Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
December 12, 2559
“Stone, get those lifeboats deployed now!” Palmer’s voice rang sharp in her ears.
“On the last load out, Commander. We’ve got a total of four seats open.”
“They’ll never make it. I’m diverting them to Bay Ten. And watch your tail. It’s a mess out there.”
A metric ton of titanium support beam pressed on Spartan Bonita Stone’s armor-clad shoulders as she held up the corridor ceiling from collapsing. Her muscles burned. Pressure built in her chest, her heart working overtime to process the massive surge of adrenaline flowing through her system. Amid the smoke billowing in the passageway twenty meters ahead, a friendly was making his way to the lifeboats behind her. Infinity shuddered again. Power cables and plating fell and sparked and the giant beam she held aloft shifted. Her stance dropped another fifteen centimeters, putting incredible strain on her thighs and knees.
“How… much… farther?” She squeezed her eyes closed and gritted her teeth.
“Nineteen meters,” Ouco, her personal AI, replied.
Stone cracked her eyes open, dialing in on the shadowy figure emerging from the haze. It was a young medic, stumbling and coughing, then suddenly falling to his knees as he gagged on the acrid white smoke of melting cables and circuitry. “Get up!” she shouted. Her muscles began to tremble from fatigue; she’d have to release the beam soon. “Get your ass up right now! If I can hold this damn beam, you can stand! One foot in front of the other!”
“I’m trying,” he gasped, barely audible, as a massive fiber-optic cable fell through the broken ceiling, hitting the floor next to him. Several meters behind him, the passageway blew apart and red fragments of what looked like a Banished Seraph tore through Infinity’s hull.
The vacuum of space began to pull smoke and fire and debris. Horrified, the medic scrambled to his feet and ran straight for her. As soon as he slid clear under her arm, Stone ducked and pushed herself backward. The beam immediately slammed into the deck. Quickly she turned, took two steps, grabbed the kid by the arm, and raced toward the lifeboat bay, sealing the doors once they were inside.
Only two escape craft remained. Stone pushed the medic toward the lifeboat with one vacant seat left and then paused. Orders were orders and the chain of command had to be respected at all times, but there were still three empty seats in the second lifeboat and hundreds if not thousands of Infinity’s crew still stuck on board.
Reports continued to pour in via Spartan Channel, TEAMCOM, the battlenet… So many continued to fight their way throughout the massive UNSC flagship, or were already out there in fighters, hounding the Banished.
The heavy thunder of Infinity’s 70mm autocannons and Scythe turrets echoed relentlessly as the vessel’s super-heavy magnetic accelerator cannons fired tungsten projectiles that could tear clean through an enemy warship in a single shot. Amid the weapons’ constant clamor, the ship-wide PA system continued issuing evacuation directives, revising which areas to go to, and which lifesaving measures hadn’t yet been destroyed by the Banished fleet. Dozens of alarms blared through the ship until everything sounded like one gigantic sustained roar.
“Spartan Stone!” A lone marine had finished ushering the medic into the first lifeboat, distress clear in her face as she met Stone’s gaze. It was time to go.
Stone glanced once more down the corridors, one way now sealed and the other an impassable tangle of twisted metal and fire.
No one else was coming. No one else could.
After the first lifeboat’s door sealed, Stone stepped onto the small loading platform and ducked into the second lifeboat, ignoring the sour knot in her stomach and trying to keep her focus on the now versus what she was leaving behind. She closed the hatch and strode down the aisle toward the pilot’s seat. “Buckle up tight. And when I say brace, you brace. Got it?”
The response was lackluster. The five faces staring at her were pale and streaked with soot. All the passengers were dressed in standard-issue marine coveralls, a corporal among them.
“We’ll be hitting the ground in a war zone. Once we land, weapons ready. I’ll debark first.” They continued gazing at her. “Hey!” She slammed a fist against the bulkhead, making them jump. “The Banished have taken our ship, our home, and our people. You gonna stand for that?”
A few heads shook and backs suddenly went a little straighter.
“Hell, no,” the corporal piped up, and then others murmured in agreement.
“That’s right. Hell. No.”
Angry, Stone slid all four hundred kilos of her TRAILBLAZER-class GEN3 Mjolnir armor into the pilot’s seat—no easy feat, but there was just enough room to maneuver.
“Link established,” Ouco said. “Ready for your input, Spartan Stone.”
It was times like these that she appreciated her choice of personal AI. Ouco’s steady personality and calming baritone had a knack for setting her at ease no matter the situation. “Initiate auto escape and evasion routine.”
Behind her, the cabin was eerily quiet. Five souls in her care and nine in the other lifeboat were counting on her to get them through hell in the sky and onto the surface of Zeta Halo.
She opened a channel to the companion lifeboat: “Papa Tango Delta Zero Nine, this is Echo India Bravo Zero Eight, copy?”
“Papa Nine, copy. Reading you loud and clear, Echo Eight.”
Wait. She knew that easy drawl. “Murphy… is that you?”
The lieutenant and Pelican pilot, well-known among Spartan ranks, should have already been deployed, but should-haves didn’t really apply to their current situation. The UNSC Infinity dropping out of slipspace smack into a Banished ambush had made navigating certain parts of the vessel impossible. She should know; she should be accelerating to the surface in a drop pod right about now.
“Yeah, lost my ride. Whole damn hangar is gone.”
Another blast rocked the ship, the shockwave vibrating through the lifeboat hull as its docking clamps released.
“Roger that,” she replied somberly. “Stay glued to my six. We’re going to do this together. Sending landing trajectory. Once we’re down, we’ll be in the thick of it. Get your folks out, find cover, and then wait for me.”
“Music to my ears. Will do. Murphy out.”
Stone had a wealth of experience when it came to endless war and incursions into uncharted hostile territories; she’d seen her fair share of shocking, unforgettable things, but what she was feeling now was altogether new. That they were abandoning ship—and not just any ship—seemed unreal. Infinity was the United Nations Space Command’s pride and joy, its flagship, a technologically advanced monster on every front. She wasn’t supposed to falter.
And yet, she had.
Infinity had set out on a high-risk mission to stop the rogue AI, Cortana, who had taken control of Zeta Halo and was using it as a base of operations. When they arrived, however, they didn’t just find the ancient ringworld—they found the Banished. The captain’s steady voice still echoed in her head: “Captain Lasky to all hands. Banished forces are present above the ring—repeat, Banished forces are between us and our target. All stations engage Banished craft. Infinity, we must reach our target.” And soon after, Commander Sarah Palmer’s orders cracking over the ship-wide intercom: “Spartans, all teams! You heard the captain. It’s an ambush. Somehow the Banished beat us to the target. Your orders are simple. Eliminate hostiles with extreme prejudice!”
“Locks released. Thrusters online,” Ouco informed her as the lifeboat drifted from its docking clamps and its thrusters executed a burst to send them away from Infinity’s hull.
The lifeboat, an SKT-29 Bumblebee, wasn’t equipped for offense or even that much defense; its sole purpose was to propel fleeing personnel down to a surface like an armor-plated bullet.
If they weren’t picked off by the Banished first.…
Her TEAMCOM channel continued to provide live audio of Fireteam Shadow’s activities. Shadow One barked through the speaker: “Kovan, report!”
While Stone and Kovan had orders to evac, the other two members of Fireteam Shadow stayed in the thick of things. A quick look at her display showed them hunkered down in Infinity’s primary hangar bay, holding off the Banished incursion with Fireteam Taurus, who now appeared to be breaking off to begin their descent to the surface of the ring.
“This is Kovan,” a calm voice replied. Leave it to Nina Kovan to sound as even-keeled as ever. “Approaching drop pod now.”
“Good. Those Banished artillery guns are picking off our lifeboats and drop pods as soon as they enter lower atmosphere. Once you hit dirt, you know what to do.”
“En route now, Shadow One,” Stone informed him.
“See you both on the surface,” he replied, and cut transmission.
“Hey, Kovan,” Stone said, finally getting a good look at what they were facing as the lifeboat moved away from the ailing ship. “Remember running the HIVEMIND trials on Anvil Station?”
“How could I forget?”
“Factor it by a thousand and this is it.”
A collision alert blared through the lifeboat as they cleared Infinity’s port side, cutting off Kovan’s reply. A UNSC Longsword starfighter streaked past, nearly clipping their bow as it swooped up under Infinity’s hull and hooked a hard left, rotary cannons blazing.
“Initiating final burst,” Ouco said.
The push sent the craft into open space, giving Stone an expansive look at the mayhem. Explosions, weapons fire, plasma blasts, and artillery peppered the space all around them as Infinity and her support ships gave everything they had. Broadswords, Pelicans, and Longswords crisscrossed space in an effort to take out Banished Seraphs, Phantoms, and Grievers and provide support to lifeboats, drop pods, and troop carriers streaming from Infinity while the flagship’s escort frigates maneuvered to inflict maximum damage to Banished warships.
Witnessing the Banished force firsthand, the sheer number… she hadn’t seen anything like this since the end of the Covenant War. Stone wondered what the hell the Banished were doing here. Except for those aboard Infinity, the UNSC’s mission was—or should have been—virtually unknown. They were attempting to unseat Cortana from her place of power and eliminate the oppressive threat of her forces spread throughout the Orion Arm, something that had cost countless lives over the last year. But now a massive Banished fleet hung in the space between them and the ring, and their chances for even surviving this operation, no less completing it, were plummeting dramatically.
There was a very real risk of getting hit by friendly fire just as much as enemy fire, and while she had the advantage of faster reflexes and response times than most pilots and could use the lifeboat’s thrusters to push the tiny vessel to its limits, in a war zone like this they’d be lucky to make it into the atmosphere in one piece.
Collision alerts and modifications came at Stone with lightning speed as, outside the craft, escape shuttles and drop pods exploded or took hits that sent them spinning into others or spiraling out into deep space. And while Fireteam Windfall was using their aerial expertise to provide support, it was literal pandemonium in the skies.
Spartan Vedrana Makovich lit up Stone’s comms. “Hey, Stone, you’ve got a Phantom coming in fast at nine o’clock!”
“Thanks, Mako. I see it.” And she also saw a way out. Four hundred meters ahead, an enemy dreadnought lay powerless with a gaping hole in its midsection, the victim of a direct hit from Infinity’s MAC rounds. They’d already accelerated to ninety-five meters per second and gaining. No time to apply the brakes—not that she’d use them anyway. Burning up the single-use brakes now meant they wouldn’t have them later to slow down for landing.
Murphy’s voice cut through the din of her comms: “They’ve got a lock on us!”
“Stay on course, Murphy.”
“Wait. We’re not… Stone, you’ve got to be—”
The lifeboat shot inside the dreadnought, breaking through debris and plating, its reinforced armor like a battering ram—smaller and tougher than the Phantom following them.
“Jesus,” Murphy’s rattled voice echoed as both lifeboats exited the damaged vessel intact, the Phantom lost somewhere behind them.
“It’s not over yet,” she said. “Entering upper atmosphere. Hold on.”
One hundred and twenty meters per second now.
Stone glanced out the viewport. Thousands of pods and lifeboats, shuttles and ships, and damaged vessels and debris streaked on parallel trajectories toward the surface of a colossal, artificially constructed alien ring designed to both harbor life and destroy it on a galaxy-wide scale. Its inner habitable surface glowed invitingly and deceptively in the darkness of space with familiar tones of blue, green, and white.
Stone kept watch on her readouts, and listened to the channels. A cacophony of voices came through TEAMCOM, while TACCOM was constantly updating intel. As far as she could tell, Captain Lasky and the bridge crew seemed to be in good hands. And Fireteam Taurus along with the other members of Fireteam Shadow had already abandoned ship.
She counted down kilometers in her head; impact was going to be a real bitch.
Lower atmosphere now and the surface of the ring was coming up fast, that ribbon of blue and green getting wider and wider… “Brace for impact!”
“Stone!” Murphy yelled. “We’ve been hi—” The audio filled with static.
She searched for the companion lifeboat through the viewport, not seeing anything. “Hang in there, Murphy!” Then she saw it, spinning out of control, coming in at her two o’clock, the back section completely gone.
“Brace—brace—brace—” the automated system warned as clouds swept past the windshield.
“Bracing positions!” she yelled over her shoulder. “Landfall on the ring in five seconds!”
Those five seconds happened in an instant.
The lifeboat slammed into the ground at a steep angle with an earsplitting boom. The impact threw her hard against the harness, and then immediately in the opposite direction, her head snapping back and shoulders plowing into the pilot’s seat, breaking its frame. As the crashed lifeboat cut a vicious path through the earth, it shook so hard that even with her Spartan augmentations, it was difficult to focus or do anything but hold on to the harness.
“Ouco… speed,” she managed.
“Forty meters per second.”
The console in front of her suddenly spit out sparks and went black along with the cabin lights, putting them in complete darkness.
The lifeboat rapidly slowed, finally coming to a stop.
The sudden absence of motion after the chaos of the past several minutes felt strangely surreal.
Stone turned in the broken seat. “Sound off, marines!”
“We’re good, Spartan Stone,” came a female reply. “Bumps and bruises, not much else.”
“Copy that.” A miracle everyone had survived. Then again, the day was still young.
With that thought, Stone disengaged her harness and pushed herself to her feet. Her muscles felt sluggish and fatigued from holding up the support beam. Diagnostics were showing some tissue damage in both shoulders, thighs, and one knee. At least she didn’t feel any pain. Yet.
Her helmet light flared through the passenger cabin, beaming on the five occupants, all relatively unharmed; an incredible relief. “Soon as I blow the hatch,” she said, “we fan out in pairs. The ring’s already crawling with Banished. Be ready for anything.”
They got up slowly, filing behind her as she disengaged the door release. Daylight flooded inside. Stone unshouldered her M395 rifle, already scanning the area for potential threats as she poked her head outside. No targets in the direct vicinity, but she knew that wouldn’t last for long—the area just beyond the boulder-strewn ledge was lit up with signs of heavy fighting.
She left the lifeboat, making sure everyone was out before heading to the edge of the rocks to get a visual on their surroundings. Behind them, a wide grassy plateau led to rocky foothills and hundreds of acres of high alpine forest that stretched right up to the base of a massive snowcapped mountain range. In the sky, drop pods, evac craft, troop carriers, and burning debris rained down toward the surface like meteors, impacts shaking the ground and filling the air with constant thunder.
“Whoa,” one of the marines marveled, having followed her.
She glanced down. “You all right, marine?”
“Yeah. Just… for all the trouble these things are supposed to cause, I guess I never thought the surface of the ring would look so… beautiful.”
Her brow lifted.
That was certainly one way of looking at it. It was on the tip of her tongue to be sarcastic, but she let him have the moment. It wouldn’t be long before he’d forget about the idyllic scene and all he’d be able to see and remember would be the brutality of war.