|2359 Hours, January 19th, 2559
Spacer's Rest Beta Gabriel, Epsilon Eridani System
A few months ago, Beta Gabriel seemed like the ideal place to disappear. Sparsely populated, half-explored and thoroughly unimportant on the galactic stage, the colony had been all but abandoned in the final year of the Human-Covenant War, with only a token effort at resettlement since then. Lacking the vital infrastructure that most civilised worlds enjoyed, Beta Gabriel's colonists were none the wiser when a stolen transport craft touched down in the vast forests of its northern continent, nor did they receive any warning when a DAS-class attack ship dropped into low orbit, sending its complement of armoured gunships towards the planet's only major settlement, Spacer's Rest.
Fourteen apes. Armed.
From her perch atop a rocky hillock overlooking the town's southern wall, May could easily count the number of Brute raiders currently skulking down its main street, restlessly circling the line of fresh captures like hungry predators. Amidst the pouring rain their leader, a large, gravity hammer-wielding specimen in ornate armour, was giving a speech to the surviving townsfolk while his allies dragged sodden corpses towards a pile of open packing crates. They weren't letting the dead go to waste.
May sighed and turned over, lying on her back so she could face the pitch-black skies. She hugged her rifle close to her chest, and let the rain splatter harmlessly off her armour. Letting the attack happen had been difficult, but perhaps it was for the best. Aware that they had most of the civilian populace in chains, the Brutes would leave with their slaves and their meat and likely never return, giving her the solace she'd sought on this quiet world. All she had to do was wait, and she'd likely have half the continent to herself.
Not if they come back. The first tendrils of doubt began to worm their way into her mind. They might want to stay here, set up camp. Then things would get worse.
"You're right," May spoke aloud to the rainy skies. "But there are a lot of them."
Turning back over, May saw that the Brutes had begun to mutilate the corpses, tossing bits of human flesh into crates for later. One of the captives, a bearded, middle-aged man, suddenly vomited. It was quite a sight to behold. Seeing this, the Brute leader immediately made a beeline for him, staring down his captive until he foolishly chose to lock eyes with his captor, earning him a smack across the face. The leader then shouted something to his nearest subordinate, who laughed uproariously and tugged a nasty-looking blade out of his belt. May knew what was about to happen, but she remained still.
You should do something, spoke a different voice. This is what we signed up for, remember?
"I quit," May muttered bitterly. "You were there."
Though the road that brought her to Beta Gabriel had been a long one, May had set herself down that path just a few months prior, when she discovered that the contract she'd signed as a five year-old had bound her to the military for the rest of her life. Everything she did and everywhere she went would be closely tracked and monitored, with the Sleepless Eye's agents ready to follow her to the edge of the galaxy and back if need be. She'd fought battles that history would never remember and known men and women who didn't exist and watched her brothers and sisters perish for causes she'd been taught never to question, and when those questions arrived the answers came armed and ready to seal her away forever.
So she ran.
It wasn't an easy thing, to escape the Sleepless Eye, but May had eluded their hounds for this long, and was prepared to run again at a moment's notice. Right now a ship lay hidden in a cave halfway up a mountain laced with traps only she knew how to navigate safely, with supplies enough to last a long while. She'd learned in these long months how to remove her armour manually, and had hunted animals instead of people for the sake of getting used to self-reliance when her shipboard rations ran dry. A new war had started in the stars above, fought by beings who had traded ephemerality for self-proclaimed stewardship over the galaxy and those who dared threaten their order, all the while May enjoyed the simple act of selfish choice for the first time in her short life.
And even so, when the Brutes arrived you suited up and came down the mountain.
Of course, nothing was perfect about her situation. While she'd enjoyed bodily freedom, exploring the hills and valleys of her new home while spying on the little township many miles away, May had been faced with a tumultuous conflict raging inside her own head; a spot of vengeance on the Sleepless Eye's part for daring to part with them and the medication they provided to keep her sane. Years ago, back when order and duty ruled her life, May had been put to sleep with her siblings and awoke alongside them a demigod, but with a few tweaks made to their biochemistry. At first the injections seemed normal; their bodies, though artificially aged, still needed to adapt alongside their minds, but as time went by it finally dawned on May and her comrades that the deliberate swiftness of any assignment delivered to them and the frequency of these treatments were related, and that without their dose of 'smoothers' she and the others would devolve into ravening beasts.
As she'd departed from her old life, leaving everything behind, May had just undergone a subcutaneous injection designed to keep her going without medial attention for well over a month. That was over three and a half months ago, and since then she'd felt herself come apart and pull together time and time again. One day she'd woken up thinking she was still on Alluvion, and spoken to the mother whose face she'd forgotten before memories of the glassing crept back into her mind. On another, she found herself running through the forest on a mission with Shrike Team, exchanging banter with Spartans she'd seen die and killing rebels and aliens with reckless abandon, only to find herself cutting the throat of some cervine creature many miles from home. One day she'd walked into the forest with her M395 rifle, sat beneath a tree with her helmet at her side, then put the barrel in her mouth and pulled the trigger. She'd emptied it the night before and hid the ammunition, just in case. Such was life for May on Beta Gabriel.
May blinked. It had been only a few seconds, and the bearded man had begun to scream as one of the Brutes dragged him in front of the other prisoners. He'd be held up by his head, his arms and feet bound together, and the aliens would start chopping from the feet up. The Brutes found it hilarious, and it served as a reminder for all of the others to do as they were told.
You can still save them. Again, the voice chided her. They don't deserve to die like this.
May felt her fingers tighten on the rifle as a shiver ran down her spine. She'd come down here carrying a pair of pistols, three grenades, and a submachine gun to complement her marksman's rifle. This was not the gear an impartial observer would bring with them. Far away, the Brutes were bringing lengths of cord to bind the poor prisoner, whose begging had turned into incomprehensible blubbering. She raised the rifle. At this range, in the rain and cold against foes probably equipped with energy shields, it would be an extremely difficult shot to make. May's breathing slowed to a steady rate as the knife-wielding Brute entered her sights.
There are a lot of them, said the voice, echoing May's earlier words. Maybe too many.
"You're doubting me now?" A smile flickered across her face, hidden behind the angular helmet. "I'll win."
Of course you will. You're still you.
Death didn't concern May. She'd stared it in the face since her first day of boot camp back on Onyx, and since then every day had been another chance taken to stay ahead of the reaper. She'd felt its spectre looming over her here on Beta Gabriel, waiting for the day when she finally accepted that there really was no other way out of her life, but it hadn't come yet. Perhaps it was just May's stubbornness, or the training that had turned a scared, angry little girl into a killing machine, but she'd found herself comforted during these dark months by the voice. When it spoke, it spoke as Julian, the man she'd abandoned to live without. She'd said that she didn't need him, and that was true enough, but it didn't stop his words from following her all this way, giving voice to something - a conscience perhaps? - to keep some small part of her sane.
May pulled the trigger twice in quick succession. Down on the main street of Spacer's Rest, a hulking, knife-wielding Brute, eagerly anticipating his first slice into his captive, turned just in time to catch a pair of 7.62mm rounds in the face. The first ripped through the alien's thin energy shielding and passed through its lower jaw, while the second thudded into the Brute's thick skull. With each crack barely audible through the rain and dismissed as nothing to worry about, his fellows looked around in confusion as the knife dropped from their comrade's hands. He swayed on the spot for a moment, then pitched forward into the mud.
A chorus of howls went up from the assembled Brute pack, who began to sniff the air for new scents and clutch at their weapons anxiously. The hammer-wielding Chieftain began barking orders at his subordinates, while their dropship whirled around the street, its spotlight keeping the road illuminated while its guns swivelled, looking for targets.
One down. This voice was May's. The others were gone.
The Spartan was already halfway to the town's outer wall when the first Brute dropped, and had cleared the eight feet of concrete and barbed wire before the alien raiders even sounded an alarm. This was not the first time May had infiltrated Spacer's Rest at night, though it would likely be the last. Slipping into the first building - a bar with its doors smashed in and windows blown out - May trod lightly as she swept through the back room, ducking low as the first Brute shoved his hairy muzzle through the rear entrance. She allowed it to take two steps inside, followed by an ally, before she opened fire. Each precious round drilled through their helmeted heads with little resistance, and though the second managed to squeeze off a desperate spray of superheated spikes as he collapsed May had already retreated, drawing the Brutes back into the town.
Though they were too proud and too foolish to realise it, the remaining Brutes were charging into an environment that in no way suited them. The heavy rainfall dampened their sharp sense of smell, while the thickening mud sucked in their heavy footfalls and splattered their fur with each step and the poor visibility left them with little light to see by. Two Brutes dashed into the side street where May awaited them from different buildings, colliding with each other in a vicious exchange of snarls and bared teeth. One, offended that the other had scratched him, promptly slashed at the other with the bayonet of his rifle, prompting a brawl that attracted several others, believing that their comrade had caught their attacker. May quickly introduced a grenade to the chaos, and before long five more had died, the last howling in pain as the Spartan swiftly finished them off.
That's seven. Seven to go.
To May's surprise, a few Brutes had neglected to pursue her in favour of dragging off captives to their waiting dropship, shepherded away from combat by their Chieftain. This behaviour was smart, but very unlike the Brutes May had fought, and by the time she'd advanced into the main street they were lifting up the bearded man for transport. The Spartan opened up on the retreating aliens, expending the rest of her magazine on bringing down three of them before stowing the rifle away and bringing up the submachine gun clamped to her lower back. As she crept forward, preparing to bring down the Chieftain with another well-placed grenade, lightning flashed overhead, illuminating the entire street in a brilliant white light. The massive Brute froze on the spot, seeing a figure encased in filthy MJOLNIR armour dead ahead. May could picture every tale about 'demons' scrolling through his mind, and as the Chieftain's grip tightened on his mighty hammer she steadied herself for the first attack.
"I will drink from your skull, demon!" roared the Chieftain, bounding across the muddy ground towards May.
The Spartan's body reacted naturally. May dropped into a half-crouch and emptied her entire magazine into the charging alien, though the rounds pinged harmlessly off its powerful energy shields. The Chieftain paid no heed to her attack, and launched himself towards her, raising his hammer over his head for a killing blow. May threw herself to the left, kicking her suit's thrusters into gear to give her a few more feet of breathing room as the hammer smashed into the sodden ground. A shockwave of filthy water flew in every direction from the newly-formed crater, soaking the Brute's from head to toe in dirt and mud. He snarled angrily, flinching and clawing splatter from his eyes as he span round to face May. The Spartan had vanished.
In her exile, May had forgotten the thrill of fighting Brutes. Easy to provoke but difficult to anticipate as their natural bloodlust took over, they were rightly feared as formidable foes across the galaxy in spite of their many shortcomings as a species. In the time it took for this particular Chieftain to recover from foolishly blinding himself with mud, May had darted around the hulking alien's right side, crossing the treacherous ground with barely a sound. The Brute turned his head left and right, scanning for his missing enemy and snorting furiously, claws gripping his weapon tight enough to bend the metal haft.
"You dare run from me?!" he laughed. "My pack will tear you apart, feasting-"
The Chieftain stopped, feeling the prick of cold steel against his jugular. Thoughts and questioned doubtlessly raced through his mind, astonished at this turn of events. He had expected a protracted battle against a fearsome foe, yes, but never had he faced a being that did not flee before his hammer blows. A lifetime of slaughter had given him strength enough to handle anything thrown his way, but the possibility of his prey - a human - advancing against him after such a blow had never crossed his mind. The six-inch blade sank into his neck and withdrew in an instant, its owner a blue-grey blur falling backwards as he swung around frantically, dropping his precious hangar. On the floor below him, the demon let out a harsh laugh of triumph, and raised a pair of pistols.
May fired both magnums until they were empty, blowing chunks out of the dying Brute's head and lower body as the creature stumbled around in its death throes. Only when it finally pitched forward into the mud with a loud thud did she get to her feet and reload.
That's eleven down. As for the rest...
Over the pair of landing pads that passed for this town's spaceport, an armoured Phantom dropship deactivated its gravity lift and quickly ascended, flying off before the lift's last wisps of purple light faded away. Silence fell over Spacer's Rest, and May was alone again, if only for a few moments. Hushed voices drifted into earshot from her right, and the Spartan span round to see a small group of civilians, huddled together around the bearded man from earlier. It seemed that in their hate to retreat, the Brutes had forgotten to bring the entire populace with them.
There were nine survivors in total, most grasping blindly in the dark behind two with tiny pocket flashlights. May stood at a distance, her augmented eyes and helmet's low-light vision mode compensating for the darkness. Bodies lay at odd angles in the mud all around them, the victims of a wild spray of fire by the retreating Brutes. The Spartan stood and listened for a short while as they freed the raiders' would-be execution victim, helping him to his feet. They thanked each other between anguished sobs as shock and terror took its toll on their fragile bodies, but soon enough the conversation turned towards one thing: their unseen rescuer.
"Is it the UNSC?" asked one woman, peering into the darkness around them. "They used to have a base here."
"They're long gone," said another, shaking his head. "Someone might've escaped. Maybe they-"
"Took down a pack of Brutes and sent the rest running?" the bearded man cut her off. "Someone out there killed them."
May swallowed heavily. She hadn't spoken to another living thing in months, and even before that she'd never been much of a conversationalist when it came to dealing with non-Spartans. She could slink away into the night and leave these people wondering, but that left her with a lot of problems. Not only were the Brutes an issue, as they would likely come back in greater numbers seeking vengeance before long, but if even a single one of these civilians made it offworld and brought news back to the UNSC then the Sleepless Eye would resume its hunt, dispatching May's old team once more to either kill or capture her. That wasn't an option.
"Hey there!" May called out, making the civilians jump.
Two flashlights swung towards her as she advanced, drawing her unloaded rifle. The eight survivors of Spacer's Rest stared at the Spartan as though she wasn't really there, even as she slid another magazine into her weapon and looked at each of them in turn. Most were young - older than her, but still young - and bore looks of awe and astonishment at sight of a supersoldier standing before them. The bearded man, filthy and stinking of more than mud, pushed his way to the front of the little crowd, joined by a muscular figure who regarded her with a look of suspicion. Definitely military. May's thoughts turned to the threat of the Sleepless Eye and its innumerable agents, though she said nothing.
"A Spartan!" the bearded man waved a hand towards May, weary and excited all at once. "I knew it, I just knew it! Thank you!"
"You're welcome." May's words came across as flat and monotone as she tried to search for the right way to address him. "Are you all right?"
The man rubbed his wrists. "I'll live, but we've got to get out of here as soon as we can. Do you have a ship?"
May was taken a little off-guard by his answer, which seemed far too collected for a man who'd just narrowly avoided a horrifyingly torturous demise. "Yes," she said.
"Excellent!" He turned and smiled at his younger companion. "I'm Robert Amenwae, and this is Graham Wallace. You are...?"
Robert Amenwae. The name triggered something deep within May's addled psyche, bringing back memories of some half-forgotten meeting a year prior. She recalled sitting around a table with the rest of Fireteam Thor, watching with rapt attention as their handler, Commander Cuaron, went over a list of known insurgents wanted for the distribution of military-grade chemicals meant for human augmentation onto the black market. Most of the faces she'd seen scroll by belonged to men they'd killed since then, but in their subsequent operations there were a few figures they'd never caught. One was a man in his forties, sporting a salt-and-pepper beard. The other bore the same facial scar and hard eyes as the man to her right.
Robert Amenwae. Former Staff Sergeant in the UNSC Marine Corps of Engineers. Now a Major in the New Colonial Alliance. Graham Wallace. Former Corporal in the 7th Shock Troops Battalion. Made Lieutenant in the NCA. Both wanted for the killing of UNSC personnel and terror offences. Considered armed and dangerous. Capture or kill on sight.
Every frame of that old presentation flashed through May's mind in barely a second. If the NCA were here, then she had to consider this entire colony to be compromised. No matter where rebels lurked, the Sleepless Eye would find them. Soldiers and Spartans and agents would come here eventually, and if they came here they would find her. That wasn't an option. The other civilians behind Amenwae had to be rebel agents too, scared though they were by the attack. They would have to go. Everything would have to go. To take chances was to risk one's life and May wanted nothing more than to continue hers in peace.
"I'm May," said the Spartan, raising her rifle. Amenwae blinked once, and she pulled the trigger, putting a round through his heart.
Amenwae fell forward, his mouth opening and closing soundlessly. Wallace reached for May's gun, only to catch a shot to the chest that put him down for good. Behind him a woman screamed, and May went about her work as quickly as she could. A couple of survivors managed to turn and run, stumbling blindly down the dark street in a panic. None made it far, and after they fell May checked each body, though she'd been efficient enough not to prolong anyone's pain. Now she truly was alone, kept company only by her thoughts.
That was unnecessary, Julian's voice echoed through her mind. Why save them in the first place if you were going to do that?
For whatever reason, this was the moment when her rationality decided to speak up. In the moment, everything made sense; the NCA were her enemies, and so they had to die. Just because she'd abandoned the UNSC, she wasn't about to shack up with that coterie of treacherous insurrectionists for the sake of survival. May was free. Free and alone and completely unknown. All around her, the rain continued to fall, forming pools around divots in the earth and slowly drowning the blood-drained dead. The Spartan trudged out of the main street, letting the downpour wipe the blood and filth from her MJOLNIR suit as she walked. Soon enough Spacer's Rest lay far behind her, host to nothing but bad weather and restless ghosts.
Far away, up in the mountains where no human ventured, awaited a ship. It was small and fast and stolen, but at this very moment the galaxy cared little for such things. Great beings of metal and electronic thought ruled the stars now, fought all the way by their creators in a war that May cared so little for. She was a small thing in the grand scheme of things, and would find another place to stay. Julian and all the other Spartans were probably out there fighting right now, if any of them still lived. It would be so like them, to die for a hopeless cause. It was what they - SPARTAN-III - had been made for, after all. Made for and then left to live in a world where their ultimate purpose would not be fulfilled. May couldn't help but think of her predecessors from time to time; those giants whose bones lay on alien worlds amidst carnage and victory, their short lives snuffed out after flaring as bright as distant stars, if only for a day. They had been the lucky ones.
May sighed again as she passed through the familiar forest, the sounds of the storm drowned out by the rain-soaked canopy above. Anger crept into her mind, though it was a petulant anger, born of disappointment at how things had turned out. Her great dramatic flight from the UNSC, letting go of everyone she knew and throwing aside all responsibility in favour of a lifelong pursuit, had been reduced to nothing but a footnote compared to what now raged across the distant stars. She'd obstinately dismissed this new war at first, it had grown to be be all-encompassing, which was something that May could not abide. Something that she felt she had do something about, even if it meant turning back to face all that she had left behind. The galaxy would have its shaky peace returned to it, and then May would run again.