HALO

HEADHUNTERS


ONE

ABOARD WHISPERING ILLUSION, 16 CYGNI STAR SYSTEM, 2552

Jace-A290 spun right, just as a plasma bolt struck the alien metal coating the Covenant walls. The metal sizzled and popped, liquefying from the superheated plasma. Jackals congregated in the narrow corridor, huddled behind their pulsating shields with plasma pistol at the ready. Jace edged around the lip of the dissolving wall, raising his MA5K carbine to bear as he counted the vulture-like aliens—four.

The first Jackal pair crept forward, squawking in their alien language that made the Spartan's scalp tighten. He eased down the side of the wall, coming to a crouch as the abnormal shadow of the lead Jackal edged closer. In a blur, Jace rolled out from behind cover and shot three rounds into the alien's avian face. Mauve blood spattered against the wall; the Jackal reeled back and was dead before it hit the floor.

The remaining Jackal trio opened up on the armored foe, singeing nothing but the air in their panicked salvo. Jace ran up to the second Jackal and slammed the butt of his rifle into the alien's shield, and it snapped off from the impact. It released an eerie guttural noise as the Spartan crushed its head against the wall. Blood and skull fragments stuck to the polished metal, and the alien's limp body twitched in its pool of blood.

Jace sidestepped an overcharged plasma bolt fired from the third Jackal; it hunched behind its shield and charged up for another shot.

It didn't get the chance.

The SPARTAN-III jumped left, pushed himself off the wall, and swung his left leg into the Jackal's neck with a violent kick. There was an unsettling pop, and the slender alien fell onto its side with its neck bones protruding awkwardly. The fourth Jackal got off a shot in time, striking the Spartan in the right shoulder; the armor's reflective panels failed, and the plating peeled and flaked like bad sunburn.

Jace pushed his full weight into the Jackal like a battering ram; the alien stumbled back, flailing its arms back like a windmill to regain its balance. Jace shouldered his rifle and pumped its torso full of heated lead. The Jackal dropped. Short and stocky shadows soon danced against wall ahead, and the Spartan knew first hand who they belonged to. He took a knee and aimed down his sights. The photo-reactive panels upon his armor reactivated, meshing him with the alien textures surrounding him.

Five Grunts waddled around the corner, squeaking and barking through their methane masks. Their beady eyes scrutinized the bodies of the dead and mangled Jackals on the floor, slowly sweeping their plasma pistols in the air. They moved with extreme caution, stepping between the freshly spent shells from the human weapon. The Grunts kept moving; they pathetically unaware their enemy was still present. Their movement was sprawled out and disconnected; the lack of teamwork was embarrassing.

Jace remained motionless, calculating his next move. Just a little closer. The lead Grunt stood just a meter from the camouflaged Spartan. It just stood there, squinting its eyes inquisitively down the hall. Something just wasn't quite right. The end of the hall had an abnormal mirror effect; something was throwing it out of sync. It stepped closer, practically breathing a few inches from Jace's faceplate.

Like a depressed coil being released, the Spartan bolted into action. He grabbed the alien by its small, soft head and smashed it into the floor, leaving its head resembling a deflated balloon. The remaining four Grunts turned around, startled by the ominous environment coming to life advancing towards them. Jace emptied his carbine into the stout Grunts, dropping them before they had a chance to return fire.

The corridor fell silent.

Jace dumped the empty clip and slapped in a fresh one. He analyzed his surroundings—dead bodies, bloodstained walls, and a single proximity-operated door to his right. He approached the door, briefly staring at the alien symbol painted on the far left side. The door's seams glowed a discouraging red. Locked. Jace didn't waste time trying to pry it open. Those doors were virtually indestructible and possessed a 128,000 bit modulation encryption key, and without a proper AI, surpassing it would be time consuming. He'd have to fine another entry point.

Jace checked his mission timer—00:34:12. He frowned. Too much time had elapsed, and the mission had barely begun. A 2200 hours ago, an unmanned UNSC freighter was surveying the along the fringes of Covenant-controlled space, placing BLACK WIDOW satellites to monitor Covenant activity. At approximately 2215 hours, the freighter ceased its reports and further contact with the vessel vanished.

However, before its disappearance, intelligence from satellites revealed a snapshot of a Covenant Destroyer. This lead the UNSC to believe the freighter had been captured by Covenant forces, and it was. The craft, though, was the property of the Office of Naval Intelligence. It was refit with state-of-the-art automated security protocols and stealth capabilities. Upon Covenant detection, the freighter, in theory, would initiate the Cole Protocol. This, however, failed to occur.

Jace thought it was foolish to send an unmanned human craft bordering Covenant territory without proper supervision. A skeleton crew was better than nothing. Now the ship was captured, and this threatened location of the Inner Colonies and the billions of lives within them. You couldn't trust machines; they broke, humans didn't. But the spooks at ONI weren't complete idiots. The freighter had layers of contingency plans in case the vessel was struck with an EMP or failed to purge all navigational data. A security network would come into play, a spider-web complicated encryption codes and firewalls that were created randomly by ONI's top "Smart" AIs. The blockade was a mess of entanglement layers that would take the Covenant months or years to unravel. Jace just hoped they weren't too late.

The Spartan quieted his thoughts and focused on the mission. Strict orders were given to locate the targeted Destroyer, infiltrate it, and destroy it along with the navigational data. The mission—operation: PADLOCK—was paramount. As the war raged on, the UNSC hadn't been able to capitalize against Covenant mistakes, and their mistakes were few. Any victory, no matter how small, would raise morale.

Jace went over to the fallen Grunts and Jackals, policing a pair of plasma grenades and an energy shield. He attached the shield component to his right forearm, tested its strength, then snapped it off to conserve its energy. Satisfied, the Spartan journeyed through the ghostly labyrinth of corridors, dreading its interior. There was always something about Covenant vessels that made him feel uneasy. They seemed terrifyingly unreal and alive, and that realization wasn't hard to come to seeing one glass a planet. He had to focus. A mission of this caliber could easily result in an untimely dead and failure if he wasn't cautious.

The Spartan's COM suddenly crackled open, flooded with boisterous gunfire, alien outcries, and slivers of static.

"Sabre-One," a feminine, accented voice spoke. "Sabre-One, acknowledge."

"I acknowledge, Sabre-Two," Jace replied. "Go ahead."

"An entry point… have you found one?" Sabre-Two inquired, her voice stammering between pulses of gunfire. A Grunt squelched in the background.

"Negative," Sabre-One regrettably replied. "All points are locked down."

He glanced at Sabre-Two's bio-monitors—her blood pressure was elevated and her heart rate had doubled.

"What's your status?"

Sabre-Two calmed her erratic breathing. "I'll let you see for yourself. Dropping NAV on location."

The COM channel deadened. A NAV marker displayed on Jace's HUD, leading him to the general location of Sabre-Two. He didn't waste time, springing into a rapid sprint as the meters below the marker accelerated down. Jace cut left, traveling down an elongated corridor littered with the bodies of dead Covenant troops that were probably downed by Sabre-Two. He weaved his boots between the bodies and kept running until the corridor opened up into a spacious transport deck.

Jace craned his neck at its immense height and suddenly felt a sense of vertigo. Catwalks crisscrossed above and attached the platforms like a metal spider-web. Luminous elevators powered by grav-lifts ascended and descended like fireflies climbing up and down in uniform motions. The deck had direct access to every section of the ship, including their objective location—the bridge.

But the Spartan wouldn't marvel at Covenant engineering; Sabre-Two was in here somewhere, and he needed to find her. He crossed the railed walkway, being guided by tram of murky violet light. Jace stepped off the tram and onto one of the thousands of angular platforms above and below him. Dismantled Banshee fliers and Seraphs were present on the platform with him, and they were being meticulously examined by the mysterious floating Covenant Engineers. He carefully walked past them, gripping his MA5K as one turned and looked at him. It largely ignored him, snaking its eel-like head around and turned its spiked back to the Spartan.

Jace picked up the pace, coming to the end where the NAV had directed him. Gunfire resonated in front of him as Grunts and Jackals exchanged gunfire with an obscured target. The ever-problematic Elites had joined the fight as well, but their blue armor told Jace that were only Minors. They fought as well as Marines but lacked the discipline of their higher ranked comrades. Nevertheless, they could kill you just as good. The Spartan ran across another light tram and leapt behind a wrecked Banshee before he was spotted. He stuck to the shadows, making his way around the fringes of the platform before finding bulky, abnormally shaped container of components to hide behind.

The Spartan had an acceptable view now, and his NAV marker disappeared. Sabre-Two was in his line of sight, nestled behind a damaged Seraph fighter that was taking a pounding from the plasma weaponry being discharged into it. Its metal sizzled and was being removed layer by layer. The smell was distasteful. But the distant SPARTAN-III was holding her own against the Covenant.

She gunned down several of them at once, chucked a grenade, and watched it clear half a dozen Grunts that foolishly bunched up.

By the amount of alien bodies that began piling up, Sabre-Two had been fighting for some time now. Jace wasn't surprised, though. She was a lethal, cunning Spartan that used her combative reasoning to defeat her enemies. Furthermore, her ability to survive almost any situation made her an invaluable teammate. But the heat of the battle was starting to turn up.

The Elites started to mobilize, leveling their plasma rifles. Sabre-Two had withdrawn into cover, exchanging her exhausted clip for a full one. A pair of Elites branched off while she was doing so, swapping their plasma pistols for their energy swords. They moved around to her blindsides.

An ambush.

Jace flipped his carbine onto the magnetic strips on his back, snatched his combat knife from its ankle-mounted sheath, and dashed toward one of the Elites.

"On your six!" he warned Sabre-Two.

Sabre-Two spun around, just as the Elite brought down its energy sword. She slid left, feeling the heat of the ionized blades as they inched past her faceplate and into the Seraph's armor plating. Sabre-Two rolled right and pulled up her carbine; she drained twenty rounds into the Elite's shields, dropping them to less than half strength. The sapphire armored warrior jerked its sword from the Seraph, rushed the Spartan, and attempted to behead the enemy heretic.

The Spartan ducked and rolled forward as the energized blades sizzled over her head. She spun around and threw a vicious right hook, shattering the armor against the Elites' left mandible and breaking the bone inside. Blood and teeth sailed from the alien's disfigured maw. It staggered back, sword loose in hand. Sabre-Two kneed the Elite in its mid-section, wrapped her arms around its elongated neck, and twisted. There was crack, and the alien warrior went limp and dropped.

The second Elite came up from the rear, sitting back long enough to watch its ally perish. It moved in to attack, failing to cover its exposed rear flank. Jace snuck up behind the Elite, surged forward, and plunged his combat knife into the alien's neck with slash. The Minor barely let out a scream before it gargled blood and twitched uncontrollably. Jace let it fall under its own dead weight and took cover as the remaining Grunts and Jackals opened up on them.

Sabre-Two came to his side. "Good for you to join me. How much time do we have?"

"Enough," Jace bluntly stated, commandeering the Elite's deactivated energy sword's hilt. He looked into her ghostly orange faceplate. "Do you still have it?"

Sabre-Two behind her back to secure a metallic belt back around her waist. She showed it to Jace, revealing a Fury Tactical Nuke within its casing. It would cause the bridge utter hell, theoretically vaporizing the destroyer from bow to stern. Nothing would survive, including the data.

"How far are we from the bridge?" Sabre-Two canvassed, popping a pair of Grunts through their methane harnesses. Vapor hissed, catapulting the stock aliens off the platform to meet their demise thousands of meters below.

Jace blinked, accessing his TACMAP. The bridge, according to ONI sources, was buried deep inside the destroyer, deep enough for the nuke to split the vessel in half. They so-called "couldn't miss it." That was easy for them to say; they didn't have thousands of livid aliens shooting at them. But with this room being in the center of it all, they'd just have to discern which path led to their destination. If all else fails, they'd detonate the nuke anywhere they could and hope enough damage is done.

"A few decks up, but it's deep inside," he answered in a calm tone. His outward facade would have to hold, but the situation wasn't a favorable one. Heading deeper inside the destroyer meant it would be more difficult to get out.

Sabre-Two finished off last of the Jackals. "That leaves plenty of Covenant between here and there."

Jace formed a wide grin. "Intimidated?"

Sabre-Two glared at him. "The two of us versus a legion of them?" She marveled at the idea. "I love those odds."

"I thought you might." Sabre-One stood up, gesturing at the rising grav-lifts. "We use those. Ready?"

Sabre-Two ditched her MA5K and relieved the dead Elites of their plasma rifles.

"Ready."

The pair of Headhunters moved to the edge of the platform, jumped onto one of the lifts, and rode it up to the desired level. Plasma suddenly swarmed around them like angry bees as Covenant troops fired at them from multiple platforms. Sabre-Two crouched low, shooting the cannon fodder Grunts that caused the most havoc. Jace handled the Elites, firing enough rounds at them to keep them from getting off an accurate shot.

A team of Jackal snipers scurried on the maintenance catwalks above, taking aim at the Spartans as they slowly ascended. Streaks of lime green plasma beamed from their weapons, leaving Sabre Team in an exposed, isolated position. A single bolt hit the grav-lift, and the carrier began to sputter and spark.

"We have to move!" Jace exclaimed.

The next deck was in reach.

"Jump!"

Sabre-Two slapped the plasma pistols to her thighs, coiled her legs, and sprung upward. She and Jace dug their hands into the deck's ledge, carving imprints into the metal. The lift failed and departed from their boots.

The Spartans didn't watch it fall, or look down for that matter. They climbed up onto the deck: a spacious walkway cluttered with damaged Ghosts, Spectres, and Shadows. Their exteriors were covered with ballistic damage from human gunfire, scorch marks, and missing components. The whole platform looked like a garage.

The Jackals snipers continued their burdensome efforts, forcing the Spartans to take cover. Jace looked out across the deck, watching a proximity door on the far side hiss open and release over a dozen of Covenant soldiers. Grunts waddled out in front with Jackals bouncing on their heels; the Elites brought up the rear, dispersing strategically as the lesser races bombarded the Spartans with plasma fire. Jace set his eyes on a secondary proximity door to the far right of the Covenant troops. There wasn't much cover between the points but it was the only exit off the deck, and that would have to be good enough for now.

Since forcing their way into this God forsaken vessel, the Spartans had fought constantly against the alien hordes inside, but failed to recognize they'd been gradually corralled to where they were now. It was a perfect setup to send an armada inside to overwhelm them. Time was short, and unless they wanted to face every Covenant soldier aboard the destroyer, they needed to complete their mission and bug out.

Jace pinged Sabre-Two's COM. "We're running this," he said. "Make every shot count."

Sabre-Two wielded her twin plasma rifles and flashed her acknowledgement light green.

"Go!" Sabre-One exclaimed.

In a burst of speed, the Spartan Headhunters sprung from behind cover and sprinted for the doorway. The Covenant didn't hesitate; they discharged their weapons as the enemy ran, singeing and burning the metal around them.

Years of training took over.

The SPARTAN-IIIs sidestepped the incoming plasma, using the thinning stationary alien vehicles to take most of the punishment. A bolt splashed against Sabre-Two's left bicep; the armor sizzled and burned, cauterizing her skin underneath. She grimaced but never broke stride. Jace pulled out ahead of her, hurdled over a ghost, and lit up a cluster of Grunts as he passed.

An Elite Major, coming to the fore in its crimson armor, drained the battery life of its plasma rifle, striking the Spartan twice.

Jace felt his skin burn against his left thigh and ribs; the armor couldn't take much more abuse, and it was close to failing. The door was close now, but the last stretch would be the most difficult—there was no cover. Sabre-One ignored it and kept running.

Sabre-Two churned her legs around a charred Spectre, the Elite Major reflecting in her faceplate. She unloaded her plasma rifles into the alien's shields on a full, continuous burst.

The Major's shields shimmered and winked off like a blown light bulb. Sabre-Two ran for the Elite, leapt up, and used her forward momentum to plant both boots into the Major's face as she came down with the full weight of herself and her armor. The Elite's skull crumbled underneath her boots, splaying purple gore outward like a squashed tomato.

She continued forward, blasting away miniscule Grunts, overpowering Jackals, and shaming Minor Elites.

More Covenant poured into the deck, massing like a colony of ants. The Spartans' motion sensors nearly overloaded with red blips. Hundreds of Grunts scrambled off the grav-lifts, firing so much plasma that it alone could provide enough illumination to light to deck itself.

Jace didn't look back. He depleted the last of his MA5K's ammo into the shields of a raging Elite, almost feeling the tidal wave of heat from the plasma. He reached for another clip.

Empty.

The Spartan tossed aside the carbine, drew his M6D magnum, and primed the policed energy sword in the other hand. He shot two quick rounds into the Elite's head, killing its shields. The Minor stumbled back, recovered, and raised its rifle to fire.

Too late.

Jace sprinted by, beheaded the Elite's head, shot a Grunt pair in the chest, and propelled the energy sword like a javelin into the upper torso of a distant Elite Major. He pulled the sword out of the dying alien's chest before it dropped, attached it to his thigh, and ran harder in the final stretch.

The rest of the platform was clear with nothing to protect them. Jace activated the Jackal's shield, caught up to Sabre-Two, and pulled her close to him. The two ran parallel to each other, nearly being pushed off their feet by the pounding of the plasma against the shield.

At the last possible second, Sabre-One dropped the dead shield, shoved Sabre-Two through the opening door, and jumped through behind her.

The door sealed.

Sabre-Two rolled onto her back and quickly shot the operating panel by the door's side. The door's hinges grinded and locked, killing its ability to open further. Muffled pounds and roars emitted from the other side as the Covenant tried to force their way inside.

Jace stood up on a single knee, resting his arm atop his thigh. "They'll cut their way through soon. We have to move."

Sabre-Two got up with a grunt, pulled Jace upright, and tapped her fist against his chest. "Then let's move. I'll take point."

Jace reloaded his magnum. "Lead the way."

The Spartans pressed on, advancing through the bowels of the destroyer. They stuck to the shadows, halting suddenly to avoid the numerous Covenant patrols attempting to search them out. When they passed, Sabre Team moved on. Trapping the horde of aliens within the transport deck bought them some time, but they knew their ship better than the Spartans ever would. They'd find an alternate route.

Sabre-Two turned the next corner with plasma rifles aimed. She paused and held up her fist; Jace froze.

She gestured ahead, shaking her head slowly from side to side—trouble. Sabre-One moved up to her side to see for himself. The exterior of the destroyer's bridge reflected in his faceplate.

Thick, transparent alien glass surrounded the oval-shaped bridge. A raised platform was located in its center, surrounded by rings of rotating holo-images. The destroyer's Shipmaster, a menacing Elite donned in glistening gold armor, sat upon its floating captain's chair. It leaned forward, posing with its hand underneath its lower mandibles as it observed a single Engineer scrupulously examined a familiar piece of human tech—the navigational data.

Elite officers sitting at their stations focused intently on the Engineer, eagerly anticipating the alien scientist to solve the complicated puzzle the humans integrated into the captured data.

A ring of artificial light flashed red.

The Shipmaster slammed his fist hard against the armrest of the captain's chair and roared.

Another failure.

Jace opened a private channel. "They can't crack it."

Sabre-Two hunched her armored shoulders, then dropped them. "That won't stop them trying. They'll bypass it eventually."

Sabre-One sighed through his nose, accepting she was right.

The Covenant was a persistent bunch, and history taught humanity that they would stop at nothing until they achieved what they put their minds to. It was an admirable trait, but deadly when it came to human welfare.

Jace swept his eyes across the bridge and further down the corridor. A pair of hulking Hunters guarded the entrance to the bridge, resembling immovable armored statues of anything else. Their thick sapphire armor looked black in corridor's lighting, while their exposed skin glowed a soft orange like a smothered light bulb. Nothing would be getting past them, not without a fight they'd give all to win.

It would be suicide to fight them in the open, especially within the narrow corridor. There was only one option in Sabre-One's mind—detonate the Tac-Nuke now and kill every piece of alien scum inside and leave nothing but floating wreckage.

Jace expelled the dark through. That plan would kill them both, and Sabre Team was dead set on living. As long as they had breath in their lungs and a weapon in hand, sacrificing themselves to complete a survivable mission never surfaced in their minds.

He pinged Sabre-Two. "Any suggestions?"

"We detonate the nuke here. Its proximity should be close enough to deal a considerable yield," she answered. "The data won't survive."

It made good enough sense. The problem, though, was time. Remote detonation was an option, assuming the trigger wouldn't fail. Jace didn't trust it, not this time.

A countdown timer would have to suffice, although it left him with a bitter-sweet feeling. There would have to be a brief amount of time set to quicken the destruction of the destroyer; however, additional was also needed for Sabre Team to escape. Their ship was decks below in the destroyer's hangar, and it took nearly an hour to get this far with resistance. They couldn't do the same with a nuclear bomb ticking down.

It was a weighty decision.

Jace exhaled, making it. "Ten minutes."

Sabre-Two winced behind her faceplate, uncomfortable with the lack of time. It was possible, but only if this alien rig held just over a hundred troops; they faced thousands lying in wait for them.

She released a reluctant sigh, winking her acknowledgement light in agreement. The Spartan removed the nuke from its casing, removed the safeties, and set a time-release charge.

A timer appeared on their HUD: 00:10:00.

Sabre-Two set the nuke down, pushing it inside a depression in the wall's design. It wasn't inconspicuous, but it would have to do. A curious Grunt or Jackal would easily spot it.

The Spartans hoped that wouldn't happen.

Sabre-Two finished priming the nuke and held her finger over the activation key.

Clang!

The Spartan's belt pack dropped on the metallic floor.

Sabre-Two clinched her eyes shut and silently swore. She hadn't checked it.

The Hunters straightened up, cannons warming.

They lumbered closer to investigate, their footsteps pounding with vibrations.

Jace took hold of a grenade. "Get ready to run."

When one of the Hunters rounded the corner, Jace primed the grenade, rolled it at the Hunter's feet, and hit the nuke's timer.

"Move!" he exclaimed.

The Spartans exploded in a blur of speed, just before the grenade detonated. A cloud of grey smoke and roiling flames ignited underneath the Hunter's feet, stunning it.

In an instant, the door to the bridge slid open and released the Zealot and his collection of Elite Minors and Majors. He drew his energy sword, raised it high, and roared a command to give chase. The Elites, led by the Zealot, pursued the Spartans without giving a second thought to the blinking human device wedged within the wall.

Jace and Sabre-Two ran shoulder-to-shoulder, making a mad dash for their ship. It was easily a dozen decks below, and unless drastic measures were taken, they wouldn't make it.

They retraced their steps, leading them back to the door they'd sealed before. The door had been burned down its center with molten edges and pried a few inches apart at the seams. The Covenant had been working hard to get it open, and the Spartans could see the shifting bodies of the aliens on the other side.

Sabre Team didn't slow; they couldn't.

Jace palmed a plasma grenade he'd policed earlier, set it to blow, and threw it at the open seams. The grenade stuck against the frame, burned with a bluish flame for a few milliseconds, and exploded.

The Grunt workers attempting the pry the door open were blasted back in a heap alien mush. Methane tanks blew, clearing out a dozen of the waddling infantry troops and zapped the shields of the Elite superiors.

Sabre-Team jumped through the mangled doors, looking as if they'd been peeled back by a can opener. Jace shot the first thing that moved, slotting an Elite through the head. Sabre-Two simply bulldozed over a recovering Jackal, picked it up, and used it as a flesh shield. Pink needles shredded its torso, and Sabre-Two threw the dead alien away before the Needler's rounds detonated. She looked up in the corner of her HUD: 00:07:13.

They needed to move faster.

The Spartans raced across the platform with the massive transport deck, running and gunning without thought. They sped down the platforms manually, using the inclines and declines that zigzagged their way down to avoid the slow grav-lifts.

The Spartans sprinted down the next decline, jumped over the sides, and landed hard on the deck below. A quartet of Elite Rangers glided in from the upper decks, shutting down their antigravity packs as they landed on the platform a hundred meters ahead of the Spartans.

Sabre-Two slowed her pace, but Jace grabbed her arm and forced her to keep running.

"We don't stop!" he told her.

He palmed a plasma grenade he'd policed earlier and held it tight.

The Elites came within firing range and rose up their plasma rifles and needlers.

Jace lined down his sights, primed the grenade, and hurled it into the pack of Elites.

It exploded.

The blast killed the first two Rangers instantly and sent them reeling back, throwing them off the side of the walkway's ledge and to their death a thousand meters below.

The last two Elites were stunned from the blast with depleted shields. They began to recover quickly, but the Spartans denied their retaliation.

Sabre-Two tossed one of her plasma rifles to Jace.

He caught it; they aimed and fired.

Without shields, the Elites fell prey to the bombardment of plasma, feeling their own weaponry burn through their armor and flesh.

The Spartans hurdled over the fallen Rangers, just a quarter of the way from the path's end. Just less than five minutes remained, but they were still well away from where they needed to be. It would take the rest of their allotted time and then some to reach the hangar bay and prep their ship.

They wouldn't make it.

Jace moved to the edge of the dark walkway and peered down into the depths of the spiraling paths and maintenance crosswalks. At best, it was a lengthy drop of 900 plus meters. A fall of that distance would have a low survival percentage… even for augmented supersoldiers. But immediate death wasn't absolute.

Sabre-One checked the timer—00:06:10.

Not enough time.

Covenant forces were coming at them from every direction, thankfully out of weapon range for the moment. It would only be a few seconds until they were, so something had to give.

Jace looked out across the room, scrutinizing the grav-lifts that transported more Covenant reinforcements. He watched an Elite hit a key on the lift's controls; sapphire antigravity propulsion flared from its bottom, accelerating it above operating speed.

He pinged Sabre-Two's COM. "We get in on the next lift. They'll get us down."

"Too slow. We need a faster solution." Sabre-Two replied quickly, so fast that Jace wondered if she wanted an explanation. It wasn't an endearing quality.

"We'll never make it out in time, not at the rate we're going." He pointed to the lifts. "We cancel out the antigravity and let it drop, riding it down until powering it back up."

"Propulsion won't be strong enough to slow us down in time," Sabre-Two thundered back. She capped a Jackal in its foot. The alien squawked, lowering its shield. The Spartan fired again, and the Jackal's head snapped back with a spray of blood. "We'll be mush."

"It's either this or we're ash in the next five minutes," Jace made clear, his tone deadpan flat. "Unless you have a better idea."

Sabre-Two had her doubts, and everything inside her was screaming in protest. This would be an extremely risky escape tactic. Even though their enhanced bodies had virtually unbreakable bones, a fall like that would cause fatal internal injuries. But there was no time to argue or devise another plan.

The timer continued to tick down—00:04:57.

Sabre-Two glared over her shoulder, watching a squad of Grunts and Jackals stammer off a grav-lift and onto the level with them.

Cover was scarce, having a few clusters of empty weapon storage capsules and unloaded crates. They wouldn't have much protection once they moved into the open.

Jace had yet to take his eyes off Sabre-Two, awaiting her answer with withering patience.

She looked back him. "We should abandon the lift at the last moment, aiming for the lower levels; second from the last, maybe. We won't survive anything beyond that."

Sabre-One nodded and pitched himself a spring loaded stance. "On my mark. Angle your trajectory and maximize hydrostatic gel pressure."

An acknowledgment light winked.

"Mark!"

The Headhunters spun out from behind the capsules guns blazing. They shot aimless rounds at the approaching Elites, pushing them back as their overshields shimmered. The Shipmaster, emerging from behind his subordinates, narrowed his eyes at the fleeing Spartans. He roared, draining what remained of his plasma rifle's battery at them.

A heated orb of plasma splashed across Jace's right thigh and dissolved the SPI armor down to the black underarmor. The heat rolled throughout his lower extremities, and he felt his skin blister. He kept running.

They reached the edge of the platform, capturing a rising grav-lift that was about to meet them. It was loaded down with a trio of Grunts and a pair of Jackals that had yet to activate their shield gauntlets. Perfect.

The Spartans jumped for the lift, ascending an unbridled rage within the Zealot. He snatched a Particle Beam Rifle from a Major, shoving it aside as he ran for the next grav-lift.

Sabre-Two landed on the lift first, squashing a Grunt under her. The secondary Grunts turned to face what had caused a great shudder behind them.

They didn't get the chance.

Before they knew what hit them, Jace landed in front of them and kicked them off. They hurdled through the air with fading screams as Sabre-Two let the Jackals join them in their lengthy fall.

Jace moved over to the lift's controls—a simple holopad with alien characters that controlled the direction of where the elevator travelled. Sabre-One didn't care to translate the swirling symbols; he identified a red holokey on the underside of the pad.

He touched it.

The propulsion underneath the small elevator platform snapped off with a few dying sparks. It hung in the air for a split second, just long enough for the Zealot across the elongated platform to spot them.

Jace's heart skipped a beat.

The lift dropped.

Sabre Team's stomach hurled into their throats. The adhered their magnetic boots to the surface of the lift, keeping the elevator from dropping without them. They crouched down low, sitting like frogs of lily pads.

Occupied crosswalks zipped past them on their way down, catching the attention of curious workers. A falling elevator wasn't an abnormal sight, but it wasn't a common one, either. It was a rare occurrence, and the Covenant laborers didn't know what to make of it. They watched it continue its descent, feeling a measure of concern for the unlucky sod that'd have to clean up the mess.

The floor smothered in a ghostly fog-like mist was growing dangerously close, and the second to the last platform that spiraled down to the deck floor was thirty meters under the Spartans. They severed their magnetic connection of the lift and held onto its edge.

Fifteen meters.

They jumped.

The lift rolled end over end like an unraveling yarn from the spool as the Spartans landed hard on the platform. They rolled, allowing the impact force roll through them. Jace's teeth rattled in his head; he felt his shoulder separate, sending a surging pain through his chest. Sabre-Two landed a meter from him, her helmet connecting with the floor so hard it cracked her faceplate. She catapulted her upright, ceasing her dizzying roll side over side before she went off the ledge. Her HUD scrambled and blacked out her ammo counter and bio-readers. She rebooted the system and it cleared.

"00:02:36" blinked red in the lower right corner.

Time to move.

Jace rolled over onto his knees, his right arm limp. He waved Sabre-Two over to him and gestured to his arm.

"It's dislocated. You mind?"

Sabre-Two vented a humorous snort, grabbed his arm by the forearm and bicep and jerked it.

There was an inaudible pop, and Jace cringed with a clinched jaw. He rolled his shoulder, satisfied.

"We have just above two minutes," she updated. "Our hangar's this way. Let's go!"

Jace collected himself and skipped into a hurried jog, passively looking up into the winding platforms and winking grav-lifts with a relieved laugh.

It worked; the go-for-broke plan actually—

—a streak of plasma burned through the air from above and slotted Sabre-Two through her mid-section.

She screamed and dropped to the floor.

Jace spun around and looked up, locking eyes with the Elite Zealot wielding a Particle Beam Rifle standing atop a grav-lift hundreds of meters in the air.

He shot his M6D empty, landing a couple of rounds against the Shipmaster's powerful shields before it disappeared above a higher level.

Jace reloaded and went to Sabre-Two's side.

She held her hand against the wound as a mixture of blood and hydrostatic gel began to pool around her. Blood inked through her fingers, painting her gauntleted hand dark crimson.

Sabre-One grabbed her underneath her arms and tried to pull her along.

"Ahh, stop!" she exclaimed, her wound irritated.

The Shipmaster and his subordinates ditched the lift and landed upon a platform and began approaching at extreme range, weapons warming. Jace threw his last grenade; he didn't watch it blow, hearing only the deep-toned howls from them. Pink needles shattered like glass around them.

"00:02:01" remained.

Sabre-Two's labored breathing morphed into a wheeze, but she remained conscious and alert.

That was enough for Jace; he clutched her left arm and yanked her upright, placing her arm around his neck. He didn't think, his body moving before his mind.

"Run—you have to run!"

Sabre-Two churned her legs with Jace and galloped into the narrow corridor leading to the hangar, spilling droplets of blood after each step. Every step felt like a heated sword was being plunged into her wound. She nearly gave out, but Jace supported her weight and kept her upright.

"Stay up!"

Bulky shadows from the pursuing Elites rolled across the wall. Jace swung around, firing a couple of warning shots and bought them a few fleeting seconds. They reached the end of the long corridor that seemed to stretch for an eternity, having the Shipmaster hot on their armored heels.

Jace lowered his shoulder and plowed his way through the awkwardly bent door to the hangar bay they'd blown open at the op's genesis. Plasma and needler shards chased them inside, lighting up the darkened hall like continuous flashbangs.

The hangar had an eerie darkness, having a violet hue from lights hundreds of feet high. Bodies of dead Grunts, Jackals, and Elites were strewn about across the floor from the initial firefight. The Spartans pushed their way through them, ignoring the flashes of light from the plasma illuminating the darkness behind them.

Their Prowler—the Gladius—was nestled in the far right corner of the hangar, perfectly camouflaged in the dark with its charcoal-tinted hull. Infiltrating the Covenant destroyer was a task in itself upon locating the vessel, and Jace banished the recollection from his mind. That part of the mission was over and completed; getting out was the main concern now.

Sabre-Two raised her head and checked their rear.

The Shipmaster performed a swan dive through hangar's door, rolled to its feet, and shouldered its particle beam rifle.

She pulled back her hand from the exit wound, holding a puddle of blood in her palm. Her strength was fading and shock was beginning to set in. She was a liability now, and it was slowing Jace down.

They reached the Prowler's aft; Sabre-Two snatched Jace's MD6 from his waist and a spare clip.

"Get her started up," she barked. Her tone didn't suggest a reply. "I'll hold them off."

Jace didn't argue; he lowered the access ramp and crawled inside before he fully lowered. He sprinted full speed down the narrow halls, up the flight of stairs, and into the cockpit. The Spartan's hands moved at blinding speed over the controls and warmed the Prowler's engines.

Sabre-Two discouraged the Zealot's subordinate's curiosity of venturing closer by landing a few hits against their shields. She eased back onto the access ramp, adrenaline numbing a measure of the pain. She emptied the magnum, reloaded, and shot a few more rounds before the ramp sealed.

"00:00:56" blinked rapidly on the HUD.

The wounded Spartan barely reached the cockpit before the Prowler ascended into the air with roaring engines.

Gladius made a 180 degree turn, pointing its prow to the transparent exit within the hangar. The Zealot watched as the human vessel discharge its heretical weapons into the inward hull of its destroyer, blast through the section field, and accelerated out into space. Atmosphere vented from the hangar, sweeping a few of the Zealot's lesser Elites out into the black vacuum and to their deaths.

It was a shameful death, and the Shipmaster refused to look at their floating bodies. Let the stars have them.

The field quickly restored itself, pressurizing the hangar inside. The Zealot released the hull that he clung to and tightened its mandibles. They wouldn't escape. The second he return to the bridge, he'd give a charge to obliterate—

—the nuke detonated.

The starry abyss of space glowed white like an imploding sun. Jace didn't turn aside from the blinding light, his faceplate polarizing to compensate. He didn't look away until the light faded, revealing a cloud of floating debris from what remained of the Covenant destroyer.

It was then he powered down the Gladius and went over to Sabre-Two.

She sat behind the co-pilot's chair, helmet removed, with an empty capsule of biofoam in her hand. Her breathing had stabilized, but it would only hold her together for a few hours.

"Mission accomplished?" she asked Jace.

Jace expelled air from his lips and sat down beside her with a syringe in hand. "Yeah." He inserted the needle into Sabre-Two's exposed skin, injecting a dose of polypsuedomorphine. "Mission accomplished."