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April 20th, 2558 (Military Calendar)/
Stavros, Frontier Space

It was fifty-nine days since Amber had deserted the UNSC. Forty-three since her brother tried to drag her back. And three since the drugs keeping her sane had run out.

According to the rise and fall of the planet’s local star, anyway. Stavros’ days were seventeen hours each, making it forty-two, thirty-one, and two respectively according to the Earth military calendar, by Amber's estimation. The SPARTAN-III Program had disciplined her in mathematics, among a hundred other subjects, until she could run conversion rates in her head as easily as she worked out interstellar jump calculations. For all the good it did her now.

Since washing ashore, half-conscious, she’d done nothing but walk the endless beach. Pale sand shifted under her feet step after countless step, day after counted day, without titanium boots to numb her toes to the sensation. They, with the rest of her traceable armor, lay lost and buried somewhere beneath the silt and waves. Only her slim, black bodysuit remained, molded to her like a glove, letting the blades of her feet sink cozily into each new print.

Her cares had been few. What little she did need, the sea provided. To her left, its endless waves sloshed in and spread themselves thin with a hiss of foam, then receded as the next crashed down behind. Their waters were fresh, and the fish they swept in were slow. On her right grew tough, reedy plants which were easily sharpened or burned for cooking what she speared with them. The sand was comfortable enough, with a sun-baked surface atop cool earth beneath. She slept when she felt like it, unconcerned by the grit peppering her black hair and suit. She cared little for appearances, but kept scrupulous track of time. Agonized over it when, in the middle of a Stavros afternoon, her final day ran out.

She’d been lucky, Amber supposed, her team had sprung for sub-dermal implants. They were uncomfortable, at first, but the team got used to quick surgeries every six months. The plastic cartridges kept them supplied with smoothers, the two obscure compounds all Gamma Spartan-IIIs needed to stave off paranoid delusion, thanks to Commander Ambrose’s own paranoia about their survival. Or maybe it’d been a way to keep them dependent on their UNSC masters…

Amber told herself the thought wasn’t paranoia setting in already—it had occurred to her years before, at moments she wasn’t overdue for a refill. But it wouldn’t go away, now that time had run out and she was on her own. What would happen, without her kind UNSC superiors to synthesize the drugs for her? Would she go feral, suspecting any human she met of being an ONI spook sent to kill her? Would she imagine assassins stalking her behind each bush and tree? Were they stalking her now…

That, she knew, was her own intrinsic paranoia. Nothing new or overwhelming about that. She’d bet on a few days leeway with a cartridge designed to go six months… but it wouldn’t last forever.

When her team had come to Stavros on one of Infinity’s sub-vessels, they’d identified several settlements, human and non-human, already colonizing the planet. She needed to find one. Ekistics, another of those indispensable skills her training covered, dictated coastlines were the most natural places for settlement. Amber thought she remembered more than one blinking point along the lines defining continent from ocean on the map in her last briefing. Following them was her best chance of finding what she needed—a chemistry lab, or a ship to get her somewhere with one.

Night fell. She slept, awoke with the sunrise, and still it was the same calendar day. The disparity between concept and reality irritated her. She shoved straight to her feet rather than dwell on the fact no matter how she counted, time was running out. Against that, breakfast—especially when it would be the same as every other meal she could remember by now—didn’t make much argument for lingering.

In the few hours the local star took to reach mid-day, however, hunger overtook her will to spite stupid ways of tracking time. Amber started eyeing good reeds to whittle away when she consciously registered the change she’d stared at for minutes. The latest flickering mirage on the horizon hadn’t faded as she came closer.

Eyes narrowed against sun, wind, and sand whisked over the beach, Amber made out the unnaturally regular shapes of buildings—human buildings, even—jutting up from the dunes like teeth behind a curled lower lip. She froze.

To even find this furthest, faintest touch of civilization in the vastness of an empty planet meant she’d already beaten incredible odds, but the sight of those buildings gripped her with dread anew. She might not slowly expire alone in the wilderness, succumbing to exposure or deprivation—but in some ways, it had been a comforting way to think of death. No witnesses, no confronting her mistakes, only the inevitable limit of time. To disappear unobtrusively.

Instead, unfamiliar dangers awaited between the instacrete walls. Every human who even noticed her became another risk. Another witness to a dark-haired young stranger walking into town, with loose lips and Chatternet phones. All linked to a galaxy-wide web Amber had the rare privilege of knowing the UNSC controlled to degrees the most unhinged conspiracy theorists could scarcely imagine. A Spartan gone rogue meant the Office of Naval Intelligence would monitor this world all the closer, and casual mention of her might be plucked by AI from trillions of bytes of data. A loose match for her description could bring down investigation, closing ONI's nets on any trace of her survival. And that assumed an agent wasn't already in place to watch for her, their time and talent wasted on nothing but the off chance she appeared. Such were the resources her hunters possessed, and how many they had dedicated to her capture was unknowable.

Having crossed the greater part of a continent to reach it, Amber almost turned away on the next dune. The moment she was noticed could condemn her to a life ONI prolonged only to make her regret, filed away literally and figuratively in one of the unnamed facilities ONI denied any knowledge of, disappeared on their terms. Turning back to the beach meant another day of fishing, by calendar or sun.

But she was running out of "another days". The town might have a doctor, someone with medical supplies she could use to synthesize her smoothers.

More importantly, she thought, if I turn back now, will I do any different the next time I stumble on a town? If she couldn't bring herself to approach it, couldn't move forward, she'd spend the rest of her life on Stavros. Even if she didn't slowly lose her mind, she'd be trapped between Stavros' few colonies as surely as between prison bars, out of sight and mind. ONI would never have to worry about their rogue supersoldier again. Amber would've preferred to worry ONI, just a little. If she was ever going to get off-world, she had no choice but to set foot in town.

She didn't have to be stupid about it, though. She'd wait for nightfall, when she could move more easily and figure out for herself how safe it really was. Turning inland, Amber hiked off the beach into the cover of the dunes, where she could stake out the town and sleep though what was left of the day.

With just five hours to sundown, Amber skirted the town from a wary distance, memorizing layouts of homes and shops, taking note of which streets had the most traffic. People here walked unconcerned down the center of gravel roads meant for cars nowhere to be seen—at least until an ATV pulling a cart honked at them, slowing to a crawl every few meters against the trickle of unsuspecting pedestrians. Amber settled in at half a dozen vantage points, made sure to see all she needed—and still completed her observation with hours before nightfall.

With her back in the hollow of a dune between herself and the colony, Amber tried to close her eyes and rest through the intervening time, but sleep wouldn't find her. Comfortable as she was, reclining drew her eyes up and let daylight glare through her lashes. Closed, her mind's gears spun of their own accord, rolling out what jokes Kodiak and Dyne might have passed the hours with, or how Morgan would switch to a private COM channel to pretend she wasn't listening. Morgan... she didn't want to think about them right now. But she missed them. Not that it changes anything.

Dark crept over Stavros as the near side of the planet turned its back on the sun, but Amber lingered in the dunes until only the faint, cold gleam of stars lit the creamy sands. A normal human would've stumbled blind, only the twinkling silver specks above an indiscernible horizon telling them earth from sky, but their flicker lit the dunes like flood lamps to a Spartan's eyes. Amber wanted that edge, even if no human eye lay open in the town below.

Finally slipping low over the crest of her perch, Amber let gravity carry her down the dune's face and leapt straight into a run near the bottom, holding her breath as she sprinted for the nearest building. She counted a full second in the open, pounding footfalls muffled in the loose earth. Any colonial slob passing his window could have spotted her sprinting out of the desert. Another second⁠—then she slid into the shade of a wall, her heels digging in and casting a whiff of dust free as she slid to a stop. Frozen, she inhaled slow and quiet as her starving lungs would allow, fearing even the air's rush in her own nose. No alarms sounded. No angry shouts drifted from dark windows. But Amber was only satisfied after she counted off a few extra seconds.

Her caution wasn't entirely overblown. She'd noticed the houses further out were made of adobe, not the solid instacrete of planned, prefabricated structures near the center. It probably meant this wasn't a chartered colony, which was some relief. They wouldn't have scrupulously-placed security cameras covering every inch of town for the benevolent purposes of public safety and data collection. But it did mean much thinner walls.

Amber slid along building sides and darted from shadow to shadow, avoiding main roads and their scattered, buzzing streetlights. Her first goal lay along the far side of town. Amber had left the distance intentionally, choosing to dodge from dunes to walls where she'd be exposed as briefly as possible. Infiltrating a sleepy colonial town might have been child's play for someone with her skills, but there was no reason to practice sloppily.

Soon, the target appeared for more than a glimpse at a time over the single-story rooftops: a spindly, steel transmission tower, the hub all the colony's communications routed through. A chain-link fence surrounded its concrete base, which she cleanly vaulted with a running start, careful to only lay hands on the pipework frame to avoid rattling the links. She'd be at her most visible for this part, and couldn't risk any attention. Gripping the first rungs jutting from one leg of the tower, she scaled the bare-bones excuse for a ladder quickly as she dared, despite the metallic twangs making her wince each time she put her foot down on a spar.

At the top waited a gray cable box; Amber's fingers made short work of the lock, prying cheap aluminum apart with just a few seconds' force from her bare hands. Inside, she didn't worry about masking her work. When they found the broken lock, finding the problem would be easy—she simply pulled all the cables free of their leads. Not irreparable damage, of course, she only wanted to delay any word getting back to the UNSC if she were sighted. Not the cleanest sabotage she'd ever done, but it'd practically been one of Team Machete's few specialties.

Closing the box as best she could and climbing back down, letting go to plummet half the descent, Amber leaped back over the guard fence and caught her breath only once she was back in the shaded alleyways. Just over thirty seconds⁠—by her headcount, anyway. Might've been a little off on account of adrenaline—or whatever her gene-tampered glands produced—but her lips curled into a smile around her gasps for breath. Not bad for a third-rate SPARTAN-III.

Soon as her breath steadied, she set off again, this time deeper into the packed buildings toward the center of town. There was one other structure she'd taken a keen interest in. Even un-lit, the sign above the single-story rooftops called her like a moth to flame. Crossing from packed dirt to gravel streets, she was halfway down the last alley when the crunch of stone beneath her feet developed an echo, approaching from just beyond the alley's end.

Amber suppressed a flicker of panic as her eyes twitched from wall to wall, only to feel it swell into as she realized no convenient side-streets or recessed doors were present to offer any shady alcoves to hide. The end she came from was too far to be around in time, and she doubted she could pull herself onto the rooftops fast enough. Fighting her flight response, Amber slowed to a stroll and ducked her head, pretending her legs didn't itch to bolt for the safest, darkest corner she could find and wait out whoever might see her run.

The man who rounded the corner was tall, with the fringe of a long coat swaying around his knees. Amber couldn't make out more than his silhouette, but the way his hat's brim tilted as he turned down the alley let her know she'd been seen.

"Evenin'," the man grunted without breaking stride.

"Mhm." Amber mumbled gruffly, as if masking her voice would make her sound more like someone he knew. But he passed without even turning his head.

Amber didn't dare look back, in case the colonial turned to watch her. When she reached the corner, however, she made a right turn and followed through with her head and eyes just a little more, throwing a furtive glance back—

The man hadn't even changed his pace, still mid-way to the other end of the street. Taking a few more steps to disappear around the corner, Amber released the lungful of depleted air her nerves held hostage. Dyne was right, you could get away with a lot just pretending you belonged. Not about to test the limits of the adage, Amber darted across the street and melted into the shadows behind the building she wanted.

A back door lock was easy to break, and the electrical lead to an alarm even simpler. Closing it behind her, Amber cautiously set foot on a tile floor. Aisle after aisle of tiny boxes on shelves presented themselves in the muted glow of a streetlight streaming through windows along the far wall. This was no colonial doctor's practice, but far better⁠: a pharmacy. Stocked with every drug she'd memorized in any of Deep Winter's chemistry classes, and hundreds more besides. And behind a counter, instruments to mix up a response to whatever new bacterial or viral threat a colonist on a far-flung world might encounter. Everything she needed to mix up a new supply of smoothers.

She got to work. Only five or six hours left before daybreak, and she couldn't be sure how early the owner came in. Finding the mental health section, she flipped plastic bottles and speed-read ingredients fine-printed on the back of every box. Selecting a handful with the fewest additions to what she needed, she swept full rows of certain drugs into her arms and dumped them on the micro-lab's counter.

She needed two compounds: cyclodexione-4 and miso-olanzapine. The first was easy enough, almost common as a bipolar integration drug. Several bipolar medications in her haul contained it, the only work to be done was separating it out. Miso-olanzapine was trickier, an anti-psychotic she'd have to mix herself. Olanzapine itself, as an atypical anti-psychotic available over the counter, was a common enough base, but she'd have to induce the right chemical changes for what she needed. Fortunately, after her team had rescued a decommissioned Deep Winter from ONI storage years ago, he'd told them all he knew of the drugs. And Erin insisted they learn how to make them, were they ever in such dire straights. She might not be able to make the condensed mixtures to refill her sub-dermal cartridge, but she could get a regular daily supply worked out.

Gathering capsules, beakers, and the base for a tiny electric centrifuge, Amber tore open a pill bottle and started grinding with mortar and pestle. The dust would go in the capsules along with a mild acid solution and spun in the centrifuge to separate all the unnecessary compounds, while she heated up a few burners to get started on the miso-olanzapine. Chemistry like this⁠—especially done in a rush⁠—demanded intense concentration, and giving the task her full attention let Amber push the galaxy and its problems out of her mind for a little while. Just formulas and measurements with simple, accurate answers.

A few hours later, all that was left was waiting for the centrifuges to finish and beakers to cool. After a half-day's walk under the sun and a restless afternoon, Amber's eyelids finally started to itch, and each blink made opening them less and less comfortable. She wasn't about to drift off where a cashier doubling back for their coat could find her, but there was no sense exhausting herself before she had to sneak back out of town. Finding a corner the streetlight's glow didn't reach, she took a seat on the floor with her back against cupboard and let her eyes rest a while, listening for the centrifuge's whir to wind down. Instead, she heard the quiet click of a door latch opened slowly.

Her eyes snapped open at once. Rolling to hands and knees, she crouched behind the counter's end and scanned for any hint of movement. The rows of shelving blocked her view of the room...

If they didn't want to be heard, they already knew she was here. But who were they, exactly? Had the man she passed in the street doubled back? Was it the shop owner, thinking he'd cornered a thief? If ONI had a sentry here after all, they'd be incompetent not to have cameras set up to catch any stranger sprinting into town in the middle of the night. All Amber knew for sure was she wouldn't be caught cowering like frightened prey. She'd take the initiative from them, and perhaps a sight more.

Stealing from the counter to the nearest aisle, Amber tried to peer through gaps in the shelves. Mismatched rows of ointments and alcohol bottles blocked her view, but she wouldn't pop her head over the top shelf for someone to shoot. Something moved in the dark, shadow on shadow. She couldn't tell who or what it might be, but at least she knew where her target was. They crept along the wall at what she arbitrarily decided was the south end of the aisles.

Her body suit's pliable soles were soundless on the tiles as Amber crawled to the far end of the next row of her target would pass, and waited with a waning sliver of her face out just far enough to peek. As soon as they passed the lane⁠—a tall, thin figure cradling something with a barrel in its arms⁠—Amber rolled into the aisle and skulked closer.

Stopping at its end put her just a few feet directly behind her enemy. Their focus, evidently, was on the whirring centrifuge in the micro-lab, leaving Amber free to create her own opportunity. She picked a bottle from the shelf⁠—careful to choose a liquid container, not a rattly pill bottle⁠—and with a deep breath, sent it sailing past the man at waist-level.

In the dark, with his eyes on the distant lab, he never saw the bottle whiff past him. But heard the full bottle smack the wall ahead of him. Startled, he turned⁠—and Amber was on him, superdense muscle and reflex-amplifying suit dragging him to the floor. Her finger slipped deftly through the guard behind the trigger of his shotgun, keeping it from going off as the man pulled on reflex. The next moment, she'd wrenched it out of his limp grasp as her other fist found the back of his head. As he pitched forward to the floor, Amber whirled the shotgun on its former owner.

"No! Please⁠—"

The voice cut itself off before Amber could think to fire, tone quivering in panic. She'd heard cries like it before, as she pulled the trigger on some hapless Unggoy or surprised Sangheili Elite⁠—but never in English. That, in itself, formed a snag in the flow of her practiced takedown, and for a moment everything about the swift, flawless neutralizing of a hostile felt wrong.

"Just⁠—" the man found his voice again, sensing hesitation as the moment passed. "Just take what you want."

Amber's dark-adjusted eyes had a clear view of him now. He was handsome even with his face tight with fear, in his late 20s, and his outstretched, open hands were soft and fair. Unusual for a colonist, especially so far outside UNSC territory. Definitely not an ONI hit-man.

"Get up." She said, letting the shotgun's barrel dip and place him out of harm's way. "I won't hurt you, if you're quiet."

The man crawled back far enough to feel comfortable sitting up. "Who... who are you?"

"No one you should be concerned about." Amber muttered. Now she had a witness, and every passing second would make her more uncomfortable silencing him. Gamma Company had trained her to fight aliens, not the people she protected from them. Perhaps handily for ONI, that singular purpose had become a liability. "I just need some medication. Then I'll be gone."

The quiet whir of the centrifuge in the micro-lab changed pitch as its motor cut out. Once the man was on his feet, Amber gestured with the shotgun to make his way there. "Stay where I can see you."

Her⁠—prisoner? hostage?⁠—did as he was told, keeping his hands above his head. She had to slide around the far end of the counter to reach the lab without getting inside his arm's reach—losing sight of him for an instant⁠—but when he came bacj into view without so much as blinking, Amber relaxed. Looking him in the eye as she held the shotgun at arm's length, she set it down on the counter and looked over the near-finished smoothers.

"I don't know you... you weren't with the last group of new people the spacers dropped off, were you?" said the man. "And you're not from Dorian's Rock. Sooner or later everyone there has to come into town for cough syrup."

"Do you always ask people with guns so many questions?" Amber discouraged. She didn't want him painting any clearer picture than he had of her already. For his sake as much as hers. Besides, she had to focus on skimming the chalky solute in every capsule from the blue-tinged liquid below before it dissolved again.

"I guess I don't have much practice at it," he answered lamely. He fell quiet, but in the corner of her eye, Amber remained acutely aware of his hard stare at her face. If he stared much longer, he could sketch her for ONI black ops agents without need of an artist, if he had half a hand.

"Look," she said, just to break the tension, "I'm sorry I have to do this. But I need these, and don't have any credits to give you for them."

"Sure." He accepted. Curiously, he didn't sound angry about it, or even all that frightened anymore. "So how... how does a girl in pajamas start walking around Stavros looking for psychosis medication?"

The question made Amber's jaw tighten. If an ONI sensor picked up that sort of phrase, whole rooms of analysts in some data center across the galaxy would've been thrown into panic by all the alarms it set off. She may have cut the wire on off-world communication for the moment, but she doubted the man would stop retelling this story by the time it was back up, and he already knew entirely too much. Killing him occurred to her as the simplest, possibly easiest, solution—but the idea repulsed her. Covering her tracks with murder was exactly why she'd disobeyed UNSC orders in the first place. Falling back on it now would just make her whole desertion a joke. She resolved just not to answer.

When she said nothing, however, the man asked, "Did... did you escape from the Brutes?"

Amber stopped just as she'd emptied out another capsule. "What?"

"You did, didn't you?" he pressed. Searching his face, Amber found him developing a confident smile, proud of his perceived insight. "That's where you got that scar on your neck. From a Spiker bayonet. Carson's got one just like it."

Amber's hand moved consciously to her neck, covering the mark across her throat. Funnily enough, it had come from a Spiker. The Jiralhanae who'd held it was trying to behead her, and if not for Kodiak backing her up, the crude tungsten blade would've done its job. They'd needed to clean the wound immediately after she'd torched the culprit with her flamethrower, and the memory of all that disinfectant still stung.

"Yeah... yeah," she answered hesitantly. So there were Brutes somewhere within range of the town, and they took human captives? At least it made for an easy alibi.

"You've got nothing to worry about paying me, then. Helping someone who got away is the least we can do to get back at them." He smiled encouragingly. "I'm Lawrence."

Amber ignored his expectant prompt for her own name and studied the borrowed tools. With the last capsule's sediment fished out, all the Smoothers she'd need for another two months were laid out and ready, hers for the taking. But something about sweeping them all into a rucksack and slinking away bothered her.

"Those Brutes," she asked. "Do they raid settlements? Here and... Dorian's Rock?"

"Not so far." Lawrence said. "They've taken a few people off the road between here and Dorian's Rock, though. Some people think they eat them, but it's more likely they're sold off-world as slaves. Plenty of fish out here for..."

He stopped short with a noticeable gulp as Amber's hand strayed to the shotgun, picking it up to examine. It was military surplus, an M45 like many of her comrades had used. Outmoded, but sturdy.

"Well, Lawrence, maybe there's something I can give you for these after all. I'm," She thought a moment, racking the pump action and catching the ready shell it sent spinning from the ejector, "Ashley, by the way."

"Gear's in the trunk," old Carson said, reaching inside the door to flip on a light switch. "You can sleep here, till we're ready to move."

Amber stepped into the adobe annex of Carson's instacrete home. The bricks soaked up yellowed light from a bare bulb dangling by a wire from the ceiling. Shadows like dim curtains fell from the rims of benches, hafts of shovels propped in corners, and tools hung haphazardly from nails in the walls. Along the far side, however, wood-rim frames tessellated to cover the bricks in war memorabilia. As she stepped closer, Amber's eyes flicked from a purple heart and a dozen campaign ribbons to a picture of two men with crew cuts in bulky, olive-drab armor. They had gold-visored helmets clipped at their belts, and heads bowed over cigarettes jutting from between their lips. These days, they could've easily been mistaken for Spartans. But what really interested her lay beneath the standard-issue cot at the foot of the wall.

Kneeling, Amber reached below and dragged out a gray-green crate heavier than its size let on, scraping noisily over the concrete floor. With its clasps flipped open, she lifted the lid to reveal a carefully-jigsawed pile of gray-green ceramic plates and a helmet just like those in the picture. Its mirror-like visor stared back at her like an unblinking, cyclopean eye. A Hellbringer's armored suit, minus the incendiary tanks.

Amber carefully lifted the helmet free to admire. Hellbringers were the UNSC's shock troops specialized in incendiaries and other chemical weapons, outfitted with armored suits that were not only fireproof, but provided enough ballistic protection for the trooper to close in and make use of their signature flamethrowers. Rumor had it their armor had been the first template for the prototypes of MJOLNIR. It wouldn't have surprised Amber; one of her mentors in the SPARTAN-III program had been a former Hellbringer, and through him she'd mastered a versatile and unconventional weapon. Every Spartan laid claim to some kind of specialty, a talent they honed as much, Amber thought, to carve out an identity for themselves among three-hundred comrades as to lend themselves any tactical edge. She had to admit, after all, she still harbored her own flash of pride in knowing she was the only Spartan she'd ever heard of crazy enough to regularly carry a flamethrower into battle by choice.

She heard the alternating pad-and-clack of Carson walking up behind her, favoring his left foot over the carbon-fiber prosthetic in place of his right from the knee down. The ex-Marine hovered at a respectful distance as she handled his old suit.

"You know, it's probably against the law to hang onto something like this after service," Amber said as she began laying out the plates on the floor, approximating the wearer's outline. "And this—" she exhaled as she pulled free a long, cylindrical rifle with a segmented violet shell, "—is definitely illegal to hang onto."

"What, y'gonna call the UNSC on me?" Carson snickered through his thick mustache as Amber turned the Focus Rifle over and back. If he only knew.

"Is it still charged?" she asked, finding the firing bumper.

"Much as the day I pried it from that roasted split-lip's warm, dead hands." He answered proudly. She noticed he used the colonial pejorative, split-lip, for the Sangheili. Later in the war, when the Inner Colonies felt threatened enough to deploy their own troops, they'd adopted the term hinge-head. "Which still puts it under half. All yours, if you can use it. Never get chances to show it off anyway."

"I can use it." Amber assured him, setting it near the Hellbringer suit's right glove and vambrace. Seeing an opportunity, she casually asked what had eaten at her like coals underfoot. "Don't get a lot of guests here? Lawrence said you had a transport drop off new people."

"Huh, six months ago," Carson chuffed, and Amber tried not to let the ease of tension in her neck and shoulders show. Six months ago, the UNSC hadn't known a Forerunner site existed on Stavros. If they'd known human settlements without United Earth Government charters existed there at all, they wouldn't have cared. Which made no new arrivals in the last six months good news. None of them were likely to be ONI plants on the lookout for her. "We're not what Earthlings call a vacation hot-spot. People come out here to get away from anything like authority. Kinda makes the gene-pool stale after a couple generations. Prob'ly why the doctor boy took such a shine to you."

Amber blinked without taking her eyes off the laid-out armor. She wasn't sure how to respond. She knew 'took a shine' meant liking someone, but she didn't know how someone went about liking someone back. Morgan and Dyne had been in love, and watching them figure it out was almost as fun as teasing them about it. But they'd known each other since they were kids, and knew each liked the other by the time they decided for themselves. She didn't know the first thing about the tall, thin Lawrence except, "He's... a pharmacist, not a doctor."

"Nothin' wrong with that, is there?" Carson asked, weathered face scrutinizing her own as hard as Lawrence had in the lab. After her first hit of smoothers, though, it didn't bother her as much. The old man seemed to look for a reaction more than watching Amber herself.

"No," she simply agreed. Nodding at the Hellbringer gear, she pushed up out of her crouch and turned to address her host. "This should fit over my suit well enough. I'll try it on after I've caught some sleep. Thank you."

The ex-Marine's lips spread into a grin under his mustache fringe. "Thank you. We need those Brutes gone, and I'm gettin' too old to lug that mess around. Just sorry I ain't got more than a standard-issue cot to put you up on."

She tried mimicking his smile. "It's nothing I'm not used to. More familiar than anything."

"I'll bet." Carson nodded knowingly, then started backing towards the door. "Well, I'll let you get that beauty sleep. Wanna be wearing your Sunday best for kicking those baby kongs off our stretch of sand. We'll be ready."

"Right." She waited until Carson closed the door and shuffled away on the other side. Once he'd retreated far enough for the comfort of her over-sharp ears, Amber flipped off the light and left the little room pitch black, save for the glow bouncing in beneath the crack under the door. Breathing easy at last, she slid the empty trunk aside and settled back on the cot, the dark providing her some small feeling of security at last.

The pre-dawn hours since turning herself in had gone mostly as Amber expected. Once she'd determined to help the colonists, Lawrence brought her to Sheriff Carson, the town's closest resemblance to authority by virtue of his years in the Marines. She'd explained she was a soldier, captured in the border wars with the Jiralhanae occupying former human space, and offered to help them get rid of their unruly neighbors if they lent her weapons and help.

Carson had called a meeting of the town's most important citizens to talk it over. While she waited outside at what they'd assumed was out of earshot, she overheard them bring up their loss of communications. With the fuse box apparently broken open by an impossibly powerful hand, the Brutes were suspected, which could only preempt an attack. In no time at all, they had a handful of volunteers for a makeshift militia under Carson and would be ready at sunset tonight.

Letting her own actions become the pretext for an attack bothered Amber, but she wasn't about to fess up about it⁠—and not just for her sake. If these Brutes already felt comfortable enough picking off lonely colonists, it was only a matter of time before they told better-armed friends about the defenseless humans right next door. Team Machete had boarded too many Jiralhanae slave ships to be comfortable with that idea. One would've been enough.

Much as she liked the idea of playing hero and dispensing frontier justice, though, she couldn't pretend it was why she'd agreed to help. Not even alone in the dark. This was a nowhere pile of bricks and pre-fab instacrete, and still Amber felt like she had to sneak in under the cover of darkness. How was she ever supposed to handle an Inner Colony city, with police and security cams and artificial intelligence infrastructure, if she could even make it off Stavros? She was starting to doubt she could make her own way anywhere in the galaxy.

She couldn't go back... but maybe. Maybe if she didn't come back empty-handed. What if she saved a few colonists by wiping out some alien slavers? It didn't make up for desertion, and it couldn't even begin to make up for Morgan's death... but it was something. Proved she wouldn't leave members of the human race endangered. Couldn't, maybe. And maybe someone would see that and think a Spartan worth salvaging a deserter for.

Amber closed her eyes and dug her shoulders more deeper into the cot's tight canvas. If there was any hope proving herself would make any difference, she needed her rest to survive the proving.

They left at sunset, two open-frame Spade pickups following a Mongoose into the desert as the last rosy rays receded up the dunes' east faces and faded out of the night sky. There were just eight piled into the trucks, and Amber—not even a full squad by the standards she was used to⁠. But she'd make do.

They ran without headlights, trusting the red glow of the ATV's tail lamps to guide them safely through transient gullies between mountains of wind-scattered silt. Without straightforward roads, reaching the Jiralhanae camp took most of the night, and their convoy stopped twice to trade out drivers and let the others rest. By the time their journey's end neared and the impromptu militia disembarked to make a careful approach, the new day's first pre-dawn light skipped across the crests of the tallest dunes.

From their chosen lookout in the shaded side of one giant molehill, the colonists looked down on a settlement not unlike their own. Clusters of single-story structures huddled in the windbreak of tall dunes, few wisps of smoke rising from iridescent violet rooftops. The lustrous panels were carved from the nanolaminate plating of a scuttled Covenant starship, but many patchwork joints between were made of sandstone brick. The only difference there was the adobe's blackened surface, melted halfway to glass by the plasma torches used to fire them.

There were twenty structures, give or take, not all of which were dwellings. They couldn't have comfortably housed more than thirty. If Amber took point, and the element of surprise held in their favor, wiping out the camp was possible.

What tipped it back toward the realm of impossible, however, were the pair of Prowlers sitting empty near the town's far side—heavy grav-sleds, each topped with a rotating plasma cannon. A saddle-like seat behind their bulky bodies and catamaran-style drive pontoons would leave the driver exposed from either side, but Jiralhanae had a habit of facing enemies head-on. Aside from rivaling UNSC Warthogs as mobile anti-infantry weapons, Jiralhanae were known to enjoy ramming targets with the flanged steel armor on their prows. Eight colonists caught in the open would be a few seconds' work for either vehicle.

"I'll need to disable those first," Amber pointed them out to Carson, the militia's de-facto leader.

Fortunately, the old Marine knew exactly why she'd concluded it. "We'll wait on your signal, then bring the trucks up to meet whatever beehive you kick over. Have to catch 'em disorganized between us, so timing will be a lot. Lawrence? Hand the lady our luau package."

The scrawny pharmacist scooted along the slope to bring forward a latched case. His neck looked crowded by the thick shoulder pads of a bulletproof vest loaned to him, part of the town's modest police locker, and sweat gathered under the fringe of his blond hair. He seemed more accustomed to air conditioning than his own planet's heat, but he'd volunteered to be there. Amber doubted the vest would stop a Spiker's tungsten skewer, and a plasma bolt would burn right through the kevlar fibers, but at least it seemed to give him confidence. The sight of him redoubled her resolve in a decision she'd come to privately. If the battle turns for the worse, I'll take on the counter-attack myself. Better me than someone who's just going to get themselves killed.

Lawrence held up the case, and Amber unlocked it to reveal a nest of pineapple-shaped explosives in foam padding. They were only blasting charges, meant for mining and construction work so frequently needed on the frontier, but they'd do for what Amber had in mind. She took the lot, clipping four to her belt and attaching one within easy reach on the side of her borrowed shotgun. Then, bidding the company farewell, Amber slid down the dune while her comrades crawled back around the side to return to the trucks. It was her show now.

The Hellbringer suit hung loose around her, its flame-retardant padding flapping loudly where ceramic plates didn't pin it to her body, but Amber couldn't slow down. Their window of attack was limited; in the dark, Jiralhanae eyes outclassed all humans⁠—except perhaps a Spartan's⁠—while in broad daylight, they'd be on even footing against two-meter tall wolf-apes who could tear them limb from limb. But catch them at daybreak, when light and shadows contrasted and the Brutes had yet to fully wake, they could press the advantage of surprise.

Amber didn't bother sneaking into town so carefully this time, just set into a dead run until she slipped between the huts. There would be no ONI surveillance networks to worry about here, and the Jiralhanae wouldn't be disciplined enough to post a guard if the human settlements felt safe enough going without. They did, however, have very keen hearing. She slowed to a walk as she crept between the dwellings, peering around the corner of each hut before crossing shafts of pink-ish pre-dawn light streaming through the east-west alleys.

The Prowlers sat untended in the shade of a lean-to windbreak, their armored hulls resting like beached whales on their sled-like pontoons. Warmed up, however, Amber had seen them glide over battlefields and melt concrete as easily as flesh. Crouching out of sight between their armored bulks felt more like she tip-toed through a den of sleeping lions. Fortunately, her experience also meant she knew their weak points.

Each grav-sled's armor was heavy but haphazard in construction, making it easy to reach between the plates with a grenade in one hand and steel wire in the other. Underneath, an open frame kept sand from gathering in the spinning plasma turbine near the top. With two quick wraps of the wire and the simplest of knots, Amber fixed a charge inside each Prowler's drive and tied their pins to the adjacent counter-spinning segment. The result, when next the engine spun up, would have deliciously satisfying results.

Falling back from the small motor pool, Amber at last emerged to stand in the open of a main road, surveying its early morning calm. Dawn's first rays glimmered on nanolaminate rooftops, the shafts across sandstone walls turning orange as daylight neared. She walked up to a pane-less window, casting a brief glance inside the darkened hut.

"Carson," she said into her helmet's COM mic. "Now."

Amber pulled another grenade from her belt, freed its pin, and tossed the explosive inside. Backing away from the wall, she pulled another and sent it deftly sailing through a window across the street. The moment after, the shotgun was in her hands.

Every door and window in first building's walls coughed smoke and broken bits of sandstone as the first grenade went off, filling with shrapnel what it didn't incinerate. Its echoes through town were met by the blast of the second going off, to much the same effect. The other building's roof heaved black smoke, and moments later the roof caved in with a thunderous crash.

Even after that, the camp took another moment to rouse itself. Amber caught growls of surprise and scuffling from the nearby structures. She stepped forward to bring herself closer, eyeing the closest doors.

A bewildered-looking Jiralhanae, fanged muzzle hanging open, burst from the nearest door and into the street. Its nostrils flared, a being who perceived the world almost as much through smell as its bloodshot-red eyes. It stood head-and-broad-shoulders over Amber, but barely had time to notice her before her shotgun rang out. Buckshot ripped a dozen ragged holes in its muscular chest, and the Jiralhanae tumbled into the dirt and seeped its lifeblood into a puddle of near-black mud.

The next Jiralhanae to appear, dashing out of a side street, met a similar fate. As Amber turned up the road, however, more arrivals had the time to howl bellows of fury and warning. Ape-like giants, naturally armed with claws and teeth bayed like wolves mad with grief and rage. One rushed her with open claws and fell as she tore its skull open with lead, while another ducked back inside its dwelling. Amber followed it, racking her weapon as she kicked in the door left ajar. The Jiralhanae standing in the room beyond spun, a revolver-like Mauler pistol half-lifted from a chest. Amber didn't let it bring the weapon to bear. Her shotgun's blast carried the body over a large seat and left it in a grisly pile by the wall.

Sparing only a second to be sure the hut was empty before marching back outside, she looked up the street to see at least four who'd had the time to arm themselves, heading in her direction. They snarled at the sight of her, raising handheld Spikers. The tips of their dual bayonets menaced her as a phalanx of curved tungsten...

Before she could retreat down the nearest alley, staccato crackles broke over their ears from the other direction. The furthest Brute fell, bloody holes torn in his back by combined rifle fire.

All spun to face the flash of high beams as one of the Spades rolled carefully up the street, colonists bracing rifles over the top of the roll bar or the passenger's side mirror. The Brutes returned fire, but their sidearms' steel spikes mostly embedded themselves in the truck's bumper or hood. Amber's shotgun hit them from behind, making quick work of those caught in the pincer.

The last of them fell within seconds, and Amber ducked to slide new shells into the shotgun's loading port. To her surprise, cheers made themselves heard over the pickup's growling approach. The colonists were shouting, lifting triumphant fists over their heads, and shaking weapons at her as they rolled past. Lawrence smiled from the driver's seat in the second she saw him pass. Though he couldn't see through the Hellbringer visor, she smiled back. If their luck held, he'd never have to fear these Brutes again. Thanks to her.

Gunfire echoed from the next street over. As the first Spade reached the other end of the road and wheeled about to cross the camp again, Amber hurried between the intervening buildings to find the other. Blood pulsed through her head, thick with adrenaline, but the pounding of her feet shook it from her notice. For all the time she'd spent hiding to get here, she'd just stood unchallenged in open combat, a SPARTAN living up to their unstoppable reputation. What had she ever needed to fear?

The walls to either side fell away as Amber bounded into the next row between buildings, just in time for the crack of successive blast waves to jar her gritted teeth.

Up the street, the other Spade had stalled against half a dozen Brutes who'd managed to don armor: disjointed breastplates, battered pauldrons, and greaves held in place with simple buckles—scant protection by themselves, but engraved with circuit-like channels for generating energy shields. Worse yet, one in an open-faced helm rushed into the street with paws on a Brute Shot. The grenade launcher, slung by the wielder's waist, spat three glowing orbs within a second. Each smouldering shot turned its smoke trail orange with firelight until they slammed into the Spade's bumper.

The pickup shuddered on its suspension under every shell, its hood crumpling as the front end was blasted apart. Three more concussive blasts tore the tires free, and without their anchor, the whole pickup jerked back hard enough to lift its frame off the ground. Teetering on its rear wheels, the Spade hung in the air, creaking as if straining against the forces keeping it in balance. Then its tailgate scraped the ground behind, and the men who'd stood in its bed were thrown clear as the vehicle crashed back to the ground amid plumes of dust and a chorus of Jiralhanae roars.

Amber studied the cloud's curling whisps, as if they'd deliver her an answer as she racked her brain for the most prudent course of action. She had to attack before the Jiralhanae could regroup and coordinate a counterattack, but six armored Jiralhanae weren't something to charge headlong into. Then she spied movement by the Spade, crawling away from its half-sunken wreck. Two of the colonists were still alive, disoriented, but still grasping for their only chance of survival: to find cover, a weapon, and fight. One of them was Carson. If the Brutes saw them, they'd only need a second spared to finish them off.

Amber sprang into a run toward the subsiding cloud and pulled the last grenade from her shotgun's stock. Nearing the ruined truck, she pushed off from the ground, planted one foot on the pickup bed, and touched off from the rollbar with her next step to launch herself into the air. The haze settled just enough for the Brute Shot wielder, lining up another bandolier to drop into his launcher, to look up and cry out in surprise as Amber fell toward him, grip choked up on her well-aimed shotgun.

No energy shield flared as the buckshot punched into his exposed collar. A few pellets ricocheted off the breastplate, but not enough to save his life. Taking the pleasant surprise in stride, Amber collided with his body on the way down and rolled with it, tossing the grenade to her left where she remembered a pair of unarmored Jiralhanae. As the dust thinned out enough to see once again, a new plume of black smoke and tan earth rose amid cries of anguish and shock.

To her right, three warriors looked for the source of their comrades' distress, and snarled as Amber rose from the last settling dust. They whirled, bringing Spikers to bear—but Amber had already turned. Her first shot caught the nearest enemy in the side with enough force to shatter ribs and throw his corpse to the ground, while her second winged the arm of another protected by his shoulder pauldron. No energy shield's barrier flared to protect her targets. Their armor's best days must have ended with the Covenant, scavenged plates falling into disrepair in the hands of able warriors, but unskilled technicians.

Her luck wasn't enough, however. As the wounded Jiralhanae stumbled back, its last pack-brother sighted in on Amber, ready to loose a stream of deadly tungsten slivers. But before it could, the rippling bangs of gunfire seemed to halt the attack like an argument shouted down, the Jiralhanae flinching as stone chips broke away from the wall around it. Up the street, Carson and the other colonist had taken cover behind the Spade's smouldering chassis, and took potshots with simple hunting rifles. Amber racked her shotgun before it could recover. An empty hull spun free of the ejector, recoil kicked her at the shoulder, and the Jiralhanae fell dead.

The last Brute, alone and wounded, backed away. Its Spiker cast a few threatening shots at Amber as it retreated, spikes thudding in line into a wall beside her like rungs of a sharp-edged ladder. Amber was let it go, however, calling out to the Spade, "You okay over there!?"

"Yeah, we're good!" old Carson shouted back, despite the obvious effort getting to his feet cost him. The other Spade rounded the corner at the far end of the road, pulling up to check on its twin.

With them in good hands, Amber set off, calling, "I'm on this one!"

The former Hellbringer waved back an acknowledgement just before a wall obscured him from Amber's vision. The thick suit hampered her balance on soft sand, but Amber sprinted down the side street after her quarry. Drops of dark, violet blood stained the ground, making an easy trail to follow around the back of several huts. She caught up and caught sight of him again in time to see the Jiralhanae duck into one of the structures, throwing a door of violet nanolaminate closed behind it. He could be ready to make a stand, but Amber couldn't stand around outside if there was a Brute Shot or better armor stowed within.

Hurrying up the street with her shotgun trained on the violet door, Amber sidled up beside its frame and weighed her options. She was out of grenades, so a safe frag-and-clear wasn't an option. She hadn't seen more than one door on any of the buildings thus far, so she assumed another entrance was out of the question. And crawling through one of the tight windows seemed a good way to get stuck and shot.

She couldn't afford to let her foe prepare whatever trap or equipment he'd fled to collect. She settled instead on a tactic Kodiak had used once, and aimed her shotgun at the door's hinges, point-blank.

Two shafts of early morning light suddenly cut through the darkened interior as holes opened up around the hinges. The door, standing free, tilted to rest askew in its own frame, then suddenly flew backward as an armor-clad human bowled into it. Carrying the cut-out hull plate like a tower shield, Amber turned as Spiker rounds embedded themselves in its other side, and turned her blind charge toward their source.

The door only halted when its bottom rim ran into a table, crashing forward as crude knives and wood bowls scattered to the floor. Amber flipped her shotgun back into her hands, but the Jiralhanae, flushed from his hiding spot as the door came down, sprang on powerful limbs from just feet away.

Amber barely had her shotgun up in time to block the falling Spiker. Its bayonets cleaved her weapon's barrel, rending metal and cracking plastic as the whole frame bent. She was lucky the Spiker didn't break clean through, but lodged its crude blades in the ruined firearm. Amber struggled, trying to pull the Spiker away, keep its owner from angling to fire at her, but a massive fist impacted her chest with bone-breaking force.

Wheezing, Amber doubled over, losing her grip on the broken weapon as she reached instinctively to catch herself. Vertigo swept over her, and she tried in vain to orient herself only for the shadows on the floor to spin before her eyes. She would have lost her balance—if two giant hands didn't seize around her neck.

She felt herself lifted from the floor, her strained neck unable to emit anything but strangled coughs. The spasms of her throat robbed her of breath as she was pinned to a wall, the Jiralhanae's paws tightening. If not for her augmentations and the Hellbringer suit's padding, her neck would be broken already. She couldn't see. Her fists and legs thrashed uselessly against Jiralhanae brawn.

Something knocked against her waist. The broken shotgun, slung from its strap, and embedded in it—

Amber fumbled blind, hand knocking against the Spiker. She gave desperate chase, felt nothing for a second too long. Then the backswing carried it into her palm, and her finger wrapped around the trigger. She aimed and squeezed—

A metal spar, like a thick nail, shot into the Brute's lower jaw, pinning its mouth closed as the tip slid deep into its skull. Her assailant's grip went limp, and she tumbled to the floor with his corpse, gasping for shallow breaths. Unable to rise, Amber lay flat and tore the restrictive helmet from her head, tearing up for joy as the sweaty, dusty air of the alien hovel replaced her own stale breath beneath the visor. Though grappling with the reflex to cough as she gasped down air, she couldn't miss the shuffle of another heavy footfall.

With more adrenaline than oxygen in her veins, Amber scurried over the dead Jiralhanae to reach open floor, neck tense expecting another paw to seize her at any moment. The Spiker was lost to her, but once she was on easier footing, Amber pinned her own arm behind her back to reach the weapon fixed in the small of her back where a Hellbringer's napalm tank normally sat. Stumbling to her feet, Amber whirled, face tinged blue in the glow of the Focus Rifle's dorsal display.

Visions of claws reaching for her vanished. No mountain of muscle and fur stood behind her. Instead, while she stood taut as wire tied to a grenade, a shadow along the far wall receded behind an overturned bench.

Amber stepped forward, and the shadow shrank further. She took another, rounding the discarded door standing askew against the table, and a growl rose from the shadows. Not deep or menacing, but strained as if striving to be so. Her eyes adjusted, and the shadows resolved into three hunched figures, their blurry outlines revealed as course, short fur. None would've been a meter even standing, though the nearest was half-risen, stepping between Amber and the other huddled pair with immature canines bared. Cubs.

Amber's finger fidgeted on the bumper, testing just how much it resisted. She wasn't sure what to do. Part of her wanted to just fire and forget she'd ever seen them. They were inhuman and unknown. If she left them alive, they might seek her out in who knew how many years for the loved one she'd just deprived them of. And it would leave her subject to her own judgements, over what to do for them, whether to take responsibility for delivering them who knew where or just let them fend for themselves. Weighed against so many unanswered questions, killing them was easy.

Disgust smothered the impulse. She wasn't a murderer. She fought the Jiralhanae here because killing them was the only way she could protect the human colonists, but these helpless children left her with a choice. She wasn't ONI, butchering based on threats they might one day pose. ONI wanted her dead for that very reason. To kill the helpless out of her own fear would be... repulsively weak. If the universe wanted her to choose weakness, the universe could shove it.

Amber lifted her finger from the bumper to her lips and exhaled sharply. For a moment she worried they'd misunderstand her resulting hiss, but she kept still, imploring them to understand. To her relief, the young male's teeth disappeared as his growl ended. His eyes, however, remained on her, creases around them sharp with scorn.

Somewhere outside, a blast shook the air, followed by the tinkling of shattered steel raining back to earth. The Brutes had found her trap with the Prowlers, and Amber needed to act while their confusion lasted. She backed away slowly, picking her footsteps carefully around the table and over the dead Jiralhanae's outstretched limbs. She felt the cub's eyes on her back until she left the hovel.

Jogging between the tan-and-violet patchworks of cobbled-together walls, Amber noticed her boots took more effort than before to pull from the sucking sand—and her attention was more on her feet than the next corner, where a Jiralhanae warrior could step out to blow her away. She berated herself silently for tolerating the remorse leaving her half-hearted. Misgivings were all well and good for examining later, but second-guessing herself in a fight was a quick way to get killed. That was one lesson she wouldn't begrudge learning in the SPARTAN-IIIs.

From the single plume of black smoke ahead, Amber surmised the Brutes had worked out her sabotage and left the other Prowler alone. Without the vehicles, they'd fall back for a final stand somewhere. Picking up speed, she swung the Focus Rifle onto the nearest rooftop and hauled herself up behind it, glad for the Hellbringer armor's padded gloves as glassy, melted adobe cracked and splintered in her grip.

Planting her boot on the roof's far edge, Amber lifted her retrieved Focus Rifle to her shoulder and dialed in the screen to minimum range. From the dwelling's modest precipice, she had lines of sight to every corner of the camp. The remaining Spade circled the outskirts, its headlights casting a fainter reverse shadow on the sand as dawn chased shadow down the dunes. Most of the colonists had taken to sweeping the streets in pairs. Ahead of them, however, she glimpsed tall, shaggy figures crossing the gaps between huts. She trained her rifle on their path, but the further her reticle trailed them, the more obvious it became they weren't moving to intercept or ambush the colonists. With her targets only free of cover for instants at a time, Amber gave up the idea of cutting them down from a distance. She should contact the colonists, plan a coordinated attack with a minimum of risk for all involved.

Instead, Amber jumped from the roof and into the sandy streets below, cutting through alleyways and fire-pit courtyards between dwellings on a course that would head off the Jiralhanae retreat. If she couldn't take the risks in place of a handful of colonists, what kind of Spartan would she be?

Amber slowed only when deep, guttural growls and the muted crackle of something large collapsing into the sand drifted from beyond the next corner. She pressed herself against the nearest wall to creep nearer, fingers tight on the Focus Rifle as a wave of dustier air drifted from the adjacent street. The sediment irritated her senstive nose, and Amber realized with a curse she'd left the Hellbringer helmet behind. Drawing shallow breaths, she slid along the melted adobe wall with little more than taps from her ceramic collar on its glassy, uneven surface. She leaned forward just enough for a sliver of her face to clear the corner, then drew back with the afterimage on her closed eyelids. Five Jiralhanae, two on lookout. Three tearing down tarps from some kind of shed.

Amber wasn't sure what lay inside, but given its all-nanolaminate construction and the fact they'd only now fallen back on it suggested nothing good. She needed to interrupt them before they readied whatever it was, and with just one human against five Jiralhanae, she needed to make it as dramatic an interruption as possible. Checking her Focus Rifle's charge, Amber slung it at her waist for a mid-range fight, pivoted around the corner, and stepped forward into wide-open view.

Before the closer lookout could bark an alarm, Amber pressed the bumper and a solid beam of molten orange connected with its chest. The rifle's casing segmented, venting copper-smelling heat into Amber's unprotected face—which was nothing compared to the streak of melted flesh and burning fur in her target's torso as Amber swept the beam toward her next target.

The other lookout's silhouette flashed when Amber's beam connected with him, a bright spiderweb of sharp angles lighting up inches over his body—his armor's energy shield was functional. With the orange beam splashing harmlessly around him, the Jiralhanae side-stepped into the cover of a brickwork wall and bellowed an order. One of his comrades broke and ran for the shed, disappearing through an open door before Amber could turn to track him. With her attention split, the armored leader had a chance to brace himself and return fire, lifting a Spiker in each hand. A rain of blazing-hot metal shot toward her, and Amber backpedaled with the Focus Rifle's fiery beam waving wildly in her unsteady hand.

Something thudded beside her head, and Amber felt a lance of pain in her cheek. She gasped, fearing visions of the Jiralhanae whose skull she'd driven a spike through would be last thing through her mind before she suffered the same fate. Her boot brushed a rise in the uneven ground, and Amber tumbled backward behind the cover of a solid wall, collapsing into a heap of padded suit and ceramic armor.

Laid out gasping on her back, Amber's vision oriented up toward the morning sky. No moisture swept in from the coast to cloud over these baking wastes, leaving the full depth of the blue expanse overhead on full display. Consciously, she knew all that really lay overhead was the star-studded blackness of space, but refracted in Stavros' atmosphere, daylight cast the illusion of a frighteningly endless sea. A phantom ocean plane whose clarity only revealed the limits of her own perception, to see through its endless depths until emptiness itself cumulated into a blue boundary to her finite universe. As last sights went, there could have been worse—except her vision didn't fade as she expected.

Reaching a hand to her still-stinging cheek, Amber jerked her head back as she felt a metal spar, most definitely out of place, stuck halfway through the Hellbringer's ceramic collar. Its tip had just managed to draw a thin line of blood as it scratched her cheek. She'd definitely be doubling back for that helmet...

While she still lived, there was a fight to be won. Prying the threatening spike free and tossing it into the dust, Amber rolled over and pushed herself to her feet, then sprang away on one stiffening, tired ankle after the other. She circled the hut she'd sheltered behind, coming up on her foes from its furthest corner. The shielded Jiralhanae came into view—still facing the junction he'd last seen her in. Her rifle's next plasma beam blindsided him, and already-weakened shielding gave way. Engraving on his armor plates melted as easily as muscle and bone. The corpse fell, blood oozing from its cauterized wounds.

The two remaining Jiralhanae, huddled in corners offering no protection from Amber's new angle, fled at once toward the structure they'd uncovered. Amber cut the first down still in the open, and gave chase to keep the second in view around the building's corner, burning the legs out from under him. He tumbled into the sand, howling in anguish for his scorched calves. Amber waited half a minute, deaf to the creature's pain as she watched the door for the one who'd fled inside. When it became clear the absentee wouldn't step into the open to help its neighbor and give Amber a clear shot, she finished it with a short burst to the head. For a moment, Amber considered whether to follow the last Jiralhanae through the dark doorway, weighing the chance of stopping its retrieval of some troublesome new weapon with the chance such a weapon was already in-hand, waiting for her. High on blood, adrenaline, and the longing to end the irritating flood of both combat gave way to, she locked the Focus Rifle tight to her shoulder to bear on the first hint of a threat and stepped over the threshold

Within, the building's single room was crowded tight by tables, benches, and storage compartments compacted together along either wall, but daylight filtered in through a transparent dome at the far end—under which stood the Jiralhanae, back to her. Its ears twitched at Amber's first hollow footstep on the laminate floor, and it whirled, black fur bristling over a puffing chest. But rather than charge, the Jiralhanae pressed its back to the wall, striving to put as much space between it and Amber as possible.

The ape-like alien's flecked, rosy eyes fixed on her not with hate, but cornered desperation. The pheromonal stench of its fear filled the room, obviously panic-stricken by the time Amber had even caught up to its band. Amber narrowed her eyes at the alien, allowing it to live a few more seconds as she studied its body language. The sight was unfamiliar to her.

Sensing Amber's hesitation, the Jiralhanae's gaze darted to a seat within its reach—on which lay a Spiker. It locked eyes with Amber, knowing they'd both seen the weapon, and uncertainty seemed to creep into the alien's eyes, unfocused as it weighed the chances of reaching, aiming, and firing before the human could burn it down. Sense, and the Focus Rifle's lined-up barrel, appeared to win out. It shuffled along the wall away from the weapon, then tentatively un-flattened its arms from the wall to show Amber its sharp, empty claws.

Each stood panting softly, waiting on Amber to make a move beyond holding her Focus Rifle trained on the Jiralhanae's chest. The single-minded rush of combat in her veins was fading—but Amber didn't want it to end just yet. Pointing her weapon at an enemy was simple, and she didn't know what to do with a prisoner any more than she did the cubs still hidden in their broken home. But fade it did, leaving Amber's senses to expand beyond the twitch of her vision at any threatening movement.

This building's cramped arrangement of surfaces and compartments seemed familiar. It was too small to be a Jiralhanae's dwelling, yet every surface was valuable nanolaminate, assembled with greater precision than she'd seen in anywhere else in camp. The table behind her prisoner was covered in dim lights and glass crystal displays, some of which glowed barely visible under the light spilling in through the bulbous window above. Not a window, Amber realized. A viewport.

The memory came back to her of a diagram, one among dozens she'd studied of Covenant technology in her childhood. A Ren-class courier shuttle. Unarmed, typically used for personnel transport, even equipped with a modest slipspace drive. She hadn't recognized it amid the camp's other structures thanks to its relatively boxy design, with the engine struts folded in. The vessel even seemed in working order, judging by the strange tang of alien air recyclers fighting the mingling scents of dust, Jiralhanae sweat, and something... coppery. Not the hot, metallic tang of plasma from her cooling Focus Rifle, but something Amber associated more with taste. Blood.

Her eyes broke from the Jiralhanae's to search the walls, from powered-down consoles to compartments... to a single, square alcove between storage lockers. There, the wall was innocuously barren, devoid of the efforts made everywhere else on the ship to use every available space. The only subtle tells for its use were the dormant emitters for a plasma barrier lining the space, and black stains on the floor too much of a bother to scrub clean: a slave cage.

She wasn't sure what the Jiralhanae might've seen in her hairless, alien face. Perhaps it understood what the strain of tightening muscles meant, or only traced her gaze. Understood the fury a sentient being must experience at finding their own kind abused. A rumbling protest left its throat—only to be swallowed in the shriek of her Focus Rifle's beam.

With the Jiralhanae collapsed in a smoking heap, her rifle's vent panels retracted back into a seamless shell like the fur of an angry dog smoothing out. Amber became aware of how tightly she clutched it, and her own sharp breaths taking in its radiated heat. How could it dare throw itself on her mercy after having so little for however many beings this craft had ferried up into orbit for trafficking? How could a thinking being reave and kill and abuse, and still think it deserved anything less? Any regret she still had for her part in provoking the attack evaporated with the rifle's vented heat.

With the last of the Brutes dead, Amber stumbled back to prop herself up against a nearby locker, finding she needed what purchase her hand could find on its corner to steady herself. One or two able Jiralhanae might still be hiding like the cubs somewhere in one of the houses, but Amber doubted it. Jiralhanae had pack mentalities, fighting together whenever the chance came. With these final few falling back to the Ren in hopes of escape, she knew the real fighting was over. Relief undid the tension knots a life-or-death struggle twisted her senses into—leaving her regrettably aware of all the aches and pains stress had masked for her.

Her sore neck stung whenever a tendon stretched, including how her shoulders swayed with every intake of breath. It was a wonder she wasn't still writhing on the floor of the hovel after her near-strangling. Her chest ached from the punch she'd taken, and the new scar on her cheek would need disinfection, but neither troubled her so much. Her head pounded in step with her pulse, demanding oxygen as the potent adrenaline produced by her mutated brain receded. She felt agitated, too confined by the tiny craft's walls. She needed another hit of smoothers. More than likely all the excitement had already burned the counter-agents in her system.

Leaving the shuttle to its would-be pilot, Amber trekked back into the empty streets with only her ears minding anything but the carnage left in her own path. Stavros' sun had risen, shedding light on the corpses already sheltering sand from the breeze, letting it pile up around their limbs and in between their leaden claws. She tried to feel something for them, if only for her own sake. To still feel sympathy for the dead piled outside the homes they'd defended. But she could only see the inkblot patterns of long-soured blood on the cage floor. Soon, Stavros' desert would bury this village as it would its masters, and all the memory of all the pain they'd dealt and been dealt. Let it, she decided. Those who lived on cruelty didn't deserve a headstone for anyone to mourn.

Hardwired reflex cut through her sullen haze as a gunshot echoed off of the glassy walls. Amber's Focus Rifle sprang level and darted from one alley entrance to the next, mortified she'd let her guard down for the sake of self-absorbant antipathy. She searched for its origin—and found it when a second gunshot followed the first, coming from the direction of the hovel where she'd left her helmet. Dread gripped her stomach, threatening to overturn it, and Amber stole its energy to set off at a bounding sprint toward the source. She ground to a halt only a street away, stopping dead just as the hovel came into view between clustered huts.

Dark purple blood splattered the wall beside the broken-in door, sprayed higher than the men standing around it were tall. At their feet, two bristly forms lay curled on the sand, fur stained the same color. A third scrambled between the thicket of the crowd's legs, driven back with kicks and jeers each time it chose a direction to flee. It snarled and barked in helpless, incoherent fury—until a third gunshot rang out. The jeers turned to congratulatory hurrahs as Lawrence, clutching a nickel-silver pistol too big for the pharmacist's slender hands, stood over the splayed corpse.

Amber's legs buckled, a jolt running up her spine as her knees caught the fall. Her mouth hung open, allowing shallow breaths to escape between her parted lips, eyes fixed open as the impossible played out before her. The colonists, the civilians she'd always been told needed her saving, stood laughing over innocent bodies.

She'd saved these people. Fought so hard, risked her own life to free them from cruelty at the hands of those more powerful than themselves. And what had they done with that freedom? Turned around and inflicted the very same cruelty on something that couldn't fight back.

Were these supposed to be the denizens of Earth and all her colonies? The ones her UNSC masters thought so worth protecting, they pulled children from their beds to kick and drill and inject to make Spartans of? Was this what all the choices in her own life had been stripped away for?

A new feeling steadied Amber's erratic breath: outrage. Whatever twisted rationale allowed these mud-hut-dwelling colonists to cry for her help, then butcher and burn and laugh about it, had been the same thoughts allowing the Jiralhanae to slave and steal without falling on their bayonets. The same reasons ONI gave for trying to lay hands on enough power to make humanity the sole, unassailable power in the galaxy, without care for whether their brutality made them deserving of it. The ends justified the means.

Worse, could Amber still even tell herself they were wrong? The shaggy little bodies at the colonists' feet would have grown up the same as their parents, after all, learning to pillage and plunder just to stay ahead of everyone else on their same level. Like they all said, it was an unfair galaxy.

Fine, then. If the galaxy was so unfair, Amber could take comfort in the one awful bit of fairness in it, the only fact keeping it all in balance: that she could be just as cruel as the next power to come along.

The Focus Rifle was still in her hands, its charge low—but enough. Amber got to her feet unnoticed, outside their eye or earshot, but well within the weapon's range.

She spared most of them in her sudden, opening blast. Even allowed another, letting them watch her beam cut down a friend so they understood fully what was happening. It was only fair to give them the chance to run or fight, the same as she had. Allow for some twist of fate to let them overcome her as she hunted them down. It could only really end one way, but then, letting them fear her as they'd tormented the helpless cubs was fair, too.

Once it was done, Amber returned to the courier ship and finished clearing away the cover its former owners had draped across it. She had her way off-planet now, and had no need of anything left on Stavros. Leaving the fires left of vehicles and bodies to burn themselves out behind, Amber lifted off into the planet's blue sky on the sixty-seventh day since turning her back on the UNSC.

She stopped counting after that.

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