1647 HOURS, MAY 1, 2531 (MILITARY CALENDAR) \ 111 TAURI SYSTEM, CAMP NEW HOPE, PLANET VICTORIA
John, SPARTAN-117, despite being encased in a half ton of angular MJOLNIR armor, moved like a shadow through the twilight forest underbrush.
The guard on the perimeter of Base New Hope drew on a cigarette, took a final puff, and tossed the butt.
John lunged, a whisper rustle, and he wrapped his arm around the man’s neck, wrenching it up with a pop.
The guard’s cigarette hit the ground.
Nearby crickets resumed their night song.
John pinged his status to the rest of Blue Team. Four green LED lights winked on his display, indicating the rest of the extended perimeter guards had been neutralized.
The next objective was a delivery gate, the weakest part of the rebel base’s defense system. The guardhouse had two men outside, two on the rooftop, and several inside. Past this, however, the base had impressive security even by Spartan standards: motion and seismic sensors, a triple layering of guards, trained dogs, and overhead MAKO-class drones.
John blinked his status light green: the signal to proceed with the next phase.
The setting sun just touched the edge of the horizon when the guards on the roof of the bunker twitched and crumpled. It happened so fast, John wasn’t sure which Linda had targeted first. A heartbeat later the two on the ground were dead as well.
John and Kurt ran for the gatehouse.
Kelly sprinted ahead, covering the three hundred meters from the forest in half the time, and leapt to the roof in a single bound. She opened the roof’s vent and dropped flash-bang grenades.
Kurt posted outside the door, and swept the aft side for any targets. John waited on the other side of the steel and bulletproof-glass security door, one hand on its handle, one foot braced against the wall.
Inside three muffled thumps sounded.
John pulled, wrenching the door and frame from the steel reinforcing in the wall.
Kurt entered, his M7 submachine gun burping three-round bursts.
John was in a moment later, and assessed the threats in the blink of an eye. There were three guards already down. Behind them, banks of security monitors showed a hundred views of the base.
Seven other men sat at a card table, shaking off the effects of the flash-bangs. They stood with their sidearms halfway out of their holsters.
John calmly shot each man, once in the head.
Kelly dropped outside the door, rolled inside, her weapon leveled.
“Security system,” John whispered to her and Kurt.
Fred and Linda appeared a moment later, and together they pulled and wedged the heavy door back into its twisted frame.
“All good outside,” Fred told them.
Kelly sat before the bank of monitors and pulled out a touch pad, booting the ONI computer infiltration software package.
Kurt tapped on the keyboard, nodding to the sticky note under one monitor. “Password’s posted,” he said, shaking his head.
“Okay,” Kelly muttered. “We can do it the easy way, too. Running monitor-looping protocol, now. I’ll get a clean path to the target.”
Kurt meanwhile flipped through various camera angles and subsystems on the displays. “No alarms raised,” he reported. He paused and watched a group of guards unloading ammunition canisters off a Warthog. One man fumbled and dropped a can; along its side was stenciled: MUTA-AP-09334.
John hadn’t ordered a subsystems sweep, though he hadn’t specifically forbidden it, either. Kurt’s actions could trigger a red flag at the base’s command and control.
John had mixed feelings about using SPARTAN-051, Kurt, as Sam’s replacement on Blue Team. On the one hand, he was an extremely capable Spartan. Chief Mendez had routinely given him command of Green Team during training exercises, and Kurt had often won when facing John’s Blue Team. But on the other hand, he was, for a Spartan, undisciplined. He took time to talk with every Spartan, and even the non-Spartan personnel that trained and supplied them. As a professional soldier in the middle of two wars—one fighting an entrenched rebellion, the other taking on a technologically superior xenophobic alien race—Kurt spent a considerable amount of time and energy making friends.
“Camera system and detectors looped,” Kelly announced and made a tiny circle with her index finger. “We have fifteen minutes while dogs and drones are rotated and refueled. So just guards to deal with.”
“Move,” John told his team.
Kurt hesitated, eyes still fixed on the monitors.
“What?” John asked.
“A funny feeling,” Kurt whispered.
This worried John. Everyone had performed flawlessly, and there were no signs the enemy had reacted to their presence. But Kurt had a reputation for sniffing out ambushes. John had been on the receiving end of Kurt’s intuition several times during training.
John nodded at the monitor, still devoid of anything but normal activity. “Explain.”
“The guards unloading that Warthog,” Kurt said. “They look like . . . they’re getting ready for something. Security systems and machines can be fooled—or easily rigged to fool,” he stated. “People? They’re not so easy.”
“I understand,” John said. “We’ll stay sharp, but we have to stick to the schedule. Let’s move.”
Kurt got up, casting a glance back at the monitor as they exited the gatehouse.
The Spartans melted from shadow to shadow, skirting around a warehouse, under officers’ barracks, and finally, at the center of the base, they approached the edge of a warehouse. The building was surrounded by three fences posted with warnings that the gravel yard beyond was mined.
Eight guards patrolled the perimeter. Parked on the side was a modified Warthog; it had been cut in half and a new midsection had been welded in place that looked like it could carry ten men into battle. It would suffice.
John withdrew a tiny rod and pointed it at the building. The radiation counter flickered to a hundred times normal background level for this planet.
That confirmed that their primary target was inside: three FENRIS nuclear warheads.
Recent battles with the Covenant had depleted UNSC stockpiles of fissile materials in this sector to almost nothing. Insurgents had heard of this (which indicated they also had a considerable intelligence capability), and they had contacted the regional CENTCOM to boldly offer a trade. They said they had stolen warheads. They claimed to have people with Borren’s Syndrome, and wanted the expertise and medicines only UNSC doctors could provide.
CENTCOM said they’d consider the matter.
They had considered it, and sent in Blue Team to get those warheads, and if presented with the opportunity, they were to target any rebel leaders.
John signaled his team to move out, disperse around the bunker, and take up positions to snipe the guards.
Green acknowledgment lights winked on. Kurt’s was last, with a palpable hesitation.
John gave Kurt a short hand wave, and then pointed at the Warthog, indicating that he get the vehicle ready to move.
Kurt’s “feeling” that something was wrong was contagious. John didn’t like it. He pushed his uncertainties aside. Blue Team was in position.
John unslung his sniper rifle and sighted. He gave the “go” signal and watched as one guard and then another silently fell over. Linda had been quick and efficient as usual.
John gave the go-ahead to move in.
Blue Team eased inside, sweeping the dark corners of the building.
The place was empty, save steel racks cradling three conical warhead casings. John’s radiation counter jumped, indicating that they did not hold conventional explosives.
He pointed at Kelly and Fred, to the rack, then to the Warthog outside. They nodded.
Kurt’s acknowledgment light winked red.
No Spartan flashed a red light on a mission unless they had a good reason.
“Abort,” John said. “Back out. Now.”
Dizziness washed over him.
John saw Linda, Fred, and Kelly sink to their knees.
Then blackness swallowed him.
John awoke with a start. Every muscle burned and it felt like someone had hammered his head. This was a good sign: it meant he wasn’t dead.
He tensed his muscles against an unyielding pressure.
He blinked to clear his hazy vision and saw he sat propped against a wall, still in the high-security bunker.
The warheads were also still there.
Then John saw a dozen commandos in the warehouse, watching him. They hefted the .30-caliber machine gun, favored by rebel forces. Nicknamed “confetti makers,” they were grossly inaccurate, but at point-blank range, it would hardly be a concern.
The rest of Blue Team lay face-first on the concrete floor. Technicians in lab coats crouched over them capturing high-resolution digital video.
John jerked against his inert armor. He had to get to his team. Were they dead?
“No need to struggle,” a voice said.
A man with long gray hair stepped in front of John’s faceplate. “Or struggle if you want. We’ve installed neural-inhibitor collars on you and your comrades. UNSC standard issue for dangerous felons.” He smiled. “I’d wager without one you could, and would, rip me in half in that miraculous power armor.”
John kept his mouth shut.
“Relax,” the man said. “I am General Graves.”
John recognized the name. Howard Graves was one of the three men believed to be in charge of the united rebel front. It was no coincidence he was here.
“You’re suffering from rapid decompression—the bends,” he told John. “We used an antigrav plate, old technology that never panned out, but for our purposes, it worked just fine. A focused beam fooled your armor’s sensors into thinking you were in a ten-gee environment. It increased internal pressure to save your lives, momentarily rendering you unconscious.”
“You engineered this all for us,” John said, his voice hoarse.
“You ‘Spartans’ have put quite a dent in our efforts to liberate the frontier worlds,” General Graves said. “Station Jefferson in the Eridanus asteroid belt last year; our destroyer Origami; six months ago, our high-explosive manufacturing facility; followed by the incident in Micronesia, and our saboteur cell on Reach. I didn’t believe it until I saw the video. All by the same four-man team. Some said ‘Blue Team’ was a myth.” He rapped his knuckle on John’s faceplate. “You seem real enough to me.”
John struggled, but he might as well have been encased in a mountain of steel. The neural collar neutralized every signal traveling down his spine save the autonomics to his heart and diaphragm.
He had to focus. Did everyone on his team have a collar? Yes. Each Spartan had a thick clamp on the back of their neck, directly over the AI interface port. Graves had excellent intelligence on their equipment.
Wait. John scrutinized his paralyzed team: Kelly, Linda, and Fred. No Kurt.
Graves had said “four-man team.” He didn’t know about Kurt.
“As you surmised,” Graves continued, “this was all for your benefit. We scraped our fissile material together and made sure it was done so sloppily that even your Office of Naval Intelligence saw it happen. We anticipated the miraculous Blue Team would be sent. I am not disappointed that your leaders’ minds are still so easily read.”
A young commando approached, saluted, and nervously whispered, “Sir, external sensors are off-line.”
Graves frowned. “Drag the prisoners out of here. Sound the general alarm. Police those warheads, and tell the liftships to—”
A buzzing sound filled the air. John spied a blur of spinning metal through the doorway. He had a fraction of a second to see it was an eight-armed Asteroidea antipersonnel mine, its pressure trigger jammed with a chunk of gravel—just before it detonated into a ball of thunder.
Metal pinged off John’s armor.
Everyone standing in the room doubled over from the concussive force and hail of shrapnel.
Six commandos with multiple cuts and bleeding ears rose, weapons ready, shaking their heads to clear the disorientation.
The modified Warthog that had been parked next to the bunker crashed into the open double doorway.
The entire warehouse shook.
The commandos opened fire, and rushed the doorway.
The Warthog pulled away, then with a squeal, it reversed, and then rammed the doorway again. The corrugated steel walls screeched, buckled, and with a shower of sparks the vehicle wedged its midsection in the building like a pregnant queen termite.
The commandos unloaded their confetti makers, puckering the ’Hog’s armor.
The top of the midsection slid open and three more Asteroidea antipersonnel mines arced, whirling like a child’s toy—each landing in a corner of the bunker—and exploded.
White-hot metal fragments cut through the commandos like a scythe.
Kurt leapt out and shot the three men still moving. He quickly went to each Spartan and pulled off the collars.
Kelly rolled to her feet. Fred and Linda got up.
Kurt yanked the collar off John’s neck. His entire body tingled, but his muscles once again responded to his commands. He flexed his limbs. There was no permanent nerve damage.
“We can forget about stealth now,” John said. “Kurt, drive the Warthog. Kelly, Linda, Fred, get those warheads loaded ASAP.”
John went to General Graves. A sliver of corrugated steel had lodged in the man’s skull.
Unfortunate. Graves had held secrets of the rebels’ command and intelligence structure–secrets John had had the barest glimpse of. Their capacities had been greatly underestimated. With the larger Covenant threat looming, John wondered what the rebels would ultimately do. Attack a weakened UNSC as it battled aliens, or fight against humanity’s common enemy?
He ignored the larger strategic picture and focused on the tactical, helping Kelly maneuver the last warhead into the Warthog’s armored midsection.
Loaded with the bombs and five armored Spartans, the vehicle bottomed its shocks. John climbed into the rear and Kurt drove, and they sluggishly accelerated away from the secure warehouse.
“Best speed to the PZ,” John ordered.
Kurt turned on the Warthog’s radio. It buzzed with confused chatter.
“Unit One nonresponsive. Gunfire reported. Man down! Tracking APC. Open fire? Confirm—confirm! All units converge. Do it now!”
“Everyone,” John shouted, “into the center.”
Holes peppered the Warthog, armor-piecing rounds penetrating the side like paper and denting the casings of the warheads.
“Behind the warheads!” Fred told them.
John, Kelly, Fred, and Linda huddled behind the missiles. Nuclear warheads ironically would provide their best defense. Their casings were superhardened, both to contain radiation and hold the fury of a small sun for a split second longer and to boost the thermonuclear yield.
John looked up at the driver’s seat. Kurt squeezed himself lower into the seat, presenting the smallest possible target, risking his life to get them all to safety.
The Warthog billowed smoke, but its speed slowly increased to forty kilometers an hour. A sharp rattle came from the engine. A tire shredded and the vehicle swerved right and then left.
Kurt regained control and kept going.
The AP fire slowed and then stopped.
“Brace!” Kurt said and downshifted.
The Warthog barreled through the chain-link and concertina-wire barrier, over gravel fields, and into the forest.
“Road 32-B to the PZ,” Kurt said.
“Road” was a creative overstatement. They bounced along, mowing down trees, fishtailing, and spraying mud.
“Drones!” Kurt told them.
“Get the hatch open,” John ordered. Kelly and Fred pulled the midsection roof panels apart.
John stuck his head out, and spotted three MAKO-class attack drones jetting toward them, each heavy with a fat missile. One direct hit would take out the Warthog. Even a near miss could destroy an axle.
Linda popped up, her sniper rifle already in hand and eyes on the scope.
John and Linda opened fire.
The lead drone smoked and dropped into the trees. The next drone angled up, bobbing. It released its missile, and banked away. A line of smoke appeared, a tail of fire, and a missile accelerated toward them at a frightening rate.
Linda fired, squeezing off the rounds as fast as the chamber could cycle. The missile started to spin . . . but it was still dead on course.
“PZ three hundred meters,” Kelly said, consulting her tablet. “Welcome committee has us in their sights.”
“Tell them we have the package,” John said, “and we need a hand.”
“Roger that,” she said.
The missile was two kilometers from them—closing fast.
Ahead, the forest turned into swamp. With a hurricane roar, a UNSC Pelican dropship rose over the treetops and its twin chain guns spat a cloud of depleted uranium slugs at the incoming missile—making it bloom into a flower of fire and smoke.
“Stand by for pickup, Blue Team,” the dropship’s pilot said over their COM. “We got incoming single-craft hostiles. So hang tight, and go vacuum protocols.”
“Check suit integrity,” John ordered. He remembered Sam and how his friend had sacrificed himself, remaining on a Covenant ship under siege because of a breach in his suit. If a single AP round had breached their MJOLNIR, they’d be in a similar jam.
The Warthog, billowing thick black clouds, rattled to a stop.
The Pelican settled over it and clamped tight.
Blue Team came back all green status lights, and John relaxed; he had been holding his breath.
The Pelican lifted the Warthog, laden with Spartans and warheads, into the air.
“Make secure,” the pilot said. “Bogies inbound on vector zero seven two.”
Acceleration tugged at John, but he stood fast, one hand bracing the nukes, the other against the punctured side of the Warthog.
The clear blue light outside darkened to black and filled with the twinkle of stars.
“Rendezvous with the Bunker Hill in fifteen seconds,” the Pelican pilot announced. “Prepare for immediate out-system Slipspace jump.”
Kurt carefully eased out of the driver’s seat and into the midsection to join them.
“Nice work,” Fred told him. “How did you know it was a trap?”
“It was the guards loading ammunition off the Warthog,” Kurt explained. “I saw it at the time, but it didn’t register until it was almost too late. Those ammo canisters were marked as armor-piercing rounds. All of them. You wouldn’t need that much AP unless you were taking on a few light tanks. . . .”
“Or a squad of Spartans,” Linda said, catching on.
“Us,” Fred remarked.
Kurt doggedly shook his head. “I should have figured it out sooner. I almost got everyone killed.”
“You mean you saved everyone,” Kelly said and she butted her shoulder into his.
“If you ever have another funny ‘feeling,’” John told him, “tell me, and make me understand.”
John wondered about this man’s “feelings,” his instinctive subconscious awareness of the danger. CPO Mendez had made then all train so hard, lessons in fire-team integration, target prioritization, hand-to-hand combat, and battlefield tactics were part of their hardwired instincts now. But that didn’t mean the underlying biological impulses were worthless. Quite the opposite.
John set a hand on Kurt’s shoulder, searching for the right words.
Kelly, as usual, articulated the sentiments that John never could. She said, “Welcome to Blue, Spartan. We’re going to make a great team.”
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