This book is set in the 26th century, as a technologically advanced humanity continues to spread throughout the stars. But trouble is brewing, as political dissidents and wayward colonies chafe under UNSC (United Nations Space Command) rule. To combat this undercurrent of rebellion, and prepare for an unstoppable alien threat looming, hidden, on the horizon, gifted children are drafted into a top secret military program with the goal of creating supersoldiers: faster, stronger, and more deadly by far than normal humans.
After intensive training, and surviving the brutal augmentation procedure, the inagaural group of young supersoldiers are set to be put through their paces. Their commanding officer, Chief Mendez, and their creator, Dr. Halsey, now head towards the location of their latest advanced training engagement.
Mendez drove them off the base and onto winding mountain roads. “Reach was first colonized for its rich titanium deposits,” Mendez told her. “There are mines in these mountains thousands of meters deep. The UNSC uses them for storage.”
“I presume you do not have my Spartans taking inventory today, Chief?”
“No, ma’am. We just need the privacy.”
Mendez drove the Warthog past a manned guardhouse and into a large tunnel that sloped steeply underground.
The road wound down in a spiral, deeper into sold granite. Mendez said, “Do you remember the Navy’s first experiments with powered exoskeletons?”
“I’m not sure I see the connection between this place, my Spartans, and the exoskeleton projects,” Dr. Halsey replied, frowning, “but I’ll play along a bit further. Yes, I know all about the Mark I prototypes. We had to scrap the concept and redesign battle armor from the ground up for the MJOLNIR project. The Mark Is consumed enormous energy. Either they had to be plugged into a generator or use inefficient broadcast power—neither option is practical on a battlefield.”
Mendez decelerated slightly as he approached a speed bump. The Warthog’s massive tires thudded over the obstacle.
“They used the units that weren’t scrapped,” Dr. Halsey continued, “as dock loaders to move heavy equipment.” She cocked one eyebrow. “Or might they have been dumped in a place like this?”
“There are dozens of the suits here.”
“You haven’t put my Spartans in some of those antiques?”
“No. Their trainers are using them for their own safety,” Mendez replied. “When the Spartans recovered from microgravity therapy, they were eager to get back to their routine. However, we experienced some —” He paused, searching for the right word. “ . . . difficulties.”
He glanced at his passenger. His face was grim. “Their first day back, three trainers were accidentally killed during hand-to-hand combat exercises.”
Dr. Halsey cocked an eyebrow. “Then they are faster and stronger than we anticipated?”
“That,” Mendez replied, “would be understating the situation.”
The tunnel opened into a large cavern. There were lights scattered on the walls, overhead a hundred meters up on the ceiling, and along the floor, but they did little to dissipate the overwhelming darkness.
Mendez parked the Warthog next to a small, prefabricated building. He jumped out and helped Dr. Halsey step from the vehicle. “This way, please.” Mendez gestured to the room. “We’ll have a better view from inside.”
The building had three glass walls and several monitors marked MOTION, INFRARED, DOPPLER, and PASSIVE. Mendez pushed a button and the room climbed a track along the wall until they were twenty meters off the floor.
Mendez keyed a microphone and spoke: “Lights.”
Floodlights snapped on and illuminated a section of the cavern the size of a football field. In the center stood a concrete bunker. Three men in the primitive Mark I power armor stood on top. Six more stood evenly spaced around the perimeter. A red banner had been planted in the center of the bunker.
“Capture the flag?” Dr. Halsey asked. “Past all that heavy armor?”
“Yes. The trainers in those exoskeletons can run at thirty-two KPH, lift two tons, and have a thirty-millimeter minigun mounted on self-targeting armatures—stun rounds, of course. They’re also equipped with the latest motion sensors and IR scopes. And needless to say, their armor is impervious to standard light weapons. It would take two or three platoons of conventional Marines to take that bunker.”
Mendez spoke again in the microphone, and his voice echoed off the cavern walls: “Start the drill.”
Sixty seconds ticked by. Nothing happened. One hundred twenty seconds. “Where are the Spartans?” Dr. Halsey asked.
“They’re here,” Mendez replied. Dr. Halsey caught a glimpse of motion in the dark: a shadow against shadows, a familiar silhouette.
“Kelly?” she whispered.
The trainers turned and fired at the shadow, but it moved with almost supernatural quickness. Even the self-targeting systems couldn’t track it.
From above, a man free-rappelled down from the girders and gantries overhead. The newcomer landed behind one of the perimeter guards, quiet as a cat. He punched the guard’s armor twice, denting the heavy plates, then dropped low and swept the target’s legs out from under him. The guard sprawled on the ground.
The Spartan attached his rappelling line to the trainer. A moment later the writhing guard shot upward, into the darkness.
Two other guards turned to attack.
The Spartan dodged, rolled, and melted into the shadows.
Dr. Halsey realized the trainer’s exoskeleton wasn’t being pulled up—it was being used as a counterweight.
Two more Spartans, dangling from the other end of that rope, dropped unnoticed into the center of the bunker. Dr. Halsey immediately recognized one of them, although he was dressed entirely in black, save his open eye slits—Number 117. John.
John landed, braced, and kicked one guard. The man landed in a heap . . . eight meters away. The other Spartan jumped off the bunker; he flipped end over end, evading the stun rounds that filled the air. He threw himself at the farthest guard and they skidded together into the shadows. The guard’s gun strobed once, and then it was dark again. On top of the bunker, John was a blur of slashing motions. A second guard’s exosuit erupted in a fountain of hydraulic fluid and then collapsed under the armor’s weight.
The last guard on the bunker turned to fire at John. Halsey gripped the edge of her chair. “He’s at point blank range! Even stun rounds can kill at that distance!”
As the guard’s gun fired, John sidestepped. The stun rounds slashed through the air, a clean miss. John grabbed the weapon’s armature—twisted—and with a screech of stressed metal, wrenched it free of the exoskeleton. He fired directly into the man’s chest and sent him tumbling off the bunker. The remaining quartet of perimeter guards turned and sprayed the area with suppression fire. A heartbeat later, the lights went out. Mendez cursed and keyed the mike. “Backups. Hit the backup lights now!”
A dozen amber floods flickered to life. Not a Spartan was in sight, but the nine trainers were either unconscious or lay immobile in inert battle armor.
The red flag was gone. “Show me that again,” Dr. Halsey said unbelievingly. “You recorded all that, didn’t you?” “Of course.” Mendez tapped a button but the monitors played back—static. “Damn it. They got to the cameras, too,” he muttered, impressed. “Every time we find a new place to hide them, they disable the recording devices.” Dr. Halsey leaned against the glass wall staring at the carnage below. “Very well, Chief Mendez, what else do I need to know?”
“Your Spartans can run at bursts of up to fifty-five KPH,” he explained. “Kelly can run a little faster, I think. They will only get quicker as they adjust to the ‘alterations’ we’ve made to their bodies. They can lift three times their body weight—which, I might add, is almost double the norm due to their increased muscle density. And they can virtually see in the dark.”
Dr. Halsey pondered this new data. “They should not be performing so well. There must be unexplained synergistic effects brought on by the combined modifications. What are their reaction times?”
“Almost impossible to chart. We estimate it at twenty milliseconds,” Mendez replied. He shook his head, then added, “I believe it’s significantly faster in combat situations, when their adrenaline is pumping.”
“Any physiological or mental instabilities?”
“None. They work like no team I’ve ever seen before. Damn near telepathic, if you ask me. They were dropped in these caves yesterday, and I don’t know where they got black suits or the rope that for that maneuver, but I can guarantee they haven’t left this room. They improvise and improve and adapt.
“And,” he added, “theylike it. The tougher the challenge, the harder the fight . . . the better their morale becomes.”
Dr. Halsey watched as the first trainer stirred and struggled to get out of his inert armor. “They might as well have been killed,” she murmured. “But can the Spartans kill, Chief? Kill on purpose? Are they ready for real combat?”
Mendez looked away and paused before he spoke. “Yes. If we ordered them to, they would kill quite efficiently.” His body stiffened. “May I ask what ‘real combat’ you mean, ma’am?”
She clasped her hands and wrung them nervously. “Something has happened, Chief. Something ONI and the Admiralty never expected. The brass wants to deploy the Spartans. They want to test them in a real combat mission.”
“They’re as ready for that as I can make them,” Mendez said. He narrowed his dark eyes. “But this is far ahead of your schedule. What happened? I’ve heard rumors there was some heavy action near Harvest colony.”
“Your rumors are out-of-date, Chief,” she said, and a chill crept into her voice. “There’s no more fighting at Harvest. There is no more Harvest.”
Dr. Halsey punched the descent button, and the observation room slowly lowered to the floor.
“Get them out of this hole,” she said crisply. “I want them ready to muster at 0400. We have a briefing at 0600 tomorrow aboard the Pioneer . We’re taking them on a mission ONI has been saving for the right crew and the right time. This is it.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Mendez replied.
“Tomorrow we see if all the pain they’ve been through has been worth it.”