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Part One: Burning Plains


A quiet exile. That was what Ger ‘Hullen had resigned himself to, punishment for the crime of choosing the wrong side in war. Banished far from his keep on Sanghelios and forced into subservience to honorless humans, he had almost forgotten the pride he once felt as a warrior of the mighty Covenant Empire. To think I actually count myself among these vermin, he thought bitterly.

But now, standing in the troop bay of a human-made Pelican dropship, Ger felt a twinge of his old warrior’s pride returning. Surrounded by subordinates and racing towards a hunt—a hunt at his command—he could almost recall the years past when he had led lances of his brother Sangheili into battle against their worthy foes. Almost.

“We’re coming in on the building now.” The human voice crackling over the dropship’s intercom grated Ger’s nerves, reminding him of the ugly truth: this was not the Covenant and he was not leading warriors. This wasn’t even a proper war. “Get off my bird as quick as you can, I’ve got four more runs to get to.”

Ger tapped the com unit at his armor’s collar. “Understood,” he replied. The human words felt coarse and ugly coming out of his mandibles, yet another reminder of how low he had fallen. His human employers could not even be bothered to outfit him with translation devices. “All of you, get ready to move!”

The mixed group of humans and Kig-Yar with him in the Pelican bay mumbled affirmatives and checked their weapons. Ger looked away from their sloppy appearance and even sloppier discipline, barely able to stomach the quality of fighters he was now forced to lead. Humans and Kig-Yar might not look alike but they shared the same repulsive lust for profits that drove nearly every aspect of their degenerate societies. Unfortunately, that greed seemed to be what ruled the galaxy now that the Covenant was gone. Perhaps that was why the humans and Kig-Yar got along so well, especially on this planet called Venezia.

Ger checked his own weapons. The plasma pistol at his hip and the repeater slung over his back were both fully charged, as was his energy sword. The blade was one of Ger’s most prized possessions, among the few things left of the keep and bloodline he had been forced to leave behind on Sanghelios. His armor—a relic of his service in the armies of the Covenant—was a similar reminder of his lost pride. Unlike the other Sangheili sharing his exile from their people, Ger took extra care to keep the armor in prime condition, as if this were still the Covenant and an inspection could be made at any time. Some might see his pride as useless vanity, but to Ger it was all he had left. Some day he would leave this disgusting planet behind and return to his people. When that day came, he would prove he had never forgotten his honor as a warrior.

The Pelican’s engines whined as the dropship lurched down to land. The humans and Kig-Yar scrambled to find handholds, but Ger ignored the lurching and strode towards the open bay door. The cool evening air washed over his face. Outside, the ground rushed up to meet him. The decrepit buildings surrounding the landing zone cast lengthening shadows across the pavement. Venezia’s capital city of New Tyne was hardly a gleaming metropolis but the slums on its outskirts were even worse. Ger had known Unggoy villages that were better maintained.

Ger stepped off the Pelican before it had even fully touched down, his powerful legs easily absorbing the impact. He strode forward imperiously as the others scrambled to disembark behind him. More armed fighters—Ger would not dare think of them as soldiers, much less warriors—milled about in the streets surrounding the landing zone. Most of these were humans, though Ger could see a handful of Kig-Yar and even a few hulking Jiralhanae among them. Most of the fighters had their weapons trained on one solitary building: a run-down tenement that might once have been a housing complex. From the way the structure looked about to collapse, Ger assumed it was abandoned, though he wouldn’t put it past human dregs to still be sheltering inside like insects beneath a rock. If the war had taught him anything about his former enemies, it was that they would hide anywhere.

One of the humans broke off from the makeshift siege as the Pelican lifted off. Though tall for a human, he was still dwarfed by Ger. Most humans found the difference in stature intimidating, but this one seemed not to mind. Ger usually had difficulty telling humans apart, but he knew this one from his shaved head and the broad scar running from the man’s ear down to his neck.

“About time you showed up,” the human said in greeting, falling into step beside Ger. “You stop for drinks at the bar?”

“Ramos,” Ger said curtly. The human’s overly familiar tone irked him, but he had worked with this particular man in the past. Ramos was at the very least a capable fighter in his own right, one of the few on Venezia Ger could actually rely on as a subordinate. “Why haven’t you stormed the building yet? Were you waiting for me to arrive?”

Ramos shook his head. “I’ve got a couple teams circling around the back to cut off the side alleys. Got a few sharpshooters covering the upper stories as well. If he tries to make a run for it, we’ll light him up.”

“Are you sure he’s still in the building?” Ger demanded. “If I lead a charge on an empty room, heads will roll.”

Ramos was unperturbed by the threat, though he had worked with Ger enough times in the past to know it was not an empty one. Ger could respect that about him at the least. “He’s in there. Kept taking potshots at us from the windows. Killed a few guys before the sharpshooters pinned him down.”

Ger glanced around at the fighters around them. There had to be at least twenty here, along with the ones who had come with him on the Pelican. “All this effort for one renegade?” he asked. “Who are we dealing with here?”

Ramos shook his head. “Some local enforcer. Used to handle wet work for the Syndicate, at least until he pissed them off. A few of the guys say he’s called ‘Stray,’ but the way they tell it he’s a nobody.”

“Stray.” A human word for an animal without a master. Homeless, dirty, unwanted.

“And yet they have thirty of us here for a nobody,” Ger noted as they approached a human truck parked around the corner from the besieged tenement. A pair of humans stepped aside to allow them access to a small table crammed with computers and communications equipment. Ramos moved up and tapped a quick sequence into the center monitor.

“Hey, don’t look at me,” the man said with a shrug. “You think I want to be stuck out here all night over one guy? I just want to kill this guy, get paid, and hit the bars. Just give me a sec here and I’ll patch you in to the boss.”

Ger folded his arms across his chest and waited as Ramos bent over the monitors. A few moments later the man nodded and addressed someone on the screen. “Yes sir, he just arrived,” Ramos said, tone far more deferential than the one he had used with Ger. “One moment, sir, I’ll put him on.”

Ramos stepped back, giving Ger space to step forward and face the monitor. The Sangheili looked down to see the image of another human smiling up at him. This man was well dressed—by human standards—with a broad face and a shock of white hair. Ger recognized him immediately: Min Ai, the human in charge of Syndicate operations in and around New Tyne. There were no underworld dealings here that went on without Min Ais’ knowledge or approval. Not even the local authorities dared oppose the Syndicate.

“Ger,” Min said warmly. “Thank you for coming on such short notice.”

Ger eyed his employer, forcing himself to remain civil. Min Ai was an amiable creature, considering the power he wielded. A Sangheili in his position would have taken its own life before addressing subordinates in such a relaxed manner. Such informality was perceived as a weakness; weakness invited assassination attempts. But Ger understood humans like Min Ai saw things differently. This human’s relaxed demeanor was as much an expression of power as a Sangheili warlord’s aloofness. "You called me in to kill one human?" he asked impatiently. "One... stray?"

Min chuckled. "Yes, I understand it seems a bit extreme. But I'd rather not take any chances with this one."

"Why are we hunting him?"

"Stray was one of my contractors," Min explained, leaning back in his seat. Wherever he was calling from, it was somewhere with luxuriously padded seats. Most likely one of the lavish restaurants in New Tyne's center where Min and his kind liked to conduct business. "Young, but the kid did good work. At least until he killed ten of our local dealers and destroyed one of my arms shipments."

"Destroyed?" There was no profit in destroyed goods. Ger's estimation of his prey rose slightly. The destruction was clearly intended to send a message. Perhaps this was no mere scavenger he was dealing with. Perhaps there are some real warriors on this miserable planet after all. "Why did he betray you?"

Min shrugged. "No idea. It's a shame; I rather liked the kid. But this is business. I can't let this set a bad example for my employees. Kill Stray, then bring the body back in for identification."

Ger nodded. "How much of an example are you looking to make?"

"No need to drag it out. Stray might be an ugly little runt, but he's a dangerous fighter. Go in hard, go in serious, and kill him as quickly as possible."

This was the way things worked out here, far from the workings of galactic politics and real warfare. The humans on this world of Venezia had declared independence from their homeworld, defiantly claiming it as their own even as the Earth government's power spread through the galaxy. But the government here was weak compared to the influence of the Syndicate, which spread its vile tendrils across a galaxy made weak by decades of warfare and the collapse of the Covenant. To humans, the Syndicate was a criminal force outside the laws that governed their society. To vermin like the Kig-Yar, it was profit. And to an outcast warrior like Ger 'Hullen, it was simply the only way he could continue pretending he was a warrior.

Ger had learned years ago the Syndicate's power lay in its lack of the same rules constraining most galactic powers. The Syndicate did not care what species you were, what you worshiped, or what cause you supported. All that mattered was its ability to pull you into its cold machinations and stamp out a profit. Those who didn't benefit its system were crushed underfoot.

Perhaps this Stray had simply tired of swimming in the Syndicate's mud.

"Understood." Ger reached over and flicked off the monitor. He glanced over at Ramos. "You heard him. Get this rabble ready to attack. Wait for my order."

Ramos nodded and jogged off, waving for the Syndicate detachment to prepare for the assault. The enforcers dragged their feet, taking their time and making their displeasure at this menial assignment known. Had this been a Covenant force Ger would have shot a few to motivate the others. But this was Venezia and he was leading a rabble of criminal killers whose pride extended only as far as their credit accounts. The lack of discipline would cost a few of them their lives and the universe would be no poorer for it. This Stray could at least make that contribution to the galaxy at large before he died.

They would attack soon. The fiber-optic cable he had fed over the windowsill piped images of the movement outside into his helmet's heads-up display. The Syndicate fighters were massing to charge the front door. Probably the back as well. The sharpshooters keping him from looking down at the street with his own two eyes would fire indiscriminately to pin him down and make him an easy target for the teams coming through the door.

He leaned back against the corroded wall and let out a hiss of frustration. The events that had landed him in this mess all seemed like a blur now. As usual, he had acted without thinking. And now, like so many times in the past, it looked like that stupidity was about to get him killed.

He gritted his teeth and tightened his grip on his shotgun. Every muscle in his body was screaming at him to run, and run he would. Soon. Running's what I do best. I've gotten out of worse than this.

He opened his helmet's comm channel. "Diana. You'd better answer me this time. I know you're receiving this."

"Oh, I can hear you," a sly woman's voice purred in his ear. "Doesn't mean I can do much to help you out of this mess. From the looks of things, you're still about to die."

"Very funny. I need you to feed me a map of the area around New Tyne. Someplace I can lay low while this blows over."

"So you are thinking of escaping. Not in the mood for a heroic last stand?"

"Yeah, no. I'm not gonna die. Not here, not today."

"If only you sounded this confident all the time." Diana was enjoying this. She always enjoyed watching him fight for his life. Half the time she was the reason he was getting shot at in the first place. But not this time. He wished things were that simple. "I hope you're ready for some serious running. They really want you dead."

"You do your job and I'll do mine, okay?" He was sweating underneath his armor. He was no stranger to abject terror; it was a constant companion in a life measured from firefight to firefight. "Get me that map."

"You do realize you aren't my only concern right now." The AI's voice never seemed to lose its mocking edge. "I'm a little busy with some other things right now. Be a good boy and wait your turn. Do your best not to die, I'm rooting for you."

He terminated the link before she could hear the string of expletives flow from his mouth. There wasn't much time left. He would have to move soon, before the Syndicate enforcers launched their attack. His body trembled—out of fear, but also exhilaration. The beast inside him struggled to get out. It knew there was killing to be done.

He tapped his comms again, this time calling a different frequency. The feed hissed for several moments before a new voice answered. "Are you alright?" she demanded. "Where have you been?"

"Depends on how you define alright," he said, checking the safety release on his shotgun and the pistols holstered in his combat webbing.

"They're after you. They know you're the one who blew up the shipment."

He glanced over at the window. The enforcers' shouting was getting louder. "Yeah, I kind of got that impression."

"When I said you should stand up to them, this isn't exactly what I had in mind."

"Well, what the hell did you have in mind?" He shook his head. "More importantly, you need to go to ground. If they trace you through me..."

"I'll be fine. Just worry about getting out of here."

"Already working on it." He tried to calm his breathing. "Look, sorry about before. I'm just a little stressed right now."

"No kidding. How are you on Smoothers? Have you dosed today?"

"I've got my stash with me. Not a whole lot of room to be popping one now though. I'll be fine. Just make sure you keep an eye out for these scumbags." He was out of time. "I just wanted to talk is all. I... uh, look, just sorry to make you worry."

"Whatever you're about to do..."

"Can't be anymore nuts than what I did this morning."

"Just stay safe."

"You know me." He smiled, in spite of himself.

"Yeah. That's the problem."

"Hey, Cass, I..." The words caught in his throat. His mouth twitched slightly and he killed the channel before he could start to stutter. Leaning back against the wall, he sighed and steadied his breathing. His gauntlets flexed against the reassuring grip of his shotgun.

Beneath him, the enforcers would be ready to make their move. Right on time. He was ready to move, too. From here until whenever this latest tunnel ended, there was just him and the people trying to kill him. Like always.

His helmet's motion tracker pinged. Renewed fear coursed through his arms. Fear and anticipation. Stray bared his teeth in a cruel smile and prepared to go to work.

The Syndicate team moved at Ger 'Hullen's command. The humans in the lead blasted through the door and motioned a trio of shield-bearing Kig-Yar inside. They darted forward, followed by humans who aimed their rifles through the slits in the energy shields. Ger nodded approvingly and strode forward, motioning for the rest of the enforcers to follow him inside.

He was only a few paces from the door when blasts shook the building. Fire flashed in the windows followed by screams of the enforcers inside. One of the humans staggered out, slapping at flames on his leg as if oblivious to the fact his other arm had been blown clean off.

"Forward!" Ger bellowed at the other enforcers. "All of you, inside!"

The enforcers charged in, trampling over the bodies of the fallen in their rush to swarm the building. From the buildings above, the sharpshooters peppered the building with indiscriminate fire. Over the sound of the shouting and gunfire, Ger could hear something else. The distant booming of a shotgun...

"He's trying to break out through the rear," he snapped at Ramos. "All of you, follow me!"

They pushed through the alley beside the building, coming out into a scene of carnage. The bodies of the team meant to cordon off the building's rear entrance lay slumped across the ground, blood streaming out onto the pavement. One human enforcer was still left standing, clutching at a wound in his shoulder and staring blankly at the wall in front of him.

"What happened here?" Ger demanded. "Why didn't you stop him?"

"Blew right through us," the enforcer muttered. "Was gone before... before..."

Fighting back a snarl of frustration, Ger drew his plasma pistol and shot the survivor dead. It was a more productive use of his energy than bellowing in rage.

"'A nobody,' you said," he growled at Ramos, who was staring at the bodies in shock. "This was supposed to be simple. Now he has escaped."

"So, what do we do now?" Ramos asked, eyeing Ger's plasma pistol warily.

"Now? Now we chase him until he can't run anymore. We do not rest until he dies. A shame your enforcers didn't do a better job, Ramos. This job of yours just lengthened. Considerably." Ger turned away in disgust. "Get these vermin chasing after him. And call in more of them. I will lead this search personally."

He strode back down the alley, then turned back to the human enforcer. "And get me Ro'nin."

The impulsive rage was subsiding and now Ger found himself almost enjoying this Stray's escape. Hunting a dangerous quarry was far more enjoyable than finishing off a cornered rat. Perhaps there would be some worth to this task of his after all.

Chapter One: The Farm

A rooster's shrill crow filled the room.

Zoey Hunsinger groaned and rolled over in bed, trying to shut out the obnoxious crowing. Not an easy task, considering it was coming from her nightstand. Her alarm had gone off half an hour early—her mother's doing, she decided blearily, smacking the crowing chatter set with an unsteady hand. That bought her a few minutes of respite before the alarm went off again. Eyes squeezed closed against the infernal crowing, Zoey reached over to hit the chatter again. Just a few more minutes...

The door to her room slid open and Zoey's heart sank. There was no getting out of it now. She squeezed her eyes closed even tighter, anticipating the moment when the switch would be flipped and the world would be flooded with light. She winced and covered her face as the prediction came true.

"Come on, Zoey," her father said from the doorway. "Out of bed."

"'s Dad."

"I mean it. Get up and don't make me come back in here."

"'s Dad."

Her father's footsteps receded. Zoey rolled over and pressed her face against her pillow, trying to shut out the light. It was so tempting to just pull her covers up and go back to sleep. But there was no getting out of this, just like every morning. As if to underline that reality, her alarm went off again. Zoey slid out of bed and onto the cold floor, venting her irritation by slapping the chatter set again on her way to the bathroom.

"Well, look who's up." Lily Hunsinger looked up from her datapad as Zoey entered the kitchen. "This has to be a record for you."

"Ha ha," Zoey grumbled, sliding into a chair beside her mother. "You didn't have to mess with my alarm."

"Can't argue with results," Lily replied with a shrug, turning back to her datapad. "Besides, you're the one who said she wanted to help out with more chores. George, are we eating this morning or what?"

"Working on it." Zoey's father stood at the counter, peering intently down at the plates assembled before him. He had upended a box of meal packs and was busy assembling their contents into the morning's breakfast. "You can have your meal now or you can wait a bit longer and actually enjoy it. It's not my fault Raheej can't be bothered to get his stock from New Tyne. This imported garbage is disgusting."

"And if didn't import, you'd be complaining about the higher prices. It's breakfast; we just need something to get us through the morning. Now hurry up and get me my food."

"I can wait a bit," Zoey said quickly. She couldn't stand the stale taste of the freeze-dried rations that came in the meal packs. She wasn't entirely sure how he did it, but her father's careful portioning somehow made them taste edible.

"See? At least one of you has some culinary appreciation." George went back to frowning at the food. "Thousands of farmers across this planet growing food and it's still cheaper to import from Talitsa. How does that even work?"

"Trade deals," Lily said knowingly. "No one wants to go back to kowtowing to Earth, so we independents have to stick together. They explain all this stuff every time at the farm committee meetings, if you'd ever bother to go. That's why we're expanding the farms now. They're even calling in experts from New Tyne to oversee the field expansion."

"I'll keep that in mind next time there's an election," George grumbled. "I don't remember ever having this trouble before the war, and I grew up as far from Earth as you can get."

"You grew up on a moon that was practically swimming in Earth's credits. Believe me, things were even worse than this on Harvest. At least here we get to keep some of the crops. Back then the agriculture laws took every stock of grain we grew."

"If you say so. As long as those New Tyne observers keep their rhetoric to themselves. The last ones that came out here were just a bunch of Innie recruiters."

"Those 'Innie recruiters' are the ones who keep the aliens from rolling in here and taking over. You think the oonskies are the only ones who'd love to muscle in here?"

"They're welcome to whatever cause they want to fight for, as long as they keep it off our land. If I wanted people bothering me over offworld nonsense, I'd have stayed on Iskander."

Zoey leaned back in her chair, tuning out her parents. They always got to talking about politics she didn't understand in the morning, usually sparked by the news pamphlets her mother liked to download onto her datapad. Zoey vaguely understood that there was always trouble with Earth; rich military types trying to make farmers like her parents follow a bunch of stupid rules. Here on Venezia they were free from all those rules, at least according to her mother. Her father had his own opinions on the matter, but he usually stopped short of a full-on argument with Lily.

George slid a plate in front of Zoey. "Eat up," he advised. "Busy day ahead of us." Under the table Thune, the family's lanky, aging dog, sat up and whined expectantly.

"Is Brian on his way?" George asked Lily. "If that man thinks he can show up two hours late every day and still get paid, he has another thing coming."

Lily adjusted the screen on her datapad, lips pursed in annoyance. "If you want to fire him so badly, do it. Just don't expect me to start taking on extra chores when you can't find another worker to replace him. Labor isn't exactly easy to come by out here. Especially now that everyone seems to be moving to the other side of the planet."

"The rate Brian works, we might actually get more work done without him. Sometimes I think Zoey contributes more, and she's also doing schoolwork. Not to mention getting paid less."

"I'd do more work if you made my allowance bigger," Zoey said quickly, looking up from her meal.

"I'm sure you would, sweetie," Lily said, reaching over to run an affectionate hand through her daughter's messy red hair. "But you do quite enough around here as it is. George, I'll stay here and wait for Brian to show up, then move out to the fields to check on the area they're looking to expand. You go ahead and take Zoey out to look over those harvesters we've been having troubles with."

George frowned. "I think that maybe I should wait for Brian..."

"Not with the mood you're in. I'll... impress on him the need to be a bit more punctual in the future."

"If you say so."

"I do say so."

George shrugged, settling down to his own meal. "Fine, fine. Zoey, wash up once you're finished and get your toolbox. I'll meet you out in front of the shed after I'm done cleaning up in here."

This was the life Zoey and her parents lived out here on Venezia's sprawling plains, the only life she had ever known. Day after day, patiently working the land with each coming season. Sometimes it was boring, she had to admit. "The simple life" was what her mother called it. Nothing exciting ever happened out here, nothing like the adventures in the books and movies crammed onto the aging datapad her father had given her for her seventh birthday. But if this life was good enough for her parents, it was good enough for her. As her father liked to say, sometimes the simple life was the best life.

Box of tools clutched tight against her chest, Zoey hurried outside. The cool morning breeze slid across her face as she stepped out into the yard. Venezia's sun poked a few rays through the clouds gathered overhead, casting light down on the Hunsinger's farm compound and the vast wheat fields that stretched away from it in every direction. A month ago, there were no clouds to speak of and every day was a scorching, sweat-soaked affair. Now the Venezian summer was over and the farmers were busy harvesting what crops still remained.

Seeing no sign of her father, Zoey set her toolbox down and scampered over to a large combine machine parked in the center of the compound. She climbed its maintenance ladder with practiced ease; she'd been working on and around these machines all her life. At the top of the combine she leaned down and rested her stomach on its cool surface, relaxing as she gazed out at the fields. This was her favorite time of day: the peaceful early morning before the farm came to life.

"Alright, get down from there." Her father waited at the bottom of the combine. "You know I don't like you climbing this thing."

"You say that every morning, Dad." She scampered down the ladder to join him.

"And every morning you do it anyway." George shook his head. "Between you and your mother, I don't even know why I bother sometimes. Come on, let's get to work."

They spent the morning digging through the combine's machinery, replacing rusted wires and corroded parts with spares George had brought over from the machine shed. Zoey watched over her father's shoulder, drinking in every detail. One of these days she'd be made to do a chore like this all on her own, George kept telling her. Zoey was determined to be ready when that day finally came.

"Dad," Zoey said, wiping her grease-covered gloves on her overalls. "What you said at breakfast, about not bothering with stuff off the farm..." It was something that had been nagging at her all morning.

George looked up from his work and made a face. "Oh, you shouldn't listen to me when I'm talking politics. Gets me agitated, makes me say stupid things."

"I'm just wondering, do you think we'll ever leave this place?"

"I sure hope not. Your mother and I went through a lot to get this plot of land. Things stay the way they've been going and this place will be fertile for generations."

Zoey nodded. It was the answer she'd expected. The answer she wanted. Or at least, most of her wanted. She loved the farm, and this quiet life she lived here with her parents. The adventures from the movies and Waypoint stories were fun to watch and dream about; sometimes, when she thought no one was watching, she went out into the fields with sticks to play make-believe. But in the end, this was a good life. Perhaps not the most exciting one, though...

They worked on in silence for a while, kneeling side by side amidst the harvester's inner workings. Zoey passed her father the tools he needed, occasionally wriggling in to deal with components he left aside for her. Every time she finished with a component, George turned away from his own task to check it over, nodding in approval or pointing out areas she had missed. The time slipped away as it always did, passing from one chore to another. After what seemed like no time at all, George was helping a grease-covered Zoey out from under the harvester. He beamed at her through a mask of grease and sweat.

"Good work this morning," he told her. She smiled back at him, wiping her brow and rubbing the oil out on her overalls.

"I think she'll need a few more sessions," George continued, rubbing the harvester's side. "But we're making good progress. Way better than if we'd called in Huin and her boys to look it over. Cheaper, too. See? There's a lot to be had out of humble work like this."

Zoey frowned. "When I asked about leaving, I didn't mean I wanted to go. I was just...asking."

George smiled ruefully and laid a hand on his daughter's shoulder. "I know. You'd be a pretty boring kid if you weren't a little interested in what's out there. And I'd be a pretty lame dad if I tried to keep you from dreaming big."

He sighed and looked out at the vast fields. "It's something you learn as you get older, but you have to be careful out there. This galaxy's not a nice place, Zoey. It's big and cold and downright unforgiving when you get right down to it. That's why you have to find the small, warm places to keep the people important to you safe."

"That's what you and mom did here, isn't it?"

"It is." George shook his head. "I know it seems strange to you now, but sometimes the simple life is best."

"I like it here. You don't have to worry about me leaving."

He squeezed her shoulder. "Of course. I'm not worried. Now come on, let's go find your mother."

Chapter Two: Hunters on the Plain

Ger 'Hullen scowled down at the gaggle of enforcers as they readied the vehicles around his Wraith. The Syndicate might be powerful, but it saw no need to spare high-quality equipment fora backwater like Venezia. Whatever equipment 'Hullen and the other enforcers didn't supply themselves was secondhand garbage, barely serviceable even on the best of days. The convoy Ger had thrown together--a rag-tag mix of human and Covenant vehicles--had suffered three malfunctions since it had left New Tyne. Now, with Venezia's vast rolling plains stretching out in all directions the Sangheili was acutely aware of just how immense his task really was. Stray could be anywhere. Every moment wasted was another that the quarry used to make his escape. And here Ger was, hamstrung by vehicles so poorly maintained it was a miracle they even moved at all.

The communicator on his combat harness crackled. "Almost got it, boss," Ramos reported. "We'll be moving in just a few minutes or so."

"We had better be. For your sake." Ger's mandibles quivered in frustration. He was getting tired of issuing empty threats. Ramos was not expendable--at this point, none of the enforcers were. Or at least, there was no room for the kind of examples Ger would be making were he still a Covenant officer. Summary executions did little to impress thugs like this, and bosses like Min Ai did not look kindly on losing more employees than absolutely necessary.

A low chuckle issued from a figure standing beside the Wraith. Ger glowered down at the figure, his bad mood darkening. "And just what is so amusing?" he demanded. "Do share the joke."

"Oh, nothing much," drawled the only other Sangheili in the convoy, if a creature such as Ro'nin could truly be called a Sangheili. "It's just that you always have such a limited perspective on things."

"What do you mean by that?"

Ro'nin clicked his mandibles, tilting his head to look lazily up at Ger. "Well, instead of bringing us to a halt every time a Warthog breaks down, perhaps you should send a few of us out to scout ahead. You'd cover more ground that way, and it would certainly be less tedious than having to stop and sit around every few miles."

"As if I hadn't already thought of that," Ger snarled impatiently. "You must really think I'm an idiot."

"Well, I was trying to be polite, but..."

"If I send any of these brainless fools ahead of the main force, their vehicles will break down as soon as they lose sight of the convoy. They will be helpless without us to direct them, and we'll lose even more time retrieving them."

"It was just a suggestion," Ro'nin said, folding his arms as he lounged against the side of the Wraith. "Thought I'd try to be helpful. Isn't that why you brought me out here in the first place?"

Ro'nin was one of the few other Sangheili on Venezia. The planet might be a hub for interspecies refugees, but most Sangheili were too proud to lower themselves to sheltering on a human backwater. Ger was only here because his keep and bloodline were destroyed during the fighting on Sanghelios, but at least he had the grace to be ashamed of his fall from grace. A creature like Ro'nin relished his diminished status, mocking all the pride and traditions of the Sangheili with his very existence.

His armor was battered and unkempt, almost intentionally so, while a plethora of weapons hung loosely from the combat harnesses slung across his body. Compared to Ger, who did his best to keep his appearance and equipment as close to the old Covenant military standards as possible, Ro'nin was a sorry sight indeed. To make matters worse, he always slouched or hunched like some human thug, watching everything around him with eyes that gleamed with cold mockery. Ro'nin was no Sangheili. Even his name was a portmanteau of his old birth name and some obscure human word. He was everything Ger despised about the humans and their Syndicate. This is what they do to us. Strip us of all our pride and turn us into disgusting reflections of themselves.

But while Ro'nin disgusted Ger, there was no denying that he was one of the best mercenaries on Venezia. Like Ger, Ro'nin was free to pick and choose his own contracts, only taking on jobs that suited his own interests and sensibilities. His job record for the Syndicate was exceptional. If Ro'nin was tasked with hunting down a target, he caught them. He might be irreverent scum with no pride or honor, but Ro'nin was quite good at his job.

Ger pursed his mandibles, then triggered his communicator. “Ramos.”

“Yes, boss?”

“Send two of the vehicles in best condition ahead. Someone might as well scout the search area while we work here.”

“Got it.” A moment later two of the human-made Warthogs peeled away from the convoy and shot off towards the foothills. For a moment they were silhouetted against vast, rolling grasslands. Then they rolled over a hill and disappeared.

“And here I thought you wouldn’t take my advice.” Ro’nin’s smirking voice crawled up the side of the Wraith. “Don’t feel too bad about it. Even a keepless wretch like me has a good idea once and a while.”

Ger wasn’t entirely sure what circumstances had driven Ro’nin from their people and brought him to a place like Venezia. From what he already knew of the mercenary he was sure it was something obscene. Just a little longer, he told himself. Soon I will return to Sanghelios and leave all of these tiresome vermin behind.

The time passed in strained silence, far longer than the “minute or so” Ramos had promised. Once again Ger itched to have a few of the enforcers shot as an example to the others. It took all the restraint he possessed to stay seated in the Wraith, observing the convoy’s plight with imperious rage rather than leaping down and executing those responsible. Ro’nin continued to lean against the assault tank’s hull, amused as ever by the incompetence of the Syndicate thugs.

At least I can provide Min Ai a thoroughly detailed report regarding his pathetic excuse of a hunting party. Ger would endure all the frustration of this job if it meant he could relay back to the languid Syndicate flunky just how wanting his operation here on Venezia was. The human criminals loved to boast about how powerful their underworld empire was. Ger wondered how long that arrogance would last if the Syndicate continued fielding sub-par expeditions like this. Great bulk alone does not equate to great power, as any obese human can attest.

Ramos broke away from the convoy and approached the Wratih. The human enforcer’s rifle was slung, expression grim. He had worked with Ger enough times to know the Sangheili had little patience for incompetence and empty assurances.

“Boss,” Ramos said carefully, craning his neck to stare up at the Wraith. Ger leaned against the tank’s plasma turret, hands folded over each other like a resting predator as he glared down at his subordinate. “We got the Warthog’s working again. Convoy’s ready to move out.”

“Are you sure?” Ger demanded archly. “Perhaps you require another minute or so to be sure?”

“No, boss. We’re ready.” Ramos was no coward, but he recognized the murderous glint in Ger’s eyes and knew the Sangheili would settle for nothing less than total obedience.

“Very well. Your vehicle will take the lead. Contact the two vehicles that went ahead. If they haven’t found anything in all this time I’ll—“

His communicator buzzed. Ger activated it with an irritated flick and found an excited voice yelling in his ear. “Convoy, come in! We’ve got contact!”

Ger seized the communicator, body finally coming alive again. “Contact? Is it the target?”

“Not sure. Whatever it is, it’s got our other ‘Hog pinned. We’re trying to get a clear shot on it with our rear gun.”

“Keep engaging,” Ger snapped. “Do not even think about falling back.”

He plugged the communicator into the tactical pad on his wrist, triangulating the sender’s location and generating the transmitting Warthog’s coordinates. He forwarded those coordinates to Ramos and the rest of the convoy’s leadership, then slammed a fist down on the Wraith’s hull. The Kig-Yar mercenary manning the tank’s controls fired up the plasma engines and the Wraith hummed to life beneath him.

“The scouts have him,” Ger snapped down at Ro’nin and Ramos. “Get this convoy moving! We’ll converge on him and end this.” As long as Stray was caught on these open plains he’d be easy pickings even for the Syndicate’s thugs. The longer the hunt dragged out the greater chances were he would find some bolt-hole and throw them off the trail.

Ger settled back in the Wraith’s turret seat as the tank slid forward across the plain. At times like these, with his fingers curled around the plasma cannon’s firing studs and rushing towards the promise of battle, Ger could forget that he was leading a ragtag collection of second-rate vehicles driven by undisciplined thugs and imagine that he was once again a true officer leading a column of his fellow Sangheili into battle.

It was simple pleasures like these that made his life bearable.

The heavy rattle of a Warthog’s rear gun hissed across the air as Ger’s Wraith drew near. He saw the Warthog itself a moment later. The human reconnaissance vehicle was perched atop a hill, its gunner firing down the slope in long, drawn out bursts. The Warthog’s other two occupants lay prone in the grass, weapons aimed down at where their partner was shooting.

“Find the target!” Ger barked down at his driver. His blood roared in anticipation of a fight but a moment’s surveillance of the situation at the bottom of the slope quieted his excitement. All he could see below was the other scout Warthog, flipped over on its side with flames licking at the hood. He could just make out the dark shapes of bodies lying beside it.

“Hold your fire,” he snapped down at the driver. Without waiting for a response he clambered down from the Wraith and strode over to the surviving Warthog. The gunner caught sight of him and froze. His companions looked up at him in confusion, then followed his gaze over to the approaching Ger and scrambled to their feet.

Ger approached the nearest enforcer, a grimy-faced human female. “Well?” he demanded. “Is he down there?”

The female blanched. “Well—I mean, we think…”

“One vehicle destroyed and you don’t even know for certain where he is?” Ger reached for the plasma repeater on his back and the female flinched. He shook his head in disgust, unslinging the weapon and advancing down the hill. “Cover me,” he ordered. “But if one of your bullets so much as grazes my shields, I’ll have the whole convoy use you for target practice.”

Even before he reached the bottom he could tell Stray was long gone. The smoldering Warthog had been struck by some sort of explosive, blasting its front wheels clean off and leaving its passengers easy pickings for anyone with a weapon and half a brain.

Two of the three enforcers had been humans. One lay a few feet up the slope of another hill, her torso mangled by some sort of heavy weapon impact. The other was tangled amidst the Warthog’s wreckage, a red pulp where its head should be.

The third enforcer was Kig-Yar. Its body was marked by several deep blade marks—Ger couldn’t tell exactly which blow had killed it, only that it had been hacked to pieces with impressive savagery.

“You got anything, boss?” Ramos was jogging down the hill, a squad of enforcers at his back. The lanky figure of Ro’nin picked its way slowly down behind them.

Ger was about to snap back an irritable response when he caught sight of something in the grass some ways off from the wrecked Warthog. Something red poked out from the stalks of green and brown; a moment’s investigation revealed it to be blood. Human blood.

The blood was clearly not from either of the two dead humans. It led away, up the hill from the crash site and off into the plains. Ger traced the trail a moment longer, then turned back to the enforcers. His earlier exasperation was gone. He should be enraged that his subordinates had once again let Stray slip away, but instead he felt an exhilaration he hadn’t felt in years. The ruined Warthog, the mangled corpses, the trail of a wounded fugitive—this was a true battlefield.

“Stray is wounded,” he announced, indicating the blood trail. “He’ll need to seek shelter, and without a vehicle he won’t get far. I want patrols investigating every village, every homestead, every farm in this area. Tell the locals we’ll reward anyone who gives him up.”

He jabbed a finger at Ro’nin. “And you,” he ordered. “Get me in contact with Chieftain Mantellus. I have need of him and his trackers.”

“Diana, come in.”

Nothing on the coms. The pain in his side was getting worse with every step he took.

“Diana, if you’re just pretending you can’t hear, very funny, now come in—shit.”

Still nothing. He was bleeding badly, the side of his armor wet and warm and glistening. He was lucky to be alive at all. He’d seen the .50 caliber rounds of a Warthog’s turret blast human bodies apart, ignoring armor and flesh and bone as it turned the living into puffs of red mist.

But his armor and his body were different. Instead of being torn in half he simply took the wound and kept going. But going for how much farther?

He’d killed three. It didn’t matter. His pursuers would keep coming no matter how many of them he killed. The Syndicate would not let up the hunt until he was dead.

Stupid to get into this, so stupid. But he wasn’t going to die. Of that, if nothing else, he was certain. No matter how much pain, no matter how many people he had to kill, he was not going to die.

But no need to keep being stupid, is there? He needed to go to ground. The sun was setting over the plains. The hunt would continue, even at night, but it would be slower, clumsier. He could use that extra time to recuperate and figure out what the next move was.

Stray pulled up a map of the area on his helmet’s HUD. There was a small farm just a few miles west, not big enough for a true hiding place but also not big enough to draw too much attention. And right now he didn’t have the luxury of picking and choosing.

He turned and limped west, the agony of each step reminding him that he was still alive. They hadn’t caught him yet.

Chapter Three: Beast From Water

George Hunsinger frowned down at his datapad. His finger hovered above the screen, dipping momentarily every once in a while to flick the device and change screens on whatever he was reading. Zoey eyed him curiously over her bowl of cereal. “Something wrong, Dad?”

Her father made a face. “It’s nothing. Just the usual nonsense coming out of New Tyne.”

Lily poked her head into the kitchen, halfway through donning a grimy smock as she prepared to head out into the fields. “Oh really? How many oonskie spies did they catch this week?”

“About fifteen or so,” George replied with a wry grin. “Looks like they busted a whole ring this time. UNSC can’t seem to figure out we don’t take kindly to being sabotaged. Lucky for us we have our friends from the glorious Insurrection to protect our freedoms.”

Lily shot her husband an irritated look but laughed all the same. Zoey joined in laughing as well though she wasn’t entirely sure what the joke was. The news out of New Tyne was always reports of captured spies and Earth sympathizers. Her father insisted that it was all a bunch of propaganda to make farmers like them respect the militias more, but at least they made the news exciting. The only stories that ever came from the other farms were crop reports and warnings about pests in the fields.

“Eat up,” George told Zoey when the laughter subsided. “We’ve got a busy day ahead of us. Two of the harvesters broke down yesterday. You know what that means.”

“Yeah.” Zoey dipped a spoon into her cereal dejectedly. Broken harvesters meant a day spent crouching beneath the sun with her hands buried in a crop machine’s engine, drenched in sweat and doing her best to pay attention to her father’s instructions. It was hardly the worst job on the farm but it was nothing to get excited about either.

“Are you sure you need her for that?” Lily asked from the entrance. Thune sensed that someone was about to leave the homestead and trotted over to the door with an excited whine. “She needs to get some schoolwork done at some point this harvest. Classes resume in two weeks and she’s barely touched her studies.”

Zoey suppressed a groan. If there was anything worse than farm work it was school. She hated the musty little trailer where the local farm children took their lessons. None of the classes were any fun at all and the other kids had nothing to talk about except the goings-on at their own farms. She’d gladly take a day full of sweaty field chores over that air-conditioned drudgery.

“Two harvesters down,” George reminded his wife. “And the other two need maintenance. We can’t afford having them out of commission this close to harvest and you’re tied up spraying down the south fields. The way I see it, I can have one up and running by midday and then take a look at the ones that work. Zoey can handle the other one herself.”

She blinked, a spoonful of cereal halfway into her mouth. Work on a harvester by herself? She’d never done anything like that without her father’s supervision.

George caught her gaze and grinned. “You’ve really impressed me with the last few ones we’ve worked on together. I think it’s time you took one on without me breathing down your neck.”

A thrill rushed through her. “By myself? Do you really mean it?”

“I never joke when it comes to the farm. I wouldn’t put you up to it if I didn’t think you could do the job.” He narrowed his eyes with mock severity. “But mess that harvester up more than it already is and you can forget about allowance for the rest of the year. And I’ll be checking on your progress at noon, so you’d best hurry up and get working out there.”

The rest of Zoey’s cereal vanished in a heartbeat and a moment later she was rushing back to her room to gather her tools.

Two hours later, Zoey was beginning to rethink her earlier enthusiasm.

She knelt in the dirt beside the harvester’s front wheels as the sun beat down on her from the cloudless sky. Her clothes were already drenched in sweat and her arms ached from the effort of keeping tools in line with the machine’s internal components. She’d managed to scrape herself raw in three separate places struggling to get at the harvester’s faulty components. Only the fear of disappointing her father kept her working.

It wasn’t that she couldn’t handle the strain of farm work. Zoey had labored happily in her parents’ fields for as long as she could remember, helping with everything from vehicle maintenance to pest control to the harvest itself. A day without a few scrapes and a bucket full of sweat was a day she’d clearly not been working hard enough.

But usually George or Lily was with her, overseeing her work and letting her know where she was succeeding and what she was doing wrong. Without one of her parents to monitor her progress, Zoey had no way of knowing if she’d gotten anywhere at all in the two hours spent slaving over the harvester. For all she knew it was still just as broken as when she’d started.

She strained too far to reach the compressor she was working on and lost her grip on her wrench. With a groan she slumped back on her heels, wondering if it was even worth the effort to go fumbling into the harvester to retrieve the lost tool.

Biting her lip in frustration, Zoey grabbed her canteen and took several irritated gulps. The harvester loomed above her like a giant carved boulder, silently daring her to keep up her futile efforts to get it running again. She glared up at it for a moment before looking back down at the schematics on her datapad. There had to be something she was doing right. She’d done plenty of repairs like this before, when her father and mother were watching. I can’t just freak out every time they aren’t there to tell me what to do. I have to show them I’m fine on my own.

Her father trusted her to get this done right on her own. There had to be a way…

The sweat was everywhere—on her clothes, her forehead, her hair. She shook herself like a dog, shoving her hands down her grimy work jumpsuit to scratch at itches on her arms. Even more itches broke out along her back and she moaned with frustration.

This was no good. She wouldn’t get anywhere with the harvester, upset as she was. Zoey jumped to her feet, overflowing with pent up irritation. She threw her tools on the ground and kicked dirt up at the harvester’s wheel. When that didn’t satisfy her anger she lashed out with a punch, then yelped as her hand scraped against the hard wheel. She retreated away from the harvester, nursing her stinging knuckles.

This is stupid. I have to calm down. She’d just have to wait until her father came to check on her. Then she’d ask him for help and he’d walk her through the repairs. But he’ll be so disappointed. He thought I could do this on my own. The thought made her scrapes sting even more.

But maybe she could at least show that she tried. He’d certainly think better of her if he found her hard at work instead of simply pouting beneath the harvester. She needed to calm down and keep working.

But first, to cool down.

The Hunsinger farm was split into four crop wheat fields, an enormous serrated square with their homestead and barns in the center. Zoey and her harvester were in the southernmost field. The Hunsinger property ended with the wheat fields. The rolling Venezian plains beyond those belonged to nobody, a vast expanse of free nature that went on until it hit another family’s farmland. A small river cut through the plain behind the southern field, its banks surrounded by a perimeter of untended, wild wheat stalks sprouted from seed overflow. Zoey had spent hours playing in that river—it was nice and secluded, a perfect sanctuary from the busy farm life.

I’ll just head down there real fast. Take a quick dip. She’d really catch it if her parents caught her taking a break when there were chores to be done, but she’d be back before anyone came to check on her. Just a quick splash in the water to cool down. She wouldn’t even take her clothes off.

Leaving her tools behind, Zoey ducked beneath the harvester and pushed her way through the wheat field. A perimeter sensor system was in place around the fields but the Hunsingers only ever turned it on at night when no one was in the fields. Zoey stepped around one of the security nodes, then pushed her way through the wild grove toward the river.

She didn’t go very far in. Just a quick dip, she reminded herself. She’d just splash some water over herself to cool her aches and itches, then hurry on back to keep working on the harvester until her father came by. She couldn’t let anything distract her or keep her here too long…

The farm girl stopped short halfway through the grove. Something was off about the riverbank today. She couldn’t quite put her finger on what was wrong, but everything seemed quieter somehow. Like the river itself was holding its breath. A strange feeling of dread crept up Zoey’s spine and she had to fight down the urge to rush back into the field.

What’s wrong with me? She’d been down here thousands of times and not once felt this way. What was this gripping sense of foreboding that engulfed her now? She forced herself to press on towards the riverbank, pushing stalks of wheat aside and stepping out towards the water.

And then she saw the helmet.

Zoey froze, finding herself staring down at a strange-looking helmet with a broad, dented visor sitting in the dirt beside the river. The visor was battered and pitted, its surface the dull color of rotted wood. The helmet’s frame seemed to have once been painted a dark green, but that uniform color was corroded and splotched all over with patches of ugly brown and red. The visor stared up at her, a mouthless, faceless gaze that somehow made her think it could see right through her all the same.

Something splashed in the water nearby. Zoey turned to see what had made the noise and there he was.

For a moment she thought she was looking at some strange, hunched animal. A tangled mop of black hair bobbed against the water’s surface attached to a battered carapace that took Zoey several moments to recognize as armor. It took her even longer to realize that she was looking at a human.

The strange armored figure knelt on the riverbank, head bowed low before the water. It reached into the gentle current, cupping its hands and then splashing water across its face. It repeated this gesture several times; as its arms moved Zoey saw bright crimson stains across its side. Blood ran down its chest, staining its gauntleted hands, its legs, even the ground beside it. As the stranger dipped its hand into the water again, pale ribbons of blood drifted away with the current.

Zoey must have gasped or made some sort of noise, for the stranger jerked its head towards her. Its eyes flashed and in the next instant it had a pistol out and pointed directly at her chest.

Zoey froze, desperately trying to understand what was going on.

“Hands,” the stranger ordered and Zoey realized it was male. His voice was oddly pitched—as if someone took the high-pitched whine of an adolescent and fused it with the gravely rasp of a lung-stricken adult. “Now.”

She didn’t move. What was happening here? She’d just come down to the river like she’d done so many times before. Now there was a gun trained on her heart.

“Your hands!” he snarled, finger curling around the pistol’s trigger. “Get them up where I can see them. Now!”

Hands trembling with fear, Zoey raised her arms above her head. In a flash the stranger bounded over to her, one hand closing down on her collar with a vice-like grip. She struggled to free herself but found that she couldn’t so much as budge the stranger’s hold. The pistol came forward, its barrel jabbing into her side before working its way upwards. Zoey cried out and recoiled as the gun prodded her chest and armpits but the stranger did not relent. He forced her down on her knees, probing at her legs with an armored boot before he was completely satisfied.

The armored stranger pushed her away and she fell on her back, staring up at him from the dirt. He pointed the pistol at her head.

“No weapons,” the stranger said, sounding more surprised than menacing. Not that he needed to sound threatening, not with his pistol a foot away from Zoey’s forehead. “No bombs either. They just pay you to poke around, scout things out?”

Zoey couldn’t make any sense of what he was talking about. Now that he was standing above her she had the chance to examine his face more closely. She was surprised to realize that he was young, or at least younger than she’d thought. His rough, angry face could almost have belonged to any one of the older farm boys her parents sometimes brought on to help with the harvest. Maybe if someone took one of those boys, dunked his head in dirt and then pummeled his face until its features looked as dented and battered as the armor he wore.

“Please,” she heard herself whimper. “I don’t know what you mean. No one sent me. Please don’t shoot. I live here!”

The battered young man cocked his head slightly, as if he were the one having trouble understanding. A sudden spasm coursed through his body and he stumbled, free hand grabbing at his bloody side. Zoey recoiled as he turned his angry, quivering eyes back towards her. His teeth bared in a feral snarl, but then quickly curved into a narrow, thoughtful smile.

“Live here?” he asked. He jerked his head back toward the fields. “You mean this is your farm?”

“Yes,” Zoey said carefully. She tried to duck her head low, get it away from the looming gun barrel. “I mean, it’s my parents’ farm. They own it. We own it. Please don’t shoot.”

“Alright,” the stranger muttered, more to himself than Zoey. He lowered the pistol and crouched in front of her, bringing his grimy, battered face up close to hers. She fought back the urge to recoil in disgust.

“Listen up,” the stranger told her. “You go get one of your parents. Not both, just one. You bring them right back here. No weapons, no dogs, no vehicles, nothing. Then we’ll sort this all out. You do anything besides that and I’ll shoot you and anyone you brought with you. Got it?”

Zoey nodded frantically.

“Good.” The stranger’s gray eyes narrowed further, like some predator playing with its prey. “You’d better get moving. You’ve got five minutes to get back here before I come looking for you. You really don’t want that.”

He backed away and gave Zoey the space she needed to wriggle away. She turned and sprinted back towards the fields, already desperately calling out for her father. Behind her the stranger sat back on his haunches, smiling in a way that didn’t quite meet his eyes.

Chapter Four: Dinner Guest

Another day of fruitless searching.

Ger ‘Hullen stood atop a large hill and paced, trying to hide his mounting irritation between a mask of pensive reflection. He couldn’t let his subordinates see his frustration or they’d lose what little motivation for the hunt they had. Then he really would have to kill a few of them to motivate the others.

The Syndicate convoy spread out on the slope behind him. The mixed assortment of Warthogs and other fighting machines formed a loose circle inside of which the enforcers made camp. Some ate out of ration bags while others milled about, chatting idly with each other or attending to weapons and equipment. Only a handful bothered to keep watch over the surrounding plains.

It was a pathetic excuse for a military encampment, not that Ger saw any point in correcting it. Part of him hoped Stray would creep up to the perimeter and kill a few enforcers. At least then they’d have some trace of his existence to pursue.

The blood trail from the ruined Warthog ended shortly after it began. Stray evidently wasn’t stupid enough to leave them such an obvious path to follow. He’d vanished into the plains like a mist, leaving Ger and the enforcers to grope blindly around for some place to revitalize their search. Ger already had the surrounding area narrowed down to a dozen or so farms and homesteads his quarry might have reached to hide out in. He’d dispatched patrols into the night to inform the farmers of the fugitive—and the price for harboring him.

We’ll still have to search them all come morning. The thought alone exhausted him. He would have to oversee each and every search personally. There was no way he could trust the enforcers to do a proper job of it. Intimidating farmers was a common enough task for him—the Syndicate often needed to remind the more rural communities of who really owned the planet—but it was far beneath his dignity as a warrior.

“Enjoying the hunt, commander?” sneered an insolent voice from the shadows. Ro’nin stepped into view, a ration bag in each hand. He offered one to Ger, who declined with a cold stare. This only seemed to amuse the other Sangheili, who quickly gobbled down the contents of one bag and tossed the empty packet onto the grass behind him.

Ger had little patience for Ro’nin’s company. “Shouldn’t you be at your post?” he demanded irritably.

“What post would that be? Getting some more food or finding a place to sleep?” Ro’nin crouched beside Ger, elongated fingers probing the remaining ration bag’s contents. “You’d think these human packets would be disgusting, what with our different metabolisms and all, but there’s something rather delicious about these bread pastries of theirs…”

Ger turned his back on Ro’nin, determined not to be provoked. The other mercenary just chuckled. “Come on, I’m not that bad. You should be glad to have me along. At least you’ve got one merc around here you can trust to actually kill people. Besides, doesn’t it remind you of the good old days? Two noble Sangheili warriors in service to the glorious Covenant Empire. We’re even hunting a human fugitive.”

“We do not serve the Covenant,” Ger replied stiffly. “Not anymore. And you are the farthest thing from a warrior I could imagine.”

“Now that sort of attitude won’t get you anywhere,” Ro’nin said, unperturbed by Ger’s barbs. “You won’t get anywhere with the Syndicate if you despise everyone you work with. At least try to hide it a little.”

“Why should I hide what I feel?” Ger demanded. “Circumstances may force me to work with these criminal scum for now, but I will never embrace them as you have. I still have some pride left in me.”

“Pride.” Ro’nin shook his head. “Such an immaterial thing, wouldn’t you agree? Yet untold millions of our people die for it all the same. What’s the use of pride or honor? You can’t eat them. Can’t defend yourself with them. You can’t even buy things with them, at least not outside Sangheili space.”

Ger’s mandibles twitched in disgust. “I don’t know which is worse. The likes of Vadam and his reformers or creatures like you.”

“Oh, must we talk politics when we’re getting along so well?”

“At least the humans and Kig-Yar and Unggoy have an excuse for serving the Syndicate. They are all lesser races, after all. But you… it’s too disgusting for words to think that you were once an officer in the imperial armies.”

“I’ll admit I’m far from the model Sangheili.” Ro’nin seemed incapable of taking offense. “Yet here we are, both taking credits from the Syndicate. At least I’m honest with myself. Or do you actually take pride in leading this rabble?”

Ger’s eyes narrowed into slits. “Circumstances have forced me to this,” he said quietly. “I will not play the lackey forever. You may have given up on returning to our people, but I have not. Stay on this human garbage dump if you’re so happy here. One day I will return to Sanghelios and restore the keep that was taken from me.”

“Yes, yes,” Ro’nin said idly. “I’ve heard that one a dozen times before. I usually get it from younger warriors though, all thinking themselves the hero of some legend. Aren’t you a little old to believe in fantasies?”

Ger turned on his heel. There was no point in arguing with a creature like Ro’nin. There truly was nothing worse than a Sangheili who behaved like a human. He stalked over to the edge of the hill and peered down at the sloppy Syndicate encampment. He took no pride in being responsible for these fools. They were simply a burden he had to carry on the road leading out of this hellish existence. He didn’t care how many of them died in the rush to kill Stray. They were all inferior creatures, after all.

Maybe he’d get lucky and Stray would kill Ro’nin before this was over.

Ger couldn’t help but feel a strange kinship with his prey. He knew very little about the mercenary, but he imagined that anyone capable of eluding the Syndicate for this long must be something more than just a common frontier thug. Perhaps Stray, like Ger, had once been someone else, someone better. Circumstances had brought them both here, forced them both to lower themselves to the Syndicate’s level in order to survive. Stray had done Min Ai’s bidding for a time until it proved too much and he snapped.

Some days Ger wished he could do the same. But he did not have the luxury of signing his own death warrant. Some indignities could not be fought, only endured.

Maybe Stray could simply endure the humiliation any longer. When the human’s end finally came, Ger hoped he met it with dignity. We both want to be something better. The least I can do is treat him as such.

Dinner in the Hunsinger household was usually a social affair, full of jokes and laughter traded across the table alongside plates of a shared meal.

Not tonight.

George was silent as he passed Lily a bowl of salad. His wife took it without a word, her eyes fixed on the stranger sitting in the corner of the room. Zoey hunkered down between them, unable to take her eyes off the bizarre figure who had invited himself into their house.

The first thing the stranger did upon entering the homestead was search the house. No room was spared, not even Zoey’s. After rummaging through drawers and under beds, he gathered up every transmitter and communications device he could find and piled them on the table. Since then he hadn’t moved from the corner. He placed his helmet on his lap and rested his hands on the stock of the shotgun he’d brought up from the river. His eyes were always narrowed, as if he were studying and analyzing everyone and everything he saw.

“So,” Lily said tightly. She had both of her hands placed firmly on the table, but Zoey could see her gaze drifting over to where she knew her parents had hidden an old hunting carbine. “Are we your prisoners now?”

The stranger snorted, as if this amused him. “Prisoners? If I wanted to hold you guys hostage I’d zip-tie your hands behind your back and lock you in the machine shed. It’s still your house. Just pretend I’m not here.” He seemed much more relaxed then he’d been when he’d threatened Zoey down by the river. Some of the fierceness had drained out of him, replaced by an odd, languid ease.

Lily looked pointedly at the pile of communicators on the table. The stranger made a face and shrugged.

“Gotta make sure you guys don’t sell me out. Nothing personal, I just don’t trust any of you.”

“You trust us enough to invite yourself into our house.” Zoey had never seen George this tense, not even when that enormous storm had torn up half the fields two years ago. He didn’t sit with Lily and Zoey, instead remaining in the kitchen and working to prepare dinner with a stony expression.

“After the kid found me by the river, I didn’t have much of a choice. Couldn’t just let her run off and tell everyone she’d seen me. Had to choose between imposing on you fine people and just shooting you all and hoping people took a while to find the bodies.”

Zoey couldn’t tell if the stranger was joking or not. Even when his tone lightened it carried a hard edge behind it, an unspoken threat of impending violence.

“I don’t know what kind of trouble you’re running from and I don’t really care.” Lily dropped a hand down onto Zoey’s leg and gave it a comforting squeeze. “If you threaten my daughter again I’ll blow your head off.”

A smile tugged at the corners of the stranger’s mouth. “You’ll try.”

“Big man, aren’t you?” Zoey wondered if George was making fun of the stranger’s height—even in his armor, he was shorter than both of her parents. “Coming in here with all that armor and weapons, acting like we’re a threat to you. Why can’t you UNSC types just leave us alone out here? Go pick a fight with the militia someplace else.”

The stranger’s smile tightened. “I’m not UNSC.”

“Then what are you? That’s some strange armor you’ve got there. Definitely nothing like what the militia wears. What is it, some kind of ODST rig? War’s over, in case you didn’t notice.”

“Who said I was threatening you guys? I’m just talking facts.” The stranger made a face. “Besides, if I am threatening you, I’m not doing a very good job. If you really thought I was going to kill you and the rest of your family, wouldn’t you be working harder to keep me happy?”

Nobody said anything for some time after that. George passed out the rest of the meal to Lily and Zoey, then sat down at the table beside them. Zoey looked down at her plate, then up at her mother. She wasn’t sure what was going on. This was all so surreal—the stranger, his weapons and armor, his calm threats. Was she dreaming?

Lily flashed her daughter a smile. “Don’t worry. Everything’s fine. Just eat up.”

Everything didn’t feel fine at all. Zoey picked at her meal, shooting furtive glances at the stranger in the corner. He watched her family with a strangely pensive look on his face, one she hadn’t seen on him before. It wasn’t the ferocious glare from the river nor was it the calculating stare he’d worn a few moments ago. She’d once seen a similar look on her mother when they’d tried putting an old analogue puzzle together. Once in a while the stranger would flinch and drop a hand down to his wounded side. She wondered if he had done anything to treat it since he’d taken up residence in their house. All she’d seen him do was spray a small canister of something white into the hole in his armor.

Seized by a sudden curiosity, she forgot that this was the same person who had forced her to her knees and prodded her with a gun. “What’s your name?” she blurted out.

The stranger looked taken aback. “Stray,” he said after a moment’s hesitation.



“That doesn’t sound like a real name.”

“That’s what people call me.”

“What people?”

“Alright, Zoey,” George said. He shot a wary glance at the armored stranger called Stray. “That’s enough.”

Stray looked at the Hunsingers, the pensive stare flashing back across his face. He grunted and produced a handful of credit chits from one of the pouches strapped to his armor. Leaning forward, he placed the chits on the table and slid them towards Lily and George. “For your trouble. It’s not much, but you won’t have to put up with me for much longer.”

George placed a finger on the credits. “How much longer?”

One of the transmitters piled on the table beeped. It was the proximity alarm for the farm perimeter.

Stray moved fast, the alert gunman once again. He stood, shotgun in one hand and pistol in the other. Lily threw up her hands.

“We didn’t do anything!” she hissed, reaching for the whining transmitter.

The sight of the pistol aimed at her mother’s head filled Zoey with far more terror than she’d felt when it was pointed at her. She jumped toward Lily only for George to grab her arm and pull her back.

“Why the hell should I believe you?” Stray’s voice was hard, but he looked quickly around the room like a startled animal searching for a place to hide. He looked almost frightened.

Thune whined and pulled himself out from under the table. The old dog ignored the stranger pointing a gun at his mistress and instead crept toward the door, ears flat against his head. “People outside,” George said quickly. “Humans. He wouldn’t go near the door otherwise.”

“Why wouldn’t they be human?” Zoey asked, but her father clamped a hand over her mouth.

“Let me go out there,” Lily said. She didn’t take her eyes off the gun. “Let me talk to them. There’s no need for violence. I won’t let them in here. I’ll send them away.”

“You’d better.”

Zoey’s mother nodded. She backed away towards the door. Outside, Zoey heard the whine of a car motor and the crunch of tires against the dirt. A cold pit opened in her stomach. How could any of this be happening? The gun pointed at her mother, the strangers arriving in the darkness, her father’s tight grip on her arm. It was all too much.

The door opened and someone outside called out. “Who’s asking?” Lily said in reply, stepping outside and closing the door behind her.

Stray flattened himself against a wall, weapons at the ready. George sat down in his chair and pulled Zoey close. Muffled voices spoke outside. She heard her mother say something. Several people laughed at once. Zoey closed her eyes and wished it would all just end.

The wheels crunched and the engine hummed back to life. Dirt crunched and then the sounds of the car faded away. A moment later her mother stepped back into the house.

“I’m alone,” she said. “They’ve gone off.”

She saw Zoey and smiled. “Everything’s going to be fine,” she said again. “How about you go on and get ready for bed? Your father and I will be up to see you in a minute.”

“But I—“

“Bed.” Lily’s voice was kind but firm.

Zoey hugged her father and then slipped away out of the kitchen. It was no use hiding out in the hall—she knew her parents would check—but they had never figured out that the small air vent above her bed led directly back to the kitchen. When she got to her room she crept up onto the bed and pressed an ear to the vent.

“—criminal connections,” her father was saying.

“What have you dragged us into?” her mother demanded.

“If I had my way, I’d still be hiding down by that river,” Stray said in reply. “You can thank the kid for—“

“Don’t you dare blame this on her,” Lily snarled.

“If this is some sort of gang war—“ George started to say, but Stray cut him off.

“Nothing that dramatic. I just pissed off the wrong people and now they want my head on a stick.” He paused. “But you didn’t sell me out. They couldn’t beat my price?”

“Why the hell would I give you up when you had my husband and daughter with you in the house?” Lily snapped. “If you didn’t shoot them, those thugs would probably shoot them when they stormed the house.”

“I guess I owe you.”

“You don’t owe us shit.” Zoey had never heard her father swear before. “You can hide out in our barn this one night. When I wake up tomorrow, I want you gone.”

“Fine, fine. Wasn’t planning on loitering here anyways.”

“You go to the barn and you stay in the barn,” Lily said coldly. “And stay the hell away from my little girl.”

“And here I was hoping I could share her room…”

“Stay. Away. From. Her.”

The voices receded as everyone moved away from the kitchen. Zoey threw herself down on the bed, pulling the covers tight over her face. Maybe this really was a dream. Maybe when she woke up this would all be over…

Chapter Five: Killers

Ger 'Hullen's first human employer was a grossly obese man named Randall Trane. The Sangheili had been stunned upon their first meeting. The only humans he had ever seen previously were lean, muscled soldiers and desperate, half-starved refugees. He knew his share of portly Sangheili, but none of such girth that they could not even move unassisted. And none in positions of authority over him.

But that was the world of humans. They gorged themselves on luxury, caring nothing for honor and nobility in pursuit of their own hedonistic pleasures. Only the Kig-Yar were as obsessed with wealth and material gain.

Ger had choked down his distaste for Trane and served him well, hunting down his enemies while building up his own status within the Syndicate. It was eventually enough for his contract to be plucked out from Trane’s greasy palms by Min Ai, who promised his newest enforcer a wealth of new opportunities on Venezia. Ger had taken the offer not because he believed those promises but because he hoped he might find some way to conjure up at least some respect for his new employer.

In some regards, he had been correct. Min Ai was as far removed from Trane in nearly every regard. A thin, soft spoken human, Min rarely indulged in luxury—at least not publically. He dressed in the dark suits that served as subdued status symbols for humans and wore his pale hair short and neat. He shared Trane’s greed and lust for profit, but at least knew how to carry himself with dignity.

Ger looked down at the hologram of his employer standing on his palm. The Syndicate camp was quiet; most of the enforcers were asleep, taking advantage of Venezia’s cool night air. He wouldn’t be surprised to even find the sentries sleeping, not that it mattered in the long run.

“Three farms, you say?” Min asked, clasping his hands in front of him.

“Yes. Only three refused to let their homesteads be searched. I intend to move the convoy at first light. We will surround each farm in turn and conduct thorough searches until Stray is found.”

“Excellent.” Min smiled. “This whole sorry incident really spiraled out of control after Stray slipped away back in New Tyne, but I knew I’d put the right warrior on the job. You do good work Ger, especially considering the quality of troops you have to work with.”

Ger wasn’t sure if his employer was being condescending or genuine. “The quality of the troops is irrelevant. Their officer must be responsible for their failures as well as their successes.”

“You’re a pleasure to work with, Ger. You always bring such a fresh perspective to the table.”

“I simply take pride in my work. Perhaps you should consider hiring more enforcers who share my philosophy.”

“I’ll have to look into it. Especially if we’re ever going to expand our operations here.” Min’s smile broadened. “Come morning, hold position until I arrive. Then you move on the farms.”

Ger blinked. “You are coming? In person?”

“Oh, I won’t get in your way. I just feel a bit more gravity needs to be added to tomorrow’s proceedings. It has nothing to do with my confidence in your abilities of course. I just feel that with farms needing to be searched a bit of restraint is in order. Restraint I’d prefer to enforce in person.” The criminal spread his hands in a shrug. “Besides, it’s been such a long time since I’ve had an excuse to leave New Tyne.”

“Understood. I will have appropriate measures in place for your arrival.” Inside, Ger was fuming. Min Ai’s presence would slow everything down regardless of his promises to the contrary. Nevertheless he was surprised at his employer’s eagerness to come into the field in person. He’d never known Min as one to oversee such things in person.

“I look forward to seeing you work.” Min flashed Ger another smile, then terminated the link.

Ger closed his hand into a fist over the space where Min’s hologram had stood a moment before. He focused his breathing, trying to calm the frustration building in his chest. More snags, more complications. Now he’d have to keep an eye on Min Ai while also making sure the enforcers didn’t bungle everything—a difficult task all on its own.

This will be over soon. Once he took Stray’s head he could be free of this tiresome duty. Perhaps he could turn Min’s presence to his advantage. If he managed to sufficiently impress the Syndicate representative perhaps the payout for this job would be enough to get him off Venezia, out of human space entirely. His thoughts once again turned to the keep and clan he left behind on Sanghelios.

Thel ‘Vadam’s bombers reduced the Hullen keep to rubble when the house would not swear fealty to the Arbiter’s forces. The survivors pledged themselves to the “Great Unifier” only to be slaughtered by Jul ‘Mdama’s warriors. Back in the days of the old Covenant a bereft warrior like Ger might have used glory on the battlefield to rebuild his bloodline. But all he could do now was rot out here on the human frontier. He whored himself out to scum like the Syndicate in the hopes that their blood money might someday help him restore the Hullen keep and name.

Visons of a burning keep littered with corpses clouded his mind. Aren’t you a little old to believe in fantasies? Ro’nin sneered amidst the billowing smoke.

Ger’s mandibles twitched, furious. He stalked away amidst the slumbering encampment, resisting the urge to reach out and kill every enforcer within reach. Tomorrow’s opportunities beckoned. He needed to be in top form for the coming hunt. He had no time for fleeting whims.

Zoey tossed and turned, hopelessly tangled in her bed sheets. She wished she could close her eyes and drift off to sleep but her mind was fully alert and firing on all pistons. Too much was happening—Stray, his pursuers, her parents’ angry fears—for her to just roll over for a good night’s sleep.

She gripped the bedsheets tight against her body. She wondered what was going on in her parents’ room. Were George and Lily asleep? Were they as restless as she was? How could anyone sleep with a violent drifter like Stray lurking in the barn? Zoey tried to imagine what sort of pursuers might make someone with Stray’s armor and weapons so fiercely desperate. She envisioned columns of shadows circling the farm, pressing close against the fields and blotting out the stars. A thick blanket of darkness descending to smother her home and everything in it.

It was too much. Zoey threw off her bedsheets and stamped angrily over to the window. She hesitated for only a moment before winching the grated slats covering the porthole open.

No shadows. No darkness. The farm rested peacefully in the tranquil blue night just like it had on every night before this one. Nothing had changed and yet, somehow, everything had changed.

Zoey quietly slipped her shoes on. She threw a coat over her pajamas and then crept out of her room towards the front door. No lights were on in her parents’ room—apparently George and Lily had managed to fall asleep after all. She slipped past their closed door but stopped short when she saw Thune curled up in the entryway. The old dog didn’t stir as she stepped over him.

The front door’s latch slid off. Zoey half expected the house’s intruder alarm to go off, but the system recognized the identity key in her jacket pocket and let her slip through without a sound.

The night air was warmer than she expected—it would be dawn in just a few hours. Zoey headed for the barn. She wasn’t entirely sure what was drawing her there. Some part of her knew she should be afraid, but for whatever reason she simply had to go in and see if Stray was really there. Perhaps this all really was a dream after all.

The barn door’s hinges were well oiled—Lily did not believe in letting any part of the farm fall into disrepair—and it slid open without a sound. Zoey stepped inside.

The barn’s musty darkness lay before her, punctured only by a few beams of moonlight trickling in from the windows high overhead. The beams illuminated the center of the barn and Zoey stopped short, breath catching in her mouth.

Stray knelt there on the floor, his back to the barn door. Zoey was shocked to see that he had stripped off his armor. She was even more shocked to see the body that lay underneath.

He was well-muscled, far more so than her parents or any adult Zoey had ever seen, but the muscles were far from attractive. Instead, they seemed out of place on his small, emaciated frame. Like growths or tumors latched onto his skinny body. He’d bandaged his wounded side but scars crisscrossed the rest of his back and arms, almost as if someone had taken parts from several different people and stitched them together to create this strange facsimile of a human.

Was this really the same fierce intruder who had threatened her family and forced himself into their home practically at gunpoint?

“You don’t scare off easy, do you?”

Zoey jumped and froze in place, heart pounding. Stray didn’t turn to look at her. “You should be more of a coward. I’ve known brave little girls before. Didn’t do them much good.”

“How did you know—“

Stray shrugged. “I don’t think either of your parents would be sneaking in here. I’ve gotta hand it to you, though: this is the second time you’ve caught me with my pants down.”

He paused, then let out a derisive laugh. “Figuratively speaking, of course. I’m not into that sort of shit.”

Zoey wasn’t quite sure what kind of “shit” he was talking about. She took a few steps closer, emboldened by his casual tone, but stopped when he glanced back at her. His tone was soft, but his eyes still gleamed like an animal ready to pounce.

“You trying to get me thrown out of here early?” he asked. “Your mom told me to stay away from you.”

“Do you always wear that armor?” she asked quickly. It was the first thing that popped into her head. She wasn’t entirely sure what she was doing, talking to this ugly, mean-spirited intruder. But here she was, alone in the barn with him. It occurred to her that she might never have the opportunity to speak with someone this foreign ever again. He would soon be gone and the farm would be back to its old, quiet self.

Stray shrugged and indicated his bare body. “Most of the time.”

“It has to stink.” She could smell his musky odor from across the barn.

“Oh yeah, it does. I haven’t had the chance to wash it out in a while. Or myself for that matter.” Stray shifted to the side and Zoey saw that his armor was piled up in a heap at his feet. He smiled ruefully, almost as if embarrassed to be found in a state of undress. The expression looked strange on his sharp, angular features. “Well, since you’re here, make yourself useful and help me with this.”

He stood up and picked the largest piece of armor out of the pile. In the dim light Zoey recognized it as his chest piece. He slid it on over his body and motioned at several straps near the small of his back. “Fasten those, would you? They’re always a bitch to snap on my own.”

Zoey hesitated, but when Stray showed no sign of proceeding on his own she stepped tentatively forward. She touched the straps gingerly, half expecting Stray to lash out and hit her. But he just stood there expectantly. A shiver coursed through her body as she worked the straps. It felt so strange to touch even the hem of his armor, as if she were laying hands on Stray’s bare skin. As he turned to slide more pieces onto his body she realized that he looked much more complete with it on to hide the skinny frame, the scars, and the chunks of missing skin.

“How old are you?” she asked when she was done fastening the straps.

Stray hesitated just a moment before answering. “Sixteen. I think. Maybe fifteen. Not sure. I don’t know when my birthday is.”

Zoey gaped, not sure whether to be more shocked by his age or the idea of someone not knowing their own birthday. She couldn’t fathom the idea of someone like Stray being just a few years older than she was.

“Have you ever been to space?”

He kept buckling on armor. “Yeah.”

“What’s it like?”

“Cold. Boring.”

“What about other planets? Like Earth? Have you ever been there?”

He looked at her and made a face. “You’re talkative all of a sudden.”

She caught his eyes, then dropped her gaze quickly. Why did she feel more embarrassed than afraid? “I just figure, you know, I might never get to talk to someone who’s been to space before. Someone like you.”

“If only we could all be that lucky,” he muttered. “Besides, your mom’s been to space. Talk to her about it.”

“My mom?” Zoey knew that neither of her parents had been born on Venezia, but it had never occurred to her to ask anything about where they’d lived before they came here and had her. Neither of them ever said anything about it.

“What, you’ve never checked out those Innie tattoos on her arms before? She’s been all over. Bet she saw some shit back during the war.”


“Insurrection. Ask her about it sometime.”

He stepped away from her after the last gauntlet clicked into place. He patted at his combat webbing, checking the pouches slung across the armor. “Much better,” he said aloud. He stooped and picked up his helmet. It slid down over his face and sealed with a dull click.

Zoey realized that this was the first time she’d seen him wearing the helmet. He stood there in the moonlight, any trace of emotion or feeling sealed away inside the battered suit of armor. The dented visor tilted to look down at her. The expressionless visor sent chills running down her spine.

His weapons lay in a heap a few paces away. He stepped away from her and began retrieving them. Zoey gawked at the lethal array: his pistol, a handful of knives, a machete that he slung over his back, and finally the shotgun. He slid its strap over his shoulder, the barrel pointing down at the ground.

“Have you… killed people with those?” She knew it was a stupid question, but it slipped out of her mouth before she could stop it.

“Yeah. Lots. They wouldn’t be much use to me if I didn’t, right?”

Zoey looked at this strange armored creature, someone not even half her father’s age who didn’t know his birthday and had been to space and talked about killing people with the same tone he used to admit he needed a bath. It occurred to her that she really didn’t know anything about the universe beyond Venezia. Suddenly she felt very small.

Stray stepped around her and walked toward the barn door. Zoey watched him go. “You’re leaving?” she called after him.

“Quiet down or you’ll wake your parents. And then your mom might really try to shoot me.” Stray looked back over his shoulder. It was strange to hear his voice coming out of that expressionless helmet. “Yeah, I’m clearing out. They’ll be on the move soon. I need to get a head start.”


“The people after me.”

“Are… are they bad people?”

Stray snorted. “They’re trying to kill me. That makes them bad in my book.”

Zoey finally remembered that this same person she’d helped put on his armor had probed her with a pistol barrel down by the river. He’d forced her parents to let him in their house. He’d pointed a gun at her mother. “Are you a bad person?”

Stray was silent for several moments. He stood there in the barn door, framed by the moonlight, with one hand resting comfortably on the barrel of his shotgun. His helmet twitched; she couldn’t tell if it was a shake or a nod.

“Listen,” Stray said finally. “Don’t you tell anyone I was here. No matter who asks. Just forget all about this and everything will be fine.”

“How am I supposed to forget something like this?” she demanded.

Another laugh from behind the helmet. “Good point. Just don’t think about it. That’s how I get over things. Now go get some sleep.”

He slipped out of the barn and vanished into the night.

Chapter Six: Monsters

Syndicate enforcers scurried in all directions around Ger ‘Hullen. The rising dawn sun cast rays of dim orange over the plains, illuminating the mercenary convoy as it arranged itself in a loose formation across the hillside. The enforcers—well rested from a night blissfully free of sentry duty—moved with a renewed sense of vigor. Like their commander, they knew that this irritating foray away from their usual urban haunts in New Tyne would soon be over.

Ramos weaved his way through milling Unggoy and stationary Warthogs to where Ger stood at the top of the hill. The pale-faced human enforcer slung his rifle and drew up beside the Sangheili mercenary. “Convoy’s ready to move out, boss.”

Ger folded his arms, irritation mounting with each passing minute. “Nothing is ready until our employer sees fit to grace us with his presence.” If he had his way, the convoy would have moved out hours ago. Any element of surprised they might have gained by striking the farms before sunrise was lost thanks to Min Ai’s lack of punctuality.

Ramos made a face but didn’t offer an opinion on Min Ai’s tardiness. Ger was one of the few enforcers on Venezia who dared openly speak ill about his employers. A Sangheili mercenary was valuable enough to be forgiven the occasional discourtesy. Human guns-for-hire were, as the saying went, a credit a dozen.

Someone pinged Ger’s com channel. “Incoming VTOL,” one of the convoy sentries announced. “Looks like a Falcon.”

“Let it through,” Ger ordered. “It’s one of ours.” He scanned the skyline and quickly caught site of the approaching aircraft. The Falcon banked towards the convoy and dropped altitude. Wind from the rotors blasted the grass at Ger’s feet as the human assault transport came in for a landing.

“If Min Ai’s coming that means we’ve got Stray cornered this time,” Ramos said, just loud enough to be heard over the Falcon’s rotors.

Ger grunted. “For the sake of your subordinates, I hope that is true.” He had restrained himself for long enough. If the incompetence of these enforcers embarrassed him today he would make examples of them no matter what Min Ai—or anyone else from the Syndicate—had to say about it.

“But if we get him today, what do we tell Mantellus? His pack is still en route. If he gets here and finds out we dragged him out for nothing, he’ll be pissed.”

“I will deal with the Jiralhanae if it comes to that,” Ger said confidently. If he handled this hunt without the aid of those detestable Jiralhanae, so much the better. “For now, however, they remain our contingency plan.”

Ramos shrugged and pulled at the strap of his rifle. “You’re the boss,” he replied, stepping back to give the Falcon more room to land. The VTOL settled down on the hill in front of Ger. Its door guns were unmanned and aimed skywards; clearly the Syndicate wasn’t expecting trouble from the air.

Two humans climbed out of the Falcon’s troop bay. The first, a human female clad in light body armor, scanned the area with a submachine gun. Her face was concealed by a cloth mask but Ger would have recognized the fluid motions and ease with which she wielded her weapon anywhere. “Jiyar,” he said, nodding by way of greeting.

Jiyar turned her masked face toward him, an eyebrow raised. Ger had never fully understood why Min Ai’s bodyguard always kept her face covered. Some enforcers told him it was simply a way humans intimidated each other. Others suggested it was part of some strange human religious obligation. Whatever the reason, Jiyar rarely strayed from Min Ai’s side. A man of his standing attracted more than his share of would-be assassins. So far, Jiyar had intercepted and killed them all.

“You better not screw this one up,” she told him. “I haven’t seen Min this cheerful in weeks. Don’t ruin his mood.”

Behind her, the Syndicate representative himself stepped out of the Falcon.

Min Ai was short, at least by human standards. Clad in a neat business suit, he dropped neatly out of the troop bay and bounded over to Ger. He treated the Sangheili to a warm smile even as he wiped sweat out from under his pale bangs. “So sorry for the wait,” he said before Ger could speak. “It’s just been such a long time since I’ve had an excuse to get in one of these things. We just had to take the scenic route. I’m sure you understand.”

As usual when dealing with Min Ai, Ger wasn’t sure whether to be bemused or offended by his employer’s levity. Biting down his irritation he turned to indicate the convoy. “We are ready to move on your order,” he informed the representative. “We need to move now, before Stray has any more time to flee.”

“Of course, of course.” Min clasped his hands behind his back and started down the hill. “I’ll be needing one of the Warthogs. Jiyar can drive. We’ll want to stay separate from the rest of the convoy so we don’t get in anyone’s way.”

Ger followed his employer down the hill. “I must insist that you stay within the formation. We cannot give Stray a target of opportunity.”

“Oh, Jiyar is more than enough protection,” Min replied with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Besides, we can’t have you diverting troops to protect me. I promised to stay out of your way and that is precisely what I intend to do.”

Ger hesitated, unsure of whether or not to continue trying to reason with this airy representative. Realizing it was hopeless, he took a different approach. “Very well. Take whatever vehicle you wish. And I must thank you for bringing us the new asset.”

Min looked back at him. “New asset?” Ger gestured back at the Falcon. “We were in desperate need of air support. Once I assign gunners, that deficiency will be corrected.”

Min shook his head and laughed. “Oh, you’re a clever one. That’s what I like about you. Alright, I’ll play along. The Falcon’s all yours. Just be sure not to get it wrecked. Those things are such a pain to requisition.”

Allowing himself a brief moment to enjoy this one small victory, Ger strolled away from Min Ai and back to the center of the convoy. The hunt was back in motion. One way or another, Stray would bleed today.

If George or Lily knew anything about Zoey’s trip to the barn, neither of them said a word about it that morning. They also made no mention of Stray’s sudden departure; in fact, neither of them said anything about yesterday’s strange visitor or the fear and threats he had brought with them. It was as if they had both agreed to simply pretend the whole thing had never happened.

“We’re behind schedule,” Lily said tersely. “We’ll need to really pick up the pace today or we might need to bring in extra help to be ready for the harvest.”

“We’ll manage,” George assured her. “We’ve had tight deadlines in the past. This is no different.”

He looked over at Zoey. “I know you had some trouble with the harvester yesterday, so let’s get you going on something a bit smaller. I looked at the DH-435 model yesterday and it needs a tune-up. I don’t need you working any miracles, just see what you can do with it.”

Lily shot her husband a concerned look. “Maybe it’s best if she takes it a bit easier today. She can help me with the generator by the barn.”

“You’re the one saying we need to get work done. She can handle the DH-435. Right now, I think some solid work is the best thing for her.”

“I can handle it,” Zoey said quickly. She was half relieved that her father still trusted her enough to work on her own. The other half of her was quietly wondering if she hadn’t simply dreamed Stray up the night before. Was she remembering things wrong? Maybe someone had come by the farm, but they’d been so completely unremarkable that she’d just dreamed up the mysterious young man with the weapons and armor just to make it more exciting. Her father was right: some work would be the best thing to clear her head.

“Good. Make sure you get some real progress in by the time I come check on you. I’m thinking that I might make the DH-435 entirely your responsibility come harvest.”

“You mean I’ll get to operate it? Really?” Zoey gaped at her father. She’d always wanted to someday work a harvester without her parents supervising. The DH-435 was hardly the most exciting machine by any stretch of the imagination, but to be able to call it hers, to really contribute something to the farm…

A small grin flashed across George’s face at her enthusiasm. “If you show me you can keep it in working order first. You can’t just be our little helper forever. I’d be a poor excuse for a father if I didn’t do something to get you ready for the real hard work.”

Zoey shot a guilty look at her mother, but Lily just waved a dismissive hand and shook her head. “Oh, don’t mind me. I know better than to try to talk your father out of something once he’s set his mind to it. You know, getting you ready for more responsibilities in the field was all he’d talk about last night.”

Really? Maybe she had dreamed up Stray after all. Zoey decided not to press the issue. The more she thought about it, the happier she was that neither of her parents seemed at all affected by what had happened—or what she thought had happened. Her life here on the farm was unchanged; she didn’t have to worry about menacing killers sealed up in armor or strange visitors arriving in the night.

“Better eat up,” George told her, leaning back in his chair. “We’ve got another long day ahead of us. You’ll be exhausted by the end, I guarantee it.”

The farm spread out before Ger, a simple homestead surrounded on all sides by fields of grain. Standing at the head of the assembled convoy, the Sangheili mercenary could not help but feel a small pang of nostalgia. He remembered seeing such settlements as a child on the rocky steppes of Sanghelios. His uncles had often taken him and the other youths to oversee the Unggoy and Sangheili villeins till the crops in preparation for harvest.

He would have been master of such fields one day, were it not for fate’s cruel machinations…

Ger twitched his mandibles and banished the thought of burning, war-torn Sanghelios from his mind. Now was no time to be moved by pity. His task here was simple: find Stray by any means necessary. As far as he was concerned, he already owned the farm below and everything in it. Its current inhabitants simply did not know it yet.

“What’s the plan, boss?” Ramos asked, pulling his Warthog up next to Ger.

Ger waved an imperious arm, shooting a sideways glance over to where Min Ai lounged in his own Warthog. For a well-dressed, unarmed human surrounded by fifty-odd bloodthirsty enforcers, the Syndicate representative was surprisingly relaxed.

“The patrol elements will maintain a perimeter around the farm,” Ger ordered. “The rest of you, dismount. We approach the homestead through the fields. Search for any sign of Stray. Let nothing slip through our encirclement.”

A few enforcers grumbled at the order; they had hoped to simply roll in and attack. A tactical approach through the concealment of the fields was an effort most of them did not care to undertake. No wonder their life expectancies were so short. Ger let Ramos handle whipping them into shape. A few paces away Ro’nin slipped out of his Warthog, readying a carbine and languidly stepping into line.

Ger opened a channel to the Falcon flying in a holding pattern at the rear of the formation. “Touch down and remain grounded until I give the order. Be ready to launch at a moment’s notice.” There was no need to overplay his hand here. The Falcon was his contingency in case Stray put up more of a fight than he expected.

The Sangheili unslung his plasma repeater and stepped forward, waving for the enforcers to begin their advance on the farm.

The dawn sun’s rays beat down on the plains as the long arm of the Syndicate descended upon the Hunsinger farm.

Zoey wiped sweat from her eyes, determined not to make the same mistakes she had yesterday. The DH-345, a stocky, box-shaped harvesting unit, was the smallest machine the Hunsingers owned but it was still twice her height. She tried to put the size out her mind and focus on just the single engine component she was working on now. If the problem’s too big, break it down smaller, her mother always told her. Divide and conquer. Then instead of one big problem you just have a bunch of smaller ones.

This engine was corroded and worn-down but it was nowhere near as intimidating a job as yesterday’s harvester had been. Zoey was already covered in sweat, but this time she gave no thought to taking even the smallest of breaks. This harvester was going to be her responsibility. Her way of helping her parents. There was no way she’d let anything slow her down.

Something shifted in the wheat stalks behind her. Zoey turned, expecting to see one of her parents, but the field was deserted. She shrugged and turned back to her work when something in the dirt caught her eye: boot prints.

The outlines were faint, but on closer inspection Zoey could tell that the tracks were nothing close to resembling work boots. Something about the broad ridges in the tracks made her think of armored boots. Had Stray come through here on his way out of the barn? Maybe he wasn’t a dream after all.

Zoey turned back to the harvester and came face to face with a monster.

The enormous beast loomed out of the wheat beside the harvester, covered in dull blue armor and holding a strange, glowing weapon in its sinewy arms. Its head, perched atop an elongated neck, was split into four horrific mandibles. Amber, reptilian eyes glared down at her from beneath its slitted helmet.

She opened her mouth to scream but someone grabbed her arm and clamped a gloved hand over her mouth.

More armed figures emerged from the field. A few were normal people, but others were hunched, bird-like reptiles with hideous maws filled with fangs. Zoey struggled against her captor but it was no use. He dragged her arms behind her back and forced her to the ground.

A pale man clutching a rifle knelt beside the boot tracks. “More prints,” he said to the monster. “Maybe he doubled back here?”

“We shall see.” The monster’s voice was a guttural snarl that made Zoey flinch just from hearing it. How could that disgusting, four pronged mouth be speaking her language? The monster towered over her, weapon held aloft. “Well, human? Entertained any guests here lately?”

Zoey shrunk back, tears welling up in her eyes. This had to be a nightmare. This couldn’t be real.

The pale man stood and aimed his rifle at Zoey’s head. “I’d start talking, little girl. You don’t want to piss him off.”

“Please…” Zoey whimpered, finally managing to force words out of her trembling mouth. “Please…”

The monster regarded her coldly, then jerked its head towards the pale man. “I will let him shoot you,” it promised.


“Have you seen another human? One wearing armor?”

“What… I mean… armor?” The words spilled out frantically, uncontrolled. She didn’t understand, how could any of this be happening?

The pale man stepped forward and placed the barrel of his rifle against Zoey’s forehead. The cold metal dug into her skin, making her cry out.

“Yes! Yes!” she wailed. She’d tell them anything, give them anything, just to make them go away.

“There. See?” The pale man stepped back. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?”

“Please, just let me go…” She’d never been this scared in her life.

“Very well.” The monster stepped aside and pointed in the direction of the homestead. “Run home, human.”

The hands released her and Zoey dashed away back towards the house. Feet pounded behind her. In the shadows of the wheat stalks she saw dozens of figures moving. Dark shades of monsters swarming like beasts about to feed.

Chapter Seven: Trampled Lives

They were combing the fields.

Everywhere he turned he saw teams of Syndicate enforcers pushing their way through the wheat stalks. They were all clumsy, noisy thugs but sooner or later they’d find him. This was bad.

“Shit,” Stray muttered. He sank lower into the ditch that had become his resting place and tried to calm his nerves. He’d known this would happen. The moment Lily Hunsinger turned the search patrol away this farm became a target. There was no use running—on foot, he’d be a sitting duck for the pursuers. So he’d made a show in front of the girl of leaving the barn, then doubled back into the fields and dug himself a foxhole. If the Syndicate searched the place and found nothing, he’d buy himself a few more days respite.

But he hadn’t counted on them getting here so quickly. And there were more of them than he’d expected. All it took was one Kig-Yar observant enough to spy the wheat stalks covering his hole and he’d be finished.

Stray held his shotgun close against his chest. His helmet had once sported a state-of-the-art motion detector, but that had fizzled out and broken a long time ago. Now he could only lie still and catch brief glimpses of the mercenaries as they passed his hiding spot by again and again.

He wondered what was going on around the rest of the farm. Who was leading the search? How were the farmers and their daughter handling it?

Not for the first time, it occurred to him that the Syndicate might very well just shoot the farmers regardless of whether they found him or not. He quickly put the thought out of his mind. What happened to them wasn’t his problem. He was the one the Syndicate was after and he’d given the farmers no reason at all to cover for him.

All they had to do was be reasonable and they would be safe.

Stray’s jaw clenched. It wasn’t like him to count on anyone acting charitably, especially not the Syndicate. He knew what was in store for the farmers and their daughter. He knew…

Not my problem. He closed his eyes behind his helmet, heart pounding inside his armor. Thinking like that is what got me into this mess in the first place.

If only everyone would just keep calm and be reasonable…

Are you a bad person?

Zoey kept her head ducked low. She stared at a patch of dirt directly in front of her. The dirt was stained red by a splatter of blood. She tried not to think about who that blood belonged to, but it was impossible not to. No amount of looking away could stop her from hearing the sickening thuds of fists striking her father’s face.

George Hunsinger doubled over, held tight in the grip of one burly man in body armor. The pale man who had pressed his gun to Zoey’s head now stood over her father, raining down one savage blow after another. His face slick with blood and bruises, George could only hang limp in the enforcer’s grip and endure the beating without resistance.

Thune’s body lay on the threshold of their house. His barking had irritated one of the armed strangers as they dragged George out of the homestead. One crack from her gun and the dog that was older than Zoey died without so much as a whimper.

“Christ, did you really have to shoot it?” one man called over to her. “He wasn’t that annoying.”

The woman just shrugged. “What the hell did you want to do, adopt the damn thing?” she demanded.

Several cars with machine guns bolted onto their backs surrounded the Hunsinger homestead. Zoey had never seen them outside of movies and recalled once wishing she could ride in one. Now she huddled fearfully in the dirt while humans and those strange, bird-like monsters milled about around her. The tall monster stood a few paces away, arms folded, watching the pale man hit her father again and again without uttering a word. Another monster like it leaned against one of the cars and called over to it in an ugly, guttural language Zoey did not understand. The first monster ignored it.

“Alright pal,” the pale man said, stepping away from George. He wiped his bloodied knuckles on his pants as casually as if he were brushing off dirt. “This is the last time I ask nicely. Where the hell is Stray?”

“I told you,” George panted, spitting up a mouthful of blood. “I don’t know!”

“But he was here? He was on this farm?” The pale man planted his boot in George’s gut. Zoey screamed as her father collapsed into the dirt but no one was listening to her. “You better start coughing up answers or I’ll have to get a bit more creative.”

“Ramos,” the first monster rumbled. “This is taking entirely too long. Hurry things along.”

“Got it, boss.” The pale man scanned the field for a moment. His gaze fell on Zoey. “Hey, someone get her over here!”

One of the bird monsters grabbed Zoey by the arm. She screamed and tried to fight her way out of its claw-like grip, but the creature only hissed and hauled her over to where the pale man was standing.

“Nice farm you’ve got here,” the pale man—Ramos—said calmly. “Nice kid. You really going to risk all that to cover for a shitheel like Stray?”

“Please…” George tried to push himself upright. “He forced his way into our home… We don’t want any trouble. Please…”

“Yeah, you don’t want trouble and I don’t want to be standing in this manure-heap of a farm a second longer than I have to. We all want things easy, don’t we?”

“We’ve done nothing wrong,” George panted. “Take it up with the constable over in town. She’s the law around here.”

“Dead wrong, pal.” Ramos grabbed Zoey by the hair and shoved her face up close to her father. She was crying, the tears flowing freely down her face, but no one seemed to care. Ramos drew a pistol and jammed it into Zoey’s temple. “This is the law. Now tell me where Stray is or you’ll be wearing the kid’s brains.”

This had to be a dream. None of this could be happening. Zoey’s mind raced, trying to take herself back to breakfast when they’d all been safe and happy…

Another man stepped up beside the monster. Unlike the other humans, he wasn’t wearing any sort of combat gear at all. Instead, he wore a business suit like the kind the vendors who sometimes came out from New Tyne had. He raised a hand to his mouth and yawned.

“Yes, yes, your men are quite intimidating Ger,” the man said, speaking up to the monster. He spoke in a light tone, as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening. “Please try to hurry this along. It’s sweltering out here.”

“I already told you,” George pleaded. “I don’t know where he went!”

A gun cracked and Zoey screamed, but it wasn’t the pistol pointed at her head. Blood splashed across her tear-strained face and the man holding George fell limp to the ground.

Lily stood framed in the doorway, rifle up and aimed at the enforcers. Zoey had never seen her mother look so ferocious ever before. “Get away from them!”

Ramos released Zoey, whirling to point his gun at Lily. “Contact!” he yelled. He cried out again as Lily’s rifle fired and sent him sprawling into the dirt. The other enforcers moved quickly, bringing their own weapons to bear. Lily ducked back inside as gunfire raked across the homestead.

George tried to push himself out from underneath the dead enforcer. His wild, desperate eyes caught Zoey’s for just a moment. “Run!” he bellowed, screaming to be heard over the gunfire.

There was no time to think. No time to worry about anything. “Run!” her father howled again. “Run, damn you!”

It was the last thing he ever said to her.

Gunfire. But not directed at him.

Stray sat up inside his foxhole at the distant sound of plasma and machine-gun fire. People were yelling in the distance. Stray’s spine tingled with a familiar sensation. Somewhere, people were dying.

He needed to stay put. This wasn’t his concern. The only thing that mattered was getting himself out of here alive.

More gunfire. This was more than just a summary execution. The farmers were fighting back.

I’m not moving. I’m staying right here. This isn’t my problem.

His fingers beat a war-drum against the sides of his shotgun. It was a simple thing, standing by while other people died. So much easier than getting involved. Getting involved was how stupid people got killed.

Getting involved is what’s killing them right now…

The sounds of shooting raged on. Somewhere, a girl was screaming.

Are you a bad person?

“Of course I am, you naive little shit.” He pulled himself out of the foxhole and darted away into the fields.

Zoey ran on through a haze of tears.

She could hear them behind her, shoving their way through the stalks of wheat as they raced after her. There was still shooting coming from the barn.

This was her home. This was her life. How could any of this be happening?

She ran on through fields she had grown up in, that she knew like the back of her hand. She loved scampering around here. How could she be so afraid? How could monsters have snuck into her home, turned everything into fear and cruelty?

But they didn’t sneak in. You let the first one in yourself, didn’t you?

Someone grabbed her and spun her around. It was the woman who had shot Thune. She glared down at Zoey from behind a pair of thick goggles. “Got you, you little—“

The woman blinked and froze. Zoey turned in time to see a shotgun barrel emerge from the stalks in front of her to point square at the woman’s face.

“Oh, shi—“

The shotgun roared and the enforcer collapsed sans head. Zoey howled and ducked as more blood sprayed down on her. Something moved past her; the shotgun fired again and again. Bodies fell all around her. One of the bird-like monsters squawked and tried to flee. Zoey looked up in time to see an armored figure plunge a knife into its neck.

An eerie silence fell over the field. Even the shooting back at the homestead had ceased. Stray turned to look at her, visor spattered with blood and bits of the decapitated enforcer’s head. He wiped the knife off on his leg with the same calm Ramos had possessed after beating her father to a pulp. Sliding the knife back into its sheath, the armored stranger slid two fingers across his visor to clear away the gore.

Zoey looked at the bodies, then back at Stray. He’d killed three people and a monster in just moments, without the slightest hesitation. “I thought…” Her chest was pounding too hard for her to think about anything clearly. “I thought you left.”

A sudden, desperate thought struck her. “My house!” She pointed through the field back at the homestead. “My parents! Please, you have to help them!”

Stray looked down at her a moment longer, then picked his way over the bodies and walked in the opposite direction. “No point,” he said over his shoulder, announcing the unspeakable as if it were a commonly known fact. “They’re already dead.”

Humans were so fragile. Ger ‘Hullen looked down at the dead farmer and shook his head. A single blast from his plasma repeater was all it took to kill the man. Pathetic creature.

Ramos approached, one hand clutching the shoulder where the human female had shot him. His teeth gritted in pain as he gestured out toward the fields. “More gunfire out there. Shotgun blasts.”

“Stray.” It had to be their quarry, Ger was certain of it. He looked around for Min Ai but saw no sign of the representative. No doubt Jiyar had spirited him away the moment the shooting began. No matter. Min would see how this was settled, one way or another.

“Do we go in after him?” Ramos asked.

It was a tempting proposition, but Ger had already lost at least five enforcers today. As much as he wanted to rush after Stray, energy sword drawn, it would not do for him to incur many more losses with Min Ai overseeing things.

“No need.” He turned back toward the Warthogs. Behind him, the homestead was burning. “Pull everyone back and set up a perimeter around the farm. Then light the fields on fire. We’ll smoke him out of there and cut him down.”

He spared one last look at the dead farmer. He hadn’t intended for this search to end in slaughter, but now that he thought about it this was the only way things could have turned up. Examples needed to be made, after all. Life was hard on the small and weak.

Chapter Eight: Inferno

As much as he enjoyed watching Ger 'Hullen's mounting frustrations, Ro'nin had to admit that he was also growing weary of this tiresome job.

The Sangheili enforcer picked his way through the smoldering rubble of the homestead. The enforcers had been quite thorough in setting the place alight after they took fire from it. Even the laziest of thugs were motivated once their own lives were in danger. Ro'nin doubted he would find anything of value left in the building—or that there had been anything of significant worth here in the first place—but it never hurt to be thorough.

He tipped over the charred remains of a table with the barrel of his carbine. The table hit the floor and collapsed into a shower of ashes. Bits of plate and cooking utensils littered the ground, some still bearing traces of whatever it was the farmers had eaten that morning. A data pad caught Ro'nin's eye, but on closer inspection he realized that its screen and circuits were melted into a useless lump. He tossed the device aside with a shake of his head.

"Find anything?" a Kig-Yar enforcer called from the remains of another room. Several more of the avian sharpshooters were busy picking through the homestead for any scraps of salvage.

"Nothing yet," Ro'nin called back. "I suppose it would have been too much to ask for Ger to send us after some wealthy farmers."

His remark brought laughter from the Kig-Yar. Ro'nin was well aware of how most of his kind despised the loot-hungry aliens. Stuck-up honor-obsessed snobs like Ger 'Hullen loved to compare him to Kig-Yar. They thought it was an insult, but Ro'nin chose to take it as a compliment. The Kig-Yar had the right idea about things. Let the fools fight over whatever latest ideals they'd decided were worth dying over while the smarter beings stayed alive to take possession of the spoils they so carelessly left behind.

Some things are the same no matter where you go. Ro'nin had seen his share of burned-out farms back on Sanghelios, the remains of peasant communities unfortunate enough to get caught up in the civil war. He'd seen even more carnage on the human colonies he'd helped the Covenant conquer back before the Schism. Fools like Ger might yearn for a return to those "glory days" but Ro'nin had no desire to return to the Covenant's oppressive yoke. Any time the Sangheili tried to run something they invented all sorts of rules and regulations. Do this, don't do that. That's dishonorable, that's blasphemous. Give everything you have for our pointless cause.

He stepped into a room smaller than the others in the homestead. The remains of a bed rested in the corner. Amidst the ashes Ro'nin saw a few data pads and books, along with a few of the stuffed toys human children seemed to like. No doubt this room belonged to the farmers' daughter.

Ro'nin's mandibles parted in a smirk. No doubt the dead farmers doted on their only child, doing nothing to prepare her for the cold, harsh galaxy they all had the misfortune of living in.

He recalled the years of his own youth when he and the other children in his keep had spent their days doing nothing but train as warriors. Combat exercises, sword drills, long treks up into the mountains to pray at Forerunner shrines. At least five children in his age group had died before they even reached adulthood, their bodies broken and cast aside by the brutal training. The rest of them suffered along through it, dedicating their lives in service to the glorious light of the Covenant.

And then, after all those years of training and preparation, half of them went off into the glorious Imperial Armies and died when some lucky human lobbed a grenade down a corridor or when their warship ran afoul of some UNSC mine emplacement.

Ro'nin had given up on the Covenant long before the Schism. It gave him no end of satisfaction that the cause so many of those self-righteous fools died for turned out to be one great lie in the end. No, he had no thoughts of returning to the Covenant or the corpse-strewn warzone Sanghelios had become. At least the Syndicate understood the true nature of the galaxy: to be as strong as you could to stay alive and turn a profit off other creatures' foolishness.

Giving up on any remaining hopes of salvage, Ro'nin strode out of the room and headed for the homestead's back exit. There was no sense wasting any more time here. He'd catch an earful from Ger if he didn't get out and help oversee the burning of the fields.

Poor Stray. He might have gotten away if Ger weren't such an insufferable glory hound. The human fugitive's sudden rebellion against the Syndicate struck Ro'nin as bizarre. Stray always seemed like one of the more sensible humans. He had the weapons and the skills it took to live comfortably in the Syndicate's employ. What madness had compelled him to throw it all away?

As he reached the rear exit, something stirred in the ashes at his feet. Ro'nin looked down and was surprised to find himself staring at the female human who had shot at the enforcers out front. Somehow the Kig-Yar had missed her prone form entirely. The female was bleeding from several wounds. Her face was pale and terrified as she pawed feebly at his foot.

Ro’nin took a step back. “Still alive, are you?” This human was tougher than most, though Ro’nin was just as willing to chalk up her survival to the enforcers’ poor aim.

The female moaned softly. She tried to crawl out the door, only to cry out in pain and grasp her wounded shoulder. She curled into a ball, muttering words under her breath that Ro’nin could not understand.

It would be fastest just to shoot her in the head and move on. Ro’nin sighed. Another dreary chore for this dreary job. Easy jobs were the best ones, of course, but even an honorless cur like him got tired of the drudgery sometimes.

“Go on,” he said, prodding the female with the barrel of his carbine. “Get up. You’re blocking my exit.”

She looked up at him through a haze of pain, confused. Ro’nin shook his head and grabbed her by the arm. Ignoring her yelps of pain he lifted her up and planted on her feet. Humans were such light things. There were some Unggoy who weighed more. Ro’nin jerked his head back towards the ruins of the house. No doubt the Kig-Yar heard the female’s cries. They would be coming soon, hungry for a prize—or even a good meal.

“I would run if I were you,” he advised.

The human gave him one last frightened look. Then she took off, running with impressive speed in spite of her injuries. She sprinted for the wheat fields, desperate for some kind of refuge from the beasts who had taken everything from her.

Ro’nin watched her for a few moments. He let her reach the edge of the field before he pressed his carbine to his shoulder and drew a bead.

The green bolt caught the human square between the shoulder blades. Lily Hunsinger fell facefirst into the wheat without a sound.

Ro’nin strolled over to the corpse to inspect his marksmanship. A decent shot, especially considering he’d had a moving target. Still, there was always room for improvement.

Someone jogged up beside him, alerted by the carbine shot. Ro’nin glanced down to see Ramos staring back at him incredulously. The enforcer had a wad of pressure dressing affixed to the shoulder where this same female had shot him.

“What the hell took you so long to kill her?” the pale human demanded.

Ro’nin rested the barrel of his carbine against his shoulder and waved an apologetic hand. “I had to give her a bit of a head start. It wouldn’t have been sporting otherwise.”

Ramos rolled his eyes. “You hinge-heads. Always making things more complicated. Still, I guess I owe you. My shoulder’s going to be a mess for weeks thanks to this bitch.” He prodded the dead human with the tip of his boot.

“You shouldn’t have said that. I’m holding you to three hundred credits now.”

“Oh really? You slimy piece of shit.”

Ro’nin shrugged. “I never work for free.”

“Fine.” Ramos shook his head. “I’ll even throw in a beer when we get back to New Tyne. Or whatever the hell it is you hinge-heads drink. Come on, we’d better get back to work. The boss wants this place torched good. You know he’ll find a way to blame you if Stray gets away, right?”

“Such is my lot in life.” Ro’nin turned away from the body and followed Ramos back to the front of the homestead. Yes, he much preferred humans to his own kind. They were so much more reasonable about everything.

Behind him a pair of Kig-Yar scurried out towards Lily’s body. They were loath to let good meat go to waste, even with their prey still on the loose. In front of the homestead, a few of their brethren had already made a meal of the dead male.

Ro’nin made his way over to one of the Warthogs. A few Kig-Yar milled around near the field, firing bursts of plasma into the wheat to set it ablaze. Ro’nin pulled a portable human flamethrower out from the back of the Warthog and headed over to do his part in igniting the crops. He might as well make himself look busy, if only to avoid another ridiculous lecture from Ger.

Another reason to like humans, he thought, sending a wave of fire cascading into the wheat. They make such entertaining toys.

They were burning the fields. Zoey smelled the smoke wafting through the stalks of wheat and wondered if there was even anything left for the monsters to take from her.

Beside her, Stray swept the area with his shotgun. He tilted his head back to look up at the rising columns of smoke. “Shit.”

“What are we going to do?” Zoey asked. “Are more of them coming?”

“Not if they’ve set the fields on fire. They’re trying to flush me out.” It was so bizarre, hearing Stray’s voice coming out of the expressionless helmet. “And I’m not really sure what I’m going to do. My armor might protect me from the fire. You’ll probably suffocate before the fire reaches us.”

“Suffocate?” Panic filled her body with a violent, terrifying energy. She looked around for someplace to run.

“From the smoke.” Stray turned away from her and craned his neck to look around the fields. “You could probably get some air if you climbed up on one of those harvesters. Of course, their snipers will shoot anyone they see trying to get up there. Might be a faster way to die then choking to death on fumes…”

“What about my parents?” Zoey looked wildly back towards her house. The smoke was rising the heaviest from there, but that didn’t mean anything. If she could just go back she could find her parents. They would know a way to get out of here. They had to. “We have go back—“

“I told you, they’re dead.” The callousness—the utter lack of concern—in his tone shocked her even more than the words themselves. Did he really not care at all that her whole world was burning down around her?

“You don’t know that! We have to—“

“They’re dead!” Stray snapped angrily. “You want to go back there and die with them, be my guest. I’m getting the hell out of here.”

He vanished into the sea of wheat. Zoey huddled in the dirt, renewed tears flowing down her cheeks. He was lying He had to be. They couldn’t be dead. They hadn’t done anything to anyone. They couldn’t be dead…

I need to go back to them.

But if Stray was right... If they really were gone…

No! She couldn’t think like that. She needed to back and find them. Then everything would be fine. Everything would be alright.

But if they were dead…

She pressed her body into the dirt. Maybe she should just stay here. Let the smoke and fire just roll over her. The whole world had gone crazy. Anything was better than this. Anything. Zoey squeezed her eyes shut and tried to block out everything.

The first waves of foul-smelling smoke billowed over her. She flinched at the heat that cut into her skin. Flames were crackling not too far away. The heat was getting worse and worse. The flames would be on top of her soon. She thought about her clothes burning, her skin melting…

A jolt of terror coursed through her body. She leaped up and ran, pushing her way through the wheat after Stray. Smoke and fire was everywhere. She had to get away from the fire, the heat, the fear. Someone, somewhere was screaming. Maybe it was her own voice. Maybe it was simply the fire consuming the only life she had ever known.

She nearly ran headlong into Stray. He crouched low to the dirt beside one of the irrigation pipes that ran through the fields, affixing what looked like a small lump of clay onto the exposed metal rising out of the dirt. He tilted his helmet back to look at her as she approached. “Oh, you’re still alive?”

“Please,” she panted desperately. “Get me out of here!”

“I thought you were going back to find your parents.” It was impossible to tell what was going on behind that helmet of his.

“I don’t want to die!” she heard herself yell. “I don’t want to die!”

“Then you’d better take cover.” He shoved a small stick into the clay and took a few steps away from the pipe. It took Zoey a few moments to realize it was an explosive.

“Take cover? Where?” She looked around frantically for something besides burning wheat.

He grabbed her arm and forced her behind him. She pressed her face against his armored body and felt a small shudder as the charge detonated. Then Stray was moving, dragging her over to the new hole he’d blown in the pipe. She looked down at the churning water below and shuddered.

“You want to live?” Stray barked. “Get in the pipe!”

“But I don’t know where it comes out! I’ll drown!”

“Drown or burn, your choice!” He slung the shotgun over his shoulder and leaped down into the pipe. His armored form vanished beneath the water.

Zoey stared at the pipe, the heat building around her. Flames licked the wheat on all sides. She took one quavering step forward, then another. She turned to look back at her farm one last time and saw nothing but a wall of fire.

Squeezing her eyes shut, she jumped down into the water. The heat vanished; an invisible hand seized her and sent her tumbling into a dark oblivion.

Chapter Nine: Emptiness

The Hunsinger farm burned. Hot, angry flames consumed the wheat, the harvesters, the buildings, devouring any sign that anyone had ever lived on the land. Smoke and fire rose up above the surrounding plains as the farm blazed on like a massive, acres-long funeral pyre.

Truly an impressive display. But not one Ger ‘Hullen could take any pride in.

The Sangheili mercenary glowered out at the conflagration, an unbearable tightness growing in his gut as the rage mounted. Syndicate enforcers were spread out around the burning farm, weapons trained on the smoldering perimeter. So far, neither Stray nor the farmers’ daughter had emerged.

Ger doubted either of them would.

“Maybe he just couldn’t get out in time,” Ramos volunteered. He sat in the passenger seat of a nearby Warthog, no longer able to drive or man a turret thanks to his injury. The enforcer flinched when Ger looked his way; he could sense that this time Ger’s frustration was far more intense than it had been in previous days. “I mean, there’s no other way out of there. Right?”

“Evidently there is.” The words stung on Ger’s mandibles. The gods—dead or otherwise—were punishing him for something with this. He had debased himself as the humans’ hired killer and now this was his punishment: a humiliating string of failure after failure in pursuit of a single human. He yearned to draw his energy sword and take his rage out on every enforcer within arm’s reach—only years of meticulous discipline and training kept him in check.

“We’ll need to wait for the fire to die down before we can check for his body—“

“Then you can take charge of that particular sweep,” Ger snarled, unable to contain his fury any longer. “Take as many enforcers as you want. Waste as much time as you want. You will find nothing there!”

“I have to say, that really could have gone better,” Min Ai remarked. The Syndicate representative still wore his trademark smile but Ger knew Min well enough to know that he was not amused in the slightest. “Ger, I really didn’t peg you as the type to botch something like this. Now we have five dead enforcers, a burned farm, and no sign of the only person who actually was supposed to die down there. I thought you could handle a job like this. Was I wrong?”

An excuse started to form in Ger’s throat—his subordinates were incompetent, Stray’s resourcefulness had been undersold—but he choked it back down like bile. No matter how many excuses he made, he was ultimately responsible for this fiasco. He’d been lucky enough to corner Stray only to let the prime opportunity slip through his fingers. The blame lay squarely on his shoulders and both he and Min Ai knew it.

“Stray accepted our credits, came into our fold, and then betrayed us,” Min Ai went on mercilessly. “I needed to make an example of him to remind the rest of you enforcers what the Syndicate does to unreliable employees. Instead, he’s managed to repeatedly make a fool of you and by extension, me. I thought you were the best contractor for this job, Ger. Don’t make me regret putting my faith in you.”

For a man as perpetually cheerful as Min Ai, the outburst—delivered without the slightest break in his smiling mask—was tantamount to a death threat. Even a warrior as proud and self-assured as Ger felt a twinge of fear creep down the back of his neck. “I will remedy this,” he said after a moment. “I have arranged for more capable trackers—“

“You aren’t the only one with superiors to please,” Min Ai said softly, drawing closer. “Venezia is a reliable source of revenue for the Syndicate. I’m here, enjoying everything this backwater dirtball has to offer, because my superiors think I can keep it that way. If word of this little fiasco gets offworld… well, I’d better hope the team they send after me are as incompetent as you lot are.”

Ger had never heard Min speak so candidly before. The representative’s smile stretched further across his face like a warped painting. “Do we understand each other?”

“Perfectly,” Ger replied, turning back to face the burning farm.

“Excellent.” Min nodded and waved for Jiyar to bring her Warthog around. “I need to get back to New Tyne. You can keep the Falcon, of course. It’s been a while since I’ve had a nice drive in the country. I’ll have time to sort out who I need to bribe to make sure no one makes a fuss about the farmers. It shouldn’t be too hard, neither of them were very important.”

The Warthog stopped in front of him and he stepped inside. “Best of luck, Ger. I can’t wait to hear about your magnificent comeback.”

The Sangheili turned away from his employer without a word. He wondered what sins his ancestors had committed to bring such ill-fortune down on their bloodline. Driven from Sanghelios in disgrace, forced to grovel before humans and other lesser beings, and now humiliated by Stray at every turn… he truly was the oblation bearer for the Hullen line.

“Is there any word from Mantellus?” he asked Ramos as Min Ai’s Warthog took off across the plains.

“Eh, yeah.” The enforcer looked at him warily, no doubt still cowed by his earlier outburst. “He and his pack are about two klicks out. He just called in, wants you to know that if you dragged him all the way out here for nothing—“

“I most certainly did not.” Ro’nin turned on his heel and signaled for another Warthog to come about. The rage of failure still burned inside him, as bright and intense as the flames eating up the farm below. But he harnessed that rage and turned it into the determination he needed to carry on. For all his misfortunes, he had at least mastered such self-discipline long ago. “Inform the chieftain that I will ride out to meet him personally. You may remain here and search the ashes if you like. I can guarantee you will find no trace of Stray.”

Rather than climbing into the passenger seat of the approaching Warthog as Min Ai had done, Ger impatiently motioned for the driver to dismount and leave the wheel to him. After a moment’s thought, he ordered the gunner off of the turret as well. He could not think of anyone in this convoy he trusted not to embarrass him in front of Chieftain Mantellus. No, he would ride out to meet the Jiralhanae alone. No underlings, no show of force, just the will to show the chieftain that this solitary Sangheili was not afraid to deal with his pack.

It was important to take these things into account when dealing with such creatures.

Zoey waded through the river beside her farm. The branches overhead were thick and tangled, blocking out the sun and casting long shadows over the water. Walking through this darkness made Zoey shiver even though the water rising up to her waist was warm. How could a place usually so familiar and inviting have become this foreboding?

Someone was calling her name from further down the river. She strained to catch the voice. One moment it sounded like her mother. The next it was her father. Then it was someone else, someone she didn’t recognize.

Zoey, come on… Why are you still asleep? It’s time to get up… get up…

She waded faster and pushed through the water, nearly tripping in her haste to find her parents. They were waiting on her. She couldn’t hold them up. Wasn’t there work to be done?

Bits of flotsam floated past her down the river. She squinted at them in the darkness to make out what they were. A sheaf of wheat. A rusted shovel. One of her old dolls, frayed around the edges. The barn door, charred almost beyond recognition.

Thune floated by with a red circle between his eyes. The dog stared at her with vacant eyes, making no effort to fight the current.

Ribbons of blood painted the water red. She suddenly realized that the plants on the riverbank were on fire.

Something was moving in the shadows up ahead. A huddled mass of black on black that grew larger with each step she took forward.

The branches overhead caught fire and cast light upon the shadow. Zoey stopped where she was, frozen with terror.

A massive black beast, its fur long and blood-stained, loomed in front of her. Between its paws lay her parents, their bodies already gnawed and half-eaten. Her father stared up at her with a calm expression, somehow able to talk even with half his face bitten away. “Run, damn you,” he murmured softly. “Run.”

The dog looked up, yellow eyes narrowing in delight. Its lips pulled back in a toothy sneer. “I told you,” it said in a hideously calm voice. “They’re dead.”

Zoey froze in place, unable to run or scream or even avert her gaze as the dog pushed itself upright and waded into the bloody water. Its eyes never left hers as it tilted its head and leaned in to close its jaws around her neck…

She sputtered and gasped, suddenly unable to breathe. Light flooded into her eyes and blinded her as she choked. Her vision cleared enough for her to see a tangle of black hair pressed against her face. She felt the briefest pinch of teeth against her lips and the choking turned into a scream.

Stray jerked away from her, spitting out water and wiping a gauntlet across his lips. Zoey felt the press of his other hand against her chest and cried out, scrambling to get away. Only when she crawled several feet in the mud and coughed out a mouthful of water did she realize he’d been giving her CPR.

The roar of rushing water filled her ears. They were both lying in a large puddle beside a large pipe that spurted out water in a ceaseless, gushing discharge. The water cascaded into a river, this one much larger than what she’d waded through in her dream, which meandered off across the endless plain.

Looking back at Stray, Zoey found him fumbling to slide his helmet back on. For just a moment she caught something strange in his wild grey eyes. There was ferocity there but also… fear? Relief?

Then the eyes hardened again and vanished beneath the cracked exterior of his visored helmet.

“You’re alive,” he observed, fishing his shotgun out of the mud beside him. “Good for you.”

“How…” she looked back at the pipe, remembering the current seizing her as she dropped into the irrigation tunnel. “How far… where are we?”

“No idea.” Stray got to his feet, wiping mud off of his armor. He turned and stared out over the plains, shaking his head. “My GPS is busted. No coms, or at least, no one’s answering the damn things. Not that anyone gives a shit either way. I’ll have to use the internal maps on my HUD to get me going in the right direction.”

She understood only about half of what he was saying, though he didn’t even seem to be talking to her. Her brain was still jumbled and confused. What was he doing here? What was she doing here? It was only when she looked up over the pipe and saw the distant wisps of smoke rising up into the sky that it all came crashing down on her.

Her father, beaten to a bloody pulp. Her mother framed in the doorway, rifle in hand. Monsters all over their farm. Fire consuming their farm. Everything gone, burned away.

Her chest tightened. For a moment she couldn’t breathe again. She opened her mouth to say something—anything—but could only manage a strangled groan. She pulled her knees up to her chest and clenched her teeth together as hard as she could. Tears rolled down her face, carving deep tracks through the mud caked onto her cheeks.

“What now?” Stray demanded. He was already halfway out of the mud, looking back at her with that awful, faceless helmet. "I checked you over. You're not hit anywhere."

“They’re… they’re gone…” She didn't want to believe it. It couldn't be true. But the words came out of her mouth all the same.

“Yeah. And if we don’t go now, they’ll come kill us as well. You’d better get the hell up and start moving if you want to live.”

All she wanted right now was to feel someone holding her. For her father to hug her. For her mother to say it would be all right. Instead, Stray’s harsh voice cut through her grief like a knife. “But… they’re…”

“Dead.” Stray said the awful word as easily as he might announce a departure time. “You want to stay here, be my guest. I’ve got a lot of ground to cover. I can't waste any more time on you.”

She stared at him, shock momentarily pushing back the pain. Her parents were dead because of him. The farm had burned because he’d made them hide him on it. And now here he was, feeling nothing for their loss, caring nothing for her pain. Looking at him now, clad in that battered armor, she realized he was just as inhuman as the hunched monsters from the farm.

If it weren’t for you…

Zoey had never hated anyone before. She couldn’t even think clearly about the monsters or the pale man who had beaten her father. But looking at Stray now, his contemptuous words ringing in her ears, she felt a surge of anger like nothing she had ever felt before.

The thought of someone like him looking down on her filled her with disgust. Strength flowed through her aching muscles. She pushed herself out of the mud, trying to wipe away the mud and tears with her soaked sleeve. “This is all your fault,” she muttered. It hurt to say anything through her aching throat, but it felt good to lash back at him. Even if words were all she had. "You did this. You should never have come to our farm."

Stray regarded her for a moment longer, then turned back towards the plains. "You want to live? Better start walking. Or stay here and wait for them to find you. Maybe you'll get lucky and the Jackals will kill you all the way before they eat you."

He set off without another word—not even so much as a glance back at her. Zoey watched him go. She didn't want anything to do with someone like him. But without him, where would she go? The plains stretched out in all directions. The next farm was ten kilometers away. Could she walk there on her own?

Maybe you'll get lucky and the Jackals will kill you all the way before they eat you.

Tears welled up in her eyes anew, but she angrily wiped them away. She sloshed her way through the mud and staggered after the armored killer. The plains stretched out before them, as vast and empty as the hole Stray and the monsters had burned through Zoey’s heart.

Chapter Ten: Bloody Soles

Chieftain Mantellus leaned against his Chopper attack bike, his great fanged maw parting in an arrogant sneer. Ger ‘Hullen fought down the instinctive urge to wipe that smile off the chieftain’s place. Some day he would remind these filthy beasts of their place in the galaxy. But today he could do nothing but tolerate their insolence.

Like most of his species, Ger ‘Hullen loathed the Jiralhanae with a passion. Even without the bloody history of the Great Schism and the role they had played in the Covenant’s downfall, the shaggy beasts were antithetical of everything the Sangheili stood for. Where Sangheili valued discipline, the Jiralhanae prized reckless strength. Where the Sangheili valued bloodline and tradition, the Jiralhanae tore down even their own kin if it meant greater standing among their wild, violent packs. The Sangheili had spent millennia building and honing a culture of art and beauty. The Jiralhanae had destroyed their own culture not once, but twice thanks to their barbaric tendencies.

And now he was forced to turn to them in order to salvage this fiasco.

“Chieftain,” Ger said with as much respect as he could manage without vomiting. He stepped down from the Warthog and approached Mantellus’s Chopper. “Thank you for coming on such short notice.”

“You’d better be grateful,” Mantellus replied, lacking even the grace to mimic Ger’s feigned cordiality. “First you drag us out here promising a fight, then you go ahead and torch the farm before we can even arrive. I guess I should count myself lucky you all can’t handle one human fugitive. Maybe this won’t be such a waste of time after all, eh boys?”

Spread out in a semicircle around Ger, the hulking chieftain’s pack growled in agreement. They were a two dozen strong band of Jiralhanae, each as coarse and ugly as their leader. Riding an odd assortment of Choppers, Ghosts, and Warthogs, Mantellus’s warriors had earned a reputation as some of the best trackers on Venezia. Clad in a mixed assortment of traditional battle armor and scavenged human materials, the trackers wore their shaggy hair in grim-looking braids and carried the trophies of past kills atop their vehicles.

Even the Syndicate and Venezia’s local authorities had trouble keeping these thugs in line. Ger had heard rumors of Mantellus’s warriors descending on small farming communities for sport, leaving only charred ruins and half-eaten bodies in their wake. The prospect of relying on them to accomplish his mission turned his stomach, but now they might be his only chance at picking up Stray’s trail.

“The enforcers have searched the farm,” he said, ignoring Mantellus’s insults. “They found an irrigation system we think Stray used to escape the fire. I trust you can catch his scent even through the water?”

Mantellus shrugged his massive shoulders. “If he escaped through the irrigation pipes I can think of a dozen different places he might have come out. I’ll need to split my boys up to figure out which drain he slipped out of. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover thanks to your idiot move of torching the whole farm.”

“I have a Falcon ready to provide aerial support. Once you pick up his trail, I will bring the rest of the convoy up to support you in bringing him down.” He would not lose his temper in front of these beasts. He had endured enough humiliation already.

The Chieftain waved a dirt-encrusted paw. “Oh, good. I was worried you’d just leave all the work to us now that real warriors have arrived. We’ll find a use for the Falcon, but keep the rest of your incompetents out of our way. Wouldn’t want any of them getting hurt by accident, would we?”

“I have already made sure you will be compensated for your efforts.” This barbarian would like nothing more than to lord it over a Sangheili. Ger refused to give him the satisfaction of seeing his insolence taken to heart. “But I am still in command of this mission. You will defer to my orders, chieftain.”

Mantellus snorted. A few of his pack members laughed. “Very well, Field Master. I hear and obey. Not that following your orders seems to have done the rest of your rabble any good.”

The Chieftain turned and mounted his Chopper, motioning for the rest of his pack to do the same. He rested a hand on the hilt of a massive gravity hammer affixed to the side of his attack bike and flashed Ger another arrogant smile. “Once we succeed where you failed, perhaps the Syndicate will realize that someone else can do its dirty work better than you can. You won’t be their favorite for long, hinge-head.”

Ger tilted his head and regarded the chieftain coldly. “Perhaps you are right, ape. But I would rather be the lowliest of warriors on my homeworld than the mightiest one here. And I will not be here forever.”

“Typical Sangheili,” Mantellus sneered, gunning his Chopper. “You lot never appreciate what you have. Always obsessing over the past. No wonder your kind hates this new galaxy so much.”

He signaled his pack. “Let’s ride!” The Jiralhanae set off across the plains in all directions, splitting off into teams with a precision that even Ger found impressive.

“You boast well, chieftain!” he called over the din of the Chopper engines. “But we’ll see if you can live up to anything you say. Come back with Stray’s head or not at all.”

“Don’t worry about me!” Mantellus roared back. “You’d better take care of your own hide. By the time this is all over, Stray’s might not be the only head they want me to collect.” With that, the chieftain turned his Chopper and tore off after his pack.

Ger watched them go. As the pack shrunk into the distance he was surprised and irritated to find that he actually envied the Jiralhanae warriors. Barbarians they might be, but at least they could take pride in fighting alongside their own kind. When was the last time Ger had fought alongside his fellow Sangheili in earnest? Aside from outcasts like Ger and a handful of pitiful refugees living in pockets across Venezia, he was alone on a planet full of humans, Kig-Yar, and other lesser creatures.

Soon I will leave this miserable planet, he told himself. I will be a true warrior once again. Soon.

The sun beamed down from the cloudless sky, scorching the plains in searing heat. Zoey was used to long days in the sun, but on the farm she’d at least had plenty of shade to seek refuge in. If she got too hot she could always go back inside to at least get something to drink from the kitchen.

But the kitchen was gone. The farm was gone. Home was gone. The thoughts drifted around and around in her head like circling vultures. It was all gone and only she was left, doomed to wander across these barren plains for eternity.

Ahead of her, Stray marched on. If the heat or any of his weapons were a bother to him he didn’t show it in the slightest. He simply forged on without pause, not once stopping to check a compass or map. Zoey had no way of knowing if he even knew which direction he was going in at all. Maybe he just wanted to put as much distance between himself and his pursuers as possible.

Only occasionally did Stray’s gait falter. His determined march would become a limp and he would reach down towards his injured side. Zoey watched these brief flashes of pain with a grim satisfaction that distracted her from her aching limbs and broken heart. She had never imagined that she could take such pleasure from someone else’s pain. But she wanted him to feel something, anything, over what he had done to her.

But if he died… what would she do then? It made her sick to think that her life depended on the same creature who had brought the monsters down on her family, the callous thug who had yet to show a single shred of remorse for her losses. He only glanced back at her once in a while to see that she was still behind him, then quickly turned away as if irritated by her presence. He did not offer a single word of encouragement as she stumbled along in his wake.

The minutes and hours became one painful blur of aching legs and a thousand smaller itches and pains across her sweat-soaked body. Her damp hair clung to her scalp and neck like a jellyfish, stinging her skin all over. She had no idea how she was still standing after everything that happened. She just focused on putting one aching foot in front of the other.

When her legs finally did give out, her entire body crumbled and fell flat to the warm earth. She lay in the prickly grass and pressed her face to the dirt. It felt so wonderful to just lie here. She wished she would just melt into the grass and leave all of this behind…

A shadow fell over her. “Get up,” Stray ordered.

She didn’t move.

His boot prodded her. “I said, get up!”

She turned her head to glare up at him. She half-expected to find his shotgun trained on her head, but he just stared down at her with the same expressionless, helmeted stare. “Just go away,” she muttered. “That’s what you wanted to do in the first place. Go away. Leave me alone.”

Stray bent down and grabbed her by the scruff of her neck. She didn’t even have the strength to fight him off as he dragged her upright. She wondered if he was about to hit her, but instead he simply yanked her head back and unclipped a canteen from his combat webbing. He uncapped the top and forced the lid to her lips. “Drink.”

The sight of the canteen reminded her of how thirsty she was. She reached for the lid and let the water pour over her ravaged tongue. A gasp of relief escaped her lips and she clasped greedily at the canteen, but after just a few gulps Stray yanked it away.

“Now get up,” he ordered, returning the canteen to its pouch and letting her fall back onto her knees. “We need to keep moving.”

She stared up at him in horror. “But I barely got any!”

“It’ll keep you going for now. I’ve only got two full canteens. They won’t last if I let you drain them down every time you get thirsty.” He turned and started to march off. “Stop wasting time and get back on your feet.”

“How much farther are we going?” she called after him desperately. The thought of walking even a few more feet was horrifying. Her legs felt like they were on fire. Her feet were a mess of sores and calluses. How could they be going any further?

Stray didn’t look back at her. “A lot farther.”

He paused, a cruel edge creeping into his voice. “If you want more water, you’d better hurry up and follow me. I’m the only one out here with any to give you.”

She watched him stroll off as the evening crept over them. All she wanted to do was stay lying here… but then she’d die of thirst. Maybe if she died she’d get to see her mother and father again.

She’d give anything to see them again. But to just lie down and die out here…

Zoey pushed herself up and limped after Stray. An indescribable chill coursed through her gut at the thought of dying out on the plains with no one around to even bury her body. Would she just lie out here, alone and forgotten until she disintegrated? Or would animals come to pick over her remains?

I don’t want to die. A new thought swam around amidst all the rest of her pain and misery. I don’t want to die.

They walked on and on across the plain, an armored warrior tailed by a battered, exhausted girl. The evening gave way to night and Zoey fell back into the painful blur that was placing one foot in front of the other. I don’t want to die.

He wondered how long she could keep going.

Stray was grateful for the helmet focusing his gaze on the plains—the long, unmarked road back to New Tyne. It helped him fight the urge to look back at the exhausted, newly orphaned girl limping along behind him.

How much further are we going? she’d asked. He didn’t have an answer for her. All he could do was march forward, ignoring his own aches and pains as he headed back to the only haven he had left.

How much longer could either of them go? He hadn’t drank a sip of water since they’d set off from the irrigation pipe. With only the two canteens and a handful of ration bars left, he needed to ration as much as he could. His body could take a little hunger. It had survived just about everything else.

I should have stolen some of the food from that house before I left. Not like it’s doing either of those farmers any good now.

Behind him, the girl whimpered quietly. He tried to shut out the sound, but his helmet could only dampen noise, not cut it off completely. Every groan, every muffled cry, every choking gasp reminded him of the fire back at the farm.

Of what he’d done to those people.

This is all your fault, the girl hissed in his mind. You did this.

Fire consumed a farm. Fire engulfed a city. The screams of those caught up in the blaze. You did this.

“Get out of my head,” he muttered inside his helmet. The thought prompted him to check his com signals again. Once more, they picked up nothing. Not that Diana’s ever around when I need her. Even when I do have a clean signal.

Another groan from the rear. The sight of the filthy, desperate girl conjured up memories he’d just as soon stayed buried. Columns of eight-year olds staggering through the woods with bulging rucksacks while drill instructors howled at them to keep moving, lashing out with dark boots at those who fell, breaking noses and cracking ribs. Uniformed trainees descending on him as he lay curled up in a ball on a barracks floor.

Starving children laid out like timber in the streets, ribs poking through their skin as they feebly gasped for air and waiting to die. Dirty, scrawny girls fixing bayonets onto assault rifle as UNSC tanks closed in.

If she dies…

He marched onwards. It didn’t matter to him if she died. It shouldn’t matter. She was slowing him down. Just another obstacle in the way of survival. What was one more dead farm girl? Little girls died all the time.

If she dies…

He turned back in time to see the girl fall once again. He didn’t hesitate. Crossing over to her prone form he jabbed her in the side with his armored foot. Not enough to crack her ribs. Not enough to rupture organs. Just enough to remind her tired, aching body who was in charge.

He hauled her upright. “Keep moving!” he snarled.

She shot him a look of pure hatred but did as she was told, shuffling onwards through the grass. That indignant, helpless rage would give her the energy to keep moving. How could he explain the concept to a girl who’d never known the grueling war exercises of Onyx or the killing fields of Mamore?

Cruel men and women had taught him young that the human body could be kept alive on pure spite alone. Now it was his turn to pass that lesson on to someone else.

She won’t die. She can hate me for the rest of her life, but she won’t die.

They continued marching under the stars’ cold, watchful gaze.

Chapter Eleven: Weakling

Urebus bent low over the small lake spread out beneath the irrigation pipe. Two of his fellow Jiralhanae guarded their choppers while a third warrior waded into the lake and fished through the mud. With the morning sun reflecting off the water and a soothing breeze playing across his face, Urebus could almost forget the sleepless night spent riding over the plains. It was times like this that he truly appreciated the paradise his chieftain had found in Venezia.

“Cathun,” he called over to the warrior in the water. “What do you smell?”

The smaller Jiralhanae, a younger warrior not yet grown to full maturity, flared his large nostrils and waded over to the edge of the lake. Many patrol leaders resented having junior warriors attached to their cohort, but Cathun had never given Urebus reason to see him as a burden. Cathun was one of the best trackers in Mantellus’s pack as well as a crack shot with a carbine. Urebus hoped that by grooming the youth’s potential he was sowing the seeds of a loyal subordinate for when the time came for him to make his next grab for power—a violent foregone conclusion in any Jiralhanae pack.

“At least one human,” Cathun said after a moment spent with his nose to the grass beside the lake. “A smaller one, not fully grown. And something else. Blood, but not hers. Gunpowder. The one with her has a strange scent. I’ve never smelled a human like this.”

“That’s our prey.” Urebus smiled and ran a finger down his grenade launcher’s curved bayonet. The gods were good to him today. The pack had split up to investigate ten different pipe exits and his patrol was fortunate enough to find the right one. He would not let this opportunity go to waste.

He turned back to the two other warriors in his patrol. “Irulus, mount up. Terethus, get in contact with the chieftain and the rest of the pack. Tell them we have Stray’s scent.”

Terethus folded his arms. “Perhaps we should contact that Sangheili instead. He might reward us if let him have first chance at the kill.”

Urebus snorted. “A reward is worth nothing if you aren’t alive to enjoy it. If Mantellus found out we went over his head we’d end up like Yurulus.”

Terethus and Irulus shuddered. Yurulus had made the mistake of forgetting his place within the pack. Mantellus had skinned him alive and used his flayed body to decorate the front of his Chopper. Some members of the pack claimed they could still hear the unfortunate warrior’s screams echoing over the plains.

“Get on that com channel.” Urebus strode over to the Warthog parked between his subordinates’ Choppers. He stowed the grenade launcher in one of the human vehicle’s side compartments and climbed into the driver’s seat. “Cathun! How strong is the scent?”

The junior warrior gazed out across the plains. “Strong enough. The young one is still with him. As long as I smell her, we have him.”

“Excellent. Mount up. Your nose will lead us right to him.”

Urebus waved to Terethus as Cathun climbed into the passenger seat beside him. “Find Mantellus and the rest of the pack. Lead them to us.”

Terethus huffed with displeasure. “You always love cutting me out of the action,” he complained. “Why do I always have to be your errand boy?”

“Because you’re so good at it,” Urebus teased. “Besides, there’s your motivation to be quick about it. Wouldn’t want you to miss all the fun, now would we?”

Beside him, Irulus gunned the engines on his Chopper. Cathun leaned forward until his face was almost touching the Warthog’s hood. The young warrior’s face was one of fixed concentration as he continued sniffing into the air. Urebus could smell the excitement radiating from himself and his subordinates. The hunt was on. No matter where they went or who they served, a Jiralhanae never forgot his way of life.

It didn’t matter what outsiders thought of them. The soul of the Jiralhanae lay in the hunt.

Urebus pressed one meaty foot down on the pedals and sent the Warthog roaring out across the plains.

One foot in front of the other. One foot in front of the other.

Each step was agony. Zoey could see bloodstains through her ruined shoes. She had lost all feeling in her legs hours ago. She couldn’t even think about her parents anymore; the pain and exhaustion was the only thing left for her addled mind to consider.

I’m twelve years old. Twelve. How can he expect me to keep walking? How can anyone keep walking?

And yet Stray marched onwards, showing no signs of hunger or fatigue.

They walked without stopping once through the night and on into the morning. Only twice did Stray stop to offer her a few more meager gulps of water for his canteen. Whenever he lifted the lid to her lips Zoey closed her eyes and tried to imagine her father’s gentle voice or her mother’s reassuring touch, to pretend that one of them was the source of the cool relief. But her imagination could not carry her past the rough grip of Stray’s armored gauntlets or soothe his rough, pitiless voice.

Every time she fell Stray forced her back up with kicks and harsh words. She would have given anything for a kind voice or reassuring word. Was there anyone more hateful than Stray? Was there anyone she hated more than Stray?

“Christ, you’re pathetic,” he sneered at one point, prodding her with the stock of his shotgun as she tried to get up. “Guess you had it cushy back on that farm, huh? Mom and Dad spoiled your sorry ass. No wonder they got themselves killed.”

“Soft!” he barked when she fell again a few minutes later. He hauled her up by the scruff of her neck and slapped her across the face. “Weak! I’ve known toddlers tougher than you.”

The taunts cut deep. They lit a fire in her heart that burned away the aches and pains and gave her the strength to stand up each time she fell. She glared at Stray’s back as she staggered along behind him. If looks could kill she would have burned a hole straight through his armor.

She started imagining ways to kill him. She could strangle him. Steal one of his guns and shoot him. Steal the canteens and drain their precious water into the plains so that he died of thirst. She willed herself to keep moving, to stay alive just long enough to see him die first.

Maybe the monsters would catch up with them. If they killed her, the least they could do was torture him to death first. She wanted someone to rip off his armor, march him until he was exhausted, kick and yell at him every time he fell down. Somehow there would be payback. He had to suffer for ruining her life.

Stray had a knife strapped to armored boot. Zoey stared at that knife for hours as they marched on under the sun. She fixated on it until it was the only thing she could think about. If she could just get her hands on that knife…

The next time she fell she kept her eyes open and waited for Stray to come force her back up. But this time she rolled out of the way of the blow. When Stray stumbled, she grabbed the knife and tugged it out of the sheath.

It was heavier than she thought it would be. She struggled to hold it upright in front of her with both hands. Stray tilted his visor up at her and shook his head. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he asked incredulously.

“I’m going to kill you!” She wanted to sound cruel and threatening like him, but her voice was little more than a hoarse rasp.

Stray laughed. “Jeez, you really are one stupid little girl, you know that?”

“I hate you! You’re awful!”

“All this time we’ve been walking out here and that’s the best you can come up with? Please. I’ve been called much worse.”

Her heart was pounding as she pointed the knife at her armored tormentor. She thought for sure he was about to shoot her, but Stray just stayed where he was. He cocked his head at her and folded his arms. “You do realize they’re still hunting us, right? Quit screwing around and wasting time.”

“I don’t care! I’m going to kill you!” If she shouted it loud enough, maybe her wish would become reality.

He just shook his head and let out another cold laugh. “Alright, then. Try to kill me.” He jabbed a thumb at his chest. “I’m wide open. Bet you can’t even scratch my armor.”

With a yell, she lunged forward and stabbed at his chest. He simply stepped aside and let her stumble past him into the dirt. With a laugh, he kicked dirt and grass into her face. “You sure talk big for a little girl who can’t walk a few feet without falling down.”

She pushed herself up and lunged again. Once again he sidestepped and let her fall to the ground. “I mean, there’s pathetic and then there’s you,” he called after her.

The third time she stabbed at him he swept her feet out from under her with a simple swing of his leg. He caught her wrist as she fell, twisting it so that she cried out and dropped the knife. He grabbed her hair and shoved her head down into the dirt, bringing his visor down close to her face.

“Learn your lesson?” he hissed, all trace of levity gone from his voice. “Never forget that I’m bigger and stronger than you. And I always will be.”

She glared up at him, hating every bit of him and his ugly armor.

“There’s a simple rule that runs this world and every other planet in this miserable galaxy.” His words beat down on her harder than his kicks and slaps ever had. “The strong live. The weak die. Your parents learned that the hard way. And right now, you’re as weak as they come.”

He stank of sweat and gunpowder. Tears welled up in Zoey’s eyes but she refused to let him see her cry.

“You should be dead ten times over by now. You aren’t, thanks to me. You’d better toughen up little girl, because I don’t have time to babysit you.”

He released her head and she gasped for breath, trying to curl into a ball. The stolen knife slammed down into the dirt by her face, blade first. Stray got up and paced in front of her like a manic animal. “You want to live? Show me!”

Clouds drifted by overhead. Stray’s boots crunched in the dirt beside her. Zoey wanted it all to just go away. Why couldn’t he just leave her alone? Why couldn’t he have just never come to the farm at all?

“Get up!”

She closed her eyes. She was done imagining that this was all a dream, but maybe if she fell asleep now he’d be gone when she woke up.

His boot jabbed at her side. “Get up!”

Zoey didn’t budge. She didn’t even open her eyes. The crunching of boots on dirt beside her intensified, then receded. A moment later, something hit the ground beside her. She cracked one eye open and saw that he’d dropped a small ration pack down next to the knife.

“Fine.” His tone was different. Subdued. “Have it your way.”

One of his canteens fell down beside her as well. She opened both eyes now and realized that Stray was walking away from her. Startled, she pushed herself up and stared after him.

“Where are you going?” She had wanted him gone so badly just moments before. So why did his departure scare her more than his blows and yelling?

“I’m getting out of here.” He didn’t look back at her. “You can stay here and die. I’ve wasted enough time on you.”

She picked up the canteen and turned it over in her hands. Her dry mouth ached to guzzle down the water inside, but instead she kept watching Stray walk away. “What… what do you mean?”

“I thought I could get you out with me. Guess I was wrong. I shouldn’t have bothered in the first place.” He still didn’t turn to face her. “The strong live. The weak die. I don’t make the rules. It’s just the way things are. And you’re just weak. Nothing I can do to change that.”

She blinked, anger curdling up inside her once again. What the hell was he talking about? He hadn’t done anything to help her. All he’d done was hit her and yell at her. She’d dragged herself all this way, and now he just wrote her off like she was nothing. He really didn’t care about anything. Not her. Not her parents. Nothing.

How could anyone so awful exist in the world?

The canteen fell from her shaking hands. “What’s wrong with you?” she screamed after him. The effort made her throat feel like it was on fire but she didn’t care anymore. “What happened to make you like this?”

He stopped for a moment, turning his head back to look at her through that cracked, vacant visor. For a moment she wondered if he might turn back.

Then he kept on walking away. In a few moments he vanished over the nearest hill.

Zoey sank to her knees. A few tears fell from her eyes but they quickly dried in the noonday heat. Stray was gone. She was alone in this barren hell.

She wondered if it was even worth it to drink the water or eat the ration bar. What was the point in dragging this out even longer than she already had?

Zoey lay back down on the ground and waited to die.

Chapter Twelve: Killing Fields

He walked until he reached the bottom of the next hill, trying not to think about the girl he had left to die. His legs ached—how far had they come together? Over twenty-four hours of walking across the plains without a moment’s respite and he had no way of knowing if they’d come any closer to reaching New Tyne. He wasn’t even entirely sure they were headed in the right direction.

Stray let his legs buckle beneath him. His armored frame sank down into a sitting position at the base of the hill. He set his shotgun down on the grass beside him and fumbled wearily for his remaining canteen. The thick bottle trembled in his hands as he fumbled with the cap. Just a sip. I don’t need any more.

He’d subsisted on meager water rations for over a day. He hadn’t eaten since they’d escaped the farm. His body trembled with fatigue. How long since he’d last slept? Two days? Three?

Pathetic, he’d called the girl. Weak. She’d made it over a day’s forced march with no special training, no enhanced body, not even a full meal to sustain herself. He’d taunted, bullied, and insulted her at every turn in the hopes that her anger and resentment would pull her through.

It was how he’d survived, after all.

The strong live. The weak die. But how much further could he go before he, too, succumbed?

Stray gritted his teeth, seething with a dull, directionless rage. Had he really come this far, survived so much, just to keel over from dehydration on Venezia’s plains? His furious resentment twisted and turned within him, seeking someone to blame for all this. The Syndicate for hunting him, Cassandra for turning him against them, Diana for not coming to his aid, the girl for burdening him and stabbing a knife into his conscience. Himself for letting them all drag him down in the first place.

He felt at the empty pouch where his second canteen should be. Stupid to give her half my water. What’s the point? It’ll just drag the suffering out longer.

It would be best to just get back up and keep walking. Somewhere behind him a young girl lay on the plains, life slowly ebbing from her body. He should go away, far away, someplace where he wouldn’t have to go back and look at her body. Was that whimpering he heard drifting over the hill or just the wind? Why couldn’t she hurry up and die so he had no choice but to go on?

Why did it even matter to him at all? What was one more dead girl in a galaxy filled with glassed planets paved with the atomized bones of dead girls? Why do I care? I shouldn’t care. The others—the good, upstanding, loyal ones—never seemed to care when some civilian kid walked into a crossfire. Collateral damage was the word for it. The Sangheili those brave, loyal heroes now fought alongside didn’t seem troubled by all the billions they’d murdered back during the war. So why did he—the traitor, the murderer, the Syndicate’s hired killer—give a damn about a girl who’d have died one way or the other?

Why is it always me? His fingers dug into the plains and clawed up a fistful of grassy dirt.

In the end he’d failed her. It shouldn’t come as such a surprise—his whole life was built on one failure after another. He could barely look after himself, let alone another dying orphan.

He needed to move. What the hell am I doing here, sitting and feeling sorry for myself? Perhaps the best thing to do would be to go back over the hill and put a bullet through the girl’s head. That’s what a good traitor should do.

Stray rose to his feet. He left his shotgun where it lay and reached for his sidearm, steeling himself for what needed to be done. This doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter. No one will ever know. Just me, and I’ll forget about it soon enough.

If her blood was to be on his hands, the least he could do was make it quick.

As he started back up the hill a distant whine floated by on the wind. The shrill, familiar moan of a Warthog engine. It was too late. They had found him.

Stray closed his eyes, a surprising sense of relief flooding through his veins in place of the dread he should be feeling. He couldn’t fight hunger or thirst, but he could certainly take a few more enforcers with him.

Himself and a handful enforcers. The galaxy would be no poorer without them.

“They’re close!” Cathun called. The young warrior’s nostrils flared and he pounded excitedly on the Warthog’s hood. “Very close!”

From his position at the Warthog’s wheel, Urebus huffed in acknowledgement. He raised a fist to signal the Chopper keeping pace beside him. Irulus nodded and returned the signal, then banked off and spread the distance between himself and his patrol leader. It was a standard hunting pattern for pursuing dismounted prey: Urebus and Cathun would draw Stray’s attention while Irulus flanked and cut him to pieces with the Chopper’s explosive autocannons.

Urebus gripped the steering wheel with one hand and reached for his grenade launcher with the other. Nothing in life could ever imitate the thrill a warrior felt at the prospect of impending battle. He was already imagining the battle in his mind: the jolt of the Warthog veering toward its target, the rush of adrenaline as he leaped out from the vehicle, the thumping recoil as he fired the grenade launcher…

His communicator buzzed, rousing the Jiralhanae from his battle frenzy. He tapped the collar of his armor, expecting to hear Terethus reporting the pack’s location. Instead, a human voice buzzed in his ear.

“Chopper patrol, this is Buzzard One. Chopper patrol, do you copy?”

Urebus frowned at the strange call sign. Was Stray hijacking their coms to throw them off his trail? Only when Cathun growled and pointed upwards did Urebus notice the Falcon gunship approaching from the rear and recall the air support that stuck-up Sangheili had promised his chieftain. He sighed and clicked the com back on.

“I see you, human,” he grunted, the foreign language painful on his tongue. “Why are you here?”

“Your chieftain told us to catch up with you to provide support. He and the rest of your pack are on their way. We’re on station to provide air support.”

Urebus cast a baleful glance skyward. It was never wise to let aliens interfere with a good hunt, especially not humans. Even so, he couldn’t very well order the Falcon away. Knowing Mantellus, the temperamental chieftain might even interpret such a move as disrespect towards his own battle plan. Urebus had no desire to give Mantellus any reason to doubt his loyalty.

“We’re closing in on Stray’s position now,” he grudgingly told the Falcon pilot. “Follow our lead and provide support, but if one of your shots so much as grazes my warriors I’ll drag you out of that Falcon and eat you alive.”

“Uh, yeah. Roger that.” The Falcon banked sharply, increasing the distance between itself and the Warthog. Urebus caught Cathun’s eye and grinned. No doubt the human pilot was as wary of irritating him as he was of provoking Mantellus.

Cathun laughed along with his superior, but his look of amusement was quickly replaced with one of consternation. He turned his gaze back to the front, nostrils flaring furiously.

“What’s wrong?” Urebus demanded, the sharp focus of the hunt returning. “Have you lost the scent?”

“No,” the junior warrior grunted. “But it’s split up. I can’t tell which is the main scent anymore. They both smell alike.”

Stray must have realized he was being tracked. Had he smeared the juvenile female with gunpowder to throw off the scent? Urebus thought humans put greater stock in their young, but perhaps Stray was just desperate. Cornered prey were capable of anything when they got desperate. That was what made them dangerous.

“Take us to the closest one,” Urebus ordered. “Stay alert.”

He pinged Irulus’s com. “Regroup on the Warthog,” he ordered. “Stray’s trying to muddy the trail. Buzzard or whatever you call yourself, get closer and watch for our target. He might try to ambush us.”

“Got it, ground patrol. We’ve got you covered.” The Falcon increased its speed and altitude until it hovered high above Urebus’s Warthog. The patrol leader slowed the jeep’s pace as it crested the next hill. In the distance he could just make out a small, lone figure lying in the grass.

Cathun grunted. “The female. Still alive. But the scent is all over the place now. I can’t tell where he’s gone from here.”

“Not to worry.” Urebus pulled the Warthog up to a stop on the hill overlooking the prone female. “She’ll tell us which way he went. One way or another. Let’s go ask her.”

One warm night back on the farm Zoey had found herself completely unable to fall asleep. She had tossed and turned irritably beneath the covers and tried her best to will herself into unconsciousness. It was just sleeping. She did it all the time. How could such a simple thing be so hard?

She wondered if dying was like that, too.

She lay in the grass and squeezed her eyes shut. Her body, damp with sweat and aching all over, baked in the afternoon heat. The canteen and ration bar lay untouched beside her. How long since Stray abandoned her? She had no way of knowing if he’d been gone for hours or just minutes.

I just want to die. Why can’t I die? Let it all be over. Let me see Mom and Dad again. She remembered something her mother had once said about the souls of the dead rising up to become stars out in space. She’d asked her father about it, but he’d just laughed.

“People used to believe all sorts of crazy things about what happens after you die. They’re fun stories, but it’s just a bunch of old Earth superstition.”

“But what does happen when you die?”

“Well, there’s no way of knowing until you actually die. That’s why so many people get so wrapped up about it. But you’re way too young to worry about that stuff. There’s no point for you to be thinking about death.”

And so she hadn’t thought about death for a long time. Until Stray came to the farm and brought death chasing after him. When she squeezed her eyes closed she saw him blasting a woman’s head off with his shotgun. A knife plunged into a thin monster’s neck. Her mother shooting a man through the head.

The strong live. The weak die. That’s what Stray said the world—the whole galaxy—was like. Nothing but pain and violence and cruelty. If weakness was her parents—warm and loving and kind—and strength was like Stray—cruel and ugly and hateful—then Zoey knew exactly which she would rather be.

She tilted her head over and stared at the knife Stray had shoved into the ground. There was an easier way to die. All she had to do was take the blade and sink it into her throat. But would it hurt? What if dying was actually worse than what she was suffering now? The thought made Zoey’s blood run cold.

Something was drifting over the wind. A high-pitched mechanical whining followed by a distant whirring. Zoey lifted her head up, recognizing the sound of an engine. She could hardly believe her ears. Was someone really driving towards her? Maybe someone was coming to save her after all.

But her hopes were quickly dashed when the Warthog emerged over the hill. Instead of humans at the wheel she saw two of a new kind of monster: large, hairy ape-like creatures wearing plated armor. Was this even a surprise anymore? All her life she’d thought that aliens were things that lived far away in storybooks and her parents’ news reports. She really had known nothing at all about the world.

One of the brutish monsters climbed out of the Warthog. It held a large weapon with a massive blade running down its side. Another motor noise grew louder and a jagged mass of plated metal came skidding to a halt beside the Warthog. It looked like a large, ugly plow, Zoey thought distantly. Another one of the hairy monsters was seated behind it.

An aircraft with several whirling rotors appeared overhead. Framed above the strange aliens, the human vehicle looked strangely out of place.

The monster with the bladed weapon turned to its companions and grunted something. Then it stalked down the hill towards Zoey. She found herself squirming backwards as it approached. Beady eyes peered down at her from beneath its helmet like dim coals. Should she grab the knife? There was no way she could get up to walk away, let alone run.

She had lain here all this time wishing for death, but now that it was looming before her she couldn’t help but feel terrified. I don’t want to die, the little voice in her head, silent for so long, screamed once more. I don’t want to die.

The monster leaned down close, sniffing at her like a dog. Its mouth—full of stubby, yellow fangs—looked big enough to swallow her whole.

Her mouth gaped wide in terror, full of unspoken pleas. Someone, anyone, find me. Save me.

The monster reached down and wrapped its thumb and forefinger around her neck.

Please….Come back…

Her hand flailed out and smacked into something rough and metallic. Before she even knew what she was doing, Zoey found herself swinging the stolen knife up at this new monster’s neck. The beast grunted with surprise as the knife tangled in the matted fur beneath its chin. Zoey tried to pull the knife back, to no avail, more surprised at herself than afraid of the monster looming above her. Did I really just do that?

The beast’s lips twitched. Was that a smile? It brought one enormous fist up. Zoey closed her eyes. One blow from that meaty hand would crush her skull into paste.

A resounding crash echoed across the plains. Zoey flinched, only to realize that she was alive. Both she and the monster looked back at the hill.

The beast at the back of the jagged plow-like vehicle fell lifeless to the grass.

With a snarl, the monster above Zoey whirled and raised its great bladed weapon. Stray was already moving, bounding over to put the Warthog between himself and the monster’s line of fire. The smaller beast yelped and leaped up from its seat. It drew a long-barreled weapon and fired wildly, green bolts streaking out over the Warthog’s hood.

The shotgun bellowed again. The beast by the Warthog cried out and sprawled back across the seats. It flailed and rolled out of the vehicle and into the grass. Swinging its rifle like a club, it tried to slam the weapon’s stock into Stray’s head. Stray dodged the swings and pounced, driving the beast down with a blow from the butt of his own weapon.

The monster by Zoey stopped trying to get a clear shot and rushed towards the Warthog to help its companion.

Stray looked up in time to see the angry beast bearing down on him. He snapped the shotgun up and fire. The blast caught the monster square in the chest but did not so much as break the creature’s stride. The second shotgun blast missed as the monster sprang to the side at the last moment. Zoey pressed herself down close to the ground as buckshot whizzed by overhead.

Howling with anger, the monster Stray had knocked to the ground leaped up and punched its smaller foe. Stray slammed back against the Warthog, pinned by the beast’s flurry of blows. Zoey heard his yelps of pain even over the snarling from the monsters.

She had wanted the monsters to catch him. She had wanted to see him overpowered and beaten down. It seemed Zoey was cursed to get exactly what she wished for, but only after the desire for it had leaked out of her system.

The monster with the bladed weapon stepped around the Warthog but hesitated to fire at its companion. The Falcon roared past overhead and banked, descending in closer to the battle on the ground.

Another punch from the smaller beast knocked Stray’s head back. His pained cry became a full-fledged scream. The helmeted head snapped back forward to slam into the beast’s face.

The monster reeled from the unexpected blow. In the next moment Stray’s shotgun blasted its leg into a blood-soaked pulp. Stray knocked past the screaming creature and fired at the second monster, who vaulted over the Warthog and sprinted over to the unmanned plow-machine. It shoved the body of its comrade aside and leaped into the underslung pilot’s seat. The machine roared to life and shot away and down out of sight beneath the next hill.

Behind Stray, the wounded warrior moaned and tried to drag itself back towards the Warthog. Its arms grasped vainly at the vehicles chassis, trying to pull its body up into the driver seat.

Stray turned back and drew his sidearm. With the detached air of an afterthought, he shot the groaning creature through the head.

Overhead the Falcon swept in low. The gunners on either side angled their weapons and sent machine-gun fire burning down at Stray’s position. Zoey flattened her body and wished the ground would just swallow her up whole. Stray slammed down to the ground and wormed his way in beneath the Warthog.

The Falcon shot past and banked for another run.

Urebus worked the Chopper’s controls and tried to ignore the bits of his friend’s brain splattered against the console. It was bad luck to think ill of one’s fallen comrades but all the same he couldn’t help but resent Irulus’s poor judgement.

It was an ambush. I warned him it was an ambush and he still let Stray sneak up on us. Now Irulus was dead. Most likely Cathun as well. Urebus had not seen his young subordinate die, but Stray’s shotgun blast had left Cathun a crippled wreck. He doubted their prey was one for showing mercy to a wounded foe.

He could hear the bursts from the Falcon’s guns behind him. At least the air support was doing its job.

Urebus brought the Chopper into a skidding turn and sent it roaring back up towards the Warthog. Dirt and grass kicked up around him as he pressed the engines to their limit. He lined the Warthog up with the Chopper’s targeting computer and watched for any sign of Stray. His fingers hovered above the autocannon triggers. The moment that miserable human reappeared a hail of explosive bolts would rip his body to shreds.

The human had cost Urebus two friends. But there was no hunt without danger, no victory without sacrifice. I’ll grind you to pieces before this is over. That should put their souls at ease.

The Falcon’s guns abruptly cut off. The gunship hung suspended over the Warthog like a great metal insect waiting to feast on its prey. A loud whirring noise filled the air as Stray pulled himself out from under his cover. All eyes—Stray, Zoey, the Falcon crew—fixed on the metal-plated attack bike that leaped up from over the hill.

The guns on either side of the vehicle’s bulbous prow burst to life. Explosions tore the ground around Stray apart as the beast at the wheel howled a war cry. It aimed its large bladed weapon with one hand as it roared past and fired twice.

The explosions buffeted Stray’s armor and knocked him flat on his back. His helmet popped off his head and rolled down the hill to where Zoey still lay.

I have to move. I have to get out of the way. She grabbed handfuls of grass and dragged herself back away from the fighting.

The Falcon descended even closer to the ground. Zoey caught a glimpse of one of the gunners, a handsome young man not much older than Stray. She allowed herself a small glimmer of hope as the gunner angled his machine gun for a clear shot at Stray. Maybe once they killed Stray all this senseless killing would end. Maybe they would let her aboard their gunship and take her someplace safe, away from monsters and beasts in human form.

She could only hope they were so merciful. Stray was finished. His weapons—torn from his hands by the explosion—lay by the Warthog. He was trapped between the Falcon’s guns and the monster, who now turned to bring his vehicle back to bear on the dazed Stray.

Alone on the hill, Stray suddenly seemed to shrink. Zoey saw his face as he pushed himself back to his feet—pale and streaked with blood and dirt, wild desperation burning in his eyes. Her tormentor looked small and scared. Wasn’t that the fate she’d wanted for him?

The plated war machine roared forward. This was the end. Zoey wanted to look away but she forced herself to stare at Stray even as she kept dragging herself away from the fight. She hadn’t seen her parents die, but she would watch Stray die here. That would make it all better.

Wouldn’t it?

Stray fell to one knee as the war machine bore down on him. The Falcon began to drift over to the side, angling for a clear shot. The beast’s machine roared as if it were alive, its jutting prow straining to reach Stray like a great gaping maw.

A blue fire burst to life in Stray’s hand.

He fell aside at the last moment. The war machine hurtled past him, only now the blue fire was affixed to the side of its prow. The beast at the helm snarled with rage and tried to turn the machine away.

It was too late.

The war machine left the ground and shot over the hillside, the fiery blue orb burning like a beacon against its chassis. The airborne vehicle sailed past the Falcon, just underneath its tail rotor. Then the orb exploded and transformed the machine into a violent fireball.

Zoey screamed and covered her head. The force of the blast ripped the Falcon in half and sent the gunship careening into the hillside. The crippled Falcon dashed itself to pieces against the plains, its rotors rending the grass and leaving great scars in the dirt. Zoey looked up, shocked that none of the wreckage had hit her.

Stray whirled to survey the carnage. His wild, sunken eyes widened, as if surprised by what he had done. The fear was still there, but it was mixed with a terrifying, feral happiness. The thrill of violence. The act of killing.

Someone yelled and rolled away from the wreckage. It was the young gunner. Bleeding from wounds all over his body he crawled desperately towards Zoey. He looked at her with terrified, pleading eyes. Did he think she could save him?

Stray walked towards them now. He drew the machete sheathed on his back. Without hesitating he jammed his boot into the gunner’s side and rolled him over onto his back. The young man threw his hands up. “Please!” he screamed. “Please!”

“Don’t do it!” Zoey yelled desperately.

She would never forget the look on Stray’s face as he sank his machete down deep into the handsome young man’s head. Pure, unfiltered joy.

Urebus crawled through a fog of pain. He could only feel one of his legs. Blood seeped down his arms and onto his hands, making it harder to crawl through the rubble-strewn grass away from the ruined Falcon. He could only see out of one eye and couldn’t hear anything—was he deaf or was there simply nothing to hear?

He’d held his fire as the Chopper bore back down on Stray for that second pass. The Falcon was square in the line of fire—now he realized dimly that Stray had positioned himself that way from the start. He’d rushed right into the human’s trap and let the Chopper become a plasma grenade laden explosive. How had everything gone so wrong?

But it didn’t matter. He was still alive. And his prey was still before him.

Urebus dragged himself towards his grenade launcher. The bladed weapon lay in the grass just a few feet away. Stray’s back was to him. He only had a few moments left to finish this.

His hand reached the grenade launcher and he smiled in spite of all the loss and pain. This was truly the end.

Victory was his.

The beast pushed itself up from the wreckage. Bleeding from a dozen wounds, it leaned against the Falcon wreckage and trained its weapon on Stray.

Stray didn’t see it coming. There was no way he would dodge that shot. The blast would tear him in half. Zoey looked to him, then the beast. The choice loomed before her, demanding that she pick a side. If she said nothing…

“Look out!” she yelled, waving wildly towards the wounded creature.

Stray bent down and snatched up a pistol from the corpse of the gunner he’d just killed. He whirled and fired at the creature, emptying the weapon’s magazine in a flurry of shots. The beast jerked and grunted as the bullets ripped through its body. The bladed weapon’s barrel dipped down and it fell to the ground without firing a shot.

A cold silence fell over the plains. Stray let the pistol fall from his hands and staggered over towards Zoey. She flinched as he approached, but all he did was bend down to retrieve his helmet. The fire drained from his eyes and he swayed where he stood, clumsily wiping blood off his face.

“The Warthog,” he muttered, gesturing vaguely behind him. “Get in. We’re leaving.”

She looked at him warily. “I thought you said I wasn’t worth it.”

“Don’t start mouthing off again.” Stray slid his helmet back on and limped towards the Warthog. “Come or stay. Choose now before I change my mind.”

There was no point in letting herself hesitate. She knew what she needed to do now. The only way to survive was to go with Stray. And she knew for sure now that she needed to survive.

A moment later they were bouncing away in the Warthog, leaving the wreckage and corpses behind. Zoey curled up in the passenger seat and tried her best to ignore the musk the vehicle’s now-dead owners had left ingrained on the leather. She could ignore their stench or the smell of blood from Stray as he drove them on in silence. For now she just needed to sleep.

Chapter Thirteen: Moonlight Respite

A grinding thud shook Zoey awake. She blinked upwards, surprised to see a sky teeming with stars overhead. Guess I didn’t notice it before, when I had to walk.

She heard Stray muttering things in the seat beside her. Dimly, Zoey realized that the Warthog was slowing. A moment later the vehicle stopped completely. Stray slapped the steering wheel in frustration before dismounting. Zoey turned her head in time to see him wince as he hit the ground, then limp over to inspect the engine. He fiddled with it for a moment, then shook his head and turned away. “Shit.”

Her mouth opened to ask what was wrong, but she quickly shut it again. She didn’t want to provoke him again, especially not when he was already in a bad mood. She pulled her legs up to her chest and stared mutely at the armored killer as he paced frenetically in front of the dead Warthog.

How long had she slept? Zoey’s body still ached all over, but the pain was less than it had been back when she’d collapsed. She felt as if she’d woken up a few times during the drive but had quickly drifted back to sleep. And before that…

She clenched her jaw and tried not to think back that far. She didn’t want to remember the gunfire and the yelling, the shaggy monsters and their bellowing, the look on Stray’s face as he split a pleading man’s head open with a machete.

This was only the second night since her parents were killed. Three nights ago she’d been speaking to Stray in the barn, peppering him with questions about the exciting life she imagined he led. And four nights ago her mother had stopped by her room to kiss her goodnight.

She shot at them when they threatened me. She could have stayed hidden but she shot at them anyway and now she’s dead.

The full weight of knowing that no one would ever love her that deeply and completely finally came crashing down. She would never again sleep in the bed she had used since she was three years old. Her mother and father would never again stop by her darkened room to say goodnight.

She squeezed her mouth closed and covered it with her hands, doing her best not to cry. She was all alone in these vast plains filled with monsters and violence. She should have died a dozen times over by now. The only reason she was alive at all was because Stray always seemed to reappear to kill the ones who threatened her.

Her clothes stank of sweat and soot and blood. She recoiled at her own stench but there was nothing to be done but endure the awful smell. Was this misery really all she had left in life?

Stray kicked the Warthog hard enough to make the whole frame shudder. Zoey flinched and tried to make herself smaller so that he wouldn’t see her and hit her again, but he didn’t so much as look her way. Instead he took a few steps away from the Warthog and took off his helmet.

The moon cast a chilly light over his harsh, grimy features. Stray looked angrily out over the rolling plains as if they were filled with hated enemies that only he could see. Zoey peeked out at him from the Warthog and wondered if there was anything in the world that he didn’t make him hateful or angry.

Unexpectedly, Stray tilted his head back and closed his eyes. His tangled mop of dirty black hair framed his face as his expression seemed to soften, if only slightly. The helmet fell to the ground. His legs buckled and he dropped down into a sitting position with a grunt. He covered his face with his gauntleted hands, still bloody from the people he had killed during the day. It was impossible to be sure from this distance, but Zoey could have sworn his body was trembling even through his armor.

She turned away, feeling as if she were looking in on something at once grotesque and intensely private. Stray had no right to be upset or vulnerable. His cruelty had driven her across the plains; his very presence had destroyed everything she knew and loved. He struggled and killed and survived. Wasn’t he one of the strong who ruled this world?

How many different versions of Stray had she seen? There was the cruel, violent killer who prodded and kicked her and executed wounded men as they begged for their lives. Then there was the smirking, cynical traveler who bartered with her parents and spoke wearily about space travel being boring. Now he sat in the grass, head in his hands, and seemed just as small and frightened and alone as she was.

She did not understand him at all. He was as foreign and alien as the monsters who burned down farms and tracked them across the plains.

When she could bear it no longer, she screwed up her courage and slipped down from the Warthog. She realized that the canteen he’d left her with back on the plains lay beneath her seat; Stray must have picked it up before driving away. She brought it with her as she crept up warily beside his seated frame. He raised his head up but did not look at her.

“Is…. is the car broken?” she asked, as quietly as she could.

“Engine’s busted,” he said dully, staring off into the distance. “Probably took some shrapnel during the fight. Not that Brutes ever do much maintenance on their tech.”


“The big ones. Look like roided-out monkeys.”

“Oh.” She paused and followed his gaze out over the endless plains. They were huge, big enough to swallow up her entire world. “What are the other aliens called?”

“The big ones with the split-faces are Elites. The smaller, skinny ones are Jackals. Almost as many of those on this planet as there are humans.” He shook his head. “The Covenant pulls itself apart and along comes the Syndicate to get ‘em all working together again. Human ingenuity at its finest.”

As usual, she only understood about half of what he was talking about. The Covenant were the aliens, she knew that much from her school lessons. They had fought a war with the Earth government, but her teachers always said that it was a fight that didn’t concern them. Trying to figure out which side was which always gave her a headache.

“Why are they chasing you?”

“I worked for them. They weren’t too happy when I’d had enough, so here I am. Not the first time it’s happened to me. Same shit, different day.”

“You were one of them?” She thought of the pale man beating her father bloody and felt a shock of revulsion. She imagined Stray pummeling farmers and making them watch while he pressed guns to their children’s heads. “Why would you…”

She half-expected Stray to yell at her again, but he just shrugged. “Syndicate runs this planet. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The militias talk a big game about freedom and independence, but the Syndicate’s what gives them the guns they need to keep the UNSC out. Without the Syndicate funneling trade here, Venezia would fall apart in a month. I showed up on this planet without a credit to my name and a price on my head. What was I supposed to do, start a charity? They need enforcers to do their dirty work and my hands are filthy enough as it is.”

“But you quit.”

“Yeah. Dumb move. If I’d just stuck with it, none of this would have happened.”

“What are you going to do now?”

“I don’t know. I’d hoped the Warthog would get us to New Tyne. Those Brutes were part of a larger pack. They’ll all be after us soon enough. Surest way to piss a Brute off is to kill his pack mates.” He tugged at the bags beneath his eyes. “And Min Ai’s gonna be extra mad now that I blew up his Falcon. He loves taking those things out for joy rides.”

“But you killed them.” She looked pointedly at the machete on his back. “You kill everyone. Can’t you just do it again?”

He snorted. “I killed three idiot trackers and a Falcon crew too stupid to keep their bird in the air. I’m barely holding together as it is. No way can I take on a whole pack.”

It was strange to hear him admitting defeat. “I thought you said only the strong survive,” she said accusingly. “You said I was weak because I couldn’t keep walking.”

“Yeah. I did.” He didn’t sound particularly sorry about it.

“You called me a weakling. You said my parents were weak, too.”

He finally tilted his head towards her, mouth curving into a weary smile. “Yeah. Pissed you off, right? Got you moving. It’s crazy the things people can do when you get them angry enough.”

She folded her arms. That smile of his infuriated her. She didn’t want to hear his excuses. As if there were some noble goal behind all the blows and insults he’d rained down on her. “Why’d you even bother? You said I was just a burden.”

“You are just a burden. Scrawny kid like you, with no special skills or sex appeal? I wouldn’t make enough money off selling you to pay for lunch.”

“Sell me?” Zoey snapped. “What kind of crazy world do you live in?”

“The world where money runs everything.” Stray’s smile grew cold. “Money and power. The kind of world where just about anyone else in my position would have put a bullet in your leg and left you to bleed out on the plains. Might’ve drawn their attention, bought me a little time. You want everything to be cozy and friendly, you should’ve been born in the Inner Colonies. Kids like you suffer so that their kids can grow up safe and go to nice, pretty academies. Go figure.”

“So why’d you take me with you, huh?” She’d had enough of him talking about strange people and places she didn’t understand. Why did everything have to be so cold and awful whenever he said something? “If everything’s as mean and nasty as you say it is, why put me through all this?”

His smile faded. She expected him to get angry again, but he just looked tired. “I don’t know. You’re right. It was stupid of me. Waste of time. You’ll die one way or another. I just dragged your suffering out longer.”

She lashed out with her foot and kicked him in the side. Pain lanced up her leg as she bounced off his armor; she yelped and dropped to a knee, nursing her stubbed toe. When Stray laughed at her, she grabbed the canteen and flung it at his head. He winced as the bottle struck his forehead. Zoey recoiled, expecting him to lash out at her, but instead he just picked up the canteen and inspected the contents.

“Be careful with this,” he said, rubbing the welt on his head. He tossed the canteen back to her. “Might as well drink up. We’ll be walking again soon.”

“Walking?” The very word sent lances of fire shooting through her legs.

“The Warthog isn’t going anywhere, and I’m not sticking around to get eaten once the Brutes pick up our scent again. So unless you’re about to sprout wings and fly out of here, you’d better get ready for another hike.” Stray leaned back in the grass and shut his eyes. He talked tough, but Zoey was beginning to realize that he was at the end of his endurance as well. “I’m just going to rest my eyes for a minute. Won’t be long…”

He was flagging. Stray talked tough but even Zoey could see that he was already beyond the limits of his own endurance. And as much as she despised him, there was no way she would make it out here by herself. She was done wondering if death might return her to her parents. What was the point of everything they’d done—everything they’d died for—if she just gave up and died out here?

She turned on her heal and limped over to the Warthog. Wrinkling her nose at the stench of alien body odor, she rummaged around in the back of the vehicle. She picked through ammunition crates and empty ration bags until her hands finally wrapped around what she was looking for: a standard-issue maintenance kit just like the ones packed in with each of her family’s harvester units.

Arms straining from the effort she lugged the box of tools over to the Warthog’s engine assembly. She triggered the assembly’s emergency release and dug into the machine’s bolts and wiring. Fatigue made her clumsy and she could barely see the engine components in the darkness. She kept dropping tools into the assembly; digging them out scraped her hands raw but she didn’t care anymore. Working on the machine—delving into its nooks and crannies to root out the problem—sent newfound energy coursing through her body. She was going to get them out of here. She had to.

Stray rolled over and stared at her. “What the hell are you doing over there?” he demanded, though he sounded more surprised than angry.

“What’s it look like?” Zoey shot back. “Fixing this thing.”

“It’s probably riddled with shrapnel. Might be missing a few parts on top of that. What are you gonna do, farm girl, spit on the engine and make it all better?”

“Is that really the best you can come up with?” she snapped. The desperate surge of strength made her bold. “What do you think we harvest crops with? I’ve been fixing engines my whole life. You sure aren’t doing anything to help. So shut up and stop distracting me!”

He regarded her for a moment with narrowed eyes. Then he shook his head and shoved himself up to his feet. “I let you get away with throwing something at me and all of a sudden you start getting all mouthy.” With a sigh he plucked his helmet off the ground and sealed it back on over his head.

She didn’t flinch or back away as he approached. If he was going to hit her, fine. But she’d get this engine fixed if it was the last thing she did.

Something clicked behind her in the darkness. A moment later a dim light sprang to life behind her, illuminating the engine before her. She glanced back to see the light emanating from a small bulb on the side of Stray’s helmet.

“Don’t mind me,” he said, bracing himself against the Warthog. “Keep on working if you’re so sure of yourself. You’re probably better than me at this anyway. Drill instructors always said I was the worst at everything, and the machine shop was no exception.”

She didn’t bother trying to figure out what he meant like that. Instead she just kept on tinkering away with the Warthog’s engine, laboring on through the night in the dim glow of Stray’s helmet-light.

The Falcon and Chopper’s twisted remains loomed over Chieftain Mantellus as he bent over Urebus’s corpse. The massive Jiralhanae kept his face impassive even though few of his encircling pack could glimpse his expression in the dim moonlight. It was important not to lose his temper here, even though he was sure any Jiralhanae could smell the rage radiating from him for kilometers.

“Well?” he demanded, turning to confront the warrior standing behind him. “Your patrol has been slaughtered, Terethus. Do you plan to avenge their deaths?”

The sole survivor from Urebus’s patrol—saved by his unwanted role as a courier—stood amidst the wreckage, head tilted up into the air. His nostrils flared wide as he sniffed at the wind. Even in the night’s darkness Mantellus could see Terethus’s teeth bared in a look of angry concentration. He paced away from his chieftain, pushing through the other pack members and their choppers. Reaching the edge of the battlefield he pointed out into the plains.

“That way,” he growled. “Even if they hide their own scent, they can’t hide Urebus’s. They stole his Warthog, the vermin.”

“Very well.” Mantellus stepped over the bodies and pulled himself up on top of his Chopper. There was no time for any of the customary death rites. He would have to leave Urebus and the others where they lay and return to retrieve them when this was over. His pack’s eyes gleamed in the moonlight as they stared expectantly up at him.

“Your pack mates have been slain in battle,” he announced. “But their sacrifice has brought us to the end of this hunt. Stray is within our grasp, and we are assembled as one. We will not rest until he is dead and the hunt is completed! Mount up!”

A chorus of roars filled the air around him. Choppers roared to life and took off into the night with Terethus in the lead. Mantellus dropped down into his own seat and cranked his engines to life. He took his place in the center of the formation, flexing his paws against the controls. Stray had bloodied his pack once. It would not happen again.

The Choppers roared on across the plains. No one gave any thought to stopping to make camp for the night. The pack was on the hunt, and now there was no stopping them.

“Alright.” Stray fiddled with the nobs in the Warthog’s front seat. “Fifth time’s the charm, right?”

Zoey closed the casing back over the engine assembly and stumbled away. They had worked on the engine nonstop for what felt like hours. Each time she thought she had the problem nailed down, something new seemed to break loose and render the Warthog inoperable once again. Her surge of determination had carried her through the grind, but she could feel a hollow darkness creeping in over the edge of her vision. She didn’t have much longer before she keeled over and just passed out.

The Warthog groaned as Stray revved the engine; Zoey’s heart sank. The sputtering coughs coming from the assembly were the least encouraging noises the Warthog had made all night. As the noise died away she fumbled blindly for the tool kit, wondering if she’d fall asleep right on top of the assembly.

The groaning engine sputtered once, then twice, then finally hummed to life. Zoey jumped away as the headlights flared to life, bathing her in a white glare.

It was too good to be true. Had she really fixed it?

Stray tapped his fingers against the steering wheel, head nodding. He regarded her from behind his pitted visor. “Well then. Guess you really do have a way with machines. Maybe you aren’t so useless after all.”

She opened her mouth to retort but only managed a weary groan. Her legs buckled beneath her and she collapsed amidst the cone of light.

Stray’s boots crunched on the ground as he leaped down from the Warthog and approached her just like every other time she’d fallen. She braced herself for the coming blows, but they never came. Instead, Stray just hefted her up—none too gently—and tossed her into the passenger seat like a bale of hay.

“Stay with me here,” he said, firing up the Warthog. Zoey felt a jolt as they lurched forward. “We’re almost clear. Just one more push.”

“Where are we going?” she asked faintly, not knowing how much longer her body could hold out.

“I know someone with a place in New Tyne. We’re going to hide out there.”

“Will it be safe?”

“On this planet, with the Syndicate on my back?” Stray shook his head. “Nowhere is safe.”

Chapter Fourteen: Beasts at Bay

The Brutes caught them at dawn.

Zoey, drowsing in the Warthog’s passenger seat, awoke to a string of curses from Stray. She blinked groggily in the stiff morning air and tried to piece together exactly when she’d fallen asleep. She was jerked violently out of her stupor as the Warthog lurched and jerked wildly. She flailed about in a panic, thinking the engine had given out again. But Stray was simply tearing at the steering wheel as he took them into a violent weaving pattern as they churned on across the plains.

More noises percolated through the droning whine of the Warthog’s engine. Zoey strained to hear them and a crushingly familiar sense of dread washed over her. She heard the throaty roars of monstrous vehicles and behind them the snarls and howls of their alien drivers.

The monsters had found them. Death closed in once again.

She peeked back over her seat in time to see a cluster of bulky vehicles emerge over the crest of a distant hill. They were the same armor-plated bikes she’d seen back during the last skirmish, their churning prows glistening with rusted spikes and whirling blades. She couldn’t get a full count amidst the churning wave of jagged metal but there had to be over a dozen racing towards them.

Stray followed her terrified gaze, then quickly turned back to the front. “Ah, shit. We really pissed them off.”

“We?” Zoey squeaked, huddling low in her seat. “What did I do?”

“You’re with me. Since when has a Brute needed a reason to snack on a human?” Stray jerked the Warthog again. The bottom dropped out of Zoey’s stomach as the jeep shot over a hill and soared through the air before slamming back into the ground. She looked around frantically for some kind of safety harness but found none. Stray glanced over at her and snorted.

“These things have never been all that user friendly. Better hang on tight. If you fall out, I’m not coming back for you.”

From the way he was jerking and weaving the Warthog, Zoey wondered if he really was trying to throw her out. She sank down as low as she could and held onto the Warthog’s side for dear life. Behind them, the Brute pack was gaining. They would be in range soon—a few of the lead bikes were already shooting bursts of gunfire that burst and detonated just short of the Warthog’s tail section.

“You know how to use grenades?” Stray asked, gunning the Warthog’s engine.

“Grenades?” Zoey peered up at him from the floor of the passenger seat. “What are you—“

“Yeah, didn’t think so.” He reached into the back of the Warthog and retrieved a small satchel. He dropped it down into Zoey’s lap. She yelped in alarm at its heavy contents: several tan-colored spheres with the word Frag stenciled on in bright white letters. “It’s real easy, just smack the detonation trigger and toss it back towards the bad guys. And keep your head down, unless you want a mouthful of shrapnel.”

Zoey stared at the grenades in horror, realizing that she now had a lapful of explosives with enough charge to turn her into a pink mist. She poked one gingerly, afraid it might go off at the slightest provocation.

“When they get close, start chucking ‘em.” If Stray had reservations about handing off a bag of high explosives to a twelve year old he didn’t show them. “If you get lucky maybe you can take a couple Choppers out before they grind us into paste.”

“Just a couple? What about all the other ones?”

“Guess I’ll just have to outdrive ‘em. Don’t worry. If there’s one thing I’m good at it’s running away. These aren’t the toughest bastards who’ve tried to kill me. Not by a long shot.” He floored the accelerator and waved forward. “We’re almost there. Just have to hold them back for a few more minutes.”

Zoey followed his gesture and blinked in surprise. For a moment she was sure it was a mirage, but there it was. For once the plains weren’t simply leading off into eternity. She could see clusters of buildings looming up on the horizon. Buildings meant shelter. Buildings meant people. And maybe some of those people wouldn’t be trying to kill her.

Mantellus smiled at the sight of the fleeing Warthog. No more games, Stray. This is the end.

He raised a clenched fist and howled. The wordless command caught the attention of the rest of the pack even amidst the roar of Chopper engines and the snarls of eager warriors. Mantellus’s fist became a flat palm that turned in a swift circling gesture. He banked his Chopper and sped away to the right. Behind him, half the pack followed while the rest surged on after Stray.

It was a simple flanking maneuver, one the pack had performed countless times on much larger prey. It was almost a waste of effort to bother with the formation when they could just run the Warthog down and consume it en masse. But Stray had already killed three of Mantellus’s warriors. He would not get any chance to kill more.

The rear element would slow him down long enough for Mantellus to bring the flanking element around to trap him in the whirling maw of Chopper teeth. Few foes could withstand the onslaught of a massed Chopper pack, let alone a weary human in a run-down Warthog.

Mantellus only hoped that the rear element didn’t catch up to the Warthog before he and the rest of the flankers were in position. It would be such a shame if he were denied the thrill of the kill after all this effort.

Urging his warriors on with a whooping war cry, he gunned the Chopper and sped off across the plain. He reached over and rested a hand on the gravity hammer strapped to his bike. The thrill of the hunt, the rush to the kill. These were the things he lived for.

The fear of death.

That surging, bizarre tide of terror and desperation which had been his constant companion since he was twelve years old. Stray felt it coursing through his veins now as he pushed the Warthog forward, the Brute pack closing in inexorably behind him. The Syndicate’s noose was tightening around his neck. All it took was one wrong move, one bad turn or missed opportunity, and he would be finished.

A glance back at the pursuers revealed that half were splitting off from the rest to bank a wide loop around the side. As he’d suspected, they’d try a pincer maneuver to cut him off before he reached New Tyne.

The city loomed before him on the horizon, at once close and unbearably far away. He’d made it this far. He’d dragged them both out of the fire and across the plains. Now all he had to do was survive just a little longer and he just might escape entirely.

The girl sat beside him, gaping at the grenade satchel with bulging eyes. He should know better than to hope she’d be much use in a fight. He owed her a few favors, true, but here at the end of the race she’d just slow him down. Perhaps fatally so.

Just toss her out. Toss her out and keep going. His own voice pressed in amidst his thoughts, earnest and insistent. She’ll get you killed. Toss her and they might slow a bit. Better her than you.

His fingers twitched against the wheel. He gritted his teeth and kept driving. The urge to reach over and shove her out of the ‘Hog grew more unbearable with each second the Brutes closed in, each second she sat there being useless.

The fear of death.

Explosive bursts from Chopper autocannons slammed down into the ground on either side of the Warthog. He weaved and twisted the jeep back and forth in a vain effort to shake the Brutes’ formation. They were close now. So close. All it took was one of the gunners to get a good hit in and he’d be finished.

With just a little less weight… One hand came off the wheel and crept slowly towards the unsuspecting Zoey.

His helmet com pinged. With a yelp of surprise and relief, Stray yanked his hand back and clicked on his receiver.

“Well then,” Diana’s smug, familiar tone murmured in his ear. That mocking voice had never sounded so beautiful. “Look what you’ve got yourself into this time.”

“Diana! You got a lock—!“He had to cut himself off lest the AI catch him sounding a bit too excited. Mortal peril or not, he’d never hear the end of it. “I mean, where the hell have you been? You know how many times I tried to contact you?”

“And here I thought I’d be hearing some gratitude. You’ve been in a satellite dead zone, you moron. I couldn’t have gotten in touch even if I wanted to go through the effort of rearranging the planet’s com grid. Though the whole city’s been buzzing about you for days. You really know how to kick up a fuss, I’ll give you that.”

Stray opened his mouth to retort and nearly bit his tongue off when a burst of Chopper fire detonated close enough to rock the Warthog’s suspension. He jerked the wheel again, swerving the Warthog into a turn that nearly sent it turning end over end. This time the unexpected move was enough to throw the Brutes off, if only for a moment. Choppers swerved and scraped against each other as they tried to stay on his tail, their riders snarling and barking angrily at each other.

“Please tell me you’ve got something to help here,” he said, straining to keep the Warthog on all four wheels. “Unless you just showed up to enjoy watching them eat me.”

“Careful, that almost sounds like a good time.” A waypoint indicator flashed up on his HUD. “But since you asked me so nicely… you remember that little contingency I cooked up a couple months back?”

“We did a lot of contingencies,” Stray snapped. “And so far none of them have really worked out. Mind being a little more specific?”

“Well, it went a little like all my other plans,” Diana explained languidly, unconcerned by the Choppers closing in on the Warthog. “I came up with a wonderful idea and then you complained about having to spend a night digging holes.”

The Choppers surged forward again, less organized now but far more aggressive. The sweeping turn had drawn the pursuit element further away from the flanking maneuver, but they’d get a clear shot soon.

“Oh right. That.” Stray angled the Warthog towards the waypoint. “And I’m sure you’ve got a way to keep me from getting killed?”

“You’re always so needy. Just follow my markers and drive. Can’t be that hard.”

“We’ll see.” Stray gunned the Warthog as the waypoint neared: a rough patch of dirt less than a mile out from New Tyne’s outskirts. “Hope those arming sensors still work.”

“Well, what’s the point of a trap without a little bit of risk?” Diana paused. “I did miss you, you know. Things just aren’t the same without you running around making life interesting.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’m really feeling the love.” The waypoint neared. Several more indicators flashed up, pointing out over a dozen different spots across the track of land. The Warthog’s engine screamed from the effort. The Choppers raced on behind it, angling for a shot. “And get Cass on the line. Get her over here. I don’t care what she wants in return, I need backup now.”

“Ahead of you, as always. She wasn’t particularly happy to get a call from me, but she’s on her way now.”

“Good, good.” Stray glanced over at the transfixed girl beside him. Maybe they had a chance after all. “Better hold on tight. And cover your ears!”

She stared at him. “Which one is it? I can’t do both!”

“Better figure it out now!” No time to brace. No time to think. Stray swerved between the first two markers and plunged into Diana’s makeshift minefield.

Behind him, the foremost Chopper raced in behind him. A moment later it erupted in a fountain of smoke, fire, and dirt.

Zoey screamed and ducked her head as the world exploded around her. The Warthog jerked left and right as the ground behind it was torn apart by one explosion after another. The alien roars became high-pitched screams. The noise blended together into one huge, awful din.

The grenades tumbled from her lap and bounced around at her feet. She didn’t know if the impact alone could set them off. She really didn’t have the room to care. Every time she thought the world couldn’t get any crazier Stray went and proved her wrong.

Another Chopper disappeared in a blaze of smoke and dirt. It emerged a moment later cracked and burning, its driver on fire. The howling creature leapt clear of its ruined vehicle and grabbed desperately at the Warthog’s side. The vehicle lurched at the added weight. Zoey recoiled as the beast thrust its agonized face at her, scrabbling to hold on.

“Get him off!” Stray screamed over the din.

“How?” The creature bellowed and reached a clawed hand out for her neck.

“Hit the bastard!”

She scrambled for a weapon, a club, anything. Her hand closed around one of the grenades. With a shout of terror she lashed out and smacked the Brute across the face again and again. The creature reeled from the unexpected blows and lost its grip, falling down beneath the Warthog’s wheels. Zoey felt the ugly lurch as the Brute was crushed beneath the tires.

She looked down at the grenade in her hands, covered with soot and blood. She’d done it. She’d beaten one of the monsters. She didn’t know whether to be amazed or horrified.

Another Brute leaped clear of its Chopper and pulled itself up onto the Warthog’s hood. This one was uninjured. It raised a large knife and lunged across the windshield at Stray, who snarled in reply and fumbled for his pistol.

The knife slashed at his throat. He caught it with one hand, grappling with the Brute as the Warthog careened onwards, directionless. Zoey fumbled with the grenade, trying to remember how he’d told her to pull the pin. Stray saw her move and shook his head desperately, still trying to fight off the Brute. “Don’t even think about it!”

He pulled his pistol free of its holster and pressed it up against the Brute’s face. The weapon cracked again and again; the Brute crumpled and slid off the hood. Zoey braced herself as the Warthog lurched again, another corpse run over. Without bothering to holster the pistol, Stray made a grab for the wheel.

Another war cry pierced through the tumult. Stray and Zoey turned in unison to see one Chopper plow through the carnage and veer towards them. There was no time to swerve, no time to shoot back. The Chopper’s prow loomed over them, a whirling mass of gears and metal plates.

Stray lowered his arms in defeat. “Oh, son of a—“

The Chopper slammed into the Warthog and Zoey felt her body go limp. Everything went white as she went flying through the air.

She came to her senses a moment later. Everything hurt: her body, her face, her arms, her legs. She tried to get up, realizing that her sleeves were torn away and blood seeped from cuts all over her arm. Clutching a bloody hand against an even bloodier elbow, she looked desperately around for Stray.

The Warthog lay on its side, cut nearly in two by the Chopper’s prow. The Brute pilot scrambled clear of its vehicle and leaped down towards her. Stray was nowhere to be seen. Zoey backed away, then turned to run as the Brute approached. It drew a bladed gun and raced after her.

She had to get out of her. She had to run. The city was just ahead. If she could make it, she’d be safe. She had to be.

Someone was yelling at her. Maybe it was the Brute. Zoey ignored the voice and kept running.

“Not that way!” Suddenly Stray was beside her, grabbing her by the scruff of her neck and throwing her bodily down into the dirt. He dropped down, pressing one knee against her chest, and ducked as the Brute went skidding past. The beast whirled on them and took one step forward.

One step too far. It vanished in a plume of dirt, bits of bloody meat showering down on them.

Zoey couldn’t hear anything. The ringing in her ears was so loud she thought her head would split open. She glanced up helplessly at Stray as he released her and got to his feet.

The ground around them was littered with wrecked Choppers. The little patch of plains had been transformed into a cratered hellscape full of burning chunks of metal and shattered alien bodies. Zoey wasn’t sure what insane trick Stray had pulled this time, but the pursuing tide had been broken.

And it still wasn’t enough. Already, Brutes were picking themselves up and stumbling forward over the bodies of their comrades. Only two seemed completely uninjured, but even the bleeding and crippled ones seemed twice as tall as Stray. Their eyes burned with furious rage as they drew weapons or pulled makeshift clubs out of the wreckage.

Stray raised his shotgun as the Brutes approached. “Go. Start running.”

“What about you?” The Brutes closed in from all sides, weapons raised.

“Gonna kill these bastards.” Stray’s voice was a low growl. “Then I’ll run, too.”

“There’s no way! You’ll die!”

Stray snorted, training his shotgun on one Brute after another as if daring each to make the first move. “Since when do you care?”

For the first time, Zoey realized that somehow she did care. It wasn’t even a matter of survival anymore. She could run and escape, but the thought of Stray being ripped apart by these furious monsters rooted her feet to the ground. Part of her wanted to run away. Another part wanted to run to his side. She stayed where she was, unable to move at all.

The first Brute leaped forward. Stray blasted it twice in the chest, then spun to kill another as the pack charged as one. Two Brutes fell, then three. A fourth struck Stray in the head with a twisted iron bar. He staggered into another’s blow and tumbled back against the ruins of a Chopper. The shotgun fired one last time, then clicked empty.

He dropped the weapon then and whipped out his pistol, firing wildly at the Brutes around him. Another dropped, but the creatures were too well-armored, too hardy. They raced for him as the pistol fell to the ground and the machete swung free of its sheath.

Stray hacked into a Brute’s neck, tugging the blade free from the dying creature and slashing another across the chest. One came in from behind and grabbed his arm, freeing yet another to plunge a dagger into his chest. Stray recoiled and lashed out at his captor, striking the Brute across the jaw but leaving himself open to more blows from the knife. Blood leaked down across his armor like a drizzling fountain.

The Brute holding him lifted him up into the air for its pack mate to stab. Stray twisted and screamed as the blade sank into his chest. A blue light erupted in his free hand. He swung himself upwards, planting the grenade square on his captor’s face. The Brute cried out in alarm and dropped him, struggling to pry the burning orb free. It vanished amidst a blast that sent Stray and the other Brutes sprawling.

Stray was the first one back up. He yanked the knife out of his chest and leaped atop its owner, stabbing wildly into its throat again and again. There was no longer any calculation or precision in his attacks. He was just as wild and feral as his bestial attackers, lashing out with an even greater level of savagery.

A weapon fired and Stray jerked, a row of spikes suddenly protruding from his arm and sides. He rolled over and used the corpse of his latest victim for cover as a Brute marched forward, its bladed gun pelting the body of its pack mate with more spiked projectiles.

Stray reached over and grabbed his machete but even Zoey could see that he was slowing down. She hadn’t known it was possible for anyone to suffer this much and still keep on fighting, but Stray was at his limit. The remaining Brutes picked their way over the bodies of their comrades as Stray forced himself up into a kneeling position. He leaned wearily on the hilt of the machete, trying and failing to rise and meet his attackers once more.

This was the end.

Zoey fell to her knees, vision blurring. She no longer had the strength to run. Stray knelt where he was and did not rise. Amidst the bodies and hemmed in by the Brutes, he looked smaller than ever. He was alone.

The Brute with the weapon slammed in a new magazine. It trained the blades on Stray’s head. A single shot rang out through the smoke-filled air.

The weapon fell to the dirt. The Brute followed a moment later, a red hole through one of its eyes. Zoey stared at Stray, but he wasn’t holding a gun.

The other Brutes howled and scattered, searching wildly for the new attacker. More shots rang out as one after the other the creatures dropped. The last one standing howled and raced towards Zoey. It staggered and fell amongst its comrades amidst a string of well-placed shots to the chest.

Zoey turned in time to see a new figure emerge from the smoke. This one was human and clad in armor just like Stray’s, albeit cleaner and less battered. It lowered a rifle as it approached her, kneeling down and holding a hand to her forehead.

“Are you alright?” it asked. A woman’s voice, young. “Did you get hit?”

It was all too much. Zoey closed her eyes and fell back into the dirt, letting it all fade away into peaceful nothingness. Distantly, she heard the newcomer calling out a name. Not her's. Someone else's.

"Simon? Simon?"

Who's that? she thought dreamily as even the pain drained away.

Part Two: A Necessary Evil

Chapter Fifteen: Cassandra

Monsters chased Zoey through a burning field. She scrambled over charred bodies and wrecked vehicles, desperate to escape the heat and the flames. Her parents were calling for her; she could hear their voices echoing from all directions. Where were they? She looked about in desperation, but everywhere she turned the voices faded away amidst the roaring fire.

Where are you? she tried to yell, but the words caught in her throat. She gasped and choked, unable to breath. Fire closed in around her. Her legs buckled beneath her and she fell to her knees as a thousand burning mouths tore into her flesh. She watched in horror as her skin melted away, unable even to scream as her skeleton crumbled into ash.

Darkness, then light. Zoey thrashed around, panicking as she realized she was covered by something large and thick. Only after she forced her way upright did she realize that she was fighting with a layer of bedcovers. Gasping and blinking in surprise, she found herself sitting up not in a field but in a bed.

For one beautiful, fleeting moment she let herself believe that it really all had just been one long, awful dream. Stray, the monsters, the fire, the pain, it was all made-up. How could it be real, when here she was in her own bed, her own room, here at home…

But this wasn’t her bed and it wasn’t her room. She was lying on a small, hard cot beneath rough, patched sheets. Rather than the familiar surroundings of home, this room was small and cramped, with cracked walls and a single dim light hanging from the ceilings. Cabinets and crates laden with bandages and aid packets lay all around her along with what she now knew to be ammunition boxes and ration bags. A door sat halfway ajar on the other side of the room, faint light leaking in from the other side.

Zoey pushed the covers away and pulled her legs up to her chest. She realized that her arms were covered with bandages and gauze. They trembled as she remembered the snarling monsters and the roar of the explosions tearing the earth apart around her. She bit her lip and tried not to cry. A few rebellious tears slipped down her cheeks and she angrily brushed them away. She’d cried enough. There was no changing what had happened to her; no going back to the life she’d known just a few days before.

She knew all this, so why did it all still hurt so much?

Trying to find something, anything, to take her mind off the crushing knot in her throat, she looked around the room again. Off in the furthest corner of the room she caught sight of a rifle leaned up against the wall by a small desk. In a small neat pile beside the rifle and the desk lay a stack of armor topped by a broad-visored helmet.

A helmet like Stray’s.

Stray had been fighting the monsters; where was Stray? She remembered him kneeling and wounded on the plains and the other armored figure who had saved them. Maybe this armor belonged to whoever that was. She wasn’t sure she could handle another savior like Stray.

She looked down at herself; aside from the bandages, someone had dressed her in a plain blue jumpsuit, the kind that came in the mass-distribution aid crates that often made their way out to the village markets. The fabric was coarse and uncomfortable, but it was a far cry from her the dirty, sweat-soaked rags her old clothes had been reduced to .

My old clothes. I wonder what happened to them. The old outfit was just as plain as what she wore now, one she’d never thought twice about. But her father had presented it to her the day she’d started working on the farm with the same air of pride he’d once used while unveiling an elegant dress on her mother’s birthday. That dress was gone now, burned to ashes along with the farm and everything in it. Zoey had no doubt that old outfit was in a trash bin somewhere or maybe even burned up as well.

The lump in her throat tightened, the pain so intense that it hurt even to breathe. But she would not cry. She’d already done enough of that.

Limping over to the desk, she stared down at the armor. It was definitely cleaner than Stray’s, better kept and maintained. Cracks and burns still marred the surface, but a seasoned farmhand like Zoey could tell when someone made an effort to keep equipment tidy. It certainly smelled better.

She eyed the rifle, a dull black weapon with a large scope and elongated barrel. She’d never been allowed to touch the rifle her mother kept in the homestead and she hesitated to do so with this one. Even after everything she’d been through—all the weapons she’d seen, the people she’d watched Stray kill—the sight of a weapon so close at hand made her shiver.

Maybe I’ll teach you to use it someday, Lily had said once when Zoey asked to use her rifle. But not for a long time. Maybe never. Some folk might say it’s irresponsible, but I hope you never have to use it.

That was a different time now, a different place. A different life. The strong live, the weak die. That was the cruel maxim Stray lived by. The sight of him surrounded by the Brutes, shooting and stabbing like a cornered animal, played out in her mind. Maybe he was right. Maybe all she could do was be ready to fight and kill anytime, anywhere.

Her trembling fingers reached out and brushed the rifle’s barrel. She expected it to feel cold and smooth and was almost disappointed to feel only the same dull, rough metal she might find on a harvester component. The terrifying instrument of death before her was just another metal tool.

She pulled her hand back. Tool or no, she didn’t want to touch the rifle any longer than she had to. She didn’t even want to look at it for too long. Tearing her gaze away from the rifle, she looked down at the desk. Several diagrams she couldn’t understand were stacked neatly in one corner beside two notebooks and one small book with a worn, featureless blue cover.

Zoey was intrigued. She’d only ever seen two bound books in her entire life. Almost everything else—the news, farming manuals, the picture stories she’d read as a child—were digital scripts read off of datapads and chatters. She lifted the book’s ragged cover and flipped through the pages, squinting at the ocean of small, faded letters.

The violence of the wicked will destroy them, because they refuse to do justice, read a line on one page. She flipped through to another. Naked I was born, and naked I return to the Earth. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Turning even further she found: Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.

It was all very strange, as incomprehensible as the stacked diagrams. She’d never read writing like this. It was almost as if the book were in a different language. Someone had gone through the book with a pen, underlining and circling clumps of words and scribbling cramped notes in the margins. On a blank spot near the back of the book, she found a long list of smudged names.

Erwin, Alex, Terrence, Mary, read one segment. Kodiak, Dyne, Amber, Morgana, Shephard, Ash, Ralph. The writing was sloppy and the names were not so much ordered into lines as scattered haphazardly across the page.

Zoey suddenly got the impression that she was intruding upon something deeply personal. The armor, the rifle, the medical equipment, this book with the strange passages and jumbled lists of names. It was all so foreign, just like this unfamiliar room in some unknown building. A slice of a life she knew nothing about.

“I see you’re up and about.”

The sudden voice startled her so badly that she yelped and jerked so hard that she sent the book flying. It bounced off a wall and tumbled down amidst a crate of bandages with a crash. Zoey stared at the mess in horror, then turned her quavering gaze to the person who had spoken.

A young woman stood in the doorway, observing the spectacle with a raised eyebrow. Clad in a faded blue jumpsuit just like Zoey’s, she had a thin, pale face framed by untidy brown hair. Covering her mouth with one hand, she appraised the girl and the mess with arched eyebrows.

“I…” Zoey’s eyes darted over to the fallen book. She backed away and raised her hands. “I didn’t mean… I’m really sorry!” She tensed, ready for the woman’s eyes to harden and become angry, like Stray.

Only when the young woman lowered her hand did Zoey realize that she was smiling, the corners of her mouth tugging upwards with barely suppressed mirth. Shaking her head, the newcomer picked up the book. She stepped past Zoey and placed it carefully back on the desk before turning to regard Zoey with a kind expression. “I guess I should count myself lucky you weren’t messing with my rifle or something when I startled you. How are you feeling? Can I get you something to eat?”

They were the first kind words she’d heard since the farm burned. Zoey had grown so used to the constant barrage of shouts and insults from Stray, the constant state of terror and pain from the pursuit, that she’d forgotten what gentleness sounded like.

How good it felt.

All Zoey’s self-control went out the window. The pent up tears flooded from her eyes as she desperately tried to wipe them away. Crimson with embarrassment, she turned and hugged herself as sobs wracked her body.

The newcomer blanched. “Shit, I’m sorry. Are you OK? Wait, no, of course you’re not. I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have laughed at you. Please don’t cry.”

If she hadn’t been crying so hard Zoey might have found the change in this stranger’s demeanor funny. She looked so genuinely perplexed and concerned at her tears, at a loss for how to deal with this problem. She stepped forward awkwardly and knelt in front of Zoey, pulling a grubby rag from one of her pockets and trying to wipe at her face.

That was a bit much. As wretched as she felt, Zoey was in no mood for such displays. She yanked the rag out of the young woman’s hands, peeking out at her in between wiping the tears away.

It was easy to tell that this was indeed the armored figure who had gunned down the Brutes out on the plains. The young woman shared Stray’s well-formed muscles as well as his skinny, malnourished frame. Despite her gaunt appearance the newcomer looked more put-together than Stray—or at least she spared the time for a little personal hygiene here and there. There were deep bags under her kind eyes, as if she hadn’t slept in several days.

The stranger caught her looking and smiled. “My name’s Cassandra,” she said. “I know you’ve been through a lot, Chloe. Simon told me…”

“My name’s not Chloe,” Zoey sniffed, rubbing at her eye. “And who’s Simon?”

Cassandra frowned. “It’s not? But he said…”

“He got my name wrong?” Zoey was flabbergasted. After everything they’d been through, this final insult somehow seemed worse than all the other indignities Stray had heaped upon her. Why am I even surprised? “He’s such a jerk!”

The smile returned to Cassandra’s face. “That’s the best you can come up with? I know I’ve called him much worse. So what’s your real name then?”

“It’s Zoey. Zoey Hunsinger.”

“Well then, Zoey, do you want something to eat?” Cassandra pulled a ration bar out of her pocket. “I’m not much of a cook but I’ve got a pretty good stock of these around the clinic.”

Zoey hadn’t realized just how famished she was until Cassandra waved the ration bar in front of her face. It was only after she’d wolfed down half the bar that she thought to take issue with Cassandra’s tone. “You don’t have to treat me like a kid,” she told her between bites.

“Uh, right.” Once again that look of honest apology flashed across Cassandra’s face. She straightened quickly and cleared her throat. “Right. Well, if you’re feeling better…”

“Where are we?” Zoey demanded, wiping ration bar crumbs off her face.

“New Tyne. You’re in my health clinic right now.” Cassandra pursed her lips and looked away. “After everything’s that happened to you… well, you can feel free to stay here as long as you need.”

“But I just met you.”

“Yeah, you did.” Cassandra started to look uncomfortable again. “I don’t suppose you want to see Simon? He’s not in the best shape right now, but he’s awake at least. He told me about everything.”

“Who’s Simon?” Zoey asked again. It took another moment to click with her. “Wait, is that Stray?”

Cassandra made a face and rubbed her temple. “I guess he goes by that name now. I’m not calling him that, no matter how many thugs he rubs shoulders with.”

Zoey guessed that she was scraping at the surface of something she didn’t quite understand. She still wasn't sure what was going on, but at least for the moment they seemed safe and in good hands. She could trust Cassandra... she hoped.

Chapter Sixteen: Contracts

As much as Ger 'Hullen despised Min Ai and everything the Syndicate representative stood for, he couldn't help but admire the human's nerve. Min stood calmly before Mantellus, hands thrust nonchalantly in his pockets as the furious chieftain passed before him. As always Jiyar stood close by, cradling her submachine gun, but even the hooded bodyguard seemed cowed by Mantellus's anger. Ger and his enforcers stood a few paces away from the confrontation, hands close to their weapons. They kept a wary eye on what remained of Mantellus's pack: a handful of Jiralahane in blood-caked armor who looked just as enraged as their leader.

Looking at the decimated pack, Ger felt an odd feeling of queasiness descend upon his stomach. Mantellus's pack were among the most feared mercenaries outside Covenant space, yet here they stood battered and defeated by their lone human prey. Just what had happened out on the plains? And what sort of creature was this Stray, really? Ger had been called in to make an example of some mid-level enforcer with delusions of grandeur, not a killing machine who brought down Warthogs, Falcons, and even Jiralhanae packs. For the first time since coming into this job, Ger didn't feel like he was being forced to stoop to an unworthy task. Instead he was beginning to wonder if he wasn't somehow out of his depth.

He reached down and adjusted his plasma repeater while casting a surreptitious glance at the rooftops above the street. He'd sent Ramos and a team of sharpshooters up to cover the meeting place before the Jiralhanae pack arrived. They'd be needed if things with Mantellus got out of hand--and the extent of the chieftain's fury gave Ger little doubt that he wasn't here to simply apologize for failing to capture Stray.

Ger's position was precarious enough as it was. If Mantellus ripped Min Ai limb from limb Ger just might find himself on the run as well.

"Over half my warriors, dead or maimed!" Mantellus was snarling. He paced in front of Min Ai, trembling in rage. Ger noted that the chieftain’s armor didn’t seem as battered as that of his warriors. Aside from the layer of dust that came with the dirt kicked up by the Choppers, he looked distinctly unhurt. “Some of my best vehicles, destroyed!”

Min Ai was unfazed by the chieftain’s ranting. “My condolences,” he said with a polite nod.

“Spare me your false sympathy, human,” Mantellus snarled. “I demand compensation!”

“Compensation?” Min Ai cocked his head. His voice remained level but Ger had worked for the Syndicate long enough to hear the edge in his tone. “You mean, payment for a job left unfinished? The terms of your contract were clear, Mantellus. You’ll get your credits after you bring down Stray, and not a moment before.”

“You humans and your contracts,” Mantellus sneered. “We were brought into this deal under false pretenses. This human was far more dangerous than you let on. He had help from inside this city, and your own forces did nothing to support our search!”

“You were told you were hunting a dangerous fugitive.” Min Ai shrugged. “It’s only natural he might have a few allies here in New Tyne. Why else would he try running back to the city? As for our support, I believe you told my associate Ger ‘Hullen that you wanted him to stay out of your way. After Stray brought down our Falcon, there really wasn’t much more in the way of support he could have provided for you.”

He folded his arms. “The contract remains the same. Bring me Stray and we’ll discuss adjusting your fee to account for your… unexpected losses.”

“Contract?” Mantellus’s voice dropped to a low murmur. Ger stiffened and reached for his repeater. He knew these creatures well enough to know just how dangerous a tone like that was. When Jiralhanae bellowed and raged, they were ready to kill. When they spoke softly, they were ready to kill everything. “There is no contract, human. I will not disgrace my pack any further. You will compensate us for the losses we incurred on your idiotic mission.”

He loomed over Min Ai, fists clenched. Though the chieftain stood at over twice his height, Min didn’t even flinch. Jiyar stepped forward and started bringing her weapon to bear, but the Syndicate representative simply placed a hand on the barrel and pushed it back down.

“I’m afraid you’re mistaken, chieftain.” There was no mistaking the hard edge in Min’s voice now. He gazed up into Mantellus’s face without a twinge of fear. “There is a contract. Several, in fact. The one in which you agreed to help kill Stray. And then the ones that allow your pack to even operate on this planet in the first place. Those same contracts that compel me to come down here and waste time listening to your idiotic demands instead of simply having you killed outright.”

Mantellus recoiled, eyes bulging in anger. “You dare—“

“You agreed to these contracts when it suited you,” Min continued mercilessly. “Now you hold those same contracts in contempt and try to use your own incompetence as a crutch. Wake up, chieftain. This isn’t the galaxy your thuggish ancestors grew up in. Do you really think bandits like you have any real power out here?”

He took a step closer to the quivering chieftain, completely uncowed by a creature seconds from ripping his head off. “This isn’t your galaxy anymore.”

Mantellus’s fist came up but Ger ‘Hullen was already in motion. He crossed the space between himself and his employer in an instant, the energy daggers in his gauntlets flashing to life. The chieftain’s meaty fist slammed down and Ger’s entire body buckled under the force as he intercepted the blow. Flesh hissed and gave way before the energy blades as Mantellus snarled in pain. Ger ignored the pain in his arms and yanked the blades apart, severing the chieftain’s hand.

Jiyar had her SMG up and firing now, peppering Mantellus’s armor with bullets. The Jiralhanae staggered under the gunfire, still trying to reach Min Ai even as he clutched the bleeding stump where his hand had been. This needed to end fast, before the other Jiralhanae recovered from their surprise and joined in the attack.

Ger flicked his energy sword on and strode in close to Mantellus, ducking under the chieftain’s outstretched arms. His first blow slashed Mantellus across the belly, just beneath the gap in his breastplate. The second severed the tendons beneath Mantellus’s arm as it fumbled for a knife. The third drew the tip of the blade swiftly across Mantellus’s neck, neatly slitting his throat.

A textbook sword drill, honed and refined across the proud tradition of Sangheili swordcraft, brought to bear in defense of Min Ai and the interests of the Syndicate. Ger ‘Hullen took no pride in his achievement as Chieftain Mantellus fell limp into the dirt.

The Jiralhanae warriors stared down at their fallen leader, stunned. Ger didn’t bother waiting to see if they’d back down. He no longer had any patience for these games. “Ramos!” he barked into his communicator. “Take them down!”

Several muffled cracks filled the air as Ramos and his sharpshooters opened fire. The Jiralhanae jerked and crumpled under the shots, caught in a crossfire as the enforcers behind Ger stepped forward and joined in on the slaughter. Jiyar caught Min Ai by the collar and forced him to the ground as bullets and plasma fire hissed overhead.

The slaughter lasted for less than a minute. Not a single one of Mantellus’s warriors even managed to bring their weapons to bear. None of them even had a chance to run. The enforcers fired again and again, even after not a single warrior was left standing. Ger raised a fist and waved it irritably. “Enough!” he barked. “Cease fire, all of you!”

His enforcers reluctantly obeyed. They were all tired and irritated from the days spent searching fruitlessly across the plain. Gunning down the Jiralhanae was clearly a much-needed outlet for their frustrations. Ramos’s voice crackled over Ger’s com. “All clear, boss.”

Ger looked down at Mantellus’s broken corpse. A powerful warrior, leader of a vicious raiding pack, paragon of all the traits his violent species valued, cut down in the street in a squabble with some human businessman. As much as he despised Jiralhanae, Ger couldn’t help but pity the fallen Mantellus.

And I was the one who killed him. To protect Min Ai. Ger glanced back at the Syndicate representative, who stood and dusted himself off while surveying the bloodied heap of bodies with a look of casual satisfaction. He wondered just how much of Min’s words had been directed at Mantellus and how much had been meant for him. This isn’t your galaxy anymore.

“Nicely done, Ger,” Min said casually as Jiyar helped steady him. “A bit messy, but I guess I can’t really complain.”

He sighed and shook his head at the corpses. “A shame. They were valuable trackers, if a bit rough around the edges.”

“Did you really have to provoke him like that?” Jiyar asked irritably. “You’re not making my job any easier.”

“Yes, well I’d hate to see your life get boring,” Min said with an easy smile, as if he hadn’t just faced down a furious Jiralhanae. “Besides, we needed to send a message. I’d hate for other enforcers to start imitating Stray and Mantellus’s independent streaks.”

Giving his suit one final dusting, Min Ai turned away from the carnage and set off down the street towards the corner where his private car awaited him. “Someone find out where they parked their Choppers,” he called back over his shoulder. “Might as well find a use for them, seeing how Mantellus won’t be needing them anymore. There’s always someone willing to pay for a few new toys.”

He jerked a thumb at Ramos as the enforcer clambered down from his overwatch perch. “You, take charge here. Get these bodies cleaned up before the city council complains. I’ve got enough on my plate without needing to attend another one of their tedious hearing sessions.”

“Yes, sir.” Ramos moved quickly with no trace of his usual casual attitude. Ger would have bristled at Min’s ability to command the respect he himself could never achieve from the enforcers had he not felt so utterly weary. Not only of this hunt, but of this planet, this system, this whole blasted galaxy. This isn’t your galaxy anymore. But he still had to live in it, along with all the other greed-driven scum he despised so.

His thoughts turned to that farm on the plains and the humans his enforcers had so casually butchered. At the time he’d felt no sympathy. After all, they’d only been humans unfortunate enough to get in the way of their betters. But now as he pictured the burning farm in his mind’s eye, he could see the smoke rising from his own keep on Sanghelios. Like the farmers, his clan had wished only for a simple life. And yet they’d died all the same when war came calling.

Great and small, strong and weak. We all have to live in this wretched universe. For a moment he let his bitterness extend to the deaths of the farmers. In the end, what could they have done in the grand scheme of things? Had they denied Stray shelter he undoubtedly would have killed them. And had they sold him out while he slept on their property the farm would most likely have been destroyed anyway. Their fate had been decided from the outset, when those more powerful than they had crashed down upon their lives.

He wondered if in the end he was any different from those wretched farmers. Had he been born a generation earlier, he might have won glory as an officer of the proud Covenant Empire. Instead he was reduced to little more than a paid thug, taking orders from human criminals without a shred of honor. For all his warrior’s pride he was ultimately little better than Ro’nin. At least that vermin was honest about his own disgrace. Was there ever really anything I could do to avoid this?

A cough from Min Ai interrupted his thoughts. The Syndicate official crooked a finger in Ger’s direction, beckoning him over. “Ger. A word, if you please?”

As always, the urge to disobey crept into Ger’s mind. And as always he ignored it, stepping over Mantellus’s body to answer the summons like a good lackey. He holstered his weapons and fell into step beside Min and Jiyar while the other enforcers scurried to drag the bodies out of the street.

“I think I owe you a bit of an apology,” Min said, wiping his brow and shielding his gaze from the sun overhead. “Stray’s proven a lot more resourceful than any of us gave him credit for. I’m really starting to think I should have paid him more.”

“And perhaps I should have asked more questions when you gave me an entire convoy to hunt one rogue enforcer,” Ger rejoined. “Mantellus came close, even if he let Stray slip away in the end. No single human could ever outfight an entire Jiralhanae pack. If he has allies, this could be part of something bigger.”

Min shook his head. “I know Stray well enough to be sure he’s not part of some larger conspiracy. No, he’s just very good at staying alive. But I admit, I did leave out a few details when I brought you into this job. Don’t take it personally. The length of time I’ve been doing this, I can’t help being secretive.”

“Your business is your business,” Ger replied. “But I won’t let secrets allow Stray to keep making a fool of me. My reputation is at stake here. Not just as one of your enforcers, but as a warrior.”

“Yes, and without reputation, what do we have?” Min flashed a sympathetic smile. As with Mantellus, Ger’s superior height didn’t seem to bother him in the slightest. “But at this point, I feel it’s fair to warn you: hunting him here isn’t the same as out on the plains. A few firefights can be swept under the rug. But you can’t start a street war in New Tyne.”

“Even when it serves the Syndicate’s interests? You need Stray dead. Why should the city council’s opinion matter?”

“Because, as much as I hate to admit it, the Syndicate isn’t all powerful.” Min Ai reached the car and stepped back as Jiyar opened a side door for him. “We provide this planet and the rest of the independent colonies with economic opportunities they normally couldn’t dream of without the UEG. As long as we line their pockets, they keep on playing their little independence game and let us go about our business. But once our activities start hurting their profits, they start remembering all the high-minded rhetoric about freedom and ending corruption.”

Ger’s stomach churned. The last thing he needed right now was a lecture on what greedy vermin humans really were. “I will use restraint.”

“Please do.” Min took a step closer, voice growing softer. “You aren’t the only one with a reputation on the line, Ger. I’ve maximized the Syndicate’s profits here on Venezia and they’ve rewarded me for my achievements. But if they get so much as a hint that I don’t have the situation under control here they will replace me with someone far less amicable. And believe me, that won’t be good for anyone.”

“Stray dies.” Ger wasn’t sure how comfortable he was with Min’s sudden burst of confidentiality. “We both want this affair over and done with.”

“I’m glad we understand each other.” Min smiled again and ducked into the car. But he paused and glanced back up at Ger. “Oh, and one more thing about Stray. Do you know how he came to work for me in the first place?”

“Does it matter?” Ger had heard the drunken stories of dozens of enforcers, each more boring than the last. He didn’t particularly care where his prey came from or why he’d stooped to working for the Syndicate in the first place. His own tale was depressing enough without the reminder that he was hardly unique among the scum Min Ai employed.

“In this case, I’d say it does.” Min settled into his seat as Jiyar started the car. “There’s a reason he doesn’t use his real name. There’s a city on Earth called Philadelphia. Big urban center. Ever heard of it?”

“You’ll forgive me if I haven’t studied your culture too deeply.”

“Fair enough.” Min Ai chuckled, but the smile quickly faded from his lips. “Stray bombed it. Leveled entire city blocks. Thousands dead, countless more injured. The worst attack on Earth since the Covenant invasion, I’m told. The UNSC has Stray listed at the same threat level as major Insurrectionist leaders and even a few Covenant warlords.”

Ger cocked his head. "If he's so dangerous, why did you only have him working as some low level enforcer?" He kept his tone mild, but something stirred within him at the mention of Stray's exploits. A warrior capable of that kind of destruction, forced to play the role of a Syndicate lackey? No wonder Stray had rebelled. And if a human like that was capable of such defiance, what did that make Ger?

"I have my reasons." Min shrugged and reached for the car door. "Just don't underestimate him. I'll be waiting to here from you. Don't forget, I want results."

"You'll have them." Ger turned away as the car pulled off into the street. He glanced back at his enforcers, still busy clearing up the remains of Mantellus's pack. Yes, he'd hunt Stray down. He still needed the Syndicate if he was ever to leave this gods-forsaken hellhole.

But maybe I've found something more than just prey here...

Chapter Seventeen: Deserters

Everything was a mess.

Stray grimaced down at the gear spread out on the table before him, doing his best to ignore the pain still coursing through his body and focus on all the repairs and adjustments he'd need to make before his fighting load was anywhere near back to full capacity. Keeping track of it all was like trying to do long division in his head while someone jabbed him repeatedly in the head. As if he didn't have enough problems coursing through his mind.

He needed to focus. Now wasn’t the time to lose his grip, no matter how badly his wounds ached. The priority was getting back into fighting shape as quickly as possible—easier said than done, to be sure, but brutally necessary all the same. He’d survived the plains, but now he was right back where he’d started: in the heart of Syndicate territory with a price on his head.

And now Cassandra was involved again…

Stray gritted his teeth against the pain from his throbbing wounds. He leaned in closer to his mangled equipment and once again tried to take stock of the damages but he could still see a burning farm and the corpses of the Hunsingers, dead simply because he’d showed up at their doorstep. Two more bodies on the pile. One more orphan marooned in a cruel galaxy. His fault.

Their fault. His hands clenched angrily against the tabletop. I got the girl out. No one asked me to do it, but I did it anyway. Let someone else take responsibility for once. He was sick of always shouldering the blame.

The clinic burned in his mind’s eye. The Syndicate hadn’t hesitated to torch that farm. They’d think nothing of destroying this clinic and the surrounding slums to smoke him out. More death, more destruction. And that would be his fault as well no matter what he did. He seemed to bring the carnage with him wherever he went. What a remarkable gift I have.

The thought that he could possess such power simply by being alive brought a strange smile to his lips. Most people in these slums were lucky to be noticed by anyone at all, and here he was making powerful people angry enough to come after him by the dozens. Who’d have thought that the runt, a failure like him, could be capable of such great feats of destruction? The idea amused him, but not for long.

Looking around the empty clinic, he wondered what was taking Cassandra so long in the back. No doubt she was trying to comfort Zoey—trying, and tripping all over herself. She was as bad with kids as he was, as much as she refused to admit it. She could take Zoey off his hands then, if she felt as bad about everything as she said she did. What was that story she’d told him once? The Good Samaritan, whatever the hell a Samaritan was. Let her play that while he focused on getting himself—and them, too—out of this mess.

His resentment at the whole situation burned a moment longer until he took in the dirty walls and poorly-stocked medical cabinets. Cassandra’s work, all the good she’d struggled to achieve since they’d arrived on Venezia, was about to go up in smoke and here he thought only of whose fault it all was. Like you always do.

A soft groan slipped past his lips. What happened to make you like this? Zoey had screamed out on the plains. Like what? A petty, shortsighted killer only worried about saving his own hide? Or worse, a cynic with the nerve to look down at someone else’s efforts to do good.

He needed to get them all out of this. The desperation kindled in his gut and rose through his aching limbs. Somehow, he need to end this.

They need to go ahead and attack. Before I drive myself crazy. Nothing good ever came of being left alone with his thoughts like this. He needed to get back in touch with Diana, no matter how much Cassandra didn’t want the AI in her clinic. She always knew how to talk him past these messy reflections.

After seeing Stray bloodied and overwhelmed on the plains, Zoey expected to find him a barely conscious wreck. Instead, when Cassandra led her out from the back room she was greeted with the sight of a heavily bandaged but otherwise unfettered Stray leaning over a table strewn with armor and weapons. An IV tube protruded from his forearm and every so often he flinched when trying to move but otherwise he seemed just as alert and on edge as ever.

For a moment, seeing him bandaged and remembering how hard he’d fought to keep them both alive, Zoey felt a strange sense of relief to find him alright. Something about seeing the scruffy fighter alive made her feel safe, as if his aura of invulnerability somehow extended over to her. A small warmth kindled in her, a kind feeling she couldn’t remember associating with Stray before.

And then of course he ruined everything by looking up and fixing her with that familiar derisive stare. “Look who finally woke up,” he said, reminding her just how tempting it was to punch him in the face. “Took your time about it. I was starting to think you’d really kicked the—“

A look from Cassandra cut him short. He met her gaze for just a moment, then jerked his head and turned back to the equipment spread out before him. Zoey watched the unspoken exchange, puzzled. Stray hadn’t mentioned this strange new figure out on the plains, yet clearly he knew her well enough to take shelter in her home—and she was somehow able to put an end to his ceaseless jibes. Stray lifted his helmet from the table, inspecting its cracked and dented visor, and Zoey remembered the similar armor she’d seen in the back room.

Stray, with his battered, misshapen armor and barely restrained brutality. Cassandra, with her cleaner armor and precision rifle, cutting down Brutes as she advanced on the plains. Far kinder than Stray and yet just as capable of dealing out death. And they were young. Older than Zoey, but not by much. Just who were these people?

She suddenly felt like a stranger intruding on something she couldn’t possibly understand. Uncomfortable, she backed away from Cassandra and looked about the room. It was larger than the side room she’d awoken in, but not by much. From the dim light percolating through the room’s single, slitted window she surmised that the building was partially underground. A few grubby cots lined the walls and several storage crates served as makeshift cabinets. An effort had clearly been made to keep the space clean, but even farm-raised Zoey could tell that this building was hardly ideal for a home, let alone a medical clinic.

Hardly a home. And yet Cassandra lived here all the same. She wondered where Stray lived. Did he even have a place of his own?

Cassandra stepped over to the table. Reaching down, she ran a finger over Stray’s breastplate and inspected the flakes of dried blood that rubbed off. “What a mess. How much will it take to repair this time?”

“A lot.” Stray tossed the helmet back onto the table with an irritated gesture. “More than I can afford just to make the armor functional again, let alone the heads up display and the other internal systems.”

“And the way things are now, you’ll be lucky if any techie on the planet will do business with you. Maybe it’s time to ditch the SPI. Is it really worth holding onto it now?”

Stray’s mouth tightened. “Yeah, because you’ve been so quick to get rid of your suit.”

“Mine doesn’t get shot to pieces every month,” she countered. “And I don’t use it nearly as much as you use yours.”

“I need to be familiar with my gear.” Stray waved a hand at the battered arsenal before him. “You think I keep repairing this junk because it makes me feel better about everything? I know how it works and how it breaks. Easier to fix when things go wrong. It’d cost me double to replace it all even if I just bought a bunch of third-rate Misrah knock-offs.”

“And it would make you sad to give away all your toys, seeing how sentimental you get about them.”

Zoey tensed at the teasing. She glanced over to the door to the back room, ready to bolt and hide when Stray lost his temper. But instead of the expected eruption he just shot Cassandra an exasperated glance before looking back down at his armor with an almost bashful expression. “Don’t try to tell me you don’t get sentimental about stuff,” he said sheepishly.

She must have pumped him full of drugs, Zoey decided. Something to help with his wounds. There was no way this subdued, self-conscious young man was the same cruel thug who had insulted and driven her so brutally over the plains. The mere thought of that ordeal sent painful shivers coursing down her body.

Cassandra noticed the distress on her face. “Sorry,” she said quickly. “I meant to get you something to eat. I’ll be back in a minute.” She headed over to the front of the clinic and disappeared behind a row of plastic curtains, leaving Stray and Zoey alone. Stray watched her go out of the corner of his eye and was turning back to the equipment when he noticed the piercing stare Zoey leveled at him.

“What?’ he demanded, but even with Cassandra gone his voice carried none of the overt hostility Zoey had come to expect from him. “She’s the one with the food, not me.”

“I know that,” Zoey snapped crossly. “I’m not a dog. Why are you two so nice with each other? Doesn’t she know how mean you are?”

“She did save our lives,” Stray pointed out. “Kind of hard to be an asshole to the person who patched me up and took us in after all that.”

“So, what, you two know each other?” Perhaps it wasn’t wise to needle him like this. There was no telling what might set him off again. “You just don’t want to yell at me in front of her.”

Stray fixed her with a cold stare and for a moment she thought she’d gone too far. But then he just let out a disgusted snort and rolled his eyes. “Oh, quit sulking you little brat. I got you out of there alive, didn’t I?”

“I thought you just said Cassandra was the real one who saved us.” Why did any of this matter? Stray was right, she was alive. But looking at him reminded her that her mother and father weren’t. She couldn’t see his face without seeing the burning farm. Maybe it wasn’t really his fault, but someone had to take the blame and right now he was the only one available. If he’d just say he was sorry…

“And before that, who pissed you off enough to keep you moving all that time we were out there? Yeah, I was a son of a bitch. You said I was ‘mean.’ Believe me, some idiots would say what I put you through was unforgivable. But they’ve never been pushed to their limits and had to keep going. Cassandra’s nice now because she doesn’t like being nasty when she doesn’t have to be. But if it’d been her out there and not me, she’d have done the same thing. We went through the same kind of training. She knows you can’t always be the nice one.”

He leaned back and massaged his throat, as if talking so much was a strain. But he didn’t sound angry this time. If anything, he just sounded tired. After another moment he looked back at her and said, “You got through it, though, and that says a lot about you. Not a whole lot of adults could do that, let alone some… how old are you again?”

“Twelve,” she snapped, but her anger was swiftly slipping away. She knew it was the closest thing to an apology she would get from him, but for some reason it was enough to hear him talk to her again without the bitterness and hatred she’d heard out on the plains. “And my name’s not Chloe either,” she added, remembering that particular grievance.

Stray paused and frowned up at the ceiling. “Oh right. Whoops.”

She grimaced at him again, but this time Stray surprised her. Rather than snapping back with another insult, his mouth simply quirked into a wan simile. “You’re tough,” he told her, and for once he sounded completely serious. “Don’t sell yourself short. You’ll get tougher.”

“It’s just the way things are out here, right?” she said, remembering what he’d said on the plains. “You weren’t just saying that to keep me moving.”

“Yeah.” He shrugged and ran a hand over his battered equipment. “Can’t do anything about that. Neither of us can. But you’ll learn. One way or another. You get used to it.

Zoey didn’t want to get used to such a cruel world. A world without her parents. Without her home. The horrible, empty feeling in her stomach tightened as she realized just how alone she really was now. But she was determined not to cry anymore. Not with Stray right in front of her, finally treating her like something more than just a burdensome nuisance. “They’re still after us, aren’t they?”

“Yeah.” He was already back to work mending his gear, running a greasy rag through the disassembled components of his shotgun. “They’re still after me, anyway.”

“But they’ll find me too.” She bored a hole into his head with her gaze. “And they’ll kill me.”

He looked back up at her, eyes narrowed. But he wasn’t angry or annoyed this time. No, she realized, he was radiating the same harsh determination that kept him moving out on the plains, kept him fighting through his wounds even as the Brutes closed in from all sides. He’d always had that look, from even the beginning when she’d found him down by the river. Back then all she’d seen was something frightening and bestial. But now, after everything she’d endured on the plains, she recognized it for what it was. A determination to struggle and survive and win no matter what.

Maybe, just maybe, that determination would keep her alive too. And maybe she might be able to find that same fire inside herself.

“We won’t let that happen,” he said with quiet certainty. “And neither will you. Survival’s a choice, remember? I thought I taught you that out there. You chose to live. Remember that.”

Zoey searched for words but she found herself struck dumb by the abrupt change in Stray’s demeanor. For a moment she could forget everything that had happened and just lose herself in the confidence that everything really would be alright. Stray would make sure of that. And so would Cassandra. Perhaps she wasn’t so alone after all.

“It’s not much,” Cassandra’s voice cut in. She returned holding a thick plastic bag. Wisps of smoke curled up from its folded corners. “But it’s what I’ve got. Hot meal’s a hot meal.”

Stray’s nostrils flared as he sniffed the air. “Self-cooking MRE,” he observed. “Not the garbage militia brand either. Another UNSC ship get raided in-system?”

Cassandra shook her head. She cleared space on another table and motioned for Zoey to take a seat in front of the smoking bag. “They don’t need to get them through piracy anymore. The Syndicate’s opened up a few new trade routes while you were gone. Frontier’s flooding with military surplus. And you’d be surprised how much people will barter for a bit of medical expertise.”

“Making house calls now? Guess you’ll need to do more of that now that…” Stray trailed off and clenched his jaw. He met Cassandra’s gaze for a moment before looking back down at his equipment. “Never mind.”

Zoey didn’t understand much of the curious exchange, but right now it didn’t matter. She took the spoon Cassandra offered and prodded the bag open. The contents were thick and lumpy, but the smell of food reminded her just how hungry she was. Her stomach didn’t let her worry over how anything looked.

The gruel was surprisingly tasty in spite of its looks and Zoey quickly scooped more of it into her mouth once it had cooled. This discovery must have registered on her face because Cassandra grinned and nodded at the bag. “I know it doesn’t look like much, but the UNSC always makes sure its rations at least try to taste good.”

Zoey paused between mouthfuls. She remembered something her father had said to Stray at the dinner table that night, something about the UNSC. That conversation felt like it had been overheard by another person, in another life. What was it Stray said? “You guys know the UNSC? They’re the ones from Earth, right? Is that where you’re from?”

“No,” Stray said, quickly and emphatically. “We’re not UNSC. Definitely not from Earth.”

Cassandra shot him a sidelong glance. She pursed her lips, rubbing her chin as if thinking something over. “Not anymore,” she said finally. “I guess you could say we grew up in the UNSC, though.”

“So what are you doing here?” Zoey guessed that Cassandra was an offworlder like Stray. She looked about his age, and shared his armor and fighting skills. They must have both come from the same place, wherever that was. She didn’t know much about the UNSC, aside from what she picked up from her parents’ occasional grumblings. Were there lots more people like Stray and Cassandra out there? “I hear everything’s great on the UNSC planets. There’s always lots of food and tech and no one’s poor, as long as you don’t mind the government always checking in on you.”

Stray snorted without looking up. Cassandra raised a hand to cover a smile. Zoey flushed and looked down at the MRE, realizing she’d let her imagination get the better of her. “That’s just what I’ve heard, anyway,” she muttered.

“Well, I don’t remember much about my homeworld, so maybe things were like that,” Cassandra said with a shrug. “But we sure got a lot of MREs where we grew up.”

“Yeah, but those were Navy rations,” Stray interjected. “They didn’t taste nearly as good. And half the time we weren’t even allowed to use the heaters. And then they’d interrupt meal time with artillery strikes. I’d nearly choke to death trying to get it all in before the arty rounds hit. At least the MREs beat the times they told us to just figure out meals for ourselves.”

“I think my MRE record was about two minutes,” Cassandra said thoughtfully.

“One minute, every time,” Stray boasted. He sounded strangely wistful, staring up at the ceiling as if recalling a fond memory. “Sometimes even less.”

“Only because you’d stash half your bag away for later.” They shared a brief laugh and it surprised Zoey to realize just how good this moment felt. Even if she only understood half of what was being said, no one was angry or trying to hurt her. Sitting in front of her meal and watching two people casually reminisce, she felt warm and safe. If only for a moment.

“So you guys were with the UNSC?” she asked carefully, not wanting to spoil the moment.

“We used to be,” Cassandra admitted. “We’re…”

“Deserters.” Stray’s expression hardened. “Traitors.”

“Simon…” Cassandra’s tone hardened and Zoey hunched lower in her seat, once again on edge.

Stray met Cassandra’s eyes. Something unspoken passed between them there, something Zoey wasn’t sure she even wanted to understand.

“Sorry,” Stray said after a moment. But this time he didn’t look away. “My way of putting it.”

“Not mine.”

“I know.” He sighed and set his weapon components aside. Standing up, he put on a dirt-brown jacket to cover up his bandages and hefted a bulky chatter device. “I need to get in touch with Diana. It won’t take the Syndicate long to figure out where we went.”

“Not in here you won’t.” Cassandra hadn’t lost her warning tone.

“Yeah, yeah.” Stray zipped up the jacket. “Don’t worry, she hates you, too.”

He turned and headed for the door. “I’ll be back in a few. Won’t go far.”

Zoey watched him go and realized that for just a moment he’d seemed like someone normal as he bantered with Cassandra. Of course, then he’d gone and ruined it. Just like he always did.

Cassandra walked with him to the exit. “She’s going to come up with something dangerous, just like she always does,” she warned as he slipped a pistol under his jacket.

“I’ll need something dangerous if I’m going to fix this mess.” He couldn’t help shooting a guilty look back at Zoey. “We’ll need something dangerous.”

She followed his eyes. “It’s not your fault. Not all of it, anyway.”

Stray shook his head. “Don’t. Not to her, anyway. She likes you already. Let’s not make things complicated for her.”

Cassandra folded her arms. “But she needs to know what you were doing out there. Why the Syndicate’s after you in the first place.”

“Does she? Definitely not right now.” He hefted the chatter. “But we’ll need Diana to help coordinate. Draw them away from here before they burn it to the ground.”

Cassandra glanced around at the clinic. “I won’t let that happen.” She’d put a lot of work into this dilapidated shack, Stray knew. There were plenty of people in New Tyne’s slums who relied on it just to keep themselves alive. It wasn’t just pride motivating her to defend the place.

She looked back at him. “It was still the right thing to do, pushing back against what they do.”

“Maybe.” He moved for the door. “But right now the right thing to do probably isn’t the one that’s going to keep us all alive.”

Chapter Eighteen: Moving Into Place

"When will you have this rabble in place?" Ger 'Hullen demanded.

Ramos shouldered his rifle and gave Ger an apologetic shrug before turning back to the enforcers milling about the motor pool. “Sorry boss, but you know how it is. We only just got back from the field, and now they’re sending us out on such short notice. The boys are a bit—“

“I don’t care about their mewling complaints,” Ger snapped. “Either you deal with their morale problems and hurry them along, or I’ll take matters into my own hands.”

He glared down at Ramos from his perch and passed a hand over his plasma repeater. “Make sure they know that.”

The human enforcer set his jaw and nodded. He hurried off into the motor pool, barking orders at the enforcers. Ger couldn’t hear what was said, but from the looks of things the criminals got the message. Humans and Kig-Yar scattered, suddenly beset by a newfound sense of urgency. Good. He wouldn’t have minded shooting a few as an example to the others, but that would mean wasting more time explaining things to Min Ai. The Syndicate was not overly fond of wasting fighting power.

Most of the enforcers assembled in the garage were the same crew Ger had brought out with him onto the plains. Ramos had a point: they were all tired from days of fruitless pursuit. Syndicate enforcers weren’t real soldiers; they weren’t used to protracted operations. They preferred to rush in, kill whoever the Syndicate wanted dead, and be in the tavern by evening to squander the day’s wages. But Ger didn’t have time to call in more muscle and he didn’t particularly care how tired and disgruntled these scum were. He didn’t expect them to have any urge to avenge their fallen comrades, but maybe anger at Stray might motivate them to fight through the fatigue.

And if that wasn’t enough, then he really would make an example of any malingerers.

Surveying the enforcers’ preparations, he caught sight of Ro’nin sidling into the motor pool. The wiry Sangheili ambled over to his perch and leaned up against a nearby crate, arms folded in his usual air of casual disregard. “Well, well, look at all this commotion. Planning for a big night on the town?”

Ger clicked his mandibles in irritation. “Where have you been?” Ro’nin had vanished the moment the Syndicate convoy arrived back in New Tyne, not even waiting to help intercept Mantelus’s pack. Like Ger, he was a valuable enough enforcer that he could afford to do as he pleased.

And unlike Ger—as was becoming increasingly clear—he didn’t have to worry about the responsibility for failure falling upon his head.

The same thought seemed to occur to Ro’nin, and infuriatingly enough he had the gall to relish it. “Oh, I went back to my little apartment. Cleaned my filthy body, wiped down my armor, got a bit of sleep.” He grinned up at Ger. “Hope I didn’t miss anything too important.”

Ger didn’t bother wasting breath on chastising his fellow Sangheili. With one as despicable as Ro’nin, there really wasn’t any point. “We know where Stray is,” he explained, indicating the enforcers. “He must have retreated to a slum on the outskirts of the city, one he’s operated out of before.”

Ro’nin nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, I know the place. A bit cramped, but there’s only one of him. Two now, I suppose, since he had help evading the Jiralhanae.”

“The fight with Mantellus must have taken a toll. He’s wounded. Weakened. Tired. He’s proven himself a capable warrior, but this ends tonight.”

“Capable. That’s one way of putting it, I suppose.” Ro’nin looked back at the motor pool. Ramos and the other enforcers loaded several Warthogs full of ammunition and drove them out into the evening’s slowly dimming light. “And you seem to have them rather well armed for taking care of one weak, tired human. Min Ai doesn’t care about collateral then?”

“They will be restrained. But as long as the fighting is contained in the slums the local government won’t complain. No one cares if a few vagrants get caught up in this.”

“True, true.” Ro’nin pushed off from the crate and stretched. His air of confidence was beginning to get on Ger’s nerves. It was so easy for wretches like him, with no pride or ambition to speak of. All they needed to do was take care of their own hides and skulk in the shadow of warriors like Ger, the ones shouldering all the real responsibility. “Well, I suppose we really do have Stray cut off this time.”

“Indeed.” Ger tried to focus on the pulse of the fight to come. He wasn’t sure he could count on Ro’nin or any of the other enforcers not to bungle things, but he’d already decided on one certainty: he would be the one to kill Stray. Perhaps in coming to blows with this strange creature who had dared defy the Syndicate he might find the spirit he needed to do the same and break free.

“Let’s not get too confident though,” Ro’nin was saying. “You know what humans say about cornered rats.”

Ger grunted, only half paying attention. His mind was still set on the battle ahead. Would Stray be able to put up much of a fight? He dearly hoped his quarry didn’t disappoint him at the very end of the chase. “I can’t say that I do.”

“Well, it’s not that important.” Ro’nin walked towards the waiting Warthogs. “Come, brother warrior, let me help you achieve your glorious victory.”

When this was all over, Ger decided, Ro’nin might just meet a rather unfortunate end in one of New Tyne’s back alleys. It wouldn’t do to let vermin like him keep heaping disgrace upon their people.

Cassandra wore a strange look when she walked back in from seeing Stray out. She didn’t exactly look unhappy, but Zoey had seen her father wear the same face whenever her mother overruled him on some farming matter or business decision. Irritated, but not willing to start a fuss over whatever the problem was.

Now that it was just the two of them in the clinic, Zoey felt awkward just sitting there in front of the empty MRE bag. She slipped her spoon inside, careful not to leave a mess on the table. “Where’s the recycling bin?” she asked, as politely as possible.

Cassandra looked startled, as if jolted out of a distant train of thought. “Oh, I’ll take care of it.” She plucked the bag off the table and crossed over to a bin on the other side of the room, her mind still clearly on something else.

“Where’d Stray go?” Zoey asked, once again surprised that she even cared about wherever he went.

“Oh, to talk to someone.” The corners of Cassandra’s mouth twitched as she dropped the MRE bag into the bin. “Someone Simon knows I don’t like having in here.”

Zoey wondered who could be so bad that Cassandra—who seemed to have plenty of patience with Stray—didn’t want them around. “Is that really his name?”

“Well it certainly isn’t Stray. He picked that one up from the Insurrection. I really don’t know why he’s hung onto it this long.” Cassandra looked at Zoey with a smile, back to her usual disarming self. “You seem to like using it.”

“I mean, that’s what he told me he was called.” Zoey shrugged. “And something like Simon is just so… ordinary, I guess?”

The young woman snorted. “And he’s not really ordinary, is he?”

Zoey thought back to the armored figure saving them on the plains, advancing and bringing down the monstrous aliens with one careful rifle shot after another. “Well, neither are you,” she said quickly. “And you guys have the same armor, and he said you had the same training, so did you both come from the same place or something?”

“We did,” Cassandra admitted. She sat down on a cot next to the table where Stray had left most of his equipment, passing an absent hand over the mess. Her mouth curved in a slight frown, as if annoyed at the run-down gear. “We came from the same place, and then we managed to wind up so far apart.”

“What did you do?” What could the galaxy beyond Talitsa be like, to produce people like Stray and Cassandra? Zoey started to get the feeling that her homeworld was some kind of bizarre scrapyard for everyone’s debris and cast-offs. She’d never felt that way about the world before; it made her realize just how small everything she knew really was in the grand scheme of things.

“Well, during the war we fought the Covenant.” Cassandra picked up a sidearm from the table and began dismantling the weapon with practiced ease. “That’s what we and our friends were meant to do. We grew up thinking that was all we’d ever need to do. And then the war ended and everything changed. Before long they had us fighting other humans.”

Her mouth flattened in a small grimace. “I guess that’s where the problems really started.”

She looked down at the pieces of the gun. “I guess that doesn’t make a lot of sense to you. It sure confuses me sometimes.”

“But you said Stray got his name from the Insurrection,” Zoey pointed out, eager to show that she wasn’t completely clueless. “But you make it sound like we were with the government. The big one, I mean. UNSC.”

“Yeah, we were.” With a short laugh, Cassandra gave a self-deprecating smile. She swiftly reassembled the pistol and placed it back on the table. “The way I was brought up, it was just us against them. Humans against the aliens. Everything was so much simpler when we were on the brink of extinction. So much easier to pull the trigger when the enemy doesn’t look exactly like you.”

Zoey thought of the Syndicate thugs murdering her parents. There were plenty of humans there, humans who hadn’t hesitated to work with aliens to destroy her world. She remembered the wounded gunner from the dropship, crawling across the plains as Stray loomed over him with a machete. They all hadn’t seen much problem with killing other humans. Once again, she realized just how little she really knew about this strange, brutal world she now lived in. But she’d have to learn, and fast, if she wanted to survive. Stray was right about that, at least.

“Simon and I had different reasons for leaving, but it was only after I deserted that I realized just how stupid I’d been. About a lot of things.” Cassandra kept talking. She didn’t need Zoey to prod her for details anymore. Zoey got the feeling she didn’t get a chance to talk like this very often. “I’m a lot happier now, even with all that’s happened. I don’t agree with the Venezian independents on a lot of things, but this is a better life than what I had.”

She caught Zoey’s eye and rethought her words. “For me,” she said quickly, flushing nervously. “I’m not saying you’re better off or anything like that. Really, I’m not.”

“Are you really a doctor?” Zoey looked around the clinic.

“I do my best. I’m not perfect, but you’d be amazed what battlefield medicine can do to help people in places like this.”

“You’re not really good with talking to people are you?”

“Not with everyone.” Cassandra rubbed her neck, still looking apologetic. “And especially not like this. Sorry.”

“Do you even have a license?” Zoey kept scanning the clinic. The doctor at the village her parents always took her to for vaccinations had a little certificate stuck up on his office wall. She got the feeling Cassandra didn’t have one of those.

The young woman’s face reddened further. “Did Simon tell you to say that?”

“No. It just makes sense. You’re supposed to have a license to run a place like this, right?”

Cassandra folded her arms, but she didn’t look angry. “I’m starting to see why you get on his nerves so much.”

It felt so good to be able to talk like this. To talk, joke even, without having to be afraid at what might come next. Sitting in Cassandra’s barren little clinic, Zoey felt warm and safe for the first time in days. Maybe there really was a life for her still, even after everything that had happened. Cassandra said she was happy, even after everything she’d been through. That had to mean Zoey could do it to.

She looked at the gear Stray had left behind. Of course, that all depended on whether they could survive the next few days. The danger wasn’t over, he’d said. And now he was gone, no doubt already planning the next move.

“Can you…” She hesitated, then pointed at the pistol Cassandra had tinkered with. “Can you teach me how to shoot one of those?”

Stray leaned back against the alley wall and closed his eyes, letting his legs give out beneath him. He slid down into the mud, hoping he wasn’t sitting in anything particularly filthy but not caring much one way or the other. His entire body ached from fatigue alone and that wasn’t even counting the pain from his injuries. Cassandra did her best—and her best was nothing short of spectacular—but she could only do so much to keep him stitched together. He needed time to rest up and heal, but right now time was a luxury he couldn’t afford.

This needs to end. Tonight. He wouldn’t be fighting any protracted battles as he was now. All the Syndicate needed to do was close in and finish him off. But as always, he swore to himself that he hadn’t come so far just to die here. And as always, there were always a few cards left to play.

He slipped his hand into his jacket pocket and produced two items: a small chatter device and a blue-rimmed cylinder. He affixed the cylinder to the chatter and checked his signal. The channel wasn’t perfect, but it was enough to tap into Venezia’s satellite network. And that was enough to give Diana the opening she needed.

The chatter’s screen flashed and the cylinder lit up. The tiny holopad—decades ahead of human technology, but the kind of Covenant tech you could easily scrounge up on Venezia’s thriving black market—glowed and gave life to a small human figure. Particles of light convalesced to create the image of a young woman with blond hair and pale skin, clad in the dark armor of a medieval knight from humanity’s distant past.

Diana folded her arms and stared up at Stray, the usual mocking smile playing across her lips. “Well, look what the cat dragged in. You’ve seen better days.”

“I’ve seen worse, too. You know that.” She was watching him through the chatter’s built-in camera, though he was sure there were a few other surveillance cameras she’d tapped into to observe him with. The AI—tapped into Venezia’s rudimentary planetary network, his very own ghost in the machine—was nothing if not resourceful.

“Unfortunately, you’re right.” She shook her head in false remorse. “The lengths I go to keep you alive…”

“Well, you better be ready to do a bit more, or I’ll be dead before the night is out.”

Diana raised a finger. “Ah. Not yet. I think you owe me something first.”

Stray didn’t bother arguing. There was no point. “Fine. The mines were worth it.”

“See? Aren’t you glad I helped you skim them off that shipment?”

“If you did that more often I’d be a lot better off.”

“Yes, well, we can’t have anyone getting too suspicious.” Diana clasped her hands behind her back and twirled gracefully about the small holopad. She liked to move while she talked; Stray suspected there was some subtle psychological factor involved, but he was sure Diana mostly just liked to show off her ability to pull off complex holo-images. “The last time the local militias thought they had a UNSC plant in the network they pulled the whole system to pieces looking for me. The amount of work that set me back…”

“Yeah, yeah. You complained enough back when it happened.” She had her own agendas, ones that she rarely deigned to share with Stray. But she’d been with him since Mamore, since he’d deserted the UNSC to join the Insurrection. She’d been at his side when he’d stopped being Simon-G294 and become Stray, and since then, no matter what she put him through, she’d never abandoned him. The AI was part of him, and he her. It was something not even Cassandra could ever understand.

It was a relief to speak with her again. Being cut off from her was like missing a piece of himself. A needling, abrasive piece, but a piece all the same.

“Which brings us to now.” Diana peered up at him intently. “The Syndicate isn’t happy that you’re still alive, obviously. They hate being made the fool."

"I noticed." Stray closed his eyes and tried to shut out the pain from his wounds. "And I'm not going to hold out much longer. Did you get the message I sent before I left the clinic?"

"I did. Risky idea, but I agree, it's the only one that just might save your hide."

"And do you have a way to make it work?"

Diana smiled; always a dangerous sign. "Of course I did. But I get the feeling you won't like it."

He let out an exhausted huff. "I'm not exactly spoiled for options here. Let's here it."

She told him, and as usual she was right. He didn't like it. And something told him Cassandra would like it even less.

Chapter Nineteen: Picking Up The Pieces

He hadn’t expected to find his apartment untouched, but the Syndicate really hadn’t needed to torch the place. Then again, no one would ever accuse the average enforcer of restraint.

Stray peered down the deserted street. Most of New Tyne’s citizens made a point of staying indoors come evening; better to busy themselves with private matters than risk getting caught up in any of the dozen sorts of trouble that might be brewing on any given night. There’d never been an official curfew—that would shatter the illusion of a free, independent paradise—but the local militia encouraged such restraint all the same. The less trouble at night, the easier to keep the peace.

And easier for both the Syndicate and the local government to turn a profit.

With this in mind, the empty street didn’t raise too many warning signs. Nevertheless Stray circled the block three times before he was confident he wouldn’t find any hidden guards or snipers when he approached the apartment. He crossed the street warily, one hand wrapped around the pistol concealed beneath his jacket. “How much activity did this place see after they went after me?” he asked into the headset dangling from his ear.

“Oh, the usual search team went in and ransacked the place,” came Diana’s casual reply. “Went up and down the street to see if anyone knew where you’d gone. Cracked some heads, broke some fingers.”

“Yeah. The usual.” Not that anyone on this street would have needed any convincing to sell him out, if they even knew him well enough to have any information worth giving up in the first place. He hadn’t exactly picked this neighborhood for its social garden parties. Stray stopped at the stairs leading down into his former apartment and inspected the damage.

The door was blown clean off its hinges and lay in pieces upon the steps. The frame itself was scorched and charred, ruined by a blast that had ripped the apartment to pieces from the inside. He tapped his fingers against the pistol and weighed his options. An explosion to destroy the apartment, or one to trick him into thinking it was safe to slink back into yet another trap?

“Will he or won’t he?” Diana mused in his ear. “Look at those wheels turn.”

“And naturally you wouldn’t tell me if it was safe even if you did know.”

“Naturally. But who says I don’t?”

He saw no point arguing the issue further. She’d pretend to have all the information even if she didn’t. It was just how the AI worked, part of some larger game of projecting omniscience. He figured most AI worked that way—Diana was just a bit more on the nose about it than most.

Stray sighed and stepped down towards the shattered apartment. His legs were tensed to run at the first sign of something amiss, but he was fairly sure there was nothing left to fear. The lack of guards told him the Syndicate had simply searched the apartment, detonated it, and quickly written it off once he’d left the city. It wasn’t like them to rely on a booby-trap alone to get the job done.

Stepping over the threshold, he was greeted by the familiar, unpleasant odor of mold and rotting wood. Moments later, an even more familiar scent stench filled his nostrils: the bitter smell of a decaying corpse.

Stray pursed his lips and surveyed the ruined apartment. His eyes quickly fell on the source of the odor: the charred, bloody remains of a body lying in a feeble heap against one of the walls. A quick inspection of the corpse found nothing of note; the dead man had been wearing rags even before being shredded by the explosion.

It wasn’t hard to put the pieces together here. The place had been searched and then perhaps rigged with a trip-bomb as an afterthought. Then a few days later this vagrant had stumbled in here, either looking to loot the place or simply hunting for an abandoned place to sleep in. The bomb had gone off, and no one cared enough to come clean out yet another ruined room in New Tyne’s back slums. Stray wasn’t surprised when another search of the body came up empty. The dead vagrant didn’t even have an ID to his name. He’d just had the bad luck to stumble into some enforcer’s clumsy trap, and no one cared enough to even investigate the death.

He wiped the blood off on the dead man’s jacket and looked about the ruins of the apartment. It had never been much to look at even before it was blasted to pieces—mostly just a place for him to sleep in between jobs for the Syndicate. He’d cleaned everything of value out before he fled into the plains, so nothing of any real value had been left to steal or be demolished in the blast. Still…

He inspected the ruins of his bed in the far corner of the room, shoving the charred mattress aside with a prod from his boot and ignoring the flash of pain from his aching muscles. No, he’d never kept anything of real value here. He could barely stand the place, putting up with its stench and the noise from the streets outside only because it was marginally better than sleeping in the street. Nothing of value had been lost here.

Stray glanced back at the dead vagrant. No reason he should care about that one. Just another part of this filthy planet, caught up in things he didn’t understand. There wasn’t any point in wasting any time on him.

Dusty streets torn apart by roaring war machines. Grimy children clutching assault rifles. Corpses piled up in ditches by the side of the road. The memories lurked in the back of his mind unbidden; he grimaced with displeasure and hurried to finish the chore he’d come here to do in the first place. First Zoey, now this nameless vagrant. Wounds and exhaustion were making him soft.

“They’d better not have snatched it.” He tapped the floor beneath the bed, probing the corroded ground until he felt a small hollow space beneath his feet. A swift stamp from his boot knocked the patch of floor to pieces, revealing the space beneath.

“So rudimentary,” Diana complained as he knelt and retrieved a bag from the hollow. “It’s a miracle they didn’t find it.”

“They were looking for me, not my stuff.” Stray inspected the bag. Unzipping the top, he pulled out a sealed vial barely larger than his palm and looked it over for any sign of damage. Once satisfied, he tossed the bag aside and slid the vial into his pocket. “We can’t all afford high-tech security systems. And it wouldn’t have been the end of the world if they did take it. I just like my contingencies, that’s all.”

“And this is a contingency for…”

“Maybe my plan goes bad. Maybe it doesn’t.” Stray shrugged. “After all the trouble I went through exposing myself to this stuff, I’d hate to never use it.”

He straightened and turned to leave, pausing at the door to glance back at the unfortunate vagrant one last time. He hesitated a moment longer. Then he turned back to the ruined bed and peeled what was left of the covers off of its charred frame. He crossed over to the vagrant’s corpse and draped the blanket over the body. Hardly a dignified burial, but better than anything the dead man could have hoped for in this neighborhood.

Maybe if he told Cassandra she could get a few clients together to take care of the corpse before any scavengers—animal or otherwise—got to it. She was better at this sort of thing than he was.

Stray left the body and slipped out of the ruined apartment. He fingered the vial in his jacket, then set off at a brisk pace down the street. There was a lot to prepare and not much time to do it in.

It was going to be a long night.

“Sorry to have you come all the way down here like this,” Cassandra told the dark-eyed woman. “Normally I’d deliver the medication, but today’s a bit more hectic than usual.”

The woman gave her a wan smile and fingered one of the holes in her tattered jumpsuit. “Yeah, well, what with all you’ve done for us this month I can hardly complain. Especially not with the way things have been lately. Honestly, I don’t know how you do it, staying open even with the militia beating down everyone for money all the time.”

Cassandra shrugged, checking the labels on a handful of medication bottles as she loaded them into a bag. “Even militia thugs need someone to patch them up. You’d be amazed how valuable confidentiality is. So many people worried about other people finding out they’ve had holes blown in them. It certainly doesn’t hurt when they throw in a few extra credits for me to keep my mouth shut.

Her client—Zoey gleaned the woman’s name was Irina—pursed her lips and sighed. “I guess we’re all on their payroll, one way or another. And I thought I was getting away from uniformed thugs when I left the Inner Colonies.”

Zoey half expected Cassandra to protest, but the medic simply laughed and placed the bag of medication on the table. “Just think of it as your credits coming back to you. Them paying me means I don’t have to charge you and the rest of my regulars.”

“Are you sure…” Irina began, reaching into one of her pockets. Cassandra silenced her with a quick wave.

“We have this conversation every time. Don’t try to guilt yourself into paying. If I really need money, I’ll ask for it.”

“If you say so.” Irina still looked uncertain, but she was suddenly distracted when the small girl at her side once again tried to slip away and get into one of the medical cabinets. “Myra, I told you to stay put!”

Cassandra shot Zoey the same look she’d given her the last three times Myra had acted up. Zoey replied with a wordless shrug. As grateful as she felt towards Cassandra, she had to draw the line at entertaining kids half her age. She’d put up with that humiliation every time she’d ever had to visit another farm. She wasn’t about to start volunteering to babysit grubby city kids.

Besides, just seeing Myra together with her mom twisted Zoey’s stomach up in knots. She wasn’t sure what she’d do if she had to talk to either of them.

Irina was still scolding her daughter when the clinic door swung open. Everyone flinched in surprise save Cassandra, who just gave a narrow-eyed sigh as Stray walked in. He paused to wipe off his boots, then glanced up at them. “Sorry, am I interrupting something? Don’t mind me.”

With a startled glance back to Cassandra, Irina scooped up the medication bag and stood up. “Thank you again for everything,” she said quickly. “I’ll let you know how Henry’s doing in a few days. Please stay safe.”

“You as well.” Cassandra paused. “Do you need me to walk you back home?”

“We’ll be fine,” Irina assured her. She grabbed Myra’s wrist. “Come on, darling, let’s go.”

Myra squirmed in her mother’s grip but didn’t resist as she was led back towards the door. Irina was careful to keep herself between her daughter and Stray. She shot him one last frightened look before hurrying out of the clinic. Zoey caught sight of Stray’s lip curling ever so slightly as he watched them go.

“Was it something I said?” he asked no one in particular.

“Well, you do have blood on your jacket,” Cassandra pointed out with an exasperated sigh. She tossed him a rag. “That does tend to throw people off a bit.”

“Oh, I do?” Stray scowled down at his clothes and made a halfhearted attempt to wipe the red stain off his front. “Didn’t even notice. Is this old or new?”

He glanced around the clinic. “And what the hell did you do with my stuff?”

Cassandra jerked a finger back at the tarp she’d had Zoey throw over Stray’s weapons and armor before Irina arrived. Stray gave her a sidelong glance as he moved over to uncover the table. “Oh, come on. It’s not that much of an eye-sore, is it? Just because you’ve kept yours all nice and green doesn’t mean you get to be a snob about mine.”

Once again, Zoey got the feeling she was listening in on something private, something that made sense only between these two alone. Whatever connection they shared—the armor, their weapons, their past—was something she wasn’t part of. She wasn’t even sure she wanted to be.

Still, how could these two even share a room together, let alone joke with each other? Cassandra had welcomed Irina into her clinic, put up with Myra’s antics, even given the woman medicine without a thought of payment. Irina would be lucky for Stray to pass her in the street without a nasty comment. If Myra had tried to get into his things, Stray probably wouldn’t have hesitated to kick her in the stomach.

“So,” Cassandra asked as Stray carefully lifted the tarp up off of his equipment. “How was your chat with Diana?”

“I didn’t say anything about Diana.”

“Who else would you be going out alone to talk with? Unless you’ve got another girlfriend I don’t know about.”

“Oh, you’re just full of jokes today.” Stray picked his helmet up from the table and peered inside, adjusting the internal systems. When he looked back at Cassandra his expression was grave. “The Syndicate’s mobilizing their enforcers. They’re going to cordon this whole district off tonight and go house to house if they need to. Apparently Min Ai told them to use restraint, but it sounds like the guy in charge is in a bad mood. And he’s the same one who was after me on the plains, so…”

Zoey couldn’t help but notice that both Stray and Cassandra glanced over towards her at that. It was impossible not to catch the meaning there. So the same monsters who’d burned her farm would go door to door looking for Stray. She could only imagine what they’d do to the people behind those doors.

“Well that doesn’t give us a lot of options.” Cassandra pinched the bridge of her nose. “Unless you’re planning to make a run for the plains again.”

“As if that’s even an option. You’re the one who patched me up, so you know the state I’m in right now. I can barely stand and fight, let alone make it on the run.”

“But you have a plan,” Cassandra persisted. “Or at least, Diana gave you a plan.”

“Diana came up with one,” Stray admitted. “And then I modified it a bit. You won’t like it, but you said it yourself. We’re out of options here.”

“I never like it when Diana’s involved,” Cassandra sighed. “Alright, let’s hear it.”

“It’s not the most complicated thing in the world, but the gist of it is that you ditch the clinic and fight it out with them when they move in. Pick them off, keep them confused, the usual urban warfare stuff.”

“I see. And while I’m fighting the whole Syndicate by myself, what will you be off doing?”

Stray picked up the pieces of his shotgun. In a few moments he’d reassembled the entire weapon with practiced ease. “While you do that, I’m going to go have a chat with Min Ai.”

Chapter Twenty: Nightfall

The evening sun hung low in the sky as Ger ‘Hullen’s enforcer convoy advanced down the dusty streets. Crowds from the city’s market and residential districts still milled about on all sides, but they all gave way in the face of the mercenaries and their Warthogs. Residents slipped quietly into their homes, stall vendors decided to close shop early, and frightened parents pulled curious children along with them down side alleys in a rush to put as much distance between themselves and the enforcers as possible. From his position in the lead vehicle, Ger spotted a small patrol of armed humans watching the procession with disgruntled expressions. Part of the local militia no doubt.

One of the militia raised a hand and called out in Ger’s direction. Ramos, manning the lead Warthog’s machine gun, called back and hopped down from his position. “Just a minute, boss,” he told Ger over his shoulder. Ger watched as the enforcer crossed over to the militia patrol and greeted the one who’d called out. The two humans engaged in a hurried discussion, then laughed at some shared joke. Ramos shook hands with his associate, then hurried back to retake his position at the gun.

“Old business partner,” he explained. “He says his whole company has orders to stay out of the slums tonight. Some of them don’t like giving way for us, but most don’t care. He said he hopes we clean the place out. It means less work for them.”

Ger nodded. Min Ai had worked quickly. No doubt every official in the city now had instructions not to interfere with the Syndicate’s hunt. There would be no militia rushing in to defend the slum. The battlefield was open to him now. All that remained was smoking out Stray and whatever allies he’d managed to dredge up.

“You will take charge of the cordon element,” he told Ramos. “Spread them out around the district and make sure no one leaves before the operation is over.”

“And I assume you will take charge of the assault force?” Ro’nin asked. The Sangheili mercenary strode alongside the Warthog, easily keeping pace with the convoy. “And where do you want me to lend my considerable talents?”

“Do whatever you like,” Ger said curtly. “Just find a way to make yourself useful.” He saw no point in making Ro’nin part of any component of this battle. The honorless cur would just do as he pleased anyway. Maybe he’d get himself killed by Stray before this was all over. Ger could only hope he’d be so lucky.

Ro’nin clicked his mandibles and hefted his carbine. “That’s unusually kind of you. Your good mood is still holding out then?”

“For now.” Ger leaned back in his seat. He kept his demeanor calm, but his hearts were beating furiously within his chest. This task was almost over. His prey was weakened and cornered and Ger had two dozen hardened killers at his beck and call. Everything fell into place before him.

Two Warthogs pulled ahead of the convoy and enforcers piled out onto the street. They split up into teams and spread out across the buildings before the convoy, moving to cordon off the slum before the rest of the convoy advanced. With a shout for another to take his place, Ramos leaped down from the Warthog and hurried to take charge of the effort. Behind the lead vehicle, the other Warthogs fanned out and took up an attack formation on either side of Ger.

Yes, this battle was about to end. So why was did Ger feel so afraid?

Zoey watched him work. Or, at least, get ready to work.

Stray checked one of the many pouches slung across his armor’s combat webbing, counting through the shotgun shells inside before sealing it up and inspecting another stash of ammunition. With his scrawny frame once again sealed inside his battered carapace he was no longer the scruffy, awkward boy named Simon who traded casual banter with Cassandra. Instead he’d once again become the ruthless killing machine who she’d watched take life after life without a moment’s hesitation.

She still didn’t know which one was the real him. Maybe it was both together. Or maybe there was some third, hidden piece to Stray’s puzzle she had yet to see. A few days ago she’d have been relieved to find the skinny, human figure beneath the armor and weaponry. But now she knew better. They didn’t need Simon right now. Stray and his cruel ways would see them through this. They had to.

“What’s that?” she asked, pointing at a tube-shaped weapon lying on the table in front of him. The tube was cranked open to reveal a large indentation where the barrel should be.

Stray followed her finger to the weapon. “Grenade launcher,” he replied. He unclipped one of his pouches to reveal two small, domed cylinders. “Nice for taking down vehicles, or killing a lot of people fast. From a nice long distance away.”

“Sounds useful.” She frowned. “And you only have two shots for it?”

“What, do I look like I’m made of money? Ammo like that doesn’t come cheap.”

With the pouches and knives slung over his armor, he certainly looked like he was made of weapons. Zoey wondered how he could carry all that and still move as fast as he did. The thought of all that gear pressing him down and making him shorter brought a smile to her face, though it quickly evaporated at the thought of what was to come. “You’re leaving it here, right? Since you’re running away and leaving Cassandra to do all the fighting.”

He shot her a look out of the corner of his eye. “Still haven’t fixed that attitude of yours, I see.”

She folded her arms and glared back at him. He couldn’t scare her anymore, not after she’d seen the way he was around Cassandra. And after everything he’d put her through, he at least owed her a few answers over his strange plan.

Across the clinic, Cassandra was donning her own armor. She strapped the plates down over her jumpsuit and fastened her own combat webbing—less than what Stray had—down over the breastplate. Zoey wondered why she’d agreed to Stray’s crazy plan so easily and with hardly any argument. No matter how good friends these two were, it seemed crazy that Stray thought it was okay to just slip off into the city while the enforcers closed in around the clinic.

Zoey kept her gaze focused on Stray. He ignored her for a few moments longer, then sighed and set his weapons aside. “Alright, look. Even if we dug in here for weeks and killed every scumbag they sent in after us, all we’d do is piss the Syndicate off even more and get them to send even more enforcers. So yeah, I’m bailing and going to find the guy who’s behind all this.”

“And who’s that?”

“Guy called Min Ai. He pretty much runs everything the Syndicate does here on Venezia.” Stray frowned and looked away. “He was there when they burned down your farm.”

Zoey opened her mouth to reply, then clamped it shut. She didn’t want to go back to that time, to that place. Not now, anyway.

Zoey looked back to Cassandra, busy adjusting the scope on her rifle. “And you’re OK with this?” she demanded.

“OK with what?” Cassandra didn’t look up from her task. Like Stray, she grew deadly serious when tampering with her weapons. “The fact that he’s leaving me to take care of you while also fighting off whatever the Syndicate has coming? Can’t say I’m thrilled. It’s exactly the sort of brilliant plan Diana would come up with.”

She set the rifle aside and looked back at Zoey, who was relieved to still see the glint of kindness in those brown eyes. They didn’t all turn into complete monsters when they put on the armor. “But he’s not just leaving us to die. He wouldn’t agree to this unless he thought it would work. Of course, he always trusts Diana’s plans more than he should, but…”

“Always such a rousing tone of encouragement.” Stray slung his machete on over his armor and retrieved his shotgun. His tone was as rough as ever, but Zoey detected an anxious edge creeping into his voice. So he was concerned after all. The thought didn’t make her feel any better.

Stray crossed over to Cassandra. Once again, Zoey noticed a strange energy pass between the two of them as they drew near. The unspoken pulse reminded her just how little she really knew about these people and whatever strange history had brought them to Venezia. They really were from another planet, another reality. Stray had come into her world and brought his cruel reality blazing in behind him. Cassandra had followed, to remind her that the kindness she once thought ruled the world wasn’t truly gone forever. If she could soften even a thug like Stray, than anything was possible.

Cassandra extended a hand and Stray nodded, raising his arms to let her check the straps and gear on his armor. She moved with quick, brisk efficiency, tightening a few straps and re-adjusting some of the ammunition pouches. Then without a word they switched roles; now Cassandra let Stray pass his hands over her own armor to make adjustments wherever needed. The whole ritual was performed with practiced ease. No matter the reservations in their words to each other, neither hesitated to let the other near for the gear inspection.

Stray nodded and took a step back. “Right then,” he said tersely. “All set?”

“Everything’s ready,” Cassandra agreed. “As long as Diana’s right about that shooting position.”

A sheepish smile flickered across Stray’s face. “She won’t steer you wrong. She doesn’t want to make me too mad.”

Cassandra snorted. “I think you’re overestimating how much she cares about how you feel.”

“Well, even without her, you can take care of yourself.”

“You know it.” She brought her hand up with sudden speed, rapping it against Stray’s armor with a hard thump. He didn’t so much as flinch. “Enough hanging around here, huh? Let’s get to it.”

“Right.” Stray slammed his own gauntlet up into Cassandra’s chest. “Fuck ‘em up, yeah?”


They pulled apart and donned their helmets, sealing their faces away behind those cold visors. Cassandra retrieved her rifle while Stray walked back over to the weapon table. He glanced down at Zoey and she instinctively backed away from that expressionless helmet. She flushed in embarrassment, but there was no quelling the fear this now-familiar visage cut into her. She’d seen him kill so many people wearing that helmet.

And now he and Cassandra were heading out to kill some more.

Stray regarded her for a moment. Then he reached into one of his holsters and withdrew a small pistol. He examined the weapon, then offered it to Zoey hilt-first. “You’d better know how to handle one of these by now.”

“Yeah,” she said, trying not to sound afraid. She took the weapon and looked it over, doing her best to look like she knew what she was doing.

“Only as a last resort,” Stray cautioned. For once he didn’t sound like he found her irritating or a burden, and for some reason that made Zoey feel a little better inside. “Stay close to Cassandra and let her do her job. You’ll be fine. You’ve made it this far, haven’t you?”

She squinted at him in suspicion. “That’s an awfully nice thing for you to say to me.”

He shrugged. “I could go back to being an asshole if you like.”

Zoey gulped, full of nervous tension. “I don’t know whether I like you better this way or not.”

“Asshole it is.” He nodded, then turned to go. “You’ll be fine,” he repeated back over his shoulder.

“And what about you?”

Stray stopped and turned back to look at her. “Are you saying you’d care if I got hurt?” The sarcasm seeped back into his voice. “I’m touched.”

Zoey scowled back at him. “I’m trying to be nice to you.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know it’s not the easiest thing to do.” He shook his head. “But I’m not going to die. Not tonight.”

With that he turned and strode from the clinic, disappearing through the doors without another word. Zoey watched him go, cradling the gun he’d given her and once again wondering just how she was supposed to feel about him.

She turned and started to find Cassandra standing next to her. She hadn’t noticed the young woman—though she could hardly think of her like that now, with the armor covering up her features—approach. Cassandra’s helmet turned to stare at the doors Stray had gone through. Her fingers flexed along the barrel of her rifle.

“Has he always been like that?” Zoey asked after a moment.

Cassandra shook her head. “No,” she muttered. “He used to be different. Happier. Before…” She trailed off and shook her head again before pointing at the doors. “Enough about him. He’ll take care of himself, like he always does. Just keep with me and focus on staying alive.”

Zoey nodded, startled by the hard edge in Cassandra’s voice. The medic must have noticed the look on her face, because she turned to look down at her. For a moment her visor cleared, revealing the face beneath. Zoey blinked in surprise as Cassandra flashed a quick smile—she hadn’t know the helmets could do that.

“It’s going to be rough,” Cassandra admitted. “And maybe I’ll have to shout and get mean. But they’ll be trying to kill us. And we have to kill them before that happens.”

She hefted her rifle as the visor sealed up once more. “Stay with me,” she said again. Then she moved through the doors, weapon already at the ready. Zoey hurried after her, holding the pistol close. They passed through the door and out into the street.

The streets were dark. Night had already fallen.

Chapter Twenty-One: Engage

Min Ai sighed and leaned back to rest his head against one of the car’s plush headrests. It was such a pain that all this business with Stray had to fall on a Tuesday. Min prided himself on always putting business before pleasure, but some things in life really needed to take priority. And Tuesday, fugitive enforcer or no fugitive enforcer, was steak night.

“Almost there, sir.” Jiyar sounded amused as she guided the car through New Tyne’s darkened streets. “And here I thought you weren’t letting all this get to you.”

“I try,” Min admitted, grateful that his bodyguard saw some humor in the situation. He’d always felt that his subordinates’ attitudes was a good way to judge just how good or bad any given situation really was. Jiyar had nothing to gain by his fall and everything to lose from it. If she was at ease, then perhaps Ger ‘Hullen’s bumbling pursuit wasn’t such a poor reflection on his leadership after all. “Please tell me you’ll join me for the meal this time. It’s so boring dining alone.”

“Maybe I’ll get an appetizer.” Jiyar glanced back at him, eyes crinkling in amusement behind the head-glove she always wore. “But my wife’s staying up to see me home, and I know she’ll have a meal prepared. Can’t disappoint her after she stays up so late.”

“You poor thing.” Min Ai smirked. “A constant reminder for me to never get married.”

But then you wouldn’t have to worry about lonely dinners.”

“True. Very true.”

At times like this Min couldn’t help but wonder if it had all been worth it after all. His careful schemes and maneuvering within the Syndicate power structures, well-timed alliances and betrayals, strings of highly lucrative business deals, all to wind up as the organization’s key official on Venezia. He didn’t resent its Outer Colony status—unlike many of his peers he saw in Venezia a wellspring of opportunity rather than a backwater to be sneered at. But he couldn’t deny that he’d given up a certain degree of creature comfort to come out here. And now he paid the price of authority by shouldering the burden of this whole miserable affair with Stray.

Things hadn’t escalated too far—at least not yet. But those who crossed the Syndicate needed to be made examples of quickly, lest others gather up the courage to step out of line themselves. Min doubted Stray was the harbinger of any real resistance to the Syndicate’s influence out here. He’d made sure the current state of affairs was highly profitable to anyone who really mattered on Venezia. But any hint of weakness on his part and his rivals would swarm in, looking for any excuse to prove themselves his better.

And then there was the matter of Stray’s origins.

“Maybe I should have just handed him over to ONI the moment he set foot on this planet,” he mused aloud. “Star enforcers are more trouble than they’re worth.”

Jiyar glanced back at him. “I don’t think folks around here would appreciate you summoning ONI hit teams down onto their nice, independent planet.”

“As if anyone would ever know.” Min Ai flashed his bodyguard a smile. “And do you count yourself among those patriotic, freedom loving Venezians?”

“Don’t worry about me, boss.” She turned back to the road. “I know which side my bread’s buttered on. But a pissed off mob of angry rebels makes for terrible living, and I happen to like my neighborhood.”

“Not to worry. Social unrest is bad for business.” Min rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I knew the risks when I hired Stray. I just never thought those risks entailed him turning on me. Or whatever you’d call this mess he’s gone and made of us trying to kill him.”

With another pensive sigh Min Ai settled back into his seat. He did his best to drive the irritating thoughts about Stray out of his mind, focusing instead on the meal to come and the dozens of other responsibilities vying for his attention. Coordinating every criminal market on a planet featuring an economy composed of little else was no easy task. In the end, this business with Stray—the hunt, the burned farm, the assault on the slums—was simply an exciting diversion from the daily tedium of business meetings and financial coordination. No doubt in a week he’d be yearning for this past week of combat reports and battle plans.

“One way or another,” he said, as much for his own benefit as Jiyar’s. “This will all be over come morning. And then I’ll be able to enjoy my Tuesday steak in peace.”

"Stay low,” Cassandra murmured. She picked her way across the grimy floor, rifle turned toward the windows. Even in armor she moved quietly, barely disturbing the dust on the ground as she slipped from one window to the other. Zoey, by contrast, struggled to keep up. She bent low, practically on all fours, trying not to think about the stench of rotting wood filling her nostrils and all the signs of decay they’d seen on their way up. One wrong step and she was sure to find herself plunging through a patch of weakened floor. At three floors up, she really didn’t want to find out if she could survive a fall like that.

Cassandra paused by a window. She tilted her head ever so slightly to peer down into the streets below. A raised hand from her brought Zoey to a halt a few meters away. “They’re in the street,” Cassandra murmured. Her words carried an eerie calm. “Already searching houses.”

Zoey was content to take Cassandra’s word for it. She huddled where she was, cradling the pistol Stray had given her. The weapon pressed down on her hands with a dull weight. She still wasn’t sure if she’d be able to use it, even if her life depended on it. Her fingers fiddled with the safety catch. “Finger off the trigger,” was all Cassandra had time to tell her. “Only point it at someone if you want to shoot them. That’s a killing tool you’ve got there.”

Across the room Cassandra eased down into a crouch. She held her rifle up and braced it against the windowsill. Her gauntlet flexed against the trigger guard. “Are they coming for us?” Zoey hissed. Her heart beat wildly inside her chest. Sweat along her palms made the pistol grip slick. “Do they know we’re here?”

“Not yet.” Her voice remained slow and calm. “They won’t search over here for a bit.”

“So… we’re safe?”

“Not for long.” Cassandra shifted into a firing position. “When I start shooting, just keep your head down and watch the door.” She gestured back at the far end of the abandoned tenement.

The calm Zoey had tried to maintain since setting out collapsed in a surge of panic. “You’re shooting at them?” It was all she could do not to shout. Why couldn’t they just hide here and stay safe?

“Simon won’t be able to get clear if they keep up the cordon. These guys aren’t trained properly. Kick the nest and they’ll all panic and focus here.” There was an edge to her voice. “And what do you think they’ll do to the people down there if I just let them do what they want? Politely search the house and leave them be?”

“Well, I don’t…” Zoey looked away.

“Everything’s going to be fine. These thugs aren’t enough to kill me. And I won’t let them hurt you, either.” Cassandra glanced back at Zoey. Somehow that expressionless helmet was enough to calm her nerves. She tried to focus on the armor and the rifle, tools to protect her, and not envision hordes of murderous aliens waiting in the streets below. “Stay low once the shooting starts. Crawl if you have to.” Cassandra turned back to the window.

Cassandra took aim but suddenly flinched back from the window and dipped her helmeted head down alongside her rifle. In the soft glow of the moonlight Zoey could see her free hand planted on the floor to keep herself upright.

“What’s wrong?” Zoey hissed desperately. “Did they hit you? Are you OK?”

For another agonizing moment Cassandra didn’t say anything. Zoey braced herself to run, but stopped when the young woman finally raised her head and tilted her visor back from the window. She depolarized her helmet long enough to flash Zoey a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry. I’m fine.”

“Then what…”

“Just a prayer.” Cassandra pressed the rifle stock against her shoulder and tightened her aim.

“A prayer?” Zoey blinked, unsure if Cassandra was being serious or not.

“For us,” Cassandra explained. “And for the people I’m about to kill.”

She focused a moment longer, then fired. The sharp report echoed through the tenement and down into the streets below. For a moment after the noise faded away Zoey heard nothing. A breathless silence fell upon New Tyne as if the city itself were taken aback by the shot.

Then the angry snarls rang out from below. Shouts cut through the silence and boots pounded against pavement. Zoey squeezed her eyes shut and held the pistol close. The enforcers were coming. They’d be at the building soon, throwing everything into getting inside and killing her. She wanted to call out to someone, anyone, but who would hear her? Cassandra was at the window, carefully firing one shot after another down into the streets. She was fighting, and Stray was gone.

Cassandra ejected a magazine and slipped back from the window. She drew another magazine from her combat webbing and reloaded as she moved to another firing position. There was none of Stray’s fevered brutality in her movements, no wild gestures or scrambling motions. Just cold, calm certainty as she set up a new position and opened fire once again. Clad in her armor, she looked utterly unafraid as bullets and plasma fire lashed up from the street and splashed furiously against the building. Zoey watched with amazement as Cassandra rose and moved again, firing even as she passed from window to window.

She didn’t know whether to be amazed or frightened.

But in the end, what did it matter? Cassandra was on her side. She could be certain of that, if nothing else.

Zoey forced herself to look away from the battle raging at the window. Taking her pistol with shaking hands, she trained it on the doorway behind them. The enforcers would get inside sooner or later. And when that happened, she would have to find a way to fight. There was no more time for fear or tears. She had not come so far just to die here.

Ger ‘Hullen fired his plasma repeater at the tenement looming above him. A Kig-Yar enforcer raced past him to take up a shooting position closer to the building. The avian sharpshooter’s legs gave out beneath it and it crumpled, felled by another shot from the tenement. The surrounding enforcers scattered and raced for cover, once again cowed by their unseen foe.

Ger growled and fought back the urge to press the attack with everything he had. He wasn’t sure which infuriated him more: the cowardice of his subordinates or the fact that Stray had once again caught him off guard. He’d expected his prey, haggard and tired as he must be, to stay hidden in the slums for as long as possible. Instead Stray had attacked within minutes of the enforcers’ arrival.

“Advance!” he snarled as yet another enforcer collapsed in front of him. “Get in there and kill him before I shoot you myself!”

Such an attitude put him in a bit of a bad position, even if it was necessary to get the enforcers moving. Now he couldn’t let himself be seen failing to face the attack head on, even if he needed to coordinate the assault on the building. So Ger stood his ground, firing up at the tenement even as a few shots glanced off his energy shields. He activated the com on his battle harness’s collar and spoke in between bursts of plasma fire.

“Ramos. Where are you?”

“Still holding the perimeter, boss. But from the sounds of things, that’s not exactly an issue anymore.”

“Indeed. Converge with your element. You’ll find us attacking a large building. My force will hold Stray’s attention while you breach and flush him out.”

For once, Ramos hesitated. “You want me to go inside? With him in there?”

Ger let the second-guessing pass without comment. Stray had proved his lethality time and again. It was only natural for the enforcers to balk at the prospect of facing him in close quarters. “We either finish him here or give him the opportunity to escape once more. Hurry up and get your element moving. I’ll arrange suitable reinforcements for you.”

Another shot struck him in the chest, leaving his energy shield dangerously depleted. Ger fired another stream of plasma up at the building, then ducked back into cover. Behind him, a Warthog’s chaingun roared to life. Great chunks of building tumbled down as the heavy gun tore into Stray’s cover. A brief silence fell over the slums as the firing subsided and for a moment Ger allowed himself to hope that a lucky shot had finished the job early. But a shot quickly rang out from above. The Warthog gunner toppled from his perch as the enforcers around the vehicle balked at replacing him.

Ger scowled bitterly. In his hearts he knew that no matter what tactics he fell back upon Stray would not be killed so easily. This would inevitably come down to a single match between two warriors—the way it was meant to be from the beginning. Everything he did now was simply the smoke needed to flush Stray out and force him to reveal his true nature.

Not a very fitting view for a commander like him to take. But Ger cared very little how many more enforcers needed to die to finish this battle. He hadn’t felt so invigorated since the Covenant fell. Now was his chance to test the mettle of this elusive foe.

He tapped his com again. “Ro’nin. Where are you?”

The voice over the com was as smug and irritating as ever. “Well, I’ve found myself a good spot of cover to make sure I don’t get shot. Don’t think I’ll be leaving it for a while. Stray really seems to have improved his aim since the last time I saw him.”

“Think again,” Ger growled. “Ramos and his element are moving to breach the building while Stray’s distracted. You will join them.”`

Ro’nin sighed louder than necessary. “A big Sangheili-shaped shield for them to hide behind, eh?”

“This is an order—“

“Yes, yes. You are in charge. Very well, I’m moving. Keep your head down out here, will you? I’d hate to see a bullet mark up that pretty face of yours.”

Ger ignored the comment. This time, Ro’nin’s jibes weren’t even a passing annoyance. Perhaps Stray would do the galaxy a favor and kill the wretch before the end. It was just a shame Ger wouldn’t be there to see the killing blow.

His mandibles parting in a self-satisfied smile, Ger leaned out and fired up at the tenement. Flashes of plasma and muzzle blasts illuminated the streets around him, already littered with enforcer corpses.

Warthog engines whined as the column of jeeps roared past, wheels bouncing off the rough pavement. A handful of enforcers not fortunate enough to ride alongside their fellow mercenaries jogged after the vehicles towards the sounds of gunfire. Two Kig-Yar scurried in the column’s wake, occasionally scanning behind before hurrying on after the others.

Stray watched the procession pass by from where he crouched in the shadows. He kept completely still, finger poised on the shotgun’s trigger. It was just typical that the Syndicate’s reinforcements decided to race down the very road he’d chosen for his escape route.

But the enforcers were too preoccupied with racing over to the battle now raging three blocks down that they didn’t bother to sweep the alleys for onlookers. And why would they? Everyone knew where Stray was now. No need to waste time on double-check searches when they were far more worried about what awaited them at the real fight.

He turned his visor back towards the sounds of fighting and chewed his lip irritably. It took a lot to make him feel this dirty inside, but a move like this was a step beyond what even he was used to. He’d thrown on a confident face back in the clinic, but to just leave Cassandra out as bait…

“Oh dear,” Diana murmured in his ear. No doubt the AI was monitoring his vital signs through her connection to his helmet computer. Either that or she simply knew him too well. “Don’t tell me you’re getting cold feet. We’re a bit far into the plan for second thoughts.”

“What, you think I’m about to go running back in there?” If she dies… But she wouldn’t. He had to believe that. But even so… and then there was Zoey. So many things could go wrong. One stray bullet was enough to turn victory into crushing defeat. One death was all it took to bring it all crashing down. “Those guys don’t have what it takes to kill Cassandra. They couldn’t even kill me.”

“You should be careful,” Diana warned. “I wouldn’t want to worry about you going soft now.”

“Please. Who do you think you’re talking to?” Once he was certain the enforcers had gone, he slipped down from his hiding place and hurried along the darkened streets. In the end, survival was the key. As long as he survived this fight and the one after that and all the ones beyond, he won. That was how it worked with him.

Wasn’t it?

He shook his head, knowing full well how useless it was to lie to Diana. His partner would be giving him lip for weeks to come over this. The thought of her berating him, possibly in Cassandra’s bemused presence, filled him with a strange sense of relief.

Stray moved quickly down the street as the sounds of fighting raged on behind him. He had a lot of ground to cover and very little time left. One way or another, the end drew near.

Chapter Twenty-Two: Farmgirl's End

Bernard Romeo was waiting in the street when Min Ai’s car pulled up in front of his restaurant. The portly man looked nervous to be sharing the street with the rest of Min’s security detail: a roving patrol of human and Kig-Yar enforcers already on the scene. Nevertheless he straightened and did his best to smile as Jirya stepped out of the car. Once satisfied nothing was out of the ordinary she crossed over to Min Ai’s door and tugged it open.

Min smiled at Bernard as he stepped out of the car. “Mr. Romeo. What are you doing, standing out here at this time of night?” He waved a hand in the brisk night air. “You must be cold. Terribly sorry to keep you waiting, but business has been a bit more demanding lately.”

“Ah, so I’ve heard.” Bernard consulted his chatter before quickly slipping it into his apron pocket. No doubt word had spread about fighting in the slums. Nothing too monumental, but enough to keep people talking. Min suppressed a flash of irritation at the thought of having to deal with all the rumors and accusations from the city council come tomorrow. He sincerely hoped Ger ‘Hullen could keep the situation under control for just a few hours while he enjoyed his meal.

“Well, as an apology for my tardiness I’ll pay a little extra for tonight.” Min approached Bernard and extended his hand. “As always, I’m incredibly grateful for the special considerations you take on my account.”

Bernard smiled nervously. “That’s quite alright, sir, there’s really no need…”

“But I insist.” Min smiled and kept his hand out until Bernard gave it a quick shake. The manager’s hands were slick with sweat; only years of practiced etiquette prevented Min from wiping his palm off on a pant leg when they stepped apart. Bernard kept glancing at the security detail with fear that Min was beginning to find tedious. This man lived on Venezia, for crying out loud. How did a few mercenaries—even alien ones—put him so on edge?

“You’re too generous, sir.” Bernard stepped back and gestured back at his restaurant. “I have the private dining room set up for you. If you’d just follow me?”

“Excellent.” Min waved at the enforcers. “You all know the drill. Keep watch and don’t bother Mr. Romeo here or any of his staff.”

He beckoned Jirya. “Just you on interior security, I think, even if you won’t take me up on sharing the meal. No need to impose too much on Mr. Bernard’s hospitality.”

“Thank you, sir,” Bernard said over his shoulder, clearly grateful that only a single armed human was following Min inside. Jirya kept a careful distance from Min and the restaurant manager, cradling her M7 submachine gun.

Bernard’s restaurant, though upscale by Venezian standards, was hardly a match for the luxurious high-rise establishments Min had frequented back in the Inner Colonies. Aside from a plush rug and a few reconstructed paintings adorning the walls, the steakhouse was small and sparsely decorated. Offworld associates and Syndicate colleagues tended to turn up their noses when Min treated them here.

Min supposed he couldn’t exactly blame them. His first months on Venezia had been spent in a dreadful gloom at the backwards state of things here. But there was a rustic lack of ostentation to the way things were done here that Min had learned to appreciate. He recalled the Inner Colony restaurants, with their garish flair and attention to presentation that practically turned a simple meal into a theater performance. Coupled with the bizarre designer menus with recipes that grew in showy audacity even as the actual edible components shrank, it was far too much to handle after a wearisome day inspecting warehouses and double-checking share amounts.

One restaurant had actually floated Min’s meal in to him on sugar-sculpted balloons. Naturally the serving size hadn’t even been large enough to dignify an appetizer. Compared to that, he would take Bernard’s locally-grown steaks any evening.

Bernard led him to the far end of the restaurant, unlocking a small door and actually bowing Min and Jirya into the private dining room. Min smiled at the man as he passed. He could do without all the groveling, but that sort of thing just came with the territory. Min wasn’t so foolish as to think it was all done for his sake. He wasn’t nearly imposing enough, try as he might. But he represented the Syndicate, and that meant he represented nearly every commercial venture on the planet, legal or otherwise. People knew it paid to be on the organization’s good side—and what befell those foolish enough to cross over to the bad side.

Jirya took up her place beside the door, checking a report on her chatter while resting a casual hand on her submachine gun.

“Sir,” she announced. “A report from the slums.”

Min settled down into his usual seat at the dining table—already prepared, he noted with an amused exasperation, for a solitary diner. “I thought I told Ger not to bother me with the details. Has he really let things get out of hand already?”

“Not from him, sir. From Ro’nin.”

“Oh right. I guess I can’t really complain about that one then, can I?” He’d almost forgotten his quiet instructions to the other Sangheili. Ro’nin was no paragon of trustworthiness, but he was far more perceptive than Ger when it came to understanding exactly how this game was played—a trait Min always found painfully rare in his species. He had little doubt that Ger would put his all into hunting Stray but the disgraced warrior had already been eluded twice before. His eagerness to be avenged on Stray might become a liability. Ro’nin was simply insurance to make sure the Syndicate’s interests remained the top priority.

And to think he’d put so much faith in Ger before this mess began. Min shook his head. Stray was hardly the only disappointment to come out of this affair. When all this was finished he would have to make a serious review of the enforcers on his payroll. If any were still alive after Ger was finished throwing them into the meat grinder.

“Well, go ahead, make it quick. What’s the problem?”

“They’ve found Stray. He’s holed up in an old tenement building.”

“That was quick. But since Ger isn’t making this report I assume they haven’t killed him yet.”

“No, sir. Ger just ordered Ro’nin to lead a team into the building to flush him out. He says he won’t be able to make any reports while he’s, ah, ‘doing my best not to get killed following this maniac’s orders.’”

“Yes, he’s said as much in the past.” Min shrugged. “Well, let it play out then. At the very least it means he’ll be too busy to bother me for a little bit longer.”

As he beckoned for one of Bernard’s waiters to bring him a menu—merely a courtesy, seeing as he already knew what he wanted—it occurred to Min Ai just how many enforcers might die before the night was over. Stray was a formidable adversary; if nothing else, this tiresome business had raised his estimation of the young killer considerably. Truly a shame that it turned out like this in the end.

At the very least, he hoped Ro’nin survived the night. Dependably greedy Sangheili like him were hard to come by.

Min took the menu and made a show of scanning the items, finger already drifting to point beneath the section marked for steaks.

“He already went inside. Should have picked up your pace, you might have caught him as he pulled up.”

“Yeah, I figured that one out myself, thanks.” Stray had noticed that he tended to lurk in alleys a lot whenever he spent any amount of time in a city. Right now he crouched behind a dumpster, grateful for the helmet filtering out the stench no doubt wafting up from the wall of days-old food scraps between him and the street. “Do something useful and give me an update on the patrol out there.”

“All this work I do for so little gratitude.” Diana paused, interfacing with Venezia’s limited surveillance grid. “You know, I’ve realized something about you.”

“I don’t need to hear it.”

“More and more females in your life these days and you’re still woefully single. Maybe you should consider being nicer to us members of the gentler sex. I mean, even that Zoey girl isn’t that much younger than you. If you didn’t focus all that energy on Cassan—“

“The patrol,” he grated. Normally he could handle a bit of inane ribbing from the AI. Not tonight. Cassandra and Zoey were besieged back in the slums, up against who knew how many enforcers. And his body ached from head to toe. None of his wounds had healed properly; only a viscous cocktail of stimulants, caffeine, and years of training kept him moving now. Right here, about to forge into battle once again, he really didn’t have the energy to sit still and be mocked.

“Hmph. Even less fun than usual.” Diana flashed a small graph of the restaurant and the surrounding block up on Stray’s HUD. Pulsing dots tracked the movements of Min Ai’s security detail. “Four Jackals and six humans circling the block. They haven’t set up an overwatch so they probably aren’t expecting trouble. Should be easy enough to take them down, even for you.”

“Right.” Stray scanned the area, wearily struggling to concoct a battle plan. He had no time for the usual tricks and careful setup. Every second here was another second for the enforcers to close in on Cassandra. She could handle it. He knew that. She was better rested, not a walking collection of wounds like him. But even so…

He braced his boots against the pavement and steadied his breathing, channeling the pit of fear and anxiety nestled in his stomach into the energy he’d need to move and fight and survive. Stay calm. Keep it under control.

With a sigh of resignation, he unslung his shotgun. He unloaded the weapon, swiftly ejecting one shell after another. Sliding the unused ammunition into one of his pouches, he rose into a crouch. His body pulsed beneath his armor, even amidst the aches and fatigue.

“Restraint really isn’t your forte,” Diana observed. “This ought to be interesting.”

“Just shut up and watch my back.” A pair of enforcers passed in front of the alley. Maybe the rest of their team was right behind them, ready to jump into action the minute he emerged. Maybe there really was no way out and this truly was the end. Whatever the case, it didn’t matter. He was out of time.

A shadow slipped out from behind the dumpster and streaked towards the enforcers. The first two were just the warmup, the remaining eight the quick build. And beyond them sat Min Ai and the end to all of this.

The heavy rhythm of Cassandra’s firing fell silent once again, quickly replaced by the furious roar of shots from below. She dropped back away from the window as the ledge erupted in a shower of heat and crumbling concrete. Crawling away from the shooting, she reloaded and checked her remaining magazines.

Zoey huddled on the ground a few meters away amidst the rubble of the bullet-riddled room. She tried to keep her pistol pointed at the door, but the furious noise of the shooting and her own pounding heart beat her down and filled her with panic. All she really wanted to do was find a corner to curl up in. Maybe then everyone would forget about her until this was all over.

They don’t even care about me. Or Cassandra. They just want Stray. Why do we have to get shot at? Why do I keep getting shot at? What did I ever do to deserve this? It was all so unfair. She’d have cried if she had any energy left.

A rough nudge snapped her back into the present. From the feel of the boot in her back she expected to find Stray scowling down at her. Instead, she saw Cassandra’s armored figure moving towards the door.

“We’re moving!” she barked, rifle at the ready. “Pull it together and follow me! Hurry!”

Zoey blinked, hurt to hear harsh words coming from Cassandra. Then a torrent of bullets and plasma ripped through the window and shredded what remained of the ceiling. With a yelp Zoey scurried after Cassandra on her hands and knees, following her out into the hallway.

“How much more?” she gasped imploringly up at Cassandra. “How many of them have you killed?”

“Not enough.” Cassandra inspected her ammunition pouches and shook her head. “And they’ve got their Warthogs covering the windows now. I won’t be able to set up a good firing position like that again.”

“Wasn’t Stray supposed to make them stop?” she practically wailed. “What’s he even doing out there?”

“Forget about him,” Cassandra snapped. “He’s not important right now. Worrying about him won’t save—“

She paused, helmet tilting slightly to one side. Her rifle dipped slightly as her shoulders drooped in weary resignation. “They’re inside already,” she muttered. “Of course they’d send a breaching team.”

As Zoey looked on in confusion, Cassandra walked down to one end of the hallway then back to the other. She traced a strange figure-eight pattern with her movements, tapping the ground with the edge of her boot every few steps. Finally she nodded to herself, content with the answer to a question only she knew.

“Alright.” She nodded again. “Alright.”

Crossing back over to Zoey, Cassandra knelt down beside the shivering girl. “Listen,” she said. Her voice was still on edge, but there was a gentler tone behind her words. “I’m still in this fight, which means you’re still in this fight. I promise you, I’m stronger than anything these thugs can throw at me. But I need you to stay calm and watch my back. Can you do that for me?”

Zoey stared at her for a moment, then nodded meekly. She felt ashamed of her outburst. After everything Stray put her through back out on the plains, did she really need someone speaking kindly to make her face her own fears? In the end she was still just a terrified little farm girl.

Cassandra motioned for Zoey to follow, then crept down the hall. She paused by a long stretch of wall and, reaching into one of her pouches, produced a fist-sized disk. Affixing the disk down low in the shadows, Cassandra crept a few meters forward and did the same with another disk. She repeated the gesture twice more, then backed away towards the far end of the hallway and waved for Zoey to follow her.

“Careful. You won’t be wanting to go down that way anymore.” She reached the end of the hallway and eased down onto the ground, rifle pointed down the hall. “Good thing Simon doesn’t mind sharing his toys every now and again.”

Zoey knelt down beside her. She wiped her slick palms off against her shirt and tried to hold her gun without dropping it. Outside the bullets and plasma continued to pound against the tenement. And somewhere inside the building, more enforcers were coming for them.

“Keep your head down and stay behind cover,” Cassandra muttered. “This is going to be messy.”

Together they waited in the darkness as the enemy drew near.

Ramos and his team advanced down the dusty tenement corridor. The enforcer had already radioed Ger ‘Hullen that they’d breached the building, but that didn’t seem to have stopped the trigger-pullers outside from hammering the tenement with everything they had and then some. Ramos could only hope the shooting kept Stray occupied. Facing the target in close quarters was bad enough without the impending danger of being shot by their own guns.

Keeping to the back of the formation, Ramos ushered his team along while looking ruefully back down the stairs. Ro’nin had split with them a floor down, going his own way rather than staying with the enforcers. “Just keep moving up,” the hinge-head had told Ramos genially. “I’ll be around if anything goes wrong.”

Ramos had run enough jobs with Ro’nin to know the alien wouldn’t cut and run, but he’d have much prefer having a big, energy shielded warrior to hide behind once the lead started flying.

Funny; back when he’d been in the Marines, he and his platoon mates had dreaded the presence of Elites on the battlefield. Now he hoped for one’s help while hunting another human. Ramos rarely dwelled on the bizarre turns his life had taken since the end of the war. The galaxy was changing all over, after all, and this was just business.

The lead enforcer reached the top of the stairs. She glanced back at Ramos, who nodded in affirmation: this was the floor Stray was shooting down from. From the tepid look on her face he could tell she wasn’t keen on being the first one in, but he waved her forward with a scowl.

The rest of the team—a dozen human and Jackal enforcers—assembled behind the lead. Even as far back as he was, Ramos could feel the vibrations of bullet impacts through the walls. The nervous energy coursing through the team was a palpable stink in the stairway.

The enforcers pushed through the door. Ramos half-expected the lead to crumple under a hail of bullets, but instead they weren’t met by so much as a challenge. The building would have been completely silent were it not for the sounds of firing from the enforcers outside. Ramos allowed himself a tight, nervous smile. Could they be lucky enough for Stray to have fallen to Ger ‘Hullen’s suppression? Maybe a burst from one of the Warthog guns had found its mark and their target was lying in pieces back at one of the windows.

Moving forward with newfound confidence, the enforcers advanced down the hallway. Ramos made sure he was the last one through the door, hanging back as the others checked each successive room. Others might rankle at his caution, but Ramos hadn’t survived this long in the Syndicate’s employ by sticking his neck out for contract jobs. Back in the Marines he’d always been the first to volunteer for combat patrols, never griping or hesitating to take the lead position. He’d been fighting for something more than money back then. And look where that had gotten him.

No, let the others forge on ahead. Ramos preferred staying alive enough to enjoy his pay once the contract was over.

As the enforcers moved forward, Ramos glanced up at the ceiling. Maybe they were on the wrong floor. Stray could easily be up above them, ready to kick through the floor and drop down once they were too far in to retreat into the stairs. Or maybe below?

He thumbed his com. “Ro’nin, you found anything yet? We’re at the level they said he was on, and so far nothing.”

“Hm.” The Sangheili sounded as nonchalant as ever. “Well, keep searching. He must have found some hole to crawl into. I’ll come running if anything comes up.”

“Yeah, you do that,” Ramos muttered as he killed the feed. Sometimes he didn’t know which was worse: a hinge-head like Ger who took things too seriously or one like Ro’nin who never seemed to care at all.

He checked the safety on his assault rifle and stepped up to follow the other enforcers. Squinting past the others, he noticed a small alcove at the far end of the hall. There in the shadows, something moved ever so slightly. Heart pounding once again, Ramos raised his rightful and called out for the others to be on guard.

Before the words even left his mouth the hallway erupted in an explosion, swallowing the enforcer team in a ball of fire.

Zoey flinched as the explosion roared through the hallway, but Cassandra was in motion before the fireball was even finished expanding. She rose to one knee, firing into the ruined hallway. Two of the lead enforcers staggered forward, far enough down the hall to be safe from the charges. Cassandra killed them both with swift, precise shots. A howling, bleeding Jackal dashed through the smoke and then dropped limp to the floor as Cassandra put a bullet through its throat.

“Stay put and keep your head down,” she said quickly. Then she was up and moving, smoke parting before her as she advanced, firing every step of the way.

Zoey made the mistake of looking up as the smoke cleared. She shuddered and gagged at the spectacle before her: the hallway’s walls torn apart by the blast, rubble smeared red with what was left of the enforcers caught in the explosion. A few unlucky survivors lay whimpering amidst the carnage. Cassandra dispatched them with quick shots to the head.

Just like Stray would have done, Zoey thought numbly. How could those two be so different and yet so much alike at the same time. Whatever they were, she really didn’t understand them at all.

Only three enforcers remained standing, the ones who had lingered in the back of the formation and not been caught in the blast. Cassandra shot one as the other two scrambled for cover. Gunshots filled the hallway and Zoey pressed herself as close to the floor as she could. She could block out the sights, but not the sounds and certainly not the smell: the now-familiar stench of blood and the acrid sting of gunpowder. When she dared look up again Cassandra was darting straight down the hallway, bearing down on the last enforcer.

Something hissed and then Cassandra skidded to a halt as the floor beneath her erupted in a hail of plasma fire. She scrambled backwards as streaks of searing blue ripped up into the ceiling, leaving charred, smoking holes in the floor around her.

Two blue prongs slashed through the floor beside Cassandra’s leg. She jerked away, aiming her rifle down and firing just beside the prongs as they gashed their way through the ground around her. The prongs suddenly retracted; it seemed Cassandra’s bullets had found their mark. She glanced back down the hallway at the last enforcer, attention torn between the threat in front and the unseen one beneath. Zoey saw her reach for her sidearm.

Then a gray alien hand punched through what remained of the scorched floorboards and wrapped its thin fingers around Cassandra’s boot. She twisted to aim down again only for the arm to yank her down, smashing her armored frame through the floor and out of sight.

Zoey gaped, mouth held open in a silent scream. She knelt, frozen, staring at the space where Cassandra had stood just a moment before.

Across the hall, the last enforcer stepped cautiously toward the hole. He didn’t even seem to notice Zoey as he raised his rifle and stepped over the bodies of the other enforcers. In the faint light, Zoey could just make out his face: hard and rough like everyone else, and yet pale. Somehow familiar…

Fists pummeling her father’s face. A gun pointed at her head. This is the law. Now tell me where Stray is or you’ll be wearing the kid’s brains.

Suddenly she was back on the farm, kneeling in the dirt while this man beat her father to a pulp.

Her hands tightened around the pistol grip.

Ro’nin slammed the armored figure into the ground. He was rather impressed with himself. Catching hold of Stray’s leg had been no mean feat. He’d worried he might have to crawl up a floor to deal with things, but instead he’d pulled Stray down to him easily enough. Now to finish this.

He raised his energy sword as Stray rolled over to face him… but wait. Ro’nin arched his neck and regarded his opponent warily. Something wasn’t right. He’d worked on jobs with Stray before; the runt’s armor was always a mess, marred and pitted and covered in dirt. This armor here was battered, to be sure, but someone had clearly made an effort to keep it presentable.

“Well then.” Ro’nin raised his foot and kicked the figure. It rolled with the blow, letting out a small, high-pitched yelp. A human female. “You might be good at killing enforcers, but you aren’t Stray.”

Rather than answering, the armored female rolled with the momentum of his kick and bounded up to her feet. Ro’nin came at her with the energy sword but she dodged beneath his cut and fired back with a pistol swiftly drawn from her hip.

“Come on, then, let’s have it,” Ro’nin said as he pressed forward. The bullets pinged harmlessly off his shields. He racked his brain even as he shoved this new fighter up into the wall. Something struck him as familiar about this female, some memory of a rumor he’d once heard about Stray spending a lot of time in this particular slum. Around one area in particular…

“Ah,” he mused. “You must be the one who runs that clinic down the way.”

In answer, the female ducked under his next swing and circled around him. Ro’nin saw the glint of the knife in her hand in time to dodge the cut she aimed at his midsection.

Stray’s stand-in—or was she something more?—gave no reply. She backed away from Ro’nin and carefully holstered her empty pistol while keeping her combat knife raised in his direction. No doubt his attack had caught her off guard. But she was recovering now. Ro’nin had little doubt that she was just as capable as the one she’d replaced. He needed to move in for the kill, end this fight before it got too dangerous for him.

But something nagged at the corner of Ro’nin’s mind. “So tell me,” he said, raising his energy sword with one hand while surreptitiously reaching behind his back to wrap his fingers around the hilt of an energy pistol strapped to the back of his combat harness. “If Stray isn’t here, then where has he scampered off to?”

He didn’t expect an answer and was hardly surprised when his opponent sprang for the door behind her. He bounded forward, whipping out his plasma pistol and peppering the air with streaks of emerald. The armored female averted her course at just the right moment to avoid running headlong into the plasma bolts. She twisted to avoid his next strike and backed away towards the center of the room.

“Don’t tell me he just left you to fend for yourself while he ran away.” Ro’nin’s blade cut the air inches from the female’s visor. He clicked his mandibles and deactivated the blade—he’d never been good with the thing, even before he’d been exiled—and instead unslung his plasma repeater, bracing it against his thigh and firing in tandem with the pistol. “That’s rather low, even for him.”

The female darted aside, keeping just past Ro’nin’s firing arc. But she was running out of places to run. He had her boxed in, her escape routes cut off and weapons limited. She couldn’t keep this up forever. Sooner or later one of his bolts would find their mark. Still, errant thoughts kept nagging at Ro’nin. Perhaps Stray really had conned this one into distracting them while he made yet another escape. But something was off about the whole business. There had to be another angle, one he hadn’t considered…

As if sensing his distraction, the female suddenly rolled beneath the plasma bolts and swept his legs out from under him with a swift kick. Ro’nin grunted with surprise as he slammed into the floor. The female bounded beneath his outstretched arms and slammed a knee into his chest, driving the breath from his body. She raised her knife and in that instant Ro’nin’s casual confidence was replaced by a searing bolt of fear. He raised his hands, trying to buck her off even as he protected his chest and throat.

The air filled with a renewed volley of gun reports. The female jerked and fell away from Ro’nin, her knife clattering aside. She rolled and scrambled up as bullets tore into the floor beside her.

Ro’nin pushed himself up and caught his breath, skin still tingling from his close brush with death. He’d underestimated this ally of Stray’s—a mistake he wouldn’t make twice.

Standing at the edge of the hole in the floor above, Ramos reloaded his assault rifle and drew a bead on the armored figure who’d wiped out his team.

Ramos could hardly believe his luck. He couldn’t recall ever putting much stake by any higher power, but standing amidst the corpses of the rest of the enforcer team it seemed to him that someone up there was watching out for him. He slotted a new magazine into his rifle and squinted down into the shadowy floor below.

“That’s us even now, I think,” he called down to Ro’nin. The alien picked himself up and retrieved his fallen plasma repeater, waving a dismissive hand up at Ramos.

“If you’d aimed a bit higher you could have taken her in the head and finished this.”

“Oh, great. You’re welcome, you son of a—wait. Her?”

“This one’s a female.” Ro’nin scanned the shadows for any sign of his opponent. “It seems that Stray took us for a bit of a ride, as you humans say.”

Ramos frowned. “But if that’s not him, where the hell is he?”

“Who can say? Perhaps he’s somewhere else in this building, but I doubt it. Odds are he slipped out of the slums the moment we converged on this building.”

“Oh boy.” Ramos would have been dismayed were he not still amazed by his good fortune in still being alive. “Ger’s not going to be happy about that. I’ll let you be the one to break the news.”

“Believe me, I’m looking forward to seeing the look on his face.” Ro’nin stepped forward, plasma repeater at the ready. “But first, we need to finish up here. Cover me.”

“Yeah, you got it.” Ramos adjusted his aim and knelt by the hole as Ro’nin advanced beneath him. Whoever this strange ally of Stray’s was, they’d ripped through the enforcers with ease and even come damn close to offing Ro’nin. He wasn’t about to underestimate them.

On the floor below, Ro’nin froze. Ramos opened his mouth to call down, but in the next moment the hinge-head was moving. He pounced like a cat after its prey, leaving Ramos struggling to hone in on what exactly the alien had seen. The enforcer was just beginning to consider jumping down to follow when a new voice rang out behind him.

“Drop the gun!”

Ramos turned, blinking in confusion to see a little girl in grubby overalls struggling to aim a pistol at his head. She fumbled with a weapon too big for her hands, arms trembling with the effort of holding it up.

“Who the hell are you?” Ramos demanded, more annoyed than afraid. This girl obviously had no idea what she was doing. He wondered if the pistol was even loaded. Still, there was something familiar about this girl. Where had he seen her before? He frowned, racking his brain even as he prepared to swing his rifle around and put a burst through the girl’s gut.

A shame to shoot a kid. But then again, she was pointing a gun at him. Ramos tensed, waiting for the moment when the girl’s arms would give out and give him the opening to finish her off and get back to the task at hand.

The pale enforcer filled Zoey’s vision. She fought to keep the gun steady, but it was so heavy in her hands. No matter how hard she tried to squint down the gunsights like Stray and Cassandra had taught her, she couldn’t see her target past the haze of memories: her father, beaten past recognition. Her mother, framed in a doorway with a rifle in her arms. Gunshots echoing across the fields as the burning farm seared the sky red.

With a hurried glance down through the hole in the floor, the enforcer slowly rose to his feet. Zoey gestured frantically with the gun. “I said—I said drop it!” she stammered furiously.

Ramos scowled. “Who the hell are you?” he repeated.

This man had put a gun to her head and threatened to shoot her. How could he not remember her now? Sudden tears blurred Zoey’s eyes. It was all so wrong. Was everyone really like this? Was this the real world Stray had beaten into her back on the plains? He’d dragged her away from the farm and across those grassy fields just to show her the truth her parents never taught her: a world of cruelty and pain, where people were evil without a second thought, where even good ones like Cassandra could blow up a hallway and shoot the survivors as they lay whimpering on the floor.

We love you, Zoey. Her mother and father’s voices blended seamlessly into a gentle melody. Everything will be fine. Don’t be like them. You aren’t a killer.

Cassandra… she was still down there fighting. She needed help. Zoey could do her part right here by shooting the man who had just been firing down at her. She could help, could be useful, could survive.

Just pull the trigger. She wanted to hear Cassandra’s voice encouraging her, but instead it was Stray whispering in her ear, his harsh voice chasing the comforting sounds of her parents away. Blow his head off. It’s you or him. You don’t want to die, do you?

Her finger trembled against the trigger. Her arm was trembling hard enough that the gun might fly out of her hand at any moment. She just had to squeeze. But still, something held her back. They didn’t want this. Her parents wouldn’t want her to live in this world. She strained to see their faces, to remember the last time they’d been together as a family. But all she could see was Ramos, fists glistening with her father’s blood.

If she pulled the trigger, she could never go back. Maybe she should just let him shoot her. Then it would all be over and she’d never have to smell blood or gunpowder ever again. Maybe she’d see them again…

“You killed my family,” she whispered, hot tears spilling down her cheeks.

You or him, Stray whispered.

Ramos’s frown deepened. He let out an irate groan. “Oh right, that kid from the farm,” he said aloud, more to himself than Zoey. “Why the hell did Stray bother dragging you with him?”

His utter lack of concern burned Zoey to the core. “You killed my family.” She wanted to scream the words, but instead they came out in a strangled gasp.

Ramos just rolled his eyes. He reached up and rubbed his shoulder. “Oh right, that bitch shot me. Never did get to pay her back for that one.”

He shifted and brought his rifle around to face Zoey. “Guess you’ll have to do. Stop wasting my time.”

The rifle barrel loomed at her in the shadows. In another second he would squeeze his own trigger and it would all be over.

Fine. Even in her head Stray sounded mocking and irate. Die then. I knew you couldn’t make it. Don’t know why I even went to the trouble.

A noise from below drew Ramos’s attention for just a moment. He glanced down to where Ro’nin had been standing, then grunted in irritation and turned his attention back to Zoey. His finger curled around the assault rifle’s trigger.

Sleep tight, Zoey, her mother whispered. It was the last time she ever heard that gentle voice. I love you and I’ll see you in the morning.

The harsh, fatal crack of the gunshot reverberated through the halls, silencing Lily Hunsinger—and her farmgirl daughter—forever.

Chapter Twenty-Three: Appetite

The Kig-Yar enforcer crumpled with a gasp as Stray drove his fist into its gut. He stepped over the writhing alien, kicking its fallen weapon out into the street as he surveyed the area. The roadside was littered with fallen enforcers. A few whimpered and moaned, feebly nursing broken limbs, but most were out cold.

None, however, were dead. It was a strange feeling to restrain himself, especially given the urgency of the situation. Stray certainly didn’t plan to make a habit of it. On any other night he’d have let loose with everything he had and left nothing but carnage in his wake. But tonight was different. Tonight he needed to negotiate.

“That’s the last of them,” Diana noted. “I’m impressed. I honestly think you’d have to shoot a few of them.” For once, the AI sounded genuine.

“Maybe I should have.” Stray turned back towards the restaurant. His body still ached and the exertion of close combat hadn’t helped matters in the slightest. But as always, he forced the pain into the back of his mind. Even now he could still hear the drill instructors from his childhood howling at him to push through, to focus on the goal. He fought back a tight groan. “Are you sure he’s alone in there?”

“Well, alone is a bit of a relative term…”

“Diana.” He didn’t have time for her games right now.

“Yes, yes. He has the one bodyguard with him. Unless you’re worried about a few waiters, the rest of the area is clear.”

“Right.” He pushed himself over to the door. “And you have the security system ready to go?”

“Of course. Pathetically easy, as usual. For all their paranoia about UNSC infiltrators, this city really needs to ramp up its cyber-security. I’ve been in their systems for ages and they’re none the wiser.”

“Lucky thing for us then.” Stray rested a hand on the door, then paused. “And how’s Cassandra making out?”

“Giving them hell, if they’re radio chatter is anything to go by.” Diana flashed the restaurant’s floor plan up on his HUD, a red pulse issuing from the room where Min Ai was presumably tucking into his meal. “Do you want me to patch you through?”

He hesitated, a ‘yes’ on the edge of his lips. Then he shook his head and backed away from the temptation. “She’s fine. She’ll do her job.”

The hand pressed against the door became a fist. “And I’ll do mine. Now kill the lights in there.”

No more running. No more games. He put an end to this now, one way or another.


Min Ai’s teeth froze midway through a bite of steak as every light in the dining room went dark. Instinctive panic flashed through his body and only a lifetime of handling everything the Syndicate threw his way kept him from leaping up from the table. Instead he set his knife down carefully on the plate in front of him and calmed his breathing. In front of him he could hear Jiyar swearing and fumbling in the dark for her submachine gun.

“Perhaps it’s just a local grid failure,” Min suggested. His lie convinced neither of them. ‘Local grid failures’ didn’t just happen when he was around and they both knew it. The real issue at hand was who could be behind this—and what they wanted. “Any word from the security team?”

Jiyar paused. A small light flashed from her direction as she checked her radio feed. “Nothing. They weren’t due for a status report for another five minutes, but…”

“And let me guess: you can’t raise them?”

“…No, sir.”

Min sighed. “And of course it would happen on a Tuesday. Where’s Bernard?”

As if in answer to his question, the door to the dining room creaked open. Min turned to face the door, opening his mouth and trying to come up with something to say that wouldn’t betray his rising anxiety. It wouldn’t do to snap at Bernard—the poor man couldn’t control the power grid after all and it wasn’t like him to default on his energy bills…

But any hope that this was all just some mundane accident was dashed when a heavy thud echoed through the darkness. Jiyar cried out, then yelped as the sound of another blow cut through the air from her direction. The submachine gun fired once, then clattered away. The sounds of the scuffle intensified an instant longer, then fell silent.

Min sat straight in his chair. He folded his arms on the table in front of him and realized that he was sweating through his suit. His heart was pounding hard enough to burst from his chest. The realization that it might not be beating much longer was no comfort to him. Yet he couldn’t betray his fear. Min was no stranger to the threat of death. He’d known what he’d been doing when he decided to ascend the Syndicate’s blood-stained ladder, and now here he faced the consequences of that decision.

He'd decided long ago that when death came for him, he would face it without making a fool of himself. It was the least he could do, considering all the lives taken on his order. Min Ai swallowed and waited for the bullet to leap out from the darkness and snuff him out.

But it never came. One moment became two, then three, then four. Jiyar made no sound and neither did her unseen assailant. Min’s fingers tightened. Was the assassin playing with him?

And then the lights came crashing back on. Min blinked, momentarily blinded, making out a blurry figure standing a few paces from the table. As his vision returned, he was startled to recognize the grubby, battered armor standing before him. “Stray?”

Stray stepped over Jiyar’s still form. He paused to kick the bodyguard’s submachine gun away and strip her sidearm from its holster. “She’s alive,” he said curtly, jerking his helmet back at her. “And she won’t try anything if she wants to stay that way.”

He came up short at the table, training the confiscated pistol at Min Ai’s forehead. That cold, expressionless visor was an excellent design tool, Min noted distantly. Not being able to see someone’s face as they threatened you heightened the intimidation factor immensely. An odd thing to note for someone in his position, but he always prided himself on such flashes of insight.

“No one outside is dead either,” Stray continued. “A few will need an extended stay in the hospital, but they’ll fight again.”

“Well…” Min dragged out the word, struggling for something to say. “That’s awfully generous of you. To what do I owe this generous show of restraint?”

He narrowed his eyes. “By the way, I hate to make you feel unwelcome, but aren’t you supposed to be getting killed in the slums right about now? I could have sworn someone just told me Ger and his enforcers were fighting you at this very moment.”

“Yeah, funny how that worked out,” Stray agreed. He kept the pistol pointed at Min, but the weapon’s ability to intimidate the Syndicate’s representative shrank with each passing moment. The pieces swirled together in Min’s head.

“So you have some of your associates standing in for you while you sneak away to join me at dinner.” Min forced a smile. “I’m flattered to think of all the effort you’ve gone to make time for me.”

“Why shouldn’t I? You seem to be making plenty for me.”

“Yes, I do admit that our relationship has soured a bit of late.” Min gestured at the empty seat in front of Stray. “Why don’t you take a seat? Share some of this marvelous steak. I’d hate to see it go cold while we sit around negotiating.”

He tilted his head at the gun. “You are here to negotiate, aren’t you? Unless leaving my guards alive was simply a courtesy to them on your way to kill me.”

Stray took the hint and lowered the weapon. “You’re right. I’m here to cut a deal.” Though the helmet hid his face and he spoke in a rough monotone—no doubt his attempt to be intimidating—the rogue enforcer couldn’t disguise his youth. It had always struck Min Ai as strange to find such a strange parcel in this find, a young man well-versed in the art of killing and yet impulsive enough to land himself in this situation. Whatever the UNSC had done to win the war, Min had no doubt Stray was but one of the many strange bits of detritus left floating in its wake.

“A rather ambitious proposal, given your current predicament.” Min Ai slid his plate across the table and again motioned for Stray to take a seat. “I am currently trying to have you killed, after all, and you’ve spent the better part of the past week killing everyone we’ve sent after you.”

“I could just kill you now,” Stray pointed out. He slid the chair out and finally took a seat across from Min. “I don’t want to die. I don’t think you do either. I think that gives us some common ground.”

“Indeed it does.” Min offered Stray a tight smile. “But the fact remains that you have wronged the Syndicate. We both know that isn’t just something I can sweep under the rug.”

“So I shot up a few drug dealers. Two-bit thugs. Were they really worth everything you’ve lost trying to kill me? Are they worth dying over?”

“It’s the principle of the thing.” Min spread his hands. “Those men were operating with my blessing. Your job was to ensure they could move and distribute their product freely. Instead, you killed them. I don’t really care why. It doesn’t matter. Now, thanks to you, I’m up to my neck in this mess you’ve made.”

“I made a bad call,” Stray admitted. “I screwed you over. But like I said, I don’t want to die. And I could kill you right now if I really wanted to. But I can’t keep this up much longer, I’m pretty sure you’re getting a bit sick of dealing with this mess, and I’m really sure you want to still be alive when I walk out of this room. So I think that’s as good a start as any.”

“Fair point,” Min admitted. “I doubt I could stop you from killing me at this point. That was a good play on your part. Of course, there’s nothing to stop me from saying I’ll let you live, then calling for your head the moment I’m safely away from you. You don’t plan to hold me hostage for the rest of your life, do you? That would be dreadfully uncomfortable for both of us.”

“Right. So we have to make a deal. One I can trust.” Stray made a show of placing the pistol on the table. “Like I said, I was an idiot. I’ll come back to work for you, go back to giving you my best. All I want is for the Syndicate to leave me alone.”

“Rather low terms, considering you’ve got the top Syndicate representative on the planet at your mercy.” Min smirked. “But you can hardly expect me to just agree to something so cut and dry. I’ve had to waste a lot of time and effort thanks to you, not to mention all the people you’ve killed. I expect compensation. Reduced wages, for one. No complaints from you when I make you work the harder jobs for less. Assurances you’ll keep this little situation quiet.” He waved at the dining room.

“About what I expected,” Stray said with a curt nod. "But you need to call off your goons back in the slums. Now."

"Ah." Min raised his eyebrow. "So you have allies back there covering for you. I suppose that does make sense."

A smile tugged at his lips. "And you're worried that the longer we drag this out, the more chance Ger and his team will kill them. So we must negotiate quickly."

"Glad to see you're quick on the uptake."

“It's why I'm in charge. Of course, that’s assuming I decide to go along with your deal.” Min rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “After all this effort, someone has to take the fall. I need to make an example of someone, just in case anyone else starts getting ideas about crossing the line and getting away with it.”

“I think I can arrange something like that,” Stray said. “I can’t be the only guy pissing you off lately.”

“As a matter of fact, you aren’t.” Min nodded amiably. He waved a hand toward the steak. “Please, help yourself. I hate to see good food wasted and your antics have spoiled my appetite.”

Stray regarded him a moment longer. Then he carefully removed his helmet and set it on the table. He looked more bedraggled than usual, Min Ai noted. His hair, matted down against his head by sweat, was course and filthy. A thick coat of dirt clung to his face. In his battered combat gear he looked beyond out of place among the restaurant's gilded trappings. Then again, that was the Syndicate's way after all. Perhaps this would turn out alright after all.

The grubby enforcer lifted a fork off the plate and took a bite of steak. His eyes widened as he swallowed the meat. "It's good," he said after a moment, reaching for another bite.

Min Ai smiled. "I'm glad to see at least someone appreciates fine dining."

Chapter Twenty-Four: Necessary Evil

Plasma fire pierced the shadows, illuminating the darkened corridor in a stream of azure light. Decaying walls and doors burned and gave way as Ro’nin fired his plasma repeater in a wide arc. In the flashes of light he could just make out the figure of his target as she wove from room to room, always just meters ahead of his firing arc. Whenever he stopped to cycle out the repeater’s heating coil she would stop running long enough to take a few potshots with her pistol before darting away through the corridor once more.

As much as Ro’nin liked a good hunt, this one was starting to get on his nerves.

He ducked back behind the smoldering remains of the nearest door as the latest volley of bullets pinged off his shields. His mandibles pursed as he checked his combat harness. Tempting as it was to draw his energy sword and simply rush in, he’d learned his lesson the first time. Whoever Stray’s stand-in was, she was smaller and faster than Ro’nin—all it would take was one wrong step at close range for her to shove a knife into his throat. No, his advantage was at range. All he had to do was wear this one down until she slipped up. Then he could finish this and go back to figuring out where the real Stray was.

Ro’nin drew a plasma grenade from his harness and ignited it with a twitch of his finger. Lobbing it down the hallway, he raised his repeater and fired several careful shots into his opponent’s cover. As he’d suspected, she didn’t let him pin her down for the grenade blast. Instead she moved again, racing just beyond the grenade’s fiery blast radius. The room she’d sheltered in erupted in a blue flash, aging walls crumbling before the impact shock.

He braced the repeater against the wall, angling the weapon to a point just ahead of the running figure. Ro’nin smiled in self-satisfaction as his finger drifted over the firing stud…

“Ro’nin!” The sudden shout in his earpiece startled the enforcer, throwing off his aim and sending the burst of plasma intended for the target into the ceiling. He snarled a curse as the target vanished once again into another room.

“Ro’nin!” It was Ger ‘Hullen, sounding as irate as ever. “Come in, damn you!”

“What do you want?” He was too irritated to come up with a mocking barb. Here he was, doing Ger’s job for him, and that stuck-up fool had the nerve to interrupt him. “I’m a little busy at the moment.”

“Withdraw,” Ger snapped. “Find Ramos and get out of there at once.”

Ro’nin paused. This wasn’t right. He didn’t much care about killing Stray or whoever he’d suckered into covering for him, but why was Ger of all people ordering a retreat? He’d expected his fellow Sangheili to press the attack until the job was done. “Just to clarify,” he said slowly. “You don’t want us to kill—“

“No,” Ger snarled. “That isn’t Stray in there.”

“Oh, I was meaning to bring that up.” As always, Ger’s fury did wonders for Ro’nin’s mood. “Seems we’ve been attacking a human female—“

“I know!” Ro’nin wasn’t sure he’d ever heard Ger this angry. The realization that he’d been attacking the wrong building must have hit him hard. “Min Ai just contacted me. I know where the real Stray is. I’ll deal with him myself. You just get out of there and don’t cause any more trouble.”

“Are you sure you don’t want me to just finish this one—“

“No! Don’t kill either of them! Min Ai’s orders.”

Either of them? So Stray had more than just one friend in here. But why would Min Ai care about any of Stray’s allies? They were hardly worth keeping alive, and from the sounds of things Ger didn’t even want them as hostages. This entire job had taken a turn for the bizarre.

Ro’nin shook his head and lowered the plasma repeater. Well, it wasn’t his business to question orders from Min Ai. He’d have enjoyed blasting this irritating human, but as long as he got paid there was no reason to risk angering the Syndicate. “Ramos!” he called up through the hole in the ceiling. “Did you catch any of that? We’re leaving.”

No response from above. Maybe Ramos had already run off. Or maybe he was dead. It made little difference to Ro’nin either way. It was time for him to leave.

The sudden sound of approaching footsteps brought his attention jerking back down to his own floor. He looked towards the noise in time to see the armored human hurtling towards him. With a start, he spun and raised the plasma repeater. Surprise made him forget Ger’s orders and he fired off a wild flurry of plasma shots. The armored female ducked under the hastily fired bolts and sprinted in to collide with Ro’nin’s midsection. Her momentum carried the surprised Sangheili forward, propelling him backwards—and crashing out through the window behind him.

Ro’nin yelped in surprise as he tumbled, flailing, down towards the street below. He struck the pavement, shields collapsing as he bounced down the road. Pain arced through his body and his vision momentarily whited out.

He came to and found himself staring up at the building he’d stood in just moments before. Breath coming in ragged gasps, he tried to rise several painful times before giving up and lying where he’d fallen. He was pretty sure his body was fine, bruises aside. He’d endured worse over the course of his career. Still, he’d remember getting tossed out a window by a human half his size for some time to come.

Certainly not the most auspicious way to lose a fight. He’d let his guard down and was damned lucky the worst he’d gotten was a fast way down from the building. But he lived to fight another day—the same could not be said of most of the enforcers who’d gone into the building. And in the end, that fortune alone had kept Ro’nin going through war, disgrace, and exile. He was still alive while several others were not. It was the law of the frontier, one he’d embraced long ago.

Lying in the street, aching all over from bruises that would no doubt last for days, Ro’nin couldn’t help but laugh. This was the difference between himself and Ger ‘Hullen, he reckoned. He could at least see the funny side of things. Creatures like him could find satisfaction no matter where they went. If the price to be paid for such happiness was to be labeled scum by the depressing likes of Ger, Ro’nin would pay it a thousand times over.

His laughter petered out and he lay still, catching his breath but still chuckling from sheer relief. What a bizarre job this had been.

Cassandra slumped beside the window the Sangheili had gone tumbling out of. Panting from the exertion of a fight she’d just barely survived, she rested her helmet against the wall and promised herself that she would never, ever go along with one of Diana’s plans ever again.

Or at least not as willingly as she’d gone into this one. Simon owed her big for this.

Well… it wasn’t all his fault. It was so easy to blame everything on Simon given that outspoken scumbag role he loved playing so much. Easy to forget the role she herself played in all this.

The sudden pang of guilt reminded Cassandra that she wasn’t the only one left in the Syndicate’s crosshairs. “Zoey!” she called, pushing away from the wall. “Zoey, are you alright?”

No answer. Cassandra was already moving, springing up at the hole the Sangheili had dragged her through and wiggling her armored body up and back into the gory carnage she’d painted with the remote mine. Fortunately, her flash of panic didn’t last long. Zoey sat hunched in plain sight, unmoving but seemingly unhurt.

“Zoey,” Cassandra said with a sigh of relief. She’d been so caught up with fighting the Sangheili that she’d had no time to worry about Zoey, left alone up here amongst the remaining enforcers. But there was no sign of the survivors. Any left when Cassandra was dragged through the floor must have fled during the confusion. “You aren’t hurt are you?”

Zoey didn’t respond. The girl was slumped over, staring at a dead enforcer. He lay sprawled beside the hole, blank-faced and bleeding from a wound in his chest. The pistol Simon had given Zoey lay between the girl and the dead man. It wasn’t hard to realize who had done the killing here.

“You…” Cassandra wasn’t sure what to say. Instinct and training urged her to congratulate Zoey. She was alive and a man who probably would have killed her was dead. A simple victory. But the other part of Cassandra, the bit beyond the Spartan, the part that lay awake at night, fumbling for her Bible as she relived everyone she’d killed and seen die, wouldn’t let her see any victory here. She hadn’t exactly set out to keep Zoey from killing anyone—she’d been too busy fighting the people dead-set on killing them both—but the sinking feeling Cassandra felt as she looked down at the girl and the man she’d killed told her that she’d quietly held on to the hope that Zoey wouldn’t have to use that pistol.

“You’re alive,” she said finally. “That’s what matters.”

“I killed him.” Zoey’s face was streaked with tears, but she wasn’t crying anymore. “He was going to shoot me.”

“But you shot him first. That’s… you didn’t do anything wrong.” The Spartan in her wanted to congratulate Zoey. Somehow a complete novice had killed a man with far more experience and training. But standing amidst the gory aftermath of her own handiwork,

“He… he killed my family.” Zoey looked desperately up at Cassandra. The girl looked terrified, and no wonder. Cassandra tried to think back to how she’d felt after her first kill. She couldn’t even remember—probably some Grunt cut down at the start of an ambush. It all blended together, countless profiles lined up in her sights, endless gunshots as a weapon kicked in her arms.

Not for the first time, Cassandra had to wonder if Simon had the right idea by refusing to let himself care.

“He killed my family,” Zoey repeated, as if the enforcer trying to shoot her wasn’t enough reason to kill him.

“Not just him. But yeah.” They couldn’t linger here much longer. The shooting outside had subsided, but the Syndicate would send more enforcers in soon. As far as Cassandra was concerned, she’d done her bit. She’d given Simon his distraction, and he’d better have made the most of it. Now she needed to get Zoey somewhere safe before this nightmare could damage the girl any further. She rested a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Does it make you feel better?”

Zoey gave the dead enforcer one last look, then shook her head and turned away. “I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

“Good. It shouldn’t.” She brought her rifle to bear and checked down the corridor. “Come on and follow me. We’re getting out of here before they send another team in.”

The com on her encrypted channel chirped. She opened it, hoping to hear Simon’s voice. Instead Diana’s smug tone slid through her earpiece. “I see you two are still holding out down there. Not quite dead yet?”

“As much as I’m sure you’d love to tell Simon how the Syndicate killed us, we’re fine.” As much as she disliked the rogue AI, Cassandra couldn’t help but feel a bit relieved. The fact that Diana was contacting her at all meant that things had gone to plan. Simon had caught Min Ai off guard and now, one way or another, the manhunt would be called off.

“Always with the naked hostility.” Diana laughed. “Please, I don’t want you dead. Though I’ll admit it would be interesting to see how Stray handled that particular blow. I can’t have him running off and getting himself killed. He’s no use to me dead.”

“Glad to hear you put so much stock by our lives.” Cassandra glanced back at Zoey. “And how’d things go on his end? They’ve stopped shooting. I’ll take that as a sign of progress.”

“Yes, you do have us to thank for that. Do the peace process a favor and don’t shoot any more enforcers. Stray was lucky enough that Min Ai isn’t too angry about all the ones he’s killed so far. Everyone just wants this to be over, so sit tight and wait for the all-clear.”

“No kidding. So we live to fight another day.” Cassandra had told Simon to kill those drug dealers—an angry retort snapped over the body of yet another overdosed teen, one she hadn’t expected he’d take so seriously. She could hardly complain that she’d wound up in the line of fire. Looking at Zoey, who deserved all this the least yet had wound up losing the most, she felt a surge of disgust. At the Syndicate, which crushed everything and everyone blindly underfoot in its quest for profit. At the rebels, for letting the same cancer they claimed lay within the UEG taking root on their precious independent world. At Simon, for not caring enough. And at herself, for always letting him shoulder the burden of that guilt all alone.

I just want to help people. But she could never seem to save the ones she cared about the most.

Ger ‘Hullen rapped his fingers against the nearest wall and fought to maintain his composure as he listened to Min Ai. At this point, he barely knew why he bothered.

“So you want me to go after Stray,” he said in a dull voice. “Alone.”

“Yes, that is the gist of what I just told you.” Over the com Min sounded as light and affable as ever. Ger could just picture the Syndicate man seated at a table somewhere, smiling as he ordered the world to his liking. It must be such a wonderful feeling to give a command and know it would be carried out. “I’ve sent his approximate location to your datapad. You’ll find him there. Kill him and this will all be over.”

“And I imagine there’s a reason you’ve called off the other enforcers.” It hadn’t even occurred to Ger that he might disobey Min’s order to call off the attack on the tenement. Such a rebellion simply wasn’t in his nature. But this next order had him reeling. Was Min simply playing games now?

“I’ve lost enough people to this irritating affair,” Min said simply. “Besides, Stray is wounded. Tired. He’ll be in no shape to put up much resistance. Since you didn’t go inside that building yourself, I assume you’re fresh for a fight.”

“I was directing the attack from—“

“Oh, don’t worry,” Min cut off his protest. “I’d never call you a coward. But things have to end. Now.”

Min’s voice lowered and for the first time in a long while he sounded angry. “This hunt has been a mess from beginning to end, Ger. It’s cost me time, lives, and money. So you’ll find Stray at the coordinates that I gave you and you’ll kill him and we can put this all behind us. Or he’ll kill you and then I suppose you won’t have to worry about dealing with him anymore. Either way, it ends tonight. Do I make myself clear?”

“Impeccably.” Ger stared down at the icon on his datapad’s map. Min’s cold words washed over him and he felt an inexplicable sense of relief as the situation fell into place. Yes. This was how it should be. How he’d wanted it in the first place. No bumbling fools to order about, no worthless lives to throw after his quarry. Just his pride as a warrior matched up against Stray’s will to survive. “Without fail, I will bring you his head.”

“Well there’s no need to make things too grisly. Just be quick about it. Who knows how long he’ll stay in that part of town.” Min’s end of the com channel hissed shut.

Ger lowered his head for a moment. He twitched his mandibles. The cool night air felt different now. Less stale, more alive. The stink of the city around him was no longer merely a reminder of his fall from grace. With the rush of freedom coursing through his veins, it made the streets feel alive. A true battlefield.

He glanced at the enforcers idling around him in the street. A few looked nervously back at the tenement, but most simply seemed confused. Directionless.

Let them stay that way. Ger no longer cared what they did or where they might go. He’d been released from that tedious responsibility. “You heard my orders,” he growled, dismissing them all with a wave. “This operation is over. Get out of here.”

“What about our pay?” one of the Kig-Yar hissed.

“Take your complaints to Min Ai,” Ger snapped. “I have more pressing concerns.”

He seized his carbine up from where it rested against the wall and stalked away from the milling enforcers, welcoming the streets’ dark embrace. Stray was waiting for him out there. Min Ai was right. This all ended now.

The shotgun thudded into the pavement as Stray let his legs give out beneath him. His armored frame melted down across the jutting steps leading down into a narrow back alley. Every fiber of his body beneath the armor ached. He’d been hurting ever since he limped away from the restaurant, mind just barely focused enough to guide him to the address Min Ai had given him.

“Wait for Ger ‘Hullen there.” Min had smiled at him from across the table, utterly unfazed by his brush with death. Even with a pistol pointed at his head, the man remained in control. For all his weapons and training and augmentations, Stray could only dream of having that kind of power. “He’ll come to you. Have it out and show me which of you is worth keeping around. And then we can put this all behind us.”

I just need a minute.” His thoughts swirled about in a thick fog, struggling to make sense amidst all the pain and fatigue. He wanted nothing more than to close his eyes and drop away into a sleepy void. But the battle wasn’t over. He still had one thing left to do.

Sometimes it seemed like he always had just one thing left to do.

“You’re certainly putting a lot of faith in Min Ai,” Diana pointed out. “Who’s to say Ger ‘Hullen won’t be alone? Min might have told him to bring every enforcer in the city down onto you.”

“Well, I’m not the one tapped into the grid network.” Stray rested his helmet against the wall. Even the effort of propping his body up hurt. The bits that didn’t hurt throbbed with an agonizing numbness. “You tell me.”

“Oh, but where’s the fun—“

“Diana,” he muttered softly. “Come on. Please.”

The AI paused a beat—an eternity for her advanced processors. “Fair enough,” she said after a moment in a conciliatory tone Stray heard possibly once a year, if that. “He’s coming on his own. Min Ai kept his word.”

“Well there’s that at least.” Stray dearly wanted to sleep and let Diana wake him whenever Ger drew near. But he doubted she’d acquiesce to being his alarm clock and besides, something told him he didn’t have much longer to wait. Min Ai’s conditions were clear: whoever walked away from this fight stayed alive and in the Syndicate’s employ.

Stray was low on ammunition, pressed far beyond even his own augmented limits, exhausted from days of nonstop fighting. Ger ‘Hullen was bigger than him, well-rested and uninjured. A Sangheili, born and bred for war. It was little wonder Min had honored his end of their little deal. Stray was in no shape to take on a Kig-Yar, let alone a creature twice is size. There was no need to waste any more enforcers on killing him when Ger was more than happy to take care of that on his own.

He looked down the alley, visualizing a dozen possible approaches to the coming fight. The battle played out over and over in his head, a mental blur of crackling energy and explosive gunshots. In each one, he lost. Weakened legs gave out and left him open to a deadly sword cut. Fatigue threw off his aim at the critical moment. A stream of plasma streaked down the alley and burned him down before he could even rise to meet his attacker.

There was no winning a fight against Ger ‘Hullen. And Min Ai knew that.

Still, Stray couldn’t help the weary smile that slid faintly over his lips. He reached into one of the pouches across his armor, fumbling with the buttons as he snapped it open and withdrew a small vial—the same device he’d retrieved from his burned out apartment. He considered the vial for a moment, then flicked a small knob on its side and tossed it down onto the alley floor. The vial rolled across the rough pavement before coming to rest beside the nearest wall. Staring down at the tube, Stray felt a strange sense of relief seep through his tired body.

“There’s no point to a contingency if you never use it,” he said aloud. “At least, not if you have to spend money on it.”

“Time to see if the investment paid off,” Diana noted. Her voice brightened. “And you won’t have to wait long to find out. He’s here.”

Tension pulsed through Stray’s exhausted body but he fought back the urge to reach for his shotgun. It took every ounce of self-control left in him, but he stayed where he was, propped up on the alley stairs like some idling beggar—albeit a beggar encased in combat armor. A shadow moved in the darkness at the far end of the street. That shadow grew larger, taking on form and shape as it stepped into the light. A tall Sangheili warrior wearing a crisply maintained combat harness strode into view. The alien stalked forward, stopping a few paces away from the steps. It held a carbine at the ready, but the weapon’s barrel remained down as its slit eyes regarded Stray from beneath its helmet.

Human and Sangheili regarded each other for several moments. Stray wondered if he should say something, maybe probe this final enemy for fear or weakness, but his fatigue-clouded mind couldn’t muster up anything particularly sharp to lead with. Fortunately, Ger ‘Hullen was more on his game.

“So. You must be Stray,” Ger said. Stray’s helmet translator filtered his words into thick English. “Here at last.”

“Keep a tab on the area, make sure he doesn’t have any backup.” Stray’s instructions were contained within the confines of his helmet. Diana said something in reply, but he was too tired to pay the barb any mind. He tilted towards the Sangheili.

“I’m guessing you’d be Ger then,” he said aloud. “Was wondering where you’d show up. Didn’t this all start around here?”

Ger couldn’t help the sinking feeling of disappointment clamping down on his recently bolstered spirits. He stared over at the figure on the steps, dimly illuminated by a distant light. Was this really the one who had caused him so much trouble, running him in circles from this city to the plains and then back again? He’d watched Stray for several moments from the shadows, wary of any traps, but as time passed and the armored figure had remained still, he’d realized that there were no tricks left to play. Stray made no effort to hide or take cover or even reach for his weapon at an enemy’s approach.

Had he simply resigned himself to death?

“You’re right where Min Ai told me you would be,” Ger said finally. Perhaps he should simply snap his carbine to bear and put a bolt through Stray’s visor. But that result would be too dull to bear after all this time. Min Ai had painted Stray as a desperate man, a highly trained killer rejected by the humanity he’d been created to serve. As much retribution as he owed Stray, Ger desperately wanted to see something, anything of himself in his prey. He’d imagined them both to be warriors in similar straits. Someone on this dusty pit he might actually share some kinship with.

But there was no tragic nobility in the faceless creature slouched before him, none of the majesty he’d once seen in the figures of Sangheili warriors laid low by the betrayal of the times. Stray was just another Syndicate cast-off, hunched and tired and filthy.

“I don’t suppose you have any idea why he would know exactly where you are?” Ger demanded.

Stray spread his hands. “I think we both know that answer. I’m guessing he told you to kill me?”


“And I don’t think you have to guess what he told me.”

“So you did meet with him.” The pieces fell into place easily enough. Ger’s throat tightened. “You fought your way right to him, the last thing he could expect, and let him trade my life for his.”

“A deal’s a deal. You actually angry about that? From where I’m sitting, I’m the one with the raw deal to handle.”

“You had him at your mercy, and you simply let him buy his way out.” Ger shook his head in disgust. “Just like these Syndicate scum always do. I thought you would at least be a warrior. What a disappointment you’ve turned out to be.”

Stray snorted. “A warrior? What gave you that idea?”

“You led us on a fine hunt. Eluded me at every turn, killed dozens of enforcers. And from what Min Ai told me you did on your homeworld—“

“Oh, of course he’d bring that up.” Stray slumped back onto the steps. “And of course you’d think something like that makes me an honorable killer like you. Typical hinge-head. Blow up a city and you guys think it’s my crowning accomplishment. If I’d glassed half the planet would you ask to shake my hand?”

“You have power, human. The power of life and death. And you choose to waste it on the Syndicate. Even now, you’d kill me just for the chance of earning Min Ai’s pardon.”

“Well, yeah. Because I don’t want to die.” Stray regarded Ger from behind his visor. The human’s faceplate betrayed no emotion but Ger could hear the cold mockery in his words. The same mockery that slipped out of Ro’nin’s mouth every time he talked, the same cruel irony that haunted Ger so incessantly everywhere he went.

It was the tone that spat upon everything he’d ever held dear. Everything he ever sought after. Everything that had been stripped from him. His hands tightened around the carbine.

“I was wrong about you then,” he said quietly. So this was the disappointing end to his mission. A cold tingling swept through his body. How typical of the Syndicate, this planet, and every wretched inhabitant. “You have no pride. No honor.”

“Pride?” Stray snorted. “You can’t eat pride. Can’t live off honor.”

He cocked his head. “And you know, you left a farm on fire out there on the plains. Killed the farmers, too. So here I’ve been these past couple days blaming myself for that happening and along comes you, the guy who was actually in charge of that mess. Guess I should thank Min Ai for asking me to kill you. Maybe it’ll make me feel better.”

“You blame me for the farm, yet you seek absolution from my superior?” The cold tingling was spreading, growing stronger. Ger’s chest tightened. Strange; he’d never felt so angry before. Yet oddly calm as well.

“Why is it always like talking to a wall with you people?” Stray just shook his head. “Sure, Min Ai’s the real bastard here. But here’s the thing: I kill him, and I never get to sleep soundly again. So I think I can live with letting him go and settling for you instead. I’m just trying to survive out here, same as everyone else. Just like those farmers were doing, until we stumbled onto their little farm and burned it to hell.”

Ger had heard enough. “You haven’t even begun to fight me and you speak as if you’ve already won. But I’ll kill you here and be done with this nonsense. Unlike the rest of you vermin, I won’t grovel for the Syndicate forever. You’re nothing more than a stepping stone in my return to my people.”

He snapped the carbine up, finger squeezing the trigger to blast Stray’s head from its shoulders. Or at least he tried to. The weapon barrel quivered, suddenly immensely heavy in Ger’s arms. Arms that shook from the effort as he struggled to aim the weapon.

Ger blinked. He suddenly realized just how cold he really was. He shouldn’t feel like this. It wasn’t right. Why was his body suddenly so weak? So sluggish?

“Yeah, well that’s the thing pal.” Stray finally rose to his feet, wincing from the effort but making no effort to attack. Instead he simply stood atop the steps and watched Ger struggle with the carbine. His helmet tilted back slightly and he propped himself up against the nearest wall with one arm. “I’ve already won.”

“What are you—“ But the words caught in Ger’s throat. He gagged, horrified to realize that his breaths were coming in ragged gasps. His vision swam; the alley swirled around him as if it were underwater. With a choked rasp, he fell to his knees.

What was happening? He could hardly string the thoughts together. It was too much effort even to support his body on all fours. Ger writhed against the pavement. His weapon. Where was his weapon?

Stray stood over him, looking down from what seemed like a great distance away. From amidst the haze of breathless pain, Ger recognized the final cruel joke in the entire hopeless journey that had been his life. In the end, even Syndicate vermin like Stray stood above him.

How could this have happened?

In the end it was all so utterly absurd.

Stray let him writhe on the ground for a few moments longer. Then, mercifully, he reached up to the machete on his back. Unsheathing it in a single fluid motion, he brought the blade down towards Ger’s neck.

Stray looked down at the dead Sangheili. He regarded the corpse for several moments, then bent down and wiped his machete off on Ger ‘Hullen’s armor. A part of him wondered if there was anything to be said for the Sangheili enforcer’s death. The larger part of him couldn’t find anything particularly momentous about this last kill between himself and survival. Just one more dead enforcer out of all the others he’d killed these past few days.

The triumph did little to work through his ever-present fatigue. Stray leaned on the machete and shook his head. “Guess I’ve really racked up the kills this week, huh?”

“It does seem to be a bit of a record for you,” Diana agreed. “You should be proud of yourself. Every time I think you’re starting to lose that touch you come back and remind me why I’ve stayed with you this long in the first place.”

“And here I thought it was just the pleasure of my company.”

“Oh, save turning on the charm for Cassandra. Though I have to admit, it was a bit anticlimactic.”

“What, you thought I was going to just have it out with him? In the shape I’m in? I wouldn’t have lasted a minute in a fair fight.” Stray rose, wincing from the effort it took just to stand. He stepped over Ger’s body and picked up the vial he’d tossed into the shadows. “I’ll have to get my hands on more of this stuff. The nerve gas worked like a charm.”

“Lucky for you your helmet seals still work.”

“Come on, you know me better than that. As if I’d ever use toxins without vaccinating beforehand.” He glanced around the alley. “Sure hope this stuff dissipates before some hobo thinks this is a great place to spend the night.”

Something stirred at the corner of Stray’s vision. His muscles strained as he drew his sidearm and trained it on yet another Sangheili approaching from the other end of the alley. A chill stirred in his gut as he recognized the alien. “Ro’nin. What are you doing here?”

“What do you think?” The mercenary came up short and made a show of slinging his plasma repeater.

“Did Min Ai send you?”

“He may have given me a call, yes.”

“Here to finish me off?” Stray supposed he shouldn’t be surprised. It had been a long shot to hope Min might honor their bargain even if he did kill Ger. “Because if you are, hurry up and get over here. It’s been a long night and I really need some sleep.”

“Yes, well, I’d rather not walk straight into a cloud of toxins. But it was a nice try.” Ro’nin indicated his mouth: a circular breathing device had been inserted between his mandibles. “I arrived in time to witness Ger’s untimely demise. Not that it matters. I’m not here to kill you. Min just wanted someone to relate the thrilling conclusion to all this firsthand.”

“You may have to embellish it a bit if he wants his money’s worth.” Stray lowered the pistol. “Maybe throw in some more exciting bits when you call up this poor bastard’s family back on your homeworld.”

“As if Ger had any family left.” Ro’nin clicked his mandibles. “Not that I’d bother making him look good if he did. Stuck-up snobs like him are the reason I left Sanghelios in the first place. I’ll be glad not to work with him in the future.”

“And Min Ai…?”

“Oh, he told me that if you won I should remind you that his stipulations still stand. And that he’ll be expecting you back on the job in two days.”

“Right.” A future of pilfered meals and empty bank accounts beckoned. “So no hard feelings.”

“That’s rather gracious of you. I’d like to point out that I never took any shots at you.”

“Only because you never got the chance.”

“Details, details.” Ro’nin approached Ger’s body and began running his hands over the dead warrior’s combat harness. He appropriated several items for himself before glancing back up at Stray. “Though compliments to whatever friend of yours was covering for you back in the slums. I’ll have you know she kicked me out a window.”

Cassandra. Stray’s hands tightened into fists. “And she’s alright? Her and the girl she was with?”

“When I left, yes. Ger ordered us to leave them alone right before he came here.”

“They’d better be.” Stray walked back up the stairs to retrieve his shotgun. “Tell Min Ai that I get the message. Nice of him to give me a day off. I’m going now, unless you’ve got anything else from him for me.”

“Nothing comes to mind.” Ro’nin chuckled as he looked over the body. “Though I should really thank you. He’ll have plenty of work to spread around after all the poor fools you killed over this. We’ll line our pockets, just like we always do.”

“Well, you will at any rate.” Shotgun slung over his arm, Stray turned to go. “I’m going to be paying off my debts for a long time to come.”

He left Ro’nin there without another word. He couldn’t say he liked the Sangheili, at least not any more than he liked any of the other scumbags sharing the mercenary profession. But at least the big guy understood the bottom line.

Murderous scumbags like themselves needed to stick together sometimes. Otherwise people like Cassandra and Zoey might become bad influences.

“Drink.” Cassandra thrust the canteen under Zoey’s nose. “That’s not a suggestion. Drink some water. You need to stay hydrated.”

Zoey took the canteen gingerly with fingers still numb from the recoil of the gun. The gun she’d used to kill someone. The thought turned her stomach and sent a quiver of shame coursing through her body. How could she feel like this? The man she’d killed had wanted to kill her. He’d beaten her father to a pulp in front of her eyes. Stray and Cassandra had killed dozens more people right in front of her. Why was the only death trapped in her mind the solitary one she’d done herself?

She shuddered again, realizing that she hadn’t even seen her parents die. The only death she could really visualize was that enforcer’s limp body back in the corridor. She tried to visualize George and Lily’s faces, but only saw the slack features of the man she’d killed. Somehow she couldn’t even tell if that was a good thing or a bad thing.

She had survived the battle when she wasn’t even sure she wanted to live in the world that lay beyond it.

“Drink,” Cassandra ordered again. She pressed a hand up to the canteen and tilted it forward, forcing the water into Zoey’s mouth. The girl spluttered in surprise at the water’s flavored tang.

“What did you put in this?” she asked, snatching the canteen back and sniffing its contents.

“Electrolyte powder. Water’s not the only thing your body needs. Now drink, before you pass out.”

Zoey did as she was told. Even with the flavored powder the water tasted bitter on her tongue. She glanced over at Cassandra, herself sipping from another canteen. They rested on the roof of the embattled tenement, sitting below the stars in the cool night air. The streets below were quiet. There was no sign of the enforcers, save for a handful of huddled forms lying motionless against the pavement.

Corpses of the ones Cassandra had killed.

How could she do it? The killer in Stray was easy to see, but Cassandra lacked his temper, his callous humor, his boiling fury. She took lives with the same clinical, detached way she treated patients and dispensed medical advice. Even now, looking out over the city below, the young woman seemed pensive. Not haggard, not remorseful. Just thoughtful.

Even in the darkness, Cassandra sensed the question behind Zoey’s stare. “They weren’t good people,” she said. “Thieves, murderers, guns for hire. You could say the galaxy’s better off without them.”

“Is that really what you think?”

It took Cassandra several moments to respond. “It’s the truth. One truth, anyway. The one I tell myself when I have to kill them.”

“Does it make it easier?”

Cassandra passed a hand over her face, brushing a stray lock of hair back behind her ear. “It’s already easy. It shouldn’t be, but it is. They trained us young not to worry about the face you sight up in your crosshairs. You don’t just forget a skill like that. I only had to start making up excuses like that after I started thinking for myself.”

“But you’re right,” Zoey muttered. She thought again about the man she’d killed and how he’d looked with her father’s blood on his knuckles. “We’re better off without them.”

“We are,” Cassandra agreed. “But maybe someone else isn’t. We spend so much time hating people that we forget that not everyone feels the same way. Everyone has someone.”

“Not me anymore.” The dead enforcer’s face filled Zoey’s mind and she spoke more harshly than she’d intended. “Thanks to them, I don’t have anybody.” Her eyes stung and she wiped angrily at her face. How dare she feel anything for the man who’d done that to her father, let alone shed tears for him?

The pause from Cassandra was longer this time. When she finally spoke, her voice sounded more haggard than ever before. “Everyone has someone,” she repeated. “And we all hurt people. All of us. Even the ones who don’t mean to. You didn’t choose to have them come to your farm. You didn’t deserve what happened to you. I didn’t choose the Covenant to burn down my home. I don’t think I deserved that.”

She nodded down at the bodies. “Maybe some of them had something they didn’t choose. And some of them didn’t deserve that.”

Zoey opened her mouth to respond but couldn’t think of anything to say. Like Stray, Cassandra seemed to think on an entirely different level than her. Yet there was very little certainty in the young woman’s roundabout moralizing. Looking at her now, Zoey realized Cassandra was just as lost and confused as she was. The older girl had just had more time to live with it.

“So what happens now?” she asked.

“I can’t say for sure.” Cassandra set her canteen down and folded her arms. “I try to go back to running my clinic, provided the Syndicate didn’t get around to blowing it up. As for the rest, well, maybe he’s got some better answers for you.”

She jerked her head over her shoulder. Zoey followed the motion and started when she saw another armored figure leaning against the door leading down into the apartment. Stray lifted his helmet from his head and ran a hand through sweaty hair. “Hey. Glad to see you two are still in one piece.”

Zoey hesitated, a new flood of emotions breaking through the numbing haze of fatigue. Relief, anger, resentment, confusion. Stray was the one who’d started all this. Wasn’t he? She didn’t even know who to blame anymore. She had every reason to hate him. So why was she actually relieved to see him alive and well?

“No thanks to you,” she said finally.

“Yeah, you’re as fun as ever.” Stray limped across the roof. From the way even his weapons seemed to droop and hang from his body, Zoey could tell he really was exhausted. Whatever he’d been off doing, whatever had pulled the enforcers away, it had taken a toll.

Stray stopped beside Cassandra at the edge of the roof. The two shared a strange look as he planted his helmet next to hers. His hand twitched upwards just a bit even as Cassandra raised two fingers and swiped them once across her face. After another moment’s hesitation, he returned the gesture.

“Is it done?” she asked quietly.

“Yeah. It’s done. I even managed to remind them about leaving the clinic alone, so yeah. Guess you could say we’re back to square one.”

“You’re right back where you started.” Cassandra shook her head. “It’s the best ending we could hope for, I guess.”

“You guess? That’s it? And here I was all set for another lecture about the Syndicate and all the evils in the galaxy.”

“Were you really looking forward to that? Because I do have a few choice sermons prepared, for you especially.”

“Yeah, yeah. Think I’ll pass.” Stray regarded her for a moment longer before turning to stare out at the city. “You really did a number on them down there. Heard you kicked Ro’nin out a window. You’d better send me the helmet cam footage of that. See if he ever lives that one down.”

Cassandra shot him a sidelong glance. “Sorry. I don’t think I was recording for that bit.”

“You’re never any fun. Anyone ever tell you that?”

“Only you. And only a few dozen times. One of these days I’ll get the message.”

Stray offered her a terse smile as they descended into silence. They both seemed to be at a loss for anything more to say. Zoey wondered if there was anything she could contribute. But what was there left to say? She understood what had happened quite clearly. Stray had cut some deals and somehow earned his way back into the Syndicate’s good graces. He was a mercenary again, just like the ones who had taken everything from her.

And where did that leave her?

“Are you two going to…” she started, but stopped herself short when Stray looked over at her. The darkness made his face hard to see, but she could imagine his mouth snarling like an angry dog.

“You gonna finish that thought?” His tone wasn’t exactly gentle, but it also wasn’t as cold as she’d expected.

“I… I killed someone,” she heard herself say. “During the fighting.”

“Oh, you did?” Stray spared her a glance. “Good for you.” For once, he sounded genuine. Zoey wished it would cut deep, maybe even bring her to tears again, but instead she found the praise strangely comforting. Was she so desperate, so far gone that even Stray’s approval was enough to make her happy?

But what was left for her? Right now, these two were the only people in the world left to care. These strange killers, both of them so young and human but also so distant and alien.

“Simon,” Cassandra warned. “It’s not the time.”

“What? I meant it.” Stray regarded Zoey with an odd look. Then he limped back across the roof to stand before her. He reeked of blood and sweat and gunpowder, that same horrible stench she’d smelled back at the river when she’d first found him washing his face. Even then, before she’d known him and everything he was capable of, she’d seen a monster.

Now she wasn’t sure what she was looking at. Her monster, her protector. A murderer. A boy just as scared and lost as she was.

Stray worked his jaw. “Your family…” he began. For once he sounded unsure of himself. “They’re gone.”

“Because of you.”

She was relieved when he didn’t apologize. Somehow that would just make things worse. “Yeah, a bit. I killed the one who led the search party, if that makes you feel any better.”

He took his time with the words, but he held her gaze with an almost fiery determination. "They were good people. It's--"

“The way things go out here. You said that already." Even as he stood over her exuding that horrible stench, she wasn't afraid of him anymore. And he probably didn't want her to be. "And they were good people. I'm pretty sure you're not. But they're dead and you’re still here. I survived somehow, mostly thanks to you. I want to learn how to keep doing that.”

She could see Cassandra standing off to the side, no doubt debating whether to jump in to her rescue. Somehow that spurred her on. “If that’s really the way things are, then I want to be like you. The kind that still alive when it’s all over.”

Stray scowled. “I don’t like where this is going.”

“You owe me,” Zoey pressed on with the dogged resilience she’d learned from Stray. “And I bet you can’t stand just throwing me out. So I’m sticking with you, whether you like it or not. And maybe I’ll learn a thing or two.”

She expected Stray to protest. She half-expected Cassandra to insist that she come live at the clinic instead. But the young woman stayed quiet while Stray grimaced down at her.

“You little brat,” he muttered. “Fine. Guess I’m stuck with you.”

“Really—“ Zoey stopped herself before she gave herself away. “You mean you’ll make things miserable for me so I run away.”

He made an irritated click with his teeth. “Give me a break. I can’t be nasty all the time. But yeah, it’ll be rough. You’ll be a lot more trouble than you’re worth and probably won’t really learn anything from me. But you’ll make it somehow. Types like you tend to survive.”

Stray was wrong about the first two, like he was wrong about so many things. But he was dead right about the last one. Even he got a few things right once in a while.

The End

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