Chapter XVII


Neo's Note: It's been an exceedingly long time since I've last updated, so my apologies. First off, there have been some changes I've made to the story in my absence. The year in his story was previously 2543. That it no more. It has been boosted to the year 2550. The Spartans, in my opinion, were too young for me, and I felt they needed to become more mature, experienced, etc. Another change is the chapter itself. Before hand, this chapter gave an inside look at Jace and Alex during the SPARTAN-III Program. That aspect of the Spartans' lives have been rewritten entirely, so I hope you enjoy. If you're new, then disregard.

1307 Hours, March 20, 2550 (Military Calendar) \
UNSC Nightfire, Slipstream Space, en route to
876 Gliese Majoris.

Commander Robert Vasher felt nauseated. Since his deadly encounter with the Covenant on the Day Breaker, he'd been out with a dose of polypseudomorphine. The few days he was asleep had to have been the best sleep he'd gotten in years. Since the Human-Covenant War began, sleep was hard to come by for most naval officers. Robert forced himself to open his eyes, apprehensive he'd be blinded by piercing infirmary lights. Instead, he was set up in a private room where the lights had been dimmed.

The only hard light shone was that coming from the monitor that tracked his vitals. It was a good sized room, large enough to fit two extra beds if necessary. In the corner was a standard cushioned chair, being occupied by an attentive silhouette.

"In absence of one's superior officer," Vasher reminded, "the second-in-command is to assume the role of the absentee officer."

The figure in the dark stood up, moving toward the monitor's light.

Lt. Commander Jon Nolan closed the novel he was reading and glared down at his commanding officer.

"I read that handbook too, y'know? Always teaching and never learning," Jon laughed acutely. "How are you feelin'?"

"Recovering," Vasher simply stated. "Minor discomfort. The Day Breaker – were they able to enter Slipspace?"

Nolan shook his head with a frown. "Took a plasma torpedo that was meant for us; reactor overloaded and she imploded. If we're fortunate, maybe the Covenant will believe they've destroyed the artifact."

Vasher nibbled on his inner cheek, disappointed by the loss. They'd be remembered, he hoped. But he doubted the Covenant would surrender giving chase. They'd been known to track UNSC vessels through Slipspace, following them to their destinations. If that happened, they'd been a race against whatever lied in the 876 Gliese Majoris. The Commander, though, wouldn't concern himself with the matter. He'd been removed from active duty, so command went directly to Nolan.

"Just keep me posted on the mission," Vasher concluded. "If anything goes askew…"

"You'll be the first to know," Jon said, finishing the sentence. "Take this as well-needed holiday, Robert."

The Lt. Commander opened the door to room, setting a foot out into the hall.

"I'll keep you posted," he said, and closed the door.

The mess hall was buzzing with activity: crew members from all over the ship packed into the expansive room, shuffling through the line as servers placed a variety of food on their trays. A constant booming of combined conversations filled the air, accompanied by the clanging of forks and glass cups. In the rear of the hall sat the Headhunters of Nova Team, having a corner to themselves as the crowds of crewman, engineers, and Marines gave them a respective distance. Some would occasionally stare at them, finding them odd without their trademark armor. It was funny. On the outside, they appeared to be invincible soldiers encased in armor; without it, however, they seemed almost normal. Spartans, though, would never be considered normal among the general public. How could they be?

Despite being mostly silent, the Spartans conversed between one another, exchanging stories of near-death experiences, places of birth, and so on. The Lieutenant, however, remained quiet. He was pleased to see the team meshing well with one another, for it would be vital that they continued to grow and rely on each other. He'd let them talk, though; never found it useful for him. Jeremiah stared up from his tray; stealing a look at the Lieutenant as Lukas entertained Alex with story of how he and Jeremiah survived a Covenant attack. Jace had his head down, eating his meal in intervals—first the main course, then the sides. He'd occasionally look up, smiling lightly at Lukas's extravagate way of story-telling.

It made the Warrant Officer uneasy—his superior officer being that quiet. But this only spiked Jeremiah's interest.

"What about you, Lieutenant – what mission nearly had your number?"

Jace raised his head, staring at Jeremiah before sweeping his eyes across Lukas and Alex's faces. There were so many missions to choose from. Each of them, from his first onward, had tested his strengths and weaknesses. He went into every mission as if it was his last, so he gave every op 200%. It still surprised him how many times he'd survived when others would've perished. However, amongst all the missions he'd been assigned, one shone brighter and darker than any of them. It haunted him, taunted him. He never shared it with anyone, not even the ONI shrink he was ordered to see upon the mission's completion. But nothing was stopping him now. He was among allies who understood. They'd seen the hell this war had to offer, so why hold back now. They were a team now. With that, Jace interlocked his fingers and rotated his thumbs as he met each one of their eyes.

"It was eight years ago…"

0000 Hours, July 15, 2543 (Military Calendar) \
Covenant Refueling Platform, Nu Ophiuchi star

The platform was immense, being strikingly similar to an alien-made hula hoop. It was sleek in design, nearly free from ridges along the main body. Docking spokes extended out from the rounded edges, securing a total of thirty Covenant ships of various classes. In the center of the ring platform was an enormous glowing orb encased in armor. It throbbed a vibrant violet-sapphire, being held in place by metal tubes that connected to the main ring. That orb pumped millions of gallons of fuel into the Covenant ships, gearing them up for the potential massacres they probably dreamt about.

A flash of light suddenly occurred, and an object streaked across the starry vacuum like a minute comet. It was merely a Seraph-class Starfighter, jumping into the system quadrant via the ship's Impulse Drive. The drive could only perform short Slipspace jumps, but for the occupants inside, it was more than enough. Dead bodies of Covenant troops were strewn about inside, creatively stockpiled in random sections of the ship.

Alien blood was splattered against the walls and slowly began to dry with foreign stench that it vented. Spent shell casing littered the reflective flooring, some still cooling from being recently fired. The cockpit was more of the same: dead aliens, angular walls stitched with bullet holes, and pools of blood spilling over the edges. All in a day's work for the two Spartan Headhunters of Saber Team.

One of the SPARTAN-IIIs sat uncomfortably in the pilot's seat, steadily cruising toward the refueling platform. The other one was crouched in the rear of the cockpit, keeping an injured and gagged Elite Minor alive. It had been shot through his abdomen, bleeding out slowly as the Spartan watched over it with a M6D Magnum in hand. A canister of bio foam had delayed the inevitable for now, but the alien didn't want their charity. If its hands and feet weren't bound, it would happily self destruct this ship and take the demons with it. It would be an honorable death. The Spartan piloting the Seraph set the auto-pilot, shifted in the seat, and turned around.

"How's our friend back there?" the Headhunter asked in a masculine, Australian accented voice.

The secondary Spartan motioned from the shadows, lightly nudging the alien's ankle with the tip of his boot. It shot its eyes up at its captor, growling a menacing growl.

"Alive and pissed," SPARTAN-A290 replied.

The Headhunter pilot—SPARTAN-A279, Brent—laughed and turned back around. "Well, as long as it's pissed…"

A twenty-one year old Jace left the Elite's side and stood behind Brent as he scrutinized the refueling platform. He felt a tad bit uneasy approaching thirty enemy ships in a stolen Seraph. It was Brent's idea to capture the doggone Starfighter, and it was hell just trying to clear it out before taking it over. Saber Team had entered into the Nu Ophiuchi star system under strict orders from ONI. Intercepted and deciphered communications from the Covenant had revealed a mid-scale invasion on the outer colonies that had been marked for glassing. Some of the planets remained heavily populated, packed with refugees that survived previous glassings. The UNSC couldn't bear to lose any more colonies, so a strategy was devised to locate the refueling station the invasion team would use and destroy both the ships and the platform. It was your run-of-the-mill op, but this made Jace curious on why Saber Team—Headhunters—were selected to carry it out.

"Look at the size of that thing," Jace thought out loud. "You'd think the UNSC would send a fleet to destroy it, not two Spartans."

"It's smart but risky," Brent commented. "A fleet can be detected. They'd just release those ships and obliterate us. This is simpler, and no huge, unnecessary battle that would result in a Covenant victory and another lost UNSC fleet we can never get back."

Jace snorted. "They're lucky they haven't launched this attack yet."

"Since when were you an optimist?" Brent noted, decelerating the craft a taste.

"Once. I think it was a Thursday," Jace chuckled.

Brent shook his head with a smirk. The Seraph shuttered a bit; and the auto-pilot snapped on, taking the controls away from the Australian Spartan.

"We've passed inside their envelope," reported Brent. "They're pulling us in." He shifted in his seat and turned to face Jace. "Get our pal ready. They'll be hailing us soon, and I don't speak split-jaw."

SPARTAN-A290 complied and moved to the back of the cockpit. With the magnum in hand, he went over to the Elite and wrenched it upright. The alien groaned from the sudden movement, stretching its wound. A stream of blood ran down its side and began dripping on the floor. It gasped for every breath, unable to expel the building blood in its mouth from the waded up cloth in its mouth. Jace cut his eyes up at the alien's drained face. It wasn't going to live much longer. He removed the blood soaked cloth from the Elite's mouth, and the alien coughed violently afterwards. Its foul breath entered in through Jace's helmet, making him grimace as he supported the creature's weight. He sat the alien down in the co-pilot's seat, backed away, and then clicked the safety off from his magnum. The Seraph's COM receiver suddenly crackled open, spewing out the voic Covenant operator from the platform. Brent read its voice, sensing the heightened pitch at the end of its words was a question.

He glared at the Elite. "Answer them. Tell them our vessel is in critical condition and requires repairs and refueling."

The Sangheili warrior motioned its eyes into Brent's faceplate, twitched its mandibles, and leaned forward. Before it could even speak, Jace pressed the magnum against the back of its head.

"Be wise."

The Elite retracted its initial inclination, but felt obligated to its brethren to die before compromising to the enemy. It remained silent. The operator spoke again, and its distorted language mimicked what it had asked before.

"Say something, maafoedi," swore Jace. "No more messing about."

The Elite turned fully around and seemed to stare straight through his visor. It formed what the-then Petty Officer First Class could only understand as a deformed smile. The alien then said one of the few human words it knew, a word it had heard many times before it slaughtered many humans.


It swiftly turned around and shouting a warning into the open COM. Brent slammed his fist into the Elite's face, shutting it up. It was too late, however. The Covenant had closed the COM link, began charging pulse lasers across the platform's hull, and aimed for the hijacked Seraph.

Brent restored manual control to the craft as Jace snapped the alien's neck in the background.

"Well, ain't this some bull dust!" angrily exclaimed Brent.

Saber-Two—Jace—strapped himself in the co-pilot's seat and began prepping the craft's weapons. Brent waved his hands at his actions.

"Don't bother! Weapons on this rig won't do a bloody thing."

"Better than nothing at… Kak, incoming pulse lasers!"

"Hold on!" Brent braced.

He veered the Seraph left, just as the guided lasers streaked passed them. The interior shook, sending the Covenant corpses inside to shift and slide about the deck. Another pair of twin beams accelerated toward them; one came in from the left and the other from the right.

Brent watched them close in, his hands gripping the controls tighter. When the laser nearly met the sides of the alien craft, the Spartan pilot send the Seraph into an inverted and spun right as they crossed and exploded. A flash of red light filled the cockpit, coupled with intense rattling. The Seraph's shields shimmered against one of the lasers as it grazed them, dropping a quarter.

Brent repositioned the craft ride-side up, exhaling heavily. They were still a ways out from the platform itself, making their approach a lethal one. Jace surveyed the refueling station, eyeing the center mass in particular. A wild idea had entered into his mind, and it might've just worked if Brent was open to it.

"Brent," he called. "We're not going to make it at this rate. We need to use the Impulse Drive."

"And go where?" Saber-One flared-up.

"The fuel reactor," Jace answered.

Brent dodged another laser. "You want me to jump in the middle of every weapon mounted on that thing?"

"They won't fire, not without risking blowing up their own platform," reasoned Saber-Two.

"I don't know, mate. That's a helluva risk," anxiously expressed Brent.

"Our options are limited," stressed the Headhunter.

Brent groaned inwardly. He didn't like it, but Jace's tactics were usually effective and worth a try. But what if the fuel reactor was durable enough to withstand a direct plasma hit? If so, the Covenant could fire in controlled bursts to limit compromising their own station in order to successfully neutralize them. Had Jace considered the variables?

"Are you certain they won't fire on us?"

"I studied the intel ONI sent us about this place. The reactor's shielded, but Covenant weaponry will burn right through it. The Covenant aren't reckless, they're calculated."

Saber-One nodded to his comrade's words. It was good enough for him. "Then activate the drive. I can't keep us alive and jump at the same time."

Jace leaned forward and began prepping the Impulse Drive. "Just get us in close, alright? We still have to get inside and set the nuke."

Saber-Two hit the Drive's switch, and the Seraph disappeared with a sapphire wink. Continuous streams of fired plasma sliced through one another where the alien craft used to be, exploding in a discharge of light and soft crackles. The firing ceased. Fools the Covenant were not, however; they knew their own ships. It would reappear soon. Seraphs didn't possess Slipspace drives, so their "jumping" capabilities were greatly limited compared to larger Covenant vessels. And just like the aliens had predicted, the Seraph fighter appeared again. It winked back into existence around the platform's center, and the Covenant promptly warmed their weapons.

Brent tensed at the controls. The pulse lasers twinkled against the darkness, growing in intensity as more power was being fed. They were surrounded. If the Covenant went to fire, not even a veteran Covenant pilot could avoid such an assault and survive. The pulse lasers, however, never fired. Contrary to the Covenant's aggressive nature, they began shutting them down individually. Were they conscious of the fact stray fire could compromise their entire platform, or were they just devising another strategy?

Knowing them, Brent thought, it was the latter. He swore inwardly that their initial plan had failed. They shouldn't have judged the Elite's loyalty. It might've been bestowed with the lowliest rank in the Elite's rank structure, but that didn't mean it wasn't wholeheartedly devoted to the Covenant. It was understandable. Though rare, the Headhunter had come across Marines that, despite their rank, exhibited great courage and loyalty to the UNSC. Brent guessed the Elite was no different.

Section of the platform parted open along the main body, and a pair of Seraph fighters of their own was released. Brent nibbled the side of his tongue and glanced up at Jace.

"They're coming for us, so now what?"

Jace didn't say anything, and Brent hated it when he did that. The Spartan went over to the system controls and primed the Impulse Drive. He set the destination, faced his ally, and explained himself.

"They just opened our access point. A precise jump will place us directly inside, then we work from there."

Brent kept an eye on the approaching Seraphs as he spoke. "We stand a better chance destroying this place from the outside, Jace. It's too dangerous inside. We'll be hilariously outnumbered and outgunned."

"You said it yourself – the weapons 'on this rig' aren't powerful enough. We'll never break through the shields and the armor. We have to try."

Brent shook his head. He wasn't convinced, and the risk wasn't worth it. But this wasn't about their safety; it was about the safety of the outer colonies. They needed more time to evacuate to the inner colonies, so this platform needed to go.

"Alright, let's go."

Saber-One surged the Seraph forward, and Jace activated the Impulse Drive. The alien fighter shimmered and vanished, just as the enemy Seraphs opened fire into empty space. They were gone again.

The inner hangar of the refueling platform was one of great systemization. Every class of starfighter by size and significance were precisely docked within multi-level stalls that lined the rear walls. The ground floor was dedicated mainly Engineer and Grunt workers to maintain the flight vehicles. Light trams and grav-lift elevators were prevalent to transport workers and material back and forth throughout the hangar. From a human standpoint, it was flawless organization; but the peaceful goings-on within the hangar suddenly ceased in the blink of an eye.

The Headhunters' Seraph reappeared from its brief Slipspace jump, and the shockwave catapulted Grunts and their equipment over the light trams and down to the hangar floor stories below. It crashed prow-first into the vehicle stalls, crumbled a pair of Banshees on contact, turned, and grinded its starboard side against walls. Brent killed the engines, but the forward momentum continued to push them along. He jerked the controls left, swaying the craft from the wall and into open airspace.

Amidst the chaos, the Spartan sighted a clear landing zone where a repaired Seraph was being returned to a vacant stall. He plunged the craft down, taking a group of Grunts and Engineers along for the ride. The aliens bounced off the Seraph's dying shields and flipped through the air like coins. Brent and Jace braced, and the alien craft slammed into the ground floor. It skidded with an ear piercing screech, bowling over waddling Grunts, stacks of crated material, and levitating hauling vehicles. Into the west wall the fighter eventually was stopped, and the hundreds of unharmed Covenant works looked over at it with extreme curiosity.

Brent loosened his grip from the seat, his fingers forming impressions in the metal. A throbbing pain pulsated in his right shoulder, and he grimaced as pulled back his arm. He shook the discomfort away and swept his eyes across the dark interior in search for his comrade. Dead monitors sparked behind him, and the violet light sneaking into the darkness from the breached hull vanished and reappeared as the aliens outside crossed the beam. A rustling noise occurred in front of him, and Brent flipped on his helmet's external lights. Jace was in front of him, gradually standing upright from an awkward position. He switched on his night vision and glanced over at Brent. "That didn't attract too much attention."

Brent fished his MA5K Carbine from the floor and clicked the safety off. "I know, right. They barely noticed us." He shouldered the rifle and aimed toward the breached exit. "Shall we?"

"Not quite," Saber-Two stalled, walking over to where the dead Elite had fallen.

He inspected the alien's body and its armor, unclipped a grenade from his magnetic waist, and wedged it between a section of its armor.

"How many grenades do you have?" Jace asked his fellow Spartan.

Brent knew that tone. What did he have planned now? "Four."

Jace looked at him. "Can you spare two?"

The Grunts outside stepped closer to the Seraph, and they could hear the angered growls and undistinguishable talk from prowling Elites closing in. Brent didn't have the time or patience to ask his comrade what he had in mind, so he tossed him a pair of his grenades and leveled his rifle. He watched him strap the two grenades to the dead Elite's chest and mid-section, picked the alien up, and held it upright against him.

"Kick the door," he said, pistol aimed forward over the Elite's shoulder.

Brent went up to the mangled hatch—rifle aimed—and hit the emergency release lever. The hatch hissed and struggled to open, grinding against the sides of the craft with sparks. Saber Team vanished into the darkness as the mauve light poured into the inky cavity of the alien fighter, their reflective panels blending them in. The Spartans' motion sensors flourished with red blips. A multitude of Covenant workers stood outside with eagerness overflowing in their eyes; the Elites aimed their plasma rifles and repeaters.

Jace glared at his ally, and Brent gave him the green light. The Spartan forcefully shoved the dead Elite down the exit hatch, and its lifeless body rolled into the crowd of alien spectators. Grunt workers and Elites stepped aside as the body went passed them. Jace palmed a grenade. An Elite walked to the fallen warrior and took a knee beside it to examine it. It was clearly dead, unfortunately; but not from the crash, no. A gunshot wound was inflicted in its abdomen, and its neck was twisted awkwardly with a bone protruding underneath the skin. The Elite stood up from its fallen brother, and it grew suspicious. This warrior had been killed, and brutally.

An object was suddenly tossed from within the dark interior of the Seraph, bounced off the exit hatch with ping, and rolled at the feet of the suspicious Elite. The tilted its head at the oblong object, indentified it, and jumped back with a howl. Too late. The grenade detonated, and small explosion blossomed even larger as it connected with the grenades strapped the dead Elite's body. A dozen Grunts and three Elites were killed instantly, and the rest were blown back disoriented and wounded. The Spartans spun out of the crashed Seraph and opened fire into the masses. Unarmed Grunts scrambled for cover, but heated lead impeded their retreat. Brent analyzed their surroundings instantaneously and searched for an exit. There were a set of grav-lift elevators to their left that led to the upper deck; that's where they needed to go.

"Head for the lifts!"

Jace turned aside from engaging the enemy and sprinted after Brent. Elites muscled their way through the crowd of fleeing Grunts, located the Spartans, and went after them. Plasma buzzed over the shoulders of Saber Team as they boarded one of the elevators and rode it up to the upper level. They jumped off the lift before it fully ascended, gunned down a couple of Elites, and slid into an open corridor before it sealed.

Jace reloaded his rifle. "We're close to the reactor. How do you want to do this?"

"You said you studied this place, right; ONI's intel?" asked Saber-One.

Saber-Two nodded. "Yes."

Brent walked in the center of the corridor, and his motion sensor detected incoming hostiles. "Then find me a terminal that has direct access to the reactor. I can work from there."

Jace aimed his rifle down the winding hall, watching the alien shadows dance against the walls. "Done."

"Then let's do it," Brent smirked.

Jace lied slouched against the wall, and blood seeped between his fingers as it pressed it against his wound. A section of his SPI armor around his waist had been burned away by plasma weaponry. Jace looked around him; his vision kept fading and clearing; fading and clearing. Dead bodies of high-ranking Elites covered the bloodstained floors, and deactivated energy swords hung loosely in their hands. The Spartan's HUD went dark, rebooted, and began to function at half capacity. His vitals were slow, and his blood steadily declined. He wasn't going to survive.

It was so simple, the plan; but everything went wrong. Jace didn't understand how it went south so fast. He and Brent had fought through the resistance and reached the reactor's central control terminal flawlessly. The Covenant, however, were always one step ahead of them. Jace made a fist with is fleeting strength. How did they do it? How were they better? The Spartan still couldn't see it, and it cost them dearly. A Covenant squad had been lying in wait for them, and they ran right into them. The fight felt endless, but it lasted no more than several minutes. It wasn't without consequences, however. Jace had taken an energy sword to his side; it speared him through his ribcage, puncturing and collapsing his left lung.

Brent, on the other hand, was nearly beaten to death by a Hunter and took a direct hit from its plasma cannon before eventually killing it. He was left crippled, severely burned, and suffered from massive internal bleeding. Why he hadn't died yet continued to surprise Jace. But they had to complete the mission. They couldn't let the Covenant launch the attack on the rest of the outer colonies. Billions of live would perish, and it would be their fault. Fault. Guilt. The words plagued Jace. He shouldn't have been so reckless, so stupid. If had listened to Brent—his friend, his superior—and attacked the reactor from the outside, it might've gone differently.

Stupid, stupid, stupid, Saber-Two mentally berated himself.

Motion suddenly caught Jace's attention. Brent's broken body stepped back from the reactor's main terminal as he successfully—and diligently—overloaded its core. The Headhunter collapsed on one knee, stood again, then limped over to where Jace was lying.

Brent rested his hand on Saber-Two's armored shoulder. "You still alive in there?"

His voice was weak, and it lacked the characteristic enthusiasm that made him unique.

Jace forced himself to speak. "Is it done?"

Brent rested beside his friend. "It's done. Get up! We evac… now!"

Jace glared at Brent in confusion. Evacuate? What was he talking about? Evacuation was impossible at this point; and even if they were able, the hangar was decks below. The reactor would've blown by then. There was no time.

"We'll never make it."

"Maybe, but it's worth a shot," Brent pointed out. "This compartment… it was built with emergency escape pods in case the place went critical. In was in ONI's intel. Go! We can clear the blast radius if we leave now."

The room rumbled as the reactor began to go critical. Jace ignored the pain and got to his feet. Brent struggled to walk, and his pace rivaled that of a slug. Jace placed his arm around his shoulder and supported his weight as they walked to the edge of the room. A ladder descended down into a pit of darkness. Brent went down first, then Jace. A violent shudder rattled the entire refueling platform, and the Spartans fell from the ladder and slammed into the floor twenty meters below. Brent cried out in pain.

Saber-Two rolled over onto his hands and knees, pushed up off the floor, and got up. He switched on his helmet's lights. Brent was right. A single escape pod was embedded in the wall before them. Jace raced over to the pod, yanked open the door, and gently placed Brent inside. He climbed inside headfirst as the room sparked a whined around them. The Spartan situated himself in the pilot's seat, powered up the pod, and impatiently waited for the vehicle to start up. Additional pods were being launched from the platform as the Covenant attempted to flee to a safe distance.

Jace slammed his fist against the wall. "C'mon, you piece of junk. Launch!"

The pod was spat out from its mold and hurled into space. Saber-Two hit the accelerator, zipping the sphere-shaped vehicle away from the enemy platform as it began to explode. He glanced over his shoulder and peered out of the aft window. Chains of explosions rippled through the entire station, taking the docked Covenant Assault Carriers, Destroyers, and Cruisers with it.

A wide smile went across the Headhunter's face. Mission accomplished. "Brent, you gotta see this! Brent!"

There was no reply. Jace turned aside from the miraculous explosion and crawled over where he'd laid Brent. The Spartan was motionless on the pod's floor. His vitals had flat-lined. Jace sat back on his haunches and retracted his hand from Brent's shoulder. He leaned back against the curved wall, snatched off his helmet, and violently through it across the small compartment. Rage boiled inside of them. It should've been him; it always should've been him. Jace inched next to his departed friend, removed his helmet, and cradled his head and upper torso.

Mission failed.