The dreams were always the same… The world was on fire… People were screaming and crying. Monsters were everywhere and Michael could only watch helplessly as it all played out…
Some of the dreams were less disturbing… He was five years old and back home. His skin tingled from the warmth of the sun as he ran, laughing, through green fields under blue skies. There were two people off in the distance waving to him, but he could never make out their faces. No matter how hard or how fast he tried to run, he would never get close enough to see their faces. As he ran, he heard voices calling out, echoing the same questions to him over and over again, “Who are you? What are you?”
Michael sensed his dream state ending, a part of him realized he was coming out of stasis. Before consciousness grabbed a hold of him, he entered one final dream…
He found himself in a room with a door that led outside to a large balcony. A strange sensation filled him because even though he didn’t recognize his surroundings this place seemed... familiar. Almost like he belonged here.
As he moved closer to the balcony door, he glimpsed a huge beautiful lake with the bluest sky and a deep green forest surrounding the lake. As he got closer to the door, another strange feeling filled him. It took a moment to realize that he was experiencing a sense of being at peace with himself. Stepping out on the balcony, he found that he wasn’t alone. He didn’t recognize the young woman with brunette hair standing there looking at him. It appeared as if she was waiting for him to arrive. Michael felt strange as he noted details about the woman he wouldn’t have normally cared about.
Strange thoughts and confusing feelings flowed through him as he took in her beauty. As his eyes caught hers, he felt the power and strength radiating from deep inside her. He caught something else there in her eyes. Michael didn’t recognize it and was at a loss for words to describe the look she gave him, but he found it appealing. Something deep and long dormant inside him stirred as the woman continued looking at him.
Michael’s heart beat faster as a soft tender smile formed on her face and he drank it in, surprised by how happy he was. He found himself caught off-guard again as she spoke in a soft voice that caused his heart to beat even faster.
“I love you, Michael,” she said as happiness and joy filled him…
Outer edge of New Constantinople System
June 11, 2536 — 1735 Local Time
The cold dim lit outer reaches of the New Constantinople star system exploded with instantaneous bursts of energy as portals tore open the fabric of space-time. Ships re-entered normal space at staggered intervals, spread-out and dispersed across this region of space. As ships adjusted back to being in normal space, they moved quickly to reform the task force back into a coherent formation.
On board the Presidio, Captain Kwong reviewed the fleet’s status and dispositions on the sensor and video displays from his station on the bridge. The slight frown on his face was the only outward sign of worry he expressed watching his task force bring itself back into battle formation.
That was one of the Covenant’s main tech advantages. The accuracy and precision of their Slipspace engines and sensors meant they could jump complete battle formations intact through Slipspace back into normal space. This was a tremendous tactical advantage for the Covenant as human fleets ended up arriving at staggered intervals and dispersed much like the way his task force had arrived.
We’re lucky there weren’t any Covenant picket ships out here otherwise it would’ve been ugly, the Captain thought letting out a sigh of relief.
Kwong turned to his ship’s communication station, “Comms… What’s the status of the fleet?”
The communications tech responded, “All ships have reported in… No problems reported, sir.”
“Inform the carrier Georgia to launch a combat space patrol of Longswords… Inform all ships to maintain EMCOM security protocols. No need to further advertise our presence to the Covenant,” Kwong ordered.
The Captain pondered his next move as the task force acknowledged his orders.
“Comms… See if you can raise Vice-Admiral Whitcomb’s fleet HQ. We should let him know help is here.”
It seemed like an eternity, before the communications tech replied, “Sir, we’re receiving a reply… It’s the Admiral himself!”
“Put the Admiral up on my video display,” the Captain blurted.
“Aye aye, sir!” the communications tech replied, transferring the video call over to the Captain’s station.
The image of Vice-Admiral Whitcomb appeared on the screen. It was a little fuzzy, but viewable and understandable.
“Sir,” Kwong said coming to attention.
“At ease Captain… It’s good to see you again. I had hoped it would’ve been under better circumstances,” the Vice-Admiral replied, flashing a tired smile.
“I share your sentiments, sir,” the Captain replied mirroring the Admiral’s smile.
“What’s your current status, sir?” Kwong asked getting back to the business at hand.
“We’re still holding on… We still have a good percentage of our orbital defense platforms active. With the ODPs and our ground defenses we’re still containing their initial landing. Ship losses are another matter… I’m glad you’re here now. We’ve been using the fleet to counter Covenant reinforcement attempts, but you know what we’re facing…” the Vice-Admiral said as his face became grim.
The Captain nodded in understanding, “Sir, I have ground reinforcements on two troopships. Once we unload they can take on civilians to evacuate from the planet.”
The Vice-Admiral’s tired smile returned, “That’s most appreciated, Captain. I’ll send the approach vectors that will bring you to the planet. My ships and orbital platforms will cover you while you unload. Can you transmit your task force’s list of reinforcements and order-of-battle? I’ll have my staff start working on how we can slot the marine units into our ground force command structure. Captain, for your ships, I would like you to remain in charge of your task force. I’ll have my staff transmit fleet command codes and slot your force into our battlenet. After you unload, your ships will fall back to the fleet support area. We’ll conference with the rest of the task force commanders to bring you up to speed on our dispositions and strategy.”
“Understood, sir!” Kwong said coming to attention and saluting.
“Thank you Captain… See you soon,” replied the Vice-Admiral returning the salute, ending the communication.
Kwong called out, “Helm!”
“Once we’ve received the Admiral’s approach vectors, set course at best speed…”
“Aye aye, sir!” replied the helm crewman.
Kwong turned towards the AI pedestal, “Hermes, once we’ve received the approach vectors make sure that every ship gets them. Inform all ships to maintain alert condition yellow. If we don’t run into the Covenant beforehand when we get within one hundred light seconds of the planet have all ships go to battle stations… Understood?”
“Yes, sir!” replied the AI.
“Hermes, also make sure that all ships are ready for a quick disembarkation and unloading of all reinforcements and supplies to the planet’s surface. I don’t want to waste anytime hanging in orbit,” Kwong added.
“Understood, sir!” replied the AI as he went to work communicating and coordinating with the other ships in the task force.
As the Captain sat down in his bridge chair, worried thoughts filled him even as he maintained a calm demeanor.
Now comes the hard part… Getting to the planet and unloading…
The task force changed direction towards the planet, increasing its speed…
Michael was out of stasis and awake. Except for brief flashes, he couldn’t recall all his dreams, especially that last dream. He found it strange, but this was the best he’d ever felt coming out of cryo-sleep...or any sleep in months. After performing systems checks on his Mark IV MJOLNIR battle armor–with everything checking out–he made his way to the ship’s storage bay. He needed to retrieve his weapons and equipment before disembarkation.
The storage bay was a hive of activity as the ship’s personnel hustled moving equipment and supplies to the landing bay for loading on to Pelicans. To the outside observer it looked as if chaos engulfed the bay, but to the trained eye it was a controlled and organized form of chaos.
Michael located his equipment container, inputting his security code to open it. He did a quick inventory to ensure nothing was missing then pulled out and checked his weapons. The first was his pistol, checking the safety before loading and attaching to the magnetic hardpoint on the waist of his suit. After loading spare magazines into the ammo storage areas built into his suit, Michael grabbed his MA5 assault rifle, the UNSC’s standard infantry weapon. Again after checking and loading the weapon, he attached the assault rifle to the hardpoint on his back within easy and quick reach. As a final addition, he grabbed four standard fragmentation grenades, attaching them to his suit’s hardpoints. After another quick check that satisfied him he had everything, he headed for the launch bay. The task force would enter New Constantinople’s orbit in six hours and Michael planned on waiting there until it was time to disembark.
The launch bay was the scene of the same organized chaos as the storage bay. Michael watched equipment loaded on to rows of waiting Pelicans. Marines, slated to go down to the planet, organized into their units for quick loading when it was time. Tension hung in the air as loading crews hurried with their work. Everything had to be ready for launch when they reached orbit as everyone knew they couldn’t waste any time. The longer they took to unload–hanging in orbit–the more tempting the target they became for the Covenant. This meant the crews were rushing around, but there was no sloppiness. Everyone realized that mistakes injured or killed people, so even in all this controlled chaos the safety rules and precautions were being adhered to.
The tension on all ships increased as the task force closed on the planet. Michael, tried to stay out of the crew’s way, but assisted them moving some of the heavier equipment loads. Mostly it was a sit and wait game as the hours ticked by.
As the time counted down, Michael figured it was time to report to the ship’s Loadmaster get his Pelican assignment for the ride down to the planet. He was heading towards the Loadmaster when he caught someone trying to catch his attention. His enhanced hearing and battle suit’s audio sensors could make out the voice over the noise of launch bay.
“Sierra-113… Over here!”
Michael turned and saw a marine waving in his direction. He used his augmented vision and helmet optics to get a better view of the person trying to catch his attention. Michael smiled as he recognized who it was and made his way over, stopping in front of the marine.
“Geez… I heard there was a Spartan on board this tub, but I didn’t think it would be your sorry hulking ass,” the marine said, smirking.
Michael shook his head looking down at Master Gunnery Sergeant Dave Schmidt. Michael worked with the Gunny before, assigned to support the Gunny’s fire team on several missions against the insurrectionists. He liked working with the Gunny and his fire team and had a lot of respect for the Gunny. Schmidt was a lifer in the UNSC Marine Corps and shown himself to be a cool level-headed leader in combat.
“Good to see you Gunny… I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“Well, they need troops for this operation and you know how it goes,” Schmidt replied.
Michael chuckled inside his helmet.
“I haven’t seen you since that Charlie Foxtrot OP on Arcadia… How’ve you been doing?” the Gunny asked smiling
“I’ve been doing well Gunny… I was just heading over to the Loadmaster to find out which Pelican I’m assigned to.”
“Hell with that! You can ride down with me and the rest of the team! I know they would be happy to have a Spartan security blanket riding with them,” Schmidt laughed as he slapped the Spartan on the back.
The Spartan followed the Gunnery Sergeant back to the troop marshaling area to join up with the rest of the Gunny’s fire team. Most of the members of the fire team recognized the Spartan as he and the Gunny approached. Smiles broke out and the fire team veterans let out an inner sigh of relief knowing a Spartan was riding down to the planet with them. Those new members to the fire team looked in awe and disbelief at having a real life Spartan standing with them.
Michael kept to the side while waiting with the fire team. He observed the marines trying to mask their tension and nervousness by talking, joking or even sleeping... whatever it took to distract them from the landing. Social situations made him uncomfortable as it was difficult for him to interact with those outside the SPARTAN program. It wasn’t only because of what he was and the classified operations he did. His upbringing, training and indoctrination in the SPARTAN program hadn’t covered the complex social interactions that normal people took for granted. It was easier just to stay quiet and be stoic. In this situation it worked out well for him as he spent these last moments trying to recall that dream he’d had in stasis. It had been such a nice feeling.
If I could only remember what the dream was about, Michael thought as he tried hard to recall.
Finally, the announcement everyone had been waiting for, came over the ship’s comm system.
“Attention all Personnel… We have achieved orbit around New Constantinople… Commence disembarkation… Repeat… Commence disembarkation…”
Before the message even finished, marines and other military personnel that were heading down to the planet, were getting up and collecting their equipment. There was a tense quietness among the soldiers as they moved towards their assigned dropships to load up. Michael followed the Gunny and his fire team to their Pelican and was the last to climb up the loading ramp. He watched as the marines secured their weapons and took their seats, strapping in. Michael waited until all the marines finished then squeezed himself in, making sure he wouldn’t bounce around during re-entry.
The Gunny looked from his seat to where Michael was sitting as the Pelican prepped for launch, “You know what we need right now. Don’t you?” he said smiling.
Michael chuckled as the rest of the fire team groaned, “Come on Gunny! How about you give us a break? Just this once… Huh?” one marine cried out.
“Please Gunny… Take heart!” another marine blurted.
Michael looked around and saw some of the veterans smiling. This was an old established ritual of the Gunny’s for every planet drop. Michael leaned back as the sounds of a wailing guitar filled the troop compartment of the Pelican.
“You jarheads need to learn to appreciate the classics,” the Gunny shouted as “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix played as the Pelican launched into space.
Michael studied the marines as they sat back thinking about what they would face on the planet below. He got a small smile seeing the Gunny lean back with a happy expression on his face, tapping his foot to the music.
On the bridge of the Presidio, the crew at the sensor stations detected an energy spike on their sensor displays. They immediately raised the alarm.
“Captain! Slipspace rupture detected!” one of the sensor techs shouted, causing the whole bridge to become quiet and look to the Captain.
“Shit! Not now!” Kwong muttered.
“Bearing and range?” he ordered.
“Bearing 238… Range… Make it just over two hundred kilometers,” came the report back.
The Captain let out a flurry of orders, “Helm… Bring us around to that bearing! Weapons… Bring the MAC on-line and prepare to fire as soon as we have a target lock and a firing solution! Comms… Alert the rest of the task force to prepare to engage and send a warning to the dropships to disperse!”
Captain Kwong heard a flurry of “Aye, Ayes” from his bridge crew. He was helpless watching as his worst nightmare became real as two Covenant SDV-class heavy corvettes came through the Slipspace rupture into the middle of his task force unloading.
The two Covenant corvettes entering normal space immediately engaged the human capital ships with their heavy plasma cannons. The UNSC warships returned fire...
Caught by the Covenant warships, Pelican dropships began evasive maneuvers. Their only hope to evade the heavy plasma fire was to make desperate runs to the planet’s surface.
Michael was enjoying the music and watching the Gunny when he picked up the increase whine of the Pelican’s engines. The increasing engine strain warned him something was wrong as the Pelican changed direction. Looking towards the cockpit, his premonition was proving correct as he saw the pilots trying to make frantic course corrections.
Their Pelican didn’t have much of a chance when the Covenant corvettes appeared from Slipspace and fired. A shot from a Covenant heavy plasma cannons grazed the dropship — a direct hit would have vaporized the Pelican. Never the less the grazing shot of plasma caused catastrophic damage to the dropship.
A horror show unfolded with Michael watching helplessly as the hull ruptured, where the Gunny was sitting, opening to space. The everlasting image of Gunny Schmidt being sucked into space imprinted on Michael’s mind. It happened so fast the Gunny still had that happy peaceful look on his face. It was an image that would remain with Michael forever.
The rest of the marines and Pelican crew never had a chance as they died strapped in their seats or sucked into space. Michael held on while his battle armor with its rebreather system, kept him alive. He knew he only had moments to get out of the dying dropship as it shook itself apart. As the Pelican tumbled, he oriented himself and pushed off, floating across the troop compartment towards the hull rupture. In the opening, Michael stared out into space... he had a front row seat to the space battle taking place.
UNSC ships fired MAC rounds and missiles at the Covenant warships. Shields flared on the Covenant warships as hits registered. Plasma fire hit the UNSC ships causing explosions blowing out armor and venting atmosphere, debris... and people. In the middle, caught in the death ground, were the dropships of the task force. Michael watched as Pelicans broke apart, spilling equipment and people into space. Other Pelicans vanished when caught by the full brunt of a plasma cannon bursts.Michael pushed himself out the hull rupture into space. He curled himself into a ball as the dropship exploded to protect himself from the blast and the debris expanding outwards, enveloping him. As he decided on what his next move was a piece of debris struck him in the helmet. A flash filled his helmet, and as the pain registered, a warm wetness spread across his face and then there was darkness…