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Halo: Salvation
SalvationCoverV1
Protagonist

Amanda Wade
Michael Green

Antagonist

Alexander Redford
Carlos Driscol

Author Brodie-001
Date Published Started July 5th, 2016

Finished February 3rd, 2017

Length 5 chapters, 16 sub-chapters

(Roughly 51,366 words upon initial completion)

Author's Rating 16+ (Some harsh language and violence throughout)
Previous Story Halo: Sanctuary
Next Story Halo: Oversight
Story Series Sigmaverse
[Source]

Plot Summary

Six months after Avalon's fall, the crew of the Dynasty return to Human space after a bloody rampage across the frontier. With nothing left to lose, Amanda Wade must lead her followers on one last mission to the glassed world of Madrigal in search of long-lost weapons rumoured to be lying far beneath the planet's scorched surface. With limited time available to complete their goal, the Dynasty's crew must deal with harsh conditions, the dangerous New Colonial Alliance, and the ever-looming threat of the UNSC on this dangerous mission.

Dramatis Personae

Halo: Salvation
Book Three of the Dynasty Trilogy

Prologue

Adrift

1736 Hours, March 1st, 2557

Ramiel II, Verent Orbit, Joint Occupation Zone


"I've got 'er sighted on the long-range, Captain."

"Good. Go in slow, and prep the EVA gear."

Above the former UNSC colony, a small flotilla of ships drifted through an immense field of debris, picking through broken hulls and abandoned habitats like a school of fish in search of salvage. The UNSC had lost this world decades ago when the Covenant arrived, a brief, furious battle ending in a massacre and the surface's glassing. Since then, Verent had been left alone; another graveyard in the stars.

That was, until the fetchers arrived.

With the war over, mankind was making efforts to reclaim its lost colonies, and salvaging valuable materials from former battlefields had become an incredibly lucrative industry — for those willing to face the dangers of traversing floating junkyards. Strapped into the co-pilot's seat of her Tug, Captain Bess Rivers checked her datapad, eyes focused on a tiny yellow blip up ahead. She grinned, and took off her baseball cap.

"It's a slipspace drive. Has to be."

Her pilot, Maurice, sighed with a smile. "You've got that greedy look in your eye, Cap."

"And why shouldn't I? We find an intact drive before anyone else and we're rich, dammit."

A spacer of forty-eight years, Bess had been doing this sort of thing long before the UNSC had started handing out contracts and fat paychecks. Accidents were an unfortunately common occurrence in deep space, and the Outer Colonies had always needed a good supply of salvage vessels even before the Covenant showed up. Zipping past a particularly large chunk of what might have been a Covenant ship, the Ramiel II caught sight of an intact freighter, slowly drifting through the darkness.

"Would you look at that," Maurice craned his neck to get a good look. "Looks barely dented."

"Crew must've abandoned it during the invasion. Look, the rear boarding ramp's wide open. Makes our job easier."

"Hey Captain, what're the prices for an intact ship?"

"Not as much as an intact slipspace drive, I can tell you that much. Land on the side while we go in."

Their small craft slowly descended, lowering itself onto the freighter's side and activating a set of magnetic clamps. Bess unclasped the lock on her harness and drifted free, slowly edging her way towards the storage bay. Her two other crewmen—Dennis and Devrim—had already pulled themselves into bulky EVA suits.

"DeeDee," she addressed the pair of them. "We've got a live Shaw-Fujikawa in this ship, so we'll have to be extra careful when we remove it. This ship looks stable enough, but after drifting God knows how many years, you can never be too careful."

Devrim began pulling on his helmet. "Rules of engagement?"

"We got here first, so it's ours."

She frowned, knowing that Devrim meant well; there were some fetchers who would kill for a find like this, and having an armed ex-Marine would likely be enough to deter any chancer with a handgun who decided to play space pirate. Dennis, a thin, quiet man older than Bess, simply shrugged as he checked his suit. He'd been out here just as long as her, and knew how things worked in deep space. After suiting up, she switched to radio communication and thumbed the release catch for their airlock.

"Slow bursts," she gave the usual advice as they slipped out into the debris field.

Controlling her thruster pack, the veteran fetcher quickly corrected her course and landed safely on the derelict freighter's hull. The others followed suit, landing gently and activating their magnetised boots as they made the slow, clomping journey round towards the boarding ramp. Usually, they'd have to spend hours slowly cutting their way through the weakest point of a ship's hull before claiming their prize, so this was a lucky break for them. One by one, the fetchers clambered down and slipped inside. Three pairs of headlamps lit up the room as they took in their surroundings. Aside from a large crate bolted and tied to the floor, it was entirely empty.

"Remarkably well-preserved," Dennis muttered, running a hand over a nearby workstation. "See anything valuable, Dervim?"

"Nah, most of it's flushed out. Might be something in the crew quarters worth taking."

"We're only here for the drive," Bess scolded them. "There might be bodies aboard."

The two men kept quiet after that sobering thought. While some would freely scavenge ships without a care in the world, there were few spacers who showed no respect for the dead, particularly those who had died fighting or fleeing the Covenant. Chances were they'd send along another team to reclaim corpses and personal belongings to return to the crew's family later on. The trio eventually arrived at a sealed door marked 'Engine Room' and, with a nod from Bess, Devrim knelt with a portable blowtorch to begin cutting through. They each had enough air for at least three hours, which would be more than enough time to take the drive and get out.

"Okay, starting cut," Devrim unslung his MA5B rifle and floated it through the air towards Dennis. "Won't be too long."

As the device flared to life at the top of the sealed hatch, there was a low rumble beneath their feet. At first, Bess thought a chunk of debris had struck the ship. Then the lights flickered on.

"Wait, this thing's got power?"

Suddenly, the engine room door clanked open and Devrim found himself staring down the barrel of an M90 shotgun. Its muzzle flashed, the sound inaudible in the vacuum as the man's entire body jerked back, the visor a ruin of broken glass and bloody chunks of flesh.

"Bloody Elisa!"

Dennis fumbled with his weapon, only to catch the second and third blasts. He tumbled backwards as the ship's ramp slid shut. In moments, the ship began pumping recycled air into the compartment and the artificial gravity activated, both corpses hitting the ground with dull thumps. Bess had frozen in fear, arms half-raised as she stared at the figure before her. His own vacuum suit was covered in heavily-worn black armour, chipped and dented in multiple places, while his helmet—a distinctive one belonging to the UNSC's feared Orbital Drop Shock Troopers—was painted with a fearsome, grinning skull.

"Don't move," a voice intoned through the skull-faced visor.

Bess could tell he was watching her; any movement through her transparent visor would be interpreted as a cry for help, leading to her imminent execution. After a few moments of excruciating silence, the man motioned her to take off her helmet. She did so with deliberate slowness, placing it at her feet before throwing up her hands once more.

"Tell your crew everything's fine," the man commanded. "Tell them you're taking this ship out of the debris field for salvage. Nod if you understand me."

She nodded, trying not to look at the bloody corpses of her comrades as she activated her earpiece communicator.

"Maurice, this is Bess. Change of plan, we're taking the ship. Detach and meet us outside the belt."

"What? I thought we were taking the drive?"

"It'll be easier to do back at the Starsailor. Just head back and we'll bring the ship around."

"Copy, Captain. See you there."

There was a faint noise as the Ramiel II detached itself from the vessel. Bess' captor waved her towards a nearby staircase, marching the fetcher upstairs and into a corridor. Her mind raced, trying to figure out why they had been ambushed in the first place. Fetchers seldom had anything of real value until they had found something worth stealing, so it made no sense for pirates to do this. If they were slavers, it seemed like an overly elaborate, dangerous operation if they wanted to take three or four people captive. Besides, they had just killed two people. Slowly, the ship began to move.

"What's your name?" the helmeted man said suddenly.

"What?"

"Your name."

"Why does it matter to you?"

Her captor sighed, lowering his shotgun by a fraction. "I'm humanising you. You give me your name, I give you mine, et cetera. Easier to kill someone who's a total stranger than someone you know as a person. That way I won't want to kill you."

"I'm Bess. Bess Rivers."

"Nice to meet you, Bess Rivers." he removed his helmet. "I'm Ash Mitchell."

Ash Mitchell. She froze up again, recognising the name. She'd seen it pasted across every station in Human space for a long list of crimes—hijacking, terrorism, robberies, numerous murders. The fact the former ODST had evaded capture from both the UNSC and numerous bounty hunters for over a year was particularly shocking, and even among Bess' circle of Fetcher buddies bets had been placed on how long he'd last before someone claimed his head.

"You killed my sister."

She balled her hands into fists, the blank stare of a hostage contorting into one of pure hatred. This seemed to surprise him, which surprised her in turn. Either he wasn't quite a remorseless psychopath the media made him out to be, or like any other criminal, he wasn't used to seeing the consequences of his actions. Bess knew going for his gun wouldn't end well, so she awaited his response, studying his face. He was young—in his thirties if she remembered the reports—though he looked a great deal older. Several ragged scars stretched across his face, while his eyes, though brown, seemed slightly mismatched. One was likely an artificial prosthesis.

"When?"

"On Kuiper last year. You blew up her apartment building to cover your escape."

Mitchell shook his head sadly. "Wasn't me that did that, sorry. Killed some cops that day, but that's it. Now move."

As he put on his fearsome helmet once more, Bess chanced a step forward. "Oh what, you think I'm—"

The blow came with lightning speed as the former ODST slammed the butt of his shotgun into her ribs, knocking the wind out of her. He grasped her shoulder with one hand and pushed her forward. Any trace of humanity faded instantly as he reverted back to the killer who'd murdered two of her friends.

"Move." His voice was cold and hard once more.

A woman emerged from a side room as they approached the bridge, clad in a grey jumpsuit and carrying a large handgun. Tying back her dark hair, she stopped before them and looked Bess up and down.

"I'm truly sorry about your friends," she spoke with a surprisingly calm tone, "but this is important. Do what we say and we'll let you go free."

"What do you want me to do?"

"Get on our COM and convince your ship to dock with ours. Can you do that?"

"What about the crew?"

"If they comply, they'll not be harmed. Now move."

With that, Bess was led onto the bridge. The only people aboard seemed to be Mitchell, the woman she assumed was the captain, a pilot, and two armed guards standing behind her. A chair was indicated, and she sat down as a communication channel opened.

"Starsailor, this is Captain Rivers of the Ramiel II, do you respond?"

There was a brief crackle of interference from the debris field before a voice came through. "Riverth, what the hell d'you think you're doing, ya bloody fool?!"

Jim Hogan was captain of the CAA Starsailor, an old, larger Springhill-class Mining Ship used to transport fetchers and their finds across the galaxy, as none of their smaller ships possessed slipspace drives. She recognised his lisp and particular brand of directness instantly, and adopted a friendly tone.

"Jim, this ship's still active, and it's got a cargo worth having."

There was a long pause. "What ith it?"

"Can't say over an unsecured channel, Jim. I need to bring it in personally so we can discuss payment, not including the slipspace drive, which is intact, thanks for asking."

"Fine," Hogan replied. "Hangar four should be big enough. Hogan out."

As the channel closed, Bess swiveled round in her chair, half-expecting a gun to her head. Instead, the ship's captain nodded in approval.

"Thanks. We'll leave you safely aboard your ship once we finish up. Ash?"

Stowing away his shotgun, Mitchell took out a pair of cuffs and stood Bess up before securing her hands behind her back. Even with his opaque visor, she could tell he was trying his utmost not to look at her as he faced a nearby wall. The rest of the journey was made in absolute silence as they headed towards the Starsailor. Looking out through the ship's forward viewport, the captured fetcher caught a glimpse of what might have been the Ramiel II moving in to land. Maurice would likely be killed if he tried to interfere, but she had no way of contacting him.

"Okay then," the pilot finally spoke in a soft voice. "Coming in to land now. Do your stuff, Amanda."

The captain—Amanda—nodded and motioned for Bess to follow her. The two guards had already left the bridge and, judging by the sounds from the other end of the ship, were shifting something heavy. Flanked by Amanda and Mitchell, she was led back down to the storage bay where Dennis and Devrim's bodies had been stuffed into a corner. The solitary crate had been cut open, revealing the bulky form of a military-grade Mark IX Mantis mech. It had clearly been heavily-modified, and looked as though it had enough firepower to take on a company of Marines and win.

"Christ," she muttered, watching as one of the guards—a red-headed young woman—clambered into the pilot's seat.

"We won't use it unless we have to," Amanda reassured her, checking her handgun. "Just make sure your man complies."

Bess was marched to the ship's rear door by Amanda, keeping her hands clasped firmly behind her back. Nearby, Mitchell was loading an M392 DMR as the Mantis thrummed to life, its head turning left and right before taking the tiniest of steps forward. The freighter touched down with a gentle thump, having landed in the Starsailor’s largest hangar bay, and the doors slowly clanked open to reveal Hogan and four of his cronies, two of whom were armed. It struck Bess the Captain likely planned to take whatever treasures she'd promised, and for the briefest of moments, she found herself taking the side of her captors.

"Riverth!" the older man yelled, squinting into the bay through a pair of tremendously thick spectacles. "What're—"

He leapt back with a terrified yelp as the Mantis lumbered through the door, followed by the others. Half-dragging Bess, Amanda strode towards Hogan and raised her handgun. His guards hadn't moved a muscle, their eyes wide with fear as the mech's cannons turned towards them.

"Jim Hogan?" Amanda stood before them.

"Yeth?"

"Ciudad de Huesos. Where is it?"

It was clear Hogan knew what she was talking about, as he gulped nervously. Amanda raised her handgun threateningly.

"Y-y'see, I can't jutht-"

She fired, a round missing his head by centimeters. "Next one's going in your left knee. Then your right. We've got all day."

Hogan adjusted his glasses with trembling fingers, and straightened up slightly. As he opened his mouth to speak, a trio of gunshots rang out from across the bay, zipping past both him and Amanda. Glancing to the left, Bess saw Maurice, holding a smoking handgun.

You fucking idiot—

A moment later, Bess blacked out. In her last moments, she saw both Hogan's crew and Amanda's forces raising their weapons. She was glad to have missed what happened next.

***

When Bess came to, she had to check to make sure she wasn't dead. Aside from the dull throb of a bruise where Amanda had pistol-whipped her into unconsciousness, she was fine. The fetcher had been moved, and lay atop a wooden palette. Sitting up, she saw the remains of a very one-sided battle: Hogan and his men had been ripped to shreds by the Mantis' 20mm machine guns, while Maurice's corpse lay with a single, neat round through his forehead. She stared at his body, with its eyes still wide open as he lay face-up.

"We're leaving," a voice intoned over the scene.

It was Ash Mitchell, standing amidst the corpses and empty shell casings while two other men dragged a supply crate up their freighter's boarding ramp. The white skull on his visor was flecked with blood. Bess clambered to her feet, only now noticing she was out of handcuffs.

"Ship's yours now," he continued, gesturing round at the mostly-empty hangar bay. "Since you're the only one left to run it."

So that was it, then. They'd killed everyone on board. Despite the Starsailor’s size, it was crewed by barely a dozen full-time staff, with fetchers coming and going as new contractors were picked up. Bess felt as though she were in a dream, taking unsteady steps towards Mitchell. She had no way to hurt him, and they both knew it. He turned back towards his ship, and at last she cried out.

"I believe you! You didn't kill my sister!"

At that, he halted. The man reviled across colonised space as the 'Butcher of Kuiper' was once again given pause, turning slightly as Bess stopped a few feet away to continue.

"But you just murdered three of my friends, you asshole. Remember that."

"I will."

For a moment, his rifle twitched towards her, only for him to stow the weapon away. Perhaps he'd thought of killing her just in case, only to have a last-second change of heart. Perhaps he thought that leaving her among the dead was a worse punishment. She simply didn't know. Utterly helpless, Bess Rivers sat and watched as he boarded the ship, which took off several minutes later. As it passed through the hangar doors, she caught a name, painted onto one side in faded white lettering.

DYNASTY.

Old Wounds

0902 Hours, March 3rd, 2557

HIGHCOM Facility Bravo-6, Sydney, Earth


"It's the second room on the right."

"Thanks."

The door to the office slid open as Bess approached. The interior was brightly-lit, with a single, ornately-carved wooden table dominating the center. A middle-aged man sat across from her, typing something into his laptop. He indicated she sit with a gloved hand without looking up, and after a few moments, shifted to properly face her.

"Thank you for coming here, Miss Rivers. I understand it's been hard for you the past couple of days."

"Yeah, it has."

Bess Rivers hadn't been in the best of shape since the hijacking two days ago. That ship—the Dynasty—had obliterated every other fetcher vessel above Verent before jumping to slipspace. She'd sat among the corpses for hours, reduced to a sobbing wreck as the adrenaline faded and the weight of the situation truly set in. She'd been able to eventually program the NAV computer for the nearest inhabited system, where she'd quickly alerted the authorities. Less than a day after she'd mentioned both Ash Mitchell and Amanda Wade, ONI agents had swooped in and discreetly transferred her to Earth.

The uniformed man reached across and shook her hand. It was then she realised he wore only a single glove. Smiling warmly, he spoke.

"Captain Alexander Redford. I'm the head of a counter-terrorism taskforce within ONI. Now, I've read your reports, and to be frank, you're lucky to be alive."

"Oh yeah," she sneered. "Crew dead. Friends dead, and my fetcher contract gone. Some luck."

"I understand what it's like to survive such odds, Miss Rivers. That's why I'm here to offer you employment."

"As what?" Bess sat a little straighter in her chair. "I'm no spook."

"I don't expect you to be one. What I need are your former connections, and your skills as a fetcher."

She sighed, running a hand over her cropped hair. Every spacer knew there was a pecking order of sorts when it came to who you worked for, going all the way up the chain from independent outfits to large corporations, and eventually the UNSC itself. ONI occupied a particularly terrifying place in the hearts of many. If a fetcher went missing, the possibility of them being snatched up by the mysterious organisation always seemed to come up in conversation.

Now here I am, about to make a deal with the goddamn devil.

"Gonna need specifics here, Captain."

Redford slid a datapad across the table. "This gives a general outline of your mission parameters and pay, Miss Rivers."

Bess took it, glancing down at the dossier. She tried not to look surprised at the number of zeroes at the end of what she assumed was her paycheck, and noted it listed two participants. The ONI officer waited patiently as she swiped through several pages. Eventually, she put the pad down and crossed her arms.

"You want me to go to Madrigal?"

"Yes. We believe that based on your report, that's where the Dynasty is going."

"So that's where 'Ciudad de Huesos' is? Must be pretty important to warrant a massacre, whatever it is."

He nodded. "Yes, the so-called 'City of Bones'. We've heard rumours of a settlement on Madrigal, but it's proving difficult to find, even for us. It seems whoever is running it really doesn't want to be found. Seems your Captain Hogan was one of few privileged with knowledge of its location."

"Hogan was just a fat old spacer. Why'd he know where it was?"

"ONI has investigated him extensively over the last day. As it turns out, he had several business ventures on the side, which included numerous black market dealings. He was making a tidy profit selling supposedly defective machinery to clients across the colonies."

"So what, he was an Innie-lover?"

"Not that we're aware of. It's most likely that he simply wanted to make the biggest profit he could, which included selling to wealthy Insurrectionists. Not that it matters now, since he's dead, but it would appear he was part of a larger group secretly funneling supplies to Madrigal."

"Uh-huh." Bess suppressed a yawn, feeling somewhat out of her depth. As someone who scavenged from derelict ships for a living, all this seemed like something for ONI to handle.

Redford seemed to read her thoughts. "If money isn't enough of an incentive, then know in addition to finding this hidden city, we want you to assist in eliminating Amanda Wade, Ash Mitchell, and their entire crew. I'd think revenge only sweetens this offer, no?"

"You're right, yeah. Like I said though, I'm not a spook. I'm sure ONI's got plenty of pilots and assassins and whatnot that they could send instead of me. Not that I wanna turn it down; I need the money."

"You and I both have good reasons to want these people dead, Miss Rivers."

Leaning forward, he traced his fingers along a faint facial scar, and removed the glove over his left hand. Beneath was a gleaming metallic prosthesis, titanium fingers curling and uncurling into a fist. For just a moment, his kindly demeanour faded, and Bess could see the absolute, seething hatred in the man's eyes. He regained his composure after a split second and sat back, placing his glove back on.

"My marks from Mitchell and Wade," Redford explained. "They have eluded capture for far too long, and deserve to be brought to justice. While I'm sure the public would have a field day with their trial and imprisonment, I'd rather not make martyrs of the pair of them. You've known loss because of them as well. That's why I want you for this mission."

There was a long silence as he covered his hand and sat back, awaiting her answer. Just a week ago, she'd been trawling through asteroid fields and scanning burnt-out ship hulls for scraps to make ends meet. She'd met the man who had - or so she'd thought - been responsible for her sister's death and the deaths of her crew. She stood up and held out her hand, adopting a businesslike tone.

"I accept, Captain Redford."

"Excellent," he gave a polite smile and shook her hand again. "I'll see that you're briefed on the mission, and you become acquainted with your partner. Our agents will see that you have a place to stay for tonight and arrange travel for you tomorrow. I wish you the best of luck!"

As the fetcher exited the room, Redford's smile vanished. Bess Rivers had been easy to convince of her mission's righteousness, at least. His communicator chimed, and a menacing voice sounded through.

"Your second guest is downstairs, Captain."

"Thank you, Armand," he addressed the AI. "I'll head down now. See to it he's comfortable."

"Of course."

The man sighed as the device switched off, gathered up his things in a briefcase, and left. The sprawling underground structure beneath the main Bravo-6 facility was a labyrinthine maze of corridors, data centers and meeting rooms, home to numerous departments and sub-departments within both the United Nations Space Command and the Office of Naval Intelligence. A pair of black-suited officers saluted Redford as he strode past, replying with a curt nod as he made his way down two flights of stairs towards 'Core 2', the home of the BRUTUS division. While few knew of the group's existence and fewer still were aware of their true activities, everyone working within Bravo-6 knew not to cross them. Redford halted by a side door and bent slightly towards a speaker.

"Oderint dum metuant."

A tiny light by the speaker flashed green, and the door hissed open, revealing a narrow, windowed corridor. Along each side were doorways leading to over two-dozen meeting rooms, with numerous one-way mirrors allowing him and his agents to look in on their subjects. Currently only one was occupied. An elderly man sat alone in the chamber, arms crossed and back straight as he stared intently at the window. While he couldn't see through it, he certainly knew he was being watched. A holotank lit up by the entrance, and a hologram of a robed, hooded man shimmered into existence.

"Captain," Armand bowed.

"How is he?"

"Irascible as his file reported, though he knows his position. Will you need me in there?"

"No thank you, Armand. See to it the transfer order given to the Agrippa is diverted as planned. CINCONI signed the order this morning."

"Of course."

The AI disappeared with a faint flash. Redford had been partnered with Armand upon his ascension to the head of BRUTUS, a present of sorts from Admiral Serin Osman, the head of ONI. The two worked well together, which came as no great surprise to the officer; Armand was created from Redford's own flash cloned brain tissue, after all. After an experiment produced a particularly successful result eight years ago, several other AI had been created using the effective—though costly—method. After the initial strangeness of meeting a construct based on his own mind, Redford had come to rather like Armand. He swiped his keycard across a nearby scanner, and stepped into the interrogation room as the door slid open.

"About damn time," grumbled the old man.

"My apologies, Mister Asad. You won't be kept here long."

"Good. Let's just get down to business then."

Smiling, Redford took a seat and pushed the datapad containing the mission dossier across the table, watching as the other man surveyed it. At the age of sixty-eight, Abd-al-Quadir ibn Asad had garnered fame and infamy across the years as the former head of a Private Military Company known as 'Lion's Claw', which had undertaken numerous operations during its forty-year existence against Insurrectionist forces and the Covenant alike. What many didn't know was the group had been contracted by ONI on numerous occasions for classified operations until it was formally disbanded in 2553. Despite technically being the company's CEO, Asad had fought alongside his men on the frontlines until the end of the Human-Covenant War.

"Why?" Asad said at last, scratching his bearded chin with metal fingers. "Why bring out a retired old man for wetwork like this?"

"Because like it or not, you still owe ONI a debt. I'm calling it in."

The old mercenary leaned back in his chair, sighing deeply. "Look, I want to speak to Captain Frederick King. He knows me, and sure as hell owes me something after all these years."

"That's not possible, I'm afraid. He's in a coma."

"What?!"

Redford saw the surprise in Asad's non-prosthetic eye. "Six months ago, he was badly injured in a bombing. He's alive and still recovering, but he's not woken up yet. I'm his replacement."

"Huh," Asad looked him up and down. "New head of BRUTUS, huh? So I guess you saw the old man and me had a history, and decided to bring me in. That it?"

"Partly, though I want your presence for more than assisting some washed-up spacer in murdering a group of terrorists. This is about MASQUERADE."

"What about it?"

Asad had begun to look nervous, which pleased Redford. After taking King's place as the head of BRUTUS, he'd been given access to files on a number of his predecessor's most classified operations. While he was aware of or had personally been involved in many of them, one dating back to 2513 had interested him. He'd just been a child at the time, though both the personnel involved and the mission logs interested him greatly. Of course, following them up would have been a waste of his precious time, until a mission to Madrigal was involved.

"Forty-four years ago, you and several other specialists were recruited for a counter-terrorism operation in the Outer Colonies. Your final destination was Madrigal, where members of the United Rebel Front supposedly kept a vault containing stolen nuclear weapons. You reported no such vault existed."

"Yeah, and?"

"I think you were lying."

At this, Asad shifted slightly in his chair. The man knew any violent movements towards Redford would prompt the immediate intervention of the two armed security officers outside, if the ONI officer himself didn't shoot him. Instead, he raised his right foot and set it down on the table with an audible clunk.

"See this? I lost my leg on that shithole of a planet. Shrapnel took out my right eye, too."

"Mister Asad, I-"

"I'm not done yet, asshole," he rapped his left hand on the table. "Covenant melted the real one on a mission King sent us on, and don't get me started on the amount of shit I've had to implant to hold the rest of my body together. Then after all the crap you guys have put me through, you think I'm bullshitting you? You've got some nerve."

"Finished?"

"Yeah."

Redford reached down, and took an old, leather-bound book from his briefcase. A page around two-thirds of the way through had been marked with a bright note. He opened it, scrolled down for a moment, and began to read.

"We made an agreement based on Asad's idea. Final vote was five to one, with Jones as the opposing vote. I was surprised at McNair's choice; guess I misjudged the guy when I first met him. Once we stop Perrin, we're telling ONI there was no vault. Even Jones agreed to honour that, even if it means she doesn't get a promotion. I'm loyal to Earth, not ONI. If they use those nukes for false-flag attacks, then things will only get worse out here. This time tomorrow, we'll either be all dead, or unsung heroes. If the former should occur and you recover this, Fred, then please understand our decision and tell Anna and little Alexander I love them."

He closed the book and set it down on the table, awaiting a reply from Asad.

"Where the hell did you get that?" the old man growled, looking furious.

"It was my father's, taken from his personal study back home. I'm Alexander Redford."

There was another long pause.

"Bet you were waiting to spring that on me, huh? Harold was a good guy, for what it's worth."

"So I've been told. It's not an easy feat, to trick ONI for so many years."

"Did King not know about this?"

"No. I'd assume he had no reason to suspect you were lying due to your injuries, while my father's friendship with the man absolved him of suspicion. I'd imagine that Madrigal's eventual glassing by the Covenant destroyed any potential interest ONI had in the world until now, seeing as there's an unauthorised settlement there."

"Who's to say that the Covvies didn't just glass the vault, then? They were pretty brutal with Madrigal, as I recall."

"True. However, if descriptions of said vault are correct, it would have been embedded deeply into one of the planet's mountains, far away from any recorded settlement and unguarded since 2513. It's a small chance, of course, but one I'm willing to take if it means recovering those nukes."

"What are you gonna do with them?"

"Well, we won't be bombing colonies just to blame the Insurrection, if that's what you're thinking. That was a totally different war. Chances are they'll be stockpiles or added to the arsenal of older ships upon recovery."

Asad nodded in approval, though his frown did not diminish. "So, I help take out some pests with the spacer and find your vault?"

"More or less."

"And my pay?"

"Substantial. Not that you really need it. Seems the mercenary trade was kind to you, Asad."

He shrugged. "Yeah, big mansion out in Escala III. Can't say I have company often, but I enjoy the quiet."

"So then," Redford clasped his fingers together, "While we both know there's no refusal at this point, how do you feel about this mission? Do you feel Rivers be a hindrance?"

"Probably not. I'm not too hard to work with. What, want me to take her out if she gets too involved with the vault?"

Even Redford was slightly surprised at Asad's blasé attitude towards murdering the now ex-fetcher, though with his decades of mercenary experience and work with Frederick King, it made sense that he'd be used to the brutal methods employed in secretive operations like this.

"No. As long as she's compliant, we can continue to use her."

"If you say so. Anything else?"

The ONI agent swiped across on his datapad, bringing up an image of a Halberd-class Destroyer.

"This is the UNSC Agrippa. Sixth Fleet. We're diverting it towards Madrigal to provide support for your mission."

"Support? I thought we were sneaking in, not kicking down the damn door. Folks see a Destroyer in orbit and they're gonna panic. That hidden city you mentioned is gonna be nigh-impossible to find if they think they're in trouble."

"I'm aware. Which is why it's going to serve as a distraction; something to force these people out of hiding. I've already arranged for said distraction, so once it happens, I want you and Rivers to move immediately in to land while they send out ships of their own. The stealth systems on your vessel should allow you to land close to the city."

"So that's the plan? We wait for them to move? What if nothing happens?"

"Then you land and move through the glasslands until you find the vault, Asad. I'd like you to have a little faith in our plan."

The older man shrugged his shoulders. "Fine. I'll put in a request for weaponry before we leave though; I want to be prepared just in case."

"That's fine. There's just one other thing about the 'Ciudad de Huesos'—this 'City of Bones'—that you should know."

"Yeah, what of it? If ONI wants to flatten the place then go ahead. It's not my problem."

"I'm afraid that's not possible. With the shitstorm we had to endure after Avalon last year, we've been forced to take an old-fashioned approach. Diplomats. Traders. Marines if they're uncooperative."

Asad cracked a smile. "Yep, that's about as old-fashioned as it gets."

"While our intelligence about this settlement is limited—its exact location, population, defences and so on—we have been able to garner some information about the man running it. It is, I'll admit, part of the reason why I chose you, behind your knowledge of this vault somewhere in the glasslands."

"Anyone I know in charge?"

"Yes. An old friend of yours, in fact." Redford keyed in another file on his datapad, showing a picture of a grizzled, middle-aged man with grey hair and a sneer across his lined face. Asad shook his head, grimacing in annoyance.

"Ah shit. Driscol."

Hellbound

1457 Hours, March 4th, 2557

UNSC Agrippa, Halberd-class destroyer, 23 Librae System


"Officer on deck!"

Two-dozen Orbital Drop Shock troopers scrambled out of bunks and chairs to salute as two uniformed individuals entered the barracks. Captain Brooks strode through the room with hands clasped behind her back, followed closely by a black-uniformed Lieutenant.

"Troopers, listen up!" she bellowed. "I'm doing the rounds now we've cleared Slipspace, and want to make a few things clear about this mission personally. First and foremost, I have been informed despite this mission technically being a scouting run, there is a real, genuine possibility it could turn into a combat mission. Lieutenant Green will give you the full briefing, but I want you all fully aware that we may encounter hostiles in this system. That will be all."

Giving a polite nod to the young man standing next to her, the Captain exited the room in dead silence. After a few seconds, the assorted troopers relaxed slightly, gathering around to hear the news.

"Okay people, don't get excited," Second Lieutenant Michael Green announced, taking out a datapad. "Word's come down there might be an enemy presence in-system."

"What kind of enemy?" asked a nearby woman, sharpening a serrated combat knife.

"Human Insurrectionists, most likely."

A collective groan went up from the assembled troopers; most folks here had spent their early military careers fighting the Covenant, and even now the prospect of taking down rebels was considered mundane at best. Green plugged his pad into a nearby terminal, and pictures of prospective enemy troop numbers flashed up onscreen. While a few looked it over, most had already gone back to lazing around.

"So we might be chasing ghosts," a voice came from the doorway.

Green turned. "Maybe, maybe not. You missed the big speech, Bill."

"Sorry Lieutenant, but nature called."

The Lieutenant fixed Cross with an offended stare for a moment before smirking. "Y'know, you don't have to keep calling me that, Bill. We've known each other long enough."

"Wouldn't want to make it look like I'm sucking up, sir," replied the older trooper. "Besides, you earned it. Heard OCS was rough."

"Oh, hardly. Want to grab some lunch while we can?"

"Might as well. I've got room now."

The two ODST's set off down one of the ship's corridors at an easy pace; an unlikely pair for most to look at. Shorter than average, Master Sergeant Bill Cross looked much older than his actual age of thirty years and bore the scars of numerous battles, including a nasty plasma burn along his greying scalp. Having enlisted back in 2545, he'd seen action during the darkest days of the Human-Covenant War and lived through it all with a surprisingly easygoing demeanor for his rank.

"So, what's next?" Cross inquired as they stepped into an elevator. "Planning to stay with us, or are you getting plucked?"

Green frowned. "I haven't decided yet."

Being 'plucked' was a term that had been floating around the ODST's of late, referring to the tendency of the Spartan Branch to recruit particularly outstanding individuals into its ranks. While some saw the chance at becoming a supersoldier as a great honour, there were many who resented the Spartans as a threat to the Helljumpers' distinguished history and excellent espirit de corps. Rumour had it they had asked Green to join their ranks. Tall, muscular and square-jawed, the man looked like a walking poster for the Marine Corps, and had attained a fairly meteoric rise through the ranks in his seven years of service.

"Is it true they're offering a promotion if you turn it down?"

"Not officially," Green said with a sideward glance, confirming it. "But ultimately it's down to me."

"Fair enough. Heck, maybe you should stay on with the Corps. Give it another ten years and you'll be running the show at this rate."

The younger trooper smiled, though he still looked visibly worried. They exited the elevator, heading towards one of the ship's cafeterias. Cross stopped for a moment by a viewport, looking out towards the planet their ship had begun to orbit. Once a thriving, populous colony, Madrigal had been the site of a brutal Covenant attack back in 2528 that saw millions dead. While many civilians survived and had even set up a colony of sorts in the nearby asteroid belt for several years, its loss had been a particularly hard one.

"So that's Madrigal," Cross spoke with quiet reverence. "Heard a lot of stories about this place."

"Me too. Gotta wonder why folks would come back here so soon, though."

"A lot of civilians got out alive, as I recall. I'd guess they wanted their home back, and put that idea in their kids' heads."

"Maybe. You think the Innies down there are former residents?"

"It's possible. Hell, they might not even be Innies at all. Plenty of unauthorised settlements springing up. You hear about that one on Emerald Cove last year?"

"Pirate base, wasn't it?"

"That's what they said. Still, they brought down the hammer hard on that place. Just hoping we're not going to drop on a bunch of civvies."

Green patted his friend on the back. "C'mon, let's not get hung up on the what-ifs. You worry too much, Bill."

"Fair point." Cross turned away from the viewport with a final, lingering look towards Madrigal. "Hey, could you order for me?"

"Why's that?"

"Because I know you come here because they give you discounts."

Cross grinned as his friend became flustered. "They do not!" he protested weakly.

"Hey, it's the benefits of being young and handsome, sir. I'll have two of those tuna sandwiches, by the way."

"You know, I could pull you up for speaking to an officer this way, Master Sergeant Cross."

"And that would be my lucrative military career over," Cross raised a hand to his forehead theatrically. "And all for two tuna sandwiches. Actually, can we make that chicken?"

Green shook his head and strode towards the counter while Cross took a seat at a nearby table. The two had met three years ago, during a highly-secretive mission run by the Office of Naval Intelligence. A squad of ODSTs and two SPARTAN-IIs had been deployed to a glassed colony world on an assassination mission, and were lucky enough to survive the harrowing events that took place there. They'd more or less stuck together since then, with Green going from a somewhat inexperienced recruit to a capable battlefield leader in a remarkably short period.

And here we are, still fighting the fight. We're the only ones left from that Op, aside from the Spartans. I wish—

"Food's here."

The trooper snapped out of his reverie as two triangular packages and a bottle of water landed on the table before him. Shaking his head, he began to unpack one, hunger overriding any previous thoughts.

"You were miles away," Green remarked.

Cross glanced up as he tore open the packaging. "Was thinking about ASHES."

"ASHES? Feels like a lifetime ago."

"Mm-hmm."

"It's a shame, really," the Lieutenant ignored his food, sighing. "Three dead on the mission, then Roberts goes AWOL and dies an Innie the next year. Then we've got—"

"Mitchell. I know."

An uneasy silence settled over their table. While Green had admired his old Lieutenant for the few months they'd known each other, Cross had fought alongside Ash Mitchell for years and was took it pretty hard when he left the UNSC. Finding out that their old friend—one of the greatest ODST's Green had ever met—had taken part in numerous atrocities by early 2556 that earned his infamous title as the 'Butcher of Kuiper' had been particularly shocking to the both of them.

"Ah, forget about it," Cross said eventually. "Like you said, no point worrying or whatever."

"Yeah. You think that—"

This time, Green was cut off as the deck beneath their feet rumbled heavily. Moments later, alarms began to whine along the nearby wall as the walls shook from a second impact. Both men got to their feet, Cross hurriedly downing his meal.

"What the hell's going on?"

"No idea."

"An attack?"

"Could be. Let's go."

The ODST's ran along a nearby corridor, stopping before a computer terminal. Green activated it and quickly brought up a holographic map of the ship. Several parts of the blue-hologram had been tinted red as a dozen warnings scrolled across the screen.

"Ah, shit," Cross muttered. "We're being bombed."

Several sections of the Destroyer had been hit, with readouts labeling the ship's lifeboats, primary engines, and weapon systems as heavily damaged. Suddenly, a third wave blossomed by the ship's bridge and the lights flickered for a moment.

"Get the men together!" Green barked suddenly, snapping into action. "I'll get to the Captain."

"Lieutenant, wait!" the other trooper shook his head. "We're being gutted. We've got to evacuate."

Green paused for a brief moment. "How many lifeboat bays are left?"

"Two. Nowhere near enough for the whole crew."

"What about our pods?"

"There's around eighty, but that's for the three platoons on board."

Once again, the pair were struck with indecision. Without their personal COM systems, they had no way of properly contacting their superiors and therefore had to work alone. The prudent option, seeing as large sections of the Agrippa were disintegrating, would be to abandon ship and make for Madrigal in their drop pods. Said decision would, however, leave hundreds to die. Suddenly, Green pointed back towards the terminal.

"Look!"

As the Destroyer struggled to maintain its course around Madrigal's orbit, bolts of searing plasma hurtled upwards from the planet's surface. Unable to evade or return fire, several struck the ship's hull, gouging out great chunks from the vessel. An explosion blew apart the nearby cafeteria as the staff fled, and their panicked shouts turned to screams as a hull breach began to suck everything out of the room. Diving towards an emergency panel, Green wrenched it open and pulled a switch, instantly sealing a nearby door.

"We're evacuating," he said quietly. "Cross, let's get who we can and get down there."

"Got it."

With the nearby elevator sparking and out of power, Cross and Green dashed into a service corridor and moved downstairs as quickly as possible. As they finally emerged into the crew deck where their fellow ODSTs were housed, they came across several other sealed doors and the body of another officer, slumped by a door panel. Cross knelt to check his pulse, only to shake his head.

"Took shrapnel from an explosion. Must've died after sealing this room."

"Damnnit," Green marched away, looking crestfallen.

The pair continued into the barracks, which was surprisingly empty. Most of their platoon had either already moved towards their pods or were unfortunate enough to be away when the attack began. Fishing their well-worn body armour and BDUs from nearby lockers, neither man said a word until they were fully suited up.

"Ears on?" Green tapped his helmet.

Cross responded with a thumbs-up. "Loud and clear. Let's see who we can raise."

"Good idea," he switched channels. "Calling all ODSTs, this is Second Lieutenant Green. Anyone not already suited up, please do so and head towards the deployment deck; we are going to drop!"

While declaring a drop might've been overstepping his rank, considering there were at least three other higher-ranked Helljumpers aboard, Green didn't care about protocol as he sprinted back out towards the staircase, leaping down several steps at a time as they descended towards the deployment deck. Cross kept pace, sweating slightly but keeping quiet as they raced into the wide-open chamber. A number of other troopers were already there, grabbing weapons or climbing into pods.

"Hey Lieutenant!" called Saraga, one of the troopers in their platoon. "What's the plan?"

"Didn't you hear my transmission?" Green asked, confused.

She shook her head. "Deck-to-deck signals are screwed, sir. They might be jamming us."

They. Not only do we have a saboteur, we've got a damn smart one then.

"Okay!" he activated his helmet's loudspeakers. "Troopers, everybody mount up. We're under fire from the planet, and we sure as hell aren't gonna take that, are we?!"

A chorus of shouts responded as the assembled troopers paid him their full attention. Appealing to a Helljumper's bravado was a surefire way of getting them to listen, and in a situation like this where even hardened soldiers were on the verge of panicking, Green had done well to get them focused. Everyone in the bay dashed for pods, quickly grabbing weapons from nearby racks and tossing them inside as they sealed themselves in the metallic coffins known as 'Human Entry Vehicles'.

"All troopers," Green spoke over TEAMCOM. "Giving the green light to drop when ready. Move fast, move hard, and make sure you're alive when we hit the surface, okay?"

This was always the hardest part. Within the cramped confines of his pod, Green's fingers moved over various switches, making last-second checkups on its systems before launch. The deck shuddered slightly as they began to launch on their own, dropping through the maelstrom of plasma fire and burning ship parts as they fell towards Madrigal. Green's fingers hovered over the release catch for just a moment before he pressed down. The pod detached, and fell from the Agrippa, heading into Madrigal's cloud-choked atmosphere. Barely a minute later, the ship finally broke apart and exploded.

Guess this is a combat drop now.

Chapter One

Descent

1514 Hours, March 4th, 2557

Independent Freighter Dynasty, 23 Librae System


"I was born out here."

"Hrm?"

Standing before the viewport on the Dynasty’s bridge, Amanda Wade stood with both arms clasped behind her back, peering out across the asteroids with vague interest. The sprawling field, which trailed out behind the nearby gas giant of Hesioud, had once housed a Human settlement. Consisting of survivors after Madrigal's glassing, they remained hidden from both the UNSC and Covenant for seven years, until they were forced to flee the system. Now all that remained were a few floating scraps of metal and broken habitat parts.

"In this asteroid field. Used to be a place called the Rubble."

Climbing out of his pilot's chair, Faisal Khan joined her at the viewport, rubbing his beard as he squinted into the darkness.

"Never knew you were a BOB, Amanda," he remarked.

"A what?"

"Born-on-board. A space baby."

She shrugged. "Strange, isn't it? Not coming from a planet."

"Eh, I can see the upsides. Nothing to tie you down. Getting to choose where you want to be from, and all that."

"Yeah, I suppose."

"It's about a sense of belonging. Most people don't really-"

"Lighten up, will ya?" a voice called from across the room. Carol DuMont sat by a terminal, checking the latest sensor reports. "Do you really have to spend all your time on the bridge philosophising?"

Amanda turned to scold her, only for Faisal to burst out laughing as he returned to his station. Eventually even she shook her head and cracked a smile at Carol's outburst. She was right, after all; they'd spent the past six months since Avalon's fall pursuing mission after mission, living hand-to-mouth as they gathered supplies and intel on the group within ONI responsible for destroying their home. After carving a bloody path through the frontier, only five remained aboard; most of the crew had either died or disembarked from the Dynasty long ago, seeing their crusade as little more than a suicide mission.

Amanda understood their take on it, and pressed on nonetheless.

"Any news on that ship?" she asked, sitting down. The UNSC Destroyer's sudden appearance had delayed their arrival on Madrigal.

"It's just checking the place out, Amanda. It's-"

Carol stopped mid-sentence as something flashed up on her monitor, looking back and forth over multiple readouts.

"What's up?" Faisal asked.

"Shit, something's hit the Destroyer. It's breaking up."

"What?!"

"Yeah, look!"

Amanda and Faisal ran over to Carol's station and stared in stunned disbelief as explosions blossomed along the ship's hull, caused first by interior detonations, then by plasma bolts striking it. The warship wasn't even able to fire a shot back as its crew attempted to evacuate. It wasn't long before there was nothing left but charred remains, slowly burning up as they hurtled into Madrigal's atmosphere. The trio stood and watched for some time until Amanda shook her head and walked back towards the captain's chair.

"That's enough waiting. We've got to go in now."

"But Amanda," Faisal protested. "They just gutted a damn Destroyer. What chance will we have?"

"We've got the nav data and code to be let in, haven't we?"

"Well, yeah-"

"Then they'll let us land. Now go."

Two months ago, news had started to reach Amanda of Ciudad de Huesos, with rumours drifting across frontier settlements and pirate stations of a hidden city still standing on the glassed world of Madrigal. Not long after, she'd gotten her hands on a stack of old cartographical charts dating back to before the planet's razing after an old drifter had told her about some hidden weapons cache, still buried beneath the glasslands. Since then, she'd become obsessed with finding it, chasing leads with increasing brutality across multiple systems. They'd finally hit the jackpot with the raid two days ago, though the slaughter of all those spacers for the sake of some data had left a bitter taste in the crew's mouths. Not one person aboard the Dynasty could blame Amanda's lust for revenge after the UNSC's massacre on Avalon, surpassing even her previous vendetta against Magnus, the man responsible for killing the ship's first captain.

"Locking in coordinates," Faisal said as the ship slowly maneuvered out of the asteroid belt.

It took the Dynasty barely twenty minutes to reach Madrigal's orbit, keeping clear of what little remained of the UNSC Agrippa. Amanda keyed a code into their NAV computer; they'd taken it from Jim Hogan's heavily-encrypted files aboard the Starsailor just a few days prior.

"Hope this works," she whispered, broadcasting the code on an open system as their vessel slowly dropped through the atmosphere. Eventually, a response crackled through.

"This is City Command, reading your signal. Identify yourself at once!"

If these guys have the firepower to blow a Destroyer out of orbit, we won't last a second against them. "We're an independent freighter from Escala III. Jim Hogan gave us these coordinates."

There was a long pause, presumably as those on the ground debated whether or not to fire on the Dynasty as well. Amanda and Carol had ensured their code came with a fake ship name and manifest, and had even painted over their vessel's nameplate with a new one: Cernícalo. Faisal had pointed out a Spanish name may help garner trust with the settlers, many of whom were likely descendants of Madrigal's original colonists from the country of Peru back on Earth.

"All right, Cernícalo," the voice finally responded. "You're cleared to come down. Sending your docking coordinates now."

As the COM clicked off, Amanda allowed herself an audible sigh of relief, wiping the sweat from her brow. The ship began its descent through Madrigal's atmosphere as a waypoint flashed up on a nearby readout. The bridge doors slid open, and two men entered, looking tired.

"We're here already?" asked Ash Mitchell, suppressing a yawn.

"Had to jump the gun on our landing, Ash. We'll be touching down in ten."

"Great," he scratched his unshaven chin.

Across from him, Rizhan Kama took the gunner's seat. A few years older from Mitchell, he'd once been chief of security at Avalon and was probably their captain's most loyal follower. Shaking his shaggy head and clearing sleep from his eyes, he quietly ensured the ship's weapon systems were operational as he always did, priming the Dynasty’s 50mm defence gun and the numerous cannons designed to protect the vessel from anything up to a corvette. Amanda doubted they'd have to use them, but it was better to be prepared in a situation like this.

"So," Rizhan asked. "Think they buy our cover?"

"Hard to say. Guess we'll find out when we land."

"We gonna need the Mantis?"

"Maybe."

"Right, I'll go set 'er up."

As he got up to leave, Carol left her station as well, muttering something about the mech's hydraulics. Having piloted it during a furious battle on Sargasso's north pole, she'd become rather protective of her Mantis, and spent several hours every day fine-tuning its systems or simply painting the outer hull.

"Ash," Amanda jerked a thumb towards Carol's console. The mercenary moved over to it, still looking grumpy and exhausted after staying up the previous night, readying his alarmingly large stockpile of weaponry for the battle to come. If there were indeed nuclear weapons stashed somewhere beneath the scorched earth of this planet, they certainly weren't the only ones who'd be looking for them.

"This is odd," muttered Faisal. "Can't detect any signs of a settlement on the long-range."

"We're still following the coordinates they gave us, right?"

"Yeah, but they stop up ahead."

Faisal pointed to a holographic readout of Madrigal's surface, indicating a waypoint in a wide-open valley in the midst of a mountainous region. The Freighter kept on course, the bridge crew growing more uneasy with each passing minute. Suddenly, their COM flared up once again.

"We've got a visual, Cernícalo," spoke the same voice from earlier. "Dropping the shroud now. You've got thirty seconds to land."

Ahead of them, the sky suddenly shimmered with light as a massive barrier flared for a moment, and dissipated. Amanda, Faisal and Mitchell stared in awe as a city materialised beneath them, the slate-grey of prefabricated Human structures intermingling with the blues and purples of Covenant-designed buildings. Dominating the entire valley were three massive spires, each emanating blue light. The moment a second waypoint flashed up beneath them, Faisal slowly lowered the ship, soaring above buildings towards a fairly large set of landing pads ahead.

"Showtime," Mitchell clapped his hands together and got up. "Looks like they've got a welcoming party for us."

Sure enough, there were over a dozen armed men standing by on the landing pad, backed up with what looked like a giant, armoured Unggoy.

"The hell is that?" their pilot muttered, slowly turning the ship around and extending the landing gear. "Was that a Grunt?"

Mitchell shook his head. "Goblin. A Covvie Mantis, more or less. Saw a few out on the frontier."

"Well shit, they must mean business. We still good to go, Amanda?"

She hadn't said a word since they'd first seen the City of Bones, staring blankly at a holographic map of a settlement that had just popped up on their scanners.

This is it, she thought, breathing slowly. This is what Avalon could've been if ONI hadn't come for us. Everything I wanted to build since all that shit with Verensky, and someone else has gone and done it first.

"Amanda?" Mitchell tapped her on the shoulder, taking her out of her reverie.

"Yeah, let's go."

Leaving Faisal to man the ship, Amanda and Mitchell met up with Carol and Rizhan in the cargo bay, where the latter was powering up the Mantis. The heavily-modified war machine hummed to life, creaking slightly as Carol tested its hydraulics and swivelled the cockpit.

"Shut it down!" Mitchell called as he walked past, rifle in hand. "They've got a Goblin out there."

Both of them looked confused. "What's a Goblin?"

"It's trouble, that's what. Just grab a gun and be ready."

Within minutes, the four of them stood before the rear bay door, Amanda clad in her usual longcoat. While seemingly unarmed save for the very visible pistol belt, the others knew she kept a pair of 'snapshot' pistols hidden in her sleeves, to be activated at the flick of her wrist. It had saved everyone's lives more than once. Finally, Carol hit the switch and the doors opened up, greeting them to over twenty rifle barrels and an oversized plasma cannon mounted on the Unggoy mech's wrist.

"Well, they got backup," Mitchell remarked.

A tall, thin man with a moustache and glasses ambled past the crowd of guards, adjusting his glasses as he looked Amanda and the others up and down. Compared to the patchy armour worn by his comrades, he looked completely out of place in a beige suit and tie.

"Welcome to Ciudad de Huesos, Captain Wade," he spoke politely, keeping a reasonable distance. "Now, if you'd be so kind as to put down your guns, I've orders to take you all to my boss. No arguments."

As Amanda stepped forward and opened her mouth she heard the sound of multiple safeties being taken off. Raising one arm, she slowly removed the handgun from her belt and slid it across the floor, motioning for the others to do the same.

"Do as they say," she hissed to her crew. "We'll sort something out."

Hearts and Minds

1529 Hours, March 4th, 2557

Glasslands, Madrigal, 23 Librae System


Made it.

Those two words were the first thing through Michael Green's head after each and every drop. It didn't matter if he jumped out of the pod already targeted from afar by enemy snipers, or if he was about to emerge into a kill zone of burning plasma fire. Out there, he could rely on his skills as a soldier to survive, and could at least fight back. He wouldn't be killed by some mechanical failure or blasted out the sky by hostile anti-air. Green was terrified of that. He'd hit the ground hard, feeling rattled but otherwise fine. The planet's ruined surface didn't make for the softest landing zone, but there were worst places to drop. He often felt the same while aboard ships, dependent entirely on the crew's skills and the hope that their foe wouldn't vaporise them before he and his comrades could launch.

Get out. Regroup.

In battle, thoughts tended to come to him in brief, fragmented sentences, like barked orders. The trooper unclasped his BR85 from the rack to his right, ensuring its Sentinel sight was securely attached before reaching over to prime the gas-bolt system to eject his pod's hatch. Raising his weapon slightly and thumbing the safety off as he prepared himself, Green activated it and sprang forward the moment it fell forward, leaping out onto the scorched earth. The ground crunched beneath his boots as the ODST swept left and right for hostiles.

Clear.

Green exhaled, lowering the gun by a fraction and activating his COM. They'd been able to launch most of their own pods, and some of the crew's lifeboats should have been accessible even after the bombing. Looking out over the barren landscape, the trooper felt frighteningly alone.

"Second Lieutenant Green to the crew of the Agrippa, do you read me? Is anyone alive, over?"

Thankfully, there were a smattering of replies over the local UNSC channel as both ODSTs and surviving crew members answered his hail, though the signals were fewer than he would've liked. Green then tried the emergency channel, and was met with similar success as several others, including Bill Cross, made themselves known. It soon became clear the Captain had perished alongside her ship, while the subsequent explosion had claimed several escaping shuttles and late-launching pods. Some reported taking ground fire as they'd entered Madrigal's atmosphere, which was unsurprising. As the highest-ranking officer left alive, Michael Green was now in charge of the survivors.

"Listen up," he activated his VISR's NAV system and scanned a topographical map of the area. "There's a ravine about two klicks north of my position that I'm gonna set a waypoint on. Anyone without the means to find it, let it be known and we'll have someone come to get you once we've regrouped. Green out."

Simple plan, but it's all I can do right now. Once I get a measure of our fighting strength, we might be able to launch a counter-attack.

Following his marker north, Green began his sojourn across the glasslands, stepping carefully and keeping an eye out for the potholes and half-buried fissures dotting the landscape. The constantly-blowing dust made visibility difficult at times, though he could clearly make out figures in the distance heading his way. En-route, he came across two fresh craters, littered with the smashed remains of drop pods and their occupants. It was a silent journey of roughly twenty minutes before Green reached the ravine, where a group of his men had already set up a rudimentary camp.

"Lieutenant!" Cross called as he approached; the veteran trooper had been standing guard a the entrance. "I was wondering when you'd join us."

"I took the scenic route," he remarked. "Who's here?"

"Fourteen of us, including me and you. Six crewmen - engineers - who made it down in a lifeboat arrived a few minutes ago too."

"Everyone find this place okay?"

"Yeah, no stragglers to rescue. That said, we're going to have a supply problem after a few days."

Green turned to look out over the absolute desolation of Madrigal's landscape. Nothing had grown here for nearly thirty years, making living off the land nigh-impossible. Their only choice would be to ration and live off supplies rescued from the Agrippa until the UNSC realised something was wrong and sent backup, which could take anything between forty-eight hours and several weeks. They could, of course, try to find and eliminate their attackers, who were almost certainly Covenant in origin, though without the supplies and manpower they stood little chance of locating an enemy base.

"You see that?" Cross nudged him.

"See what?"

"Up on the left, behind that dune."

Aiming down his rifle's sight, Green was able to barely make out the shape of a person slowly approaching them. Unlike the body armour or uniforms worn by the Agrippa’s survivors, he or she looked as though they were clad in an assortment of rags and protective gear, with a gas mask clamped over their face.

"I see it," he whispered. With every second the figure got closer. "Get everyone up, just in case."

Within seconds, Green had over a dozen guns backing him up as he walked forward, waving frantically.

"Stop right there and put your hands up, or we will shoot!"

Either the stranger hadn't heard him or couldn't understand the trooper as he repeated his order, wondering why the usually multi-lingual message of having a gun pointed at you didn't seem to faze them. As he thumbed off the safety, another ODST darted to his side.

"Levante las manos! Levante las manos!"

At this, they froze and did as instructed, and even got to their knees. Green nodded approvingly towards his subordinate as they approached. This close, he noticed how small the person was, and stowed his weapon away before allowing the other ODST to do the talking.

"De dónde vienes?" she asked, crouching down before the masked person.

"Ciudad de Huesos," a child's voice replied.

The ODST looked towards Green. "He says he's from the 'City of Bones'."

"Can he take us there?"

The question was repeated again in Spanish, though the kid only shook his head. With a nod from Green, the trooper gently pulled him up and asked if he could take them somewhere safe. At this, he nodded, and gestured for them to follow.

"Guess we've got a lead," Green smiled. "Everyone, get moving. We might have a long walk ahead of us, so conserve supplies!"

With some grumbling, the ODSTs and crewmen quickly packed up their camp and began to follow the child through the glasslands in single file, with Green and the Spanish-speaking trooper leading the group.

"Thanks for the save back there," he said. "That could've turned ugly, uh..?"

"Lance Corporal Anna Volkov," the other trooper touched the chin of her helmet. "Usually have my name taped here, but mine was in for repairs when the Agrippa got hit. Had to grab what I could."

"It's fine. You part of Second Platoon?"

"Third, sir. Sixth year in the Helljumpers."

And still a Lance Corporal? Christ, I guess I was lucky to get where I am.

Their trek was long but uneventful, moving out of the wide-open plains where they'd landed and into a canyon filled with the skeletal outlines of what were once towering skyscrapers, now all smashed together like toppled gravestones. The effect was rather eerie, and Green began to feel like they were walking straight into a trap. He nodded for Volkov to stay close to the kid in case he tried running off, drawing his rifle and indicating for the others to do so as they moved onto what might have once been part of a highway.

"Not a lot of visibility," Cross noted over a private COM channel. "He said 'City of Bones', right?"

"Yeah."

"You don't think there's been folks living here since twenty-eight, do you? I mean, the Covvies absolutely destroyed Madrigal, there's no way anyone could've survived on the surface."

"I wish I knew, Bill. This makes one thing clear though."

"What's that?"

"Our attackers might've been Human."

"You think?"

"It's not unheard of for Innies to get ahold of Covenant equipment - plasma's better than most Human weapons anyway - and use it against us. I'd say they built up a base here at some point and have been stockpiling the stuff."

"Makes sense, but surely we'd have detected something that big on sensors by the time we entered orbit."

"Guess we're going to find out why."

As they moved deeper and deeper into the ruins, the masked child suddenly veered left, heading down a collapsed ramp and into a tunnel. The troopers jogged after him as he entered what looked like an old parking garage, lined with makeshift barricades of assorted junk. A light shone ahead of them and a voice boomed out.

"Halt!"

The troopers dropped down, weapons raised towards an entrance. Green noted the voice had spoken in English as a metal gate slowly juddered open ahead of them, revealing two armed guards. The child ran to one and began to talk while the other watched their group sheepishly, unwilling to do anything that would warrant a twenty-man firing squad. After a few moments, half a dozen others emerged from the tunnel, led by a wizened, bearded old man.

"You with the UNSC?" he asked brusquely in heavily-accented English.

"Yes."

"I never thought I'd say this, but it's damn good to see you."

He reached out and shook Green's hand, immense gratitude in his eyes. Getting a good look at him and the others assembled at the gate, Green realised how horribly worn-down all these people looked; each as ragged and eroded as the glass-strewn landscape up above. While unsurprising considering how harsh conditions were on Madrigal, he had to wonder why they were even on this planet in the first place.

"I'm Daniel Aiza," the old man straightened up slightly, gripping his cane. "Come. I'll fill you in on what's been happening here."

Seeing no other alternative, the Lieutenant waved his group forward. Daniel's guards seemed more relieved than wary of the UNSC personnel, and even stowed their weapons away as they moved deeper into the tunnels, descending further underground. The ground eventually leveled out into a wide cavern, dimly lit by distant lamps and shafts of light poking through the ceiling. As they walked, Green noticed they had entered what looked like an old Gravball stadium, half-buried and twisted by heat. Below them where the pitch had once been were a number of ramshackle structures and tents, alongside several portable power generators and the massive shape of a six-wheeled mining truck.

"How many people are here?" Green asked.

"Forty-three, last time I counted."

"What about supplies? Water?"

Daniel indicated a piece of quietly buzzing machinery by the camp's entrance. "It's a purifier. Collects moisture from the air, and can recycle urine into drinkable water. It's better than nothing, but we're dead if it breaks."

As they approached, people began to gather round. With heavily patched coats and masks, they had evidently been living rough for a while, and stared in awe at Green and his comrades. They still moved as a group, the troopers keeping a protective circle around the unarmoured group of crewmen and quietly conversing over personal COM channels. If one of these people so much as twitched the wrong way, this could turn into a bloodbath in moments. After the Agrippa’s destruction, they weren't ready to trust anyone on Madrigal's surface just yet. Daniel gestured to a pair of chairs beside a tent, and the two sat down. Some of the ODSTs had already spread out, forming a perimeter around the camp.

"Now," he took a half-empty whiskey bottle from the tent. "I will tell you our story."

For nearly half an hour, Green sat patiently as the elderly man spoke. Nine years ago, he and many other former residents of Madrigal - some with Insurrectionist ties - had sought to return to their homeworld. While relatively few in number, they had reasoned if they could survive the Covenant's attack and the eventual downfall of the Rubble, then they could try and recolonise the planet without the UNSC's help. Discreetly traveling outside of UNSC space, these would-be colonists had spent years transporting stolen supplies as they established a base in the ruins of a former city. With contacts from wealthy secessionist groups and the black market, Daniel and the other leaders were able to acquire Covenant technology, stolen by opportunistic Kig-Yar as their empire fell apart. Hidden from the rest of the galaxy, the growing settlement's nickname of 'Ciudad de Huesos' - the City of Bones - soon became an official name and through a network of suppliers all sworn to secrecy, it established itself as a trading hub outside the control of any of the galaxy's major powers. Everything seemed to be going well until the summer of 2556.

"And then he came."

"Who?"

Daniel tossed the now empty bottle aside, his wrinkled face contorted in a furious sneer.

"Carlos Driscol. And we thought the NCA were helping us."

As this, Green sat a little straighter. "I've heard of Driscol. The man's a wanted terrorist."

"We knew nothing of him when he arrived, only that he was an old soldier. Some of us thought he would be like us; old freedom fighters. No offence."

"None taken. So what did he do?"

"He took over the city, that's what. Him and his men, they started building without asking the council, creating weapon stockpiles and bringing in more troops from offworld. Eventually, Aileda and Samson, two of my close friends, tried to stop him."

"And then what?"

Daniel shook his head, looking absolutely furious. "He killed them, then told the entire city he was in charge."

"Wouldn't the people have stood up to him?"

Daniel spat on the ground. "Hah! You would be surprised at how many so-called friends abandon you when their lives are at risk, trooper. I gathered those who refused this man's tyranny and tried to leave, only for Driscol to destroy our ship. A few of us were able to gather supplies and escape out here. This is all we have left."

Green looked around. Most of the people here were families with children, with few fighting men and women among them. At this stage, it was difficult to decide what to do. On one hand, Daniel and his comrades were almost certainly ex-Insurrectionist soldiers who could have committed acts of terrorism in the past, and had built this city using stolen or illegal goods. On the other, as a soldier he could not abandon them when a much more powerful threat ruled the City of Bones. He stood up, drawing himself to his fullest height as his visor depolarised.

"Can you get us into the city, Daniel?"

The man seemed taken aback, but nodded, a smile creeping across his face.

"Then we'll get rid of Driscol for you. Troopers, we-"

As Green turned, an explosion rocked the camp. He was blown off his feet as the water purifier erupted in a blinding flash. Screams and gunfire filled the smoke-laden air as he rolled over, his head spinning as he saw Daniel crawling for cover. The COM was a mess of shouting and as the ODST clambered to his feet, he saw figures moving into the cavern through the main entrance, guns blazing.

"Get everyone to the truck!" Green barked, snapping his rifle up to provide covering fire. "Troopers, protect the civilians!"

Though Green's forces were better-trained and had VISR technology on their side, their attackers had the high ground, firing from what had once been the stadium's stands. Slowly edging along the camp's outskirts, he let loose several bursts that dropped two men and forced the others back into cover. The civilians had ran straight for the truck, scrambling up the boarding ramp amid a hail of bullets. Glancing over, he watched as a small body with a gas mask fell to the stony ground.

"Goddamn motherfuckers!" yelled a trooper to Green's left, standing up and delivering a frighteningly accurate volley of DMR rounds "You animals!"

The Lieutenant grabbed the other man and pulled him back into cover as their foe returned fire. Clad in the Recon-class helmet often worn in the field by ODST Pathfinders, the younger trooper's hands shook as he reloaded his weapon.

"Calm down, and pick your targets," he said not unkindly. "Make your shots count."

"Yeah, sir," came the sullen response.

In the confusion, Green wasn't sure how many men he'd lost. The sudden attack and frantic retreats made it difficult to keep track, and as he and the remnants of their platoon finally sprinted up aboard the mining truck, a thought finally occurred to him.

That water tank wasn't hit from afar. Someone blew it up.

The logic of one of Daniel's people destroying their own vital water supply was absurd, and they seemed to be a tight enough group that they would've noticed an outside infiltrator. That left only Green's own group as the perpetrators. Before he could mull it over further, reloading his rifle, a hoarse voice called from the front.

"Hey, Mister ODST!" called Daniel as the truck began to move. "Get up here!"

Green did as he was told, carefully moving past the huddled civilians filling up most of the vehicle's compartments and clambering up a tight staircase to the upper level. Of the twenty survivors of the Agrippa, only nine were left - all ODSTs. While he lamented the death of the engineers they had failed to protect, he had to focus on the present. The trooper soon found himself in the driver's cab. There, the old man's hands clutched the wheel in a white-knuckle grip, his eyes blazing with anger.

"Did you kill them all?"

"Most of them."

"They were his men. Driscol's."

"Look, we didn't-"

"I do not care how they found us. Maybe they followed you, maybe it was a coincidence. Doesn't matter. I lost people, you lost people."

The trooper sighed, staring out of the forward window as the heavy truck finally pushed its way out of the ruined city and hit the glasslands without slowing down. Built to last even on volcanic worlds, these mining rigs were about as tough as a Warthog in terms of durability and ten times the size.

"My name's Green, by the way. Michael Green."

"Rank?"

"Second Lieutenant. Does it matter?"

"Not really."

They didn't remain in the glasslands for long. Their truck soon turned, moving uphill into the mountains. Even the glassing hadn't flattened Madrigal's peaks, which jutted out of the near-featureless landscape all around them. While it looked like a dead end to the trooper, Daniel clearly knew where he was going. Ahead of them, carved deeply in the cliffs, was a wide-open crevice that was clearly man-made.

"There," Daniel pointed. "We used to use it to leave on scavenging runs when we first came back to Madrigal."

"Wouldn't they have closed it off?"

"It is the only way to leave by land, so I think not."

As they slowly moved over rocky, uneven ground, another trooper poked his head into the cab. It wasn't a man Green recognised; probably someone from Second or Third Platoon.

"Lieutenant?" he asked. "Master Sergeant Cross is asking for you."

"Right, I'll see what he wants."

The officer stood up and edged past the trooper, heading along the narrow gantry towards the stairs. Before he'd taken his first step, he realised that Bill would have just contacted him over the COM if he wished to speak. A strangled cry from the cab caught his attention, and he raced back into the room as Daniel toppled forward, his neck gushing blood. Before he could draw his rifle, the trooper sprang at him, one hand going for a pistol while the other held a knife.

"No you don't!"

Green headbutted the man, narrowly avoiding a stab as he pressed the attack, throwing quick punches and putting his weight against the attacker. Somehow, someone had been impersonating one of the Agrippa’s ODST's, and had almost certainly set off that bomb back at the camp. But how? Nobody could've been around when we hit the ground or I'd have known, which means-

The impostor landed an uppercut and Green staggered back, tasting blood in his mouth as anger welled up inside him.

Which means this is the bastard who bombed the ship.

It took every bit of training he had not to go for the kill in their next exchange as Green sent the knife spinning away and knocked the pistol from his opponent's hands. While he was a touch slower than the other man, the trooper's sheer rage seemed to block out any pain he felt as he landed blow after blow that toppled his enemy, finally giving him a chance to unclasp his rifle and bring it down with force on the impostor's visor. The glass only cracked, though the sheer force of it seemed to put his attacker out for the count.

"All ODSTs, we have an enemy combatant on board and incapacitated, get up to the driver's cab ASAP."

He glanced over to Daniel's body. The old man had used the last of his strength to cry out and stop the truck, preventing them from crashing. Bill Cross and Anna Volkov were the first to arrive, followed by the young Pathfinder Green had spoken to earlier. Lifting the man's helmet off, the trooper saw their captive was still very much awake.

"Who sent you?" he demanded immediately.

"It was a job," came the flat, eerily monotone response.

"Then who are you working for? Is it Driscol?"

Green knew it was unlikely, as no one had boarded the ship after it entered the 23 Librae System and the chance of Driscol somehow knowing their destination before leaving the fleet was unsettling, to say the least. The assassin looked extraordinarily young, with dark hair and chiselled features. He looked more bored than anything else, and showed little exertion from their brief fight. He sighed and spoke once more.

"The highest bidder. Idiot."

There was the tiniest flash of movement as the man's fingers twitched, and suddenly the floor gave way beneath him, a second explosion blowing much of the truck's lower portion to pieces. Green was thrown from the vehicle, his body saved only by its thick armour as he landed along a nearby mountainside. Screams went up from the burning transport, and as the trooper passed out, he saw dropships drifting over the horizon.

***

The mission had been harder than expected. Not impossible, but certainly harder.

The ODSTs will cost extra, he decided.

Standing by the burning ruins of the truck with bodies littered around his booted feet, the assassin stood and waited as the Pelican dropship slowly lowered towards him. His presence on Madrigal would likely surprise Driscol, though singlehandedly destroying a UNSC warship and its crew was no small feat. A few had fled into the foothills, and were currently being pursued by the other vessel. Using his explosives early to save his life was a risky gamble, but had ultimately paid off thanks to his stolen armour and some quick thinking. The dropship's doors opened and a group of rough, heavily-armed men stepped out.

"Winston Zhou!" their leader clapped as he stepped down, clad in black. "I was surprised when you contacted us."

"I required assistance, Alistair."

"And you got it. So, what's the pay?"

"For delivering you both the exiles and these troopers? One hundred."

"Cheaper than I thought."

"The ship was a different contract."

Across from him, the man in black shrugged. A thin, sallow-faced man, Alistair Travis was Carlos Driscol's right-hand man and field commander. Just a year ago he'd been little more than a no-name gangster on the streets of Noctus, not far from what Winston himself had been when Driscol first found him.

"So, want a lift back into the city?"

"Yes please."

"Any idea what these guys were after?"

"None," he lied. Lieutenant Green had intended to break into the City of Bones to presumably kill Driscol, but there was no point in speaking of a dead man's motives. Travis waved him forward, and they boarded the Pelican, lifting off and beginning its journey back towards civilisation.

***

"Lieutenant? Lieutenant, you've got to get up!"

"Is he awake? We can't stay here long."

It was dusk when Green sat up, his head still aching from the crash. Sheltered within a tiny alcove on the side of a mountain, only he and three other ODST's remained. Bill Cross had a bandage around his head, while Anna Volkov knelt by him, looking worried.

"I'm fine," he muttered. "What happened?"

Nearby, the Pathfinder lay as a lookout, watching the nearby valley. "We got screwed, sir."

"Watch your tone," Cross warned.

Green managed to stand up, shakily. "No, he's right. What's your name, trooper?"

"Private First Class Victor Denley, sir."

"Well Denley, we're in the shit now, and since we've barely got enough supplies left for a few days, all we can do is advance. Are they looking for us?"

Volkov spoke up. "They had dropships searching the valley for the past two hours, killing everyone else. Guess they thought they'd done a good enough job, since they left."

The Lieutenant nodded, looking out towards the crevice that Daniel said lead into the City of Bones. After a total victory, it was likely that Driscol's forces believed they had won. That they were invincible. This was their opportunity to strike. Four Orbital Drop Shock Troopers could do a hell of a lot of damage in the right place, and even if they couldn't win, Green wanted to make sure they softened this place up for when reinforcements arrived.

"We'll move in at dawn. Get some rest for now."

Denley sighed, reciting the old ODST motto: "Feet First into Hell..."

Wasteland

2108 Hours, March 4th, 2557

Mockingbird, 23 Librae System


Seven hours.

That's how long the prowler had been in-system, clinging to the side of an asteroid. Equipped with stealth ablative coating, a modified active camouflage system, and some of the most advanced sensory systems known to man, it was nigh-undetectable by any conventional scanners, not that anyone would think to search for ONI vessels in this far-off system. Sat in the co-pilot's chair, Bess Rivers downed her sixth cup of surprisingly good coffee, and tossed the styrofoam cup into a nearby disposal unit.

"It's been long enough," she swivelled round in her chair to face her partner, who was bent over a partially-assembled assault rifle on a table nearby. "Can we please get a move on?"

Her new partner, Abd-al-Quadir ibn Asad, frowned at the interruption. From nearby, a radio played a mournful piano tune famously known as 'Siege of Madrigal' that she'd grown to enjoy over the years. Looking from his watch to the frustrated spacer, Asad shook his head and returned to putting the rifle back together.

"Not yet."

"Goddamnnit."

While Bess had the patience to spend hours cutting through a ship's hull in search of valuable equipment, all this sitting around and doing nothing when they could be on Madrigal looking for Wade's crew was infuriating. Today alone they had watched from afar as a UNSC Destroyer was blown out of the planet's orbit, and seen the Dynasty itself head straight by them without daring to do a thing. While not a warship by any means, the Mockingbird possessed an array of powerful missiles and even some HORNET mines, which could easily tear the enemy freighter to shreds. Asad had made it clear at the time that they were not to blow their cover, and would observe and wait for the opportunity to move in.

Observe and wait. Fantastic.

Her introduction to Asad had been friendly enough, though he had spoken very little on their journey and seemed to focus almost entirely on whatever plan he had once they landed on Madrigal. Bess knew he wasn't ONI, since he lacked the false charm and courtesy that their agents seemed to exude, and from what little he had told her, he was some kind of old mercenary. That said, what she'd seen so far wasn't particularly impressive; Asad had so much metal in him that he practically creaked as he walked, and by the look of him, was well past his prime. He'd likely been fighting battles on far-off worlds while Bess - now nearly forty-nine - was in diapers. Nonetheless, if ONI trusted the man enough to send him as what she assumed was a bodyguard then that would have to be good enough for her.

"Actually," Asad said at last, having finished his work. "Perhaps we should head down to the planet."

"Really?!"

"Might as well now. But before we head to the city, we've got to make a detour."

Of course ONI's got something else going on here. "Where?"

"There's a site I've been asked to examine on Madrigal as part of my mission."

"What, you think there's anything still down there?"

"You mean aside from a whole damn city? Who knows. It's possible that it's been destroyed, which means we can get straight to your mission."

"You've done this before, right?" she inquired. "Assassination, I mean. I take it ONI didn't just bring you along as a surveyor."

Asad slowly stood up, taking his rifle as he crossed the bridge towards her. The old man looked her up and down, frowning.

"Strange thing for you to be asking me, Miss Rivers. You've not seen battle yourself, yet here you are leading an assassination op."

"I know how to fire a gun, Mister Asad. You think a girl spends thirty years as a spacer and doesn't know how to fight?"

"Oh, it's not a question of fighting," he said as he sat in the pilot's chair. "I'm talking about actual warfare. Anyone with a gun can shoot someone, but there's a damn good chance we'll end up in a protracted firefight with these folks. That Mitchell fella was a ten-year vet of the ODST's, for one."

"Yeah, I've read their files. Still, all the experience doesn't count for shit if you're unlucky, does it?"

"I suppose you're right. All I'm saying is that when it starts getting hot and heavy, chances are that I'll be the one taking these assholes out. Revenge or not, I think ONI's throwing you to the wolves here. Either that or you're being groomed as a potential asset. One of the two."

Bess exhaled slowly, swivelling her chair back to face the forward viewport. Perhaps Asad was right and she was way in over her head; she'd fallen into ONI's hands after losing her crew, and they'd kindly provided her with what seemed like a perfect way forward. Still, she'd come this far, so there didn't seem like there was much point to backing out now.

"Can we just head down to the planet now? Please?"

Asad tapped a screen and punched a set of coordinates into the NAV computer before taking the helm. Their tiny Prowler detached itself from the asteroid, floating aimlessly for a few seconds before the thrusters activated, propelling them out into open space. With the ship's stealth field active, they couldn't fire their weapons or move too quickly, but slow movement was preferable to being found and destroyed.

"At least we know where that city is now," Asad said, activating a nearby holotank. A red blip flashed up. "Sensors were able to track the source of the plasma fire that took out that Destroyer. Guess that's what Redford meant by 'distraction'."

"What do you mean?"

"I was told that we'd have that ship as a distraction. Didn't think that meant they were sending it in to get blown to hell."

As realisation dawned on her, Bess gasped. While ONI's ruthlessness and less than legal actions were well known even to the public, albeit under a fog of rumour and mystery, watching the destruction of a warship and the massive loss of lives for the sake of two people was incredibly disturbing.

"You think ONI knew that would happen?" Bess asked in a low voice.

"I think they knew it'd provoke a response from the folks running the show down there. Testing their defences."

"Christ, all those people..."

"What a waste," Asad shook his head. "Should've sent something smaller. Still, UEG's not gonna flinch when they send in a battlegroup to level the place now. After all that shit with Emerald Cove last year, I guess they're playing it safe."

Like many others, Bess had seen the footage compiled from an ONI-led attack on an independent settlement the previous year, resulting in a massacre that had sparked outrage across the colonies. While evidence had soon come to light that many individuals running the colony were known terrorists that had illegally stockpiled weaponry, the sight of masked, black-armoured special forces troopers slaughtering the inhabitants was seen as an unforgivable crime by many.

"If they'd just send a battlegroup, then why even sanction this mission?"

"Because ONI wants to make sure its dirty work gets done quietly before Madrigal becomes a mess of red tape, most likely. Besides, who's to say that the Dynasty and its crew won't split before we get there?"

"Fair point."

Checking a nearby datapad, Asad keyed a second set of coordinates into his console. A yellow dot appeared on the map, not particularly far away from the first. Bess abandoned any more attempts at small talk as her partner steered their ship towards Madrigal, keeping well away from the Destroyer's wreckage and ensuring that their stealth field remained active during their descent into the planet's atmosphere. Neither of them were strangers to seeing glassed planets, though as the tiny Prowler zipped over the scorched earth, a sombre mood crept over them. Outside of the City of Bones, nothing lived in the glasslands.

"Not far now," the old mercenary muttered, gently steering the ship past what might have once been a mountain. "We'll probably have to bring protective gear just in case."

"You been down to a glassed planet before?"

"Once, back in forty-eight. It was a recovery mission to Second Base. Storms damn near killed us, so we'd better be careful here. Don't want to take any risks with the weather out here."

The Mockingbird slowly descended into a valley and touched down, securing itself to the uneven ground below. From the complete lack of ruins nearby, it didn't seem as though this area was heavily inhabited even back when Madrigal was colonised. Asad waved for Bess to follow as he clambered into the ship's combined storeroom and armoury. He'd requisitioned a pair of bulky, armoured suits, along with a surprisingly large amount of weaponry, and grabbed a helmet from a locker before tossing another to Bess.

"Right, now suit up."

Bess caught it, turning it over in her hands and looking through the translucent visor. ONI's distinctive triangular logo was stamped on one side. The helmet was surprisingly heavy, even when compared to the civilian-grade EVA gear she'd become used to wearing as a fetcher. The next ten minutes were spent slowly strapping pieces of armour over their clothing, which seemed to require a surprising amount of calibration to ensure that the life support systems were functional.

"So this thing's powered?" she asked, lifting a boot up and down. "It feels strange."

"That'd be the shock absorbers. Standard issue with the Nightfall suit. It'll help you survive some pretty long drops, or so I'm told."

"I'm not going to jump off any cliffs."

"Good to hear it. Ready?"

This was it. She'd help Asad with whatever business he was up to, then it was on to killing Mitchell, Wade, and everyone else who had a hand in murdering her friends. She rapped the side of her helmet and gave a thumbs up, something she'd always done before heading out into space with the Ramiel’s crew.

Ready as I'll ever be.

***

It was a strange feeling, walking through a dead world. Bereft of any plant or animal life, the only sound to be heard was the wind as it whistled mournfully over the jagged, burnt earth. Bess remained behind Asad as he moved carefully down a slope, TACMAP in hand. As there had been no need to scan the planet since its glassing, he was working with readouts roughly thirty years old and comparing them to topography recorded by the Mockingbird in the last hour. It was dark now, though the night vision built into their helmets made traversing the land a simple task.

"I think I've found something," he said at last through their COM. "There's a bunker ahead."

The old man pointed towards what Bess thought was a horribly misshapen rock formation. As they drew closer, she could make out what remained of a fortified structure; windows, doors, and even some half-buried objects that might have been power cables. Whatever ONI wanted Asad for had been well protected, at least.

"So I don't mean to pry-" she began.

"Then don't. Whatever's down there is between myself and ONI."

"Fine."

They continued into the structure, Bess feeling somewhat annoyed after having her curiosity denied. She knew full well that poking into ONI's business could only bring more trouble, though there was something inside her that made her want to know - an instinct brought on by years as a fetcher, no doubt. The bunker was mostly made of stone, which explained its hardiness, and as they descended a flight of steps Asad suddenly halted.

"Something's not right."

"What?"

"I think someone's already been here. Look."

Amidst the miscellaneous piles of rubble and broken furniture sat a stack of crates, looking far too well-preserved to have sat here all these years. Asad approached one and found its lid already open. Reaching inside, he took out what looked like part of a heavy-duty drill. Bess had seen them being used by asteroid miners before, though as most land-based mining was done almost entirely with machines, its presence here was strange.

Asad shook his head, tossing the drill aside and drawing his rifle. "This complicates things."

"I take it someone's already looking for what you're after?"

"Nothing else down here worth taking. If we can get down to the vault, I should be able to-"

The roar of an engine from outside cut him off. Asad immediately ran upstairs with Bess in tow, the former fetcher drawing her own weapon. Not far from the entrance, a pair of Pelican dropships were already circling the Mockingbird, searchlights illuminating their vessel. Asad cursed, and dropped down by a broken window as one dropship moved to land. Suddenly, a voice blared from inside.

"Attention, you are trespassing on private property! Come out how with your hands up or we will shoot to kill!"

Bess looked to Asad, her heart racing in fear. She could hold her own in a fair gunfight, but it was clear that they were totally outgunned. As the bay doors on the first Pelican opened and a group of soldiers came marching out, her partner stood up and walked out into the open.

"Asad!" she hissed. "What if they shoot you?!"

"Don't worry," he said calmly. "Just follow my lead."

It took every ounce of willpower for Bess to move out, stowing away her weapon and keeping her hands raised high as they approached a group of heavily-armed soldiers, flashlights pointed towards them. Asad stopped a few feet away from a line of raised rifles before looking towards their leader.

"Carlos Driscol. It's been a while."

There was a pause as a helmeted man lowered his machine gun by a fraction. Moving his hands slowly and carefully, Asad removed his helmet and tossed it to the ground. Suddenly, the rebel leader stepped forward and clapped him on the shoulder.

"The Lion himself!" Driscol laughed. "What brings you out to this shithole?"

"Work," shrugged the mercenary, easing up slightly. "Didn't know you were out here."

"Nobody does, Asad. That's the point."

Now it was Driscol's turn to remove his helmet, clipping it to his belt. As he stepped towards Bess, she saw him more clearly. He was a skinny man, with cropped silver hair and face lined both with age and battle scars, twisted into what looked like a perpetually mocking grin.

"And who're you?"

"Carlos, she's-" Asad began, only for Driscol to hold up a finger to silence him.

"I'm asking her. So speak."

It was brief, but the sudden coldness in Driscol's voice was a clear warning to Bess that this was not a man to cross. Years among spacers from all walks of life had landed her into encounters with some of mankind's less savoury elements, and the worst were certainly those who acted like walking time bombs; eager to explode at the slightest provocation. It was strange, but barely a few brief sentences had made her realise what sort of man Carlos Driscol was.

"Bess Rivers," she nodded politely. "I'm helping him out on his mission."

This seemed to appease the man, who turned back to Asad. "Thought you were retired?"

"I was, but you know what it's like. Owe some folks debts and when they come to collect it's hard to say no."

Driscol shrugged, pacing around them. From the slight tells in the way he walked, Bess could tell that one of his legs was a prosthetic, just like Asad's. He picked up the old man's helmet and shifted it in his hands for a moment before his eyes came to rest on the logo stamped onto it.

"Of course you're working for fucking ONI," he muttered.

"Like I said: hard to say no."

"So what do they want?"

"The same thing you've been digging this place up for, presumably."

"Shit." Driscol shook his head. "That explains the Destroyer. When we caught you on the scanners coming down - don't look surprised, your stealth tech's not that good - I was expecting more oonskies, not you."

"So where does that leave us?"

"Well, since killing you won't do us any good, guess we'll have to take you back home for the night until I figure out what the hell we're gonna do about this in the morning. I've got to deal with some other 'guests' as well."

"The Dynasty."

"Yeah. How the hell'd you know that they were here?"

Asad jerked a thumb towards Bess. "They wiped out her crew a few days back. ONI brought her aboard so we could kill them after finding out they were headed here."

At this, Driscol burst out laughing, clapping his hands together. "Well, ain't that interesting. Tell you what: We head back to the city, you folks stay the night, and after the tour tomorrow I'll decide who I let your buddy kill. Sound fair?"

Asad shrugged, which for the old man was as good as a yes. Driscol and his men returned to their Pelican, allowing the pair to pilot their own ship, albeit under an escort of two more of the heavily-armed dropships. This mission, like every single other mission ever undertaken, had gotten a great deal more complicated.

Chapter Two

Tyrant

0437 Hours, March 5th, 2557

Cell Block 3, Ciudad de Huesos Capitol


They came for them in the early hours, blowing whistles and flashing torches as they dragged the prisoners from their cells. With their hands tied behind their backs and black bags over their heads, they had no choice but to walk upstairs, led by a group of armed guards. The crew of the Dynasty had been placed here the moment they arrived yesterday, unable to compete with the firepower of their opponents.

This was, Amanda Wade reflected, the stupidest mistake she'd ever made.

I guess we can't pretend to be travelers like we used to. Caused way too much attention tearing through the frontier. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Their captors had ensured the crewmates were kept apart, unable to formulate any escape plan during their night in the cells. Even now, nobody dared say a word despite the very real possibility they were being led off for their execution. Eventually, they were roughly thrust forwards and thrown to the floor. Moments later, someone ripped the bag from Amanda's head. The sudden brightness hurt her eyes,forcing her to wait a few moments before opening them. Looking across at the other members of her crew she felt relief that they were all present and seemed unhurt, barring a few bumps and bruises.

"Good morning!" a voice called from a nearby doorway. Gordon Mills exited, now wearing a charcoal suit.

Amanda straightened up slightly on her knees, getting a good look at the room. It was surprisingly ornate, with expensive wooden furniture and paintings covering the walls. To her right were a set of doors leading out to a balcony that looked over the entire City of Bones. The sky was a murky blue; the sun had barely begun to rise over Madrigal. Mills paced up and down before the captives, hands in pockets. After a few moments, he sighed and spoke up.

"First, just let me apologise for your treatment. It seems the boss was out yesterday when you arrived and by the time he got back it was a little late for him to do the meet and greet. That said, he's an early riser, so he'll be here to decide what happens to you shortly."

"Look," Amanda nudged forward. "Whatever you've heard about us, we just came here looking to trade."

"I don't ever recall giving our location out to your vessel."

"You didn't. We heard about this place from a friend."

"And they gave you the proper codes to gain entry, correct?"

"Yeah."

Mills shook his head. "To be pretty blunt, Captain Wade, you're bullshitting us. We know your code's from the Starsailor, whose crew you butchered. Even if that wasn't the case, you and your crew are already at the top of a pretty long blacklist after everything you've pulled."

"Against who, exactly?"

"The New Colonial Alliance."

At this, Amanda felt a sudden sinking feeling in her gut. She'd incorrectly guessed that Ciudad de Huesos was run by a loose association of criminals and pirates like Venezia had been. The NCA on the other hand, were serious business. As the United Rebel Front had more or less collapsed and its leaders gone into hiding, this new organisation had sprung up out of nowhere to fill the power vacuum. Unlike their mostly-militarised predecessors, the NCA believed that they had some political power, and therefore possessed—or at least pretended to possess—higher moral standards and laws. In the last few months, the Dynasty had hit several of their supply depots, something Mills was obviously aware of.

"Now you realise the trouble you're in." The suited man adjusted his glasses. "Were I in charge, I'd have you put on trial and executed, but ultimately that decision is up to my boss, who should be around any time—"

Behind Mills, a set of double doors slid open. Standing behind them, wearing old military fatigues and bearing a malicious smile, was the last person Amanda Wade wanted to see: Carlos Driscol. He walked slowly, savouring the moment and rubbing his hands together as he approached. By the way he walked, one of his legs had been replaced with a prosthesis.

"Morning," he nodded towards Mills, who stepped back as he stood over Amanda. "Been a while, hasn't it?"

"Yeah."

As she looked up into his cold, dead eyes, Amanda recalled the last time she'd seen Driscol: two years ago, in the fall of the Caucasus Station. As she'd knelt over the corpse of Remi Marshall, her friend and the Dynasty’s last captain, he'd fled into an emergency elevator. She could still remember his smile as those doors closed, knowing he'd abandoned her to near-certain death or capture at the hands of UNSC forces.

"So," he clasped his hands together. "You kill my friends and trespass in my city. What d'you want me to do about it."

Fucker. He wants us to beg. "Let us go, maybe?"

As expected, Driscol laughed. "With a bounty on your head that big? Forget it. NCA's willing to pay for your capture too, y'know. As for your crew..."

He stood up, looking the four other members of the Dynasty’s crew up and down.

"Don't know either of you," he looked over Rizhan and Carol. "How're you doing, Faisal?"

"Could be better," the ship's pilot replied with a defiant smirk. Driscol shrugged.

"And you, I know very well. How's it going, Ash Mitchell?"

Even Mills and Driscol's guards seemed surprised. Apparently with the scars, false eye and unshaven features, nobody on Madrigal could recognise the Butcher of Kuiper. Mitchell sighed.

"Gunnery Sergeant."

Driscol's grin contorted into an angry sneer as he knelt down, shaking his head.

"Now you know I ain't been part of the military in a while, Mitchell. Told you to stop calling that last time we met."

"Right before you tried to kill me."

"Yeah, but that was business, Ash. Oonskies started swooping in left and right, and I had to get the hell out of Noctus. You look like you've been through some shit, by the way."

"Ran into some of your buddies on Mamore."

"Oh, I heard they took heavy losses a few months ago. Must've been you. Shame."

Driscol stood up and turned to face his bodyguards, clasping both hands behind his back. He whispered something to Mills, who nodded and left the room. There was a very long, uncomfortable silence as he walked out towards the nearby balcony, looking out over the settlement. At last, Driscol turned and sighed.

"See, now if I didn't give a shit, I'd have blown your ship out of the sky. But I do. Mitchell, you're too valuable to kill, so we'll hold you here before someone higher up decides what to do with you. How d'you feel about dying for some propaganda shit?"

"Fuck you," the mercenary spat.

"As for the rest of you? Someone showed up yesterday with a big interest in putting a bullet in your heads, and I'm not inclined to stop 'em after hearing about what you did on the Starsailor."

At this, Amanda's eyes widened. That woman. Has to be. Their moment of mercy during the raid had come back to haunt them, as she knew it would. Getting executed by some angry Spacer wasn't exactly how she imagined dying.

"But," Driscol continued, "I'm willing to make an exception, provided you tell me the real reason why you're here."

"What do you mean?" asked Amanda.

"Oh, don't play dumb with me. Why the fuck did you come here? I'm sure it wasn't to pay me a visit, and if it was—"

Driscol stopped suddenly as he begun to cough, and stepped back with one hand over his mouth as he broke into a momentary fit of wheezing, hacking rasps. One of his guards approached him, only to be waved away as he whipped a handkerchief out and wiped something from his face before turning back to the prisoners.

"So like I said: tell me why you're here and I might just lock you up."

"And my crew? Let them go free."

"Sure."

Amanda breathed a sigh of relief. "Get something in writing, then I'll tell you all—"

Driscol slid a handgun out from his hip holster and fired a round into Rizhan's knee. The man screamed in agony as he fell to the side, writhing in pain and knocking Mitchell over. He then lunged forward and brought his prosthetic foot up into the man's side with an audible crack.

"No. You'll tell me now."

"Fuck it, fine!" Amanda kept looking from Driscol to Rizhan. "I'll tell you, just get him a doctor after."

Speaking as quickly as she dared, Amanda let Carlos Driscol in on the plan she and her companions had been working on these last few months. Having come across an old, abandoned outpost that once belonged to a company called 'Colonial Security Services', she had uncovered numerous files detailing its illegal practices, which included working with the United Rebel Front and distributing Rocket—a highly potent drug—into the Outer Colonies and smuggling weaponry. As it turned out, they had supposedly been able to secure a stockpile of nuclear weaponry on Madrigal before they were shut down, its location completely cut off from all but two or three high-ranking individuals. Acting out of desperation and vaguely aware that some kind of settlement had been built on the glassed planet, she and her crew had launched their operation.

"So, it's the nukes," Driscol lit a cigarette. "That it?"

Two medics had been called to help Rizhan, who had been heavily sedated and lay nearby while Driscol sat in a nearby chair. Mills had returned and handed his boss a jar of pills, which he'd taken to soothe whatever illness he no doubt had. Oddly enough, he seemed to have calmed down after taking them. Though worried and uncomfortable after having to kneel for so long, Amanda remained calm as she faced him.

"Yes, that's it."

"What the hell d'you want nukes for? Gonna try and hit Earth again?"

She shook her head. "No, Carlos. We're going to take down the United Rebel Front once and for all."

Driscol blew a long plume of smoke into the air. "Right, like that shit's gonna work. You should know that you kill one asshole and someone else will replace him. Oonskies haven't been able to do it yet."

"This is different. We've found their headquarters. All we need is the weaponry, and the confirmation that Magnus is on board."

"Magnus?" the rebel leader raised an eyebrow. "You mean that crazy— Oh."

"What?"

"You're still pissed because he killed Remi Marshall? Christ, let it go already. Chasing down one guy's a lost cause."

"Right, says the guy who's working for the NCA."

"They pay well and I get to do more or less what I want. I own a city, Wade. How many other pricks can say that?"

"Yeah, until the UNSC comes a-knocking and you've got to fight on the frontlines again."

He snorted. "You think I'll go like a lamb to the slaughter? Always have some kind of contingency plan when they come for you, be it a back door, a hidden ship or something to use as leverage. It's not survival of the fittest or the smartest or the meanest, but about having the will to go to any lengths to remain alive. When it comes to being a survivor, I'm the goddamn best there is."

"You prepare that speech in advance?"

Looking out over the balcony, the morning sun had now properly risen in the air over Madrigal, shining through the translucent cloaking shield that covered the City of Bones. How they had been able to set up the Covenant machinery around the settlement was a mystery to Amanda, and as the distant sounds of voices as the settlers began their day drifted out over rows of mismatched houses, both Human and alien, she felt a twinge of regret; this was what Avalon could've been. Driscol stood up, and fixed her with a long look.

"Maybe it's just the pills making me a merciful bastard, but I think I won't have you killed. Hell, I might even let you go."

This was not the response Amanda had been hoping for. She'd mostly been stalling for time and bargaining for her crew's lives, but for Driscol to let them go was almost inconceivable.

"What about me?" Ash Mitchell spoke up.

"You're a dead man walking," the older man sneered. "You're fine with leaving him behind, aren't you Wade?"

Looking across at Mitchell, Amanda wasn't sure what to say. The scarred, vengeful mercenary had become one of her closest allies over the past few months, and in her mind she'd always imagined the pair of them finishing their fight together. Meeting his gaze, she opened her mouth to speak.

"I—"

From outside, there was a distant rumble, followed by screaming. Moments later, the sounds of gunfire drifted through the air. Driscol ran out onto the balcony to see a plume of smoke rise from nearby as another explosion erupted. The rebel leader drew his handgun as he walked back inside.

"Motherfuckers! Third Spire's been hit. Mills?!"

"Yes sir?"

"Wake up those fart-breathing little bastards and tell 'em to get their Goblins down there to investigate, then bring in two fireteams to sweep the area. Oh, and send Travis up here, now."

Mills nodded and left the room. Driscol turned towards Amanda and the others, all trace of his momentary goodwill gone.

"Take them back to the cells. If I find out you're involved with this shit, Wade, I'll have you and your pissant fucking crew sold to the fucking Brutes!"

As they were dragged to their feet, Amanda trying to protest they had no clue what was happening, she gave a silent prayer to whoever was launching an attack on the city. The guards treated them as roughly as before, half-dragging the Dynasty's crew along hard stone corridors towards their cell block, albeit without the face-covering hoods this time. Rizhan was still comatose, and was being carried by two men. As they turned into a side passage, she caught sight of a young man walking towards them. He halted for the briefest of moments as he seemed to recognise Amanda, then drew a suppressed handgun.

"What the fuck are you-!" one of the guards began.

The man emptied his entire magazine in moments in a series of muffled cracks that killed their captors before any could fight back. He then strode over to Amanda, span her round, and cut through the ties around her hands with a combat knife before moving to help the others. As she rubbed her wrists, Amanda looked to their saviour in astonishment.

"Winston Zhou?!" she exclaimed. "What the fuck are you doing here?"

His reply was laconic as ever. "Business."

She smiled, knowing not to question further. "Well in any case, thanks. We could do with your help in taking down the asshole running this place."

"No, you've got to leave."

"What?"

"You're not killing Driscol. Just head out now while his men are distracted. Your ship's still down in the docking bay."

There was something frightening about the man's statement. While young, Winston Zhou was an assassin of great repute and those who frequented his services often commented on his coldness. What bothered Amanda was that he sounded oddly protective of Driscol more than anything. From behind her, there was a loud clack as Mitchell cocked an MA5 rifle from one of the dead guards.

"He's right, we should just go."

"But—"

"Fuck Driscol," Mitchell glanced back down the corridor. "All we need is the location of that bunker."

"There's an operations room downstairs, second door on the right," said Zhou. "They've been excavating the site for weeks now."

"And how do you know this?"

"I got here last night. Helped blow up that Destroyer."

Even Amanda was surprised by that revelation. Mitchell seemed slightly perturbed, but said nothing as he moved towards the stairs, gun raised as his old instincts kicked in. Rizhan was still out cold, and being carried by Faisal, who refused to take a gun.

"Coming with us, Winston?" Amanda asked.

"No. Like I said, I've got business here. Just get out of the city as soon as you can."

She nodded. "Thanks again for the help."

He ignored her, and strode off towards Driscol's chambers. Amanda and her crew moved slowly downstairs, though most of the Capitol seemed empty. Most of the guards had already left to engage whoever was attacking the city, though they were wary of any that might remain. Moving into a large room as Winston had said, Amanda found it lined with notes and topographical scans of what she assumed was the bunker where the nuclear weapons were being held. While Mitchell kept watch outside, Amanda and Carol shifted through notes and activated terminals until the former discovered a functional datapad.

"Anything useful?" Carol asked.

"Hold on..."

While most information on the pad concerned progress reports from one of Driscol's men supervising the excavation as they had dug the bunker out, it did contain the map she'd been seeking so desperately leading to the site. For the first time that day, Amanda smiled as she grabbed a nearby bag and stowed the pad inside. There was a burst of rifle fire from outside as Mitchell gunned down a pair of guards.

"We've got to go, now!"

Moving as a group with Mitchell on point, they avoided leaving via the front entrance of the capitol building and opted for a more circuitous route around. It seemed that any workers had hidden as the fighting began, giving the group ample time to move through the building's kitchens and out a side entrance. Far below them was the city's makeshift spaceport, where the Dynasty awaited them.

"You folks ready?" asked Amanda, checking her rifle. "This won't be easy."

Stood by her side, the crew of the Dyansty prepared themselves as they rushed towards the fight of their lives.

Retaliation

0514 Hours, March 5th, 2557

Maintenance Pipe 7, Ciudad de Huesos Outskirts


"Almost there, Lieutenant. There's an entry point up ahead."

Daniel had been right about their entryway into the city. As an entry point wide enough to fit two Warthogs through, the crevice carved through the mountainside was totally deserted, save for an empty checkpoint halfway through. It made sense that the people running Ciudad de Huesos had little in the way of ground-based defences; who would attack them from the glasslands, after all?

Just the four of us against the entire city. The odds aren't great, but we've got to deal with them.

Having come across a set of wide pipes built by the city's entrance that crossed their path, Private Volkov had found an unlocked entrance hatch for them to use. As the alternative was crossing fifty meters of open ground towards chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, they would have to take their chances with an alternate route. Moving slowly, the four Orbital Drop Shock Troopers prepared their weapons as they gathered close to the exit hatch.

"Ready?" Cross asked.

Denley, who'd been growing increasingly irate since the previous night, sighed. "As I'll ever be."

"Sir," Volkov thumbed the safety off her M392 DMR. "Rules of engagement?"

Green knew they were about to enter an Insurrectionist-run city. All those living there could be potential attackers, or at the very least might be sympathetic towards their rulers. In any other scenario they would have multiple platoons with vehicle support on standby while an effort was made to coerce them towards being more friendly to the UNSC. Now though, with just the four of them? Things were much more difficult. He swallowed, and readied his own rifle.

"Don't fire unless fired upon. We'll try to keep civilians out of the line of fire, but do what's necessary for our mission to succeed. Clear?"

The others muttered affirmatives, and while Denley covered her, Volkov opened the hatch. Green felt incredibly twitchy, expecting an armed squad of rebels to be upon them almost immediately. Instead, they were met with nothing but an empty courtyard stacked with empty crates and the distant sounds of the City of Bones waking up.

"Clear!" Cross whispered, stepping out and scanning left and right.

Denley seemed disappointed. "Looks like nobody's home."

Moving swiftly and keeping to the shadows, the troopers edged around the side of the courtyard and peered out into the dusty street beyond. They were fairly high up in the basin-like valley that housed the independent city, and from here could spot row after row of houses and what looked like a spaceport in the distance. Activating his helmet's zoom function, Green looked across towards a cluster of large buildings, which to him looked a lot like factories.

"They're a lot more advanced than we thought," he muttered, pointing towards a series of greenhouses nearby. "They're growing or importing enough food to keep the city fed, so there's some self-sufficiency involved."

Suddenly, Denley's rifle snapped up. "Movement, right."

The troopers kept low as a squat, masked alien ambled up the road past the building site, humming to itself. The Unggoy barely noticed them, heading up towards a towering structure nearby. Green slowly stood up and crept down the road after the diminutive creature, stowing his weapon and drawing a combat knife. Once he was a few feet away, he leapt forward, tackling his prey to the ground as he clamped one hand over its gas mask while the other placed the edge of his blade under the Unggoy's throat as he squealed in surprise.

"Quiet!" Green hissed. "Do you understand me?"

He slightly eased his grip on the mask as the others approached, and motioned for Cross to help drag their captive back towards the courtyard they had emerged from.

"Y-yes," squeaked the Unggoy.

"Good. Does this city have a spaceport?"

"Yes."

"And?"

"It's down the hill, you can't miss it. Please don't kill me!"

Green sighed. Aside from their rather vague plans to destroy the city's defences and possibly escape back to UNSC-controlled territory, they had no intel on this place. For a moment he considered simply slicing the alien's throat and continuing onwards, though this idea was quickly dismissed.

"That structure," he pointed towards the tower-like building the Unggoy had been heading for. "What's it for?"

"I-it's a cloaking spire. Hides the city from sight."

Cross suddenly spoke up. "Heard of these before, ell-tee. Covenant would drop them in to cover major landing sites during invasions. No idea how the hell three of them got down here though."

Looking across the valley, Green could see two more spires jutting out of the ground, each glowing with light as they projected a transparent barrier over the City of Bones. From the outside, it would look as if nothing existed in this desolate mountainous region, giving it the perfect cover from preliminary scans. While rebel forces possessing Covenant technology and weapons was not unheard of, he'd never seen something on this scale. Standing up, a plan finally began to come together.

"What's your name?" Green asked the Unggoy.

"Jaham."

"Okay then, Jaham. Can you get us into that Spire?"

The alien barely took a second to consider it; evidently sabotaging the city was worth staying alive. "Promise not to kill me, and I'll do it."

"I promise."

Denley snorted, though the Lieutenant ignored him. Allowing the Unggoy to stand, he gestured for him to continue walking along the narrow road that led to the spire, his captors in tow. By the look of things, this appeared to be the only path leading up. They had salvaged enough C-12 to blow up several city blocks, though it would likely only take a small amount to irreparably damage this structure. Green guessed that all three were required to keep the city's near-constant cloak active, and that destroying even one would give any subsequent attack forces a better chance.

"Volkov," he gestured towards a rocky outcrop to his left. "Get up there and watch the road. When we blow the spire, every Innie bastard in the city's gonna be after us."

"Got it."

While the Lance Corporal jogged off, their little group sped up, coming closer and closer to the spire. The area seemed to be totally deserted, lacking cameras, security guards or even any staff.

"Anyone else here?" Denley asked Jaham.

"No, no, just me. I come to work first."

"As what, the janitor?"

"Spire operator," the Unggoy puffed up with pride. "I learned how to run a spire during the war!"

"So you're okay with us blowing it up?" said Cross.

Jaham shrugged. "It's a building, and I get to live. No big deal."

"Fair enough."

Green remained silent, looking out for any threats in case their captive was lying or mistaken about being the first one here. A small gate had been erected at the spire's base, forcing the troopers to stand aside and wait for Jaham to produce a keycard that opened it. Inside, there were dozens of empty crates and boxes piled up by a table and chairs, and a large work rota had been pasted to a wall. Looking it over, Green saw that aside from Jaham, at least two dozen others worked here throughout the day in shifts, though no one else would arrive for at least another hour.

"Now where to we go?" the trooper glanced around, seeing no way up.

"Over here," Jaham squeaked as he plodded towards a sealed shaft. It lit up as he approached, revealing a gravity lift.

Denley shook his head in annoyance. "I hate these things."

"Then stay down here and keep watch," the Lieutenant replied. "Let Cross and I handle the demolition."

"Yessir," Denley gave a sloppy salute, sounding relieved.

Taking a deep breath, Green stepped into the shaft of blue light, and felt his entire body slowly lift upwards. Why the Covenant ever favoured these things over conventional elevators was beyond him, though they were certainly fast. Within seconds, the ODST was deposited in the spire's upper section, and quickly moved to one side as Jaham and Cross appeared behind him.

"Where's the main controls?"

"This way," Jahans waved for them to follow. He was taking his capture and the imminent destruction of his livelihood fairly well, all things considered.

To Green and Cross, the bank of controls that flashed up as they approached was completely indecipherable, though Jaham quickly hopped up into a nearby seat and tapped in a code.

"What the hell are you doing!" Green barked, raising his weapon.

"Signing in!" the Unggoy squealed, throwing his hands into the air. "Have to check in so the other towers know everything's okay! You can blow this place up now!"

He breathed a sigh of relief, and backed off slightly as Cross took out a large brick of C-12 from his backpack, and placed it beneath the control panel. That alone would be enough to destroy the spire's entire upper level, including its shield emitters and most of the supports. They would have to make it to a safe distance before detonating it, of course.

"All right," Cross finished triple-checking that his explosives were linked to a detonator. "We're set."

With that, the trio descended back towards the tower's base in silence and regrouped with Denley. The younger trooper continued to glance towards Jaham, perhaps wondering why Green hadn't executed him the moment he ceased to be useful. Cross would never execute what amounted to a civilian on principle, while Volkov wouldn't do anything she wasn't directly ordered to do. Green knew keeping the Unggoy alive and bringing him with them was a massive risk, but they couldn't simply let him go. As they passed through the gates leading towards the road back down into the City of Bones, Cross finally spoke.

"Looks like a safe distance. We going to blow it now?"

Green nodded. "Time to shake the hornet's nest. Do it."

The Master Sergeant held the detonator aloft and after taking a moment to look back up at the spire, pressed it. As expected, the upper portion vanished for a moment in a tremendous blast, vaporising much of it and blowing the rest apart in massive, burning chunks of metal. The troopers and Jaham ran for cover behind some rocks as debris flew past them and down into the city. After a few moments, the supports gave way with a loud groan and fell apart, toppling downwards and out of sight.

"This is where things get shitty," Denley shook his head. Screams were already echoing up from the valley as the slowly-awakening city was suddenly jolted by the explosion. Green's team would have to make for cover as soon as possible, and began to sprint back towards the less-exposed industrial sector of the settlement. Volkov's voice suddenly spoke through the COM.

"Lieutenant, sighted four armed rebels heading up the road, likely from a checkpoint. Shall I engage."

"Can you eliminate them?"

"Definitely."

Six shots rang out from up ahead, and as they clambered down towards Volkov's vantage point Green sighted four corpses in the road. They had barely been able to respond before the Lance Corporal had shot them down.

"Good work," he stopped for a moment to breathe. "We're heading into the city now. Going to try and secure transport if possible."

"What about the spires?" Cross asked. "From what I've seen, they're just as good at keeping people in as they are keeping folks out."

This was true. While the shielding across the sky had flickered and grown slightly more transparent, there were still two other spires in separate locations far across the city for them to attack. That was why they needed transport.

"We'll seize a ship and use that to board and destroy the spires, one-by-one. That way, we can escape the moment that shield goes down."

Volkov spoke up, still keeping her eyes on the road. "What about enemy anti-air?"

"Those turrets might've taken down a crippled destroyer, but if we can get anything faster than a tug, we can move along the planet's surface until it's safe to make orbit. It's risky, but possible."

At this, they seemed to come to an agreement. The four ODST's sprinted along the road as quickly as they dared, leaving behind a very frightened Jaham in the process. Their decision to abandon the Unggoy was an unspoken one, though unarmed and alone he could not pose a threat now the whole city had been alerted to their presence. Green led the way as they began their move downhill, now moving into a tighter urban environment. From their elevated position the troopers could see the spaceport in the distance, though it was much further away than it looked.

"Feeling pretty exposed out here," Denley muttered, glancing from building to building.

"Check your corners and move quickly," Cross said. "As long as we don't get cornered, we'll be fine."

Ahead of them, a doorway burst open and a middle-aged woman emerged, clutching a trashbag. Green came within miliseconds of pulling the trigger before realising she was unarmed, though the civilian let out a shriek and dashed back inside, screaming in Spanish. Even a seasoned trooper like Green began to feel nervous, knowing that they likely had multiple people now looking at them through half-closed curtains and barely-open doors.

"Shit, we'd better double time it, or else-"

There was a sudden noise from high above, and Green glanced up to see something big falling towards him. He and the others dashed out of the way as a bipedal suit of armour smashed into the street nearby. With a heavy needle cannon in place of its right arm and a grenade launcher mounted on its back, the Goblin battlesuit was a fearsome sight for the seasoned troopers. A tinny voice rang out across the street as the pilot spoke.

"Come out now with your hands up or I'll blow you away!"

Green had never found himself so afraid of an Unggoy who was clearly enjoying himself. Without a moment's hesitation, he jumped to his feet.

"Run!"

The others followed him, dashing into the labyrinthine network of alleys and side streets as the Goblin opened fire, heavy shards blasting apart chunks of concrete nearby through near misses. Aside from their C-12, which they required to take out the other Spires, they had no way of successfully destroying the suit. Shouts echoed across the streets as the Goblin was joined in chasing the troopers by what sounded like a sizeable group of enemy soldiers. Turning down another alley, Green made for a slightly-ajar door and moved inside, waiting for a moment as his comrades caught up before slamming it shut.

"Goddamn," Denley shook his head between breaths. "They're right on our tail, sir. What the hell are we gonna do now?"

Edging up to a nearby window, Green peered out and saw that they weren't far away from what passed for this city's spaceport. However, in their current state they would likely be caught and killed before ever making it to a ship. They had holed up in some kind of warehouse, by the look of things. The troopers remained still as two transport Warthogs rumbled past, only to hear a loud thump from the next room, followed by shouting.

"Hey, they're in here! They're in here!"

Denley booted the door open to find a man in an oil-stained jumpsuit calling out to the passing rebels, and put a burst of rifle fire into his back at once. He dropped soundlessly to the floor, though already the sound of running boots could be heard in the alleyway outside.

"Shit," Green checked his rifle. "Troopers, we're fighting our way out!"

While Carlos Driscol's underlings had obviously undergone some formal training, they were no match for a group of hardened Orbital Drop Shock Troopers. As they kicked in the building's front door, Cross lobbed a flashbang grenade towards one group and set his visor's polarisation to max as he leaned out to fire as it detonated. Five men died in moments, though many more were already moving to surround them. The Goblin had also leapt down to their location, and was prowling through the nearby street, unable to fire in case it took out its own men.

"Volkov, left!"

Green and the Lance Corporal had moved behind a stack of crates to prepare for the next group, whose number counted several Kig-Yae mercenaries armed with energy shields. While this allowed them to survive the initial fusillade of gunfire from the pair as they edged inside, their focus on eliminating their immediate threat allowed Denley, who had hidden himself in a nearby supply closet, to quietly roll a grenade in amongst their ranks. One explosion later, and the troopers had killed or mortally wounded seven more attackers.

Then the Goblin crashed through the roof.

Cross was closest to the battlesuit as it landed on the warehouse floor, and quickly threw himself behind a massive stack of crates as it opened fire, the Unggoy jockey inside laughing maniacally. Green raced in to save his friend, distracting it with a few bursts from his BR85 that impacted harmlessly against its shields. The Goblin swung round, continuing to fire wildly while Cross crawled to safety by an exit door.

"Keep moving towards the spaceport!" Green yelled to his comrades. "I'll keep this thing occupied for now!"

They did as instructed without hesitation, racing back out onto the City of Bones' streets before the remainder of their rebel attackers could regroup. Now alone with the hulking battlesuit, Green rushed towards it, dodging a flurry of deadly pink shards before diving under its legs. The trooper leapt to his feet and clambered atop the Goblin, still firing away at its shields while the jockey continued to hurl insults at him from the cockpit. Suddenly, it rumbled and crouched down for a moment as numerous ports opened up on its back.

"Fuck!"

Green staggered and fell off the mech as its shardstorm launcher fired up, launching an entire cloud of needles into the air. They halted after half a foot before suddenly turning and shooting towards him. With barely a second to act, the ODST dived towards the now-immobile Goblin and rolled beneath it as each explosive shard turned mid-air to follow him. Instead of striking the trooper and blowing him apart, each and every shot smashed against the battlesuit's outer hull, forcing its energy shield to flare violently before finally dissipating as numerous tiny explosions overwhelmed it. It staggered backwards for a moment, its jockey screaming in annoyance.

Gotcha.

Green unclasped a fragmentation grenade from his belt and rammed it into the suit's back, clinging to the Goblin as it tried to spin round and throw him off. Ensuring it was firmly wedged in place, he pulled the pin and fell backwards just moments before the energy shields snapped back into place. As the Goblin turned to finish it off, the grenade detonated, absolutely annihilating the vehicle's power supply and venting in an instant. The subsequent chain reaction of explosions blew the vehicle apart from the inside. The cockpit's energy shield snapped open, and as its jockey attempted to scramble free, Green shot the alien in the head.

"Well then," he spoke to himself, feeling rather pleased with himself for that risky move. "That's that dealt with."

Gunfire still crackled in the distance, and as Green continued to move downhill with rifle ready, he soon saw that a pitched firefight had broken out at the spaceport. A burning Warthog lay on its side by the entrance, with over a dozen militia members moving in towards the landing pads. It seemed that the Lieutenant had been forgotten about during his fight against the Goblin, and as such he was able to move after them unmolested.

"Cross, Volkov, Denley, do you copy?" he opened up his COM channel. Volkov replied first.

"Lieutenant? Glad you're alive. We're pinned down, but have sighted a freighter we can use to get out of here. We've been getting help, too."

"Who from?"

"We don't know, but whoever they are, they're focusing their fire on the rebel militia. Looks like they're making their way towards this ship as well."

"Copy that, I'll be there ASAP. Green out."

His mind began to race as he moved swiftly towards the spaceport, thinking back to what Daniel had said about Carlos Driscol essentially overthrowing the city's previous rulers. Perhaps Ciudad de Huesos had citizens willing to fight their tyrant and his masters, the New Colonial Alliance. Once he passed through the gates, he had a clear line of fire on half a platoon of militia members in cover. Taking out his last grenade, Green tossed one towards one cluster of men before turning his rifle on another group. Now under attack from both sides, what few members lived through his initial attack went down in seconds, leaving the landing pads momentarily clear. The Lieutenant activated the COM again, holding up his rifle for the others to see.

"This is Green. I'm moving out of cover now."

The three other troopers had spread themselves out across the pad, and though they waved at Green as he approached, they soon turned to find a group of what looked like armed civilians moving towards them. They seemed incredibly wary at the sight of a group of ODST's, though it was relieving to meet someone here who wasn't trying to kill them. Their leader, a young, angry-looking woman with brown hair, held a hand out for her group to stay put while she approached Green.

"Who the hell are you?" she demanded, glancing towards the nearby freighter.

"Second Lieutenant Michael Green, ma'am. ODST's. Thanks for the assist."

"I just wanted those bastards away from my ship."

Green glanced towards the battered vessel that stood next to them in surprise.

"Ma'am, I understand if you want to leave, but we're on an important mission to-"

There was a sudden roar as across the pad from them, another Goblin hit the ground nearby and raised its cannon to fire. The woman immediately ran for the freighter, slamming a switch to open the cargo ramp and scrambling aboard. Her companions, two of whom were carrying an unconscious man, moved with her while a heavily-scarred individual provided covering fire. With nowhere to run that wasn't the relative safety of the freighter, Green and the troopers followed suit, clambering aboard as a plasma grenade sizzled past them.

"Carol, the Mantis!" yelled the ship's captain.

A red-haired woman gently set down the man she was carrying and ran across the cargo bay towards a heavily-customised and painted Mark IX Mantis before clambering aboard. The mech lit up as its engines activated, turning around to face the Unggoy-piloted vehicle currently lumbering towards the ship. In the distance, Green could see more troops racing into the spaceport. He and the others hit the deck to avoid more needle fire, only to have the Mantis step forward and let loose a volley of missiles that smashed the Goblin's shields to pieces within seconds and sent the battlesuit stumbling back as it switched to its heavy machine guns and ripped it to shreds.

"Goblin's taken care of, Amanda," a voice echoed through the mech's loudspeakers. "Let's get the hell out of here."

The remainder of the ship's crew had already moved upstairs while the other ODST's stood around, rather unsure of what to do. The Mantis pilot, Carol, deactivated her vehicle and waved for them to follow her, moving up a flight of stairs and down a corridor to the ship's bridge as the freighter hummed to life. Small arms fire peppered the outer hull, though it did little to damage the freighter.

"We okay?" Amanda asked their bearded pilot from her captain's chair. "Weapons online?"

"Everything's checking out."

"Good. Carol, as soon as we're airborne, I want us to hit those spires with everything we have."

Green took a step forward to speak up, wary of the scarred man watching him with some suspicion. "Ma'am, those things are highly-fortified Covenant spires. We'd need high explosives or weaponry far greater than any civilian ship carries to do any real damage. If we can get close enough for a dropoff, we've got enough C-12 to-"

"You're wrong," Amanda cut him off. "Faisal, ready the Rampart to fire."

"You've got an M870 rigged up to this thing?"

"Yep. Should be enough."

It was then that Green realised that they had likely hitched a ride with pirates or smugglers of some kind, considering the level of military tech on this vessel; the M870 Rampart point defence gun was usually mounted on UNSC frigates, not independent ships like this. It turned slowly through the skies above the City of Bones, unable to move through the field that both cloaked the protected the city.

"Amanda, they'll have anti-air on us soon," warned Carol from her station.

"Not if we keep low and remain within the city. Prepare to fire."

The freighter shook as the M870 opened fire, keeping up a steady rate of 50mm rounds that after less than twenty seconds of sustained fire had torn apart the upper levels of the second spire's shield emitters. Above them, the city's protective shield grew thinner and more transparent as the single spire struggled to maintain itself.

"Got Hornets coming up," the pilot, Faisal, said with mild interest.

"Got it, bringing autocannons online."

Peering out of the forward viewport, Green caught a brief glimpse of two AV-14 Hornets rising towards them, weapons blaring. Within seconds of the ship's autocannons coming online, the craft were promptly blown out of the sky. With their attackers momentarily dealt with, all their ship had to do was turn around and unleash a final hail of cannon fire towards the unprotected final spire. As explosions blossomed along the structure's roof, the shielding overhead finally flickered and died.

"Okay, let's get the hell out of here!" yelled Amanda.

The freighter lurched forward as it rocketed away from Ciudad de Huesos, moving not upwards and into orbit, but forwards, moving over the scorched earth that was Madrigal's surface as it followed a set of coordinates on a nearby holotank.

"Where are we going?" queried Green as Amanda stood up. "If you can get us back into UNSC space, we'll leave you be, no questions asked."

Amanda glanced to her crewmates and crossed her arms. "We've got a package to recover first. Once that's done, I'll see about leaving you on a safe planet."

"What kind of package are you after?"

"None of your business."

He shrugged. Now was not the time to act like a cop in front of the people who saved their lives, and while he was still a soldier loyal to the UNSC, Green doubted that a Second Lieutenant had the authority to deviate so heavily from what remained of their mission goals. For now, getting back in touch with the chain of command was his top priority.

"Well, thanks for getting us out of there, at least."

"Don't mention it. I take it you're from that Destroyer we saw coming in?"

"That's right. Enemy infiltrator damaged the Agrippa with internal sabotage, then their plasma turrets blew us out of orbit. It was a goddamn massacre."

"What brought you to Madrigal in the first place?" asked Amanda.

"Orders, I'd assume. If we had anything to go by beyond checking out the system, it was way above my pay grade."

"Well, we've got food if you want it. I've got to check on my crewmate."

"What happened to him?"

"Carlos fucking Driscol happened to him, that's what. Kneecapped. We've stopped the bleeding and gave him some stims, but he's passed out."

Volkov stepped forward, removing her helmet. "I'm trained as a combat medic, ma'am. I could take a look at him if you want."

"Fine," she waved for the trooper to follow as she exited the room. "Just leave your weapons where I can see them."

It suddenly occurred to Green that the four ODST's could almost certainly seize the ship if they had to, though they would have to force the pilot to transport them wherever they wanted. Denley, who was sat checking his arm where a stray bullet had grazed him, was keeping his handgun close at hand, likely for that very reason. The trooper felt rather anxious, standing aboard a stranger's craft with absolutely nothing to do.

"Guess I could go for some food," he removed his helmet and looked towards the scarred man. "Mind showing us where you've got some?"

"Sure," he grunted, and led both Green and Cross out of the bridge and down towards a mess hall.

A long table sat bolted to the floor, and while the two troopers sat down and removed their helmets, the crewman fished out some water bottles and a bundle of wrapped sandwich boxes - hardly gourmet food, but enough to fill their stomachs. He tossed them on the table, and sat down a few seats away from the pair with his own meal.

"So," Bill Cross turned slowly towards the man. "Long time no see, Ash Mitchell."

Outplayed

0559 Hours, March 5th, 2557

War Room, Ciudad de Huesos Capitol


Carlos Driscol was not having a good day.

As he watched the Dynasty fly out of Ciudad de Huesos on the holotable, he could feel the trepidation of those around him. Alistair Travis was fidgeting in his chair, while his assembled bodyguards seemed to be deliberately avoiding Driscol's gaze. Only Winston Zhou seemed totally unfazed by the utter chaos that had swept over the city, and leant against a nearby wall, looking rather bored.

"So," Driscol clasped both hands behind his back as he turned to face his men. "Would someone kindly tell me how the fuck this happened?"

There was a long, awkward silence.

"Sir," Travis finally spoke up. "We don't know how Wade's crew escaped. They were under armed guard and handcuffed, so-"

"So they still managed to somehow kill three of our men and escape without anyone noticing, all the while a group of fucking Helljumpers manage to infiltrate my city!"

For a moment the older man considered beating the everloving crap out of Travis, but relented. The kid was loyal, even if he had screwed up tremendously. There was a brief beep from behind Driscol as the holotable's COM link activated, bringing up a hologram of a somewhat dishevelled Gordon Mills. The man's suit was slightly torn, and in place of his usual handgun he held an M395 DMR. Glancing to one side, Driscol saw a flicker of emotion cross Winston Zhou's face upon recognising the man.

"Colonel Driscol," Mills sounded slightly out of breath. "We've lost most of our platoon and both Goblins to the attackers. We're currently pinned down on 18th Street."

"By who?"

"Civilians, sir."

"What?!"

"I-I think they're trying to stage a coup, sir. One of our armouries was broken into. We're holding them off for now, but they'll likely reach the capitol soon if they aren't quelled."

Driscol turned to Travis. "How many men do we have?"

"A little over a hundred and fifty, give or take," his Lieutenant thought for a moment. "Should be enough, provided we disperse them quickly and efficiently."

Driscol nodded. This was a situation he'd come to dread. He knew full well how most of the citizens felt about him after he'd forcibly taken over, killing any who publicly resisted. The role of a dictator was one he was willing to take if it meant keeping the peace and turning this backwater settlement of farmers into a productive city that would supply his current employers. As such, they would have to be shown the price of rebellion.

"Form six platoons. Leave two on the upper levels to protect the capitol while the rest stop the rebels. Take two of the Pelicans, too."

"Lethal or non-lethal, sir?"

We'll have to make an example of them.

"Pile body upon body."

With that, Travis and most of Driscol's men ran off. While he had armouries placed throughout the city for his patrols, they had ensured that their best weaponry and their all-important Pelican dropships were kept in safe places around the fortress that was the capitol building of Ciudad de Huesos. As they left, Driscol doubled over for a moment as an intense fit of coughing overcame him. As he hacked and wheezed, leaning against the holotable for support, Zhou approached him with a look of concern.

"Carlos, are you-?"

"I'm fine, ya prick," he waved him off as he grabbed his jar of pills from a nearby table and popped two into his mouth. "Just a cough."

The young assassin obviously didn't believe him. Much like Travis, Driscol had once rescued Winston Zhou from near-certain death and in return, had earned the man's loyalty. While personally the old rebel considered them even after Zhou saved his life when a grenade took his right leg, Zhou seemed to regard him as one of few people he trusted. Having a talented young killer for a friend had its benefits, of course.

"Carlos, we need to talk," Zhou said, his eyes flitting between the guards posted around the room. Driscol saw this, and waved for Zhou to follow him out towards his private meeting room. When they arrived, he sat down at the table and waited for his companion to do the same.

"So, what's going on?"

"ONI knows about Ciudad de Huesos."

While on the surface Driscol remained calm, a chill ran down his spine. During his years of captivity in one of ONI's floating prisons, he'd had the pleasure of experiencing numerous interrogation sessions at the hands of their agents. If they knew about the settlement, it wouldn't be long before they would have to deal with an army bearing down on them.

"How?" he asked.

"I don't know. Perhaps they tracked one of your ships here?"

"Not likely. We triple-check our crews and cargo before every jump."

"In any case, the man who hired me mentioned that my mission would be the prelude to a larger operation on Madrigal."

"Wait, what mission?" Driscol's features twisted into a sneer. "Christ, you're working for the fuckin' oonskies again, aren't you?"

"They pay well. My mission was to sabotage that Destroyer as it entered Madrigal's orbit and escape alive. My contacts in the black market knew of your city, so I planned to head here and warn you afterwards."

This was a lot for Driscol to take in at once. He downed another pill as he felt another fit coming on, and took a deep breath.

"When I heard you'd arrived, I thought it was on a transport ship or something."

"Did Alistair not mention how I got here?"

"Guess he had to skip that in the morning briefing, since the fucking city was on fire. So then, ONI's blowing up its own ships now? Bastards must be eager to wipe this place off the map if they're staging a false-flag attack this big. Must be harder to excuse attacking independent settlements after all that shit on Emerald Cove last year."

"Indeed. There was an uproar in the Senate on Earth afterwards."

"So why're you telling me this, Winston?"

"A courtesy. As I understand it, ONI wants to recover something of great value from this planet and dispatched agents to retrieve it prior to their planned invasion. I thought I'd give you a chance to leave now, before they arrive."

Driscol nodded, weighing up his options. The New Colonial Alliance had assigned him to Madrigal to secure a strong foothold for their troops; a place where they could move supplies between whatever missions the higher-ups assigned them. While this posting had its perks and the NCA clearly valued Driscol to some extent, he knew they would likely drop him in a heartbeat if it came down to it, just like the URF had. Even his men were hardly the cream of the crop; mostly fugitives and wannabe terrorists on the run with nowhere to turn, possessing little use to any critical operations. His loyalty towards them was more out of convenience than any real belief in their cause, after all.

So here I am, leading a bunch of rapists, murderers and morons in the ass-end of nowhere. Running a city's got its comforts, for sure, and I've enjoyed it while it lasted, but perhaps it is time to split and run.

"Thanks," he said at last. "Any idea when this force is supposed to arrive?"

"The man who hired me wasn't particularly forthcoming with that information. It'll happen soon, though."

"Right, I'd better prepare my ship and get some supplies and men together. Once I get those nukes, I'm getting the hell out of-"

The meeting room door banged open. Driscol and Zhou had pistols in their hands within moments, only to pause as they saw Abd-al-Quadir ibn Asad standing on the threshold, Bess Rivers in tow. The old mercenary seemed to totally ignore the guns pointed towards him as he strode forwards.

"What the hell's happening, Carlos?!"

Driscol smirked. "Gunfire wake you up, did it?"

"Yes, asshole. Are we under attack?"

"Looks that way." He turned to Bess, who still looked half-asleep. "Oh, and Wade's crew escaped. Sorry about not letting you kill them."

Asad held out a hand as his companion took a step forward, looking furious. Looking across the table towards Zhou, his one natural eye widened in surprise.

"Wait, Winston?"

"Hello, Asad," came the polite reply.

Driscol clapped his hands together, standing up. "Well, I hate to break up this happy reunion, but I've got a ship to load up. You still after those nukes, Asad?"

"Only reason I'm here, Carlos."

"Then come with me, all of you. Wade and her crew of pissants are heading to the bunker now, so if we hurry we should be able to swoop in and finish off those pricks before it's too late."

"And you'll just give the nukes to me, then?"

"I'll keep one for later. That sound fair to you?"

Asad paused for a moment, evidently concerned over the consequences of allowing Carlos Driscol to leave with a nuclear weapon. Considering how he had the men, equipment and power in this situation, trying to double-cross the man was a bad idea.

"Our ship's down in the city. Can we get to it?"

"Assuming the rebels haven't trashed the spaceport? Go for it. I'll have my men take you down there in one of our Pelicans."

"What about you?"

"Got to prepare, haven't I? I'm not going after Wade or her crew without backup."

Walking out, Driscol called for one of his bodyguards, giving the man orders to escort Asad and Bess down into the city before walking off towards the rear of the capitol building. Since his takeover of Ciudad de Huesos, he had ensured that a defensible fallback point had been established, with the addition of a hangar built directly into the mountainside for his own personal vessel. Walking into the cavernous room, he turned to see Zhou running towards him.

"Carlos!" he called, sounding slightly concerned. "I have a request."

"What is it?"

"Your man, Gordon Mills."

"What about him?"

"I want him dead."

Driscol stared at Zhou for a moment, open-mouthed. "Is this some other contract?"

"No. He's the man who shot out my eye."

Pointing towards his face, Zhou indicated the now-faint surgical scars where his life had been saved a year ago. He'd met with Driscol again few months later, though he hadn't commented on how he was injured. For a moment, Driscol's near-perpetual frown softened as he turned to the young man.

"You really want him dead, then feel free to do so. I'm grabbing everything I can and leaving as soon as I recover those nukes."

Zhou nodded, though he still looked troubled. For a moment it looked as though he was about to speak up, though eventually he simply shrugged and walked off, undoubtedly eager to hunt down and kill Mills. Driscol activated a nearby COM pad.

"Travis, this is Driscol. What's the situation in the city?"

His lieutenant replied after a few moments, breathing heavily. "Place is like a hornet's nest, sir. Shot down a few ringleaders, but all that's done is piss off more civilians. Even the frigging Grunts are joining them, and a lot of the Jackals are heading to their ships."

"We're abandoning the city. I want you and as many men as you can gather to get aboard ships and meet me at the bunker. Leave behind enough to defend the capitol building."

"What about Mills?"

"What about him?" Driscol spat. "He's unimportant now."

"I've not been able to raise him. Might be that the rebels got him."

"Maybe. Just get your ass back here. Blow up those methane houses while you're at it. Let the little fart-sucking aliens choke to death."

"Yes sir. Travis out."

Sighing, Driscol approached his personal ship, the Quisling. He'd acquired it from a Kig-Yar trader two months ago and despite its rather unfortunate name, it had proved to be an excellent vessel after he'd set his mechanics to fixing it up. Equipped with multiple hidden autocannons that would shred most smaller civilian vessels, it was Driscol's last resort if things started going badly on Madrigal. As he ascended the ramp, he began to cough again, tasting blood in his mouth as he staggered up towards the cargo bay, almost keeling over after a few moments.

Shit, they're getting worse. I'm leaving this godforsaken rock today and getting some help. Not going to let some fucking illness kill me, that's for damn sure.

***

From the look in his partner's eyes, Asad could tell that Bess was already having second thoughts about the mission. Had they been taken to the cells last night and given the opportunity to execute Amanda Wade and her crew, perhaps the vengeful spacer would have shot them without a second thought. Of course, Carlos Driscol wanted to make a show of it this morning, and so here they were, about to traverse a city being torn apart by what looked like civil war.

"This Driscol guy, how do you know him?" asked Bess.

Asad sat back in his chair, clipping on his harness as the dropship's rear doors slid shut. "Back in fifty-one, my merc outfit was hired by the UNSC to drive a force of Innies from some backwater world. They were taking advantage of the war to get supplies and recruits, see."

"And Driscol was one of your men?"

Asad shook his head, smiling. "Hah, no! He was the enemy commander. We found ourselves bogged down in some city, ripping each other to shreds. I got a bit careless and walked right into an ambush, only to have Driscol capture me. He said he'd let me leave alive if I got my men to stand down and retreat."

"Did you?"

"Didn't have much of a choice, did I? So anyway, after I give the order, he and I start talking. Swapped a few war stories and somehow I ended up liking the cantankerous bastard. He decided that it wasn't worth staying on the planet anyway and pulled his own men out as well, so in the end we both got to live and I got paid."

Bess shook her head. "Weird, ain't it? We spend so many years fighting the Covenant and there are still people looking to start shit with their own kind."

"Opportunists, that's all," Asad waved a hand dismissively. "Galaxy's a big place, and folks think they won't be noticed if they do things quietly. I don't think enough people realised just how close the Covenant were to wiping us out."

"You're right about that."

The dropship shuddered as it took off from one of the capitol's private landing pads. It was a short trip down the valley, moving into Ciudad de Huesos' residential district that bordered the spaceport. Asad and Bess had foolishly left their armour back aboard the Mockingbird, their jumpsuits offering no protection should they come under fire. The ship's intercom crackled as the pilot spoke.

"I'm gonna put you down just outside the spaceport. Someone just blew a methane refinery sky-high."

"Looks like the fighting's getting worse," Bess muttered.

The rear door clanked open as they moved in to land in a deserted street. Asad moved out first, armed only with a handgun. When they landed the previous night, it had been teeming with civilians going about their lives. Now the road was cracked and littered with corpses. Waving for Bess to join him, Asad moved quickly into the relative cover of the spaceport entrance, taking an assault rifle from the corpse of one of Driscol's men. The still-burning ruin of a Goblin lay on its side by a pile or rubble, though despite the destruction it looked like none of the ships dotted around the spaceport had been damaged.

"Let's go!"

Asad and Bess raced forward, heading over a long bridge towards the Mockingbird. From their elevated position, the pair could see black smoke rising from the lower districts as gunfire and the cries of battle echoed through the air. One of Driscol's Pelicans hovered above, occasionally letting loose a stream of gunfire into the streets below.

"They're killing all the people!" Bess stopped suddenly, looking utterly horrified.

"Only the ones who fight back."

"And you're friends with this Driscol guy?"

The old man stopped, activating their ship's boarding ramp. "It's not so simple. Nobody actually likes Driscol, he's just something you put up with. Now come on, let's get aboard and suit up."

Looking out over the warzone that Ciudad de Huesos had become, Bess sighed, and knelt down for a moment. Everything since the moment her crew had tried to inspect that supposedly derelict vessel just a few days ago had happened so quickly. The death of her friends, being recruited by ONI, and now watching civilians die in droves for attempting to fight off a tyrant like Carlos Driscol. She couldn't help but shake her head and laugh, realising how utterly selfish her own personal quest for revenge was compared to all this.

"I'm done with this," she said, looking towards a confused Asad.

"What do you mean?"

"All this revenge bullshit. Can we just get what you came for and leave?"

He shrugged. "If that's what you want, sure, but Wade's crew are likely already at the bunker. If they won't give up the nukes willingly, they'll have to die."

"Then let them die," Bess stood up again, shrugging. "I'm in way over my head, Asad. Just let ONI give me a new ship or whatever when we get back to Earth and I can go back to salvaging runs with the other fetchers. Signing on for an assassination job was a mistake."

The old man stood and looked at her for a long time, as if contemplating something. Eventually, he spoke.

"Yeah, I suppose you're right. You don't have the look of a killer about you anyway. Let's go."

With that, Bess and Asad boarded the Mockingbird, quickly suiting up in their Nightfall armour and readying their weapons as they awaited Driscol's signal. Around them, the fighting raged on throughout the city between the civilians and their oppressors, with no one to extinguish the spreading fires or tend to the innocents caught in the crossfire. The message soon arrived and the tiny ship rose through the air to join several others, abandoning Ciudad de Huesos to its fate as they headed off in pursuit of the Dynasty.

Chapter Three

Alliance

0616 Hours, March 5th, 2557

Independent Freighter Dynasty, Madrigal


Green heard the click of a handgun's safety being switched off before he could move. Ash Mitchell sat across from them, staring blankly at his two former comrades. Cross continued to eat his sandwich calmly, taking a swig from his water bottle before speaking again.

"So it is you, then?" he said calmly. "Wasn't entirely sure, so I thought I'd ask."

It had been a little over two years since Green had last seen his former commanding officer. The man he remembered looked at least a decade younger, his face less lined and his body much more muscular. Somehow just a few years wandering the frontier alone had done more to weather Ash Mitchell than twelve years in the military, fighting against both the Covenant and Insurrectionist forces. Across the table, Mitchell shrugged and for the first time, the young officer noticed that one of his eyes was missing; replaced by an ocular implant.

"Been a while, both of you," Mitchell spoke, his voice slightly hoarse. "How's the Helljumper life treating you?"

Cross cracked a smile. "Rough as ever, Ash."

"Sorry about your ship. Saw it burn up in orbit."

"We hit back. That's what matters."

Mitchell nodded. "True."

Watching the two men exchange small talk, Green struggled to keep his composure as rage and indignation swelled up inside him. This was a man he had once looked up to and respected, now reviled across colonised space as a mass murdering terrorist. Were it not for the fact that Mitchell had a handgun pointed at them beneath the table, Green would have likely tried to shoot him then and there.

"So, Green," Mitchell looked his way. "Last I saw you, you were fresh out of selection."

"I'm an officer now, Lieutenant," he replied through gritted teeth. "Left OCS half a month ago."

"Congratulations."

As Mitchell bit into his sandwich, Green slowly slid one hand down towards the handgun holstered at his belt, only for Cross to nudge him away. The older trooper glanced towards him, shaking his head.

What the hell is he doing? We could take Mitchell.

Instead, they sat and ate in complete silence for the next minute, until Mitchell finished his food and stood up, still clasping his own Magnum. Once again, Green was taken aback by how much he had changed. While evidently strong, he was now rather thin, and had acquired numerous scars that criss-crossed his unshaven face and bare forearms. For a moment, he thought that Mitchell intended to shoot the pair of them, only for him to stow away the weapon and cross his arms.

"Anything you two wanna say, better say it now because I've got to deal with a hell of a lot more than the two of you today."

Green rose from his chair, hands balling into fists. He wondered if Mitchell would shoot him if he tried to take him on in hand-to-hand combat, or if he'd fight the younger ODST fairly. Cross slowly stood up, shaking his head.

"Ash," the trooper stood between him and Green. "I never got a chance to thank you for saving me last year, so thanks. Lieutenant—Mike—I think you need to consider the situation we're in here."

"The situation, Master Sergeant," Green hissed, "Is that this man is a mass murderer and needs to be brought to justice. I'm willing to work alongside criminals on this op, sure, but the Butcher of Kuiper?"

Mitchell sighed. "You know, I didn't blow up those city blocks back on Kuiper. Didn't kill a single person that day, actually."

The Lieutenant shook his head, disbelief etched across his face. He could still remember the news as it spread across the colonies, watching as bodies were dragged out from ruined buildings by emergency services as they attempted to halt the spreading fires. Then came Mitchell's identification as grainy security footage showed he and his allies walking into a bank, moments after firing a missile through the open front door. It had been a complete and utter massacre, and no matter what he said, Ash Mitchell was part of it.

"You're either lying or insane," Green said, trying to keep calm. "And were it not for the fact that your crew are our ticket off Madrigal, I'd likely shoot you."

Mitchell ignored him and addressed Cross. "Sorry about the hijacking, by the way. When I was with Magnus, things were... complicated."

Magnus. The name had become something of a ghost story for ODST's over the last few years. He was supposedly some elusive criminal, though rumours abounded about him being the codename for an entire group of Insurrectionists, or that he was some kind of rogue supersoldier that ONI was trying to keep covered up. Green himself had once investigated the name privately, though through the haze of unreliable reports all he could find out was that Magnus seemed intimately connected to numerous acts of terrorism over the past five years or so. Suddenly, something dawned in the ODST's mind.

"Bill, you never told me he was part of that hijacking."

A year ago, Bill Cross had been on a commercial flight to Circumstance when their ship was suddenly boarded by pirates and destroyed soon after, though his quick thinking managed to save most of the passengers by fleeing towards the vessel's escape pods. Though an attack this deep in the Inner Colonies made the news briefly, Cross had claimed that he knew nothing about the hijackers afterwards and the incident was soon forgotten about.

"I figure I owed Ash something," said Cross, sounding slightly guilty. "When a man saves your life as many times as he has, you don't forget."

"So you broke the law, then, not identifying Ash."

"Yep."

Looking slightly annoyed, Mitchell made for the door. As it slid open, he turned to address Green and Cross.

"You don't have to believe me, Mike. Or you, Bill. I've done some godawful things over the last few years that I'm not proud of, and I'll be paying for them for as long as I live. Right now though, me and Amanda are trying to do some actual good by wiping one miserable bastard off the face of the galaxy. You can hate me for what I've done, but I've no intention of dying 'til I've taken down Magnus. So, are you willing to work with me, one last time?"

The few seconds it took to reply felt like hours to Green. Once more, he found himself despising the moral ambiguity of his situation and yearned for the simple combat missions he enjoyed as an ODST. At last, he shrugged his shoulders and swallowed his pride.

"Yeah, fine. I've got your back."

Cross responded enthusiastically. "It'll be good to fight alongside you again, Ash."

At this, something resembling a smile crept across Mitchell's scarred, tired-looking face. He nodded with respect at the pair of troopers, and left the room.

***

"Is he going to make it?"

Amanda Wade stood in the Dynasty’s medical bay, watching a woman she'd met not half an hour ago try to operate on one of her closest friends. Rizhan Kama was still unconscious, having been given an extra dose of sedative to keep him knocked out while one of the ODST's did her best to extract the bullet from his knee. She had removed her helmet and upper body armour, and now wore a surgical mask and gloves.

"He's lost a lot of blood," Anna Volkov replied eventually, wiping the sweat from her brow. "But he should pull through, barring any complications. You've got a pretty well-stocked med bay for a smuggler's vessel."

"We need it, out on the frontier."

"I'll bet you do."

Moving slowly and with precision, Volkov moved a pair of tweezers into the still-bleeding entry wound, her breathing slow and measured. As someone who had been shot several times and had been forced to patch up herself and others, Amanda was no stranger to blood and viscera. All the same, the process still made her feel slightly sick. She turned away from Volkov to take a deep breath before returning to watch. Within a minute, the ODST had extracted the bullet, pulling it from Rizhan's kneecap with a fleshy pop and dropping it into a nearby metal bowl. Without missing a beat, she then began to clean and stitch up the wound.

"Have you done this before?" Amanda broke the silence.

"Nothing as complicated as this, but I know the fundamentals."

"I thought you said you were a combat medic."

"That means I stick people with biofoam most of the time. It's not often we actually get to perform surgery."

"Well anyway, thanks."

"You're welcome."

Since the night she'd officially been discharged from the UNSC Marine Corps and made the drunken decision to join the Insurrection, Amanda had always dreaded being anywhere close to former soldiers. In her years as both a rebel and a smuggler, she'd made a conscious effort to not kill if she could help it out of some odd form of respect, knowing that they would likely not return the favour. Yet now, sitting in a room with a woman who could likely kill her in twenty different ways, she felt strangely at ease. These troopers could have attempted to take the ship already, with her chief of security sedated and the others lightly-armed and tired, yet they seemed content to sit along for the ride while the Dynasty shot through Madrigal's skies towards the far-off bunker where the nuke supply still sat.

"I'm done," Volkov said at last, standing up and pulling off her gloves and mask. "I'm no doctor, but your friend should be able to walk again, even with his knee in the shape it is."

"We'll check him in with someone once we get off Madrigal then, just in case."

The trooper nodded. "Makes sense."

There was a long silence as she realised just how abrupt and to the point the trooper's sentences were. Evidently she did not wish to be here, but was remaining polite all the same.

"We'd better get back to the bridge with the good news," Amanda said, moving past her towards the med bay's exit.

As the metal door slid open, she felt a hand on her shoulder and tensed up, one hand instinctively slipping towards the handgun tucked into her belt. The grip tightened ever so slightly, making it very apparent that she would most certainly lose if it came down to a physical confrontation.

"A word," Volkov commanded.

"What is it?"

"I want to make it clear that if you endanger the lives of my team, I will kill you, Wade."

"I hadn't planned to-"

"And," she cut her off, increasing her grip even more. "Speaking as someone who lost plenty of friends thanks to your rebel buddies, I'd like nothing more than to put a bullet in the back of your head right now. However, I follow orders, and if the Lieutenant says we're to leave you be, I will."

Volkov let go and Amanda turned round, ignoring the sudden ache in her shoulder. The ODST's facial expression had barely changed from that of someone experiencing extreme boredom, though her icy blue eyes seemed livid with anger. Amanda was certain that the other woman wasn't lying when she said she'd gladly kill her.

"I've got to ask: Why did you save Rizhan? If you hated us so much, then why didn't you just make him OD on sedatives and make it look like an accident?"

"Because I'm not like you, Wade. It's as simple as that."

Without another word, they both turned and walked off towards the bridge. Much to Amanda's surprise, laughter was emanating from inside and as the door slid open, she saw the other ODST, Denley, sitting in the co-pilot's chair and chatting away with Faisal. Carol, who remained at the weapons station, turned as they entered.

"How's Rizhan?" she asked.

"He should be okay." Her engineer sighed with relief.

Taking a seat in her captain's chair, Amanda saw that they were very close to their destination. Faisal gave her a thumbs-up, slowly maneuvering the Dynasty over the jagged landscape as they prepared to make their final descent.

"We're only a couple of minutes out, commander," he said. "I'll put us down and you can run out and retrieve the package."

Denley glanced between them. "So, what're you picking up that's so important?"

"AI chips," Amanda replied instantly. "They had a few in storage here when the planet was glassed. Just basic ones used to guide starships, mind."

"And what, you're gonna sell them to the highest bidder?"

"That's the plan."

The young trooper let out a low whistle, shaking his head. "So I guess that's what you'd call a victimless crime?"

"I guess."

"You know, I used to run guns on Troy when I was a kid. This was before the Covvies glassed the place, of course, but I'm not gonna judge."

Volkov, who had been quietly putting her armour back on, shook her head. "It's still theft."

"The UNSC weren't coming for it," Amanda raised a finger. "As far as I'm concerned, looting glassed planets is fair game."

The ODST remained silent, shrugging her shoulders. While Denley seemed somewhat friendly towards her crew, Amanda had no doubts that they would immediately kill them all if ordered to by their Lieutenant. Thankfully, Green seemed like an honourable sort and their alliance against Driscol would hopefully keep them from shooting each other until they were well away from Madrigal. All she had to do was keep the troopers in the dark about what they were really taking from the vault.

"Coming in to land now," said Faisal as the freighter circled the excavation site around the old bunker. "Get prepped."

Mitchell, Cross and Green entered the bridge, crowding in behind Amanda's chair to look through the forward viewport. Amidst the blasted landscape, the bunker site jutted noticeably out of ground, with a large space cleared out around it by Driscol's people for ships to land. Faisal tapped at the ship's controls, extending the freighter's landing gear and activating the landing jets as it finally touched down.

Amanda stood up. "Everyone, suit up and get to the storage bay. Carol, get the thermite paste."

As her engineer exited the room, Green's ODST's looked rather bothered at being given orders by Amanda, but relented as the Lieutenant waved for them to follow him. Denley picked up his helmet from a console as he left, looking suspiciously smug. Mitchell strayed behind, waiting until they were down the corridor before speaking to Amanda.

"Rizhan?"

"Should be okay. He'll be waking up soon. What d'you think about our new friends?"

"I know two of them. Cross is an old buddy, and it's not in his nature to screw us over. Green's pissed at me, but the kid doesn't seem like the malicious type. Can't speak for the others, though."

Suddenly, Faisal spoke up. "Just so you know, that Denley fellow was recording our conversations with his helmet cam on the way over here. I think he thought he was collecting evidence or something, so I just started making up stories to tell him."

"You give away anything real?" Amanda asked.

"Of course not. I think he'd shoot me if he found out about what we did during that whole NOVA bomb debacle."

"Good," Amanda sighed, mentally preparing herself for the task to come. "I suppose we'd better get down there then."

Mitchell put a hand on her shoulder. "We'll be fine. As long as we're quick and get the hell away from this place, we'll be back on the hunt for Magnus."

"Yeah. Let's go."

Mitchell headed off towards his room, preparing to put on his well-worn battle armour. As Amanda grabbed her coat from the back of the captain's chair, the ship's sensor array began to bleep, flashing up warning signs. Faisal frowned and turned in his chair, bringing up a holomap of the 23 Librae system. Far away from Madrigal, several shapes were emerging from Slipspace.

"Shit," he breathed. "It's the UNSC."

This wasn't the single Destroyer that easily fell apart after its ambush in Madrigal's orbit, nor was it a patrolling battlegroup. This was an entire fleet. Clustered around a large Valiant-class warship were at least a dozen smaller cruisers, with light frigates and destroyers moving into formation around them as they streaked towards Madrigal. Such a force would be enough to pacify multiple star systems with relative ease, making even Driscol's well-armed forces on Madrigal look utterly pathetic.

"We can't tell the troopers," Amanda pulled on her coat. "Keep the ship ready, we'll be as quick as we can."

"Got it."

Amanda raced out of the bridge, almost bumping into Mitchell as he emerged from his quarters with his distinctive skull-faced helmet in hand. She told him of their predicament, and after a moment's hesitation, he shook his head and marched down into the cargo bay where Green waited alongside his men and Carol. Amanda opened the bay's rear doors, and took the box containing their thermite paste from Carol.

"Get the Mantis ready," she whispered.

"Why?"

"Trouble's coming."

Carol knew better than to ask questions, and quickly ran towards her mech. Feeling rather exposed compared to the heavily-armoured ODST's and Mitchell, Amanda lead the way down into the bunker, moving as quickly as she dared down a stairway into the darkness. Thankfully, Driscol's men had set up an array of floodlights from their previous trips here, and after switching them on the group were easily able to navigate the passageways as they led towards the vault's entrance.

"This it?" asked Green, his helmet's headlamps illuminating a vast metal door built into the rock. Though scratched and weathered from decades of abandonment, it seemed like Madrigal's glassing had barely done any damage to it. A twisted, burnt-out console that had evidently been the only way of opening it lay nearby.

"Yeah. Let's get this set up"

"Why thermite paste?" the ODST wrenched open the box Amanda was holding. "Wouldn't a drill do?"

"It's quick and can melt pretty much anything."

"Fair point."

As Amanda moved to place the viscous substance, which would go up like a firework when lit, her communicator buzzed. She put on her earpiece and answered it.

"What is it, Faisal?"

"Amanda, we've got company. Driscol's got sixteen ships heading this way - cargo haulers, dropships, the works. They're only a few minutes out."

"Got it. Let Carol out and take off, see if you can circle the area."

"You know I won't shoot them down. I'll need someone else on the weapons to-"

"Yeah, yeah, your pacifist crap. See if Rizhan's awake then, but hurry up about it. Wade out."

She shut off the COM signal, already regretting how she'd snapped at Faisal. After a few moments more of smearing thermite paste, she turned to Green.

"Lieutenant, we've got company. Could you send your men outside to hold them off?"

He nodded. "Volkov, Denley, get out there and set up defensive positions around the bunker. I'll join you in a minute."

As they ran off, Amanda raised an eyebrow. "Don't want to see what's in the vault?"

"I want to ensure that we survive today, ma'am. You're our only ticket off this planet, after all."

With that, he ran off, leaving Mitchell and Cross with Amanda as they prepared to melt through to the vault. The Dynasty’s captain finished placing the paste, and inserted a long fuse to light it with.

We're so close now. After today, it's a straight path towards hunting down Magnus.

Hunters

0629 Hours, March 5th, 2557

Ciudad de Huesos Lower Districts, Madrigal


The city was burning.

Winston Zhou walked alone through the debris-strewn streets, BR85 rifle in hand as he approached the sounds of a firefight. Driscol had taken most of his men and departed Ciudad de Huesos, leaving only a few ships scattered around the poorly-defended spaceport for people to escape in. The survivors of his militia had fled upwards and were holding the capitol, though many had decided to steal as much as they could before fleeing Madrigal. The citizens, tired of living under a dictator, were killing everyone they found working for Driscol. A couple of dropships had emptied their missile payloads into the city's Unggoy-run methane factories, and with no one to put out the fires many streets had already been consumed.

None of this concerned Winston as he moved quietly along, avoiding the roving crowds of people or the occasional looter. A trio of Kig-Yar had ran right past him, carrying crates stolen from warehouses. He knew that if there were any men loyal to Driscol still alive down here, then Gordon Mills would be one of them.

Finding him. That's the hard part.

He was not a man to hold grudges. The young assassin knew that loyalty was fickle on the frontier and that for enough money even the dearest of friends would betray each other. That said, the sole individual Winston genuinely hated was in this city, and would die today at his hands. The first time they met, Mills was the chief bodyguard of a wealthy and sadistic businessman named Toby Maxwell, who covertly hired hitmen to kill him just so they would fall to his henchmen. Winston had gotten closest to Maxwell, only to be blindsided and shot through the head by Mills. He had lost an eye and a portion of his face, and though he was presumed dead managed to escape, eventually passing out. Amanda Wade had rescued him, and after spending a great deal of money nursing him back to health and replacing his destroyed eye had even assisted him in finishing off his target, though Mills had escaped. For that, he owed her a lifelong debt of gratitude.

Driscol, Asad, Wade. Each my saviour, and here they are all trying to kill each other.

A couple of young men rounded the corner in front of Winston, clutching stolen handguns. They glanced at him, and in the split second it took for the pair to register him as a threat he had already raised his rifle and fired. They slumped quietly to the stony pavement, blood spurting from their chests.

Carlos isn't coming back here for me. It's just what he does. I'll have to secure my own route offworld.

Near the base of the valley were several farms; the first crops grown on Madrigal since its glassing. Now they too were ablaze, and as Winston descended a flight of stairs he finally saw his destination: one of the militia's major outposts. Gunfire raged all around it, with the odd whine of a plasma bolt every so often. A mob of civilians had it more or less surrounded, though the sturdy structure was well-defended and those inside were evidently sitting on enough ammunition to last a good while. A missile streaked out from a side window, and blew apart a throng of people. Wailing screams filled the air as corpses were dragged off the road, and the attackers yelled threats in both English and Portuguese as they readied their assault.

Getting inside will be a problem.

While one option would be to just wait and see if they eventually overwhelmed the defenders, but Winston felt as though time was not on his side. Jogging down the street, he was more or less ignored as he joined the civilians as they traded fire with the militia; anyone against them would have already opened fire, after all. Having already looted another weapons storehouse, they were pulling open crates of stolen MA5D rifles and grabbing handfuls of magazines before heading out into the fight. Winston doubted that many of them had official training, though these weapons were so easy a child could use them, as he knew from experience. He approached a particularly bulky box and pulled it open, revealing a double-barrelled M41 SPNKR rocket launcher.

"Hey," a man grabbed his shoulder, "You know how to use that thing?"

Winston resisted the urge to gun him down for touching him. "Yeah, I do. Let's bring those bastards down."

"Damn right!" he grinned, and moved off to assist in the attack.

While the militia building's thick stone walls could fend off most small arms fire, it would almost certainly crumble if hit by anything more powerful than a hand grenade. Winston hefted the M41 onto his shoulder, quickly loaded it, and moved to a vantage point within the civilian-held building. A row of dead fighters lay across what had once been a dining room, while the moans of the injured and dying drifted from the backyard. Ignoring this, he slipped upstairs and approached a smashed window, where a dead man lay slumped over the frame. Winston pulled him out of the way, knelt down, and fired twice.

And down it comes.

The first rocket struck the tall militia building's side wall, sending chunks of masonry flying and creating a gaping hole in the fortress-like outpost. A few tattered bodies fell too, and as the smoke cleared Winston could just about make out survivors fleeing downstairs. His second shot was aimed at a lower floor, and struck with similar effect. The floors above groaned and buckled with most of their supports blown away, and the upper section collapsed in on itself. Outside, a cheer went up from the crowd as they surged forward to massacre the survivors.

Then a Warthog burst through the front doors.

Winston tossed the spent M41 aside and leapt up a flight of stairs to the building's roof as the fully-armed jeep plowed through several attackers, machine gun blaring. While the gunner and driver were nondescript members of Driscol's militia, a familiar man in a torn suit and glasses sat in the passenger side, firing away with a submachine gun.

Mills.

The Warthog roared down the narrow street, slowing down for just a moment to turn a corner before the mob could reorganise. Winston broke into a full sprint, jumping to an adjacent rooftop as he tracked the vehicle. Drawing his BR85, he took aim and fired three precise bursts towards the back of the vehicle. While designed to function in even the harshest of environments and with wheels that could drive easily even out in the glasslands, Winston's armour-piercing rounds were able to burst the rear-right tyre, sending the Warhog spinning out of control. Mills leapt clear moments before it smashed into a wall, and quickly threw himself aside as Winston's second volley of rifle fire whizzed by. Shaking his head in exasperation, he slowly clambered down into the street, hitting the floor just to see Mills sprinting away towards the spaceport.

"You're not getting away this time," Winston muttered, feeling slightly annoyed.

Their chase was a short one, as the fatigue of fighting for so long against the revolting civilians had already tired Mills out somewhat. Winston, on the other hand, was barely winded by the time he arrived at the spaceport entrance just in time to see a wheezing, panting Mills casually gun down a group of Jackals and ascend the boarding ramp of a sleek Yacht they had been trying to break into. He gave chase, running full-pelt across the corpse-littered spaceport and onto Mills' ship as the boarding ramp began to retract.

"Y'know, Zhou, you're pretty predictable when you get all riled up."

Winston's vision exploded as a blinding flash of light erupted from above, momentarily disorienting him. He felt the sting of a stun baton against the side of his head, and despite the electricity coursing through him attempted to fire off a few bursts towards his attacker. A subsequent three blows finally overcame Winston, and the assassin toppled to the floor with a thud.

***

When he awoke, they were already in orbit. His hands and feet had been tightly bound with microfilament cuffs, though he couldn't feel a thing from his neck down.

A neural collar. Perfect.

From the yacht's cockpit, he could hear Mills speaking.

"Transmitting identification code now. Yes, that's right. Oh, he's on board? Well, I'll speak with him when we arrive then, since I've secured Asset Three from Madrigal. Be there ASAP, over and out."

Moments later, Gordon Mills emerged. He was wearing a new suit, this one black and formal. Winston had been placed on a couch in the ship's living quarters, and was utterly helpless before his captor. Mills didn't appear to be armed in any way, nor was he carrying any visible method of torture. He approached Winston and pulled up a chair, sitting directly across from him.

"You're probably wondering why I haven't killed you, right?"

Giving Mills the silent treatment wasn't an option. "Yes."

"Now this might be hard to believe, but we're actually on the same side here."

"What do you mean?"

"I'm saying that you and I work for the same man. Alexander Redford hired you, didn't he?"

"Yes," came the reluctant reply. Winston didn't usually discuss his employers, but something about this was very strange.

"Y'see, I'm not exactly the Innie zealot you might think I am, nor am I an amoral sociopath who commits crime for the fun of it. I'm an agent for the BRUTUS division, number One-Six-Zero."

"So, you're an amoral sociopath working for ONI then?"

Mills snorted. "Didn't think you were capable of making jokes, Zhou. But yes, I'm with ONI. Spent the last three years in deep cover, working for some asshole or another. Really, I'm surprised that nobody ever picked up on how my employers eventually end up losing it all, and I keep going."

"And Maxwell?" Zhou spat. "You could've killed him at any time."

"And blown my cover instantly. You don't join BRUTUS if you're impatient. As for shooting you in the head, it wasn't anything personal. Surely you of all people can realise that. Besides, you did a wonderful job of taking the man out yourself before I could set him up to die."

To Winston, Mills' logic was sound. After all, to him he had been just another gunman trying to kill his employer. Fighting back and winning was just the end result. If anything, it was just anger and personal pride that had fuelled Winston's quest for revenge over the past year.

"So Driscol was your next target?"

"Of course. Took me a while to gain enough trust with the NCA for this assignment, and even longer to get close enough to old Carlos to start poisoning him."

"What?"

"Oh yes. ONI's been concocting stuff like this for years, you see. Slipped a couple of droplets of this chemical agent into his food and those godawful cigarettes he loves and within a month he started to get sick. It's a slow process, but he's been getting worse lately."

"Will Carlos die?"

"Unless he knows a particularly good medical expert, yes. Not that it matters much anyway, because he's dying today. The UNSC's Sixth Fleet just arrived, and they're here to wipe Driscol's forces off the map. All in the name of reclaiming lost colonies, of course."

Zhou pondered this for a moment. If a fleet had arrived, then the only hope his friends had of surviving would be to flee immediately. Only Asad would be spared if an invasion force arrived due to his mission with ONI, but Driscol and Amanda would be arrested, tried, and likely executed for their crimes if they weren't immediately killed.

"So what about me?"

"Personally, I don't give a shit about what happens to you," he adjusted his glasses. "However, Redford gave orders not to kill you, and wants you back alive at all costs. Guess he sees the upside to having another hired killer on payroll or something."

"If we're on the same side, then let me go."

"You'll immediately try to kill me."

"Yes I will."

Mills stood up. "And that's why you're going to sit there like a good boy and wait until we're aboard the Caspian. That way we can go our separate ways; you can go back to killing anyone for money and I can go back to killing the bad people for money and patriotism. Sounds good."

"I'm going to find you."

"Maybe. But we'll get to that when the time comes. We've got a long trip to the Caspian, so sit back and enjoy the ride."

Mills walked back to the bridge, and sat in the pilot's chair. His Yacht pulled out of the glassed world's orbit and flew straight towards the incoming fleet. Winston Zhou lay back, unable to do anything about the situation. All he could do was hope someone—Amanda, Asad or Driscol—made it off Madrigal alive.

Showdown

0701 Hours, March 5th, 2557

Mockingbird, Madrigal Glasslands


"We're five minutes out. All ships, fan out and prepare to land."

Sat in the pilot's chair of their Prowler, Abd-al-Quadir ibn Asad sighed and switched the COM off. Driscol had really abandoned Ciudad de Huesos, and was leading the charge from his own heavily-customised vessel with most of his troops. He wondered if any of those left behind knew that he wouldn't be coming back. The entrance to the half-buried bunker popped up on the ship's map in the distance, and a trio of Pelicans surged ahead to strafe the area.

"We could just leave," Bess said suddenly. She'd been sitting quietly in the co-pilot's seat since takeoff. "If they're so busy taking on Wade's crew, it'd be easy to get into orbit and leave the system."

The old man nodded. "True, but I've been given a mission to recover a package from that bunker, and ONI doesn't like to be disappointed."

"So then we just sit back and let Driscol's troops do the fighting. Easy."

Glancing across, Asad could tell that Bess was scared. She could certainly hold her own in a fight, and decades of working in deep space aboard salvage ships tended to toughen anyone up. However, this was different. They were both flying towards a bloody battle and they knew it. In his long career, Asad had known trained soldiers who'd dreaded those long rides towards the frontline, confined within the back of a dropship or aboard a moving vehicle as they moved towards what may have been certain death against the Covenant.

"Stay aboard the ship if you want, then. I'll be fighting."

"You trying to make me feel bad?"

"Not at all," Asad scratched his beard. "I'm used to firefights. You aren't. Besides, if you stay here you can keep me updated on enemy positions with the scanner."

"Fine," she shrugged.

In the distance, a vessel suddenly rose into the air and rocketed away. It was the Dynasty. Two ships peeled off from the main group to pursue it as Driscol barked orders over the COM for everyone else to resume their current course towards the bunker.

"What the hell's he doing?!" Bess stood up, pointing towards the retreating freighter. "They're getting away!"

"Could be a distraction. I'm setting us down."

Asad moved the Mockingbird in low, kicking in the ship's landing thrusters as it approached the ground half a mile away from the bunker. Ahead of them, a volley of missiles shot up from the ground, blasting the thrusters of a Pelican away and sending it spiralling towards the ground. Their Prowler touched down lightly on the glasslands as others moved in to surround their foe. The old mercenary stood up and rapped his metal hand on the back of his chair.

"Keep in contact with me over the COM. If I don't reply within a few minutes or aren't back within the hour, then get the hell off this planet."

"Got it."

Asad took a few steps away before turning round, looking oddly worried. "For what its worth, it's been nice working with you, Bess."

She raised an eyebrow. "And here I thought you saw me as baggage."

"I'm an old man," his face crinkled into a grin. "We see everyone like that. Now, let's-"

Suddenly, the Prowler's long-distance COM began to beep. Bess and Asad looked at each other for a moment in confusion before he walked over and activated the device. The cockpit's holotank flared to life as light coalesced into the shape of a man in the dark uniform of the Office of Naval Intelligence.

"Redford?!" Asad exclaimed.

"Mister Asad, Miss Rivers," the head of BRUTUS nodded politely to both of them. "My apologies for contacting you this way, but it seems that recent events have forced me to accelerate the schedule of my plan."

"What do you mean?"

"I am currently aboard the UNSC Caspian, which is leading the UNSC's Sixth Fleet. Within the hour, we will have deployed an entire battalion of Marines to Ciudad de Huesos to eliminate the Insurrectionists holding the city and reclaim it in the name of the United Earth Government."

"And the nukes? You said you wouldn't be able to take them if you sent in an invasion force."

"Plans change, Asad. My agent in the city informed me that a group of ODST's launched a surprisingly successful attack against Driscol's men and incited open rebellion. That was a chance I simply could not pass up. You still intend to recover them, I hope?"

That had been barely two hours ago. If Alexander Redford could assemble and move an entire fleet to Madrigal after receiving word from the system that quickly, then Asad had greatly underestimated the man's influence. It was entirely possible that that the UNSC were already planning to retake the planet and that Redford's plan was initiated because of that, though he was in no mood to question things right now.

"There's been complications, Redford. We've got those troopers and Wade's crew holed up in the bunker on one side, while Driscol's brought in half his damn army to smoke them out. This could last all day."

Redford nodded, clasping his hands behind his back. "In that case, I'm diverting a team towards your location. I had intended to field them against Driscol's forces as we seized Ciudad de Huesos, but they'll be better suited to assisting in your operation."

"One team?" Bess looked dumbstruck. "There's a hell of a lot more out here than one team can handle, Captain."

The ONI agent smiled. "Believe me, one will suffice. They'll be told who not to shoot, so continue your operation as planned and contact me when you recover the nuclear weapons. Out."

His hologram winked out as the connection cut. As the COM shut down, Asad quietly put on his helmet and grabbed a DMR from the nearby rifle rack. As he moved towards the ship's airlock, Bess approached him, now rather annoyed.

"I'm serious, Asad. Who's he sending?"

"Isn't it obvious?" he thumbed a switch, and the airlock clanked open. "Spartans."

***

Even from their secure position, they wouldn't last long in this fight.

Crouched by the bunker's entrance, Michael Green sighted down his rifle's scope towards the distant landing zone, where a motley assortment of civilian and military ships were offloading Driscol's men onto the glasslands. Since Carol DuMont's Mantis had shot down the first Pelican, they'd kept their distance, though it was only a matter of time before their greater numbers overwhelmed them or they tried to turn this into a siege. High above them, a larger vessel - Driscol's personal ship, most likely - loomed, slowly circling their position like a gargantuan bird of prey.

"How many, sir?" asked Denley, who lay on his stomach atop a a mound of scorched rocks. Several magazines lay at his side.

"Hard to tell, Private. At least forty, maybe more."

The younger trooper nodded. "Shitty odds for those guys, then."

"You said it."

Green was glad he had his helmet on; he didn't want Denley to see the concern etched across his face. It was hard to tell if his comrade genuinely believed his words, or if it was just the usual Helljumper bravado talking here. They'd soon find out what their chances were in any case.

"Volkov," the Lieutenant activated his COM. "You in position?"

"Copy that, sir. Four magazines left, then I'm down to my SMG."

"Make your shots count then."

While at a glance from above the endless glasslands of Madrigal appeared to be mostly flat stretches of desolate, obsidian-like rock dotted with the occasional ruin, it was actually fairly ragged and hilly, and would provide ample cover for any approaching attacker, provided they kept their heads down. Volkov had clambered up to a vantage point above the bunker, using the dark, ashy terrain as camouflage. Directly at the bunker's entrance was the customised Mantis, which stood as an unmoving sentinel for the time being.

"Hey!" Green approached the bunker. "Just running down to check on things, okay?"

The pilot didn't reply, though the mech moved aside slightly to let him pass into the structure. A bright glow emanated from the bottom of the staircase, indicating that Wade's thermite was doing its work. As the ODST rounded the corner, he was forced to shield his eyes with one hand as his visor polarised to adjust to the blinding light. The entire vault door was ablaze with orange fire, which had already melted away several inches of metal. Sat with their backs to it behind a large crate were Amanda Wade, Ash Mitchell and Bill Cross.

"Any news, Lieutenant?" asked Mitchell. Green noted that there was no mockery in the way his former CO said his rank.

"We've got contacts closing in. Forty-plus on foot, with whatever they can throw at us from the air as well."

At this, Mitchell heaved himself to his feet, as did Cross.

"We'll come up and lend a hand, then. Amanda can handle this."

Green saw no point in arguing. The freighter captain simply nodded in agreement and went back to looking at a datapad, her face only visible in the darkness thanks to the screen's dim blue light. As the trio of ODST's made their way back up to the surface, the distinctive sounds of rifle fire echoed down towards them and they picked up the pace.

"Contact!" Volkov spoke suddenly over the COM. "They're coming in hard and fast. Two Warthogs on the move, too."

"Armament?"

"Looks like standard chainguns from here."

Green and the others ran out into the daylight, keeping low as they piled onto a nearby embankment. A few shots whizzed by. Denley had also begun to fire. A cry rang out from somewhere far away, indicating that someone had been hit.

"Bill, move round to the right and watch for flankers!" Green yelled, taking aim. "Mitchell, you're with me."

He and Mitchell let loose swift bursts of gunfire to cover Cross as he dashed away, aiming for the steadily-advancing figures on the horizon. The two troopers slowly moved apart, spreading out into a semi-circle around the bunker's entrance as a second squad of enemy troops popped up over another hill to their right. Mitchell had discarded his shotgun in favour of an old BR55 rifle, and was firing with rhythmic precision towards incoming targets. Green wondered momentarily if his cybernetic eye assisted with marksmanship, or if his old friend's skills were just as sharp as they had been a few years ago.

"Vehicle, right side!" called Volkov.

A yellow-painted Warthog roared towards them, its chaingun spitting rounds at an impressive rate. Green flattened himself to the ground as it approached, and Carol's Mantis finally took a step forward. Though the jeep raked the bipedal mech with gunfire, even its armour-piercing rounds had little effect as the Mantis' shields shimmered and it let loose with its own 20mm machine gun. A lucky hit blew the driver's head off, sending the Warthog spinning out of control as it flipped over and crashed with a distant crunch.

"That was easy," Carol's voice intoned from the mech's speakers. "Is this all they've got?"

As it turned out, they had much, much more to throw at them.

From above, there was a sudden roar. The bunker's defenders all looked up instinctively to see Driscol's ship directly above them. There was a distant burst of fire from what Green first thought was a bomb, until he saw several other thrusters kick in. He scrambled backwards, still avoiding fire as he struggled to reload his weapon.

"Incoming!"

A hulking mass of metal slammed into the earth right outside the bunker, kicking up ash and gravel and sending Mitchell flying as he leapt out of the way. Carol's Mantis staggered for a moment, and as it tried to right itself, a second mech lunged forward to attack. Giant metal fingers pushed the larger machine's missile launcher to one side as it swivelled to fire upon it, sending a volley uselessly into the sky. As the dust and ash began to settle, Green saw that it was an old Cyclops exoskeleton, albeit heavily customised. A chaingun had been bolted onto its left arm, while the right possessed a massive jackhammer, usually used for demolishing larger structures.

"Troopers, keep firing!" Green barked, making sure they didn't give their foe time to advance. "We'll deal with this."

"Get off me!" Carol's amplified voice echoed through her machine's speakers.

While the Mantis was bigger, the Cyclops' maneuverability gave it a serious edge. Dodging a hefty stomp from the newer machine, it lunged forward to avoid the worst of the other mech's gunfire and knocked it off-balance with a shoulder barge before raising one arm towards the Mantis' cockpit. The jackhammer roared to life, striking the reinforced plates again and again, gaining speed as Carol struggled to regain control. The Cyclops' minigun span up too, delivering a hail of point-blank fire which tore apart and completely severed the Mantis' left arm.

"Shit, Carol!"

Mitchell ran forward, firing towards the opaque cockpit of the enemy mech. His rounds pinged harmlessly off the bulletproof surface, and as it swept its gun-toting arm towards him the ex-trooper was forced back into cover to avoid being cut in half.

Denley suddenly yelped with pain, clutching his shoulder. "Shit, I'm hit!"

Stood between the struggling exoskeletons and his wounded comrade, Green could only keep firing, dropping two more militia members. His COM buzzed.

"Mike," Cross sounded genuinely worried. "Sighted another group to the northwest. They've got Pelicans backing them up."

Everything was falling apart. With a series of sqealing thuds, the Cyclops continued to smash the Mantis to pieces, and as the other machine ceased fighting back it was kicked to the floor and sprayed with another good burst from the minigun. As it turned towards Green, time seemed to slow down. The trooper had no time to move as it raised its arm, and could only look up as Volkov leapt from her position and landed atop the Cyclops. Gunfire rang out all around them, and as the mech stopped for a moment to grab the trooper blocking its viewport, she slapped an explosive device onto it: their last demo charge.

"Fire in the hole!"

The explosion was much larger than expected, sending Green sprawling to the floor as Volkov was thrown against a nearby wall. Hard. The war machine fell to its knees, its viewport cracked and most of its left side a smoking ruin. The roar of dropship engines drifted overhead, and just as the defenders found themselves looking down the business end of two fully-armed Pelicans, a cry went out over the local COM.

"This is the Dynasty. We've got you covered."

Amanda's freighter swept past at lightning speed, blasting the Pelicans out of the sky in a pair of fiery blasts. As the wreckage smashed into their fleeing men below and Cross ran over to check on Volkov, Green saw the Dynasty wheeling round for another run.

"Sorry about the delay. I'm a heavy sleeper."

While he didn't recognise the voice, Green had to assume it was Rizhan Kama, the ship's wounded crewman. The pilot, Faisal, chimed in moments later.

"You have no idea how hard it is to plot a course around a planet so you can leave your chair and wake this man up."

From behind him, the trooper heard a laugh. Amanda Wade stood at the bunker's entrance, a long, heavy metal box at her feet. She had evidently gained her prize from the vault. Before Green could talk to her, she sighted the fallen Mantis and ran over to it, leaping atop the smoking chassis towards the ruined cockpit.

"Give me a hand with this!" she yelled, pulling at the manual release hatch.

With Driscol's forces in temporary disarray, Green jogged over to her, stowing his rifle as he helped her wrench open the cockpit. After an almighty heave from both of them, it finally came away and clattered to the rocky floor, acrid smoke spewing out. They both reached inside, and pulled out a limp, broken body.

"Carol!" Amanda dragged her friend's body towards the relative safety by the bunker. "C'mon, wake up!"

It only took a single look from Green to know Carol DuMont was dead. Blood, already drying, poured from her broken nose and numerous cuts across her face. Her legs were both broken in numerous places, and her grey jumpsuit was utterly soaked through where the Cyclops had smashed the cockpit into her torso. If she was lucky, death had been instantaneous. Green doubted it had been.

"Ma'am—"

"I know!" Amanda screamed at him, beating the ground with a bloodied fist. She'd been feeling for a hearbeat. "God-fucking-damnnit, why now?!"

Ash Mitchell approached them without a word and knelt beside Amanda, placing an arm round her shoulder. She returned the gesture for a few moments before they both stood up, aware that they were standing on a battlefield.

"Did you get the package?" Mitchell asked.

"Right over there. Let's get the Dynasty down here and we can go." She placed two fingers to her earpiece. "Faisal, bring the ship down. We're leaving."

"Got it, Amanda," replied the pilot. "Carol, is she...?"

"Yes."

"I see."

Faisal said no more as the freighter wheeled around to land, its autocannons raking the ground with fire and scattering Driscol's already-disorganised forces back towards their vessels. A few continued to advance towards them, only to be cut down by fire from Denley despite the ODST's bleeding shoulder. Cross was helping Volkov to her feet.

"She okay?" Green asked.

"She's a little concussed, but otherwise okay. Impact would've cracked her head open like a watermelon without her helmet."

"Thank God for good equipment, then." Green rapped the side of his helmet and turned round. "Denley! How bad's your injury?"

"Just a graze, Lieutenant."

Once again, Green wasn't sure if his subordinate was being serious or if that was just Helljumper-speak for 'I'm bleeding out'. He clambered up onto the rocks and looked over the trooper, who was down to a single magazine and making every round count. Denley barely reacted as Green looked over his shoulder, and breathed a sigh of relief upon discovering that it was indeed only a graze.

"Right, let's move out troopers. We're getting off this planet."

It was then another burst of movement from above caught Green's eye. Driscol's vessel had moved slightly, and released something else. It was a missile. As the Dynasty slowly descended, already extending its landing gear, the missile picked up speed and rocketed towards the freighter. In its attempt to keep moving fast and low, the freighter's pilot had evidently forgotten about the threat directly above them.

"Get back!" Green leapt forward, waving his arms frantically towards Amanda and Mitchell, who were walking with a corpse and metal box in their arms respectively. "Get back!"

As Amanda half-turned, the Dynasty exploded.

This is it, Green thought to himself as the shockwave swept towards them. There goes our ride home.

The missile struck the freighter just above its engines, erupting in a brilliant flash of heat and light. Smaller explosions then blossomed along its hull as the metal cracked and burst apart, sending the ship crashing to the ground on its side. Debris and ash whipped up from the glassed ground swept through the air, reducing visibility to almost nothing save for the glow of burning starship armour.

"No!"

The word sprang from four people at once. Amanda recovered first and sprang to her feet, running towards the ruin of her ship—her home—with reckless abandon. Denley and Mitchell ran after her as she moved towards one of the vessel's outer airlocks, calling for Faisal and Rizhan. As Volkov and Cross picked themselves up off the ground, Green began to walk towards the Dynasty, ready to ponder their next move. On the ground nearby lay the crate Amanda had retrieved from the vault, now split open after she'd dropped it. The trooper approached it, nudged it over with his boot, and froze.

Shit.

By the wreckage of the Dynasty, Amanda, Mitchell and Denley stood by the wide-open airlock. Faisal Khan and Rizhan Kama had survived the crash - bruised and bloodied, but otherwise fine. Having grabbed what supplies they could, the little group made its way back towards the bunker. Green waved for Cross and Volkov to join him as he stood by the metal crate, its contents spilled out onto the scorched earth. Amanda stopped as few feet away from him, glancing from the eight egg-shaped devices to Green with a determined look on her face.

"Amanda Wade," spoke Green, all trace of emotion gone from his voice. "You mind telling me what you're doing trying to smuggle nuclear weapons off Madrigal?"

Within a moment, two sides had formed once more. Denley, Cross and Volkov stood by Green's side, while Mitchell, Kama and Khan moved up alongside Wade. The troopers were better-armed and armoured. All they needed was the order, or for the others to so much as twitch the wrong way.

"I need them."

"You told me you were recovering AI chips."

"Of course I did. You wouldn't have helped otherwise."

"You're damn right I wouldn't have. Surrender, now."

There was a long silence. It might've been a minute or a few seconds, but to Green it felt like an eternity. One move, and a lot of people would be dead.

"I just lost my ship and one of my best friends, Lieutenant," Amanda said coldly. "This is all I've got left, and now you're playing policeman?"

"I was willing to trust a smuggler. Not a terrorist."

"How are we supposed to find a way off this planet, then? With me and my crew in chains?"

"If necessary, yes!"

"I don't want to kill you."

"Nor I you. You'll stand trial."

To Green's left, there was a sudden crash. The forward canopy of the fallen Cyclops fell outwards, revealing a thin man with a very large gun. Carlos Driscol wiped the blood from his chin, and smiled.

"Don't worry," he laughed. "I'm going to fucking kill the lot of you."

Chapter Four

Long Time Coming

0729 Hours, March 5th, 2557

CSS Bunker exterior, Madrigal Glasslands


As he raised his M739 SAW, took aim, and squeezed the trigger, Carlos Driscol felt some degree of happiness after today's abysmal events.

Time was not on his side. He knew that. As Driscol had led the remnants of his army after Wade's crew, the long-range scanners aboard the Quisling had picked up an entire UNSC fleet heading for Madrigal. Seeing as his men hadn't immediately deserted him, Driscol hoped that he was the only one who'd detected it. As the battle raged below, it had been fairly simple for him to position his ship directly above the bunker, pull his modified Cyclops out of the cargo bay, and jump into the action himself. Having most of his mech blown apart had pissed him off, of course, but he was alive, and that's all that mattered.

"Travis," he had activated his COM while stuck inside the ruined machine's cockpit. "I want you aboard the Quisling. Take a Pelican up and move into the ship's cargo bay - the doors are still open."

"What about you, sir?" his lieutenant had asked.

"I'm alive, ain't I? I've rigged up missile pods across the ship. Load one of the Archers and as soon as Wade's freighter comes back, blow it out of the sky."

"And then?"

"Then I want you to move in and kill these assholes. Bring the ship down and we'll just take the nukes and leave. That's an order, you hear me?"

"Yes sir. We'd better be quick, there's a storm coming in from the west."

A storm's the least of our worries. "Get to it then. Driscol out."

After that, it had been a simple matter of shifting his SAW, which he'd insisted on cramming into the cockpit, and waiting for an opportunity. None of Wade's crew or the ODSTs had bothered to check the Cyclops' cockpit, and as the canopy was opaque from the outside he could watch their every move while remaining hidden. As tensions flared between the groups, Driscol finally decided to end things.

"Move!"

Michael Green gave a shout as Driscol began to fire, throwing himself to one side. Cross and Volkov did the same, though the latter was struck twice in the shoulder and fell to one side. Denley raised his DMR a second too slow and was struck repeatedly, bullets shredding through his arm, upper body and neck in an instant. Amanda also tried to fire back, only for Rizhan to throw himself in front of her. He took over a dozen rounds, his body convulsing as he was torn to shreds in front of his captain. Mitchell came the closest to hitting Driscol, letting loose a burst of rifle fire that pinged off the canopy above Driscol's head. Faisal, who was unarmed, was hit twice in the gut and dropped immediately.

Through all of it, Driscol carried a happy grin.

***

Amanda hit the dirt hard as Rizhan's body fell onto hers, blood pouring from his many wounds. She'd been hit too, though it was only a grazing shot by her upper-left thigh. Winded and too scared to move as the buzz of machine gun fire still carried through the air, she looked over to see Mitchell retreating into the glasslands as clouds of dust and debris began to pick up ahead of the storm. Next to her lay Faisal, his beard soaked through with blood as he choked, clutching his stomach with both hands. The surviving ODSTs were falling back as well, trying to push their way into the bunker as Driscol kept firing at them.

"Amanda..." Faisal sputtered, writhing in pain. "Get the hell out of here!"

There was a momentary lull as Driscol stopped, presumably to reload. Over the roar of the incoming storm, she could hear vehicles approaching. Pushing Rizhan's corpse away, she began to crawl, only for Faisal to grab her right hand tightly. He opened his mouth to speak for a moment before giving a little sigh and slumping over. As his fingers went limp, she let go of her friend and moved on, her eyes set on one of the green-grey orbs lying in the dirt nearby.

This was all she had left now.

***

"C'mon, move!"

Ignoring the dull throb in his right arm where a bullet had pierced his armour, Michael Green stooped for a moment to reload his rifle as a shadow suddenly loomed overhead. A man in what he'd first thought was ODST gear had dropped from the rocks above the bunker entrance, carrying an MA5D assault rifle. Hitting the ground hard, shock absorbers took in the impact as he lunged forward and smacked Cross in the side of the head with the butt of his gun. Momentarily stunned, the veteran trooper was kicked to the floor. Volkov tried to raise a handgun in spite of her injured shoulder, but she too was quickly knocked aside by their attacker. Green fumbled his reload out of panic and froze as the barrel of a rifle pressed against the side of his helmet.

"Put it down, son. I'm not here to kill you."

He looked up and saw the distinctive logo of ONI printed on the man's helmet. The visor depolarised for a moment, and Green found himself staring into the slightly mismatched eyes of a rather old man. The trooper slowly placed his weapon on the ground, holding his hands up in surrender.

"All of you, hands on heads. I'm going to get you out of this."

The three ODSTs complied, all feeling rather shaky from their accumulated injuries. As Carlos Driscol emerged from the ruins of his Cyclops, machine gun in hand, the man activated his helmet's speakers.

"Don't shoot, Carlos, it's Asad!"

The rebel leader paused for a minute before lowering the heavy weapon, shaking his head and smirking as he approached.

"Where the fuck were you then?!" he demanded.

"Circling round. If your boys knew anything about tactics they would've done the same."

Behind them, several Warthogs and other transport vehicles had pulled up, spilling out armed militia members. They seemed more than eager to gun down the surrendering troopers, but held back as Driscol raised a hand. The Quisling slowly came in to land behind them, touching down in the glasslands by the wreck of the Dynasty. Alistair Travis soon emerged from the craft, looking rather worried.

"Boss!" he called. "Storm's almost here, and we're picking up an entire goddamn oonskie fleet incoming! What're we gonna do?!"

Driscol was tempted to shoot his lieutenant for that. His men began to mutter and exchange dark looks at this, many already edging back towards their transports. Turning around, he looked down at Green and the others.

"Right, I'll just shoot these assholes and be on my way, then."

Asad stepped forward, raising a hand. "Hold up Carlos, they're done. Going to need them alive for my report."

"You know how many of my men they killed today?"

"Not enough to care about." He leant forward. "UNSC's coming, Carlos. They've already locked in on this location, so take a nuke or two and run for it."

Suppressing another cough, Driscol gave an annoyed grunt and turned away. Asad took this as a sign that he was free to go, and sauntered off before the man could change his mind; other men had gotten killed for defying the man for much less in the past. Relying on their mutual respect had paid off—had Driscol decided to open fire, nothing could have stopped him. He walked away and knelt by the fallen military crate, waving for Travis and some others to gather up the nuclear weapons. After each one was scooped up and carefully placed back inside, Driscol's head snapped up.

"Where the fuck is Wade?!"

Kicking aside the corpse of Faisal Khan with his robotic leg, Driscol spotted the tiniest spots of blood trailing off into the glasslands. While he doubted that Wade could ever survive a storm completely alone and now bereft of her precious ship and crew, he had underestimated the young woman's abilities several years ago, and had no intention of letting her get away with one of the warheads.

"Travis, I want thermals on the surrounding area now! Find Wade and anyone else who ran!"

High above them, a shape broke through the cloud cover, streaking towards their location. Driscol and several others noticed, and grabbed weapons as the distinctive silhouette of an Owl dropship drew closer. While too small and lightly-equipped to do any real damage to the sizeable ground force, it was clearly not attempting to fire on them. The Owl's rear hatch slid open as it pulled up above them, releasing its cargo nearly a mile above ground before rocketing away. Clad in advanced MJOLNIR armour and plummeting towards the ground as inbuilt thrusters slowed their descent were a group of SPARTAN supersoldiers.

Just as everyone began to panic, the storm hit.

***

Amanda struggled to move forward, bent double as she trudged aimlessly through the glasslands at a snail's pace. She'd seen the storms that raged across the surface of glassed worlds before, and though thankful this was a minor one by comparison, without protection she wouldn't last too long. Keeping the football-sized nuclear device clutched tightly to her chest, she tried to get her bearings amidst the churning ash and dirt that obscured her vision. Over the howling wind, Amanda could still make out the sounds of gunfire.

Green might still be alive.

Treading carefully, Amanda clambered down into a rocky crevice that afforded her some protection and shrugged her longcoat over her head before curling up into a ball, hoping to wait out the chaos all around her. With the Dynasty gone, she had no clue on how to escape Madrigal aside from surrendering herself to the UNSC when they inevitably reclaimed this planet. Of course, she would be immediately identified and imprisoned, but would that be a preferable fate to dying alone in the glasslands?

I don't know what to do.

"Amanda!"

The voice was nearly inaudible, but close by. She raised her head by a fraction, shielding her eyes from flying debris as someone lumbered towards her. Amanda's hand went for her handgun before recognising the familiar skull-visored ODST helmet worn by Ash Mitchell.

"Ash, over here!"

Though slightly encumbered by his suit, Mitchell was well-protected from the storm and knelt down in front of her. His visor depolarised, revealing his tired, worried face behind the crudely-painted skull.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

"What the hell d'you think?" came her immediate retort, before seeing the concern in his eyes. "Yeah, I've got one of the nukes. We've got to get out of here, Ash!"

Mitchell nodded, and tapped the side of his helmet twice. "VISR system's picking up Driscol's ship nearby, and some others further out. If we're quick, we might be able to take it."

"What about Driscol's men?"

"They're a little uh, preoccupied at the moment. UNSC's here."

"What, already?"

"They've sent Spartans."

Spartans. The very word chilled Amanda to the bone. She'd had a few run-ins with the UNSC's feared supersoldiers over the years, and lost friends fighting them. Were it not for the few meetings she'd had with her distant older brother, Marco, Amanda might have believed all the stories about them being highly-advanced machines like some spacers said. Getting past them would be difficult, to say the least.

"Shit, we've got no other choice, do we?"

"Not really."

Mitchell helped her stand up, using his size and body armour to protect Amanda from the worst of the weather as he guided them back towards the bunker.

Flight

0736 Hours, March 5th, 2557

Karura, Owl insertion craft, Madrigal


"There are UNSC forces still at the site, Spartan. Keep that in mind when you land."

"Don't worry about it, Captain. We're professionals."

When Hank-136 discovered Fireteam Thor's next deployment was at the behest of the head of ONI's BRUTUS division, he knew it would be something different from their usual operations. The five-man Spartan team was used to being deployed against hard targets—entrenched Covenant remnant groups, Kig-Yar Pirate stations, isolated Insurrectionist outposts—but this was different. Off the books. As he and the four other members of his team had rode down to the surface of Madrigal in the dropship's cramped confines, their objective of helping a surface team in recovering missing nuclear weapons had been revealed.

No wonder ONI's keeping this one hush-hush. Move in ahead of the fleet, get in and out before the Marines get boots on the ground. Smart.

"Coming in to the drop zone now!" their pilot's voice sounded over the intercom. "Spartans, get ready to drop!"

As this, Hank and the others unclipped themselves from their seats and ambled over to the Owl's rear hatch. A map flashed up on his Heads-up display, tracking the dropship's descent. As he prepared to open it, affixing an MA5D rifle to the back of his armour, a hand rapped on the SPARTAN-II's shoulder.

"Boss, about those friendlies. Do we—"

"Redford wanted them alive, so yeah, watch your fire for once."

Behind him, Layla-B101 swiped two fingers across her visor, imitating a smile. Considering how she'd worked with Alexander Redford on multiple occasions before his promotion, he hoped that his unofficial second in command would rein in her favoured strategy of shooting everything in sight for this mission. The rest of Thor—Mordecai-G138, May-G210 and Julian-G209—hadn't said a word this entire trip. Hank briefly wondered if it was a thing with Gamma Company alumni before pressing a switch. Early-morning sunlight streamed into the darkened passenger cabin, and as the Owl began to pull up from its dive, Hank surged forward.

"Let's move!"

***

Outside the bunker, chaos reigned as Driscol's forces and the Spartans fought amidst swirling torrents of dust and glass, muzzle flashes momentarily illuminating the near-total darkness the storm had brought over them. As gunfire and shouts drifted over the roar of the wind, the ODSTs took their chance to attack.

Driscol. He's not getting away.

It was often said by some members of the UNSC's other branches, usually in hushed tones, that Orbital Drop Shock Troopers had extraordinarily one-track minds. Focusing on more than one thing at a time would be too confusing for them. After all, it took a special kind of stupid to willingly lock oneself in a drop pod and be shot towards a planet. In Michael Green's experience, most troopers defied almost every stereotype about the dumb, meathead Helljumper and he was proud to serve among them.

That said, having a completely one-track mind certainly helped in what he was trying to do.

Dashing across the dirt, glass crunching beneath his boots with every step, Green's VISR system was integral in finding Carlos Driscol as the rebel leader fled back towards his ship, having discarded his machine gun. A faint red outline indicated the older man as he kept low, scrambling across the dirt while dozens of his men fought and died all around him. Vague flashes of luminous green indicated the Spartans, moving with lightning speed and efficiency as they pitted themselves against a force that outnumbered them more than ten-to-one. Ignoring the occasional spike of pain from his wounded arm, the trooper quickly closed the gap between him and Driscol just as the man began to clamber up the Quisling’s boarding ramp.

"No you don't!"

Pushing off the cracked ground, Green flew at Driscol, slamming him backwards into the craft's rear cargo bay. They fell in a jumble of limbs as each strove to gain an advantage. Despite his age and stature, it was easy to forget that like Green, Carlos Driscol had also been an ODST. Using his prosthetic metal leg for leverage, he kicked the young trooper away and rolled backwards before straightening up, his teeth bared.

"You little shit," Driscol shook his head, slowly panting as he sucked in air. "I ain't got time for this."

Green cracked his knuckles, and withdrew a combat knife from his boot. "Funny, I've got all day."

With that, they leapt towards each other. Green was taken aback by Driscol's ferocity, especially when confronted by someone armed. Each time he attempted to slash or stab his opponent, the other man would swiftly jerk to one side, trying to find a weakness in Green's battered armour with quick jabs and kicks. Having spent almost two decades of his life in the military, sixteen of those as a Helljumper, he had seen the absolute worst the Human-Covenant War had to offer. Add another ten years as an incredibly combative member of the United Rebel Front, and Carlos Driscol knew just about every way possible to murder another human being. Green on the other hand was younger, stronger, and better-armed and armoured.

And it simply wasn't enough.

Lunging towards Driscol as the silver-haired rebel halted for a moment, Green realised too late it was a trick. He stepped back and grasped Green's right arm as the knife missed his gut by inches, the same smile plastered across his weathered face. As the ODST tried to wrench himself free Driscol pulled him forward, raised his prosthetic leg, and laughed with savage glee as he brought it down hard on the back of Green's leg with a sickeningly drawn-out crunch.

Green couldn't help but let out a scream of pain as he toppled forward, still clutching his knife tightly in one hand.

"Hurts, doesn't it?" Driscol nodded to the trooper as he writhed on the floor. "Try having a leg blown off. Hurts like fuck, let me tell ya."

Gritting his teeth, Green tried to push himself up, only to be hit with an astounding wave of pain and nausea. He backed away from Driscol towards the ship's boarding ramp, hoping beyond anything someone would come and help him. Blood poured down his leg in sheets, and though he had to look away for a moment, Green could see a portion of white bone jutting from the wound.

"Okay," he managed to sputter, "You win."

Driscol grunted in acknowledgement and turned away from Green, flinging open a weapon locker. Inside were a row of surprisingly well-maintained BR55 rifles. As he took one, looking over the weapon in admiration and inserting a magazine, Green held his breath, focused his mind, and threw his knife straight towards Driscol with a savage roar.

He turned and in a flash, shot it out of the air.

As the knife clattered to the ground in pieces, Green could only gape in complete astonishment as Driscol kicked it aside, the barrel of his rifle still smoking. He continued backing up as the rebel leader slowly advanced, clearly savouring the moment.

"You got anything to say?" he asked, drumming his fingers along the barrel.

Before Green could open his mouth, Driscol smacked him across the face with the butt of his rifle. His helmet's HUD flickered and shorted out for a moment, and as he looked back he found the same prosthetic leg coming down towards him. While the face of his helmet was designed to withstand anything from bad weather to shrapnel, the sudden force dented it inwards immediately. As Green scrambled to fend Driscol off, he was struck multiple times as stomps and kicks from the metal limb cracked ribs, broke fingers and eventually smashed the visor entirely, squashing his nose into a bloody pulp. With his good leg, the trooper managed to get in a solid kick that staggered his attacker long enough for him to make a break for the still-open boarding ramp. As he began to crawl down, he felt the pressure of an armoured heel on his back and the tap of a rifle barrel against the back of his head.

"End of the line," Driscol laughed once more. "It's been fun."

As his fingers tightened on the trigger, something heavy flew out of the ash and smacked into Driscol, knocking him backwards into the Quisling’s cargo bay for the second time today. He swore loudly, pulling what he soon realised was a human body off him. As Driscol sat up, a figure moved up the boarding ramp, silhouetted against the raging storm outside.

"Oh, you've gotta be kidding me."

***

The moment the obscuring wall of dust and sand swept past him, Bill Cross leapt to his feet to follow Green. Moments later, he felt a gloved hand grab his shoulder.

"Stay back," an unfamiliar voice filtered through his helmet's speakers. "We've got to get out of here."

The trooper didn't move, one hand on his pistol holster. The strange man in UNSC armour pulled him around, his visor depolarised. Anna Volkov stood nearby, looking rather shaky but still capable of fighting.

"Who the hell are you?"

"I'm with ONI. That's all you need to know."

"And you're working with the rebels?"

"It's complicated, now follow me!"

Cross hesitated for just a moment, trying to catch sight of Michael Green in the chaos around them. His VISR outlined distant shapes of rebel fighters struggling against the storm, firing blindly all around them as a troop of Spartans swept across the area, taking down enemy fighters with precise rifle bursts or smashing them into the ground with incredible brutality. This, he conceded, was not a fight he could be part of.

Shit, I hope you're okay out there Mike.

Trailing after the armoured ONI agent, Cross and Volkov half-climbed, half-crawled up the rocky slope overlooking the bunker, keeping low as gunfire crackled over the wind. He noted the younger ODST was keeping a gun to the man's back, just in case anything went wrong. They moved in silence for several minutes before halting, and the COM crackled to life.

"Gonna hail my ship now, trooper. Keep close and we'll be on board soon."

"We've still got a man out there, ONI."

The response was a snort of disgust. "Name's Asad. I'm more of a contractor, by the way. We'll see if we can pick up your guy, but I'd keep out of the Spartans' way for the time being."

He couldn't argue with that. Asad paused for a moment, and ahead of them a pair of lights flashed up as a small vessel, easily identifiable as a customised ONI prowler, roared to life. The trio moved as quickly as they could towards the ship and stood back as its boarding ramp extended. Quickly clambering up the boarding ramp, they ducked through the airlock and into what passed for a cargo hold, removing their helmets as Asad sealed the door behind them. A woman with close-cropped greying hair stepped out of the living quarters, clutching a handgun.

"They're with me, Bess," Asad waved to her, removing his helmet. "Make yourself at home, troopers."

The ODST nodded to the pair of them. "Master Sergeant Bill Cross, pleased to meet you."

"And I'm Lance Corporal Anna Volkov," his partner spoke up. She had a noticeable bruise on her forehead, which she touched gingerly and winced. "Now, you mind telling us what the hell you're doing here?"

Normally Bill would have harshly rebuked a subordinate for speaking like that, but he too was interested in ONI's presence on Madrigal, and had a horrible suspicion it had to do with their deployment here. Grizzled and bearing noticeable scars across his face alone, Asad didn't look like your standard ONI infiltrator, trained to blend into a crowd. With the armour and his general demeanour, the ODST correctly assumed he was an old soldier of sorts. After mulling the situation over for a few moments, Asad sighed, scratched his beard, and beckoned them to follow him into the living quarters.

"Might as well tell you what I can, but I want a drink first. Want one, Bess?"

Asad's companion, who had holstered her weapon, gave a non-committal shrug. "You get Wade?" she asked. "I saw her ship go down."

The old mercenary shrugged back. "If she survives what's out there, I don't know what will kill her."

"So she's not dead."

"She'll probably be dead is what I'm saying. Let the Spartans do their work."

Cross and Volkov glanced at each other, mildly intrigued at this woman's interest in killing Amanda Wade. The freighter captain hadn't seemed like much more than a former rebel turned smuggler, though she'd evidently done something to wrong Bess. Moving into the next room, they set their helmets and weapons down and took seats at a table while Asad ambled over to what was the single most advanced-looking coffee machine Cross had ever seen.

"You drink coffee?" he asked.

Volkov politely declined, while her superior eagerly accepted. It was a rather surreal feeling, to be sat aboard this surprisingly well-furnished prowler having drinks while outside a battle raged. Denley's death had been so sudden it had barely registered with Cross. He'd seen men and women die in droves during the war, consumed by plasma fire or lost in orbital drops, but it had never gotten any easier for him. Glancing out through the cockpit's viewport, Cross wondered if he would have to bury another friend today.

"Here," Asad handed Cross a steaming cup of black coffee. "You want anything, ma'am?"

Volkov's icy blue eyes met the older man's slightly mismatched brown ones before darting towards Bess Rivers, who was fiddling with a partly-assembled rifle nearby.

"I want to know what Wade did to her."

A rather cold feeling swept across the room almost immediately as Bess stiffened for a moment before turning to face the Lance Corporal. Asad stood quietly and watched, his face passive.

"She and her buddy Mitchell murdered my crew," the spacer said listlessly. "ONI hired me because they wanted her dead, it's as simple as that."

Volkov shook her head in disgust. "I knew I should've put a bullet in her when I had the chance."

"Volkov—" Cross warned.

"Sergeant, we could've killed those bastards aboard their ship, no problem!" she snapped. "If the Lieutenant hadn't—"

"Hadn't wanted us to turn into executioners?" Cross finished grimly.

"Better them than us."

"That's Innie logic," the older ODST raised a finger.

For a moment it looked as though Volkov was going to come back with some kind of retort, only for her to shake her head and sit back down, crossing her arms in silent anger. Cross didn't press her further; she'd shown immense patience and bravery during the mission, so frayed nerves were to be expected at this point.

"So," Asad broke the silence, pulling up a chair. "You wanted to know why we're here."

Cross held up his hands. "I know how ONI works, so tell us what you can."

"In short, we were sent here to recover a cache of nuclear weapons abandoned here decades ago."

"That's what Wade came here for."

"Funny coincidence," Asad chuckled harshly, "it's what Driscol wanted too. Can you imagine what he'd do with them?"

"Blow something up or sell 'em on the black market, I'd imagine."

"Exactly. Same goes for Wade."

"So what about us, then? Why was the Agrippa sent here?"

For the briefest of moments, Asad looked uncomfortable. The old man took a lengthy draught from his coffee cup, draining it and setting it down on the table before them. Cross knew that something was up.

"We were told that your ship would serve as a distraction while we landed on the planet."

"So," the trooper was careful not to raise his voice. "Was our ship destroyed on purpose? We were hit with sabotage before that city fired on us."

"I'll be honest: I have no clue. It's entirely possible that you were infiltrated beforehand; the URF had a pretty formidable informant network back in the day, as I recall."

"You don't know anything else about it?"

"No."

That simple word from Asad was uttered with such finality that Cross knew not to press further. While he had a sneaking suspicion ONI may have been responsible for the Agrippa’s destruction, there was no point in investigating further. The mysterious saboteur had disappeared after his brief fight with Green last night, and he could kiss his lucrative career in the Corps goodbye if he started making suggestions about this being some kind of false flag attack to others.

"By the way," Asad spoke again, "As soon as we get the all-clear on this storm, we'll contact the fleet and get the hell off Madrigal. Maybe there'll be a medal in it for you folks."

"Wait, what fleet?!" Volkov looked confused.

"The Sixth Fleet's heading into orbit now. You didn't know?"

Asad sat up and moved over to a holotank. Upon activating it, a display of the 23 Librae System flashed up, with markers indicating a number of UNSC ships heading towards Madrigal. The ODST's could only stare, dumbfounded at the display of force. Cross opened and closed his mouth a few times before finding his words, realising Wade had likely been aware of this and not told them earlier.

"Is this all because of us?" he asked.

"Could be."

"I mean, an entire fleet to take one planet? It's a bit much, don't you think?"

Asad shrugged. "I don't plan this stuff, trooper."

With one last glance out the viewscreen into the nigh-impenetrable storm, Bill Cross could only sigh and sit back as they waited for the battle outside to conclude, giving a silent prayer in his mind for the safety of his friend. For better or for worse, their mission on Madrigal was over now.

***

With every step taken back towards the fighting, Amanda grew more and more frightened. Clutching the nuclear weapon under her right arm, she kept the other in front of her face, protecting her eyes from debris and wishing she'd opted for a helmet like Mitchell's. The mercenary kept pace with her, one gloved hand on her back as his armoured form took the worst of the storm. As the winds died down for just a moment, Amanda could make out the shape of Driscol's personal vessel sitting perched outside the bunker, not far from the Dynasty’s ruins.

And the bodies of my friends.

In her blind panic to run, she'd barely had time to react to Rizhan and Faisal's sudden, brutal deaths. She'd barely come to accept that Carol had been killed. At the very least, Carlos Driscol would almost certainly die today. Suddenly, Mitchell's rifle snapped up as two men lumbered out of the haze ahead of them, firing wildly at something in the distance. Amanda ducked and allowed her partner to take down one with a precise burst from his BR55. As he turned to the other, there was a flash of movement from above as a tall, heavily-armoured figure crashed into the other man, catching him by one arm and smashing him into the dirt with a single blow.

"Gotcha!" a shrill, jubilant female voice sounded from behind a helmet's speakers as the unmistakable shape of a Spartan supersoldier turned towards them. "Now, about you."

Amanda's entire body tensed up as she prepared to dive out of the way. Though the Spartan clearly had a rifle attached to her back, it looked as though she was deliberately engaging foes in hand-to-hand combat. To her surprise, Mitchell actually lowered his rifle a fraction as the Spartan looked at each of them in turn, and charged straight at Amanda. She stumbled back, but the sheer agility of the augmented woman took her completely off-guard. A hand closed around Amanda's throat, enough to hold and lift her into the air without immediately choking the life out of the smuggler as she struggled and kicked uselessly.

"Layla, wait!"

Mitchell grabbed the Spartan's hand, his visor depolarised as he tried to pull her away. A moment later, and the vice-like grip eased off, dropping Amanda too the floor. Up-close, she could see that Layla's MJOLNIR suit and helmet bore some similarities to those worn by Orbital Drop Shock Troopers.

"Mitchell?" Layla sounded curious. "Didn't think I'd find you here."

"You know her?" Amanda wheezed, massaging her throat.

Mitchell sighed. "It's a long story. Now Layla, I know this is bad, but-"

"You want me to let you go?"

"Well, yes, can you—?"

"Okay."

With that, the Spartan simply stepped aside. Amanda had never felt so utterly confused, watching open-mouthed as Mitchell actually extended a hand to thank her.

"Look," his voice now sounded through Amanda's earpiece and presumably the Spartan's helmet over a short-range COM. "Everything you've heard about me, it's not the whole truth. After this, we'll call it even, just so long as you give me and my friend a hand getting onto that ship."

Layla shook Mitchell's hand, but Amanda had a feeling the Spartan was staring right at her. "Hey, you're not part of the mission, so it's all good to me. Nice to see you again, Miss Wade!"

Amanda was certain she'd never met this woman in her life, and could only shrug as she slowly ambled towards the rear end of Driscol's ship, taking advantage of the limited cover underneath.

"Can't say I remember you, Spartan!" she called back, before leaning towards Mitchell. "What the hell's with her?"

He shrugged. "Spartans have their own way of doing things. Let's just roll with it."

Layla and Mitchell jogged up beside her, approaching the boarding ramp. Around them, cries still rang out from those still fighting and dying; Driscol's force had likely been decimated by the Spartans at this point. As they got close, there was a roar as a badly-damaged M12 Warthog rumbled towards the ship, its rear half on fire. Striking a particularly large, jagged rock, it flipped over and landed upside-down, spilling its passengers out onto the glassy earth. One man—a scrawny, pale fellow Amanda recognised as Alistair Travis—pulled himself up immediately and upon sighting the trio, snapped a pistol into his hand and began to fire without hesitation.

"Down!" Layla hissed, leaping in front of the pair and allowing her armour's energy shields to soak up the rounds before slapping the gun from Travis' hands and picking him up, screaming, like a ragdoll. The warthog's other occupant had also survived, and levelled his weapon at the Spartan. Grunting with annoyance, she tossed Travis towards the open airlock and turned to deal with the other man.

"End of the line," Amanda heard a harsh bark of laughter from above. "It's been fun."

As she leapt up onto the boarding ramp and into the vessel's open cargo bay, Amanda saw a rather gruesome scene. Michael Green lay at the entrance, his body broken and bloodied, with a still-smoking rifle lying at his side. Alistair Travis' neck had been broken on impact, and his head flopped limply, eyes still wide open in absolute terror. Halfway across the room, Carlos Driscol shoved the body aside with a contemptuous sneer and stood up, reaching for a handgun at his hip. His eyes met Amanda's.

"Oh, you've gotta be kidding me."

As the next few seconds played out, Amanda's body acted on its own. With Mitchell and Layla behind her, there was no way they could back her up in time, and there was no cover to get behind. Her only option was to attack with her weapons of last resort. tossing the heavily-armoured casing of the nuke ahead, she surged forward, each step across the metal floor lasting forever as she calculated the precise moment in her head to strike. Driscol had already drawn and was starting to level his M6D handgun towards her, one finger slipping towards the trigger. It would only take one well-aimed body shot to put Amanda down for good, by her count.

Closer.

In her time on the frontier, Amanda Wade had acquainted herself with numerous weapons, ranging from simple Human pistols to Covenant-made plasma launchers. During this time, however, none of these had come in nearly as handy as the 'Snapshot'. A heavily-customised M6K Magnum, these weapons were compact enough to fit within the sleeves of her favoured longcoats and with a flick of her wrist would extend into her palms, ready to be fired. Usually, she carried only one, but there were certain dangerous situations where Amanda felt that two hidden handguns were necessary. This was one of those situations. The biggest drawback to this was, however, the severely limited range in which she would aim and fire with deadly efficiency. In other words, to kill Carlos Driscol, she had to be within a few feet of him.

Which she now was.

Flicking both her hands up, Amanda's fingers closed around her twin pistols as they slid forward, the safeties snapping off automatically as she aimed straight towards her opponent, who at this range could blow her away with just a couple of direct hits from his oversized Magnum.

Amanda fired twelve times. Driscol shot once.

"Fuck it all," he rasped, and collapsed backwards onto the deck.

A smoking hole lay in the floor next to Amanda, who was none the worse for wear aside from the fresh hole in her coat. She flipped her wrist again and the guns retracted, now fully empty. The trick with the Snapshots was to ensure by the time they were empty, everyone had died.

"Mitchell!" she called to him as he stepped through the threshold. "We're leaving."

He nodded, only to kneel down for just a moment to check on Green. The stalwart young ODST was dead. Had they intervened a moment sooner, Driscol's execution may have been prevented. Tearing off his helmet, Ash Mitchell could only shake his head as he looked over the trooper he had once helped train, allowing himself a brief moment of sorrow before sighing and rolling Michael Green's body out down the ramp and out of sight. Amanda was still standing over Driscol's corpse when he returned, Layla in tow.

"Can't believe I got the old bastard," she breathed. Every single shot had struck him in the torso, and a pool of dark blood was already spreading around him. Taking a final look at the cantankerous old rebel's face, Amanda could've sworn that he was smiling, smug as ever.

"I'll get him off the ship," Mitchell offered. "You start this thing up."

Amanda nodded and as Mitchell heaved the bullet-ridden corpse onto his shoulders, she moved up towards a flight of stairs leading towards the vessel's main quarters. Suddenly, Layla placed a hand on her shoulder and span her around.

"Hey," the Spartan spoke in a low voice. "You said you couldn't remember me?"

She shook her head. "No, sorry. You ever try to kill me or something?"

Layla laughed. "Oh no, sweetie. You'd be dead if I had. But I had fun killing that friend of yours."

Amanda's blood ran cold. "What?"

"Your friend? Isabelle? Really, you should've thought twice about letting me into your little town without proper background checks. That defence system of yours was so easy to take down, after all."

Layla's visor depolarised, revealing the pale face and green eyes of the woman Amanda had once known as 'Elizabeth Shaw'. Six months ago, she had opened up their settlement, Avalon, to be attacked and destroyed by the UNSC. As Amanda's eyes widened, she felt something hard press against her stomach: an M6G pistol.

"The only reason I'm not tearing your head off is because Ash Mitchell saved my life. That said, you're still a wanted criminal, so..."

Layla fired twice, and Amanda dropped to the floor like a sack of bricks. As the Spartan strode out, whistling happily, Mitchell ran back inside. She snatched the rifle from his hands like a toy from a child and smashed it in two, not even breaking stride as she left the ship.

"All yours, Mitchell! Nice seeing you!"

Slumped against a wall, Amanda moved sluggishly, one hand clamped tightly over her stomach and blood seeped from the wound. While Mitchell sealed the airlock and ran towards her, swearing angrily about Layla, she ascended the stairs and sighted the ship's cockpit.

"Shit, stay still!" he grabbed and picked Amanda up, carrying her from room to room with a look of increasing desperation Eventually, Mitchell moved her into a small room, placing Amanda down by a long, enclosed tube: a cryo chamber.

"Ash, no!" she protested weakly as he tapped a series of buttons nearby.

"Do I look like a doctor to you?!"

Despite the stabbing pain in her gut, Amanda was about to crack a joke when she saw genuine fear in her friend's eyes. "Okay, just get us out of here."

"I know, just—"

She held a hand over his mouth. "And If I don't make it, I want you to kill Magnus for me. Got it?"

"Look—"

"Got it?!"

He nodded, and Amanda gave a weak smile. Without any specialised clothing to wear in the chamber, Amanda was forced to strip off while Mitchell procured some biofoam to momentarily seal her two impact wounds and staunch the bleeding until they got to someone able to save Amanda's life. Feeling lightheaded between spurts of agony, Amanda clambered inside, swallowing a dose of horrible-tasting bronchial surfactant as Mitchell prepared to inject her with Cytoprethaline, another important part of the cryo-freezing process packaged into what must have been Driscol's private chamber. Her eyelids began to flutter and drift shut, and as Mitchell closed the chamber doors, she placed a hand on the glass, whispering to him.

"See you on the other side."

Ash Mitchell placed his palm onto hers, separated by only a few inches of thick glass which soon frosted over. As a green light flashed to signify that the freezing process was complete, he left the room and walked towards the ship's cockpit, feeling utterly alone.

"Yeah Amanda," Mitchell shook his head, taking command of the unfamiliar controls. "I'll see that we get there."

Amidst the raging storm that blanketed the Madrigal glasslands and the battle being fought between the leaderless rebels and terrifying Spartans, the Quisling lifted off, kicking its booster rockets into gear before shooting forward, small arms fire pinging off its hull from some eager to bring it down. Operating mostly on autopilot, the former ODST could only try to steer the ship towards the side of the planet UNSC ships weren't bearing down on before firing up its slipspace drives. Before the first wing of fighters could be dispatched from an approaching destroyer, it disappeared from the system in a flash of blue light.

Cleanup

1106 Hours, March 5th, 2557

UNSC Caspian, Valiant-class cruiser, 23 Librae system


After twenty-nine years, Madrigal belonged to mankind again.

Descending to the cruiser's hangar deck, surrounded by black-armoured guards in the cramped confines of an elevator, Alexander Redford couldn't help but feel an overwhelming sense of pride over what he had accomplished here. Even for a man of his considerable power, diverting an entire fleet wasn't something easily done. However, with the remnants of Carlos Driscol's army being brushed aside and the considerable amount of effort ONI's Section Two would put into spinning this story, everything seemed to be working out.

"Captain Redford," one of his guards placed two fingers to his earpiece. "Asad's ship just landed in the starboard hangar."

"Excellent. Get a team down there, but keep an eye on them."

As his subordinate transmitted orders to another ONI Security team aboard the Caspian, the elevator doors slid open, revealing the mostly empty port-side hangar bay. A rather expensive Yacht sat alone in one docking zone, surrounded by a quartet of guards who prevented any of the ship's crew from getting close. Some crewmen would glance over every so often, though most resumed their work, knowing better than to interfere in the affairs of ONI.

"One-Sixty!" Redford clasped his gloved hands together as he approached. "It's been some time."

Even before he took charge of BRUTUS, Redford had been treated with a mixture of fear and respect by Gordon Mills. After all, it was he who had helped train him after his recruitment into the organisation, constantly ensuring the man would never so much as think of betraying their cause. Rather unsure of what to do, Mills adjusted his glasses and shook Redford's hand.

"It's good to see you, sir. The operation went exactly as planned."

Not exactly, but close enough. "And your role is appreciated, One-Sixty. I'm told that you have something for me."

"That I do, sir. One minute."

Mills quickly jogged up the boarding ramp of his vessel, and returned a few moments later with a body over one shoulder. With a grunt of exertion, he placed what Redford initially assumed was a corpse down into a sitting position at his feet. A pair of dark eyes glowered up at them, and for the briefest of moments the venerable BRUTUS agent considered shooting Mills.

"Zhou." he knelt down. "What have you done to him?"

"Neural collar, sir. He uh, seemed rather intent on killing me, so I pacified him."

"How long has that thing been on him?"

"Five hours, give or take."

Redford immediately slipped his hand behind the paralysed man's neck and unclasped the metal collar, which deactivated with a loud beep. Mills took a large step back as Winston Zhou's entire body spasmed for a moment, his fingers curling and uncurling as he exhaled sharply.

"Zhou," Redford said, sounding legitimately concerned for a moment, "Are you okay?"

As the young man slowly and shakily pulled himself to his feet, his eyes remained fixed on Mills. While Zhou usually carried himself with an incredible stoicism, there was something here that Redford had never seen in the assassin: genuine anger. Were it not for the presence of multiple armed guards, he would have already lunged for Mills.

"I'll be fine."

"Excellent." Redford turned his head towards Mills. "Leave us."

The BRUTUS agent wasted no time in leaving the hangar, giving his superior the tiniest of nods before walking off at a brisk pace towards the elevators. Zhou glared at him the entire way, and did not turn his attention towards Redford until his captor was out of sight.

"My pay?"

"I've had it transferred to the account specified. You did well down there, Zhou."

The younger man shrugged. "There might have been survivors from the Agrippa, Redford."

"There were, though they seem to be under the impression that it was an Insurrectionist attack that brought down their ship."

"Not worried that they might investigate further?"

"It's doubtful, though we'll be keeping an eye on them."

One of Redford's bodyguards stepped forward. "Sir, transmission from Thor. They've finished operations on Madrigal's surface and are heading back here."

"That's sooner than expected. We should get moving. Zhou?"

"Yes?"

"I'm sure you have no intention of staying here, so I've provided a shuttle for you in Hangar Three. It'll get you anywhere in the Inner Colonies you need to go and the pilot won't ask questions."

"Thank you, Redford," Zhou nodded politely. "Good doing business with you."

Knowing full well trying to get actual conversation from Zhou was nearly impossible, Redford turned on his heel and left, flanked by four of his armoured bodyguards while two others automatically escorted Zhou to his ship. While both the Caspian and the Sixth Fleet were commanded by Admiral Lin Zhi, she had given Redford full control over cleanup after this operation while her forces moved to secure Madrigal and Ciudad de Huesos itself. It had taken some convincing, but the prestige of liberating one of Humanity's more famous lost colonies and eliminating a dangerous Insurrectionist group in the process had been attractive enough to warrant her taking an entire fleet out here after HIGHCOM authorised the mission.

Now for Asad and the survivors.

"Where are they?" he asked Lieutenant Parr, his chief bodyguard.

"We've taken them to a conference room on Deck Nine, sir," he replied immediately. "They've been disarmed and are under guard."

"Good. Now to draw this operation to a close."

***

Covered in the dirt, grime and blood of the past day's battles, Bill Cross felt incredibly out of place as he sat in the sterile, white-tiled room. Two men in black armour stood by the door, rifles in hand. He knew there were two more outside, too, which meant they were likely about to receive a visit from someone in ONI, who'd either swear them to secrecy or have everyone killed.

"How long's this gonna take?" whispered Bess Rivers, who had been glancing regularly at the stone-faced Asad every few seconds since they had been dumped here. "We did what they asked us to, right?"

"We'll just have to wait and see," replied the old man, who sat straight-backed and unblinking. "Hey trooper, how's your head?"

Lance Corporal Volkov seemed to have recovered from her earlier concussion, though Cross was furious that they hadn't taken her to the medical bay immediately after boarding despite his concerns. He knew that as an ODST she was tough as anything, but the cold indifference of ONI's security force got on his nerves. She tapped a dark bruise on the side of her forehead and suppressed a wince.

"I'm fine, Asad."

Their flight from Madrigal had been brief and uneventful. Unable to raise Green and unwilling to head back into the battlefield as the Spartans did their work, Asad had lifted off the moment the storm had died down and headed straight for the UNSC Caspian. After transmitting the proper clearance codes to stop them being blown to pieces by the incoming fleet, the group had been greeted in the cruiser's hangar by a squad of heavily armed troopers instead of a group of usual Naval personnel. Their group had been quickly forced to disarm and escorted here without any explanation, save for some vague comment about having to wait for a superior officer to arrive.

Cross sighed and leaned back in his surprisingly comfortable chair, trying to ignore the feeling of unease bubbling up inside him. Compared to the fidgety Rivers and the impassive Asad and Volkov, he probably looked far too relaxed, considering their situation. Before he could ponder any more potentially deadly fates ONI had in store for them, the door slid open and the two guards snapped to attention as a grey-haired man stepped through, clad in a near-featureless grey uniform with only one identifying symbol: the pyramid-esque logo of the Office of Naval Intelligence.

"My apologies for keeping you waiting," he spoke warmly, in a refined North American accent. "There's been a lot to deal with after today's rather hectic events."

Though Cross leaned forward to speak, it was Asad who addressed the agent first. "About our mission—"

"The packages have been recovered by our Spartan team, don't worry."

"I was going to ask about my pay, Captain."

The man cracked a smile. "Ever the mercenary, Asad. Both you and Miss Rivers will be paid in full. If you wish to leave, you may. I can book passage back to Escala III for you immediately."

"I'm in no hurry," the old man yawned and gave an exaggerated stretch. "Besides, I wouldn't mind sticking around for the debriefing."

"If you want," the officer turned to address the troopers. "My name is Captain Alexander Redford, of the Office of Naval Intelligence. I was the one who organised the expeditionary force to Madrigal."

Across the table, Volkov and Cross exchanged dark looks. While sudden reassignments were nothing new for an ODST, most troopers were rightfully suspicious of any level of ONI's involvement in their operations as it rarely ended well and tended to come with numerous complications.

"So you sent us here?" Cross asked, stating the obvious as he met Redford's gaze. "If you don't mind me asking, sir, were you aware of any Insurrectionist presence on Madrigal?"

The Captain clasped his hands together and sighed. "We were aware of a possible settlement on the planet, but the attack on your ship was a completely unforeseen outcome, likely accomplished thanks to a rebel sympathiser or spy on board."

"There was one," Volkov chimed in. "Whoever he was, he may still be down on the planet. We lost track of him after he escaped Lieutenant Green."

Cross frowned. "It's possible that he died in the explosion, sir. He blew up our transport while he was inside to escape, but we didn't have time to check for bodies."

Redford raised an eyebrow in surprise as Cross relayed that part of the story to them. "I see. I'll inform one of our ground teams to scour the area for the spy, though several small vessels were able to escape into Slipspace before our fleet could establish a proper blockade around Madrigal."

This seemed to satisfy Volkov, but Cross remained just as anxious. "Sir, I don't know if your Spartans mentioned it in their report, but about our commanding officer, Lieutenant Michael Green..."

"I'm afraid that he's been Killed in Action, trooper. I was only just informed en-route to this meeting. It seems Carlos Driscol was killed in the fighting as well."

"Driscol's dead?!" Asad spoke suddenly. "How?"

"One of the Spartans reported it, so I'd assume he fell in battle with them. Good riddance, I say."

As Asad sat back in his chair and exhaled slowly, Cross felt a familiar hollow sensation in the pit of his stomach; the feeling of losing yet another friend in battle. While his face betrayed little in the way of reaction aside from a few blinks of surprise, even after so many years as an ODST it still hurt inside. He swallowed, and shook his head.

"He was a good man," was all he could muster.

"His body, and that of a Private Denley, has been recovered, if that's any consolation. They'll receive full honours for their valiant service."

Though Redford sounded sincere, Cross knew just how empty such gestures tended to be after hearing the same speech so many times. Straightening up in his chair, he spoke up again.

"Thank you sir. Now if you don't mind me asking, what are we going to do now? Our entire unit's dead."

"Master Sergeant Cross, is it?" Redford pulled out a palm-sized datapad from his pocket and swiped it online.

"Yes sir."

"I think that in recognition for what you've done here, and for your years in service to the Marine Corps, I'd like to make you an offer. This extends to you too, Lance Corporal... Volkov?"

The young woman, who had been looking down at her folded hands and seemed a little out of it, snapped her head up in surprise and nodded. Cross made another mental note to get her to the medical bay, even if it was rather overprotective of him.

"I would like to give both of you my official recommendation to join the SPARTAN-IV Program."

Redford slid the pad across the table's shiny black surface as a screen lit up, displaying the logo of an eagle grasping a lightning bolt in one claw and a trio of arrows in the other. Below sat an open document, ready to be filled and sent to the Chief of Staff of Spartan Operations for approval. This was something that only the most select number of servicemen and woman would get to see in their careers.

"Thank you sir," Volkov snapped off a salute almost immediately, prompting a warm smile from Redford, whose eyes flitted over to Cross. The trooper spent what felt like an hour staring at the datapad before he moved an inch, though in reality it took no more than a few seconds for him to make a decision.

"That's a generous offer, Captain, but I'll have to decline."

Volkov, Redford, and even Asad looked at Cross like he'd gone mad. The ONI agent quickly regained his composure with a shrug and took the datapad back.

"You're sure?"

"Yes sir. To be perfectly honest, I've been hoping to transfer to something a little less combat-intensive if you could find anything fitting for me."

"I believe I can, Sergeant. I'll ensure that both of your are contacted as soon as possible, but for now I think you both deserve some rest; Lieutenant Parr outside will see you to your quarters. Dismissed."

Though taken aback by the sudden formality of their dismissal, Bill Cross was in no hurry to stick around and stood up, saluting Captain Redford before exiting the room with Volkov in tow. With all that had happened in the last twenty-four hours, he'd need some time to process all that had happened down on Madrigal. As the door slid shut behind them, Asad turned to face the other pair sitting before him.

"That was nice of you," Asad said, scratching his beard with metallic fingers. "Not every day someone gets asked if they wanna become a supersoldier."

Redford smiled. "My position offers certain perks, Asad."

"Evidently. So, what now?"

"I'd like to speak to Miss Rivers regarding her future, if at all possible."

Bess, who had been quietly observing the proceedings from her seat at the end of the table, rolled her eyes as Asad crossed his arms, unwilling to move.

"Asad, I'm forty-eight, not nine. I can look after myself, you know."

"Mister Asad seems to be under the impression that I'm going to have you killed, Miss Rivers," Redford replied as he stood up, a wry smile. "Am I wrong?"

Asad shook his head. "I don't know with you, Redford. With King, he'd likely have her taken off and killed once she stopped being useful. Loose ends and all that."

"Believe it or not, Asad, but I am not my predecessor. Miss Rivers, I wanted to ask if you wished to work for me."

"Wait, what?" Bess spluttered. "I'm no spy!"

"Nor should you be one, but you have other talents, do you not? All those years operating deep-space salvage operations without incident have certainly given you the experience needed for what I have in mind."

"Which is?"

"Contrary to popular opinion, ONI is not a unified organisation. Our Section Chiefs and departmental heads spend as much time competing with each other for CINCONI's favour as they do actually performing their jobs, and I'm afraid that my particular division is no different. We need people like you, Miss Rivers, who can handle recovery operations, package transfers and above all else, the maintenance of an important installation our former commanding officer began work on."

Bess let out a low whistle. "All that, huh? And if I say no?"

"Then you go back to doing what you were doing in peace, and never speak a word of this operation to anyone. Ever."

Deliberately not paying attention to Asad, Bess weighed up her options. "I want to know two things: What's my pay, and will I be in danger?"

"Considerably more than your previous occupation, and with no more danger involved. I'm not a man who enjoys making mistakes, but I feel as though dispatching you as an assassin was a serious mistake, and for that I can only apologise."

"ONI apologising?" Asad snorted. "That's a first."

Bess clicked her tongue. "So, I haul cargo, run packages and look after...something... for you, and that's it?"

"More or less."

"Do I get my own crew?"

"Of course. Most will be agents on rotation prior to an operation or engineers continuing work on the installation, but in light of today's events I had planned to dispatch Master Sergeant Cross there to handle security and anything else that might need doing. How does that sound?"

Sounds a damn sight better than the last deal I made, Bess thought, recalling her agreement for this operation. But hell, what else is there to do?

"Sounds fine to me, Captain. Sign me up."

Redford tapped the prosthetic fingers of his left hand on the table before extending his real one to shake Bess' hand. In truth, he had genuinely doubted that she would stay on, but it was better to keep someone like her close rather than let them run free. Wondering briefly if he was getting soft in his old age, the head of the BRUTUS clasped his hands together and waved for Bess and Asad to follow him outside. At some point, colony ships would arrive on the planet, finally giving the settlers there a real chance to connect with the rest of the galaxy and to live in peace on the desolate world after years of cowering in their hidden city.

Madrigal reclaimed, Carlos Driscol dead, and those nuclear weapons recovered. Everything worked out in the end.

***

Sat at the foot of their Owl's rear ramp in one of the Caspian’s hangar bays, the members of Fireteam Thor celebrated another successful mission. The five Spartans had inflicted an estimated one hundred and six casualties; well over two thirds of Carlos Driscol's military forces. Even with the arrival of enemy reinforcements not long after they had landed, the rebels were disoriented by the storm and caught off-balance by their surprise attack, and so had been massacred in droves by the group. Though a few managed to board a starship and escape Madrigal, it was doubtful that any of them posed a significant threat.

"So you're sure you killed Carlos Driscol?" Hank-136 said for the third time as Layla-B101 cleaned the blood from her helmet.

"Yes Hank, I know who I killed, thank you very much."

"And according to you, you then saw his men dragging the corpse up towards that ship?"

"Yes."

Hank sighed. On one hand, he knew Layla would never lie to him about something like this; the SPARTAN-III was particularly vicious and tended to relish in her kills, but on the other hand the lack of a body meant that they couldn't identify Driscol properly and had to go by her word.

"You know how this looks, right?" he asked, sitting atop a crate, helmet in hands.

"Like I'm making it up? Hank, I shot the old bastard myself. Not my fault I had to deal with a Warthog trying to run me over."

The older Spartan simply nodded, knowing that to provoke Layla further would send her into a fit of petulant whining. Nearby, Julian-G209 zipped up the second body bag that lay on the floor beside their Owl. May-G210 knelt beside him, checking a datapad as they scanned the dog tags found on the corpse.

"Green, Michael, Second Lieutenant," she read off the name. "Second one is Denley, Victor, Private First Class. Both Helljumpers."

"It's a shame," said Julian, shaking her helmeted head. "They survive their ship getting blown out of the sky, only to die to a bunch of Innies."

Thor's fifth member, Mordecai-G138, snorted as sat cross-legged, cleaning his rifle's scope. "Should've left his op to the professionals."

"Show some damn respect!" Layla barked suddenly, holding up her ODST-styled MJOLNIR helmet; despite her general irreverence for just about everything, she had a strange respect for the organisation. Hank stood up, moving between them before an argument started.

"Now that's enough," he intoned, looking between the pair like a couple of misbehaving children. "We should hurry up and report to Captain Redford."

As the others simmered down and went back to what they were doing, Hank walked over towards the box containing the recovered nuclear weapons, pried from the hands of one of Driscol's surviving underlings. The case opened with two soft clicks, revealing seven metal orbs, each with the power to utterly vaporise a small city. As he looked over their worn, faded lettering on their shells, the SPARTAN-II realised that there was an empty space in the corner, clearly meant for another of these weapons of mass destruction.

"May," he said calmly, glancing between the heavy box and the blue-armoured Spartan nearby. "How many nukes were reportedly on Madrigal?"

She checked the manifest on her datapad; an old report of stolen weapons and their supposed storage on the planet long before its glassing. After a few moments of thumbing through old reports, she looked back at him.

"Eight. Why?"

Hank closed the case, and stood up.

"We've got a problem."

Epilogue

Dream's End

2137 Hours, March 29th, 2557

Hjalti's Bar, Losing Hand, Outer Colonies


Lowering his rain-soaked hood as he stepped into the crowded tavern, Ash Mitchell took a moment to survey the room before moving forward, one hand already around the grip of the handgun in his coat pocket. Seeing that only the regulars had turned up tonight, he allowed himself to relax just a little and edged towards the bar where the owner himself was serving a pair of old men pints of lager. A large, muscular man with long, dirty blonde hair tied into a bun, he'd once been part of a larger Insurrectionist network and a friend of Amanda's before retiring to the remote colony world. Seeing Mitchell, he nodded and leaned across to speak to the fugitive in a low voice.

"Nothing interesting today, Ash. You can calm down."

Mitchell nodded. "What about that freighter from Circumstance?"

"Crew dropped off their cargo and left. Not much to tell."

"And Amanda?"

"She's awake," Hjalti's eyes swept up towards the wooden ceiling. "Getting restless, though."

"So am I. I'll head up now."

"Okay, I'll keep you posted."

As the bartender waved him off, Mitchell headed off through a door marked 'employees only', shrugging off his raincoat and hanging it up on a nearby rack before ascending a flight of stairs to the upper floor. After weeks of going over every single contact and old favour of Amanda's he could muster, he'd arranged a meeting with Hjalti and a trusted group of surgeons on Losing Hand where they could operate to save her immediately after her resuscitation from cryosleep. Bereft of the highly advanced machinery and equipment many in the Inner Colonies possessed, they worked for over thirteen hours to save Amanda Wade's life. After a few close calls, it was announced she was weak, but stable for the time being. Since then, the pair had been holed up in Hjalti's, waiting to recover their strength and plot their next move.

Mitchell stopped before a wooden door, and knocked thrice before entering a spacious room that overlooked the main street below. It was dimly lit, save for light streaming in from outdoor streetlamps and the glow of a datapad in Amanda's lap as she sat by the windows in an old wheelchair, swiping away at the tablet-sized device.

"Hey," he announced himself with a wave.

Amanda looked up. She still looked rather pale, and her unbound, dishevelled brown hair fell around her face and shoulders. Brushing some out of her eyes with a hand, she put the pad down and wheeled herself towards Mitchell.

"Were you followed?" she asked in a hoarse voice.

"No."

"You sure?"

"I triple-checked. We're safe."

Amanda gave a weak smile and sat back in her chair, staring blankly up at the ceiling while Mitchell walked over to the room's small kitchen area to prepare some dinner. Though her doctor friends had assured him that she'd be able to walk again, the recovery process would take some time. With Hjalti's help they landed and hid the Quisling - whose original owner, Mitchell discovered through records, had no idea what the name meant - in a forest nearby before taking Amanda into Losing Hand's only major town. Though less than a decade prior it had been a fishing colony with only a few hundred inhabitants, this world had seen a boom in industry in the past few years and was being built up fairly quickly, much to the chagrin of some of the locals. Nonetheless, it was remote enough without being dangerous for two fugitives like Amanda and Mitchell to stay unnoticed while they plotted their next move.

"How's Hjalti?" Amanda asked, breaking the silence as Mitchell began chopping up carrots for a soup.

"He's fine. Working hard as usual."

"Oh, that's good. I didn't want to be a burden."

At this, Mitchell could only shrug. "He seems happy to help, in any case. How'd you know him?"

"We met at university back in 2550. Couple of years later I dragged him out of a burning 'hog and carried his ass aboard the Dynasty. Miracle we didn't both die, really."

"So he owes you one."

"He owes me about five. This was back when Remi was captain, mind. Hjalti stayed on for a month or two then went off to run a safehouse out here. He never was much of a fighter."

"Huh. Never knew you went to university, Amanda."

"Not for long. Dropped out in fifty-two when the Covenant attacked, then ended up joining the Marines the next year after my mum and dad died. The theoretical side of medicine wasn't really my thing anyway."

"You preferred the practical work."

"Yep. Was a decent medic for a while and then," she waved an arm vaguely, "shit happened, and now I'm here."

"Been a wild ride, hasn't it?"

For whatever reason, Amanda snickered at this. "You make it sound like we're about to die, Ash."

"Just putting things in perspective, is all. Five years ago you were a college student, and I was up to my ass in plasma fire, making orbital drops and kicking all kinds of ass."

"You make being a Helljumper sound glamorous."

Mitchell scratched the back of his head, putting the knife down for a moment to drop the carrots into a nearby pot he'd placed on the stove. "It was a lot of shit most folks couldn't put up with."

"Do you miss it?"

"Every day."

"Then why'd you leave?"

That was a question Ash Mitchell had been asking himself every day since he'd first left Earth with a stolen suit of armour and a few weapons, intent on starting a career as a freelance mercenary. At the time, the idea of roaming the wild frontier, making a name for himself and earning money with his skills seemed like a fairly desirable idea. He wasn't the first ODST to pursue such a life, and though instead of signing on with the security forces that protected corporate interests in the rebuilding colonies he had been determined to act as a freelancer, something that had only led to more dangerous jobs that fateful meeting with Magnus that more or less sealed his fate. To say that everything had gone badly would be a tremendous understatement.

"Stupidity," he decided at last. "How about you?"

"Drunken stupidity."

Mitchell cracked a smile. "That's always the worst."

"You don't know the half of it. You go out drinking one night and when you wake up you've joined the Insurrection."

"You're kidding me."

"Nope," Amanda stared wistfully towards the rain spattered windows. "Hard to believe it's only been a couple of years since then."

It was easy to forget that despite her tough exterior and commanding presence, Amanda Wade was only twenty-five years old and unlike so many others, had not fought through the Human-Covenant War as Mitchell had. Though he'd never bring it up to her, Mitchell was curious as to why someone would willingly turn their back on a reasonably comfortable life in the Inner Colonies to become what many saw as little more than a terrorist. Perhaps she'd known what she was getting into from the start - unlikely, considering what Amanda had just told him - or like the rogue ODST had found herself in a position where committing heinous acts became a necessity to survive everyday life. Only now, at what felt like the end of a very long chase, could they sit and reflect on their lives.

"So what now?" he said. "Still going after Magnus?"

"As soon as I can walk again, probably. How's the ship?"

"Hjalti says he knows a guy who can change the registry, so we can at least start moving freely again. Having a stolen ship with a name I'm told is synonymous with 'traitor' will only attract trouble."

"Think we should go back to Madrigal?" Amanda knew this was a stupid question, but asked anyway.

"The UNSC's probably got the entire planet locked down. The city, the bunker..."

"The Dynasty."

"Yeah."

"I just wish we could've saved something—someone—before we left. "

"We've still got what we came to get, haven't we?"

The pair looked over towards a trunk by Amanda's bed. Inside, sealed within a heavy case, was the last remaining nuclear weapon they'd stolen from Madrigal. Mitchell had discovered that it was a HAVOK tactical nuke, powerful enough to wipe a city off the face of a planet. If it went off here, there'd be nothing left whatsoever of Losing Hand's colony whatsoever. If the UNSC knew they had this, then there would likely be a military search for Amanda and Ash on a scale not seen since the NOVA incident a few years ago. Even Hjalti and Amanda's other contacts didn't know about it.

"That's the problem, isn't it?" Amanda wheeled herself over to the trunk and prised it open. "Where do we use this, and when?"

Mitchell swallowed and continued to prepare the soup for a few moments before answering. "Should we even bother?"

"What do you mean?"

"With everything that's happened, what's the point in even fighting any more?" He turned away from the pot and faced her, his mismatched brown eyes meeting her angry green pair. "All this raging across the frontier has done nothing but bring us more misery, Amanda. We've lost the Dynasty. Anyone who'd fight alongside us is dead or gone, and we're fast running out of hiding places."

If she could have stood up, Amanda would have probably punched Mitchell in the face. Seeing him frightened and defeated filled her not with pity, but with disgust, if only for a moment. Right now, all she could think about was all those who had died to get her where she was, and how she would not let them all die for nothing. Ash Mitchell was as gifted a killer as she'd ever met and a good friend - more than that, even - but if he was unwilling to exact revenge on the man who had made his life a living hell, then she'd leave him behind. In the end, she posed a simple question.

"You're giving up?"

"On this dumbass chase? Yeah, I am."

"Coward."

"Amanda, we've nearly died how many times now? Maybe you're still pissed enough to want to keep going, but I've had enough. If you know what's good for you, you'd just drop that nuke in the ocean and forget about it."

"And then what?!" she glared at him. "Spend the rest of my life sitting on this rock with you, trying to forget everything that's happened?"

"It's better than dying for nothing!"

"This isn't nothing!"

Amanda lifted the case out of her trunk and opened it, revealing the egg-shaped HAVOK nuke. She held it aloft for him to see, her eyes brimming with tears. Since Madrigal, she'd hardly said a word about what happened down there and had been concentrating on her recovery, but it was clear that this had been eating away at her.

"This isn't nothing," she repeated softly, before gently setting it back inside its case.

The room was silent for a few minutes as Mitchell busied himself with cooking and Amanda returned to shifting mindlessly through her datapad, with only the low murmur of conversation from the bar downstairs filtering through. Eventually, the ex-ODST threw the last of the ingredients into the pot and walked over to sit on the nearby sofa opposite Amanda's chair.

"Just rest up for a while," he said after a moment's hesitation. "You've got to prepare, not go rushing off again."

"You think I rushed into Madrigal?"

"Let's face it Amanda, we were getting desperate. ONI's too big to hit and we still don't know who led the attack on Avalon, and with Magnus out of sight we were lashing out at whatever we could hit. It was reckless."

At this, she seemed to concede, and craned back to stare at the ceiling. "So, let's say I go underground for a while. What then?"

"We stay low, gather resources and supplies if possible. I'm not saying that we build a new Avalon, but setting up somewhere quiet for the time should help us out."

"Funny, now you're saying 'we'. I thought you were backing out, Ash."

Mitchell certainly seemed rather conflicted about this whole thing. "I am. Sort of. There's no point in rushing out and getting killed, but we're still being hunted by about ten different groups. How long d'you think it'll be before Losing Hand is crawling with ONI agents?"

"Then we keep running, out into the frontier."

"You think we should take our chances on Covenant worlds?"

"I don't see why not. As long as we're careful we should be okay."

"Don't you ever get tired?"

"Of what?"

"Being chased just about everywhere, by everyone. Maybe you're just used to it by now, but being on the run is a shitty experience."

Amanda shrugged. She'd been on the move her entire life, drifting from refugee camp to refugee camp with her family as a child and spending only a few years on Earth before setting off once more. Travelling suited her, even if each and every journey carried the very real risk of death or capture. She shifted in her seat slightly, wincing as she felt a twinge of pain from her bandaged stomach.

"We'll stay here for a while. Until I'm better."

"The docs said that could take months. You were pretty damn close to dying, Amanda."

"Then it'll be months, I don't care. Once I'm up and properly about again, I'll see if I can rebuild our old network again. We've still got friends, right?"

"You mean the guys I cleaned out our credit stash and pulled in your old favours for? I guess so."

"Then I build that up again. Do a little smuggling if I have to. I'm not gonna lay down and die, Ash."

Sighing, Mitchell could only nod in agreement as he saw a familiar, determined spark emerge in Amanda's red-rimmed eyes. She wasn't going to stop in her quest for vengeance, and settling down or hiding wasn't an option. Looking back on the past six months he'd spent with Amanda and her crew, he'd found some kind of purpose, different from his aimless wandering as a mercenary or even the morally questionable ODST deployments he'd endured. In a very strange way, it had almost been fun to be aboard the Dynasty.

Guess I didn't realise how good I'd had it til I lost it.

"Screw it."

He stood up and walked over to the kit bag by his own bed. Inside was his armour, still half-repaired after their fighting on Madrigal. Mitchell pulled out the old, battered helmet and held it up before his face, staring at the scratchy paintwork of the skull that had become his defining feature as a dangerous mercenary. He then picked up the combat knife from his bedside cabinet, set the helmet down on the counter, and began to scrape the paint away.

"What the hell are you doing?" Amanda slowly wheeled towards Mitchell.

"Starting again, just like you."

Careful not to damage the visor itself, he used the flat of the blade to steadily remove all that remained of the skull before blowing away any residue and turning it around for Amanda to see.

"No more 'Butcher of Kuiper'. I'm my own man now."

"I thought you dropped all that when you came to work with us in Avalon?"

"That's what I thought, but to tell you the truth, I'd been lying to myself. Every fight, I locked myself into that same mindset; the one that rationalised or ignored all the horrible things I'd done. That's got to change."

"And what, removing that painting's gonna do that?"

"It's a start. I kept repainting it, didn't I? That stops now."

"Well, I hope it helps you out with whatever you're gonna do with yourself."

At this, Mitchell laughed. "What's that supposed to mean? I'm coming with you, aren't I?"

"Five minutes ago, you said you wanted to hide and not get involved!"

"Yeah, that was the old me, Amanda. See, I'm already a changed man."

"Is that so?" Amanda gave a coy smile. "So what makes you think I want you back on my crew?"

"I was a loyal member of your old crew, wasn't I? Surely I at least get a recommendation?"

"Fine, you're in. I've already got an order in mind."

"Which is?" he crossed his arms.

"I want our ship renamed. How's the Dynasty II sound?"

"Stupid and attention-grabbing, Captain."

"Well, that's what it'll be until I can think of something better. Now get to it!"

Giving a deliberately sloppy salute, Mitchell went to check on the soup before quickly heading out of the room, presumably to bug Hjalti about something downstairs. That moment of lightheartedness had been a welcome addition after spending so long sitting around, arguing in fear and uncertainty. At least Mitchell was trying to smile again. Amanda turned back towards the windows, moving her wheelchair over so she could peer out into the street. The rain seemed to have died down, and as dark clouds drifted away one of the planet's two moons gleamed high above.

"I'm not going to stop," she spoke quietly, looking up at the starry sky. "I can't afford to."

The Dynasty had been destroyed. All of her crew—her dearest friends—were dead, apart from Ash. The UNSC and ONI were likely still looking for her, especially if they realised that one of the nukes was missing. Nonetheless, she felt strangely free of anger and sorrow; letting everything go would be necessary if she was to press on. She would travel, investigating quietly and gathering information that would one day lead her to the man most responsible for her woes. Whether or not she'd succeed and kill Magnus or die trying remained to be seen, but Amanda Wade's fight was not over yet.

THE END

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