Terminal.png This article, Halo: Itter Rock, was written by Distant Tide. Please do not edit this fiction without the writer's permission.

"2546. Viktoria Bradford and her fellow Army Rangers are on routine patrol across a glassed colony world when they're diverted to investigate an overlooked mountain facility. Viktoria enjoys a challenge: the inhospitable landscape, terrifying alien forces. However, there's more at stake for her here than just another deployment."

DT Itter Rock Cover.png

Story Summary

It's been two years since UNSC High Command declared the battle for Miridem lost, but unlike other defeated colonies, the Covenant invaders stayed, holding territory. Naval Intelligence doesn't believe the aliens stick around for religious reasons; there's no evidence of Forerunner artifacts on or beneath the planet's scorched surface. Between the lack of new colony attacks and the continued presence of aliens on Miridem, military leadership decided to keep forces on the glassed colony in hopes of drawing the enemy into a quagmire not seen since the beginning of the Human-Covenant War.

One of those unfortunate troopers fighting this aimless campaign is Sergeant Viktoria Bradford, and unlike some of her teammates, this the part of the job she enjoys. She has a four-month-old daughter and a worried husband waiting back home, but she fights on anyway because at least on Miridem, she feels her life is under control. Go on patrol, kill aliens. Naval Intelligence has ordered her unit to investigate distress signals and rescue civilians hidden away in a mountain bunker. But this is an Army Ranger mission, nothing is that simple.

From the moment her squad receives the orders to stray from their route, she feels different. The glassed landscape hides strange enemies, and something far more personal. Rangers lead the way, but they also tread lightly.

Dramatis Personae

UNSC Army Rangers:

  • "SQUATTER-2"
    • SGT Viktoria K. Bradford ("Vicky")
    • SGT Patrick Loyne ("Team Lead, Loyne")
    • CPL Paul Reisinger ("Rice")
    • PFC Duster McBride ("Dusty")
    • M722 Beetle: Sapien Sunrise ("Sunny")
  • "SQUATTER-1"
    • SSGT Daher ("Squad Lead, Daher")
    • M722 Beetle: Spider Chief ("Spidy-Chief")
  • "SQUATTER-3"
    • M722 Beetle: Sundowner ("Downer")

Office of Naval Intelligence:

Halo: Itter Rock

Prologue: Mother and Daughter

Petty Officer 3rd Class Andra-D054
1518 Hours, 20 November ████
UNSC Carrier ████████
Slipspace Transit, En Route to Earth

Andra grasped between her fingers the contract that promised her future and her past. Her palms shook with uncertainty, an underlying sense of dread she struggled to name. Fear of the unknown, maybe? For a sheet of synthetic fibers and ink, she seemed to give it weight far above the vague promises it made.

The Office of Naval Intelligence's insignia, a pyramid with an all-seeing eye, lay at the top of the page. She massaged the image's uneven surface while half-scanning the document another time more. No matter her attempts to read the contract, she gained little knowledge from its depths.

Something was putting her off; she knew only a few things that could do so. Her fear of strangers was the leading possibility. Four years of military conditioning should've locked it down though.

The ONI personnel affairs agent, Lieutenant Baraka, did fit her criteria of a stranger. Occupied by a bored expression and eyes glued to his Chatter, he didn't help Andra's case either. This was something else, carried by the contents and weight of the contract instead. How did a sheet of paper hold more power over her than the sound of artillery or suppressive gunfire?

The document was formal. Official-looking letterhead. Small text outlining the security nature – 'eyes-only' for intended parties. Four paragraphs chockful of intelligence jargon discussing records release and 'emancipation'. Beneath its cloak-and-dagger spectacle, the contract revealed few details and fewer explanations.

Even so, it was a floodgate. Holding back the information overflow kept from her for four long years. SPARTAN-III commando Andra-D054, assigned rank Petty Officer Third Class – Naval Special Warfare. Age eleven, a super-soldier and a child-soldier. Taken far from human civilization, she became a human weapon. Conditioning. Indoctrination. Augmentation. Her hijacked complexion almost reflected a worn, hardened teenager – not a child.

But before she was Andra-D054, Andra was someone else. A parents' child. She couldn't remember the embrace of her mother. She only sort-of recalled the sometimes callous grasp of her father. Her family name alluded her, starting with a B—.

At the contract's bottom, a dotted line awaited Andra's signature. A proffered fountain pen laid on the metal table. The Spartan girl couldn't remember the last time she signed a signature, or if she ever had one. What formality required her consent? No one requested it before.

She glanced up at the ONI officer. The man long since gave up on his illusion of patience. Instead, he scrolled through his handheld device, the machine light dancing in his pupils. With augmented vision, Andra thought she saw cartoon Grunts running around a farm pen in fear of the agent's giant thumb.

Andra set her mind back to the paper clasped in-hand. For ten minutes, she let this contract dominate her thoughts. The room's silence was suffocating, with exception to the low hum of air ducts overhead. She made an impulse decision then, setting the contract on the table. She clasped the pen and scribbled out 'SPARTAN-D054' on the dotted line, pushing the items back to the agent.

She knew nothing of what came next, but she knew the options going into this decision. She could have exited the small ready room and not looked back. The what-if questions would eat at her, she needed to know.

Baraka looked up from his game, slipping his Chatter into an unseen pocket. He leaned forward, giving Andra his full attention while taking the contract and pen. "Alright Spartan-D054. Let's get started."

Andra nodded her head in confirmation and schooled her facial features. She couldn't trust her voice to hide the anxiety bubbling within. Time spent under the scrutiny of Spartan instructors only managed a partial resolution to Andra's selective mutism. At the very least, she responded well when prompted by her superiors.

"Where would you like to start?"

Andra's cheeks colored. "I… Don't know sir. I'm a kid. Guide me through it?"

The officer's right cheek twitched back at her – an unrevealing tell. The man seemed unprepared for the indecisive child left in his care. He finally responded after a long three-second pause and a sigh. "As you say Petty Officer. I'll start from the top – we'll look at your CSV. You can ask all the questions you like from there."

CSV, Career Service Vitae. Andra watched as Baraka revealed two datapads, one for each table occupant. She took the offered tablet, watching as it lit up to her touch, and data scrolled across its glass surface.

For the first time, Andra saw her full life story. Everything official and unofficial that made her 'her'. Birthday. Blood type. Place of origin. Extended family records. Physical and mental assessments. Genetic markers and augmentation therapy. Her face and body – every notable marking. Her cybernetic hardware-software suites.

"Petty Officer Third Class Andra-D054," Baraka narrated. "Born November 6, 2545. Colonial Sector Two – colony Sigma Octanus IV. Born Andra Bradford, parents Viktoria and Neville."

Lieutenant Baraka eyed Andra with scrutiny.

"This is your record – short as you haven't even been to battle. Now, as part of your signing of emancipation, you recognized yourself as an 'adult'. This includes taking responsibility for your own conduct."

Andra tilted her head, the beginnings of a confused scowl forming across her face. Adult? Conduct? Already the countless questions piled up.

"During the War, Spartans wouldn't have received things like CSV access or a monetary stipend. Given the 2553 Ceasefire and the new administration, such opportunities are now available. I guess you could say it's a softer approach to Spartan management."

Andra gulped but raised an open palm to slow the Lieutenant down. "Conduct, what's that mean?"

"You belong to the ONI, but you are now allotted some freedom within your military service. The limitations are outlined in detail under 'Permissions'. Congratulations Miss Bradford, you've been granted autonomy."

Her eyes trailed away from Baraka's unrevealing stare. Things were shaking, set in motion. Andra looked down to her hands as her grip slackened around the datapad, dropping it onto the metal table.

Shock, she was going into shock. What did this mean? She was her own person? What did that mean – what separated herself from being a Spartan? Weren't those two concepts the same thing?

'Congratulations Miss Bradford, you've been granted autonomy.' Baraka's voice echoed in her mind. They needed her signature because she was Andra Bradford and Andra-D054.

She received the right to be a person again.

But still, what did that difference mean?

"I'm sure you have questions on the limitations of your CSV and stipend access. If you like, we can address that now."

Pulled from her self-reflection, Andra remembered where she sat. In retrospect, she understood this conversation had a figurative countdown clock. Lieutenant Baraka was still giving Andra a drone-like expression. He didn't want to be here, and she was already past his point of interest.

She knew what she wanted as the conversational pathways etched into her mind. "Can I find that information in this datapad later?"

Baraka's eyebrows relaxed. "Yes, there are further pages there covering this stuff, including AI-run tutorials. You should cover it all with a fine comb in your off-hours or whenever it's convenient. If that is all you need…"

"Thank you, but I wanted to ask about me actually." Andra winced in sympathy.

"Oh," the ONI officer commented in clear disappointment. "Well, what would you like to know?"

Everything. But she didn't say it, small steps. "How much of my CSV am I allowed access once I leave this room?"

"Everything that's already there in front of you, and, in the directories tied to them. As per your security clearance, you will not share anything with unauthorized individuals. That suffice?"

"Yes sir. I just want to know who I am – before I was a Spartan."

"I can't help you without specifics, everything that you need to know should be on your file."

"How about… Living relatives?"

"I'm sorry to report there's no one left but you. Our records on the dead and missing on attacked colonies aren't perfect. But according to what we do have, you're the last one. No other children in the last two generations."

Andra let Baraka's assessment sink in with silence, seeing the same on her data pad's family tree. "What about Sigma Octanus IV? My home? I heard it was attacked… Except that we won."

"Let's see… the places you've been – Enfield, Caracas. Both destroyed in the fighting. Again, I apologize. From what I hear, Sigma Octanus is at a recolonization crossroads right now. Between the severe ecological and infrastructure damage..."

How the dead ends piled up…

Thump. Thump. Thump. Andra pressed air through her nose, exhaling against the thunderous heartbeats. She needed to lock this down but there was another part to this pressure.

She didn't receive her cybernetics until well into Spartan training. All the memories of home life were distant, cloudy. Predating her neural implant, they could no longer be recovered. In time, even a young augmented mind like Andra would forget.

"Would you like a moment to be alone?" Lieutenant Baraka asked in a whisper.

The Spartan girl's head tilted to the side, her eyes squinting tight. She refused to let the tears form.

"No," Andra tried, her voice cracking on the edge of an outburst. "No."

Baraka was silent. Even if the Spartan didn't ask, he gave her the patience he could muster.

Four years of pent-up 'stuff' bubbled to the surface. Memories from Sigma Octanus IV, of Andra and her father. Firing her first gun, swimming in the summers. The amusement park and preschool choir. She remembered riding on her father's shoulders, feeling like a conquering warrior-princess.

The happy memories evaporated soon enough, making room for colder recollections. The Army officers on her front porch. Her father's emotional unraveling, his dead body carted out across the front lawn. The year-and-a-half in a Caracas orphanage repeating day after day, internalizing her rage. So many days, alone.

Again, it all appeared cloudy and as a long reel of morphing colors. Things she loved, the things she hated. But someone was still missing – someone she couldn't recall.

Andra tugged on the loose thread, opening her eyes. "Tell me about my mom. What was she like?"

Baraka eyed her with caution. His demeanor softening at the sight of the grieving child sitting across from him.

Andra wondered as she stared back with watery eyes, had this man ever seen a Spartan cry? Was it even imaginable? If she weren't among their ranks, she wouldn't have considered it.

"Are you sure you want to continue? We can take a break and I can find some time to reschedule – I don't mind, Andra." Baraka resorted to using the Spartan's name.

Andra shook her head. "Please, I'd like to know. I barely knew her."

The Lieutenant watched the Spartan with some hesitation. Finally, he nodded, surrendering to the girl's wishes. "Viktoria Kearsarge Bradford. Army medic and Ranger assigned to the 93rd Ranger Infantry Brigade. She was a career soldier, an off-and-on reservist. She was born on Sigma Octanus IV to a long line of natives."

Baraka nodded to himself, showing mild interest as he scrolled through the expanded dossier of Viktoria Bradford. "She joined the Army out of high school – skipping college. Seems she had a collegiate sports scholarship lined up too. Wonder why she turned that down..."

Andra wondered that too, she wondered a lot of things about her mother. The woman whose face she couldn't remember. She recalled vague memories of meeting Viktoria in person twice. She recalled a few exchanged video recordings, though fuzzy on details.

Still, it felt like meeting her for the first time as Andra pulled up Viktoria's mugshot on her datapad. Brown pupils, shadowy eyes. Stark brow scars. Amber-colored hair. Solid shoulders and extensive tattoos.

The young girl absorbed the woman's facial features with obsessive intent. Baraka's narration slipped away, becoming background noise. Andra wanted this woman to be her mother, a vague caricature of nurturing warmth and an eternal presence.

But these were the wants of a child. Instead, all Andra could find was a cold, uninviting stare.

Their eyes didn't match, their hair didn't match. Their eyebrows and nose shape were similar but Andra gapped in dawning disgust. She couldn't find the person she sought. Andra's blue eyes and softer complexion seemed to come from her father instead – she set the datapad down.

"She earned some major campaign ribbons: Jericho VII, Kholo, Miridem, a couple of others. She earned one posthumously for her participation in the Battle of Minab…"

Andra groaned, pressed her palms into her forehead, and squinting her eyes.

"You okay there?" The ONI officer asked, pausing his retelling of Viktoria's military service.

"Please stop," Andra muttered. Her stomach twisted beneath the table, shaking as her mind was set back into a panic.

Baraka set down his datapad and leaned his arms across the table within grasping distance of Andra's. "My apologies, this was probably too much. Is there anything I can do for you?"

Andra looked up from her shaking palms and opened her mouth to speak, staring down the ONI agent with wide eyes. No words came forth.

She clacked her teeth together and brought a hand to her mouth, her mute set in. Failing to form sounds even as her mouth moved, Andra shook her head and pointed to Baraka's datapad.

The ONI officer lost the message in translation, "What is it, Andra? Something the matter?"

Focusing on her breathing, Andra retreated into a vision of herself swimming breaststroke. She wasn't in the ready room; she lay in the open waters off Camp Ambrose. Her breathing followed her strokes and cadence as she swam towards the shoreline.

Calmed, she pressed her left temple with two fingers. With a wide gesture, she pointed to Baraka's datapad. Andra's neural implant did as ordered, air-dropping the contents with a soft notification ping.

Baraka glanced down at the datapad and nodded to Andra, opening the message. The link flashed across his screen, back to the Spartan's CSV. The officer read aloud, "Andra-D054 suffers from trauma-derived anxiety, taking form as select mutism. Doctor Reyna Zhou-Romero was last responsible for analysis, treatment of her condition."

Andra shook her head again even as Baraka addressed her. "Yeah, this is looking like a bad idea. I don't want to put you through this – we can do this some other way…"

"No," Andra spoke up finally. "Please…"

She tapped through her datapad and called up an empty document, writing out her needs in a moment when her voice wasn't trusted. Baraka read it aloud as she revealed her scribbles, "It's okay. I've been like this for as long as I can remember. I need some time alone, but I want to keep looking into my mom's past. Is there a way I could look at her recordings?"

Baraka looked up to Andra once more, again hesitant to fulfill the Spartan's request.

"Are you sure you want to? I can make the arrangements if you're certain."

Andra nodded in confirmation.

In a whirlwind of movement, Andra and Baraka packed up their things and exited the room without a word. He beckoned and she followed through several starship-board hallways. For Andra's second time on a starship, she was perplexed by how the sailors seemed to find their way around these endless gray tubes.

By the time Andra was again seated, Baraka had already left the new room to handle other matters. His soft words went in one ear and out the other. The Spartan latched on only to "I hope you find the answers you're looking for" as he left the room.

Seated at a quiet cubicle, the new area reminded Andra of a classroom with desks and dividers. A few sailors and other military personnel in uniforms she didn't recognize sat away from her in their own cubicles. Helmets rested on their heads. Beyond some glass paneling, rows of supercomputer units extended into obscure darkness.

Andra looked down at the helmet placed in front of her, connecting to an embedded computer node. She sighed, realizing where she was – the data repository. Information in a spacefaring civilization wasn't quite instantaneous. Mechanisms existed long before Andra was born to create the illusion of such.

A major part of the UNSC's collective data-ecosystem existed within these supercomputer arrays. Infrastructure buoys across human space transmitted along the many Slipspace highways. Sooner or later, they appeared in the server room here.

If there was any place containing the sum of human knowledge, it might be here in a military digital library. Andra slipped the helmet over her head, syncing her neural implant with the room.

"I'll find you Mom," Andra muttered as she narrowed her search on Viktoria Kearsarge Bradford. Particularly, the woman's relationship with her daughter.

Andra started with events four months after her birth. February 2546, on a glassed colony called Miridem.

Return to Top

Chapter 1: Dream Job

Sergeant Viktoria K. Bradford
UNSC Military Calendar: 0400 Hours, 02 February 2546
Novo Campión Mountain Range
Miridem, UEG Inner Colonies

A long time ago, Viktoria believed her favorite color was a gold-blend with a hint of green. She didn’t have a name for the hue, an oddly specific color she discovered as a rebellious teenager hooked on mountain climbing. She would wake up long before first daylight when the only sane (or insane) people out were the UNSC Marines on their PT runs.

Helljumper, Helljumper, where’ve you been?” She often sang to herself on her dark commute: sneak out of the house, run to the public transit stop, hop a bus to the local mountain park and begin her morning routine. Her parents didn’t need to know she climbed mountains in the dark, or that she was conditioning herself to join the Marine Corps. Her excuse for the last few years had been running with the track-and-field kids behind her school. With her competitive grades and rock-climbing trophies, her parents never had reason to doubt her or at least never bothered.

The greenish-gold color she liked was a product of binary starlight hitting Sigma Octanus IV’s upper atmosphere at just the right angle to produce a vaguely copper color in the sky, and she could only get that view from scaling the local rock formations in the extreme-early hours of the morning.

But that was a lifetime ago. Those sun rays no longer intrigued her, and like many things from her youth, lost their luster. Her favorite color was storm gray, like the thick cloud cover before a heavy rainstorm. Or the color the sky took after Covenant warships melted everything below with plasma fire, leaving only radiation, ash, and glass.

Storm gray meant the Covenant had moved on from the area as they rarely occupied territory, whether it was continents or entire planets. It also meant the immediate threat was over and Viktoria could relax a little because the aliens didn’t know she and her teammates were hiding up in the mountains nearby.

That was the life of a UNSC Army Ranger; to watch aliens melt a city and for Viktoria to do nothing. The Covenant controlled the skies and the battlefields below. Rangers were simple observers, unable to decide the fate of battles when the aliens could rain plasma from above and put an end to any marginal success human forces might have made.

It was also the way Viktoria liked it. She knew how strange her perspective was: she found more serenity in a radioactive wasteland than among pristine colonial cities or expansive farmland. But it made sense to her, she much preferred knowing that the Covenant’s invasion had come and gone rather than waiting for their starships to descend from space onto her defenseless head.

“Hey, it’s morning. A Covenant armor column passed below an hour ago but nothing remarkable to report.”

Viktoria’s pupils shifted in the darkness below heavy eyelids, responding to a voice. Someone commenting on an alien armor column. A spark of energy flashed to life in her mind, bringing her to full alertness.

Glassed planet. Army Rangers. Surveillance mission. Her eyes snapped open, wide awake and perfectly rested, to investigate the new log data streaming over her green-tinted ballistic glasses and Heads-Up Display.

Clock time was 0400 hours, UNSC Standard Time. The local time was somewhere in the early morning equivalency. She barely slept three hours, but she felt like she just received the best beauty sleep in human history, and she felt it every morning in the field. A list of reported Covenant sightings during her sleep cycle scrolled by her HUD but she pushed them away with a quick eye flick.

Because a weather-proof tarp obscured her vision, she remained shrouded by darkness in a large foxhole squashed between two other Rangers. Pulling back her helmet-mounted rangefinder that doubled as a sleep mask, Viktoria cautiously twisted her body about, popping stiff joints back into shape.

She lifted her helmeted head from the loose dirt, reached behind to grip a thick wire, and disengaged it with a hiss-click from her helmet neural plug. The previous spark, akin to a sugar rush, faded but the wakefulness remained. A new line of text scrolled across her HUD, ‘Soporific aide disengaged.

The line of text faded out, replaced by Viktoria’s clean HUD displaying her personal radar, weapon diagnostics, personal health, and team status logs.

Around Viktoria, her teammates were similarly waking up and disconnecting their neural plugs. She shimmied herself out of the foxhole, sliding through the hidden entryway by her toes until she entered the soft gray light of a storm cloud morning.

“Morning Vicky,” the voice of Corporal Paul Reisinger greeted from Viktoria's audible left even though it was a microphone trick. Her suit was completely sealed, no noise in or out.

“Morning Rice,” Viktoria replied to the junior non-commissioned officer. “How was the watch?”

“Uneventful as usual. Boring honestly. Just a Wraith and Shadow column that I reported up the battle net. Saw some Banshee flyers on thermals but they were the usual scouting element.”

“Comes with the job,” Viktoria shrugged as she kneeled facing the bivouac tarp, pulling out her hardcase backpack from below and shuffling aside loose dirt along the way.

“Yeah, well, it wasn’t in the job description,” Reisinger grunted, rising from his prone perch among clumps of browned mountain grass. He dusted off his pants and approached his teammate. “Not that I’ll be the first or last to complain about it.”

Dropping to a knee on Viktoria’s right, he deposited his assault bag before leaning on his folding shovel.

“What? Did you not read about boredom in the fine print?” Viktoria smirked behind her visor while paying the Corporal a sideways glance.

“Oh no, I was glued on the promise of gals-in-camo and bayoneting Jackals. I can say I got at least one of those things.”

“Well, which one was it?”

“I’ve bayoneted some Jackals. So now I just need a nice lady-medic to give me a back massage.”

“You hitting on me, Corporal?” Viktoria asked, tilting her head once more towards her fellow Ranger, pausing in her activity of searching for a preferred breakfast ration bar.

The Corporal shook his helmeted head. “Wouldn’t dream of it, Sarge, I just heard medics got steady hands.”

“Oh, they do. Are you asking me to set you up then?”

Reisinger shrugged, “What would you have in mind?”

“The fastest way would be for you to roll down the mountain and break a couple of ribs. Or, we have you run across glasslands and let you take your chances with a Jackal sniper. We can then call CASEVAC and get you flown to a Marine hospital if there’s any left on the planet. Then you can tell a nice Navy nurse about how brave you were.”

Viktoria’s visor depolarized, revealing a predatory smile directed at Reisinger.

“Damn Vick, that’s cold…” he hissed.

“Is Rice hitting on you, Vick?” Sergeant Patrick Loyne’s gruff voice carried from beneath the bivouac as it shifted, allowing the taller Army Ranger to exit the space into the morning light.

“Seems so,” Viktoria giggled, nodding to the senior Sergeant as a morning greeting.

“I tuned you guys out, all I heard was something about Reisinger and women.”

“He was just asking me about setting him up with a nurse to give him a back rub.”

“Oh, oh! Why didn’t you say so? I’m not a nurse but I give terrific back rubs!” Loyne bellowed, steeping around his teammates to clamp down on the corporal’s shoulders. “I’m all you’ll ever need.”

“Knock it off,” Reisinger grunted, shrugging off the fireteam leader. “You guys are terrible.”

The sergeants erupted into laughter at the display of annoyance but subsided as they returned to their morning routines.

“Lighten up Rice, you know we’re only playing,” Viktoria patted her teammate’s shoulder.

The corporal only hummed back in dejection while beginning the minute process of uncoupling his mask seal to eat some chow in a plastic wrapper.

“Dusty, what’s the hold-up?” Sergeant Loyne asked over the TEAMCOM.

“Just a moment Sarge, doing a satellite uplink check – making sure all our data was uploaded and no dust got into the—”

Crackles of thunder roared through the mountains, shattering the tranquil morning, and drawing the attention of the Ranger team.

“What was—” Viktoria began only to freeze upon hearing another crackle followed by frantic rustling from the bivouac. She had to drop and slide to the left to avoid one frantic Private First Class Duster ‘Dusty’ McBride from leaping out and trampling her.

“Sniper? Are we under attack?”

Everyone else was already pancaked to the ground, listening intently for the next report of gunfire, their eyes directed towards the valley below. Loyne waved his right arm wildly at the bewildered McBride, directing the subordinate to drop flat to the ground.

Proactive, Viktoria seized McBride’s arm as his legs went slack, hitting and dragged to the dirt with the rest of the team.

Loyne got on the squad radio channel, “SQUATTER-2 to SQUATTER-1, SQUATTER-3 – status?”

“SQUATTER-3 to SQUATTER-2, we’re status green. Heard gunfire.”

“SQUATTER-1 to all, that was us. Jackal team stumbled on our camp, we got them but Op-Sec’s compromised.”

“Move out?” Loyne asked, glancing back at his team and their unpacked camping equipment.

“As soon as possible, report-in when you’re all set—”

Repetitive crackles erupted like whirling drills through the mountains, overcoming the momentary quiet.

“Contact! Sniper fire!” SQUATTER-1 suddenly shouted over the radio, immediately changing tune in sudden urgency.

“Vector?” Loyne called out while gesturing his teammates into action. Reisinger rushed back to his watch post, skirting the ground to not stick out. McBride and Viktoria army-crawled into place next to Loyne before spreading themselves out along the curved edge of the bluff.

“Need counter-fire, position pinned by beam rifle. Look for the plasma trail, due southwest,” SQUATTER-1 reported as another shot zapped out across the valley and over the radio, “halfway up a mountain.”

Viktoria brought her M392 designated marksman rifle to the prone-ready position but did not try to line up a shot just yet. Across the valley, she could see the cyan-colored waypoints of SQUATTER-1 and SQUATTER-3. From this distance, she couldn’t make out individual muzzle flashes, but the Covenant beam shots were clear as day against the matte-gray glasslands.

She shuffled dirt around her, digging in and pulling down her helmet-mounted rangefinder. Tracing the enemy’s weapons fire, the variable-view slider cycled and zoomed in on an outcropping of toppled and ashen tree stumps. Settled haphazardly behind fallen trunks, three sets of scaly arms and raptor faces loomed over their wooden fort with beam rifles and alien carbines discharging almost every three seconds.

“Distance to target, 813 meters,” Viktoria announced, pinging the targets.

“I see it,” Sergeant Loyne confirmed with his rangefinder. “Crosswind is a bit difficult to tell at this height and distance. Think you can make that shot Rice?”

“I’m rested enough, should be able to handle it, otherwise the gun should compensate for everything else. The concern I have is that there are three Jackals. If I miss the first shot, they’ll be on us in another ten seconds – they got good eyes and I don’t think they’ll miss once they know where we are.”

“I’ll pass the target data along,” Loyne commented. “Just line up the shot. Dusty and Vick, get ready to suppress in case we can’t thin their ranks.”

Vick slid her rangefinder back to the top of her helmet and summoned the scope smart-link with her HUD. Taking aim and compensating with her rifle’s targeting computer, she assessed that she could probably get a body shot if the raptor-like aliens didn’t move too much.

“This is SQUATTER-2, the enemy target is due southwest. Zone 67 in the mid-level tree line area. ‘Forest of Doom’, look for a section of toppled trees that forms some makeshift cover. Can’t miss it with all the plasma coming off it. SQUATTER-3, coordinate your sharpshooter with mine – we’ll send you the smart-link data.”

“We see it,” SQUATTER-3’s team leader confirmed. “We engage together, or delay?”

“Delay, best they don’t pick out all our nests,” SQUATTER-1 responded between bursts of plasma fire over his radio line.

“My team will take the first shots,” Loyne stated firmly,” SQUATTER-3, follow up after we split their attention.”

“Understood,” was SQUATTER-3’s curt response.

“You got that bead, Rice?” Loyne asked, returning to his fireteam radio channel.

“Just waiting for your order, SQUATTER-3’s linked up with my shot prediction.”

“Fire away,” Loyne mumbled, marking the moment the counter-attack began.

Reisinger squeezed the trigger, but Viktoria never heard the click. A thunderous boom erupted from the sniper’s SRS99 anti-material rifle sending dust flying and pebbles clicking off Viktoria’s helmet; a smoke line popped into existence, trailing the bullet. Through her scope, she made out the round’s silent crash through the makeshift wooden barrier throwing dirt, dust, and alien gunk skyward.

“Kill confirmed, body cavity,” Reisinger reported as Viktoria and McBride squeezed their triggers, sending semi-accurate shots into the mangled mess of limbs and wood. She managed to fire off five rounds before a second thunderous boom screamed through the valley, originating from a position three hundred meters to her right.

“Kill confirmed, neck shot,” SQUATTER-3’s marksman responded, confirming a second tally for the Army Rangers.

The suppression continued; Viktoria could see her bullet counter descend with every trigger pull. Ten rounds, nine rounds left…

“This is SQUATTER-1, the pressure’s off – we’re re-engaging.” Another clump of gunshots echoed from another five hundred meters to Viktoria’s left.

Viktoria attempted to examine the sputtering cover getting cut up like swiss cheese, but she couldn’t identify any targets in the aggressive and dusty onslaught. From three sides, the alien Jackals were effectively shredded.

“Ceasefire, ceasefire,” Loyne called out, waving at his team to calm the assault. SQUATTER-1 and -3 seemed to do the same. “Check targets. Anyone see anything?”

Viktoria ceased as ordered, stopping at seven bullets left in the magazine. Looking closely with her scope serving as a monocular, she scanned the little outcropping for targets. Nothing moved among the shattered pile of debris and wood. Dirt didn’t shift, shadows didn’t stretch, the wood didn’t rise.

“That looks like an all-clear to me,” Viktoria commented.

“Clear, clear.” McBride and Reisinger confirmed through their scopes.

Backing away from her scope, Viktoria looked to Loyne as he rose to a semi-kneeling position and called in with the other teams. It appeared the fight was over.

“SQUATTER-2 here. Good effect on-target, we think they’re dead.”

“We’re of the same mind,” SQUATTER-1’s leader responded, speaking for his team and SQUATTER-3. “Breakfast is on the road, people. Pack up in five mikes, I want everyone over these mountains before the sun peaks.”

“Roger that, we’ll get it done,” Loyne confirmed followed by a garbled affirmative from SQUATTER-3. “Alright, let’s get to it. Pack up everything, skip breakfast. We’ll eat on the march.”

Viktoria tuned out the squad radio channel and looked to her team’s unpacked campsite as McBride groaned but rose from his position, heading to the bivouac. “I’ll take down the tarp and start up the walker. Vick, can you help me get everything into the cabin?”

Viktoria followed the Private First Class towards the sleeping quarters with a simple nod, her M392 dangling on its retention cord, hands-free.

“Rice, keep scanning the area for targets. I’ll pick up your chores.” Loyne ordered as he went to gather up Reisinger’s assault bag.

“Thanks, Sarge.”

The cleanup was monotonous and silent as everyone focused on their tasks. Viktoria went quickly, crumpling up the bivouac tarp into a rigid ball of sorts so she could stuff it into a vacuum-shrink sack. It wasn’t the cleanest way to store the shelter material, but it was quick. The tarp’s memory-fabric would make sure that creases could be stretched out with minimal effort, right now Viktoria had no time to consider being nice to the gear.

With the bivouac pulled down, the extent of the hidden manhole was left bare. The crater was easily ten meters across and a meter deep. Typically digging a hole of this size would take SQUATTER-2 an entire day to complete, however, the squat behemoth entrenched at the center shortened that work down to several hours.

Colored by a washed-out green, titanium composite armor wrapped around four stubbed claw legs, a central dome-like head, and a refrigerator-sized abdomen that served as a driver cabin. Two rounded arms with tri-gripping fingers accompanied a chin-mounted AIE-486 rotary cannon and an assortment of headlights and cameras that looked like a set of bug eyes. It was rarely seen alongside UNSC regulars but very familiar to Viktoria; the M722 Beetle, a pseudo-spider tank that thrived in urban and mountain environments and was the unsung hero of many operations behind Covenant lines.

Shoving the tarp-ball into the storage bag, Viktoria called out to McBride, “Dusty, tarp bag! Catch!”

Glancing up from a battery rig pulled from the Beetle’s cabin bottom, he set down the giant slab and opened to Viktoria’s throw, catching it like a basketball player.

Viktoria did the same with several more sleeping and saddlebags before determining the camp to be cleared out. She unfurled the roller stand on the soporific aide, more often called a ‘sleeper box’ and wheeled it over to the Beetle’s rear.

McBride took the crate-sized machine and slid it into place. He slipped the reserve battery in above it. Viktoria turned to look over the crater edge and called out to Sergeant Loyne. “We’re packed up and ready to go!”

“Roger, get on up here. Jogger-Frames are ready to go.” The senior sergeant called back, waving down to McBride and Viktoria.

Viktoria climbed out of the dirt pit and walked past Loyne to the series of powered exoskeletons mounted with countless pouches, spare weapons, and assorted equipment. She stepped into one of them marked ‘BRADFORD’ in hasty chalk, and affixed its skeletal frame to her limbs with belts. She flexed her arms and legs for a dexterity check, allowing the suit-computer to adapt to her movements.

“I’m set,” Viktoria noted as Loyne completed his own checks.

The framed senior sergeant nodded and punched the air theatrically. “Hey Rice, give me your rifle. I’ll take your watch. Get suited.”

Reisinger and Loyne swapped places on the bluff, trading SRS99 between hands. Loyne took a knee and watched mountains with interest. Reisinger passed by Viktoria in the direction of his Jogger-Frame, giving his superior’s shoulder a pat over.

Rattling and hissing of hydraulics chugged across the bluff as Viktoria watched the team Beetle tap and stomp the ground around it, crushing what remained of the team's firepit underfoot. McBride rode atop, leaning out of the convertible driver cabin as he guided the spider tank out of the hole.

“Sunny is functioning green, I’m going to go ahead and put her on ‘follow’ mode now,” McBride explained, referencing the Beetle’s nickname on HUD, and as painted on the abdomen. Sapien Sunrise.

“Alright get hooked up, everyone else ready?” Loyne rose from his perch, handing Reisinger back his rifle.

Viktoria’s HUD winked with four green lights, registering the entire team’s ready status. McBride slipped by Viktoria towards his own Jogger-Frame while Sunny parked itself next to her.

“SQUATTER-3 to all, we’re ready to move.”

“SQUATTER-2 to all, we’re ready to move.”

“Copy all, I’ve sent you the relevant checkpoint data, we’ll regroup at the New Salt Burn,” SQUATTER-1 responded over the SQUADCOM.

The rest of SQUATTER-2 glanced over at Sergeant Loyne. Reisinger spoke up, “Salt Burn? That shit-smelling flatbed?”

“Yeah, the Covenant logistical ground traffic in that area has been growing in excess over the last few days,” Loyne explained, needling his virtual reality wrist computer to push relevant information to his subordinates. “The Navy’s intel jockeys want us to look into it. I would guess it's because the precision strikes on atmosphere-traveling Covenant corvettes is rising and the aliens can’t afford such big ferry targets anymore. They’re learning to be more like us I’d say.”

Viktoria’s eyes scrolled through the data, pushing aside satellite photo after satellite photo of Covenant supply lines made up of hover tanks and low-flying dropships. It was odd to look at; the Covenant employing human supply line methodology. The graphical data shown in one or two diagrams even suggested a higher volume of traffic at night.

“Alright, so that’s the game plan. I’ve marked our walking trail to the site on your HUDs by combining our maps with synced LIDAR data, the usual stuff. Any questions?”

“How many clicks are we fast-marching?” McBride asked.

“Thirty-seven clicks, the first ten or so will be highly mountainous but after that should be mostly smooth.”

Reisinger audibly groaned at the idea of more mountain climbing but added nothing else to the conversation. Viktoria silently grinned at the idea.

“Alright team, roll out,” Loyne hollered to SQUATTER-2 and pointed toward the mountain peak ahead of the group.

They made it fourteen paces to the ever-familiar sound of a spider tank and four human bodies wrapped in titanium before the SQUADCOM lit up with activity. The authoritative voice of SQUATTER-1 came over the air. "SQUATTER-ACTUAL to all. Give me all ears, Boogeyman is overhead. We got modified priorities, let's hear it."

Viktoria and her fellow Rangers paused in step. She tried to take a knee and lower her profile against the fifty-eight-degree incline that only grew steeper as she looked up towards the cloud-choked sky. Still, gaps above revealed a somewhat dim blue sky. The mountain was high, the barely-glinting star in daylight was even higher.

Hovering slow, small, and only visible when her range finder zoomed way in, a stealth satellite of Naval Intelligence origin greeted the Army Rangers of SQUATTER like a long-missed best friend. In this desolate wasteland, there was very little in the way of friends but the little basketball-sized bot was a welcome sight. On a more than trivial note, Viktoria always wondered if it were a BLACK WIDOW or STARS-type satellite but they seemed to do the same thing.

She didn't choose the career with a luxury for knowing the intricate differences between classified logistics equipment. She was a grunt with her feet firmly planted in the dirt. Maybe one day she'd inquire her husband on the matter, if she bothered remembering to ask.

A new radio contact crackled into the SQUADCOM, settling into the virtual space with some difficulty after bouncing the signal across an unknowing distance of an ONI prowler, several communications satellites, and the many remaining and active jammer installations dotting Miridem surface. Even after regular UNSC forces essentially abandoned the planet during the rout of 2544, Covenant war machines continue to function as if the battle was ongoing. Like so many glassed worlds, it was an ongoing hazard across many glassed and lost human colony worlds.

"Gr-greetings, SQUATTER-ACTUAL. This is Boogeyman," The speaker's male voice was rough but with a certain rasp that sounded akin to speaking through a mask. It almost made Viktoria imagine the ONI briefing officer as someone bedridden but that was rather preposterous.

Stopping to cough and clear his throat, Boogeyman’s voice came through clearer but the rasp remained. "We're pulling you from the previous patrol route. You'll still rendezvous at Checkpoint Charleston but we've managed to get a platoon of Marines off the UNSC Tofu XII to fill in for your rotation while you break off to investigate an abandoned facility."

SQUATTER-1's squad-and-team leader interrupted for the squad, "What's the cause?"

"Right. Civilian-type frequency, encrypted. It popped up during our last scan with the satellite array. The facility is a kind of subterranean mountain structure from the very early days of Miridem's colonization. What little we recovered from Miridem's colonial government records suggests it once housed engineers responsible for the plantwide network of terraforming machines in the late twenty-fourth century. We'd like SQUATTER to investigate as a pretense for search-and-rescue, but also information denial if it proves an issue."

Viktoria frowned and spoke her mind over the SQUADCOM. "I get the search-and-rescue part, even if it’s rather strange it only came up now. What do you mean by information denial?"

"Because of its older nature, this facility—Itter Rock—was not connected to the rest of the colonial grid when colonization formally got underway. We don’t know much about it, but it appears it transitioned into a museum or historical center after Miridem incorporated into the UEG. What’s got me worried is that Section Two teams overlooked this site according to local operations record. It could point back to other colonies, or even Earth if data records there weren’t expunged.”

Sergeant Loyne added his voice to the chatter, “So we’re doing a second round of data removal, and cleaning up where ONI missed the mark?”

“More or less. Find out why the civilian signal went up after two years without notice. If it’s a trap, destroy it. If it’s genuine, rescue the stranded. Perform a facility inspection and get back to me on whether we need to do a more thorough clean up there. If all goes well, you’ll either march onto Checkpoint Delphi, or we’ll exfiltrate you with the Tofu XII.”

SQUATTER-3’s team leader brought up another inquisitive matter. “Why not just send in the Marines?”

Boogeyman had an answer for that question too.

“Ground scans shows that Covenant forces have fortified the mountain passes along their own logistics and patrol routes with anti-armor weaponry that could put our few ships at risk. I only have a few frigates in system, and I’m not putting even a landing ship at risk of getting chewed up by anti-air fire. There’s a lot of Covenant ground activity in the area, so its only a matter of time before the Itter Rock signal is investigated by the Covenant as well. And on top of that, if we cause enough of a stir – they might bring down one of the few remaining corvettes they got in-system. That’d really fuck up the day for all of us.”

“So, when would you send in a landing ship for a rescue? If we need it, that is?” SQUATTER-1’s team leader asked with a notable hint of annoyance.

“You don’t have to but I’d encourage you to clear out some of the ground nests where you can. Give us some breathing room and we can come get you after the investigation. I wanted to send VALOR in with you but a glass storm is blocking our communications—I would guess because of radiation or the heavy particle count in the air.”

“Send us the data on the location, everything you got on the facility and the local terrain. And I want that target data on those mountain weapon emplacements.” SQUATTER-1 remarked with a grumble.

“Already done,” Boogeyman responded, no less tired-sounding. He gave a short sigh. “Do what you can, we’re all short on man power these days. But I do need this done.”

“Understood, we’ll get it done. And don’t forget to leave us some goodies at Charleston. We won’t make it without heavier ordinance.”

The ONI officer seemed to nod with his voice. “Yeah, yeah. I’ll make sure you’re well stocked before you start out. Is that all?”

Green affirmation lights winked off across the twelve-man Ranger squad. No more questions, and no more comments.

“Alright… Thank you again,” Boogeyman trailed off as he closed the communications channel. “Ensign, find me a fucking water bottle—I can’t stop feeling parch—”

Reisinger spoke up in full hearing of the SQUADCOM, “A squad of Rangers against half a Covenant armored brigade or something like that. Sounds like a completely fair fight.”

“Can it Corporal, our comms makes it back to Boogeyman – you know that.” Loyne growled, shifting over to smack the subordinate on the shoulder.

“Not like he or anyone here cares…” Reisinger mumbled, thankfully on TEAMCOM this time.

“Thank you, SQUATTER-2. Please keep it professional,” SQUATTER-1’s team leader added. His voice gave off an uncaring tone, much to Reisinger’s credit. “Teams continue onto Charleston; we’ll figure out these there.”

Green affirmation lights again glowed to the squad leader’s orders as fireteam waypoints for SQUATTER-1 and SQUATTER-3 carried on marching along the mountainsides.

Loyne pulled Reisinger from the dirt and made to dust him off without a word as the corporal fidgeted like a child caught with their hand in the cookie jar. The senior sergeant continued, “Like I said, roll out.”

“What about breakfast?” McBride asked, shaking a ration bar at the team.

“Eat on the move,” Loyne simply remarked and started back on the ascent as Sapien Sunrise made to follow the team leader of SQUATTER-2. Sunny whined as it clambered up the steep ascent, marching with lighter footfalls than expected for a sedan-sized spider tank.

Realizing her hands were empty, Viktoria glanced down towards her combat webbing to examine her gear. Magazines, check. Gun, check. Everything important, check.

No rad-meal bar. Well, that sucked. She left it in her bag after all this.

“Forget your meal bar?” McBride asked Viktoria from a few steps away. Reisinger followed Loyne, having swapped his SRS99 to a Jogger Frame mount in favor of holding a lighter M392 designated marksman rifle. It was just the Sergeant and PFC now.

“Yeah, I guess I did…” Viktoria mumbled in mild annoyance. Despite her disappointment, she fell in step with her subordinate so they could make progress on the hike.

A series of dashed lines flashed on Viktoria’s HUD in vibrant blue as the incline began to steepen, marking a path forward. Three-dimensional scans from LIDAR further mixed with geographical and direction maps generated with terrain data, marking the safest stepping spots. Green – great, yellow – caution, red – danger.

McBride stepped a pace ahead of Viktoria with an exaggerated bounce, putting his assault bag in view. “Hey, you can have one of my rad-meal bars. I’ll just borrow one of yours later.”

Viktoria nodded in appreciation, reaching to unzip McBride’s hardcase backpack for the proffered meal bar. “Fine by me. And thanks, you’re too kind.”

“Team’s a team, Sarge.”

After Viktoria secured the food and the bag, the private first class shuffled after the rest of SQUATTER-3 as the round mountain bend turned into a sudden and improbable eighty-degree incline. The peak lay just in reach.

The Ranger medic slid her acquired meal bar into a side pocket for safe keeping as a short smile tugged at her lips. Doubling her stride, she lightly tapped McBride as she passed him to reach the sheer rock face. The lowest-ranking soldier in the unit managed a wider smile back at her antics and made chase, falling in line with the other Rangers observing their spider tank begin the complicated action of scaling the final hump.

It wasn’t a new spectacle but it still left a bit of awe for the warfighters, watching this rare marvel of technology use whatever sorcery was in Warthog tires that allowed them to scale sharp inclines and applied it a step further to crawl up a wall. No grips, no suction, and no imprint. It just climbed, sticking its way up without hesitation. In four seconds, Sunny scaled a ten-meter cliff and disappeared over the top. A carbon nanotube rope descended back down the cliff, extending for the Rangers to latch on. How very considerate.

Slipping forward and past Loyne and Reisinger, Viktoria latched a climbing cable to the M722 Beetle’s rope and started her ascent – exoskeleton-clad legs pinned and rigid as she inched upwards. It took her longer than Sunny but with every footstep, the peak came further into view. She didn’t bother looking behind her, that view was yesterday. Today’s view laid ahead and beyond the peak.

Climbing the eighty-degree incline came naturally to Viktoria as she made occasional shifts according to her HUD’s terrain recommendations and took some enjoyment out of the exercise. There were many things she lost from her childhood; however, rock climbing and risky hiking never-ever lost their luster.

The mix of the subtle fire burning under her skin from the workout, the sense of sweat soaked away by her uniform absorption layer, and the sound of pounding boots over unforgiving terrain felt like a personal battle. A direct challenge from the elements and the universe. She’d conquer this mountain as she had hundreds of times before, many mountains never named or without names known to her. She would take them all for herself.

Just like that, her view went from charcoal dirt and muddy permafrost to a swirling storm gray and deeper, dark earth below shadowed in dust clouds. The wind tickled at every inch of her body, faux-threatening to blow her away, either into the sky or down the mountain once more. She could see and feel everything.

Viktoria let out a hearty laugh as she momentarily crested the top of their current mountain and made out the next six peaks and ridges ahead. Reisinger’s visor crested the cliff a moment after Viktoria pulled herself up and over, only for her to catch his stink eye as she hoisted him up the rest of the peak. Not everyone had her energy. She paid him a coy tilt of the head, reminiscent of her predatory smile from before.

The team marksman snorted over the radio, taking a few clearing steps for the rest of the team. Sergeant Loyne followed next as Viktoria helped him up too.  He shifted over to Reisinger’s side as they made small talk amongst themselves. The duo popped their visor seals as Viktoria hefted McBride over the peak; a glance back and the two were pulling out their breakfast meal bars for breakfast.

With the team clear of the first obstacle, Viktoria allowed herself to slide down the mountain crest so she wasn’t sky-lining herself and presenting an ample target for an attentive alien sniper. Sunny reeled in its cable and turned back towards the descent downward, ready to go again.

Checking her wrist Geiger counter for radiation levels, Viktoria noted a manageable number of millisieverts and pulled off her mask. Watching the mountains toward the horizon in partial concern, she reached down to her side pouch and retrieved her meal bar. Her stomach didn’t growl at her but its walls shook in warning, calling for sustenance. It was a long trek from here, the want for a meal bar would come again soon enough.

For now, and in the moment, Viktoria just took in the sight. The gray expanse of mountains and clouds, peeks of blue and white cutting between the storm-choked sky. Up here where the dust and radiation didn’t quite go, she could still smell the vague memory of a mountain breeze. Except the ash, there was always ash.

Viktoria broke the seal on the meal bar with a satisfying snap, and beamed just a little as the petrified smell reached her nostrils. Someone back home might call the smell rancid, but she lived for it. Protein, fiber, dried fruit, and radiation scrubber-type nanobots. Everything anyone would need to stay healthy in a glassed, radioactive wasteland.

This was what Viktoria loved about her dream job. Open skies, nonexistent rules of engagement, minimal alien threats, inhospitable mountains, and a team she could trust. Here, day-in and day-out, things just made sense.

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