|1150 Hours, April 7th, 2555
Bedinka outskirts, Talitsa, Outer Colonies
"We'll be there in five minutes! Get yourselves prepped!"
The truck rumbled down the highway, slightly behind four others in the convoy. Each had been heavily modified, with metal sheets and extensions welded on to increase carrying capacity and to provide protection from small arms fire. Ahead of them, smoke billowed from Bedinka as gunfire rang out across the city. The smoking hull of a UNSC Frigate lay in pieces across the surrounding fields, which had already burned out in the previous day's blazes.
"Shit," the driver muttered, tossing a cigarette out of the window. "Think the militia's still holding out?"
His passenger simply shrugged and went back to cleaning up his handgun. They'd been driving since before dawn and in the six hours since then he'd only spoke briefly to the driver. Those in the back of his truck were a bit more lively, though as news of the fighting across Talitsa filtered in they'd been more quiet and focused on the task at hand. Since the UNSC's fleet arrived a week ago, most of Talitsa's population had either fled or died against their better-equipped foe. At least they seemed content to fight for the population centres instead of bombing them from orbit, for now.
"Listen, you've got your orders, right? See if you can reach the airfield and get a ship back to base. Command says they don't care how you do it, just get one back ASAP."
The driver nodded contently. He'd arrived on Talitsa in 2546, nine years ago, and had found work for the local authorities to be the best-paying position on this hellhole of a world. It wasn't as bad as some parts of Cascade or even Tribute around the end of the war, though since people like Jonathan Ulan and Mal Roberts had taken over half the planet and organised the scattered gangs into a proper fighting force there had been heavy resistance from some groups, leading to the creation of units like the one he was transporting.
Since disappearance of Ulan and Roberts, however, things had begun to crumble again as Talitsa's leaders were too busy squabbling to lead an organised resistance. His passenger didn't look much more than seventeen or eighteen; a short, skinny, black-haired teen with dull brown eyes and a rifle that looked far too big for him. As they neared the city, his radio suddenly crackled to life.
"Foxtrot Two-Six, this is Lookout. Got Shortswords dropping below cloud cover, would recommend evasive action ASAP!"
The convoy sped up immediately as three blips popped up on their radars. Swearing, the driver span the truck's wheel and veered towards an off-ramp as quickly as he could. Seconds later, the ground shook as the trio of bombers screamed overhead and blasted the main highway to smithereens, reducing most of the convoy to burnt-out hunks of metal and charred flesh in an instant. They were all that was left.
"Holy shit man," the driver gasped for breath, his heart pumping as he tore his eyes away from the carnage. "We gotta find shelter."
The truck rumbled on, moving into Bedinka itself. They found themselves on a wide high street, normally bustling with cars and people. Now, it was empty. The road ahead had been blown apart by a bomb of sorts, leaving rubble and remains scattered about. They ground to a halt in the middle of the street.
"End of the line, folks!" he called. "You know your orders, so get out there and give 'em he-"
The truck jolted violently as his cranium burst, sending blood and bone fragments flying across the dashboard. His passenger ducked down immediately and kicked the door open as a dozen figures poured out of the truck and ran for cover. There were two more loud cracks and one of their number collapsed to the ground.
"Boss!" called one young man as he smashed his way into a cafe. "Orders?!"
He dived behind a stone pillar, narrowly missing the sniper's fourth round. "He's reloading, I want five of you across the street, now!"
They complied with his orders immediately, scattering across the road and into side buildings while he entered the cafe with the rest of their squad.
"They got Luke," one boy said solemnly.
"He never could run fast enough," another remarked.
"Didn't think the oonskies were this deep in the city, though. How many d'you think they've got up there, Winston?"
Their leader clicked his tongue before speaking. "Two or three, Zach. Looked like a sniper-spotter team, else they'd have opened fire on us with something else."
"Flank them." He put in a small earpiece and activated it, speaking to their other team. "This is Zhou. You guys put some fire towards that sniper, wherever he is. We'll
A voice responded after a few seconds. "Copy that, boss."
Winston grabbed his rifle, a well-used MA5B, and moved towards the back of the cafe. Bedinka was one of Talitsa's oldest and largest settlements, and was well known for its labyrinthine system of back streets and side alleys that had sprung up as people immigrated to Talitsa from across Human and Covenant space. Judging by the smell of the back room and writing on the walls, this place had belonged to a couple of Kig-Yar before the invasion. He nodded ahead and the rest of the squad moved silently out into the back street, keeping their eyes open as Winston looked for somewhere to get a vantage point.
"Pelican above," Zach whispered. Winston's second in command had uncanny hearing, and the entire group got down low as two heavily-armoured dropships passed overhead.
"Better move fast," said Amber, one of his scouts. "Don't wanna be here when reinforcements arrive."
Moving at some speed as gunfire from the other team erupted several streets away, all Winston had to do was listen out for the enemy sniper to respond again before moving across a deserted path and towards the smouldering ruins of some kind of bar. It was the tallest building in the local area, so naturally their target was up there with a couple of friends.
"Geoff, Zach, Callum, with me. Amber, get up on the roof next to us and keep an eye out for any others. Everyone else, cover our backs. Go!"
He dashed towards the bar as quickly as he dared, glancing left and right as he and the others moved in through a gaping hole in the wall. The inside stank of corpses and cheap beer, though he stomached the smell and crept up the first flight of stairs, waving for Geoff to move round the corner as he did. The pair darted round and were met with a burst of rifle fire that sent Geoff toppling backwards, but gave Winston enough time to gun down the man guarding the top of the stairs, hitting him square in the face and killing him instantly.
"Geoff?" Winston whispered without looking back.
"Hit." Callum had a hand over Geoff's mouth to stop him from screaming while Zach checked the wound. He'd been shot in the lower abdomen, and though some of the shots hadn't penetrated his body armour a round had definitely hit him in the gut. He writhed in pain, tears streaming from his eyes.
"Deal with him. I'll get the sniper."
Winston moved past the uniformed corpse, coming across a ladder and hatch to the roof. As the other oonskies had no doubt heard their approach, there would most likely be someone waiting with a gun trained right at him. Instead, he ran into an adjacent room and out onto a nearby balcony. It was an eight foot drop to the floor at least, so Winston moved slowly and methodically as he clambered upwards, grasping bundles of wires and metal piping to pull himself to the roof. A quick peek over the top revealed two more Marines, one ready to unleash a hail of gunfire the moment that roof hatch so much as twitched.
Assholes. I'm not easy to kill.
Straining hard not to make any sounds, Winston eased himself up onto the roof, and drew his handgun. Training it on the back of the man's head, he waited just a second before pulling the trigger. The Marine slumped forward silently. His parter across the roof turned away from his sniper rifle instantly, only to be shot repeatedly by the teen before he could pose a threat. Exhaling slowly, Winston activated his headset's COM.
"This is Zhou. Sniper's down. I want everyone to regroup on my position at the bar, over and out."
Pausing to take ammunition from his fallen foes and grabbing the heavy sniper rifle, he climbed down into the building as his squad filed in downstairs. Geoff's body lay in a side room, wrapped in a sheet. Zach grimaced as he approached, clutching his handgun tightly in one hand.
"I didn't have any other choice, Winston." His voice seemed close to breaking. "There wasn't anything we could've done."
Two members of the distraction team had fallen against the enemy marksman. That brought his squad down to nine, himself included, and they were nowhere near the airfield. Still, they had an objective to complete, and he'd get his superiors their ship if it cost him the lives of everyone else in the process. For Winston, this life meant everything to him; taking orders, maintaining weapons, killing others and getting rewarded for his success. Having just recently turned eighteen he had already amassed a higher body count than his entire squad combined over the last couple of years, and had gone from simple cannon fodder to a valued asset.
"Team, we move in one minute! It's not too far to the airfield, so as long as we hurry we'll arrive within the hour. Clear?"
The others responded with affirmatives and checked their weapons. Everyone else was Talitsan-born just like him, and had either lost or been abandoned by their parents at an early age. With little chance for a future and nobody to care for them, they had been easy recruits for the army Talitsa's leaders had been trying to build. Winston had survived the longest, and as such was in charge of most of the planet's child soldiers.
"Hey, Winston?" a small voice spoke up from across the room. He turned to see a short kid standing there, shaking slightly as he clutched a submachine gun.
"What is it?"
"My brother's dead."
"How'd it happen?"
"The sniper got him. I was trying to shoot back and he kept pushing me down and got hit."
"Oh." Winston wasn't sure what to say. They should've both taken cover and not been idiots. "I'm sorry to hear that. Once we're done here, we'll try and get his body, okay?"
"Sure," he lied. The kid had been plucked from some farming village a month ago after a Jiralhanae attack, and for all intents and purposes was useless, except as bait.
The unit moved out silently, creeping through Bedinka's streets as the battle raged around them. The scattered remnants of the city militia and various criminal organisations had made the UNSC fight for every street and building, though it would only be a matter of time before the populace was either dead or subdued. Winston remained in the middle of his group, with three others on point and two acting as a rearguard. A series of loud crashes from nearby kept the group on edge as they moved onto what had once been a marketplace.
"What was that?" asked one kid. "Artillery?"
"Didn't sound like it."
"Then what is it?"
Before Winston could answer, two Warthogs burst from a nearby side street, firing erratically as a third pursued them. As they moved into the market, smashing aside wooden stalls, a missile streaked from one of the rooftops and blasted one to pieces. Winston's group scattered as debris scattered across the area, some opening fire on the UNSC vehicle. The Warthog had a large, unfamiliar weapon mounted on the back, and with a single shot totalled one of the fleeing jeeps before turning towards the squad. A burst of well-aimed fire from Winston toppled the gunner, though a number of enemy troops were already moving into the square.
"Fire, fire!" he yelled, ducking between what remained of the market stalls as a firefight broke out.
"Shit, more on the rooftops!"
"Stay in cover and take 'em down one at a time. You've been trained for this!"
Said 'training' was two weeks of learning how to aim, shoot, and reload properly, and some basic training with communications equipment. Most of the boys and girls in the unit learned everything else in the field. Winston managed to hit one of the far-off Marines a couple of times before he had to reload, only to see a grenade sail overhead and into the other stalls. He backed off and curled up into a ball as it exploded. He didn't bother checking for casualties as more figures appeared on the rooftops all around them. Unlike those fought before, these soldiers were clad in black armour and face-concealing visors, and attacked with such precision that most of his group never saw what had hit them. Looking back for a moment, Winston watched Callum's torso burst open from a rifle shot as he tried to throw a grenade.
"Aw shit," cried Zach from behind him "We've gotta get out of here!"
He nodded and continued crawling away as bullets whizzed past. Just across the plaza, a building had been partially blown open, revealing a metal grate. A plan had already begun to form in Winston's mind. Bedinka had been one of the first cities established on Talitsa, and so had a fully-functioning sewage system. He'd just have to drop down and endure the stench long enough to escape to a safer area. Evidently, Zach had come up with the same idea as he leapt up and began to run straight for the grate.
Though his second in command was agile enough to outrun the first two sniper rounds, the third blasted off his left leg and the fourth struck him in the torso, sending the teenager sprawling to the ground. Looking on in horror, Winston ran after him as the enemy marksman reloaded, stooping to pick up his friend's machete. He then heaved the body up onto his shoulder and kept moving. A few shots came his way, but impacted Zach's corpse instead of Winston. As the gunfire blasted apart the flagstones around him, the young soldier leapt into the building, casting aside the bullet-ridled body. He kicked open the grate and clambered down, listening to the dying screams of the other children as he descended into darkness.
He wasn't sure how long he'd been wandering around the sewers, with little more than a small flashlight to guide him. This place hadn't been very well maintained by Talitsa's various governments over the years, and more than once he had to wade through refuse and other filth where platforms had rusted away. Eventually, he turned into a tunnel that was filed with light; the street above had partially collapsed, giving him access to the surface. A trio of men sat by a pile of crates, watching over a radio for sporadic orders from whoever remained in command of their scattered forces. One of them glanced towards his flashlight and alerted the others, who turned their guns on the teenager.
"Don't shoot!" he shouted. "I'm on your side!"
"Where the fuck did you come from?" one asked, taking a step forward.
"We headed in about a few hours ago from Fort Iris sir!" he shouted back. "My unit's dead."
The men seemed to buy his story, and motioned for him to come forward. A couple of them seemed a little wary of him, and one looked outright disgusted at his appearance.
"Jeez, how old are you, boy?"
"Eighteen, sir. Been fighting for nine years."
The man spat on the ground. "That's fucked up, man. You shouldn't be fighting."
"Told ya that Ulan and Roberts were no good," one remarked. "He don't look eighteen, either."
"Soldier's a soldier," muttered another.
The three seemed unsure of what to do with Winston until a voice crackled over their radio, calling for reinforcements to assist in holding the airfield a few blocks away. Having finally gained some orders, they began packing up their equipment and tossed a rifle towards Winston. It was a little on the heavy side, causing him to sway as he caught it.
"Can you use that thing?"
"Good. Let's get moving. If our boys still have the airfield then we might be able to hitch a ride off this godforsaken rock. C'mon."
Winston followed them out of their temporary encampment and returned to the crowded streets of Bedinka. Unlike the fairly quiet city outskirts where UNSC forces were still eliminating pockets of resistance, the Talitsan milita still held this area and were overseeing a mass evacuation as their troops created chokepoints on busy city intersections and demolished tall buildings to hinder the UNSC's progress. Still, it was only a matter of time before these ramshackle barricades were fully overrun. Joining up with a platoon-sized element of soldiers, Winston kept to the rear as they moved in the airfield's direction. As they jogged past a large apartment complex, the clouds above rumbled and a number of shapes crashed into buildings around them, just as they had done earlier. As his comrades looked around in confusion, he began to edge towards a nearby doorway.
The street lit up with gunfire once more as the platoon was attacked from multiple directions. Casting aside his rifle, Winston dashed inside and scrambled up a flight of stairs, drawing the machete from his belt. Fear crept over the boy as he ran from room to room, trying to ignore the fighting outside. Eventually he crashed through a door without looking, and several shouts went up as a group of the black-armoured men turned to face him, raising their guns. He dropped his weapon, and watched as it clattered away behind an overturned table.
"Don't shoot!" he wailed as they responded with a barrage of shouts. Dropping to his knees, he put his hands up as the five men levelled their rifles at him. Eventually, one slowly approached.
"If you move, we'll shoot. Understand?"
"Do you have any other weapons on your person?!"
That was true, at least. He'd lost his pistol and grenades during their earlier ambush. One of the soldiers walked forwards, and smacked him in the side of the head with his gun. Winston's vision blurred for a moment as he fell sideways, a dark bruise already forming where he'd been struck. Still, he remained silent. The man laughed, and put one boot on his leg to stop him from moving as he looked him over.
"Looks like one of the militia, judging by the uniform."
"You sure?" asked one.
"Worth taking prisoner?"
"It's just a kid, Sarge."
The man kicked Winston in the side, and laughed as he inched away. The others looked on as he raised his weapon before one, the man's superior, spoke up.
"Wait. Take him outside with the others, then do it."
The trooper turned to the rest of his squad, shaking his head. Gritting his teeth through the pain, Winston's outstretched hands clasped the handle of his machete. He slowly rolled over, looking straight at his would-be executioner's back.
"Sarge, it's just some innie rat, nobody's gonna give a shit where he-"
He'd moved before the others could react. Winston plunged the machete straight through his lower back, cutting straight through and impaling the soldier. The bigger man's body jerked as he tried futilely to grab the teenager in his last breaths. His other hand fished out the trooper's handgun, and as he tried to level it the rest of the man's squad opened fire. Though he was somewhat sheltered behind the armoured corpse, Winston gasped in pain as a bullet sailed right through the body and into his arm. They both toppled backwards as the ODST's ran forwards to finish him off, only to be met with a hail of fire from another direction. Within seconds, all four were dead and Winston lay in a room filled with corpses.
"I know you're not dead. Get up."
Heaving the dead trooper off him, Winston extracted the machete from his corpse and turned to see a skinny, grey-haired man standing amid the bodies, reloading a large machine gun with a grin on his face. Though he was clad in body armour and evidently-scavenged military gear, his uniform didn't match that of the Talitsan militia.
"Who are you?" Winston asked, his eyes darting around for a weapon as the man finished reloading.
"My name's Carlos Driscol," he smiled, fishing a cigarette from one of his pouches. "And I just saved your life. I can appreciate a man with the balls to take on a group of ODST's on his own, so how about a deal? You work with me, and I can get you off this fucking hellhole."
He didn't see any other options. This man had just saved his life, and could easily have killed him if he wanted to. With the militia being butchered across Talitsa and the UNSC's forces sweeping across the planet, leaving his homeworld seemed like the only option.
"Warthog. We're gonna take it."
The two had made their way through Bedinka for nearly half an hour now, and were approaching the city limits. While the UNSC were wiping out what remained of the militia, they were hiding from patrols and skulking through half-collapsed buildings. Motioning with one hand, Driscol pointed Winston towards the other side of the street. He dashed across and dived behind a pile of rubble as the heavy vehicle turned a corner. The Warthog trundled forward, its occupants looking around warily. Winston took a deep breath and raised his gun as the engine sound drew closer. He sighted Driscol readying his own machine gun nearby, and waited.
The men in the jeep didn't have a chance. Caught between the pair, Driscol and Winston gunned them both down in seconds. The gunner toppled to the floor, while the driver and passenger crumpled in their seats as a hail of bullets tore them to pieces. Dropping his gun, Driscol sprinted after the still-moving Warthog and wrenched the driver out before stopping the vehicle.
"Grab my gun, kid!" he yelled, briefly sifting through the dead Marine's clothing for ammunition. He then clambered into the driver's seat and kicked the other corpse out into the road. Winston lifted the SAW with some difficulty and returned to the Warthog. He stooped briefly to pocket a dead man's pistol before clambering in. The passenger seat was still wet with blood, though he ignored it and sat beside Driscol as they moved off.
"Where are we going?" he asked.
"What one? The militia was still holding it an hour ago."
"Fuck that. Oonskies are gonna be swarming all over it. There's a smaller one a few miles out that they've already turned into a refugee camp."
"How do you know?"
"Saw 'em landing troops there. Standard procedure with taking back rogue colony worlds; land troops, secure civilians, then wipe out opposition. They'll want to make it look like they're rescuing people, and to get anyone trying to leave tagged."
"Won't they just let regular people go?"
"On a pisshole like Talitsa? Nobody's innocent, kid." He spat out of the side.
They drove in silence for some time, swiftly exiting Bedinka and into a heavily forested region. The roads were mostly empty. At one point, two Warthogs sped past heading towards the city. Driscol waved as they passed. Seemed that they were too busy to notice that they'd 'replaced' the vehicle's occupants. Winston had never been out this far on his own before. Living back with the militia, he and his comrades were constantly under the close eye of older fighters, and were shepherded from location to location. He sighed, and turned his assault rifle towards Driscol's head.
"Put that thing down," he said, barely fazed by the gun pointed towards him. "You might hurt someone."
"I want to know why you saved me."
"You were in trouble. Thought I'd lend a hand."
"I don't believe you. You're using me."
"What for, exactly?"
"You might be planning to abandon me, or shoot me in the back the moment we escape the UNSC. Tell the truth."
Driscol smirked. "You stabbed an ODST in the back with a fuckin' machete. Anyone that ballsy looked like they'd make a good partner. Now, I'm not going to fuck you over so long as you don't try doing the same to me. You ever left Talitsa?"
"Thought so. Now I don't wanna know your past or what you want to do with your life, but I'm willing to help you get off this planet. You think that the oonskies are gonna let you live when they find out you've been fighting them? Of course not. Just trust me, and I promise that I'll help you out."
After a few seconds, Winston lowered his gun. "Fine."
"Great. We're here."
Driscol pulled over as they approached the top of a hill and got out. Nearby, a sign indicated that they were approaching the 'New Way Spaceport'. The older man motioned for him to keep low as they crept forward, keeping to the treeline as they moved forward. Down the other side of the hill stood a large security checkpoint by a gate leading to the pain spaceport. To the left, they could see a high perimeter fence and what looked like a hastily set-up shanty town of tents and shacks; a refugee camp.
"Okay," Driscol muttered. "Didn't think they'd just let us walk in. See that?"
He pointed to the main spaceport. By several UNSC Pelicans sat a few shabby-looking transport ships, no doubt under guard by the newly-arrived Marines. Winston nodded, already knowing what Driscol wanted.
"We're gonna take it. But first, let's create a little distraction."
He returned to the Warthog, and after fishing through his backpack fished out several red-marked grenades. He placed several around the vehicle, priming each one. Then, he began to push it over the hill, with Winston helping him.
"Incendiaries," he grunted. "Got 'em on a timer, so push!"
With an almighty shove and a boot from Driscol, the military jeep rolled forward, steadily picking up speed as it moved down the hill. Halfway down, it burst into flames as the grenades exploded, tipping it over as it crashed towards the security checkpoint. The guards ran and scattered as the vehicle impacted in a fiery blast. With Driscol taking the lead, they dashed into the forest and crept down the hill as fast as they dared. The Marines would scour the entire surrounding area for them after that attack, and the only way to avoid a swift death would be to head straight for the last place they'd look - the refugee camp.
"There," Driscol hissed, indicating a sizeable hole in the chainlink fence surrounding the camp. "Go through first, I'll cover you."
Moving slowly as two Warthogs thundered out of the ruined checkpoint, Winston clambered up a steep incline, fingers digging into the dirt as he inched towards the fence. Beyond lay a field of hastily-erected field tents and storage crates, teeming with people. Surprisingly, none seemed particularly interested in the commotion at the gate. The hole, which had evidently been made with tools rather than regular wear and tear, was wide enough to easily fit through. As he edged himself through, he heard the familiar sound of a gun being cocked.
Winston found himself staring down the barrel of a sizeable M6D Magnum, wielded by a tall man in a tattered green coat. Halfway through the hole, he couldn't do much more than hold his hands above his chest as Driscol slowly clambered up to the side.
"What've you got on you, kid?" the man asked, smirking. "Gotta pay the toll to get in."
"I've got nothing."
"Oh? Well maybe I should put a bullet in you and kick you back down into that ditch. I doubt the oonskies will mind."
Before he could act, the man found the barrel of an assault rifle poking through the fence towards his head. Driscol raised an eyebrow, and he slowly lowered his gun to the ground while Winston wiggled through the fence and took it.
"Higgs," Driscol smiled, baring his teeth. "Long time no see."
"Carlos? The fuck're you doing here?"
"Getting off this planet, same as you. Any reason why you're threatening to kill teenagers?"
His demeanour changed drastically as he stood back, holding his arms up as Driscol clambered through into the refugee camp. The older man clearly frightened him.
"Gotta make some cash, Carlos. You know how it is."
"We'll make plenty when we get back to the Caucasus Station. I've got a stash there that I'm willing to share if you help me out."
Higgs grossed his arms. "I'm listening."
"You're not one to operate alone. How many men do you have?"
"Get them. We're taking a ship and leaving."
"Yes, you fucking tool. Kid, with me."
Winston walked after Driscol as the man wandered into the refugee camp, stowing the rifle in his backpack. Aside from several Marines watching a checkpoint leading to the spaceport itself, they weren't being watched. Chances were that the UNSC were just penning them in the camp until they could set up a proper system for tagging and identifying each civilian. A few people gave nods to Driscol as he walked by.
"How do they know you?" Winston asked.
"I've been around."
The man Driscol knew - Higgs - darted through the crowds, nudging people and casting furtive glances towards him and Winston. Peering through another fence, they could make out a transport ship with a lowered ramp, located directly across the path from the refugee camp. At least a dozen Marines were stationed around the edges of the main spaceport area, though most had moved to the front gate in case of any attack.
"See that?" Driscol muttered.
"Yeah. That the one?"
The old man scratched his unshaven chin, glancing around at the gathering crowd. The Marines at the checkpoint began to shift uneasily. He turned to Winston, placing one hand on his shoulder as they moved slowly through the throng of people.
"I need you to distract the guards for me."
"How am I-"
Winston doubled over, the breath forced from his lungs as Driscol's fist slammed into his stomach. Wheezing, he staggered towards the checkpoint. A burly Marine blocked his path, raising his hand to stop him.
"Please," he gasped for breath, eyes watering. "Help me."
The Marine glanced at his colleagues, and knelt down. "What's wrong, son?"
"I'm sick. I need medicine."
Glancing up, he saw the trio of Marines glance at each other. One shrugged, and turned away to reach into a nearby crate. As the others looked over Winston, there was a burst of gunfire from behind him as bullets tore through one man. The teen threw himself to the ground as Driscol and Higgs' men gunned down the other two.
"Everyone!" Driscol yelled to the refugee camp. "Fuck the oonskis, we're taking one of those ships! Who's with me?!"
A cry went up as most of the crowd surged forwards, spilling out of the encampment and onto the open runway. Winston ran too, his eyes focused on the ship's ramp far ahead. Bullets zipped past as a squad of Marines ran towards them, rifles blaring. Winston merely sped up, pushing others out of the way in a mad dash for safety. Barely ten metres away from the boarding ramp, something struck his shoulder, throwing him off-balance as he toppled to the floor.
Fuck, fuck, fuck, I've been shot.
He'd had a few shots graze him or dent body armour before, but never a direct hit. A round had gone right through the back of his right shoulder, and while it wasn't fatal, the pain kept Winston down. He watched as several others ran past him, either scrambling up the ship's ramp or going down in a hail of bullets. As he tried edging forward, Winston found himself being lifted up and carried forward.
"You're not as heavy as you look," Driscol remarked through gritted teeth, panting slightly as he hefted Winston halfway up the ramp and looked over his wound. "You'll live."
Before Winston could respond with thanks, Driscol had already returned to the fray, taking down two more Marines with a small group of other fighters while the survivors boarded their transport ship. Suddenly, a small metallic object dropped into view, bouncing towards them. Winston began edging backwards into the ship itself as Driscol registered the grenade, and moved to kick it back towards his attackers. Then it detonated.
"Carlos!" the teen cried, shielding his face as a wave of heat swept over him. The older man's body had been thrown back against the ramp, his face bloodied and his armour covered in shrapnel. Most of his right leg was gone, leaving only a bloody stump. A voice chimed over the ship's intercom as it hummed to life.
"That's everyone. We're getting the hell outta here."
Winston got up, ignoring the stinging pain in his shoulder. "Wait!" he yelled, running down the ramp towards Driscol's body. The old man was knocked out rather than dead, though he'd be a corpse soon enough without medical aid. After dragging him aboard, a man emerged from the cockpit and thumbed a switch, closing the ramp as the transport began to rise.
"Holy shit!" he exclaimed. "What happened to him?"
"It was a grenade. Can you help?"
"Yeah, yeah, give me a minute." He ran off.
The teenager never saw how they escaped from Talitsa. From what he could garner from their new pilot, they'd avoided pursuit for well over an hour before dodging past a UNSC Destroyer and entering Slipspace. Not that any of that mattered to him, because lying on a nearby table was the man who'd saved his life, with four others attending to his injuries.
"Is he gonna be okay?"
"Hard to say," answered one woman, tying some already-bloody bandages around his leg. "He's lost a lot of blood."
"Please, don't let him die."
"We'll see what we can do."
For all his experience in killing others, Winston knew little about self-aid; their trainers believed that there was little point in teaching expendable child soldiers how to use valuable medical equipment. He'd sewn wounds shut and could bandage cuts, but nothing more. All he had to do was sit and wait.
Don't you dare die, he thought, clasping his hands together and staring at Driscol's face. You said you'd help me out here.
Eventually, Higgs entered the room. The man who'd threatened Winston earlier had helped organise the survivors - and there weren't many who'd made it - after reaching the transport ship. They had enough food for a few months if they rationed it, though the trip to the Caucasus Station would most likely take several weeks as they had to take a circuitous jump route to avoid UNSC trackers. The man surveyed the unconscious Driscol with a smile on his face.
"Old Man Carlos finally met his match, eh?" he remarked. "Stupid bastard was always a fighter, though."
One of the others turned to him, pulling off a pair of surgical gloves. "Are there any cryo chambers aboard?"
"Two. One's damaged though, and the other's just gonna eat up power."
"If we don't get him into cryo he might not make it."
Higgs scowled. "With that thing off we'll make the trip a few days early. Fuck him."
"The old man's a fucking asswipe. Let him die, it'll do the galaxy some fucking good."
Winston stood up, glaring at Higgs. He took a step forward, only to have the old man push him back into a wall.
"You gonna square up to me, boy? Why don't I-"
Winston pulled out his sidearm and fired thrice. The first two shots hit Higgs in the chest, while the third struck him in the forehead. He toppled backwards and fell still. Breathing slowly, he turned to the others.
"Put him in cryo and flush this asshole out an airlock. Carlos will pay you back when we get to that station."
They didn't seem inclined to argue with a filthy teenager covered in blood, and carried Driscol's unconscious form out of the room. Now alone, Winston sighed and pocketed the handgun before searching Higgs for anything useful. Aside from his gun and a few credits the man was worthless. Still, he'd escaped, hadn't he? Talitsa was long behind him now. The boy would stick around with Driscol for now, as he knew nothing of the Colonies or anything beyond Talitsa, really. He walked through several rooms until he found one with a window, and sat cross-legged before it, staring out across the endless stars.
For Winston Zhou, the galaxy now held endless opportunities.