Chapter III: Jeweled Hull

Lance Corporal Takeshi Ishiyama - KIA

The name flashed over John's HUD as he checked the dead Marine in the airlock connecting to the Loading Dock. Beside him was a pair of dead Elites, and all of the corpses were clad in their respective species' environment suits. The Master Chief paused only long enough to grab two magazines for his battle rifle from the dead Marine; the time to think about the Lance Corporal's death or the ghoulish need to take ammunition from a fellow soldier was not now.

The Master Chief expected to see Covenant on the other side of the airlock as it hissed open, but a check of the station's sensors showed only a single live Marine on the other side. He stepped through the door, and was staring down the barrel of that frightened soldier's rifle, as the man stood behind a hastily erected metal barrier designed to defend against boarding actions. An instant later, the Marine lowered it, shocked by the presence of a Spartan in full armor.

"Um, ah, Master Chief," the Marine managed to say, standing at attention. His name and rank - Private First Class Thomas Gains - flashed over John's HUD, and the Spartan nodded. Several other IFF transponders pinged on his radar, but all of them were attached to negative life signs. Alien corpses were scattered around the hangar and loading dock room, though the large elevator connecting to the larger supply dock below was not in sight.

"Report," John said, quickly and reassuringly. PFC Gains nodded, and visibly began to calm, and then pointed across the room to where the freight elevator should have been.

"Covenant attacked a few minutes ago," he explained. "Elite Rangers in vacuum suits, and Grunts. We managed to fend them off, but I think I'm the only one left . . . ." As the Master Chief listened, his sensors suddenly flashed red, and his MJOLNIR's audio receptors detected a sudden, high-pitched buzzing sound. A dozen contacts appeared on his radar, rising up the diagonal elevator shaft at high speeds.

"Drones," John warned, and Gains dove behind the barrier an instant before a swarm of dark blue-green insect-like creatures burst over the top of the shaft. Green flares of light erupted from their plasma pistols as the small, airborne creatures sighted the humans. Plasma burned against Gains' barrier while John ducked behind one of the hangar doors, his rifle firing a single quick burst. A Drone let out a high-pitched insectile screech and plunged to the deck as the Spartan's bullets perforated it.

These things were a new sight on the battlefield, swarms of highly agile, intelligent insects that lived in vacuum and low-density atmosphere planets and served as part of the Covenant's engineering caste. It was only in the last few weeks, since Reach fell, that these creatures had been encountered as combat troops; either the Covenant was getting desperate, or more likely, they were simply getting serious about this war after Halo. After all, they hadn't even seen Brutes before they'd boarded the Unyielding Hierophant . . . .

The Drones weren't stupid, and they fought with what seemed like hive-minded tactics. The aliens buzzed and flitted across the loading dock, landing on crates and upper storage levels, giving them excellent lines of sight into the areas where the Marine and Spartan were sheltering. However, the aliens did not advance, instead laying down a withering storm of plasma fire that kept Gains ducking behind cover. John, however, had less to fear from the plasma, and quickly poked his rifle around from behind cover, blasting another of the aliens. The Drones' formation closed to compensate for the loss, but they held position.

The Spartan didn't understand the unusual Covenant reluctance to advance, until more contacts appeared on his sensors, along with the missing freight elevator, which was rising up the shaft. Several Elites and a dozen Grunts.

"Private," John called over the radio. Gains flashed an acknowledgement back. "The Drones are attempting to hold us down until reinforcements arrive on the lift." The Marine nodded, and steeled himself, raising his rifle. They didn't need to say anything else. The Spartan simply patched Gains into the local sensor feed so he could see where the Drones were, and then leaned back out from cover. The Chief's rifle kicked once, then twice, and two Drones near the ceiling fell. The aliens scattered, adjusting their formation, and Gains popped out and took a quick shot, grazing another alien on the far side of the dock.

Plasma and bullets cut back and forth as Spartan and Marine targeted and fired on the alien threat. Drones keeled over and died as John's rifle tracked them in mid-flight, and gains kept the enemy moving, never allowing them time to land and get accurate shots off at either human. The Spartan fell back behind cover as burning green pulses hammered his shields, but they held long enough for him to reach safety. A quick check of the station's sensors and his own motion tracker showed eight of the twelve Drones were down, and the remainder had scattered behind crates and boxes across the hangar.

"Hold position, Private," the Master Chief ordered, and he moved out from behind the wall, dashing across the hangar like a lightning bolt toward the nearest Drone. The Spartan came around a crate swiftly and silently, and smashed both Titanium-A-plated fists down on the green-carapaced alien; ichors splattered across the Spartan's shields and slid off as the alien fell to he deck silently.

His audio sensors caught the buzzing of Drone wings, and John knew that they had sensed the death of their comrade. The remaining Drones suddenly took to the air, flying toward his position and laying down a withering barrage of plasma fire. John's battle rifle kicked as 9.5mm rounds tore through one of the aliens, and then the Drones wheeled around, flanking him on both sides. The Spartan's right arm tracked one Drone, holding his battle rifle one-handed, as his left snapped down, drew his M6C sidearm, and rose up toward the other Drone. Relying on his sensors, experience, and raw instinct to guide his aim, John fired both weapons at once.

Two Drones hit the deck, perforated by a slew of blind-fired rounds, green ichors splattering over the metal floor.

"Chief, less gun-fu and more stopping-the-station-from-exploding-fu, okay?" John frowned as he heard Cortana's voice pop into his helmet. "In other news, someone on the Covenant side has apparently had a complete loss of sanity. They've decided to go charging headfirst into a Super MAC's killzone. I count thirteen Covenant cruisers screening the two assault carriers, and they're all burning engines hot. I'm going loud. Be advised, Chief, crossing from the freight dock to the Fire Control Center during firing operations may get messy."

"Understood," John responded, and checked the approaching freight elevator. It was two thirds of the way up the shaft, and was still teeming with Covenant troops. He would have to deal with them first.

The Spartan popped the pins on two fragmentation grenades and hurled them toward the ascending elevator, and then leveled his battle rifle at the ensuing carnage below.

"Captain Daniels, status," Lord Hood ordered as he marched across the Cairo's bridge and looked over an ensign's screen, displaying a wing of Longswords moving ahead of the Berlin, Admiral Harper's flagship.

"Admiral, we've finished securing Habitats Alpha and Bravo," came the response from Captain Daniels, the commanding officer of the Cairo's Marine detachment. "We've also secured both Pelican and Longsword bays, and are finishing a sweep of the Commons. The only unsecured areas are the freight elevators and docks and the Fire Control Center."

"Casualties?" Hood asked, straightening.

"We've suffered about sixty percent losses, sir," Daniels answered over the intercom. Hood closed his eyes momentarily. Seventy and more crew dead for over twice that number of Covenant. While it was a fair trade, those were dead that humanity couldn't afford.

"Continue station-wide sweep and clear," Hood ordered. "Cortana, status on those Covenant ships?"

"Standby," came the AI's cool, controlled voice, and the entire station shook. Hood peered out the vast viewport in time to see a column of white-hot light lance out from the towering magnetic accelerator cannon and rip across the void toward the Covenant fleet. That told him all he really needed to know.

"Admiral Harper, you are clear to engage," Hood commanded as he saw the superheated mass of molten tungsten crash into one of the Covenant cruisers on the monitor, plowing through its shields and burying into its hull, before ripping out the far end in a shower of blue-white pyrotechnics. The aft end of the ship fragmented into a thousand shards of slagged alien metal, and the cruiser seemed to collapse in on itself.

The rest of the Covenant force advanced, heedless of the destruction of their fellow ship. One of the assault carriers pulsed its point defense lasers, burning away portions of the destroyed ship's debris that flew dangerously close to its path. The lateral lines of every Covenant ship began to gleam as plasma was gathered to fire.

"All ships, follow my lead!" ordered Harper as a line of explosions marked where the Seraph fighter screen met UNSC Longswords.. "First echelon, blanket those cruisers, take them out one by one. Second echelon, target the carriers!"

Two seconds later fifty more MAC rounds, fired from the much smaller cannons of Harper's fleet, flashed toward the Covenant battlegroup, even as the alien vessels unleashed their plasma torpedoes. Archer missiles erupted from the UNSC fleet in a tidal wave of flaring fusion engines. The shells and missiles separated, the majority of them careening toward the cruisers while the blazing torches of sixty plasma torpedoes descended upon the UNSC force. Hood watched intently as the initial exchange of fire crossed, a handful of Archers consumed by passing plasma torpedoes.

Individual MAC shells smashed into and bounced off the powerful shields of the cruisers. However, the volley of fire poured into the cruiser formation as they screened the carriers, and Covenant shields shattered under the barrage; the sheer number of MAC rounds battered down the Covenant fleet's defenses. Archer missiles swept in behind them, but flashes of hair-thin light intercepted many of them, slicing them apart in a shower of the Covenant's all-too typical precision point-defense. Those missiles that survived plunged into the Covenant hulls, exploding against jeweled hulls and breaking through armored layers, detonating within the Covenant warships in a shower of incandescent destruction.

When the flares of light faded, the Covenant fleet had been reduced to seven cruisers, one of which shattered and flew apart an instant later as the MAC gun raged again.

Twenty of the Covenant plasma torpedoes began to break down as the magnetic bubbles sheathing them lost cohesion, the ships controlling them destroyed. However, the dissipating waves of plasma still rolled over the UNSC fleet, burning off the armor and outer weapons of a half dozen unfortunate frigates. The remaining torpedoes retained cohesion long enough to plow into the UNSC fleet, ripping through frigates and tearing gaping holes in cruisers. Titanium-A armor flared like so much kindling as the Covenant shots tore through the human vessels, splitting the smaller frigates apart and ravaging the greater battleships.

Hood looked upon the fleet report on the main screen, and tried his hardest to hide his grimace. In a single barrage, the vastly smaller Covenant fleet had destroyed forty-one frigates and three cruisers, and badly damaged a half-dozen more ships. Over half the fleet was lost.

Cortana inflicted savage vengeance an instant later, and another Covenant cruiser was blasted apart by a massive tungsten warhead flying at eight-tenths the speed of light.

Cortana might be the only chance they had at stopping the advancing Covenant fleet, Hood realized. An instant later, that thought was followed by another: why were the Covenant advancing in the first place? While the Elites were fanatical fighters, they weren't stupid, and they had to know that even with cruisers and assault carriers they didn't stand a chance against the hundreds of UNSC warships and vast array of MAC stations in orbit. Even if they did get on the ground, the Covenant ships couldn't carry enough troops to overwhelm any part of Earth's surface for more than a few hours.

What were the Covenant planning?

Whatever it was, Hood would be damned if they'd allow the Covenant to succeed.

"Cortana, continue firing on those cruisers, pick them off. Admiral, we cannot let the Covenant fleet get past this defense cluster. Do whatever it takes to stop them from breaking through, understood?"

"Aye, sir," Harper's voice came in, over a burst of static. Outside, another cruiser broke and shattered under Cortana's wrath, and the UNSC fleet began to slowly turn, tracking the enemy. A staccato of MAC shells and a fresh volley of missiles burst from the surviving ships, slamming into the Covenant fleet as it started to push past the human vessels. Alien shields buckled and Covenant hulls cracked, and Archer missiles buried into the passing behemoths. Two cruisers began to glow with blue-white fury as the assault broke through their hulls, and the mighty Covenant battleships exploded in torrents of cyan light.

The Covenant pressed on, the surviving cruisers and carriers loosing another barrage of plasma torpedoes as they started to close with the station. UNSC ships weaved and dodged as the plasma dove in, and a handful of torpedoes were evaded by last-ditch maneuvers, yet a dozen and more human vessels were caught, blasted, and torn asunder by the deadly alien weapons.

The MAC station shook again, and another cruiser was blasted to scrap, and the battered remains of the UNSC fleet launched another barrage against the Covenant ships as they passed the Cairo.

"The carriers are breaking through sir! We can't stop them!" Harper's voice could be heard over the intercom, and the two vast Covenant battleships began to tear past the station, their plasma conduits glowing like harsh eyes in the void, its prow smashing into the Malta's remnants and pushing on inexorably toward the planet's surface.

"The first carrier completely ignored us, sir," Cortana remarked, and Hood nodded. "It blew through the Malta's debris field and headed straight for Earth."

"That means they don't consider us a threat," Hood responded, shaking his head. "In other words, that bomb . . . ." He trailed off as he noticed odd activity around the lead carrier.

Ahead of the vast warship, Hood could see a cloud of tiny lights and shapes, and along the hull a thousand explosions could be seen. The Admiral highlighted the carrier, and zoomed in, and cursed viciously as he understood what he was seeing. In front of the carrier was a vast force of Phantoms, the Covenant's choice for assault dropships, and the tiny detonations were the launching of orbital insertion pods, carrying Elite commandos as part of an initial strike force. As the Covenant ships pressed on, Hood knew what the aliens were planning, though he found it hard to believe that the enemy was this suicidal.

"They're invading Earth," he growled.

If there was one thing he hated, it was combat in zero gee.

John heard Cortana's warning about the carrier bypassing the station as plasma cut past him in the void of hard vacuum. More Ranger Elites, in their blue environment suits, had been lurking on the external freight dock, one of them even setting up a mobile plasma cannon on the far side of the docking facility, on an elevated position.

Fortunately for the Spartan, Cortana was currently pumping MAC rounds into the Covenant fleet above the planet, which was causing the docking facility to rise and fall wildly as the Cairo's internal machinery worked to load shells into the cannon. The dock itself sat atop the loading machinery, which caused it to rise and fall with each blast; the UNSC's engineers had concluded that heavy freight transports wouldn't be docking with the station during combat in the first place.

An Elite keeled backward, purple blood flying out of its suit as the Master Chief's rifle broke through its shields. He dashed forward, the magnetic plates in his boots keeping him attached to the bouncing dock armatures as plasma ripped past. He ducked behind one of the docking clamps, structures the size of Scorpion battle tanks, and shot around on the outer edge of the dock before the Elite manning the cannon could spot him. John momentarily released the magnetic bonding, and leapt toward the wall beneath the Elite, twisting his body around so that his boots hit the wall. As soon as he connected, John reactivated the magnets and ran up the wall, reaching its lip. The Spartan found himself looking "down" at the Elite, who itself was crouched on the side of what seemed to be a sheer wall.

The alien had barely registered the Spartan's unorthodox flanking maneuver when it found itself staring down the barrel of the Master Chief's shotgun. The eight-gauge shell punched straight through shield, faceplate, and face, and the Ranger Elite was launched backward off the platform and into the starry void.

On the far end of the freight facility was the external elevator that connected to the Fire Control Room, with a single Ranger Elite standing watch just outside. In the vacuum, the sounds of combat had not been carried to the alien, though it had begun to note its comrades were no longer reporting in. The alien started to step away from the door when John dropped down toward it from above, sidearming a frag grenade off its front shields. The small bomb bounced off the Elite's shields and exploded, ripping apart its defenses long enough for two bursts from the Spartan's battle rifle to rip through its torso. Then, the Master Chief was past the dying alien and into the elevator.

"Chief, be advised, there's a lot of Elites guarding the bomb," Cortana's voice popped in over his radio as the elevator descended. "Including what looks like an Ultra. You may need to get creative with this one."

John frowned and brought up the schematic of the Control Room. There four Elites and a pair of grunts, and one of the larger aliens was tagged as the Ultra.

"Nothing I can't handle," the Spartan replied calmly.

"Commander, what news?" asked the one surviving Minor Sangheili, Asa 'Fetamee. The young warrior was fingering his plasma rifle anxiously, while the two Unggoy tending to the bob waited with equal trepidation. Rena 'Tantafee slowly reached up and tapped the side of his helmet, before shaking his head. The ocular projectors in his armor were showing him all the grim news he needed to know.

"Our brothers have begun the Journey," he intoned quietly. "It appears that all but the Prophet's flagship and Endless Vigilance have been destroyed by the human swarms, and we are all that remain on this accursed vermin station." he heard growls of anger and resignation from his fellow warriors, and the Ultra Commander turned toward the bomb they had brought inside.

"How long until the warhead detonates?" he asked.

"Two and one third units, Commander," replied Genta 'Venfamee, the Major who specialized in demolitions. 'Venfamee moved his hands between the long spikes on the bomb's surface, intended to allow it to stick into enemy hulls.

"Very well," 'Tantafee replied. "Our task is complete. Return to the transport and rejoin the Hierarch's army for the ground assault-"

"Commander!" shouted 'Fetamee. "The external elevator approaches!"

"The humans have finally come to destroy the rest of us," 'Tantafee growled, and ignited his blade. "Defensive positions! Protect the warhead at the cost of your lives!"

Even as he shouted that command, the door slid open, and a green-armored blur could be seen beyond. A blue white flare erupted, and Sangheili dove aside as the plasma grenade flew amongst them, sticking to the methane rig of one of the Unggoy. The small creature fell backward, panicking, and exploded, taking out both it and its companion, along with 'Fetamee's shields.

'Tantafee heard the rattle of metal on metal, and saw a small spherical object bounce off the bomb and right into 'Venfamee's face, before exploding in a shower of shrapnel.

The roar of a human rife could be heard, and then 'Fetamee and 'Venfamee fell to the deck, their helmets and throats perforated by precise bursts of gunfire. 'Tantafee caught sight of the attacker - a single foe - as it rushed into the room and ducked behind a crate.

"The Demon!" declared the Ultra, warning his last remaining comrade. The other Sangheili snarled and stepped out of cover, firing his plasma rifle as he moved forward.

"Commander, we must close and crush it!" he declared, and 'Tantafee was almost about to agree when the alien monster spun around the crate and leveled one of their nastier weapons, a shotgun, into the advancing Sangheili's face.

'Tantafee silently thanked his fellow warrior's sacrifice as he brought the Ultra the instant he needed to close. Even as the other surviving Sangheili was blasted apart by the shotgun, 'Tantafee's energy blade carved down, through the black metal of the ugly weapon, splitting it apart.

"I will smite you, Demon!" 'Tantafee roared as his blade arced across. The human monster dropped below the white arc of plasma, and shot forward, right arm snapping up in an elbow strike to the Ultra's face, while its left clamped over his sword wrist and held it tight. The armored monster bulled the Ultra backward, shoving him with shocking strength, all the while its empty, blank face stared into his eyes.

This creature is not any weak human! 'Tantafee snarled and dug his hooves into the deck, metal screeching against metal boots. He began to push back against the impossibly strong beast.

"The . . . Forerunners . . . Bless me!" 'Tantafee snarled as he began to achieve parity with the Demon. His corded muscles strained, pushing against the beast's unnatural strength, and he began to drive it backward, mentally calling out praises to the ones who had gone before.

The monster's helmet loomed closer for an instant, and 'Tantafee reeled backward as the Demon's helmet crashed through his shield and into his face, cracking two mandibles. The Ultra lost his footing for and instant, and was launched backward. The creature's right hand released the Sangheili's left wrist and shot forward, closing around his throat, and then 'Tantafee felt his feet leave the deck.

An instant later something burst up through the Ultra's chest, piercing his armor and bursting out of his torso. 'Tantafee blinked, and found a pair of long spikes ripping through his chest, and realized what the Demon had done.

It had impaled 'Tantafee on his own bomb's spikes.

The Journey . . . 'Tantafee thought as he struggled to pull himself off the bomb, his arm shooting across and trying to cut the Demon where it stood. The alien leapt backward, deftly dodging away from his blade. The Ultra could feel the bomb pulsing, preparing to detonate, and knew he only needed to delay the Demon a few moments longer.

My Journey, he thought stubbornly, understanding the breadth of his injuries. 'Tantafee surged forward, ripping himself off the bomb's spikes, clenching the energy blade tightly as purple blood poured down his ripped torso, indescribably pain arcing through his chest. He took one step forward, and saw himself staring down the barrel of the Demon's sidearm.

"My Journey begi-" he proclaimed, as the pistol kicked.

"Me, inside your head, now."

John looked away from the dead Ultra and toward a small holotank, next to the bomb. Cortana's holographic figure could be shown, tapping her feet impatiently. Wordlessly, the Spartan holstered his sidearm and reached over, putting a hand over the tank's interface. A rapid feeling of ice water in his brain, followed by a sudden stab of mercury, filled his mind as Cortana uploaded directly into the Chief's armor through the interface in his gloves. He turned toward the bomb and threw aside the dead Ultra's corpse, and put his hand over the gleaming red control panel atop the spiked explosive.

The panel pulsed, and there was an electric chirping sound as the red light switched to a cool blue, and the bomb stopped in the middle of its arming sequence.

"How much time was left?" John asked.

"You don't want to know."

John didn't respond; he'd been living his life on the edge so much recently that harrowing moments of near-death like this were the norm. Now that the battle for the Cairo MAC station was over, he could finally find a moment of peace. Still, it felt . . . Odd. Like he was still in the fight, and he couldn't lay down yet. There were no enemies remaining on the station, but the battle yet raged outside in the void of space. Though badly reduced, the Covenant fleet was still dangerous, and it killed him that he couldn't do anything about it at that point.

The station shuddered, and he looked toward the large bay windows that showed the outline of Earth, in time to catch the second Covenant assault carrier pass by, its massive form blotting out the outline of the planet for a moment, its shields flickering as it was assaulted from all directions by UNSC ships and Longswords.

After a moment, he opened a channel to FLEETCOM and listened to the chatter. The first words that he caught sent a plan spiraling through the Spartan's mind. It was what others would call insane, but if it worked . . . .

"-are down! Repeat, sir, the second carrier's shields are down, we are in position for immediate assault!" Commander Miranda Keyes' voice could be heard. John could almost hear the anticipation in her voice, and frowned at her aggressiveness as he grasped the bomb's spikes. A UNSC frigate couldn't even begin to damage a massive Covenant carrier, even with its shields down.

"Negative, Commander," Admiral Hood's voice responded, agreeing with the Master Chief's assessment. "You cannot take on a ship that size. Not on your own."

"Admiral," John cut in. "Requesting permission to leave the station." As he spoke, he twisted the bomb around toward the elevator shaft. There was a Pelican bay just three decks below this one . . . .

"For what purpose, Master Chief?" Hood replied immediately, his voice completely nonchalant, as if he was granting a request to enter the bridge.

"To give the Covenant back their bomb," John stated as he dragged the spiked explosive into the elevator. There was only a moment's hesitation on the other end.

"Permission granted."

"I know what you're thinking, and it's crazy."

John grunted at the AI's admonishment as the elevator descended toward the Pelican bay.

"So, stay here," he replied.

"Unfortunately for us both, I like crazy," Cortana retorted as the elevator came to a halt. The doors slid open into an empty hangar, and the Master Chief dragged the bomb out of the lift and into the chamber, the spikes grating along the metal deck as its slid. He moved inside, setting it beside a large strut in the middle of the chamber. He glanced outside at the battle raging beyond, where the few remaining UNSC ships were blasting the first carrier, and those that were near the second one were hastily moving away. He watched the second carrier, waiting for it get into position, knowing that he would only have one shot at this. A Seraph fighter shot past, chased by a pair of Longswords, and he saw his opening, the carrier's heading taking it at a perfect angle for what he had planned.

John opened a panel on the central strut, revealing a hand override for the airlock doors.

"Just one question," Cortana added as he wrapped his armored fingers around the handle of the release. "What if you miss?"

What if he did miss? Would he fly wildly out of control into the void, with no hope of rescue, like James? Crash through the atmosphere at terminal velocity, and smash into the planet's surface like Malcom? And if he even got on board the Covenant ship, would he then die at their hands, like Grace or Sam?

"I won't," John answered firmly, and pulled the handle down. The Spartan didn't have time to doubt or question; he only had time to win.

The transparent doors to the bay slid open, and the pressurized chamber shuddered as air rushed out into the vacuum. John braced himself against the pillar, and watched as the bomb began to slowly inch across the deck, the spikes throwing up sparks as it grated against the metal. The Spartan watched and waited as the bomb started to speed up, moving faster and faster toward the open doorway, and the reached out, grabbing a spike an instant before it was lifted up off the floor and hurled out into the void.

Within moments, gravity began to do the work for him, and the bomb began to curve in its flight, descending toward Earth's surface, and toward the second carrier below. Beyond the second ship, the first carrier was dropping into the atmosphere, its shields glowing with the heat of entry as it descended toward the vast swath of Africa. He watched the carrier veer toward the eastern coastline of the continent, at the vast urban landscape of the East African Protectorate.

What did the Covenant want there?

As he thought, the second carrier began to shift its course slightly, and in response there was a flash on his HUD, followed by navigational markers.

"Rotate two degrees left and decline one point oh four and you should intercept, Chief," Cortana remarked inside his head. He mentally acknowledged her and shifted slightly in the zero gravity, altering his course the tiniest bit. A small port on the back of his armor opened, and he released a quick jet of the MJOLNIR's internal atmosphere, which helped correct his course directly for the carrier. The vast, nearly endless shape of the Covenant warship stretched out before him, slowly passing by as its vast form dropped toward the planet. with the shields down, he could plant this bomb against the ship's hull; the warhead would probably disable it, or at least damage it enough to allow the remaining ships nearby to finish it off.

He caught sight of something moving past the carrier, a UNSC cruiser, cutting between John and the carrier. For an instant, he wondered if the cruiser was blind, but as it passed between the Spartan and his target, he noted that nearly all of its weapons had been burned off, and Seraphs were even then ravaging its hull. The ship seemed barely mobile, much less able for combat.

"That's the Hokkaido," Cortana explained as the cruiser suddenly caught aflame, the carrier's point defense lasers ripping through the cruiser's hull as it cut past. "Most of the crew are dead or evacuated. I think Hood slaved the ship to another AI to cover us." John would have nodded, but he didn't want to shift the angle of the bomb anymore than necessary. They didn't want the deadly accurate Covenant point defense lasers to pick them out as an incoming threat.

"Master Chief," Lord Hood's voice cut in as the Hokkaido began to break apart, its ailing engines burning out and fading. "We need that carrier destroyed. We cannot afford to disable it."

"Copy that," John replied, but frowned in confusion. As he watched, several Phantoms and Spirit dropships began to jet away from the carrier, and drop pods loaded with Elite commandoes began erupting from the hull.

"The first carrier has dropped two division-sized Covenant invasion forces into the city of Momabsa from orbit, and its moving into a holding position over the city as we speak, no doubt to drop more. They're hitting us hard down there, and if we don't stop this carrier from offloading more troops into the city, we might not be able to hold. We cannot afford to simply knock it out."

"Understood," John replied as the jeweled hull grew larger and larger. "How do I plant the warhead inside?"

"Stand by."

"Spartan One-One-Seven, this is Wolf Two-Four, coming in on your six," a new voice cut in. An instant later, two Longsword bombers swooped past, angling toward the carrier and its now expended point defense lasers. "Opening the door for you. Provide BDA if you will, over." The two bombers dove toward the hull, and each of them released a pair of anti-ship missiles, which streaked toward the hull and exploded deep, ripping a wide gash in the carrier's hull.

"Wolf Two-Four, door is open, over," John called over his radio as the Longswords arced away, even as the Spartan began to plunge into the ravaged hull.

"Have a better one, Spartan One-One-Seven," Wolf Two-Four's pilot finished.

"Cortana, when I re-arm the warhead, I'll need you to push its clock back a few seconds," John continued as he and his cargo slid into the carrier. The expansive interior of the segment he had entered was dark and dim, and he believed he had entered some part of the carrier's power plant or reactor core, judging by a massive, gleaming purple structure in the center of the chamber, shining with a cold purple light.

"Naturally," she replied as he pulled himself forward on the bomb's spikes. The Spartan placed his glove over the control panel, and it switched from cool blue to angry red. The warhead thrummed in his grasp, and he pulled his legs in close, planting them against the bomb. His legs extended, and the Spartan augmentations and MJOLNIR's liquid crystal matrix launched him away from the explosive, toward the breach in the hull.

Seconds later, John was careening out of the carrier and was being tugged down toward earth's surface by the incessant pull of gravity.

There was no sound in space, so he didn't hear as the bomb detonated, tearing out the carrier's reactor core and setting off a vast array of blue-white detonations throughout the alien vessel, ripping it asunder in a cataclysm of shuddering azure flame.

As he plunged toward the planet's surface, feeling his job done, John closed his eyes and savored the silent moment of freefall.

Beneath him, the dark, small form of Miranda Keyes' frigate In Amber Clad angled in, moving to intercept the Master Chief. He opened his eyes as he dropped toward it, and twisted around, presenting hit feet toward its hull. John's feet hit the deck, and the magnetic clamps in his boots activated, binding him to the In Amber Clad's hull with a dull metallic clang.

"For a brick, he flew pretty good!" came Sergeant Johnson's voice over the radio, followed by Commander Keyes'.

"Chief, nearest airlock is forty three meters behind you. Get inside, gear up," she ordered, as the frigate slowly turned toward Earth's surface. Below, he could see the East African Protectorate, and the vast city of Mombasa, visible from orbit.

It was easy to pick out, considering that it was on fire.

"We're taking this fight to the surface."

This one took a little while to get out, mostly because of the fleet battle, which I was mulling over how to accomplish. That and I've been waffling back and forth with some of my other stuff, particularly my FF fics too.

An issue that has been brought up with this chapter is the influence of gravity on some stuff, particularly when the Chief goes shooting out the airlock. I'm...rather in the dark about how gravity works depending on elevation, and was running on the assumption that if you're not in a stable orbit while over the planet's surface then you'd simply start falling. Combine this with a lack of points of reference in regards to time, and you've got my little hack job involving how John moved around in space. At least, when he was exiting the carrier, it made more sense with how gravity worked, considering that they are much closer to the planet by the time he got back out - close enough that when he reached In Amber Clad, you could see Mombasa on the surface.

As for the carrier and In Amber Clad, I've theorized that the MACs on frigates are vastly weaker than he MACs on cruisers, which really makes sense when you consider In Amber Clad is only about 470 meters long, compared with the 1.17 kilometer length of massive cruisers; they just won't have the reactor power or space to fit a massive MAC gun, especially when one takes into account IAC carries a dozen Warthogs, several Scorpions, and a number of Pelicans. And this is even if it has a MAC; its designation is FFG-142, which , using proper Navy terminology, is a designation for a missile frigate. Add to this the fact that the carrier itself is massive; the last estimate I was able to get for it was at about seven kilometers long; an Imperial Star Destroyer from Star Wars is only two kilometers long, by comparison. With that in mind, even if IAC had a MAC on board, there's no way its comparatively tiny weapon would do much good against the carrier, and if it fired any of its weapons it might catch unneeded attention from the carrier's gunners or Seraph escort.

Ah, well. Next chapter begins the awesomewin that is the Mombasa levels! Whoo!

Until next chapter...