October 20, 2552
Hangar Bay A-01, Orbital Defense Platform ODA-144 Athens, Low Earth Orbit
0144 hours, Greenwich Mean Time

The doors of the hangar separated to either side, allowing the squad of UNSC Marines to pour in rapidly. Weapons held at the ready, the battle-hardened men moved quickly and precisely, scouting the room for any hostile forces lurking within. The eight Marines swept the bay within moments, finding no hostiles within, no enemies waiting in ambush.

"Clear!" called one of the Marines, slowly lowering his submachine gun but remaining alert.

Once the all-clear was given, two new individuals entered the hangar bay behind the Marines. The first was a man in an Office of Naval Intelligence captain's uniform, his dark blue hair styled in a typical military cut and the bay's lights reflecting from alert, concentrating purple eyes. Like the Marines, he was visibly armed in the face of the Covenant attack, a suppressed M20 submachine gun held in his right hand. His other hand was firmly clasped around the hand of the second arrival, a young Chinese girl who didn't even appear to be in her teens. Unusually for her age, she also wore an ONI uniform; its markings indicated she belonged to Section Three Materials Group. Her black hair was pinned up in a pair of braids coiled into buns on the sides of her head. Also counter to what her age suggested, she did not appear frightened by the attack, her youthful features held in a combination of concern and concentration.

"Malta, what is your status?" the voice of UNSC AI Cortana queried over the general military frequencies.

As the Marines kept the hangar secure, the ONI captain stepped toward the transparisteel external bay doors, still holding the young girl's hand. The ranking member of the Marines, a brown-haired master gunnery sergeant whose breastplate identified him as 'AKASHI', joined them. They watched across the hundreds of miles of open space to the Malta, the nearest Super-MAC station to the Athens that they were aboard. Even across the great distance, they could pick out the shapes of Covenant boarding craft detaching from and veering away from the station.

Almost as if they were running from something.

"I don't believe it, they're retreating! We've won!"

A brilliant flash lit up from the fire control center of the Malta. The entire station began to vibrate, followed a moment later by literally coming apart at the seams. Molten fire erupted out of the new openings in the station's hull, softening and warping its angular lines and hard edges. There was another, even brighter, flash that could not have been anything but the ammunition storage, and then the once-graceful Malta shattered into three large pieces that began to drift in opposite directions.

"Holy shit!" one of the Marines exclaimed.

Seconds later, the Athens trembled slightly from the shockwave as the sound of a muffled blast reached the group through the heavily-reinforced bay windows.

"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph," another Marine muttered.

The master gunnery sergeant, Dave Akashi, turned in the direction of the exclamation. "None of 'em are gonna come save your ass, Asakura, so stow the bitching." Such snapping wasn't typical of his command style, but in this instance, only absolute discipline would help them survive.

Even then, it wasn't a guarantee.

Private Satoshi Asakura muttered a curse under his breath, then shifted his grip on his BR55 battle rifle. "Hoo-ah, Sarge," he said. Asakura was almost a child still, just three months out of boot camp, only a year out of high school. Even so, his curious nature had been shaved out of him by three months of war against the Covenant the way his head full of red hair had been shaved off at boot.

Akashi turned his attention back to the two ONI operatives. "Captain Miyazaki, we need to get you two off this station before the Covenant make us into a repeat performance of their big show on the Malta."

Akira Miyazaki nodded, a grave expression on his face. "I could not agree with you more, Sergeant Akashi," he said quietly. "How do you propose we make our escape?"

"Lifeboat deck would be the safest bet, Sarge," offered Asakura.

"Yeah, but there's no telling how long we got until the Covvies cook us off like they did to the Malta," another Marine replied. This young man was all but bouncing from foot to foot, looking in all directions as though genetically incapable of standing still.

"Then what's your brilliant suggestion, Narutaki?" Akashi demanded.

There was silence as Corporal Kano Narutaki suddenly became very interested in the mechanism of his M90 combat shotgun.

"As it stands, the lifeboats are a non-starter," a male voice echoed over the hangar. From a holotank standing against the wall, a flash of red light heralded the appearance of the station's smart AI. The holographic avatar was that of a Grecian soldier, attired in full bronze-era armor and armed with a hoplon shield and doru spear.

"Covenant forces are in control of the lifeboat deck," the AI stated without preamble. A brief rumble elsewhere in the station preceded a flicker of the hologram. "Hmm, and the station's data center as well. One moment."

The hologram winked out, followed mere moments later but a much more significant rumble that shook the station for several seconds. The Marines exchanged confused—and nervous—glances, but Captain Miyazaki knew full well what it meant for the enemy to have breached the data center.

After another moment, the holographic soldier reappeared, the column of light seeming to appear more full-bodied than before. "Apologies for the delay. Per the Cole Protocol and WINTER CONTINGENCY, I have purged and self-destructed the station's archives." Giving a notable pause, the AI turned his helmeted head to the swarms of Covenant ships visible between the station and Earth. "Though it seems a bit redundant in this case."

Allowing a smirk to cross his face, Miyazaki released the young girl's hand and stepped over to the holotank. With the data center in ruins and its information denied to the Covenant, the Cole Protocol now mandated that the AI be removed from the station before the Covenant could get their hands on it. Without preamble, he reached down to the side of the tank and pulled the data crystal chip slotted into its side, inserting it quickly into the TACPAD on his left forearm. The display face on the portable computer immediately turned red to signify the AI's presence.

"Thank you for allowing me to tag along on your expedition, Captain Miyazaki," the AI stated. "Might I recommend that the Pelican behind you serve as a getaway vehicle?"

Several of the Marines looked between the AI's voice and the Pelican dubiously. It was clear that they didn't think highly of the idea of taking a lightly-armed troop transport straight through the middle of a heavy fleet action. But on the other hand, every additional second was more time for the Covenant to find them. Nobody disputed the suggestion.

Taking a moment to look between the Marines in his field of view, Miyazaki quietly remarked, "EVA gear in the event of atmospheric pressure failure would probably be a good idea."

"Right, you heard the captain," Akashi said. "Narutaki, Saotome, go get enough EVA gear for all of us. Hasegawa, get in that Pelican and get it going. The rest of you, keep this hangar secure."

With a staccato of affirmative responses, the various UNSC personnel spread out throughout the room, with Narutaki and Corporal Satoshi Saotome, the fireteam's expert in Covenant linguistics, crossing toward the rear of the hangar, their weapons up and scanning their surroundings for any alien forces. Sergeant Masaru Hasegawa, the technician and pilot of the group, climbed into the open rear bay of the Pelican dropship and into the cockpit, settling into the pilot's seat to begin the preflight checklist. Lance Corporal Anton Ayase and Private Takumi Yukihiro turned to cover the large hangar doors they'd come through, while Private Johannes Kugimiya joined up with Private Asakura to cover the doors opposite the hangar. Gunnery Sergeant Akashi stood near the open bay door of the Pelican, while Captain Miyazaki moved to return to the young girl's side, who was staring out at the frenetic space battle beyond the transparisteel windows.

They stood in silence for several moments, the girl watching unblinking, the captain seeming unsure of what to say to her. He was a longtime friend of her family and had always been fond of her, but her hyper-intelligence for her age had always made it difficult for him to know what words to offer her when it came to horrible events like these. Fortunately, the awkwardness was defused by the AI speaking up from the captain's TACPAD.

"Not to be the fly in the ointment, but what is the plan after escaping the Athens?"

Miyazaki lifted his arm to hold his TACPAD level between himself and the girl, allowing the AI to manifest in a normal orientation. "Run to New Mombasa and secure Miss Lingshen at Alpha Site," the blue-haired officer stated simply. "And then pray, quite frankly."

"A rather astute observation of the current state of affairs," the AI said, then turned to regard the Chinese girl. In less than the blink of an eye, he studied her personal history, at least the parts of it that weren't redacted above his clearance level. He found it mildly alarming that not only did a twelve year old have redacted portions of her file, but that there were so many. "Well, your reputation precedes you, Chao Lingshen, and quite the impressive resumé it is. Permit me to introduce myself."

As the two humans watched, the AI's hologram sketched a flourished bow, the weapons and helmet of his attire vanishing in motes of light. In place of the spear in his right hand, a rolled scroll had appeared. There was writing on it, but it couldn't be made out given the scale of the hologram. "I am PDP 2169-5, or Pheidippides, if you prefer. Either one is equally tongue-twisting." There was an obvious note of amusement in his voice, making it clear that he was amused by the thought of his name tripping others up. "Formerly resident station AI of the Athens, now attaché to Squad Six."

Chao gave the holographic man a soft smile. He reminded her in many ways of Artemis, the medical AI that served her aging parents back home on Mars. "It's very nice to meet you, Pheidippides," she said, impressing the AI with her flawless pronunciation of his name. "Hopefully, your time with us does not come to as abrupt an end."

Her gaze turned back out to space, her meaning clear to both man and AI. Silently, she lifted a hand and pressed it against the transparent material.

"Not a pretty sight," Miyazaki said in agreement, turning to take in the view.

Within sight, they could see two CAS-class assault carriers, each one carrying at least forty thousand troops and an untold number of Covenant vehicles. The first carrier tore through the debris field of the Malta at flank speed, its shields nearly glowing opaque from the concentration of fire leveled at it. Fire that was doing nothing to penetrate. The second carrier, and the rest of the Covenant fleet, held back to screen the leading carrier against the UNSC defenses.

"No, it's not," Chao said quietly, her voice haunted. In her mind's eye, she could already see the plasma beams from the Covenant capital ships burning fiery swaths across the planet's surface, reducing the once-proud homeworld of humanity to nothing but a blackened cinder. She gave a wistful sigh. "I sometimes wonder what a difference magic might have made. What other doors might have been opened if ONI had not rejected my Galilean design."

Holographic brow furrowing in confusion, Pheidippides was on the cusp of deciding whether or not it would be cruel to disabuse the young girl of her childish fantasies, but the next words out of the grown adult's mouth caught him completely off-guard.

"I fear we may never know," Miyazaki replied, a little sadly. "It's far too late to make a difference now. In this day and age, skepticism is far too entrenched. Nevermind the nightmare of integrating militarily, the sudden revelation that magic has been real the entire time may well spark societal unrest. Not something we need while we're fighting for our very survival against the Covenant."

"And now, there are barely any surviving mages left anyway," Chao said bitterly.

"All we can do, is hope that technology and humanity's spirit will keep us alive," Miyazaki said, reaching into a pocket and producing a timeworn tarot-like card that bore the likeness of a young girl with shoulder-length blue hair, wearing a white robe, surrounded by open books. "It's... all we have."

Gaze darting back and forth between the two, almost regarding them as an entirely separate species, Pheidippides said nothing. But that wasn't to say he had no thoughts on the matter.

When he had destroyed the Athens' data center, he had first claimed a copy of all the data stored on the station. Some of it was classified above his access level, but now he was determined to see what ONI wanted to hide.

From the back of the hangar, there was a muffled blast, then the instantly-recognizable sound of plasma fire. All attention snapped back to the rear entrance to the hangar, where the previously-locked door had been blown in, and a Covenant assault force was streaming into the hangar. Narutaki had been knocked off his feet by the blast, and was crawling in the direction of his dropped shotgun, blood streaming from his ears, his eardrums having been shattered by the blast's concussion wave. An Unggoy—a Covenant grunt—looked over and noticed the crawling Marine, took careful aim, and fired a single bolt from his plasma pistol into Narutaki's exposed neck, killing him instantly.

"Contact, rear!" Ayase shouted, snapping up his battle rifle and firing three-round bursts toward the invaders as he moved toward a cargo container to take cover.

Saotome, who had already been inside one of the lockers when the aliens had broken in, was protected from the blast wave by the open door, and quickly hunkered down behind the door, firing his battle rifle blindly at the intruders. His unaimed fire managed to kill two grunts and send another scampering away with a 9.5mm round embedded in its methane tank.

Kugimiya and Asakura swept up from the right side of the Pelican, utilizing a steady stream of battle rifle and submachine gun fire, interspersed with occasional grenades, to try and keep the Covenant soldiers away from their besieged comrade. "Saotome, get clear!" Kugimiya shouted, ducking behind the Pelican's landing gear to empty and replenish his depleted submachine gun.

Before the Marine could move, however, a blue-armored Sangheili strode into the room, looked toward the opened locker door, and saw the booted feet that clearly belonged to a human taking shelter behind the flimsy metal obstacle. Taking its plasma rifle into its left hand, the two-meter tall saurian alien produced a weapon handle and activated its plasma sword with the flick of a wrist. No sooner had it done so, the shouting of the humans in the room increased drastically, to the sounds of "Get out of there!" or "Run, Saotome!"

Whatever the humans were saying to their comrade, for this Sangheili didn't bother to have its translation software turned on, it would give the cowering human no time to act. Drawing back its plasma sword, and using its plasma rifle to push a grunt out of the way, the elite drove the superheated blade through the metal door, up to the hilt.

On the other side of the door, Saotome felt extreme heat explode in his chest, and looked down to see the twin prongs of the plasma sword protruding through him. Weakly, he clutched at the energy blade as though to remove it from his body, burning the flesh from his hands in the process, and then his head fell back against the door as the rest of him slumped against it.

Swearing violently, Akashi drew a pair of well-worn M6C/SOCOM pistols and opened fire on the invading Covenant, killing grunts by the handful as the powerful suppressed handgun sent devastating 12.7mm rounds through skulls, torsos, and methane tanks, all with equally-pleasing effects. Moving in an almost-artful state of battle awareness, Akashi broke from cover, rushing the blue-armored Sangheili as two final shots sent cascading energy failures sparking across the alien's energy shields. The sergeant rolled across the ground as plasma fire shot past him, quick-holstering a pistol to scoop up a plasma grenade from the corpse of a dead grunt. Coming back to his feet, he leaped over a low horizontal slash from the plasma sword, activating the grenade in his hand as his forward momentum carried him very nearly into an embrace with the alien. He slammed the plasma grenade onto the elite's helmet, then kicked off and propelled himself backwards through the air.

Nearby, a grunt reared back, a glowing ball of blue light held in its hand, and hurled the implement, hissing like an angry snake, toward the side of the Pelican that Kugimiya and Asakura were taking shelter behind. Spotting the incoming explosive, Asakura shouted, "Grenade!" and dove out toward a cargo crate. Halfway to the crate, Asakura felt pain blossom from multiple points in his torso, and looked down to see at least a dozen glowing pink Needler shards embedded in his chest and midsection. He managed to get out "Oh, fu—" before vanishing in a pink mist.

At the same instant, the plasma grenade exploded, the heat and blast wave sending Kugimiya sprawling to the hangar floor, dead, and his submachine gun flipping up into the air. Akashi, still in the air, caught the weapon in midflight and unloaded the rest of the clip into the elite that had killed Saotome, staggering the alien long enough for Akashi to get clear of the grenade's blast radius. Moments later, the grenade went off, killing the stuck Sangheili instantly, the blast washing over a pair of grunts nearby.

Hitting the ground, Akashi tucked into a roll and came to a stop resting against what he thought was the Pelican's landing gear. Then the object he was leaning against shifted, and he looked back to find a red-armored Sangheili major towering over him, its plasma rifle reared up over its head.

Chao watched in horror as the blow from the alien shattered Akashi's spine, sending the master gunnery sergeant slumping to the floor, his body twitching occasionally from the permanent paralysis, and likely slow death, he'd been subjected to at the hands of the elite.

Beside her, Miyazaki swiftly unstrapped his TACPAD and knelt beside Chao, fitting the device to her forearm and tightening it as much as possible. On her smaller arm, the thing covered her entirely from wrist to elbow, and was still slightly loose. "Chao, if it comes to the worst, run away. Try to sneak onto a lifeboat and escape that way. Pheidippides will guide you."

"Maintenance shafts will allow us to bypass the majority of their forces," the AI helpfully offered, not bothering to manifest his avatar.

The young Chinese girl looked up at Miyazaki, finally showing behavior normal for her age as she stared up at him with teary eyes. "But—"

Setting his weapon in the ground, he gently grasped both her shoulders. "Chao, promise me," he demanded, even though he kept his tone soft. "You have to live."

She went wrung her hands and sniffled, thick tears streaming from her eyes. "I-I can't…" she whispered, barely audible over the exchanges of fire and explosions. "I'm scared…"

The utter fear radiating from her broke Miyazaki's heart, and he was not possessed of an overly-hardened heart. He hugged her tightly, pushing from his mind the fact that it may be the last time he ever did so. "I know, I know. So am I. But we need to be brave. Remember what your great grandfather used to say."

He paused, waiting for her. She sniffed again, nodded, and recited along with him: "'A little bit of courage is the true magic.'"

She felt him press something into her hand, looking down to see an unusually-faced pocket watch. Her eyes shot wide in alarm, staring up at him as he stood and gave her a conspiratorial smile. "That has always belonged to you, no matter how much ONI wanted its secrets for themselves. But only use that Cassiopeia if you have no other options."

Feeling her courage return, Chao wiped her eyes, put on an adorably-cute look of fierce determination, and nodded up at Miyazaki.

"Hasegawa, get out of there!" Ayase's shout sounded over the radio as a fragmentation grenade went skipping under the Pelican, toward a group of Covenant that had taken shelter near the bodies of Kugimiya and Asakura. "That red elite's coming for you!"

"Don't worry, I've almost got the—"

"Hasegawa? Hasegawa!"

Fearing what she would see, Chao looked up toward the Pelican's cockpit. The young Marine technician was nowhere to be seen, but she felt a shiver run up her spine as she watched red blood suddenly spray up against the inside of the dropship's canopy. Holding the pocket watch in her right hand, she reached her other to claim the M6D that Miyazaki was holding out to her, and feared that she wouldn't live to see the end of the day.

"Ayase, Yukihiro, get over here, we have to fall back!" Miyazaki shouted, then began firing suppressive fire at the Covenant troops to buy the last two surviving Marines time to regroup with them.

As the two stood to move, a plasma sword suddenly flashed into existence, then drove itself through Yukihiro, the stealthed Sangheili wielding it using the weapon to lift the Marine bodily and inspect the dying human. Snarling, the alien tossed Yukihiro away, then lunged forward and laid Ayase's back open with a swipe of the glowing blade.

"Chao, run!" Firmly planting his feet, Miyazaki turned and unloaded his entire magazine into the advancing elite, the sheer volume of shots overloading its active camouflage and shields, bringing them both down. Before Miyazaki could reload or switch weapons, however, the Sangheili reached him and drove the plasma sword completely through him.

Grunting in pain, Miyazaki reached down with trembling hands, holding his open right hand toward a fragmentation grenade that had fallen from Ayase's body and rolled to his feet. The alien looked down at the grenade, barked out a sound that might have been a laugh, and then leaned its face in close to Miyazaki's and said in halting English, "That explosive will not save you, human."

Despite the pain, Miyazaki grinned through his bloody lips and whispered, "Vente nos." A sudden gust of wind swirled through the hangar, picking up the grenade from the ground and pushing it right into Miyazaki's outstretched hand. Depressing the activation button with his thumb, Miyazaki drew back his right arm, then shoved the grenade forward into the elite's mouth. "See you...in Hell, hinge-head..." The fragmentation grenade exploded, blowing the elite's head completely off and peppering Miyazaki with lethal shrapnel. As the two bodies slumped to the ground, Chao found herself momentarily unable to move, frozen in place by the death that surrounded her. It only underscored her belief: without magic, humanity would not survive the Covenant.

Overhead, the lights in the hangar exploded in showers of sparks as Pheidippides routed more electricity to them than they were rated to handle. In the moments of confusion that bought from the aliens, the AI's voice sounded from her arm, "That will only delay them a few moments, Miss Lingshen. You must flee, now!"

With that thought firmly rooted in her head, Chao turned to flee from the hangar, to get into the maintenance tunnels where the larger aliens could not follow, and escape with Pheidippides' guidance. But she had only managed to get three steps when she felt plasma fire scorch her legs, sending her slamming to the metal deck. She screamed as the superheated energy ate into her flesh, the shrill sound causing the red-armored Sangheili that approached her to wince from the tone and volume.

Rolling the human child over with a nudge of its foot, the alien reached down with its left hand, seizing her by the throat and lifting her into the air. She whimpered in the pain caused by the plasma burns, and the Sangheili felt a brief moment of pity that it rapidly crushed down. It flicked its right wrist, activating the plasma sword and holding it idle at its side. "I can smell your fear, human," it told her. "Do you fear death?"

She hyperventilated for a moment more, struggling to bring her breathing under control. When she began to gasp out words past the Sangheili's grip on her throat, it was surprised by the steel in her words: "Failure, not fear. The fear of death has no grip on my soul."

The alien regarded her thoughtfully a moment, ignoring the hum of a charging plasma pistol behind it. "Noble thoughts for a human," it faintly praised. "Would that you would have the opportunity to grow fully into that honor." Energy blade humming, the Sangheili lifted the weapon parallel to the ground.

Before it could strike, the sound of the charged plasma pistol firing reached the alien, moments before the supercharged bolt of energy struck it in the back. Heat and energy cascaded over its assault harness, the energy shielding overloaded and sparking by the attack. Roaring in anger, the Sangheili turned partially to see which of the surviving Unggoy would soon be dying, only to see the mortally-injured Miyazaki dropping the smoking weapon to the floor, the life fading from his eyes after that final attack.

The scent of human metal and their weapons propellant powder drew the Sangheili's attention forward again, its eyes nearly crossing as they strained to focus on the barrel of the M6D the human girl was now pointing at its face in a trembling grip.

Chao quickly fired the hand cannon before the alien could react. The blast of the weapon's report nearly deafened her as her wrist rocked back from the recoil, fingers nearly losing their grip on the powerful weapon. The Cassiopeia in a death grip in her other hand, thumb jammed down onto its activation stud, hummed with magic energy. The energy built into a crescendo as she fell from the Sangheili's slackened grip, hitting the ground painfully and struggling to keep both weapon and magic item clutched to her chest.

As she saw the rest of the Covenant forces in the room begin to fire a volley of plasma bolts at her that she had no hope of surviving, she closed her eyes and thought of her parents on Mars, so close and yet so far away. Cassiopeia, be good to me, was her last thought as she felt the very fabric of time and space warp and twist around her.