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Ford 22 May 2009
0347 hours, 24 October 2552 (Military Calendar) Longsword Interceptor Spatha Six, Near Earth Orbit, Altitude: 142 kilometers Lieutenant Gerald Fitzhume knew he was a dead man. He'd been thoroughly convinced long before the Covenant Seraph materialized high on his six and put a burst of plasma through his navigator's skull. The energy rounds had punched a tight grouping of holes in the Longsword's relatively thin armor, seared past layers of insulation, and entered the cockpit at a neat thirty-degree angle. Pressman never had a chance. Even if his brains hadn't been boiled away...few people survived having their jaw forcibly torn from their face by a plasma bolt the size of a man's fist. The COM crackled. "Six, this is Lead. You've got a bogey on your tail." Fitz laughed crazily, the sound oddly muffled in the confines of his helmet. "No shit, Lead! He holed me and I'm losing air." He juked, evading, as Earth filled his starboard canopy like a molested blue jewel. Streams of plasma flashed through the space he had just vacated as the Seraph continued to step on his heels. "Pressman's dead, Lead." Silence. Then: "Roger, Six. On my way." Fitz grunted as another plasma strike burned away a secondary system. "Don't bother, Lead. He's taking me apart." He glanced at the estimates spilling from his Tactical Analysis Computer. "You won't get here in time." His options were dwindling fast. The Seraph was more nimble than his Longsword, and the pilot was good. Very good. "I'm coming anyway," Commander Rachel Bailey's voice sang over the COM. "You an' me are the last birds from Gladius still flying. Hold on." She always was a hard-ass, Fitzhume thought with a mirthless grin. They'd deployed from the fleet carrier Gladius after jumping into the system. Everyone had expected the Covies to send another wave of reinforcements after the initial assault, though the alien sons-of-bitches had truly outdone themselves this time. Fitz had watched Gladius take a fatal blow from a Covenant destroyer that sliced right through her engineering section. The resulting explosion cracked the ship in half, though the emergency systems had prevented a wildcat breach of the fusion cores. Too bad, Fitz thought sadly. Maybe they could've taken the bastard with them. He snarled, wrenching the controls away from his body, sending his Longsword into a dizzying spin that the craft's compensators barely kept in check. The Seraph was momentarily fooled, but not shaken. Fitz kicked his thrusters to max and narrowly missed a collision with floating debris. Probably the remains of a human frigate, though he honestly couldn't tell—Covie plasma torpedoes and projector beams had a positively satanic way with metal. "If you're gonna save my ass, you'd better do it quick!" Fitz yelled over the COM as the Seraph pounded the debris into molten slag. He yanked back on the stick and sent the Longsword screaming toward the planet below. Again, the compensators were a little behind, and his vision went gray at the edges. "Hold on, Fitz," Bailey said through a clenched jaw. "I'm almost there." The Seraph increased its velocity, dancing out of the debris field like a demon skipping through the thorny gates of Hell on a one-day pass. It opened fire. Fitz felt his Longsword shudder as the plasma rounds tore into his aft fuselage, and he was snapped brutally against his harness as his compensator lost a mere fraction of its total power. The lights in the cockpit dimmed when he tried to avoid the next burst of plasma. His port thrusters cut out entirely. The Longsword canted wearily into an uncontrollable spin as the uneven thrust pushed his trajectory into gimbal lock. "I'm hit," he said numbly into his helmet's pickup. "I'm hit. Spatha Six is going down." The Earth's gravitational field had him now and was pulling him into the upper atmosphere as surely as a mother
would pull a screaming child to herself. It was all over but the burning. The Longsword shuddered again. "If he doesn't vaporize me first!" Fitz roared. A shadow fell across his canopy as the light from Earth's distant star was blocked by an incredibly large, incredibly close object. His few remaining scanners screamed in both ears that a Covie destroyer was trying to smash him like a bug. He grinned morbidly, waiting for either the Seraph or the capital ship's shields to kill him. When the latter failed to deliver, and the former vanished in a cloud of expanding gas and alloy, Fitz realized he wasn't toast after all. At least, not in the traditional sense, though the literal side of the expression was becoming more likely by the moment as he careened toward his homeworld. Fitz craned his neck, eyeing the destroyer that seemed—in the crazy pseudo-orientation of space combat—to be paralleling his current course, or lack thereof. "Scratch one bad guy, Six," Bailey's voice called over the COM. "I think the flying fortress distracted him." She brought her own Longsword in close, almost visible behind the polarized canopy of her cockpit. Fitz opened his mouth to reply, then noticed that the destroyer was rolling over. Out of control. Crashing. He pinged it with his scanner and the IFF tag came back positive. It was the same fat bastard that cut out Gladius' heart. Fitz grinned like a Cheshire cat. "Get out of here, Rachel. I've lost all maneuvering jets and my retros are dead." "Eject. I'll see if I can call a frigate over to suck up the crumbs." Fitz smiled. "No can do. That bogey you just blasted to smithereens fried a few secondaries too many. I've lost most of my emergency systems." He glanced up as the destroyer hit the atmosphere. Its hull started to glow cherry at the edges. "Damn it, Fitz! Get off your ass and punch out the aft hatch!" "Too late for that, Lead. This bird's better versus friction than my flight suit. Now get clear…I'm sending one last measure of goodwill to our incandescent friends down there." He flicked a series of switches that, thankfully, were not dead. His ordnance bay louvered open, its internal launch cradle selecting the one Shiva warhead in his inventory. "You really are crazy, aren't you?" she said ruefully, holding her course. Her navigator, Chapman, was probably screaming bloody murder by now. The thought made Fitz smile impishly. He and Chapman had never gotten along. "If you think this is cool, imagine how good I'd have been in the sack!" Bailey laughed. "Right." Her voice grew hard...helplessness and sorrow mingling in a valkyrie's vengeful, merciless tone. "Show 'em your warhead, Six." She finally broke formation, her interceptor peeling away from his crippled Longsword like a falcon catching an updraft. "It's been an honor flying with you." Fitz grinned crookedly as his ship finally entered the atmosphere, tongues of flame licking at his canopy. He was an ancient sun god in wolf form, burning with immortal fire as he bore down on the helpless, wounded lamb below. "Say hello to my leetle friend!" he roared, squeezing the trigger. For a split second, Fitz wondered if the fire control circuits had burned out. Then the missile launched, streaking toward the tumbling destroyer like a thunderbolt from Olympus. Fitz laughed triumphantly as he tracked its exhaust plume, tears of joy and sadness streaming from his eyes until the contact warhead detonated and the purest silver light burned his retinas away.
0354 hours, 24 October 2552 (Military Calendar) Widowmaker Lodge (Est. 2527), Near the village of Ottokh, Sakha region, Siberia, Earth "Huh," Bill Walker grunted, shading his eyes against a sudden glare in eastern Siberia's dark, predawn sky. His registration computer, which he'd never used anyway—contrary piece of junk—made a strange sizzling sound and gave up the ghost. "What the hell was that?" Vladimir asked in Russian, craning his neck to look out the window. "Nuke," Bill replied. "Don't look directly at it." Another grunt. "EMP probably fried my piece of shit computer." He glanced at the aging holotank by the common room's massive stone fireplace and grimaced.
"Probably fried my vid system, too." Vladimir let out a string of curses a klick long, still in Russian, then switched over to broken English. "All my movies…gone! Now what am I do?" Bill smirked, moving away from the window. "I dunno, Vlad…find a dirty magazine or something. Frankly, I'm glad to have that garbage off my hard drive." Vladimir frowned. "No have hard drive. We both fucked." Bill nodded. "Probably. Last I heard, the Covies were making combat drops all over…some hitting military bases, some searching for God knows what." He walked over to a large wooden armoire set into the inner wall of the common room and opened a side panel. A modern handprint scanner was bolted into place. Government issue, complete with battery backup and hopefully shielded against electromagnetic pulse. Vladimir rolled his eyes and leaned against the rickety registration counter, crossing his muscular arms. "You paranoid, Walker. You think you use all that shit?" "Prob'ly not," Bill drawled, keying in his palm print. After a moment, the device emitted an affirmative beep—apparently, it hadn't been affected by the airburst. It took a micro sample of his DNA for good measure before popping the seal on the weapons locker. Bill removed an SRS99C-S2 Anti-Matériel rifle from the rack and effortlessly tossed the twenty-six kilogram weapon to his friend. Vladimir almost fumbled the catch, shooting Bill a dark look as he watched him pull a second rifle from the locker. "I don't know about you, buddy," Bill continued as he cleared his rifle's action and checked the infrared scope for damage. "But today feels like a good day for a hunt." He dropped a cigar-sized armor piercing round into the breach and locked it, then slid a high-capacity box magazine into place with a loud snick. Vladimir stared at him incredulously, then gestured around at the empty room. "No customers! You want to go out there at night? Damn cold. Nothing stupid enough to be out for you to hunt!" Bill's craggy face cracked in a wolfish grin. "It's not a question of stupidity, Vlad." A sonic boom rattled the lodge as blazing fragments of a Covenant destroyer tumbled from the sky. Small, alien shapes raced ahead of the firestorm, descending to the frozen wilderness below. "It's a question of desperation."
Fourth Cycle, 87 Units (Covenant Battle Calendar) Aboard dropship Soul Guard; Lower atmosphere, Planet Earth (Human Designation) "Lift! More lift, damn you!" Moro 'Targamee roared, cuffing the pilot on the head. The Unggoy pilot was clearly terrified, yet had managed to get them out of the destroyer in one piece. That saved him little abuse from a brutal commander like 'Targamee. Xir cocked his head to one side, the motion betraying his race's avian ancestry. The dim blue glow of the overhead lights illuminated the pronounced network of scars crisscrossing his head and neck. Most had been acquired in battle, though a fair number were trophies of challenge duels with other male Kig-yar. Mating rituals among his people were typically, and quite literally, fierce affairs. Other races of the Covenant viewed his people as little more than bloodthirsty savages—space pirates merely disguised as soldiers. He resented that assumption. While his ancestors could boast as fine a tradition of trading, raiding, and maintaining an opportunist's approach to 'liberating' the property of other clans as anyone—they were warriors first and foremost. Ten generations of his clan had defended Eayn, the Kig-yar homeworld. Yet even that long tradition of service had paled in comparison to the opportunity for martial distinction offered by the Covenant. A chance at glory that many Kig-yar, like Xir himself, had leapt at. Not that he really believed all that nonsense about the 'Great Journey.' It was painfully obvious that the grand and omniscient San 'Shyuum were using their philosophical ravings to manipulate the other races of the Covenant. It was all a load of khet. A very unpopular opinion, and one that he kept carefully hidden. The dropship shuddered as it cut through the human planet's thick atmosphere. A hail of burning ship fragments seemed to be chasing them all the way down to the surface, lending a rougher edge to the turbulence. 'Targamee screamed at the pilot again, struck him again—this time hard enough to shift the Unggoy's grip on the controls. The dropship swung wildly to one side and debris rattled on the hull.
Xir watched with morbid fascination as the Unggoy managed to regain control of the craft, though the squat pilot did so with obvious difficulty. 'Targamee roared in helpless, mindless anger—just about the only thing he was good for—and lurched away from a bulkhead to hit the pilot a third time. Enough. Xir bobbed forward, moving on powerful hind legs that had served his seafaring people well in the distant past. The Sangheili officer drew back a long-fingered hand for a blow that would never fall. A blow that would never have the chance to doom them all to a shameful, idiotic death. Xir discharged his plasma pistol into the lone Sangheili's shields at point-blank range, overloading them. The tall warrior whirled in surprise and Xir leapt onto his chest, thrusting his shard-knife into 'Targamee's gaping mouth. A single, vicious twist of the blade was enough to scramble the warrior's brains, and 'Targamee's mandibles twitched once as he slid bonelessly to the floor. Silence reigned in the aft troop compartment. All had been privy to the slaying, as Xir had intended from the beginning. He had linked his signal unit to the rest of the Kig-yar and Unggoy in the dropship. None objected to the course of action. It had been clear that 'Targamee was acting out of fear and blind rage at the loss of the destroyer and many of his own folk. Irrational. "I claim command," Xir growled over the open channel. "If any wish to challenge me they had better prepare to join this piece of khet in the afterlife." No responses were forthcoming. Xir looked at Jeg, one of his more experienced scouts, and pointed down at the corpse at his feet, speaking over a private channel. "Strip off his armor and cut him into rations. Distribute the meat evenly among our troops, but don't offer any to the Unggoy unless they object…which I doubt, the way they revere Sangheili." He grunted. "If they protest, you know what to do." "I obey," Jeg responded, using the formal inflection as he bent to his task. Xir eyed the Unggoy in the troop compartment, most of whom refused to meet his gaze. Good, he thought. Fear is a start, though respect will be harder to come by. He clucked darkly to himself. If we live long enough. Xir turned back toward the pilot. "What is our status?" he asked calmly, not wanting to distress the battered Unggoy further. "We have cleared most of the debris. I am trying to set us down without losing control, but the ship has taken some damage…Excellency." The pilot hesitated fractionally before using the honorific—one that was generally reserved for Sangheili, alone. Xir chuckled. Perhaps respect will be less of a problem than I thought. He scanned the rugged, snowcovered terrain below. "Set us down as far from major population centers as possible. We'll move into the forest and engage targets of opportunity until we can link up with other survivors." "Yes, Excellency," the Unggoy replied, sounding more confident with a coherent order to follow. Especially one that was not shouted into his aural receptors.
0402 hours, 24 October 2552 (Military Calendar) Longsword Interceptor Spatha One, Near Earth Orbit "You want me to do what? " Bailey asked over her COM link with the Maelstrom, the only other carrier still functioning within the engagement zone. She couldn't keep the shock and anger out of her tone. Chapman's mouth hung open like a dropship ramp, and they exchanged disbelieving glances as the COM spat out more insanity. "I say again…engage all atmospheric targets of opportunity in your sector." Bailey held her tongue, despite the powerful urge to cuss the ignorant flight control officer right out of an airlock. "Be advised, Maelstrom. I've suffered ninety percent squadron casualties. Combat effectiveness is…pretty damn limited." Silence thundered in her ears as the FCO processed that information. "Copy that, Spatha Lead. We're all stretched thin up here. You have your orders." He ignored me completely, Bailey thought with the mental equivalent of a snarl. "Understood, Maelstrom. Spatha Lead, out…" she severed the connection with a savage slap to the COM panel. "…For good, as far as you're concerned." "What are we gonna do?" Chapman whispered. "What can we do?" "Damn them," she whispered, ignoring him. "They've killed us all." After a seething moment she came
about, pointed the nose of her craft toward the spot where Fitz had detonated his nuke. Her scanners shrieked warnings about thermal extremes and a whole spectrum of dangerous radiation. "Kill 'em," she growled at her navigator. Chapman, visibly shell shocked, reached out and silenced the alarms. Dying of radiation poisoning was their least likely ticket to the pearly gates at the moment. Her Longsword shivered as it passed through the upper layers of the atmosphere, though its angular hull had been designed to function both in space and the skies above a planet. Her TAC started sifting through debris, painting several dropships that had managed to escape the destroyer before its fiery death. Bailey smirked as she cycled through her inventory: three ASGM-10 missiles and a whole drum of autocannon rounds. "Enough to do some damage," she muttered, selecting the missiles. A firm squeeze of the trigger sent them on their way. "Hail Mary…" Chapman breathed as gravel-sized debris pelted their armor. "Mother of God…" Something the size of a grav ball banged on the hull. "Pray for us sinners, now…" Two of the missiles slashed through the cluttered sky, destroying their comparatively sluggish targets with little effort. The third passed close by its target—a dropship that veered drunkenly to the side at the last possible moment. Chapman sucked in a breath. "And at the hour of our death." Bailey frowned, switching over to guns. "Let's see you dodge this, asshole." Something big slammed into the rear fuselage of her Longsword, sending it into a flat spin. Autocannon tracers flashed wide of their target. Chapman screamed as a ragged piece of metal punched through the back of his seat. It stuck out of his chest, glistening with bright, arterial blood that spattered the inside of the canopy. His screams were drowned in gurgling convulsions as every bell and klaxon in the cockpit sounded. Before Bailey could reach for a single control, the Longsword's computer made a critical decision for her. PREPARE TO EJECT. Bailey glanced at her airspeed as the explosive bolts around the base of her seat went off like a string of firecrackers. A transparent clamshell canopy snapped into place around the flight chair as her harness tightened around her body. "Awww, hell—" her voice caught in her throat as the floor dropped away and her seat swung down like a trapdoor falling into place. The rockets kicked in, blasting her away from the doomed interceptor with enough force to make her bones hurt. Her vision narrowed to small points of light and her flightsuit squeezed the daylights out of her body, valiantly compensating for the extreme positive gees. It lost the battle. Bailey heard debris rattle across the protective canopy like hailstones as unconsciousness swept her away.
0414 hours, 24 October 2552 (Military Calendar) North of the Stanovoy Mountain Range, Sakha region, Siberia, Earth "I hate this damn suit," Vlad grumbled, using more precise English than normal. "It smells like—" "I heard you the first time," Walker whispered back irritably, ignoring his own discomfort. "You want to get us killed? Shut up." The ill-fitting ANIR undersuits were toys he had 'liberated' from a military depot, once upon a time. Anti Near-Infrared technology utilized complex heat exchange, containment and dissipation processes, most of which were based on costly nanomaterials and a very specific arrangement of the ghillie suit's outermost layer. It wasn't quite one-hundred percent effective, but definitely better than nothing. Especially in the middle of a cold Siberian winter, where thermal signatures generated by the human body would stand out as hotspots against the frigid landscape. Walker slowly reached his left hand up to adjust the settings on his rifle scope—an Oracle N-variant, also freed from lonely UNSC storage. He briefly considered the irony of using the scope's thermal setting while wearing thermal camouflage. A deadly paradox for the unsuspecting Covenant patrol waddling in his sights. "Range?" he subvocalized, trusting the tiny microphone taped over his throat to carry the request to
his spotter. "Three hundred meters," Vlad replied in Russian, his voice oddly distorted by the unconventional COM unit. Walker checked the reading against the range finder in his own scope. Redundancy paid off, nine times out of ten. Tradition, too. "Wind?" "Six KPH, north-northeast," Vlad responded instantly, his tone now totally devoid of complaint. They were hunting—business as usual. "Four targets…fire when ready." Wait, Walker told himself. There was more than enough time to pick off the cannon fodder…they were standing in the middle of a clearing several hundred meters wide, foolishly wandering in the open. The Grunts were trusting the darkness to hide them. His intuition paid off. A blue-armored Elite slunk into view behind the squat aliens. Walker suppressed a smile, shifting his aim from the skull of the rearmost Grunt to the center of the Elite's elongated head. At this range his rifle's armor piercing ammunition would make short work of the bastard. His finger caressed the two-stage trigger as he exhaled. Squeezed. The rifle kicked against his shoulder. Its report was muffled appreciably by the suppressor attached to the weapon's threaded muzzle, though nothing could hide the loud crack of the bullet breaking the sound barrier downrange. Walker saw the Elite's shields flare and its head snap back as the heavy projectile smashed through its right eye. He had already moved on to his next target—the foremost Grunt—before the tall alien's lifeless body toppled to the ground. The Grunts jumped at the deceptive sound of the shot, whirling to see their leader collapse in the snow with liquefied brains leaking out of a gaping hole in the back of its head. Walker killed the nearest alien with an equally surgical shot to the head, then shifted back to the rearmost Grunt when the surviving aliens reacted to the second casualty. Two more follow-up shots that spanned as many seconds finished off the patrol. "Nice shooting, boss," Vlad said over their private COM channel. Walker idly wondered whether or not the Covenant could detect the short-range communications link, then shrugged off the concern as irrelevant. If the aliens were that good, he and Vlad would never have made it this far. "Thanks," Walker replied as he slipped a fresh magazine into his rifle. Vlad wordlessly took the first magazine and topped it off with rounds from the large drag bag he carried. They had enough ammo between them to kill thirty patrols the size of the one Walker had just wiped from existence. More, if they went back to the lodge to resupply. Walker cast a wary glance at the moonlit sky. "The way things are going…we're gonna need all the rounds we've got." "Fuckin' A," Vlad agreed in broken English as he handed back the reloaded magazine. "Lot of ships land here, or crash. Big damn ship went down on plateau." "Yeah," Walker nodded toward the gigantic plumes of smoke rising above the distant horizon, backlit by a truly massive firestorm. "What was left of it." He glanced at his chrono. "Better relocate. Don't know if they can triangulate our position." "If they can, we dead." Vlad grimaced behind his white facemask, the worried expression showing in his eyes. Walker grinned as he started slinking back into the deeper cover of the forest. Inch by inch. Slowly… deliberately. Just as he'd been taught at the NAVSPECWAR sniper school on Reach, long ago. "Look at it this way," he subvocalized. "We're probably dead anyway. Might as well take a few of 'em with us before they glass the planet." "Shit," Vlad grumbled, then switched back to Russian. "I'd rather drink Vodka until my brain tells me an ugly bastard like you is smokin' hot." Walker barely suppressed a laugh. "Not enough booze in the world."
0434 hours, 24 October 2552 (Military Calendar) Crash site (UNSC IFF tag LSI-S1/GL234), North of the Stanovoy Mountain Range, Sakha region, Siberia, Earth The shivering woke her up. That, and the insistent beeping of the life support system in her pilot's
chair, warning of imminent impact with the surface. Bailey opened her eyes and immediately regretted it as incredibly bright moonlight slanted painfully into them. Her head throbbed, and she tasted blood in her mouth. Ironically, it was the cold—like the touch of a thousand icy knives, even through her insulated flight suit—that helped her regain her senses. It was an anchor, a tether. It told her she was still alive; alive enough to feel pain and— "Shit," she breathed, looking down. Her chair hung from a tree, its nanofiber parachute snagged on the highest branches. Her feet dangled over open air, ten meters above the ground. Bailey swore again, gingerly shutting off the chair's Reentry Assistance Computer. Her HUD flickered and died. It was little more than a nagging valet anyway, and she no longer had a ride. She popped the seals on her helmet and yanked it free. Branches creaked above. She froze. Thirty feet was a long fall. Even if the chair landed upright, she could fracture vertebra, her pelvis, or an ankle. Bailey glanced up at the chute, hopelessly torqued around the unfortunate tree. The microscopic, mesh-like fibers were probably lodged deep into the bark, and nothing short of heavy lift gear would tear them free. The tree limbs were a different story altogether. A smaller branch snapped loudly—the extreme cold had made them brittle. Bailey held her breath, afraid to shift her weight even a little. She tore her eyes away from the parachute and studied the trunk of the tree. It was almost within reach. Slowly, inch by terrifying inch, she reached for the combat knife secured to her left thigh. Her chair twisted, putting more strain on the branches above. Her gloved left hand closed around the hilt of the knife, the numb fingers of her right probing for the harness release. A louder series of brutal cracks echoed in the stillness, sending a shudder through her seat. She yanked the release and leapt toward the bole of the tree just as the chair dropped out from beneath her. Her chest hit the rough, frozen bark, and she sank the combat knife deep into the trunk, desperately wrapping her right arm around the tree. The bark skinned her right cheek, drawing a warm trickle of blood that ran down under her neck seal. Bailey wrapped her legs around the trunk, taking some of the weight off her arms. She gasped, surprised that the knife held her weight. That she had managed to cling to the tree at all was a miracle in itself. "Now…comes…the hard part," she said through clenched teeth. When she was sure she had a good grip with her legs, she released her hold on the knife hilt and gave the trunk a better bear hug. Slowly, painfully, she shimmied her way down to solid earth. Her thighs felt like they had been worn down to the bone and her arms quivered with fatigue. But she was down. Cold, tired, but down. A soft footfall sounded behind her. The unnatural stillness of the forest gave her hearing a distinct edge. She whirled, drawing her M6G in one smooth, practiced motion. The Grunt—no more than three meters away—squealed in terror as it brought up its plasma pistol. She shot it through the eye. The alien corpse tumbled backward into the snow as she crouched beside her pilot's chair, eyeing the semi-darkness warily. Grunts rarely traveled alone. She popped open the side compartment of the chair and pulled out her survival kit: a small backpack containing a lamp, flare gun, medkit, extra mags for the pistol, rations, and an additional locator beacon with integral COM unit. She shrugged into the backpack and fastened its clasp with her free left hand as her eyes scanned the forest for more enemies. Maybe the Grunt had gotten lost or been separated from its squad? A green glob of energy sizzled past her head. Maybe not. She rolled, coming up on the far side of the tree. Another glob blasted a chunk out of the trunk, sending splinters everywhere. Bailey spotted the shooters—a knot of Grunts almost fifty meters from her position—and returned fire. Her first two shots missed. The third punched a hole in one alien's methane tank, blasting its unfortunate owner into the air on a column of blue flame. The other Grunts cowered in fear, and Bailey decided to make good on her escape. She lunged forward into the snow, weaving through the trees. The squat aliens, despite being better adapted to the cold than she, had a lot more trouble keeping up. They had to stop to shoot, and every halt increased the distance between them. It helped that Grunts were terrible marksmen in general. It hurt that one lucky shot managed to graze her left arm. The wound burned like hell. Bailey slogged into a shallow depression, dipping out of sight for a moment that she took to reload. The confused cries of her pursuers echoed in the forest behind her. She studied her surroundings, recognizing the snowdrift for a dried-up streambed. It would be harder going, but she could at least stay
out of the line of fire for a few hundred meters. She bit her lower lip and started moving along the streambed. The forest grew less dense as she left the Grunts behind. The trees were spaced further apart, and the ground sloped gradually downward. Her compass, sown into the straps of her survival pack, read 'NORTH.' The wooded terrain leveled out suddenly, opening on a vast field perhaps a quarter-klick wide, brightly lit by a nearly full moon. Bailey skidded to a halt, sucking wind. She didn't want to venture out into the open; any Covenant aircraft in the area would spot her in minutes and fry her like a bug. Something about the meadow bothered her, but she couldn't put a finger on it. She was still pondering the premonition when the Elite shimmered into view in front of her. It roared, slapping aside her pistol contemptuously before flinging her out into the field like a rag doll. The powdery snow cushioned her fall, and she felt something crunch under her aching back. A frozen lake! The Elite seemed to chuckle as it pulled an energy sword hilt from its belt. Silver-tan armor glinted in the moonlight as it snapped the weapon to life with a sound like shattering glass. She looked around frantically for her weapon as the Elite started toward her, brandishing the sword menacingly. Its mandibles parted in an inhuman grin that still seemed to convey brutal amusement. Bailey clenched her jaw, lunging to her feet with a hot anger she had been burying deep down since her friends died. "Come on, you bastard! Chop me into little pieces! Come on!" She backed away from the Elite, shuffling her feet gingerly across the hidden ice. It was covered by several inches of snow, and the alien's wide hooves didn't seem to be making contact. It probably had no idea what lay beneath the blanket of white. Bailey grinned wickedly as she slipped out of the backpack, reaching her right hand inside to grasp the handle of the flare gun. The Elite muttered a phrase in its own language and quickened its pace. Bailey dropped the pack and pointed the flare gun at the ice in front of her. She squeezed the trigger. A blinding crimson orb lanced into the snow at the alien's hooves with a muffled thump. The Elite paused, obviously puzzled by her behavior, as Bailey slipped, falling backward into the snow. The alien warrior rumbled deep in its chest, raising its sword high overhead for a killing stroke. It's left hoof stepped through the ice. The Elite cried out as its body plunged straight into the frigid, pitch-black water below. One arm clawed for purchase, but the partially-melted ice simply broke away around it. The sword carved one furrow into the snow from below, then disappeared with a sputtering hiss and a gout of steam. Bailey sighed, slumping back against the ice. She stared up at a star-filled sky. A cold wind moaned through the trees and caught at her eyelashes and hair. Her face was already numb, but she could still feel the air caress her tired eyes. A shrieking sound rose above the gale, and six shards of purple crystal stitched across the ice toward her. Bailey sat up, only to see the shards explode. Tiny flecks of hot agony lanced across her forehead as the ice shattered and fell away. The three Grunts standing near the tree line whooped with glee as she scrabbled away from the breach. The alien holding the needler took aim again. Its next barrage traced a line two meters to her right. She rolled away from the shards as they exploded, collapsing ice on that side. More shrapnel tore into her back. They were toying with her. Cutting strips out of the ice until she had nowhere else to run. Then they would smash the floating chunk beneath her and watch her drown. She raised her head, staring down her death with as much courage as she could muster. The Grunt squeezed its weapon's trigger and its head exploded. Bailey frowned in surprise as the crack-boom of hypersonic rifle fire slapped her chest. The rest of the aliens were hurled back into the trees amidst luminous clouds of blue blood. Only after the last Grunt collapsed into the snow did the thunder cease. She scanned the frozen lake, looking for the shooter. Several heart-pounding moments later a mound of white reared up near the far edge of the lake. It moved toward her quickly, shuffling across the ice with little apparent effort. It was definitely human. Bailey sighed, laying back against snow with a weariness unlike anything she'd ever felt before. The sniper approached slowly, cautiously, his progress barely audible. Bailey rolled over, pushing herself upright with her arms. She grinned at her savior, until the ice started cracking beneath her knees. She had time to suck in a terrified breath as the dark water closed around her body. Only the flightsuit shielded her from the shock of its icy touch, and even that did not save her as her face went under. The air seemed to explode from her lungs in an involuntary spasm, and she could imagine meeting the Elite she had killed on the bottom. She saw his hate-filled eyes boring into her own as his cold, alien hands throttled what little life she had left from her body.
An iron grip clamped down on the collar of her flightsuit, arresting her fall. It dragged her back toward the moonlight, out of the water, up onto the ice. She gulped for air, her breath steaming as she leaned back against the sniper's body. "Damn, you've got bad luck!" he said, breathing heavily, himself. Bailey craned her neck to look into his eyes. Warm eyes. Humor-filled eyes, framed by crows' feet. But they were unmistakably the eyes of a killer. "You have no idea," she said with a groan. So what if he was a killer? So was she. "You're probably right," he replied dryly, helping her up. "But I've got a hunch I'll find out soon enough." Another man trotted up to them, breathing even more heavily than the sniper. "You crazy, Walker! You fucking crazy!" The man bent over, hands on his knees as he gasped for air. "Ice is thin now!" The man called Walker chuckled dryly. "Thanks for the warning, Vlad." Bailey watched Vlad's eyes travel upward from the soles of her boots. They came to a halt somewhere in the vicinity of her bust. She felt morbid amusement tug at her lips and managed to turn it into a mocking smile. "Out of shape, or just lonely?" she said with a sneer. Vlad finally looked her in the eye, then shook his head with a grimace. "You always pick up wild ones, Walker. Never nice girls. Always fighters." Walker laughed. "Maybe I like 'em that way, Vlad. Too bad I'm so ugly they never stick around for long." He winked at her conspiratorially. Bailey grinned back. The killer had a sense of humor.
Fourth Cycle, 130 units (Covenant Battle Calendar) Emergency landing zone, northern hemisphere, Planet Earth (Human Designation) "Get them moving, Jeg," Xir rasped as he slid from the dropship's ramp. They had crushed several trees on the edge of the small clearing when the pilot brought the craft down. Snow-laden bows pressed in from every direction. Good, claustrophobic cover. Xir liked it. "Yes, sir." Jeg waved the Unggoy forward, then followed them into the trees. The squat soldiers fanned out in small groups, beady eyes scanning the forest for enemies. Their knees knocked only a little. It was an encouraging sign; these Unggoy had spines. Xir only hoped they weren't made of glass. The human planet was cold…this part of it, at least. The Unggoy seemed to revel in it, but their homeworld was a frozen ball of ice. Xir shivered, longing for the warm seas of his own world. A humid breeze. He cursed himself silently. This was a matter of survival, not comfort. "No," he whispered to himself. "This is a hunt. Nothing more. Wrong thinking will get me killed." He checked the charge of his particle beam rifle. "I am the predator, they are the prey." "Sir?" his spotter, Vig, asked at his shoulder. Xir turned, making sure the younger Kig-yar had another beam rifle strapped to his back. He had a feeling he would need the extra rounds. The planet was packed with humans, after all. "Nothing," Xir replied, passing the spotter a carbine. "Stand in my shadow at all times. Stay quiet, stay low. Move slowly." With that he trotted after the Unggoy, using them as a screen. They had spotted a nearby village from the air. It was unlikely the human military would deploy units to rescue such a remote, nonessential location. That simple fact made it a ripe target. A target Xir intended to claim for his own. "Sir," Jeg's voice growled from his signal unit. "The Unggoy scouts say the immediate area is clear of hostiles." Xir clucked skeptically. "Send two of our own people forward to confirm it. I don't trust the gassuckers, yet." "Understood. You still wish to take the human habitat?" "Yes. Approach slowly. Kill anything that might warn them of our presence." Xir cocked his head to the side, looking sternly at Vig. "Let's move."
0445 hours, 24 October 2552 (Military Calendar) Crash site (UNSC IFF tag LSI-S6/GL234), Near village of Ottokh, Sakha region, Siberia, Earth Fitz coughed up blood. He knew it was blood. It tasted like blood. When he looked down to see it he saw only darkness. Then he remembered. His eyes. The nuke had burned out his eyes. He didn't feel pain; that surprised him. Perhaps his flightsuit had pumped something into his bloodstream to take it away. It was supposed to, but everything had been shot to hell after the nuke went off. Fitz chuckled wryly. Everything had been shot to hell before the nuke went off. He couldn't remember if he had ejected or the computer had punched him out. That was impossible— the computer went down long before he entered the atmosphere. "Doesn't…matter," he muttered. "I'm dead…anyway." In a sense, that was true. It was cold, damn cold, despite his flightsuit. The helmet had kept the frigid air from touching his face for a while, but his body heat had slowly ebbed as the blood was drawn inward to warm his vital organs. Eventually he pulled it off—it muted his hearing, anyway. Now his cheeks and nose were numb. The pins-and-needles sensation in his chin was a parting gift of the blood running over it. He felt around the base of his ejection seat. At least the flight gloves were coldproof and he could still move his fingers. He found the latch to his flight harness and yanked, snapping the straps free. Fitz rolled to his right and felt the ground crunch beneath him. Snow. His hands fumbled for the emergency locker in his seat. The pre-loaded backpack inside, and its medkit, might keep him alive. But how would he find the right hypo? He could inject himself with the wrong meds and go into cardiac arrest. "Fuck!" He slammed his palm into the seat. The emergency compartment popped open guiltily, and he sobbed in frustration as he rested his forehead against the cold plastic. He reached wearily inside and retrieved the pack. His stomach growled, oblivious to his troubles, but he couldn't stand the idea of a blood-flavored ration bar. The canteen would be a better option. He worked at the pack's seals, then reached inside to remove the water bottle. Fitz swished the ice-cold slush around in his mouth and spat, imagining a bright red stain on white snow. But he couldn't see it. Wouldn't see anything ever again. The thought made his insides churn, his mouth go dry. He took another swig of the quickly freezing water and swallowed, his throat aching a little as the liquid crawled down his esophagus like a cold snake. He sighed, turning around to lean against the side of the ejection seat. "Come on, Fitz. Get your shit together." What shit? his fears retorted. You're blind as a bat in the middle of a winter wonderland, with nasties hiding behind every tree. What the hell are you gonna do? Fitz snarled. "I'm gonna live, asshole. I'm gonna get the hell out of here." He struggled to his feet, swaying without a visual reference to aid his balance. "I'm gonna find a way out and get back into space." He carefully leaned over to pick up the backpack. "Rachel's up there." Oh yeah? And what's she going to do with a blind pilot? Pathetic! "Shut up," Fitz muttered, realizing he was losing it. Talking to himself, hearing himself talk back...or the most evil, despairing part of his consciousness, at least. He took a tentative step forward, arms waving in front of his body. Hopefully he could avoid walking into a tree. She's probably dead, ya know. Little bits of space debris circling the drain. Should make a nice light show when they reenter. "SHUT THE FUCK UP!" Fitz howled. A weird hoot answered in the distance. He froze. "Oh, God," he whispered, his hand touching a nearby tree. He used it to guide himself to the ground.
He turned his head, listening for the alien call again. They'd all heard the recordings, watched the vids from the front lines. Everyone knew what a Grunt sounded like. "Shit," he whispered, realizing that he couldn't just sit there. They would find him. They're gonna find you anyway. You're probably just wandering in circles. They're gonna find you and carve you up. Fitz ignored the phantom voice. He rose on his haunches and crunched forward through the snow. He felt a light, cold touch on his eyelashes, then another. He paused for a moment to stick out his tongue. A snowflake promptly landed on it, quickly followed by more of its brethren. Fitz smiled. "You're forgetting one thing." Oh yeah? What's that? Fitz grinned maniacally as the snow began falling in earnest. A cold wind whipped it around his body. "I'm the luckiest son-of-a-bitch in the universe." The voice had no answer for that.
0510 hours, 24 October 2552 (Military Calendar) North of the Stanovoy Mountain Range, Sakha region, Siberia, Earth Bailey watched the sniper stare at the camouflaged Hornet for a full ten minutes, just to be sure the Covenant hadn't found it. Walker's eyes danced from point to point, as if matching the scenery against his memory. Snipers were trained to be ridiculously observant. It kept them alive. Snow had started falling in earnest. She suppressed the urge to shiver, despite the ghillie suit he'd wrapped around her shoulders at the lake. At first she had refused—until the cold Siberian wind hit her wet flightsuit. Walker had flashed a knowing grin; he understood the battle between one's pride and the weaknesses of the human body. Then he'd insisted. Bailey cast a quick look at Vlad, the spotter. She didn't trust him. There was something wrong about the way his eyes shifted in her direction every ten seconds. A hint of mental instability. And he had trouble keeping his damned mouth shut. "Come on, boss," Vlad whispered. "Coast clear." "Shut up," Walker retorted, one finger caressing the trigger guard of the M7S caseless submachine gun he carried. The suppressed weapon looked like it had been spray-painted white, with leaves laid across the receiver to let the parkerized finished show through. A good camo job. Bailey eyed the similarly painted AV-14 Hornet that sat just a few meters from their position. Good concealment on that, too. Camo nets mixed with natural foliage. These guys don't mess around. I wonder how they got their hands on all this hardware? "Ok," Walker said softly. "Vlad, you fly. Commander...hit the left strut and strap in." Bailey cast another suspicious glance at Vlad as the man trotted over to the aircraft and started stripping camo nets from the fuselage. "I can fly," she replied, her voice low. Walker chuckled as he moved toward the Hornet. His eyes never stopped scanning the forest around them. "I'll bet you can, lady. But Vlad knows this area better than anyone, and you're in no shape to try out a strange bird…especially in this weather." Walker swung his oversized pack into a storage compartment, locked his sniper rifle into a pintail mount, and pulled on a flight helmet. He fixed her with a pointed glance that communicated just how much room for argument he was prepared to give her, then tossed her a helmet of her own. Bailey opened her mouth to object, then thought better of it. She was rated on the AV-14, but Walker was right. She felt like shit—exhausted shit. She stowed her pack and strapped into the bench on the opposite side of the aircraft, yanking the helmet down around her ears. Vlad spun up the engines and kicked the VTOL jets to full power, lifting off. In moments they were cruising just above the snow-capped trees, starkly illuminated by the helmet's night optics. She craned her neck, scanning the sky for hostiles. True, the Hornet presented a very small radar cross-section, and was probably all but invisible in the wintry conditions, but who knew how many Covie fighters had gone atmospheric? She glanced at the missile pod beneath her—or rather, where a missile pod should have been.
"No seventy mike-mikes?" she asked over the built-in COM channel. "Nope," Walker replied. "Not on this variant. Besides, heavy munitions were never my thing." She could hear a grin in his voice. "Don't worry. Vlad's got the scanners up and running…I didn't cheap out on them." She snorted. Scanners wouldn't be much help if a Covenant Seraph decided to swoop down and fire a couple of plasma bursts at them. The Hornet wasn't nearly maneuverable enough to evade a super-sonic attack. "Hey," Vlad said over the COM, his English suddenly much improved. "I can't raise anyone in town." Walker's voice went abruptly cold. "Try the emergency channel." "Already did, boss. Nothing. Maybe the transmitter went down again. You know Vasily's always fiddling…" he trailed off into half-muttered Russian. "What's up?" Bailey asked, a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. Walker sighed. "We can't reach anyone in Ottokh. It happens every once in a while…technology takes a beating around here, and most of it is older than me." Bailey ground her teeth. "You think the Covenant hit the town?" "It's more of a village, or a hamlet. Thirteen or fourteen people. Not exactly what I would call a significant target." She shook her head sadly. "Doesn't matter. They'd burn it for fun…or if they were hungry enough. Grunts and Jackals have been known to develop a taste for human flesh under extreme circumstances." "Shit," Vlad muttered. "Siberia very extreme." Walker grunted. "No kidding, pal. Let's head for home. We'll rearm and drive down in the Hog." Bailey chuckled. "You've got an LRV, too? I've seen whole platoons with fewer toys." Silence thundered in her ears, and she could imagine the two men casting cautious glances at each other. "Let's just say I used to be connected," Walker replied. "That's obvious," Bailey continued. "Don't worry. Your secret's safe with me." "No secret," Vlad protested. "Local authorities give permit. We all legit an' shit." "And shit," Walker echoed dryly. "Now shut up and get this crate moving. I don't want to get shot down by some bored Covie space cadet." "Why are you worried?" Bailey asked with a laugh. "He'd probably mistake you for his mother." Silence. Then... "Lady, I like your sense of humor."
0523 hours, 24 October 2552 (Military Calendar) Village of Ottokh, Sakha Region, Siberia, Earth, 61° 10' 32N, 121° 53' 57E, Alt. 317m, Pop. 14+1 Fitz stumbled against the outbuilding accidentally, nearly breaking his nose— which had led him there in the first place. His hands traced along the rough exterior, trying to find a door. A way in, out of the cold Siberian snowstorm. He had little feeling left in his extremities. His face was numb; probably frostbitten. His right hand found a latch, or what felt like a latch to the slivers of frozen meat his fingers had become. Fitz fumbled frantically at the mechanism, trying desperately to perform what would have been a simple task for anyone but a half-frozen blind man. At last he managed to shove his way through the door. Within was scarcely warmer than without, but at least he was out of the wind. Something cold and hard brushed against his shoulder. Startled, he stumbled sideways. His head struck another frozen object, sending it swinging away from him. The creaking of metal chains shrieked in his ears. Since going blind, he had begun to rely more on his sense of hearing than ever before. It had helped him evade the Grunts in the forest. A jolt of fear ran through his gut as he reached up to probe the strange objects with his hands. What if the Covenant bastards were just toying with him? "Meat," he whispered hoarsely. He had stumbled into a meat locker, kept cold by the Siberian winter. He pushed a chunk of whatever these people ate away from him, hands feeling for a place to sit down. He needed to rest. Regain his strength.
The door opened behind him, admitting a gust of frigid air and a flurry of snowflakes. Footsteps scratched across the floor. Stopped. A boy's voice spoke to him in what was probably Russian. Fitz had never considered himself a linguist. "I don't understand you, kid," he said, turning toward the voice. "I'm a UNSC pilot…my ship crashed nearby and I need help. You understand? Help?" "Understand," the voice replied in broken English. "Wait." The boy's feet shuffled back out of the meat locker and the door shut behind him. Fitz gingerly lowered himself to what felt like a box. It seemed to support his weight. The door banged open again. "Well?" a harsh, feminine voice demanded. "Are you coming, or would you rather sit on my kovbasa all day?" "Uh," Fitz said hesitantly. "Who are you?" She snorted. "I could ask the same question. Come inside before you freeze to death." Fitz exhaled wearily, getting to his feet. He nearly slipped on the slick floor, but caught himself on a hanging rack of ribs. Her voice seemed to change. Soften, if only a little. "You can't see." It wasn't a question. "No," he replied sourly. "I can't." Strong hands seized him by the shoulders and guided him through the hanging sides of beef to the door. They stepped outside, and the moaning wind drowned any possibility of conversation. Fitz followed the woman's guiding touch away from the outbuilding. The sound of unfamiliar music met his ears despite the voice of the storm. His boot struck a wooden step, and only the firm grasp on his shoulders saved him from falling. The woman guided him up a flight of stairs and someone else helped him through a door that creaked open. A blast of hot air hit him in the face, along with the smell of strong tobacco and… Food. God, I'm hungry. The door slammed shut behind him. Someone brushed snow from his shoulders and back with a rough towel. He heard a radio broadcast blaring in Russian. It sounded like a news program, probably recounting the status of the invasion. "What's your name?" the woman's voice asked, sternly. "Fitzhume, Gerald. Lieutenant, UNSC Navy. Service number 03292-66012-GF." She chuckled at his rote answer. "They make you practice that, don't they?" Fitz found himself smiling for the first time since the crash. "Yes, Ma'am." The aroma coming from what sounded like the kitchen was intoxicating. "Where am I?" "Ottokh. Which is the same as nowhere." She steered him into a comfortable chair, shooing another man out of the seat like an irate mother duck. His protests didn't seem to faze her. "My name is Raisa. You're safe here." Fitz sat bolt upright, forgetting his hunger and how damned comfortable the chair was. "No, I'm not. There are Covenant soldiers in the forest. I don't know how many, or how far, but they could probably find this place easier than I did." All conversation in the room died. "You're sure of this?" Raisa asked, sounding unconvinced. Fitz nodded. "Who the hell do you think shot me down?" The room exploded in a cacophony of overlapping conversation, mostly in Russian. Fitz had trouble telling just how many people were present. Couldn't be many—the room didn't sound all that big. Raisa shouted something in her own language, silencing them. She was the only one who sounded calm. "Do you have any idea how far you walked to get here?" she asked, quietly. "No," Fitz replied. "I could've been going in circles." "You couldn't have been out there longer than forty minutes," Raisa mused. "Otherwise, you'd be more blue than pink." A moment of silence passed, then she snapped out an order in Russian. Someone left in a hurry. Fitz cleared his throat. "You speak English very well…I mean, for being way out here." "Yes," she replied. "I do. We'll get you thawed out, and something to eat. Viktor will have a look at your wounds." "You wouldn't happen to have a COM unit?" Fitz asked hopefully. Raisa's fingers gingerly touched his chin, gently tilting his head to either side. She was looking at his ruined eyes. "We do. Grigory has gone to send for help." A voice called her away, and Fitz listened to each footstep as she crossed the room. An older man spoke with her in hushed tones—it sounded like they were looking at something. Out the window, perhaps? Fitz found himself wishing he understood Russian.
A strange, whining crack sounded in the distance. Raisa gasped. Fitz instantly knew that something bad had just happened. It had to be to startle that woman. She swore vehemently, incomprehensibly. Someone dragged him roughly to the floor. He heard the sound of a light panel being slapped and felt a familiar knot of fear tighten in his stomach. "Let me guess..." he muttered darkly.
Fourth Cycle, 168 units (Covenant Battle Calendar) Unidentified human habitat, northern hemisphere, Planet Earth (Human Designation) Xir shot the human through the skull, boiling its brains away before it could make a sound. The Unggoy were not so subtle. Their needlers chopped up the corpse with loud, shrill popping noises. Xir tracked his weapon's scope past the communications array—the alien's probable destination. Tracks were barely visible in the snow, which continued to fall in earnest. He couldn't see where the human had come from. Not that it mattered. There were few structures in this settlement. Few places they could be hiding. He shivered once, intentionally, shaking snow off his shoulders. "The street is clear," Jeg said over the command channel. "Your orders?" Xir scratched the side of his beak with one claw, eyeing the empty spaces between buildings. The deep shadows and darkened windows. "Very well," he replied. "Send a squad of Unggoy to blockade the far end of the street. I'll take up a position beyond the humans' communication structure. If they're stupid enough to venture out of their pitiful boxes, I'll take them." Jeg hesitated before answering. "You don't wish us to clear the buildings?" Xir chuckled coldly. "And waste lives to a few human shotguns? Not even Unggoy should die as such fodder." He cocked his head, motioning for his spotter to follow him to their next position. "No…we'll wait them out. Kill the power." "Yes…sir." Xir chuckled again. Jeg was growing uncomfortable with the cold. A ruthless warrior, perhaps...but one who hated this planet's climate almost as much as he hated its inhabitants. Xir realized he couldn't quite blame him. He moved stealthily to the spot he'd picked out, the perch from which he could put a hole through a human eye at any point on the deserted street. Vig bobbed behind him—less stealthy, but not unforgivably so. Few Kig-yar had mastered field craft as well as Xir, and he remembered the fact without ego. They couldn't help being lesser predators, just as he couldn't help being a better killer. "Sir, we have a human air vehicle approaching from the north." Xir's eyes snapped skyward. "Has it spotted us?" Jeg paused a moment before replying. "I don't believe so. It's passing the habitat…appears to be setting down perhaps four thousand units from our position." "Do we have anything that can take it out?" "Not at this range." "Very well," Xir replied. "Dispatch a squad. Tell them to find out where that craft landed and destroy it. Kill the pilot."
0535 hours, 24 October 2552 (Military Calendar) Widowmaker Lodge (Est. 2527), Near the village of Ottokh, Sakha region, Siberia, Earth Vlad set the Hornet down a little roughly, throwing his passengers against their harnesses. Bailey heard Walker grunt a curse as he slid off the bench into slush from the aircraft's jet wash. He motioned for
her to follow him inside while Vlad started shutting down the Hornet's systems. Bailey grabbed her pack and trudged up the front steps as an automatic light above the door snapped on. "Come on in," Walker said as he slapped a hand against the access plate, popping the lock on the front doors. The interior lights faded on slowly, casting an inviting glow through the doorway. The room was pleasantly warm. Bailey worked her shoulders as she stepped inside, letting her survival pack slide to the floorboards. She followed him into the open kitchen and collapsed in a nearby chair with a wince. Walker unsuccessfully hid a smile as he dropped his huge pack to the tiled floor and leaned his sniper rifle against the worn granite counter top. Bailey noticed that he kept the SMG slung over his shoulder. Paranoid and well-trained, she thought to herself—not for the first time. She watched as Walker went about brewing a pot of coffee and a kettle of tea simultaneously without asking her which she preferred. He looked to be in his mid-fifties or early sixties at most. Still ruggedly handsome, in his own way. Contrary to all the self-deprecating humor. He pulled a health pack from a nearby cabinet. "I guess you've done this before?" she asked, eyeing the medkit warily. Her left arm throbbed now that she had some feeling back in it. The warm lodge was thawing her out. "Yeah," Walker replied with a chuckle, opening the health kit. "Once or twice." He took a pair of scissors to her flightsuit, deftly cutting away the sleeve above and below the ugly plasma burn, which had fused some of the durable, multi-layered material to the wound. Walker sprayed it with fluid from a gray bottle, almost magically dissolving the charred flightsuit and revealing the extent of the damage beneath. Bailey gritted her teeth. "Any chance I can get a topical? That shit burns worse than the stuff that grazed me." Walker said nothing as he expertly applied biofoam to the wound and wrapped an all-weather, selfsealing battle dressing around her upper arm. Bailey sighed in relief as the pain ebbed. Walker pointed at the scrape on her cheek. "Anything besides that I should take a look at?" He gently pressed a small bandage against the cut. "Uh, yeah," she muttered as she unsealed her flightsuit, pulling it down around her waist. She twisted sideways in the chair, offering him her back. "Some needler rounds exploded pretty close. I think I might've taken some microshrapnel." She felt him probe at a few spots that stung at even his incredibly light touch. "You took a few slivers," he confirmed. "Take your shirt off." He said it tonelessly, without any trace of emotion. No lust. No hint of desire. Bailey hid a wry smile and obliged, gingerly stripping off the thin, sweat-soaked garment. "Smooth move," she said teasingly. "Taking advantage of a medical emergency." He laughed, rummaging around in the health pack. "I wish I'd thought of it years ago. Medical emergencies aren't that hard to fake." She felt the cold touch of tweezers and tiny flares of pain as he started pulling crystalline splinters out of her back. "Well," he continued as he worked. "You're gonna want to have a navy doctor take a look at this as soon as possible. There's probably more here than I can see with the naked eye." He stumbled a little on the word 'naked.' Bailey smiled, opening her mouth to call him on it when the front door banged against the wall. Vlad shuffled through, a cold gust of wind at his back. He froze when he saw them, eyes lingering on what little he could see of her bare profile. She gave him a deliberately blank look. It wasn't the first time someone had ogled her, and it wouldn't be the last—there was very little privacy in the military. "Go check the COM unit," Walker said over his shoulder, a bit gruffly. Bailey studied him in her peripheral vision. Was that a trace of disgust in his voice? "Uh…yeah, boss. I just…" "You just shut down the Hornet. Now you're going to contact the villagers." There was a distinct ring of command in Walker's tone this time, and that same nonexistent margin for debate that she had heard in the forest. Vlad's mouth snapped shut like a bear trap. He reluctantly tore his eyes away from her and stalked into the other room, slamming the door angrily. Walker shook his head. "You'll have to excuse my...associate…Commander," he said softly. "He's not exactly what I would call a gentleman." He looked up into her eyes for the first time since bandaging her arm. She smiled. "It'll take more than a horny Siberian hunting guide to offend me, Mr. Walker. Trust me on that." She turned slightly toward him, watching his eyes the whole time. They didn't budge. Not even a downward flicker. "Call me Bill, Commander," he muttered. After a long moment he averted his eyes and set the tweezers in the open health kit on the counter. Bailey smiled. A lesser man would have taken advantage of
the not-so subtle invitation, and proven himself so. Not this guy. "It's Rachel…Bill," she said to his back, pulling her tank-top back on. "I'm not on duty." Walker turned around, holding a huge steaming mug in each hand. "In that case… tea or coffee?" he asked with a grin. She opened her mouth to answer as the mug in his left hand exploded in a flash of green, splattering hot tea all over. Walker dropped to the floor, losing the other mug in the process. Tarblack coffee sloshed across the worn tiles. Bailey rolled off the chair, ignoring the tiny lances of agony the motion produced in her back and shoulders. She belly-crawled over to Walker, who had propped himself against the bar. She immediately noticed a splotch of blood mingling with the spilled coffee. "You're hit!" she yelled as more enemy fire raked the kitchen—it was punching right through the walls. Walker looked down at his side and sneered. "Piece of the mug nicked me...that alien ray gun packs a fuckin' wallop." He ducked as another green bolt smacked into the cabinets across from them, splintering the wood. Walker swore, handing her his SMG as he crawled over to his sniper rifle. Bailey craned her neck and reached over the top of the counter, sliding the health kit off the edge. She pulled her arm down just in time as more bolts of energy blew chunks out of the granite, kicked the medkit over to Walker. He was quickly checking his rifle over for damage, oblivious to the flesh wound. Vlad punted open the door to the COM room, a battle rifle in his hands. He fired it wildly through the doorway then lobbed a frag grenade after the inaccurate fusillade. Oddly enough, his throwing arm was far more accurate. She heard the inarticulate cries of a few Grunts as the grenade exploded with a muffled whump that shook the lodge to its foundations. The incoming fire slackened. "Knock it off, Vlad!" Walker yelled through the kitchen doorway. "You wanna bring the building down?" He toed open a low cabinet, pulled out an ancient, sawed-off double barrel shotgun with a pistol grip. Walker cracked it open to make sure it was loaded, snapped it shut. He looked over at her with a halfcrazed grin on his face as more bolts of green flashed overhead. "What kind of weapon are they using? It's going right through the light armor inserts I installed in the outer walls!" He tore his shirt open and picked a tiny shard of the mug out of his side. "Covenant carbine!" Bailey yelled back over the din. "Your inserts were probably designed to stop AR fire, not energy weapons!" A near miss cut through the cabinet next to her head. "We've got to get out of here!" Walker nodded. "Right. Vlad!" "What?!" Vlad's muffled voice carried from the COM room. He sounded a little spooked and really pissed off—not the best combination under the circumstances. "Toss two more grenades!" Walker yelled. "Smoke and frag!" He slapped a battle dressing on his wound. "But you said…" "Just DO IT!" Walker bellowed. Bailey heard Vlad muttering protests, but a smoke grenade sailed out of the COM room nonetheless. It went off with a hissing thump. Another frag followed it. Walker was already up and moving. He slung his sniper rifle over his shoulder and caught up his pack without slowing. Bailey scrambled after him, M7S up and ready. She fired a burst in the general direction of the front door as Walker rounded the corner. She skidded after him, pounding up a narrow staircase as the Covenant fired blindly through the smoke screen, chewing up the bottom steps. She followed Walker down a hall and into a bedroom. He jumped up on the mattress, aiming out the window on the far side of the room. Walker let out a breath and squeezed the trigger. The report slapped Bailey in the chest. The weapon's suppressor took an edge off, but only to certain extent. It was a big damn gun. "What do you want me to do?" she asked loudly. "Cover the stairs," he replied, jumping off the bed. He raced across the hall and shouldered open a door on the other side. Jumped up on the bed in that room. Bailey slid along the wall and trained her SMG on the staircase. She stepped around the wraparound railing to sight down the steps, heard Vlad yelling in Russian somewhere below. Saw a pulsing blue plasma grenade land on the floor in the foyer. "Grenade!" she shouted in Walker's direction, then pushed through the door behind her and dove on the bed. She heard his rifle fire again, then the plasma 'nade went off. Cracks appeared in the walls and dust shook free of the ceiling, raining down on her. A fire roared downstairs. She got up, coughed on a lungful of dust, and stumbled out into the hall. Heat waves shimmered above the open stairwell. Thin tendrils of smoke curled up between the floorboards at the other end of the hall.
Walker crashed out of the front room with his pack and rifle slung over his shoulders, antique shotgun at the ready. "Let's go!" he shouted, running past. "Where?" she yelled at his back. "The place is on fire!" She hesitated as he plunged down the steps into the hot air rising from the lobby, then followed with a vicious curse. Vlad limped out of the COM room, wearing a combat harness and pack. His face was smudged with soot and he looked like he was having a really bad day. They all did. Walker stepped over to a huge armoire in the common room, as though oblivious to the blaze raging behind him. More Covenant fire lanced through the smoke. Bailey returned the favor with her SMG. Vlad sprayed an' prayed. A familiar hoot sounded behind them. Bailey whirled and put a burst through the skull of a Grunt that had snuck through a shattered rear window. Blue blood spattered across the back wall. "Come on, Bill!" she yelled, getting angry. "We don't have time to…" her words died as the armoire's false front swung away, revealing a well-stocked weapons locker. Let's just say I used to be connected, he'd said. "No shit," Bailey breathed as the man pulled another battle rifle from a rack and tossed a loaded combat pack at her feet. She shouldered the pack and traded the SMG for the BR-55 he offered her. Her eyes widened as he yanked an M19 rocket launcher from the locker. The heat from the fire was getting uncomfortably hot. Vlad shot a second Grunt in the back of the common room, nearly cutting the alien in half. "Ok," Walker said with an evil grin. "Let's go." He nodded to Vlad, who opened a door on the opposite side of the room. Darkness lay beyond, and Walker motioned her through, his eyes flitting back and forth to cover both ends of the building. She followed Vlad inside as overhead lights snapped on to reveal a wellequipped garage. A civilian ground car sat next to a snow-camouflaged Hog. A civilian version of the Warthog LRV. She was both relieved and disappointed to see the vehicle. While sturdy, and undeniably maneuverable in this terrain, having a LAAG mounted on a rear turret would have been heavenly under the circumstances. "Move!" Walker shouted, backing through the door. Bailey slid across the hood of the ground car, beating Vlad to the driver's seat. He grimaced but didn't object, instead jumping up to sit on the rear bench. Walker threw his oversized pack on top of the man and leapt into the passenger seat, almost knocking her in the head with the rocket launcher. She took a moment to familiarize herself with the controls as another plasma grenade exploded in the common room, sending a shudder through the garage. "What're you waiting for?" Walker demanded. "There's enough ordnance in that locker to crack a frigate!" She scowled at him, yanked the Hog into reverse, and backed through the garage door. Vlad howled as thin metal curled up and over the Hog's roll cage. Even Walker seemed shaken by their hasty exit. She smiled at him sweetly, threw the Hog into first gear, and tore off through the snow. Covenant needler and carbine rounds flashed past them and Walker responded by sending a rocket into the tree line. A plume of fire and smoke rose up, showering alien body parts across the frozen landscape. Bailey gunned the Hog's powerful engine and tore off down a road carved three feet deep in the snow, the vehicle's high-beams lighting the way. "I thought heavy munitions weren't your thing!" she shouted with a grin. "I lied," Walker retorted, cradling the rocket launcher in one arm while stowing the sniper rifle next to his seat with the other. "Stay on this road. It'll take us down to the village." Bailey grimaced. "You think they got hit, too?" Walker exchanged a glance with Vlad, who was hunkered down in the back seat. "Yeah, probably. If they bothered to come all the way up here for us…" he trailed off. "Right," she agreed. "Do you think anyone down there had a chance to get away?" Vlad laughed weirdly. "She don't know these people." "He's right," Walker said with a chuckle. "Siberians don't run." He looked up as snowflakes poured through the open top of the vehicle. Bailey turned on the wipers, which didn't seem to help much. "Especially in this weather," Walker finished. He opened the glove compartment and removed two pair of compact night optics, handing her one. She put the glasses on and activated them before switching off the Hog's headlights. "Ok," Bailey ventured. "Any chance they can hold the Covenant off?" Walker looked at her over the tube of the rocket launcher. Grinned. "Right," Bailey muttered. "Siberians."
0546 hours, 24 October 2552 (Military Calendar) Village of Ottokh, Sakha Region, Siberia, Earth, 61° 10' 32N, 121° 53' 57E, Alt. 317m, Pop. 13+1 Fitz heard them arguing in hushed tones. Knew by the sound of the man's voice that he wanted to leave. Raisa ordered him to stay at first, and that seemed to work for a while. Then she pleaded with him. That seemed to work for a while, too. In the end, the idiot pushed his way past her and snuck out the door. "Raisa," he said softly. "He's gonna get us all killed." "I know!" she shot back angrily. "I couldn't stop him without shooting him, and I've known the old fool my whole life. He used to…" CRACK. The common room fell deathly silent. Raisa sucked in a pained breath. They all knew what that alien sound meant. Fitz hadn't seen it—couldn't see it—but she had explained what happened to the man who tried to reach the COM shack. A relatively quick death, at least, Fitz thought morbidly. "You have a weapon in here?" he whispered. "Yes. Two shotguns and an assault rifle." "Where'd you get that?" Fitz asked incredulously. "A man named Walker issued one rifle to every home in the village a long time ago. He taught me your language when I was a little girl, too." Fitz chewed on his bottom lip as he digested the information. "Ok. Set the shotguns up by the doors. Whoever's the best shot should cover the windows with the AR." He thought about what would happen when the Covenant realized where they were. "And find a shovel if you can. They might start lobbing grenades in here. The only thing we can do is try to scoop them up and throw them out the window. Not much, but it might keep us alive a little longer." "Right," Raisa whispered hoarsely. She started issuing hushed orders in Russian. "How many people are in here with us?" Fitz asked. She hesitated. "Seven. Now." He heard the sadness in her voice. In such a small village, everyone had to be like family. "They came to listen for news of the invasion." "And where are the others?" Fitz pressed. "In their homes, I should think. One family lives at this end of the village. Three people. There are two others…both live alone." Fitz grimaced. "And that's not including this Walker guy?" "No," Raisa replied. "He and my ex-husband—I mean, his assistant—live at a hunting lodge he runs for foreign corporate assholes." Fitz chuckled. "Sounds like you've formed a solid opinion of visitors." She laughed softly under her breath. "You are not an asshole, Lieutenant…obviously." He felt her hand grasp his reassuringly. "We are grateful you came to warn us." Fitz almost opened his mouth to protest that it was an accident, then thought better of it. He had warned them, after all. "I don't mean to pry," he said, feeling a little guilty. "But you said your ex-husband works with this Walker guy?" Silence. "Yes," she said at last. "We divorced after Vitaly was born." Fitz thought back to the meat locker. "Vitaly is your son? He's the one who found me?" "Yes." "He is in here with us?" Fitz asked softly. She hesitated again. "Yes." Her voice trembled ever so slightly. The first real sign of fear he'd been able to detect. "Don't worry," Fitz reassured her. "The UNSC doesn't just abandon downed pilots. I'm sure they'll send a rescue party." Raisa chuckled. "Don't count on it. The Covenant are invading the whole planet at once. I doubt they will bother to send soldiers out here to find one man." She turned away from him, as if looking out the window again. "I'm counting on someone a lot closer to home."
Fitz frowned. "Who?" She turned back, warm breath caressing his cheek. "An old friend."
Fourth Cycle, 181 units (Covenant Battle Calendar) Unidentified human habitat, northern hemisphere, Planet Earth (Human Designation) Xir shot the second human through the chest, but only because its head was obscured at the opportune moment. The results were just as effective, just as deadly. "Excellent shot, sir," Vig whispered at his elbow. "Not so excellent that you should break sound discipline to compliment me on it," Xir muttered, his tone deadly. Vig flinched, though only a little—the young warrior was learning. Had he budged another fraction of a unit, Xir would have considered replacing him with a more competent subordinate, and Vig would not have survived such a regrettable process. Xir watched the building from which the aged human had emerged. Larger than the rest, it seemed to be some sort of common house—dilapidated, as were all the human structures in this region. No wonder the San 'Shyuum thought so little of the species. "Jeg," Xir whispered into his COM unit. "Sir?" his second-in-command responded instantly. "You know which structure that human exited?" "Yes, sir. I have already placed a squad near the building, ready to move in if necessary. They will also prevent anyone from escaping." Xir nodded in satisfaction. "Excellent. It looks like some kind of primitive food storage or distribution facility. We do not wish to destroy it. As distasteful as I imagine human food to be, we cannot know how long it will take our forces to subdue the planetary defenses. Resupply is uncertain." "Understood," Jeg replied. "They will refrain from demolishing the structure." A strangely familiar sound echoed through the winter stillness. Xir suppressed the urge to cant his slender head in the direction of the approaching noise, instead relying on his understanding of acoustics to pinpoint it. "Do you hear that, Jeg?" he asked softly. "Hear, sir? I…wait. Yes, I hear it. A human ground vehicle?" Xir clucked affirmatively. "Approaching from the south. Shift your warriors to cover it. And Jeg?" "Sir?" "Any word from the squad you dispatched to take out the human aircraft?" Silence answered him. "I see," Xir continued, displeasure seeping into his tone. "How many of our own people did you send with the Unggoy?" "Two, sir. We must assume they failed." "See that you don't follow their example," Xir said coldly. "Understood. Out." Xir shifted his posture with almost painfully slow movements of his arms and legs, situating himself to cover the southern approach to the habitat. If a human decided to drive its vehicle up main street, he would stop it in its tracks. "Vig?" he called to his spotter. "Sir?" "Give me that fresh rifle. I may need it."
0551 hours, 24 October 2552 (Military Calendar) Approaching the village of Ottokh, Sakha Region, Siberia, Earth
"You raised them on the COM, right?" Walker asked, gritting his teeth as they hit a particularly bad rut. Bailey gripped the steering wheel tightly. The poor excuse for a road was pushing her driving skills to the limit. Vlad cursed as he was thrown hard against his six-point harness. "Who, the Army? I used the emergency channel but got no response. Then I tried that special encryption you told me never to use." "And?" Walker demanded. "They sounded pissed." Walker sighed. "Great. Twenty-five years of early retirement wasted. Are they coming?" Bailey threw him a questioning look that he failed to notice. Vlad grunted. "Would you?" "Probably not." Walker chuckled darkly. "I guess I'm pretty low on the priority list at the moment." "Would you mind running that by me again?" Bailey asked over the roar of the engine. Walker looked over at her with an uncomfortable expression on his face. "I tendered my resignation back in '26. They weren't too happy about it, especially when I took a few liberties with my severance pay." Bailey smirked. "I thought spooks didn't get severance pay." "Exactly." She looked sideways at him. "You mean you stole it?" Walker squirmed visibly in his seat. "Not 'stole,' exactly. I prefer to think of it as a quasi-legal reallocation of government resources. As you can see, it's come in mighty handy today." He patted the rocket launcher affectionately. "I guess I can't argue with that," Bailey said with a chuckle. "I can't believe I've been flirting with a criminal this whole time." Walker squirmed again, his mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water. Vlad looked at her incredulously. "What…during the firefight?" "Shut up," Walker snapped. "The Commander was only joking." He shot her a comically suspicious look. "Right?" Bailey laughed again, enjoying his discomfort. "Of course, Bill," she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "How could a woman like me ever find an old piece of shit-stained boot leather attractive?" They hit another pothole, hard. Bailey fell silent—she'd almost bitten her own tongue off. "You know what, Boss?" Vlad said after a moment of deep contemplation. "I don't think she was kidding before. Maybe now, but not—" A hail of carbine, plasma, and needler fire filled the air, drowning out any response Walker might have issued. He fired his last rocket at a trio of Grunts ahead. It skimmed low over their heads, blasting them forward into the road without killing them. Not that the oversized tires of the Hog had much trouble finishing the job. More carbine fire punched holes in the vehicle's frame and canopy. Vlad leaned over the side and opened up with his battle rifle. It kept the enemy on their toes, if nothing else. Bailey wished the man could just kill something for a change. She swung the vehicle off the road, around a grove of trees, trying to put some cover between them and the shooters. Another Grunt leapt out of the brush in front of them. Walker held out the spent rocket launcher tube like a teenager with a baseball bat, smashing the squat alien's skull like an empty mailbox. He dropped the launcher and took up his SMG, double-tapping a second Grunt that wandered out of the tree line. Bailey whistled low as she barreled on through the snow. "Nice shooting," she said without looking at him. Walker glanced over at her sharply. "What? Oh. I don't think now's the best time to be—" "We might die today," Bailey snapped, cutting him off. "No…we probably will die today. I don't plan on leaving anything unsaid." She jerked the wheel to the right, avoiding a fallen tree. Vlad laughed. "She got a point, Walker." "Vlad…" Walker growled menacingly, his voice trailing off into silence. Then a half-smile creased his rugged features. "Maybe you're right, ah…Rachel." Bailey grunted as they rammed through a stand of saplings. "'Bout time somebody admitted it." She swung the Hog back onto the road. "How far to the village?" Walker squinted, scanning the darkness ahead through his night vision glasses. "Eighteen-hundred meters or so. Stop here." "What?" Vlad demanded as Bailey stomped on the brake. "Why stop? We can just ride through and—" "And get our balls shot off," Walker finished for him. "Well, except for her," he jerked his head at Bailey. "Sorry, pal. We're doing this my way." Walker reached over the back seat and pulled an extra ghillie suit out of his pack, handing it to Bailey. She gave him a grateful nod and shrugged into the suit, sealing the front clasps with shaking hands—adrenaline was a bitch when you didn't need it.
"This is insane, even for you," Vlad said with a moan. "How many of them are out there? You don't know!" "Exactly," Walker growled. "If this thing were up-armored and packing a LAAG I might feel differently." He cast a pointed glance in the other man's direction while filling a drag bag with extra magazines from his pack. "You want to get yourself killed? Be my guest…take the keys." He slid out of the passenger seat. Bailey followed without a word, clearing the action of her battle rifle. Vlad stood staring at them, mouth agape. He started cursing under his breath in Russian. Bailey watched Walker slink into the forest like a wraith. He never looked back. She spared the spotter a quick, almost sympathetic glance over her shoulder. He was leaning against the Hog, eyes on the ground. Unmoving. "Don't worry about him," Walker whispered as he stepped around the scaly trunk of a towering larch. "He's got more to be afraid of in town than the Covenant." Bailey frowned. It seemed out of character for the man to be holding a conversation under the circumstances. "What?" Walker grinned. "Not 'what'…'who.' And that 'who' would be his ex-wife. Raisa." A worried look crossed his features as he gently pushed a low hanging branch to one side without breaking it. "Step in my footprints," he told her in a whisper. Bailey nodded, responding in kind. "I don't understand—" "Shhh," Walker cut her off, freezing in place. "Sound discipline from now on. Stay with me and try to leave as little sign as possible. Clear?" He waited until she nodded. "Let's go." Bailey followed him through the trees, scanning the darkness with her optics. She half expected a Grunt to pop out from behind every rock, an Elite to be hiding in every deep shadow. Walker halted, settling down on his haunches. He reached into his drag bag and handed her a metal cylinder—a sound suppressor for the BR-55. She nodded, fitting the attachment to the threaded business end of her rifle as quietly as possible. The moment she was finished, Walker continued toward the village. He had already swapped his SMG for the sniper rifle. The sound of the Hog's engine rose behind them, snarling past on their left. Walker shook his head slowly. Bailey couldn't see his face, but she imagined it was etched with regret. Half a minute later a strange, whining CRACK echoed in the winter stillness. They froze, listening to the report roll through the cold air. Walker slowly turned to face her. He mouthed 'sniper' and slowly canted his head in the direction they were headed. Bailey nodded and they continued on. It was slow going, but they had avoided being spotted thus far. Walker seemed intent on keeping it that way. After what seemed like hours, Walker slowly got down on his belly. Bailey followed suit, and they crawled the last hundred meters to the tree line, staying well back from the edge. Walker scanned the buildings on the near side of the village and the single road running through the middle of it. The rough track angled sharply away to the right. The Snow Hog was in sight, having crashed into the front of a house at the end of the row. Smoke wafted out of its engine compartment. She eyed the cab through her 2x scope; there was no sign of Vlad. She glanced at Walker. The man hadn't moved more than an inch since they took up their position. Bailey set her attention on the town again, keeping her ears perked for aliens sneaking up behind them. Walker seemed to be playing a waiting game for now. The only thing she could do was play along.
0626 hours, 24 October 2552 (Military Calendar) Village of Ottokh, Sakha Region, Siberia, Earth, 61° 10' 32N, 121° 53' 57E, Alt. 317m, Pop. 12+1 "Thank God that stove runs on pellets," Fitz muttered under his blanket. "Don't get used to it," Raisa answered. "We're almost out." The Covenant had cut the power an hour before, shutting down the building's electric heaters. "One of these days I'll learn to keep my mouth shut," Fitz growled. Someone whispered something in Russian—a warning. He heard Raisa shift, heard the click of an assault rifle's safety being disengaged.
"What's going on?" "They're out there," Raisa said in hushed tones. Fitz sucked in a breath. "Where? Near that smashed vehicle?" "No…behind us. They're just watching." Fitz swore. "They know we're in here…probably waiting us out, though I can't imagine why." A shotgun boomed in the confined space. Raisa shouted something profane at the nervous culprit. Fitz cursed under his breath as broken glass tinkled to the floor. An angry, fearful male voice shouted back at her in Russian. Fitz clenched his jaw. "Tell that idiot to hold his fire!" Raisa muttered something in her own language. "I did—" Plasma bolts stitched across the wall, showering splinters down on them. The Grunts were returning "Get down!" Fitz bellowed. An acrid smell filled his nostrils. The faint hint of smoke from a structure
"Do you smell that? Are we burning?" Raisa sobbed. "No. But I can see flames across the street." A needler hummed in the distance and small explosions shook the building's frame. Raisa fell against Fitz, wrapping her other arm around Vitaly as he cried out. Fitz suddenly found himself whispering reassurances to both of them, despite his own growing terror.
0630 hours, 24 October 2552 (Military Calendar) Village of Ottokh, Sakha Region, Siberia, Earth, 61° 10' 32N, 121° 53' 57E, Alt. 317m, Pop. 12+1 "Damn," Walker whispered. Bailey cocked her head, listening. "Who're they shooting at?" Walker pursed his lips. "People I know." His cold, merciless eyes scanned the village again. Analyzing. "We need to split up." "What?" Bailey asked, startled. "We're outnumbered. If either of us starts shooting at this position we'll attract attention, get surrounded, and die. If we split up, they'll also have to divide their remaining forces." He sighed. "Besides, we can't just sit here and wait for them to exterminate the survivors." Bailey frowned. "Assuming there are any." Walker arched an eyebrow. "You didn't hear that shotgun?" "Bill…" she began. "Trust me, Rachel." He fixed her with a brief, reassuring look. She took in a shaky breath, gauged the emotions running rampant in his eyes. "Okay," she said at last. "What do you want me to do?" "Stay well inside the tree line. Flank the village to the north and get around to the other side if you can." "Is that all?" she asked, her voice dripping with sarcasm. Walker spared her a quick smile. "Not quite. Stay out of sight until I bag that sniper." Silence fell between them. Bailey resisted the urge to reach out to him. Instead, she slowly crawled backwards into the woods, trying to make as little sound as possible. She looked back one last time. Walker was gone, leaving only a depression in the snow as evidence he'd ever been there at all. "God, this sucks," she muttered darkly.
Fourth Cycle, 216 units (Covenant Battle Calendar) Unidentified human habitat, northern hemisphere,
Planet Earth (Human Designation) Xir listened to his Unggoy open fire on the building, heard more of their kind doing the same to other structures across the street. Saw flames leap up into the dark sky. He swore under his breath. His line of sight was almost entirely blocked by the row of buildings, but he could imagine what the fusillade was doing to the structure. Xir idly considered ordering them to cease fire. It wouldn't help, if they were in a full blown panic. And it certainly sounded like it. His spotter shifted uncomfortably. "Vig," Xir said in the faintest of whispers. "You will reveal our position." His spotter cursed, shivering. "I apologize, Excellency. My body is not reacting well to this climate." Xir scanned the forest beyond the habitat. What little he could see of it, at least. "That is no excuse. Control yourself." Vig shifted ever so slightly. "Sir, I—" THWACK! Xir rolled sideways instinctively, behind a pile of cut wood. He wiped Vig's blood and brains from his face as the crack of the shot echoed in the darkness. A human sniper! How could I have been so careless? The thought lashed at him like an energy whip. The shot had come without warning, and the report was so muffled that the overlapping sound of impact made it hard to tell from which direction the shooter had fired. Xir felt a knot of fear form in his gut. He was exposed. "Jeg?" he whispered into his signal unit. No answer. Move, his instincts screamed. Xir obeyed, scuttling to a new position, deeper in the village. He kept to the shadows as much as possible, though daylight was quickly approaching. Soon the sun would make unobserved movement all but impossible. Where was that human sharpshooter? Xir checked his weapon for damage, then switched its optics over to a thermal setting. Humans put out a lot more body heat than his own people. The sniper should stand out distinctly against the snow. Xir readied himself for another mad dash to better cover. Something tore through the corner of the wall above his head. He swore silently, hunching down where the snow piled against the foundation of the building. The projectile had passed through the structure. Wasn't the human bastard concerned with hitting its own kind? Xir took a deep breath and considered his options. The human knew where he was, approximately. Depending on the sniper's position, Xir was as good as trapped. Unless… A smile crept over his features. He pulled his plasma pistol from his belt and set it to overload. The weapon hummed, growing warm in his hand. Green light started pulsing at the muzzle. Without looking, Xir lobbed it around the corner…toward Vig's body. The weapon's power cell reached its limit, burning through the casing with a glare. The overload cooked off Vig's bandolier of grenades in a cascade of brilliant azure fire. The noise was deafening. Xir lunged into motion again, activating his signal unit. "Jeg…respond."
0632 hours, 24 October 2552 (Military Calendar) Village of Ottokh, Sakha Region, Siberia, Earth, 61° 10' 32N, 121° 53' 57E, Alt. 317m, Pop. 12+1 A distant explosion rattled the common house and everyone in it…even more so than the sporadic plasma and needler fire. Fitz clenched his jaw. He swore viciously. "I'm sorry, Raisa. I led them here." She was silent for several moments before replying. "You don't know that. They probably would have found us anyway…and if you had not warned us, more would have died." Fitz shook his head sadly. "I always thought I would buy it in space…vaporized or flash-frozen. I
should have died in space." "Enough," Raisa insisted. "We're not finished yet." Fitz managed a small smile. "You're a very brave woman." She snorted. "This is Siberia. Bravery has nothing to do with it."
0632 hours, 24 October 2552 (Military Calendar) Village of Ottokh, Sakha Region, Siberia, Earth, 61° 10' 32N, 121° 53' 57E, Alt. 317m, Pop. 12+1 Walker winced at the glare as the grenades went off. The sudden blast bathed the darkened village in silver light, demolishing the nearby communications hut. Walker frantically scanned for movement, blinking to clear the black spots swimming in his vision. No sign of the Covenant sniper. A Jackal, if his eyes hadn't been deceiving him. He had lifted some interesting files on the Covenant over the years, trying to stay informed—old habits died hard. The dossier on the birdlike species hadn't been exactly thorough, but Walker didn't recall it being very flattering of their intelligence. Not that this particular specimen seemed stupid. Anything but, after that neat little trick. Walker slowly shifted, gathering his legs beneath him. He slunk toward the buildings on the opposite side of town as the burning remains of the COM hut cast weird, dancing shadows across the landscape. A distant sound, like a cough, caught his attention. Suppressed battle rifle fire. Rachel.
0632 hours, 24 October 2552 (Military Calendar) Village of Ottokh, Sakha Region, Siberia, Earth, 61° 10' 32N, 121° 53' 57E, Alt. 317m, Pop. 12+1 Bailey shot the first Grunt in the torso. It shrieked, flopping to the snow, spraying luminous blood everywhere. A foul, septic stench filled the air. Covenant carbine fire stitched a line across the ground beside her and Bailey dove for cover behind a fallen tree. More green blasts lanced into the top of the rotting bole, showering her with smoldering wood chips. "Hell," she growled, reloading. The Covie bastard was a good shot. She fired two bursts over the top of the log without aiming, and the enemy fire tapered off for a moment. A hoot to her left caught her attention and she braced the battle rifle across her chest and squeezed the trigger. Another Grunt died, this one's methane tank exploding spectacularly and catapulting it into the air. Bailey steeled herself, then lunged sideways into a run. Green fire flashed past her head, singing her hair. She returned the favor, snapping several rounds at the Jackal that ducked behind a tree stump. She almost overshot her destination—a particularly thick tree that offered momentary protection from the other two Grunts on the Jackal's flanks. She leaned out and fired another burst, then pulled back without looking to see if her rounds hit the target. Judging by the high-pitched yowl, they had. She leaned away from the tree on the opposite side. A carbine round burned through her ghillie suit, clipping her hip like a white-hot poker. Bailey shrieked as she fell to the snow. Her free hand clawed at the wound as she fired wildly at the Covenant with the battle rifle. The other Grunt waddled into the hail of bullets and was flung backward in a gout of its own blood. The Jackal was nowhere to be seen. Bailey's eyes flicked left and right, searching. Her breathing came in
ragged gasps as the shock of the wound sent her system into overdrive. She tried to crawl back behind the tree, but the incredible agony in her hip and thigh made it impossible to move more than a few inches. She choked down a scream. The Jackal appeared above her. She lifted the battle rifle weakly. It slapped the weapon's barrel aside with contempt and rested the muzzle of its carbine between her breasts. Bailey spat at the alien, defiantly. It cocked its head, unfazed—claw tightening on the carbine's grip as a strange alien language squawked from a disc on its harness. The Jackal hesitated. A hail of bullets chopped off the top of its head. Bailey frantically pushed the carbine's barrel away from her chest as the alien's claw twitched, discharging the weapon into the snow. The Jackal's lifeless, thrashing body fell atop her. She panicked as its hot blood flowed down her right shoulder and splashed against her neck. The corpse was suddenly flung away and Vlad's face hovered over her. He smiled wickedly. "Nice to see you on your back, crazy lady." "Fuck…you," Bailey retorted through a clenched jaw. He leaned her up against a nearby tree. "Maybe later," Vlad said with a chuckle as he pulled out a med kit. Bailey was too tired to protest as he tore away the ghillie suit around her hips. Too tired to smack away his cold hands as they affixed a selfsealing bandage to the wound and lingered a moment too long. "Where is Walker?" Vlad asked harshly. Bailey shook her head. "I don't know. He split us up…sent me this way to flank the Covenant. Said something about taking out their sniper, then he just disappeared." Vlad nodded. "He does that sometimes. Can you stand?" Bailey grimaced. "I think so." She rose with Vlad's help and tested her weight. Much of the flesh had been burned away from her right hip, but the joint seemed to be functioning properly. "Yeah." "Good. We go help him." She arched an eyebrow. "I thought you didn't want any part of this." He flinched visibly. "Never said that. You want to stand here…argue about it all night, or go save his ass? I know you want it for yourself." Bailey grinned. "Shut up." She started limping in the direction of the town. The direction of the explosion she'd heard only minutes before. Vlad followed her, his weapon at the ready. Bailey paused a moment to reload her battle rifle, looked the Russian in the eye. "Thanks," she said softly. To her surprise, the man actually blushed. "No problem," Vlad mumbled, muttering something else in his native tongue. They trudged on into the darkness.
0636 hours, 24 October 2552 (Military Calendar) Village of Ottokh, Sakha Region, Siberia, Earth, 61° 10' 32N, 121° 53' 57E, Alt. 317m, Pop. 12+1 A grenade sailed through the shattered window, just as Fitz had feared. He heard it hissing on the carpet nearby. The others started screaming and someone tried to scoop it up with tongs from the stove. Fitz heard a curse, a crash, and the sound of breaking glass. A bloodcurdling scream fell away from them. The grenade exploded somewhere in front of the building, but not near enough to destroy it. "Oh, God!" Rachel cried. "He picked it up! Oh, God!" "Raisa?!" Fitz yelled over the sound of discharging shotguns and incoming plasma fire. "Are you okay? Answer me!" Vitaly started crying nearby. Relief spread through Fitz almost immediately. He had thought she was talking about her son at first. "Raisa?" he called again. She was crying. He could hear her crying. An alien hooted, very close. They were coming for them at last. Raisa screamed in rage and opened fire with the assault rifle. The sound was deafening in the confined space. She spent the whole magazine. "Raisa!" Fitz yelled when the weapon clicked empty. "Reload!" He held a fresh mag out in her general direction, waiting for her to reach out and take it. After several heart-stopping moments, she did. "Thank you," she whispered right in his ear. Another Grunt started jabbering behind the building, opening fire. One of the shotguns was silenced as a body fell to the floor. Something warm spattered Fitz's legs. He grimaced.
"You've got to get Vitaly out of here!" he yelled over the din. "We'll never make it!" Raisa screamed back, firing again. "We'll die!" "You'll die if you stay!" Fitz retorted, passing her the last extra magazine. She cursed in Russian. "You're coming with us!" There was something hard and unyielding in her voice, and it warmed Fitz to his core. He shook his head sadly. "I'd slow you down. Take Vitaly and the others and get the hell out of here. I'll hold them off." She laughed, her voice almost frantic. "You can't see, you idiot!" Fitz smiled. "Thanks for reminding me. Now point me toward the back door!" He crawled over to the corpse and found the shotgun where he'd heard it land. Raisa's gentle hands turned him toward the rear of the building. Suddenly, he felt her lips meet his own in a fiery, passionate kiss that seemed to last an eternity. When they parted he gasped for air. "I'll never forget," she said hoarsely. "Neither will I," he replied, voice cracking. Plasma fire erupted ahead of him, and he pushed her away, aiming the shotgun at the back door. Raisa's voice called out in Russian, and the survivors spilled out of the building after her. Fitz prayed there were no Covenant waiting for them in the street. A Grunt hooted crazily on the other side of the rear entrance. Fitz could hear the alien's strange respirator pumping methane into its facemask. He imagined he could hear its knees knocking. The Covenant soldier shrieked a battle cry and crashed through the door. Fitz pulled the trigger. The shotgun clicked…empty. Fitz lurched to his feet, brandishing the weapon like a club as he charged the Grunt. The alien tackled him around the midsection, driving them both to the floor. "Come on, you son-of-a-bitch!" he roared, struggling. "I'll tear your fucking heart out!" An all too human hand slapped his cheek, hard. "Is that any way to talk to a superior, Lieutenant?" Rachel's shaky voice asked from somewhere above him. "Rachel?" Fitz asked, incredulously. "You're alive?" "Dumb question. We're talking, aren't we? Why won't you look…oh, Fitz." He grimaced. "Yeah, I know. Next time, remind me not to stare straight into the sun, okay?" Rachel helped him to his feet. "I'm so sorry." Fitz waved her off. "Later. We have to get these people out of here." He thought he heard a weird crack outside as Rachel guided him toward the front door. They stumbled down the steps. "Vlad's already on it," she said loudly. "Who the hell is Vlad?" A lance of purple fire burned into his ribcage. Oddly enough, he didn't feel much pain. Nice to be right for a change, he thought, almost peacefully. Rachel screamed.
Fourth Cycle, 225 units (Covenant Battle Calendar) Unidentified human habitat, northern hemisphere, Planet Earth (Human Designation) Xir watched as the panicked humans flooded out of the building. Only one of the scattering flock was armed—with a shotgun, as he'd predicted. He put a single shot through its terrified face. Down the street, another human was trying to get the crashed ground vehicle running. There were no Unggoy to be seen, and Jeg did not answer. Xir was alone. He heard the vehicle's engine start with an unhealthy, primitive roar. Xir started shifting his aim to kill the driver when two human military officers stepped out of the food distribution building. He recognized their attire, took aim, and fired. The first shot spun the fumbling young male around and dropped him to the snow. The female screamed. Time slowed. His weapon recharged. Locked. Her screaming face was dead center in his glowing crosshairs. Xir felt his lips pull back in a feral smile as his finger tightened on the trigger. A white blur obstructed his vision as the particle rifle discharged. Xir snarled as he watched his shot cut into the back of a lunging snow beast. The female fell to the
ground beneath its weight, still screaming. Xir cursed, taking aim again. The snow beast shifted, Xir saw a glint of metal. A primitive weapon. A booming shot rang out. Something smashed into his slender abdomen—several somethings. Xir slid off the roof of the building he had scaled and fell into a shallow snow drift beside the street. He could not move his legs. Xir cried out in agony and rage, claws raking at the snow, now darkening with his blood. He arched his neck, looking at the cursed human world upside-down. He saw the snow beast roll off the female, saw her lean over it, yell at it, pound at its chest. Saw the strange, stubby, double-barreled weapon lying beside it —the weapon that had cut him in half. And the long, unmistakable rifle it had dropped to the snow. Xir's eyes widened. The snow beast was the human sniper. An engine roared somewhere to his left. Xir cocked his head, just in time to see an oversized tire bearing down on him. In that brief moment, he thought back to that warm cycle he had left Eayn, his homeworld. He felt the pleasant, salty breeze roll off the ocean and caress his face. Heard the voracious kula birds call his name. Then Xir heard no more.
2130 hours, 28 October 2552 (Military Calendar) UNSC Army 23rd MASH Unit, Near the Mongolian Border, Asian Continent, Earth Fitz opened his eyes slowly, feeling every single hammer blow of the worst headache in human history. He stared up at the green ceiling— "Stared?!" he shouted, scaring a nurse half to death. He howled with glee, then coughed. Moaned. Fell back against his pillow. An angel's face appeared, smiling down at him. He grinned back. "Raisa," he whispered. "How did you know?" she asked. He touched her cheek. "You're just as beautiful as I imagined." She reached up and caressed his hand as his thumb wiped a tear away. "We were so worried about you," she said softly. "The surgeons…they weren't very optimistic. Commander Bailey and I had to straighten them out." Fitz chuckled. "I bet you did." He frowned, suddenly restless, eyes searching the room. "Is Rachel okay? Vitaly?" He tried to sit up, but Raisa gently pushed him back down. "They're fine," Raisa said softly. "Look." She indicated a chair in the corner where Rachel had fallen asleep. A young boy with a blanket wrapped around him sat in her lap, snoring. In the bed beside them lay a grizzled man, perhaps in his fifties or early sixties. Tubes ran from his mouth, under his thin hospital gown. Monitors around the bed clicked and whirred as they displayed his vital signs. Fitz noticed a ring of similar, albeit less busy, devices around his own bed. "Is that Walker?" he asked Raisa, on a hunch. She nodded. "Yes. The doctors say he may not wake up. Your friend is taking it very hard. I think…" she hesitated. "I think she loves him." Fitz studied Rachel's face. At one time, such a revelation would have bothered him. But not now. Fitz nodded, looking up at Raisa. "I know exactly how she feels." Raisa smiled, leaning down to kiss him. Time fled, and seemed unlikely to return, until a shadow fell over them. A thin, hawk-faced man stood at the foot of Fitz's bed, hands in his pockets. A guilty look danced in his eyes. He said something quietly in Russian. Raisa turned slowly to face him. Fitz watched as a whole spectrum of emotions played across her features in that moment. "Hello, Vladimir," she replied in English. Fitz heard no anger in her voice, unlike before. "I just wanted to say…" Vlad muttered awkwardly. "I am sorry." He glanced at Vitaly, wincing. "I hope…you are happy. I hope that someday you can…" he trailed off, looking like he was going to melt into a puddle right there. Raisa stared down at the sheets covering Fitz's legs for a moment, then back up at
her ex-husband. At last she nodded, wordlessly. Vlad almost collapsed in relief. He stood there for several moments, then nodded politely at Fitz and slowly walked toward the door. There he paused, looking back over his shoulder at Walker. A mischievous smile. "You crazy, Walker," Vlad said softly. Then he was gone. Fitz glanced from the swaying plastic that served as a door to the face of the man called Walker, whose eyes were open. Warm eyes. Humor-filled eyes. The crow's feet surrounding them crinkled as Walker smiled around a mouthful of breathing tubes. Fitz couldn't help but grin back. "What's so funny?" Raisa asked. Fitz shook his head. "Nothing." She leaned closer, laughing softly to herself. "Then why are you grinning like an idiot?" "It's just…" Fitz sighed contentedly, looking up at her. "I'm the luckiest son-of-a-bitch in the universe." THE END
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