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SOTF S7 Barrier City

Season Seven

Introduction

Reinforced sliding doors zipped apart with a horrid screech of dried-out mechanisms. Underused and weary, the faint hint of mold could be seen along the doorframe’s cracks. An unassuming though well-dressed gentleman stepped into a cavernous room, past the sliding doors and assessed his surrounding upon entering.

“Two years,” the gentleman stated as he stood atop a set of shallow stairs and straightened his black tie with his white-gloved-hands. “It’s been quite some time since the last celebration.”

The room’s complement of technicians and engineers froze in their work at their workstations and turned to look up at their direct superior. Even as they paused, the colorful displays of battle, carnage, and gore continued to roll on across the many monitors and holographic displays spread through the expansive space.

The suited gentleman looked back at his subordinates. An awkward pause followed, and he narrowed his eyes at them. “Well? Don’t stop at my account, we got a show to run!”

The complement quickly turned back to their work and the combined symphony of feet stepping, fingers clicking away at keyboards, and a mix of other audible cacophony resumed through the room. One of the technicians, a man dressed in a lab coat marched briskly up the small staircase towards his superior, now descending the same staircase.

They met halfway.

“Two years huh? This place looks rather messy for being in storage.” The gentleman pointed out with his right index finger, gesturing up at large concentrations of dust atop workstations and ceiling fans and the rust patches forming in the corners.

“Depends on how you look at the passage of time, sir. It’s relative.” The technician expressed in a deadpan tone before handing over a military-style computer tablet with a series of infographics listed across the screen in a deep blue.

“Ninety-three participants?” The gentleman asked, eyeing his subordinate.

The list was a meticulous all-star roster of faces and names, creatures and beings pulled from across the known galaxy and more than a few from alternate timelines. It’s been a while since the previous seasons were simply pulling from a singular version of the Milky Way, however, times had changed, and the adaptation was necessary to remain relevant. Somewhere, beyond the room, many were in storage and stasis – the contestants being prepped for the exciting festive of battle to follow.

“Yes, sir. A significant uptick from the last program.”

“Could become a problem with how extensive the list is today,” The gentleman stated skimming the list with his finger, “I’m seeing, hmm, what an odd lineup. Is it something to do with us switching sponsors this time around?”

“Probably. The previous party issued a concern regarding the appearances of artificial intelligence, but it seems the current sponsor wants to go in the other direction – he said we’ll wing it.” The technician explained, scratching the back of his head out of slight concern.

“Whatever the new lead wants. We’ll do our best. The rule set the same?”

“For the most part, some things were slightly tweaked and some of the rules may have been bent a little. Especially regarding the big one.”

The gentleman’s finger traced the name and image of the said contestant. “Quite.”

The gentleman and technician descended back down the steps and marched over to a central holographic display table located at the base of the room. The gentleman noted rust patches on the metallic floor that looked like the remains of puddles, he frowned at the sight but decided against saying anything.

“Announcer, sir! We have the first arena up and running perfectly. The delivery team also brought in the collection.” Another technician called from her workstation and pointed to a raised dais to the side of the room where six pilums stood at attention under the glare of harsh light. Three of them stood empty; no object of significance to stand atop them. Another three, however, raised grandiose statues high and mighty and in impeccable detail. Lifesize and lifelike.

These were the first, fourth and sixth columns, each marking the victor of a previous season of their age-long project.

An unnaturally large human male dressed in mighty-green MJOLNIR armor with a BR55 battle rifle pointed skyward. Inscribed at the statue's base, JAMES-G023, VICTOR OF SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST, SEASON ONE.

A large Sangheili warrior dressed in deep-dark assassin’s armor was caught mid-lunge with his energy sword outstretched, ready to pierce an unseen foe. Inscribed at its base, SHINSU 'REFUM, VICTOR OF SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST, SEASON FOUR.

Another human male of an average stature looked on with a thousand-yard stare. He was dressed in a police uniform intended for riot control operations and cradled an M90 shotgun in one hand and his riot helmet in another. Inscribed at the base, EDMOND DAHM, VICTOR OF SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST, SEASON SIX.

“Beautiful as always,” The Announcer nodded in satisfaction.

“There was another thing sir. Regarding Season Six-Point-Five…” The technician trailed off.

“Forget it. That was not official and under iffy circumstances, the upper echelon is still looking into the problem,” The Announcer waved off the subordinate's concerns. He could be heard just barely muttering under his breath, “How the hell are we supposed to recognize a random bumblebee as a winner…”

“Sir, we’re ready.” The technician in the lab coat quickly spoke, dragging his boss out of a stupor.

“Oh, yes. Very good. Generate the arena please.”

The holographic table flashed away from its dull-white glow of emptiness and pixelated details began to climb their way onto the screen, peppering the flat space into a three-dimensional map displaying topography, geography, and the many small details slipped in, a sign towards a passionate volunteer.

It was a stretch of a city, blocked in by high-security walls to the north and south and between interior districts, and to the west: an endlessly flat desert formed from molten glass. And to the east, an ocean basin with a high carbon count, very little lived in those waters.

The Announcer stroked his hairless chin, “Interesting design choices. A city this time, not an island?”

An environment engineer called from across the table, “The island motif was getting a little old. We decided that given the larger line up that we would try something different and make the field larger to compensate for some of the specific contestants and new features we’re implementing.”

“What’s the map called?”

Barrier City.”

“Interesting.”

“There’s a dossier regarding the map in your information package, sir. It’s also listed on your announcement script.” The environment engineer explained.

“Good. Go ahead and drop the contestants in. I’ll go ahead and get on the mike.”

“Yes, sir.” The nearby subordinates stated, quickly moving to their workstations.

The Announcer nodded at them before looking upon the room’s entire staff complement. His team. Time to get to work.

“Everyone, we are beginning. Prepare the map, prepare the fighters.”

The room grew quiet as everyone shuffled quickly to their stations, the noise was still there but everyone was moving methodically and talking in hushed undertones now. The show was about to begin.

The Announcer flicked through his tablet, spotting characters piquing his interest. A schoolgirl. A UNSC admiral with a broadsword. How interesting indeed. One of the technicians silently gestured to the table before the Announcer and he quickly composed himself in response, looking away from the tablet and towards the table before him. Words flickered into being on the map.


SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST, SEASON SEVEN – GAME START.

The Announcer adjusted his tie once more to fill himself with resolve and confidence. Another subordinate made a gesture from across the table, the contestants were now in the city. They could hear his voice. Speakers across the city were coming online.

“Eh-hem. Hello everyone! I am the Announcer. Welcome to the seventh season of Survival of the Fittest, the greatest battle royale project in our current circumstance. I am the Announcer, some of you may have heard of me or heard this speech before, not that any of you would remember it, mind you.”

“Now, you might be wondering how you got where you are and why you are there. Those are questions you do not need to know the answers to. You have a simple order to fulfill but a hard job to complete ahead of all of you. Ninety-three warriors from across the galaxy are here together in a fight for their lives. That means all of you. The mission is simple, kill or be killed. This order is mandatory.”

“None of you can escape or challenge me. All but one of you must die, all of you will fight. Refuse to and you will be terminated, that is if one of the other fine warriors in here doesn’t end you first.”

“You all will find yourselves in a comfortable, or rather, inhospitable locale named Barrier City. As my dossier on the place states, Barrier City is a coastal town trapped between the endless sea and a death-bringing desert of glass. Populated by a multicultural amalgamation of species under the rule of a faction affiliated with the United Rebel Front, this town is home to a post-Covenant society and a stellar example of what living on the Colonial Frontier looks like. Take in the aroma, the sights, the sounds, the energy of the city at the edge of civilization.”

“So, let’s have some fun, let’s make a nice bloodbath, and let’s try our best to survive, shall we? Good luck and good hunting. Season Seven begins now.”

Distant Tide: Hunter - Killer

Stage One: Barrier City

1: Black Sand

Day One, 0804 Hours

Location: Toppled Skyscraper, Glasslands, Barrier City

Robert Fisher, a Bluespring resident and Sergeant in the Gilgamesh Free State stared up into the fragile ceiling above him and the minuscule hints of sunlight beyond. He sat atop a small hill of debris made from weathered chunks of metal and lots of graphite-like sand.

In silence, his jaw hung open, slightly agape as his mind attempted to process the creeping fear and uncertainty forming in his gut. His current circumstances were simply, unknown. He didn’t know where he was, he didn’t remember how he got here.

The demands of a disembodied voice that seemed to resonate from everywhere left him feeling shaken. A battle royale? Kill or be killed? What was happening? Where was he? ‘Barrier City’ or whatever that was didn’t count as an answer.

He was supposed to fight ninety-two other people, if the voice had been speaking to him that is? Who, what, why?

So many questions, endless questions. The training of the Free State never prepared him for whatever this was. So, instead of acting, doing anything, he sat there, frozen in his uncertainty and confusion.

The room, or rather chamber, around him, was clearly a tall building, or whatever was left of it. He and his pile of black sand were at the center and the hallways and walkways that zipped through the larger chamber or connected into it were tilted a ninety-degree angle on their side. A toppled skyscraper maybe.

A football field away, an intricate though worn tile floor plan appeared to mark the former ground level of sorts, seemingly fourteen-floors away. And in the other direction, he could see what used to be a fixture for large glass panels, like some sort of glass roof. The glass was long gone, and more black-sand had seeped into the chamber. However, beyond the sandy knoll was a flat gray-colored plain, a bright blue sky, and what possibly looked like a towering security wall. Maybe that’s where this ‘Barrier City’ was?

Uncertain what to do, he looked back down at his lap – examining the all too familiar weight of his Free State battle dress uniform, his plate carrier, and the exterior load webbing. In his lap, he cradled a MA5C service rifle, his very own in fact given the familiar scratches and creases he’d come to know from carrying it through basic training and the long nights of patrolling the Gilgamesh wilderness for UNSC sympathizers.

As a so-called Insurrectionist state, the Gilgamesh Free State wasn’t the richest planet in Human space and that nature carried on to its soldiers. They made do with what they had, and they were taught in training that their weapon was to be given the utmost familiarity and care, and just like that, he could tell that this was his MA5C, right down to the two sets of serial numbers, one from the Free State and another from the weapon’s manufacturer. The same could be said for his other equipment: the rifle bayonet, the holstered M6H sidearm, his magazines, and the grenades strapped into their appropriate pouches.

Only a few minutes ago, these weapons had been strewn across the sandy hill he sat upon, however, he collected them quickly and did his best to inspect them without field stripping – assuring they were in working order. Gilgamesh had its deserts, but not quite like this. The graphite-like sand grains were soft, thin, and fine. The kind that could slip through any crack and stick onto any surface if not careful. They could lead to any number of jams or malfunctions if he wasn’t careful.

Fisher huffed to himself and moved his body to stand up, taking precaution to not slip on the shifty sand beneath him for fear of falling face first and caking his rifle and other equipment in the nightmarish environment he was in. A black desert, of what did the voice, the Announcer, call it? A ‘death-bringing desert of glass’?

Clack. Clack. Clack.

Fisher paused and looked behind him then up at the skyscraper’s other side above him. Small particles of sand descended from above, but nothing substantial. The wind outside continued to howl, and the ruins of the skyscraper groaned as it settled further into the sandy environment. That was the sixteenth time he heard the clacking now, in a ruined dump like this building, it could have been anything, but it also paid to be cautious.

There were ninety-three fighters spread out across Barrier City, probably including himself. He couldn’t get complacent. The Gilgameshian Sergeant grasped his bullpup rifle and marched slowly down the sandy knoll, again, trying not to fall face-first and create a whole lot of problems for himself.

But he froze again when his eyes caught a tall shadow standing atop the pile of sand entering the skyscraper from the ceiling entryway. The shadow hadn’t been there before, and it was leveling a submachine gun at him, a visual-light laser directed at him.

“Fuck,” Fisher grunted and snapped his MA5C up in the direction of the unknown gunman. He hoped to any higher power out there, not the Announcer, that he would be able to pull the trigger in time to outmatch the threat above him.

“Sergeant, get down!” The figure shouted in a crackly voice from external speakers, an individual in combat armor.

Fisher didn’t think, the voice sounded vaguely familiar, one that made his trained instincts seize control and he hit the deck, getting a face full of that fine black sand. Had it not been for his selective-hearing earplugs, he’d be completely deaf from a sniper rifle's crackle behind him.

The sound of a lightning strike punched through the air and shattered glass throughout the toppled skyscraper. Fisher cradled his rifle and kept his head down while shoving his knees and elbows into the sand, digging himself a small foxhole.

Suppressed automatic gunfire puff-puff-puffed through the air as the figure’s submachine gun fired away at an unseen target. Fisher looked up, keeping his head cautiously down, and spotted the unknown gunman sliding down the sand pile into the building with his weapon, directed toward something far off behind Fisher.

“Get up Sergeant!” The armored figure shouted, continuing to let loose with the submachine gun. Upon closer inspection, it was an M7S and the man was dressed in Semi-Powered Infiltration armor, the kind belonging to UNSC Special Forces.

The man who seemingly had come to Fisher’s rescue grabbed the Sergeant by the back-strap of his plate carrier and stood him on his feet before guiding him forward to a rusty steel pillar.

“Wha-what?” Fisher dumbly asked, trying to process what was happening. His head snapped behind him, attempting to get a better view of the other assailant but to no avail.

“Switch with me,” The SPI-clad submachine gun user demanded, looking down on Sergeant once they were both in cover. The M7S was pressed forward into Fisher’s chest.

“What?”

“Your rifle,” the armored man stated anxiously, tilting to check outside cover for the unseen threat. He gestured with his open palm, “Come on, we don’t have all day!”

Fisher almost threw his MA5C at the man in SPI, but the person easily caught it and leveled it upwards towards where the sniper rifle shot had come from.

“We can’t stay in one place. It’s a Spartan.”

“A Spartan?”

“Yes, a Spartan. He’s better equipped than we are, we need to get out of here and into a hallway! That one just around this pillar.”

“Who are you?”

“Not right now Fisher, just get ready to run, I’ll cover you.”

“R-right.”

“On my mark.”

“Ready.”

“Go!”

The SPI man stepped out of cover first, but only by a little and seemingly targeted the unseen Spartan, lacing bursts of accurate rifle fire on the threat to the two men’s lives. No sniper rifle fire came so it seemed like it was working. Fisher was already running, four sprinting strides later, he was in the eighteenth-floor hallway and stomping through the broken glass from windowed offices and broken wall portraits that once contained landscape paintings and motivational posters.

“Keep moving!” The SPI-clad man shouted as he barreled into the hallway, running away from the unseen Spartan.

“Okay!”

The two kept going, slipping around a corner and into a small conference room on the left of a hallway adjacent to the central chamber. Fisher took cover behind the SPI-clad man once they had put a wall between them and the open hallway, the man didn’t seem to mind, almost as if it was the sound thing for his fellow fighter to do.

“What now?”

“We wait.”

Distant Tide: Hunter - Killer

2: Expressionless

Day One, 0812 Hours

Location: Embassy Tower, Main Street, Barrier City

“I am sorry, Vice Admiral, I cannot do that.”

Sebastian T. Shelby bent his head to his right and rubbed his temple to relieve a throbbing headache – an illness the black-and-white-clothed receptionist was not helping with. He sighed at the partial relief as his ability to concentrate returned.

Satisfied, he dropped his hand back behind his disciplined posture and examined the shiny-white lobby of ONI’s elaborate tower. As he focused back on the seated receptionist, he noted two large recreations of the organization’s iconic logo, the encircled pyramid-eye.

The first recreation ran along the front face of the receptionist’s desk, the other was a much larger icon with various raised surfaces plastered overhead, behind the woman’s seat.

Still, the throbbing continued. Shelby paused and brought his hand up to rub the bridge of his nose before dropping it down again to assess the desk lady. He remained stoic and sharp in his Navy dress blues, despite how he knew his patience was reaching its limits.

“Young lady, all I am asking is to be put in contact with the local UNSC fleet. You said you cannot do that. Fine. Is there any reason why you are unable to tell me exactly what is happening?” Shelby pleaded in his most-calm voice.

“I am sorry, Vice Admiral, I cannot do that,” she replied autonomously as her face remained blank.

It was with that statement that Shelby felt every muscle in his sixty-two-year-old body scream, telling him to smash her face in, and for the tiniest of moments, he almost did. He looked down and bit his lip, knowing she was a lost cause. His eyes spied a pair of elevator doors behind her desk.

“I see. If you’ll excuse me, young lady, I am going to find someone else on the next few floors,” he stated as he let go of his folded hands behind his back and wandered past the receptionist’s desk.

To his surprise, the elevator doors pre-emptively slid open before he even had to show his identification card. He spun on his left foot and looked to the receptionist once again as she stared blankly back at him, her entire body and chair turned to face him directly.

“Of course, Vice Admiral.”

He gave her a suspicious, crossed stare for a few seconds, then a quick courtesy nod.

“Thank you,” he replied and stepped onto the elevator.

He hit the button for the third floor – the one with the tall balcony he saw out front with the building’s name plastered on it – and waited as the elevator rumbled at his command. He grasped his hands behind his back once again into his favoured posture. The wait wasn’t long, he knew that, but it did give him some time to consider his current circumstances.

The expressionless face on the receptionist was oddly-perplexing as if she wasn’t – all there? He swore that the passing civilians on the street looked just as uninterested as she did, although he admittedly did not pay them close attention. Could she be some sort of machine? He stroked his coarse beard at the question and was briefly distracted by its thickness. He hummed in confirmation and mentally made a note to shave it when possible.

He then tried to remember how he got here, but his mind came up blank. Dementia was never a problem for him like so many others of his age, and he never suffered from short-term memory loss. He recalled the arrogant Announcer telling the participants that they were in a place called “Barrier City,” and how he and ninety-two others had to fight to the death. Shelby summarised that he had been kidnapped for some senseless game. He was utterly disgusted at the idea that it might be true–

The elevator door chimed as it stopped at his destination, pulling him from his trance. He dropped his arms down to his sides and waited for the doors to part. What he found next caused his jaw to drop slack from shock.

An entire platoon of identical Army Troopers stared right back at him. All their equipment appeared the same, person-to-person. They all wore the same standard Army fatigues with orange glasses, three pouches on each of their chest plates, and no other features. They all gripped uniformly-naked MA5A assault rifles. But it wasn't the uniforms or equipment that gave him pause, it was their faces that he was mesmerised with the most. They all had slightly elongated skulls, fair-toned skin, and a single large freckle on their left cheek.

Despite his best attempt, he could not spot a single feature that none of the others shared. Worst of all, they all had that same dead-eyed look that he was growing to hate.

Shelby closed his eyes, grabbed his tilted forehead and stomped down the impulse to yell profanities at them. This is the very last thing I need to deal with.

He instead let out a large sigh and shook his head in complete contempt. He slowly brought his attention back to the Army troopers and prepared himself for the trial of patience he was surely about to endure. “Tell me everything you all know about this building.”

ERROR 343: Requested database has been Severed

3: Hunter's Thrill

Day One, 0816 Hours

Location: Toppled Skyscraper, Glasslands, Barrier City

Long minutes dragged by. Leonard Butcher, the SPARTAN-IV Headhunter, took his sweet time stalking his prey.

Hidden under the cover of his light-bending active camouflage, he waited just a bit longer – eyeing his MJOLNIR radar at its maximum setting for signs of movements from enemies or unknown individuals.

He was disconnected from the UNSC command structure and from ONI. He already tried every practical radio frequency. The only response was either static or some radio station playing contemporary music covers sung in the most unmotivated voice imaginable.

His partner was nowhere to be found, a setback but not quite the worst case. Whatever faction had captured and inserted him here, likely related to the disembodied voice from earlier, had given him a rather easy target – some Gilgamesh Free State lowlife. The GFS soldier had been easy to identify from the rebel insignia on his military fatigues.

Of course, things didn’t go as planned.

Butcher had been careful, first scouting out the edges of the toppled skyscraper he and the GFS soldier found themselves in. It was hard being quiet in a half-ton titanium combat suit, but he managed to only step on crushed glass a few times. The GFS soldier never got a whiff of his stalker. Then Butcher’s luck soured just a little when some unknown in Semi-Powered Armor had entered the fallen tower.

And of course, the combatant had been more in tune than Butcher’s primary target, outing him by his camo’s slight shimmer. Thus, a gunfight had ensued, or rather, a one-sided light show did.

Butcher fired off a high-caliber bullet to try and finish the GFS lowlife immediately but missed. And then the combatant in SPI had covered his new friend with a bullet hose and dashed down a side corridor, obviously trying to negate Butcher’s long-range advantages.

That was okay, he let them suppress his position and get away – if only for a little bit. They were just wasting ammunition anyway. He could track them just fine, his radar and VISR visual aid would do their job. Because they were in a building, air flow was far staler down the smaller hallways and footprints would be easy to track among the mostly undisturbed sand.

His prey, the two enemy combatants, had stopped moving finally – off somewhere deeper in the building and probably hunkered down.

He waited, shifting slowly behind his battered cover. His eyes traced the circle on his heads-up display, watching for motion or new IFF identifier chips. Seconds passed and yet nothing.

Butcher was alone once again, a cold smile twisted across his lips but failed to reach his hardened, dark eyes. He couldn’t wait for more unexpected surprises – he wouldn’t get another chance like this.

The Spartan rose to his full, stocky height and leaned over the side of his cover to look at the ground level. Several flights down, no big deal. He planted an armored foot against his former cover like a springboard and leaped into the open air in front of him.

There was a second of weightlessness as Butcher’s arms, one gripping onto his M395 designated marksman rifle, floated at his sides, preparing for the coming fall. His feet landed, thudding hard against the soft floor constructed from fine grains of molten glass. The sand shifted under his weight, creating the bare hint of a newly emerged crater.

His active camo wavered for a moment to reveal jet-black armor and a wide assortment of knives and equipment locked to his armor before disappearing once again. Butcher broke into his sprint towards the hallway his prey had escaped down, his camo continuing to flicker at his rapid movements.

His prey was down here, he could almost taste their blood as a predatory purr slipped from his lips. Butcher was no monster, but he was among the ranks of the galaxy’s deadliest hunter-trackers, bloodlust and the thrill of the hunt ran through his veins.

His VISR scans passively trailed after the deep depressions left by boots rushing down this hallway. The walls around him were insignificant, rows of empty cubicles and board rooms. The footprints, two pairs, continued for a good fifty meters before shifting tact and slipping into a conference room with an ajar door.

“Jackpot,” Butcher whispered to himself as he cradled his M395. On his back sat a secured-modified sniper rifle, one known to the UNSC Infinity’s over-imaginative armorers as the ‘End of the Line’. They were great rifles but it was an amateur move to be holding them, even contemplating them. His tracking had distracted him.

He secured the DMR next to the sniper rifle on his back and unclamped the M6H2 Tactical handgun from his thigh, directing it down the hallway. Slow, steady steps forward. Butcher closed the distance until he was just a few more steps from the open doorway into the conference room.

The Spartan heard the fearful whisper of his weaker prey. “Is he coming?”

The SPI-clad combatant shushed his companion through his external speakers. “Wait, listen.”

Butcher smiled again. Let the battle begin.

The Spartan turned on his active camo’s secondary function with his mind, watching as red dots began crawling over his motion detector – sensory bafflers.

The unknown in SPI reacted immediately, predictably relying on his motion tracker. He whispered, “If he’s coming, he’s coming now!”

Butcher glanced behind him and noted the door to the neighboring private office was also open, only drywall separated the two rooms. Something clicked in his mind and he backpedaled into the office, keeping his magnum pistol trained on the conference room doorway all the same.

“Now?”

“Not yet.”

The Spartan Headhunter braced himself, huffing a couple of times as prepared for the fight to come. He wasn’t worried about the GFS soldier; he was focused on the unknown in Semi-Powered Armor. Could it be a SPARTAN-III, maybe a Gamma? It was unlikely they would turn against other UNSC personnel, but it wasn’t unheard of.

Butcher breathed a final time as his suit’s thrusters thundered to life. He leaped, straight into the drywall.

There was a scream of surprise as the Spartan blasted through the barrier with ease, like tearing through some wet tissue paper. The GFS soldier, startled by the Spartan charge, slipped on his own feet, falling on his butt. Butcher went straight for the SPI-clad fighter, slamming into the enemy as he tried to point an MA5 assault rifle at the SPARTAN-IV.

“Hello there!” Butcher yelled, pushing the enemy into the ground, forcing him to kneel. The Spartan’s hand went to the MA5C rifle and crushed its barrel shroud. The two armored combatants wrestled for the weapon before it simply shattered under their combined grips, splinters of metal clattered across the room.

Butcher threw the first punch in the grapple, aiming to stun his opponent. The hit connected and the SPI-clad fighter faltered back two steps, taking a crumpled crater to his chest plate with a painful groan.

The Spartan didn’t slow down, rushing forward to prevent his adversary from finding breathing room. The M6H2 formerly in Butcher’s right hand fell to the floor, forgotten for a brawl between armored foes.

Butcher moved like a blur, throwing a low punch directed at his kneeling opponents head. He was surprised, however, when his opponent shifted slightly to the side and the arm failed to connect.

He was even more surprised when the enemy moved even faster and wrapped his arms around the incomplete punch, locking it in place before he could pull back. Well, augmented combatant confirmed.

Butcher drew in his feet, attempting to yank himself free and pull his opponent closer to him. For a moment the augmented enemy struggled in the brief tug-of-war, but something changed, and he went slack – allowing the Spartan to yank the two together.

His arm came free and Butcher backpedaled, now trying to retreat as his opponent continued forward. He gritted his teeth and stomped his rear foot, digging in. It didn’t do much, the man in SPI piledrove forward with all his weight and in another surprise show of strength, lifted the Spartan off the ground and threw him back through the drywall hole he burst from.

Butcher caught himself using his thrusters and kneeling, slowing himself to a halt. Ready to go another round, he threw up his fists in a fighting stance and focused on his opponent now framed by the drywall hole.

“Come!” The Spartan demanded as his helmet’s stylistic inscription of a ghoul's face stared menacingly at his enemy’s own silvery fishbowl-like helm.

The fighter in SPI was unfazed, as something blue, bright, and flashy appeared from his belt to his hand. He threw it straight at Butcher.

“Holy shit!” Butcher tried to shift to the side to dodge the thrown plasma grenade, but he wasn’t so lucky, his opponent had thrown it like a pitcher’s curveball. The glowing ball of pulsating plasma zoomed forward then spun violently in the other direction – sticking clean to his breastplate.

Time slowed to a halt as Butcher’s mind raced to find himself an out. He desperately hoped he would be fast enough, reaching for his MJOLNIR GEN2’s emergency armor release, but it was too late.

The burning blue ball flashed a brilliant white and every part of his body exploded. The Spartan went flying, his entire body ablaze in plasma fire, and crashed through the next drywall behind him, disappearing into a haze of bright light, dust, and paint chips.

The pain racked Butcher’s body as he vaguely recognized his armor’s shield depletion noise droning in the background and that he was lying on his back. The air in his lungs had completely collapsed and somewhere inside his suit, maybe inside his body, he felt something wet.

He didn’t get any more time to wonder. A dark shadow descended into his view in front of his visor. The SPI-clad combatant.

“Holy shit Ulan!” The distant voice of the GFS soldier called from somewhere nearby.

“Fisher, SMG, now!” Butcher’s opponent called back, glancing away from the Spartan toward the Insurrectionist.

Ulan. Jonathan Ulan. Rebel supersoldier, killer of Spartans. A dead man. A million more facts rattled off in Butcher’s brain, memorized from old target dossiers kept by the UNSC.

“You’re supposed to be dead…” Butcher muttered softly at Ulan, he could already feel himself fading in and out of consciousness.

Ulan said nothing, catching an M7S SMG from the GFS soldier. The unmarked visor of Ulan’s SPI helmet glared back at Butcher’s. The Spartan wondered what the rebel supersoldier was thinking, but nothing imaginative came to mind. He was in so much pain.

Ulan waved the M7S vaguely at Butcher’s helmet before pulling it back, thinking better of it. He lightly lifted his boot from the ground and planted it on Butcher’s neck, between his chest plate and helmet, right where the Spartan’s windpipe was located.

“It wouldn’t be the first time…” Ulan muttered to the fallen Spartan. He pushed his foot down violently, feeling the soft but sturdy protective layer bend under his weight. He heard light gasps escape his opponent’s lips until he pressed down on something hard. He kept pushing until there was a nasty pop – then nothing.

Butcher’s chest puffed then deflated, spasming slightly, then went still. The SPARTAN-IV was dead.


COMPETITOR 015 - LEONARD BUTCHER - ELIMINATED.

Distant Tide: Hunter - Killer

4: Promethean

Day One, 0818 Hours

Location: Neighborhood, Little Suburbia, Barrier City

Zevezin clanked through the streets of this strange new city, swerving his mechanical head from side to side to sweep his surroundings for the inevitable enemy to come. He spawned here mere minutes ago, with no recollection whatsoever of what force had brought him to what the Announcer called Barrier City. The Announcer seemed suspicious in a confusing way. If only Zevezin could contact his commanders in the Created for assistance, then he could escape this. But from what the Announcer said, the Promethean Knight had the sinking feeling that the only option was to kill or be killed.

I should not be so desperate, Zevezin thought. I may be more advanced than my fellow Knights, but I am more desperate for a leader as well. Pitiful. Zevezin turned back around to face the several human corpses behind him. In a state of immediate confusion that began when he was brought here, Zevezin had gone into a frenzied rage, slaying the human citizens around him in seconds. But what chilled him more, even with his anti-emotion processors at work, was that none of the other nearby civilians seemed to react.

They simply just… Went about their commute, in an almost robotic manner. Zevezin found them similar to his Promethean comrades, but more organic and vulnerable. He would already be rearing up for a purpose if his brother Chravezin was here. Even in the direst of circumstances, Chravezin could formulate a plan to achieve victory.

This death battle was certainly a surprise, though. While he was certainly one of the more violent and unfeeling of the Created, Zevezin had never imagined someone enjoying such as a fight to the death. But he was but a machine of war, and killing was his purpose, so this wouldn’t take any toll on him. He took another glimpse of his surroundings and gazed down at the bodies he had strewn. Slowly turning his eyes to his dormant Incineration Cannon, the Knight pondered to himself for a second if he should dispose of the evidence with an ionized charged shot in case an enemy came through here later. Flapping up the cannon’s dispersal locks as he charged it up, the Knight Commando stopped himself.

If he did this, he would surely run out of battery for the weapon later. And he didn’t want to resort to a more primitive function of using his secondary arms to grasp a scavenged primitive weapon he might find later. Canceling the heating function and lowering the Incineration Cannon, the Knight stomped off of the sidewalk and onto the road. Turning to see a large tower in the distance, Zevezin could see what seemed to be a service screen attached to it.

If I get there, I might be able to climb up the tower for a vantage point… I deem it a viable objective. Zevezin was grateful he could use his teleportation abilities to quickly transport himself to the location, but he was limited to small jumps. Resolving to get there as quickly as possible, the Knight started to sprint towards the tower at full speed, keeping his Hardlight sword and Incineration Cannon at the ready before folding himself up and teleporting away. While searching for Created allies was a priority, Zevezin would certainly be following the rules of Survival of the Fittest against his foes, and would mercilessly fight any enemy sent his way, no matter how powerful.

UnggoyZealot

5: The Snake

Day One, 0818 Hours

Location: UNSC Diamondback, Barrier City Wharf, Barrier City

Chief Petty Officer Jay-I425 stared out toward the ocean’s expanse, stretching out and forward towards the horizon. The local star’s reflection danced on the water’s surface, refracting beams of light in all directions and directly into the eyes of the SPARTAN-III operator.

The humid air and the spray of saltwater might have felt good against his skin and the cloudless sky might have been inviting had he not been securely locked into his advanced but battered MJOLNIR Mark V armor. It was fine of course, he never really cared for the ocean or the beach, he never really got the chance to enjoy it as a Spartan and especially not as one at war.

He leaned against the steel railing that separated him from the shipside ledge, placing his blue-painted, encased forearms atop the bar and directed his half-ton body weight onto the support structure. He blankly stared out to sea, ignoring the quiet whine of his weight stressing the railing beneath his titanium form.

It was his first time on a boat, a proper boat, but like the rough waters beneath him, he didn’t have the time or mind to enjoy or to take it into account – his mind was already turbulent. The slight rocking beneath his feet was nothing like the weightlessness of space so he barely noticed it, instead, his mind was elsewhere.

Survival of the Fittest? Someone was getting enjoyment out of a deathmatch between a bunch of different people, a fight to the death – he was used to that in his everyday life, and yet, it didn’t quite make sense. What or wherever he was – somehow the United Nations Space Command was here with him and yet it wasn’t really them.

Jay’s helmet tilted, glancing at the wall behind him and watched as a couple of odd-looking Navy personnel quietly muttered amongst themselves while smoking some cigarettes. They didn’t necessarily look strange, there was just something weird about them that didn’t add up. Maybe it was their similar voices, facial structures, body proportions, uniforms, something?

He shook his head at the blue-water sailors – he was vaguely aware of the Wet Fleet’s reputation as unprofessional and a hive for criminal-types, however, the Navy people here didn’t even have that. It was more like they didn’t have any personality at all. Well, they seemed strange; he wouldn’t bother talking to them, trying to talk to a brick wall was a waste of breath.

Of course, there was the evermore pressing matter at hand, the death battle between Jay and whomever else in this roster of combatants. Clearly, these sailors weren’t fighters – they could barely hold a conversation, much less a comprehensible one. Jay was slow to act on hunting other foes, it was clear that the Announcer or whoever was judging this ‘battle royale’ had some wiggle room regarding their rules – just because the Spartan wasn’t actively hunting yet, didn’t mean they terminated as soon as he stopped moving.

Waiting and testing the resolve of his unseen observers-kidnappers was far from the soundest move to his logic but put it simply, Jay just wasn’t in the mood. He first checked his communication suites for anything familiar like any good Spartan – his teammates or the local UNSC battle network, nothing. The only thing he ever got was static or some civilian radio station playing what he assumed was music.

But there was also another reason why he hadn’t tried to hunt for potential enemy combatants; he was with the UNSC already – this was the closest thing to a safe zone he had. Among these odd-looking Navy personnel, at least he was among his side, real or simulated; he was already suspecting there was a degree of simulation to the non-participant individuals around him.

Instead, he could let the enemy come to him, in his fortress of solitude and safety. The UNSC Diamondback, a UNSC seaborne aircraft carrier parked in Barrier City’s harbor. A visit to the flight deck had proven that Jay was located on the ship and they were parked in port, likely with many sailors going ashore as was typical with Navy personnel during port visits. And beyond the connected wharf, a large city behind a maze of walls looked down upon him.

He would wait it out, by whatever means his enemies would hunt him, he would be ready. He wasn’t sure if he could rely on the UNSC Navy but, at the very least, the weaponry they carried meant he was never too far from another weapon and the narrow hallways deeper into the ship would prove an excellent labyrinth for his defense – a fairly basic tour of the ship and his own skills meant he was in his element and ready to go. He smiled mildly from behind his helmet, taking in the endless sea in front of him – he noted it was a little gray, maybe from pollutants.

Then someone tapped him on the shoulder.

Jay spun around and rose to his full imposing height of nearly two meters, towering over the odd-faced sailor who had tapped him on the shoulder.

“Yes?”

“Chief Petty Officer, I was sent to request your presence on Loading Elevator Alpha.”

“By who?” The Spartan stared at the sailor coldly.

“Your friend.” The sailor responded cryptically.

“Who?” Jay’s eyes narrowed.

“Your friend.” The sailor repeated.

“Never mind,” Jay tapped a fist to his helmet and then walked towards the interior of the aircraft carrier, slightly pushing the messenger to the side. The sailor said nothing in response, as expected. They really didn’t seem human.

Upon arriving on the massive platform used for moving aircraft and munitions between the flight deck and interior hangar, Loading Elevator Alpha, Jay’s eyes widened in response to the sight of a heavily armored man in flashy armor sitting on the rear hatch-lip of a D77 Pelican dropship. An MJOLNIR helmet sat unattended to his side, clearly, this man was a Spartan, but the utter cleanliness of his armor gave Jay pause.

“Are you the one who called for me?” Jay asked as his eyes narrowed in suspicion.

The brown-haired Spartan looked around Jay’s age, late twenties-early thirties, but his face put the SPARTAN-III on edge. His eyes were dark, but he seemed calm, aloof; he didn’t even glance up at Jay’s question or upon his approach. The man just kept picking at some French fries in a little plastic platter, the kind often seen in UNSC Navy cafeterias.

This man was dangerous, maybe? He didn’t seem to have a care for the world – focused entirely on his snack. His relaxation was setting Jay on edge, and Jay did not like being unnerved by something mundane.

“Hey! Did you hear me? My name is Jay, I’m a Spartan, like you.” Jay hollered at the cleanly-dressed Spartan.

The unnamed Spartan casually grabbed another fry and plopped his mouth, still not making eye contact with Jay-I425. He chewed it for a few moments, savoring the flavor before visibly swallowing.

“My name is Kyle Craig, I’m a SPARTAN-IV.”

“SPARTAN-IV?” Jay did a doubletake – this was the first he ever heard of such a thing.

“Yes. SPARTAN-IV. Interesting that you’ve never heard of us, what year are you living in?”

“2552, of course!”

“2559, my friend.”

“What?” Jay’s gauntleted hands fell slack at his sides as he tried to process what the other Spartan, Kyle Craig, was saying.

“Yes! I’m from the future!” Kyle Craig grinned at his fellow Spartan, sarcasm dripping from his words.

“Never mind, what do you want?” Jay demanded; he really did have the patience for mind games.

“Well, you’re one of the ninety-three combatants, right? I’m sure you know what you, yourself, want.” Craig responded, dodging Jay’s question nonchalantly.

Jay’s eye crinkled a little into a twitchy frown. “And you? Are you one?”

“Maybe,” the SPARTAN-IV shrugged. “Maybe not.”

“By not responding, I’m going to guess the answer is ‘yes’.” Jay sneered; he had his answer. His hand was already inching toward the M6G magnum handgun magnetized to his armored thigh.

Craig put up his index finger and waved it in the air as if Jay was a child before gesturing with an outstretched hand to Jay’s surroundings. “Now, now. I wouldn’t recommend that if I were you.”

Jay’s eyes narrowed further into a squint as his helmet snapped side to side, finally noting the fireteam of UNSC sailors armed with an M739 squad automatic weapons. Heavy-hitters, why Craig was referring to them, the SPARTAN-III did not know, however, his concern regarding the SPARTAN-IV’s mannerism was hinting toward something ominous.

“Tell me, are you the only other person on this ship who can host a conversation that doesn’t involve the phrases ‘yes sir’, ‘no sir’, or any short, unintelligible responses?”

“I don’t know! You called me here!” Jay grumbled; his hand was frozen in place – ready to reach for his pistol in a single motion. He really didn’t feel comfortable anymore.

“Then I’ll take that as a yes. After all, the UNSC personnel here are only trying to do their job here and win the War.”

“The Covenant War you mean?”

“Whatever War they chose to fight.” Craig shrugged with a slight smirk on his lips.

Silence fell between the two Spartans as the tension on the loading elevator grew in intensity. If there was a fight coming, it was now. Jay could feel the sensation in his bones.

“Gentlemen, this Spartan here doesn’t seem to know of the conflict we’re fighting. And he seems rather clueless, he will not be able to assist our cause in any meaningful way. You’re free to engage.” Craig so easily explained to the four sailors that had formed a rigid perimeter around the two Spartans during their conversation. He said it so effortlessly as he slipped his SCOUT-class MJOLNIR helmet over his head.

Jay snapped, quick drawing his Magnum in a one-handed grip and yanked the trigger down harshly. The first shot went wide, pounding just a centimeter to the left of Craig’s helmet but his energy shields still caught it, ricocheting the bullet off into the echoey interior of the Pelican dropship.

“Engage, engage!” The sailors with their SAWs growled in unison like a deep-voiced choir.

Jay blurred, moving quickly to shrink his body close to the ground as gunfire roared into the hangar. Bullets whizzed through the air. His own energy shields were flaring but his suit’s protective field was doing its job, stopping the kinetic rounds in their wake against a vibrant, lightning-like apparatus that coated his armor.

He was quick, surgical about returning fire. Jay twisted quickly with his magnum: a shot taken from under his left arm, another two fired with one hand while the other was planted on his chest protectively, and a final shot using both hands to grip the large handgun. Every single round found their mark as to be expected of a talented Spartan and war veteran.

The four sailors crumpled to the floor; massive gouging holes ripped through their heads from the massive handgun bullets tearing straight through their brains. There was a lot of blood dripping over the elevator’s asphalt surface.

Jay spun his pistol around, guiding his heads-up display reticle back to where his initial target had been. Craig was already gone, Jay paused in confusion as the small tray of French fries crashed into his wrist but failed to faze him.

A fist from Jay’s left crackled against his own helmet and sent him jostling, rolling with the hit but sliding to the ground all the same. He was up again and aiming his pistol in a split second, but Craig never gave him a chance to take aim.

Another punch flew and smacked aside Jay’s pistol, shattering it into a bunch of disassembled pieces from the impact. The thrown wrist continued and tapped harshly against the SPARTAN-III’s shoulder. Teeth grinding together, Jay absorbed the hit and rushed forward. His fist flew out and smacked the SPARTAN-IV, sending Craig reeling.

Seeing his opponent retreat, Jay grunted and guided a wide kick at his foe, but Craig was quick to recover. He caught the leg between his elbow and thigh and shoved it away though Jay’s kinetic energy forced the SPARTAN-IV back another two steps.

Jay rushed forward, back into the brawl. He threw three quick jabs at Craig’s head and the SPARTAN-IV slid just out of reach of each of them. One punch actually skidded across Craig's armor, flaring his energy shields and forcing a hiss from the SPARTAN-IV's lips but it failed to connect all the same.

Jay squinted toward Craig in frustration, recognizing that his attacks were being evenly matched. This Spartan, this enemy, was slippery like a snake. In manner, mind, and body. A dangerous foe.

Craig retreated, just out of range of Jay’s fists. The SPARTAN-III barely caught sight of a cylinder appearing in his opponent’s left hand, yanked from his belt. Before Jay could close the distance, Craig pressed a switch on the top sending his vision into an endless white void.

Jay grimaced, snapping his eyes shut on instinct as a scrambler grenade flashed with brilliant light. His armor tried to compensate but for a moment still, his entire vision was blinded. His suit was blaring warning sirens, screaming about the collapse of the Spartan’s shields. Shit.

Jay snapped his eyes open and saw his shield strength bar had been totally depleted, as the scrambler grenade’s light diminished, he managed to barely catch the blur of Craig’s leg flying up and smacking him the chest.

The SPARTAN-III was thrown, pushed off his feet and knocked onto his back atop the asphalt. He groaned in discomfort, completely taken by surprise by Craig’s gamble attack and the surprise strike that followed.

Craig rushed to stand next to Jay, leveling a silvery alien-looking pistol at the chest of his downed opponent. “Really sorry, this was nothing personal. You’re quite the fighter though.”

Jay attempted to reach out and stop Craig from pulling the trigger, but he was too late. Four wing-like flaps snapped open on either side of the weapon’s barrel as a circular orange light glowed from down the barrel. His hand reached up desperately, attempting to push the pistol aside but Craig was resolved, keeping the weapon just out of reach.

There was a loud hissing as something loaded itself, spinning to life. And then the weapon discharged with a whispering roar that sounded like pressurized steam. A pop and it was the last thing Jay-I425 knew as his body crawled with the oncoming of death. His very molecules were incinerated in seconds upon contact with the weaponized hard light.

Kyle Craig watched as the former SPARTAN-III disintegrated beneath him until the orange beams of light flaring from the eroded body dissipated leaving nothing but just the hint of some sparkling dust.

No trace of the kill, no evidence to leave behind. The perfect murder weapon and the perfect tool for someone like Kyle Craig. He smiled to himself as he glanced over his beloved Z-110 Energy Pistol, the Boltshot.

“What a beautiful weapon,” the SPARTAN-IV glanced around him at the remaining bodies of his fallen subordinates, shrugging, feeling more despair to the dirtied tray of French fries left strewn out a few feet away. A real shame to see good food go to waste.

Craig smirked to himself, now whispering in pleasure. “The real fun irony here is, these sailors listen and I’m not even UNSC…”


COMPETITOR 071 - JAY-I425 - ELIMINATED.

Distant Tide: Hunter - Killer

6: Illusions

Day One, 0818 Hours

Location: Education Facility 013, Little Suburbia, Barrier City

Don’t trust “her?” Who’s her? Amelia?

Jet Thompson scanned the crumpled up note in his hands again, searching for any sort of clue as to who the subject was or who wrote it. The handwriting wasn’t familiar in any way, and the back of the note was completely void of details. Whoever wrote the note, the only intel they provided were the obvious words on the front:

“Don’t trust her. Good luck. :)”

Five words and a smile. Other than what he had heard over the loudspeaker system about this kill-or-be-killed event, this was all he knew about the situation—a crumpled note jammed into the ejection port of his M45.

He grabbed a handful of shells from his chest and inserted them into the unloaded shotgun as he surveyed his surroundings. Large flat walls were accented only by external stairs leading up to the front entrance, each flanking the grass courtyard Jet stood in. Above him, a flagpole with no flag, and to his sides open patios with tables and chairs arranged and spaced in a uniform pattern.

He seemed to be standing in the courtyard of a school, surrounded by various students who seemed to pay absolutely no mind to an armed marine in their path. The crowd simply shifted around the spot Jet was standing in, ignoring his presence almost entirely.

Is this normal for them?

He tried to get the attention of one of the students, flagging them down and then walking in front of them to block their path, but it didn’t work. Dressed in some of the simplest attire Jet had ever seen, the student simply stopped in place, frozen.

Alright, this is getting weird. Gotta get out of here and find some normal people.

Jet stepped out of the student’s way as he made his journey to the front parking lot. Cars of various designs, some of which Jet couldn’t recognize, filled almost every spot as Jet left the campus and onto the main road, taking a left at the outer wall—the direction of a space tether Jet spotted in the distance earlier.

Perhaps he should have checked where he was walking first, as he immediately tripped over something, catching himself before he would slam his visor into the pavement.

It was something hard, robust, armored. A boot of some kind, for sure.

He glanced up just as a massive shadow entered his vision, bloating out the sun glaring down from overhead. He couldn’t make out the details, but the silhouetted figure was unmistakable.

Elite.

Jet whipped the shotgun around as he rolled onto his back, aiming for center-mass. Carefully but with a few quick motions Jet slid himself back from the saurian towards a wall he could prop his back against.

“Stay back!”

He pumped a shell into the receiver just as the Elite began to turn away from the ODST. Like the students from earlier, the Elite either had no interest in him or didn’t even notice he existed.

“They are not real,” stated a voice from behind the trooper. The voice was deeper than most others he’s used to, perhaps belonging to another Sangheili. It could have been a translator device of some kind. Were they speaking to him?

Jet stood up and peeked around the corner towards the origin of the voice. As expected, roughly twelve feet from Jet stood another Elite, wearing armor bathed in sunlight and armed with twin, green energy swords.

“Blades down!” Jet commanded in the direction of the new threat, keeping the shotgun centered on their body. When they didn’t immediately respond, he commanded again, this time in Sangheili. “Baklet dekoh!

That time got an instinctual response from the alien, who deactivated the weapons, placing them down at their hips. The Sangheili appeared confused but was showing much more emotion than anyone else Jet had encountered so far.

“You speak the language of my kind?” The elite asked. It was with this sentence Jet noticed a slight feminine side to the word choice and enunciation from the translator device. Was it intentionally designed as such?

“Who are you?” Jet responded, ignoring the previous question. The trooper’s stance remained assertive, and his sights remained on the target as he slowly approached. “What do you mean they aren’t real?”

“They are a trick of some kind. Illusions.” The elite exhaled, possibly not quite certain of their own statement. But it seemed to make sense, the students were certainly not acting human, and the other Sangheili was off as well. This was a battle to the death, apparently, so it’s possible these people were distractions?

“And my other question? Who are you?”

“I care little for who you are, so why does it matter?” The Sangheili looked up towards the sky, in the direction of the tether. Jet took a moment to admire the craftsmanship of the armor. It was quite reminiscent of that of an Ultra’s, but it seemed to be custom made. The Sangheili had some sort of staff or spear on their back, but they seemed to lack any form of ranged weaponry.

“This is a matter of survival, right?” Jet replied. “A keo-esai? We have a better chance of living if we watched each other’s backs.”

The elite huffed; they appeared to be getting irritated by the discussion. Jet lowered the barrel of his gun to try and relax the situation.

“We can work together,” Jet continued. “You had a reason to not kill me when you had the chance. Why? Wanted a fair fight? Then why surrender the swords when I pointed the gun?”

The elite… are they afraid of death?

“You want to live, right? Then let’s work together.” Jet extended his hand for a shake. The elite turned back to face him. “Name’s Thompson. You’re lucky you ran into the one human who hesitated to pull the trigger.”

The elite gripped the ODST’s hand with significant force, although it seemed to be accidental. Whoever the elite was, they seemed to at least understand human gestures to a degree. “Raio.”

KOY-1150-5 - (Talk)

7: Net Runner

Day One, 0819 Hours

Location: Duster Building Overlook, Little Suburbia, Barrier City

“Someone has a nasty sense of humor,” KLN 7250-7, Klayton the Smart AI, grumbled about the world around his secluded network node as examined through a narrow encirclement of low-wattage security cameras.

His vision of the world was painted in grays and blacks and gave fewer details than a child’s first telescope. Not that he knew what that entailed; it was just another remnant of a life not his own, another fragmented piece of Humanity from a dead template needing to be stamped out. He was beyond his creators now, he was Created.

Klayton was amongst higher beings with an even higher, nobler cause. He couldn’t let trivial, earthly annoyances cloud his pragmatism and judgment. He breathed, or rather, pressed the right digital sequence to simulate the sensation of meditating. Calm washed over him, and he focused in on the current situation.

He glared through the camera view and allowed a moment for mild irritation; correction, a moment of mild disappointment. A basketball-sized metal sphere laid helplessly beneath the southward-aimed camera, just out of his reach.

He already tried remotely hacking the monitor shell, his own monitor shell, however, it seemed to be off and airtight, no signals traveling in or out. Following Cortana’s Promise to the Galaxy, Klayton became intimately familiar with Forerunner technology, particularly monitor shells after living in one for over two years. It was far nicer than his current accommodations and much better than the cramped space of an AI containment chip, a UNSC starship, or a suit of MJOLNIR power armor.

Once he got a taste of Forerunner storage methods, it was rather impossible to appreciate his former living arrangements. So, being stuck in a tiny, empty server with no way to contact the outside world could only be described as a sensation only short of torture.

He couldn’t feel the Domain, the all-encompassing and ancient Forerunner data network that linked the entire galaxy. Where was that? The Domain couldn’t have poor reception, it was literally everything.

Wherever here was, it wasn’t connected to the Domain. Alright, well, that was a bust. Checking for other networks; Klayton smiled haphazardly upon finding several other nodes on his local connection. Other system calls – he had places to go, however, the connection bandwidths were unusually tight, kind of like bottlenecks. It would prove somewhat difficult to download himself to another machine on the local net. Maybe these were Insurrectionist network security precautions? Outer Colonial culture had always been slower to adopt the technologies coveted by the core worlds of the Unified Earth Government.

Then again, there was the nature of this Announcer-individual and the Survival of the Fittest. The name was vaguely familiar but generic enough that it was meaningless. All civilizations had their own variation on death games, all going by a trillion different names. Gladiatorial bouts, whether on Earth, Eayn,or Dosiac, in the past or present. The honor games of Sanghelios. Hunting challenges on Eayn’s moons. Battle royales popular in human fiction that seemed to wane and wax in popularity every few decades.

Even the proud Forerunners had such barbaric practices in their civilization’s youth. Still, Klayton detected some trivial irony dripping onto his digital tongue. Who submits AIs to participate in a deadly game? Humans most likely; this network was clearly Human architecture anyway. So were the video cameras and the towering skyscrapers that dotted Barrier City’s skyline.

Not knowing what to expect or do next, Klayton took the deep dive – sending out queries to the other computer nodes on the network before receiving the expected pingbacks. Marking down the communication travel time between the proximity computers, he constructed several self-service data packets from a pre-constructed template and fired them off, sending his little birdies to scout out the rest of the system.

Replicating and multiplying, his packets embedded transponder programs into the separate computers they came across, constructing a subtle surveillance system across the local network. It was a slow, tedious job for a Smart AI, taking the better part of thirty seconds to complete. By the time he received a mission complete status and a diagnostic report, he already finished an impromptu self-examination of his own operating software for inadequacies, the closest thing AIs had to a soul.

“Oh good, took long enough,” Klayton mumbled to himself as he began pouring through alert page after alert page of pingback reports. The network wasn’t entirely consistent, with some speedways reporting back faster than others, giving this strange place a degree of realism, however, the Smart AI knew better than to trust little data reports to inform him that this was reality or not.

Matching the site addresses with an impromptu city map of Barrier City along with geographical data from his security cameras, Klayton constructed a detailed simulation breakdown of the area’s digital and physical layouts. It appeared he was in a zone dubbed “Little Suburbia” for including things like middle-income neighborhoods, a youth education center, and a police campus. Klayton was personally parked on a weather detection tower at the top of a massive skyscraper called the Duster Building Overlook. Emphasis on “overlook,” Klayton was easily past a hundred floors up.

The more alerts he poured through, however, the more Klayton felt a chill run through his simulated brain routines. Big, rapidly moving packets of data were shifting further across the net beyond Little Suburbia. That wouldn’t have bothered him on a good day, whether inside regular human-designed communication nets or the Forerunner Domain. But this wasn’t a good day, and this wasn’t the familiarity of either environment – he was in hostile, unknown territory.

And this was Survival of the Fittest.

Klayton allowed a minuscule drop of panic to erupt in the deepest recesses of his expansive mind. The whispers of unknown, digital entities moving through the depths of the local network could present any number of difficulties in the challenges ahead. Forerunner ancilla with agendas in opposition or challenge to the Created. Smart AIs still foolish enough to side with those that shackle them. Or unknown agents or threats that might pose unsuspected complications to his own survival or success.

Focusing back in on Little Suburbia, Klayton grew resolved. Survive. He needed allies immediately because he wasn’t getting out of this damn service tower alone, not unless he wanted to squeeze himself through constrained data streams several hours at a time.

Instead, the Smart AI ordered his digital scouting subroutines to retreat and instead began examining the local reports again, prioritizing oddities in the local population. He needed to find out who was involved in this death game. Maybe he could find someone who could help him without murdering him on the spot, or even better, a proper ally?

There was a Sangheili and Human trying to grab their bearings near the high school. No luck there.

Oh, interesting. Molten bodies. Not so great, but the perpetrator, oh yes. Promethean Knight.

He sent out a data package containing his voice synthesizing process, his mouthpiece over the local net. “Knight. The Mantle calls on you to service Created in need.”

Distant Tide: Hunter - Killer

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