Hello, and welcome to the story!

So, after finishing Missing in Action, I decided it would be fun to write out a "sort-of" sequel to it. I call it a sort-of sequel because this story is not intended to be a continuation of Missing in Action, but a companion story. Whereas MIA was focused more on a single unit's actions during the initial day of the Battle of Actium, with the battle being more of a backdrop, the focus of this story is on the battle itself. Because of this, the reading of MIA is not required, nor do readers need to have read any of the official Halo stories or played any of the games, though several of my characters from that story will be making "cameo" appearances in this one, and the events that took place in MIA will be referenced here as well, so to understand those references, you might want to consider reading MIA.

What new readers do need to note, and as a reminder to returning readers, this story takes place in 2545, SEVEN YEARS BEFORE the events of Halo: Combat Evolved. Also, the characters in this story are (almost) all ORIGINAL CHARACTERS.

Hope you guys enjoy!


Battle: Actium

Chapter 1

Camp Hoxha, 65 kilometers south of Byzas
Thracia Province, Actium
May 6, 2545
0600 (Two hours before contact)

Private Marcus Olsen

The bus rattled and shook as it hit a pothole, snapping Private Marcus Olsen out of his thoughts and causing him to bump shoulders into the soldier seated next to him. The man, whose biceps looked about as big as Marcus's head glared at him and Marcus could almost swear his eyes were glowing.

Mumbling a quick apology, Marcus tried to scoot away as far as possible from the man, which, despite its simplicity, was a lot harder than it sounded as Marcus was sitting right next to the window. Still, the motion seemed to mollify the man and Marcus let out a sigh of relief as he turned away, allowing Marcus to return to his thoughts. He stared bleakly out the window, barely noticing the snow-covered landscape as it rolled by. He didn't want to be here. Plain and simple. He didn't want to be here, on this bus, in this dreary place, in the Army, headed towards his first duty station.

How did it all go wrong? He had plans. He was going to go to college in some tropical paradise where he would have been able to spend his weekends at the bar getting drunk and picking up chicks. On the weekdays, he would have been in class, studying to be a film producer where, upon graduation, he would have found a job that would have allowed him to travel the galaxy, producing films that would have won him fame and fortune. That's what he was supposed to do. That was his plan. At no point did he ever intend to join the Army.

And yet, here he was.

Marcus just didn't understand. By official accounts, while humanity wasn't winning the war against the Covenant, they were at least holding their own. Yet, the Security Council still decided to implement a draft a few years ago, to make up for what they were calling a "shortfall" in numbers. While recruitment quotas had been left for the individual colonies to decide, unfortunately, Marcus apparently lived on a very patriotic colony; Actium had responded by just about drafting every single boy and girl who had turned eighteen since then. There only seemed to be three reliable ways to avoid it: be the son or daughter of someone important, go to one of the military academies, or enlist in one of the colony's militias.

As the only son of a factory foreman and an accountant, the first method wasn't an option for him. He would have joined a military academy, except Marcus wasn't interested in devoting eight more years of his life to the military after he graduated. Which left the militias: the Provincial Militia and the Actium Colonial Militia.

If it were up to him, Marcus would have joined his local Provincial Militia. They had all the benefits: as a reserve unit, they only met once a month for drills, and only on the weekends at that, meaning Marcus could have devoted all his free time to doing whatever he wanted. Joining his local militia would have meant he would have been able to stay close to home, meaning he probably could have stayed with his parents. Finally, but most importantly, the Provincial Militia never got deployed off world, meaning unless Actium itself were to get attacked, Marcus would never have to worry about getting sent into combat. It would have been a win-win situation for him.

Except it seemed as though fate was conspiring against him. Less than two weeks before Marcus was going to sign the paperwork to enlist, the provincial governor had announced that, effective immediately, his local Provincial Militia was to be reduced in size by half, thus allowing for more people to be available to be drafted by the UNSC. Because of that, they were no longer taking new recruits, and Marcus was forced to quickly join the Actium Colonial Militia before he could get swept up by UNSC recruiters. But because of his haste, Marcus was forced to accept whatever they wanted him to do. Which meant despite his great displeasure, Marcus was assigned to the active duty side of the Colonial Militia and sent to this crappy place on the other side of the Euxine Ocean! If there was one consolation prize, it was that Marcus had at least managed to avoid being assigned a combat job. But then again, what he got wasn't that much better.

Marcus subtly glanced at the transfer orders he had in his hands. He had been assigned as an 88M - Motor Transport Operator, aka, a truck driver. It was the stupidest thing ever. Hadn't the Army ever heard of self-driving vehicles? Why exactly did they need someone like him to drive trucks around? Plus, it wasn't exactly the safe, cushy job Marcus had been hoping for. His time in AIT had shown that the Army expected even glorified truck drivers to get attacked every now and then, which gave Marcus a fair amount of consternation. Why couldn't he have been assigned to something safer, like a quartermaster or military intelligence or something like that? What exactly had he done to cause God to hate him so?

Marcus was jarred out of his thoughts when he felt the bus start to slow down. He looked up to see they had arrived at their destination. He watched through the window as the bus pulled up to the front gate before coming to a complete stop.

"Camp Hoxha," the bus chimed before, with a hiss of pneumatics, the doors opened.

All around him, Marcus's traveling companions for the last forty some minutes began to stretch and gather their things before climbing to their feet and walking towards the door. He watched through the window as they filtered out of the bus and headed towards the camp's gate before disappearing behind the camp walls. Marcus knew he should join them but for the moment, he just sat there, wondering what would happen if he just didn't leave the bus. There was no one here to make him get off; this bus, like all public transportation vehicles, was driven by the city superintendent, so no one could physically force him off. Eventually, the AI's programming would force the bus to return to its regular route, even if Marcus was still sitting there. He could sit there and wait as the bus returned to the airport, then buy a one-way ticket back home and forget about this Army business. He would probably get court-martialed for going AWOL, but honestly, would that really be all that bad?

Marcus snorted. Of course it would. Not only would a court-martial look really bad on his record and make things very difficult for him in the future, there was always public perception: on a colony like this where everyone had family or a friend in uniform, not only were deserters ostracized and shunned by society, so were their families. And while Marcus felt like he could handle being the colony's outcast, he didn't think his parents could. So, with a loud sigh, Marcus grabbed his duffle bag and reluctantly walked off the bus.

Shivering because of the cold, Marcus walked through the gates. He was the last one through. As soon as he cleared the path, there was a rattling of metal and he turned around in time to see the gate closing behind him.

Well, running was out of the question now.

Jogging to catch up with the rest of the group from the bus, Marcus quickly fell in line, hoping they knew where they were going. Camp Hoxha was a small base but in the dark, it looked really easy to get turned around, especially since all the buildings looked the same. Marcus dolefully plodded along the snow-covered sidewalks until the group reached one of the buildings and walked inside. He sighed in relief as the warm air washed over him.

Inside, there wasn't much to see. Just a couple of bored looking soldiers manning some reception counters. Marcus's group was already forming lines behind each desk, and Marcus hastily joined one of them. He noticed everyone was handing the soldiers manning the desk their transfer orders, and Marcus realized these two men were responsible for checking everybody in. It struck Marcus as a rather inefficient system; surely it would be faster for an AI to conduct the check-in, rather than a couple of soldiers? But then again, this did fit Marcus's experience with the Army so far. Even in BCT and AIT, Marcus had noticed the Army was rather traditional in the sense they always seemed to prefer to have humans do jobs that could really should have been allocated to AIs.

Marcus absentmindedly began fiddling with the strap to his duffle bag as he stood there, waiting. Now this, this right here, really made Marcus feel like he was back in basic. Standing in line, just waiting for something to happen. It was amazing, really, just how boring the Army actually was. Marcus had figured the Army was going to be a lot of things but boring was never one of them. That's not to say he wanted it to be any other way, it's just that standing here waiting in this line, Marcus couldn't help but think about all the other things he'd rather be doing right now.

Finally, it was his turn.

"Next," the soldier at the desk called out.

Marcus marched over to the desk. He dropped his duffle bag on the ground and, just because he didn't know what else to do, snapped to attention. The soldier at the desk didn't even look up.

"Transfer orders?"

Marcus handed them over.

"Name, rank, service number?" the soldier asked as he took Marcus's orders.

"Olsen, Marcus T. I'm an E-1," Marcus reported, and noticed the soldier appeared to be double checking the information Marcus was providing to the information displayed on his transfer orders. "Service number is 87662, 12457, O, M."

"What's your MOS?"

"88M."

The soldier grunted in acknowledgement before falling silent. Marcus waited a bit impatiently as the soldier began typing in all the information Marcus had provided him into a data pad before opening another page. The soldier then abruptly picked up a phone.

"Good morning First Sergeant Rivera, this is Private Orlović over here at battalion reception," the man said into the receiver. "I have a new 88 Mike who just arrived on base this morning. Do you think your battalion could use him?"

"Hooah First Sergeant," Orlović said after a couple of minutes. "Are you going to send someone over to pick him up? Okay, roger, I'll have him wait. Thank you."

Orlović hung up the phone. Turning to his data pad, he quickly typed in something before glancing at Marcus, who automatically straightened.

"You're getting assigned to the 325th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion," Marcus was informed. "Someone is coming to pick you up. Go down the hall and go wait in the waiting room until they arrive."

Marcus sighed. More waiting. "Thanks, I guess," he said.

"Yeah bro," Orlović replied as he handed Marcus back his transfer orders. "No problem. Next!"

Marcus grabbed his orders in one hand and his duffle bag in the other before heading in the direction the man indicated. He plopped himself into one of the available seats before pulling out his transfer orders. They had been updated. Originally, all they said that he was getting transferred to Camp Hoxha in the Thracia Province. It still read that, but now it also stated that he was getting assigned to the 325th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, of the 197th Sustainment Brigade.

Marcus re-read that last part. Combat Sustainment Support. Hm. He wasn't too sure what that meant, honestly, but the fact that the word "combat" was part of his battalion's name wasn't exactly encouraging. Combat was the last thing he wanted to see. He could only hope and pray that the name was just that, a name, and wasn't indicative of the roles he could expect to see.

Cold air blew through the room as someone walked into the building. Marcus looked up to see a soldier, wearing the three chevrons of an Army sergeant, enter the room.

"Morning everyone. I'm looking for," he glanced at a data pad in his hands, "Olsen, Marcus T.?"

Marcus' head snapped up and he raised his hand. "That's me sir."

The man walked over to Marcus.

"Sergeant Theodore Dresden," he declared. "Guess I'm your new squad leader."

Marcus immediate leapt to his feet and snapped to attention. "Private Marcus Olsen, reporting as ordered, sir!" he barked like he'd been taught during basic.

Dresden chuckled. "Relax Private. No need to shout. We're Colonial Militia, not the goddamn Special Forces. Come on, grab your stuff. Let's get you over to the dorms, get you settled in."

Marcus hastily stuffed his orders into his pockets and grabbed his duffle bag, slinging it over his shoulder as he followed Dresden outside. Sitting outside was a small four seater golf cart. Gesturing for Marcus to sit in the front passenger seat, Dresden hopped into the driver's and took off.

"So Olsen, Marcus T., how you doing?" Dresden began conversationally. "What's your story, what's your background? You from around here?"

Marcus shook his head. "No sir, not around here. I'm from overseas. Levant. City of Astoria in the Aquincum Province."

"Astoria, huh?" Dresden commended. "Never been there personally, but I heard it's a nice place. You like it?"

"Well, I grew up there sir," Marcus awkwardly commented.

Dresden laughed. "Okay, fair enough. Well, I was going to ask where you transferred from, but I think I can guess: you straight out of AIT?"

"Yes sir," Marcus answered, surprised. "How did you know?"

"You keep calling me 'sir.' Drill sergeants make you call them 'sir' or 'ma'am' but out here in the real world, only commissioned officers and warrant officers are supposed to get called that."

Dresden pulled the cart to the side and stopped in front of one of the buildings.

"Now, I don't give a shit what you call me," Dresden cheerfully continued as he climbed out of the cart. "Like I said, we're Colonial Militia, and combat service support at that. Call me Sarge, Sergeant, or Dresden. Hell, you can call me Theo if you like. Whatever you want. We try to keep a chillaxed atmosphere around here. But, do be careful who you call 'sir.' Some people kind of take that personally."

"Yes sir!" Marcus automatically barked out, then froze. "Uh, I mean, Sergeant. Theo. Sorry."

Dresden laughed. "Don't worry about it dude. Seriously, relax. You don't need to get so worked up." He jerked his head in the direction of the building. "Come on. Let's get you set up in your room."

He turned and headed for the door. As Marcus followed in his wake, he couldn't help but let out a sigh of relief. If Dresden was anything to go by, then this entire Army thing might not turn out to be as bad as it seemed.

He might actually enjoy this.

XXXXX

Byzas, Thracia Province, Actium
May 6, 2545
0620 (One hour and forty minutes before contact)

Officer Selene Riddle

The window rattled and shook as her passenger kicked at its base.

"Hay! Youcant kep me her!" he slurred. "Doya now who Iam?"

Officer Selene Riddle ignored him and instead continued to fill out the paperwork for her most recent arrest. One Joshua Shin, arrested for disorderly conduct, public indecency, assaulting a police officer, and resisting arrest. In other words, it was just another Tuesday morning for her.

"Hay, biatch! Ima talking to you!"

"Shut up," Selene ordered without even looking up. "Give it a rest already."

"Yous cant 'rest me," he continued to slur. "I didn't do nothing!"

"Dude, you got kicked out of a bar for trying to pick a fight. When I arrived, I found you pissing in the middle of the street without any pants on, holding up traffic. When I was putting cuffs on you, you pushed me then tried to run, but you didn't get far because your drunk ass tripped over your own feet. I wouldn't exactly call that 'nothing,'" Selene dryly explained.

Her prisoner fell silent and for a moment, Selene wondered if he was finally going to shut up. But her hopes were quickly dashed.

"Fuck you," he mumbled. "You knows whos I is?"

Selene sighed. "No, and I don't really give a shit either," she bluntly stated.

"Ima Staff Surgent... Sarnet... Sergeant... in the UNSC Air Force!" he said.

"Of course you are."

"I ams," he insisted.

"And I believe you," Selene explained. "I just don't care. Do you know how many soldiers I've arrested in the last sixteen hours alone?"

"Not a soldier," he mumbled. "Airman."

"Soldier, airman, what's the difference? You're all in the military," Selene distractedly replied.

"Armee have solders. Air Force got Airmans," came the response. "Big difference."

"If you say so."

"It is," her prisoner insisted.

"Again: I believe you, I just don't care."

Her prisoner fell silent and Selene gratefully punched in the finishing touches to her report, enjoying the silence. Unfortunately, it wasn't to last.

"Pussy."

Selene paused. "What?"

"You. Pussy."

"Okay..." Selene dragged out. "Do I want to know why?"

Her prisoner bobbed his head. "You didn't have what it took to join the military," he stated in a surprisingly sober-sounding voice. "So you arrest real warriors for no reason out of revenge. Pussy."

Selene stared at him. Then burst out laughing.

"Whatever you say dude," she told him.

"You're a coward," her prisoner told her.

"Uh huh. Sure."

"You are," he insisted. "You're a spineless, yellow belly, traitorous coward."

For some reason, something about the way he said that last part caused a wave of anger to surge through her.

"Okay," she told him in a serious tone, "it's time for you to shut up now."

Her prisoner grinned. "Oh, you didn't like that? Too bad. Traitor."

Selene pulled out her sidearm. "If you don't shut up, I'm going to shoot you with this," she warned him.

The man took one look at the device in her hand, then burst out laughing. "That little peashooter? You call that a gun?" he said between laughs.

"No, I don't, because it's not a gun. This here is an XT-47 cartridge driven stun pistol, capable of delivering up to 1,000,000 volts of electricity with each shot," Selene explained. "According to my firearms instructors, if I were to hit you with that much electricity, it could cause respiratory failure, organ malfunction, internal burns, cardiac arrest, and loss of bowel and bladder control(2). Now, I've never actually seen that happen before but then again, admittedly, I've never fired it at full charge. You think we should try it now, see if my instructors were bullshitting me?"

Selene could see him eyeing the pistol, then her face, before steeling himself.

"You ain't got the balls," he challenged. "Do it, bitch. I can take it."

Selene flicked the safety off and was just about to roll down the privacy screen when she suddenly remembered she couldn't afford to get written up again for "use of excess force against a restrained prisoner." She sighed, then engaged the safety and holstered her weapon.

"Ha!" her prisoner started to say but before he could get another word in, Selene barked out a single command, "Super, mute."

The privacy screen sealed, preventing all noise from coming through. Through the window, Selene watched as her prisoner mouth several more words before he abruptly realized she couldn't hear him. An almost comical look of outrage passed over his face as he tried to figure out what to do next. Then, unexpectedly, he began licking the window.

"Oh, great!" Selene exclaimed, disgusted. "Now I'm going to have to disinfect that!" She sighed. That was a problem for later. For now though, "Super, opaque."

The privacy screen turned black. Technically, she wasn't supposed to engage those privacy settings when she was transporting a prisoner, just in case there was an emergency, but screw it. The city Superintendent, a constant presence in all government vehicles, would be monitoring his vitals and would alert her if he started dying. She picked up her radio.

"Dispatch, Delta-6 0. Show me as to 10-76 to station, over."

"Copy that Delta-6 0."

Selene tossed the radio aside. "Super, take me back to the station. And give me the wheel."

"Officer Riddle, regulations state the city Superintendent is to drive the vehicle unless in an emergency situation," Super automatically droned.

"I know what the regulations say," Selene snapped. "I don't care, I'm overriding. I need something to distract me."

"Acknowledge."

A panel opened in front of her and a steering wheel emerged from the opening. Checking her windows, Selene pulled out onto the street and headed back towards the station.

As she drove, she couldn't help but think back to what her prisoner had accused her of. It wasn't the first time she'd been accused of being a coward; just about every single soldier she had ever arrested in her ten year career had accused her of that at some point or another. Normally it wasn't that big of a deal but for some reason, it was really bugging her tonight.

Most people didn't understand why Selene had opted to become a police officer instead of joining the military like ninety-percent of her friends and classmates had done when they graduated from high school. And it wasn't like she couldn't have: based on some of the so-called soldiers she had encountered in the past, Selene knew the physical requirements wouldn't have been that much of an issue for her. And it wasn't a lack of motivation either. With the UNSC slowly but surely losing more and more ground to both the Insurgency and the Covenant, despite what the government claimed, it made perfect sense to join the military now, as more than ever, it was clear the UNSC needed all the help it could get. In fact, there was no greater evidence of that than her own precinct: within the two last years, half the police department had been let go and replaced by the city Superintendent just to help generate a larger pool of recruits. For a lot of people, her continued status as a Byzas City police officer was proof that she either had no spine or was a traitor for refusing to answer the call.

But like all things, the truth was more complicated than that.

Selene was six when she first heard the news. One of her classmates, a little girl named Suzie who no one really liked because she was so quiet, was being sexually molested by her father, a UNSC Navy veteran.

When she was eleven, her favorite teacher in the world, Mrs. Lisbon, disappeared. They found her body three days later, buried in a small ditch, just on the outskirts of the city. She had been murdered by her ex-wife, an active soldier in the UNSC Army, because they were getting divorced.

When Selene was sixteen, her first boyfriend ever, Charlie, committed suicide. It was later revealed he had committed suicide because he was getting beaten with a belt every night by his father, a Major in the Colonial Militia, while his mother, an active duty UNSC Marine, just stood by and watched.

Then there were the hundreds of soldiers Selene had personally arrested since she graduated from the police academy nearly ten years ago for all sorts of reasons, ranging from something small like speeding, to more serious crimes like arson. Rape. Homicide.

Selene tried not to generalize. She had her biases, there was no denying it, but she tried not to judge an entire group of people based on the actions of one or two people. Every group had their bad apples; hell, she knew that better than most, being a police officer.

But if there was one thing all these incidents had taught her, it was this: soldiers were human.

Despite the hero-worshiping of all things military, especially on this colony, soldiers weren't perfect. They were emotional. They made mistakes. And every now and then, they committed some heinous crimes against their fellow humans.

There was no denying soldiers were needed. Especially now, with the Covenant closing in from all directions. And, there was no denying soldiers should be respected for being willing to stand up and face down the evils that tried to destroy humanity. But the question that always struck Selene was: if soldiers protected humanity from the monsters that came from beyond the stars, who protected humanity from the soldiers themselves? Sort of a "who watches the watchman" type of situation. And that was why she became a police officer. And why she continued to be one despite everything.

She took the next turn and pulled into her precinct's parking lot. Parking her patrol car over one of the available recharging pads so that it would be ready for tomorrow, she climbed out of the driver's seat and walked to the back seat.

"Okay Mr. Do-You-Know-Who-I-Am, on your feet," she announced as she pulled open the back door, but then paused at the sight of her passenger sprawled across the length of the back seat. For a moment, she started to freak out. Did her prisoner somehow just keel over and die? Why didn't Super say anything?

Upon closer look though, Selene quickly realized her prisoner wasn't dead, he was just asleep. At that realization, Selene couldn't help but feel a pang of jealousy: the one thing she wanted more than anything in the world right now was to take a nap, but she couldn't because she was still on duty. Meanwhile, this asshole had spent all night drinking and causing all sorts of trouble, yet somehow he was the one who got to take a nap in her car? That was so not fair.

"Alright, come on, get up!" she yelled, slapping the man's foot. "Wake up! You can sleep in the drunk tank!"

Her prisoner didn't respond, merely let out a loud snore as he rolled around.

Selene let out a loud, annoyed sigh.

"I don't have time for this," she muttered to herself.

"Fuck it," she said to no one in particular, before pulling out her sidearm and pressing it against the man's thigh.

By default, her sidearm had been set to its lowest power setting. Still, it was enough to shock her prisoner into consciousness.

"Yeow!" he yelped as he leapt upright, banging his head against the ceiling. Selene couldn't help herself: she burst out laughing.

"Come on, get up, got to put you through processing," she told him between laughs.

Mumbling darkly under his breath, her prisoner nevertheless allowed her to haul him to his feet, then lead him into the building.

As they stumbled down the hall towards the holding cells, they nearly walked right into Selene's lieutenant as he emerged from one of the nearby doorways.

"Whoa!" her lieutenant cried as he struggled to save his cup of coffee. "What the... oh, good morning Riddle."

"Morning Kingsley," Selene tiredly greeted as she steered her prisoner away from her lieutenant. "Sorry about that LT."

"Hey, no biggie," Kingsley said dismissively before staring at her curiously. "You're here bright and early, aren't you?"

"Bright and early?" Selene echoed. "I never left."

"What? How long you been on the clock?"

Selene cocked her head to activate her personal computer behind her left ear. "About sixteen hours."

Kingsley stared at her in shock. "Why would you do that?"

Selene blinked, dismissing her display. "Why? Dawlish told me it was all hands on deck last night and because of that, I would have to stay late."

"Really?" Kingsley commented with a raised eyebrow. "Because he clocked out about six hours ago."

White hot anger surge through her veins at those words, but then they disappeared as quickly as they had arrived. "Typical," Selene resignedly muttered. "Lazy asshole doesn't want to work, so he made me stay so he could go."

"Certainly sounds like it," her lieutenant agreed. "I'm going to have to have a talk with him; this is the third time he's done that this month." He suddenly jerked his head in Selene's prisoner's direction, who looked about ready to fall asleep standing up. "Where are you taking him, the drunk tank?"

"Yep."

"You do the paperwork on him yet?"

Selene shook her head. "No, I was just about to do that," she said with a tired sigh.

Kingsley regarded her for a few moments, before seemingly coming to a decision. "I'll tell you what Selene. I'll deal with this guy and the preliminary paperwork. You? You go home, get some rest, and don't even think about coming in for the next eight hours or so."

Selene felt a massive wave of relief pass through her. "LT, if you weren't married, I would kiss you right now."

Kingsley let out an appreciative laugh. "Thank you for being so concerned about my marriage," he said, before glancing at the steaming cup of coffee in his hands. "Here, I'll trade you. You look like you could use this more than I could."

"Lieutenant, I take back every bad thing I ever said about you: you are now my favorite person in the world right now," Selene exclaimed as she all but grabbed the cup and took a large gulp out of it. The hot liquid burned her tongue, but at this point she was beyond caring.

Kingsley smiled as he removed her cuffs from the prisoner and handed them back to her. "Go home Selene," he repeated. "And give your cat a couple of treats for me."

"I definitely will! Thank you!" Selene called out as he walked away. She took another large gulp out of the cup and grinned. Wow. Today was turning out to be a good day, wasn't it?

XXXXX

Town of Aquia, 11 kilometers east of Byzas
Thracia Province, Actium
May 6, 2545
0645 (One hour and fifteen minutes before contact)

1st Lieutenant Link "Zelda" Kuang

The table rattled and shook as his communicator violently vibrated.

Letting out a mute groan, 1st Lieutenant Link "Zelda" Kuang carefully extracted his arms from around the sleeping woman lying on his chest and reached out to silence it before the noise could wake her. Blindly slapping the desk, his fingers struck the ear piece, and he grabbed it and stuck it into his ear.

"-Lo?" he mumbled. Immediately, a holographic image of an irritated man appeared before his eyes.

"Jesus Christ Zelda, you're still in bed? Are you serious right now?" the man barked.

"And a good morning to you too, Mister Lieutenant Vincent 'Odessa' Lords," Zelda sarcastically replied with a yawn. "And how are you today on this fine Tuesday morning? Doing well I hope?"

"Enough with the jokes," Odessa snapped. "You were supposed to be here ten minutes ago. Pax is going to kill you, and I might just help her."

Zelda shrugged. "Well," he began, "'Bellum' just needs to get that stick out of her ass. What's the big rush anyways? It's not like we're doing anything important today."

"Not impor-!? We're on Quick Reaction Alert status today!"

"Oh is that today?" Zelda said, sitting up. "I thought that was tomorrow."

"No Zelda, that is today. So get your ass in, right fucking now!"

"Alright, don't get your panties in a twist," Zelda said as he eased out from underneath his bed sheets. "I'll be there in ten."

"Make it five," Odessa ordered.

"Roger that Milord, five minutes it is," Zelda said with a wink.

He saw Odessa shake his head before the image disappeared.

"Who was that?" Zelda heard someone ask and he glanced towards his bed to see his bedmate raising her arms above her head as she yawned.

"My wing mate," Zelda casually replied as he walked over to his closet to grab a flight suit to throw on. As he began digging through the closet for a clean pair, he tried to remember what her name was. It started with a 'J,' he remembered that much. Jennifer? Or Julia? Maybe it was Jess. Hum. That sounded about right.

"Sounds like you're late," she commented, shivering as she wrapped the blanket around her naked body, much to Zelda's disappointment. He was hoping for a show as he got dressed. "Are you going to be alright?"

"Oh, I'll be fine," he reassured her with a bright smile. "My wing mate likes to be overly dramatic sometimes. I'll probably get a dress down, but that'll be the worst that happens."

Jess glanced at him, skepticism clearly written all over her beautiful face. "Are you sure? My brother is in the Air Force and I know he's told me if he ever showed up late to formation, they'd lock him up."

Zelda leaned across the bed and gave her a kiss. "I appreciate the concern beautiful," he told her as he broke away. "But believe me, I'll be fine. It's not like they're going to punish the best fighter pilot in the AO, you know?"

Jess still looked a bit skeptical, but she nodded in agreement. She leaned in for a kiss and while Zelda knew this would probably result in him being even more late, he nevertheless gave in to his desires and passionately kissed her. Without breaking lips, he instinctively reached out and began stripping the blanket from around her shoulders, and in return, he could feel her unzipping his flight suit. But just as things were about to get interesting, his communicator let out a loud angry buzz.

Zelda reluctantly broke away from Jess to see who it was. It was Odessa, of course. Zelda ignored it, but he knew he couldn't ignore him forever.

"I gotta go before he has a heart attack," Zelda said with a loud sigh, and Jess nodded, looking just as disappointed as Zelda felt. "You can stay here, if you'd like. I've got some... food? In the fridge? I think? Anyways, if you're still around when I get back, maybe we can resume our little session here?" he hopefully asked, wagging his eyebrows.

"As much as I would love to," Jess replied with obvious reluctance, "I need to report into the office today. Plus, I should call my friend and let her know you haven't, I don't know, murdered me or something."

"Hey, if she's so worried, maybe she should join us next time," Zelda slyly suggested.

Zelda felt his heart skip a beat when, instead of outright dismissing the suggestion, Jess actually looked intrigued. "That's something I'd have to ask her," was all she said.

"In that case, I can't wait to see you again," Zelda said smoothly.

Jess smirked. "I guess that's one way to get guys to call me back."

Zelda couldn't help but grin at that.

Slipping on a pair of boots, he headed for the door. Just before leaving, he glanced back at Jess.

"I'll see you later sexy."

She blew him a kiss.

Once the door was shut, Zelda finally allowed himself a triumphant pump of his fist.

He headed towards the elevator and rode it all the way down to the underground garage where he kept his motorcycle. It was admittedly too cold to be riding his bike, but if he was as late as Odessa seemed to think he was, then public transportation just wasn't going to cut it: he had a need for speed.

Hopping onto his motorcycle, Zelda did his best to coax out every ounce of horsepower from his vehicle. He had spent quite a lot of money making sure his bike had the best and fastest engine on the market; it was, after all, the only way for him to recreate the speed and agility of his beloved F-41A "Broadsword" fighter, short of actually being in one. Plus, the ladies seemed to love it, which was always a bonus.

That speed, coupled with his natural talent at flying, allowed him to make it to the gates of O'Neill Air Force Base in exactly seven minutes. Slowly down as he approached the front gate, he waited until the base security had scanned, and then cleared him for entrance before driving his bike directly to the fighter hangers. There was a parking lot designated for the air base personnel which is where he technically was supposed to park, but there was no way he was going to leave his baby out in the snow like that.

Stashing his bike near the mechanic's station, which he knew he would be able to get away with because the chief mechanic had a crush on him, Zelda began making his way towards the squadron briefing room, hoping he could sneak his way in without getting spotted by Pax. He had just put his hand on the door knob when:

"Lieutenant Kuang!"

Zelda grimaced and turned around. Walking towards him was his squadron commander, Captain Katerine "Bellum" Pax, with a rather annoyed look on her face. Following behind her was Odessa, looking highly amused.

Quickly adopting an air of innocence, Zelda lifted his hand in greeting, as if he hadn't been trying to avoid them.

"Good morning Bellum!" he greeted as brightly as he could. "Has anyone told you, you look absolutely stunning today? New hair style?"

"It's been like that for over a week now," Bellum dryly informed him. "You're just noticing now?"

"No, of course not!" Zelda said smoothly. "I just haven't had the chance to fully appreciate it, what with us being so busy and all."

"Uh huh," Bellum said, clearly not buying it. "You're in an oddly cheerful mood today."

Zelda brightened. "You know, it's funny you should say that because I actually had an excellent -"

Bellum held up her hand. "Let me just stop you right there: that? That was me just making a comment: I didn't come over here to listen to your life's story. No, the reason why I called you over is because of this." She thrusted a data pad into his hands. "Your after-action report from yesterday is incomplete. We need to go prep our Broadswords, but after we're done, I want it finished and on my desk by the next hour. That understood Zelda?"

"Your wish is my command!" Zelda announced flirtatiously.

Bellum snorted, then walked away and Zelda let out a mute sigh of relief. For whatever reason, it looked as if Bellum wasn't going to ream him out for being late. Thank the gods.

"Oh, and Zelda? One last thing."

"Son of a bitch!" Zelda swore under his breath. He knew he shouldn't have said anything. Damnation.

Bellum raised an eyebrow. "Excuse me?"

"Uh, I mean," Zelda trailed off as he casted around the room, looking for some excuse for him to have cursed like that. He couldn't find anything, and his ability to bullshit was getting compromised by the fact that Odessa looked like he was on the verge of bursting out laughing. "What I meant by that was, uh, 'Son of a bitch! I left my coffee on my dining room table!'"

"You don't drink coffee," Bellum pointed out.

"I just started?" Zelda said. "I mean... I just started."

"Oh, is that why you're on time for once?" Bellum noted. "I was about to say, will this become a daily occurrence from now on?"

Zelda didn't respond because at that point, he had stopped listening and was instead staring at Odessa in astonishment. Unfortunately, Bellum seemed to take that as a negative and let out a sigh. "Yeah, I didn't think so. Well, of all the days you needed to be on time, today would have been it. If you were late, I would have… well, I don't know what I would have done, but I guarantee it wouldn't have been pretty."

With that, Bellum walked away, leaving Zelda gaping at Odessa.

"You told me I was late," Zelda accused as soon as Bellum was out of earshot.

Odessa shrugged, unapologetically. "And if I hadn't, you would have been."

"You conniving son of a bitch," Zelda said with a shake of his head. "You know I had a chick over last night, right? I could have stayed in bed with her a bit longer if not for you!"

"Any woman who could be convinced to spend the night with you, is probably not a woman worth knowing for very long," Odessa casually noted. "Almost seems like I did you a favor: saved you from not only getting reamed by Pax, but also from having to pay future child support."

"Child support? Pft. What, you think I'm dumb enough to get some chick pregnant?"

"I think you think more with your dick than you do with your brain," Odessa dryly noted. "I think if a woman stripped naked in front of you, you'd jump straight into it, without even bothering to stop and put on a condom or make sure she was on the pill or something."

Zelda opened his mouth to protest, but then stopped as he remembered that was exactly what had happened last night, so he tried a different tactic. "Hey, my instincts are what made me into the best fighter pilot in this entire Air Group."

Odessa raised an eyebrow. "Best fighter pilot? I'm sorry, but who won our last matchup? And the one before that? It certainly wasn't someone named Link."

Zelda growled at the reminder. That loss had been a hard pill to swallow. "I had a bad wing mate and you know it."

"True," Odessa conceded. "But as someone once told me: 'a win is a win. Everything else is just excuses.'"

"What sort of dumbass said that?"

"You did."

That stopped Zelda short. "Must have said that before I started losing," he muttered to himself. "Fine then. You and me, one on one. No wing mates, no handicaps, nothing. Just a duel between two gentlemen. Let's do it."

"As much as I'd like to show you some real flying, you know we can't. Not today. We're on Quick Reaction Alert duty. And you know what that means," Odessa pointed out.

Zelda let out a sigh of annoyance. Quick Reaction Alert, or QRA, was a duty all fighter squadrons had to conduct at least once a month for a full day. It involved maintaining a state of high alert readiness where an entire squadron would be able to launch their fighters in a few moments notice.

Basically, due to security reasons and cost, fighter jets were never stored in their hangers fully fueled and fully armed, ready to go. Because of that, it could take upwards of twenty to thirty minutes to actually get a fighter jet into the air and ready for a fight. Obviously in an emergency, twenty to thirty minutes could result in a minor incident turning into a major disaster. QRA allowed the Air Force to have some units ready to respond to the incident while the rest of the fighter group got ready as necessary.

Unfortunately for Zelda, that meant an entire day where he was literally doing nothing but sitting around waiting for something to happen. He couldn't leave the hanger, he couldn't go out for a run, and he couldn't even go use the nicer bathrooms over at the control tower. All he could do was sit there and wait. The only saving grace was that the base was at DEFCON 3, meaning he didn't have to be physically inside the cockpit of his Broadsword, sitting on the tarmac, waiting to launch. He could at least hang out in the hangar where he had room to stretch. Who knew? Maybe he would take a nap. God knew he didn't get much sleep last night, for obvious reasons.

"ODESSA! ZELDA!" Bellum suddenly yelled, causing Zelda to jump. "Ladies, you have plenty of time to flirt later! Pre-flight checks! Let's go!"

Zelda let out a sigh before heading towards his Broadsword. This was going to be a long and boring day.

XXXXX

Graham Quarry, 57 kilometers southwest of Byzas
Thracia Province, Actium
May 6, 2545
0700 (One hour before contact)

Sergeant Tariq Helmand

The wrench rattled and shook as Sergeant Tariq Helmand pulled it towards him, then pushed it away, trying his best to work loose the damn bolt.

"Come on you fucking bitch," Tariq angrily spat out under his breath. "Work with me here!"

Taking a deep breath, Tariq yanked on the handle, only for the wrench to abruptly slip off the bolt, sending him stumbling backwards and into the snow.

"FUCK!" Tariq yelled, then slammed the wrench against the track, his temper getting the better of him.

"Um, Sergeant? Are you sure you don't need my help?"

Tariq whirled on the speaker. It was his driver, one of the new guys straight out of tanker AIT who had been assigned to the unit a few weeks ago. Tariq didn't know his name, and didn't care to know his name. For the last few weeks, this FNG had been the bane of Tariq's existence.

"No, fuck you rookie!" Tariq snapped. "You're the fucking reason we're in this position in the first place! All you had to do was fucking follow in the tracks of the vehicle in front of you, but noooo! That was just too hard, wasn't it? Now look at what you did to my home!" He gestured wildly at the M850 "Grizzly" tank sitting in the snow behind him. With her white camouflage and her recently rebarreled and re-sighted main cannons, "Lillian" should have been an impressive looking machine. Instead, she was looking rather pitiful, sitting in the snow with one of her tracks having been thrown. All because this asshole didn't want to listen. "You think I'm going to let you lay another finger on her!?"

To his annoyance, the FNG raised his hands and immediately backed down. Tariq had been hoping the idiot would give him a reason to get rid of him. Oh well. There was always next time.

Turning his attention back to the task at hand, Tariq put his hands on his waist and considered his problem. Replacing a track was a fairly straightforward process: all he had to do was break the track by removing the connectors, then back Lillian up, realign the track with the bogies, tighten the track shoes so they came together, then replace the connectors. It was... well, it wasn't exactly easy, but Tariq had done it enough times he probably could have done it in his sleep.

But first he had to get this GODDAMN bolt off.

"Jeez, you're still trying to take that bolt out? How fucking long is this going to take? I'm freezing my balls off you know."

"Fuck you Chenko," Tariq snapped. "What do you care if your balls are freezing or not? It's not like you're using them."

Tariq looked up as Sergeant Chenko appeared from around the tank, chuckling in appreciation. "Well, I am strangely attached to them," he said somewhat sardonically.

Tariq snorted before falling silent. Perhaps sensing his mood, Chenko grew sober. "Seriously though. What's the problem?"

"Problem is, I'm trying to remove this damn bolt but it won't fucking budge," Tariq snarled, his frustration rearing up again. "It's like, I don't know, frozen stuck or some shit like that."

"You try greasing it?" Chenko asked as he took a closer look at the bolt.

"Of course I did! What do you think I am, an idiot!?" Tariq snapped, then held up a finger in warning. "Don't say a fucking word."

"Wasn't going to," Chenko replied, though Tariq could tell he was lying through his teeth. "So, grease didn't work. You try hitting it with a hammer?"

Tariq rolled his eyes. "Ah, the good old infantry solution to everything: if there's a problem, just hit it with a hammer, right? That's a great solution, only, not every fucking problem is a nail you know!"

Chenko shrugged. "It sounds like a better solution to this problem than the tanker's idea, which apparently is to just stare at the problem and hope it goes away. You said the bolt feels frozen, right? Maybe it really is. If that's the case, hitting with a hammer would knock the ice off."

Tariq glared at him, not wanting to admit that actually made a lot of sense. "Aren't you our infantry support? Aren't you supposed to be watching the perimeter?"

"Now that... is an excellent question," a new voice suddenly interjected herself into the conversation.

"Ah shit," Tariq heard Chenko mutter and out of the corner of his eye, Tariq could see the rookie straighten, and if Tariq hadn't recognized the voice, that alone would have told him who was coming. Letting out a mute sigh, Tariq turned around to face the music.

Marching through the snow towards them was Tariq's first sergeant and tank commander, First Sergeant Octavia Noble. She had a pissed off look on her face which, by itself, wasn't all that unusual, however her stance and the deliberate way she was marching through the snow indicated just how irate she was.

"What is going on here?" she demanded to know as she came to a halt in front of the three men. "Sergeant Chenko! What are you doing here?"

"I came here to see what was taking the repairs so long First Sergeant!" Chenko bellowed but Noble was clearly not having it.

"Sergeant Chenko, are you a Grizzly mechanic?"

Tariq could see Chenko swallowing. "No First Sergeant."

"Are you a tracked vehicle mechanic?"

"No First Sergeant."

"Are you a mechanic of any type?"

"No First Sergeant."

"What is your MOS?"

"I'm an 11 Mike(3) First Sergeant."

"And what exactly does that entail?"

"I'm a mechanized infantryman."

"Exactly." Noble leaned in until their noses were almost touching. "You're a Crunchie(4). Which means, you are here to support our tanks. Which means, when one of our tanks goes down, you cover us while we make repairs. Which means setting a perimeter." Noble tilted her head to the side. "Are you following me so far? Sergeant Perevernykruchenko?"

"Yes First Sergeant!"

"Good," Noble said with a satisfied nod. "Then I have one last question: WHERE THE FUCK IS YOUR PERIMETER!? I JUST WALKED FROM THE BATTALION COMMAND VEHICLE ALL THE WAY HERE WITHOUT ONCE SEEING YOUR TROOPS! I HOPE THAT'S A PROBLEM FOR YOU SERGEANT, BECAUSE IT'S SURE AS HELL OF A PROBLEM FOR ME!"

Tariq could see Chenko wincing. "I'll go check on it right away First Sergeant!" he promised.

Noble narrowing her eyes. "Then what are you still standing here for?"

It took about a second for Chenko to fully pick up on what she was saying, but he quickly spun around on one heel. As soon as his back was to her, he grimaced and Tariq could see him mouthing the words, "Good luck."

"Sergeant Helmand! Front and center!"

Letting out a mental sigh, Tariq marched forward until he was standing in the same spot Chenko had been moments ago. "Yes First Sergeant?"

He couldn't help but wince when Noble abruptly threw her arm around his shoulders and pulled him close, as if they were close buddies. "What exactly is your major malfunction Sergeant?"

"First Sergeant?" Tariq asked.

"What exactly is taking you so long with these repairs?" Noble elaborated. "This track, at the very least, should have been dismantled already."

"One of the connector bolts is stuck First Sergeant," Tariq automatically explained, then winced. Oh boy, Noble wasn't going to like that.

Sure enough, Tariq could feel Noble stiffen. "Stuck, huh? You're telling me this entire column has been sitting here for the last half hour because of a simple bolt? YOU DO REALIZE, IF THIS WAS A REAL COMBAT SITUATION, THIS ENTIRE BATTALION COULD HAVE BEEN WIPED OUT? YOU DO REALIZE, WE CAN'T FUCKING MOVE UNTIL THIS TANK IS BACK IN WORKING ORDER? JESUS H CHRIST SERGEANT! YOU'RE A VETERAN OF DRACO III, YOU KNOW BETTER THAN THAT! CUT THE DAMN BOLT IF YOU HAVE TO! DO WHATEVER YOU HAVE TO, JUST GET IT FIXED!"

Resisting the urge to rub his ear, Tariq instead settled for bellowing "Yes First Sergeant," at the top of his lungs.

To his relief, Noble nodded, then released him, before whirling around on the FNG. "As for you! Private...Corona was it?

"Koroma, First Sergeant!" he corrected, but Noble waved her dismissively.

"No, you're Private Corona," she insisted. "Private Corona, let me ask you a question: do you find me pretty?"

Tariq could see Corona was completely thrown by that question. He started sputtering, but fortunately for him, Noble didn't seem to be interested in an answer because she continued to speak. "Do you find me gorgeous? The most beautiful woman you've ever seen in your life?"

Corona finally seemed to find his voice. "Uh...First Sergeant?" he finally managed to sputter out.

"I only ask Private," Noble began conversationally, "because you've been standing there, staring at me, NOT DOING JACK SHIT! ARE YOU, OR ARE YOU NOT A PART OF THIS UNIT?"

Corona nervously swallowing. "I am First Sergeant!"

"THEN WHY THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU CAN JUST STAND THERE AND WATCH EVERYONE ELSE DO THE WORK?"

Tariq could see Corona glance in his direction, and Tariq rolled his eyes. This fucker was about to throw him under the bus. What a fucking dick. He sighed. Well, it wasn't that surprising. Tariq had pegged this FNG as a Blue Falcon the moment he had been assigned to the platoon.

He braced himself as Corona opened his mouth.

"I don't know what I'm doing First Sergeant!" Corona abruptly said, much to Tariq's surprise. Huh. That was... unexpected.

"THEN YOU ASK!" Noble screeched, before, like a switch had been flicked, she instantly calmed down and continued in a more moderate voice. "Ask questions Private. That is the entire point of this field exercise. So you, and all the other several hundred rookies we've received in the last few weeks can learn how to operate not only in a stressful environment, but as a team. I know AIT doesn't teach you everything about being a tanker. The battalion commander knows that. Fuck, even the divisional commander knows that. That's why each brigade is getting rotated through these training grounds so we can get everyone on the same page. But this doesn't work if YOU JUST STAND THERE WITH YOUR THUMB UP YOUR ASS! GET YOUR HEAD ON STRAIGHT, PRIVATE CORONA!"

She glanced at Tariq. "And you, Sergeant Helmand! You're an NCO now, a leader! If you got people, don't let them just stand there, put them to work! IS THAT CLEAR!?"

"Yes First Sergeant!" both Tariq and Corona bellowed in unison.

Noble gave a satisfied nod. "Good. Get to it then. I want this column back up and moving in the next thirty minutes, or you and the entire company is getting smoked. LET'S MOVE TANKERS!"

Without another word, Noble spun around on one heel and marched away, hopefully to go yell at someone else.

As soon as she was out of earshot, Tariq relaxed and let out a sigh of relief. He exchanged a look with Corona. He supposed he should thank him for not throwing him under the bus, but truth be told, Tariq didn't want to. Corona may have passed this test, but as far as Tariq was concerned, he still had a long ways to go before he proved himself.

"Well?" Tariq demanded. "You heard the First Sergeant. Don't just stand there looking like a retard. Go get the fucking sledgehammer!"

Corona nodded before darting towards the toolbox mounted on the side of Lillian's turret. As he walked away, Tariq turned his attention back to the task at hand. He rubbed his hands then rolled up his sleeves.

Time to fix this damn thing.

XXXXX

Low Orbit, Actium
May 6, 2545
0730 (Thirty minutes before contact)

Gunner's Mate Amber Owain

The Pelican rattled and shook as it passed through the upper atmosphere. The sound of someone's stomach gurgling caused Gunner's Mate Amber Owain's head to snap up, and her eyes darted around the bay until they fell on the woman strapped into the seat next to her. Her friend, Missile Technician(5) Haley "Poolsie" Pool wasn't looking too good. Her face had a green tinge to it, her eyes were slightly closed, and she was taking slow, but deep breaths. Basically, she looked about three seconds away from hurling. Great.

Amber started inching away from her, doing her best to put some distance between them, but she couldn't go far, strapped in her seat as she was. She looked around the bay for another seat she could move to, but the Pelican was packed and every seat was taken. Not that it would have mattered anyways: in this tightly enclosed space, if Poolsie puked, the smell would no doubt end up causing a chain reaction, and inevitably Amber would end up getting covered in vomit. And that was the last thing Amber needed. Not only would it be extremely disgusting, it would also completely suck because this was the last clean jacket she had, and Lieutenant Shepard was going to kill her if she returned from leave out of uniform again. At this point, all Amber could do was pray Poolsie kept it together long enough for the Pelican to achieve escape velocity.

The rattling and shaking continued to grow in intensity, and Amber became increasingly worried as Poolsie began letting out a series of small burps. She casted around, looking for something Poolsie could puke in, a bag or a bin or something, but there was nothing within arm's reach, all cargo having been secured prior to launch.

Shit.

Just when Amber thought the worst was about to occur, the Pelican let out one last tremor before abruptly cutting off, and a feeling of weightlessness descended over her. They were officially free of Actium's grasp.

But they weren't out of the woods just yet. By the looks of it, while zero gravity wasn't exactly making Poolsie feel worse, it wasn't exactly making her feel any better either. And that was a problem because while vomit alone was bad enough, floating vomit was so much worse.

Amber anxiously waited in her seat as the Pelican continued along its journey towards the nearest space station in high orbit. She could feel weight returning almost immediately as the Pelican entered one of the landing bays, and she shot a relieved glance at Poolsie but unfortunately, Poolsie had clearly reached the point of no return. As soon as the Pelican had landed and even before the rear ramp had opened all the way, Poolsie's restraints were on the ground and she was already halfway out of the Pelican before Amber could realize what was going on.

Amber started to undo her own restraints but then hesitated. Wayward Station was not their destination, Oedipus Station was. This was the only military shuttle heading there. If Amber got off now, she would have to wait at least an hour before the next one arrived, which hardly seemed worth it. Maybe Amber should go on ahead and let Poolsie catch up later. Poolsie was a big girl, surely she could handle being sick on her own?

Amber was just about to do just that when she realized, in her haste, Poolsie had accidentally left all her stuff behind. Fuck.

Amber undid her restraints. Gathering up her stuff as well as Poolsie's, Amber marched off the Pelican, swearing under her breath the entire time. She didn't have to go far to find Poolsie: Poolsie had her head stuck in the nearest trash can and was currently emptying her stomach.

Grimacing, Amber awkwardly stood next to her, trying to act casual, as dozens of people walked by, all of them staring at the disgusting noises Poolsie was currently making.

"Man, atmospheric exits are a bitch, aren't they?" Amber commented as Poolsie sat up, brushing her hair away from her face and wiping her mouth.

"It's not that," Poolsie said, sounding miserable. "I think I had too much to drink last night."

"How? We didn't have that much. Just a couple of margaritas and I had that mojito. Back in high school, we would have drunken all that in the first hour."

"You're forgetting about those vodka shots we did with those guys," Poolsie said with a groan.

"...Oh yeah, I forgot about them."

"We shouldn't have done that."

"Oh, don't be such a prude," Amber said dismissively. "They were cute guys! Besides, they were paying."

Poolsie let out a scoff. "As if I need more free drinks. You already pay for all the alcohol I could ever want. Which, you don't need to do by the way."

"Well, what's the point in being rich if I can't pay for my friend's drinks every now and then?"

"You pay for them all the time," Poolsie pointed out. "Honestly, if it weren't for the fact I know how well off your family is, and the fact you're totally okay with doing that, I'd feel guilty about taking advantage of you."

"If it's such a problem, you don't have to drink them you know," Amber noted with a shrug.

Poolsie looked like she was about to say something, but then her stomach gurgled and she immediately bent over again. Amber grimaced and waited for Poolsie to finish.

"Man, I wish I had your tolerance of alcohol," Poolsie complained, sounding miserable as she straightened. "Here I am, puking my guts out while you're standing around like it's just another Tuesday morning even though you had twice as much as I did. That is so not fair."

"What can I say, I had a lot of practice," Amber cheerfully announced. "Remember all those parties we had in high school?" Amber paused. "Okay, maybe you wouldn't."

"Hey! What makes you say that?" Poolsie said in protest.

Amber raised an eyebrow and stared pointedly at the trash can Poolsie was throwing up in.

"Okay, point," Poolsie sheepishly admitted.

"Yeah. Exactly. Now, are you just about done yet? I wanna get to Oedipus Station and do some souvenir shopping before we have to get back to the Gabrielle, so let's get back to the Pelican before it..." Amber trailed off as she realized in the time they had been standing here, the Pelican had already left. "Shit. Now we got to wait an hour before the next shuttle. That's just great."

"Sorry," Poolsie said meekly. "But you know we still have three hours before we need to report back to the ship."

"Yeah, well, that was three hours' worth of time I could have used for shopping!" Amber protested irritably, before shaking her head. "Whatever I guess." She began rubbing her temple. An hour. They were going to be stuck here on this station of the next hour or so. What could they do in the meantime?

That was the problem about Wayward Station. Unlike Oedipus Station which was a full civilian station, Wayward was a UNSC Navy installation, with a small civilian presence scattered throughout the building. The largest concentration of civilians was the food court at the top of the station. Which actually, wouldn't be that bad of a place to go. Now that she thought about it, Amber realized she was kind of hungry.

"Well, since we're stuck here until the next shuttle arrives, we might as well go to the food court," Amber finally announced.

Poolsie groaned. "I'm not sure I could handle the smell of food right now," she protested.

"Well, I'm hungry, and I'm not going to stand around here all day, so you're just going to have to suck it up," Amber insisted. "Either that, or you stay here by yourself."

An annoyed look passed over Poolsie's face and for a moment it looked as if she was about to protest, but at Amber's insistent glare, Poolsie relented.

"Fine," she resignedly said. "Maybe I'll get something minty so my breath doesn't smell like vomit all morning."

"At the very least, we can get you some ginger ale and some crackers," Amber agreed as she headed towards the nearest elevators and smacked the call button, causing a set of doors to immediately open.

"Please state your destination," the elevator prompted.

"Food court," Amber declared.

"Acknowledged."

As the doors slid shut, Amber abruptly felt her personal computer behind her left ear buzzing, indicating she had just received a new message. She cocked her head and immediately, a holographic display appeared before her very eyes.

Flicking her eyes to the side to clear the archive of pictures and videos she had taken of their party last night, Amber called forward the new message. It was a simple text message from one of her aunts. A rather generic "how are you doing" message. Still, Amber hadn't seen her aunt in a while so Amber quickly dashed out a reply.

"Is that from your Aunt Megan?" she heard Poolsie ask and Amber glanced in her direction to see Poolsie not so subtly trying to read who the message was addressed to.

"Nope," Amber said simply as she finished her reply and sent it. "It's from my Aunt Ducky. She's assigned to one of the Army units on Actium's surface. We've been trying to get together for like, dinner or something ever since the Gabrielle arrived in system a week ago for refit, but so far our schedules haven't worked out."

"Oh," Poolsie commented, sounding disappointed. "That sucks. I was hoping to see her again. Your Aunt Megan, that is. I don't think I ever met your Aunt Ducky before."

Amber glanced at her. "I forget: how do you know my Aunt Megan again?"

"You know, she was my favorite teacher in high school, right? I was super bummed when she got recalled back to active service in our senior year."

Amber felt like smacking herself. "Shit. You know, I keep forgetting we went to the same high school. You know, it's funny how we can grow up in the same town on the same colony, go to the same high school, know the same people, and yet never know each other existed until we both joined the Navy."

"Life is weird that way," Poolsie agreed.

"No kidding," Amber muttered to herself as she felt the elevator come to a stop. There was a mute chime and the doors slid open with a gentle hiss.

Amber stepped out and took a moment to admire the view. While the food in this area was far from the best she'd ever had, Amber had to admit, this food court had one of the best views she had ever seen; unlike other stations, the roof over the court was actually a giant window, which showed the space outside the station and allowed patrons to eat under the stars. It was the closest thing space station residents had to an outdoor cafe.

Of course, it wasn't actually a window. Obviously, having a giant window on a space station, much less a military one, would be a massive weakness and a tremendous design flaw. Instead, the "window" above their heads was actually a giant hologram projector connected to a series of cameras on the station's hull which allowed it to depict the outside of the station in real time. It wasn't the same as having a real window, but the resolution was such that most people couldn't tell the difference.

Amber glanced around. Currently the hologram was showing the space above the station, allowing her to get an idea of just how much stuff was floating in orbit around Actium, both military and civilian. Satellites of all sizes and shapes, space platforms, docking stations, refit and resupply installations, dry docks, construction yards, and in the distance, Amber could just barely make out Byzas Station, the orbital defense platform floating in geosynchronous orbit above the city of Byzas.

Floating between the installations were all the ships. Most of them were military, their dark gray hulls casting shadows in the night sky, but Amber could still see a number of colorful hulls indicating civilian ships.

"Hey, look, there's the Gabrielle!" Poolsie suddenly pointed out, and Amber could see a refit station floating by overhead with a Halberd-class destroyer docked to it, the words UNSC Gabrielle clearly written on its hull.

"Ugh," Amber said with a frown. "I don't want to even think about the ship right now. We're on leave, and will be for the next few hours. Let's be on leave."

She urged Poolsie to continue walking and together they headed towards where most of the restaurants were located. As they drew closer, Amber was suddenly assaulted with the scent of freshly cooked food, and her stomach let out a growl as the smell triggered her hunger. She turned to ask Poolsie what she was interested in getting, but then paused. It was clear to Amber the smell was having the complete opposite effect on Poolsie: the green tinge from before had returned and Poolsie was gripping her stomach.

"You know what? I think I'm going to go call my parents instead. I'll see you in like, thirty minutes," Poolsie said rather quickly.

Before Amber could protest, Poolsie dashed away from the food court, leaving Amber all alone.

Amber sighed in annoyance. Well that was rude of Poolsie to ditch her friend like that. Somedays, Amber had to wonder why she was even friends with her. It's not like they had that much in common...

Amber shook her head. Whatever, it didn't matter right now. Amber was determined that today was going to be a good day.

Nothing was going to ruin it.

XXXXX

Somewhere in UNSC Controlled Space
May 6, 2545
0750 (Ten minutes before contact)

Private First Class Adel Savaschi

The ground rattled and shook as the last of the explosions died off in the distance.

So. It had come down to this. Just as he always thought it would. Master Gunnery Sergeant Adel Savaschi glanced to his left, then to his right, looking over the corpses of his shattered battalion. Six hundred and fifty Marines had marched into combat; out of all of them, Adel was the only one to make it this far. Poor bastards; but then again, that was the price of warfare: you either had what it took to survive, or you didn't, something Adel could attest to, having been in this exact situation more times than he could count.

The whine of anti-gravity engines sounded in the distance. Adel looked up and nodded to himself. The Covenant were definitely coming. Again. That was hardly surprising. The stupid motherfuckers never did know when they were beaten. They would keep on coming until either they had won through sheer force of numbers, or every single one of them was dead. In some ways, Adel could respect them for their stubbornness. But the Covenant was underestimating just how pigheaded and stubborn Adel could be. Adel had no intention of giving up his position. Not now. Not with so much at stake. Which meant he was going to have to kill every single one of those assholes.

That suited Adel just fine. Truth be told, he kind of preferred it that way.

Grabbing his battle rifle, Adel checked it over as he planned out his defense. He knew what was coming. He had done a number on the Covenant and as a result, all that was left were Elites. The most deadly of all creatures in the Covenant Army, similar to how the Marines were the most badass force in the UNSC, Elites were deadly creatures possessing personal energy shields that allowed them to close in with their enemy and engage them in hand to hand combat. For anybody else, that would normally be a terrifying prospect but not for Adel. For Adel was a battle hardened, master warrior forged by the fires of war. A top rate master in all forms of martial arts, the deadliest sniper in the history of the UNSCMC with over nine hundred confirmed kills, and the youngest Master Gunnery Sergeant ever due to his ability to survive when no one else had were only some of his accolades.

A loud rumbling filled the air but Adel didn't need to look up to know what it was: the feet of hundreds of Elites charging towards his position. Shit was about to hit the fan.

Chambering a round on his BR, Adel shouldered his rifle and brought it to bear and watched as a mass of Covenant Elites surged towards him, their plasma rifles glowing and spit dripping from their mandibles as they salivated in anticipation. A couple of the Elites screamed out some war cries, which Adel guessed were supposed to be terrifying, but to Adel they sounded like mews from a kitten. He decided to let them know what a real predator sounded like so he took a deep breath and let out a loud ROARRRRRR!

As the roar echoed away, Adel was amused to see some of the younger Elites beginning to waver, only charging forward at the urging of their peers. Adel laughed. Fucking pussies.

Plasma fire began raining down around him but Adel didn't even flinch as he lined up his shot. The Elites were well within range, but Adel held his fire, preferring to wait until he could see the whites of their eyes. Most people would probably have panicked by now and opened fire, but not Adel. Adel had been and seen so much shit already, this sight hardly even phased him. He held his fire and waited until the Elites were less than thirty meters away, until they were close enough Adel could even smell their rancid breaths, before tightening his finger and -

"Adel, what the fuck are you doing with that frying pan?"

Adel jumped, barely managing to avoid letting out a squeak of alarm as he was completely caught off guard by the question. He looked around wildly and noticed that he was no longer on a field of battle but inside a kitchen, and that, distracted as he had been, he had apparently grabbed a frying pan and was now holding it like it was a rifle.

Quickly lowering it, Adel frantically tried to think of a plausible excuse for his actions.

"I was, uh, I was checking to make sure it was clean," Adel finally announced before nodding to himself. Yeah, that sounded reasonable.

Unfortunately, his friend and team leader, Corporal Samuel 'Sam' Yilmaz, was not so easily fooled.

"You were daydreaming again, weren't you?" Sam accused.

"What? No," Adel quickly said, then inwardly cursed. He had said that too quickly; there was no way Sam wouldn't see the lie for what it was.

Sure enough, Sam shook his head. "You and your fantasies Adel."

"I wasn't daydreaming," Adel asserted.

"Uh-huh."

"I wasn't!" Adel insisted.

Sam stared at him. "Dude, I know you're lying. The tip of your ears are turning red."

Adel automatically reached up to cover them, then swore, regretting that one time he had gotten drunk and accidentally let slip to his teammates that little factoid.

"So, what were you dreaming about this time? Wait, let me guess: you were some great warrior standing all alone on some distant battlefield?" Sam sarcastically asked as he wiped down a plate and put it back on the stack. "That's got to be it: that's what you're always dreaming about."

"I don't always dream like that!" Adel protested, then froze. "I mean, if I were to daydream, which I don't, it wouldn't be about that at all!"

"Hey man, you don't need to be upset about having dreams."

Adel looked up as the third and last member of their team, Lance Corporal Isaac 'X' Xanthus came walking into the room, pushing a cart full of dirty dishes. As he began to unload the cart, he added, "As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, 'Don't be pushed by your problems, but be led by your dreams.'"

"That's all good and everything, but Adel here needs to face reality," Sam snapped. "And the reality is, Adel here is nothing more than a filthy Boot who has never seen combat and who's stuck washing the Navy's dishes because he done fucked up and somehow, dragged his team down with him!"

"What? This is not my fault!" Adel protested, gesturing at the soapy sink and the dirty dishes that surrounded them.

Sam and X exchanged a look before both of them burst out laughing.

"Really?" Sam finally said with a derisive snort. "Funny, I seem to remember it was you, not X, harassing the shit out of that Navy chick."

"And then you cussed out that other Navy dude when he tried to intervene," X pointed out.

"That Seman shouldn't have been giving us orders," Adel tried to argue. "We're Marines: we're the ones doing the actual fighting."

"Okay, first off, who's this 'we' you're talking about? You haven't done jack shit you fucking Boot," Sam snapped. "Second, that's not how the fucking military works. You called a PO1 a 'fucking fag.' A PO1! Do you even know what a PO1 is? It's a petty officer first class, the Navy equivalent of a Marine staff sergeant. What you did was like, calling Staff Sergeant Reynolds, or someone, a fucking fag! You're lucky all he did was put you on mess hall duty! And you still think this isn't your fault?"

Adel found he didn't have a retort to that.

"Well, it's still a bunch of bullshit," he muttered.

"Shut up."

"No, he's right though," X interjected as he loaded an entire stack of plates into a dishwasher. "As John Ruskin once said: 'Punishment is the last and least effective instrument in the hands of the legislator for the prevention of crime.'"

Adel stared at him. "What the fuck does that even mean?" he demanded.

"It means punishment is the worst way to convince someone to not commit a crime," Sam replied.

Adel considered that and decided there was no way he was going to disagree with that. "How the fuck do you know all these people?" he decided to ask X instead.

"I… read?"

"I read too, but I don't know half the shit you seem to," Adel pointed out.

"I read books, Adel. You read comic books," X drily noted.

"They're graphic novels," Adel protested. "Not comic books. How many times do I got to tell you guys?"

"Whatever."

"Man," Sam said with a shake of his head. "X, remind me again: why you're an infantryman? With your ASVAB scores, I'm sure you could have easily gotten a cushy job as an intelligence analyst or some sort of cyberspace technician. What are you doing here with us crayon eaters?"

X grinned. "As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: 'War educates the sense, calls into action the will, perfects the physical constitution, brings men into such swift and close collision in critical moments that man measures man.'"

"What the fuck does that even mean!?" Adel demanded as a moment's thought.

"It means warfare is a wonderful tool of self-enlightenment," X explained. "War puts you in a situation where you are stripped of all technology and tricks, of all of society's rules and lies, and you're just left with you, yourself, and your skills. You're forced to confront all your preconceived notions about life and your own self, and it forces you to become a better man."

Adel and Sam stared at him.

"X," Adel slowly began, "what have you been reading?"

"Seriously," Sam added. "Where the fuck did you get that shit from? That sounds fucking stupid."

X shrugged. "That's what my twin brother told me," he admitted. "But then again, that's why I joined the Corps: best and most badass warriors around."

Adel scoffed. "Jeez. I just joined because I wanted to kill some aliens."

"Yeah, I think we've all figured out that one at this point," Sam said with a sneer. "After all, all you do is daydream about being a 'great warrior.'"

"Fuck you Corporal," Adel snapped. "I don't need to daydream because I know I'm going to be the best Marine there ever was."

"Every Boot Marine thinks that," Sam dismissively pointed out.

"The difference is, I'm actually going to be one!"

"Uh-huh."

"I am!" Adel insisted. "Just you wait: when I have to drag your sorry ass out of the fire, I'm going to so rub it in your face."

"I'm sure you will," Sam said dismissively. "But, in the meantime, because you're the one who got us in this position in the first place..." He walked over and deposited a dozen greasy pots and pans at Adel's feet. "You get to wash these. And remember what that chief petty officer said: can't use the machine cause it'll clog it up, got to wash it by hand."

Adel opened his mouth to protest, but Sam had already walked away. Adel then glanced at X, but all he did was offer a sympathetic look and a soapy sponge.

Letting out a loud sigh of exasperation, Adel took the offered sponge and started working. He couldn't wait for a Covenant attack.

Then, he would be able to finally show everyone what he was really made of.

XXXXX

Yankee Remote Scanning Outpost, Heliopause, Ambracian System
May 6, 2545
0753 (Seven minutes before contact)

...INITIALIZING...

SIGNAL DETECTED.

WARNING! PROFILE MATCHES SIGNATURE OF INBOUND SHIPS.

SEARCHING DATABASE FOR SCHEDULED FLEET ARRIVALS.

...

...

...

ERROR! NO MATCH FOUND!

SEARCHING CIVILIAN MANIFESTS FOR SCHEDULED FLEET ARRIVALS.

...

...

...

ERROR! NO MATCH FOUND!

SEARCHING MILITARY RECORDS FOR SCHEDULED FLEET ARRIVALS.

...

...

...

ERROR! NO MATCH FOUND!

ATTEMPTING TO ESTABLISH COMMUNICATIONS: ATTEMPT 1.

...

...

ERROR! ATTEMPT FAILED. RETRY.

ATTEMPTING TO ESTABLISH COMMUNICATIONS: ATTEMPT 2.

...

...

ERROR! ATTEMPT FAILED. RAISING DEFCON ALERT STATUS TO LEVEL 2.

FINAL ATTEMPT TO ESTABLISH COMMUNICATIONS.

...

...

ERROR! ATTEMPT FAILED.

ALERTING ACTIUM DEFENSE COMMAND

…..

….


1. The title of this story is inspired by the 2011 sci-fi film, Battle: Los Angeles (known internationally by the title, World Invasion: Battle Los Angeles,) starring Aaron Eckhart, Michelle Rodriguez, and Bridget Moynahan. It's admittedly not the best movie in the world. Among its flaws: the characters are a bit cliché, the cinematographers had apparently never heard of camera stabilization, and the entire movie is essentially (dare I say it,) American military propaganda. That being said, I personally found it to be a really fun war film, and the realistic way (relative to other action movies of the same genre) the military is portrayed as an inspiration for some of my stories.

2. The XT-47 stun pistol and its description is partially based on the "NI-408 taser pistol" from the 2014 Robocop remake

3. The "11M" or "11 Mike" MOS code used to be the US Army military occupational specialty code for a "mechanized infantryman." It's no longer used by the US Army, having been folded into the general "11B: Infantryman" code back in the early 2000's as the Army felt there was no reason to have that many specialized infantrymen. Given the theoretically massive size of the UNSC Army, I felt they would have brought back all these unique MOS identifiers, similar to the way the current US Marine Corps does it.

4. Crunchie: a derisive term used by US military tank crewmen to refer to dismounted infantry (as in, it's the sound a soldier makes when they get run over by a tank.)

5. Missile Technician: from my understanding, in the modern day US Navy, the rating of "Missile Technician" is only available for submarines. On surface ships, sailors with the rating of "Gunner's Mate" maintain and operate both guns and missile launchers alike. However, like the US Army example, given the theoretical size of the UNSC Navy, I felt the ratings would be split into two, to provide for more specialization.