The Rookie – five minutes before drop, aboard the UNSC heavy cruiser Say My Name in high orbit above New Mombasa.

The Rookie was jolted awake as his comrade gave him a less than gentle tap with the butt of his sniper rifle. His nap interrupted, he opened his eyes to see his fellow ODST peering down at him with a wry smile on his face. It was Romeo, the blue coloration on his BDU’s chest piece giving him away.

“Wake up, buttercup,” he said as the Rookie reached up to adjust his helmet. Dutch appeared to his right, shoving his rowdy comrade out of the way, Romeo stumbling off in the direction of his drop pod. Dutch’s battle dress was adorned with a skull and crossbones that had been etched into his orange chest piece, and a skull motif that decorated his helmet. Many of the more experienced ODSTs sported such decorations, they were a tough bunch, and they had seen a lot of action during the war against the Covenant. UNSC dress standards had gone out of the window lately, there were more important things to worry about.

“Relax, Rookie,” he began. “He don’t mean nothin’ by it. Besides,” he continued as he appraised the submachine gun that he was holding in his hand. It was an M7S, the suppressed variety, the flashlight that was mounted on its barrel already lit. He thrust the weapon into the Rookie’s hands as the glass on his helmet’s visor went opaque. “Now’s one of those times when it pays to be the strong, silent type…”

The Rookie stowed the weapon beside him in his drop pod, slotting it into place next to his seat with a mechanical click. The last thing that you wanted when you were hurtling towards the ground in a metal coffin was your gear bouncing around and hitting you in the face.

Was it already time to drop? He hadn’t been paying much attention to the briefing, he had learned to take every opportunity for sleep that presented itself. You never knew when you might be forced to spend seventy-two hours wide-awake behind enemy lines. He knew their mission, however.

The Covvies had invaded Earth. Fuck knows how they had located it, the Cole Protocol had seen the ODSTs running from ship to ship, scrubbing navigation data to protect that secret for years now. Either way, they were here, and they had made landfall in New Mombasa, a Kenyan port city. There was a big-ass Covenant assault carrier hovering right next to the city’s orbital elevator, and intel reported that it was the Prophet of Regret’s personal ship. If they could board the carrier and kill a Covenant Prophet, that would certainly give the ugly split-jaws something to regret. Better yet, capture the bastard and use him as a bargaining chip to broker an end to the war. The Prophets were holy figures in Covenant society. They were like an Admiral, a President, and a Pope all rolled into one. Who knew what he was doing on Earth, but the UNSC wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth.

He leaned back in his padded crash seat and strapped in, the windowed door of his drop pod closing to seal him inside with a loud clunk. The SOEIVs, colloquially known as eggs, were single-person vehicles that could rapidly deploy a soldier and his equipment to the surface of a planet from orbit. They were angular, teardrop-shaped pods, about five meters tall and weighing half a ton. The rapid part came from the fact that the pods would drop feet-first at terminal velocity, literally falling into battle. They had limited maneuvering capabilities that would allow the occupant to make small corrections, but they were pretty much fire-and-forget. If command sent you down into a blanket of anti-aircraft fire, then there wasn’t much that you could do about it besides grit your teeth and try not to piss yourself.

As he secured the straps, the thirty-second countdown began, the comms equipment that was built into the pod coming to life as it slowly rotated to face space. Two monitors to either side of the narrow window flickered on, showing the helmeted faces of two of his superiors, along with readouts displaying navigational and tactical data.

“Latest intel reports that Covenant troops are massing beneath the carrier,” he heard over the radio. Dare was speaking, the Naval Intelligence operative who had been assigned to their unit. He could see her name stenciled across the brow of her Recon helmet.

“They’re pulling back?” Buck asked, his commanding officer’s helmeted head appearing on the leftmost monitor. “Why?”

“We’re not gonna find out way up here,” Dare replied tersely.

“Troopers!” Buck continued, the Rookie’s heart beginning to race as the countdown neared its end. “We are green and very, very mean!”

The pods that were nestled along the ship’s underside began to drop, streaking towards the clouds below, trailing plumes of smoke as their main engines fired. The Rookie’s stomach lurched as his own pod detached from the heavy cruiser, a brief moment of weightlessness making him feel like he was floating before the engine kicked in and sent him hurtling towards the ground. He gripped the twin control sticks for all the good that it would do, his knuckles white.

Beyond the window, he could see the remnants of the orbital battle with the Covenant. There were the burnt-out hulks of damaged UNSC ships floating amidst a field of debris, some of the larger ones still burning, pieces of scrap metal tumbling through low orbit like a floating scrapyard. They’d be lucky if their pods didn’t slam into that junk like billiard balls. The orbital elevator penetrated the layer of grey clouds, rising up into the darkness above, where it was joined to an orbiting station. It was made up of massive concentric rings that were supported by kilometers of thick cables. The Mombasa Tether’s job was to provide an inexpensive way to ferry supplies and ordnance into space, it was the economic heart of the city, and it was a relief to see that it was still standing.

“The Navy got its butt kicked,” Romeo muttered over the comms, the Rookie watching as they passed by a frigate that had been all but cleaved in two. It hung there in the microgravity, like time had stopped for it, its exposed decks burning.

“Hey Romeo, remember when I told you to shut your mouth?” Buck asked.


“Consider that a standing order…”

Everything went white as the pod passed through the clouds, turbulence buffeting it. When he emerged, the Rookie could see the city beneath him. The Covenant cruiser was floating serenely beside the tether, looming over the artificial island at its base, the silver water of the ocean sparkling in the African sun. The alien vessel had a long, rounded hull, the midship flared outward almost like a pair of stubby wings. He could make out odd lights glittering along its surface, its design contrasting sharply with the more angular UNSC ships that he was accustomed to. It was massive, over three miles long, its armor plating a shimmering grey-blue in color.

“Captain? We’re fifteen klicks off the deck,” Buck said as the ground rushed up towards them.

“Stand by to adjust trajectory,” Dare added, “on my mark.”

“What’d she just say?” Romeo asked, struggling to hear her over the sound of the rushing wind.

“Mark!” she added. The Rookie gripped his control sticks and followed the other pods as they made a correction, their engines flaring a brilliant blue.

“We’re way off course!” Mickey complained, another of the ODSTs assigned to their squad. He was right, there was no way that they were going to land on the carrier. Even with a course correction, it was too far away. Had someone made a mistake?

“We’re heading exactly where I need to go,” Dare replied cryptically.

“But we’re gonna miss the carrier!” Mickey protested.

“Radiation!” Dutch shouted, the Rookie looking at his display to see the Geiger counter spiking.

“Did the Covenant just set off a nuke?” Mickey asked in disbelief.

“No. The carrier’s going to jump!” Dare replied, the wavering in her voice betraying her alarm. The Rookie looked past the reinforced glass of his pod’s canopy, watching as a brilliant ball of light engulfed the carrier’s rounded nose, crackling with energy as it began to spread. “It’s a slip-space rupture! You need to-”

The spreading ball of mesmerizing light suddenly collapsed into a bright point, sucking the three-mile-long carrier and a few nearby buildings into it in the blink of an eye. There was a brief moment of eerie stillness, and then the singularity released all of its energy in a monumental explosion. It engulfed the city beneath it, erasing entire blocks like they were nothing, impacting the orbital tether and rocking the great structure like a sapling in a hurricane.

“EMP!” Dutch warned, his voice crackling with static. “Losing power!”

“Stabilize, then pop your chutes,” Buck ordered. “We’re going in hard!”

The other pods began to brake, panels on the tops of the teardrop-shaped vehicles popping off to release their drag-chutes, slowing their descent and keeping them upright. Before the Rookie could pop his own chute, the shockwave from the slip-space rupture reached them, catching the pod directly in front of his own and slamming it into him like a wrecking ball. His canopy cracked, sparks showering him, his displays flashing with red warning symbols as collision alarms blared. His pod began to spin out of control, and he reached over to grab one of the handholds for purchase, desperately yanking at his control stick in a futile attempt to right his doomed pod. He was spinning like a top, the scenery beyond his shattered window flashing like a strobe as it caught the sunlight that reflected off the water.

He fought back the nausea and the dizziness, feeling like he had left his stomach behind a few thousand feet above him, every muscle in his body tensing as he prepared for the impact.

Alba – fifteen minutes before the slip-space rupture, aboard the Covenant assault carrier Solemn Penance.

Alba fiddled with her power armor, the skin-tight, rubbery underclothes that she wore beneath it doing little to prevent the chafing. It was made with males in mind, and it was uncomfortably tight around her chest. There were few females serving in Jiralhanae packs, only the strongest and most resilient managed to rise through the ranks, and she was one of those few.

Against the odds, and in spite of her chauvinistic superiors, she had risen to the rank of Captain in the Covenant military. Her status afforded her command over her own pack, although it was comprised entirely of aliens, rather than Jiralhanae of lesser merit. As she made her way across the assault carrier’s cavernous hangar bay, a gaggle of yapping Kig-yar and waddling Unggoy trailed behind her.

The Kig-yar were avian creatures, pirates and scavengers, for the most part. They stood a little over six-feet tall, their long, scaly snouts full of razor-sharp teeth. They had large eyes, and a crest of quills on their heads, their fingers and toes tipped with wicked claws. They walked on a pair of digitigrade legs, bobbing their heads with every step, examining their surroundings with a jerking motion that Alba always found off-putting. They were wielding point-defense gauntlets and needle rifles, clad in form-fitting jumpsuits that provided little protection for their slim frames.

The Unggoy were the runts of the Covenant litter, little more than cannon fodder, less than half her size at four feet. They were methane-breathers, carrying tanks of the foul-smelling gas on their backs, which were connected to their helmets via snaking tubes. They were arthropods, resembling large crustaceans, encased in a tough exoskeleton. The diminutive creatures struggled to keep up with their longer-legged comrades, clasping plasma pistols in their hands with their stubby fingers. They made poor warriors, but as someone who knew what it felt like to suffer the disdain of her superiors, Alba did not mistreat them as many of her peers did.

“Make your way to the troop carriers, runts!” she heard one of the more senior Jiralhanae yell over the noise of the bay. He growled at a passing Unggoy, raising his imposing gravity hammer as if threatening to crush the creature, the little alien hurrying along to join the rest of its group. He was a Captain Major, his golden power armor catching the light, his shaggy fur a mature shade of silver. Alba preferred to keep hers shaved, the armor was uncomfortable enough without it snagging on her hair, and it wasn’t as if the males would afford her any more or less respect because of it.

There were packs of Jiralhanae wearing their brightly colored armor loading into the transports, the ornate designs of their helmets displaying their respective ranks. Alba was just one of many Captains leading her pack to their assigned dropships today, the High Prophet of Regret had ordered them to occupy the Human city below. They were searching for something here, something important. They hadn’t told her what, she didn’t need to know, her only orders were to suppress any resistance that she met down on the surface.

She missed Doisac sometimes, things had seemed so much simpler on the homeworld. Out here, everything was shades of grey, war was not as black and white as the preachers had led her to believe. She’d had faith in the Covenant, at least for a time. They had offered her something that her own people had been reluctant to give her, status, respect. Although there was a great deal of animosity between the Jiralhanea and the Sangheili, the reptilian warriors that made up the bulk of the Covenant’s elite troops, they had always afforded her a modicum of dignity that had earned them her respect in return. Many of the Elites, as they were known, had already deployed to the ground. She couldn’t see any among the troops in the bay.

She mounted one of the dropships, its curved, purple chassis shining under the bright hangar lights. Her pack hopped in behind her, gripping handholds on the walls and ceiling as their pilot prepared for takeoff, the deck humming beneath her feet as the engines spooled. She selected a carbine from the weapon rack beside her, checking its payload of radioactive ammunition, glimpsing the city beyond the hangar bay as the ventral doors of the dropship began to close. The skyline was jagged, the native buildings blocky and strange. Fires were already raging, black smoke rising into the air in thick plumes. At least it wasn’t cold here, that was usually her first complaint.

The Phantom rose from the deck, flying out over the city, the alien landscape now obscured from view behind the ventral doors. Almost immediately, the dropship began to shake as it sustained anti-aircraft fire from the city below, human shells exploding beneath it and hammering it with shrapnel. They were primitive weapons, they didn’t pose much of a threat. The Unggoy whimpered all the same, huddling together, the Kig-yar jeering at them and snapping their jaws.

There was a dull thunk sound as the gunner returned fire with the nose cannon, spraying a stream of plasma at the enemies below. Alba gripped one of the handholds in the ceiling as the craft dodged and weaved, avoiding the worst of the flak, one of the Unggoy bumping into the far bulkhead as the Phantom came to an abrupt stop. The ventral doors began to open, the wind rushing in. Alba was blasted in the face by a stream of hot air, the smell of baking asphalt, and the scent of acrid smoke stinging her nose.

She gripped her carbine and stepped towards the edge of the troop bay, looking down at the street below. There were odd, colorful vehicles that looked like beetles scattered about, their metal carapaces shining in the harsh sunlight. They didn’t look like military vehicles, they had no obvious armaments, no armored plating. Their occupants were long gone, many of them leaving doors ajar and engines idling, as though they had left in a hurry. Besides that, the city seemed deserted, there wasn’t a soul in sight. There hadn’t been any fighting in this area, there were no signs of combat, no bullet holes or plasma burns, no charred corpses. Alien trees in planters blew gently in the breeze, angular structures made from metal and glass rising to either side of the pathway below like the walls of an artificial canyon.

Her pack crowded behind her as she prepared to jump. It was a long drop, twenty feet at least, but the gravity on this planet was half that of her own. She steeled herself, then leapt from the Phantom, landing on one of the colorful vehicles and denting the metal roof like it was made from tin. She stepped down onto the path below, the black surface pleasantly warm beneath her feet. It was patterned with regular, white markings, glowing lighting strips barely visible in the sunlight. She shouldered her carbine and covered her pack as they dropped down behind her, the Kig-yar scrambling up onto higher ground, and the Unggoy spreading out to form a defensive perimeter as they had been trained to do. There was a rush of air as the Phantom above them moved away, soaring off over the tops of the spire-like buildings and vanishing from view.

After a moment, Alba lowered her weapon, noting that there were no Human soldiers here to meet them. The natives had fled, or perhaps they were hiding in their dwellings. The shadow of a Covenant assault carrier looming over their city might have put the fear of the Great Journey in them.

She looked up to see one of her Kig-yar marksmen perched atop a tall, metal bar that overhung the street with his needle rifle in hand, jerking his head from side to side as he searched for targets. The pole was adorned with glowing signs written in an alien script that she couldn’t read, and a trio of lights that flickered randomly between green, red, and orange. The rest of the Kig-yar had taken up similar positions, scrambling up onto balconies that protruded from the faces of the buildings, or hopping atop some of the larger derelict vehicles. These Jackals had keen eyes and a good nose, they made fine scouts and snipers.

“What do you see?” she demanded, the Kig-yar who was standing atop the lighting pole turning his snout in her direction.

“Nothing, Captain,” he hissed. “There were Humans here before, but no longer.”

“H-Humans all gone!” one of the shrill Unggoy added, perhaps relieved that they had not dropped down into the midst of a firefight. The little creatures were cowardly at the best of times, always glad to shirk their duties.

“What are your orders, Captain?” another of the Kig-yar asked from its vantage point in the fronds of a nearby tree.

“We begin our patrol,” Alba replied gruffly, setting off along the asphalt path. “The Prophets want to take control of this place, and it is not our station to ask why. Spread out in a loose formation, and keep your wits about you. We have orders to suppress any resistance that we meet.”

The Jackals yapped and hissed gleefully, flanking her to either side of the street, leaping gracefully between perches as if they were afraid of touching the ground. The Unggoy waddled along behind her, wheezing as they sucked in gulps of methane from their packs. Some of them dropped to a three-legged gait, supporting themselves with one of their long forelimbs as they shambled along, grasping their pistols in the other. As much as Alba disliked working with the bloodthirsty Kig-yar and the useless Unggoy, at least they respected her authority, which was more than she could say for her own kind.