Well, as part of my New Year's resolution to write, no matter what, a little bit each day, I'm beginning work on the next Chapter of 'Screw This, I'm Firing the Halo Array': Groundside. In this chapter, armies clash, chaos reigns, alliances form, flourish and fall apart, and everywhere at once, the Reapers get their collective asses handed to them. Also: sorry, Shepard's scenes are going to have to wait until next chapter... And all of you Warhammer 40K fans, next time... well there'll be some fighting for the glory of the Emperor!

So now, the continuing epic, of SCREW THIS, I'M FIRING THE HALO ARRAY! Be warned, this is a long chapter.


Chapter 6 - The Ultimate Showdown Part 4: Groundside


On the surface of the planet Earth, in the bombed-out ruins of the once-great city called London, a disturbance occurred. This was not unusual, as the Reaper ground forces were systematically ravaging the city, searching for survivors and stealing any available resources. However, no forces within their universe caused the sudden flash of light, briefly illuminating the piles of rubble and devastated cityscape beneath the cloud-choked sky.

With a thunderous crack, three figures clad in glossy black armor and clutching short wooden wands appeared in the middle of a bombed-out courtyard, strewn with piles of rubble and dead trees, and ringed in by burned-out buildings. Here and there small fires still sputtered in the otherwise near-darkness.

Harry barely had time to open his eyes behind his heavy-duty goggles before one of the twins roughly shoved him to the ground and the other bellowed, "Protego maxima!" at the top of his voice. A thick stream of silver energy erupted from the tip of his upheld wand, splitting apart and arching down a few feet above their heads to form a glowing, translucent dome surrounding the three wizards. The barrier sizzled and crackled where it made contact with the ground, and gave off an ominous-sounding hum.

"Alright there, Harry?" Fred asked, helping the young wizard to his feet. "Sorry about that, we couldn't take any chances with you."

"'s alright." Harry mumbled, dusting himself off. His armor had absorbed the shock of the fall; he wasn't even winded by it, just surprised. "Blimey." He whispered, focusing his gaze beyond the haze of the shield.

The city around them was devastated; it looked like old photographs of cities destroyed in World War II, right down to the black and white coloration, caused by heavy, black, overcast clouds occasionally shot through with lightning and the rumbling of thunder. Off in the distance, and over the sounds of the shield, Harry could make out muted booms and crackles, although he didn't know what it meant. He rationalized it as just being part of the storm.

"Bloody hell." George whispered, his wand still held in the air, maintaining the shield. "What happened here?"

"Tempus et anno." Fred intoned, waving his wand in a curious spiral motion, while moving his head from side to side, trying to watch every shadow at once.

Harry followed his example, but froze as his eyes lit on a part of the skyline. "Guys." He whispered.

"Merlin," Fred said quietly, gazing at the floating, hazy numbers hanging in midair before him. "George, check it out, look at the year."

"2185?" His twin said incredulously. "Merlin's balls. If this is the future I don't think I want to live to see it."

"Guys." Harry repeated, a little louder.

"Is the air here breathable?" George asked, his voice slightly strained from the effort of maintaining the shield, as Fred cast several wordless detection charms.

"Yeah, kinda smoky, but tolerable." He replied. "Nothing too bad for us here, guess we can get rid of these." He waved his wand and dispelled the trio's bubblehead charms. He breathed in deeply, noting the scent of dust and smoke on the air, as well as something else he couldn't readily identify. "Now we've just gotta figure out where we are."

"Guys!" Harry hissed, finally getting their attention.

"Wha-" Fred began to ask before stopping with a gasp, his eyes going wide.

"Bloody hell." George whispered.

There, in the distance, illuminated by a mysterious, single thread of white light arching skyward, was an all-too familiar clock tower. Big Ben. They were in London.

"What in God's name happened here?" Fred asked no one in particular, his wand out and his eyes wide. "I mean, just what the hell's going on around here?"

"We're in London." Harry whispered in shock. "This place, it's home."

"Guys, I can't hold this much longer," George said, his teeth gritted and his eyes clenched. "Get ready to move."

"Got it." Fred replied, steadying his grip on his wand. Harry followed his example, and with a flick of his wrist his holly and phoenix-feather wand was in his hand. Then, with a gasp, the silver shield around them flickered and died, and George lowered his wand, panting.

"Alright, now let's-" He suddenly stopped as an eerie howling echoed through the courtyard.

"What, was, that?" Harry asked slowly. He soon got his answer, as a horde of things emerged from one of the crumbling buildings. They were shaped like humans, horribly emaciated humans with glowing white-blue eyes, tubing covering their thin, purpled skin, leering, skull-like grins, and long, talon-like fingers.

The zombie-like things uttered breathy, high-pitched wails and charged at the trio of wizards, claws outstretched.

"Good God!" George swore, aiming his wand. "Cantanar Fulgrex!" A twisting stream of blue lightning flew from his wand, accompanied by a resounding clap of thunder, and impacted the lead Husk. It flash fried the twisted cyborg, blowing out the cybernetics with its body and charbroiling what little organic flesh remained. The lightning arced from the first Husk to the others, and in seconds the small cluster had been reduced to charred, carbonized skeletons, mouths twisted open in the agony of death.

Harry stared at the sight, stunned at things' appearance and their sudden deaths, when Fred slapped him on the shoulder. "Harry, snap out of it! There are more of them!"

Harry shook himself and looked up from the smoking bodies. It was as if a floodgate had been opened; more and more of the things were pouring out of the surrounding buildings and alleys, seemingly without end, all snarling mouths and claws. Fred and George were suddenly at each other's backs, casting so fast it was like a constant stream of multicolored light was erupting from their wand tips. Their voices were inaudible over the blasts from their wands and the shrieking of the husks, even as they exploded, caught fire, or were mauled by transfigured wolves.

Turning to face some of the abominations that were trying to flank them, Harry followed their lead and raised his wand. "Stupefy!" He incanted, and watched with satisfaction as the jet of red light smote one of the things and it collapsed, the lights on its body dimming.

"Harry, you dolt!" One of the twins shouted angrily, interrupting the stream of spells even as his twin cast a smoky-gray curse that vaporized three of the things. "Don't stun them, kill them!"

Harry froze up; he'd never intentionally killed anything, save for the basilisk his second year, and even then he only did it to prevent the snake from hurting anyone, he hadn't even meant to kill Quirrell, it just happened. He'd tried to kill Bellatrix but on reflection, he didn't think he could have gone through with it. However, he had no time to dwell on it any further as a cluster of the things jumped down from the rooftop above him and landed not ten feet away, even as the other group flanking them was killed by a thick stream of golden energy, which sprouted like a whip from one of Fred's wands.

"Ah! Reducto!" He shouted the blasting curse and jabbed his wand at the nearest husk in a panic. The blue streak of light hit the cyber-zombie in the stomach, and blew the thing in half, spraying Harry and everything around it with dark red blood and gore.

Harry's mind went numb at the sight and a cold spike of fear wedged itself in his belly, but his arm and mouth suddenly seemed to take on a life of their own, and they moved as one targeting each husk and felling it with a different curse.

"Reducto, confodio, tonare, tonare, expulso." Blasting, piercing, bone-breaker, explosive, each one incanted calmly and surely, spells he barely remembered from studying for the Triwizard Tournament and the DA now flew from his mouth, called from memory by the necessity of desperation and fueled by adrenaline. Curse after curse left his wand, finding the encroaching husks almost without fail. Those that missed blasted huge chunks of rock out of the surrounding landscape, with accompanying detonations. With all his thoughts focused on surviving the nightmare he suddenly found himself thrust into, Harry barely blinked as a cutting curse violently decapitated a charging Husk, or as he repositioned to blow another one into bloody chunks with a blasting hex.

Harry soon lost himself in the haze of the battle, being only vaguely aware of the twins at his back and that they had drifted into the center of the courtyard, edging their way along and covering each others' sectors. His focus narrowed to a small point as he methodically mowed down enemy after enemy, the bodies and other remains soon littered the ground around him. Harry was only barely realized that he now held his second wand in his left hand; he'd transitioned into using it smoothly sometime during the fighting. Harry's mind, numb with shock and adrenaline, focused solely on staying alive, as curse after curse flashed through the courtyard, briefly illuminating the darkness and surrounding landscape, and the charging, snarling husks, in an eerie strobe-like effect.

Suddenly Harry felt a sharp punch to his gut that forced him to one knee. Gasping, his left arm curled protectively around his bruised, but intact stomach, Harry stared up at the form in the upper level of a store to his left. There crouched a great hulking, misshapen thing, with a glowing blue mouth ringed with what appeared to be dried blood and four glowing eyes. Its whole body was an ugly, brown and tan color, with cancerous looking growths covering its bulging, lumpy back. One arm was raised and contained some sort of weapon, which fired a hail of bright yellow shots at him and the twins. One of them had caught Harry in the stomach, which was what forced him to the ground, but his armor had taken the hit and survived.

Snarling, Harry jabbed his right hand at the Cannibal and screamed the same incantation that George had earlier. "Cantanar Fulgrex!" His holly wand let out a blast like a gun and a brilliant blue bolt of lightning flew from its tip. However, instead of merely electrocuting the Reaper soldier, it blew it into bloody chunks, its entrails spattering the nearby walls with blood and slime.

Growling, Harry lashed out with his wand, not even bothering to incant a spell. A solid red wedge of force rippled out from the tip, bisecting the charging husks at about waist-level, causing their top halves to slide slowly off of their twitching legs with soft, wet smacks.

Then, all at once, it was over, the silence was deafening to the trio's ringing ears. Harry slowly became aware that there were no more targets in his field of view, and that the blasts issuing from Fred and George's wands had stopped as well. The courtyard was littered with whole bodies and severed limbs, and the flagstones were awash with crimson blood and unidentifiable chunks of flesh and guts. Harry slowly lowered his shaking wands, which had smoke curling from their tips, and took a deep shaky breath, and then he fell to his hands and knees, puking his guts out, as the stench of death and the reality of what he'd done hit him.

Oh my God, I slaughtered them! He realized with horror in between heaving breaths. And I didn't care, I was- Then his vision began to grey out as a deep weariness overtook him and he started to pass out, only to be jerked to his feet as the twins grabbed him roughly under the arms.

"Ickle Harrickens has been holding out on us." George said, panting from the exertion of sustained spell casting.

"Too right," Fred added, he was winded himself. "If we'd known you could cast that fast and that powerfully, we'd-"

An ear-splitting, high-pitched shriek echoed throughout the remains of the courtyard, cutting off the twins' banter.

"What the bloody hell was that?" George asked.

"Dunno, but it can't be good." Fred responded, digging in his pack for something. "Damn, I know it's in here somewhere..."

Suddenly the shriek came again much closer, and with a flash and a ripple a towering, glowing figure appeared. Waves of purple biotic energy rolled off of the ten-foot tall Banshee, making the air hum.

"Sweet Merlin!"

"What the fuck is that!?"

Harry, utterly spent, barely had the energy to raise his head, much less react to this new threat. It was ten feet tall, and covered in desiccated, dead-looking flesh interspersed with glowing cybernetics, much the same as the other monsters they'd just fought. The thing's stomach bulged, as did its large breasts, however there was absolutely nothing alluring about it. The banshee's gaunt, grinning; skull-like head was covered in spiky, protrusions, and it stared at them with dead, pitch-black eyes. Like the Husks, it possessed long talons in place of fingers, and it stood on long, unnaturally thin legs.

Without any warning the Banshee raised one arm and sent a blast of blue-white biotic energy at the trio, who –still stunned by the monster's sudden appearance- barely reacted in time

"Protego!" Fred shouted, and a shimmering silver shield snapped up between them and the banshee to intercept the projectile.

With the sound of breaking glass, the blast hit the shield and exploded violently, washing the face of the shield charm in electricity. The spell dispelled the shot, but shattered from the force of it, the magical backlash actually causing Fred to stagger back.

"Tonare!" George fired off a bone-breaking hex at the creature, covering for his twin while he recovered. Much to his shock, the orange spell impacted a glowing purple barrier that flared into existence a few feet from the thing's skin and dissipated. The banshee took a step forward and screamed in a horrible, ear-splitting pitch, producing a shockwave that shot straight at the twins and blasted them off their feet. They landed in a heap several feet away.

Harry, nearly overcome with magical exhaustion, could only watch as the horrific monster walked up slowly to stand over him. His wands slid from his grasp as he felt himself rise, seemingly unsupported, into the air. He found himself staring into the banshee's nightmarish, skull-like face and dead, pitch-black eyes, as it gently raised a taloned hand up to stroke his face in a twisted mockery of a lover's caress...

"AVADA KEDAVRA!" Harry barely had time to register the incantation of the hated killing curse coming from one of the twins, as there was a flash of green light and a rushing sound. The banshee instantly crumpled to the ground as the curse slammed into its side, and Harry, now unsupported by the reaper's biotics, fell unceremoniously to the ground, shaking legs giving out from under him.

Suddenly one of the twins appeared above him, worry evident on his face. "Harry, Harry! Oh God, are you ok?" Harry managed to nod weakly, and the twin -Fred- hoisted him off of his feet in a fireman's carry; him holding Harry's arms in one hand and his ankles in the other, with his body draped across Fred's back.

"Let's go!" The other twin shouted. "C'mon, we've gotta get off the streets!"

"Grab the thing he stunned," The one holding harry replied, awkwardly summoning Harry's wands with one of the hands holding the young wizard up. "We might learn something from it."

George nodded, and levitated the husk with a whispered "Mobilicorpus." They ran to the nearest building, which had a shattered front door and an illegible sign hanging above it. George went first, leaving the stunned husk floating in the air by Fred and Harry and ran to the far wall of the structure, which had a single, half-open sliding door. Peeking inside, he turned to his brother.

"All clear!"

Dragging the husk behind him, Fred forced his way into the back room, before George waved his wand, causing the sliding door to slam shut.

"Colloportus." He whispered, pointing his wand at the door, which sealed itself with a squelching sound. "Lumos." A bright light flared from the wandtip, illuminating the long, enclosed space. His eyes widened at the sight; one of the room's walls was lined with suits of armor, and the other with odd, boxy objects. Crates of softly glowing, small red and black cylinders covered the floor.

Fred, meanwhile, propped Harry up against one wall, and after some digging, produced a potion vial, the contents of which he forced Harry to drink. After a few seconds, his head turned a bright red, steam shot out of his ears, and he started coughing.

"Thanks, guys." He gasped out, feeling a sudden surge of energy flood his body. "What was that?"

"Pepperup potion," Fred explained, replacing the vial in his backpack. "And Re'em blood."

"Gives you a bit of a boost, especially after exerting yourself like that." George added. "Nice bit of spellcasting by the way. You still need a lot of training, but you've got potential."

Harry grunted in reply, and slowly got to his feet. "What the hell is going on here? And what are those... things?" He whispered, mostly to himself, shuddering as he remembered the battle, and the way the thing had stroked his face while staring into his eyes. He shook again and his stomach did back-flips, he didn't know what that monster had been about to do, and he prayed he never found out.

"Well, apparently,"

"We're in London, a couple hundred years in the future, as for what's happening out there,"

"We don't know-"

"-But we intend to find out." The twins said, finishing each other's sentences again. They both turned to look at the husk, floating and stunned at the far end of the room.

"Incarceous." One of them hissed, and inky-black ropes flew from his wand and bound the husk up tightly.

"Come here Harry." George said, holding out a hand. Confused, Harry took it, and watched as George grabbed Fred's left hand with his free one.

"On three." Fred said, leveling his wand at the ugly cyborg's grey-skinned head. "One, two, three. Legillimens!"

Images rushed by Harry, almost to fast to see. He was vaguely aware of the twins' presence beside him as they dove into the thing's memories. They saw...

...A grinning man with short-cropped black hair and an immaculate navy-blue uniform with gold trim, holding a young baby girl in one arm and kissing a pretty, blonde-haired woman on the cheek...

...A news report showing strange shapes appearing above a stylized map of the Earth on a television screen, displaying the headline 'Fleet Mobilizing Above Europe'. The same man as before watched grimly, clad in armor similar to the suits in the room they were currently standing in, a group of similarly dressed men and women watching with him...

...They saw a different news report, this time showing two men, one of them a hologram. "I really wouldn't lend any credence to reports of mythical, sentient warships coming to kill us." One said...

...Explosions rocked the city as massive, dark shapes descended from the sky, firing brilliant red beams at the buildings which vaporized whatever they touched. The man and his fellow soldiers raced through a neighborhood on foot, firing massive assault rifles at indistinct shadowy forms in the distance...

...Two of the big, four-eyed, blobby things had a hold of him, they dragged him over to a cluster of strange purple tripods lying on the ground. He struggled, but the Reaper abominations were too strong for him. They tossed him over one of them, his back to the ground. Pain. Pain beyond anything the marine had ever known erupted, as a massive spike shot out from the tripod and impaled him. It passed through his armor like tissue paper, and towered above his head, covered with his blood and viscera...

...Fire, lines of burning fire spread out from the hole in his chest. He couldn't even scream, it was like he was in a haze, his mind shutting down. His veins felt like they'd been filled with hot lead. His head flopped bonelessly to the side, and then with a feeling like a red-hot spike was shoved into it, he felt his heart stop...

...The burning lines of fire raced out along his limbs, he saw, through distant, haze-filled eyes, as his armor disintegrated, falling away from his oddly thin, pale limbs. Then the skin turned purple, as if covered in bruising. Strange bulges appeared, twisting and writing just below the surface of his arm, until with a sickening pop, small, glowing circular blue lights forced their way through his skin, erupting with a spray of dark blood. They were followed by long, ribbed tubes, which snaked down his arm, burying themselves deep into the flesh, and terminating just before his hands and fingers-turned talons. The burning sensation raced along his head, reaching his eyes, and his vision began to grey out, becoming blurry and indistinct. Then his field of view narrowed into a single point, and vanished, accompanied by a barely-audible popping sound and two red-hot spikes of pain being driven into his eye sockets. As a warm, chunky fluid flowed down his cheeks, the tortured man realized what had happened. MY EYES! He screamed inside his head through the haze of pain. MY EYES! MAKE IT STOP, PLEASE, I'LL DO ANYTHING! Then the fire reached deep into his brain, and the nightmare truly began...

...Searing pain, like nothing he'd ever felt before. His entire existence was whited out, there was nothing but the agony. He- he'd forgotten something, what- what was it? His name, he'd forgotten his name! The marine struggled to remember something, anything. A vision hazily formed, temporarily distracting him from the agony. An athletic, blonde-haired woman, clad only in a thin blue nightgown, her dark eyes sparkling mischievously as she beckoned towards him. A warm feeling erupted from... somewhere within him and the pain lessened somewhat. With a searing, tearing feeling, the memory was torn away, leaving him floating in the darkness. He- he'd forgotten something... something important, he felt like he'd just had a hold of it, but...

...Whispering, whispering noises in the background, whispering that drove him to annoyance, although he didn't know why. He couldn't- couldn't understand what they were saying. The buzzing was incessant, but unintelligible, and he felt- suddenly he felt nothing, he just realized it was there, but didn't care. Another memory, this time of him driving a small four-wheeler with a dark-haired, young-looking woman hanging on behind him appeared. They were heading out to a hill overlooking a gleaming city, she had laughed, had leaned in towards him.,, Then with a flash of pain it too was gone, and the marine's ravaged mind didn't even realize what had happened save for a vague sensation of loss. Why? The almost-completely wiped-out human portion of his mind managed to whisper to itself, not understanding why it felt so empty, tortured, and alone. Why? That last scrap of humanity shuddered as suddenly a massive, intricate, and inconceivably alien intelligence brushed up against it. In that moment, the last remnants of his human self were brushed aside like an old cobweb, and it showed the cancerous thing that now inhabited his body the reason why...

...There was his wife and young daughter although he didn't even recognize them anymore, lying in the dirt and screaming in untold agony. Their flesh began dissolving, skin pulling back and disappearing, the muscles, organs, and even their bones dissolved into gray, sloppy goo. He could only watch, impassively, as their eyes dissolved and the skin peeled off of their shrieking, still-living skulls, and then their skulls cracked open, revealing quickly decomposing brains, which slopped out onto the ground next to them. As both she and her daughter writhed and gurgled, their minds, feelings, memories, everything they were, utterly gone. A shadow appeared over the scene; a massive, tentacled form hovered silently above the decomposing pair, covered in far too many eyes, all of which glowed with an evil, red light.

YOU EXIST BECAUSE WE ALLOW IT. Bellowed a deep, mechanical voice that seemed to echo from deepest levels of hell. AND NOW YOU WILL END, BECAUSE WE DEMAND IT!

With a flash, Fred yanked his wand away from the husk's head, reeling back in shock. His eyes were wide and his skin was pale, sweat plastered his hair to his head. George was shaking like a leaf, equally pale, and Harry was doubled over, dry-heaving.

"God above." Fred whispered after several minutes. "What, what the hell?"

"To hell with the prophecy." George whispered backing away and hitting the wall. "I'm not letting that happen to me. I'm getting out of here!" His eyes wildly looked from Fred to Harry. "C'mon, we've gotta activate the return portkey and go home!"

"No." Harry whispered after a moment, catching both twins by surprise.

"Look Harry, I know you want the Dark Lord dead, I do too!" George shouted, his voice becoming high-pitched. "But-but look at those things, look what they did to him! Whatever's happening here is worse than Voldemort! We don't stand a-"

"That's exactly it." He replied quietly, rising to his feet and wiping his mind. "These monsters don't even care about us, everything we'd accomplish, love, marriage, children." He whispered slowly, trembling as he remembered the young girl's screaming while her flesh vaporized. "Nothing matters to them, remember the way that thing spoke? To them, we're less than insects, less than dust. Well I say fuck them. Whatever they are, they came here to exterminate us, to kill all the human beings on Earth. I don't care if this isn't home, I'm not gonna stand by while those things slaughter everyone out there." He looked them in the eye, and the twins realized that he wasn't shaking out of shock or fear, but out of cold, hard fury.

Harry's heart burned with so much anger he couldn't control it, and with only a slight jolt he realized he didn't care. These, these abominations had come to Earth to slaughter, to kill every last one of them, they'd made their contempt for all life clear. He didn't give a damn about Voldemort anymore, or avenging his parents or Sirius, all that mattered, all that he could think of was the little girl -she couldn't have been older than four!- Dissolving beneath the alien intellect's eyes, and how the same thing had methodically stripped everything away from her father, leaving him as just a twisted, undead husk. No matter how long it took-

"I'm going to kill them, every last one of them." He vowed, raising his wand to point at the bound husk. "Reducto!" With a cracking noise, the desecrated corpse's head evaporated into a bloody mist from the force of the blasting curse. Rest in peace, a small corner of his mind whispered to the dead man's soul.

"You can go back if you want, I'm staying here, and I'll show these things, I'll, I'll, I'm going to fucking KILL THEM ALL!" Harry shouted angrily.

The twins shared a look. "We're with you Harry." They agreed after a long moment. "We've came this far already, and in for a knut, in for a galleon dad always said."

"But we'll need something else to fight with," George said sheepishly, looking down on his wand holsters. "I don't know if I can go through another battle constantly casting like that. And who knows how many of those things are out there?"

Fred nodded empathetically. Meanwhile Harry sagged; his momentary rage vanished, leaving him feeling hollow and weak. The twins began pacing around the room, taking note of the dark grey, full-body suits of armor hanging on one wall.

"Right, see if we can find some guns, George and I have had training with the Unspeakables." Fred said, looking around and grabbing one of the surprisingly heavy objects off of its rack on the wall. "What is this thing?" He muttered, turning it over in his hands. There wouldn't be this many of them in one place if they weren't weapons of some sort, He thought. Especially so close to these armor suits, but what is it?

He noticed a glowing red button on one side of the metal object, and after a second of hesitation, he pressed it, preparing to throw it away if it turned out to be a bomb. With a mechanical whir, the boxy construct rapidly unfolded itself into the shape of a large rifle. Swearing, Fred dropped it and jumped back, startling Harry and George, who hadn't been paying close attention.

"What, is that a gun?" George asked incredulously. A self-assembling gun? Wicked!

Fred cautiously stepped forward and gingerly picked the weapon up. It was a deep black color, with an odd, over-under, double-barreled design. There was some writing on the side, which Fred peered at carefully.

"'N7 Valkyrie?'" He said uncertainly, holding the gun at arm's length. "Wonder what that means?"

"Go ahead," His brother urged. "Try it out." Noting Harry and Fred's incredulous looks, he defended himself. "Look, I'd rather we learn how it shoots in here than in the middle of a battle!"

Uncertainly, Fred slid his wand back into its holster and brought the weapon up, pointing it at the far end of the room. He gingerly placed his right index finger on the trigger and jerked back on it, hard. The weapon jumped in his hands and barked twice in quick succession as both the upper and lower barrels flashed, sending two hypervelocity rounds streaking down the room to impact the far wall.

His ears still ringing from the gunshots, Fred lowered the gun and turned to face his brother and Harry, who were staring at him.

"Wicked." He said with a grin.

oOo

"How many drops is this for you, lieutenant?" Ellen Ripley asked as the dropship plummeted through the upper atmosphere of LV-426. All around her, crammed into the confines of the cramped APC, the rest of Gorman's marine unit exchanged a few words in a quiet undertone, or in corporal Hicks' case; slept. All of them were clad in bulky, digital-patterned ceramic armor complete with helmets and other assorted gear.

"Thirty-eight," The soft-looking marine officer replied in a shaky voice from his seat at the command console, surrounded by readouts on the entire squad. "Simulated."

"How many combat drops?" Vasquez, the Hispanic, hard-hitting smartgunner asked from near the other end of the APC.

"Uh, two... including this one." He replied sheepishly.

"Jesus." Private Hudson muttered loudly.

Suddenly there came a lurch, then another and another, followed by the familiar, swooping sensation of falling in everyone's guts.

"What the?" One of the marines said.

Suddenly all the lights and electronics in the APC cut out, plunging them into total darkness. The dropship lurched, again and again, jostling the now slightly concerned marines around.

"Uh, Gorman, what's going on?" Asked Burke, in a worried tone of voice. The curly-haired company representative was sitting next to Ripley.

"Power failure of some kind." He muttered, fumbling around his console blindly. "I'll see if I can-"

A loud echoing crash accompanied a sudden jerk as everyone was thrown around in his or her restraints incessantly. Equipment and weapons flew from the overhead containment racks, smashing people about their heads. Someone screamed, and the APC tilted wildly. Then came another crash, and another, then a deep rumbling sound. After a moment more, during which there was a feeling of movement and then a final jerk, the rumbling, crashing sounds and sensations stopped.

A minute passed in total silence, then another.

"Alright," The platoon sergeant Apone said loudly. "Who's not dead? Sound off!"

A chorus of groans greeted his question, and then there came a pop and a hiss, and the light of a flickering red flare held in Apone's hand suddenly lit the interior of the APC.

"Well, what are you waiting for boys and girls, an engraved invitation? Let's get up and get moving! Hudson, Hicks, check weapons, everyone else get ready. If we've landed, then we've got a job to do, and if this is hell... Well, then we'll regroup with the rest of the corps that's here already and see about taking this place over!"

"Hoo-rah!" Came the slightly unenthusiastic response.

"Are you alright?" The android Bishop asked Ripley, who was clutching a bleeding gash on the back of her head.

"I'm fine, go away." The dark-haired woman replied, brushing the android off and looking around the cramped, skewed interior of the APC. Gorman was slumped in his seat, his hat askew, either dead or unconscious, and Burke...

His head was twisted at an unnatural angle, his neck was bruised, and his eyes were glassy. He was definitely dead.

"Bishop!" Apone shouted.

"Yes?" The android replied.

"I need a sitrep! Where the hell are we, and what's going on?"

"Yes sir, Mr. Burke is dead," The android gestured at the dead executive before placing two fingers on Gorman's neck. "The lieutenant is unconscious, but alive. I can't see anything outside of the APC, I don't know what's going on." He had been sitting in the driver's seat of the APC when they'd crashed.

"What about the lights? Where's our power?" The black sergeant demanded.

"I'm not sure, I think whatever happened to us probably tripped the breakers. I'll check them." Bishop squatted down and pulled back a panel from the floor of the APC, exposing a metal box and several cable bundles.

"Right, Hicks, Vasquez, Hudson, go outside and see about the pilots, and try to find out what the hell happened!"

"Yes sir!" Hicks responded, hefting his pulse rifle in one hand. "Hudson, help me with the door." The two marines grabbed hold of the large sliding side panel and pulled it open after disengaging the lock. Popping a flare in one hand, he walked out into the demolished cargo bay of the dropship. Several of the upper supports had given way; the heavy beams had fallen, partially blocking access to the catwalks that lined the cargo bay, making the already-cramped hold that much harder to get through, and scrap metal covered the buckled floor. Vasquez trailed behind them, holding a pistol instead of her usual smartgun, which was too bulky to maneuver through the confines of the dropship.

"This place is a mess." Hudson commented as they headed for the forward stairs to the cockpit.

"Yeah."

The marines walked up the stairs and pried open the cockpit hatch, stopping up short at what they saw. They knew that there had been a crash landing, and they'd expected the pilots to be dead (which they were, blood dribbled from their open mouths), however they weren't prepared for the view beyond the shattered cockpit windscreen. Instead of the desolate, rocky landscape of LV-426, there was a devastated city stretching off as far as the eye could see, sprawling beneath a dark, evil-looking sky.

The three marines were quiet for a time, before Hudson chimed in. "Now, either those colonists have been really busy, or I don't think we're in Kansas anymore."

"Hey, knock it off," Vasquez whispered to him, slapping him upside the helmet. "This is serious. What the fuck is going on, Hicks? Where the hell are we?"

"I don't know, ok? You two stay here, keep an eye on things, I'll get the sarge." Hicks whispered, slapping Vasquez on her armored shoulder.

He quickly slid back down the railing, and picked his way back to the APC.

"Right, this thing's a write-off." Apone was saying. "Alright people, looks like we're hoofing it this time, grab your weapons. I want to be mobile in five minutes. Let's go, assholes and elbows!"

"Sir," Hicks said, standing at the entrance of the APC. When Apone didn't respond he spoke louder. "Sergeant!"

"Yeah, Hicks, what's the situation?" He asked, turning away from the activity within the APC

"Both pilots are dead, sir, we've crash landed, and- well, you gotta see this for yourself."

"Why, what is it?" The NCO asked, suspiciously.

Hicks started to respond when an echoing scream came from the cockpit. The two marines looked at each other for half a second before running for the access stairs, Hicks in the lead. They found Vasquez hanging onto the edge of the cockpit entrance slightly overbalanced, as if she'd been shoved out the door. She pulled herself up just as Apone and Hicks finished climbing the cramped staircase.

"Get it off, get it off!" Hudson screamed, trying to fend off a large, discolored humanoid abomination, its skin covered in glowing cybernetics, which was straddling him where he stood, and seemed to be trying to tear out the man's throat.

Hicks froze at the sight, blocking Apone's view of the struggle. What the hell is that thing? Vasquez however, didn't. With a grunt the woman grabbed the husk by the throat, lifted it off Hudson, and slammed it into a wall. Without any time to retrieve her pistol from where she had dropped it, she merely pulled out her combat knife with her free hand, and impaled the husk through one glowing eye, splattering herself with blood in the process. The inhuman thing stopped struggling and went limp, and she let it slide to the floor, keeping a firm grip on her knife.

Hudson shakily regained his footing and stared at the husk's body. "What the fuck is that thing!?" Vasquez looked over at him, and then over his shoulder. Her eyes widened.

"Hudson look out!" She shouted, grabbing the front of his armor and yanking him through the door just as three hypervelocity rounds blew through the cockpit where his head had been, shattering the glass and tearing through the dropship bulkhead. The four marines tumbled down the stairs just as a detonation went off in the cockpit, filling it with orange fire. Another blast struck the dropship, shaking the whole craft, then another, and another.

"What the hell is going on?" Apone demanded, getting to his feet after untangling himself from the others.

"We need to get the fuck out of here, sir!" Hicks shouted, his statement punctuated by more pounding from the outside.

Apone nodded and stuck his head in the APC door as Vasquez and Hudson filed in to retrieve more weapons. "Marines, WE ARE LEAVING!" He bellowed over the continuing assault of the reapers' weapons. "We are under attack, unknown hostiles, get ready for one hell of a fight! Crowe, you take the L-T! Bishop, look after Ripley!" He turned to Hicks. "Corporal, we need an exit!"

The marine nodded, and, hefting his pulse rifle; pumped a ten-millimeter grenade into the launcher and fired it at the rear of the dropship's cargo bay. The muted explosion tore apart the far wall, creating a sizable hole. "Exit's clear, sir!" He reported.

"Alright, let's go people, move, move, MOVE!" Apone bellowed as the marines and two crouching civilians poured out of the APC and through the gap Hicks had created. "Let's go!"

And then they were outside, under the dark, brooding sky, in the middle of an open, desolate parking lot, surrounded in the distance by multiple buildings several hundred meters away. Far off to their left, a single thread of silver light reached up into the sky, providing meager illumination in the near-darkness. The marines' tactical flashlights, mounted on their shoulders, automatically switched on, giving them a bit more light.

"What the fuck?" Frost whispered from the circular formation they'd taken up upon exited the wreckage.

"Where the hell are we?" Drake, the other smartgun operator, asked.

"Alright, we make for those buildings straight ahead, LET'S GO!" Apone bellowed inwardly wincing; there was no cover aside from the crashed dropship, and there was no way they could stay pinned down there. "First squad, go, go, go!"

Vasqeuz, Dietrich, Frost, Hicks, and Hudson ran forward. The smartgunner took point with Hudson and Hicks covering the flanks and Dietrich and Frost covering the rear.

"Second squad, let's move!" Apone bellowed, charging forward as the rest of his platoon and the two civilians charged forward after the others, Bishop holding Ripley's right arm, his eyes darting from side-to-side.

Suddenly, a flaming chunk of debris landed near the first squad in an explosion. Apone's eyes widened as the fire died and more of those things that had attacked Hudson rushed out from the landing site. Not debris or artillery; it was some sort of drop pod, he realized.

Hicks saw it too. "Let's rock! He shouted, stopping up short, bringing his pulse rifle up and firing a short burst. Apone and Wierzbowski did too, but realized there wasn't any point. Hicks' burst killed all of the husks in sprays of gore. The things were dammed fragile, one or two bullets were enough to put them down. In less than a second afterwards, they were all moving again.

"Keep moving!" Apone shouted encouragement, as the buildings grew ever closer. Suddenly another flaming drop pod landed right in front of both squads. And from it emerged...

A massive hulking form, covered in rust-colored armor plating, two huge, oversized arms ending in metallic claws, and a disproportionately small head on a ridiculously long neck, the thing was a juggernaut. It bellowed at the marines, a spine-chilling sound, and its beady little eyes turned blood red.

"Kill it!" Hudson screamed from the front, swinging his pulse rifle forward to shoot the hulking Brute.

His bullets, and those from Vasquez's massive smartgun, pinged audibly off of the thing's heavy armor, otherwise doing no damage. The Brute seemed to crouch for a second, and then it exploded forward in a frenzy of motion. The front squad dove out of its way, but Frost wasn't fast enough. The brute swung one heavy arm around and caught the dark-skinned marine in the midsection. There was a loud crunch, and the marine's body flew ten feet away and landed in a heap, the front of his armor caved in. He didn't move.

"Grenades!" Apone shouted, pumping back the action on his pulse rifle and firing a grenade at the thing that had just killed one of his men.

Four others joined it. Three of them impacted the brute's shoulders and head, the explosions causing it to stagger, but the last two hit it in the belly, and managed to blow off the thick armor covering it. Then the thing's thick, oily-colored intestines spilled out onto the ground along with a copious amount of blood, staining the dust black. The reaper creature tried to gather its guts up with one hand, while holding the other up in a defensive pose. Hicks, seeing an opening from where he'd sprawled in the dust, primed another grenade and tossed it just under the thing's squat legs. It went off, vaporizing the brute's insides and killing it.

As the brute slumped over and let out an echoing howl, Apone rushed forward and grabbed Hudson by the collar of his armor. "Come on, we have to keep moving! Run goddammit!" He shoved him forward roughly and turned...

Bishop and Ripley were up and moving, already passing him to join the others, but Crowe struggled under the weight of the lieutenant he held over his shoulders. Further back beyond him... Monstrosities. That was the only word Apone could think of to describe them, monsters that scuttled, loped, and sprinted after the fleeing marines, he couldn't even make out distinct shapes among the teeming horde. He started to shout a warning, and bring his gun to bear, but one of the things raised some sort of weapon before he could do anything. There was a flash and a muted report, and several large holes were blown through Crowe's chest, clean through his armor, showering him with blood as the marine and his now-dead passenger collapsed.

"FUCK!" The sergeant screamed, firing wildly back at the oncoming swarm.

Then one of the things, which resembled a fleshy orange sack with four legs and two cannons sighted in on them with a blue laser and fired several crackling red blobs of energy in their direction. Most of them missed, but one shot caught Drake right in the stomach and vaporized the large smartgunner instantly in a wash of orange fire. Apone had seen enough to know he couldn't fight these things on the open terrain, and turned and retreated with the rest of his squad, shooting blindly over his shoulder at their pursuers as explosions erupted around him.

As they ran for the perceived safety of the buildings, Hudson happened to glance up. He skidded to a stop as he shouted inarticulately at the top of his voice, falling on his ass and kicking backwards with his legs.

"Hudson, what the fuck is-" Noticing the private staring over his shoulder, Hicks glanced up and froze, as did the rest of the platoon.

A massive dark shape descended rapidly from the clouds, hitting the ground just a few hundred meters in front of them in an Earth-shaking impact. Then its long, spindly arms unfolded, and the towering Reaper Destroyer got to its feet. The armor plates covering its glowing red firing chamber retracted, and it let out an ear-splitting, brassy roar.

"Holy motherfucker, what is that thing!?" Vasquez shouted, raising her smartgun in a futile show of force.

The Reaper's red, eye-like cannon swiveled to face directly at them, and the glow intensified, accompanied by another roar. Hicks realized what was coming a split second before it happened. "MOVE!" He screamed, diving for cover.

With a high-pitched sound, the Thanix weapon discharged, a long beam of molten metal tore apart the ground, leaving a glowing crater in its wake and flinging rock and molten metal in every direction. The rest of the marines dove out of the way, but one of them wasn't quite fast enough.

"AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!" Wierzbowski screamed as his lower legs were vaporized, caught in the wake of the Reaper weapon, leaving twisted, blackened stumps ringed by inflamed red flesh and half-melted armor just above the knee.

"Dietrich, get him up!" Apone screamed as the Reaper swung its gaze around and the pursuing forces got closer. "Everyone, inside, NOW!"

The squad, their female corpsman carrying the wounded, now-unconscious Wierzbowski with her, ran into what appeared to be some sort of luxury hotel, or at least the remains of one. The furniture, such that it was, was strewn everywhere, and scorch marks and bullet holes covered every available surface. The terrified marines and civilians barely noticed as they ran through the devastated atrium, past the shattered remains of some fountain, and into the hotel proper. They ran down the hallway until they found some stairs and pounded up them in a rush, barely remembering to assign rear security and to maintain their intervals.

They stopped on the seventh floor, randomly picked a room, and forced the door open. As they secured the room, Apone began issuing orders.

"Dietrich, put him on the table. Do what you can for him." The woman nodded and pulled out her medkit. Apone surveyed the room, it was large, luxurious, a lone tv on one wall, several couches strewn throughout, and a small kitchenette and dining table next to a large, thankfully curtained window.

"All clear sir!" Came the calls from the marines securing the rest of the suite. "Nothing back here but bedrooms and bathrooms!"

"Ok, sweep the place, keep an eye out for anything unusual." The sergeant turned to Bishop and Ripley. "Are you two alright?"

Ripley merely nodded, but the android gingerly raised one arm, which was leaking a milky white fluid from the shoulder. "Just a graze." He reported calmly. "My onboard repair systems can handle it."

"Good," He turned to where Dietrich was frantically injecting stims into Wierzbowski and applying pressure bandages to the ragged, cauterized stumps that used to be his legs. "Now can someone please tell me what the fuck just happened?!"

With Hicks and Hudson off searching the suite, only Vasquez was left. "Drake's dead," She whispered. "Those fucking pendejoes!" She got her feet abruptly, grabbing her massive weapon and moved towards the window. "Get over here putas I'm gonna kill all of you!"

"Hey!" Apone barked. "Stow that attitude Vasquez, and get your ass away from the window or you'll get shot before you can kill any of 'em!"

She reluctantly obeyed the order and returned to her seat, staring at her weapon.

"Drake was a damn fine marine, and he died protecting us." Apone said in a gruff, but sill somewhat soothing tone. "And we should honor his sacrifice by figuring out just where in the hell we are and taking the fight to those things!" Vasquez nodded and looked up, a fire in her eyes.

"Yo! Got something here sarge!" Hicks walked in clutching a small blue datapad. "Looks like a mini-computer, but not any kind I've ever seen."

"Did you try accessing it?" Apone asked, taking the device from the corporal.

"Yeah, first thing sir. But it won't respond to anything I-" He stopped as Apone hit a small control on the side and the screen flared to life, displaying some holographic text.

"Hmm," Apone said after a moment, and then read the text out loud. "It's in English. 'We've got to get out of the city.'" He began quietly. "'There are Reapers everywhere. I hear they've been targeting the refugee camps, capturing as many as they want and killing the rest. I can't risk the kids. Honey, I'm going to try and get out of here. If you find this, come meet me where we first met...'" He trailed off.

"Well, that doesn't sound too good." Vasquez commented dryly.

"Yeah, man. What the hell's a Reaper?" Hudson asked. They all turned to the civilian woman sitting quietly on the couch.

Ripley shook herself out of her reverie and looked up at them. "I don't know!" She protested. "I've never seen anything like these things before! I'm just as lost as you are!"

"If I may?" Bishop asked, holding out his hand for the datapad. Apone handed it over, and the android turned the device over in his hands slowly before finding what he was looking for: a circular cable access point. The android dug around in the pockets of his cargo pants, looking for something.

Ripley watched him –it- go with troubled emotions. The machine had pushed her out of the way of an incoming bullet during their retreat, saving her life and wounding itself in the process. She almost thanked it for that. And then she remembered Ash, his face utterly emotionless as he tried to strangle her with a rolled-up wad of magazines aboard the Nostromo and she shook violently. No, she couldn't forgive Bishop for Ash's sins. It was a synthetic, and they couldn't be trusted.

She glanced over at Apone, talking with the squad medic. By the grim looks on their faces, the wounded marine wasn't doing well. She shuddered and glanced around at their luxurious surroundings, wondering where they were and what had happened.

"Ah-ha!" Bishop exclaimed softly, and she noticed that he'd produced a strangely shaped, dual-ended cable. He plugged one end into the datapad, with the specialized jack changing size to fit in the port, and then rolled up his left sleeve.

Confused, Ripley watched, along with the other marines, as Bishop pinched a mole on his left forearm and pulled, yanking the artificial blemish out along with a thin white strand of synthetic flesh. Then he inserted the other end of the cable into the newly exposed hole on his arm.

"Direct link established." The android said tonelessly, his eyelids half-closed and fluttering as he accessed the datapad's contents. "Processing." He quirked an eyebrow. "Fascinating."

"What?" Hudson asked nervously.

"Please wait." Was the reply.

He sat there silently for several minutes before fully opening his eyes and removing the cable from his arm. Turning to face the squad leader, he spoke in a serious tone. "This is very bad, sergeant."

oOo

A series of metallic blast doors bearing the Systems Alliance emblem were suddenly split apart by long, bloodstained dark claws. There was a sound of wrenching metal, and a snarling, glowing husk shoved the doors apart. The thing charged, and with a loud boom, its face –and most of its head- exploded in a cloud of dark red mist and gore.

Still holding the smoking Carnifex pistol, admiral Hackett coughed in the smoke-filled air, and slumped, placing one hand on the flickering, badly damaged holographic table that was displaying the disastrous battle for the human homeworld. Surrounding the orange globe were thousands of red markers, vastly outnumbering the dwindling blue allied forces.

Hackett glanced around; most of his bridge crew was dead or unconscious. Noxious fumes filled the air, and a massive hole, caused by a direct shot from a Reaper cannon, had torn through the front of the CIC. The shields had slowed it down just enough for the room to survive, but not enough to allow the armor to withstand the hit. Glowing kinetic barriers now separated the rapidly degrading atmosphere of the bridge from the hell raging around the ship.

The rest of the Everest had been ravaged just as badly; a Reaper destroyer had latched onto her underbelly, and punched holes into the hull with its Thanix cannons. Through those rents poured hundreds of reaper monsters, which had moved to quickly seize control of vital areas of the ship. Hackett had purged the computers of any relevant data, but that hadn't stopped them. The first compartment the husks had taken had been the fire control room. He'd only gotten a frenzied transmission from the techs manning the gun controls about horrific creatures pouring through the doors and slaughtering them before the line went dead. And now, they were coming for the bridge.

"Ugh," Hackett raised his left arm, his glowing orange omni-tool flaring to life. "Comms, send a message to the fleet. The dreadnaught Everest is dying, and I don't think I'll make it. My ship's been boarded, and I've scrubbed all mission-sensitive data from the computers, and... I am transferring command of the invasion fleet to Matriarch Kiara aboard the Destiny Ascension. Good luck, and Godspeed." He couldn't get to the escape pods, and even if he did there was no way he could command the battle from one. Assuming of course, that the Reapers didn't blast it out of the sky a few seconds after it launched.

"Sir," The lieutenant on the other end of the line replied. "I feel it is my duty to inform you that no one has been in contact with the Ascension for over an hour now, her last known position was several thousand miles upspin from us, and she was being engaged by multiple Reaper dreadnaughts."

Hackett gave a small sigh, which turned into a hacking cough. This can't be happening. He thought. Sword and Hammer were all but wiped out, no one had seen or heard from commander Shepard; she had vanished sometime after landing. Even with that strange ship, the Enterprise... Hackett's eyelids, previously drooping, snapped completely open. The Enterprise!

"Lieutenant, patch me through to that new ship, the Enterprise," Hackett heard more reaper troops howling close by in the bowels of his ship. "And hurry."

After a moment, the hologram table Hackett was clutching shimmered, and the view of the other ship's bridge appeared. Their captain, Picard, stood from his command chair just below a raised line of consoles set into a wooden arch, and faced him. "Admiral, are you alright? What's the situation?"

"Captain," Hackett gasped, the oxygen getting thinner. "I don't have much time. My ship's been boarded. They- they want to know our plans. I've destroyed the data, but my crew-" He coughed. "Don't know if we can win this, don't even know who you are *cough*, but I'm- I'm giving you command of the fleet. They'll tell you the plan. Please captain. Don't let me down. *cough*, don't let Earth down."

oOo

At the helm of the U.S.S. Enterprise-E, captain Picard watched as the grey-haired admiral slumped to the floor on the static-filled transmission screen, before quickly turning and tapping a control on the arm of the captain's chair.

"Bridge to transporter room three, do you have a lock on the admiral's ship?" He asked quickly.

"Yes sir." The young technician responded after a moment.

"Good," Picard said with a barely-noticeable hint of relief in his voice. "Beam the survivors on that ship aboard immediately. Send the critically injured to sickbay, and alert doctor Crusher to prepare for more incoming casualties."

"Yes sir."

oOo

Back aboard the Everest, Hackett barely had the energy to lift his head and see a Marauder, its mechanical eyes glowing white, and the Phaeston assault rifle fused with the pulsating red flesh of its arm pointing at him. He struggled, despite his growing weakness and his rapidly greying-out vision, to raise the pistol in his right hand. Not like this. His mind whispered as the thing raised its arm into firing position. Not like this...

Then there was a burst of light, and his vision faded.

oOo

"Sir, the prophet is bugging out, request permission to engage."

"Negative commander, all vectors too heavy for star-side intercept."

"Ma'am! Slipspace rupture off the target's bow; it's gonna jump, inside the city!"

"There's no time sir!"

"Green light, green light to engage!"

"Punch it! Get us close!"

"Ma'am, without a destination solution-"

"We are not losing that ship!"

Commander Miranda Keyes, twenty-six years old and crisp looking with her short-cropped brown hair and grey UNSC service uniform, kept reviewing her conversation with Lord Hood before her jump. Her tiny Stalwart-class light frigate, the UNSC In Amber Clad had flown up close next to the massive assault carrier bearing the Prophet of Regret, catching its rippling slipspace wake as the bulbous, purple warship did something no UNSC ship was insane enough to try: an in-atmosphere slipspace jump.

Staring, with bright green eyes out at the blue-tinged blackness of slipspace beyond the bridge's viewport, her eyes widened as out of the oblivion of the other dimension, a white spot appeared in the center of her vision.

"Sensors! What the hell is that?"

Her navigation officer, sitting in front of and slightly to the right of her, stared at his screen and shook his head. "I have no idea, ma'am." He said with a worried note in his voice. "Sensors say it's some sort of gravity anomaly, or what they think is one at least, and its hundreds of kilometers across!"

He was right to worry, though the UNSC had been using slipspace for hundreds of years, they still barely understood the unknown alternate dimension. There were waves, eddies, and other, stranger phenomenon in the darkness of slipspace. Sometimes certain ships would enter a jump and never return, or exit years later, thinking that no time had passed, military warships in close formation would exit slipspace hundreds or thousands of kilometers apart, utterly destroying any sort of strategy for attacking directly after exiting a jump. Unlike the Covenant ships, which could jump wherever they wanted with precision and speed.

However, in all of her (admittedly incomplete) knowledge of slipspace, Miranda had never heard of something like this. And as her ship hurled on through the blackness at FTL speeds, the white smudge grew until she could see that it was a spiderweb-like patch of white, arcing energy. Miranda didn't know what it was, but staring at the rapidly approaching anomaly, she knew she sure as hell didn't want it anywhere near her ship.

"Helm, maneuver us around it." She ordered.

"Yes ma'am." He responded, tapping a few glowing blue controls, far ahead, the frigate's elongated, split-level bow moved toward the left edge of the now-very large and bright lightning web, but slowly, too slowly. "Ma'am, I can't avoid it!" He shouted after a moment. "She can't move fast enough, impact in thirty seconds!"

Miranda hit a control on the console before her, activating the ship-wide intercom. "All hands, emergency! Brace for impact!"

It was over in seconds, the glowing energy field swept over the In Amber Clad, washing the beige colored hull with electricity. As the field swept through the bridge, Miranda breathed a sigh of relief as it passed through her and her crew without harming them, though she did feel an odd swooping sensation and tingling throughout her nerves.

And then the alarms started.

Sparks flew from the consoles, and some of the screens even exploded in showers of glass and smoke as their systems overloaded. The lighting shifted to red and various klaxons began sounding as the ship suddenly lurched around them, the squeal of protesting metal barely audible over the wailing emergency alarms.

Miranda, clutching the shallow, bleeding cut on her left cheek where a shard of flying glass had sliced her, noticed a couple of consoles actively burning nearby. "Fire, fire in the hold!" She shouted. A nearby bridge member grabbed a fire extinguisher and began dousing the flames with concentrated blasts of white foam.

"Damage report, and kill those God-dammed alarms!" Miranda shouted. Outside, the normally smooth darkness of slipspace was twisting, flashing with blue light, and a glance at her sensors showed that they were going utterly crazy.

"Ma'am, our computers and sensors are heavily damaged!" Her sensors tech shouted as the wailing din of the alarms shut off, leaving the bridge eerily silent. "The MAC capacitors have been drained somehow, and the Archer Missile guidance systems aren't responding!"

"Ma'am! The slipspace drive and forward engines are shutting down!" The helmsman shouted, panic in his voice.

Miranda's blood turned to ice in her veins. Mid-jump, non-controlled slipspace terminations were assumed to be death sentences. Those ships vanished, never to be seen again. At least that was what they suspected happened, because no ship that suffered a mid-jump failure had ever returned; ships either came out of slipspace around where they were supposed to, or they didn't come out at all.

"Re-route non-critical power!" She ordered frantically. "Keep the drive online!"

"I can't, ma'am! The control circuits are dead, and one of the reactors has scrammed; coolant pump malfunction. We don't have any power!" The man was in a full-blown panic now, his brown eyes wide. "Termination of jump immanent!"

Miranda felt a calm overtake her. So this is it, She thought with finality. No grand battle, no death by sacrifice, just us vanishing into thin air while chasing that damn carrier. Me, my crew, humanity's last, greatest hope, all gone. This is... Maybe I'll see my father again on the other side.

Out loud, she spoke without a waver in her voice. "Gentlemen, it has been an honor and a privilege to serve alongside you."

"Likewise, ma'am." They replied, though not as calmly.

Then with a shock that wracked the frigate, the oblivion of slipspace seemed to peel back and vanish. Miranda tensed. What will be on the other side? Is it death, another galaxy, or something worse?

It was worse; her ship hurtled out of slipspace-

-Into the middle of a hellish battle. Strange, foreign warships and fighters dueled fiercely everywhere her stunned eyes could see, punctuated by explosions, large and small, that popped like fireworks, and streaks of lasers and burning wreckage blasted every which way through the space over a burning, blue and gray planet below.

Miranda took in this whole sight in a fraction of a second, and as her conscious mind reeled from both surviving the disastrous slipspace jump and the massive battle taking place around her, her training took over and she began barking orders.

"Go evasive, now! Helm, full forward power, angle us up and away from the planet and prepare for emergency slipspace jump, I don't care how you do it, just go. Sensors, what the hell is going on out there and where the hell are we?!"

She flinched as a long, blue and white craft, which vaguely resembled a UNSC frigate, although with more graceful lines, swept in from the left, firing small turrets and a forward-facing bow cannon at something she couldn't see –and detonated as a glowing red beam of energy tore through the ship's belly, tearing the alien warship apart in a blast of yellow and orange fire and flinging molten debris around it. Her frigate shuddered as the shockwave of fire and shrapnel caught it, causing the massive, Titanium-A plated ship to shudder from bow to stern.

"Ma'am, we still have no power for the engines!" The helmsman shouted, frantically working his console. "And the astrogation computer's completely fried, it doesn't know where we are!"

"Sensors, who or what is that out there, and are there any Covenant!" She shouted as two fighters, one a sphere with a glowing red 'front' and an angular, swift-looking thing blew over the bow of her ship, the spherical one smoking from the blue-streaked gunfire coming from its pursuer. "And get me some damn weapons!"

"Sensors building image!" The lieutenant responded, as a glowing, spherical hologram appeared in front of her, rapidly filling up with various contacts, each one tagged with a serial number. "MAC capacitors are still charging, the Archer pods are a write off, and we've already used our Shiva back at Earth!"

"What the hell's left!?" Miranda shouted as another warship, of similar make to the one that had just been destroyed, swept in over the top of her ship, firing its bow gun repeatedly at a shadowy form barely visible through the slowly dispersing debris field ahead of her. In the distance, the battle raged on, more explosions constantly mushrooming over the star-strewn background.

"Just the fifty-millimeters." He replied. "And their precision-targeting computers are shot!"

"Well open them up and-"

She cut herself off as her ship suddenly rang from multiple impacts and kicked to the left. "What the hell was that?!"

"Impact on the starboard engine pods." The helmsman said grimly. "The armor took the hit, it felt like kinetic rounds." He glanced at her, a grim look on his face. "Well, they know we're here now."

Kinetic rounds. Miranda thought with a jolt. Covenant don't use those, but the Innies do. Did we jump into the middle of an Insurrectionist battle? But where'd they get all of these ships and why make them look like that? And what the hell are they fighting?

Suddenly a red beam blasted through the remains of the first frigate-sized ship and hit the ship hovering just overhead and in front of her vessel. It sheared off one of the ship's strangely undersized engine pods in a flash of orange fire. Miranda barely noticed, though, as a massive form flew through the cloud of metal in front of them, glowing red like a demon out of hell, resembling a huge, grasping hand, and the color-

Miranda's eyes narrowed. That color. Purple. Iridescent purple. Covenant.

"Covenant!" Her sensors officer shouted in alarm. "Covenant warship directly off the bow! Unknown design and classification!"

"Fire control, target that warship with everything we have! And get me my damn MAC cannon!" As she watched, the bulky 50 mm autocannons rotated forward and fired a stream of hot lead at the Covenant ship, which based on its size was a cruiser or battleship. Thousands of rounds flew from the barrels, with the occasional yellow streak of a tracer round showing the direction of the others.

The shots impacted a glowing blue barrier that flashed into existence to intercept the rounds. Miranda frowned slightly, something tickling the back of her mind. That's not right; Covenant shields are silver, not blue...

Then the 'hand' opened up, the tendrils at the front of the warship unfolding like some perverse flower, and a large port on the underside of the ship began to glow red.

Realizing what was coming, Miranda gripped her chair and shouted at the top of her voice. "Oh shit, brace for impact!"

A streak of bright red flew from the warship and with little more than a shudder, cut cleanly through the armor plating on the Amber's bow, slicing a jagged, diagonal glowing tear into the armor. As the crew watched, horrified, the two chunks of severed metal from the forward bow, the site of the cut glowing orange and yellow, spun away into space, venting atmosphere. Their MAC gun was now disabled.

In that instant, Miranda realized that they were completely outmatched in space, and that the Covenant warship would destroy them easily. Without engines or their slipspace drive-

"I'm initiating Cole Protocol Article Two, we're evacuating! Set the cannons to a defensive firing pattern, scrub the astrogation computer, and evacuate!" She ordered her crew.

"Yes ma'am!" They replied quickly tapping their controls. Outside, the turrets rotated to face out and began laying down random patterns of gunfire, trying to establish a buffer zone to allow the crew to escape. Several of the shots reached out to hit the encroaching Reaper Dreadnaught, doing little more than ping off of its kinetic barriers.

"All hands, this is the commander, evacuate the ship immediately!" Miranda bellowed into the intercom. "Move, get to the Longswords and Pelicans and head for the planet below!" She paused and switched channels.

"Chief," She addressed the SPARTAN-II supersoldier. "Get to an HEV pod and get the hell out, protect Cortana!"

"Understood." Was the cyborg's gruff response.

Suddenly there was another flash of red light, and that beam weapon flew by the bridge. The In Amber Clad kicked and bucked, shaking the crew in their seats. A wash of orange fire flew past the bridge's left side. "What was that?!"

"We've just lost the portside engine." One of the techs reported grimly. "We've got fire spreading throughout the portside aft quarter, and the radiation alarms are going nuts!"

"Longswords and Pelicans away!" One of the other five officers shouted. "All personnel accounted for!" She added after a moment. "There are still some HEV pods left, but we have to hurry, ma'am."

"Alright, we've overstayed our welcome, send the distress signal and let's go!" Miranda shouted, getting to her feet despite the ship shuddering from multiple kinetic impacts to the ship's Titanium-A armor.

"Yes, ma'am, there's a lot of encrypted chatter and interference out there, so I don't know if it'll be heard." The comms officer said, working his controls frantically. "Done." He ran to the rear of the bridge where the rest of the crew was waiting in the elevator.

Miranda glanced back at the sensors officer, still standing over his station. "Lieutenant, get your ass back here!"

"Ma'am, there's another UNSC ship out there!" He said, disbelief evident in his voice.

"I don't care!" Miranda shouted as the disintegrating ship shook again. "We have to leave!"

"Wait," He said, staring hard at the screen. "It's a light cruiser, Halcyon-class. Transponder reads as the-" He shook his head. "No, that's impossible."

"Lieutenant!" Miranda bellowed. Her hand hovered over the button to send the main lift down to the HEV launch bays.

He turned to start for the rear of the bridge, when with the sound of a muted explosion and tearing metal, several hyper-velocity rounds tore through the bridge. The lieutenant didn't even have time to shout or realize what happened, as his body veritably evaporated into a red, bloody mist, which was quickly sucked out through the ragged breaches in the hull, accompanying the scream of escaping air.

"Shit!" Miranda yelled, slamming her hand down on the lift button. The doors closed swiftly and the lift started down at a fast clip.

"Sweet Jesus," One of the Navy officers gulped, putting his hands on his knees. "Lieutenant Agathon, he, he."

"Don't dwell on it." Miranda ordered. "He disobeyed a direct order, and paid the price." Inwardly she winced at that, but she couldn't go back on herself, especially not in a life-or-death situation.

"Ma'am, with all due respect-" The lift dinged at that moment, and the doors opened onto a dimly lit, olive drab corridor lined with hatches on the right side.

"Stow the chatter and let's go!" Miranda ordered, rushing out of the lift and waving her officers after her. "Go, go, go!"

They ran for the HEV pods and practically dove into them, sealing both hatches behind them and launching without any hesitation. One last officer ran toward Miranda where she stood near the last two pods, the commander's arm outstretched-

-And then the bulkhead behind and to the left of the lieutenant exploded inward. A tear was opened up through the Titanium-A armor, exposing a portion of the In Amber Clad's superstructure through the hole, the metal glowing red-hot from the beam weapon. With a scream, lieutenant Janeway was thrown towards the gaping breach and the war-torn void beyond by the sudden rush of air out the gap. Miranda, clutching the edge of the pod hatch, could only watch as the young woman caught the edge of the glowing, jagged tear, struggling to pull herself back in against the diminishing wind as the pressure rapidly bled out of the hull tear.

Then, with a muted shriek in the nearly gone atmosphere, the jagged metal in the officer's hands cut deeply into the woman's palms, and her blood fountained out, flying out into space. Then, the lieutenant lost her blood-slicked grip on the edge and flew out into the silent, raging emptiness beyond. Seconds later a stray Thanix cannon blast caught the officer's slowly struggling and choking form, and vaporized her instantly.

Miranda Keyes pulled herself into the cramped pod, the atmosphere almost gone and her ears and eyes burning from the pressure difference, and slammed a hand on the glowing red button marked 'Emergency Launch'. With a barely-audible hiss, both the pod's door and the frigate's hatch slammed down, and with a roar, air flooded the tiny pod. The commander gasped in relief at the sweet rush of oxygen, and struggled, despite a sudden weakness, to get herself into the pod's seat. She pulled the straps around her shaking form, buckling them in as the pod clanked and whirred into launch position.

"Come on!" Miranda screamed, slamming her hands against the sides of the pod, near where the shotgun and submachine gun were secured.

With a bone-jarring jolt, a small explosive jolt fired the pod out of the lower hull of the dying UNSC frigate. Miranda was slammed up against the restraining harness. She stared up through the glass viewport on the front of the drop pod at the In Amber Clad. She felt a slight pang of sadness through the haze of adrenaline and fear at the twisted, melted hulk that used to be her ship. It barely resembled the once-proud frigate it had once been; one of the engine pods had been blown off, the hull was rent in countless places, and atmosphere and fire vented from those gaps. As she watched, three more red beams sliced into the ship and cut it into pieces, detonating the remaining fuel and ordinance in bright white explosion.

Commander Keyes slumped in her seat, putting her face in her hands and letting out a shuddering breath. It'd barely been ten minutes and she'd already lost her ship, a good portion of her crew, and almost died herself. She looked up and out the window, down towards the planet below. She could barely make out the tiny pinpricks of light from the other pods' engines as they flew towards the planet below. She closed her eyes. Although there weren't many warships below her, in these pods she and her crew were practically defenseless.

She looked down at the planet again, and her eyes widened. That peninsula! She thought wildly. No, no, no, it can't be...

Then the HEV shook, and a wreath of orange and yellow fire erupted around the bottom of her pod.

She was entering the planet's upper atmosphere.

oOo

"So, where do we stand?" Captain Jacob Keyes asked from the bridge of the Halcyon-Class cruiser the Pillar of Autumn over the shouting of the various officers around him. Cortana would filter and condense the information into short, concise statements and bring the necessary information to his attention if necessary.

"Our fighter patrols are mopping up the last of the encroaching fighters, nothing serious." Cortana's feminine voice echoed throughout the spacious room. "But my sensors are picking up approach signatures from multiple unknown warships. And in a few minutes they'll be all over us."

"Alright, what about that planet? Do you know where we are?" The grey-haired captain asked, staring at a tactical projection of the situation and holding his antique pipe in one hand.

"Just a moment," She replied, then her glowing, blue holographic avatar appeared.

She was an attractive young woman with short hair and clad in a skin-tight jumpsuit with lines of code running down her form, and she looked up at him seriously. "Captain, I'm reading another UNSC ship out there in this mess."

"Who?" Keyes asked, interested. They were surrounded on all sides by unknown warships fighting a massive battle, explosions breaking all around them. The Pillar of Autumn hung above the planet in a small bubble of calm, established by their heavy fighter-interceptors, although the approaching warships were threatening to change that.

They'd been fleeing from the dying planet Reach through slipspace when they encountered an unknown anomaly, resembling a web of white lightning. It had swept over the ship, destroying some minor electrical systems. Luckily Cortana had been able to redirect the unusual surge's energy into non-critical systems, saving critical portions of the ship. Unfortunately the phenomenon had interacted badly with their slipspace drive, catapulting them into orbit around this burning, grayish planet and into a fight for their lives. Fighters and frigate-size ships roared around them, dozens of different models all attacking a significantly larger force of ominously purple warships, reminiscent of Covenant cruisers. Barely a few minutes after arriving their Longswords were launched and struggling to establish a buffer zone and the bridge was in chaos.

"Sir..." The AI said with a slight hesitation unusual to constructs. "The other UNSC ship, it's the In Amber Clad."

Keyes' eyes went wide as he stared out at the mass of warships slugging it out, and the multicolored streaks of light flashing through the emptiness of space as a wedge of fear lodged itself in his gut. Miranda. "What the- Cortana, where are they?"

"A few thousand kilometers to port." She paused again. "Sir, she just activated an emergency beacon!"

"Cortana, plot an intercept course, now!" He shouted, praying that he wasn't too late. Outside the view shifted as the Autumn's massive engines ponderously spun up to speed, projecting huge streamers of blue-white plasma behind the blocky warship. They started to move, but slowly, too slowly...

"It's too late," The AI said with an undertone of sadness before the ship's engines even began to build up speed. "The frigate has been destroyed." A bright flash shone out of the left side of the bridge, brighter than the other, background explosions that were omnipresent above the planet; the In Amber Clad's funeral pyre, and her crew's. "I'm sorry, Captain."

"Dammit." Keyes muttered, his eyes tearing up slightly as he struggled to maintain control. No, not Miranda. Please not her. What the hell was she even doing here?

"Sir," Cortana said, snapping him out of it. "I don't want to give you false hope, but I've detected a large number of Longswords, Pelicans, and HEV pods heading for the planet's surface. It's possible she survived." She added helpfully.

Hope surged in his chest, countering the sadness, but he forced both emotions down. Not now, Captain Keyes thought, steadying himself. You have a ship to lead. "Alright, Cortana, which faction attacked her ship?"

"I believe it was the larger, better-armed faction, sir." She replied. "And of all the factions in this battle, they are the only ones to have displayed active hostility towards us."

"Alright, designate all vessels of that make as hostiles and commence targeting. Have you managed to crack their communications?"

"Not yet sir," She said sheepishly, slightly embarrassed of the fact. "They're comms protocols and operating systems are unlike anything I've ever seen. I can't get into the networks on either side of the conflict, in fact."

"Well, what can you tell me about them?" Keyes asked, watching as the red dots on the tactical view crept closer to his ship, vector and speed information displayed next to each one.

"The ones we've designated as hostile are very large warships and heavily armed. I'm not detecting any of the energy shielding that comes standard with most Covenant vessels of that size, however our gravity sensors go crazy whenever we point them at the warships; there's something strange going on there. Also, they aren't using standard Covenant Battle-Nets, otherwise I could crack it with ease."

'She' looked up at him, even though Cortana's true eyes were the myriad sensors and cameras scattered throughout the ship, she found that humans tended to react better if her avatar appeared to interact with them directly.

"Captain, despite their appearance I don't think we're dealing with the Covenant here, they're just too different. The other warships that they are fighting have more in common with them than us, but are much smaller than the hostiles, and they have thinner hulls and possess weaker weaponry. It's weaker than both the hostiles' guns and our own as a matter of fact." Left unsaid was the question of if these factions weren't Covenant or humans, then who the hell were they?

"What about the planet?" Keyes asked as the unknown warships grew closer, both as blips on the screen and shadowy figures beyond the bridge viewport. "Do you know where we are?"

Cortana then did something that surprised the captain. Although she was cloned from a human brain and had adopted some human mannerisms, he had never seen an AI bite their lip and raise a hand to their face in contemplation and uncertainty.

Deep within the mind of the massive, unfathomable computer intelligence that was Cortana, dozens of processes suddenly screeched to a halt as they analyzed the data coming in from the sensor feeds and telescopes, the AI equivalent of a person's heart skipping a beat in shock. Cortana, developed from the flash-cloned brain tissue of doctor Katherine Halsey, mastermind of the SPARTAN supersoldier program, was, for the first time in her short life, utterly shocked. For a half a processing cycle she was stunned as she reviewed the data and re-scanned the planet, struggling to find some other explanation for what she was seeing.

The coastline matches up within exceptional deviations, the atmosphere has the right proportions, She thought, trying to be empirical about the situation. And, oh hell, the moon's the exact same. There was no other explanation for it, she concluded.

They were at Earth.

A second after he asked her that last question, Cortana responded. "Captain, if I'm reading the data right, we... are at Earth."

Silence, save for the ringing alarms in the background, descended over the bridge. Every officer turned almost simultaneously from their consoles and stared out of the glass at the front of the bridge at the devastated planet before them.

"Earth..." Captain Keyes said after a moment. "Mother of God." It's all been for nothing. He thought, temporarily forgetting the situation he was in as the shock from his and every other UNSC members' worst nightmare set in. The Cole Protocol, all of our precautions, our fleets, and we still couldn't save our own homeworld.

Around him, some of the other bridge members were whispering, a few prayed, many swore, but the majority was silent, frozen in horror, as they watched their homeworld burn.

"Sir," Cortana said. "Might I remind you that due to the slipspace anomaly, it's doubtful we are at Earth as we know it. And those warships are closing in!"

Keyes snapped himself out of his funk at her words and began issuing orders. "Alright, snap out of it people, we're still UNSC officers and we have a job to do! Stand to your stations and bring the ship up to combat alert alpha!"

The bridge exploded back into activity as the officers began frantically shouting orders and using their consoles. Keyes turned back to the AI's pedestal.

"Cortana, can we destroy those ships coming towards us?" He asked seriously.

"I'm not sure." She replied, as one of the encroaching warships fired a beam of red energy from the tip of one of its tendrils. It impacted a warship with a circular bow and an odd, segmented body, bristling with guns, and blew it in half. Keyes winced. How many were on that ship? He wondered. Were they humans, or someone else? And what is this Earth like? Are we in the future? There were so many questions, and no time to answer them.

"I think they possess some form of shielding based on gravity distortion, and they are armed with magnetic guns, missiles, and whatever that red attack was, it appeared to be some sort of stream of liquid metal, accelerated to incredible speed. Also, our sensors indicate that they have some sort of UV-based laser system for point-defense."

She filed those tidbits away for later. Assuming she survived, such weapons could be a boon to the beleaguered human race, back home in their own Universe, which was in desperate need of something, anything, to turn the tide against the Covenant. She could only guess at the power requirements needed for such weaponry though.

"Given those odds, I'm fairly certain we can kill them all, but there are hundreds of those warships within sensor range, and who knows how many more beyond it. I'm good, captain, but I'm not that good." She added, trying to inject a bit of humor into the situation. "And whoever, or whatever is opposing them, well they're not putting up that good of a fight." As if to punctuate her statement another, brighter, explosion blossomed nearby.

"Is there any chance of getting away through slipspace?" Keyes asked as the incoming ships entered extreme weapons range. The Longswords broke away from them, fleeing back to the Autumn. The pilots recognized an unstoppable opponent when they saw one.

"Negative, the Shaw-Fujikawa is completely slagged, we'll need to rebuild it from scratch." She replied, another part of her mind energizing the MAC capacitors to prepare to fire.

"Very well, so this is where we make our stand." Keyes said firmly, realizing that with no FTL they'd have to stand their ground and fight, and against so many enemies... "I am initiating Cole Protocol Article Two, we are abandoning the Autumn." For all the good the Protocol does us now. A small thought said, but he ruthlessly brushed it aside. "We're going to bust through that line and land as many troops as we can on the planet, and continue fighting up here for as long as we can."

Stunned, the bridge crew didn't even react. Keyes turned to the AI pedestal and added. "That means you're leaving too, Cortana. I'll stay here and provide cover fire while you escape."

"While you do what sir, go down with the ship?!" She protested as the huge vessel shuddered. Above their heads, the massive electromagnets discharged in sequence, firing three titanic slugs of metal out of the front of the warship at a decent fraction of the speed of light. They streaked through the war-torn and debris-strewn space above Earth and impacted the lead Reaper warship's barriers, not punching through but severely weakening them.

"In a manner of speaking," Keyes replied. "Once we've done all we can up top, I'll bring the Autumn in for a crash-landing on the planet's surface and we'll link up with you and the survivors from In Amber Clad."

"With all due respect, sir, humanity has enough dead heroes!" She protested, at the same time reloading the MAC and locking in targeting solutions on the approaching ships for the Archer pods.

"I appreciate the concern, Cortana, but it's not up to me." He said sadly, crossing his arms as he heard a metallic thumping growing closer from behind him. "Protocol is clear; capture or destruction of a shipboard AI is absolutely unacceptable, no matter if we're at- no matter where we are." He didn't want to say out loud that they were at Earth, not until he was absolutely sure it actually was. "That means you're abandoning ship. We'll stay up here and fight for as long as we can, but with all those warships around... "

He trailed off as Cortana nodded. "Very well, upload a selection of landing sites near where the In Amber Clad's survivors touched down to the Pelicans and the escape pods, save a copy to my neural lace, and prepare for a hard transfer. Once all the escape vehicles are away and we've expended the last of the ship's ordinance, we'll crash-land on the planet's surface and link up with you."

"Aye-aye, sir." She said sadly, vanishing.

We can't retreat, and in space we can only hold out for so long before we're overwhelmed. At least on the ground we can wage a guerrilla campaign and maybe get a lift off of Ear- this rock. Keyes thought, trying to organize his chaotic thoughts. Hell, the Chief even has a reputation for pulling off impossible stunts like this.

He turned to the newly arrived, hulking, seven-foot tall cyborg in question, who was standing silently behind him, and stared up at his reflection in the green-armored man's golden visor.

"Which is where you come in, Chief." He'd sent for the Spartan almost immediately after they'd arrived in the warzone, but there'd been some delays with getting him out of the cryo bay. "Get Cortana off of this ship, and keep her safe from the enemy. If they capture her, they'll learn everything: force deployments, weapons research." He'd been about to add 'Earth', but if Cortana was right then that wasn't exactly a secret anymore.

"Yes sir, I understand." The Master Chief said in a low voice. He was wearing bulky, angular green armor and a fully sealed helmet. Underneath the separate, hard ceramic and metal plating was a black, resilient, full-body suit, which was resistant to gunfire and knives. "Who are we fighting sir? And where are we?" The Chief asked after a moment, turning his head to stare at the burning planet below, and the rapidly approaching Reaper warships.

Behind his visor, his eyes narrowed at the strange design of the Reaper vessels, and the planet behind them. It was still far off, but it grew steadily larger as the cruiser's massive engines pushed her slowly but surely towards it.

"Cortana can fill you in on the details later." The captain replied. "Right now what's important is that you evacuate and get to safety, the both of you." Cortana's holographic avatar reappeared. "Are you ready?" He asked her

"Just about," The AI replied. "I've copied some of my core code to the ship's mainframe, it'll continue evasive maneuvers and assist with fire control until you take her in." The ship rocked, not from the MAC gun firing, but from projectiles fired from the warships impacting the cruiser's heavy armor. "Not that you'll listen, but I'd recommend having my subroutines handle the final approach."

"Outstanding, Cortana. Thank you." The captain said, popping his pipe into his mouth.

She took one last, almost sad look around at her temporary home. "Alright, yank me." The captain knelt, quickly ejected the memory chip holding the AI, and handed it to the Chief.

"Good luck, Master Chief."

Chief nodded, took the chip, and slip it carefully into the slot at the back of his helmet, momentarily feeling a strange sensation, as if cold, liquid metal was flowing through his brain, before Cortana spoke through his helmet's internal speakers.

"Hmm, your architecture isn't that much different from the Autumn's."

"Don't get any funny ideas."

Chief re-focused on the captain standing in front of him. The naval officer pulled out a gleaming, silver M6D handgun and offered it to him. Chief took it, and vaguely heard the captain start to mention not having any ammunition for it, but his attention was caught by something else.

Out beyond the glass at the front of the bridge, one of the big, dark Reaper ships had managed to close the distance between itself and the UNSC vessel, shying off to the side and remaining out of the MAC gun's tight firing arc. Even as the fat yellow streaks of archer missiles raced out towards it, the squid-like warship pointed a tendril at the Autumn that began glowing red with charging energy. More specifically, the weapon was aimed directly at the exposed and vulnerable bridge on the underside of the Halcyon-class ship's bow, and at him.

"Chief!" Cortana shouted a fraction of a second after he realized what was coming. The Master Chief knew what to do, even as adrenaline flooded his system and his artificial, inhuman reflexes activated.

Spartan Time kicked in.

Everything seemed to stand still, the flashing lights, the other crewmen, the blaring alarms, even the rapidly coalescing energy on the tip of the dreadnaught's tentacle all seemed to just stop. The Master Chief took a single step forward, grabbed the still-unaware captain around the middle with his free hand, and hefted him under his left arm. As Keyes' expression slowly turned to one of surprise and he started to bellow in shock, the Chief pivoted towards the rear of the bridge and ran for the safety of the bowels of the vessel, passing slowly-reacting crewmen like statues. They were dead already, they just didn't know it, even as they slowly turned to stare at where the Spartan had been standing an instant earlier. Behind him, the Reaper's cannon had finished charging, and the beam of molten metal rocketed out towards the unarmored bridge, which the thing's sensors had identified as a vulnerability in the hull.

The weapon, which even to the Spartan was ungodly fast, streaked towards the bridge. The two helmsman, sitting out in a sort of bubble of glass at the very fore of the command deck, barely had time to react as glowing red death filled their vision. The Thanix shot blew through the glass, instantly vaporizing the two men before they could even scream in shock. The intense heat flash-ignited the atmosphere, creating a rolling fireball that filled the remainder of the room and incinerated the other officers. The Master Chief, having turned the corner after passing the free-standing wall at the end of the bridge, ran for the blast doors that were quickly closing, still carrying Keyes under his arm. At his back, the fire blossomed around the corner he'd just turned, while the molten metal, not slowed down in the least, blew through the back of the bridge and continued to penetrate the Autumn, causing monumental damage and gutting half of the ship.

"You're cutting it close!" Cortana shouted directly into his mind as the Chief hurtled the captain through the almost-closed doors and jumped through after him. He rolled into the dive, and managed to wrap his body around Keyes' with his back to the door just as a jet of fire roared through the gap in the blast doors towards them.

Normal time returned.

With a roar the fire wreathed the prone Spartan, flaring against his energy shields and causing them to drain almost instantaneously, while even through his armor Chief felt an unbearable heat that made his skin blister. The air around him shimmered from the inferno raging from the doors.

And then, with a hiss, the blast shields closed, cutting off the fire. Simultaneously the ship rocked from side to side and new alarms began sounding. Ignoring the pain and the alert of his armor warning him of depleted shields, he stood slowly, his armor smoking, to stare down at the captain.

His skin was an angry red, his hair was slightly singed, and he was coughing in the smoke-laden atmosphere, but Keyes was alive.

"What –cough- what the hell just happened, Chief?" He asked, getting shakily to his feet. "What-"

"They took out the bridge, sir." Chief said, staggering as another powerful blast rocked the ship. Keyes put a hand to the wall to steady himself and looked at the blast doors now sealing off the bridge, which glowed an angry red color. Smoke was issuing from the paint on the door as it began to crisp off.

"How-" Another blast, larger than the others, wracked the ship, and then Cortana's voiced blared over the Chief's external speakers.

"Captain, the MAC cannon is offline, that was my last real offensive option. We have to evacuate, now!"

"Alright, Cortana." Keyes said, dusting off his dress uniform. "Give the evacuation code signal!"

With no further discussion he and the Chief took off running down the corridor, the ship shaking around them, and headed for the closest lifeboats. Meanwhile, Cortana's voice began playing from the loudspeakers all over the ship. "Attention all hands, this is Cortana, abandon ship, abandon ship immediately! This is not a drill, I repeat: this is not a drill." On the way to the lifeboats, the Chief slapped the still-warm pistol to his magnetic thigh-plate and grabbed an assault rifle and a bandolier of ammo off of a nearby rack.

"Sir, we're still far away from the planet," Chief pointed out as they rounded a corner and beheld several marines frantically boarding the escape craft. "What's to stop them from blowing us out of the sky?"

"I have an idea on that Chief." Keyes replied, head for the nearest open hatch. "Cortana, can you remotely pilot the Autumn from a lifeboat?"

"Yes, sir." She responded through the Chief's helmet's external speakers. "But I don't see..."

"We're going to use her as a shield." Keyes replied grimly, clambering through the Bumblebee's hatch. "Remote pilot her and keep the Autumn between us and those capital ships. The Longswords can handle the rest." He sat down and strapped himself into a chair.

The Chief stopped by the hatch and looked back quickly. Explosions rocked the corridors as the ship rang like a bell from hit after hit from the unknown warships. It seemed Cortana had been too optimistic about their chances about killing all the enemy warships. One last marine ran towards the pod, even as the others launched. Suddenly he tripped and fell, his gun flying from his hands.

"Oh no," The man whimpered. "Oh no!" He feared he would be left behind.

Slightly disgusted, the Chief reached down and grabbed the marine by the collar and bodily threw him through the hatch behind him. "Now would be a very good time to leave!" Cortana shouted at him.

He stepped back into the pod and slammed a palm down on a glowing red button. The twin set of doors closed in front of him, and with an explosion the escape vehicle was fired out of its berth. It flew quickly away from the dying cruiser, propelled by four engines at the corners of the blocky craft. Behind them the true extent of the damage became clear as they beheld a plethora of burning patches and gaping breaches in the ship's hull, which vented atmosphere. Wreckage surrounded the ship, glinting softly in the sunlight.

"We're disengaged, going for minimum safe distance!" The female pilot's voice came in over the radio from the front of the tiny craft.

"We're going to make it, right sir?" One of the marines asked fearfully as the pilot maneuvered their tiny vessel to take up position under the warship's belly, where all the other escape craft were huddled, shepherded by the Longsword fighters. "I don't wanna die out here!"

"We'll be fine, son." Captain Keyes reassured the terrified man. "We've made it this far."

"Look! The Autumn, she's turning!" Another marine shouted, and he was right.

Above and behind them, the flaming, heavily damaged cruiser, with numerous holes punched in her armor, ponderously turned and lumbered towards the planet after her wayward crew. Streams of tracer rounds flew from her fifty-millimeter cannons, so many it actually looked like she was shooting golden lasers instead of lead, towards the Reaper warships which threatened her children. Archer missiles flew from their launchers in droves, streaking out on yellow pillars of flame towards the three Reaper warships circling the dying ship, only to explode far away from their hulls as the invisible, UV lasers found them.

The dreadnaughts fired repeatedly, red beams gouging away at the massive cruiser and carving huge tears of metal out of her, and yet the Pillar of Autumn fought on. It was a testament to the resilience of the Halcyon line of cruisers that despite losing most of her armor, and in some places being more empty space than hull, streams of munitions still flew from recessed mounts on her hull. And as long as she kept fighting, the Reapers would be forced to focus on her, and not her fleeing crew.

Chief watched the cruiser buy them time in silence, not even wanting to guess how Cortana was managing to control the ship from his battle suit, until she sighed over his speakers.

"Well, that's about all I can do." She said quietly.

"What, that's it?" Chief said with a slight teasing tone. "It's barely been five minutes!"

"I- I might have underestimated the enemy warships' offenses." Cortana said sheepishly as the burning ship fell away behind them, the escaping ships pulling away from the dying cruiser. "And that's not exactly it, I've still got one trick up my sleeve."

"What?"

In response, the Autumn turned ponderously towards the nearest dreadnaught and her remaining engines sputtered to life, pushing her closer to the Reaper ship. The purple thing's thrusters, located on the underside of its 'mantle' came online, moving it out of the way of the slow UNSC ship.

"You're going to miss." The Chief remarked, watching the scene unfold.

"Who said anything about ramming them?" Cortana replied cheekily.

The Pillar of Autumn shook from bow to stern, and a massive white detonation exploded out of her aft section, mushrooming into a giant white sphere, miles across, that engulfed the Reaper ship entirely, vaporizing it. Chief raised a hand against the intensity of the light, which faded away. When he could see again, Chief noted impassively that the cruiser had been destroyed, as had the Reaper ship, and its two fellows were cautiously moving away from where the two ships had been.

The Master Chief looked over his shoulder, and saw Keyes and the other marines and naval officers staring out the back with shocked and slightly downcast expressions. He didn't really understand why, it was just a ship after all, but after many years serving aboard spaceships, he'd learned that their crews tended to get rather attached to their ships, even assigning them personalities. So, when everyone in the cramped hold silently saluted the destroyed ship, he turned and did so as well, out of respect for them and for the ship that had been sacrificed to save their lives.

"I sent the reactors into a wildcat meltdown shortly after we launched and it became clear how badly I was outmatched." Cortana explained softly as he dropped his salute. "It was the only way to kill those ships with no nukes left and the MAC offline."

"It's alright." Chief replied, staring out the back. A little below the lower edge of the window that covered the back of the escape pod, a sliver of the planet became visible, lit up by the distant sun. "Cortana, where are we exactly?"

"If I'm right, Chief, then we're at Earth." She said carefully, wondering what his reaction would be.

"Earth." He repeated, hefting his assault rifle in a lowered, diagonal grip.

"A version of it, at least." Cortana explained quickly. "When we were in slipspace, we encountered some sort of anomaly which brought us here. I don't have all the facts yet, but I think this is an alternate Universe."

Chief didn't respond, he didn't really have anything to say further. Despite Cortana's alternate Universe hypothesis, his duty was clear: serve and protect Earth and her colonies. Earth was under attack, and he would do his best to defend it. He glanced out of the rear window again, and his gaze narrowed. Something tiny was flashing against the backdrop of stars, and it was growing closer.

"Captain-" He began, when suddenly red projectiles flashed from the approaching starfighters, exploding in clouds of flak all around them.

The escape pod slammed from side to side with every blast, throwing the passengers around in their seats. The Master Chief remained standing, his magnetic boots anchoring him to the floor and his muscles and armor keeping him rock-steady. One blast caught a nearby lifeboat and engulfed it in flames, causing the ship to spin downward out of control.

"Go evasive!" Captain Keyes ordered from his seat.

"I'm trying, sir. But I'm not exactly nimble here!" The pilot replied, trying to use the pod's minimal maneuvering jets to evade the hail of gunfire. The escape pod wasn't designed to actively dodge enemy fighters.

More explosions rocked the tiny ship, even as the Pelicans peeled away toward the planet, bearing troops, Warthogs, and in a couple of cases; Scorpion tanks. The Bumblebees darted around as best they could, but the bulbous craft were easy targets for the Occuli pursuers. The Longsword fighters broke wide to turn and engage the enemy, but they were moving slowly as they turned. Momentum didn't just vanish.

Aboard the escape pod, the Master Chief got a good look at the things killing off the other UNSC personnel. They were metallic and spherical, with a large red dome for a nose and a few prongs extending forward from the edges. One drew up behind them, and its nose began glowing, obviously in preparation to fire. The pilot noticed and tried to throw the ship into a spin, but the Bumblebee reacted slowly, too slowly.

In a last, futile gesture, the Chief brought his assault rifle up to his shoulder and assumed a firing stance. He knew that small arms wouldn't have any effect on the thing and that his actions would cause the atmosphere of the pod to vent out, killing the passengers, but to him they were all dead already, and he at least wanted to go down fighting.

He slid his finger inside the trigger guard and prepared to fire-

And suddenly there was a flash of green light from behind their pursuer, flames erupted from the back of the fighter, and the red glow flickered and died. As the fighter spun down and away from the rear of the craft, Chief beheld their rescuer.

It was an odd-looking craft. A spherical cockpit, with a massive forward window crisscrossed with metallic girders that made it look uncannily similar to an eye, sat between two large, elongated, vertical side panels. The panels 'split' on either side of the cockpit, and each split section tapered to a point that was tipped in what, to the Chief's augmented vision, had to be a cannon of some sort. The entire, odd-looking construct was made primarily of a blue-gray metal, although the 'wings' of the craft were mostly made of a glossy black material, with the metal providing support.

Through the cockpit window, the Master Chief's eyes could barely make out a dark figure sitting at the controls. Whoever they were, they appeared humanoid. A second passed, the fighter still trailing behind the escape craft as they descended towards the upper atmosphere. Slowly, the Chief took his right hand off of his assault rifle, which he'd lowered, and brought it up in a salute to the unknown pilot that had saved their lives.

Much to the Chief's surprise, the fighter slowed down a bit, putting some distance between it and the pod, then very deliberately rolled itself from side-to-side, 'wagging its wings'. Then the fighter promptly peeled off, ascending swiftly back into the chaos of the battle in orbit.

As the Chief turned back to face the confused and stunned expressions of the occupants of the pod, feeling the jolt as the craft began descending through the atmosphere, one thing dominated his thoughts.

If we survive this, I'm going to find that pilot, whoever or whatever they are, and buy them drinks until they pass out.

oOo

As Major Soontir Fel flew away from the alien escape pod in his TIE Interceptor, he felt a strange sort of pride in himself. He'd diverted his squadron to assist them after observing their battle for survival from afar. He knew he'd catch hell for it later, but getting to see that soldier standing there, a gun clutched in their hands, defiant to the end, had been worth it. And they'd saluted him, and surprised, he could only reciprocate the gesture in his own fighter. He sighed inside of his confining black helmet. Perhaps when this was all over, they'd meet somewhere. He'd love to learn their story, no matter what species they were. If they were anything like that one he'd caught a glimpse of, then they had to be a tough, enduring, and powerful species.

The starfield wheeled about as he brought his fighter into a roll, the rest of his squad forming up behind him. Ahead lay countless enemies, and more kills than he could ever hope for. He grinned as they streaked towards a cluster of Reaper Occuli harassing one of the Quarian Liveships. This will be fun.

oOo

Commander Stevens walked briskly from the turbolift at the rear of his ship's gaping hangar bay, head across the debris-strewn, but still highly polished floor. All around him technicians, officers, and even the surviving TIE pilots, still clad in their black flight suits and helmets, worked to clear rubble from the smooth decking and put out the small fires that sputtered intermittently around the massive room. Commander Stevens glanced up, and cringed at the massive, ragged hole torn through the metal ceiling overhead, flanked on either side by the TIE fighter launch racks, which held only a few fighters out of their original two dozen. Looking past the torn, blackened metal that ringed the hole, he could see every deck that had been breached by the shot.

Shuddering at how close they'd come to total destruction, and trying to avoid looking at the bloodstained piles of white-armored stormtroopers and the grey-uniformed officers, Stevens walked up to the Deck Chief, a balding, pale, grey-eyed man by the name of Adams. Seeing his approach, the noncommissioned officer snapped to attention, saluted and shouted, his voice echoing off of the cavernous room's walls.

"Attention, Commander on Deck!" The other individuals not currently involved in any vital work stopped and saluted as well.

"At ease everyone, and carry on." Stevens said, saluting them back. "From now on I'm designating this entire system as a combat zone, so no saluting."

"Yessir!" The Chief responded as the other Imperials got back to work.

"How bad is it Chief?" Stevens asked in a low voice, walking up next to the man.

"Bad, sir." He replied with a dark look. "She's been gutted, we're still finding all the bodies, or, what's left of them." He finished with a grimace. "Repairs to the damaged levels are proceeding slowly, and medical called us a few minutes ago; they want to set up a triage station here because the med-bay's getting flooded with casualties."

Suddenly a muted alarm began blaring and a voice came in over the intercom. "Attention, clear the deck, incoming transport ships!"

Stevens and Adams jogged quickly out of the main landing zones and watched as five huge dropships hovered up through the blue-tinged magnetic lock that held the atmosphere in from flying out of the massive, gaping rectangular hole on the underside of the ship that served as the access for the Intolerant's hangar bay.

The dropships were massive, blocky constructs made of pitted and dull grey metal covered with painted-on blue accents. They had bulky, oversized bellies that made up the main bodies of the ships. Above the cargo bay was a relatively tiny, smoothly curved cockpit, surrounded by forward-reaching sensor probes. Two downward-swept, arching wings flanked the cargo bay, each one emblazoned with a massive white cross. Two thin tubes extended back from the dropships' main bodies, tipped with blue-painted tails. And flanking the tail assembly were two mammoth engines, set on vertical swivel-mounts.

Their engines roaring and spitting white flame, the five Medivacs slowly edged their way forward into the hangar bay in a block-like formation, their engines rotating aft to provide forward thrust. With a mechanical whir, four large leg-like sets of landing gear sprouted from the sides of the ships' bays, and touched down with a heavy-sounding thud -which made the chief wince- on the polished black floor. With a high-pitched whine, the engines wound down, the exhaust fading, and all was silent as the Imperials stared at the new arrivals now taking up most of their hangar deck. Steam issued from the vehicles' landing gear, as well as dripping black oil.

Then, with the hiss of equalizing atmosphere, the front of the Medivacs' cargo bays cracked open along a line surrounded by black-and-yellow hazard stripes, and lowered on hydraulics to hit the ground with another jarring crash.

The chief gave an irritated huff at the dropships' clumsy arrival and apparent disrespect for his hangar deck, but stopped when he saw the figures that carefully stepped off of the ramp, their metallic boots clanking loudly in the silence that their arrival had caused.

Stevens' eyes widened. He'd thought that Raynor had just been unusually tall and well built for a human, now he realized that his entire group or maybe the whole sub-species of humanity must be the same way. The first person to step off the ship was clad entirely from head-to-foot in bulbous blue-and-black armor. It had huge, over-sized shoulder-guards and an incredibly bulky chest piece. In between solid armor plates, Stevens could see extensive servos and motors that hummed quietly, presumably to support the no-doubt insane weight of the powered armor.

The right shoulder had a crudely-painted group of symbols that Stevens didn't recognize, perhaps a name or serial number, and the left shoulder was emblazoned with a topless, beautiful human woman squatting in front of a black, stylized heart background, and clad in sheer red lingerie. A small, almost ridiculously small helmet sat atop the armored figure, with a reflective orange blast-shield covering the human's face. An equally massive, blocky-looking gun was slung across his back.

Behind him was a group of similarly armored individuals, although their armor was white with blue trim, and they carried no weapons that Stevens could see. Instead, they held massive, unwieldy shields strapped their left arms, and their right forearms were covered with some sort of intricate, computerized device with glowing green syringes among other, stranger implements. A third form of armor, this one far more blocky than the others, with arms tipped in drills, assorted tools, and claw-like manipulators, hovered off of some of the other ships, partially supported by orange jets of fire erupting from small thrusters on their backs.

The first figure turned towards where the commander and the chief stood, stunned by the newcomers' appearances, and walked slowly towards them, his heavy footsteps echoing loudly off of the metal decking. His companions just stood milling around, waiting for orders apparently.

"Commander Stevens?" The marine asked in a thick drawl.

"Yes." The commander said uncertainly.

The marine snapped to attention and saluted smartly, shockingly similar to the Imperial salute, Stevens noticed, the tips of his fingers barely brushing the edge of his helmet. "Sergeant Jenkins of Raynor's Raiders reporting to provide assistance, sir!"

The commander returned the salute, and the marine's orange blast shield cracked open with a hiss and retracted upwards to reveal a square-jawed, hard-eyed man's face. A holographic display projects some sort of information inward onto his cheek.

"We thank you for your assistance, sergeant." Stevens said honestly. "Whatever you can provide will be of great help to us."

"Yes sir, we have medics and SCV's –Space Construction Vehicles," He elaborated at seeing the Imperials' blank looks and gesturing to the assembled troops behind him. "Where do you need us?"

"Chief?" Stevens asked looking at the deck chief.

"Right," The bald man said. "Are those –SCV's did you call them- Space-worthy?"

"Yes sir, the SCV is fully rated for vacuum, as are all of our suits." The Terran replied.

"Very well then, we need-" The Chief began outlining the needed repairs and instructing him on where the medics should travel, handing the marine a datapad containing a map of the Star Destroyer, which looked ridiculously small in the man's gauntleted hands.

Sergeant Jenkins nodded and began issuing orders over his helmet com. Most of the SCV's turned and flew out of the hangar bay, heading to the forward hull to help clear the wreckage and make repairs to the ship's devastated bow, with a few of them being relegated to help repair the ventral hull breaches. The medics likewise split up, some of the men and women heading off to assist the beleaguered medical staff, the others remaining behind to deal with the incoming casualties from the Destiny Ascension.

As he watched the Terrans run around the hangar, heading off to do the duties that chief Adams had designated. The sergeant stayed behind and walked back over to the commander.

"We'll do all we can, sir." He told him as he stomped across the floor. "And might I say I'm impressed that your ship could take such a pounding and stay in one piece."

"Thank you, sergeant." Stevens replied, and then the comlink on his belt beeped for attention.

"Yes?" He asked, holding the small device up to his face.

"Sir, we need those dropships cleared from the hangar, there are shuttles waiting to land."

"Copy that." He clicked the communicator off and turned to the seven-foot tall armored man next to him.

"Sergeant, we need the hangar deck cleared, we've got incoming shuttles from the Destiny Ascension that need to land." The commander told him.

"Yes sir." He turned to the dropships and waved one arm, signaling them to go. "Medivacs, takeoff and head for that ship, the Destiny Ascension, assist with the evacuations if possible."

"Yes sir, in transit." Came the crackling reply over his radio, and with a coughing roar, the dropships' massive engines came to life, and they lifted slowly off of the hangar deck, wheeled around clumsily in the enclosed space, and dove off through the entrance to the hangar.

Scarcely a minute later, the five Lambda-class shuttles glided smoothly into the room on their repulsorlifts, and set down gently on the floor. Stevens watched as the sergeant next to him took in the sight of the large shuttles, with their towering upper wings and the two lower wings folded up next to it. The marine looked slightly contemplative, but otherwise expressionless as they walked towards the landed ships. Meanwhile a group of the Terran Medics jogged over to stand nearby, ready to assist if needed.

The shuttles' landing ramps lowered with a hiss, and from them descended the survivors of the Ascension, some of them, surprisingly, being supported by stormtroopers, their normally pristine white armor stained by dark purple blood from the wounded aliens that some of them had arms around, supporting them.

The Terran marine sergeant whistled at the appearance of the Asari as they slowly descended from the shuttle. "Damn, I wish aliens looked like that from where I come from."

Privately, Stevens agreed with him, to an extent. Having seen plenty of near-human species in his own galaxy, the Asari weren't that different from anything he'd encountered before, although in his experience they did look unique. They were blue-skinned, with human-looking faces and five-fingered hands. However they lacked ears and hair, and their heads tapered into a series of backswept, fringes was the right word, the commander supposed. He certainly wasn't a xenophile, but he did have to admit that they possessed a certain sort of beauty.

The fact that they all appeared to be female probably helped. Their armor was all sculpted to reflect a feminine physique, and was a dark black with a red undersuit that seemed to be very form-fitting.

Stevens wondered at the fact that they were all female as the crew walked down the ramp slowly, sometimes on their own, in most cases supported by stormtroopers or medics, and in a couple of severe cases, on stretchers. Were they like the Hapans? He wondered idly, watching as the Terrans rushed over to the aliens and began conversing quietly with the Imperial medics. Do they only allow their females to serve in positions of authority and the military?

The last Asari slowly walked off of the shuttle, clutching her right hand to the left side of her chest and supported by a stromtrooper who held the woman's shoulders to steady her.

"Commander Stevens?" She asked, having set her omnitool to transmit her words in English. The grey-haired man standing in a crisp grey uniform nearby nodded.

"I am Matriarch Kiara, commander of the Destiny Ascension." She winced as she stepped off the ramp and jolted her injured ribs. "On behalf of my crew I'd like to thank you for saving us."

"It was our pleasure, ma'am." Stevens replied, before turning to the medic supporting her. "How badly is she hurt?"

"A couple of cracked ribs from where a support beam fell on her, sir." The man replied, his voice slightly distorted by his black-and-white helmet. "I gave her a shot of Bacta and wrapped her chest. She refused painkillers though, insisted they go to the others."

Kiara's eyes had narrowed when the commander had addressed the medic, but she had kept silent. "I'm fine commander," She said, shaking the trooper's hands off. "I've had worse injuries."

"Very well." The Imperial said, nodding to the medic, who ran off to attend to the other injured. "I apologize, Matriarch, but I'm unsure of what your rank is in comparison to our rank structure."

"Of course." She replied, straightening slightly. "I believe it translates to... admiral?"

His training took over; commander Stevens, and the Terran standing behind him instantly snapped to attention and saluted smartly. Moving in an eerie sort of unison.

"Welcome aboard, ma'am." The commander stated, his voice suddenly stiff and professional. "I apologize for not having a proper welcome..." He stopped when she shakily returned the salute.

"It's fine, I honestly didn't expect one." She sighed and sagged, clutching her side.

"Ma'am, are you sure you don't want any painkillers?" Stevens asked her.

"No, my crew needs them more." She replied, before her eyes lit on the Terran marine standing silently behind the Imperial. Her eyes widened at the sight of the heavily armored human, towering taller than a Geth Prime. "Goddess." She whispered.

Stevens followed her gaze and recognized her confusion. "Ma'am, if I may, we should head to the bridge, and there is much to discuss." He gestured towards the rear of the hangar.

"Of course." She replied and they began walking toward the lift.

"I'll stay behind and coordinate with chief Adams and my people, sir." The Terran sergeant said.

"Of course, sergeant." Stevens ordered, and the man jogged away to meet with the chief, who was staring up at the hole at the top of the hangar, talking into a comlink, in one hand and holding a datapad in the other.

The two officers, one human, one Asari, passed by cluster of medics, each attending to one of the fallen crew of the Ascension, watching as the Imperials and the Terrans worked uneasily around one another, the Raiders' bulky armor sometimes getting in the way of things. Why would they want to bring that armor into a starship? He wondered as they drew level with the medical staff. Then a set of doors next to the turbolift irised open and two grey-uniformed Imperials rushed in, bearing a stretcher between them.

Stevens inhaled sharply at the sight and heard the admiral gasp. The wounded man's uniform had been burned to a crisp, and in some places it had melted onto his skin. All of his hair had been burned off, and angry red and black blisters the size of quarters covered every inch of his exposed skin. What was worse were his eyes, or rather, the gaping, black eye sockets where his eyes used to be. His mouth was stretched open and the young man was screaming at the top of his lungs, his teeth were completely exposed as his lips had been burned off.

Before he could blink, two of the Terran Medics descended upon the tortured man where the two technicians set him down, and began passing their free forearms over him, holographic diagnostics popping up in their helmets. They glanced at each other through their blue-green tinted blast shields and nodded. Thin green streams of light erupted from their right forearms and passed over his body, and as they did, something strange happened; the angry red blisters began to reduce in size and fade away, making way for the new, undamaged skin that began to grow in its place, rapidly healing the man's devastated skin, although his uniform remained fused to his skin and would require surgery to remove. However, at the moment the Medics were concerned with stabilizing him, not doing anything too complex. Unfortunately, though, their technology had its limits, as his eyes weren't restored, but his eyelids over the empty sockets were re-grown. Then with a sigh, the man slumped back on the stretcher, partially healed and comfortably unconscious. The two Terrans immediately went off to help other wounded individuals.

Stevens blinked, twice. What would have taken days or weeks in a bacta tank had been accomplished in a couple of minutes. How in the Force did they do that? What was that? Then a truly horrifying thought hit him. If their combat medics are capable of this sort of rapid healing, there must be a good reason for it. He shuddered, suddenly realizing the implications of their massive body armor and huge warships. The only reason their military tech would be this advanced is if it absolutely had to be. What kind of Universe do they come from if they have to outfit their soldiers this heavily?

Shuddering again, he led the Asari to the turbolift and punched the button for the bridge. As the elevator started to ascend, he turned to the alien in the enclosed space with him. She was staring at him curiously.

The Matriarch's mind was abuzz with questions. Who are these people? She wondered. They aren't Cerberus, that's for certain, but how could they build a ship of this size? It doesn't match the standard human design, and this whole ship is massive and wasteful with its space! And those armored humans, and their medical tech, that's light-years beyond anything we have! And the weaponry on this ship...

"I imagine you must have quite a few questions for me." The commander said after a moment.

"Yes," The Asari said, staring at him with a little suspicion. "Well, just one to start with: who are you people? Are you part of some sort of secret human organization? And if so, why haven't you shared your advances with the rest of us! We're at war!"

The commander sighed and ran his fingers through his greying hair. "Well, I'll answer you truthfully, but understand that this will be hard to accept." He looked her in the eye. "My ship and I came from an alternate Universe. Our Emperor ordered us to travel here to assist your Universe in fighting the Reapers."

The Asari blinked. "What?" She said flatly. That has to be the stupidest thing I've ever heard! She thought. That doesn't-

"I understand how stupid this must sound." Stevens said, seemingly reading her thoughts. "But it's true! Our Emperor is a powerful Force-user." At seeing her blank look he re-phrased that. "A, uh, powerful psychic. He had a vision that there would be dire consequences for our Universe if we didn't come to yours to help."

Oh, sure, and that doesn't sound insane. A part of his mind commented sarcastically. However, now that he thought of it, this whole undertaking seemed insane, and then, an even more horrifying thought hit him; how the hell were they supposed to go home once they were done?! The Emperor's briefing hadn't talked about that, and although the invasion had seemed like a perfectly logical thing to do back home, here in this Universe, far out of reach of the will of the Emperor, forced upon every Imperial through the Force, this whole expedition seemed like a huge mistake.

oOo

Meanwhile, a Universe away, deep within the heart of the Imperial Palace on Coruscant, the Emperor cackled madly at his own genius, and rubbed his hands together. Soon, He thought gleefully. Soon my troops will re-conquer the Mass Effect Universe and change those endings. And in their gratitude, my own Universe will gain more fans! We will become stronger! Those fools don't realize that we are all just pawns in a larger game! Well, with this act, I'll take my first step towards manipulating the manipulators, and then... He laughed again, his ancient voice cracking slightly. Soon I shall rule not just this Universe, but all Universes!

"HehehHAHAHA!" He laughed madly, before a stray thought interrupted his glorious vision.

Hmm, I wonder if I remembered to tell them how to come back home? He wondered, realizing that he'd invested a fairly good chunk of his forces in this undertaking, including the first Executor-Class Star Dreadnaught, his apprentice, his best grand admiral (even if he was an inhuman thing), the Empire's top ace pilot, and one of his most talented Hands. He shook his head. I've invested far too much in this venture to see it fail! He rubbed his hands together, noticing how cold they felt. His circulation wasn't what it once was, and he debated on whether or not to spring for a pair of gloves (black of course), or to just transfer himself to one of his cloned bodies. He put the matter off for later and turned to the plans for the second Death Star glowing on a terminal nearby.

Yes, much like this jaunt into another Universe there was no way that this could fail either, the undertaking was just too big for the puny Rebels to stop.

oOo

Back in the turbolift aboard the Intolerant, Matriarch Kiara was eyeing Stevens as if he was out of his mind. Seriously? A psychic Emperor had a vision and sent them here? You'd think he could come up with a better story than that! It was almost crazy enough to believe, seeing as there was no way anyone would take it seriously as a cover story.

"But unfortunately, we've lost all contact with the rest of our forces." He mused, looking downcast even as he realized that he might be stranded here. "I don't think they survived the jump, it might just be us here."

How convenient. The Asari thought, idly wondering what was taking the elevator so damn long. This is worse than the Citadel!

"But regardless," Stevens continued, marshaling his strength. "We're here to help, and we will help, and- and you don't believe a word I'm saying, do you ma'am?"

"Would you?" She asked.

"Now that you mention it," He thought hard for a second, and realizing how absurd this must sound to an outsider. "No, ma'am. I wish there was a way to prove it, but-"

"There is." The Asari replied, tugging her red gloves off, tucking them into a small pouch on her belt and holding out her bare blue hands to him.

He looked at her uncertainly. "What are-"

"An ability of my race," The Matriarch explained. "Is that we can link our nervous systems to those of other species by touch, allowing us to share information with one another. It allows us to learn to communicate with new species easily and to share complex ideas quickly. If you want, I can use it to verify your story. I'll be able to tell if memories are real or imaginary."

Stevens' eyes narrowed. "With all due respect, ma'am, there are some highly classified secrets locked away in my head. It's intel that I'm not allowed to share with anyone. I don't like the idea of you being able to find all of that out, even if this isn't my Universe." Or of the idea of her being in his head, period.

She nodded. "Of course. Since the linking of nervous systems is mutual, you can keep me away from anything that you don't want known." She paused. "Although, if you'd rather not..."

"No." He sighed, frustrated. "I'd rather we trust one another if we're going to work together, ma'am. And trying to explain everything and convince you will take time we don't have. Let's just do this." He paused for a second. "This won't, well, lobotomize me or anything?"

"No, commander, it's... hard to describe, and it'll likely be... different." She said slowly. "But you'll be fine."

Still apprehensive, but feeling compelled to go through with this in order to continue his mission, he gingerly placed his hands in her surprisingly warm ones and looked up at her.

"Just relax, commander." She said, looking up and closing her eyes. "Open your mind, and embrace eternity!"

As she spoke those last words her eyes flew open and, panicking, Stevens saw that her eyes had turned jet black. He started to pull away, but then he suddenly lost all contact with his senses as a rush of images flashed through his brain. But above all, he felt a feeling of closeness, of oneness with her, as if her mind and soul were brushing up against his, it was intoxicating and exhilarating, and as warmth flooded his mind, he barely noticed as the images, memories, began flowing past his vision.

...Seeing Coruscant, surrounded by the Golan-III defensive platforms for the first time through the dirty glass of a bulk transport. The city-planet's space was crowded by thousands of starships slowly heading to and from the planet in tightly-packed space lanes patrolled by Victory-II Class Star Destroyers...

...The graduation day parade after he'd finished his five years at the Academy. Overhead the Academy's pilot graduates flew TIE fighters in tight, V-shaped formations, and even further above, the Star Destroyer Adjucator hovered, massive, menacing, a testament to the Empire's enduring power...

...Standing on the bridge of the Intolerant watching as a frigate, emblazoned with the red, stylized falcon emblem of the Rebellion, evaporated under concentrated fire of the turbolasers in the depths of space. Off to the left side of his vision, the interdictor cruiser Restrictor began moving away, the Star Destroyer covered in bulging gravity well generators had done its job by catching the Rebels...

...Watching a COMPNOR rally down one of the main streets of Coruscant while on leave. He sipped his caf while watching from a nearby balcony, slightly disgusted, as the young man in a grey tunic shouted into a mic about the superiority of humans and how all other aliens were inferior and deserved nothing but scorn from their human masters. Each statement was punctuated by cheering from the massive crowd of youth that clogged the avenue along one of the flat sections of Coruscant...

...Sitting alone in his cramped quarters aboard the Intolerant, staring at the datapad in his hands. The screen displayed the offer of another promotion, with a veiled threat at the end of the letter that if he didn't take this promotion, then he'd be kicked out of the Navy. He sighed, he didn't want to give up his post; he'd grown fond of his Victory-II Star Destroyer and didn't want to participate in the terror raids its bigger sibling ships took part in, but he didn't want to be thrown out of the Navy either. His entire life revolved around serving in the military, protecting the civilians that couldn't defend themselves...

...He'd made a choice; no matter if he got thrown out, he could not in good conscience take a post as captain of an Imperial-II Class Star Destroyer knowing full well what kinds of atrocities he could be ordered to commit. Pacing around his tiny cabin, he made the decision to begin tendering his rejection of the promotion. Where he went from there, he'd just have to wait and see...

...His ship had been ordered to join up with Darth Vader's task force for a covert operation. He'd never met the feared Sith Lord before, but he'd heard rumors, stories of his so-called Force abilities. The orders also very clearly stated that after this mission he'd be given a mandatory, honorable discharge from naval service. He sighed, knowing that this would happen, and wondered if he should begin working on a resumé...

...He was sitting in a stark grey briefing room, surrounded on all sides by captains and other high-ranking officers. He was very nervous, as no one knew what their mission was. A door at the other end of the room opened, and a blue-skinned, near-human alien walked in, his glowing red eyes sweeping the room. Instantly the entire room jumped to attention, not because of the alien's appearance, but because of the immaculate white and gold uniform he was wearing. A Grand Admiral? An alien Grand Admiral? The Chiss stepped out of the way of the door and several tall guards clad in red robes and armor, and holding long pikes filed in, taking positions around the room. Realizing what was coming, the entire room –save for the guards- sank into a deep, one-kneed bow as through the door walked two figures that seemed to be swathed in darkness.

One was tall, completely sealed inside of an advanced life-support suit with a billowing silk cape, and wearing a nightmarish respirator mask that let out a regular, ominous breathing noise. The tall Sith Lord's mask's reflective eyes surveyed the room as his short, hunched companion walked into the room. His teeth cracked and rotting, his flesh pallid and sagging from the Dark Side of the Force that flowed through him, and his burning yellow eyes glinting with malice, Emperor Palpatine struck fear into everyone's hearts by his mere presence, despite being clad in simple black robes and leaning heavily on a wooden cane. Together, the two seemed to suck the light out of the entire area, leaving the front of the briefing room swathed in shadows.

"Rise." The Emperor's voice sounded, weak and raspy, but possessed of an undercurrent of hard malice and hatred that belied its delivery.

The officers rose from their bows and took their seats. The Emperor –this must have been important for him to brief them all personally- began speaking of a parallel Universe, where humanity's homeworld, Earth, was being threatened. He knew very little, only that the forces from that Universe were woefully unprepared for the threats facing them, and that the Empire would send forces there to assist them, under the command of Grand Admiral Thrawn, to help ensure humanity's dominance in that galaxy. When asked why they should even send forces to the other Universe, the Emperor replied cryptically that this victory would be 'vital to the survival of the Empire, I have foreseen it!' And after that everyone felt compelled to stop questioning him. They were each told that individual briefing packets and orders would be available on their private terminals in their cabins aboard their ships, and they were dismissed...

...Having analyzed the packet thoroughly, Stevens was now standing on the bridge of his ship, one of dozens that now hovered in formation in orbit around the Maw. His ship was utterly dwarfed by the dark-hulled, monstrous Executor, which hovered silently in the middle of the other vessels. Ten miles long and bristling with weapons, everything about the Super Star Destroyer resonated with the arrogance, pride, wealth, and power of the Empire. Then the order was given, and the ships oriented to face the black hole. Then with a flicker and the familiar sights of the stars elongating into a hyperspace tunnel, the fleet jumped...

...Fighting the Reapers, watching as death approached him. Then, salvation came in the form of Raynor's Raiders as the massive Battlecrusiers flew in past his ship, bristling with weapons, the corpse of the last Reaper they had killed floating away slowly...

And then, with a bright flash of light, the bond ended, leaving Stevens feeling oddly empty and confused.

He opened his eyes suddenly, not realizing that they were closed, and took a deep, shaking breath. What- what was that? He wondered, still feeling the warmth from when she'd touched her mind to his. It was, that was amazing!

Any further thoughts on the matter were driven from her mind as someone nearby cleared their throat loudly.

The two occupants of the elevator turned their heads as one, and the blood drained from commander Stevens' face as he realized that sometime during the meld –how long did that last?- they'd arrived on the bridge, and that everyone on the command deck was staring at them. He glanced down and, mortified, noticed that he was still holding the Matriarch's hands in his. He quickly released them and dropped his hands to his sides, palms sweating.

"Sir?" His XO inquired cautiously, staring at him.

Fighting down a blush, and wondering why it felt like he'd been caught out with a girl in a storage closet, commander Stevens barked an order. "Attention, ADMIRAL ON DECK!"

Instantly, every eye snapped back to their stations and the bridge officers sat forward in their chairs, staring rigidly at the displays. Lieutenant Lane came to the picture perfect position of attention and saluted. "Ma'am!" He stated loudly.

Letting her military training take over, Kiara saluted back, before ordering. "At ease."

"Give me a sitrep, Lieutenant." Stevens ordered briskly, trying to put the... ah, incident behind them as quickly as possible while walking to the front of the bridge, the Asari in tow.

"Yes sir." The younger man replied with one last questioning glance back at his CO. "Commander Raynor's forces engaged the Reapers, splitting their forces into two groups of capital ships and a large group of starfighters. I believe his plan was to use the starfighters to harass the bigger Reaper ships while one group laid down suppressing fire and the other got into firing position for heavier weapons."

He paused, as if bracing himself. "Sir, during the fighting some of their starfighters activated a cloaking system that rendered them completely invisible to all of our sensors."

Stevens frowned. "No, that shouldn't be possible. You can't mount a cloaking device on a ship that small."

"That's not the only thing, sir." He replied grimly. "The starfighters destroyed the rest of the Reaper fighters, while cloaked."

"...How?" Stevens asked. Cloaking technology wasn't uncommon in his Universe, however its major drawback was that when it was engaged, just as no one could see into the cloaking field, no one on the inside could see the outside and thus target anything accurately. How had these people managed to get around that?

"We don't know sir, however that advantage didn't last long, seeing as the bigger ships either found away to neutralize their cloaking or just see through it, and decimated the fighters. They began attacking the capital ships, and, well, that's when these things showed up."

He manipulated a control on a nearby console and a holographic representation of a massive fleet appeared. Matriarch Kiara stepped forward and studied the ships displayed in the flickering blue hologram. They looked... delicate, like each one was some sort of incredibly ornate sculpture of metal and crystal, a work of art, and each one subtly unique. Then, with a flicker, all of them vanished, save for a single, massive vessel at the heart of the fleet that dwarfed all of the others. It was a huge, saucer-shaped ship, with a massive, transparent dome surrounded by golden hull plating. Inside the dome there seemed to be buildings scattered across the ship's superstructure.

"How big is that ship?" Stevens asked slowly.

"She's about fifteen miles across, sir." The XO replied. "And we don't much more about her, since our sensors are still being repaired, but we did manage to get one more reading."

"Goddess." Kiara murmured, distracted. No ship ever built is that large, not even the Reaper warships are that big! The only thing that comes close is the Citadel. How did they build that?

Lane hit another control, and the replay continued. The Protoss warship just seemed to hover there for a second, and then a massive, concentrated wave of energy blasts exploded out of the nothingness where the rest of the fleet had vanished and flew off out of view.

"We got a reading from those weapons discharges sir." He said grimly. "We don't know what kind of energy it was, but the destructive power... It, it rivals the combined firepower of half of the sector fleets. The Reapers were completely vaporized."

Stevens allowed himself to whistle. That was impressive, and there couldn't be more than a couple hundred ships out there total. With a jolt, he remembered commander Raynor mentioned looking for some friends of his, and these seemed to be them. He shuddered again, realizing that these aliens must have come from the same Universe as the Terrans, and with firepower like that...

"Where is Raynor's fleet now?" He asked, breaking off his train of thought.

"They've established a defensive perimeter several hundred clicks away and are patrolling it with their allies." Lane replied. "The Reapers have retreated back a hundred clicks and are just sitting there watching. There's a lot of wreckage in between, but no life signs. They haven't tried to contact us yet, sir."

"Well I think it's time we call them then." The CO decided. "Lieutenant, you have the con. I'll be in the conference room. Comms, hail Raynor's flagship and pipe it through to the conference room, secure channel."

"Yes, sir!"

He turned to the Asari, who had stood by watching the discussion with interest. "Ma'am, if you'd care to join me?"

She nodded and they walked to the small circular room at the rear of the bridge, just off to the right of the turbolift. The two officers never noticed the Lieutenant staring hard at their retreating backs.

oOo

In the dim darkness of a storage room, there came a bright flash of light, momentarily illuminating dusty metal shelves and a few sagging cardboard boxes. When the light faded, there was a tall, powerfully built man standing among the shelves. Clad in a torn, blood-and-mud-stained sweater and jeans, Jack Ryan surveyed the room slowly, squinting in the dim light. This is worse than Rapture. He thought, inspiration striking him.

He held out his left hand and concentrated for a brief instant. With a muted roar, blue-tinged yellow flames erupted between his fingertips, the veins in his wrist and lower arms bulged to the surface and glowed a deep, burning red, and his flesh seemed to scab and crisp over, forming a hard brown layer of heat-proof flesh, shot through with red and yellow. The air around him shimmered from the sudden warmth.

He snapped his fingers and a blue ball of flame roared from his outstretched hand and hit one of the stacked cardboard boxes, igniting it instantly and illuminating the room with a flickering orange light. He searched the room again and found an exit, consisting of a set of strange sliding doors. He walked over, relaxing his mental control and allowed the incineration plasmid to return to inactivity once again. His hands returned to normal.

He couldn't see any sort of door handles on the strange entrance, but that wasn't going to stop him. He grabbed the only visible edges of the door and pushed them apart. The mechanisms keeping them locked in place were strong, but no match for the man's plasmid-boosted strength. With a squeal, the doors separated, opening into a dim shopping center of some sort; shelves and racks of foodstuffs covered one half of the room, and another wall was covered in counters.

The silent man reached into his backpack and drew his heavily-modified machine gun, loaded with armor-piercing ammo, and held it at the ready. The back of the weapon was covered in a strange, glowing, orange and yellow device, and the magazine receiver had a small arch that helped to hold the magazine in place. Somehow this increased the power and penetration of the bullets, how, he didn't know. There was also a small canister affixed to the left side of the gun that was connected to a larger cylinder attached to the gun's muzzle, which decreased the weapon's recoil.

Jack walked quickly through the store, pausing to gab a few bags of anything that appeared edible. He tried to loot the cash registers, but found there was no physical money anywhere to be found. Strange. He thought, before continuing.

The front of the store once consisted of large windows, however these had been shattered long ago, leaving only broken shards of glass that crunched under his feet as he hopped out of the store and into the street. The sky was dark, shot through with lightning and a strange blue-white glow coming from behind him. The city around him looked like a burned-out hulk; ruined and crumbling buildings stretched on for as far as the eye could see. Deserted, bullet-ridden cars clogged the street, as well as rubble from destroyed buildings.

Hefting his machine gun, Ryan slowly panned it across the buildings across the street. There wasn't any sign of movement, but he still concentrated again, and his form shimmered and faded from view, his natural camouflage tonic creating a small invisibility field around him. He panned his weapon around, and stood still for a moment, listening. Far off there was the crackling of gunfire, muted explosions, and other sounds of warfare, but nothing too close.

Jack turned right and started down the street, the invisibility melting off of him as he jogged along the sidewalk, looking down every alley. Well, I'm here. He through as he came to a four-way intersection and crouched behind a car that had crashed into the side of a building. Now all I have to do is find these 'Reaper' things.

He edged up to the concrete foundation of the building on his side of the street, and peered around the corner. It was another empty street, stretching off into the gloom, with a few abandoned cars littering the road. However, stretching up towards the sky above the buildings lining the right side of the street was a brilliant silver thread that pierced the clouds, pulsing with energy.

That's where I need to go. He thought, and edged around the corner, and running swiftly down the street.

His first warning was a high-pitched hum that seemed to echo off of the shattered buildings. When he first heard it, Jack dove down a side alley and hid in the darkness, clutching his gun closely and allowing his active camo to re-engage. Soon a boxy, white-bodied craft, with four prongs extending off of the front and the back of the shuttle, and fire erupting from four thrusters on the bottom, flew overhead. The angular shuttle banked and set down a hundred feet down the street from where Jack was taking cover in the alley. As the craft's flat belly touched the ground, a side panel adorned with a strange, geometric, black and gold symbol split open, and a small squad of men filed out, eight in total.

All of them were clad in bulky, gold and white armor, with shoulder pauldrons that were adorned with the same logo as their ship. Most of the soldiers carried small handguns of similar coloration to their armor, and had helmets that were dark, angular, and menacing-looking, with small slits on them that glowed red. However one of them, standing behind the others, had bulkier armor with a heavy backpack and some sort of canisters mounted on his chest, and a different sort of helmet, with a gold patch on the top. He clutched a large assault rifle and seemed to be the one giving the orders.

"Squad, search the nearby buildings! Intel suggests there may be civilians inside hiding undesirables."

"Yes sir!" One of the other troops replied, and they methodically broke into a nearby building and filed in, the stomping of their boots fading away inside.

Jack frowned at their voices; they were raspy and deep. Some sort of distortion from the helmets maybe? They also seemed... mechanical in their execution and speech.

As he watched, the shuttle lifted off and the leader put two fingers up to the side of his helmet, pacing around slightly in the center of the street.

"Command, fireteam theta is on the ground and beginning our sweep." He spoke aloud to no one. Jack realized he must have some sort of radio in his suit. That's odd. He thought. Mine's the size of a large book...

Reminded of his radio, Jack began debating on whether or not to pull out his radio and see if he could pick up any transmissions, when suddenly a shout came from the building the other soldiers had entered and three forms were flung out into the street, followed by the soldiers who had entered the building. The first two were a young man and woman, dark-haired and clad in fraying clothing, however, the third...

Jack had never seen anything like it, not even among the mutated splicers of Rapture. It was female, at least if the dark grey and blue armor it wore was any indication, and it almost appeared human. However, the... thing had blue skin and no hair or ears whatsoever, instead possessing what looked like short tentacles, that sprouted out of its skull and stretched out a little ways behind its head, where they came together in a sort of point.

"Consorting with aliens and harboring a xeno." The leader said to the two cowering humans on the ground, interrupting Jack's observations. "You've betrayed humanity by associating with this, and there's only one punishment for traitors."

"No... No, please no!" The woman sobbed uncontrollably, groveling on the ground, but the other human took a more aggressive approach as he got up on his knees.

"Burn in hell, you fucking Cerberus bastards!" He screamed at the assembled soldiers. Then he spat on the leader's boots.

The Centurion smoothly and methodically brought his assault rifle up and fired once into the man's head, causing his head to explode in a shower of blood, brains, and bone. As the body collapsed, hands and legs twitching, the Cerberus trooper turned and put a bullet through the woman's head as well.

They're shooting civilians! Jack realized, and before he even had time to think, he was acting.

Jack leaned around the corner, becoming visible as he brought his gun up. The Centurion was just turning to the still-alive alien on the ground, she was on her hands and knees and shaking. The edges of his vision seemed a little blurry as he sighted in on the nearest armored soldier, his finger forced the trigger back...

The machine gun roared, fire sprouting from its barrel, as a stream of armor-piercing bullets perforated the nearest Assault Trooper. The man staggered back as the older, but still effective rounds punched through the weak points in his armor, tearing gaping holes in his body and blowing out of the other side of him in a shower of blood, staining the pristine white armor of his shocked comrades. As the first enemy crumpled to the ground, Jack strafed the rest of the group with gunfire, killing a few more of the Cerberus troops and wounding the others.

"Hostiles!" The Centurion screamed, firing his assault rifle at the figure shooting at them from a nearby alley.

His men charged, brining up their SMG's and returning fire as well, the hypervelocity rounds ripped through the air near him. Jack ducked back into the alley as the shots impacted the concrete wall, blasting huge craters out of them and scattering dust and shards of rock. His back against the building wall, he shifted his machine gun to a left-handed grip and held it out around the corner, firing blindly up the street. More shots impacted the wall next to his outstretched hands, the flying gravel cutting his skin. He quickly pulled his gun back as additional rounds streaked past the alley entrance.

Jack quickly crouched down and peered out around the corner, lower than head-level. The soldiers, now numbering only five counting the leader, were slowly advancing up the street about fifty feet away and getting closer. Then the Centurion grabbed one of the cylinders off of his chest and tossed it towards him. Jack ducked back into cover and braced for an explosion, only to be surprised when all he heard was a muted hiss.

He looked back again, and saw a huge swath of gray smoke billowing out and obscuring the entire street from view. He pressed his back up against the wall. Now I can't see them coming. Then his eyes lit on a car lying abandoned just a little up the street from him, visible through the mouth of the alley. And they won't see this coming.

Stretching out his left hand, Jack concentrated, his breath coming in short gasps as sweat beaded his brow above narrowed eyes. Slowly, with a series of groans and squeaks, the car rose up off of the ground and hovered in mid-air. All of his concentration was focused on maintaining the telekinesis plasmid as he levitated something larger than anything he'd lifted before.

"Raagghh!" He bellowed and made a tossing motion over his right shoulder. The car, seemingly unsupported, flew off down the street, following the motion of his hand.

It tumbled through the air and hit the street just short of the smokescreen with a crash, its glass windows shattering and the metal crumpling. Then it bounced, leaving a huge indent in the pavement, and flew off into the smoke.

"What the-?!" One of the soldiers shouted in alarm.

"Look out!" Came another voice.

There was a muted crunch of buckling metal, and a sliding noise, and then silence. Jack leaned up against the wall, breathing heavily. That was the largest thing he'd ever tried to use telekinesis on and it took a lot out of him. His active camo returned, blending him into the wall.

Suddenly, the Centurion rounded the corner, assault rifle at the ready, and fired a burst of bright white rounds down the alley, the roaring of the gun almost deafening Jack, who was leaning up against the wall a few inches from him.

"What the-" The Centurion muttered, lowering his gun slightly as he realized that the alley was empty.

Jack sprang into action.

He was to close to bring his own gun up in time, or to drop it and go for the pistol on his belt, so he merely lunged forward, sweeping his left arm out to knock the Cerberus trooper's gun out of his hands and stagger him. The man suddenly lunging at him out of nowhere from mere inches away startled the Centurion, but the Reaper implants throughout his body had granted him superhuman reflexes. As Jack swept the Harrier aside, the white-armored figure managed to keep ahold of it in his right hand, and swung his other arm down towards the gun held in Jack's hands and kicked the man in the chest.

Jack staggered back with a grunt, the machine gun ripped from his hands by the force and his chest smarting from the kick. Without his gene tonics the blow would've caved in his rib cage. He looked up just in time to see the Centurion leveling his rifle. With a power born of desperation, he stuck both of his clawed hands out, quickly making fists and jerking them back towards him. A firm lance of psychic energy grabbed hold of the trooper's gun and yanked it from his grip, sending it tumbling over Jack's shoulder.

The Cerberus soldier drew a long, baton-like object from a recessed holster on his chest piece, flicked it open, the tip sparking with electricity, and charged him with a bellow. Jack crouched, and as the soldier drew in close, he quickly slid to the side and ducked under the other man's arm as he swung. He grabbed the man's wrist with his right hand and whirled around, bringing his left elbow down hard on the Centurion's outstretched arm.

"AHH!" The soldier's mechanical voice howled, accompanying a loud crunching sound as Jack's reinforced bones and muscles staved in the thin armor covering his right arm and shattered the Centurion's elbow. Dropping the baton, the Centurion twisted and slugged Jack across the jaw with a vicious left cross, sending him reeling to the ground at the mouth of the alley. The soldier ran at him, his right arm hanging useless.

Jack got to his feet, blood pouring from a split lip, and barely caught the Centurion's left fist in one hand. Just as the Centurion kicked out and tried to hit his groin, the larger man brought his free hand up in an uppercut, knocking the Centurion's helmet clean off. Then the soldier's foot connected, and Jack's world went white with pain. He crumpled to the ground even as the Centurion retreated, his hand covering his face.

Jack quickly recovered, his genetically-augmented body rapidly healing, and got to his feet unsteadily, staring at the Centurion, recoiling slightly as his left hand dropped away from his face. The soldier's eyes had either been replaced or heavily augmented, as they were glowing blue, with thin glowing strips of... something sprouting vertically from each eye just below the surface. His skin appeared to be heavily bruised and almost dead-looking, and there were odd lumps in certain parts of his face that suggested that other things had been surgically implanted into him. It wasn't much compared to the tumor-covered and malformed denizens of Rapture, but it was still disturbing.

The Centurion howled, an unnerving noise, and drew a wicked-looking combat knife from a boot holster and charged again. Breathing heavily, Jack tensed and, ducking under the man's clumsy swing, brought both hands up and caught the Centurion's throat. He furrowed his brow and focused, as glowing blue veins suddenly flared to life along both arms. Jack's own eyes began glowing bright blue, and as he snarled noiselessly, flexing his fingers, he sent millions of volts of electricity into the Centurion's wide-eyed form.

The soldier spasmed, his knife flung away by his now uncontrolled hands. His skin crisped and smoked, and small arcs of electricity coated his form, until with a disturbing popping noise, the Reaper implants in his eyes and face exploded from the overload, showering Jack with gore.

Jack cut off the voltage, ending the spasms. He threw the dead cyborg away and collapsed against a wall, gasping for breath. The glowing veins on his arms dimmed and vanished, and he wiped the sweat and blood off of his face with one stained sweater sleeve.

After he'd caught his breath, he reached for the pack, which he'd slipped from his shoulders sometime before he started shooting, found a medical hypo, and injected it into his thigh, stabbing the needle through his pants to do so. As the unstable stem cells raced through his system, repairing any damage they found, he grabbed a glowing blue EVE hypo and plunged it into his wrist above the chain link tattoos, sighing as he felt a rush of energy from the powerful fluid.

It's easy to see how this could become addicting. He realized slowly, his eyes half-closed. He quickly threw away the empty syringes, shouldered his backpack, and retrieved his gun from where it lay on the sidewalk. He checked it to make sure it was still in working order and cautiously peered around the corner again.

The smoke was dispersing, and no one was moving in the mist. The car he'd thrown lay ten feet away, crumpled and coated with blood and gore. He slowly walked down the street, machine gun ready to go. He noticed a thin trail of blood leading away from the car and around a heap of rubble. He rounded the debris and found an Assault Trooper, barely alive and with both of his legs pulverized, leaning up against the rubble, panting.

In a single smooth motion, he drew and cocked his revolver with his left hand and shot the Cerberus soldier through the head, blasting two huge holes through the ceramic helmet in the process and spraying the rocks with blood and brain.

Tucking the pistol back into his belt, Jack continued walking up the street. The two civilians were definitely dead, but the other, nonhuman one...

It- she, was lying in a slowly growing pool of dark purple blood, struggling feebly. Both of her hands were pressed to one side of her neck, and thin streams of blood were leaking passed her fingers. Her eyes were clouding over and her breathing was shallow as Jack knelt down next to her, setting his machine gun aside.

He quietly debated on whether or not to render assistance. Atlas had asked him to kill the Reapers, not do anything else. However, looking at the bleeding, inhuman woman before him, he knew he couldn't just leave her to die. He quickly unslung his pack, digging around in it for a medkit. He tore open the first one he came across. It was pretty simple, some ADAM-enhanced bandages and a medical hypo, the latter of which he grabbed.

Turning to the dying Asari, he reached out with his left hand and gently pried her hands away from her neck. Her glazed eyes flickered to the hypo in his other hand and she seemed to relax, either from relief or blood loss.

He quickly assessed the wound. It looked like she'd been shot through the neck on one side, likely tearing a vital artery if her anatomy was at all similar to humans', which meant she probably had minutes or seconds left before she bled to death. With no further ado, he pulled the plastic covering on the needle off with his teeth, spitting it away, and injected the viscous red fluid directly into the wound. For a brief instant, Jack wondered if this would work; the med hypo worked off of unstable stem cells, and if her DNA was too different, then this would either not work or cause an uncontrollable mutation.

The red goo covering raw, torn flesh on her neck began to sizzle and bubble violently, emitting a hissing sound. Jack backed up; he had never seen that happen before. However, this quickly passed as her flesh absorbed the material and, before his eyes, fresh, undamaged blue skin grew back over her neck. In seconds he couldn't tell that she'd been wounded at all. Her eyes, which had drooped shut while he'd administered first aid, blinked open, clearer than before. She looked up at his face, confusion evident in her gaze, then her eyes darted to just over his left shoulder and widened.

Quicker than he could react, one of her hands darted to the waistband of his pants and snatched the revolver from where he'd tucked it in. She snapped off two shots, the bullets whizzing past his head-

-And blowing two holes in the chest of the Assault Trooper that had been sneaking up behind him, machine pistol raised. Jack turned in time to see the man drop, two large bloody holes punched through his armor, just as the woman he'd healed collapsed, her eyes rolling up in her head. Turning around and searching the streets, Jack couldn't see any other soldiers nearby, but the near brush with death had unnerved him. He reach down and grabbed the pistol from the Asari's limp grasp, and stuck it back in his waistband.

Jack scooped up his machine gun and brandished it one handed, grabbing the alien woman's armored collar with his free hand, eyes searching all around as he dragged the unconscious woman inside the nearest building; a large open-fronted store across the street from the building where the Cerberus troops had captured her.

oOo


Author's Notes: Longest, most action-packed, and darkest chapter ever!

Some things I'd like to point out: One, Harry is not some sort of magical god. Check my Bio if you want to understand how I feel about that. He's magically powerful, yes, but he isn't some force for destruction.

I finally, at many people's request, added the UNSC to the mix, and I decided to go a step further and included both the In Amber Clad from Halo 2, and the Pillar of Autumn from Halo: CE (both were taken from separate 'Haloverses', much like the Covenant fighting in orbit around Jupiter were). This means that not only are both Jacob and his daughter Miranda alive, but Miranda still thinks her father is dead. How will they react when they meet next chapter? And what about when they meet the 'friendly' Covenant? Only time will tell. Also: yes, there are two Master Chiefs. I'm worried that the Earth can't handle the awesome.

Also, on the topic of Harry and the Twins getting guns, I know it's a bit of a reach to have them using futuristic assault rifles, but in combat the twins (which have received weapons training through the Department of Mysteries) are going to be doing the heavy lifting, with Harry sitting back and taking potshots.

In retrospect, the first scene aboard the Intolerant seemed to just drag on... I hope it wasn't too boring, but I wanted to set up a few plot points, add some depth to the two original characters that I've created, and emphasize how different the three or four forces that are working together well. If I did well, then please say so! If I didn't, well then if you can, please offer some advice on how to fix it.

Anyways, thanks for reading, and please leave a review! And as always; none of the content belongs to me; I'm just borrowing everyone else's toys and sandboxes to play with. Please don't take offense or sue me. And I'll see y'all in the next chapter: Deadlocked