The following is an excerpt from "Spartans: On the Use of Augmented Infantry in Contemporary Military Environments" by Richard F. Stine [published 2591]:

"...that so many Spartans had been expended in the closing days of the First Human-Covenant War remained the subject of much controversy, particularly following the illegal publication of Section II war materials which, until that point, had been considered classified (See B. Giraud File-Stamp 241).

The Spartans were heroes, evidently, but as a concept proved to be a radically divisive force amongst the wider UEG electorate. While commentators unanimously agreed that Spartans had, without question, turned the tide of the war (quite dramatically in the case of Spartan-117) this did not guarantee widespread political support.

In the years that followed, there were a number of theatres which were characterised as internal police action, rather than outright military conflict. Accordingly, the concept of further Spartan deployment presented the post-war Charet-Hood Administration with a dilemma:

Did they abandon the program, and use fleeting resources to repair the ravaged infrastructure of the wider UNSC military (thereby depriving themselves of an undeniably valuable military asset), or did they instead encourage Spartan deployment wholesale, and risk accusations of tyranny from dissenting voices which argued, quite plausibly, that the money was needed elsewhere.

Conventional military historians maintain that the administration decided upon an alternative solution; favouring volunteer-based recruitment programmes, supplemented by widespread mass-feed media campaigns. Naturally, such efforts were decried as propaganda by the administration's political adversaries. Eager to assuage their detractors, government sources maintained that conscription-based Spartan deployment numbers remained at an all time low in the post-war era.

The truth, as ever, is rather more complicated..."

[Voiceprint ID One is calm but authoritative. Voice-pattern is confirmed as a North-American male; ident-trace pattern matching [/-DATA REDACTED- UNKNOWN SOURCE DUMP/-]

"Tell me what you remember, 239."

[Voiceprint ID Two is interview subject. Voice recording is hoarse, raspy. Enunciation is considered slurred; possible side-effects of exhaustion and battle fatigue? Interrogator-class medical scans reveal an elevated pulse, and significant levels of pain-killers present within subject's bloodstream.]

"I... I'm not sure. That I want to, I mean."

"Try. You'll feel better."

"A ship. Radar signatures, moving all around us. Smoke and heat. Gunfire. Death."

- /Source; audio-vid transcript, Beta-V Psych-Analysis Debrief Jan 2553/Subject G-239 - EYES ONLY - NAVSPECWAR USERNET Trans-Serv 0421 /

"Right-side contact."

The calmness with which the words left Eric's mouth would almost seem comical, were they not moments away from death.

The statement wasn't shouted, and in return no frantic calls responded. Indeed, the only indication that he'd been heard at all were the three winking acknowledgement lights on his HUD.

That, and the barrage of retaliatory gunfire that followed.

Fire-team Scimitar realigned with the graceful fluidity of synchronised swimmers; translucent outlines rippling as weapons tracked toward targets. Blue armoured-Elites surged down the access ramp; leering shark-like nightmares that leapt forth from the twisting gun-smoke, only to be blasted back into the mist. Howls of anguished outrage reverberated throughout the corridors beyond.

Team Scimitar's deployment had been too little, too late. What began as a counter-boarding and extraction op had quickly deteriorated into a desperate fight for survival.

Since they boarded the UNSC Perth, the frigate had quickly become the stuff of nightmares. The ship had been hulled in three places, and was slowly beginning to list to one side. Smoke vented thickly in the corridors, coiling and twisting. It played havoc with the surrounding environment: bending shadows; warping the shapes that hunted them in the gloom. Whether it was acrid gun smoke or venting exhaust coolant from the ship's ailing life support systems, Eric couldn't tell. He didn't care. The only thing that mattered was the next target.

Power from deck to deck was limited at best. Such was the extent of the system failure that the Spartans were partially relying on their suits' internal systems to process the increasingly limited atmosphere. Whirling klaxons droned as spinning hazard lights pulsed through the smoke, etching everything out in stark orange bas-relief. When it occasionally did reveal itself, the deck was a plasma-scarred carpet of spent bullet casings and twitching bodies, human and alien alike. Great arcs of neon alien gore painted the walls, like the morbid brushstrokes of some demented painter.

Still, more of them came. Eric's motion sensor swam red, awash with hostile signatures. He didn't spare it a second glance. It only told him what he already knew.

They were being overwhelmed.

A plasma bolt caught him in the shoulder, spinning him back against the wall. Eric's only response was to raise his DMR and groggily respond in kind. The rifle kicked twice, and another Elite toppled forward, its glinting mandibles torn away in ragged strips. With a fizzling pop the Spartan's camouflage system collapsed. His armoured form shimmered into view, the rounded contours of his SPI armour backlit by bolts of hissing plasma that snapped hungrily up the corridor.

"Scimitar Three; stealth-field compromised," Eric reported smoothly, despite the flood of chemicals and immunosuppressant-chemicals flooding his system. He did his best to ignore the series of bleating icons that lined the bottom of his visor.

"Acknowledged, Three," Scimitar One's voice crackled over the com, "Confirm status."

The wound was deep. Eric's eye twitched as he dipped two gauntleted fingers into the ragged hole in his armour, grunting as they disappeared down to the knuckle. They emerged black and sticky with his own blood. He tried to move his arm, and found that he couldn't. The room swam around him, and he had to squeeze his eyes shut to clear his vision. He instantly reached for the trauma kit bolted onto his thigh.

"One, Three; Status Orange."

"Status Orange confirmed, Three. Rotate and shift: Pattern Golf."

"Pattern Golf; solid copy."

"Two, Four; maintain suppressive fire - keep him covered."

Two green acknowledgement lights responded. A pair of shimmering rumours, Spartans both, loped forward; knees bent, weapons spitting. Eric back-pedalled up the corridor, both his rifle and the trauma kit balanced in the crook of his good arm. Disciplined cover fire drove the Covenant warriors back, forcing them to slink into the shadowy gloom; the only sign of their presence being the luminescent glow of Jackal Point Defence Gauntlets, and the glittering flash of Sangheili mandibles. They continued to take snap shots at the retreating Spartans, a flurry of green and blue shots lancing up the corridor and sparking against the deck.

The Spartans had just retreated beyond the threshold of a large emergency pressure seal when a lucky plasma bolt caught the shortest of them squarely in the head. Scimitar Two flopped wordlessly to the deck, fizzling into view as her stealth field collapsed. The HUD icon representing her vital signs keened an ominous red.

"Four: Two's down!" there was no disguising the panic in Matt's voice.

"Maintain com-discipline, Four!" Scimitar One barked sternly, "Three, I need a visual confirmation on Two."

"On it." Eric replied, thumping a bio-foam canister into the hole in his shoulder and squeezing the activation grip. He didn't pause to remove the canister as he ducked forward, his DMR bucking awkwardly as he fired it from the hip. He tossed the rifle aside as it clacked empty.

A single glance at Scimitar Two, Ellie, told Eric everything he needed to know. She was face-down; a spider web of jagged cracks creeping across the dome-like visor. Her leg twitched erratically, as if refusing to die. Bracing himself, Eric rolled Ellie over. A touch of his gauntleted palm depolarised her cracked visor.

A pair of unblinking blue eyes stared up at him lifelessly. Eric turned toward his team leader, Joseph.

"Ellie's gone, Sir."

Joseph didn't reply. Instead he grabbed an emergency access lever set into the bulkhead, wrenching it with a snarl. The emergency blast door slammed down, cutting off their pursuers. The blast door shook and dented inward as plasma rounds and enraged fists thumped against it, but it held. The muffled cries of incensed Elites cursed them from the other side.

Scimitar One deactivated his stealth shroud, absently tugging an unexploded needle shard out of his breastplate and casting it aside. Like the others, his armour was a mess; a battered patchwork of plasma-charred plating and melted crystal-glass. Joseph opened a new com-channel.

"Scimitar Actual, this is Scimitar One; come in over."

The return signal popped and jumped with static as it came through.

"-read you, Scimitar One,"

"Scimitar Two is down. I repeat; Scimitar Two is confirmed MIA," he touched the side of his helmet to try and boost the signal, "No sign of the target on board. Requesting new orders."

"-cknowledged, Scimitar One. Standby-"

The link went dead.

Even with the Perth's faltering communications network boosting their signal strength, the abundance of plasma charge around the Perth was playing havoc with fleet-wide communications. Joseph shook his head and reverted to the inter-squad channel, tapping a series of commands into his wrist-mounted TACPAD. Behind him, there was a bright flash from the door, and a searing beam of bright blue light began carving its way through the bulkhead's thick armour plating.

The Covenant had brought up a cutting beam.

The burning ball of light sawed in a circular pattern, looking for all the world like the top half of a baleful eye. Bubbling molten sparks dribbled and spat out onto the deck, where they smouldered and sizzled. Team Scimitar's moment of brief respite was over.

Scimitar One looked down at Ellie's broken body, then looked back at the smouldering bulkhead. The cutting beam was halfway through.

"Team Scimitar, on me; prepare to withdraw."

"Withdraw?" Matt balked, incredulous, "But what about the Perth? What about Ellie?"

"I would save it if I believed there was anything still worth saving, Four." Joseph answered, "Coms are down and we've already lost one Spartan; I won't lose another two. We're leaving. Matt. Divide Two's remaining ammunition between the two of you. Three, prep the body - you know what to do."

"Understood." Eric replied.

Without another word Eric laid Ellie on her back, folding her arms across her breast-plate. The cutting beam had almost worked its way down to the floor. He gently touched her visor one final time, re-polarising it, before hurrying after the others.

Settled in Ellie's hands was a final parting gift for her killers: a primed C9 Satchel charge, keenly-balanced on a dead man's switch.

Even in death, the Spartan would prove a deadly foe.

[image source blurred (source: cigarette smoke?). Sound detected [exhalation]. A pause. Thirteen seconds elapse, no audio detected, then-]

"What happened next?"

"Our orders were to ensure the Covenant boarding action failed. By the time we set down on the Perth, the ship had already fallen into enemy hands. And not just a single boarding party - that we could have handled. There were hundreds of them. All fired up, too."

"It seems unusual, that the Covenant would deem it necessary to board the ship, rather than simply destroy it."

"They were looking for something. The Perth wasn't just a standard frigate; our intel had flagged it as a Priority One Research Vessel. Naval Intelligence emphasised that in the mission logs, repeatedly."

"And you deployed from the Coventry, even in spite of the Earth Force-Recall Directive?"

"Scimitar Actual made the command decision. The ship was carrying something important. Something critical. Our orders came direct from Section Three; we didn't question them when we got the call."

"And yet your team abandoned the combat theatre."

"Bullshit! There was nothing to be found. The Science Deck had been torched long before we touched down. Earth was being invaded; we'd already lost Ellie. Frankly, Sir, we had bigger fish to fry. Whatever your spooks were working on, they didn't leave much for the Covenant. We aborted because the combat theatre was a no-win scenario."

"I thought Spartans specialised in no-win scenarios."

[Sound detected: (derisive snort?)]

"Yeah, so they keep telling me."

"Nobody blames you for what happened, 239. We just need you take us through what happened on that ship. Things will get better for you if you do. Now, please, continue..."

The deck trembled and shook beneath their feet. The lights overhead dimmed for a moment, flickered, and then throbbed back to life with a sickly pulse. Ellie's parting gift had been received.

Up ahead, Team Scimitar encountered problems of their own.

"We're cut off!" Matt exclaimed, pumping the slide on his shotgun and discharging a blind shot around the corner. In return, a dozen needle shards whickered into the support column he'd taken cover beside, spitting as they erupted in fitful bursts of vibrant colour. Never one to leave an argument unsettled, Matt pulled a grenade from his webbing and slung it around the corner with a well-practiced flick of his wrist. A blast of smoke vented past him; spattering alien body parts through the air. An answering fusillade of needles, plasma shots and plasma grenades launched themselves up the corridor, causing the Spartan to shrink further into cover. They were pinned.

The Covenant had them hemmed in from both sides. To the front, an impenetrable Jackal phalanx lined the corridor, marshalled and supported by their taller, more muscular cousins, the Skirmishers. The birdlike aliens squawked and crowed to each other as they picked shots at the Spartans. To the rear, countless Elites were picking their way through the ash-choked corridors, wary of any further traps. Eric had drawn his side-arm with his good arm, and methodically picked targets out of the gloom. His other arm dangled limply by his side.

Joseph knew they had to do something, and fast. A consulting glance at his TACPAD informed him that the hangar bay was only a hundred yards away, but it might as well have been a million, given the sheer numbers of Jackals clogging the corridor ahead. Throaty Sangheili battle cries wafted up the corridor, taunting them.

If the Elites catch up with us, any further debate is going to be final.

"Team Scimitar, ready grenades and prepare to charge."

Neither Matt or Eric questioned the decision. They both knew there was no other option. Matt pumped the slide on his shotgun with an eager clack. Eric holstered his pistol and plucked a grenade from his webbing.

"Ready," they chorused, grenades primed.

"Do it."

Eric hurled the grenade so hard it almost took the head of a Skirmisher clean off. The alien barely had time to shriek before a biting cloudburst of slicing shrapnel reduced it and its surrounding clutch-mates into neon purple vapour. The mist was still dissipating when the three Spartans barrelled through, slamming into the heart of the Jackal formation with all the crunching subtlety of a battering ram. Jackals squealed in terror as scything armoured gauntlets swatted energy shields aside, splintering the brittle bones beyond.

Matt's shotgun pumped shell after shell before clicking empty. Nonplussed, he deftly gripped it by the barrel and started wielding it like a club. Its stock dented as it chopped into the forehead of the Jackals' pack leader. The surviving Kig-Yar broke in terror, casting their weapons aside as they baldly fled. Joseph and Eric dropped to one knee, punishing the Jackals for having broken formation with ruthless precision.

They were through. Coated in alien gore, slime and a patchwork of plasma burns, but they were through.

The hangar bay was a war zone unto itself. It evidently had borne the brunt of the fighting once the Covenant raiding parties touched down. Overhead, plasma-ravaged loading gantries twisted and curled like scary fingers. The few Longsword fighters that had failed to launch had been blown apart in their stands, the charred skeletons of their pilots rendered messy smears on the deck below.

Analysis of video images relayed from the ship's surveillance records told a story of vehement resistance. Dropships, a wave of Spirit and Phantom class assault transports, had surged into the holding bay. A deluge of rockets washed over their hulls as they passed through the bay's energy shield. Three of them had careened into the deck, vomiting fire and burning bodies as they tumbled and twisted across the deck, before finally slewing to a halt in a fountain of spraying sparks and screeching metal.

Mounted gun emplacements, lined high along the mezzanine deck, had fired until their gun barrels glowed molten red and their crews were overrun. The marines had doggedly tried to deny the Covenant intrusion forces, giving their lives to the last. Hundreds of slaughtered Grunts and even the occasional broken Hunter stood mute testament to their sacrifice.

Scimitar's ride, a Pelican dressed in the olive livery of the UNSC, sat alone amidst the aftermath of this carnage, its rear hatch lowered invitingly. The pristine colour of its hull seemed entirely at odds with the surrounding brutality. The Spartans didn't hesitate, sprinting forward. Behind them, alien throats warbled deeply, and a torrent of plasma shots began slicing at their heels every step of the way. The Elites had caught up with them. Oh, but the ramp was so close! Eric could almost reach out and touch it.

Then the world exploded in sound and fury.

"A bomb?"

"Plasma charged, rigged on a proximity trigger. It was a blunder on our part; we should have expected our egress was compromised."

"It was Scimitar's third combat mission. Errors in judgement were expected."

"It was also Scimitar's last combat mission. Errors in judgement proved fatal."

"How did your team respond?"

"We reacted as any ambushed Spartan would. We got angry. We fought back."

Joseph's lungs burned as he rolled about; body screaming for air. Liquid fuel and fire and heat poured down around him, drowning out the outside world in a ceiling of roaring destruction. Small metal comets slapped into deck all around, tinkling and skittering as they burned. The entire world was ablaze.

"Scimitar!" he rasped, groping blindly for his assault rifle, "Status report!"

Nobody answered him. He groaned as he rolled onto his belly, rifle in hand.

Dozens of Elites bounded into the hold, plasma repeaters held aloft; their eyes peering keenly into the mushrooming fireball. A flood of Grunts and Jackal reinforcements accompanied them, picking their way over the carpet of slaughtered Kig-Yar with wary clicks and apprehensive yips.

"Spartans," Joseph crowed into the com, "Engage!"

No green acknowledgement lights answered him this time. Joseph snarled in fury and sighted on the foremost Elite, opened fire. The bullets stitched across the blue-armoured alien's chest, punching it back a step or two as its shield began to buckle. One bullet ricocheted off and slapped a hapless Grunt in the temple, killing it instantly. The Elite fell dead alongside it; shields sparking fitfully, its combat harness a mangled ruin. The Covenant unloaded blindly toward the glowing wreckage, the storm of shots sailing harmlessly overhead. Difficult to pick out amongst the orange-tinted wreckage, Joseph chose a new target and fired again. The charge handle on his rifle snapped backward: empty. He smoothly ejected the spent magazine, slapping a new one home. He re-sighted and fired, again and again. Covenant of all forms twisted and fell as they charged across the open ground, spurred on by the throaty bellows of their Sangheili masters.

An armoured hoof crunched into the wreckage behind him, announcing its presence with an ominous thud.

The Sangheili Ultra towered over him; a hellish nightmare, back-lit by the burning flames of the annihilated Pelican. Held aloft in its hand was a shimmering energy sword. Its eyes bore down menacingly into his own. The alien warbled something unintelligible in its foul tongue, raising its hand to strike. Joseph went to roll around and bring his weapon to bear, even as he realised it was far too late.

Something landed on the Elite's back. On Joseph's HUD, a single acknowledgement blinked into life, signifying one thing.

Engagement order received.

Battered beyond belief, armour ablaze in several places, Eric twisted his combat knife deeper into the Elite's neck, un-seaming its neck to the open air. The Elite thrashed and choked, but Eric held on, his one good arm clinging to the knife for dear life. The more the alien struggled, the deeper and more ragged the blade carved. Joseph raised his rifle and fired twice. His aim was flawless: the Elite's right eye burst like a light bulb, before it slammed face-first on the deck with a rasping gurgle. Eric slid something across the flaming deck toward Joseph. It took him a moment to recognise what it was.

The de-activated grip of the Elite's energy blade.

Joseph's rifle had two final bursts in it before he tossed it aside, snatching up the blade's handle and freeing his side-arm. Another Elite, a brawny officer, was almost on top of him. It whooped a challenge as it brandished an overheated plasma repeater. Joseph unloaded with his pistol as the alien closed, waiting until the last possible moment. As the Elite swung at him, the Spartan ducked past, sliding forward under the Elite's armpit. His hand gripped the Energy Sword's activation handle as he twisted about beneath the Elite's arcing blow.

He lit the blade, ripping it backward with a savage slice. The Elite's head spun giddily through the air as it parted from its body, trailed by a twirling streamer of neon back-spatter. The body tottered forward, spurred on by its own momentum; toppling in a heap. The Spartan continued spinning on his own momentum, his pistol barking twice and smashing two panicking Grunts off their feet. He dropped to one knee and buried the sword up to the hilt in the chest of the next charging Sangheili, who managed a strangled surprised gasp before the Spartan tore the blade free with a twist and a snarl.

Still more came. His HUD's motion sensor was skipping and shimmering from the damage his suit had sustained, but the wall of red told him the only story he needed to know. Fireteam Scimitar would give a good account of themselves, at the very least.

A second acknowledgement light lit up on the HUD.

Chattering machine gun fire raked over the encroaching Covenant horde, ripping into their ranks and blowing them apart. Matt was hunkered over one of the marine's abandoned double-barrelled assault turrets, hands clamped over the twinned firing triggers. The strobe of the gun's muzzle flash blinked like orange petals as they unloaded. Like the others, he hadn't taken the time to swat out the fires that licked their way across the surface of his armour. Over the inter-squad channel, Eric could hear his friend laughing.

Tactically savvy, the Elites bolted for the relative safety of the access corridor they'd come from, their powerful legs carrying most of them to safety with relative haste. Less fortunate were their Unggoy and Kig-Yar charges, who cowered haplessly before the chopping storm of lead. One or two of the Jackals managed to band together, hulking down in a tidy armoured phalanx. They were still in a tidy phalanx when a plasma grenade hurled by Joseph sailed through the air, hissing into the deck between the three of them. It announced its presence with a shrill keening beep.

"Thanks for the assist, Four." Joseph nodded.

"Thank me later, Sir," Matt shouted over the juddering emplacement. "You've got about a minute before this gun runs bingo on ammo."

"Understood, Four," Joseph was tapping new instructions into his Tac-Pad, "Keep them pinned for as long as you can; rally point now on your marker."

Joseph turned and slung Eric's good arm over his shoulder. The wounded Spartan was having difficulty standing, and his breathing was laboured inside the confines of his helmet. The helmet itself was beginning to crack across the visor, from where the dying Ultra had hurled him bodily to the deck.

"Still with me, Eric?" Joseph asked.

A groggy nod answered him. His breathing was laboured.

"We're almost there. Based on the Perth's design specs, there should be an emergency departure suite somewhere on the far side of this flight deck."

"Escape pods?" Matt chimed in over the thundering turret, "You're kidding me."

"Do we have a choice, Four?"

"Do we ever, Sir?"

Matt's gun choked empty. Its ammo panniers were dry. Steam vented freely from the glowing gun barrels. Elites began storming back into the hangar bay, loping toward whatever scant cover was afforded them by the veritable graveyard of abandoned UNSC vehicles, ruined drop-ships and twisted wreckage. Plasma fire began to spit toward him once more, fizzling and sparking as it slapped into the armoured plating surrounding the gun.

"On second thought," Matt remarked, "I think I've answered my own question."

"Based on the time-stamps recorded by your helmet footage, by this point there was less than ten minutes until the mission log ends."

"Ten minutes might as well have been ten hours. I trust you're familiar with the phrase 'Spartan Time'?"

"I understand the concept. Enhanced reflexes and hardwired training leads to an exponentially increased reaction time in combat situations. The result is something akin to living in slow motion."

"Yeah, that's the gist. There's a downside to it though."

"Which is?"

[Subject leans forward. Chair creaks under his immense physicality. A grin is visible beneath the harsh overhead spot-lamps, rendered savage by jagged scar-tissue around the mouth.]

"When you're out of ammunition, entirely surrounded and at less than sixty percent optimised combat strength, time doesn't go any faster."

Matt was almost fully across the deck when fate caught up with him.

The first bolt caught him in the calf, blowing it apart. The second, third and fourth shots thumped into his lower spine and right shoulder, spinning him about like a rag doll. That it didn't kill him outright spoke volumes about the Spartan's sheer durability. That he then drew his side-arm, propped himself up on his elbow and began to return fire showed his determination to fight to the end. Would that the universe rewarded such heroism with sudden reprieves from the jaws of certain death, but the universe is an unforgiving place. The murder-choked halls of the UNSC Perth were no exception.

"Four," Matt managed through gritted teeth," "Status Orange. Go on ahead, Sir; I've got this lot."

His last words. The Elites were on him in seconds. One of them finally tumbled as his shots rang true, but there were so many; too many to count. A snarling Ultra swatted his barking pistol out of his hand with a contemptuous backhand, then hauled him upright by the throat. Its reward for this was a thrusting combat knife thumping up under the chin of its faceplate, stabbing deep into the brain. It only managed a strangled squeal of surprise before it dropped him. Matt rose to his knees, fumbling for something on his belt. The rest of the Sangheili, not taking any chances, raised their weapons as one and unloaded at point blank range, merciless. Matt's body shuddered as the bolts chopped home. He slumped and fell, broken. His bio-signs flat-lined.

But not before he triggered the plasma grenades clutched in his gnarled hands.

Those Elites that weren't killed outright by the blast were hurled in all directions, maimed and shrieking. As their reinforcements caught up with them, minutes later, the worst injured were executed out of sympathy: three of their brothers had been burned beyond all recognition. There was no honour in such a fate.

Joseph and Eric saw none of this. The second Matt triggered the grenades they had fired a few vengeful shots toward the unfolding carnage, then sealed the door behind them. Neither of them would allow their friend's sacrifice to be in vain.

They were Spartans. They would grieve later.

If there was to be a later.

"You do realise how unlikely it was that such an escape plan would have worked? The Perth was set upon by a CCS Battlecruiser and two light support frigates. The Coventry was hopelessly out-matched and outgunned. Landing a Spartan strike-team to attempt to retake the Perth was a risk. Shooting an escape pod toward Lariel's surface was outright suicide."

"Yeah, I know. I'm the only left, aren't I?"

"You are classified as a Tier One asset. Your four man fire-team cost as much to train, equip and arm as an entire mechanised armour division. A flippant attitude isn't exactly what the powers that be expect from such a weighty investment, Spartan."

"I'll take it under advisement. Can I get another shot?"

"You've already had three, 239. Medical aren't advising it."

"Another shot. Please."

"Not until you finish your debriefing. You were at the escape pods... what happened next?"

"What do you think happened? Complications."

Joseph hauled Eric into the escape pod, propping him upright. Such was his immense size that he almost occupied two of the crash seats. He tapped Eric twice on the side of the helmet, rousing him back into consciousness. The Spartan's head lolled about sluggishly. Eric had evidently taken more damage in the Pelican's explosion and the ensuing scuffle with the Ultra than previously thought. Broken ribs, extensive bleeding and an almost severed arm. His vitals had crashed from a glowing yellow-orange to an alarming ember glow.

"You still with me, Three?" Joseph asked encouragingly. He could hear the false enthusiasm in his own voice, and hated himself for it.

Eric managed a limp nod.

"I've already programmed the launch sequence on this pod. I'm also going to launch the entire bay as a decoys, but that means programming them via the access terminal in the main corridor. Can you cover the exit?"

Another nod, this time more determined. He proffered his pistol to Joseph.

"Load me." Eric rasped.

Joseph clapped him on the shoulder and duly obliged. It was their last magazine.

Joseph stepped back out into the corridor. He'd taken the precaution of sealing all three doorways between the emergency evacuation station and the main docking bay. A muffled explosion and a fresh round of warning klaxons informed him that the Elites, incensed by their most recent losses, had foregone the subtlety of a cutting beam in favour of a far more direct approach. The sealed bulkheads were tough though, and it would take a number of shaped charges to blast through. Even so, he estimated that he had about a two minute window, tops.

Joseph didn't waste them. His gauntleted fingers danced over the controls as he inputted randomised coordinates for each individual pod. Pressed for time as he was, he still planned it with care. Some would arc out toward the planet's surface, while some would shoot toward the Covenant assault frigates, presenting easier targets for the aliens' batteries. It would have to be convincing if this was going to work. A second explosion rumbled the ship's hallway. Only one more door left.

Joseph spared a glance over his shoulder, then another back at the console. The shimmering readout informed that it would take thirty seconds for the half-dozen individual launch cycles to complete. Their pod would be the last to leave. A third and final explosion buckled the doorway at the end of the corridor behind him. It held, barely, but the series of dents that began punching into the door's buckled plating told him enough.

He was out of time.

Joseph remained calm. The first thing he did was activate the launch sequence. Then he brought up his wrist-mounted TACPAD, keying in a series of instructions. He called up the operational roster for Fireteam Scimitar, and double-tapped the heading reading "Roster Status". A drag of his finger moved Ellie and Matt's names into the MIA column. The emergency bulkheads began sealing shut with pressurised squeals, as their auto-locks rotated, tightened and then finally clocked shut.

After a pause, another drag of his finger added his own name to the list.

The bulkhead burst inwards with a shriek of tortured metal. A wall of smoke rolled in, obscuring the dozens of armoured shapes lurking within. Joseph primed the Energy Blade, taking a step forward and standing straight, his chin held high in defiance. The horde of Elites howled a challenge, their own Energy Blades igniting in return.

Thirty seconds to launch, Joseph smiled sadly. He could manage that.

As the final escape pod rocketed safely away toward the swirling green and blue tranquility of Lariel IV's surface, it seemed far at odds with the carnage unfolding in the heavens above. The escape pod hit the upper atmosphere with a banging thump. Its shields flared a trailing comet of glorious orange fire, before it plunged smoothly into one of the planet's mirror-like lakes.

Eric's howl of grief went with it, all the way to the surface.

[Subject, ident-confirmed as Sierra G-239, has his head bowed, a side-effect of his current condition. Subject's left arm has been amputated below the shoulder, where it awaits prosthetic replacement. His eyes are red-rimmed and haggard; his features pock-marked from burnt tissue and cuts sustained from a cracked visor. Subject has received minimal necessary treatment for his injuries, pending satisfactory completion of his debriefing and subsequent SPECWAR THREE Combat Clearance Re-certification /STATUS PENDING/.]

"The UNSC Curious Messenger picked me up two weeks later. Told me the war was over. That I'd have to answer some questions. About what happened."

"And you have, Spartan. There's just one more question I have to ask."

[Subject raises his head. His eyes are narrowed in suspicion. His voice is a strangled rasp.]

"And that is?"

"What are we going to do with you now, Eric?"