Chapter CLXXXIII: The Truth is Relative

July 3, 2549 (UNSC Calendar)/

Fountain FOB, Udinia, Paris IV, Paris System

"The truth is absolute."

The transport ship broke up into several big pieces and started falling back down to Paris IV in a meteor shower out of hell. The three Banshees broke off and disappeared behind some clouds.

"Fuck!" Marv shouted, kicking a rock. He barely ever lost his cool like that.

I saw Hoff reach towards his sidearm and raise it so that the barrel was aiming at his chin.

"Hoff!" I shouted, kicking his hand. The gun fired right after I hit his wrist and the bullet barely missed his jaw.

Marv immediately jumped at him and pressed his hand against the ground, slamming it twice to get him to release the pistol. Andrea, still crying, reached for his other arm and pinned it to the ground as well.

"Just let me die," he shouted. "Let me do this!"

"I'll let you die," I told him, shaking his head. "But I won't let you kill yourself!"

The words seemed to get to him and he stopped struggling with Marv and Andrea. He looked up at me

"My whole family was there," he said coldly. "What is there to live for?"

"Revenge if nothing else," I told him.

I almost cried when I saw him die a little. His eyes managed to show that all desire to live had left him. He stopped crying and stared into some point in the distance. His eyebrows came together in a determined frown and he put his hand up so that I could pull him to his feet. Once there he leaned on Marv, letting his injured leg slide to the side a little bit. He looked at me, absolutely no expression in his face.

I nodded at Marv and he flipped the pistol around in his hand before hesitantly offering it to Hoff. He took the pistol and examined it before letting his arm fall back down. I picked up his DMR and placed it on his back, making sure the magnetic clamps kept it firmly in place.

"Andy, stop crying," I said drily. "You're a Helljumper, not a fucking baby."

"Sir," she sniffled, her voice managed to break halfway through the word. "Sorry, sir."

There weren't many covvie soldiers left and already some units were being sent our way. Despite us having been the only UNSC forces in the area up till a few seconds earlier, the few survivors were focusing on the bigger threat. Seeing as the bigger threat involved two tanks and a couple of platoons they weren't exactly effective.

I sighed. "Marv, help Hoff. Andy, you and I will move Miranda, ok?"

"Yes, sir," they both replied.

"Come on," I said, giving one last look at the fading fireball. "Let's go."

July 4, 2549 (UNSC Calendar)/one day later

UNSC Flawless, in orbit above Udinia, Paris IV, Paris System

Vice Admiral Oliver Bogart

"Sanders, have we finished scavenging the Navarone?" I asked.

"Yes, sir," the junior officer replied. "All MAC ammunition has been divided in between us and the (Dis)Honorable."

I cleared my throat.

"Sorry sir," Sanders apologized quickly. "The Honorable."

"Very well. Dalman, give me an update on the battle group."

"Yes, sir. Right away." The man tapped a few buttons on his console and the information I wanted appeared on the screen in front of him. "The Honorable still has battle damage, but the repairs have progressed, especially since they sent scavenger crews to cannibalize the Naverone. Their Archer stocks are back to 15% and they've replenished their PDGs. The Orchestrating the Screaming–"

I chuckled at the name. I always did.

"–has been mostly evacuated and the ship's AI is creating a subroutine for the ramming attempt."

"Commander Williams?" I inquired.

"She's not happy, sir."

I shrugged slightly and rubbed my right temple. That headache just wouldn't go away. "Can't be helped. Anything else?"

"Ummm… not really, sir. The So Much For Subtlety is still undetected, but the reports coming in are nothing new."

A prowler was certainly useful, but said usefulness was limited to planting minefields and gathering intelligence. The moment a prowler was made its destruction was guaranteed. The ships were state of the art, but were small enough to be destroyed by simple anti-fighter lasers and plasma cannons. No amount of camouflage would stop the plasma coming at it.

"Thank you, ensign," I said. "As you were."


I stood up from my chair and slowly walked up to the large holotable in the middle of the bridge. It was displaying the Flawless, my ship, and highlighted the damaged areas and other important information. I couldn't help but frown at the display, even if I had the information it showed memorized by heart. One of the two MAC cannons was completely useless, courtesy of a raiding crew that we somehow managed to miss. The starboard side had been on the receiving end of a particularly nasty series of strikes, only a few of the Archer missile pods were still intact, and those had only a few missiles left. The ventral and dorsal pods were mostly in working order, but Seraph fire and plasma torpedoes had damaged a few of them. The port side only had half of its missile pods left and those had about 10% of their full capacity.

In this state we could barely go up against a pair of corvettes.

I quickly flicked through similar displays showing me the current state of affairs on board the UNSC So Much For Subtlety, the UNSC Honorable, and the UNSC Orchestrating the Screaming. All three ships were badly damaged, but the Orchestrating the Screaming was barely functional, its life support systems were about to fail and the inertial dampeners had stopped working a long time since. I hated to see a good ship like it go, but if the plan worked then it would take out a cruiser.

That left me with only my own ship, a prowler, and a heavy destroyer. My ship was tough and the Honorable was tougher, but we could only take so much.

"How far is Patterson's fleet?" I asked.

"Twenty light-minutes, sir," Sanders replied. "Do you want to send a message?"

"No, thanks," I replied. "He's engaging a flotilla, is he not?"

"Yes, sir," Sanders confirmed. "Well, technically the battle was over a few minutes ago, but we won't see it until later."

I rolled my eyes. Sanders was the kind of guy that seemed to explain everything to everyone. It wasn't because he thought that he was smarter than everybody around him, it was just a personal habit of his. Every elementary school kid knew that what we saw in the sky was actually in the past because light takes a certain time to travel from one place to another. Every naval officer knew that what you saw in a certain solar system was up to a few hours or even days old, so you had to make your moves in a way that tried predicting those of the enemy you were seeing on your screen.

My head throbbed again. Life was hard enough without having to plan combat strategies in four dimensions. This was especially true right now, when two of my ships had been blown to oblivion and a third one was damaged badly enough to warrant using it as a bomb.

"Sir, incoming hail from ODP-02."

"Patch it through."

"Good morning, Admiral," the officer in charge of the defense platform greeted.

I looked down at my watch. I hadn't noticed that it was morning, I was running on frequent naps more than anything. I knew how important being well rested was, but the situation made it nearly impossible for me to catch more than four consecutive hours of sleep without something important happening.

"Good morning, Commander," I replied.

"Sir, you asked me to report as soon as the survivors from the Naverone had been assigned living quarters and issued personal effects. We don't have enough rooms for everybody, but we managed to make some room."

"That's good."

"Sir, I also had a request…"

"Go on," I told him after I sensed his hesitation.

"Some Phantoms and Seraphs are still getting past our PDGs on occasion. A squadron of Longswords would come in very handy."

I sighed. "I'm sorry commander, but our remaining fighters are divided between your station and ODP-05, we can't afford to pull even a single fighter from that station either."

The commander nodded, he had expected this response. "I understand, sir. In that case I have another request. A few enemy boarding parties have made it through. My Marines have been able to handle it, but if too many covvies got on board we would be in real trouble. I wanted to ask for volunteers amongst the survivors, create a few auxiliary infantry units. We have enough weapons and ammunition here to arm two platoons."

I almost smiled. "Well, I'm glad you asked first."

The commander actually did smile. "They're your men, sir. My mom taught me to always be polite."

"A wise woman that one."

"Yes," he said. "Yes she was."

"Was she on the planet?"

"Yes, sir."

"I'm sorry," I apologized sadly. So many people had died. "Is there anything else?"

"Not really, I heard that the factories were destroyed?"

"Yes, captured," I confirmed. "What we have is what there is. No more heavy rounds for your station."

"Understood, that is all, sir. Out."

The image disappeared from in front of me and my Flawless replaced it.

"Sir," Sanders said, "The Stalingrad and her auxiliaries engaged two cruisers and five corvettes. The battle was a stalemate, one of the enemy corvettes was damaged and two of our frigates appear to have lost some of their propulsion capabilities."

"Give me a full report when we have more information," I said. "Jaws."

A holographic shark replaced the diagram of my ship. "Yes, admiral?"

"Play some music. Classical."

"Will Montmercy suffice?"

"No, let's play something older…"

"Yo-Yo Ma?"

I shook my head again.

"Admiral, this would be easier if you told me what to play."

"Play me Symphony Number 40 by Mozart. All four movements."

"Right away, sir."

The soft and relaxing sounds of Molto Allegro filled the bridge, quieting any conversations that had been going on. I closed my eyes and allowed myself to slump slightly on the command chair. One of my bridge crew would wake me if anything merited my attention. Once I made the decision I let the beautiful music carry me to sleep.

July 4, 2549 (UNSC Calendar)/

Fountain FOB, Udinia, Paris IV, Paris System

First Lieutenant Yassir Dajani

"And his knee?" I asked.

"Half of it was vaporized by the energy sword," Frank said tiredly. "Doctors got some crappy temporary implants, enough to give him some mobility. Problem is up here." He knocked his head and made crazy eyes. "That man is dead inside."

"I'm sure he can get over it," I said, trying to sound convincing. "Some therapy and he'll be back to normal."

Frank turned his face and looked at me. The man had been my friend for a long time, but sometimes his eyes scared me.

"I know crazy Yas," he said. He barely ever mentioned insanity or mental problems. I had spent enough time around him to know that I noticed some things.

Frank sometimes spoke to someone that wasn't there, and he seemed to hear somebody that wasn't there too. We all had nightmares, but the ones he went through were always the same, he apologized repeatedly to several different people. He occasionally mentioned that I had been talking in my sleep and I said the same thing, but we never discussed the nightmares themselves. As good a friend and a warrior as he was, he was walking a very thin line.

"I guess…" I said noncommittally. "What about it."

"I've been dealing with my own personal shit for a very long time and a quick look at Ryan is enough to tell me that he's lost it."

"That bad?"

"You saw him."

"I did," I admitted. "And it did look pretty bad… What are you going to do about it?"

Frank groaned loudly as he got up from the ground. "What can I do? I can't allow him to bite a bullet, and I certainly can't order him to load himself with explosives and run into a Covenant compound. He wants to die, no way around that."

"Frank, allowing a man to die, whether he wants to or not is bad enough to warrant a court martial and maybe even a firing squad."

"They won't allow that."

This time it was my turn to groan. "Who the hell are they?" I asked. "You keep mentioning them or they or whatever, are they made up?"

"Whoa! I'm not that delusional."



I rolled my eyes. "Frank, for Pete's sake."

He shrugged and looked genuinely apologetic. It was strange to see a sincere expression coming from him. He rarely smiled in a way that looked heartfelt and the few times his laughter wasn't ironic or mocking it was when Pavel said something funny. He could fool most people, but spending so much time in the same room as him gave me a slight advantage. His facial expressions looked a little bit too practiced, as if he was consciously thinking about frowning in order to appear as people would expect him to.

"I seriously can't tell you," he said.

"And I seriously fucking hate you," I replied. "Let's change the topic. Ok?"

He shrugged. "Sure."

I tried thinking about something but couldn't come up with anything interesting for at least fifteen seconds. I flipped through my standard small talk opening phrases until I finally came up with something that didn't have anything to do with the war.

"Christ, when was the last time you got laid?" Frank asked before I could open my mouth.

"What?" I asked, momentarily stunned. He had a particular talent for making people uncomfortable. "A while I guess, since before we deployed here."

Frank looked at me and laughed.

"What?" I said, this time defensively. "I don't like relationships, if I allowed myself to love someone and then died… That can be painful."

"You never talk about her," he said. "Now I'm no expert, but I've lost a few girls that I loved."

"Not like this Frank. That's something that you can never get over."

He hadn't done it on purpose, but he had managed to get me thinking about the hardest time in my life during the toughest battle in my life.

"I'm sorry," he apologized quickly. "Shouldn't have brought her up."

"Don't worry about it."

"But you still get laid enough, right?"

I chuckled at his frankness, no pun intended. "Yes, you might see me as a sentimental bitch."

We both laughed a little bit. He had called me that during a half-drunken bout. I had punched him so hard for it that he slammed into the floor. Then he had somehow kicked me hard enough that he drove the wind out of me and pushed me all the way into the opposite wall. We decided to leave it at that and called it even after he apologized.

"But I'm still a man," I continued. "Sex is as essential to life as breathing."

"Amen," he said, pronouncing it as he would've in Spanish. "I gotta admit that having a girlfriend on the same ship does have its benefits."

I smiled. Hanna was a nice girl and happened to have a ridiculously cute face that went perfectly with her sexy body. Of course, whenever Frank asked I just told him that she was very attractive.

"I don't think I could handle it," I said. "Well the sex would be pretty damn welcome, but…"

"Don't jinx it," he interrupted. His tone was playful, but there was something that told me that he really didn't want me to continue that line of thought.

I opened my hands and slouched back against the wall.

"It's a bitch to talk to you, you know?" I said.

"And you're so sensitive about everything," he replied.

I grabbed a small rock and threw him at his boot. He picked it up and tossed it back, hitting my rifle and knocking it sideways, where it made a loud clatter.

"Dick," I said.

"Ass," he replied.

"Yas, do you copy?" Captain Tahlia came in.

"Loud and clear Tahlia," I said, grabbing my rifle and standing up. "What's up?"

"They're pushing us hard. I want your platoon and Castillo's to replace One and Three in fifteen minutes."

"Understood," I told her. "We'll be ready in ten."

"That's what I like to hear. Hayes out."

"What's the word?" Frank asked.

I don't know what was the problem between Tahlia and Frank, both were two of my best friends and both absolutely hated each other. None of them would tell my why no matter how much I begged them to. It was very annoying.

"We're moving in to replace One and Three," I informed him. "We need to be ready in ten minutes."

"I'll have my men ready to move in five," he replied. "Good luck."

I clasped his forearm. "You too."

July 4, 2549 (UNSC Calendar)/

Fountain FOB, Udinia, Paris IV, Paris System

Private Stan Zepeda

"Wake up, wake up ladies!"

I groaned quietly and tucked my chin into my chest further, hugging my SRS.

"I said… wake up!"

I opened my eyes. No matter how much I would've enjoyed going back to the nightmares there was work that needed doing and I was certainly going to be partaking in that work. I opened my eyes and took a deep breath. Before I could do anything else Abri put her hand towards me and helped pull me to my feet. I stretched and thanked Abri with a quick nod. She returned it in kind and pulled back the bolt on her assault rifle.

"O'Malley, Zepeda," Staff Sergeant Konstantinov called in. "Five is going in to replace Three's place in the defensive lines. We'll do the usual, ok? O'Malley, fall in with VSF Squad, I'll sink in with HW. Zepeda, do your own thing."

"Yes, sir," O'Malley said.

I nodded.

"Remember, we're fighting against brutes here. They don't usually hide anything behind their massive charges and attacks, but it pays to have your eyes open. Questions?"

I shook my head slightly.

"Good, let's go."

The two of them disappeared down a door and left me alone. I grabbed a few spare magazines for my rifle and shoved them into my various pockets. It still felt good to have ammunition despite having had plenty of it for the past weeks. It felt good to have a rifle as opposed to a spear and a knife that I could barely use. As soon as I was heavy with ammo I put my rifle across my back and drew my pistol. I leaned out the window to make sure that the nice three-story house I had seen earlier was still there and smiled slightly when it was. The whole city had been shot to hell, with building periodically crumbling down. A small unit of people had been created to dig out any soldiers trapped underneath the rubble. Messy work, but it had saved lives.

I climbed out the window and into a small ledge before jumping to the next house. I ran across the roof and jumped down to the ground. I made sure to roll and then crashed sideways into a wall to keep myself from falling to the ground. I didn't think anybody had seen me, but it paid to be cautious. I kept sprinting until I reached the house adjoining the one I wanted to be in. I kicked down the door and climbed all the way to the second floor before jumping across the narrow space in between the two houses and climbing inside through a broken window.

Now I know that all that wasn't necessary, but it made me feel better about myself.

I climbed to the third floor and into a window that provided a great view to the battlefield. The large number of destroyed houses meant that the Covenant had little cover if they were coming at my platoon. The good thing about having a large-caliber weapon was that it could punch through any wall not designed to stop artillery, with the drones flying above the battlefield I would have real-time thermal imagery of Covenant locations and shooting a target through a wall provided a sense of satisfaction that was otherwise hard to get.

"Zepeda, you up?" Staff Konstantinov asked.

I gave him a positive green light.

"You know what to do."

I gave him a second green light. Interacting with other people was so dull.

I looked through my scope and slowly moved it through the battlefield, playing close attention to the areas directly in front of my platoon. The covvie attackers had piled up some of the debris in order to make improvised barriers here and there. Some of the houses still had some walls standing, but most had been brought down. I made sure to have every single good sniper perch spotted and memorized. A jackal sharpshooter could hide anywhere, but it couldn't be effective from all locations.

Most of the brutes were behind cover, I could catch an occasional flash of movement here and there, quickly followed by a few red plasma bolts. Everything was incredibly loud, but from my location it seemed like the noise was disproportionately high. I knew that if I went towards my platoon that everything would seem a lot more fitting, but as long as bullets weren't flying my way everything would seem a little bit louder than was strictly necessary.

I made sure that the platoon line was open so that I could hear their chatter. They had an annoying tendency to speak out loud everything that they saw. Most of the time it bothered me to no end, but it could prove to be helpful, helping me locate targets.

Someone cried out something about a brute captain and a moment later I took it down. Not my greatest shot, but headless is headless.

I sighed. Things could get so boring sometimes. A brute captain here, a jackal sniper there, yet still I was unmade. Every good sniper knew that the key to survival as to remain unnoticed, but for some reason that I didn't understand I deeply enjoyed the act of shooting while under fire. I knew it was dangerous and I knew it was stupid, but I still liked it. I could always blame it on combat stress, but it had always been like this, I could always appreciate a good fight.

I saw a large group of grunts moving from cover to cover and zeroed in on them. They looked like regular grunts, no particular markings or armor to indicate that they were spec ops, but the way they moved didn't really scream dumb-alien-that-can't-fight.

A second later I saw what I was looking for. A brute in very ornate armor slid into cover behind a large pile of debris, the hammer over its back bobbed slightly. I aimed at the debris it was using for cover and waited for it to move. The moment the dumb brute did that I put a high-caliber through its fancy helmet.

I smiled as the bullet punched through the debris, leaving a trail of dust behind it. The blood that splattered the rocks was also quite spectacular. The chieftain somehow managed to stay on its feet for an astounding five seconds before its body realized that it was dead. The brute crumpled to the ground and the veteran grunts around it succumbed to their biological programming and started running in every direction. Then either Hoff or Lieutenant Castillo quickly gunned them down. Whatever their flaws, our two resident crazies were deadly with their weapons. I would've preferred to have Miranda watching my back, Staff Konstantinov trusted her and she didn't have any serious mental issues. At least none that were readily apparent.

After the chieftain fell the jackal sharpshooters started actively hunting. I made sure to keep hidden. I might've liked the thrill that came with being shot at, but I liked the thrill of actually being alive and kicking more, so I didn't actively draw attention to myself. I did clock a jackal or two that were getting too close, but after that I switched windows and decided to lay low for a while. The platoon was handling the constant attacks well enough and the Covenant would have to rest up unless they wanted to start dying because of lack of sleep.

I nailed a brute right through the skull and then slid back into the shadows.

"Zepeda, we're seeing some shimmering. Looks like they're sending stealth brutes to hunt you," Lieutenant Castillo came in, sounding surprisingly well-rested for someone who had been fighting constantly for the last half year. "Be on the lookout."

I sent him a green thank-you light and switched to thermal mode on my Oracle scope. Most stalkers showed even brighter in thermal imagery because the equipment that made them invisible heated them up, but lately I had come across the occasional oddball with state-of-the-art equipment that didn't show on thermal imagery either.

I allowed myself a small sigh. Why couldn't things be simple?

After passing up on a couple of decent targets I spotted a brute ultra on a second floor about seven hundred yards from my position. It seemed to be pacing, because every now and then I would see a part of its body on the window. The house was thick enough that my scope's thermal mode couldn't penetrate through the walls, but that was nothing out of the ordinary in this city. Besides, it wouldn't be fun if it wasn't a challenge.

It didn't take long to figure out how much time it took for the brute to appear on the window and after that I only had to make a quick calculation to figure out how much time it would take for the bullet to reach my target. Instead of risking the brute changing its routine I would wait for its heat signature to appear on the window, fire at the wall, and wait. The bullet would go through the wall and through the brute's shields and head. Easy as pie.

I fired and knew that I had hit my target even as the wall burst inwards. Before I could start enjoying the kill a wave of plasma fire rained down on my little windowsill. I jumped backwards and only barely managed to avoid the bulk of it, but a blue bolt tore my shoulder plate off my shoulder, tearing through my undersuit. For once I was thankful that Lieutenant Castillo kept insisting on us wearing it.

"Stan, your vitals are off, you ok?" Sergeant Konstantinov asked in a perfectly calm voice.

I grunted a reply and gave him a positive green light before tossing my only flashbang out the window and in the direction of the covvies that had fired at me. Relocation was a tedious part of the job, but while feeling the rush of danger could be invigorating, it didn't mean that I enjoyed taking a hit to the shoulder. I ran across the floor and left out the window before crossing a few yards, closing in with the rest of my platoon.

"Zepeda, brute stalker unit just bypassed us, they took two casualties, but we can't protect you anymore," Castillo warned.

I rolled my eyes and gave a green light.

Talk about a thrill.

A few minutes later I was in a small balcony on the third story of a building that was perilously close to becoming a pile of debris. Nothing out of the ordinary, but the balcony was a giant bull's-eye to any trained sniper. I could only get a couple of good shots out before they started shelling this position with fuel rods or wraith mortars.

The first kill was a brute with a spiker on either hand. The brute was leading a large squad of grunts and jackals around a house in an attempt to flank the platoon. The rest of the enemy unit was quickly routed by Platoon Five when they lost their leader.

Carbine and needle rifle rounds quickly started shattering against the balcony and wall behind me, but I could still get another good kill before the area got too hot. I peeked through a hole in the balcony and saw the shimmering shapes of brute stalkers. I cursed. They were directly in between me and the rest of the platoon. I'd have to go solo in order to lose them, and I would have to do it now.

I got up and lifted up my rifle, but as I did that I saw two large and hulking brutes running towards the platoon from their blind side. I didn't understand how they had managed to bypass all defenses, especially considering that they were both hammer-wielding chieftains.


"Lieutenant," I checked in on the radio.

Before he could reply a red bolt hit the side of my helmet. My HUD flickered briefly and disappeared right before I started feeling the burning pain on my ear.

What are the odds? I asked myself taking off the smoking helmet and throwing it to the side. No radio and no HUD.

Two chieftains were headed down to Platoon Five and a stalker team converging on my position. It was either one or the other.

"Oh fuck me…" I cursed, raising my rifle.

The first shot I fired pierced the chieftain's helmet and head, dropping him immediately. The other chieftain jumped sideways and took cover. That wasn't good news, I needed every second I could get if I wanted to survive. I held my position, exposed and highly visible, until the brute's instincts took over and it left cover. Another headshot, another kill.

I turned around and prepared to leave, but the room's wall came crashing down. I fired at the doorframe. There wasn't much room to miss, and a dead brute materialized in front of me. I fired another shot and a second brute appeared, but this one managed to move away before I could fire and only took an arm hit. My rifle clicked empty and I dropped it, switching to my sidearm. I fired two shots before I heard a growl behind me. I turned and something drove the wind from my lungs. I dropped my pistol and stared at the massive brute standing a foot away from me.

I looked down to see the two sharp bayonets of a spiker rifle coming out of my gut. A little bit of blood ran down them before trickling to the floor.

The brute yanked and the only thing that I could think of was that the noise that my body made was disgusting. I could feel myself losing control of my legs and struggled to stay on my feet. I failed and was forced to take a knee. I then had to focus my attention on a different matter. I suddenly felt like I couldn't control my bowels, and dying in a pool of my own shit was not the way I planned to go.

I grunted something and looked up at the brute that had killed me.

"F–fu-ck, you," I spat out.

"No," a deep, rumbling voice came from the doorway. "Fuck you."

I turned my head around as much as I could to see one of the largest brutes that I had ever had the misfortune of coming across. It looked old and scarred, with white hair on its head and jaw. Strangely enough, this chieftain carried a hammer that seemed to be made of stone and was a lot larger than the usual gravity hammer. It also seemed to be sporting a Mohawk.

The brute swung its hammer backwards.

"Well I'll be damned if you're not the ugliest fucker I've eve–"

July 4, 2549 (UNSC Calendar)/

Fountain FOB, Udinia, Paris IV, Paris System

Lieutenant Ana Maya

"Captain, you know I only have half a platoon to work with," I insisted. "Half a platoon of great fighters, but you know as well as I that we just can't do what you're asking me to."

Captain Galván sighed deeply. "You think I don't know what I'm asking of you, Ana?"

"No, sir. I only–"

"Shut it," he cut me off. He somehow managed to make the words sound kind. "You know how bad we are. I requested a SpecOps unit for this job, but they're all busy."

"Even Spartan units?"

"They're the only reason why we haven't been overrun yet," he told me. "Last I heard they were doing raids on the enemy supply trains."

"Frank does owe you a couple of favors…"

He grunted. "That he does, but his unit is holding the outer perimeter."

"If you told him I asked?" I suggested.

"I know you're friends with him Ana, but Command won't have it."

This time I did the sighing. "Well, then I guess that this officially blows."

"It does, but you'll follow orders and hold the sector for as long as you're told to. Ana, if you have to fight to the last man you will do so, there are tens of thousands depending on you."

"Yes, sir," I said. "It's been a pleasure."

"Likewise, Lieutenant," he said. "Don't die out there."

"I'll try."

Captain Darius Galván and I exchanged a brief salute before I left the crumbling bunker. Even the strengthened instacrete could only withstand so much. My men were all huddled around the entrance, resting on the floor or in the two Warthogs that we had for support. They were a sad bunch, with bandages and limps and scratches and tired faces. I probably looked as bad as they did.

"Sergeants Perez and Jackson, we're going back to the suck," I said. The comment drew a universal groan of frustration. "I don't want to hear a single sound of complain out of your mouths. Lives are depending on us, and I will not allow my men to let them down."

"Yes, lieutenant!"

"Let's go, Captain Galván was nice enough to provide us with ammunition."

"And a tank," he said from behind me. "Managed to snag one."

There were a few ragged cheers from my men, but even with a tank our odds would be horrible at best. I nodded a quick thanks and watched a Scorpion pull over with one Marine seating over one of the treads.

"Let's go! Time's a-wasting!" I ordered. "Move!"

My men got back to their feet a little slower than I would've liked, but they had been fighting almost nonstop for the past week. A few of them climbed on the vehicles, letting their legs hang down the sides, and the unlucky ones had to walk back to the frontline. I moved towards the tank, looking to climb on top.

"Lieutenant Maya?"

"Yes?" I asked, turning to look at the person that had spoken. "Ah, you're the medic I requested."

"Yes lieutenant," she said. "Corpsman Hanna Lockley."

"Ah, you're Frank's girlfriend, right?"

Her pretty face seemed awfully confused for a brief instant. "Um, yes."

"All right then, better not die out there, because he'd rip my head off."

"I'll do my best, ma'am."

I nodded and sent her off.

That's one lucky girl.

I stopped dead for a second when I realized what had gone through my head.

Oh shit.

Frank was good-looking, but I was too old to be having crushes on older men.

He's not that much older… He's just like five years older than I am.

I was too old to be having crushes on anybody for that matter. Least of all in the middle of the mother of all battles. I took a deep breath and climbed up the Scorpion tank and banged on the turret, signaling the driver to move forward. The tank rumbled and I tightened my grip on my handhold. We passed a few small units on the way there, most of them were wounded men and women. The battle wasn't going too well down here, but the big ships up there could only fit so many shuttles into their hangars. Our turn was supposed to come soon, but it couldn't be soon enough.

Only a few days ago this section of Fountain Firebase had been full of tired but safe civilians, now it was marked by craters and the occasional burnt out husk of a vehicle. Most vehicles were human, but here and there you could spot a Covenant wreck that reminded us of just how far they had pushed us. The chain link fences surrounding the firebase were all on the verge of falling over if they hadn't already. Some of the aforementioned burnt vehicles had been moved in order to compensate and so far they were doing a mediocre job.

"Get over there," I ordered the tanker. "Behind that truck. You got the latest official engagement recommendations?"

"Fire on large clusters and enemy-occupied buildings," the driver replied. "Ma'am, I'm not exactly sporting a full cache of shells here…"

"Understood, prioritize your targets."

"Yes, ma'am."

I jumped down the tank and jogged up to the front. "Perez, take your squad to the right flank, you've got suppression duty. Jackson, take left flank and pick out sharpshooters."

"What about the 'Hogs ma'am?"

"I was getting to that," I growled. "Everybody else not on those two squads is with me as is one of the Warthogs. The other one can rotate to where it's needed the most."

I got a chorus of 'yes ma'ams' and the men started spreading out in different directions, being careful to keep their heads down as to avoid being killed.

"Lockley hold up," I called out. "Come here."


"You're the only medic we have. Take off your armband."

She glanced down at her arm and examined the white armband with a red cross. For most of us seeing that armband was a sign that everything was going to be ok despite all the pain that you were (in all likelihood) going through. To the Covenant it was just a big sign that begged them to shoot you.

"Good," I said as soon as she took it off. You're already marked as a medic on the platoon's HUD and since you're the stranger you wont' have trouble being recognized."

"Got it ma'am. Anything else?"

I took a deep breath. "It might get ugly. Prioritize."

"Yes, ma'am."

An hour and three minutes later I was happy that Lockley had decided that I had been considered high priority. A needle through the leg usually knocked someone out of commission, but fortunately for me the needle had gone through muscle without hitting any vital arteries. It meant that with some biofoam and a few bandages I could limp around. It also meant a whole lot of pain in the meanwhile.

"Just pour the fucking thing," I growled at Lockley through clenched teeth. "Do it!"

"Your leg's all torn up," she said. "That much contact surface for biofoam… It will hurt ma'am."

"Do it."

"You could go into shock and die."

That gave me a pause. "Do it," I asserted. "Carefully."

Lockley actually smiled. She really was a pretty girl.

She's your age, stop calling her girl.

"Besides, Frank wouldn't be exactly happy if you died while I was taking care of you."

"Well that's good to know."

Before I could say anything else I felt a stinging sensation in my leg and just a moment later my brain was flooded by so much pain that I stopped being able to tell where it came from. I'm pretty sure I screamed a lot for a full minute, but when I regained consciousness my leg was just feeling numb.

"I injected painkillers," she told me as she wrapped a bandage around my leg. "Should hold up reasonably well until we can get some stitching done."

"All right," I managed to say. "Is that all?"


"Then what are you still doing here?"

"Sorry ma'am," she quickly apologized before taking off to attend another of my Marines.

Good girl…

I stretched my leg and pressed lightly on the wound. I might've been able to run if I tried to, but for the time being I would wait until the painkillers really started numbing my leg.

"Lieutenant, elite shock troops are coming in hard and fast!" Perez shouted. "We have wounded and won't be able to hold them back!"

"Prepare to fall back," I replied. "Both Warthogs with Perez."

I hated sending my biggest asset of to Perez and his men, but they were my men too and if they fell our whole effort would collapse.

I opened a line to Captain Galván. "Captain, how much longer do you need us to hold?"

"Ana, I was just about to call. Bad news, ODST and Airborne units are being overrun."

"So much for special forces," I muttered. "Now what?"

"It's chaos back here, we're pulling back everyone we can, but people are going to be left behind."

"Wait, what?"

"We lost, lieutenant. This was our last stronghold in the planet and we just lost."

"What the hell happened?" I asked. "I thought that we could hold for at least one more week."

"Well, our tactical geniuses didn't weren't counting on both the brutes and the elites having their own master tacticians."

"You're telling me that Mr. Mohawk we've been hearing so much about knows the first thing about tactics?"

"That and more," Galván replied. "Jaguar Company is going to be coming through you," he warned. "The moment they are in your position you can fall back."

"Yes, sir," I said, immediately relaying the orders to my men. Just a little bit longer.

The ODSTs came in small groups, the wounded first, being carried by those that could walk. First to come was Lieutenant Weller and Platoon Three, she was a tough bitch that one, but not as tough as she looked. Over half her platoon hadn't made it. The lieutenant herself had been hit by something or other, because her left leg was bleeding heavily.

"Lieutenant," she said. "I see we find ourselves in similar predicaments."

I tapped my leg very gently. "Apparently so."

"I can spare five men to help you," she said. "But the rest of us…"

"Thank you Weller," I told her. "We got this."

She sighed with relief. "I owe you one."

"And you'd better believe I'm going to cash it in."

Platoons One and Four followed quickly, they were in relatively better shape, but dos Santos had been hit and was in critical condition. His platoon sergeant ordered half a squad to stay in the position while the rest of them moved back. Captain Hayes was fine, a scratch here and there, but otherwise ok.

"Lieutenant, what are your orders?"

"Hold until all of Jaguar makes it through," I replied after a short burst. "We're just missing Two and Five."

"Lieutenant Dajani told me that they were on their way. Castillo will do what he wants."

"He usually does," I agreed. "But if he wants to survive he'll come through here."

"All right, I'm assuming command."

"If you say so ma'am," I replied with a shrug. "But in five minutes we're going to be the ones falling back and are going to need the rest of your company to cover our asses."

"Point taken," she grunted, "I'll fall back with my men and organize the defense."

"Yes, ma'am."

The moment she disappeared with two thirds of her men the Covenant intensified their attack. Wave after wave of grunts and jackals hammered us only for packs of brutes to try and make dents in our line. More often than not they succeeded in killing or wounding at least a few of me men. I wasn't feeling to good about the situation, and even when Platoon Two started coming through the situation didn't appear to take a turn for the better.

"Where's Lieutenant Dajani?" I asked a sergeant.

"He went towards Five," she replied. "They were trapped in between two brute packs. He said he'd be right behind us."

I looked over cover and saw nothing but alien monsters.

"Ok, go."

I looked at my watch. I had told Hayes that we would be toast in five minutes and four of those had already gone past. I cursed as one of the Warthogs exploded after being hit by two fuel rods. The other Warthog had to take cover to avoid the green projectiles and only just managed to come out safe.

"Ma'am! I'm low on shells!" the tanker warned. "Taking out those fuel rods!"

A house blew up and collapsed on top of a squad of covvies, but it wasn't enough.

"Shit," I muttered, opening a line to Castillo. "Frank."

"Ana, that you?" he came in. "I was about to call, I'm going to be a little bit late."

"What the hell happened, Frank?"

"They got my sniper and flanked us, they got Carver and damn near killed Ramirez. We're moving slowly but we're on our way."

"Dajani took a squad in your direction," I said.

"Yeah, they're drawing attention away from us. I'll be there in three minutes… is it bad down there?"

"You have no idea," I replied. "We can't keep this up much longer."

"I'll make it quick," Frank told me. "Thanks."

"You're–" He cut the line.

I sighed and reloaded my rifle. At least ammunition wouldn't be a problem.

Grunt after grunt died trying to get through us and more than a few jackals met their end at my men's hands. Brute kills were rarer, but a few baby kong corpses littered the ground in front and around us. So far we were doing better than I could've hoped for, but the reality of our disadvantage was beginning to catch up to us. A grenade landed right on top of a car my men were using for cover and blew up, killing one of them and wounding two others.


I watched as Corpsman Lockley braved enemy fire to move in. She was all the way up front with nobody to cover her while she worked on my men.

"Cover her!" I ordered. "Don't let them flank her!"

My men complied, many of them were wounded themselves, but they didn't want to see their brothers die any more than I did. After an entire Covenant squad was cut down the covvies decided that they could wait to kill the wounded.

"Ana, we're coming through!" Frank's voice screamed in my head.

Three brutes collapsed as they were taken out from behind. Somewhere deep in my head I rolled my eyes at the easy way that Five dispatched the aliens, but the rest of me was just thankful for the brief respite. The aliens were confused and my men took advantage of that to take out another two brutes that turned around to fight Castillo's men.

Two large ODSTs came first. They were carrying another large man missing his left leg below the knee. Despite missing a limb he was firing a pistol as best he could to discourage any attacks on him. After that came two men that my HUD tagged as Lieutenant Dajani and another ODST from his platoon. The rest of Five came later, firing wildly at anything that moved and blowing up everything around them. The heavy weapons squad didn't remove their fingers from the triggers even for a second.

Frank made it to my position and briefly glanced at my injury.

"Frank," I said. "Hanna. She's back there!"

"What?" he asked, turning around. "Hanna!"

A spike grenade landed right next to the car that the Lockley was using for cover. I watched as one of my wounded men rolled over it and was shredded by the explosion. A large brute kicked at the car and shot my other man with its spiker.

Frank had disappeared and was already on the move. Brutes were usually pretty large targets at this range, but there was a person in between Frank's rifle and the target and that person happened to be no other than his beloved girlfriend.

Frank fired four times and the brute fell down without being able to fire.

"Frank!" Lockley shouted, half joy and half confusion.

He made it all the way up to her position and she hugged him.

It took me half a second to realize that she wasn't hugging him. She was holding onto him for support. Something blew up, a lot of my men were killed and a chieftain with a plasma cannon appeared out of nowhere. I stood stunned, watching as Frank kept Hanna afoot with one hand and fired his rifle with the other.

"Get out of there!"

I blinked.

"Maya, come on!"

It was Klaus.

"I'm going," I shouted.

"Give me some cover!" Frank shouted.

Hanna had been hit, that much was clear.

One of Frank's men used a spike grenade to take out the chieftain, using it as a club to take it down and then sticking it to its face before activating it. I vaguely registered his name as Marvin Mobuto. Before the brutes could reorganize Five and what was left of the defenders opened up on the enraged berserkers. Half a dozen brutes fell and the others opted to take cover.

Frank arrived safely with Hanna. I winced involuntarily when I saw that there were six spikes on her back, all of them deeply embedded in her body.

"Frank…" I began.

"There's still time," he grunted hoarsely. "Come on."

"All right then," I replied quietly. "We fall back…" Louder, to my men, "Fall back! Fall back!"

July 4, 2549 (UNSC Calendar)/

Fountain FOB, Udinia, Paris IV, Paris System

Sergeant Avery Johnson

God, I loved this kind of music, but there was nothing that I liked more than how much my men hated it. Flip music was something of an oddity nowadays, but the few of us that managed to keep it alive were a select group.

"Bisenti, Mendoza, get over here ASAP," I shouted over the speakers. "We are getting our ride out of here in less than fifteen minutes and I can't have you two pecking concrete pieces all the way over there!"

"Yes, sergeant!" they shouted back, running back towards us.

O'Brien and Jenkins were already here, smiles on their faces and rucksacks on their shoulders. They wanted to leave this planet as much as I did. Ironic, I landed down in this rock in worse condition than I was leaving it.

Don't tempt luck Avery, I told myself. We're not out of this one yet.

"Our transport is coming in right over here," I said, pointing. "As soon as that Pelican lands I want you to jump on board so fast that the rest of these whinny jarheads not with me carrying them into combat will be so jealous that they'll request a transfer to this unit."

"Oorah!" my men shouted.

They were used to my personality, otherwise I would've gotten a whole lot of weird looks from them.

But like all good things, evacuation came at a price.


And not only Banshees, Phantoms too.

"Get back out there!" I ordered my men. "Belay that, Pelican's getting here. Get in there now!"

"Sarge, we can buy some time for the–" Mendoza began.

"On the bird," I shouted. "I'll hold them off!"

"What?" Bisenti asked. "Sarge…"

"Go!" I shouted loudly, pushing Jenkins towards the aircraft.

Something caught my eye and it was only fifty meters away. It was a room-sized crate full of commandeered plasma grenades and with walls one inch thick. It wasn't full of fragmentation grenades, but I guess that it would have to do.

July 4, 2549 (UNSC Calendar)/

Fountain FOB, Udinia, Paris IV, Paris System

Katie Ayers

Of course I was thinking of that jackass when the first bombs landed. He seemed to be the only thing on my mind nowadays, even with his long absence. It's not that I was still in love or anything, it's just that I wanted to be in love with him again. Again, can you believe it? A week was all it had taken for me to fall in love with a complete stranger. Well, technically I had known him for over six months, but I had only began talking to him during the last two or three and even then we only actually went out for about a week.

The moment that the first bomb hit Frank turned into the last thing on my mind.

I grabbed my crowbar and shouldered the backpack that contained the entirety of my possessions.

"Eliza!" I shouted. "Eliza where are you?"

"Over here!" she shouted back. "What's happening?"

Before anybody could say anything else a blue bomb landed about thirty feet away from us. I was thrown to the floor and the right side of my body felt the heat wave from the explosive. I screamed, but I promptly decided that screaming was stereotypical and wouldn't gain me anything whatsoever.

"Report to evacuation pads immediately!" a loudspeaker blared.

"Katie let's go!" Eliza said, pulling me up back to my feet.

A crowd of people moved towards the large transports, filling them up as fast as possible while the few soldiers in here tried keeping a semblance of order. A few missiles flew at the Covenant planes, smacking into them and turning their purple attack craft into fireworks. A few of the people around us cheered, but it was half-hearted anyways.

"This ship is full," a gruff black man told me. "Move on to the next one."

"But this was the last transport!" I shouted. "You have to let us in."

"I'm sorry ma'am," he said, unflinching. "Pelicans are coming, you'll have to wait a little bit longer."

"We don't have that much time!" Eliza shouted, drawing cries of agreement from the people around us.

The soldiers immediately took half a step back and grabbed their rifles. They didn't raise them, but the threat was clear. If we stepped out of line they would start shooting, and I doubted it was training rounds in their rifles.

"You can't leave us here to die!" someone shouted.

The soldiers took the cries of abuse in silence. It wasn't until things seemed to be about to explode that a man stepped forward. He was in a relatively clean uniform and was evidently an officer.

"The Pelicans they are sending to get you, they are ours."

My mouth dropped open in shock. These men were going to die for us and here we were shouting at them to let us pass. I wasn't the only one to react with shock, and the crowd quickly turned submissive and stopped trying to break past the line of soldiers. I noticed that a few of the soldiers had tears running down their faces or were shaking. Some of them were even younger than I was.

"My God," Eliza said, sitting down. "I can't believe this."

"Come on, we'll be just fine," I told her. "We'll start over."

"So many people are dead…" she said softly.

"Come on Eliza, you can't go all shellshock on me now," I told her. "You've been the strong one for this past year. I need you to be strong for a little bit more."

She looked up and I realized that she was crying too. She nodded and then hugged me. I cried with her, but I knew that the moment the Pelicans landed even the soldiers would be hard-pressed to keep up the order and we needed to get on board as fast as possible.

"Come on," I said. "Deep breaths."

I was crying even more than she was and we both laughed at the absurdity of this all. Our home was going to become a ball of glass and fire and we were all that we had left. Our families and friends were dead and all that we had ever worked for was about to go up in flames. It was good to know that we could still find something to laugh about.

"Just a little bit longer," I said. "And this will all be over."

July 4, 2549 (UNSC Calendar)/

UNSC Flawless, in orbit above Udinia, Paris IV, Paris System

Vice Admiral Oliver Bogart

"Bloody hell," I said.

"Admiral?" Sanders asked.

"See there?" I pointed at the display. "The Covenant is going to go straight for the evacuation ships. The moment they overwhelm the Defense Platform they'll pounce on them."

"I…see," he replied. "What can we do about it?"

I considered my options and quickly checked what the evacuation status was on the ground. The troops and civilians in Udinia were apparently having a pretty hard time down there as well. Not everyone down there would make it up here, and even less men would be able to get out of the system. If that Covenant group attacked the evacuation craft it would be hell.

"Not much," I admitted. "What's the word on Patterson?"

"He's still managing to hold back the bulk of the Covenant fleet, he says he can buy the evacuation two more hours, maybe three."

I examined the display with a frown. We had two functional ODPs, but they had been boarded and were in the process of being captured. Last I heard the control rooms were still held by UNSC forces as was the area around them, but the Covenant wouldn't take much longer to wear them down through attrition. I watched as one of the platforms used its thrusters to align itself and fire at a corvette that had decided to try its luck. The purple ship was hit in the midsection by the massive round and was all but disintegrated by the massive kinetic force that the round carried. No more Covenant ships made moves to move forward.

"Does the Honorable have any Pelicans left in it?"

"Two dozen," Dalman informed me.


"Yes, Admiral?" the AI asked. "What can I do to help."

"How many Pelicans are in fine working order here?"

"Fourteen, sir."

"Good, have the pilots head down to Udinia, evacuate as many people as they can."

"Yes, sir, right away."

"Dalman, hail the Honorable, tell them to do the same with their own Pelicans, all of them."

"Yes, sir."

"Sanders, redirect all non-essential personnel to the lifeboats."


"Do it," I ordered. "The Honorable will pick them up. Jaws, get me firing solutions on that Covenant group. I want battlecruisers on priority and then scale back down to the corvettes."

"Already done, Admiral." The AI was a funny fellow, lacking the typical devil-may-care that other artificial intelligences reveled in.

I watched the display and frowned as one of the two ODPs went dark. With one less defense platform we had no way to hold off the Covenant Navy for the necessary amount of time. The constant stream of civilian evacuation craft proved to be a very tentative target to the Covenant and they immediately started moving forward.

"All non-essential personnel are on the lifeboats, Admiral," Sanders informed.

"Jettison them," I ordered. "Have the Honorable pick them up and then send it into low orbit to pick up the Pelicans evacuating."

"Yes, sir."

"Dalman, set an intercept course for the lead Covenant battlecruiser. Jaws, I want weapons hot and ready to fire."

"Yes, sir," the both said.

I sighed sadly. Dying was never something to look forward to, but at least I would die for something good.

July 4, 2549 (UNSC Calendar)/

Fountain FOB, Udinia, Paris IV, Paris System

Lieutenant Francisco Castillo

"Shit Frank," Schitzo muttered with worry. "We have to move faster."

I'm trying…

"Watch out!"

Two of my men dodged to the side as a Wraith blast hit right in front of our path. The shockwave threw me backwards even with Hanna over my shoulder. I somehow managed to make her land on her side at the cost of a snapped wrist. I cried out in pain and clenched my fist, trying to swallow the pain. Yas and Hoff dragged Hanna behind cover and I pulled myself towards him.


"Her vitals are weak, but they're still there," I cut him off. "If we hurry."

Yas nodded and squeezed my shoulder gently. "But first we need to do something about that Wraith."

Another mortar blast landed close by Pavel and Lizzo. They both cried out and their vitals fizzled for a moment before they came back somewhat agitated. I peeked over cover and saw that the Wraith in question was a Daemon tank with a short cannon.

"It's a Daemon," I spat. "Looks modified."

"That explains why no one saw the volley coming," Yas replied. "Lot of good that'll do us."

"Who has rockets?!" someone shouted.

"Ana," I called out. "We need to take out the Daemon. Where the hell's that Scorpion?"

"He's moving into position!" she replied, screaming through her radio. "I don't think that he has enough shells to take out the Daemon."

"One in the right place should be enough," Yas said. "Come on…"

The Scorpion fired and the shell hit the Daemon tank right in the front armor. The blast crumpled it and shook it violently, but the alloy withstood the impact with almost no trouble. The Daemon stopped and turned around to face the Scorpion. The Daemon fired even as the Scorpion driver hit reverse. The first blast hit the front of the Scorpion and melted through the threads. The second blast hit the turret and fried the driver.


"Well Frank, it was a pleasure serving with you," Yas said.

"I won't let her die," I muttered, looking at Hanna. "I won't."

"Then just what do you propose we do?" he asked. He sounded incredibly annoyed, which was justifiable considering that we were about to die.

"Frank, our cover won't last much longer," Pavel said.

"Same here," Ana voiced. "A few of my men managed to get away, but…"

"Let me think!"

I considered all the options available, grenades, flashbangs, explosives, and sacrificing half my squad if it meant that Hanna would have a chance to make it out alive. I looked down at her and saw that she was conscious, barely.

"Hanna, can you hear me?" I asked. "Hanna, you're going to be fine, ok? You'll be just fine."

She croaked something quietly before fading back into unconsciousness.

"No, no…" I muttered.

"Sir," Hoff said, placing a hand on my shoulder. "I can do it."

"Ryan, you have zero chance to take out a Daemon tank right now, with our help or without it."

"You have your emergency stash of C-12," he stated. "I'm sure that there are some of us who have something else to spare."

"You can't be thinking of–" Yas began.

"Yas," I cut him short before turning to Ryan. "You don't have to do this. I mean it."

"I want to," he replied. "There's nothing left for me here."

I nodded, feeling like hell for having allowed him to fulfill his death wish so easily.

"Everybody who has plastic explosives slide them here!" I ordered. "Marv and Dotsenko, I need you to play decoy when I say go, got it?"

"I can't leave James alone!" Dotsenko said.

"I'm fine," Ramirez said. "And Staff Konstantinov can take care of him."

"Yes, sir," Dotsenko ceded.

Hoff had finished sticking the explosives to himself and looked at me. He nodded. "Ready when you are," he said calmly.

I waited for the Daemon to fire on Pavel's position one more time.

"Go!" I shouted.

Marv and Dotsenko moved out of cover, drawing the plasma cannons away from Hoff. As soon as the coaxial guns started firing Hoff moved out of cover. Before he had gone two steps I gave the order for my squad to fire on the Damon or any Covenant soldiers that tried to take out Hoff before his time. Ryan took a hit on the shoulder and barely avoided being decapitated when he stumbled, but he kept moving. When he was five feet away from the Daemon I ducked behind cover and closed my eyes for the blast.

"Target neutralized," Caboose reported quietly.

"Ok, let's move," I said, carrying Hanna over my shoulder once again.

We moved in silence for a while, avoiding any and all engagements that weren't absolutely necessary to our survival. My wrist was hurting like a bitch and Hanna's life signs were getting more and more erratic. The debris made it hard for us to make good time, but it also made us less visible targets. We made it into the large courtyard after which this firebase was named. The fountain was nothing but a broken memory now, with only a little bit of the original still in place. The crowded refugee camp that had been bristling with activity was now almost completely empty. Most of the civilians had moved towards the landing pads on the park.

"There's an armored column in between us and the landing pads," Ana said all of a sudden. "We're cut off."

"Fuck!" Andy cursed, kicking a rock. "Now what?"

"We need two Pelicans," I muttered to myself. I opened a line to Fightmaster. "Sam, what's up?"

"We're pulling out civilians," he replied almost immediately. "Why the hell are you still– shit. You're cut off."

"Yes," I replied. "I need a favor."

"I could get a court martial," he said simply. "We got very explicit orders telling us to pull out the civilians first."

"I know Sam," I said, looking at Hanna, "but I wouldn't ask if this wasn't important. Trust me."

"You know I do. How many of you are there?"

"We're going to need two Pelicans," I admitted.

"I have a friend who owes me a couple of favors," he said. "I'm on my way."

I smiled slightly. I would have to buy that man a beer or a house.

"Frank," Pavel said. "I'm all for living one more day, but we can't leave thirty-something civilians to die."

"We damn well can," I said. "And we will, especially if it means that Hanna might survive."

Pavel looked around and closed in on me. "Thirty dead people isn't something that you shrug off easily Frank," he said. "And ONI might cover for you, but they won't do the same for us, least of all Lieutenant Maya and her men."

I looked at the Marines and then back to Pavel. "Then ask them if they want to die so that some people they don't know."

"We can't be that selfish," he said. "We're fighting for humanity."

"And we'll keep fighting," I said. "For as long as I can. You might not like this, but believe me when I say that Amber will be very glad you made this choice."

He took a step backwards. "I don't like it," he admitted. "And I don't like that you made the choice so quickly."

I shrugged and returned my attention to Hanna. "We can talk about this later."

Before too long Fightmaster had arrived on his Pelican, a companion close on his back. We piled inside the vehicles and strapped ourselves tight.

"Hey Frank," Fightmaster greeted me. "Sorry for the delay."

"Don't worry about it," I told him. "I owe you one."

"Damn right you do, they won't be happy with us."

"No they won't," I agreed.

"And there's one more thing," he began. "You know that guy, Johnson?"

"How could I forget," I said. "What about him?"

"He's covering for the civilians down in the ground. We're pulling him out."

"This Pelican can't fit another squad," I said.

"It's just him."


"That's what I said."

Fightmaster maneuvered his Pelican through the crumbling buildings and turned it around behind a lone figure. Johnson was taking cover behind an empty crate, a dozen or so plasma grenades next to him. As the hatch opened and my men started firing at the covvies half-heartedly Johnson threw a grenade at an elite with such force that it knocked it to the ground.

"Johnson!" I shouted. "Get in here!"

"Castillo? What the hell are you doing here?"

"Saving your ass."

"My ass don't need saving!"


"Shit," he muttered. "Make room!"

Johnson threw four more grenades before running towards us and jumping inside the Pelican. Pavel helped him on board and Fightmaster took off. I almost laughed with joy, having finally managed to abandon this hellish planet. It was right then when Hanna's vitals flatlined. For the past minutes I had been keeping her situation compartmentalized somewhere in the back of my head, but the moment I heard that shrill, steady beeping sound it all hit me, my legs felt like jelly underneath me and I found myself falling on my ass, tears flowing freely down my face.

"Francisco, I am so sorry," Schitzo said.

Thanks for reading this chapter.

I read your reviews for last chapter... I wish that there were more. Relax, I'm only mostly kidding. What I'm saying is that you all appeared to enjoy the chapter even despite the deaths and all that. Well, in that case I'm very interested to know how you feel about this one, not because of all the deaths, but also because it was done in a different format than what I usually use. Personally, I had fun writing this, even if it took like a week to get it wrapped up. it is, after all, eleven thousand words long. Probably the second longest chapter I've ever posted. Let's say that this is my way of apologizing for the recent delays.

Small side note(s): Frank and Ana were obviously the big stars in the chapter, with their sections being the largest of all, but some of you might feel like Johnson got a small section. The reason for this is that he is a canon character with an established personality and I didn't want to toy around with that. I'm pretty sure I might've been able to write him pretty well, but I'm certain that it couldn't have even approached the real deal. So there's that.

Let's go back and remember those that were lost: Bamber, Atkins, Montri, d'Arc, Sutton, Sandor, Zepeda, Carver, Hoff. That's pretty much half the platoon. Imagine losing half the people you lived and fought with. I'm pretty certain that that can't be a pleasant experience. Then add up the death of your girlfriend and the second-degree murder of thirty-something civilians who were counting on the Pelicans you stole to save them. Looks like things up here will get worse and worse. Or maybe not, this is, after all, Francisco Castillo we're talking about.

May the fallen find peace or something like that. I hope that you enjoyed this chapter.

Stay strong.