Captain Warren Coughlin deftly guided his A-24 just 200 meters over the ground, followed by several of his fellow Berkut drivers. It was bright morning, and scouts had reported seeing a massive Imperial convoy on the move. Their apparent target was Asgard. Rather than letting the Imps smash themselves to bits against the city's defenses, the Air Force had decided that it was time to slam them from afar. This involved a flight A-24s that would destroy the front and back ends of the convoy, rendering it immobile, and a finishing blow by two B-709s.

"30 seconds to target," Coughlin said over the com. He pulled back on the stick to gain altitude. That's when things began to go wrong.

It almost seemed like the forty A-24s had ran right into a wall of cannon fire and missiles. The cannon fire and missiles in question were courtesy of Imperial AT-AAs and PLEX-AA Anti-Air missile launcher-equipped storm troopers. Five A-24s exploded immediately. Four more spiraled out of control, crashing far off.

"Abort abort abort!" Coughlin shouted into his com as his Berkut took fire and shuddered. The surviving A-24s retreated as fast as they had arrived, leaving behind an additional six aircraft to the nine they'd lost before. "Excalibur, this is Falcon Lead. The enemy has massive AA support. Advise that the bombers be called off."

"Can't be done, Falcon Lead; the bombers are already on station. Are you sure that you cannot attack the convoy?"

"That's affirmative, Excalibur."

"Return to base. Excalibur out."

The one mistake that the UNSC commanders made was that they assumed—correctly—that the Empire had no fighters in atmosphere. What they wrongly assumed was that the Empire didn't have the capability to knock out their bombers.

High in the sky above, Hammer One and Hammer Two prepared to line up on their targets. The convoy was still on the move since Falcon Flight hadn't been able to halt it, but it was moving slowly enough that the B-709s could still hit it. The crews were concentrating too hard to notice the blips on their radar until it was too late.

Ten LAAT/i gunships soared out of the clouds. Five were tasked for each bomber. The B-709s ran into a wall of cannon fire and missiles, much as their comrades in the A-24s had. It was a slaughter.

000

In the command center in Asgard, what had seemed to be an inevitable victory had turned into a disaster. "Mayday, mayday, mayday! This is Hammer One! We're going down!"

"Hammer Two to Excalibur, we've been hit! We're going down hard!"

General Warner slammed a fist onto a table. "Where the hell did those fighters come from?"

"Working on it, sir," said the Air Force officer. He was already directing Peregrine fighters to the area, for all the good it did. They shouldn't have ever let their guard down.

Lt. Gen. Vanderbilt said, "We won't get another B-709 up before that convoy reaches the city."

"I guess we're doing this the hard way," Warner said.

000

Colonel Veers was happier than he'd been since he'd landed on Harvest. Sitting in the control center of an All-Terrain-Armored-Transport had an appeal of its own. The height and the cannons on the "head" of the AT-AT gave one a feeling of power and overall invincibility. Being covered in armor didn't hurt either.

"We're being targeted by UNSC artillery," said the driver.

"Push on forward," Veers said. "Their artillery will have to work hard to get through our armor."

He was right. 105mm shells rained all around them, but the advancing AT-ATs simply shrugged off the few that hit them.

"Enemy armor," the driver warned.

"Target them and fire."

The gunner complied. A barrage of powerful laser cannon fire wrecked a squad of four Scorpion tanks. They were nearing the wall the UNSC had set up to slow them down. They might as well have done nothing; fire from the four AT-ATs blasted a wide hole in the wall, and Imperial troops and fighter tanks poured in through the breach.

On the ground leading the charge, Commander Bly directed his men, heedless of the explosions and bullets whizzing past him. "Take out that machine gun nest! Mark it for walker fire, then move into the buildings! Watch for sniper fire!"

UNSC regular Marines were defending this corner. They responded to the attack fiercely, but the AT-ATs and the smaller AT-TEs were forcing them back fast. Within fifteen minutes the Imperials had fully exploited the breach in the outer defenses and had penetrated deep into East Asgard.

Commander Rex's battalion went past Bly. The elite soldiers of the 501st Legion's best unit pushed through UNSC barricades with seeming ease. Fighter tanks assisted them, and soon the UNSC had been pushed back to the Thor River Bridge, the bridge that connected both halves of the capital.

000

General Warner refused to evacuate. The Command Center was in West Asgard, and the UNSC still had control of the bridge. "Green! Status!"

"We still have the bridge, sir," Colonel Green said. "The 19th Battalion is holding them off. I've ordered the 32nd Cav to peel off a few Cougars to help them out, and the 302nd Armored has send eight Kodiaks. I don't think they can hold for long, though. Those new damned super-walkers the Imps have are just tearing through our defenses. We'll need the A-24s to do something about it."

"Negative," said the commander in charge of the artillery. "My arty rounds didn't do squat against that armor. B-709s are the way to go. Flatten 'em."

"But we still have troops on the other side," Lt. Gen. Vanderbilt said. "I don't want to bomb them as well."

"We also have reports that the Imps have set up AA batteries along the east bank," said Brig. Gen. Ryan. "They've already shot down a bunch of my gunships."

There was only one group of people Warner could think to take out those AA batteries, and he contacted them. "Blue Team, come in. What's your status?"

The Master Chief responded. "We're with the 19th, holding at the eastern end of the TRB."

"Son, there's a bank of AA guns that are preventing us from targeting the bridge. I want you to take them out."

"Sir, I don't believe we can do that without support."

"Put Colonel Tarkov on the line."

"Tarkov here."

"Colonel, you will soon be relieved by units from the 77th Ranger Battalion. Once they're on station, you and Blue Team will take out those AA guns. Understood?"

"Affirmative, sir. Just waiting on the Rangers now."

Green approached Warner. "Sir, the 101st Infantry Division and the 98th Mechanized have managed to slow down the enemy advance in the east, but they report that the enemy is beginning to flank them."

"Tell them to hold as long as they can. We need to buy the ODSTs and the Spartans some time."

Vanderbilt approached them. "My Shadowhawks are standing by, sir. If anything, now's the time to use them."

Warner nodded. "Put them in the air. Any AA batteries the ODSTs and the Spartans can't get to, your people will take them out. Let's hope those birds are as stealthy as you say they are."

000

Captain Derek Corbin, UNSC Air Force, ace fighter pilot, could not stand being on the ground. His Peregrine had been pushed to the edge of its capabilities the other day; with all the damage to the fighter, the techs had been amazed that he'd made it back to base. So now he was grounded. With Imperials in Asgard kicking the ground-pounders' butts, Corbin was frustrated at his inability to do anything.

Major Elaine Powers ran into his bunk room. "Corbin, I want you right now."

"Wha?" was Corbin's reply. It didn't impress Powers.

"Dumbass. That's not want I meant. One of my pilots is injured. I heard you were a good Peregrine pilot, and I heard how you performed. So I want you to fly my guy's bird."

Corbin had to let that sink in. Powers was the flight leader of Ghost Squadron. Ghost Squadron had the best pilots on Harvest, and they flew the coveted new fighter, the F-118 Shadowhawk, a stealth fighter that had made quite an impression during the Clone Wars. "What about my squadron?"

Powers raised an eyebrow. "Dragon Lead doesn't have faith in his guys?"

"No, ma'am, it's not that. I'm not all that thrilled about leaving them to some other guy."

"Well, you'll just have to deal with it. You'll be Ghost Three. Get off your ass and get in that fighter. I hope you can handle a Shadowhawk."

For the first time today, Corbin smiled. "Can't be harder than a Peregrine, can it?"

000

Colonel Tarkov spoke to the Master Chief. "We'll lead. You follow."

The massive green monster shook its head. "Negative, sir. You can't expose yourself. We have advantages you don't."

Tarkov was seconds away from ordering the Spartan to remove his helmet so he could bonk him. "And what advantages do you have?"

"Shields, sir. We can also move faster."

"Meaning…?"

"We can get to the further AA batteries before you, sir."

Tarkov understood. "That means that you'll lead and we'll have to follow."

"Doesn't reflect on your fighting abilities, sir. ODSTs have gotten my team out of a lot of tough situations before."

"So in case you get in trouble, you'll call us," Tarkov said, finally understanding. "Heh. You would have made a fine diplomat. Done."

Not all the ODSTs left. In fact, only one company led by Captain Coady followed Blue Team. At first, the enemy opposition was light; only ten soldiers guarded the first AT-AA. A volley of automatic fire and the Spartans' and ODSTs' superior numbers ensured that the opposition didn't even get a chance to defend themselves. As the first AT-AA blew up from charges set by the ODSTs, one Marine said, "Way too easy. These turkeys didn't even see us coming."

"Don't get cocky!" Coady said. "The next one's going to be harder."

"Take out the next one, sir," the Master Chief said. "My team'll skip to the next one."

"What about the ones further off?"

"We'll take care of those as well, sir. A smaller team stands a better chance of getting through, and getting back."

"I see. Good luck, Spartans. Don't come back until all those batteries are destroyed."

"Aye sir," the Chief said. "Blue Team, let's move out."

The four Spartans sped off, their speed beyond that any normal human possessed. Coady watched them go with regret. Despite the traditional dislike for the Spartans, and the number of times he and his ODSTs had called them freaks, there was no doubt that they were the best warriors in the UNSC. There was also something human underneath all that armor, the concern for their fellow soldiers, their willingness to take on even the most dangerous missions. There was something there that any ODST could respect.

"OK, Alpha Company!" Coady shouted. "Let's get the next one!"

The seventy-five ODSTs moved out. The second AT-AA was protected by a platoon of regular storm troopers in addition to the ten original guards. And they were ready. Blaster fire greeted the ODSTs, and three of them fell.

"Get into cover!" said Coady. "Toss grenades, then fire!"

The ODSTs responded as ordered. About a dozen frag grenades bounced over the Imperial barricades, detonating at their feet. The enemy blaster fire slowed. The ODSTs used the opportunity to lay down their own covering fire, allowing several troopers to advance closer. These jumped over the barricades, engaging the Imperials directly in hand-to-hand combat. The fighting was brutal, and five more ODSTs died, but soon the shock troopers gained the upper hand. They then charged the AT-AA, engaging the remaining guards. Within minutes, it was over. A few charges later, and the AT-AA exploded.

"Regroup," Coady said. "Fall back to the bridge."

Coady's XO, a Second Lieutenant named Blaine, depolarized his visor so that Coady could see his confusion. "Sir, what about the Spartans?"

"They made it clear that they're better off on their own, and those Army boys on the bridge will need our help. So let's get back there."

000

The Master Chief was glad that Kelly had decided to slow down enough that the rest of the team could keep up. All the Spartans could run faster and longer than a normal human at peak health, but Kelly could run at bursts of sixty-two kilometers per hour, and her reaction times were faster than any Spartan. When she sparred with her fellow Spartans, she had to slow down considerably; it had been said that she wouldn't let anyone touch her if she didn't want them to.

Kelly's speed ensured that she took point. She held an M7 SMG in each hand, and a rocket launcher on her back. Fred was behind her. He had slung his battle rifle and was sprinting as fast as he could to keep up with Kelly. Further back, the Master Chief kept his assault rifle out, preferring to stay prepared than keeping up with Kelly. Occasionally he ordered her to slow down, so that the team could regroup. Linda was watching their six, a position she wasn't totally comfortable with. She preferred to be a lone wolf, stalking her prey from a high elevation. But the Chief had made it clear that she played according to team rules when required.

They emerged in a square that seemed implausibly untouched by the war, lined with sakura trees in full bloom. Set against this was another contradiction: an AT-AA walker, guarded by two companies of Imperial troops. Opposition was steadily increasing as they moved forward.

"I'm thinking we could've done with ODST support, Chief," Fred said.

The Chief agreed, but didn't say so. He'd taken on a similar number of Covenant troops on his own. It wasn't something he liked to do, but there was little choice in this case. And he had three Spartans with him this time. "Linda, get in that building over there. Avoid getting seen. Kelly, you'll be the rabbit; get their attention while Fred and I move in close and engage them close up."

Linda nodded and dashed to a building that overlooked the area, making sure to keep out of sight. The Imperial troops were looking apprehensively at the sky, looking for UNSC aircraft or gunships. One did appear: a turboprop UH-144 Falcon gunship from the Army. The Falcon fired its chin-mounted chaingun, cutting down two storm troopers before a combination of shoulder-launched rockets and fire from the walker's main cannon blasted it to pieces.

Fred looked at the Chief. "No way we can take out that walker and get away clean. And there's another walker we need to take out after this one. Call in artillery?"

"No," the Chief replied. "That was my first choice, but all the artillery is engaged. No air support for obvious reasons. We have no choice but to take out this one and fight our way past these guys and to the next one."

000

Corbin had been right. Flying the F-118 was not harder than flying an F-151. In fact, the Shadowhawk was much easier to fly than the Peregrine. Compared to the Shadowhawk, the Peregrine was chunky and inelegant. It didn't hurt that the Shadowhawk was quite possibly the best-looking fighter in the UNSC arsenal. Eat your heart out, Navy, Corbin thought. The closest the Navy had was the ungainly-looking F/A-32 Spatha, and Corbin was quite sure it paled in comparison to the F-118.

"Ghost Three, are you enjoying yourself?" Major Powers asked.

"If you need to ask that question, Ghost Lead, you obviously don't appreciate this triumph of engineering," Corbin replied.

"Agreed," said Ghost Two.

"Cut the chatter, Two," Powers snapped. "Eyes up. Odin says that there are enemy fighters up. Intel says they're old V-19 Torrents, but don't underestimate them; they can fire a lot of missiles."

"Copy that, Lead." The fighters were secondary, despite the danger. The main objectives were the AA guns.

Soon, the city came into sight. Smoke rose from several points in the East Sector, and quite a few on the west bank of the river. Major Powers said, "Heads up, Flight: Odin says there's a Navy special forces team behind enemy lines. They've destroyed two of four guns, but they're reporting heavy enemy presence at the third gun, and they can't even get to the fourth. So we're taking out the fourth gun and the third one. The fourth one seems the most protected, so Two and I will go after it. Three, go after number three."

"Copy that, going after number three," said Corbin. He nudged the stick and climbed. According to the map, the third gun was in the middle of a park or square, surrounded by tall buildings. The only way to get to it was by coming straight down, a dangerous maneuver. "Well, it's not like I haven't done anything more dangerous," he said to himself, remembering his harrowing flight between the skyscrapers of Asgard. The Shadowhawk climbed easily. When the altimeter hit five thousand feet, he flipped the fighter and dived straight down, the orange NAV mark guiding him. The Scorpion anti-tank missile that he was packing had a range of ten miles, but the AGM-324 had accuracy problems, and Corbin had only one missile. Finally, he closed within range. "Rifle One, Rifle One, missile away!"

000

The Chief was just about to order the attack, when something screamed through the air. Within a second the AT-AA was replaced by a ball of flame and twenty flying, ragdoll-ing storm troopers. "What the hell was that?" Fred asked.

"We'll find out later," the Master Chief said. "Right now, we—"

"Excalibur to Blue Team, come in."

The Chief paused before answering. "Blue Lead receiving, Excalibur."

"Air Force is taking on the remaining gun. We tasked a Falcon to standby to retrieve you, but we lost contact with it."

"We saw it, Excalibur. It was shot down. No survivors."

"Blue Lead, please confirm: no survivors?"

"Confirmed."

Someone sighed at the other end. "Blue Lead, take your team and move to these coordinates for extraction."

The Chief nodded as he received the coordinates. "Copy, Excalibur. We're Oscar Mike."

000

"That's a kill, Ghost Three," said Odin.

"Naturally," Corbin said to himself. A few blips appeared on his radar, and he informed the AWACS.

"Those appear to be gunships, Ghost Three. Dragon Flight's handling them. Remain on standby until we find those enemy V-19s. Ghost Lead and Ghost Two are forming up on you now."

Sure enough, the two other Shadowhawks slid into place. "Not bad for a Peregrine driver," Major Powers said. "Let's look for those V-19s. If we can take those out, the Imps won't have any real air support."

The problem, of course was finding them. Sure, the V-19s were older fighters, and sure the AWACS was supporting them and the F-118s had powerful scanners of their own, but the sky was a large place. They could've hidden in the clouds, or they might've been shot down already.

"Listen up," said Powers. "Odin just reported in. Eagle Flight just reported that they were ambushed by gunships. They came from the coordinates where our bombers were shot down. That means that we're up against gunships."

"What?" exclaimed Ghost Two. "A flight of Peregrines were jumped by friggin' gunships?"

Corbin remembered something. "Lead, Odin reported that my old squadron was engaging gunships north of the city."

"Contact them."

Corbin did just that. "Dragon Flight, this is Ghost Three. You read me?"

It was a while before there was a reply. "Lead? Is that you?"

"Dragon Two, status."

"We're being swarmed by gunships, Lead. They must be the bastards that took out our bombers. There're at least fifty. We could use some help."

"Ghost Lead, request permission to assist Dragon Flight."

Powers laughed. "We're all going, Ghost Three."

The Shadowhawks soared in formation northwards. They screamed over the City Bridge, where another critical battle was taking place.

000

The Army Rangers, combined with the ODSTs, made for an excellent joint defense. However, the units at the east end of the bridge were in danger of being overrun.

"Keep hitting them!" shouted Colonel Mark Healy, UNSC Army Rangers. "Funnel them here and we can halt 'em!"

Colonel Tarkov approached Healy. "Let's fall back, Colonel. We're running low on ammo, and they still have troopers to throw at us."

"No," said Healy. "Not until those charges are set. We have to hold until then."

"There's no time! Those giant walkers that your artillery guys saw are on the way here."

As if in answer, the ground started quaking. It had been quaking in the first place, what with all the explosions and artillery fire. But this was more regular, and a clear mechanical stomp, stomp sound could be heard. But Healy shook his head. "The engineers aren't done. I'm asking for any volunteers to help with a last stand. Just enough time for the engineers to set the charges. You should take your Marines and the rest of my men and set up another barricade at the other end. No telling when the Imps'll start crossing if the bridge doesn't blow."

"Last stands make for good stories, but it doesn't change the fact that you're dead. Colonel, you're much more useful alive."

Healy laughed. "Nice to hear that from a Marine. But this is the only way, unless your boys and the Spartans actually took out those AA guns."

Just then, Captain Coady and his Marines appeared. "We took out two guns, Colonel Tarkov! The Spartans said they'd take the other two!"

"How long ago was this?" Tarkov asked.

"About thirty minutes, sir," Coady panted. As he stood there, three fighters screamed over the bridge.

"Sir!" shouted a Ranger, running up to Healy. "Transmission from Excalibur! They said that we can call in air support!"

Healy seemed to lose a huge weight from his shoulder. "Contact Excalibur, Lieutenant. Tell them I want Berkuts to take out this bridge five minutes from now. Colonel Tarkov, I suggest we start moving our asses to the West Sector."

"Agreed, Colonel," Tarkov nodded.

The Rangers and the ODSTs began piling into troop transport Warthogs and Cougar IFVs. It took precious time, but no one wanted to be on the bridge when the A-24s started firing off their bridge-busters. With one minute left to the clock the only ones left were Healy, Tarkov, and their guards. Healy's guard, a Corporal named Jessica Calder, said, "Sirs, we should get moving." Without waiting for an answer, she jumped into a troop transport 'Hog and revved it up. The others piled in, and Calder stomped on the gas.

An ODST sitting in the back next to Tarkov looked back and said, "Holy Mother of God."

Tarkov looked as well, and Healy strained to look from his position in the passenger seat. "Jesus, that asshole's big," Healy breathed.

What looked like a giant steel camel stomped into view. Over twenty meters tall, the All-Terrain-Armored-Transport was as much a transport as it was an assault vehicle. As the soldiers watched, the chin-mounted cannons on the walker blasted apart a Scorpion tank stuck on the other side. The tankers had managed to fire off one sabot round before the laser cannons had torn them to pieces, but no visible sign of damage apart from a scorch mark could be seen on the AT-AT. Another AT-AT came into view, and the first set a huge metal foot on the bridge. The next step put it on top of the barricade, and the metal foot crushed the barricade like it was made of paper mache.

"Step on it, Army chick!" shouted one of the ODSTs. "Drive it like you stole it!"

"Shove it, jarhead!" Calder replied. She'd already put pedal to the metal, and the Warthog was weaving in between abandoned cars at speeds nearing a hundred miles per hour. The movement caught the attention of the lead walker's gunner, and suddenly a red bolt the size of a truck narrowly missed the 'Hog, blowing a hole in the bridge that Calder had to swerve to avoid. The 'Hog fishtailed, but the Ranger wrestled the LRV back into control. "Christ in a handbasket, can't they let up for thirty seconds?"

"Actually, we have less than ten seconds," Healy said, looking at his watch. "Make 'em count, soldier."

Calder did just that, pressing her boot firmly to the gas pedal. The passengers were so focused on the other end of the bridge and the AT-ATs that were firing at them that they didn't notice the nine A-24s soaring in form the south. No less than eighteen laser-guided bombs fell on the middle of the bridge, and another eighteen Scorpion missiles targeted the support columns. For a few fleeting seconds that seemed to stretch for hours, the bridge seemed to hold. Then the middle collapsed like a deck of cards, dropping rubble and abandoned vehicles into the river.

The AT-ATs halted. Tarkov knew what their drivers were thinking: their side of the bridge was holding for now, but there was no telling how long it would stay that way. The fleeing soldiers and Marines didn't stay long enough to watch the walkers turn around and stomp off the bridge, nor did they stay to see the rest of the bridge collapse into the river.

000

Colonel Veers was highly disappointed. The bridge had been essential to capturing the rest of the city, and now that wouldn't happen. Still, they had the East Sector, which might be enough for Bow's plan.

"Good job, Colonel," Marshal Commander Bow said. "We're mopping up here. I'm going to contact the enemy commander."

"What about the fleet, sir?"

"That's Admiral Yularen's problem. Return to the rally point. There's no use for those walkers now."

000

Admiral Henry Paulson considered his options. The Imperial force had already outnumbered him to begin with, and although he'd managed to take out a sizable chunk he's taken heavy losses himself. Now additional Imperial units were jumping in system. Now he was outnumbered three to one, and his ships were running low on ordnance.

"Orders, sir?" Captain Choi asked.

"Assume a defensive position at these coordinates," Paulson said. "Let's hope we can hold out until—"

"Sir!" said NAV. "New contacts, slipping in!"

"Show me," said Choi. What he saw made him smile. "Admiral, you gotta take a look at this."

Nearly three hundred ships appeared out of slipspace, all bearing the eagle and globe of the United Nations Space Command. There were top of the line battleships, cruisers, carriers, destroyers, frigates, corvettes, tenders, troop carriers.

Third Fleet had arrived.

000

Admiral Yularen had almost convinced himself that he could regain his losses when the UNSC Navy's Third Fleet dropped out of slipspace. There was no way that he could retake Harvest, not with barely ninety-five ships. But there were still the troops on the ground. The communications had been sporadic, but it seemed that they'd managed to capture half the capital city, along with more than a thousand enemy personnel.

"Admiral, incoming transmission from the enemy fleet," said Captain Mayar.

"Put them through."

A man in a Navy uniform appeared wearing four stars on his shoulders. "This is Admiral Vasily Borodin, commanding officer of the United Nations Space Command Navy's Third Fleet. You are ordered to surrender immediately."

Yularen replied, "I will withdraw if you allow my troops on the ground safe passage to my fleet."

"You are not in a position to ask for such conditions, Admiral. We have several tens of thousands of troops with us. Your forces will be overwhelmed if you do not surrender unconditionally."

"What about our withdrawal in exchange for our release of all our prisoners?"

Admiral Borodin seemed to consider it. "Very well. Transmit the order to your forces to cease hostilities, and I will do the same."

"Thank you, Admiral. Yularen out." Yularen sighed. "That's the end of that. Captain Mayar, transmit the order."

Mayar did so. Then she turned to Yularen and said, "Sir, I hope that I will serve under you for a long time." It was her way of saying, "I hope Lord Vader doesn't kill you."

Yularen smiled a tired smile. "That may be too much to hope for, Captain. Still, I have done my duty. I have no regrets, save that I did not succeed."

"Maybe there will be a next time, sir."

"Maybe, Captain."

000

"All units, this is Excalibur. Amber Light, Amber Light. Out." General Frank Warner turned off the mike as the cease-fire order went out. He turned to face everyone in the room. "People, we did it. We've won."

The command center burst into celebration. All over the city and the planet, UNSC forces celebrated. The Imperial troops were also glad that they no longer had to fight. They turned over their prisoners a few hours later after UNSC Army engineers created a temporary ribbon bridge to connect both sectors of Asgard. Imperial assault ships, closely watched by hundreds of UNSC Air Force and Navy fighters and bombers, landed to collect the tired storm troopers and remaining Imperial vehicles before lifting off to join their fleet. By the next day, the Imperial withdrawal from Harvest was complete, and the Imperial fleet had left the system.

The Fourth Battle of Harvest had claimed more than fifty thousand lives. Half of the capital city was in ruins, and many people found themselves homeless. Still, there were rays of hope. The Jedi Temple in Exile had been in the West Sector and had been largely untouched, and the Jedi who'd left returned to help with the rebuilding process. The citizens also set aside differences to help one another, and for once there was little to no hatred against the military forces. Indeed, the Marines, pilots and soldiers were treated as heroes.

The Spartans left the planet along with the ODSTs from the 105th for destinations unknown to anyone save those at ONI. All over the UN, war factories began coming back to life. The UNSC was going to war. It would be a conflict that would last for years and claim many lives, but for now, the UN celebrated its victory.

000

Fleet Admiral Lord Terrence Hood examined the wreckage of hundreds of Imperial and UNSC ships. Civilian tugs had pushed most of the debris to a safe location, but much of this area of space would be a travel hazard for years.

"No apparent Imperial activity within our borders, sir," said the AI Norton, a 'smart' AI. He appeared as a human male wearing casual clothes, although he looked decidedly alien since he chose to broadcast himself in an orange light. "Their side is a different story. Seems like they're trying to gear up for round two, but since we took out a good chunk of their new Imperator destroyers they're relying on the older Venators. That should give us an easier time. Reports indicated that the Imperator can take quite a beating."

"I want a good target to hit first," Hood said. "What about the Imperial defenses at Ord Mantell?" He referred to the Empire's main naval base in their Outer Rim holdings. It was to the Empire what Altair IV was to the UNSC.

"Cornelia's skipper regretfully informed us recently that the Empire's defenses at the Ord Mantell base are as strong as ever. Third Fleet wouldn't be able to take it on as it is now."

"What do you think, Norton?"

The AI's holographic avatar appeared to register surprise. "You're asking my opinion, sir?"

"You're supposed to be a 'smart' AI, Norton," said Hood with a smile. "Act like one."

"Well, if I had to choose, sir, I'd choose to hit multiple, weakly defended targets and one moderately defended one, all at once."

Hood lit a Sweet William cigar. Lighting one on a warship was technically against regs, but no one would say so to the highest ranking officer in the UNSC. "Surprise me."

"Eriadu seems to be a good target, as is Phelarion. Both are strong supporters of the Empire. Their fall would send quite a shock to the Empire, and our taking of Phelarion would deny the Empire a source of men who are quite willing to fight for the Empire. An easier target would be Alderaan. They don't support the Empire, although they don't have a military to fend off the Empire's advances. If we can take Alderaan, this Rebel Alliance that is rumored to exist can finally come out in the open, protected by us. That will allow a third party, friendly to us, to present another threat to the Empire. Naboo is another planet we can take. The Empire crushed the rebellion there, but there are still those who defy them."

"I like these options," Hood said. "I thought of some of these planets as well. But what about the moderately defended target you were referring to?"

Norton smiled. "Kamino."

Hood raised his eyebrows. "'Moderately defended'? That planet is the main supplier of clones for the Imperial military. They have a strong fleet there."

"Strong, yes, but not large," Norton said. "Third Fleet can handle Kamino, while Fourth Fleet can handle the others. If you wish to strike even wider, use assets from Second Fleet and the Home Fleet to raid other Imperial worlds."

"Sounds good. Let's plan it out."

000END000