for Cutter. Without showing any nervousness on her part, Cutter took her hand and shook it. To her surprise, Dr. Kirikaz's hand did not feel cold as she expected. In fact, it almost felt like shaking a warm crab leg. She wasn't sure whether it was better or worse that way. As Cutter let go of the queen's hand, she noticed both of the queen's royal guards opening and closing their large jaws, as if they suspected she would go nuts and attack Dr. Kirikaz with her bare hands. They also did so with Bethari, so Cutter wasn't insulted by the suspicion. She supposed it was a good thing the royal guards were so protective of their queen.

"We thank ship-queen K!tir for allowing our research to proceed efficiently. This work will benefit both of our species. We will exit this room now. We wish the ship-queen to have an uneventful time in the future." With that said, the queen's drones helped her onto her feet and carried her out the door with her four guards expertly taking the point and rear.

After the doctors had left, Cutter slumped back down into her chair and stretched. "Alright, who decided that my ship had to be the testbed for every piece of experimental tech ever suggested by every two-bit egghead with a degree?" she asked wearily.

"I believe HIGHCOM did," Bethari replied.

"Man! At least they could've let me know about this before springing this up on me," Cutter complained.

"I didn't believe HIGHCOM was entitled to alert you to their intentions every time they ordered an officer to a post."

"You're no fun, Bethi," Cutter said with a pout.

"I am actually quite fun. I just choose not to be so around you."

Cutter burst out in laughter at that remark, delivered in perfect deadpan. "Man, I'd love to be able to get a holo-vid of you having fun. Hell, even a frame of you smiling would be enough. I could probably sell those for quite a pile of creds," Cutter said in between laughs.

Bethari glared at Cutter in response with a gaze that would've frosted glass. "I will return the favor if you ever do that, you know."

"Relax, relax!" Cutter said after catching her breath. "I was just kidding. No need to get frosty on me."

Bethari turned her head away and gave a prim "Hmph" in response.

Cutter placed a gentle hand on Bethari's shoulder. "Hey, don't be like that. I really was just kidding. Come on, I'll treat you to a nice dinner when we get to Earth, okay?"

"…It had better be something with beef in it," Bethari said after a moment.

Cutter grinned. "Oh, it won't just have beef in it. It'll be a full-sized T-bone steak, grilled to medium well done and served with a side of mushrooms and potatoes."

Bethari ceased her imaginings to raise an eyebrow at her friend. "I didn't realize that your cooking skills had improved to such a degree since last time."

Cutter scratched her head sheepishly. "Heh, heh. I was actually thinking of going to a Kangaroo Chophouse for our dinner?"

"Now that makes far more sense, considering the mess you made of the last dish you tried to make." Bethari sighed and placed a hand on her face. "That poor drumstick. You'd mangled and burned it beyond salvation. You'd turned what could've been a delectable cut of chicken into something resembling a piece of charcoal. You'd-"

"Alright, alright already! Knock it off, will you?" Cutter tried to say sternly, only to laugh as she saw a corner of Bethari's mouth twitch. It was at that moment Cutter's stomach started growling, and she got up. "Well, looks like this guy's telling me I'm starving. Let's say we go grab a bite to eat in the officer's mess before we set sail? My treat."

"That's an interesting notion, considering we don't actually pay for the food ourselves. But since you offered, I'll be taking a mutton burger. I suppose you'll be wanting the spaghetti and…meatballs?" Bethari said with a shudder.

"You say 'meatballs' like how people normally say 'garbage'," Cutter noted as she and Bethari walked out the door to the conference room.

"Considering that there's pork in the meatballs, I'd rather eat garbage. Even the lowest grade stew meat would be cleaner than-"

The door slid closed as Bethari continued extolling the evils to pork to her friend.

UNSC Fearless, Mess Hall

Sergeant Major Shinon Asada sat at a metal table with her three comrades, though she scarcely noticed them given the fact that she was engrossed with reading the best-selling historical war novel Sands of Mars [3]. Tuning out everything and everyone around her, she concentrated on the passage on the screen of her TACPAD.

"The time is now! The Freidan pigs have overextended their grasp! Their attempt to conquer blue Earth has failed, and now all of her people scream for their blood! Even now, Earth's fleets battle with the ships of the oppressors in the skies above with our twin moons, but will we stand by quietly and let them decide our fate?

"No! We will fight for our land, for our liberty, and for our very rights as people! For too long has Mars been ruled by the iron grip of the Friedan pigs, who steal our soil and enslave our families! The ground and the seas shall run red with the blood of the oppressors and martyrs alike, and both shall serve only to fuel our cause!

"So rise up, children of the war god! For liberty! For freedom! For Mars! Mars aeternum!"

It was only then that Asada felt the woman next to her nudging her with an elbow.

"Hey, galaxy to Shinon. Come in, over. I've been trying to get your attention for an eternity, over," the Arabic woman said with amusement.

Asada gave out an embarrassed laugh. "Ack, sorry about that. I was just getting to Iosif Narayan's address to Mars on the day of the invasion. The author took some liberties with his speech, but it was still mostly accurate to what he said and it makes for a good read."

Staff Sergeant Rabi'a Nagi, or Rabi as everyone on the team called her, raised an intriguing eyebrow. "I'm amazed at how interested you can get in events that happened untold centuries ago. Doesn't the dust of ages at least make you want to sneeze?"

Asada smiled at her friend's words. She liked listening to how Nagi can weave poetry with all the natural ease of a silkworm weaving its own cocoon. Honestly, it felt like colors would erupt from her mouth at her will.

"I happen to like reading into ancient history, thank you very much. Where would we all be if everyone forgot what happened in their past?" Asada asked rhetorically.

"Likely in the present," Nagi answered. "And then the future, though I forget what happened before then. Note to self: remind me to leave notes to myself lest I forget what just happened to me."

Asada let out a decidedly girlish giggle. "Alrighty, then. So, what were you trying to get my attention for anyway?"

Nagi tilted her head at a particular person. Asada looked in said direction to see one of her other teammate, Staff Sergeant Alicia Gunther, who was madly typing on her TACPAD and was completely ignoring the cooling tray of food in front of her. The last of Asada's teammates, a Japanese woman sitting next to Gunther, kept trying to surreptously peek at the screen, but Gunther would shy away from her teammate every time.

Asada leaned closer to Nagi. "Who's she messaging so badly?" Asada whispered.

"I haven't the foggiest clue," Nagi whispered her reply. "Maybe it's a friend with benefits?"

"She hasn't been getting any, has she?"

"Does a monk pay a trip to a brothel?" Nagi asked rhetorically. "She hasn't found any guy she likes enough to do it with. I keeping telling her that she should broaden her prospects a little, but-"

Gunther took one hand off the TACPAD she'd been so rapidly typing on, balled it into a fist, and slammed it on the table. "Will you two stop discussing my sex life right in front of me?! Jesus Christ, I can't even text someone in peace with you girls around!" she complained angrily.

"Uh oh, looks like ol' sourdough is rising up again," Asada commented.

"It's because she's been sitting around for too long. She hasn't had anyone knead her for a while, so she's all sour from the fermentation," Nagi commented as well.

To Asada, Gunther looked as though she wanted to tear her own hair out by the roots. "You two are just a bunch of immature middle schoolers!" she shouted.

The Japanese woman sitting next to Gunther reached over and gently patted her on the shoulder. "Now, now. It's just a bit of harmless fun. There's no need to get so worked up over it."

Gunther glared at the woman. "Says the one who's still trying to peek at my TACPAD, ma'am."

First Lieutenant Asuna Yuuki calmly looked away as though she hadn't been doing exactly that. "Oh my. I'd hoped you hadn't caught on. You can't blame a lady for trying though." She fluttered her eyelids in such an exaggeratedly innocent manner that Asada had to struggle not to burst out laughing.

"Some lady you are. More like a witch," Gunther grumbled.

Yuuki stifled a giggle with a swift motion. "Blame that on a youth spent in an all-girls' school. You tend to develop a certain…attitude there. Thankfully, I've mellowed quite a bit since then."

"If this is what you call 'mellow', I'd hate to see what you were like back then," Gunther said caustically before resuming her mad typing on her TACPAD.

"Pretty bad, actually," Asada heard Yuuki mumble, a melancholic expression on her pale face.

"Aw, come on. Don't be so down. Everyone was a bit of an ass in school at one point or another," Asada consoled.

Yuuki snorted at her. "You received a secondhand account from someone who was already biased towards me in the first place. Trust me, I was that bad."

"That someone is your girlfriend. I think I'll take her word on it," Asada said resolutely. "Trust me, if you were that bad, you wouldn't have decided to stand up to those sickos for her by yourself."

Yuuki smiled at her. "Maybe, but-"


All three of her teammates turned to stare at Gunther's outburst, along with pretty much everyone in the mess hall. Asada fought down a giggle as Gunther's face slowly turned bright red.

Gunther immediately stood up. "Uh, sorry! It's nothing! You can all just go back to eating now! Everything's fine! Heh, heh…"

As people turned away from the spectacle and back to their breakfasts, Gunther slumped back down, her face now a perfect crimson.

"I take it that was good news you received?" Asada inquired.

Gunther nodded shyly. "Yeah."

Yuuki nudged her friend with an elbow. "Well, spill it. What's the good news that turned you into a cheerleader for a second?"

Asada didn't think it was possible, but Gunther's face turned an even deeper shade of red. "Well, I just got the news from Welkin. Apparently, he and his armored platoon are travelling aboard the Fearless with us until we get to Earth."

Yuuki reached over and hugged Gunther with one arm, pulling the other woman into her embrace. "Way to go, girl!" Yuuki cheered.

"Let us rejoice for our newly reunited couple," Nagi agreed. "Especially for Alicia. She can finally end her unnecessarily self-imposed abstinence."

"It's called 'being married'," Gunther countered. "Maybe if you tried it, you'd understand the commitment one would put into it."

"Oh, I'm planning on tying the knot with my beloved. However, that time and place is neither now nor here," Nagi replied gracefully.

"Or maybe perhaps you have some commitment issues you haven't brought up? Maybe you could try to put that poetic skill into planning out a life together with your 'beloved'?" Gunther replied just as gracefully, if a bit more caustically.

As Gunther and Nagi bantered back and forth, Asada found herself being cheered up by her friends' verbal sparring. She reached up to insert an earbud into her ear, and then commanded her TACPAD to put on "Elemental Fury" [4].

'This is the life,' she thought happily. She looked over to Yuuki, who smiled and winked at her. They clinked their cups together, and then sat back to enjoy the breakfast theater.


[1]: Auto-gun: Because "Automated Stationary Gun System" was generally agreed to be too long to say in normal conversation, much less under fire.

[2]: Asada was referencing a popular holo-series called "Arlene", which was a romantic comedy series that starred the titular girl as being the center of a love triangle between two handsome boys in a high school setting. It proved to be a popular series during the H-C War, when people wanted an escape from what was happening to them. Ironically, it proved to a popular series even amongst the Covenant, and remains in syndication amongst the various post-Covenant star nations to this day.

[3]: Over 100 billion copies of Sands of Mars had been sold so far in UEG space alone.

[4]: Elemental Fury: a studio album by the UEG flip band DrakenPower: who are well-known for their long and epic guitar solos, and lyrics inspired by fantasy works.