CHAPTER TWO

0631 hours, August 30,2552 (Military Calendar)\EpsilonEridani system, unknown aerial position, planet Reach.

Fred saw the sky and earth flashing in rapid succession before his faceplate. Decades of training took over. This was just like a parasail drop ... except this time there was no chute. He forced his arms and legs open; the spread-eagle position controlled his tumble and slowed his velocity.

Time seemed to simultaneously crawl and race—something Kelly had once dubbed "SPARTAN Time." Enhanced senses and augmented physiology meant that in periods of stress Spartans thought and reacted faster than a normal human. Fred's mind raced as he absorbed the tactical situation.

He activated his motion sensors, boosting the range to maximum. His team appeared as blips on his heads-up display. With a sigh of relief he saw that all twenty-six of them were present and pulling into a wedge formation.

"Covenant ground forces could be tracking the Pelican," Fred told them over the COM. "Expect AA fire." The Spartans immediately broke formation and scattered across the sky.

Fred risked a sidelong glance and spotted the Pelican. It tumbled, sending shards of armor plating in glittering, ugly arcs, before it impacted into the side of a jagged snowcapped mountain.

The surface of Reach stretched out before them, two thousand meters below. Fred saw a carpet of green forest, ghostly mountains in the distance, and pillars of smoke rising from the west. He spied a sinuous ribbon of water that he recognized: Big Horn River.

The Spartans had trained on Reach for most of their early lives. This was the same forest where CPO Mendez had left them when they were children. With only pieces of a map and no food, water, or weapons, they had captured a guarded Pelican and returned to HQ. That was the mission where John, now the Master Chief, had earned command of the group, the mission that had forged them into a team.

Fred pushed the memory aside. This was no homecoming.

UNSC Military Reservation 01478-B training facility would be due west. And the generators? He called up the terrain map and overlaid it on his display. Joshua had done his work well: Cortana had delivered decent satellite imagery as well as a topographic survey map. It wasn't as good as a spy-sat flyby, but it was better than Fred had expected on such short notice.

He dropped a NAV marker on the position of the generator complex and uploaded the data on the TACCOM to his team.

He took a deep breath and said: "That's our target. Move toward it but keep your incoming angle flat. Aim for the treetops. Let them slow you down. If you can't, aim for water... and tuck in your arms and legs before impact."

Twenty-six blue acknowledgment lights winked, confirming his order.

"Overpressurize your hydrostatics just before you hit."

That would risk nitrogen embolisms for his Spartans, but they were coming in at terminal velocity, which for a fully loaded Spartan was—he quickly calculated—130 meters per second. They had to overpressurize the cushioning gel or their organs would be crushed against the impervious MJOLNIR armor when they hit.

The acknowledgment lights winked again ... although Fred sensed a slight hesitation.

Five hundred meters to go.

He took one last look at his Spartans. They were scattered across the horizon like bits of confetti.

He brought up his knees and changed his center of mass, trying to flatten his angle as he approached the treetops. It worked, but not as well or as quickly as he had hoped.

One hundred meters to go. His shield flickered as he brushed the tops of the tallest of the trees.

He took a deep breath, exhaled as deeply as he could, grabbed his knees, and tucked into a ball. He overrode the hydrostatic system and overpressurized the gel surrounding his body. A thousand tiny knives stabbed him—pain unlike any he'd experienced since the SPARTAN-II program had surgically altered him.

The MJOLNIR armor's shields flared as he broke through branches—then drained in one sudden burst as he impacted dead-center on a thick tree trunk. He smashed through it like an armored missile.

He tumbled, and his body absorbed a series of rapid-fire impacts. It felt like taking a full clip of assault rifle fire at point-blank range. Seconds later Fred slammed to a bone-crunching halt.

His suit malfunctioned. He could no longer see or hear anything. He stayed in that limbo state and struggled to stay conscious and alert. Moments later, his display was filled with stars. He realized then that the suit wasn't malfunctioning... he was.

"Chief!" Kelly's voice echoed in his head as if from the end of a long tunnel. "Fred, get up," she whispered. "We've got to move."

His vision cleared, and he slowly rolled onto his hands and knees. Something hurt inside, like his stomach had been torn out, diced into little pieces, and then stitched back together all wrong. He took a ragged breath. That hurt, too.

The pain was good—it helped keep him alert.

"Status," he coughed. His mouth tasted like copper.

Kelly knelt next to him and on a private COM channel said, "Almost everyone has minor damage: a few blown shield generators, sensor systems, a dozen broken bones and contusions. Nothing we can't compensate for. Six Spartans have more serious injuries. They can fight from a fixed position, but they have limited mobility." She took a deep breath and then added, "Four KIA."

Fred struggled to his feet. He was dizzy but remained upright. He had to stay on his feet no matter what. He had to for the team, to show them they still had a functioning leader.

It could have been much worse—but four dead was bad enough. No Spartan operation had ever seen so many killed in one mission, and this op had barely begun. Fred wasn't superstitious, but he couldn't help but feel that the Spartans' luck was running out.

"You did what you had to," Kelly said as if she were reading his mind. "Most of us wouldn't have made it if you hadn't been thinking on your feet."

Fred snorted in disgust. Kelly thought he'd been thinking on his feet—but all he'd done was land on his ass. He didn't want to talk about it—not now. "Any other good news?" he said.

"Plenty," she replied. "Our gear—munitions boxes, bags of extra weapons—they're scattered across what's passing for our LZ. Only a few of us have assault rifles, maybe five in total."

Fred instinctively reached for his MA5B and discovered that the anchoring clips on his armor had been sheared away in the impact. No grenades on his belt, either. His drop bag was gone, too.

He shrugged. "We'll improvise," he said.

Kelly picked up a rock and hefted it.

Fred resisted the urge to lower his head and catch his breath. There was nothing he wanted to do more right now than sit down and just rest and think. There had to be a way to get his Spartans out of here in one piece. It was like a training exercise—all he needed to do was figure out how best to accomplish their mission with no more foul-ups.

There was no time, though. They'd been sent to protect those generators, and the Covenant sure as hell weren't sitting around waiting for them to make the first move. The columns of smoke that marked where Reach HighCom once stood testified to that.

"Assemble the team," Fred told her. "Formation Beta. We're heading toward the generators on foot. Pack out our wounded and dead. Send those with weapons ahead as scouts. Maybe our luck will change."

Kelly barked over the SQUADCOM: "Move, Spartans. Formation Beta to the NAV point."

Fred initiated a diagnostic on his armor. The hydrostatic subsystem had blown a seal, and pressure was at minimal functional levels. He could move, but he'd have to replace that seal before he'd be able to sprint or dodge plasma fire.

He fell in behind Kelly and saw his Spartans on the periphery of his tactical friend-or-foe monitor. He couldn't actually see any of them because they were spread out and darted from tree to tree to avoid any Covenant surprises. They all moved silently through the forest: light and shadow and an occasional muted flash of luminous green armor, then gone again.

"Red-One this is Red-Twelve. Single enemy contact ... neutralized."

"One here, too," Red-Fifteen reported. "Neutralized." There had to be more. Fred knew the Covenant never traveled in small numbers.

Worse, if the Covenant were deploying troops in any significant numbers, that meant the holding action in orbit had turned ugly . . . so it was only a matter of time before this mission went from bad to worse.

He was so intent on listening to his team's field checks, he almost ran into a pair of Jackals. He instinctively melted into the shadow of a tree and froze.

The Jackals hadn't seen him. The birdlike aliens sniffed at the air, however, and then moved forward more cautiously, closing on Fred's concealed position. They waved plasma pistols before them and clicked on their energy shields. The small, oblong protective fields rippled and solidified with a muted hum.

Fred keyed his COM channel to Red-Two, twice. Her blue acknowledgment light immediately winked in response to his call for backup.

The Jackals suddenly turned to their right and sniffed rapidly.

A fist-sized rock whizzed in from the aliens' left. It slammed into the lead Jackal's occipital crest with a wet crack. The creature squawked and dropped to the ground in a pool of purple-black blood.

Fred darted ahead and in three quick steps closed with the remaining Jackal. He sidestepped around the plane of the energy shield and grabbed the creature's wrist. The Jackal squawked in fear and surprise.

He yanked the Jackal's gun arm, hard, and then twisted. The Jackal struggled as its own weapon was forced into the mottled, rough skin of its neck.

Fred squeezed, and he could feel the alien's bones shatter. The plasma pistol discharged in a bright, emerald flash. The Jackal flopped over on its back, minus its head.

Fred picked up the fallen weapons as Kelly emerged from the trees. He tossed her one of the plasma pistols, and she plucked it out of the air.

"Thanks. I'd still prefer my rifle to this alien piece of junk," she groused.

Fred nodded, and clipped the other captured weapon to his harness. "Beats the hell out of throwing rocks," he replied.

"Affirmative, Chief," she said with a nod. "But just barely."

"Red-One," Joshua's voice called over the SQUADCOM. "I'm a half-klick ahead of you. You need to see this." "Roger," Fred told him. "Red Team, hold here and wait for my signal."

Acknowledgment lights winked on.

In a half crouch, Fred made his way toward Joshua. There was light ahead: The shade thinned and vanished because the forest was gone. The trees had been leveled, every one blasted to splinters or burned to charred nubs.

There were bodies, too; thousands of Covenant Grunts, hundreds of Jackals and Elites littered the open field. There were also humans—all dead. Fred could see several fallen Marines still smoldering from plasma fire. There were overturned Scorpion tanks, Warthogs with burning tires, and a Banshee flier. The flier had snagged one canard on a loop of barbed wire, and it propelled itself, riderless, in an endless orbit.

The generator complex on the far side of this battlefield was intact, however. Reinforced concrete bunkers bristling with machine guns surrounded a low building. The generators were deep beneath there. So far it looked as if the Covenant had not managed to take them, though not for lack of trying.

"Contacts ahead," Joshua whispered.

Four blips appeared on his motion sensor. Friend-or-foe tags identified them as UNSC Marines, Company Charlie. Serial numbers flashed next to the men as his HUD picked them out on a topo map of the area.

Joshua handed Fred his sniper rifle, and he sighted the contacts through the scope. They were Marines, sure enough. They picked through the bodies that littered the area, looking for survivors and policing weapons and ammo.

Fred frowned; something about the way the Marine squad moved didn't feel right. They lacked unit cohesion, with their line ragged and exposed. They weren't using any of the available cover. To Fred's experienced eye, the Marines didn't even seem to be heading in a specific direction. One of them just ambled in circles.

Fred sent a narrow-beam transmission on UNSC global frequency. "Marine patrol, this is Spartan Red Team. We are approaching your position from your six o'clock. Acknowledge."

The Marines turned about and squinted in Fred's direction, and brought their assault rifles to bear. There was static on the channel, and then a hoarse, listless voice replied: "Spartans? If youarewhatyousayyouare... wecouldsureuseahand."

"Sorry we missed the battle, Marine." " 'Missed'?" The Marine gave a short, bitter laugh. "Hell, Chief, this was just round one."

Fred returned the sniper rifle to Joshua, pointed toward his eyes and then to the Marines in the field. Joshua nodded, shouldered the rifle, and sighted them. His finger hovered near the weapon's trigger—not quite on it. It never hurt to be careful.

Fred got up and walked to the cluster of Marines. He picked his way past a tangle of Grunt bodies and the twisted metal and charred tires that had once been a Warthog.

The men looked as if they had been to hell and back. They all sported burns, abrasions, and the kilometer-long stare indicative of near shock. They gaped at Fred, mouths open; it was a reaction that he had often seen when soldiers first glimpsed a Spartan: two meters tall, half a ton of armor, splashed with alien blood. It was a mix of awe and suspicion and fear.

He hated it. He just wanted to fight and win this war, like the rest of the soldiers in the UNSC. The Corporal seemed to snap out of his near fugue. He removed his helmet, scratched at his cropped red hair, and looked behind him. "Chief, you'd better head back to base with us before they hit us again."

Fred nodded. "How many in your company, Corporal?" The man glanced at his three companions and shook his head. "Say again, Chief?"

These men were likely on the verge of battle shock, so Fred controlled his impatience and replied in as gentle a voice as he could muster: "Your FOF tags say you're with Charlie Company, Corporal. How many are you? How many wounded?"

"There's no wounded, Chief," the Corporal replied. "There's no 'company' either. We're all that's left."