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HBOFF: Feet First Into Hell (A Contest)

HBOFF: Feet First Into Hell

First Runner-Up: Pyres in the Sky, by J.D. Ford

Discussion Thread on the HBOFF Forum

Halo: Pyres in the Sky
J. D. Ford
7 September 2009

This story is dedicated to the memory of Peter Marks, whose contributions to the Halo universe will be sorely missed.

"Pyres in the night, in the night!
      And the roaring yellow and red.
Trooper, trooper, why so white?
      We are out to gather our dead.
We have brought dry boughs from the bloody wood
      And the torn hill-side;
We have felled great trunks, wet with blood
      Of brothers that died;
We have piled them high for a flaming bed,
Hemlock and ash and pine for a bed,
A throne in the night, a throne for a bed—
And we go to gather our dead."

- Hermann Hagedorn (excerpt from The Pyres, c. 1917)

9:37 PM, Local Time, February 12th, 2492 (Civilian Calendar)
4421 Coral Street, Old Quarter
Black Sands, Far Isle Colony

      Francis stared calmly into his stepfather's glaring eyes, his ears still ringing from the shouting. Once upon a time he might have withered under that intense gaze. But not tonight. Tonight he was his own master.
      George just didn't know it yet.
      "I forbid it!" George yelled again, a trace of spittle flying from his mouth. "You aren't of legal age, anyway! You need me to sign off on it, and I won't!"
      Mother put a calming hand on his arm. "George. This isn't helping. He's obviously serious about it, and—"
      "I don't give a damn if he's serious or not!" George roared. She flinched under the onslaught, despite years of experience with her husband's infamous temper.
      "You should give a damn," Francis said quietly, redirecting his stepfather's wrath. "Because she's right. I am serious about it, and this isn't helping. I'm leaving, and there's not a thing you can do about it."
      His stepfather snarled and lunged for him, grabbing a handful of his shirt and overcoat.
      "George!" his mother cried out, trying in vain to hold her husband back. Francis calmly let the big man lift him off the floor until the toes of his boots dragged.
      "Listen to me, you ungrateful little bastard," his stepfather growled, their noses practically touching. "I've sacrificed too much to get where I am, and too damned much to get you into the right sorts of schools so you can make something of yourself. Not piss away your future working for them." He shoved his stepson roughly away and spat on the immaculate floor.
      Francis felt a smoldering fury build within as he readjusted his rumpled clothes, the anger he'd been holding back for so long rising to his defense at last. "Is that what you think this means? That I'll become some murderer and burn other planets for fun?"
      "Don't mock me, boy...."
      "Don't patronize me!" Francis screamed at last, his cool resolve evaporating like steam. "I'm living my own damn life from now on!"
      His stepfather slapped him across the face. Hard. Blood spattered the line of children's coats hanging on hooks by the door. His mother cried out, but George held her back casually with one arm. Francis covered his split lips with a trembling hand, and for once the tremors were fueled by rage instead of fear. He glanced past his mother to the staircase, where his younger siblings cowered in terror.
      A pang of regret coursed through him for a moment. Then the moment passed, and he was surprised to find he had regained some semblance of control.
      "Get out," George said menacingly. "Don't come back." The older man stormed off into the back of the house, slamming doors behind him so hard the hinges squealed in protest.
      Silently, with restraint that surprised even himself, Francis picked up his rucksack. It was jam-packed with everything of value he owned—ransom for his future freedom. Without another word he turned to the front door and yanked it open.
      It was raining outside. That warm, ponderous rain he had grown up with and come to love.
      "Wait," Mother's voice pleaded with him. "Please."
      He turned back to face her, the sadness that threatened to collapse his resolve filling his eyes. "I can't, Mom. I'm sorry. I just can't take it anymore. If I don't leave...I'll kill him. I swear I will."
      She clenched her jaw, squeezing her eyes shut. Tears slipped down both cheeks as she stepped forward and wiped the blood off his chin with her apron. He caught her up in a bear hug and the rest of the children charged him from the stairs. He hugged each of them in turn, then stepped out into the night.
      His mother stood at the door until he vanished into the misty rain, her eyes hauntingly sad. But full of a mournful understanding that transcended words and emotions.
      Francis steeled himself against looking back again and hailed a cab.

      He spent a good chunk of his petty credits getting to the New Quarter. The shady-looking tavern was just as his friend Anton had described. Anton had long since escaped Far Isle to the open arms of UNSC service, after his parents threw him out. Now Francis planned on doing the same. It would take him far away from everything he hated. And everything he loved.
      But George was right. He was underage. Far Isle had thrown out the last UNSC recruiter who tried to set up shop in the colony, and he couldn't possibly book passage off-world as a minor. Or sign enlistment papers without his stepfather's consent, for that matter.
      This dreary place was home to the solution, if Anton had been entirely truthful.
      "Come on in, boy!" a raucous, drunken voice called from the bar as he stepped inside. "Have a glass of milk!" Laughter rippled through the haze of smoke that filled the room. Francis set his jaw and stalked right past them, shaking off hands that grasped jokingly at his sleeves. A huge gorilla of a man suddenly blocked his path, and the door he was headed for.
      "What the hell do you want, kid?" the bouncer asked in a voice that could crack granite. He wore a red armband that marked him as an Opposition member. One of the zealous, self-avowed political enemies of the Colonial Administration Authority.
      Francis locked eyes with him, willing his knees to stop knocking. "I need to see him," he said, just loud enough to be heard over the din.
      "Need to see who?" the man asked with a toothy grin, some of it precious metal. "You'll have to be more specific than that." He put a huge, discouraging paw on Francis's shoulder and started to turn him toward the exit. "A lot more specific."
      Francis sighed, feigning defeat, and drop-kicked him in the groin.
      The bouncer went down with little more than a gasp and the bar was suddenly, utterly quiet. Francis stepped over the man's writhing form and through the unlocked door, shutting it behind him.
      "Oh yes," a sarcastic, gravelly voice greeted him. "Come on in. No need to knock or anything."
      "Are you Mr. Crane?" Francis asked calmly, as if he hadn't just toppled a mountain on two legs on the other side of the door. A mountain that could break him in half without raising a sweat.
      "Aren't we the direct little prick," the voice answered from a chaotic ring of computer terminals. Multicolored light played across a scarred, wrinkled face that looked like it had been sunburned too many times and debrided with steel wool.
      The door slammed open behind him, the bouncer looming to fill its frame. The man growled furiously and reached for Francis with murder in his eye.
      "That's enough, Victor," Crane said sternly. "He's earned the right to bother me for a few minutes, don't you think?" There was a bemused note in his voice that only seemed to anger the bouncer even more.
      "You're sure?" Victor ground out between clenched teeth, two of which were obviously platinum implants.
      "Yes," Crane replied coldly. "Close the door. You're letting in the fumes."
      Francis stepped farther away as the huge man fixed him with a menacing glare. But Victor obediently shut the door.
      "So..." Crane continued, turning away from his displays. "What is it you want? That was a pretty ballsy move, you know. Victor rarely lets down his guard like that. Though there was this one kid, about your age...."
      "Yeah," Francis said with a shrug. "I knew him. He thought it might work a second time."
      Crane smiled unpleasantly. "I see. I guess I'll have to have a talk with Victor about his defensive strategy. Or lack thereof." He stood, with great difficulty and the help of two canes. Francis saw that the man's slender legs were crude prosthetics below the knees, which were artfully concealed by matching Opposition armbands.
       "Let me guess," Crane said as he stumped forward. "You want the same thing your friend wanted. A clean slate? New life?"
      "Yeah. If you can spare one."
      Crane cackled. "Oh, what wonderful sarcasm! I think we'll get along just fine." He winked, hobbling over to a liquor cabinet.
      "If you say so," Francis said cautiously.
      "Oh...I do," Crane said with mock seriousness. "Drink?"
      Francis shook his head.
      "Suit yourself," Crane muttered, pouring himself a fizzing concoction. "You'll appreciate it when you're older. If you live long enough." He turned back around, draining the cup in one long gulp before fixing Francis with a grin. "Can't carry it back to my chair, you see. Need both hands to keep my legs moving."
      Francis nodded uncomfortably as the man worked his way back to the techno-throne. "So you'll do it?" he asked softly.
      Crane snorted. "That depends on how much cash you've got."
      "Not much," Francis admitted. "But I do have some stocks and bonds that were set up when I was born. And all this stuff." He dropped his rucksack at Crane's fake feet.
      "Uh-huh," Crane said with a note of disapproval in his voice. "I guess you brought the documentation?" Francis held out the data chips, which Crane snatched with the lightning quickness of a mongoose. They disappeared into several input slots and the account information immediately appeared on a screen. "Well, I'll be damned!" Crane said with a cackle. "You're Big Georgie's stepson! No wonder you want a new identity." He turned to Francis. "This must burn him up, right? You wanting to leave home."
      Francis nodded silently, not liking the man's tone despite everything that had passed between himself and his stepfather. "So you'll do it?" he asked again, this time letting an edge of annoyance slip into his tone.
      Crane cocked his head strangely as he peered at him. "You think I'd pass up a chance to stick a pin in a magistrate's comfy cushion? Hell yes, I'll do it! How old do you want to be?" His gnarled, spindly fingers flew over a set of glowing keyboards.
      Francis pursed his lips. "Old enough to join the military."
      Crane laughed nastily. "Oh...that's rich! Stepdaddy must love that! Any preference for home planet?"
      "Anywhere but here," Francis said quietly.
      "Heh...I guess Eridanus II is as good a place as any. Reasonably high population, shitty records. Should make it easier for you to pass as a native. They don't have much culture to speak of, anyway, and the accents are similar enough." He tapped out a few more commands. "You'll want to keep your first name...easier that way."
      "Okay," Francis said wearily.
      Crane spun around once in his chair, flourishing a claw-like hand as he stabbed a final key. The computer whined for a few moments, then spat out a new data card with an 'official' Eridanus II local government seal. "Okay. Mr. Frank Sickler, civilian identification number 10159-054-SRT3094. Welcome to your new life." He tossed the card to Francis.
       "Thanks," Francis said tonelessly as he turned to leave.
       Crane cackled behind him. "Try not to waste it."

      The next few weeks were a blur of activity. He caught a transport to Minister, using up the last of his credits in the process. Going through security had been a nightmare—he expected his new identity to fail spectacularly at any moment.
      But it hadn't. Crane's expertise had indeed been as legendary as Anton claimed. Francis—now 'Frank'—Sickler was just another face in the crowd. An ordinary civilian passing through.
      He met with a recruiter on Minister. The office was conveniently located near the spaceport and the hoverbus ride had been free of charge. The recruiter, a burly man with a broad smile and gray hair at the temples, had suggested he enlist in the Marines. The man had then cited a host of reasons, all from outstanding personal experience, of course, for the validity of the choice. Frank didn't really care. If they were willing to take him, he was willing to join.
      Needless to say, that made the recruiter very, very happy.
      Basic training was a perspective-altering experience. He'd been training himself for it physically for almost a year. In fact, he exceeded all the physical requirements to the point that he caught crap for it. They tossed him responsibility for individuals whose performance was flagging, then punished him when some of those individuals failed to improve. Frank took it without complaint, choosing to continue excelling in as many areas as he could.
      He had little trouble ignoring the shouting. The mind games, verbal, and physical abuse. Growing up under George's meaty thumb made Boot look like a cakewalk by comparison. That seemed to really aggravate some of the drill instructors, though they backed off a little after it became apparent he wasn't going to react as expected to extra 'attention.'
      He made squad leader. His squad quickly rose to the top of the performance rankings, and the platoon leader leaned on it heavily. Rivalry was intense between training platoons. Frank did his best to ensure theirs was never the 'booger.'
      After basic training, he conquered the SOI—School of Infantry—and distinguished himself in the Infantry Training Battalion. His instructors were, to put it mildly, impressed. He rose in rank quickly.
      Seven months after enlisting on Minister, the news came in.
      Far Isle Colony had suffered a catastrophic nuclear event. The rumors were sketchy at best, and the media were very tight-lipped about what exactly had happened, but it was hard to conceal something like code BANDERSNATCH. Especially from the ranks of the military, where security clearances were a dime a dozen.
      Corporal Sickler, whose false identification listed him as Eridani-born, was suddenly and inexplicably heartbroken over the loss of the colony—much to the confusion of his fellow Marines and superiors. His mental state was so affected that they placed him on psychological leave and administered medication. It was unsettling to see their new poster boy react in such a way to an unrelated, albeit tragic, event.
      In the end, he found his way back. But something had changed. The optimism and trust with which he had joined the UNSC Marine Corps was now...scarred. And those scars followed him, haunted him, for years.
      Until the day Gunnery Sergeant Frank Sickler—now a member of the 3rd Force Reconnaissance Company—refused a direct order from his superior officer. An order that would result in the complete destruction of a 'suspected' Insurrectionist town on Planet Harmony.
      The whole thing was bullshit. The town was full of innocents, and they all knew it. Nevertheless, the officer in question immediately ordered that he be placed under arrest and started to call in the airstrike, himself.
      Frank shot him in the head.

0000 hours, 19 May 2518 (Military Calendar)
Narrow-Band Point-to-Point Transmission, Origin: Unknown,
Termination: Section Three, Zulu Secure Antenna Array,
UNSC HQ Military Complex,
Planet Reach, Epsilon Eridani System, FLEETCOM Sector One


PLNB Transmission XX297B-XX
Encryption Code: SIGMA
Public Key: N/A
Classification: EYES ONLY, CODE-WORD {ERASED},

/File Extraction-Reconstitution Complete/
/Start File/


/End File/
/Scramble-Destruction Process Enable/
Press {ENTER} to continue.

0940 hours, 6 June 2518 (Military Calendar)
Level Jade, Olympic Tower, FLEETCOM HQ;
Planet Reach, Epsilon Eridani System, FLEETCOM Sector One

      Lieutenant Colonel Simon Benedict Creech gently closed the door to Rear Admiral Stanforth's office behind him. He nodded politely to the Admiral's secretary, and strode briskly back to the elevators and his own office on the level reserved for the Naval Special Weapons division, or NAVSPECWEP. Only after his own office door was closed and locked behind him, and the acoustic dampening system activated, did he let the veneer of total control fall away.
      What followed involved the use of some of the most elegantly crafted invective known to man, hissed like Lucifer in serpent form through the Colonel's even, pearly-white teeth. Every word related in some way to Michael Stanforth's mother, father, siblings, place of birth, genetics, breeding, education, pets, spouses, overall intelligence, and taste in décor.
      And not in the favorable sense of the word 'related.'
      Creech was so distracted, in fact, that he never noticed the man sitting on the leather couch in his office until the Army officer—a major, judging by the rank insignia on his uniform—cleared his throat. Loudly.
      "Impressive," the man said as Creech whirled to stare at him. "They should have you rewrite a few sections of the DI manual."
      Creech shut his gaping mouth and glared at the younger man. "Who the hell are you, and how the FUCK did you get into my office?"
      The officer smiled conspiratorially. "My name is Ackerson, Colonel. If you recognize it, you shouldn't have to ask how I got in."
      Creech growled fiercely as he collapsed into his chair. "I've heard of you. ONI's pet panther and all-around wetworks man...who never gets his feet wet or his claws dirty."
      Ackerson shrugged. "Nature of the job. I understand your proposal didn't go as well as planned?"
      Creech speared him with a furious, suspicious glance. "And what the hell would you know about it?"
      "I know that Stanforth hates the idea," Ackerson replied casually. "As do his other Corps advisors. They think you're patently insane, and that the concept is overkill to the point of lunacy. Despite its many...unique...possible applications." He gave Creech a wan smile.
      Creech snorted. "That's common knowledge by now. I might as well flush my uniform down the head, 'cause my career will be following it shortly."
      Ackerson frowned. "I've read that about you, sir. Your penchant for overly dramatic pessimism."
      Creech scowled. "You're pretty cocky for a shithead Army man."
      Ackerson smiled as he stood up and drifted over to Creech's liquor cabinet. "And you're pretty desperate for a veteran Marine Corps iron monger. Aren't you, sir?" He poured himself a glass of scotch.
      Creech muttered something about 'insubordination,' 'court martial,' and 'castration' under his breath.
      Ackerson chuckled. "I don't think that'll be necessary, Colonel. You see...I happen to have great faith in your novel idea. I think it has a lot of potential, and I hate to see potential go to waste." He examined the color of the whisky under the harsh office lights. "Subsequently, I have a little proposition to make."
      Creech sat up a bit straighter at that. He knew Ackerson by reputation only, but that reputation was shrouded in rumors about the man's influence, pull, and legion of friends in places higher than the Almighty, himself. "A proposition?"
      Ackerson nodded. "I'm prepared to help you get your ambitious little project off the ground. Or should I say...on the ground?" He smiled thinly. "Yes, that's a bit more appropriate, don't you think?"
      Creech frowned. "And how the hell are you supposed to do that? Stanforth's already scrapped it and forbidden any further involvement by this Section. Moreover, he won't release any personnel to my command for actual testing. I'm dead in the water."
      "Maybe not as much as you think," Ackerson said cryptically, sipping his scotch. He sat back on the couch and looked at the glass admiringly. "Good stuff. In any case, I have a few contacts throughout HIGHCOM...some of whom are on the Security Council. I've taken the liberty of outlining your new force concept to them, and they think it's worth pursuing. Indirectly."
      Creech blanched. "Are you saying what I think you're saying?"
      Ackerson smiled again. "I don't know, Colonel. What do you think I'm saying?"
      "I think you're talking about going behind Stanforth's back and getting my neck stretched," Creech retorted darkly.
      Ackerson chuckled. "Perhaps. I'd rather look at it from a perspective of cost-benefit analysis. Yes, it could cost you your commission, and most likely your freedom...but as you've said, you're career is going down the toilet as it is. On the other hand, a successful prototype and test phase of this deployment system could very well catapult you beyond Stanforth's reach...no pun intended."
      Creech almost smiled at that. Almost. "And just who are we going to find to test the HEVs if we manage to get them built? Like I said, I can't—"
      "Get access to personnel," Ackerson interrupted. "I heard you the first time." He smiled coldly at the older officer. "Have you ever heard of Colonel Lawrence Grahn?"
      Creech shook his head. "Should I have?"
      "I doubt it. He's the OIC of Portsmouth Naval Prison."
      Creech did recognize that. The prison was famous, or perhaps infamous, depending on what side of the law you were on. Originally built during the early 20th-century, Portsmouth was subsequently abandoned, nearly demolished, and finally rebuilt in the late 21st century as an expansion of the United States Disciplinary Barracks. It now extended deep underground and housed some of the UNSC's most notorious military prisoners.
      "And it's staffed entirely by Army 'Corrections Specialists,'" Creech muttered to himself.
      "Exactly," Ackerson smiled. "And Colonel Grahn owes me...a favor or two."
      Creech looked at him with a dubious expression. "You're suggesting we use prisoners as test pilots?"
      Ackerson laughed. "If you can call them that. More like test victims, unless you can improve the projected survivability of the drop pods. And you'll have to, or both our asses will be in a sling. Probably." Another wan smile.
      "And what makes you think these prisoners will be reliable enough, much less capable of getting the job done?" Creech asked, getting up to pour a drink for himself.
      "We'll have several thousand personnel to choose from," Ackerson said smugly. "And I'm sure there are some impressive CSVs in there. Besides...they shouldn't be terribly hard to control. If we dangle reduced sentences or outright release in front of their noses."
      Creech arched an eyebrow. "And how are we supposed to follow through on that?"
      Ackerson looked at him blankly. "I don't think you've grasped the entirety of this proposition, Colonel. I'm talking about a black project designed to yield snow white, pristine results. The prisoners, excuse me...test pilots...aren't necessary components of those results. As far as after-action reports are concerned."
      Creech sat down heavily, sipping his drink with obvious unease. "So you propose getting rid of them after we have what we need."
      Ackerson maintained the blank look. "I didn't say that, Colonel. You did. But the option isn't impractical. In fact, it's quite doable."
      "Oh, I have no doubts about that, Major," Creech replied, letting his distaste for such things color his tone. "I'm not sure I like the idea of using up soldiers, even if they are a disgrace to the uniform."
      Ackerson snorted. "But you were perfectly fine with 'using up' volunteers from the ranks? Give me a break, sir. You're willing to do whatever it takes to get your pet project into development. As am I." He paused dramatically. "So what do you say, Colonel? I'll only make this offer once, and with several specific conditions to be determined in the near future."
      Creech took several long moments to think about it, even though his mind had been made up halfway through the Army officer's spiel. He was desperate. And Ackerson's so-called proposition was the only foreseeable way to get his Human Entry Vehicle concept from the drawing board to the battlefield, where it rightfully belonged.
      "Major," he said softly, raising his glass. "At this point, I've got nothing to lose."

1720 hours, 24 December 2518 (Military Calendar)
Portsmouth Naval Prison, D-Block Common Grounds;
Seavey's Island, Kittery, Maine,
United Republic of North America, Earth

      Hell...what've I got to lose? Frank Sickler thought as he ducked under the ropes of the Christmas Eve boxing match, hosted annually by the warden and his guards.
      Who happened to be undefeated.
      Sure, they'd lost a few rounds over the years, but not a single prisoner had ever managed to take the 'belt' since the whole thing got started. Not surprising really, since more than a little money changed hands where the match was concerned. If he'd had any commodities to gamble with, Sickler would've bet the warden got a significant kickback, too. It was only in the man's best interests to make sure his guards won every time.
      Which meant he had just stepped into what amounted to a rigged fight.
      "You're not a spring chicken anymore, Frank," Dunk, his cell mate and de facto manager, pleaded.
      "Hey," Sickler replied with a grin, warming up with a series of jabs and roundhouse punches. "I'm only forty three."
      Dunk snorted. "Yeah. That's a great age to call it quits."
      Sickler shot him an irritated look as Colonel Grahn's trained monkey ducked under the ropes at the opposite corner of the ring. The guard had eight inches on him, easy, and Sickler wasn't exactly short at just over six feet. He felt a lump form in the pit of his stomach. The guy was built like a Scorpion tank on steroids.
      "You're an idiot," Dunk muttered. "You know that, right?" Duncan Soldera, formerly First Lieutenant Duncan Soldera, now Prisoner 3647, always muttered. He called it an old bad habit. Some rumors claimed it had gotten him drummed out of the Marine Corps' aviation arm. Others said it was the alcoholism and gross negligence.
      "Aw, come on, Dunk," Sickler shot back. "This is way more fun than sitting back in our cells, drinking eggnog and singing carols."
      Dunk grunted. "I don't sing. And that shit is powdered."
      Sickler grinned, shoving in his mouthpiece. "Exactly," he said around a mouthful of soft plastic. Somehow, it came out sounding like "don't punch me," and Sickler found himself agreeing with his own woefully inadequate communication skills.
      For once.
      The ref stepped to the center of the ring and started rattling off the rules.

      Creech stared down through the one-way glass of the observation booth, taking in the two fighters and the crowd of prisoners sitting quietly on three sides of the ring. They were surprisingly well behaved, he thought, until he spotted the guards on catwalks above—all carrying M90 shotguns.
      Well, that explains it, he muttered inwardly with a small smile. "So that's him?" he asked the Army officer standing next to him.
      Captain Nickens looked up from the scrolling data on his tablet and fixed his cool gaze on the smaller man in the ring. "Yessir. That's Frank Sickler."
      "Looks like he's gonna get his ass kicked," Creech said with a chuckle. "What does that say about his judgment?"
      Nickens frowned, accentuating the ragged scar that marred the left side of his mouth. "I guess not much, sir. Except..." he paused, letting un unspoken thought hang in the air.
      "Except what, Captain?" Creech pressed. Nickens was going to lead the newly formed 'squad' on the most important 'exercise' of Creech's career. He wanted to know how good the man was at assessing other soldiers. Especially those who would be serving under his command. Ideally.
      Nickens tapped a few commands into his tablet, then angled it so Creech could read Sickler's file. "I don't think he's going to lose, sir. His opponent has a distinct advantage in size, and is extremely well trained by anyone's standards." He paused, bringing up the guard's CSV. "But he doesn't have one bit of actual combat experience. He's never been bloodied, sir. This..." he waved an equally scarred hand at the ring. "...Has always been easy for him. But Sickler has seen combat." Nickens switched back to the first file. "More combat than most men his age, despite being stuck in here for the past ten years. And he has been bloodied. Badly." A nonchalant shrug. "Just my opinion, sir. But I wouldn't put any bets on the favorite if I were you."
      Creech smiled broadly. "Noted, Captain." He watched the prisoners below with renewed interest, and waited to see if his new squad leader's prediction would hold water. "Duly noted."

      The first round ended exactly as most of the crowd, and the warden, expected. Sickler collapsed on his stool with a grunt of pain, blood trickling from his nose, mouth, and from a nasty cut over his right eye. He spat a mouthful of red-tinged saliva into the bucket Dunk held in front of him, and glared across the ring at the guard. Who had a damnably smug smile on his unmarked face.
      "You're getting killed out there," Dunk growled in his ear. "In case you haven't noticed. Not that I see how you could, what with sticking your idiot face in the way of every punch this clown's thrown. Even the sloppy ones."
      Sickler grinned bloodily. "You're right. I hadn't noticed."
      Dunk swore under his breath, dabbing the cut above Sickler's eye with a less-than-gentle stoolside manner. "You. Are. Bat. Shit. Crazy."
      "Love you too, Dunk," Sickler shot back. The bell signaling the beginning of the second round rang loudly in the cavernous space. "Merry Christmas." He pushed himself up off the stool and stepped toward the center of the ring.
      "Is that what you want on your tombstone?" Dunk called after him, a note of dark humor in his voice. Sickler chuckled as the guard lunged from his corner, throwing a knockout punch before the echo of the bell had a chance to fade.
      The huge fighter fully expected it to connect. After all, the rest had smashed into his smaller, older, weaker opponent like brutal clockwork. Why should this one be any different?
      Sickler had just enough time for a silent, wicked laugh before he shifted his stance ever so slightly. His body and head moved only a few scant inches, but that was just enough to let the guard's full-bodied punch sail on by. The air displaced by the other man's glove brushed his face, and it felt like a kiss from heaven.
      The counter-punch Sickler landed in the guard's hulking ribcage did not.
      Several curved bones, the so-called 'floating ribs,' almost fractured under the force of the carefully crafted strike. The prisoners in the first row heard the crack of impact and surged to their feet, despite the shotgun-toting guards above. Who, not surprisingly, were just as engaged in the fight as the men they were supposedly guarding.
      To his credit, the big guard shook off the surprising blow as best he could and whirled to face Sickler again. Anger smoldered in his beady little eyes.
      He hadn't learned his lesson. Yet.
      The big man roared a challenge and darted forward again—quicker than his size might suggest. Sickler took a few hammering blows on his gloves and forearms, letting the bigger man expend some rage points on him in futility. He bided his time. Waiting. Feeling. Sensing the right moment to make his move. It came all too quickly.
      The guard threw a sloppy haymaker. A wild blow that probably would have knocked down a small tree, if it had connected. Sickler made sure it did not, dodging underneath the punch like a mongoose on amphetamines. Time slowed to a crawl. Sounds turned hollow. The harsh overhead lights looked different.
      Not that it affected the uppercut he planted under the guard's chin.
      The big man's head snapped back and his arms pinwheeled as he lost balance, toppling backward onto the canvas mat. The prisoners went crazy, and the guards finally started shouting orders when they realized someone had to get them back in line.
      Sickler spared a moment to glance at Colonel Grahn. The warden's face was rigid with shock and anger. Mitchell, his chief guard, and the downed fighter's personal trainer, was equally surprised. Not that the fight was over.
      Sickler felt a small tremor run through the mat as the big guy got back up, shaking his head to clear the stars. Or birds. Or whatever the hell he saw spinning around his thick skull. The ref grabbed his gloves and asked him if he was okay several times, but all that seemed incredibly distant to Sickler. The only things that existed in his tiny little universe at that exact moment were himself, the ropes that constrained him, and his enemy.
      And that was one reason he had an advantage in this 'rigged' fight. The guard looked at him and saw a prisoner. A lower human being. Someone he was accustomed to ordering about and abusing when necessary to maintain control.
      Sickler only saw an enemy. A target. An objective he had to destroy at all costs. And destroy him he did. To the roar of thunderous applause.

      Creech watched the smaller man take apart the warden's fighter in the third round. He wasn't so far away that he couldn't see the wary look the big guard had in his eyes after he recovered from that smashing uppercut. A blow that Sickler had started in the balls of his feet and followed through with his entire body.
      Creech shook his head. The younger, larger guard had been overconfident. But not incompetent. He was a good fighter. Great form. Speed. Power. Even timing, though it had been readily apparent that Sickler was playing him like a fiddle in that regard. The small convict could have easily dodged the savage blows of the first round.
      But he hadn't, and Creech now understood why. Sickler had been preparing the guard for something. Something that few fighters really understood, because they never had to truly face it.
      Fear. Doubt. Uncertainty.
      The guard had had no questions about Sickler going into the fight. And even though the warden had surely possessed access to the man's record, that hadn't been enough to prepare him for the convict's particular approach to combat. Because that was so obviously how Sickler viewed this fight.
      Combat was never totally decided by strength alone. It was confidence, conviction, and certainty in the face of equally certain death that made for a truly solid battlefield mentality. Morale, as they so inadequately called it.
      And Sickler had shattered the guard's like glass.
      "You were right," he said to Nickens. "This fight was over before it started, and no one else knew it but you and him." He nodded toward Sickler, who swayed a little as the referee grudgingly held his glove in the air.
      Nickens smiled. "I don't know about that, sir. I have a sneaking suspicion that you expected it as well."
      Creech shook his head. "Honestly, I thought he was going down in the second round, after that beating he took. But that first punch...that decided it for me." He turned to Nickens and tapped the top of the tablet. "I want him. I think he'll make one hell of an XO." The colonel paused, locking eyes with the officer Ackerson had assigned as an 'interdepartmental liaison.' In truth, Nickens was the man who would lead the squad of 'test pilots' in their first, and perhaps only, actual evaluation. "But I need to know if you want him. You'll be the one on the ground with these people. The one they'll try to stab in the back if things go to shit...and they probably will."
      Nickens nodded grimly. "Comes with the territory, Colonel. Although I admit this...exercise...is a bit over the top, even for me." He shrugged. "I've studied every candidate you and Major Ackerson have on file. Despite his past—and I fully admit that the details are a bit worrisome—I think he'll make as solid an assistant squad leader as we're likely to find in the time we have left."
      Creech nodded, scratching his chin. "There is that. The meteor shower is projected to hit in less than four months, and our window of opportunity is closing. We can deploy without the cover, of course, but..."
      Nickens grimaced. "But we don't know if they'll see us coming without it. Frankly, with the heat signature the HEVs are going to put out, I can't imagine how they could not spot us."
      "You're probably right," Creech admitted. "Believe me. If I had my way, we'd be deploying on a totally different playing field with complete control and absolutely nothing at stake. I can't believe Ackerson handed us this."
      Nickens shrugged. "He knows that it'll take more than a captured flag to convince the brass that this is a sane idea. More than that...it'll take more to convince legitimate troops to volunteer for an exclusive unit."
      "Maybe so," Creech said sullenly. "But this kind of snatch-and-grab isn't what I had in mind when I envisioned the concept. Medium-scale direct assaults with artillery support? Yes. But not...covert operations."
      "I agree it's not the ideal application," Nickens admitted. "But we can be damned sure the Innies won't see this one coming. Even if they do spot the pods." He let loose another evil-looking grin.
      Creech grinned back, though his effort was far less macabre. "I hope you're right, Captain. For both our sakes." He turned back to the window as Sickler was led away from the ring and his cheering fellow inmates. "Tell Grahn I want to meet him. Now."

      Sickler wasn't particularly surprised when his escort didn't lead him back to the cell he shared with Dunk. He had expected the warden to be displeased with the upset, though the word 'displeased' probably wouldn't adequately cover the aftermath. At best, they were taking him to solitary for one hell of a cool-down.
      They put him in a small, featureless room with a steel table and two chairs, all bolted down to the floor. He was ordered to sit facing a large mirror that dominated the wall opposite the door. He instantly sensed he was being watched like a hawk.
      Another door, without a handle and camouflaged to blend in with the wall around it, opened silently, admitting a 'light' colonel. A Marine light colonel. Sickler felt himself rising to his feet automatically. He might have suppressed the reaction if Colonel Grahn or one of his Army pukes had entered. But old habits died hard, and despite his more aggressive feelings toward the government, he still felt a surprising amount of loyalty to the Corps.
      "At ease, soldier," the colonel said, stone-faced. It was the first time anyone had called him 'soldier' in ten years. Since the day of his court martial it had been nothing but 'Prisoner 896'—not even his name. The tactic was supposed to make the prisoners more submissive, and he admitted that it worked to a certain degree. It made clever misuse of a man's pride.
      If the officer noticed his reaction, the man made no sign of it. "I'm Lieutenant Colonel Creech," the older man said without preamble. "To put it simply, I run special projects for NavSpecWep, under ONI Section Three. I assume you know what that means."
      Sickler nodded. "Yes, sir. You've got 'Don't Tread On Me' tattooed on your ass. Sir." Just because he felt loyalty toward the Corps didn't mean this guy merited automatic brown nosing. Besides, he reminded himself. You've got nothing else to lose.
       Creech looked like he was trying to suppress a smirk, but frowned instead. "I suppose threatening you with insubordination and all that jazz wouldn't do any good...would it, son?"
      "No, sir," Sickler replied curtly.
      "Thought not," Creech continued. "In any case, you pretty much hit the nail on the head. Keep that in mind while I make my offer."
      Sickler frowned. "Offer, sir?" It wasn't like the UNSC to cut deals with prisoners. They didn't have to, after all.
      Creech nodded. "Yep. And I'll only make it once." A dramatic pause. "At this time, I can guarantee a reduced sentence...maybe even full clemency...in exchange for your participation in a top secret project. Obviously, I cannot divulge any details at this point."
      Sickler's frown deepened. "Obviously, I have to make my decision based on that information alone."
      "That's right. Take it or leave it."
      Sickler studied the mirror behind Creech intensely for a moment, allowing himself to weigh the peculiarities of the offer against his own common sense—which happened to be screaming for him to do an about face and get the hell out of that room. His battered reflection stared back with an intense gaze. For a second he imagined it mouthing the word 'no' repeatedly.
      At last, he nodded. "I'll do it."
      Creech smiled. "Excellent. Welcome back to the world, Gunny."
      Sickler stood and shook the man's hand, feeling for all the world like he had just signed a pact with one of the devil's lesser minions. The prince of darkness could hardly be expected to waste his time on one washed-up leatherneck.

2320 hours, 30 December 2518 (Military Calendar)
Prisoner Transfer Cell 8311, "The Brig", FLEETCOM HQ;
Planet Reach, Epsilon Eridani System, FLEETCOM Sector One

      Ackerson walked down the cold, featureless corridors of Reach's primary incarceration center at a brisk pace. He didn't like the bland uniformity, the lifelessness, of the low-ceilinged installation. It wasn't claustrophobia, just personal preference. He'd rather have a blue sky—or a sky of any color for that matter—over his head.
      He spotted the glowing amber letters of the cell he was looking for and stared into the dimly lit interior through a viewing slit. From several feet back, of course. Everything he had heard about the man inside the cell indicated that one had better take ridiculous care with one's personal safety where proximity was concerned. He reached into his pocket and activated the small device that would prevent any listening devices from functioning within a three meter radius. His ears popped as the dampening field was generated. It was cutting-edge technology. Bleeding-edge, really, and not out of field testing yet.
      Ackerson heard someone stir on the other side of the door, though he could see no sign of movement. The austere bunk directly across from the heavy security hatch was empty. He took a half-step forward, squinting into the shadows.
      "May I help you?" a smooth, eerily precise voice said from just above the viewing slit.
      Ackerson jumped, taking an involuntary step back as the top of a shaved head descended into view. A pair of cold blue eyes stared out at him through the slit. Eyes that were sunken in a cadaverous face, and staring right at him.
      Ackerson suppressed the momentary surge of unease that rippled through him and cleared his throat. "You are Prisoner 686, I presume?" he asked politely. This man's file had indicated he took great insult at any perceived lack of respect or courtesy. It was yet another unusual aspect of a very particular psychosis.
      The eyes on the other side of the door blinked slowly. "That is correct, Major. Though I prefer to be called by my proper surname...as several of your more unfortunate guards have learned over the years."
      Ackerson nodded. He had read those reports. "Very well, Mr. Moriarty."
      "Why did you have me transferred?" the disturbing voice demanded.
      "I need your assistance in a delicate matter. You'll be adequately compensated for your...participation."
      Moriarty chuckled, the sound low and menacing in the confined space. "Surprise, surprise...your precious government has need of me once again, despite vowing to 'throw away the key' on several occasions. Five, I think." He fixed Ackerson with a mockingly quizzical expression. "I must ask why you expect me to lift a finger when all their previous promises of compensation have resulted in the same outcome?"
      "You mean, your continued imprisonment?" Ackerson asked cautiously.
      "Simple," Ackerson stated, keeping his tone even. "You hate being locked in this, or any other cell...and the mere chance of freedom is tantalizing enough to produce interest in what I have to say."
      Uncomfortable silence stretched between them for several moments. Then, with a lack of sound that Ackerson found more than a little unsettling, Moriarty dropped from whatever impossible perch he had found on the ceiling.
      The prisoner smiled, revealing a row of even, blindingly white teeth. "You are very perceptive, Major. Please continue." He folded his arms—wiry with corded muscle—over a bare chest that was covered in fine scars.
      "I have a mission for you," Ackerson started.
      "A so-called 'black op'?" Moriarty interrupted.
      "Yes," Ackerson replied, letting a hint of annoyance slip into his tone. "But it's not your usual fare." At that, the prisoner raised one thin eyebrow. "Though I think you will appreciate the...unique nature of the operation."
      Moriarty cocked his head to one side, almost as a predatory bird might when observing potential prey. "I must admit to being intrigued, Major. Please continue."
      Ackerson shook his head. "I can't. Not without a commitment from you. A decision, one way or the other. I apologize for the vagueness of the proposal, but operational security demands it."
      Moriarty smiled again. "And what makes you think I will honor such a 'commitment.'"
      Ackerson let a small, cold smile of his own slip past his guard. "You have been accused of many things, Mr. Moriarty. Lying was never one of them." He shrugged. "Besides, no matter how good a washer you may be—and I understand you are one of the best—you couldn't kill what I would send after you."
      "Ah," Moriarty said knowingly. "I believe you. Such an outcome would be...messy...at best. Neither of us would survive it." He said it matter-of-factly. Not at all like the threat it really was. "Very well, Major. I accept." A truly evil grin split the man's paper-thin lips. "Now...who would you like me to kill?"
      Ackerson felt his guts tie themselves in a knot, but he refused to let even a hint of doubt or regret enter his voice. The man before him was known to respect strength and surety. Absolute conviction, not fear or uncertainty. Like any predator, blood in the water meant feeding time.
      "Not who," Ackerson said softly, "but what."
      Moriarty's eyes blazed with a cold, precise insanity. "Interesting."

1430 hours, 21 January 2519 (Military Calendar)
ONI Orbital Facility Argo 2-J12,
In geosynchronous orbit of Planet Reach,
Epsilon Eridani System, FLEETCOM Sector One

      Sickler found himself the last to enter the austere compartment aboard the orbital facility, which had noisily went into security lockdown after his arrival. It was truly the last place he had expected to find himself, and it was surprising that they had allowed even a momentary glimpse of the planet below.
      He hadn't seen Reach in years—not since Boot, and all that came after it. Those memories were a complicated jumble of pride and pain. He had first heard about Far Isle while training on Reach.
      Sickler studied the other similarly dressed prisoners as they milled about what looked like an empty cargo bay, save for five unoccupied chairs arranged on one side of the featureless space, all facing a plain podium-style computer terminal. The others wore the same utilitarian, form-fitting prison uniform he had been issued. He guessed they were designed to discourage an inmate from hiding anything on his or her person, as they left very little to the imagination.
      "Hey there," an attractive female voice said at his elbow. Sickler tensed, silently berating himself for being so easily distracted. This was no time to lose focus.
      "Hello," he replied, forcing himself to relax as he turned to address the speaker. She was of obvious Asian descent, with dark eyes and looks that could kill faster than a MAC round from orbit—the gray prison uniforms really left nothing to the imagination.
      She smiled. "I'm Kasumi Fujikawa," she said brightly, offering her hand. Sickler shook it politely; she had a firm, businesslike grip.
      "Sickler," he said. "Frank Sickler." He frowned. "You're not related to the Fujikawa?"
      Kasumi nodded with a grimace, clearly expecting the question. "Yeah. Distantly, though you'd never hear my family say that. They really hated the idea of me joining the military in the first place, and after I...ah...made a few 'miscalculations,' so to speak..." She shrugged. "They disowned me. I am...was...a demo specialist. Used to make things go boom." She looked him up and down, as if appraising a floor lamp at the furniture store. "What do you do?" She crossed her arms under ample breasts—on purpose, Sickler was certain, because the motion did a damnably good job of distracting him.
      He hadn't seen a woman in ten years. Somehow, she knew it, and was testing him. Seeing how much she could get away with. How far he would go.
      "I'm just a normal guy," he said with a cautious smile. "Used to be with FORECON, but that didn't go as planned."
      Her smile widened into an all-out grin. "Sounds familiar. I bet you've got some great stories." She took a tantalizing step closer, and Sickler found himself forcing inappropriate thoughts from his mind.
      "Not as many as you might think," he said simply. Don't flake out, idiot, he growled inwardly. This is the wrong damn time and definitely the wrong place.
      "I smell bullshit," a jovial voice said, as its owner strode up to them. A short, dark-skinned man, standing no taller than Sickler's chin, but at least twice as broad in the chest with a physique to make the gods envious. "You Recon types always see the Crazy, and somehow live to talk about it. Usually." He wore a traditional flat-top haircut and his eyes twinkled mischievously as he stuck out a massive paw of a hand. "Louis Morshower, heavy weapons specialist," he said with a shrug. "I overheard you two swapping credentials and figured I ought to join in."
      Sickler shot him a "thank you" grin and took the opportunity to take a half-step away from Kasumi, just to get some damn breathing room. It wasn't that he didn't enjoy the attention, but he hadn't yet gotten his bearings, and the motives in this room were far from clear. In other words, he didn't trust her. Or anyone else for that matter.
      Ten years in prison had a habit of doing that to a man.
      Kasumi looked annoyed for a moment, then suspicious, then suddenly delighted as she turned to greet Morshower. "Aren't you the proverbial gorilla."
      Morshower laughed, brushing at the streaks of gray in his hair. "Certified silverback."
      Sickler chuckled, deciding to change the subject. "Know those guys?" He pointed his chin toward the two other prisoners leaning against opposite walls of the empty compartment. Both men were tall, but the similarities ended there.
      Morshower nodded. "I talked to them earlier. The tall guy who looks like Thor is Konstantin Berkhout. Former Scout Sniper. He doesn't say much, but he's got that thousand-yard stare, ya know? Seems like a solid guy." Morshower glanced at the second prisoner, a wiry man bordering on what one might call skeletally thin.
      That assumption was deceptive, Sickler realized. The guy probably had the body fat of a squirrel, but the corded muscle beneath his jumpsuit was unmistakably that of a powerful, dangerous individual.
      "As for him," Morshower continued. "He calls himself Moriarty." He lowered his voice to barely above a whisper. "Personally, I think he's out of his freakin' mind, but you might not get that from talking to him. Obviously intelligent...too intelligent, if you know what I mean. I could almost smell the blood on him."
      Moriarty cast a calm, calculating look over at them, and Sickler felt a disturbing heaviness in the pit of his stomach. "I'll keep that in mind," he said softly. Moriarty's piercing gaze finally drifted away, settling instead on Berkhout, who looked like he had fallen asleep standing up.
      Kasumi shivered. "You two are so melodramatic." She waved at the podium. "Why do you think they brought us here? Wait...let me rephrase that. Why do you think they let us out so they could bring us here." A smirk. "I was just getting used to my cell."
      "Good question," Morshower agreed.
      Sickler crossed his arms. "It's simple." They stared at him expectantly until he continued. "We're expendable. But experienced. Once we've done whatever dirty work they've got planned, they'll probably try to ghost us or stick us right back where they found us. Guarantees be damned."
      Morshower grunted agreement. "They can try. I don't plan on going back to that shithole penal asteroid. They don't appreciate my...unique talents there." His eyes twinkled again, and Kasumi laughed wickedly.
      "And what talents are those?" she asked, tracing a finger over the stocky Marine's rippling pectorals.
      "Oh, you'll find out," Morshower said teasingly.
      Sickler rolled his eyes and snorted.
      "Okay, okay!" Morshower protested with mock sincerity. "Lame joke." He produced a meal packet from thin air, although Sickler could have sworn the jumpsuits would prevent any such sleight of hand. "I used to be a scrounger." He tossed the MRE to Kasumi, who smiled as she read the contents.
      "Chocolate ice cream and strawberries? I didn't think they made that for us lowly ground-pounders."
      Morshower grinned. "They don't."
      Sickler opened his mouth to comment on the idiocy of 'scrounging' so soon after being released from a penal asteroid, but a hatch on the far side of the compartment hissed open. An Army captain strode briskly through and made a bee line for the podium.
      Sickler immediately moved over to the line of chairs, occupying the last seat on the right. Kasumi sat beside him—close beside him—and Morshower sat to her left. Berkhout and Moriarty walked over at their leisure, and Sickler sensed an immediate tension between them.
      The officer nodded after they had all taken their seats. "I'm Captain Nickens," he said without preamble, studying them for several moments before keying a command into the lectern. A holotank rose from a recessed compartment in the deck behind him and flickered to life, displaying the schematic of a vaguely bullet-shaped vehicle that almost reminded Sickler of a scaled-down lifeboat gone horribly awry.
      "This," Nickens began, "is the Single Occupant Exoatmospheric Insertion Vehicle, or SOEIV." He smiled, the scars on his face making the expression unsettling more than anything else. "Obviously, that's a bit of a mouthful. We just called it the HEV, or Human Entry Vehicle."
      Kasumi suppressed an irreverent giggle.
      Nickens gave her a strangely calm, albeit pointed, look before continuing. "It is the heart of the project in which you have agreed to participate. This thing is about to become your best friend and worst enemy, all at the same time." He grinned. "I'll be honest with you...our unmanned tests and computer models have demonstrated a ten to fifteen percent failure rate, individually."
      Morshower snorted. "Would you mind explaining to us normal folks what the hell this thing is for?"
      Nickens looked over at the man as if unsurprised by the question. "I thought the vehicle designation was self-explanatory, but if that's too hard for you to figure out I can simplify. This is—"
      "A quick way down," Berkhout said softly, in a voice as deep as a kettle drum. "A drop pod of some kind. Probably designed to replace the orbital assault boats."
      Nickens nodded to the tall sniper. "That's correct. It's an orbital insertion vehicle designed to carry one man, whereas the assault boats currently in use carry an entire complement of troops to the surface of a planet."
      "And usually get shot out of the fucking sky in the process," Morshower added darkly.
      Nickens frowned. "That is one negative aspect of the current doctrine, yes. Obviously, we're trying something new."
      Sickler chuckled.
      "You have something to add, Sickler?" Nickens asked calmly. Everything about the man was calm. Nonreactive. The people he was dealing with could be extremely volatile, and were atypical 'soldiers' at best—and he obviously knew it.
      Sickler looked up. "Yes, sir. It seems to me that this 'new' method is just as dangerous as the old one, if for different reasons."
      Nickens shrugged. "Statistically, it has a higher survival rate per individual soldier, since it's a smaller target, and subsequently less vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire. However...you are correct that it's not without significant risk in its own right." He tapped another control and a video of six drop pods appeared on the holotank, though they looked a bit different than the initial schematic. More primitive. "This was our second unmanned test," Nickens said. They all watched as the pods descended through an unrecognizable planet's atmosphere.
      One burst into flame and disintegrated as its ceramic skin peeled away from the alloy frame of the vehicle. Another suffered catastrophic failure of its drag chute system, and the retrorockets weren't enough to keep it from plowing into the ground at a velocity that was obviously not survivable.
      "As you can see," Nickens continued, "we had a lousy start. However, we've been able to upgrade drop survivability to that minimum eighty-five percent mark I mentioned earlier. All in all, you'll have a solid chance of making it to ground in one piece."
      Kasumi snorted. "Depends on what you call solid. A lot of things could go wrong, including LZ coordination." Her precise analysis surprised Sickler.
      Nickens nodded with another one of those hideous smiles of his. "That's true. But this is combat we're talking about. I don't have to explain Murphy's Law to you. Most of the issues involving coordination," he nodded at Kasumi, "will be resolved prior to our actual test mission."
      "And what, pray tell, might that be?" Moriarty asked in a smooth, cultured voice.
      Nickens considered the man with what Sickler realized to be even more caution than he had displayed thus far. An indication of something important, he was sure. Nickens had to know more about each of them than they did, themselves. And he was treating the grim reaper wannabe like an armed Lotus anti-tank mine.
       "A simple snatch-and-grab," Nickens replied, pulling up another slide. The image of a planet popped into existence. "This is Bliss, a small colony world approximately thirty-one lightyears from Earth. Population...roughly two million, concentrated on the largest landmass, which is too big to call an island. The capital city, Paradise, is built around a series of tungsten mines, which gave the colony its start."
      Sickler couldn't ignore the resemblance to his home, though Far Isle had been far more established and densely populated at the time of its destruction, despite being located farther from Earth.
      "This is our target," Nickens said, pulling up a mug shot of an older man with a heavy beard and tired eyes. "Grigory Mikhailovich Drygin, age seventy-eight Earth years. He was a revolutionary in his youth, occasionally involved in violent uprisings and riots, and has continued spouting Insurrectionist doctrine from his self-imposed exile on Bliss. ONI recently designated him a person of interest. Our mission will be to deploy on the primary continent under the cover of a meteor shower"—at this, Morshower snorted loudly—"and take him into custody, unharmed. We will then extract via a chartered transport at this small spaceport, here," he indicated a point on the map of the colony's central city. "Quick and quiet. No mess. Our objective is to cause as little disruption as possible, but we are obviously planning for the worst. Drygin is known to have a fairly large group of Insurrectionists following him at all times. Heavily armed and reportedly well-trained." He pulled up a list of names. Their names. "That's why we've recruited you from varying areas of expertise."
      Sickler read their mission roles with interest. Berkhout, scout and designated marksman. Morshower, heavy weapons. Moriarty, electronic warfare—that didn't sound right. Fujikawa, demolitions. Sickler, tactical analysis and command support.
      What the hell is that supposed to mean? he wondered.
      Nickens was a mind reader. "Sickler will function as my executive officer and Assistant Squad Leader."
      "So...you're going with us?" Morshower asked, not sounding too keen on the idea.
      Nickens nodded. "I'll be in direct command of the operation. We're off the books. Totally black. I don't give a damn what your ranks were before you decided to buck the system," he grinned at them again. "But you will respect the chain of command as detailed here. The alternative is...less than fun."
      The video of the HEV burning up replayed on the holotank.
      Before another word could be said, Nickens triggered another command in the computer console. A loud clang sounded in the cargo bay as sections of the deck retracted. Multiple boxlike crash couches mounted on complex electromechanical actuators lifted into view.
      "Simulators," Sickler murmured, recognizing the training systems.
      "That's right, Gunny," Nickens said, using his old rank for the first time. "We'll get started right away." He paused. "If there are no further...objections."
      The 'squad' cast backward glances at the holotank and its visions of incandescent demise.
      "None, sir," Sickler answered for them. Though silently he wondered who had come up with the whole idea in the first place, and how easy it would be to strangle the life out of the moron and get away with it.

0320 hours, 12 April 2519 (Military Calendar)
Aboard UNSC Prowler Raven,
On final approach to Planet Bliss

      Creech stared out of curvilinear bridge viewports at the emptiness of Slipspace, which wasn't technically empty, he mused. Just beyond the limits of the visual spectrum. All in all, a pretty boring ride. It did nothing to distract him from the worries that plagued his every waking moment, and most of the nights he managed to get any sleep at all.
      Even the drugs administered during cryo-sleep had failed to assuage the fear of failure that permeated his dreams like blood soaking a surgeon's sponge.
      "Ten minutes to normal space, plus or minus five," the ship's navigator called out.       Commander Haas, an experienced officer that had supposedly worked with Ackerson in the past, acknowledged the report with a nod of approval. "Very good, Lieutenant. Bring us out nice and quiet, beyond the planet's sensor range. I want this to be textbook. As in, torn out of."
      "Aye, sir," the junior officer responded confidently. Creech only hoped they were as good as Ackerson claimed. The mission clock had been ticking ever since they left Reach. He still couldn't believe they'd managed to sneak out under Stanforth's nose. That was all Ackerson's doing, he realized. The man had indeed delivered on his promises.
      The ease with which their little secret project had progressed was almost frightening, actually.
      "How long until deployment?" Creech asked, clasping his hands behind his back just to get them out of the way.
      Commander Haas turned to him with a hint of annoyance in his tone. "Not long, Colonel. This ship was designed to evade detection by military-grade sensor suites. The civilian systems on Bliss shouldn't be a problem. Unless there's something else I should know?" The man's thick eyebrows bobbled up and down.
      Creech suppressed the urge to laugh. "No. Though I don't have to remind you that catching the meteor shower is top priority. Otherwise, my people are going to light up every warning system the colonists do have like a damn Christmas tree."
      "Of course," Haas said with a smirk. "We'll put you right in the middle of it, though I can't guarantee it won't be a bumpy ride."
      Creech growled. "I'm not the one who has to worry, Commander."
      But his mind reminded him that he was. On so many levels.

       Sickler was walking toward the cramped ECM bay—recently converted to launch the HEVs—when Nickens appeared. Their heavy-laden combat harnesses made it nearly impossible to walk side-by-side in the tight quarters.
      "Gunny," Nickens said by way greeting. "How's it hanging?"
      Sickler chuckled. The man had loosened up a lot since they first met. "Long and strong, Cap. You?"
      "I wish. This mission is looking to get hairy before we even hit the ground." The humor had faded completely from Nicken's voice. "I'm counting on you to back me up."
      A warning bell went off in the back of Sickler's head. He liked Nickens, but the man was working for them, and they hadn't inspired confidence for a long time. In fact, they were pretty much murdering bastards in the opinion of one particular (former) Gunnery Sergeant. "I'm not sure what you mean, sir," he replied cautiously.
      Nickens stopped him. "Don't give me that crap, Sickler. You know these people better than I do. They'll try to slit my throat the first chance they get, though I don't plan on giving them one."
      Sickler frowned. "And what makes you think I won't do the same? You've read my file. It's not like I haven't done it before." He started walking again.
      Nickens shook his head. "I'm not talking about criminal records or military dossiers. You were put in an extreme situation that brought out the worst in you, and the best. It's the paradox we often find ourselves in." He paused, as if uncertain. "I'm not saying you did the right thing...hell, I should be as suspicious of you as I am of the rest of them."
      Sickler chuckled. "Probably."
      Nickens grinned back. "Nevertheless, you did what you believed to be right. And my instincts tell me you're just not that kind of asshole."
      "Oh?" Sickler asked mildly as they neared the drop bay. "All those JAG prosecutors didn't convince you otherwise?"
      "Don't get me wrong," Nickens continued, a trace of that strange sense of humor filtering back into his voice. "You're still an asshole. But I find myself in the awkward position of trusting you."
      Sickler nodded. "Them's the breaks, Cap. For what it's worth, I'll try to keep my murdering bastard side under control for the duration of the mission."
      "Thanks," Nickens said sarcastically as he got his game face on. The man had never let a single hint of weakness or intimidation slip past his guard while around the other members of their dubious squad. Only Sickler had been allowed an occasional glimpse of the stress the man was under. The irony of the situation was not lost on him.
      "Listen up, people!" Nickens bellowed as they entered the drop bay. The others snapped to attention out of sheer habit—except for Moriarty, of course. Other than his demonstrated physical capabilities, it was hard to believe he'd ever actually served in the military. "We're dropping in less than five!" He grabbed an overhead support pylon as the ship's deck bucked beneath their feet. "You'd better pray to God that one of these party streamers doesn't fuck up your heat shield on the way down. I'm not sure if they'll actually cover our insertion, but it's better than nothing."
      Morshower coughed a derogatory-sounding word, wearing a grin that said butter wouldn't melt in his mouth.
      "Agreed," Nickens said loudly, earning a quiet laugh from Kasumi, who until that moment had been close to Berkhout. Very close.
      Sickler had known they were involved, intimately speaking, for some time. He hadn't seen much reason to do anything about it, and neither had Nickens. The two probably would have ignored them anyway.
      In a way, and despite the possible complications involved, it had been a relief. Nickens had given him partial access to their files and psych evals, and reading them had been a revealing experience.
      Kasumi Fujikawa had at one time been diagnosed as a pyromaniac.
      And a handful, he reminded himself. Berkhout seemed like the type who could handle such distractions with ease. Sickler knew he couldn't say the same for himself.
      The only file he and Nickens hadn't been able to access was Moriarty's. Go figure.
      Nickens cocked his head to one side, listening to a report through the in-ear COM device he wore. "Okay," he said loudly. "Strap in and get 'em warmed up!"
      They scrambled into action, each step in the process of readying an HEV for a combat drop now familiar and practiced to the point of paranoid perfection. Sickler noticed that Moriarty was already strapped down in his own pod and closing the hatch. That was quick, even for him.
      Over the past few months of intense training and familiarization, the rail-thin operative had kept to himself. The occasional standoff with Berkhout had merited intervention, and Sickler realized that Moriarty had taken it personally. That worried him a little, but the man had shown no sign of overt hostility since they'd met. In fact, he had been one of the more dependable members of the team during simulations.
      That worried him even more.
      If Moriarty did decide to play his own game, it would be like pulling a rug out from under Nickens. Sickler only hoped the officer could handle it. Personally, he thought that Moriarty—and if that was his real name, the universe had one hell of a sense of irony—was as close to a snake in human form as you could get. Pure and simple.
      "COM check," Nickens called over the team frequency. They all sounded off, simultaneously running last-minute diagnostics on their pods and tightening every crash harness in sight.
      Colonel Creech's voice suddenly broke in over the command frequency. "Exoatmospheric insertion in fifteen seconds. You're all about to step off the edge...I just hope and pray it's not the same one God tossed Lucifer's shiny ass over. Prepare to drop, and good luck."
      "Great sermon," Morshower grumbled. "You mind if I play some tunes, Cap?"
      Sickler grinned as his HEV vibrated like the shock absorbers on a battle tank. The pods settled about a meter into their launch positions, and it fell like a brutal false-start.
      "Probably not a good idea, Morshower," Nickens replied. "I want to keep COM chatter to a minimum."
      "What's that, sir? You're breaking up." Before Nickens could repeat himself the sound of an electric guitar howled in Sickler's ears. Classical rock—at least five hundred years old. Nickens shouted something over the din, and a rasping voice screamed "Thunderstruck!" as Sickler's stomach inserted itself in his throat.
      The HEV dropped straight down, accelerating before it exited the launch tube. The music continued to rumble in his ears, but Sickler wasn't really listening at that point. He was staring out at the darkness of space and the stars that twinkled beyond the midnight blue sphere that was Planet Bliss. This hemisphere was shrouded in nighttime shadow, though the capital city and its suburbs glowed brightly.
      Another pod flashed past his curved, light-enhancing viewscreen. The onboard computer identified it as Nickens' HEV. Sickler frowned. "Bravo Six, this is Bravo One...what's your status, over?"
      The COM spat out a wave of static and the HEV shuddered as it cut into the planet's atmosphere like a flying brick. Nickens' voice was faintly audible over the pounding music and the roar of the white-orange flames licking at the ceramic skin of Sickler's pod.
      "...Repeat, I am...green...all systems are..." the static completely washed out the Captain's transmission. Sickler cursed himself for not wearing a headband as sweat poured down his face. The interior of the HEV had warmed up in a heartbeat and felt like it was easily over 100 degrees.
      "Say again, Six!" he shouted, manually cutting off the team freq and Morshower's thunderous audio track.
      "I'm...break...up! God...hot!" Nickens' voice trailed off in a distorted bloodcurdling scream. Sickler felt dread pour down his spine like ice water as his HEV rotated toward the Captain's pod. It was wrapped in flames, and he could see pieces peeling away from the frame. Too early. Something had compromised Nickens' ceramic heat shield. The glowing layer of lead foil beneath it was now visible, even at several hundred meters.
      Nickens was burning alive.
      A crackle sounded over the team freq, and Kasumi's voice breathed, "Beautiful."
      Sickler grimaced as the Titanium-A armor beneath the lead foil started ripping free, sending the HEV into a flat spin. Nickens was already dead, but his body would ride the flaming casket all the way to the ground. A funeral pyre unlike any other.
      "I guess eighty-five percent just wasn't enough," he whispered.
      He slammed into his harness hard, seeing stars as his drag chute deployed. It pushed him into his crash couch with bone-bruising force. Darkness crowded at the edges of his vision, and alarms squawked in his ears. As if falling from the sky wasn't bad enough.
      Now he was in command.

      Moriarty shut off his COM unit halfway through the drop because he was laughing so hard. It went against all concepts of decorum, but he simply couldn't help himself. Watching that arrogant prick literally go down in flames was just too much.
      He strained to wipe tears from his eyes as his HEV plummeted toward the LZ, and wrapped his hands around the manual controls. With a jab of one finger, he entered the override code Ackerson had given him, diverting his pod to an alternate landing site. Not too far from the predetermined LZ, but far enough to give him some privacy. And a head start.
      Nickens' fiery demise had been an added bonus. Moriarty wished he could claim responsibility, but there had been no time to catastrophically damage the man's heat shield himself, and Ackerson had given no such order.
      Not that a mere technicality like that would stop him from seeking just recompense from the others for all the subtle insults and misjudgments of the past few months. He had logged each and every infraction vividly in the recesses of his mind. There they formed a list that he would fondly recall as he cut them to pieces.
      Quite literally, if it was convenient and the mood struck him.
      Moriarty was a creature of simple extremes. For each ounce of flesh that was taken, he recouped a pound. For every wrong done to him, he repaid his antagonists tenfold. It was just a matter of cause and effect.
      And excellence, perhaps. A rare aptitude for that ultimate act...the taking of human life. Moriarty considered himself a man of superior, if not perfect, killing prowess. A born slayer. Far different from the average, monotonous, and flawed homo sapiens.
      He switched his COM back on. Receive only.
       "Bravo One to Bravo Three...Morshower, do you see Five?" Sickler's voice sounded in the cramped confines of his HEV. Moriarty hated that voice. It reminded him of the first man he'd killed. With a box cutter. November 10th, 2502. He recalled it raining heavily that day. The water had washed the blood away nicely.
      "Negative, One," Morshower replied over the open team freq. "I think he's off course, over."
      Moriarty smiled. "Obviously, you moron." The computer reasserted control and fired breaking thrusters to slow his descent to survivable speeds. He managed to force a mouth guard between his teeth just a few moments before impact, and was glad for it. No sense messing up good dental work on such a shit detail.
      The pod drilled almost a meter into the ground. Moriarty felt the shock of it all the way up his spine, despite the top-notch crash couch and multi-point harness that held him securely to it. He'd experienced worse, of course. Emergency landings were hell. But it was still far from pleasant.
      He popped the hatch without hesitation, blasting the panel free and releasing his harness at the same time. It only took a moment to extricate himself from the pod and gauge his surroundings. Bliss was a fairly warm world, even at night. Not tropical, except in the southern regions of the primary continent, but neither was it cold. The forest in which he had landed lay just outside the developed region at the center of the landmass. Good cover all around and teaming with life.
      He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, taking in the sounds and smells of a busy ecosystem. The sharp cry of a hunting nocturnal predator brought a conspiratorial smile to his lips, and the shriek of slaughtered pray a broad grin. After he took care of business, similar sounds would follow close on his own silent heels.
      He turned to the HEV and activated his night vision optics before stripping equipment from the built-in racks conveniently designed for the purpose. Beneath his seat was a large compartment that was not standard issue for a drop pod. Ackerson's little super weapon was carefully hidden inside.
      Moriarty placed his hand on the biometric lock and hummed a tune as it scanned his palm print and took a DNA sample for confirmation. With a hiss of escaping air, the front panel fell away, revealing a black metal cylinder about as long as his arm and half a foot in diameter. The only warning placard on it said something about disruptive electromagnetic fields within close proximity of the device.
      Moriarty snorted. Ackerson thought him an idiot, or worse...a fool. But he knew what kind of weapon lay inside the deceptively mundane, matte black shell.
      Antimatter, he thought brightly. At least fifty grams of it, judging by the size of the containment bottle. More than two megatons of destructive power in the palm of my hand. It was a glorious thought, and he relished the idea of what was to come.
      Something moved in the underbrush nearby—definitely not an animal. Moriarty drew his weapon of choice, a combat knife with an eight inch blade. Not scalpel-sharp, but close enough to get the job done and not lose its edge. Without a sound, he faded into the deepest twilight shadows and waited.
      Morshower slipped into sight a moment later, carrying his M247 SAW. The large weapon had a 100 round detachable box magazine of 7.62x51mm ammunition—more than a casual threat. Morshower cautiously surveyed the landing site, torn up badly by the HEV. Moriarty watched him toggle his COM.
      "One, this is Three," Morshower said softly. "I found Moriarty's pod, but it's empty. No sign of him, over."
      Sickler's voice filtered through Moriarty's custom in-ear monitor. "Roger, Three. Keep your eyes open and rendezvous with the squad at grid ref six-niner-three-zero-four-zero, over."
      Morshower nodded, as if to himself. "Wilco. Out." He stepped over to the HEV and squatted in front of it, the machine gun braced across his trunk-like thighs. Moriarty watched as the squat heavy weapons specialist examined his boot tracks in the dirt. The Marine grunted when he noticed the antimatter device.
      Moriarty stepped out of the brush. "Didn't expect you to get here so soon."
      Morshower's head snapped around, and the muzzle of his SAW immediately tracked toward the sound. Then he realized who it was and lowered the weapon, slowly. The idiot. "Heh," the Marine said, "you scared the shit out of me."
      Moriarty strode forward confidently, sheathing his combat knife. "That isn't hard." He picked up the bomb and slid it carefully into his pack.
      "What the hell is that thing?" Morshower asked, tilting the barrel of his weapon toward the pack.
      Moriarty smiled up at him. "Call it...a contingency plan. Just in case everything goes to pieces."
      Morshower grinned back. "I like GOTH plans. Kept me alive plenty of times."
      "Indeed." Moriarty glanced at his TACMAP. "Are you in contact with Sickler?" he asked mildly. It was all too easy.
      "Yeah," Morshower replied, eyeing the surrounding foliage "We're supposed to meet up with him and the others at the edge of the forest. The target is supposedly holed up at a villa just outside the city. Won't take too long to get there if we can commandeer a ground vehicle."
      As if I didn't know all that, Moriarty thought to himself with no small amount of scorn. He watched, amused, as Morshower toggled his COM, frowning when only static answered.
      "Something's wrong with my commo gear," Morshower muttered. "Try yours."
       Moriarty shook his head, suppressing a smile. "Mine is malfunctioning as well," he lied smoothly, settling his pack and the culprit it contained on his shoulders. "I'm not sure why."
      Morshower cursed viciously under his breath. "Let's rendezvous with the others."
      Moriarty nodded, "Yes. But first... I might know where we can find a vehicle. Spotted it from the air. Then we'll circle around and pick up the squad...save time."
      "Aren't you handy," Morshower observed with a chuckle.
      Moriarty smiled coldly. "You have no idea."

0350 hours, 12 April 2519 (Military Calendar)
Grid Reference 693040,
Primary Continent, Planet Bliss

      Sickler glanced at his chrono. No sign of Morshower, and no word from him since he found Moriarty's HEV.
      "See anything, Two?" he asked Berkhout. The sniper was bedded down under his ghillie-style camouflage near the edge of the forest.
      "Nothing," Berkhout replied, his voice barely above a murmur. The throat mikes did a decent job of picking up anything louder than a whisper.
      "He's been gone too long," Fujikawa hissed nearby. "We should get moving."
      Sickler shot her an irritated look, but did not contradict the suggestion. They had a mission to complete, and he'd half-expected at least one of the former prisoners to go AWOL. Two was nearly enough to cripple them.
      "I concur," Berkhout said from his hide. "There are three habitats within moderate walking distance that likely have a vehicle we can commandeer." He made it sound like going to the grocery store. Three glowing indicators appeared on Sickler's TACMAP.
      He growled under his breath. "Okay. We'll move out and try to reestablish contact after we've acquired ground transport." He picked the nearest of the three structures on the map and highlighted it. "Let's go."
      They covered the handful of klicks between the forest's edge and the settlement quickly and without incident. Finding a truck wasn't hard, though the one they managed to steal had less than a full battery charge. On the bright side, no one would miss it for some time.
      Sickler tried raising Morshower, and Moriarty, again. To no avail.
      Where the hell did they go?

0350 hours, 12 April 2519 (Military Calendar)
Near the outskirts of Paradise City,
Primary Continent, Planet Bliss

      "Where the hell are we going?" Morshower growled as he studied the TACMAP. "This isn't anywhere near where Gunny said to link up."
      Moriarty smiled tightly, the expression not reaching his eyes. "I know. We're making a slight detour."
      Morshower narrowed his eyes. "Detour, huh? You never said anything about that. What the fuck are you playing at, anyway?" His hand strayed toward his sidearm. The cab of the ground car they had 'borrowed' was too cramped to bring his SAW to bear.
      And Moriarty had counted on that.
      His right arm was a blur as the razor-sharp combat knife pinned Morshower's left hand to the plastic seatback. Morshower howled in pain and lashed out with his right arm, but Moriarty was faster. He snapped a quick, brutal blow to the man's temple. Not hard enough to kill, but more than sufficient to put even Morshower out of action. Temporarily, at least. He would finish him later, in a more fitting manner.
      Moriarty pulled onto the main thoroughfare of the city called Paradise, studying the architecture of the buildings. Greek and Roman influences were prominent.
      Perhaps Palladio? he thought idly. There was an obvious infusion of Russian architectural elements as well, and he did not like the combination.
      Within minutes he had reached the denser heart of the city. At this pre-dawn hour traffic was relatively light. He stopped at an information kiosk and entered a query.
      If the device had been even semi-sentient, like the newest AI constructs, it might have wondered what Moriarty wanted with a church. Being a normal computer, and an abbreviated one at that, it simply gave him directions and an estimated time of arrival at present speed.
      Moriarty grinned, his face looking like a Totenkopf as he got back in the car.

4:18 AM Local Time, April 12th, 2519 (Civilian Calendar)
Drygin Compound;
3841 Crimson Road
Paradise City, Bliss Colony

      Alexandra Grigorovna Drygin awoke with a start. The baby was kicking again, as it seemed like it had been for the past six weeks straight. She sighed, lurching into a sitting position around her noticeable belly. The damn thing just plain got in the way. Constantly.
      She rubbed her swollen abdomen and whispered soothing things to the child growing within. When the kicking failed to subside, she resorted to less...nurturing...sentiments.
      Alexandra rolled her eyes and levered herself out of bed, feeling for all the worlds like a beached whale. Her friends said she was exaggerating, but Alexandra didn't care at this point. She just wanted the rough pregnancy to be over. Among other things.
      She glanced at the framed holo on the night stand. A picture of Matthew, her fiancée, taken shortly before his last off-world recruiting mission. During which he had been arrested by the authorities, presumably on charges of fomenting sedition, and thrown in prison. There had been no news, one way or the other, in some months.
      "You're awake," her father's voice said softly from the open doorway.
      "Again," she agreed tiredly, pulling on a warm robe. She was always cold, despite the near-constant temperature in the city, which lay just north of the planet's equator. She shot her father a scolding look. "You shouldn't be up, Dad. The doctor said—"
      He waved a hand, interrupting her. "I know what the doctor said, daughter. It's the same thing every time. Rest. Peace. Quiet. Bah." He shot her a grin, the expression partially hidden beneath a bushy silver beard. "I've never been the quiet or peaceful sort and I don't intend to start now."
      She arched one eyebrow at him. "Have you finished, yet?"
      He nodded. "Nearly. We'll get the message packets ready over the next few days. Distributing them through the colonies will be difficult at first," he shrugged. "But what isn't?"
      "Do you think it will make a difference?" she asked, absently massaging her belly.
      The old man paused, then set his jaw and fixed her with a reassuring, confident gaze. "It must. We lose ground by the day. They have almost complete sociopolitical control. And why? Because they have managed to maintain the status quo." He sat on the bed next to her. "This will shake things up...if we can get news of the discovery past their censors."
      She nodded, biting her lip. Matthew had been captured while trying to do just that. She felt the tears welling up and cursed aloud. The pregnancy was making her overemotional, in addition to everything else.
      "Hush," her father scolded, jokingly. "Not in front of my grandson!"
      "Granddaughter," she shot back firmly, unable to keep the laughter out of her voice.
      Her father grinned. "Ah...just as well. You turned out fine, after all."
      "Just 'fine'?"
      "I was being modest," he said dryly.
      She snorted. "That's new."
      Grigory Drygin laughed heartily. "Such disrespect. Where did I go wrong?" He hugged her tightly and kissed the top of her head. "We'll find him. After this xenoarcheological dig is made public...it will be easier to make such inquiries."
      "They'll try to stop us," she whispered into his shoulder. "You know that."
      Drygin nodded. "I know. I've already arranged for Dustin to take you off-world. Somewhere safe. Their response could be...extreme." She opened her mouth to protest, but the look in his eyes made her pause. He shook his head. "No argument, Alex. I won't lose you...not when I could prevent it."
      She frowned. "You need me here. These forgetful spells of yours—"
      "Are harmless," he interrupted.
      "For now," she amended. "They will get worse. Who is going to look after you if I'm gone?"
      "Nicolai," Drygin said simply. "He's more than capable."
      She rolled her eyes dramatically. "Of handling your little network of spies, perhaps. I question his bedside manner."
      Drygin chuckled. "You may have a point. Still. My mind is made up."
      An alarm whooped in the distance, muffled by the walls of the house and courtyard.
      "What is that?" she asked, sitting up.
      Drygin frowned. "I'm not sure. It sounds like a fire alarm." He went over to the COM panel and keyed a sequence that connected him to their small, jury-rigged security room. "What's going on?" he demanded.
      The panel's tiny screen flickered to life and was immediately filled by Nicolai's face. "We're not sure yet, sir. Looks like the warehouse across the street has caught fire. There is quite a bit of smoke."
      Drygin grimaced. "Is it going to threaten the compound?"
      "Don't think so, sir. The fire brigade is on its way."
      Drygin nodded. "Good. Keep me informed." He turned back to Alexandra and froze. A strange man held one hand over her mouth, and a huge silenced pistol was pointed straight at his head.
      "Not a sound," the man said softly. "You understand?"
      Drygin nodded, mutely. He considered slapping the alarm on the COM panel but discarded the notion just as quickly. The man was obviously a soldier. Probably a professional. He couldn't allow Alexandra and her child to be hurt because of some foolish stunt.
      "Now," the man said slowly. "We're walking out of here. The way I came in is crawling with your guards by now." He tilted his head to one side. "One to Four...how's that fire coming, over?" Drygin watched as the man listened for a response—he was obviously wearing a COM device of some kind. "Copy that," the man continued. "I'm taking him out now. Tell Berkhout to keep his rifle on him at all times. Out." Alexandra whimpered as the man forced her to stand. Not roughly, but fear magnified all things.
      "Please don't hurt her," Drygin whispered.
      "Hey...I told you to shut up," the man said, the muzzle of his gun not wavering.
      "I am obviously the one you want," Drygin continued, tempting fate. "I will accompany you peacefully if you let her go." He glanced at the COM panel. "I'll even tell my guards to stand down."
      The man seemed to think about the offer for a moment. "Tell them—tell all of them—to go fight that merry little blaze we started across the street, and I'll consider it."
      Drygin swallowed, then nodded. "Very well." He slowly turned to the COM panel and punched in his override code. The unit would broadcast his voice throughout the compound and trump any other conversations. "This is Drygin. I want all of you to assist the fire brigade. No exceptions." Nicolai's face appeared immediately on the small screen, looking worried.
      "Sir? It seems to be under control. Are you sure—"
      "Just do it, Nicolai," Drygin snapped. The soldier tensed, and Drygin forced himself to regain his composure. "I don't want anything to threaten my daughter. Understand?"
      Nicolai nodded. "Of course, sir. We'll get over there immediately." The screen went dark, and Drygin sensed the man behind him relax, if only a fraction.
      "There," he said over his shoulder. "They're on their way out. Let my daughter go."
      The man nodded, smoothly rolling her over his hip onto the bed. She gasped when he let her go, sobbing, but seemed to be otherwise unharmed. "Okay, gramps. Let's get moving." He stepped forward and gestured for Drygin to precede him into the hall.
      Drygin complied, and felt the cold muzzle of the gun press gently against the nape of his neck. "That really isn't necessary," he said cautiously. "I gave you my word."
      "Right," the man said with a low chuckle. "Get going." The metallic pressure lifted, but Drygin sensed it was still pointed unwaveringly at the back of his head. He walked slowly down the hall, pausing as he heard some of the compound guards exit the first floor, below. Should he call out to them? No. Alexandra was still in potential danger.
      "Bravo One to Bravo Two," the soldier murmured. "Sitrep." Drygin quietly walked down the stairs, through the rooms of his own home, as his kidnapper carried on a semi-private conversation. The man was obviously military. Probably with the Office of Naval Intelligence, or whoever was in charge of ferreting out so-called 'insurrectionists' these days.
      "What is your name?" he asked softly. The man seemed to hesitate as they reached the back door that led into the darkened courtyard. Faint orange light flickered across the small crab apple tree planted in the center of the garden.
      "Not important," the soldier replied quietly as they moved into the courtyard. "Stay to the left. I've got a rifle on you, so don't try anything stupid." He paused. "My orders are to take you alive. Understand? We're not here to start a fight." They moved into the courtyard slowly.
      Drygin smiled wryly. "I commend you for your restraint."
      "Thanks," the man replied tonelessly. "Now get moving. We're on a tight sched—"
      A loud shriek sounded behind them and Drygin heard a sharp crash of breaking porcelain. He whirled in time to see Alexandra fall to the ground, broken shards of an antique wash basin raining down around her.
      She'd smashed it over the soldier's head.
      "Alexandra!" he cried, diving to shield her with his body.

0425 hours, 12 April 2519 (Military Calendar)
Drygin Compound, Paradise City,
Primary Continent, Planet Bliss

      Sickler grunted as the heavy whatever-the-hell-it-was broke across the back of his skull. It hurt like the blazes, and his vision went hazy for a few moments.
      "One, I have the shot," Berkhout said over the team freq, damnably calm.
      "No!" Sickler whispered hoarsely as he rolled over on the grass. "Hold fire!" He shook his head, trying to clear the stars from his vision. Another unearthly howl rose from the throat of the little woman who had snuck up behind him. How the hell did she do that?
      "No, Alexandra!" the old man's voice insisted. He had the good sense not to yell. "He's not going to harm us. He could have shot us both by now."
      Sickler watched as the man rocked her in his arms, and he realized they were related. This had to be his daughter. And she was obviously pregnant. A hollow feeling of guilt formed in the pit of his stomach. He swallowed and forced it out of his mind—this was no time to go soft.
      Slowly, painfully, he got to his feet, blood trickling down from his hairline. "You...are one crazy...lady," he said with a growl, raising his suppressed M6. "You'd better listen to your father. I'm taking him out of here, alive, and there's nothing you can do about it."
      She spat at him, unleashing a torrent of profanity in Russian, or what sounded like Russian.
      Drygin held her back, hugged her fiercely and cupped her face in his hands. "Listen to me," the old man whispered. "I'll be fine. You need to calm yourself, daughter. This is no time to lose control." He kissed her forehead and stood, turning to face Sickler. "I know why you are here."
      Sickler wiped a rivulet of blood from his brow. "I bet you do. Let's move." He glanced upward, past the courtyard wall. "Berkhout? We're coming out now."
      Drygin chuckled. "They didn't tell you, did they?"
      "I don't have time for this, old man," Sickler snarled, pointing his pistol directly at Drygin. "Two, this is One. Respond!"
      "They didn't tell you about the artifacts," the old man said simply. "The ancient alien relics we found buried beneath this city."
      Sickler frowned, frustration and puzzlement bubbling just under the surface. "What the hell are you talking about?"
      Drygin took a few steps closer, putting himself between the gun and his daughter. "That's the reason you were sent to bring me in. To keep me quiet. They can't afford to let a secret like this out. Not now. It could set off a chain reaction that would weaken them greatly."
      Sickler shook his head. "I don't know anything about that, Drygin, and frankly I don't give a shit. My orders are to grab you and get the hell out. Simple."
      "Perhaps not as simple as you think," Moriarty's voice slithered into his ear.
      Sickler jerked as if bitten. "Moriarty? Where the hell have you been? Where's Morshower?" Drygin was looking at him strangely. He didn't blame the man. The rictus of surprise on his face was probably frightening. He switched over to a private frequency. "Berkhout, can you hear me? Moriarty's back, and he's gone psycho."
      "Oh, Morshower is...hanging around," Moriarty replied, nonchalantly. "I left him with a friend. And Berkhout can't hear you. I'm afraid he's had a dreadful accident."
      Sickler swore viciously. Somehow the crazy bastard had full COM access. What the hell was going on?
      "You son of a bitch!" Fujikawa shrieked over the team freq.
      "Ah! The whore speaks!" Moriarty chuckled. "And why should you care, Kasumi? You've been so busy embracing your inner arsonist and getting off on a few pathetic gouts of flame that you forgot to watch his back. Rooftops can be so...treacherous."
      "What do you want?" Sickler snarled.
      "Simple, really. I want to savor this moment." Moriarty sighed loudly over the open channel. "I've killed you, Sickler. I've killed all of you. You just don't know it yet."
      "What are you talking about, asshole?" Sickler shot back, motioning for Drygin to follow him.
      "Oh, Sickler, how I wish we had time for a guessing game. Pity. I guess I'll just have to lay it all out for you." Moriarty's voice dripped with a kind of frighteningly lucid madness. "I was tasked with a different mission than the rest of you."
      "Really," Sickler said, with mounting concern. The guy was just too damn smug.
      "Oh, yes! This whole thing has been a farce from the very beginning. A convenient cover for ONI's true business here. You see, Grandpa over there owns a small mining corporation here on Bliss, and his moles found something of interest down below. I'm not exactly sure what it is, but it must be extremely dangerous, or they wouldn't have asked me to clean up the mess." He paused dramatically. "You wouldn't happen to know what the big mystery is, would you?"
      Sickler seethed. "Even if I did, I wouldn't tell you. Get to the point, Mort."
      Moriarty growled loudly over the COM. "You always were the most intolerable fucking moron of the lot." A deep breath. "No matter. Here's your situation report, Gunnery Sergeant Sickler. I have placed and armed an antimatter bomb somewhere in the heart of the city. Naturally, I gave myself enough breathing room to get clear of this foul little planet, but I would guess that there is less time than you need to find the device. How unfortunate."
      Sickler's brain almost froze up as the crazed operative's words sank in. An antimatter bomb. He hadn't even known the UNSC possessed such a device. Tactical nukes, yes. But something as notoriously volatile as antimatter? As little as he knew of the subject, it was enough to fuel a burning desire to get as far away from the city as possible. If Moriarty wasn't lying through his teeth, the coming explosion would be of nuclear proportions. "But clean enough for the scientists to get back to work after the ash settles," he mused aloud. "Code BANDERSNATCH."
      "How observant," Moriarty taunted over the COM.
      "What?" Drygin asked, incredulously. "What's going on?"
      Sickler looked over at him. "Things just got worse. There's a bomb in the city. It'll wipe out everything for miles."
      Drygin paled. "My God."
      "Perhaps I didn't give you enough credit, Sickler." Moriarty continued. "Then again..." his voice trailed off.
      A loud crack thundered in Sickler's ears as a freight train slammed into his chest and spun him around. He seemed to fall to earth slowly, all the while wondering why Berkhout had shot him.
      Stay with it, you idiot! his mind screamed. Moriarty's using the rifle!
      Drygin's daughter cried out as her father rushed over to him. Odd. He wasn't sure he would have done the same.
      "Kasumi," he croaked after toggling his COM. "Take it down."
      Another shot rang out, and something warm spattered his face as the warehouse where Berkhout had taken up overwatch exploded. The overpressure tore at the trees and plants of the courtyard, ripping red clay tiles from the roof. The noise was deafening.
      Sickler tried to sit up, but the fire in his chest only worsened.
      Suddenly legs were running through his field of vision. Someone hauled Drygin off of him and started yelling soundlessly at the old man. His daughter, her face a rigid mask of terror, was rocking back and forth over Drygin's bloody form.
      "You bastard," Sickler exhaled, not hearing his own words. He had killed plenty of people before, some of them innocents. But that had been under the fog of war. He hadn't meant to waste them. It just...happened.
      But this. This was different. Only animals driven beyond madness took life for no reason. And evil men.
       At least he's dead, Sickler thought with no small amount of satisfaction.
      Someone stuck the muzzle of an old HMG-38 machine gun in his face and shouted something at him. Sickler blinked, keeping very still.
      Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Kasumi step through a breach in the courtyard wall, her face covered in soot and tears. She held her MA5B assault rifle up and at the ready. There was a wild gleam in her eyes, augmented by the flickering lights of the blaze across the street. Debris rained down around them as the guards pointed their weapons at her.
      Sound rushed back into Sickler's world, as if his ears had been full of water.
      "Put 'em down!" Kasumi screamed at the guards. "Put 'em down now!" Her other hand held a primed grenade. The kill radius would chop everything inside the courtyard into raw meat.
      "Stop!" Alexandra Drygin's voice rang over the roar of the flames and the shouting guards. She stood up, dressed in nothing but a simple nightgown and white bathrobe. Sweat and blood—her father's blood—mingled with the ash on her face. And tears. She and Kasumi were like conflicting mirror images of each other. One the proverbial angel clad in white. The other, a devil in black combat fatigues.
      Kasumi tensed as Drygin's daughter pushed past her guards. Alexandra placed a hand on the rifle held by the man called Nicolai and gently forced it downward. She looked at Kasumi pleadingly.
      Sickler coughed. "Fujikawa. Stand down." He locked eyes with her. "That's an order."
      Slowly, hesitantly, the demo expert lowered her assault rifle, letting it hang on its tactical strap. The other guards did likewise, looking relieved. Kasumi did something with her hands and disarmed the grenade as easily as he might have peeled an orange.
      Alexandra crouched beside Sickler, regarding him with shockingly calm eyes. He would not have been nearly as composed had he just witnessed his father's murder.
      "You said something about a bomb," she said softly.
      Sickler nodded. "One of my men betrayed us. We didn't know anything about it until now. I wouldn't have..." he gritted his teeth and propped himself up on one arm. Images of his mother flashed in front of his eyes. His sisters and brothers. His stepfather. All of them gone in an instant. He grabbed his chest, where the bullet had struck his body armor a glancing blow. He was lucky Moriarty was a less than perfect shot. If it had been center of mass he would be dead.
      "Are you okay?" Kasumi asked from where she stood, watching the guards nervously. They did the same, despite outnumbering her ten to one.
      Sickler nodded, sitting up with Alexandra's help. "Yeah." He looked up at the young woman and winced. "I'm sorry about your father."
      She scowled. "Now is not the time. Where is the bomb?"
      He shook his head. "I don't know. Moriarty didn't say." He turned to Kasumi. "Any ideas?"
      She shook her head. "I was listening, and if it's what he said it is, we can't find it radiologically. We're fucked."
      Sickler sighed and closed his eyes, wishing God was still in the habit of handing out miracles.

      About a mile away, Morshower was dying.
      He had been disemboweled, and his entrails hung down from the wooden cross behind the alter of the cathedral. Moriarty had tied him to it before slicing his gut open. The pain was unlike anything he'd ever felt.
      He let out a morbid chuckle, and immediately regretted it as agonizing spasms wracked his body. Crucifixion was the last way he had expected to go. Ditto for seppuku.
      One eye was swollen shut, and there were countless smaller cuts on his face. His arms were splayed out at uncomfortable angles, supporting most of his weight, though the bastard had also tied his legs to the base of the cross. The antimatter bomb sat on the altar, and he could barely see the timer set into the side counting down.
      Less than thirty minutes left.
      The church was mostly dark at this hour, and empty. Starlight streamed down through the stained glass window overhead, basking the interior in a soothing silver glow.
      All in all, not the worst place to die, he thought tiredly.
      A door slammed in the distance, echoing in the cathedral like a gunshot. Morshower lifted his head weakly and caught a glimpse of a man in what looked like a monk's robes hurrying down the aisle. The man stopped with an audible gasp as he saw him.
      "Hey there," Morshower slurred. "Sorry...for the mess." The priest crossed himself and scurried back out of the sanctuary.
      Morshower didn't blame him. He imagined it was a pretty horrific sight for a civilian.
      "Hold on, my son!" a voice called from the shadows. The priest reappeared with a utility knife in hand. Another bleary-eyed man followed him, though all traces of sleep vanished when he saw Morshower.
      "Mother of God!" the second man said, crossing himself as his voice bounced off the cathedral walls.
      The priest jumped up onto the chancel. "Shut up, Marcus, and help me get him down!"
      Morshower smiled as he felt his left wrist fall free. That hand bore the nasty cut Moriarty had given him in the car. The two men grunted with the effort of getting him down from the cross. He absently thought it was a good thing the icon hadn't been built to scale, and chuckled again.
      The priest knelt at his side as the second man supported his head. "My son. Would you like me to hear your confession and administer the Eucharist...and Viaticum?"
      Morshower grunted. "What?"
      "Last rites. We have already called emergency services, but..." the priest's voice trailed off as he stared at the slick marble floor around them.
      "But...you don't...expect me to live that long," Morshower finished for him, the effort of speaking even more laborious than before. The priest nodded wordlessly. Morshower grinned. "Give me a second."
      He reached down with his nominally 'good' right hand and grasped at a pouch on his blood-soaked pant leg. The priest helped him open it and withdrew a small cylinder with a pistol grip, placing it in Morshower's outstretched hand.
      "Here's my contingency plan," he muttered, raising the flare gun toward heaven and pulling the trigger. The gun bucked as it went off with a loud chuff. The flare punched through the stained-glass skylight easily, showering them with broken shards. The priests ducked reflexively, covering him with their own bodies.
      Morshower watched the small shell rise and burst brightly over the church in a flash of blinding red light that sent glowing white tracers back along its trajectory.
      He grinned. "Thanks, Padre. Now you can make with the prayin'."

      Sickler was in lost in dark thoughts when the flare went off over the city. He stared at it disbelievingly for a moment, then smiled.
      "Morshower," he said softly to himself.
      Kasumi gaped. "You're kidding, right?"
      "Nope," Sickler replied, whirling to Drygin's daughter. "Where is that?" He pointed at the tracers drifting toward the ground.
      "Downtown," Nicolai answered for her. "Looks to be near St. Jude's Church."
      Sickler laughed aloud, shaking his head.
      "What could possibly be funny?" Alexandra said, her voice rising in anger.
      Sickler grinned. "You don't get it? Saint Jude is the patron of desperate people and lost causes." He stalked toward the open garage and its assortment of well-used vehicles. "Take me there."

      Morshower was gone by the time they entered the cathedral. Sickler spent a moment staring down at the man's mutilated body and realized he actually missed him. They had only known each other for a couple of months, but real friendship knew few limitations.
      "Frank," Kasumi said behind him. "We're in trouble."
      She had managed to remove the outer casing of the antimatter device, but its internals looked almost as nondescript. Her demo kit was laid out on the altar, and the priests, Alexandra, and her people looked on worriedly.
      "Talk to me," Sickler said as he turned back to regard the ticking time bomb.
      She looked up at him, her eyes bloodshot and pleading. "I can't disarm it. This thing is out of my weight class by an order of magnitude. If I try I'll probably just trip an anti-tamper device and set it off early."
      Sickler swore viciously, then reprimanded himself. He was in a church, after all. Pissing off God didn't sound like the best idea...not after he had kept Morshower alive long enough to fire that flare.
      Sickler was surprised to find he actually believed that.
      "Are you sure?" he asked her, hearing the desperation in his own voice. She just looked up at him pointedly. "Right," he muttered, pacing in front of the altar. "Stupid question."
      "Excuse me?" Alexandra called from behind them. Sickler didn't hear her as he continued to pace, wracking his brain for a solution. Any solution. He unlatched the straps of his ruined body armor and chucked it away with a growl.
      "How much time do we have?" he asked Kasumi.
      "A little more than fifteen minutes," she said, carefully putting the outer casing back on. Sickler had no idea why she even bothered.
      "Excuse me!" Alexandra shouted, stalking up to him.
      "What?" he retorted, frustration giving way to anger.
      "What about a mine?"
      "What?" he and Kasumi asked simultaneously, both startled by the question.
      Nicolai stepped forward. "A mine shaft. They conduct underground tests of these weapons, right?"
      Sickler nodded. "Usually. What of it?"
      Alexandra grinned excitedly. "The tungsten mine where we found the artifacts is less than five minutes' drive from here. It's at least..."
      "...Two thousand meters deep," Nicolai finished for her.
      Sickler stared at them silently, then looked at Kasumi.
      She smiled. "It could work."

0500 hours, 12 April 2519 (Military Calendar)
Industrial Sector 7, Paradise City,
Primary Continent, Planet Bliss

      Sickler almost fell out of the truck as it ground to a halt in front of the mine shaft entrance. A bank of three elevators stood at the top, as if waiting for him. "How much time left?" he yelled into the wind that had picked up since they left the church. It howled between the outbuildings of the mining complex like a banshee.
      "Ten minutes!" Kasumi yelled back. "We've gotta move!" She handed him the pack that held the antimatter device.
      Nicolai ran over to the lift controls and got the cars warmed up. Lights set into the elevator cages snapped to life. Sickler climbed inside the nearest one, Kasumi hot on his heels.
      "You don't have to do this," he said.
      She looked up at him, her jaw set. "Neither do you."
      Alexandra stepped inside the cage, now dressed in ill-fitting fatigues with the jacket open to allow for her condition. Both ex-convicts stared at her in surprise.
      "What?" she demanded. "If this doesn't work I'm dead anyway, and you two don't know the layout." She jerked the cage door shut before they could sputter in protest and brought the heel of her hand down on an oversized button.
      For the second time that day Sickler's stomach felt like it was going to punch out the top of his skull. The car dropped, and they clung to the inside of the cage like rats in a particularly horrifying lab experiment.
      "This...thing...is pretty...fast!" Sickler howled over the roar of air rushing through the lift car.
      They didn't bother answering him.

      Moriarty snuck past the guards with little trouble, even taking the time to slit one man's throat one his way past. He was mad as hell, and the nearly effortless act did little to salve his fury. It did nothing for the hideous burns that covered most of his body.
      Sickler had almost bested him. If he hadn't leapt off the roof when he did—and managed to land on an adjacent building that had very nearly collapsed as well—he would be dead.
      It was intolerable.
      Despite the fact that the bomb was going to explode any minute. Despite the fact that Sickler had managed to find it and figure out a way to save the colony, Moriarty planned on enjoying some manner of revenge.
      He had followed the Drygin vehicles to the church, and from there, to the mining complex. Now it was just a matter of going down after them.
      It would mean his death, but Moriarty didn't care. Better to die doing what he loved than slink away in disgrace. No...he would rip out Sickler's heart and eat it while the women watched.
      He ran across the last open space separating him from the mine shaft elevators, snapping off a few shots at the man in the control booth on the run. Two, at least, struck home, knocking the guard down in a cloud of blood.
      Moriarty cackled maniacally as he lunged into another waiting lift car and descended, laughter echoing up the shaft in his wake.

      Sickler had trouble comprehending the size of the alien structure before him. It had taken them no more than three minutes to reach the bottom of the shaft, and the lateral tunnel leading to the dig site.
      If you could call it that.
      The miners had really only stumbled upon a subterranean cavern that was obviously not the work of nature. They stood on a catwalk made of some kind of metal he had never seen before. It was covered in alien symbols that shimmered under the portable work lights.
      The floor of the 'cavern' was littered with strange metal blocks—almost like obelisks that had been decapitated a few meters above the base.
      And it was eerily quiet.
      "Hurry!" Alexandra shouted, leading them across the catwalk. On the far side, a ramp led down into the shadowed interior of the alien structure. Sickler ripped the pack off his back and tossed it into the darkness, wincing as it bounced. But it didn't go off.
      Kasumi made a choking sound behind him, and Sickler whirled, eyes widening in surprise and horror as he saw Moriarty standing behind her with one blackened arm around her throat.
      "Drop the guns," Moriarty growled at him. "Keep the knife."
      Sickler glared at him, but did as he was told, his mind on the timer counting down to oblivion behind him.
      Moriarty smiled evilly and slid the combat knife into Kasumi's lower back. Her eyes rolled back in her head and she toppled over the side of the platform, falling thirty meters to the floor below without a sound. Moriarty wiped blood off his blade with one finger and put it to his tongue, eyes smoldering with insane glee.
      Alexandra screamed, and Sickler pushed her behind him as he drew his own combat knife, patterned off of the venerable KA-BAR design.
      "Let her go," he said menacingly, "and I'll stay to finish this."
      Moriarty laughed. "Why should I? No, I think Miss Drygin will have a front-row seat to our mutual end. Besides, I want someone to see me eviscerate you like I did that idiot in the church."
      Sickler's eyes smoldered. "Fine." He lunged forward, slashing with the knife as he'd been taught in combat training. Force Reconnaissance Marines were even more intimately familiar with the up-close kill than most of their brethren, and he had paid attention in class.
      Moriarty danced back, letting the blade hiss past harmlessly. His own weapon darted out, almost playfully, tracing a bloody line across Sickler's chest.
      Sickler lashed out a kick that the quicker, taller man barely avoided, then slashed with his knife. Sparks flew as Moriarty interposed his own blade, blocking the strike.
      "You know what I always disliked the most about you?" the insane killer asked mildly as he slashed at Sickler's face.
      "What?" Sickler growled, edging back. Just out of Moriarty's longer reach.
      "Your voice. It's incredibly annoying...don't you think?"
      Sickler let out a roar as he charged, forcing Moriarty back, towards the tunnel. Moriarty struck, faster than a cobra, cutting him again. And again. Sickler quickly realized he was outclassed. The man was bleeding him dry. Fighting smart. Killing him slowly with a thousand small cuts.
      He danced away from a vicious slash and rolled, almost going over the edge of the catwalk. Now his back was to the tunnel, and Moriarty stood between him and Alexandra Drygin. The killer smiled, his face like a leering skull.
      "Decisions, decisions, eh?" Moriarty said with a sneer. "How about this...I let you run back to the elevator, and you leave me with the girl."
      The sick bastard didn't add that it would be a fate worse than death, but Sickler already realized that. If he left her to die, he would hate himself forever. Or at least, for the short amount of time before he put a bullet in his own brain.
      "No deal," he said calmly, one hand holding a long cut across his ribs closed. Blood flowed freely over his fingers.
      Moriarty laughed. "I thought not." He stepped forward, a look of triumph in his eyes as Sickler wobbled on his feet. Moriarty brought his knife in low and impossibly fast, edge up.
      Sickler knew it would gut him like a fish.
      Alexandra screamed as she threw herself on Moriarty's back. How she had gotten that close to the man without him realizing it, Sickler would never know. But he did know how ferocious she could be.
      Alexandra clawed at Moriarty's eyes, and the man staggered under her weight, shrieking as she rubbed against his badly burned flesh. Before he could reverse his grip to stab her, Sickler stepped in.
      It was almost casual. Dismissive. Like an afterthought.
      Or an uppercut.
      The seven inches of good steel parted the skin under Moriarty's jaw, plunged through his soft palate, and entered his brain. As blood gushed, Sickler contemptuously slapped away the man's knife and grabbed him by his tattered, blackened tactical harness.
      Alexandra slid to the metal catwalk, sobbing as she watched Sickler throw Moriarty's twitching body over the side. Sickler didn't waste a moment, reaching down to pick her up in his arms.
      He ran, boots pounding across the metal and stone between the chamber and the lifts. He practically dropped her inside the cage, slammed the door shut, and slapped the big red button with a huge arrow pointing 'up' on it.
      With a deafening whine of protest the car shot toward the surface. Sickler and Alexandra hung on for dear life, clinging to each other as much as the inadequate hand rails.
      Just as Sickler started wondering how long the damn thing was going to take, emergency brakes kicked in with an ear-splitting scream of tortured metal.
      And a brilliant white light flashed into being in the depths below.
      The car brutally slammed against its blocks on the surface, and Sickler tumbled out with Alexandra in his arms. He was fading fast, losing consciousness and going into shock, but he thought he felt arms grab him and haul him to his feet. Then they were running again, and suddenly the ground lurched beneath them like an earthquake.
      Something hit him in the head and the world went dark.

1200 hours, 27 April 2519 (Military Calendar)
Solomon's Park, Olympic Tower, FLEETCOM HQ;
Planet Reach, Epsilon Eridani System, FLEETCOM Sector One

      Creech sat on the park bench in silence, his fingers clamped on the flimsy sheet of memory plastic that detailed his orders. His reassignment.
      To Harvest.
      Quite literally the ass end of nowhere. He sighed, ignoring the burnt skin on the back of his neck. He had been sitting there for quite some time. Which he had plenty of, now. His ship wasn't scheduled to leave for another week.
      Nothing but time.
      Footsteps echoed down the sidewalk, coming toward him. He didn't look up until they stopped.
      "Ackerson," he said softly, menacingly. It was the first time he had seen the man since the news came in. Drygin was dead, and someone—God only knew who—had detonated a tactical nuclear device beneath Paradise City. His 'squad' of convicts was dead; not such a great loss. But the HEVs were all but destroyed.
      They worked, he reminded himself stubbornly. Proudly.
      "Major Creech," Ackerson said with a thin smile. He was wearing the fanned silver oak leaves of a Lieutenant Colonel. Separate branch, but it was still Creech's former rank. Ackerson, it seemed, had not only come through the debacle unscathed, but with a promotion to boot.
      He, on the other hand, had been demoted and dressed down by Stanforth in front of his peers. Then hung out to dry like old laundry. "What the hell do you want?" he growled.
      Ackerson frowned. "I just wanted to apologize for the way things turned out. It was...unfortunate that HIGHCOM saw fit to—"
      "Save it," Creech said, cutting him off. "I know you don't really mean one damn word, and I hope you realize the house of cards you're using for cover could come down at any fucking moment. If they ever find out what you did..."
      "Please, Simon," Ackerson said with snort. "If there's one thing you should have realized by now, it's that I'm untouchable."
      Creech snapped. His hands were bunching up the front of Ackerson's uniform and lifting the man clear off the ground in the blink of an eye. He snarled up at the Army officer, who calmly held on for dear life as Creech shook him violently.
      "You've ruined me, you bastard!" Creech shouted, spittle flying from his mouth. "Do you have any idea how long I worked to get where I was? How many sacrifices I made? DO YOU?" He seethed for another moment before dropping Ackerson unceremoniously on his feet.
      Ackerson wobbled for a moment, regained his balance, then straightened his rumpled uniform. "I guess not," he said simply.
      For a fleeting moment, Creech considered drawing his sidearm and blowing the man's brains all over the park. Ackerson seemed to realize it. He turned and started walking back down the path. Creech buried his head in his hands, the printed copy of his orders falling between immaculate dress shoes.
      Ackerson's footsteps faltered. Creech heard the scrape of the man's shoes as Ackerson turned back to face him.
      "I thought you might like to know," Ackerson said tonelessly. "Stanforth approved the HEV for use by the Orbital Drop Shock Troopers. The 105th will be the first up for training. I've been attached as liaison officer for the time being. We are very excited to see how the concept progresses."
      Creech was as still as a statue as the Army officer spun on his heel and walked away, soles clicking against the smooth concrete. Then he straightened. Slowly. Almost regally. Without another word, he unsnapped the flap over his sidearm—a nickel-plated M6E pistol—and slipped the weapon free of its holster.
      Methodically, as if he had done so a million times, Creech ejected the magazine and snicked the topmost round into his palm. He pocket the mag and locked back the slide of the pistol. The massive round dropped neatly into the breach, which closed with a well-oiled metallic clack.
      Creech looked around once more, making sure no one was in the line of fire, and shoved the muzzle of the gun into his mouth.
      A nearby flock of strange-looking gulls took wing at the thunderous report.

7:04 PM, Local Time, April 27th, 2519 (Civilian Calendar)
Copper Beach, 211km west of Paradise City,
Primary Continent, Planet Bliss

      Sickler stared into the sunset, listening to the rolling surf in silence and enjoying the gentle touch of the sea breeze and the numbness in his fingers from the cold beer sweating beneath them. He hadn't felt either in so long that it seemed an entirely new experience.
      But the memories of another beach, long since burned to glass, still haunted.
      He took another sip of the beer, this time making a silent toast to family, friends, and comrades lost. Their faces came back to him, one by one. A parade that seemed to go on forever. But no longer tortured him the way it once had.
      Light footfalls padded across the sand, and Alexandra suddenly stood at his side, her newborn daughter in her arms. Sickler couldn't help but smile as he glanced at them out of the corner of his eye.
      "Decide on a name, yet?" he asked softly, taking another sip of his beer.
      Alexandra smiled contentedly. "Yep. Francine."
      Sickler choked on his beer, spluttering until he got most of it out of his lungs. "You can't name her that," he protested weakly, gasping for air.
      "Why not? I think it's a nice name!"
      "It's awkward, and I never liked the guy version. Why do you think I go by 'Frank'?"
      A brooding silence fell between them as Alexandra pursed her lips, angry or deep in thought. Or both. Finally she nodded.
      "Okay. What about 'Kasumi'?" she asked softly, looking up at him with a questioning expression.
      Sickler grimaced. "As long as you realize her namesake was a crazy...uh...person." He glanced down at the baby guiltily. "May her soul rest in peace." His conscience screamed at him to control his language for once in his life. The kid was already going to have an abnormal childhood. No need to start it off on a vulgar note.
      Alexandra nodded. "Kasumi it is then. Kasumi Francine."
      He sighed. "There's no point in arguing, is there?"
      "Thought so." He finished his beer. "I was talking to Nicolai. About your fiancée."
      Alexandra froze. "What?"
      "We think we can find him. And I know prisons pretty well. Maybe we can get him out." He shrugged, kicking the sand absently with the ball of his foot. It was good to feel it between his toes after so many years. It reminded him of a childhood that wasn't all bad. Once upon a time.
      Alexandra studied him in silence for several moments. "Getting him out would be dangerous. Probably suicidal. You know that."
      Sickler grinned. "Hell—ah, I mean—heck! What've I got to lose?"
      Kasumi Francine gurgled happily, as if in total agreement.

      THE END

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