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May 21st, 2558 (Military Calendar)/
Stavros, Frontier Space

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

By the rise and fall of this planet’s local star, anyway. Stavros’ days were seventeen hours each, making it forty-six, thirty-seven, and two by the Earth military calendar respectively, by Amber's estimation. The SPARTAN-III Program had disciplined her in mathematics, among a hundred other subjects, until she could do such simple 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 underfoot step after countless step, day after counted day, without titanium boots numbing her toes to the sensation. They, with the rest of her traceable armor, lay lost and buried somewhere under the waves and silt. 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 swells sloshed in and spread themselves thin in a hiss of foam, then receded as the next crashed down behind, drowning one another out in a continual, droning roar. Their waters were fresh, and the fish they swept in were slow. On her right grew tough, reedy plants which were easy to sharpen or burn for cooking what she speared with them. The sand was comfortable enough, with a sun-baked surface giving way to cool earth beneath, and she slept when she felt like it, unconcerned with the grit peppering her black hair and suit. She cared little for appearance, 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 she was on her own and time had run out. 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 inherent paranoia. It wasn’t overwhelming yet. 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 had covered, dictated coastlines were the most natural places for settlement, and 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 reaching someone with the resources 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, and she shoved straight to her feet rather than dwell on the fact no matter how she counted, her time was running out. Against that, breakfast—especially when it would be the same as every meal she could remember by now—didn’t make much argument for lingering.

In the few hours it took the local star to climb to mid-day, however, hunger began to overtake 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 been staring at for minutes. The latest mirages flickering on the horizon hadn’t faded the closer she came.

Eyes narrowing against sun and sand skittering over the beach, she made out the unnaturally regular shapes of buildings—human buildings, even—jutting up from the dunes like teeth out from 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 fresh dread. She might not slowly expire alone in the wilderness, succumbing to exposure or deprivation—but in some ways, such an idea of death was comforting. No witnesses, no confronting her mistakes, only the inescapable limit of time. To unobtrusively disappear.

Instead, unfamiliar threats awaited between 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 linked to a galaxy-wide web Amber had the rare privilege of knowing the UNSC controlled to degrees the most unhinged conspiracy theorists could scarce imagine. A Spartan gone rogue meant the Office of Naval Intelligence would be monitoring this world all the more closely, and casual mention of her might be plucked by AI from trillions of bytes of data. A loose match for her description could be lead enough to bring down investigation, closing the net on any sign 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. Those hunting her could spare such resources, and how much they'd committed to her recapture 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 figuratively and literally 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 important, if she turned back now, what would she do if she ever managed to find another settlement? 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 in all the wide open spaces of Stavros 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, if only a little. If she was ever going to get off-world, she'd have 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 to find cover in the dunes, where she could stake out the town and sleep though the remaining daylight.

With just five hours to sundown, Amber skirted the town at 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 her and the colony, Amber tried to close her eyes and rest through the intervening time, but sleep refused to find her. Comfortable as she was, reclining drew her eyes up and let daylight glare through her eyelashes. Closed, her mind's gears spun of their own accord, rolling out what jokes Kodiak and Dyne might pass 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 changed anything.

Dark crept over Stavros as the near side of the planet turned its back to the sun, but Amber lingered amid the dunes until only the faint, cold gleam of starlight lit the cream-colored sand. Any normal human would've stumbled blind, telling earth from sky only by the twinkling silver specks above the indiscernible horizon, but their flicker may as well have been distant flood lamps to a Spartan's eyes. Even if no human eye lay open in the village below, Amber wanted that edge.

Finally crawling low over the crest of her overlook, Amber let gravity carry her down the opposite slope and leapt straight into a run as she neared 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 dirt. Any colonial slob passing his window could have spotted the stranger sprinting out of the desert. Another second⁠—then she slid into the shade of a wall, shaking free a whiff of dust as her heels drove into the sand. Frozen, she inhaled as slow and quietly as her starving lungs would allow, fearing even the rush of air through her nose. No alarms sounded. No angry shouts drifted from dark windows. But Amber was only satisfied once she counted off a few extra seconds.

Her caution wasn't totally 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 nominally benevolent purposes of public safety and census-taking. 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 edge of town, but Amber had left herself such a distance to cross intentionally, entering town only where she'd be exposed between dunes and walls as briefly as possible. Infiltrating a sleepy colonial town was child's play for someone with her skills, but there was no reason to practice sloppily.

Soon, the target became visible 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 and avoid rattling the links. She'd be at her most visible for this part, and couldn't risk drawing any attention. Gripping the first rungs sprouting from one leg of the tower, she scaled the bare-bones excuse for a ladder quick as she dared, despite wincing at the metallic twangs made each time she put a foot down on a spar.

At the top waited a gray cable box; Amber's fingers made short work of the lock, prying the cheap aluminum apart with just a few seconds of the force her bare hands could apply. 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 from getting back to the UNSC if she were sighted. Not the cleanest sabotage she'd ever done, but then, 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 open lips curled into a smile around her gasping breath. Not bad for a third-rate SPARTAN-III.

Soon as her breath steadied, she set off again, this time deeper into the denser-packed buildings toward the center of town. There was one other structure she had keen interest in. Even at night, the un-lit sign over its single-story roof 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 under her feet echoed those of footfalls approaching from up ahead.

Amber suppressed a flare of apprehension as her eyes flicked from wall to wall, only to feel it swell into panic as she realized no convenient side-streets or recessed doors provided shady alcoves to hide. The end she came from was too far to be around by the time whoever was coming rounded the far corner, 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 her by 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, furtively throwing a glance back—

The man hadn't stopped to watch or even changed his pace, still mid-way to the other end of the street. Walking on to put the corner between them, Amber exhaled to rid herself of jitters plucking at her taut muscles. Dyne was right, you could get away with a lot by pretending you were supposed to be there. Hurrying across a road, Amber 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 stepped cautiously onto a tile floor. Aisle after aisle of tiny boxes on shelves presented themselves to her in the muted glow of a streetlight coming in through far-wall windows. This wasn't a 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 at once. Only five or six hours before daybreak, and she couldn't be sure how early the owner came in. Finding the mental health aisle, she flipped plastic bottles and speed-read through ingredients fine-printed on the back of every box. Selected a handful with the lowest count of ingredients outside what she needed, she swept full stocks of certain medications into her arms and dumped them onto the counter in the micro-lab.

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 an easy 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'd learned 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 bottle of pills 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 precision, and giving the task all her attention let Amber push the galaxy and its problems out of her mind for a while. Just formulas and measurements to fulfill.

A few hours later, the only work left was to wait for 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 here, but 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 carefully opened.

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

If they didn't want to be heard, they 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, wouldn't he have the observation equipment to see anyone sprinting into town in the middle of the night? The only thing Amber knew for sure was she wouldn't be caught cowering like a frightened prey animal. She'd take the initiative.

Stealing from the counter to the nearest aisle, Amber tried to peer through gaps in the shelves to the far side. Irregular-sized boxes of ointments and sterilizing alcohol blocked her view, but she wouldn't chance popping 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, creeping along the wall at what she arbitrarily decided was the south end of the lanes.

Her body suit's pliable soles made no sound on the tile as Amber crawled to the end of the next row her foe would pass, and waited with a sliver of her face out far enough to keep watch. 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 stole closer.

Stopping at its end put her just a few meters directly behind her hunter. Their focus, evidently, was on the whirring centrifuge in the micro-lab, meaning all Amber needed was to create her own opportunity. She selected 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 and 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, and whirled it to turn 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, just before she pulled the trigger on some hapless Unggoy or surprised Sangheili Elite⁠—but never in English before. That, in itself, snagged her mind, and for a moment everything about the swift, flawless take-down 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 fair, not even out of his late 20s, and his outstretched, open hands were soft. 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, as long as you're quiet."

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

"No one you need to be concerned about." Amber grumbled. 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 humans she protected from them. Perhaps handily for ONI, that singular purpose was becoming her liability. "I just need some medication. Then I'll be gone."

The quiet whir of the centrifuge in the micro-lab changed pitch as it wound down. Once the man was on his feet, Amber gestured with the shotgun to make their 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 into view again without having blinked, Amber relaxed slightly. 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." 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 a picture than he had of her already. For his sake as well 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 was acutely aware of him staring hard 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 meds, and haven't got credits to give you for them."

"Sure." He accepted. Curiously, he didn't sound angry about it, or even all that frightened of her 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 lightyears away would've been thrown into panic as alarms went 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 rejection a joke. She resolved just not to answer.

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

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 camped 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 single, bare bulb dangling from the ceiling. Shadows fell like dim curtains from the rims of workbenches, hafts of shovels propped in corners, and tools hung haphazardly from nails in the walls. Along the far side, however, the wall was covered with war memorabilia. As she stepped closer to examine the skewed frames, Amber's eyes flicked from a purple heart and a dozen campaign ribbons to a picture of two men with crew cuts standing 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.

Of greater interest was what lay under the standard-issue cot at the foot of the wall. Kneeling, Amber reached beneath and dragged out a gray-green crate heavier than its size would have let on, scraping across the concrete floor. With its clasps flipped open, she lifted the lid and revealed a carefully-jigsawed pile of gray-green ceramic plates and a mirror-gold visor staring at her like an unblinking, cyclopean eye, just like those she'd seen in the picture: a Hellbringer's armored suit, minus the incendiary tanks.

Amber carefully lifted the helmet to admire. Hellbringers were the UNSC's shock troopers specialized in incendiaries and other chemical weapons, outfitted with armored suits that were not only fireproof, but provided enough ballistic protection for the trooper close in and make use 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 SPARTAN-III training had been a former Hellbringer, and through him she'd mastered a versatile and unconventional weapon. She was the only Spartan she knew of to claim it as a specialty.

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 from 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 in a wearer's approximate 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 bristly 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'd 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 to that. 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, she wasn't as bothered by it. The old man seemed to watch her 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 face 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 the fringe of his mustache. "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 with only the light bouncing under the crack in 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 cover of darkness to be safe. 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 on her own? 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 someone might see that and think a Spartan worth salvaging a deserter for.

Amber closed her eyes and dug her shoulders more comfortably 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 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 the gullies between transient mountains scattered at will by the wind. 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 improvised militia disembarked to make their approach, the first new light of day skipped across the crests of the tallest dunes.

From their chosen vantage, hugging the steep leeward slope of one giant molehill, the colonists peered down at a settlement not entirely different from their own⁠—clusters of single-story structures nestled between the windbreaks of larger dunes, wispy smoke rising from the funnels atop some. Roofs and walls shone iridescent violet, panels carved from the nanolaminate plating of a scuttled Covenant starship, but many patchwork joints between were made of sandstone brick. The greatest difference was the blackened surface of their adobe patches, 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 in their favor held out, she knew wiping out the Jiralhanae 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. Drivers, settled in a saddle-like seat behind the transport's bulky body and catamaran-style drive pontoons, would be left exposed... but 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 expedition's nominal 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 small case. His neck looked crowded by the thick shoulder pads of a bulletproof vest loaned to him from Carson, 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 privately come to: if the battle started not going their way, she'd take the brunt of any counterattack rather than leave people like Lawrence up against it.

He 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 she couldn't slow to quiet it. The window for their 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 shadow were in sharp contrast and the Brutes had yet to fully wake, they could press their own advantages.

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 each corner before crossing shafts of pink-ish pre-dawn light streaming through the east-west alleys.

The Prowlers sat dormant in the shade of a lean-to windbreak, their armored hulls resting like beached whales on their sled-like pontoons. Amber had seen such craft glide over battlefields and melt concrete as easily as flesh, however, and felt more like she stepped between sleeping lions as she crouched out of sight between their bulks. Fortunately, her experience also meant she knew how to neutralize them.

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 grenade 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 consequences.

Falling back from the modest motor pool, Amber at last emerged to stand in the open of a main road, surveying its early morning calm. The first rays of dawn glimmered on nanolaminate rooftops, the shafts across sandstone walls turning orange as daytime 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 another window across the street. In another moment, 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 began heaving 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 nearest 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 above Amber, but barely had time to notice her before her shotgun rang out. Buckshot ripped half a dozen ragged holes in its muscular chest, and the Jiralhanae tumbled into the dirt and seeped its lifeblood into a swelling puddle of near-black mud.

The next Jiralhanae to appear from a side street met a similar fate. As Amber turned up the road, however, observers 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 within spun, a revolver-like Mauler pistol half-lifted from a chest—Amber didn't give it the chance to level the weapon. Her shotgun's blast carried the body over a large seat, ending up 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 dual bayonets on each 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 the combined rifle fire.

All spun to face the flash of high beams as one of the Spades rolled slowly up the street, colonists firing over the top of the roll bar or braced on 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 approaching growl. 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. Though he couldn't see through the Hellbringer visor, she smiled in the brief instant they faced one another. If their luck held, he'd never have to fear these Brutes again. Thanks to her.

Gunfire echoed from the next street over. Leaving the first truck to continue its advance, Amber hurried between the intervening buildings to lend her aid where it was needed. 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 facing down half a dozen Brutes who'd managed to don armor: disjointed breastplates, battered pauldrons, and greaves held in place with simple buckles—scant protection 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 in half as many seconds, turning their own smoke trails orange with firelight until each 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 into the air. Teetering back on its rear wheels, the Spade hung in the air, balanced like a scrap-iron sculpture. Then its tailgate scraped the ground behind, and its four human occupants were thrown clear as their vehicle crashed back to the ground amid swelling plumes of dust and a chorus of Jiralhanae roars.

Amber froze for an instant, calculating her best means of attacking the Jiralhanae moments away from regrouping to roam in search of their next victims. Then she spied movement by the Spade, resting as if half-sunken into the sand. Two of the colonists crawled from the wreck, disoriented, but still grasping for their only chance of survival: to find cover, a weapon, and fight; Carson was one of them. She wouldn't give the Brutes a spare second 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, struck the pickup bed with one foot, and planted the other on the rollbar to spring over it, treating each like a long step to launch herself into the air. The haze settled just enough for the Brute Shot's wielder, carefully threading another bandolier into the 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; the 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. Before it could loose deadly tungsten slivers, the crack of gunshots echoed from down the street. Carson and the other colonist had found cover behind the Spade's smouldering chassis, and took potshots with simple hunting rifles. The Jiralhanae flinched, trying to cover its head, and Amber racked her shotgun. 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, backpedaled. Its Spiker cast a few warning shots at Amber as it retreated, thudding in line into a wall beside her like rungs of a sharp-edged ladder. Amber was content to wait before giving chase, however, calling out toward the Spade, "You okay over there!?"

"Yeah, we're good!" old Carson shouted back, despite the obvious effort it took him to rise to his feet. 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 closed behind it. He could be ready to make a stand, but Amber wasn't about to give him time if there were a Brute Shot or better armor stowed inside.

Keeping her shotgun trained on the violet door as she hurried up the street, Amber sidled up alongside its frame and weighed her options. She was out of grenades, so the 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 going in a window was a good way to get stuck and shot.

She didn't have time to let her opponent 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.

Inside, two shafts of early morning light cut across the darkened den as holes opened up around the hinges. The freed door tilted, resting sideways in its frame, then was suddenly carried free as an armor-clad human bowled into it, carrying the cut-out hull plate before her like a tower shield. Spiker rounds thudded into its other side, but only guided Amber's 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 Spiker's swing. Its bayonets cleaved the 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 into 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 out 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 by her neck, her strained neck able to force through nothing but a strangled noise between coughs. The involuntary spasms of her throat robbed her of breath as she was pinned against 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 useless 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 where it should have been. Then the backswing carried it into her palm, and her finger wrapped around the trigger. 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 on top of 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's floor replaced her own stale breath beneath the visor. Despite struggling to hold back the reflex to cough as she choked down air, she couldn't miss the shuffle of another heavy footfall.

With more adrenaline than oxygen in her veins, Amber scurried desperately over the dead Jiralhanae's limbs to better footing, hoping her awkward crawl was enough to escape another paw darting out to seize her again and finish what its pack-mate started. The Spiker left out of Reach, Amber stretched to reach her own back, finding the weapon fixed in the gap a Hellbringer's napalm tank would normally rest in. 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 fur and muscle stood behind her. Instead, while every muscle locked tight despite the gasping of her breath, a shadow along the far wall shrank deeper behind an overturned bench.

Amber stepped forward, and the shadow receded further. She took another, rounding the discarded door resting askew against the table, and a growl rose from the shadows. Not deep and menacing, but strained as if trying to be. As her eyes adjusted, the shadows resolved into three hunched shapes, 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 firing bumper, testing just how much it resisted. Part of her recognized the tiny Jiralhanae as inhuman—different and unknown. If her finger simply flexed, any problem with them would be over, mortal or moral. No question what to do with them, nevermind the vengeance they might take for the loved one she'd just taken from them. Kill them, and you are safe.

Disgust smothered her base impulse. She wasn't a butcher, and these helpless children were no threat to her. An ONI agent would've exterminated them—hell, so would probably most UNSC officers—on the threat they might one day pose alone. They wanted her dead because of what they feared she might do, after all. But Amber could choose for herself, now. If the universe wanted to make her easy choice a bloody one, the universe could shove it.

Amber's finger left the bumper, rising to her lips as she exhaled through her teeth. The hush sounded more to her like a hiss, but she kept still, imploring them to understand. To her relief, the young male's teeth disappeared as the growl ended. His eyes, however, remained on her, creases around them sharp with scorn.

Somewhere outside, a high-pitched blast shook the air and shattered steel tinkled, raining back to earth. The Jiralhanae had found her trap with the Prowlers, and Amber needed to capitalize on their confusion while it lasted. Still, she backed away slowly, picking her footsteps carefully around the table and over the dead adult's splayed limbs. She felt the cub's eyes on her until she left the hovel.

Pushing herself to a sprint was harder than it had been minutes before, but Amber berated herself to focus. Troubling with doubts now would get her killed. She could circle back later and decide what to do, but clearing the camp came first. From the single plume of black smoke, Amber surmised the remaining Brutes had guessed she sabotaged the other Prowler and left it be. Instead, they'd fall back for a final stand somewhere. Picking up speed, she hurled the Focus Rifle onto the nearest roof and hauled herself up after it, glad for the Hellbringer armor's padded gloves despite its weight as the glassy, melted adobe cracked and splintered under her grip.

Jogging to the far side, Amber planted her boot on the roof's edge and lifted the Focus Rifle to her shoulder, dialing in its screen to minimum range. From the dwelling's modest height, she had line of sight to every corner of the camp. The remaining Spade circled the outskirts, its headlights casting a fainter reverse shadow across the sand as daybreak swept down the dunes, while most of the colonists had taken to the streets in pairs. Ahead of them, however, she glimpsed tall, shaggy shadows crossing the gaps between huts. She trained her alien rifle on their path, but the further her reticle trailed them, the less they moved toward intercepting or ambushing the colonists. With her targets only free of cover for instants at a time, Amber gave up the idea of eliminating them from a distance and jumped back down to the street, running as soon as she hit the ground. She wanted to face them before any more colonists got themselves killed doing the same.

A crash sounded from around the next corner, and Amber pressed herself to the nearest house's wall for cover. A wave of dust billowed into the street, the dry sediment irritating Amber's sensitive nose as she realized with a curse she'd left the Hellbringer helmet behind. She crept closer, able to press her ceramic collar to the wall and glide quietly over its glassy surface. Again, she leaned forward just enough for a sliver of her face to clear the corner, then drew back with the memorized flash of what lay ahead. Five Jiralhanae, two on lookout. Three tearing down brickwork and tarps from... a shed?

Amber wasn't sure what lay inside the shed, but it couldn't be anything good if they were only falling back on it now. She needed to interrupt them, as dramatically as it would take for one human fighter to send five Jiralhanae scrambling for cover. She checked the Focus Rifle's charge, slung it level at her waist for a mid-range fight, and pivoted on the corner to step into the open.

Before the nearer lookout could bark an alarm, Amber pressed the bumper and a solid beam of molten orange connected with the lookout's chest. The rifle's casing segmented, venting metallic-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 had a chance to brace himself and return fire, lifting a Spiker in each hand. A hail 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 something painfully lance her cheek. She gasped, fearing visions of the Jiralhanae she'd driven a spike into the skull of would be the last thing through her mind, her boot brushed a high pile of sand. She tumbled backward, vision orienting toward the clear, morning sky as ceramic plates and padded suit crumpling with her into a heap in the shade of a hut.

She was clear of the lookout's line of fire and, more fortunately, not quite dead yet. Amber reached a hand to her stinging cheek, and 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...

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, circling the house she'd put between herself and her foes. In a moment, she was around it's furthest corner, and the shielded Jiralhanae came into view—still facing the junction he'd last seen her in. Blindsided by Amber's plasma beam, his already weakened shielding gave way. Engraving on the plates beneath melted just as muscle and bone did. The corpse fell, blood oozing from its cauterized wounds.

The remaining three, huddled in corners offering no cover at all from Amber's new angle, fled at once toward the shack they'd been prying apart. Amber cut the first down still in the open, and gave chase to keep the second in view around the shack's corner, burning the legs out from under him. The third made it to the shack, desperately throwing aside a plate of cut starship hull to slip through a door behind. Not about to let a repeat of the last hovel she'd been in happen, Amber dashed inside just a few steps behind.

Unlike the hovel before, this building's insides had barely enough room for one Jiralhanae in the aisle running its length, but a transparent dome at its far end let daylight fall in unobstructed. Cupboards and benches pressed awkwardly together along either wall, leaving her quarry no place to hide as he tore frantically at a table embedded in the far wall, as if trying to free something it held.

Amber didn't wait for him to snag whatever it was. Her rifle's cross-hair fit squarely in the shadow of his broad shoulders, and she held the bumper for a full second, steady enough through that moment to burn a single, clean hole in the warrior's back. Yowling hopelessly in pain, the Jiralhanae slumped forward and lay still over whatever he'd so desperately tried to seize, gravity not quite enough to drag his body to the floor. As her rifle's vent panels retracted into a seamless shell like the fur of an angry hound smoothing out, Amber became aware of its radiated heat and her own gasps breathing it in.

It was over. It had to be. A last few able Jiralhanae might have hidden like the cubs somewhere, but Amber thought it unlikely—Jiralhanae had pack mentalities, fighting together whenever the chance came. If these were all who'd survived to retreat from the Prowlers, she and the colonists had won.

Amber steadied herself with a nearby shelf and leaned for support on a storage compartment door. Her neck stung like hell at the slightest shift, including the strain of her ragged breaths. It was a wonder she wasn't still writhing on the floor of the hut after her near-strangling. Her chest ached from the punch she'd received, and 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 hut's walls. She needed another hit of smoothers. More than likely all the excitement had burned all the counter-agents in her system already.

Her eyes wandered around the cramped single room. Why had the Jiralhanae fallen back here as their last resort? No racks of weapons, no polished armor was readily laid out. She took slow, easy steps toward the body at the far end. Perhaps it was whatever he lay over.

Something about the uncomfortably cramped arrangement of surfaces and compartments seemed familiar to Amber. 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 any other structure. She had to step around a seat fixed to the floor to reach the Jiralhanae's corpse, but it provided an easy place to rest the body as she lugged it off the table, ignoring the odor of sweat and singed fur. Beneath, she found the surface covered in dim lights and glass crystal displays, only a handful glowing faintly under a layer of dust made near-opaque by the morning sun falling 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 in her childhood of the Covenant's technology. A Ren-class courier shuttle. Unarmed, typically used for personnel transport, and boxy by the standards of Covenant design. She hadn't recognized it under stretched tarpaulins and adobe brickwork. Yet, the few status lights her last target had managed to warm up indicated it might still be functional. What were the Jiralhanae doing with a valuable spacecraft like this shuttered up like a spare tool shed? If they were making a profit on slaves, this was a more fuel-efficient craft than most to take a prisoner into orbit with. Plotting out theoreticals irritated her pounding head...

She hadn't seen a landing pad set up anywhere.

A sickening thought caught Amber's breath like a cold hand caressing her lungs. What if the Brutes weren't taking slaves? This shuttle certainly hadn't left Stavros' orbit in some time, and if another craft were regularly coming down for retrievals, the huts would certainly congregate around a designated patch of sand, at least. They could be taking captives back to eat, but Lawrence was right about it being unlikely. Humans weren't tasty, and fish were far less trouble catching. Were these the right Jiralhanae? Were they so sure the missing colonists were taken, not just lost somewhere on a planet on the furthest edge of the colonized galaxy?

She needed to make sense of all this, immediately. She left the shuttle, turning back down the streets she'd already cleared with the Focus Rifle held ready, but her fingers wouldn't tighten on its grip. Of the bodies she passed, so few had any armor... Amber began kicking open the doors she drew near, checking each building less to flush out potential foes than hoping for some steel cage, a gnawed human femur, any incriminating evidence.

A crack echoed off the glassy walls. A single gunshot. Amber turned toward its source at once, careful steps quickening to a bounding sprint as a second followed in the same direction. She neared the hut where she'd left her helmet, and stopped dead as it came into view just a street away.

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 at its foot, 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 dropped to the sand. Shallow breaths escaped her parted lips, eyes stuck open as the impossible played out before her. The colonists, the civilians she was always told needed saving, stood laughing over innocent bodies. Was this what it had all been for? Were these the denizens of Earth and all her colonies her UNSC masters had deemed so worthy of protection, that children had to be pulled from their beds to be kicked and drilled and injected to make Spartans of? Had they ever even believed the Brutes here were a threat, or had they lied to her for an excuse to be rid of the beings they found so terrifyingly different? Were they so right that after dangling on the brink of extinction, their indignation made them any better when they did the same to their oppressors' children? Had the UNSC allowed her birth under their rule so she could kill for them like this, and be welcomed back only when the job was done?

A new feeling steadied her erratic breath: outrage. Whatever twisted rationale had led the mud-hut-dwelling colonists to think they could butcher and burn and have a laugh about it after like good, honest friends was the born of the same justification ONI had for trying to lay hands on enough power to make humanity the sole, unassailable power in the galaxy: sniveling, obsequious fear. Of anything different, because surely they were all on the same, low level together. And who could say they were wrong? Amber had seen Jiralhanae torture and kill for fun. Who was to say the dead cubs wouldn't have grown up to slave and slay like their ancestors? Like they all said, it was an unfair galaxy.

Fine, then. If the galaxy was so unfair, she'd be the one terrible 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. Amber rose to her feet, outside the notice of the gathered colonists—but well inside the Focus Rifle's range.

Wiping out the remaining raiders took less time than clearing the village before had. She even let a few escape her beam's initial sweep, just to give a few at random the same chance she had, to let some twist of fate allow them to overcome her as she hunted them down. None did, but it was the even chance of it that mattered.

After it was done, Amber returned to the courier ship and finished clearing away the debris its former owners had lain it to rest in. 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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