Into the valley of death…
UNSC Firebase Mitchell
July 1, 2536 — 0522 Local Time
The base was humming with activity even at this time of the morning. The ground attack feint to draw the Covenant’s attention started twenty-four hours earlier. News from the front reported the fighting as intense and brutal, but it appeared as if it was having the desired effects that Vice-Admiral Whitcomb wanted.
Michael headed towards a Pelican that would take him up to the Paris-class heavy frigate UNSC Before The Dawn in orbit. The frigate would take him to the orbital insertion point over his objective, dropping him on the target along with the other orbital drop pods he’d requested. Along with the pods containing equipment and extra ammo, Michael planned on a couple pods–configured on his personal specs–for dropping closer to the Covenant installation. These ‘special pods’ would provide a nasty surprise to the Covenant.
Anticipation filled Michael as he boarded the Pelican, sitting down and checking and checking his equipment. He was no novice in combat, but this was his first time in a large scale operation against the Covenant. There was a momentary sense of self-doubt as he feared of failing in his mission and his duty. Until now there’d been a cloud hanging over him that he wouldn’t measure up to his brother and sister Spartans.
One thing he didn’t have to worry about anymore was his promise to Anders. Commander Wright had informed him about the evacuation of Catherine Anders and her two children, two days ago. They were to go to Reach first before continuing on to Earth. Wright reported the woman was at first reluctant to leave with her husband listed as missing. She eventually agreed to go when told that the evacuation arrangements were in place specifically for them. The Commander added that he’d escorted the woman and her children to the evacuation transport and put them on it.
Michael was thankful, but not surprised with the Vice-Admiral keeping his word. Everything he’d read and heard about the Vice-Admiral portrayed him as an honorable man and a straight-shooter. It was a huge burden off his back to have been able to keep his word.
Whatever happens to me today… I’ll be dropping clean… I’ve kept my word…
With memories of Anders pushed to the back of his thoughts, he focused on the mission, his role and what he needed to do once on the ground. He reviewed the layout of the objective area from memory along with the planned deployment pattern of all the drop pods. The equipment drop pods and ‘special pods’ had IFF transponders, so he could identify and find them using his helmet display.
It didn’t take long for the Pelican to achieve orbit. Michael looked towards the cockpit and saw a glimpse of the huge gathering of UNSC warships out the front window. He knew how many ships and personnel were taking part in this operation. It was an impressive array of amassed firepower, but in the back of his mind there stirred a thought.
Will it be enough against the Covenant?
On the bridge of the Valiant-class super-heavy cruiser UNSC Vauban, Vice-Admiral Whitcomb observed the gathering UNSC ships, before turning to view the sensor and navigation display panels. His thoughts were a whirlwind as they reviewed operation details and plans, but one thought came to the forefront.
Will it be enough?
His thoughts may have betrayed some doubts, but he didn’t display them to his staff or the bridge crew as he relayed orders to the rest of the fleet.
Organized into its battle groups, the UNSC fleet was ready to go. Most the fleet was on the other side of the planet from the Covenant’s foothold, using the planet to mask them from the enemy’s sensors. Another large battle group, led by the UNSC Presidio, gathered behind the planet’s moon, using it to hide their presence.
Whitcomb studied the latest intel reports on his tablet. The ground fighting was having the desired effect, splitting up the Covenant fleet. Their ships were patrolling the system’s approaches, clustered in orbit over the battle areas or within the planet’s atmosphere, providing support to their ground troops. Casualty reports from this feint attack were brutal, but they needed to sell that attack to the Covenant to draw them out of position and distract them. If the Covenant were able to gather their ships together as one combined force they would raise havoc with his fleet. Whitcomb knew they could defeat the Covenant fleet, but he also realized the cost to the UNSC would be horrendous. A key component of this operation was to separate and isolate the Covenant ships, so the UNSC could get overwhelming local superiority to concentrate its firepower.
To help with the deception, small groups of UNSC ships supported by the Orbital Defense Platforms (ODPs) made runs against the Covenant perimeter, engaging their ships. This was to help hide the navy’s true strength in system and keep the Covenant dispersed and off balance. Whitcomb was hoping the Covenant was underestimating the total number of ships he had at his disposal. For the longest time, he’d carefully husbanded resources and went to great lengths to conceal his strength. Yet, when the attack started, he would still need to get the Covenant to split their forces. The plan was for the two large attacking battle groups to gain him the necessary tactical surprise to get his fleet over the enemy foothold to do the orbital drops.
Fleet Intel identified that the UNSC would face twenty-one Covenant ships of mixed ship classes for this attack. The ones that worried Whitcomb the most were the CCS-class battlecruisers. These were some of the toughest enemy ships and SIGINTEL and sensors identified at least seven of them in system. The key was to isolate those ships at the start of the battle and concentrate the fleet’s firepower to take those ships out or force them to withdraw.
The battle plan was to have the super-heavy and heavy cruisers from the two battle groups engage the heavier Covenant ships first. Carriers would hold back to provide backup support with their MACs while sending in their Longsword fighters to support the heavies. Light cruisers, destroyers and frigates would act as a screen, holding off the smaller Covenant ships from supporting their heavies. The smaller ships would close-in to engage and with the fighters also cover to suppress any Covenant gunboat strikes.
One-hundred and twenty-two ships assembled for this attack, not including the fighters based on the carriers. Even with the UNSC fleet obscenely outnumbering the Covenant, estimated projected losses were running up to fifty per cent. To minimize losses, the plan was to go in hard and fast, pushing through the Covenant ships or clearing them away from the orbital insertion points.
Whitcomb received confirmation on his tablet that all the assault units were on their designated ships and ready to go. SPARTAN-III Alpha Company and the ODST units would take on the larger more heavily defended targets. In contrast, while having a minor target, the ship carrying Sierra-113 would have the farthest gauntlet to run to get to its drop point.
Whitcomb closed his eyes, bowing his head for a moment while saying a silent prayer for all the men and women involved with the attack. Again, doubts filled him as he knew the casualty projections and if there was another way, he would have taken it. The problem was that the Covenant held such a technological advantage in spaceships, energy weapons and shielding. The only thing the UNSC could do was throw numbers at them and try to force ground battles to bleed the Covenant.
Will it be enough? Whitcomb thought. His mind answered back, It’ll have to be…
The Vice-Admiral turned to his chief of staff, “Commander Wright… Signal the fleet to commence the attack.”
Commander Wright came to attention, saluting, “Aye Aye, sir!”
The UNSC warships gathered behind New Constantinople and its moon received their attack orders and moved out in their battle formations. Smaller warships formed up into a protective screen in front of the heavier warships. The carriers followed up at the back to the battle formations, preparing to launch their fighters. The plan was to hit hard and fast with everything they had. They had to achieve control of local space or at least push the Covenant back from the drop points. There was no Plan-B...
Confusion gripped the Covenant when their sensors detected the incoming human warships. Their attention was on the ground war that was intensifying because of the recent human attacks. They hesitated–as Vice-Admiral Whitcomb planned–while they tried to figure out what the humans were intending to do. They couldn’t believe the humans were trying a space-based attack considering the technological advantage they had over them. Even as the human ships advanced, the Covenant commanders still believed the main attack would be on the planet’s surface because of the closer parity.
As it became clear what was happening, those Covenant ships in orbit turned to face the oncoming human ships. Twelve Covenant ships in orbit turned to meet the human ships as hurried communications recalled those ships out on patrol and picket duty. Five Covenant warships were close to the planet’s surface, providing support to ground operations, they struggled to disengage to get back in orbit. They wouldn’t be able to rejoin the rest of the fleet in time and would be at a disadvantage caught in the atmosphere. While the Covenant ships regrouped and closed to engage the humans, they also scrambled to launch their Phantom gunships in support.
Even though the Covenant only had twelve ships to meet the initial human assault, seven of the ships were CCS-class battlecruisers. The Covenant commanders were more than confident the firepower they could bring to bear would tear the human fleet to shreds. The remaining ships were a mix of SDV-class heavy corvettes and CPV-class heavy destroyers. Those ships along with the Phantom gunboats being launched moved to provide a screen for the battlecruisers. Longsword fighters were the first to attack as they swooped in and were engaged by the Phantoms…
The human frigates and destroyers unleashed a barrage of MAC rounds from their main guns at the Covenant screening ships. The rounds left streaks of light flowing through space. Covenant shields flared from hits and they returned fire with their heavy plasma cannons adding their own deathly colorful light to the surrounding space.
Explosions rocked the UNSC ships as their armor tried to deflect the energy weapon hits. Ships took heavy damage, but those able continued firing their main weapons, and as the range closed human ships opened up with their Archer missile batteries. Autocannons roared out a stream of fire to take out incoming Phantom gunboats. Waves of gunboats and Longswords maneuvered against each other while also trying to avoid getting caught in the crossfire from the larger ships.
Among the ranks of human ships, explosions ripped through the screen as ships exploded in massive fireballs after taking too many hits, suffering breaches in their reactors or magazines…
“Sir! We’ve lost our forward screen!” the first officer reported to Captain Kwong on board the Presidio.
“Maintain course! Keep firing on those battlecruisers!” Kwong ordered, viewing the unfolding battle through the main bridge view window and the bridge display console. The remains of his forward screen of destroyers and frigates drifted in space, either destroyed or heavily damaged and incapable of further action. This complicated the work for the remaining ships in his battle group as they not only had to continue fighting the Covenant, but avoid the drifting hulks and debris.
Kwong watched grimly as the heavy ships in his battle group continued their advance without a protective screen. On the plus side, he’d exchanged his screen for the Covenant’s screening ships as their smaller ships added to the ever expanding debris fields around the planet.
“Comms… Contact the Georgia and Ontario and see if they have any Longswords left that can support us!” Kwong ordered as the ship shuddered from another plasma hit.
Vice-Admiral Whitcomb studied his display console while glancing out the bridge view window as the battle he’d planned unfolded. The Vauban shuddered from a hit, and Whitcomb heard the Captain call out for a damage report. Whitcomb pushed worries about the ship he was on to the back of his mind as his focus and responsibility was fighting the bigger battle.
Whitcomb read the status updates coming in from the fleet, and it was grim reading. The Presidio’s battle group was taking a pounding, but it was also dishing out heavy damage to the Covenant ships. It was unfortunate, but the Presidio’s battle group force was facing off against a larger portion of the Covenant fleet including five of the CCS-class battlecruisers. Grim satisfaction filled the Vice-Admiral as his ships and people destroyed and pushed the enemy back. He noted the enemy ships climbing up from the planet’s surface and detached some of his task force to intercept and deal with those ships.
The Vice-Admiral turned to Commander Wright, “What’s the status of the drop?” he asked.
“The ships carrying the ODST units reached their drop point and began their drop two minutes ago… All got away and they appear to be on target. Alpha Company is dropping in T-Minus one minute. Sierra-113 is still on route and scheduled to drop in T-Minus nine minutes,” Wright replied, reading the info from his tablet.
“Are we still providing cover for The Dawn?” Whitcomb asked.
“Longsword squadrons are heavily engaged, returning to their carriers to rearm and refuel or destroyed. We have the Marathon-class cruisers Endeavor and Harmony and the Halcyon-class light cruisers Crimson Fire and Forlorn Hope along with their screen still covering the frigate. They’re taking fire from a CCS-class battecruiser and the Covenant ships coming up from the planet’s surface.”
Commander Xander Carstairs swore to himself as his ship–UNSC Before The Dawn–shuddered from a hit.
“Damage report!” he ordered.
The damage control officer’s face was grim, “Weapons control reports we’ve lost our main gun! Estimate 45 minutes to bring back on-line.”
“Engine room reports green, sir!” replied the engineering officer.
“Status of drop pod bay?” Carstairs asked, hoping for more good news.
“Drop pod bay reports green… Our Spartan is all loaded and ready to go as soon as we enter the drop point area,” replied another crewman.
“Continue on course! Move us behind the Endeavor for some cover, and can you remind them we need to get to the drop point in one piece,” Carstairs barked.
The surviving Covenant ship commanders watched in surprise as human ships launched large numbers of orbital drop pods towards the planet. Confusion gripped them, at first, as the drop pods screamed towards the areas occupied by their ground forces. They belatedly realized what the humans were attempting as the drop pods descend on those areas containing their supply depots and other important ground installations.
With the humans’ intent now obvious, the surviving Covenant ships shifted to protect the space above one of their base installations. As a group of human ships closed on the area, the Covenant was unaware the humans considered the installation in that area a secondary command-and-control base. In fact that location was the Covenant’s primary communication and command center for all their forces on the planet. Calls went out urging the ships further out-system to hurry to join the surviving ships defending the space above this vital installation…
“Slipspace rupture detected!” a sensor technician screamed, aboard the UNSC Endeavor.
Captain Desta Khumalo could only look on helplessly as four Slipspace ruptures appeared only eighty kilometers off her port side. Out of the Slipspace points came an ORS-class heavy cruiser, an RCS-class armored cruiser and two SDV-class heavy corvettes.
“Order The Dawn to break formation and make a run for the drop point! All other ships engage and provide cover!” Captain Khumalo ordered, seeing she was now out-gunned.
Commander Carstairs–also warned about the Slipspace openings–watched in horror as four Covenant ships appeared off the port side of their group of ships. He caught the order from Captain Khumalo for his ship to break and make a run for it. Before he even acknowledged the order all four Covenant ships opened fire, concentrating their fire on the Endeavor. Shock and horror filled Carstairs as Covenant’s energy weapons ripped the Endeavor apart. The Marathon-class cruiser blew up in a huge explosion.
“COLLISION ALARM!” Carstairs screamed as debris from the Endeavor hurtled towards his ship…
Vice-Admiral Whitcomb was helpless, watching as the four Covenant ships tore into the ships escorting the heavy frigate towards its drop point.
“Damn it! Damn, the Covenant and their tech edge!” Whitcomb swore to himself, watching as it looked like part of his plan would fail.
Whitcomb turned to the communications officer, “Order the battle group to shift fire to engage those four new enemy ships! We’ve got to cover that frigate to the drop point!”
He heard the order go out. On his display console, he watched as the surviving ships in his battle group shifted to engage the Covenant ships.
Alarms and people shouting filled the bridge, “DAMAGE REPORT!” Carstairs shouted over the chaos.
The damage control officer’s face was grim as he reported, “Sir, we’ve suffered multiple hits! Fires on decks six, seven and nine. We have hull breaches on decks ten… eleven and twelve and we’re venting air! Weapons are offline and engine room reports damage! Engineering reports they need to take the engines off-line or the reactors will breach!”
“Status of drop bay?” Carstairs asked. He hoped it was still intact otherwise this was all for nothing.
“Still reporting green, sir,” replied the damage control officer.
Carstairs studied his display console. For the moment, the Covenant were directing their fire at other UNSC ships as his crippled ship was not a threat. He realized it was only a matter of time before they turned on his ship to finish them. He grimly noted that one of the Covenant ships was taking position almost over the drop pod release location. The choice facing him was a hard one, but he knew it was important for all the drops to get through to ensure the overall success of the operation.
“Helm… Full Speed ahead… Maintain course,” Carstair’s voice was quiet and calm as he gave the order.
The frigate’s bridge became deathly quiet. The wailing alarms and other electronic noises seemed distant as the Commander’s orders sank in.
“Inform the drop pod bay to be ready to release on my command,” Carstairs added.
The bridge crew turned back to their duties. The crewman manning the helm replied in a quiet voice, “Aye Aye, sir,” as he confirmed the frigate’s course and approach vector.
Space around New Constantinople was a scene from hell as the battle continued to rage. The few remaining Covenant ships gathered for a last stand as those UNSC ships still able to move and fight continued to advance and fire on the enemy. MAC rounds, missiles and energy beams filled space as the ships, caught up in this death struggle, continued exchanging fire. In the middle of all this, a lone frigate fought to complete its mission... heavily damaged and venting air.
In the drop pod bay, cocooned within his orbital drop pod, Michael waited for the signal to drop. A warning buzzer told him the frigate was less than sixty seconds from the release point. He took a deep breath to prepare for the drop. He wasn’t a novice at orbital insertions, but each drop had their own unique set of circumstances and challenges.
The ship shuddered violently from another hit. Michael tapped into the frigate’s comm system and heard how much damage the ship was taking. He was also accessing the fleet’s battlenet. A chaotic stream of voices, some cut-off in mid-sentence, filled the net calling for fire on the Covenant ships and reporting heavy damage and casualties among the fleet. There was no information on the status of the other orbital drops and what was happening on the ground. Stuck in the drop pod, a sense of isolation filled Michael as the battle raged around him.
Debris, from both human and Covenant ships, littered space as the battle continued. Onboard the Before The Dawn, Commander Carstairs’s eyes locked on the display console as it counted down the distance to the drop point. The ship shuddered as a Covenant cruiser finally noticed the approaching frigate and shifted its fire to engage the approaching human ship.
The ship heaved again from another hit, “Maintain course… Ready to drop,” Carstairs ordered.
Whitcomb watched the unfolding scene as the frigate made its run. A close up of the frigate filled the display console by him. He couldn’t believe the frigate was still operational as it vented air and trailed debris. As the frigate drove on to its drop point, closing on the Covenant cruiser that stood in its way, Whitcomb realized what the frigate’s Commander was planning.
“Concentrate fire on that cruiser!” Whitcomb ordered, trying to cover the frigate.
The Covenant heavy cruiser grew larger in the bridge observation window as The Dawn closed on the drop point. The fire from other UNSC ships distracted the cruiser’s attention allowing the frigate to get closer. Caught in the moment, Carstairs watched MAC rounds hit the cruiser, causing its shields to flare. A green light flashed on the display console... they were finally in the drop zone.
“Execute Drop!” Carstairs ordered.
Another warning buzzer and a green light told Michael they were at the drop point. He barely had a moment to prepare before his drop pod shot like a rocket down its launch tube, exiting the frigate towards the planet.
The ship’s computer controlled the timing and order of the drop. Michael’s pod was first to launch. Ammo and supply pods followed to land at points around the objective. The specially configured drop pods were the last ones launched. These pods were to land close to the Covenant installation. They would provide a nasty surprise to any Covenant that ventured to close to them.
As the excessive g-forces pushed against him, Michael tried to relax and focus on his mission as his drop pod screamed towards the planet’s surface.
“Sir! Last pod is away!” a bridge crewman called out.
Commander Carstairs heaved an inner sigh of relief they’d completed their mission. With barely any time to congratulate himself, the ship took another hit. The ship shook so hard it felt as if someone picked up the ship and slammed it back down.
Carstairs regained his senses, “Damage Report!” he yelled out.
“Multiple hull breaches! Fires spreading! Engine room is reporting that a reactor breach is in progress!” the damage control officer shouted back.
Time seemed to stop as the damage report sunk in. A brief thought passed through Carstairs’s mind, I always wondered how it would end…
The Commander looked calmly around the bridge, meeting his crew’s eyes. He turned towards the bridge observation window, “Helm… Aim us at that cruiser,” he said in a quiet firm voice.
It took a moment for the order to sink in for the crewman manning the helm station. Once he realized what Carstairs was ordering, he didn’t hesitate, “Aye Aye, sir… Course set.”
“Ask the Engine room to red-line the engines… Let’s see how fast we can go in,” Carstairs asked, again his voice sounding strangely calm in these final moments.
There was no delay in response, “Aye, sir!”
“Thank you,” Carstairs said. He glanced again at his bridge crew, “Thank you, everyone. It has been an honor.”
The bridge took on a strange quietness as the ship’s engines strained, causing her to shudder, as the Before The Dawn began her final run.
A flood of mixed emotions and thoughts filled Vice-Admiral Whitcomb as he watched this final scene play out. Pride, sadness, guilt and a strange sense of satisfaction flowed through him as he watched the frigate drive itself into the Covenant heavy cruiser. The frigate exploded first, tearing the Covenant cruiser apart and causing it to explode within moments. Ensuing explosions and hurtling debris damaged the few remaining Covenant ships nearby.
The explosions and damage disoriented the surviving Covenant ships, allowing the UNSC to close the distance. The surviving human ships showed no mercy as they concentrated fire on the enemy ships, overwhelming their shields and ripping into their hulls. More explosions flared in the space around where the Before The Dawn made her sacrifice while eleven orbital drop pods streaked down towards the planet’s surface…