CHAPTER THREE

0649 hours, August 30,2552 (Military Calendar) \Epsilon Eridani system, Orbital Defense GeneratorFacility A-331, planet Reach.

Fred looked over the battlefield from the top of the southern bunker, his temporary command post. The structure had been hastily erected, and some of the fast-drying instacrete hadn't fully hardened.

The bunker was not the best defensive position, but it gave him a clear view of the area as his team worked to strengthen the perimeter of the generator complex. Spartans strung razor wire, buried Antilon mine packs, and swept the area on patrols. A six-man fireteam searched the battleground for weapons and ammunition.

Satisfied that the situation was as stable as possible, he sat and began to remove portions of his armor. Under normal circumstances a team of techs would assist in such work, but over time the Spartans had all learned how to make rudimentary field repairs. He located a broken pressure seal and quickly replaced it with an undamaged one he'd recovered from SPARTAN-059's armor.

Fred scowled. He hated the necessity of stripping gear from Malcolm's suit. But it would dishonor his fallen comrade not to use his gift of the spare part.

He banished thoughts of the drop and finished installing the seal. Self-recrimination was a luxury he could ill afford, and the Red Team Spartans didn't have a monopoly on hard times.

Charlie Company's surviving Marines had held off the Covenant assault with batteries of chainguns, Warthogs, and a pair of Scorpion tanks for almost an hour. Grunts had charged across the minefield and cleared a path for the Jackals and Elites.

Lieutenant Buckman, the Marines' CO, had been ordered to send the bulk of his men into the forest in an attempt to flank the enemy. He had called in air support, too.

He got it.

Reach HighCom must have realized the generators were in danger of being overrun, so someone panicked and sent in bombers to hit the forest in a half-klick radius. That wiped out the Covenant assault wave. It also killed the Lieutenant and his men.

What a waste.

Fred replaced the last of his armor components and powered up. His status lights pulsed a cool blue. Satisfied, he stood and activated the COM.

"Red-Twelve, give me a sit-rep."

Will's voice crackled over the channel. "Perimeter established, Chief. No enemy contacts." "Good," Fred replied. "Mission status?" "Ten chainguns recovered and now provide blanketing fields

of fire around the generator complex," Will said. "We've got three Banshee fliers working. We've also recovered thirty of those arm-mounted Jackal shield generators, plus a few hundred assault rifles, plasma pistols, and grenades."

"Ammo? We need it."

"Affirmative, sir," Will said. "Enough to last for an hour of continuous fire." There was a short pause, then he added: "HQ must have sent reinforcements at some point, because we've recovered a crate marked HIGHCOM ARMORY OMEGA."

"What's in it?" "Six Anaconda surface-to-air missiles." Will's voice barely concealed his glee. "And a pair of Fury tac-nukes."

Fred gave a low whistle. The Fury tac-nuke was the closest thing the UNSC had in its arsenal to a nuclear grenade. It was the size and shape of an overinflated football. It delivered slightly less than a megaton yield, and was extremely clean. Unfortunately, it was also completely useless to them in this situation.

"Secure that ordnance ASAP. We can't use them. The EMP would fry the generators."

"Roger that," Will said with a disappointed sigh.

"Red-Three?" Fred asked. "Report."

There was a moment's hesitation. Joshua whispered: "Not good here, Red-One. I'm posted on the ridge between our valley and the next. The Covenant has a massive LZ set up. There's an enemy ship on station and I estimate battalion-strength enemy troops on the ground. Grunts, Jackals, equipment, and support armor are deploying. Looks like they're getting ready for round two, sir."

Fred felt the pit of his stomach grow cold. "Give me an uplink."

"Roger."

A tiny picture appeared in Fred's heads-up display, and he saw what Joshua had sighted through his sniperscope: A Covenant cruiser hovered thirty meters off the ground. The ship bristled with energy weapons and plasma artillery. His Spartans couldn't get within weapons range of that thing without being roasted.

A gravity lift connected the ship to the surface of Reach, and troops poured out—thousands of them: legions of Grunts, three full squadrons of Elites piloting Banshees, plus at least a dozen Wraith tanks.

It didn't make much sense, though. Why didn't the cruiser get closer and open fire? Or did the Covenant think there might be another air strike? The Covenant never hesitated during an assault ... but the fact that he was still alive meant that the enemy's rules of engagement had somehow changed.

Fred wasn't sure why the Covenant were being so cautious, but he'd take the break. It would give him time to figure out how to stop them. If the Spartans were mobile, they might be able to engage a force that size with hit-and-run tactics. Holding a fixed position was another story altogether.

"Updates every ten minutes," he told Joshua. His voice was suddenly tight and dry.

"Roger that."

"Red-Two? Any progress on that SATCOM uplink?"

"Negative, sir," Kelly muttered, tension thickening her voice. She had been tasked with patching Charlie Company's bullet-ridden communications pack. "There are battle reports jamming the entire spectrum, but from what I can make out the fight upstairs isn't going well. They need this generator up—no matter what it's going to cost us."

"Understood," Fred said. "Keep me—" "Wait. Incoming transmission to Charlie Company from Reach HighCom." HighCom? Fred thought headquarters on Reach had been overrun. "Verification codes?"

"They check out," Kelly replied.

"Patch it through."

"Charlie Company? Jake? What the hell is the holdup there? Why haven 'tyou gotten my men out yet?"

"This is Senior Petty Officer SPARTAN-104, Red Team leader," Fred replied, "now in charge of Charlie Company. Identify yourself."

"Put Lieutenant Chapman on, Spartan," an irritated voice snapped.

"That's not possible, sir," Fred told him, instinctively realizing that he spoke to an officer and adding the honorific. "Except for four wounded Marines, Charlie Company is gone."

There was a long static-filled pause. "Spartan, listen to me very carefully. This is Vice Admiral Danforth Whitcomb, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations. Do you know who lam, son?"

"Yes, sir," Fred said, wincing as the Admiral identified himself. If the Covenant were eavesdropping on this transmission, the senior officer had just made himself a giant target.

"My staff and I are pinned down in a gully southeast of where HighCom used to be," Whitcomb continued. "Get your team over here and extract us, on the double."

"Negative, sir, I cannot do that. I have direct orders to protect the generator complex powering the orbital guns."

"I'm countermanding those orders," the Admiral barked. "As of two hours ago, I have tactical command of the defense of Reach. Now, I don't care if you 're a Spartan or Jesus Christ walking down the damned Big Horn River—/ am giving you a direct order. Acknowledge, Spartan."

If Admiral Whitcomb was now in charge of the defense, then a lot of the senior brass had been put out of commission when HQ got hit.

Fred saw a tiny amber light flashing on his heads-up display. His biomonitor indicated an elevation in his blood pressure and heart rate. He noticed his hands shook, almost imperceptibly.

He controlled the shaking and keyed the COM. "Acknowledged, sir. Is air support available?"

"Negative. Covenant craft took out our fighter and bomber cover in the first wave."

"Very well, sir. We'll get you out."

"Step on it, Chief." The COM snapped off.

Fred wondered if Admiral Whitcomb was responsible for the hundreds of dead Marines who'd been trying to guard the generators. No doubt he was an excellent ship driver. . . but Fleet officers running ground ops? No wonder the situation was FUBAR.

Had he pressured a young and inexperienced lieutenant to flank a superior enemy? Had he sent in air support with orders to saturate-bomb the area?

Fred didn't trust the Admiral's judgment, but he couldn't ignore a direct order from him, either.

He ran his team roster up onto his heads-up display: twenty-two Spartans, six wounded so badly they could barely walk, and four battle-fatigued Marines who'd been through hell once already. They had to repel a massive Covenant force. They had to extract Admiral Whitcomb, too. And as usual, their survival was at best a tertiary consideration.

He had weapons to defend the installation: grenades, chain-guns, and missiles—

Fred paused. Perhaps this was the wrong way to look at the tactical situation. He was thinking about defending the installation when he should have been thinking about what Spartans were best at—offense.

He keyed the SQUADCOM. "Everyone catch that last transmission?"

Acknowledgment lights winked on.

"Good. Here's the plan: We split into four teams.

"Team Delta—" He highlighted the wounded Spartans and the four Marines on the roster. "—fall back to this location." He uploaded a tactical map of the area and set a NAV marker in a ravine sixteen kilometers north. "Take two Warthogs, but leave them and stealth it if you encounter any resistance. Your mission is to secure the area. This will be the squad's fallback position. Keep the back door open for us."

They immediately acknowledged. The Spartans knew that ravine like the backs of their hands. It wasn't marked on any map, but it was where they'd trained for months with Dr. Halsey. Beneath the mountain were caverns that the Office of Naval Intelligence had converted into a top-secret facility. It was fortified and hardened against radiation, and could probably withstand anything up to and including a direct nuclear strike. A perfect hole to hide in if everything went sour.

"Team Gamma." Fred selected Red-Twenty-one, Red-Twentytwo, and Red-Twenty-three from the roster. "You'll extract the Admiral and his staff and bring them back to the generators. We'll need the extra crew."

"Affirmative," Red-Twenty-one replied.

Technically Fred was following Whitcomb's order to extract him from his current position. What the Admiral didn't realize, though, was that he would have probably been safer staying put.

"Team Beta—" Fred selected Red-Twenty through Red-Four. "—you're on generator defense."

"Understood, Chief."

"Team Alpha—" He selected Kelly, Joshua, and himself.

"Awaiting orders, sir," Joshua said.

"We're going to that valley to kill anything there that isn't human."

Fred and Kelly faced the three Banshee fliers that had been dragged into the makeshift compound. Fred peered inside the cockpit of the nearest craft and tabbed the activation knob. The Banshee rose a meter off the ground, its antigrav pod glowed a faint electric blue, and it started to drift forward. He snapped it off, and the Banshee settled to the ground. He quickly tested the other two, and they also rose off the ground.

"Good. All working."

Kelly crossed her arms. "We're going for a ride?"

A Warthog pulled up and skidded to a halt in front of them, Joshua at the wheel. The rear held half a dozen Jackhammer missiles and a trio of launchers. A crate sat in the passenger's seat, one loaded with the dark, emerald-green duct tape that every soldier in the UNSC ubiquitously referred to as "EB Green."

"Mission accomplished, sir," Joshua said as he climbed from the Warthog.

Fred grabbed a launcher, a pair of rockets, and a roll of tape from the 'Hog. "We'll be needing these when we hit the Covenant on the other side of the ridge," he explained. "Each of you secure a launcher and some ammo in a Banshee."

Joshua and Kelly stopped what they were doing and turned to face him.

"Permission to speak, sir," Kelly asked.

"Granted."

"I'm all for a good fight, Fred, but those odds are a little lopsided even for us. . . like ten thousand to one."

"We can handle a hundred to one," Joshua chimed in, "maybe even five hundred to one with a little planning and support, but against these odds, a frontal assault seems—"

"It's not going to be a frontal assault," Fred said. He wedged the launcher into the cramped Banshee cockpit. "Tape."

Kelly ripped off a length of tape and handed it over.

Fred smoothed the adhesive strip and secured the launcher in place. "We'll play this one as quiet as we can," he said.

She considered Fred's plan for a moment and then asked, "So, assuming we fool them into letting us into their lines ... then what?"

"As much as I'd like to, we can't use the tac-nukes," Joshua mused, "not in the far valley. The intervening ridge isn't high enough to block the EMP. It'll burn out the orbital defense generator."

"There's another way to use them," Fred told them. "We're going to board the cruiser—right up its gravity lift—and detonate the nuke inside. The ship's shields will dampen the electromagnetic pulse."

"It'll also turn that ship into the biggest fragmentation grenade in history," Kelly remarked.

"And if anything goes wrong," Joshua said, "we end up in the middle often thousand pissed-off bad guys."

"We're Spartans," Fred said. "What could possibly go wrong?"