The Great Journey

A/N: It's been a long while, hasn't it. Since the last time I wrote my writing style and vocabulary has matured significantly, a change that I hope will create a positive impact on this fic overall. I had written half the chapter before I stopped; thus, some of you may notice a sudden change in my writing style in the middle of the chapter. I will try to modify the first half to make it flow better. However I barely even remember my own plot line, so kindly ignore any (minor) errors in continuity or repetitiveness and let me know of major ones. Names of the Elite Spec-Ops Commander have been fixed to match the official one.

Reviews:

This isn't allowed any more, apparently. If you have specific questions ask me. I'll try to get to everyone but don't be too sad if I miss you, just ask again next chapter or something.

Much thanks to all readers and reviewers.

Chapter 11: Excavation

0436 hours, February 22, 2553 (UNSC Military Calendar) UNSC Cairo Orbital MAC Defense Station, in geosynchronous orbit around Earth.

Fleet Admiral Hood felt the Cairo jolt as it was returned to its original location in geosync orbit by UNSC fleet tugs. He watched through the fore camera as the Essex and Thor broke from their covering position and took up a patrol pattern around the nearby Rome battlecluster. The two carriers were, oddly, still in pristine condition. Their thick, spotless Titanium-A hulls gleamed, free of any plasma scoring, and Longswords swarmed around their mother ships like packs of bees protecting their hives.

Of course, they probably wouldn't be gleaming for much longer. The Covenant had pulled back for now, out of the orbital guns' range, but it was only a matter of time before they would grow impatient. It was obvious that, once the ground forces on Zanzibar had accomplished their mysterious objectives, the fleet would fire up their reactors and unleash wave upon wave of superheated plasma at the UNSC forces. The same tactic had been used by the aliens in the Sigma Octanus IV incident. It was one of the many parallels that could be drawn between to two scenarios. The Covenant did not seem to be the most creative of tacticians.

Only this time, once the Covenant on the surface were finished with their business, the alien ships wouldn't be running.

Hopefully the Chief, Team Eight, and that Elite will make finishing that job hell for those Covenant downstairs.

Hood lingered on this thought for a while, absentmindedly monitoring the local COM chatter. Admiral Harper, who commanded the remains of the UNSC fleet, was busy organizing the hundred-fifty-odd ships into a suitable defensive formation. Admiral Hood knew Harper to be an excellent tactician, so he did not interfere.

The Admiral ordered his Radar Officer, Lieutenant McCarthy, to keep his eyes peeled for any new developments and gave Lieutenant Carter permission to fire on any enemy ship foolish enough to venture within range. Satisfied for the time being, Hood sat back in the bridge's "hot seat" and closed his eyes for a moment.

The last four days had been utterly exhausting. Two times had the Covenant attacked Earth, two times had they managed to slip a ship or two past the orbital defenses, and once had they boarded the Cairo herself, nearly destroying the station. Once they had been beaten back, only to a return with an exponentially larger fleet.

I'm getting too old for this job. But if I left, who would do it?

More importantly, who would do it right?

There's very few that can, and fewer still who actually want to do the job. Still, I'm not going to be leaving for a while yet, even if I wanted to. Unless the Covenant cut me short, of course.

An alarm blared throughout the bridge. Inwardly, the Admiral gave a sigh of despair, and his thoughts on his mortality were forgotten. Not a moment's peace. His eyes snapped open and he called for a report.

"Slipspace rupture!" said Lieutenant McCarthy. "Five degrees dark of the rotational axis of Mercury. Just one small rupture, sir; looks like a single ship."

"Admiral Harper, we've got this one covered. Stay on your toes and watch that Covenant fleet," ordered Hood over the fleet SecureCOM. He turned to Lieutenant Carter, who, as gunnery officer, had control of the Cairo's positioning thrusters. "Carter, bring us about eighty-nine point seven degrees. Charge the MAC, keep it hot, but do not open fire until you are ordered to. If it's a single ship, it might be a friendly one."

The bridge crew watched the patch of distorted space anxiously. True to McCarthy's prediction, there was only a single ship – a sleek but scarred and pitted Covenant destroyer. Admiral Hood was unsure of whether or not to blow the ship into millions of tiny fragments; for all he knew, it could be a Separatist vessel. He made a cutting gesture at Lieutenant Carter, whose hand was straying to open fire.

"They're hailing us, sir," reported Lieutenant Parsons.

"Put it through, bridge speakers," the Admiral ordered. "But keep the firing solution online. Stay with it if it starts moving."

"Admiral Hood, sir…glad to see you've left some action for us…well, we brought you a little present, too. And thanks to its speed, we got here in time to help slag some Covenant with their own weapons. Damn, the irony. I'm glad this party ain't over yet," said a slow, drawling, and unmistakably human voice. Hood recognized the voice, as he had awarded this particular man the Colonial Cross barely half a week ago.

"Sergeant Avery Johnson, it's a pleasure to hear from you. Your 'present' might come in handy," replied the Admiral. Very handy. An intact – well, relatively intact – Covenant ship for scientists and engineers to salivate over. That is, if Earth doesn't become an orbiting ball of molten rock.

"Sergeant, are you in command of that ship? And what of Commander Keyes?" he continued.

"No, sir, this is a Separatist-controlled ship. The CO of this ship – the Duty and Honor, if you wanted to know – is an Elite named Sora 'Sonamee. We heard about the little peace treaty you so nicely announced, but we became friends before that, so don't worry, we've already patched up things. Long story. And as for Keyes, she's unharmed and on board as well, but I can't say the same for the rest of In Amber Clad's crew. Like I said, it's a long story, sir, and I'll tell it to you later, if you don't mind. Oh and, no problem about the present. I was gonna wait until your birthday, but hey, we may not be around by then. Not if I have anything to say about it, though."

The Admiral chuckled at the Sergeant's irrepressible humor. "Good. Very well, then. Sergeant, I want you, Commander Keyes, and any other surviving human personnel back on board Cairo ASAP. Get yourself to a dropship, soldier."

"Yes, sir!" replied Johnson. The Admiral switched channels to speak to his fleet once more.

"Stand down, men. It's one of ours."

He watched as the Duty and Honor broke from Mercury's orbit and maneuvered through the orbital defense grid to reach the Cairo. It slipped pass Admiral Harper's flagship, the immense Marathon-class cruiser Midway. Sporting a staggering five MAC guns, hundreds of oversized Archer pods, a dozen Shiva missiles, and four and a half meters of Titanium-A covering it from stem to stern, it was one of the few ships in the UNSC fleet able to stand toe-to-toe with Covenant ships, absolutely dwarfing any other UNSC ship. It was powered by a network of reactors with output equaling more than that of four destroyers, giving it impressive speed despite its huge size. The Midway tracked the Separatist ship as it moved past, which would have made Admiral Hood a little apprehensive had he been on board the Duty and Honor. Five MAC guns could disintegrate the Covenant destroyer instantly.

It was just more evidence of the already-proven fact that there was still distrust, even hatred, between the two factions, but mainly emanating from the humans as they were the ones with hundreds of their planets and billions of their kind slaughtered.

"Carter, allow MAC capacitors to drain to standby status, 75," Hood ordered, noticing the full charge indicator blinking insistently.

"Aye, sir," replied the Lieutenant, and with a few commands the bar sank to three-quarters charge, and the number slowly dropped to 75, relieving the stress on the reactor.

The Separatist destroyer aligned itself with the Cairo, falling into a geosynchronous orbit alongside the MAC station, then turned and dropped shields on one of its starboard docking bays. A Pelican dropship drifted out, jetted towards the Cairo and was docked within half a minute.

The heavy bridge doors hissed open to admit Sergeant Johnson and Commander Keyes. Both were battered but the Sergeant was especially so, probably from days of nonstop fighting. The two exhausted soldiers saluted the Admiral.

Hood returned the salutes and bid them to stand at ease.

"Glad to see the two of you made it in time to join us. From the looks of it, you've been to hell and back, so I'll make this brief. As you probably know, we don't have time for chitchat right now, so we have to save the discussion of your ordeal for later. There is one important thing you need to know. Currently, the Covenant have slipped three ships past our defenses and landed troops on the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar. The Chief, an elite team of ODSTs, and assorted Marines and Separatists are currently stationed on Zanzibar, and personally, I think they'll give any enemy foot troops a severe migraine. However, we need to do something about those Covenant ships, before they decided to stop playing games with ground forces and vaporize our troops. Before that, there are two issues I need to address. First, are you two the only humans who made it?"

"No, sir, a squad of ODSTs, the Pelican's pilot, and a small team of techs also made it, but that's the lot," replied Johnson.

The Admiral nodded. "I'm sorry to hear that. Second, I am going to assume that In Amber Clad has been lost. Correct?"

Commander Keyes answered this time. "Yes, sir, enemy forces seized control of it." She shuddered inwardly at the specific enemy that had overtaken her ship, but did not mention it.

"I'm sorry to hear that, as well." In truth, he was not overly concerned, but he was not about to admit that openly. In Amber Clad had been a corvette, a class of ships that were even smaller than frigates and mainly useless in capital ship combat. One less corvette could hardly turn the tide of this particular battle. "You followed the Cole Protocol first? Wiped the NAV coordinates of Earth?"

Keyes wrinkled her brown in confusion. "Sir, with respect, that wouldn't be necessary. The Covenant already know where Earth is. Otherwise they wouldn't be here."

"Oh. Yes, that's right." Dammit, I keep forgetting that. Been following the Protocol to the letter for decades, but what good did it do us anyway?

"Keyes, I think it would be best if you find quarters on board and wait this one out. Unfortunately, I don't have any spare ships for you to command. And Johnson, I think you should get some rest as well. God knows what you've been through."

"What? Sir, I don't need any rest! Just some food in my belly, some fresh ammo in my belt, and I'll be good to go. I'd like to get down to Zanzibar and help the Chief out. With your permission, of course, sir," said Johnson indignantly.

Before the Admiral could reply, Keyes spoke up as well. "And I have no intention of just 'waiting it out' while the Covenant destroy Earth. I can help out sir, even if you give me janitorial duty."

Admiral Hood smiled slightly. The two reminded him of disobedient youngsters protesting against the orders of a parent.

"In that case, Johnson, you're free to visit the galley and armory as you wish. After you are finished, return to the Duty and Honor. I have plans for it, and luckily for you, Sergeant, my plans coincide with yours. And as for you, Commander, I'm sure I can find something for you to do. I've heard the latrines could use a good washing…"

The Sergeant left the bridge, chuckling to himself.


0452 hours, February 22, 2553 (UNSC Military Calendar) Separatist destroyer Duty and Honor, in geosynchronous orbit around Earth, former Cairo battlecluster.

Sergeant Johnson felt quite pleased, given the situation. He had just bolted down a large meal, was armed with his selected choice of weapons – a S2 AM Sniper Rifle with custom smart-linked stabilized scope and two M6E heavy magnums – and was headed down to the surface, where he could be of some use wiping out Covenant scum instead of helplessly sitting at a viewport watching plasma and MAC shells drawing lines across space. Moreover, he had been allowed to keep his Trident Mark I suit. Aside from the increased protection and strength, there was an added bonus. If a disobedient Marine was mouthing off and he didn't want to listen to it, a simple flick of the audio receiver switch would do the trick. Pure genius.

The Sergeant stood alongside the Arbiter, 'Vadumee, and 'Sonamee on the bridge of the Duty and Honor. They were gathered on the bridge's central platform, watching the main forward viewscreen, where Admiral Hood's face shimmered and jumped. Johnson listened attentively to the Admiral's exact orders. He was not so alert for naught; what was at stake here was enormous.

"'Sonamee, you are to take the Duty and Honor into Earth's atmosphere, to the coordinates provided. They should lead you to an island designated by humans as 'Zanzibar.' There you must insert Johnson, with accompanying troops if you wish. Currently, long-range communications in the region are inoperable, but from satellite recon, we can see that the entire beach has been overrun by Covenant forces. Therefore, a naval artillery strike from surface ships is already in progress. The LZ should be clear by the time if you arrive; if not, you are free to destroy any remaining hostiles with your ship's weaponry or by any other means that you see fit. Once you have dropped your troops, you must stay on station above Zanzibar to assist the ground forces in fending off any further attacks."

"Yes, Admiral Hood," replied 'Sonamee, who of the three high-ranking Elites was the most willing to accept orders from a human superior, having been used to taking orders for nearly all of his military career as he was still only of moderate rank among Elites unlike his two companions. "But what of the Covenant vessels in the vicinity?"

"For the moment, the three hostile ships themselves should not present a threat to you," replied the Admiral. "However, under no circumstances should you attack those Covenant ships alone. Should you do this, your single destroyer will be no match for their combined firepower. If you feel that they are becoming an imminent threat to you or the ground troops, only then do you have permission to open fire. As I mentioned before, we have a significant surface navy battlegroup in the area. In the event that the enemy ships do launch an assault, the battlegroup will provide you with heavy MAC artillery and fighter/bomber support. But there is still no sense in inviting harm when it is not needed."

"Agreed," said 'Sonamee.

"Good. Now, Johnson, your task may be considerably easier or more difficult, depending on the circumstances. Once on Zanzibar Island, you and any Separatists that may decide to join you – the number of which, I imagine, may be quite numerous – will assist the Master Chief in repelling any further ground-based Covenant assaults. He will give you the specifics if and when that time comes. The Chief has control of the ground op, and it will stay that way, so you are required to obey all of his orders. That clear, Johnson, 'Vadumee, Arbiter?" Admiral Hood asked, obviously knowing that all three pugnacious warriors would be in on the battle and could possibly have conflicting opinions.

'Vadumee and the Arbiter looked at one another and nodded. Johnson replied with a customary "Yes, sir!"

The Admiral paused, surveying them. He nodded in satisfaction. "That's all. Good luck, soldiers. Hood out." The screen went blank.

Johnson turned to his alien comrades. "It's on, boys. Now that we're all finished jawin', let's get ready to kick some Covenant ass."


0452 hours, February 22, 2553 (UNSC Military Calendar) EAP Wind Power Station 7, Zanzibar Island, Tanzania, Africa. Earth.

Captain Summers tapped his foot and took a drag from his cigarette. He waited.

The remnants of his force and 'Canarmee waited as well. Some wondered when the Chief and his Deltas would return from their investigation of the power station. The majority, however, waited for hammer to fall. They were growing impatient, for in their minds it was to meet their fate quickly rather than be left to anticipate it.

He had already tasked one of his Marines with supplying the medical staff with weapons and ammunition. Undoubtedly they would be forced to engage the Covenant, as well. Even the wounded who were still conscious received M6Cs and M7s.

As long as they can hold a weapon and pull the trigger… thought Summers. He raised the cigarette to his mouth again.

"Captain, sir, that's a bad habit. Smoking kills, you know," remarked one of Allen's rocket jockeys.

Summers gave a sarcastic grin. "Shut your yap, Private Mitchell. We're all gonna be dead in a couple of hours either way."

He instantly regretted this statement. He was a Captain, dammit – he was supposed to set an example for those under his command and keep their morale as high as possible, not cement a fear that most of them already had.

"No. Maybe not. With the Chief and those Helljumpers on steroids around, we might stand a chance," he said slowly. "You heard of what that Spartan can do, Mitchell?"

"Yeah. I heard," replied the Private. "But I want to see him in action for myself."

The Captain made no reply to this, knowing that they would all be put to the test in short order.

A faint but deep rumble shook the station, growing in volume, like that of thunder overhead but magnified many times. The shockwave shook off the ash that had accumulated on tip of Captain Summers's cigarette.

Several soldiers looked about, puzzled, as the rumbling increased in volume and rapidity.

"Looks like General MacArthur or someone else up top decided to take things into their own hands," said the Captain, shrugging and stamping out the remains of his cigarette. "Sounds like naval artillery to me."

A Marine voiced a concern of his. "But sir, there's still going to be some Covenant that survive the attack. What about them?"

Summers gave him a hard look. "'What about them?' We're going to find them and grind them into the dust too. What's wrong, soldier, you scared? Well, you shouldn't be. Without their numbers those apes on steroids and Jackals will be cake for the Chief and his boys, not to mention us."

"Not scared, sir," said the Marine. "Just wondering."

Captain Summers grunted in reply and flicked on his helmet COM. "Chief, I assume you've felt or heard the Navy's response to our…visitors?"

"Affirmative, Captain. It will make our task considerably easier. Wait a moment." Summers could hear the Spartan conversing on the other end before he returned. "Captain Allen says we're just about wrapped up here. My squad and I will be returning shortly."

"Yes, Chief. Good to hear that."

For the first time in weeks, Summers gave a genuine smile. He finally had good reason to. The Covenant ground forces – for once – were the ones on the receiving end of a merciless artillery barrage, while their own ships were reluctant to be on the delivering end of such an attack. Furthermore, the Chief and a team of Delta ODSTs were present, giving off a moral-boosting aura of invincibility to the rank-and-file Marines. Although the Covenant fleet was still an imminent threat to the safety of the Earth, the Captain's perception of the world seemed to have shrunk to tiny Zanzibar Island. In the last few hours, his life had been at stake, and the stress of the battle had taken his mind off of all else. He was merely happy to be alive. And in his little world of Zanzibar, there was not much else that could go wrong, especially with the tides turning against the Covenant. Or so it seemed.

The Captain settled his back against the wall and kicked his feet up against a nearby crate. After all that he and his men had accomplished or attempted to accomplish on that day, he felt that they would surely receive some well-deserved rest.

- - -

The clanking of boots against solid metal beat a rhythmical pattern as John, Delta Team Eight, and Captain Allen made their way through the winding corridors of the mostly-empty power station.

John had not seen much to rouse his attention; anyway, the majority of the Covenant forces were likely to have been eliminated. The Chief could complete the simple cleanup task without assistance; however, the addition of some capable allies would just facilitate the job. While he acknowledged that each challenge he faced and conquered made him an even more deadly warrior, the last few weeks had been harrowing enough so that he was glad to be assigned to a simple mission for a change.

"Just one last thing to note, Chief," said Captain Allen as they rounded another corner. The corridor they had just entered dead-ended with a dull steel-gray door, rusted at the edges and chipped in several places. The Captain unceremoniously kicked the rusting door open.

John and the Helljumpers were greeted with the salty odor of the sea and a spray of water across their visored faces. A few of the ODSTs retracted their visors to allow the spray to hit their faces as they stepped out onto the tiny, rock-studded patch of sand. The Spartan considered doing the same but figured there would be plenty of time for relaxation later.

"Stay sharp, Deltas," he warned, looking around cautiously for Covenant that could be scouting out the perimeter of the island. But he soon saw that there was no way for the enemy to reach the secluded patch of rocky beach. Thus reassured, he lowered his rifle.

"I figured this would be a good place for you to launch an assault against the Covenant. They probably have the front entrances covered by hundreds of troops. In those armor suits you could probably just walk around to the Covenant position underwater and attack them from behind. That'll cause some major chaos and I can lead the rest of the survivors in a classic pincer from the main entrance of the power station to pin down the survivors if you need help," Allen said.

The Chief nodded agreement, but his attention had been drawn to a patch of flat rock recently exposed by the last wave washing over. With his enhanced vision he could see strangle glyph-like inscriptions carved onto the rock's surface, eerily lit by dim rays of moonlight.

Immediately John felt a chill run down his spine. Those inscriptions were all too familiar to him.

He nearly ran over to the rock, sweeping sand off of it to reveal it to be a thick rectangular affair. Digging with his hands, the Chief realized that the rock was embedded quite deeply, and exposed some sort of seam running along the rock. A vague thought crossed his mind…could this be a door?

Only one thing was certain to the bewildered Spartan.

This is what the Covenant came here for.


2105 hours, April 3, 2013 (GMT+3) Zanzibar Island, Tanzania, Africa.

Two hundred and forty years earlier.

A warm breeze blew through the streets of Stone Town, Zanzibar. The normally bustling streets of the city at the midnight party hour, usually packed with the inhabitants of Zanzibar's cultural heart, famous for its tourist industry and spices, were completely deserted, save four figures striding slowly down the darkened central city avenue, dressed in camouflage and full body armor and outlined by the setting sun behind them.

The four were members of the United States 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (Airborne), more colloquially known as "Delta Force" or the "D-boys", one of the world's premier counter-terrorism units alongside the British SAS and other elite units. They had been deployed to Zanzibar Island to counter one of the greatest threats the United States had faced since the attack on September 11, 2001.

A group of unidentified but clearly radical and ruthless terrorists had somehow obtained a tactical nuclear weapon, which in itself was a mystery as countries who had signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as well as other nuclear powers all vehemently denied having any contact with the terrorists, although obviously one could be lying or have lax nuclear security. They had placed several satellite phone calls announcing their threat to the world, a rather foolish move as this revealed their location – Zanzibar Island. The move was so brazen, however, that some speculated that the terrorists were openly taunting whoever their opponents might be. As of yet, they had not made any major demands.

Granted, the model they mentioned was a small nuclear weapon by modern standards and relatively clean but still packed enough explosive energy to decimate a major city and saturate the surrounding metropolitan area with at least some radiation. Radiological scans of the area had confirmed that the terrorists weren't merely bluffing. Emergency departures had been scheduled for many tourists visiting the island as well as some of its inhabitants, and those unlucky enough to be trapped on the island barricaded themselves inside their hotels, homes, and businesses.

Though the group was not making any threats at the time, no one would be waiting for a psychotic terrorist cell to make the first move. Thus, America's elite counter-terrorist special forces unit – the 1st SFOD-D (A) – had been deployed to neutralize the threat quickly, efficiently, and silently. Four Delta operatives had arrived via nighttime beach insertion the previous day using rigid inflatable boats – "ribbies." They wore civilian clothing and carried their equipment in duffel bags and suitcases, slipping in seamlessly as tourists with the civilian population to minimize the chance of detection.

Separate elite teams from Britain's SAS and France's GIGN in addition to other major nations' teams had also slipped onto the island and were on standby to instantly provide assistance should Delta Force fail to accomplish its initial objectives or encounter significant resistance. Delta Force had been selected for the mission due to the fact that it had arrived first and had a chance to reconnoiter the immediate area while still in civilian dress, though the other teams felt indignant at what they thought was second-class treatment and relegation to a supporting role.

Still, they recognized the seriousness of the situation, and were ready to assist the Americans at a moment's notice. Fortunately all were well-versed in English and a joint operations center, or JOC, had been established for all teams to coordinate all their efforts.

Delta Lead Gary Fletcher mentally sized up the daunting task placed before him and his three comrades. His prime concern was that the terrorists had already determined how to break the nuclear warhead's safety locks and arm the weapon. This was unlikely, given the relatively short timeframe; but still possible and certainly something to be regarded with apprehension. Still, even if the weapon was armed and detonated by the terrorists in desperation, it would mean the loss of only a few lives – those of the Delta Force team and other special ops units currently on the island. Their few, trivial lives were something that Fletcher knew all them would be willing to give in exchange for the lives of millions of innocents in the crosshairs of the warhead.

His three teammates, operating and communicating under their first names of John, Martin, and Steve were wired tight as well. None exhibited any signs of nervousness or lack of confidence about what they had been tasked with. The team moved swiftly out of the empty town where they would stick out like sore thumbs and into a nearby forest, where the trees and dense canopy afforded them some cover from the dusk light.

While casually conversing with the local populace several days previously the Deltas had discovered that there had been suspicious activity regarding that particular area of the island. The city residents and tourists had been denied access to the area for several years now, with the government citing environmental protection as their motive for this. However the threat of imprisonment for merely setting foot inside the forest and armed patrols led some to believe that saving wildlife was not the true reason behind the government's actions.

As the Tanzanian government's financial records indicated, the country had not purchased any equipment that could be potentially used for the manufacture of nuclear weapons; nor did it possess the indigenous ability to produce such equipment. Therefore, it could be safely assumed that it was not a secret nuclear weapons research facility that had been seized by the terrorists, but some form of clandestine research or excavation was almost certainly taking place in the forest. Whatever it was, the Deltas would soon find out, and they expected determined resistance from the terrorists, who had enough skill to obtain a nuclear weapon and overpower the guards in the region.

Despite the warm breeze constantly sweeping across the island, the four were relatively comfortable within their highly advanced, microclimate-controlled armor. As the elite soldiers of the world's most influential and powerful economy, as well as the world's largest military spender, their equipment was nothing less than state-of-the-art. The equipment they were wearing was derived from the standard Objective Force Warrior combat system that the regular Army troops were issued. However, it was lighter yet offered significantly more resistance to small-arms fire than the standard body armor, had more powerful electronics and communications, and was fueled by higher-efficiency fuel cells. Of course, this came at a massive price. Each Delta's equipment was many times as expensive as the standard grunt's, but it was the U.S. military's hope that they would put it to good use.

The Deltas wore the latest iteration of Pinnacle Armor's Dragon Skin vest, manufactured out of overlapping, ultralight ceramic composite disks that provided multi-hit torso protection for rifle calibers up to and including 7.62 x 51 mm rounds, fragmentation, and other small arms weapons. Their helmets were manufactured from a superior derivative of the Kevlar-succeeding M5 fiber, dubbed M5C. They provided nearly as much ballistic resistance as the Deltas' chest armor, and on which were mounted aluminium oxynitride-infused goggles. Apart from protecting the operators' faces from 9mm and fragmentation threats, these goggles had miniature heads-up displays, monitoring each soldier's vitals and providing satellite/UAV-linked information about their fellow squad members and surroundings. The displays were also linked to a specialized optical/thermal/infrared camera suite attached to each soldier's helmet. Rounding out their protective gear were strap-on arm and leg armor sections also synthesized out of M5C fiber, providing the Deltas with nearly full-body multi-hit small-to-medium caliber and fragmentation resistance. Amazingly, the whole system only weighed 24 pounds including fuel cells; a testament to what money could buy, as ten years ago it weighed approximately that just to provide adequate upper body protection for a soldier, much less complete protection and a whole host of electronic enhancements. The Deltas had undergone extensive physical training and were also the first to be implanted with the latest in nanotechnology developments, which fed their biomonitors and enhanced strength and reflexes.

Of course, the soldier's most important accessory was his weapon, and all four carried variants of the FN SCAR-M (Medium Caliber) assault rifles, US SOCOM standard-issue. Each had been customized to each operator's preference with a myriad array of specialized optics, sights, and handles mounted to the Picatinny rails. Fletcher, Martin, and Steve's rifles were chambered for 6.8 mm Remington SPC, very effective at short and medium-range, firing from 40-round magazines and 14-inch barrels.

The team sharpshooter, John, preferred the 6.5 mm Grendel round for its superior long-range performance, combined with a 20-inch barrel for increased muzzle velocity, bipod and enhanced optics, and used less-obtrusive, short 20-round magazines. However he had chosen the parasniper configuration of the SCAR over an actual sniper because of the possibility of closer-range combat, where full-automatic fire would be a bonus. As such he kept a few full-size 40-round magazines as backup for such a situation. All four had affixed sound/noise suppressors to their rifles and carried suppressed M10 .45 ACP Joint Combat Pistols, preferring to keep their assault stealthy as long as possible.

Before proceeding further in the forest the Deltas halted, waiting for the last rays of the sun to slip beneath the peaceful waves of the Indian Ocean. As darkness fell the team switched on their infrared cameras, as any warm-blooded enemy would become an easy target against the cooler, bluer forest background. They began to creep forward cautiously, wary of enemy guards.

Delta Lead abruptly motioned his team to take cover. They crouched down behind trees, shouldering rifles. Fletcher switched to standard night optics for a better look. A lone sentry was patrolling back and forth, apparently with a flashlight crudely taped to his rifle. The guard gave no indication that he had noticed the Deltas. Fletcher keyed his radio and whispered "John" over the radio, and held two fingers at the guard while making a cutting gesture across his throat, indicating silence.

The Delta nodded and slung his rifle, as the SCAR was suppressed but there would still be the crack of the supersonic round it fired. He freed his pistol from its holster slowly without so much as a rustle. As he clicked off the safety, a reticule appeared on his HUD, courtesy of a tiny wireless pointer integrated into the weapon and aligned with the barrel. He calmly placed the reticule over the guard and squeezed the trigger three times.

A trio of thumps were heard among the clamor of the forest nightlife, and the guard fell with a gurgle and three holes in his chest.

The team moved up quickly, scanning for further activity and policing the dead sentry's weapon. After calling out all clears they continued their advance. Several guards they encountered were neutralized in similar fashion to the first. However the time interval between encounters grew shorter each time, indicating that they were getting closer to something big.

Fletcher spotted a quartet of guards clustered around a warm patch of ground, most likely a campfire that had been recently extinguished. Alarmingly, he noticed that the guards were on alert, rifles readied. Most likely they had realized that the lack of radio reports from the outer sentries meant something was afoot.

As they watched, one man suddenly swept his light's beam over the Deltas' position, and shouted a warning to his comrades.

The Deltas needed no orders from their leader. They opened fire, cutting down three guards instantly and pockmarking the bark of the trees behind them. The last remaining guard sprayed the four commandos with automatic weapons fire, backing away in fear. As the badly aimed shots zipped past his head, Fletcher coolly sent a burst of five 6.8 mm rounds into the sentry. The man fell in a bloody heap.

Fletcher looked around at his men. "Everyone OK?"

No serious injuries, though Delta John had taken two ricochets to the chest. His body armor had taken the brunt of the blow, so for the most part he was fine.

Obviously the terrorists were fully aware of the Deltas' presence now. They reloaded as they advanced, moving more quickly now as they did not need to be absolutely stealthy. However they still tried to minimize their presence and kept silencers on, as it would cause more confusion and disorientation among their opponents.

Delta Lead Fletcher could tell that there were bright spotlights of some sort deeper inside the forest, as the trees ahead were faintly outlined with a harsh white glow unlike that of the moon's soft rays. As they drew closer to the source of the light, the trees began thinning out. Beyond the last of the trees the Deltas could see several intense, pole-mounted lights shining down into a roughly circular depression in the ground.

It soon became obvious that the depression was massive, resembling an open-pit mine more than anything else. Machined groves were clearly visible in the sides of the pit, proving the excavation to be a product at human engineering. At the center of the pit a rectangular rock stood, approximately ten feet high, four feet wide and six feet deep. A grove ran along the rock, following the sides of the rock and bisecting it in the middle. The two sides formed by the grove slid open, and four more hostiles exited. Before the doors closed what appeared to be an elevator could be seen descending deeper below ground, but riding on beams of blue light rather than the usual cables.

None of the Deltas paid much attention to the odd elevator exit, however. Their eyes were on the crowd of terrorists milling about around the central depression. Some were in hastily dug foxholes; others took cover behind rocks or other obstacles. Fletcher counted at least thirty, and they looked well-equipped too – Kevlar vests, assorted weapons including AK-47 and G3 rifles, helmets, and handheld radios.

Fletcher quickly ordered his men to spread out. He made a fist, mimicked pulling a pin out of it, held up two fingers, and pointed at the enemy position. The Deltas gave their acknowledgement, readied two grenades each, and threw them.

Just as Delta Steve threw the last of the eight-grenade volley, he saw a guard turn to the source of movement, squint, and raise his rifle. A grenade landed two meters behind the guard and the rock he was hiding behind, detonating and sending deadly shrapnel through the man's back. His shots went wild and skyward as the other grenades exploded in a rhythmic chain of ear-pounding concussions.

Yells of pain were drowned out by the Delta's rifles as they opened fire, pouring 6.5 and 6.8 mm rounds through the air. This barrage of fire and the opening volley of grenades had killed about ten terrorists outright and injured several more. However, the rest rallied after the initial confusion and began to return fire. Delta John fell back to a small hill they had passed several meters back, using the slight elevation as his advantage to try and pick off a few of the guards, but was frustrated by the trees that often blocked his line of fire.

Delta Steve felt several bullets pound into his left shoulder, one of which penetrated his armor. "I'm hit!" he yelled as he ducked back behind a tree to dress the wound.

"How bad?" Fletcher called back, still firing. A pool of spent brass was beginning to collect next to his tree.

"Don't worry I got it," Steve grunted as he extracted the bullet from his shoulder, grinding his teeth at the searing pain. Fortunately it had not penetrated deep as his shoulder armor had still taken a lot of the impact velocity. He quickly wrapped a dressing around it and downed a non-drowsy painkiller, knowing that him putting out more rounds was more important than agonizing behind a tree.

Martin felled a MP5-weilding guard, heard his SCAR give an empty click, and quickly retreated behind his tree to load a new magazine. He had just slotted a fresh clip in when he heard a nearby clink over the chatter of gunfire and turned to see a dark spherical object on the ground beside him, illuminated by the glow of the heavy industrial lights mounted on the pit's perimeter.

Panicking, Martin punted the grenade away, but it had only flown a few feet before it exploded, throwing Martin into the ground and into darkness.

Martin awoke with ears ringing to find one of his fellow Deltas standing over him. He could see his friend's mouth moving but couldn't make out what he was saying. Parts of his skin prickled as if afire as he shakily stood, undoubtedly where shrapnel had punctured his armor or hit uncovered portions of his body. He would live, though. He hoped.

Martin waved his comrade away as his hearing slowly returned. Fortunately his helmet radio's headphones had dampened the sound of the explosion and prevented serious ear damage. Still, as he raised his rifle, the Delta's skin continued to burn.

Only a few of the guards were still on their feet and able to fire. Fletcher relaxed a little and paused to check his ammunition supplies. He still had about half of his magazines left full, and no member of his team had been badly wounded yet. The Delta Leader was feeling confident about the outcome of the mission when he saw a spray of red in his peripheral vision and turned to see Steve go down with a scream.

"Shit – Steve!" Fletcher yelled, running over to help his teammate. At first he couldn't tell where the Delta had been hit because his body armor had multiple holes in it, but then he saw blood seeping from two holes in Steve's lower abdomen armor.

"Martin, John, covering fire!" he ordered, dragging Steve back to a reasonably safe distance. He unfastened his wounded comrade's vest, took a quick look at Steve's injuries, and keyed his COM.

"JOC, this is Delta Lead. I'm requesting immediate evac for one of my men, he's shot up pretty bad. I'm sending coordinates of our position now, over." Fletcher paused to feed data from the GPS subsystem of his electronics suite.

"Affirmative, Delta Lead," replied a cool voice with a distinct British accent. "Medical teams are on their way now. What is the status of the mission? Over."

"Inflicted approximately thirty casualties on the enemy. Have reached an excavation of some sort, seems to be an elevator to a subterranean chamber. No estimate on how many hostiles remain underground but resistance has been stiff and the terrorists are well-equipped. My guess is the warhead is being kept underground. Request additional teams to clear the area."

"Roger that, Fletcher. I'm sending-"

The rest of the message was obscured by a burst of static. Fletcher felt the ground beneath his feet behind to rumble.

Oh, shit.


Note: Although I "attempt" to proofread and make my work error-free, I nearly always write in a rushed pace (due to my procrastination skills) and proofread somewhat lazily. Therefore, a lot of my work is still chock full of errors and such crap. Please tolerate this, although it seems the majority of you readers already do. Thanks!

Also note: I'm a high school student for God's sake, not a freaking scientist or geology expert or whatever. Don't expect me to get everything right. A lot of the time I have really no idea what I'm talking about, even though I sound like I do. So don't go bashing me for some little detail like "wait, you got Zanzibar's geography wrong."

High school is a bitch. All honors meant a lot of work, plus track practice every day and doing other garbage for college meant I had very little time available for stuff like this for the whole year. And during breaks, I was too busy chilling with friends or just enjoying my downtime to pay any attention to this. I'm doubtful as to whether or not I can even spare the time to continue this. The first half of my summer was completely occupied too. I'm sorry for this, especially for those of you that stick with this story, but there's nothing I can do.

As for the fic itself, don't read too far into the terrorism subplot. I purposefully left out as many details as possible to avoid controversy. Flame me all you want for that, but I don't give.