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40px-Terminal.png This article, Halo: Itter Rock, was written by Distant Tide. Please do not edit this fiction without the writer's permission.

DT Itter Rock

2546. Viktoria Bradford and her fellow Army Rangers are on routine patrol across a glassed colony world when they're diverted to rescue stranded civilians hidden away in a mountain bunker. Viktoria enjoys a challenge: the inhospitable landscape, the endless alien forces. However, she can't help worrying about the unseen eyes following her day-and-night.


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 away unseen eyes and ever-stranger enemies. Rangers lead the way, but they also tread lightly.

Dramatis Personae

feat. "Squatter-1": Staff Sergeant Daher, "Squatter-3", Spider Chief ("Spidy-Chief"), Sundowner ("Downer").

Itter Rock

Chapter One: Dream Job

Sergeant V. Bradford
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, 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 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. 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 range finder 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 user interface displaying her 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 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 hard case 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 hear 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.

“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—”

Thunder crackled 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 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 temporary 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 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’s 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 clinking off Viktoria’s helmet; a smoke line popped into existence, trialing 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 onslaught. From three sides, the alien Jackals were completely 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 was moving in that pile of debris and wood. Dirt didn’t shift, shadows didn’t stretch, the wood didn’t rise.

“That looks like a 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 do it once we’re over the other side.”

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-grey, titanium composite armor plating 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 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 baseball umpire.

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 box-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 pouches and spare weapons, equipment. She walked into one of them, affixed their 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 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, patting his superior’s shoulder over.

Rattling and hissing of hydraulics chugged across the bluff as Viktoria spotted the Beetle tapping and stomping the ground around it, crushing what remained of the team's firepit underfoot. McBride rode atop, leaning out of the 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 called out, rising from his perch and 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 Squatter-1, we’re ready to move.”

“Squatter-2 to Squatter-1, 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 flatland?”

“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 and pushing information to his subordinates. “The Navy’s intel jockeys want us to look into it. would guess its 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 trial to the site on your HUDs by combining our maps with synced LIDAR data, the usual stuff. Any questions?”

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

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

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

Loyne took point, shouldering his M392 precision rifle on a Jogger-Frame mount while taking up an MA37 assault rifle in anticipation for closer combat.

Viktoria responded by doing the same, setting aside her M392 and taking up a MA37K carbine. Reisinger switched to an M392, shouldering his massive anti-material rifle and followed Loyne up the mountain second.

Viktoria made to follow, lightly tapping McBride on the elbow with a smile. The lowest ranking soldier on the team gave a soft smile back to his teammate and made to climb the mountain as Sunny whined into action, marching with lighter crunching footfalls than expectable of a sedan-sized spider tank.

Climbing the eighty-degree incline came naturally to Viktoria as she shifted according to her HUD’s terrain recommendations and took some enjoyment out of the exercise mix. 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 being pulled 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 grey and deeper, dark earth below. 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 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 looked up and back towards Viktoria and gave her a stink eye, reminding her that not everyone had her energy. She responded with a coy tilt of her head, reminiscent of her predatory grin from before.

The team marksman snorted over the radio before continuing his march down, staying in step with Sergeant Loyne. Pulling his face mask down for a moment as did the senior sergeant, they were already pulling out their breakfast meal bars.

Viktoria allowed herself to slide down the peak, so she wasn’t sky-lining herself and presenting an ample target for an attentive alien sniper. Checking her passive Geiger radiation counter, she noted a manageable number of millisieverts and pulled off her mask.

“Where did I put my bar?” She mumbled, reaching around her plate carrier, huffing in frustration.

“Forget your meal bar in the firefight?” McBride called down from a few feet behind Viktoria.

She looked back at him before falling into step with him and in front of Sapien Sunrise. “Yeah, looks like it.”

“Here, you can have one of my rad-meal bars,” McBride said, presenting his hard case backpack to Viktoria so she could open it as they marched. “I’ll just take one from you later.”

“Fine by me, thanks,” Viktoria responded, promptly zipping open his bag and snatching a bar and zipping the bag back up. “You’re too kind.”

“Team’s a team, Sarge.”

“Agreed,” Viktoria beamed as she opened the wrapper and began to chomp down on her gifted meal. Protein, fiber, dried fruit, and radiation scrubber-type nanobots. Everything anyone would need to stay healthy in a glassed, radioactive wasteland.

This is what Viktoria loved about her dream job. Open skies, weapons free, minimal alien threats, inhospitable mountains, and a team she could trust. Now all she needed was an insurmountable challenge.

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Chapter Two: Insurmountable Challenge

Sergeant V. Bradford
1124 Hours, 02 February 2546
Weathering Corridor
Miridem, UEG Inner Colonies

There was awe to be felt for colony worlds, glassed or populated regardless. Earthers and the elites of SolCore would disagree of course. There was a favorite saying of theirs: “Every colony is beautiful, but Earth is the most so, for she is Home.”

Of course, that was just Homeworlder nonsense. Viktoria encountered many Earth-supremacists in her military service; the ideology was deeply-rooted in UNSC culture. She visited Earth once and she couldn’t deny the planet was majestic, but the human homeworld was far from unique. Earth lacked the wholistic rainforest coverage of Arcadian-fame or the unconquered peaks of Reach or Chi Ceti IV. It couldn’t compare to the unique view of Sol’s own Castellaneta beach habitats, racing at high speed around Saturn.

As far as Viktoria knew, Earth didn’t have the miles of weathering-wind tunnels twisting about at the foot of the Novo Campión Mountain Range. Someone smarter than Viktoria referred to the rock formations as grykes and clints, flat limestone formations eroded through freeze-expansion and chemical weathering leaving behind deep fissures and flatly-paved plateaus. Grykes were the fissures, clints were the resilient blocks. Earth had some but Viktoria never encountered any wide enough to swallow a Warthog gun-truck whole. Not like on Miridem anyway.

But someone of lesser creativity than Viktoria went with designating them as the ‘Weathering Corridor’ on her HUD trail map. Why couldn’t they have gone with something in Latin like the mountains here on Miridem? Or even the German word for clints, flachkarren, or anything else?

It was questions like these that dominated Viktoria’s mindscape as she lazily ruck-marched alongside her teammates through the tunneled depressions of charred and crystalline limestone. The Covenant ships didn’t blast this area with their unrelenting plasma, but the far-flung ashen dust burned hot and stuck to every surface imaginable. The natural corridors presented space for unkindly wind currents, carrying violent shards and obstructive stick-ash.

“Three hundred meters to Checkpoint Charleston, not much farther people.” Sergeant Loyne yelled out from somewhere ahead. Viktoria failed to make out his silhouette between the material-thick winds and the hot ash clinging to her visor. She attempted to rub her clothed fist against the choked surface, but the act proved in vain – the ash stuck fast like cement. Sighing in frustration, she reached for the rock wall to her right and paused in her march.

The Army Ranger medic sucked in a breath as she attempted to push down the trivial annoyances and distractions. Imagining her mind supercharged to finish the fast march, she made to take another step but paused at a dark shift in her periphery visible through her visor’s unclogged left corner. She blinked twice, attempting to process the brief, uncertainly-witnessed visage.

For just a moment, she imagined the long-cast shadow of a rock in the low light had moved. Maybe she was just seeing things, her helmet was essentially blind already. So, what was that? Her imagination, or something else?

“Viktoria, finish line’s just around the corner,” Reisinger exclaimed, upon noticing that one of the team’s yellow-motion tracking dots had stopped moving with the pack. “You doing okay?”

Keeping her eyes on the spot for a second more, she turned to the silhouette of Reisinger. He appeared like a dark haze over her dust-swamped visor but with the assistance of her VISR passive scan, she could easily make him out as a green-highlighted presence; the rest of the fireteam and Sapien Sunrise highlighted the same way as the terrain was outlined in a pale yellow.

“Uh, nothing. I…I’m seeing shadows, I guess. I think I missed my stim-pack ration.”

“Well crap, Viktoria. You’re going to be off-cycle with the rest of us,” Loyne commented from close by, he glanced at Reisinger and McBride. “What about you two? You up to date?”

“Yea, I’m good,” Reisinger confirmed. He looked to McBride.

“I’m good too.”

“S-sorry guys,” Viktoria mumbled, clapping a hand to the side of her helmet. Now that it was pointed out, Viktoria admitted she was feeling tired. She glanced back at where she saw the shadow and noted it seemed to sway in the windy air around the Ranger team.

Between the monotonous march over forty-six kilometers by Jogger-Frames and the low-visibility conditions, slipping into aimless thoughts had come so easy to her. She should have said something earlier, maybe then she would have remembered to pop a stim.

Reisinger stepped up to Viktoria and tapped her on the helmet as she came barely up to his neck in height. “Look Vick don’t worry about it. Just trust your Jogger-Frame to do the work. There’s nothing there, if there had been – like a cloaked Elite or something, your VISR would have picked it up.”

“Yeah… Yeah, you’re right. I’m just being paranoid. Let’s get to the Checkpoint,” Viktoria responded, leaning off the wall and stepping around Reisinger to show she was ready to go again.

“One second,” Loyne said with an open palm directed at the team. “Sergeant, if you’re feeling out of it – we’ll deal with it. We’ll finish our march to Charleston, and we’ll let Team 1 or 3 take first watch. We can catch some shut-eye there, and then you can catch a little extra inside Sunny while we move to Checkpoint Delphi. We need everyone to be at least alert, if you need to reset a little bit, we’ll make room for it.”

“Thanks, Loyne,” Viktoria commented as she fell back into step with the team and they continued their trek through the mini-canyons. Sapien Sunrise took the lead with floodlights alit, cutting through the darkness.

Loyne kept point, placing a hand to his arm-mounted TACPAD and connecting the TEAMCOM to SQUADCOM. “Squatter-2 to 1, we’re running a little late, one of my teams needed a pause. We’re almost there.”

“Alright, hurry it up. I wouldn’t want to stick your guys with the first watch for missing the par time,” Squatter-1, the squad’s commanding officer, responded, a little too humorously.

Loyne cut the call. “Well, how’s that for motivation…”

“Staff Sergeant Daher is a shaft-beater,” McBride grumbled.

“Shut it, Private,” Loyne warned.

Viktoria followed along with her team, keeping her eyes on the terrain beneath her feet, avoiding the splotches of red and favoring the steps in green and sometimes yellow as she avoided small boulders that might have tripped her up in the low-visibility.

Even with the new-found motivation, however, she struggled to keep her mind on the task at hand. One moment she’s watching her footwork and the next she’s considering what Miridem looked like before its glassing. Was it a lush world with tropical forests or maybe fertile farmland? Or was it hardier, one with expansive deserts that extended beyond the horizon?

She knew Miridem was an Inner Colony, one of the first to succumb to the Covenant onslaught but this was the first time she set foot on the planet, much like other contested worlds she fought to defend; however, the first time she really heard of the planet was when word arrived of Covenant arrival. There was, in fact, very little that she knew of this now-inhospitable rock.

Not that it mattered, once a planet was glassed – they looked about the same.

“Par time, nine hours, and twenty-eight minutes. You guys made seven hours, forty-eight minutes, twelve seconds. A little slow but well-within the goal time.”

Viktoria looked up from her distant thoughts upon hearing Staff Sergeant Daher’s cheery greeting. He was a shorter man than Viktoria, but he stood unbothered in the glass storm swarming at the entrance of Checkpoint Charleston.

“Daher,” Loyne greeted and slowed his Jogger-Frame’s pace to a natural walk so he could fall into step with the retreating NCO-in-charge. Reisinger and McBride slipped by the group and into the deeper alcove of Charleston while Viktoria fell in step with the other two sergeants as Loyne’s deputy.

“I take it your march went well,” the Staff Sergeant continued. “Uneventful?”

“More like boring, the Covenant seem to not bother with the mountains. Weird for a civilization of lizards and apes,” Loyne shrugged his shoulders.

“Could be that they didn’t evolve from cave-dwellers as we did?” Viktoria offered.

“We’ve been fighting this war for 21 years and we still don’t know much about them,” Daher shrugged as well. “I’ve never been on a Covenant ship, but I hear they’re just as purple inside as they are outside. Also, as cavernous as our own ships – so I honestly couldn’t begin to guess their archeological origins. Could be just like us, or not at all.”

“Didn’t you do archeology in college or something like that?” Loyne asked, glancing at Viktoria.

That was almost a lifetime ago, Viktoria admitted to herself. She responded, “My parents worked xenoarchaeology for a natural history museum on Sigma Octanus IV so I could say I was around that stuff a lot. But no, I didn’t attend university. I’ve got top certifications for military science and combat medicine though.”

“Hmm, interesting,” Daher commented, failing to add much more to the discussion. “Anyway, everyone’s arrived. Squatter-3’s on the current watch. Go ahead and get settled in, it will be another three hours before Command’s prowler makes another flyby.”

“Thanks, Staff,” Loyne affirmed and split off towards where McBride and Reisinger were settling in, Viktoria in tow. Viktoria nodded her helmet at Daher as they broke away; the squad leader mimicked her before heading off to his own team.

This was Viktoria’s first visit to Checkpoint Charleston, sans Charlie, since the military phonetic alphabet could get boring on repetition. Army Rangers were an adaptive bunch, especially in a liberal fighting environment like Miridem where the chain of command was more obtuse and military practices were less stringent. It was one of those perks she never realized exists until she was among their rank, but retrospectively, she was glad she went with the Rangers rather than pursue a life in the Marines.

Marines were tough S.O.Bs but years in the Rangers taught her they left little to chance or interpretation. She was a freedom-loving gal, regulations weren’t her thing. For example, she wouldn’t get to see the masterful artwork spray-painted across the gryke-wall of a UNSC soldier squatting in what appeared to be mid-defecation.

A caption was scrolled under the obscenely-detailed graffiti art, ‘To Squatters, with Love!

“Valor’s handiwork I presume,” Loyne remarked from behind Viktoria as he helped McBride pitch Squatter-2’s bivouac in one corner of the cavernous space that made up Checkpoint Charleston. “I hear one of their numbers is an oddball, they call him ‘Sunshine’, wonder what he must be like…”

“Valor?” Viktoria asked, walking over to remove the soporific aide machine from the rear of Sapien Sunrise at Reisinger’s hand gesturing.

“They’re the squad ahead of us along this route, they should already be at Checkpoint Delphi by now. Isn’t that right, Daher? That’s Valor’s handiwork?” Loyne called out to the Staff Sergeant and pointed to the defecating Ranger picture.

“That? Uh, yeah. Most likely.” Daher called back before returning to a seemingly-deep conversation with his team’s radioman.

Viktoria scanned Charleston, examining every inch of the makeshift base camp and what the preceding squad had left for the new, temporary inhabitants. The amount of glass-material blowing through the cavern was significantly reduced compared to outside, a glance skyward confirmed the installation of extreme-weather tarps across the skyward gaps above. It seemed the preceding Ranger units had installed tarps across most of the conceivable holes and then added camouflage netting and loose dirt to hide away the encampment from above. Glassing dust did the rest, bathing any exposed surface in gray goop.

Two electrical generators were installed on either side of the alcove, powering low and floodlights nailed into the overhangs. A firepit was set at the cavernous center and scratch marks along the ground suggesting the digging work of M722 Beetles like Sapien Sunrise. Sapien Sunrise and its two brethren assigned to the Squatter outfit, Spider Chief and Sundowner, stood guard near their assigned teams’ bivouacs, scanning the cavern entrances.

“Vick set the sleeper box down, you can go ahead and take a nap. We’ll get the rest of the gear from the vehicle,” Reisinger said as he cleared through Sapien Sunrise’s armored carriage.

Viktoria looked the sharpshooter’s way and nodded in appreciation, she shimmied her way over to bivouac and lightly set the soporific aide next to McBride so he could put it inside. “Give me a second, at the very least I need to spray down my helmet. Visibility is getting to be a real bitch with all the dust sticking to it.”

“I haven’t unplugged Sunny’s solvent hose so you’re all good to rinse it off really quick,” Reisinger responded as he uncoupled himself from his jogger-frame and plugging it into Sunny to recharge. The exoskeleton batteries were designed with a recursive charging capacity, allowing the kinetic motion to be recycled, but it wasn’t a perfect recapture and the jogger-frames still needed to be topped off after every use. Viktoria would do the same in a moment.

Walking over to the front of the Beetle, Viktoria took a knee between an arm appendage and the rotary cannon. “Hey, Sunny, can I have the solvent hose?”

The spider tank's dumb AI let loose a short vocal chirp like a bird, signifying some semblance of affirmation or pleasure. The left arm’s finger uncoiled to reveal several sockets as it extended a hose line out from one.

“Thank you,” Viktoria commented, tapping the domed head of the machine. She uncoupled her CH252 helmet and set it on the ground so she could begin the quick wash. In the cavernous space, the presence of sulfur was comparatively less and made the place smell less like rotten eggs which came as an appreciated plus.

She drew the hose line with a quick yank and directed it towards the helmet’s visor where brown mush chalked up the semi-transparent front. “Yuck…”

“Vick, make sure to leave the hose out, I need it next,” McBride called from the bivouac.

“Sure thing Dusty,” she responded, pressing the valve safety and discharged cleaning solvent over the obscured area. The mix of high-pressure and cleaning nanites acted quickly, clearing out the glassing ash from the visor. Viktoria had to cover her face with her wrist as the solvent was technically an irritant to the body.

Viktoria stood, plucking her partially-washed helmet from the sandy floor and slipped it back on. She left Sapien Sunrise with a light pat, responded to with a long, quiet whistle as Viktoria shifted to the machine's abdomen to plug in her Jogger-Frame.

Sunny left her with a long, quiet whistle as Viktoria started the process of powering down her marching exoskeleton. Reisinger already vacated the area next to the charging station, leaving his Jogger-Frame compactly folded to the ground with its wire coiled up into Sapien Sunrise. Viktoria planted her legs in a horse-stance and deactivated her exoskeleton by engaging the control panel on her right wrist’s underside.

She leaned down as if preparing to sit and unfurled the retaining thigh and shin restraints, formerly secured by plastic straps. She did the same with her arms before standing straight and stepping out of the contraption, now a tangle of metal bars and slung bags and equipment. Viktoria’s frame had to be lifting an additional two hundred pounds beyond her own body weight and gear. The folded exoskeleton featured additional rifles, explosives, and sidearms along with replacement armor plates, fieldcraft essentials, and her fundamental medical packet that she was never without.

Viktoria dropped her backpack next to the Jogger-Frame and unfurled a saddlebag on the exoskeleton, revealing a therm-optic sheet that doubled as a personal blanket.

“Loyne, I’m clocking out for a couple of hours. Wake me when something important happens.” the Ranger medic announced as she crawled past the inviting, open flaps of the now-pitched bivouac. The team lead nodded in affirmation as he took a seat on a fold-out bench and cracked open his overread paperback novel. Reisinger and McBride were out of Viktoria’s view, alone to their own devices.

Tugging at the centered sleeper box, Viktoria shifted one of the appendage wires and synced it to the base of her helmet; she slipped the military blanket over herself and curled into a ball on her side. As soon as her head touched upon the discomforting earth, even without the soft helmet lining, she felt her eyes droop and droop fast.

She dreamed of nothing, but just for a moment before passing into the land of rapid-eye movements, she saw a young girl. She appeared to be in her early teens, dark brown hair fell to her shoulders and she stared at Viktoria with piercing blue eyes. The girl called out in restraining uncertainty, “Mom, why didn’t you come home?”

Everything disappeared into the inky black and sleep took hold but what was hours passed in sensational seconds. The visage of the girl faded, but those blue eyes remained there, staring in accusation maybe.

Viktoria was in and out of her sleep, jumping up at the sensation of shaking and someone tapping at her boot, invisible behind her closed eyelids.

“Vick get up! We got a problem!”

She could barely make out Sergeant Loyne’s voice over the rapid fluttering noises passing overhead. Like rotating air ducts, or distant turboprops, or…

“Buggers?” Viktoria shouted as she shimmed out from beneath the bivouac tent, already reaching for her hip-holstered M6G magnum. Her camo blanket was left unattended in the dirt.

Loyne ducked as black shadows danced overhead and fast-flapping creatures colored by gray ash and shimmering shells descended from the open passage and between the patchwork ceilings tarps above into the Ranger hovel.

“Shoot dammit, engage!” Staff Sergeant shouted out frantically to his unprepared unit.

There were anywhere between ten and forty hostiles in the hole, black masses rapidly sputtering about against the walls, floor, and ceiling. The space was wide but not open enough that the aliens could fly freely, bucking into one another as they buzzed about and attempting to grab at the unprepared humans.

Gunshots reigned out and muzzle flashes trailed skyward, bringing down the insectoids as choked their approach. Viktoria’s handgun was easily the size and weight of a textbook to compensate for its massive M225 bullets. Even while momentarily groggy from her slumber, she shot two quick rounds with decent articulation when accounting for the rapidly fluttering targets and her lack of sleep.

Buggers crunched to the floor, lifeless as the very shock of bullet penetration from human firearms seem to cut them down, lifeless. Sparks flew as the bodies crashed to the ground, the gravity-assist generators on their backs damaged by the bullets or crashing to the ground.

Clearing out the ceiling-most aliens did little to improve the situation as the insect soldiers descended closer to the ground and moved faster as their fallen brethren gave them space to move about. There was no presence of plasma fire as they made to engage the troopers – they came in unarmed, resorting to hand-to-hand combat.

“They’re weaponless! Don’t let them get close—Ahh!”

Viktoria spun to the right while curling to the ground just as an alien drone zipped overhead, failing to swipe at her helmeted head. Reisinger was faring far worse as another Bugger hooked him by his shoulder straps and lifted him into the air as he frantically tried to swipe at its arms. His rifle laid unattended at the floor, midway through a disassembly.

Viktoria planted three shots in the drone hoisting him up, watching as it sputtered and fell away with the designated marksman in tow. The tangle of corpse-and-soldier hit a boulder before rolling to the side in an unpleasant heap. Reisinger unholstered his magnum but clinched it to his chest rather than aim, seemingly stunned by the encounter.

“Bradford, duck!” Loyne called Viktoria’s surname from the other side of the alcove as she spun to find the object of his shouted concern. Her focus on Reisinger proved to be a distraction as a Bugger slammed straight into her, knocking aside her magnum and pushing her straight to the floor like a bird-of-prey stunning a fish.

“Ugh, get off!” She shouted as she tried to punch with her right arm as the imposing insectoid pressed down, pinning her left arm. She flailed in frustration, unable to reach for her combat knife through the squeeze.

Someone shouted through her headset as a sizable rock smacked the alien across the head; it briefly stopped squeezing Viktoria with its powerful, clawed legs to glance at McBride drawing a combat machete from his folded Jogger-Frame. He didn’t get a chance to charge as another Bugger jumped him from behind and they two descended into a brawl, blade against claws.

“Everyone! Get down!” another Ranger called out through the commotion. With many troopers pinned and many more Buggers descending, it wasn’t hard to do so.

Viktoria found out why in a second. The electronic whistle of spinning Gatling guns came to life, followed by a warning klaxon and two AIE-486 machine gun turrets erupting from Sapien Sunrise and Spider Chief.

The infamous BRRRRRT screech of rotary cannon fire filled the space, chewing up the walls and alien-choked surfaces, sending dozens of alien Buggers to the floor.

The gunfire lasted for a total of seven seconds, the echo of gunfire droning for a second more. Through the shooting, Viktoria curled herself as small as she could afford with the Bugger standing atop her. Now it was dark, the floor and the Rangers buried in a sea of alien blood and decimated insectoids.

From afar, Buggers always seemed small, twiggy, mostly harmless. Like a large mosquito. Now dogpiled by their corpses, Viktoria realized that sentient beetles at two meters tall, two hundred pounds, and flying together in the packs of tens to hundreds were absolutely and utterly terrifying.

The noises of battle momentarily calmed as Rangers began to call out to each other.

“Everyone alright?”

“Anyone hurt?”

Viktoria struggled to slip out from under her former pinner as its shattered corpse began to leak and pool green and white goo. Once free of the insectoid but liberally bathed in the alien’s blood, she popped her head up from beneath the sea of corpses. More than a few Rangers were still struggling to free themselves from the bodies, appearing as shifting black sections in the metaphorical-insect sea or disembodied heads shifting in the shells and goo. Others were already making to stand up with the pile reach to their thigh height.

“Team leaders, headcount!” Staff Sergeant Daher hollered.

“Squatter-2 is accounted for,” Loyne announced to Viktoria’s left, now trying to step through the mess to Sapien Sunrise. “could someone find my rifle please?”

“Squatter-3 is alive, no injuries I think.”

“I… I lost my rifle too, Sarge…” Reisinger grumbled from his section of the corpses, shifting through the arms, legs, and torsos of Buggers to find his lost M392 rifle.

“Everyone quiet,” McBride called out abruptly as he rose atop his gunk-covered machete. “Do you… Does anyone hear that?”

The hesitant chatter and skyward rifles paused as everyone stopped moving to listen for noise. There was indeed a background tone, a slow hum gradually rising in intensity, coming from the West.

Humming, as in Covenant gravitonic platforms. Combat vehicles.

Daher yelled out, “everyone to the west entrance! Get the Beetles in combat positions, prepare to engage!”

Squatter-1’s radioman suddenly grabbed the Staff Sergeant’s shoulder. “Command’s overhead, they want a word.”

“Shit, everyone out! Get into fighting positions, I’ll wrap this up. Move, hurry!”

The members of Squatter-3 previously on watch were the first to exist the hovel’s west entrance, weapons and equipment already at the ready and their M722 Beetle, Sundowner, not yet blooded.

“I need my rifle,” Reisinger muttered. “Where is it?”

“Rice, Loyne, forget about it. Take my spares, we don’t have time for this.” Viktoria ordered, seizing control of the situation for the unprepared Squatter-2.

The men nodded to her and moved over to the motionless Sapien Sunrise, still occupied with battery duty.

Shuffling through the alien corpses, Squatter-2 gathered around the abdomen of Sapien Sunrise who gave a positive tweet and shake at the new-found attention.

Sergeant Loyne grabbed the charging couplets with a twist and dislodged each from the rear, freeing the spider tank from its duties. McBride clambered atop it to clear the Buggers and began guiding the machine towards the western opening, machete folded under his armpit. Viktoria for a moment wished he’d stuck it out in a charging motion as if an ancient general on horseback. It was an absurdist thought, but appropriate timing was never her strong suit.

“Here, MA37 rifle… I want my DMR… Rice, take McBride’s DMR over there.” Viktoria directed. She slapped a fresh mag into her assault rifle and handed it off to Loyne who slipped by, charging the weapon and heading off to join the combat.

“You think I should also grab my ‘ninety-nine’?” Reisinger asked, gesturing to the flat crate containing his SRS99 anti-material rifle.

“Yeah, definitely.”

He unlatched the crate, slung McBride’s DMR over his shoulder, and grabbed the sniper rifle with both hands. He took point, following after Sapien Sunrise’s haphazardly-cleared trail through the Bugger corpses, marked by deep footprints in the insectoid mess.

Reisinger disappeared out of the hovel, cresting the ramp into the dim starlight. Viktoria paused to look back at the crowded space, noting the continued twitching from some dead bugs.

“Sergeant Bradford!” Staff Sergeant Daher called from his crouched position in the alcove, standing next to his radioman and Spider Chief. On her HUD, their four-letter identifiers recognized them as ‘DHER’, ‘LEEF’, and ‘SPCF’ respectively.

“Yeah, Staff?” She called back.

“Give me a peek out, tell me what’s coming.”

Viktoria turned to look towards the horizon, only having taken a step out of the hovel. The New Salt Burn extended almost to said horizon, only to run up against the neighboring Saxa Particeps Mountain Range across the way.

The flatland’s salty stench punched through her air filtration system, momentarily bringing tears to her eyes as she inhaled. The ground-level fog was being kicked up, or rather disturbed as her mind recontextualized the fog as dust trailing behind gravitonic gun carriages.

“Five vehicles on approach. Two Ghosts, a Wraith, and two Shadows!”

“Damn, another convoy… Get going, join your team, and dig in. Kill those Covvies.”

“Of course,” Viktoria responded as she slipped out of Checkpoint Charleston and into the realm of combat.

She jumped and trotted like a mountain goat down the slight incline before hitting the sandy-salty flatlands of the New Salt Burn and among the familiar presence of Squatter-2 to her left and right.

Sergeant Loyne called out marching orders, filling the Staff Sergeant’s absence, “Setup!”

The Rangers structured themselves in a single horizontal column facing the open spaces and the oncoming enemy convoy. Sergeant Loyne’s order was fulfilled in advance, but the troopers repeated the call down the line, all the same, the hints at a well-oiled fighting machine.

Rangers threw down their packs for modest cover and to support their rifles and squad automatic weaponry, kicking into the malleable but tough glass dust that covered the former salt pan. Once, the basin was filled with water – cool and humid, but with the Covenant invasion, the water boiled away as the planet’s temperature rose from repetitive glassing and nuclear fire.

Someone on the line had passed about M41 SPNKR-micro missile launchers. McBride was fancying one next to his M739 squad auto, resting atop his resting bag.

“Here they come, stand your ground. Dig in!”

Viktoria kicked at the salt and ash around her, pushing the topsoil around her into an inch-deep depression. It wasn’t game-changing, but it lowered her closer to the ground. A lower target was a harder target to hit.

“Rockets, Ghosts first!”

McBride and another Ranger from Squatter-1 rose to a kneel and shot off two missiles before slapping to the ground with synchronized grunts. With the unit’s rifles acting as glorified laser pointers, the rockets sped through the low altitude air and promptly detonated at the front of the Ghosts, sending the gravitonic scout vehicles and their Grunt pilots to an early, air-filled grave.

Viktoria watched as one four-foot-tall alien was thrown from his seat, sent flying minus his methane-spouting breathing pack, and crashed face-first into the salt flat, unmoving. Gunfire crackled in the open, popping and clacking against the armored shells of the enemy armored vehicles fast approaching.

Two plasma turrets sputtered wildly, spraying across a wide swath as the enemy force struggled to get a proper pin on the Ranger position.

Viktoria fired away with her own DMR, landing the first shot on the Wraith’s turret gunner. Another Grunt. His mask popped off with one shot, stunning the midget, wide-armed monster. Another promptly exploded its skull; the corpse slumped down lifeless in its rotary chair.

Then the Wraith’s mortar cannon engaged. A unique sound born possibly of combining an angry washing machine and a waterfall into one menacing second. She felt her perceptions slow and her breath grew heavy as that brilliant-blue column of concentrated plasma ascended into the sky, peaking, before coming back down.

Towards her unit. She thought only for a moment more, she asked for a challenge. But not quite this.

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Chapter Three: Bump in the Night

Sergeant V. Bradford
XXXX Hours, 03 February 2546
Deathstalker Pass
Miridem, UEG Inner Colonies
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