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Under an Atomic Sky Ch.2: The Good Fight”You've read Lord of the Flies, sir?""I have, but your analogy will not hold. These children will have guidance. They will have discipline. And they have one thing no ordinary children have, not even the SPARTAN-II candidates. Motivation."—SCPO Franklin Mendez and Lt. Kurt Ambrose.". . . God knows life in the vault isn't perfect, but at least you'll be safe. Just knowing that will be enough to keep me going."—JamesWord count: 8067//////3:25 pm August 31, 2277, Galaxy News RadioShiloh was bruised, covered in super mutant viscera, coming down from an adrenaline rush with all the twitchiness and anxiety that came with it, and she had seen her life flash before her eyes at least three times in the past hour . . . but she was where she had set out to be and alive to be annoyed, so Shiloh decided she had no grounds to complain.Might have to burn these clothes though, she thought as she laid down the Fat Man and wiped a hand across her helmet's visor to clear it. That reduced it from opaque-red to translucent-and-streaked-with-red, so she flipped it up instead and followed the Brotherhood of Steel members into GNR.She took in the interior as the survivors extricated themselves from their armor. The lobby was dimly lit with emergency lighting and split in half by the same sandbag walls and razor wire as the steps outside. Behind that were numerous shelf units laden with ammunition boxes and medical kits as well as a set of stairs on each side leading up to the second floor's inner balcony. She could hear faint, pained moans from the wounded Brotherhood soldiers on the upper levels.She'd have to check them out. Gunshots weren't something she had much experience with—Vault 101 wasn't usually violent and Megatonheld an uneasy detente with the River Barons in Springvale since the gang had been mauled in a failed bid to seize the town several months ago—but Doc Church had made sure she knew the procedure and she still had some Pre-War quality meds she grabbed from the Vault clinic during her escape. Three Dog could wait.She checked the medical kits—the Brotherhood used a sorting system that was just as obtuse as Vault-Tec's, except she hadn't been basically raised with this one—until she found one with what she'd most likely need, then took the stairs two at a time guided by the sounds of pain, and found the Brotherhood troops in short order. There were twelve that she could see, surrounded by shell casings, spent fusion cells, and used chem injectors—some perfectly safe and what she expected, others things that the Brotherhood of Steel probably didn't approve of. Two were dead, because for as long as the mutants had been attacking and as much firepower as they'd put out, someone was bound to get unlucky eventually, and three were walking wounded trying to tend to the other seven while having only two functional arms between them. Those that could, looked at her in surprise as she walked through the doorway.She stripped out of the vault suit with the speed and ease of having been the only choice of clothes she'd ever had, because she couldn't wash up, there wasn't anything to throw over it, and like hell was she going to risk dropping radioactive super mutant guts into an open wound. So it was surgery in her underwear, then; at least the Brotherhood had some gloves.A couple of the wounded were well enough to give her appreciative whistles. She'd let it slide this time."Alright," Shiloh said as she slid the gloves on with a snap, "triage time. Who's got it worse?"//////[LOCAL TIME/DATE UNAVAILABLE] 0037 HOURS, JUNE 23, 2554, (MILITARY CALENDAR)\ [ERROR: LOCATION UNKNOWN]\ SPARTAN-B292 Mission Clock +17:37:23Timebomb, they decided, could wait. The broken clavicles were nonfatal as a rule; the seven bullets he'd caught, while initially alarming, miraculously missed his organs and arteries entirely—both in the initial vectors and by a general failure to fragment or tumble on penetration. Their tentative assessment for the poor ballistic performance was a defective powder load, but they weren't about to make any plans that hinged on that being true. They sterilized the gunshots with the bare minimum of Biofoam, redressed them with the cleanest bandages from the clinic's supplies (hardly ideal, but they might need their own to treat the captives they meant to rescue), and gave him a dose of polypseudomorphine to keep him under for a day. Then they left. Time was of the essence.Following the locals' suggestions, they observed intermittent blood splatter on the road as they moved north, but there was no way to know if it was even human, let alone if it was related to their quarry . . . until they reached a camp several kilometers from Big Town. On the far bank of a sluggish, fetid river, in the shadows of a decaying bridge, sat a pair of ramshackle lean-tos, a small slapdash dock, a cold campfire, and three bodies. One floated face down in the water, gently pinned against the dock, his rust-flecked revolver lodged within reach between two planks. The second, once they pulled her from the collapsed shelf unit that covered her, had been split open from left shoulder to pelvis; a crude machete, its blade coated in some unknown, now-dry poison, lay nearby. The third, now swarmed by giant flies, was set alight, gunned down, and dismembered; none of his limbs were present. A scorched rifle similar to Dusty's lay a few meters away. All three wore the remnants of crude armor fashioned from scorpion carapace. They swept the site for matériel, taking the revolver, a sawed-off double barreled shotgun, and a dozen rounds for each fished from the mess by the second corpse.A several kilometers-long detour east to a railyard produced only a hallway full of rusty bear traps and junk suspended from the ceiling. Noteworthy as a sign of habitation, but most likely not the kind that they were looking for.It was in the ruins of a church that they first encountered the super mutants. They spotted it from the trainyard; tilting steeple and crumbling roof, back half blackened by fire and the rest bleached white by the sun, girders and tree trunks raised like pikes meant to ward off Scarabs. They smelled it on approach; the sickly-sweet stench of meat rotting in the heat, mixed with excrement and chemical fires. They heard the creatures as they moved to stack up against the doorway:"Wish I had a NEW WEAPON. Something good to SMASH with. Wish I could hold one of those Behemoth clubs. SO BIG! SO MUCH CRUSH!"Three; big, yellow-green, heavily muscled. One carried a sledgehammer, another a nail board. The last, wearing a rough-hewn set of metal armor complete with helmet, toted a rifle of unknown make. All were ripping chunks from a corpse dropped by a fire pit in the middle of the church floor. An older, dark-skinned man, tightly bound at his hands and feet, cowered in the far left corner.Three hostiles, two of them. No flashbangs, no silencers or suppressors, no idea of enemy reinforcements.Workable.Cloaked, they moved as one, as silent and lethal as vipers. The rifleman and the hammer wielder dropped to the ground, never knowing of the threat at their backs, brain stems pierced by knives with more force behind them than any normal human could produce. The third scarcely began to reach for its club when a snap kick to the back of its knee sent it toppling into waiting arms. A swift, brutal wrench and it too went limp, neck twisted beyond its natural limits.The captive gaped at them as they became visible, as they cleaned their knives, as they cut him free."You're not one of the victims we were sent to find," Tom said. "Do you know where else they take prisoners?"The man hobbled over to the gap in the back wall and pointed to the northeast. He licked his lips. "The police station." He rasped."Go to Big Town," Tom ordered. "Tell them we sent you."The man nodded dumbly, walked stiffly over to collect the discarded rifle, and staggered out of the ruin. They continued on.The entrance to the Germantown Police Headquarters was sealed, rubble from its upper floors having made as effective a barrier as the reinforced concrete walls. Theyswept the rusted chain-link fences and sandbag walls of the relief post erected around the building, stalking and killing four more mutants and one of the other abominations Leathers had spoken of—she'd left out all the extra arms, none of which were in the right place. A door on the side was locked, breachable, but not silently. The station's back they found torn asunder, a path cleared of debris lead to a decrepit wooden door on the second floor. An obvious trap.They cloaked. They sprung it. The door swung inward, deafening in the silence.Crazed laughter and bellows of "FRESH MEAT!" almost drowned out the heavy footfalls that answered them. A mass of contacts appeared on their motion trackers, no longer shielded by thick walls.So much for stealth.Six mutants spilled around a corner down the hall.Two thirty-millimeter fragmentation grenades detonated in their midst; their thick hides left them staggered, more disoriented than disabled. One bellowed in rage, even more eager for a fight.They put two 7.62x51 millimeter armor piercing rounds through each of the creatures' skulls and ensured that they never had a chance to regain their bearings.Mutant number seven barreled out of a room halfway down the hall, aimed low, and hosed the doorway with automatic fire. They were already back in cover. Mutant eight, a straggler from the pack, rounded the far corner, a bolt-action rifle clenched in meaty hands. Seven's gun clicked dry.Seven died. Eight followed before the smart one even hit the floor.They reloaded; swept up the hall, knives in hand to ensure that the monsters stayed down. No further contacts; they checked each room to be certain. A two-man pincer, far too late and far too small, stormed through the back door.The mutants made a valiant effort to sweep the floor for them, but their lines of sight were too short, too easily broken. They separated—isolated—themselves of their own accord, and were in turn dispatched.Any hostiles left in the building would have made a kill zone at the base of the only usable set of stairs by now. Without the floor plan, they wouldn't risk using their explosives to make another entrance to the level below. There was also the looming threat of mutant reinforcements. Their best option, it seemed, was to set a grenade trap at the top of the staircase and double back to the side door. It would, if nothing else, divide their foes' fire.They ghosted back down the steps, over the rubble, and into the currently deserted camp. The door hung wide open, forgotten in the doomed flankers' haste. Above them, the plasma grenade detonated. They moved faster. One contact in the room to their left; a tentative, human "Hello? Is anyone there?" meant a surviving captive. They confirmed it as they passed the doorway: a woman, red jumpsuit, red bandana, dark skin, locked securely in a cell. She would have to wait though, because they hear three sets of heavy footsteps approaching.The largest mutant they'd seen rounded the corner at the far end of the hall. Its skin stretched taut over muscles far thicker than those of its smaller fellows, its sneer more wrathful, it carried what looked like a human spin on the Brutes' signature melee weapon, the Gravity Hammer.They split; Lucy broke right, into what was still recognizable as a locker room, while Tom dashed left, up a branching hallway. The sound of cracking drywall and a string of automatic fire told him which way the monster went.He took concealment against a doorway halfway up the hall, the room beyond empty save for rusty tables, rotten desks, and a door directly across from him. Two blips became two mutants in ad-hoc armor, the first wielding a flamethrower, the other toting a different model of rifle. They stood close together, so much so that when his first burst of fire struck the point man's head and blasted out the back, the follower was left stumbling with an askew helmet and a corpse underfoot. The delay was fatal.By then, Lucy's MA5K was silent, but the frustrated snarls and the crunch of metal on concrete remained alongside the yellow dot on his tracker. A new contact came into being on his HUD, racing up the stairs at the end of the corridor. Tom pivoted, a bare green head and torso rose into his view—and then fell back out of it in a spray of red. He returned the way he came to assist Lucy.The monster had her on the defensive. It was too close for explosives, too massive to overcome by hand—she could best him in a spar more often than not, but this thing was the size of a Hunter—and judging by the rivulets of blood trailing down its head and chest, already shrugged off half a magazine from her carbine without suffering any ill effects. It couldn't catch her though: it was too slow, too clumsy; its hammer could only harm what it connected with; and Lucy was far too smart to be herded into a corner, despite its best efforts.Tom shot it in the back of the head. The creature turned to him, utterly unbothered by what should have been the obliteration of its brain stem, growling obscenities.Lucy stuck a plasma grenade between its shoulders. This provoked an annoyed, confused grunt. They ran.Their foe roared. He heard one step, then another.Boom.The walls around him lit up a vicious blue-white and his shadow reached the end of the hall. When he turned around, most of the locker room's northern wall was ash with a set of shriveled, blackened legs at the near-molten center. Bits of scorched bone and flecks of superheated metal had sprayed outward; a particularly ghoulish shrapnel.Covenant plasma grenades were treated as anti-armor weapons for a reason.Lucy's bios were still green. Tom had to make a wide loop to get to her, one that took him by the stairs—they would have died if they tried that route—and by the time he got there she had her gear back in order. She raised her left hand, thumb across her palm, then made a fist. There really wasn't much he could add to that.They strode side-by-side into the jail block and, rather than waste time tracking down the key to the cell door, simply seized the rusty bars and bent them out of the way. The young woman within clambered through and looked at the two of them, pleading."You have to get to the basement quickly, Shorty might still be alive!" she begged. "Then we need to get back to Big Town fast; I heard the muties talking about another raid tonight!""We've eliminated numerous super mutants so far, do you have an estimate of how many are in the area?" he asked.The woman shook her head. "This isn't their base, just a stopover. They were talking about taking me home, wherever that is.""I'll get your friend," Tom said, then tilted his head toward Lucy. "You go with her, salvage what you can. We're leveling this place when we leave. And take this," he passed her the revolver and bullets they'd recovered earlier, "just in case."//////The basement took the mutants' depravities to new heights. The cloying tang of spoiled meat choked the air. What had been a firing range when the station was in human hands was now filled with mutilated corpses, sacks of viscera, and bloodstains; cockroaches the size of house cats scuttled amongst the rot. Fortunately, other than the insects, only the captive Shorty was still down there, his constant calls for help making him easy to find. It was a simple matter to cut him loose, hand him the sawed-off, and tell him to loot the place while C7 and T-C-C were applied to every load-bearing element in reach.Five remote detonators, one can of foaming explosive, eighty centimeters of thermite-carbon-cord, and one shotgun lock picking later and they were all back on the ground floor. Shorty, having found a pair of canvas bags, several pistols, a sub machine gun, and an assortment of ammunition, radiated smugness. Lucy and Red gathered four rifles, the ammunition, two books of all things, and parts stripped from the flamethrower and half a dozen other guns. The Big Towners elected to put their original armaments away and instead carry the best-maintained carbines from the haul."Stay between us," Tom told them, and received no dissent. "We'll detonate the explosives once we're well clear of the building." Lucy's status light blinked green once.They cleared the relief station without issue and were safely traversing the surrounding ruins when they triggered the ordnance. At the dull whump of controlled demolition, they all paused to turn and watch as the Germantown Police Headquarters collapsed in on itself. Their charges whistled appreciatively.From there the group avoided the main road south back to Big Town, creeping from copses of sickly trees to rocky bluffs to heaps of ancient refuse as much as they could for the multi-kilometer trek. Red and Shorty slowed their progress, though not nearly as severely as the two Spartans had feared. The two followed directions well, such as when told to go prone and wait among the rebar and concrete of a crumbling monorail line when they spotted a group of super mutants.The party was three in crude metal armor—one ax, one sledgehammer, and one of what Shorty confirmed to be a pipe rifle between them—with a pair of the disgusting aberrations Red called "centaurs" dragging themselves along slightly behind. The green ones matched pace with their ersatz hounds, plodding leisurely up the road as though they were the masters of the universe. The SPARTANs had initiative, elevation, range, and cover; it would be trivial to cut the patrol down where they stood. It would also be audible to anyone within at least ten kilometers. They lost twenty minutes as the things ambled past.There were no further obstructions. The only other living things they encountered were the giant flies swarming the bodies by the river, too busy gorging on the carrion to bother them. The sun set by the time they arrived, a new moon rising to replace it, but as soon as Big Town's walls came into sight, Red and Shorty barreled past them with something close to relief on their faces. The two of them didn't like it, but wouldn't begrudge such a miraculous reunion; the resultant cheers were quite refreshing. They crossed the bridge to applause and proclamations of their heroism.Dusty was still at his post, and Church milled about uncertainly—well away from the others—but Rags, Leathers, and Flash were clustered around Red and Shorty, alternating between enthusiastic hugs and joyous whoops.Red, though, wasn't one to waste time: "I know you two have already risked your lives once today, and I hate to have to ask you to do it again . . . but the mutants will probably be here soon."Her friends fell silent. Tom and Lucy watched the emotions that flitted across six faces; mostly resignation, some fear, no surprise."We'll handle it," Tom said quietly. "What do you have for us to work with?"Red had the integrity to look sheepish. "What we brought back from the police station—"Which was inferior to their own hardware."—a couple disabled robots in the junk pile—"Which they didn't know the first thing about."—some Stimpaks—"Which they had never heard of before now."—and us."They had, optimistically, eight hours to prepare. They were experienced in training people from scratch, yes, but that wasn't possible in such a short time frame. At the very least, they would have to establish who could actually hit a target with the guns on hand; who could keep their cool under fire; situational awareness; threat assessments; basic small unit tactics. For a battle at night on top of it all. Their augmentations give them excellent low light vision, and the VISRs of modern helmets only compounded that. The Big Towners possessed neither.On top of that, their equipment was generally ill-suited to stacking the deck. The explosives were too few in number to effectively mine the perimeter, and using them within the settlement would level or incinerate most of it. Their SPI wasn't MJOLNIR power armor; it wasn't meant for stand-up fights, and with just the two of them, they'd get bogged down quickly if the mutants arrived in the kind of numbers they'd already seen. The SPIs' optical and thermal camouflage was their greatest asset, though, and made splitting up substantially less of a risk. A more fluid defense might work."Is there anywhere you can hide?" Tom asked. "The clinic's basement, perhaps?""Yes," Red replied, "but if they find us . . .""We'll handle it," he repeated, then addressed the others. "Take what you need and hole up there until we tell you it's clear. We'll draw the mutants off or wipe them out.""Right," Red sighed, "Pappy, help me with the medicine. Kimba, Dusty, sort the guns. Shorty, find Bittercup and get the food, caps, and salvage somewhere it'll survive; I don't want to lose everything if they try to burn the whole place down. Flash—""Um," the blond man interrupted, "actually, I'm gonna need someone to help move Timebomb.""Timebomb's alive?!" Red and Shorty shouted simultaneously."That lucky bastard," Shorty half laughed."Guys," Red groused, "you know I'm the doctor, right? I need to know . . . never mind. How is he? Can he be moved?""Still out, but his breathing sounds alright," Flash answered."We disinfected and re-bandaged his wounds," Tom interjected, "then gave him a sedative that should keep him under for about another sixteen hours before we left to rescue the two of you. It's not ideal to move him, but in our semi-professional opinion, it would have been safe to do so then."Red threw a calculating glance at them both. "You two are just full of surprises, aren't you? For mercs, you still haven't asked for payment and you keep taking on more work." She shook her head. "Change of plans Pappy, I'm with Flash.""Yeah, yeah. I got it," Rags—Pappy—grumped from halfway to the clinic. "We'll get to linger a couple extra minutes when the clinic collapses on top of us all."Tom shot back, "We're not getting paid if you're all dead.""How ominously reassuring," Pappy retorted. "You really know how to put a fella at ease."At this point Red spotted Church for the first time. "Who are you and what can you do?""Names Matthias, little lady. Merc with far less luck and hardass than your two. Know my way around a rifle and some first aid . . . can always be some more dumb muscle if you need that." He shrugged. "Consider my services on the house, seeing as I'd probably be chum or worse if not for those two."Red was silent for a moment. "Help Pappy," she finally said, "then hole up with us.""Roger," Matthias replied, throwing her a mock salute as he jogged off.They watched the Big Towners disperse to make their preparations, then went their own way. There were plans to make. //////10:34 pm, August 31, 2277, Galaxy News RadioShe was able to save the ten of them, in part thanks to the swift arrival of Vargas and who she now knew to be Sentinel Sarah Lyons. One man needed to have his left arm amputated at the shoulder, a woman lost her right leg above the knee, and she'd have never been able to handle those alone. They might even escape being permanently crippled if the Brotherhood had prostheses and the know-how to install them (she had neither). The rest avoided being so severely mutilated; just exhaustion, fractures, bullet holes, and shrapnel wounds aplenty. Pre-War Stimpaks were mass-produced miracle workers.It took seven hours, and cost her a third of her Stimpaks, but a job well done was a job well done. The number of dead had still risen from seven to eleven—the minigun crews that had received a first hand demonstration of the effects of a mini-nuke—but there wasn't any point in her getting worked up over people who were dead before she left Megaton. And it would have been so much worse, for any group that wasn't the Brotherhood."The DJ's still up, right?" she asked no one in particular."Normally, yeah," one of the least injured, and thus not sedated, survivors replied. "For you specifically? Definitely. Go back to the lobby and take the door on the second level across from the entrance. We can hold down the fort here.""Finley left you some usable clothes by the door," another chimed in."Thanks," she said, glad not to have to put the armored vault suit back on just yet. The clothes weren't much—a semi-clean combination of a white tank top and a pair of brown cargo pants—but at this point anything was an improvement.She went back to the lobby where the uninjured Brotherhood members—sans Colvin, she was pretty sure she'd heard him tromping up to the roof at some point—had completed the macabre task of gathering their dead and moved on to cataloging what they could salvage from the battle.Sentinel Lyons looked up at her as she entered. "Tell Three Dog that Vargas and I will be leaving later tonight to get the relay back up and running. And don't get yourself roped into it. You're good, but not the kind of good that'll survive a meat grinder like the Mall.""I'll pass it on," Shiloh replied as she opened the proper door. She didn't know what getting to the National Mall would entail, but it was presumably much like the route to GNR. No point, then, in the Lyon's Pride wasting daylight in the metro system.Past the doors was a flight of stairs leading to a room full of disassembled terminals and what she had to assume was broadcasting equipment, as well as a hole in the ceiling that might explain why power armor seemed to rarely leave the ground floor. A staircase directly across from the first led to a room full of operational hardware and two people playing cards. A man and a woman, both dark-skinned and black haired; the man paired a headwrap and glasses with a mustache and goatee and wore an oft-patched set of rugged travel wear; the woman had a similarly well-used tan hoodie, off-white pants, and the kind of sturdy boots that people out in the wastes would and did kill for. Both looked up as she approached, but the woman went back to contemplating her hand while the man laid his face down on the table and rose to greet her."The look on your face says it all," he began. "You're wondering who the heck this guy is and why you should care. Well, prepare to be enlightened." He spread his arms out. "I am Three Dog, jockey of discs and teller of truths. Lord and master over the finest radio station to grace the Wastes: Galaxy News Radio. And you, well . . . I know who you are. Heard about you leavin' that vault. Just like dear old Dad, hmm? Met him already . . ."Looking behind him, Shiloh could see the woman rolling her eyes. Presumably working with Three Dog all day everyday caused his theatrics to lose their charm, but he hadn't asked her to rob and/or murder someone yet, so that put him well above Moriarty in her book. She hadn't harbored any expectations about the DJ, since GNR had been down by the time she'd reached Megaton and it would have taken a special kind of stupidity to have her Pip-Boy broadcasting on the way there, so finding out that he was actually the kind of ersatz spy-master she aspired to be was unexpected, if not surprising.And her father had at least made it this far, though he almost certainly still had a two-week lead on her. That was good to know, rather than stumbling around completely in the dark."The pleasure's mine," she said politely, "and please, call me Shiloh . . . just don't spread it around, if you would. Sentinel Lyons said that she and Paladin Vargas will be heading out later tonight to get your station back up. And what makes you so certain that I'm looking for anyone, my father included?"He chuckled. "Oh come on. You're a spitting image of the guy. He's been here before, and now you're here. Doesn't take a genius to figure it out. You want to find your dad, and it just so happens his location is known to yours truly. Normally, I'd make it a trade . . . but with what you've done for the boys and girls of the Brotherhood, I'll give you this for free."Now she'd been told she looked like her father many times growing up in the vault, but she'd always attributed that more to politeness than sincerity (and by Moriarty, but she filed that under attempted extortion). She'd inherited his complexion, and a bit of facial structure, but her eyes and hair were definitively her mother's—and almost pure white hair on a child had always been the most striking of her features. She still wasn't quite sure she bought it."We are talking about the same man, right?" she asked."Dr. James Breen," Three Dog affirmed. "When your dad passed through here, he and I talked for a good long time. He's a real stand-up kind of guy. He said some scientific mumbo-jumbo which didn't make sense to me and mentioned something called 'Project Purity'. He also said something about going to visit a Doctor Li in Rivet City. Then, he left in a hurry. Looks like I've got my way of contributing to the Good Fight . . . and he's got his own."Rivet City. As she suspected. She couldn't call the trip a pointless, inconvenient detour, if only because several of the Brotherhood soldiers would have died without her intervention, but her personal mission would not have suffered much had she followed her initial hunch. Might as well make the most of it.She grabbed an empty office chair—more patches than original upholstery and its wheels so rusted they didn't even squeak—and set it at the card table. She settled into it as Three Dog returned to his seat and picked up his cards."You know my story," Shiloh queried the two, "what're yours?""Three Dog's seen it all," he said bitterly, barely taking his eyes off his cards. "The Capital Wasteland at its ugliest. People killed for scraps of food, wounded children wandering aimlessly. Some seriously fucked up shit. If it wasn't for the Good Fight, I think I would have gone crazy by now."The woman chuckled and set down the three through six of hearts while tossing the five of diamonds into another pile. "Three Dog pulled me out of a tight spot with some Talons about six years back, and sticking with him seemed like the best idea at the time. Now I've got a roof over my head, a lotta guns between me and the rest of the world, and the often lonely men wielding those guns." She smirked. "Good times to be had all around.""So," she began, addressing only Three Dog, "what do you mean by the 'Good Fight?' The Brotherhood and their conflict with the Super Mutants? Or more general wasteland survival?""Sorta," he replied as he drew a card. "Imagine a picture, okay? A picture of the Capital Wasteland. All that brick and rock. A whole lot of nothing, right? There's people out there trying to just barely make it by from day to day. Fighting to stay alive and make something of what they got. But then you've got all kinds of shit . . . slavers, Super Mutants, raiders . . . They all want a slice of the pie too and aim to take it by force.""And not everyone has Megaton's walls or the Brotherhood's power armor to fight back with," she finished. "Where do you come in?""Close," he said as he laid out the seven of every suit and discarded the two of clubs, "even with those things most people can't fight back at all against those kinds of enemies. They just run away and hide or they stay and die. It just ain't right. So that's where I enter the picture. I fight the Good Fight with GNR as my gun. I tell the people where it's safest, where it's not; who's honest, who's a hustler; and sometimes when and where they can kick some raiders while they're down. As best I can, at least. . . you'd be surprised just how many little birdies sing in ole Three Dog's ear. The sound of truth goes out across the Capital Wasteland. Hell, someone's got to counter that bullshit on the Enclave station.""Do you really need to stand against that last one?" Shiloh asked. "I doubt there's any substance to Eden; I've only met one person who buys into it, and even he had to admit that it's been the same canned platitudes for thirty years."Three Dog shrugged as his partner drew a card. "I'm less worried about the Enclave showing up out of the blue than I am of those broadcasts convincing people to not support the Brotherhood, who are here and trying to make things better. They don't talk about it to me, but I know things have been touch and go for them since the Outcasts broke off.""And keeping your security afloat doesn't hurt, either?" she mused."Pretty much," he said bluntly. "I have plenty of enemies that would love nothing more than to put a bullet between my eyes. The only thing keeping that from happening is Sarah Lyons and the Brotherhood of Steel. We've brokered a sweet deal. They keep me from taking a dirt nap, and I keep a strong roof over their head as well as the ability to chat with their guys as far west as the Lamplight Caverns—probably farther, they just haven't done that while we've been up and running." He looked up from the cards to her. "And you? Your part in the Good Fight going to be patchin' people up, or do you plan to do more?"The four of clubs went into the discard pile.Shiloh shrugged. She was a doctor by (incomplete) training, a scientist and engineer by hobby, and a fighter by necessity. She'd traded using the skills and resources she'd left Vault 101 with and put herself in a position that was substantially better than that of the average wastelander, but she never would have survived to GNR without the Brotherhood of Steel."Probably," she admitted. ". . . I mean, once I find my father I'm going to slap him for what happened during the vault lockdown, then I intend to see Project Purity or whatever he's after through to completion. He wouldn't have left for nothing, but I'm working off a handful of notes that only alluded to it, so I know about as much as you do. Of course, that's his brainchild, and I'm a late arrival to it. . . so I don't know if that counts. Though I think I'll leave the firefights to the Brotherhood of Steel.""Don't blame you for that . . ." he said as he drew another card. He added it to the rest of his hand, smiled knowingly at his opponent, and laid all five of them down on the table. The eight through jack of spades.The other woman groaned in defeat. "You win. Don't even need to bother counting up the points." She stood as Three Dog started gathering up the deck. "I'm going to bed now. See you whenever.""Night Marge," he called after the departing woman, then looked to Shiloh curiously as he began to shuffle the deck. "You want to play?"Shiloh brought her Pip-Boy up to check its clock—five after eleven—and shook her head. "I'll pass. I want to be on my way to Rivet City as soon as there's enough light to navigate the ruins.""Alright," he acquiesced, "when you leave, backtrack until you're on the south bank of the Potomac again, and stay there 'til you reach the big bridge after the Anchorage Memorial. Don't bother with the ramp from the old road, the bridge collapsed on that end so it only leads to a Brotherhood lookout post. Stick to the shoreline—and watch out for mirelurks—'til you get to the supports; it's a good place to stay for the night if you don't want to cross. Now, Rivet City has mercs holding down the ruins along the north bank, but don't linger. I don't trust the Talons as far as I can throw one of the boys in power armor. It adds a lot of walking but, trust me, it's much safer."She had, in fact, been planning to take the shorter path along the north bank. "Good to know," Shiloh said as she got up and returned her chair to its original spot, "I'll adjust my plans accordingly.""Oh, and kid," he called to her before she'd made it to the steps, "you might want to take a shower. I think some of that mutie managed to seep through. They're behind the Brotherhood's barracks."She stopped dead in her tracks and turned to look at the DJ. "You have showers here?" she asked, incredulous and overjoyed."Of course," he laughed. "You didn't think several dozen people would live here without plumbing, did you? It's a massive pain to keep the system goin', but it's definitely worth it."//////The problem with having multiple people who made a habit of moving quietly is that they can lose track of one another. At least, Shiloh assumed that was why she was almost smacked in the face by the door to the showers when she reached out to open it. Coming out was Sentinel Lyons, hair dry and still in combat armor, but with the blood and grime from earlier washed off her hands and face.Now that she wasn't preoccupied with patching people up, Shiloh could take a closer look at the other woman. Blonde hair pulled back in a messy bun similar to what her friend Amata favored, and currently surprised blue eyes set in a tanned face that lacked the gauntness of most Megaton residents—though now that she thought about it, the same had been true of most of the Brotherhood members she'd treated as well. The two of them were about the same height, but Lyons was broader at the shoulders and had substantially more muscle definition on her bare arms. She could probably demolish any two members of vault security in hand to hand."Sorry," the Sentinel said after a moment of awkward silence, "I didn't hear you coming."Shiloh waved her off. "It's a habit. . . hard to eavesdrop on vault hooligans if they know I'm there." She held out a hand. "Shiloh Breen."Lyons shook it and hummed an agreement. "I haven't thanked you for what you've done for the Brotherhood. We would have lost more of the garrison if you hadn't sought them out as quickly as you did, and you probably saved some lives—mine included—taking out that Behemoth. Officially, I can't pay you for that, but I don't think I'll have trouble getting donations to compensate you.""Thank you," Shiloh said, then more softly, "I'm sorry about Reddin."There were worse ways to die, but that metal-on-metal screech was going to stick with her for a long time."She died well," Lyons decreed somberly, possibly as much to convince herself as Shiloh. "In the end, that's all that really matters."Shiloh tried to think of something to keep the conversation going, only to draw a mental blank. "I imagine you're leaving soon, Sentinel, so I wish you luck getting GNR back up. By the time you double back here, I'll probably be on my way to Rivet City.""Luck runs out," Sentinel Lyons huffed reflexively, "skill doesn't. . . but thanks. You can call me Sarah, by the way—you've earned that much for feeding a Behemoth a mini nuke and you're not one of my subordinates." She paused. "You came through Farragut West, right?"She nodded. "Three Dog told me to take the south bank.""Good," Sarah said, sounding relieved. "Enjoy your shower then."I intend to, she thought as the other woman stepped into the room beyond and closed the door behind her.//////[LOCAL TIME/DATE UNAVAILABLE] 0944 HOURS, JUNE 23, (MILITARY CALENDAR)\[ERROR: LOCATION UNKNOWN] SPARTAN-B091 Mission Clock +1:02:44:32It was entirely possible that there wouldn't be a raid. Between their butchers' work at Germantown and the super mutants' lack of any discernible communications equipment, those plans might well no longer exist. They didn't know that though, so it would be criminally irresponsible to act like it . . . or to give the Big Towners such easily dashed hopes.The sky was clear, but the moon was a thin, faint crescent and so the stars provided most of the illumination. Big Town itself had little hard cover, no viable elevated positions, and limited lines of sight from within; plasma grenades might well burn it down and the other explosives were similarly out of the question. The west was dominated by short, barren hills dotted with rusted vehicles. To the south and east were nothing but kilometers of flat ground, rarely broken by sickly trees, low mounds of rock, or the remains of ancient buildings; the standing end of an overpass mocked them, tall enough to see but outside the reliable range of the SRS-99. The north was much the same until the stubborn plant life along the river. The raiding party would almost certainly come from that direction, but with just the two of them and so little intel, they couldn't risk leaving to stage an interception. A pincer, however, they could work with.They traded their sniper rifle and grenade launcher before Lucy jogged over and rigged up a sniper's blind among the trees and brush. It was hardly ideal but, if the mutants continued to treat Big Town as a corral, she had an unobstructed view of the only entrance, wouldn't put her partner's best cover in her line of fire, and was far enough from the road that there would be ample time to react if any rearguard heard and tried to find her. Then she settled in to wait.Against what they would have considered all reason, the mutants came. Six—Ax, Hammer, and Rifle from earlier in the lead; their new friends Double Barreled Shotgun, Rebar Club, and the almost meter-taller Minigun close behind—and three Centaurs from the north. The western hills produced only two, whom Tom tagged as low priority. She trained the scope between Minigun's shoulder blades, waited until he signaled to fire, and pulled the trigger.Minigun didn't so much drop as explode in a squall of gore and loose rounds; Ax subsequently had the brief misfortune of finding its skull as the next obstruction to the bullet's path. Ax's carcass hadn't even hit the ground before she adjusted her aim to Rifle and repeated the process.The survivors knew that they were under attack by then, but the reports of the SRS-99 drowned out Tom's dispatching of the western pair, so they would only know of the threat from the rear. Maybe because they were closer to the tree line she was hidden in than to Big Town, maybe because of single-mindedness, the three about-faced and charged back north, leaving the Centaurs behind as they covered the distance in great, loping strides.Lucy placed the sniper rifle aside—there was no reason to expend any more of its limited ammunition—relocated, and set her carbine to semi-automatic. The MA5K was rated for five hundred meters, but she knew the gun better than she did most people; she steadied her aim on Shotgun as her HUD's rangefinder steadily ticked down: 750 meters. . . 700. . . 650. . . 600. She pulled the trigger and watched the mutant's jaw shatter. It staggered as she adjusted her aim; the next two rounds caught it between the eyes and it dropped. She shifted to Hammer and the double tap sent it sprawling heels over head. Club raised its cudgel above its head in defiant rage by the time she lined up on it; whatever oath or challenge it might have had for her unheard as she cut it down.None of the mutants got within five hundred fifty meters—precise, efficient, as easy as breathing. She relocated again and waited twenty minutes for a follow up, but no reinforcements appeared.She stripped the three bodies of the gear they'd no longer need as she walked back to Big Town. Tom had long since dealt with the Centaurs in two parts discreet knife work and one part ax, which he left embedded in that particular creature in favor of policing the firearms. They moved together in a silence that would have been companionable if they weren't cloaked and scanning for threats. The wasteland remained quiet and they crossed back into Big Town unopposed. It only took a couple minutes to stash the salvage in the house with "Town Hall" crudely carved into the door, and then they headed to the clinic. When she set out, the Big Towners and the errant mercenary had been tired and high strung, most of them stacked up on either side of the bottom of the basement steps to better hose down whatever opened the door at the top. Red, on the other hand, took some of the local stimulants and set about operating on Timebomb almost as soon as the wounded boy had been laid down; by now she was probably done. They stayed clear of the basement door—no point risking friendly fire.Lucy whistled the familiar six-note-long all clear loudly enough to get the others' attention. Tom followed it up with, "The raiding party's been dealt with. You're safe, for now."Matthias and Dusty emerged first, followed closely behind by Leathers—Kimba—who quickly closed the door."Everyone else is asleep," she whispered. "Matthias and I'll stand guard. You two should get some rest."They could go far longer without sleep, but it would be nice to not have to.Tom chuckled. "We'll take you up on that."Kimba gave them a semi-sad smile, as she and Matthias walked out the clinic's front door. "There are beds in the Clubhouse and the Common House across from here, take your pick."The SPARTANs followed the locals outside but went straight across the barren courtyard while they went north to the entrance. The Common House was packed with beds, be they bare mattresses or on frames with sheets, however most looked as though they had gone unoccupied for quite some time. The beds had been arranged to allow everyone within to quickly evacuate the building, though, which meant that they would have to rearrange almost everything to avoid being caught out in the open if a super mutant decided to smash through one of the doors. There wasn't much they could do about one coming through the walls, but after a certain point, caution became paranoia.The Clubhouse was more to their liking. It had been half converted into a storeroom and as such, the wasteland facing door and windows had been boarded over far more heavily to keep the contents in and would-be thieves out. Several mattresses had been stored in the nonfunctional kitchen and a large, robust couch stood in what had probably been the living room. They unstacked two of the mattresses, laying their rucksacks and heavy weapons on the remainder, then moved the couch to partially block the kitchen entrance against someone approaching from the old front door.Lucy lay down on the bed nearer to the door frame as if worst came to worst, she was a substantially smaller target than her partner, carbine close at hand and motion tracker set to an audible alarm. She watched Tom settle in on watch and drew no small amount of comfort from his familiar presence. Then she closed her eyes and tried to drift off to her first night of sleep in this bizarre new world.
Under an Atomic Sky: Into This World We*re Thrown“How are you sure we’re alive?”—Lucy-B091“I can't tell you why I left or where I'm going. I don't want you to follow me . . .”—JamesWord Count: 5635//////The dreams—the nightmares—never truly went away. With time and therapy and support their frequency diminished, but they were always there in the background. A ragged psychological wound that would not fully heal. He had done this a thousand times before; he would do it a thousand times more. He was in the drop pod approaching Target Area Apache. In life the sky had been thick with clouds to hide the danger, but here it was clear and he could see the seven cruisers hovering serenely over their objective.Before he was fully aware of it, he was down in the dirt, trading fire with Jackals and attempting to find his team. In his dreams, it did not have to end the same way. They saw the danger now, and there remained only one way to remove it. If they were fast enough, fierce enough—Two of his oldest friends were gone again, and the rest would follow them shortly. He hit the water feet first, lost his hold on the only one who mattered now, and kept going down. He fought against the press of the water, the weight of his failure, with all the pained fury he could muster. It was not enough. It never was and probably never would be.The dream never had to end the same way, but it always did.Another took his hand in theirs; they were smaller without the armor encasing them, warm. Alive. The world stopped, faded away.Tom-B292 blearily opened his eyes to see the room's only other occupant. Dark brown eyes set in a pale, slender heart shaped face watched him back with knowing concern; black hair disheveled, as much as hair kept within regulation length could be, from sleep. He didn't need to look to know the rest—the lean, muscular body that would have fit the best of Olympic decathletes or the collection of scars accrued from fifteen years of training and service.Lucy.The two of them had met by chance during SPARTAN-III Beta Company's initiation on Onyx when her drop pack had gotten tangled in the jungle canopy and she ended up falling into a stream bed below. He had followed the sound of her swearing, helped her up and out, and then they had huddled together beneath his own pack for warmth to wait for the instructors. They were six years old at the time.An assignment to the same team during training had followed. They spent the next five years as one half of Fireteam Foxtrot, sharing in each other's triumphs and failures alongside hundreds of other candidates. They had been taught to move like phantoms, how to track and trap and kill, to think and act as one; doing it again, after the augmentations pushed their bodies beyond the limits of normal men. A family; united at first by shared loss and hate, then by purpose. They wouldn't have traded places with anyone else in the universe.Then 51 Pegasi B. Operation TORPEDO. There were other worlds, of course, other missions, but they paled in comparison to that barren rock where they had lost everything. They alone had barely survived, though accepting that as a positive had been a long and hard process. Retraining themselves to work on their own, because Adam and Min were gone . . .She released his hand, held her left flat and twice made a short, rapid 'v' off the palm with her right. Alright?He smiled slightly, curled his right hand into a fist, and gently knocked on her chest. Yes.The exchange, and its reverse, had become something of a morning ritual for them over the past eight years. They knew that there were better manners with which to start the day, but it was comforting enough in its own way and put life in perspective.He glanced at the clock on the wall—0428 hours—and sat up. He knew he wouldn't be going back to sleep after that and they would have gotten up in an hour anyway . . .Lucy wrapped her arms around his chest from behind and rested her head on his shoulder.Or we could stay like this for a while. That worked too.//////Paxopolis, Lucy had decided shortly after they had arrived, was the most pretentiously named place she had ever been to. It had taken longer for her to conclude that being reassigned there was good for them. No ONI hit jobs or training another class of SPARTAN-IIIs as she and Tom had feared would happen; no dumpster fire personality cult SPARTAN-IV program (Where had Chief Mendez gone so wrong with Jun and Musa, that they held routine training exercises as more important than someone's life?) and the suspicion that one of their trainees could be a traitor. Just them, together, using the skills they'd accrued turning five year olds into Humanity's most efficient killers to create the first fully integrated Human/Sangheili/Unggoy combat unit. In the middle of the galaxy's biggest bomb shelter.She might not have any real love for the assorted species that once made up the Covenant, but what was accomplished in Paxopolis could keep the Gammas from being sent on a suicide run like Alpha and Beta Companies were, could perhaps spare the kids from going through what the two of them had—the silence, the isolation, the nightmares, the depression, the tears streaming over her cheeks as she held Tom down because how dare he even think of leaving her like that —so she'd smile and soldier on like she had been trained to because the shield world was a key to a brighter, better future and after the War, that was all they could ask for.So she held to the only person who knew her as intimately as she knew herself, and she him, long after his breathing had eased and the tension in his shoulders had drained away. There was the future they were working towards and the past they could never forget but, in the here and now, they needed one another.//////0600 HOURS, JUNE 22, 2554 (MILITARY CALENDAR)\ZETA DORADUS SYSTEM, SHIELD WORLD TREVELYAN, PAXOPOLISAs a true Dyson Sphere Trevelyan, or rather Onyx, had no day and night cycle, with the closest substitute coming from either cloud cover induced by the construct's automated environmental systems or, if one held a very loose definition of the concept, eclipses caused by the planets that orbited the star at its heart. The latter was completely inadequate and using the former to fake it had been pushed down the priority list until it was determined that there were no swarms of starship mulching kill bots that might take issue with such alterations. Until then, auto tinting windows and the standardized, if arbitrary, Military Calendar would have to suffice.The structure's sole settlement, Paxopolis, had begun its life as the Office of Naval Intelligence Research Facility Trevelyan before the Unified Earth Government and UNSC HIGHCOM had taken over and made it a joint venture with the Human-friendly Swords of Sanghelios. Officially, this was both to strengthen ties between the UEG and SoS as well as to bring in a larger talent pool than would ever have been admitted by the ONI alone. Rumors amongst the Fleet cast it as a deliberate slight against retiring ONI Section III head Vice Admiral Margaret Parangosky and her successor/protégé Admiral Serin Osman.Whatever the reasons, the city's layout reflected its origins. Every building, from the landing field, its hangars, and control tower to the roads, labs, and housing, was a prefabricated module with only the central utilities having been built on site. The airfield was separated from the city by two kilometers of low cut grass, with a similar lack of cover on all other sides as a stowaway catching measure. The road from it terminated at a division level command center turned seat of civilian government; flanked on one side by the motor pool, armory, and assorted research centers; on the other by barracks, a hospital, and mess hall. From there, however, the martial rigidity broke down with a nebulously demarcated business district and the ballooning civilian housing zones—be they apartment complexes, single family domiciles, the Unggoys' armored, subterranean methane warrens, or the Sangheilis' communal quasi-keeps—that had received only cursory urban planning.Tom and Lucy had been assigned a private flat on the edges of the settlement. In other milieus, such quarters were the privilege of O-4s and higher rather than a pair of Petty Officers but—between their status as SPARTAN-IIIs (classified well beyond Top Secret); their positions as both joint third-in-command of the Paxopolis Security Forces and primary architects of the training regimen that would turn said peacekeeping unit into a cohesive, well oiled formation rather than just a collection of people the best psychologists of either polity had concluded were the least likely to start sticking knives in backs; and the not unreasonable line of thought by those in the know that placing a pair of deeply traumatized child soldiers in the middle of a bunch of strangers they had nothing in common with was a recipe for disaster—an exception had been made. That said exception had immediately caused an absolute deluge of increasingly lurid rumors about the nature of their relationship was a source of constant amusement for Mendez and constant exasperation for the two of them.Those rumors, of course, weren't helped by how they were rarely if ever seen apart. From early morning runs, to paperwork, to meals, to missions, they were each other's shadow. Which was why when Charlie Company found an enthusiastic Unggoy taking morning roll call rather than the outwardly subdued and vaguely disapproving super soldier who normally did so, no one was surprised when the woman who routinely took upon six-to-one odds in sparring matches and won was also absent. Maybe, they all quietly hoped, they'd actually be able to beat her replacement.While their trainees fantasized about a day on easy mode, Tom and Lucy were being briefed on their new assignment."The analysis group found an . . . anomaly," Mendez began, "in sector M32-56. While it's listed in Onyx's databases, it isn't part of the regulatory apparatus or the portal network, nor is it a hanger or manufacturing facility. Beyond that, we don't know anything because the Huragok are restricted from it and the glyphs in its entries are almost completely made up of nonsense no one's ever seen."He tapped on the hologram projector on the desk in front of him, dimming the lights of the utilitarian briefing room as a three dimensional scan of the target and surrounding area came into being, giving an ethereal glow to his silver hair. Topographical data followed, and was swiftly committed to memory by the two."The two of you and Bravo Eight will be running escort for Professors Vahlen, Ray, 'Zorah, and their team. Once you've gotten inside, they'll be conducting a preliminary assessment. Ideally, it'll be fast and smooth, but I've authorized the quartermaster to outfit you for two weeks and a fight. Any questions?"Lucy caught a glance from Tom, exaggerated for Mendez's benefit, and gave a slight shake of her head."No Sir." Tom replied. Mendez was at least nominally a civilian now, even if his job as Paxopolis' Chief of Security placed him in charge of a force composed overwhelmingly of active duty personnel, precluding a salute. He was also the closest they still had to family.Lucy knew Tom had an older brother who had survived the War whom he didn't care to meet, as by now the only things they shared were some DNA, which meant next to nothing to either of them, and a surname her partner had forgotten until the ONI had handed it to him. To say nothing of the beyond classified, crime against humanity nature of the SPARTAN-III Program itself; to show themselves could to draw attention to it and, by extension, the Gammas. Osman had already considered having the younger SPARTANs killed because of her own incompetence, and they couldn't risk Section III doing something drastic.While several of their fellow Beta Company graduates were still alive, they hadn't seen any of them for nearly a decade and couldn't contact them. Faster than light communications hadn't disseminated to that degree yet, and even if it had they lacked the clearances to ask about another command's SPECWAR unit.When it was just the three of them, maybe they could afford to be more informal, but that was as much as they could bend fifteen years of protocol."Good. You leave from Pad 12 in an hour. Dismissed."//////Suiting up in Semi-Powered Infiltration Armor was a familiar routine. The Mark III (1) suits they were assigned back in March for the Gao operation leveraged late War breakthroughs to substantially reduce weight compared to the Mark II as well as improving its ability to maintain operator temperature, the resolution of, and recovery times for the photoreactive panels that allowed it to blend in with the surroundings. Theirs had been modified to include sync-up points for similarly armored cases or mimetic cloth pouches on the abdomen, thighs, calves, and lower back—because it didn't matter how good the SPI's optical and thermal camouflage systems were if someone spotted a bandolier of grenades hovering in the air. It still couldn’t accommodate the servos that were found in newer iterations of ONI or ODST gear, but the improvements were welcome nonetheless.After a visual and diagnostic check to insure that all systems were performing optimally, and a swift glare to send three techs scurrying scurrying away in fright (Lucy didn't care how little Tom's bodysuit left to the imagination, that wasn't what he was there for.), they gathered their armaments. Onyx Sentinels, the expected opposition if such arose, carried velocity triggered energy shields strong enough for them to float through heavy machine gun fire as though it were a gentle rain—the only recorded kill with conventional, infantry scale heavy weapons had involved four 102mm HEAT rockets and as many 14.5x114mm armor piercing rounds delivered nearly simultaneously. All other kills made by ground troops had involved ambushes using large rocks, falling trees, or (by Tom and herself) very carefully timed fragmentation grenades; the only defense against the machines' particle beams was not to be hit.As such, Lucy opted for an XM510 (2) 30mm grenade launcher, thirty rounds for it, and a MA5K carbine equipped with an under barrel launcher as a fallback. The XM510 had never been used against the Sentinels, but had better odds than most of the armory's stock. Tom, possessing the best marksman scores of everyone currently in Onyx, had chosen a SRS-99 sniper rifle and four extra magazines to be used in conjunction with Bravo-8's medium and heavy weapons and a similarly outfitted MA5K. Next came six Covenant plasma grenades, two of the recently introduced Disruptors (3), four flares, three canisters of C7 foaming explosive, two meters of thermite-carbon cord, and five magazines of 7.62x51mm AP ammunition for their carbines; because, if nothing else, they could try to get on the machines and shoot them point blank.  It might not be as impressive as punching one to death, but it would probably work. The rest of their gear—personal trauma kits, fiber-optic probes, combat knives, emergency stimulants of the there-will-be-no-breaks-for-the-next-96-hours kind, their allotted food, and water—standard NAVSPECWAR or Forerunner expedition fare, was wheeled out to them on a motorized cart alongside a pair of regulation backpacks. They got to choose where everything went.From there it was a simple matter to drive the five Sangheili and seven Humans of Bravo-8 before them to the airfield ahead of schedule so that when the Professors and their gaggle of assistants arrived they were ready for immediate departure. The transports were a Covenant Spirit, which traded armament for a durability and cargo capacity of exceeding anything else in its size class, and a new D79-TC Pelican which was faster and better configured to provide close air support. Risk mitigation protocols demanded they split up for the trip, so Tom had boarded the Spirit alongside the Sangheili arm of the operation, looking incongruously small in a troop bay made for two and a half meter tall aliens, while Lucy accompanied most of the Humans in the other.Lucy's reliance on Sign (or Tom) to communicate with others meant that she spent the flight aloof from the banter of the other passengers. Were she anything less than a SPARTAN, she would have been discharged years ago for such a crippling liability. It was only a combination of her skills, humanity's dire straits during the War and its aftermath, and Onyx being classed only as a potential combat zone that allowed her to stay in the only life she remembered with the only people she knew. She never had found out what the ONI would have done with her if Commander Ambrose had not successfully argued, all those years ago, that he needed SPARTANs to train SPARTANs.She wasn't sure she wanted to.//////The transit and landing was the smoothest Lucy had ever experienced, mostly due to the lack of hostile fire but also from the D79's newly devised energy shields. The structure itself—a blue-silver triangular pyramid a kilometer to a side with the top third removed to leave an intricately detailed but flat summit—was placed directly in the center of a perfectly circular kilometer and a half diameter clearing of wavy, red-topped grasses that changed so abruptly to the conifer-esque forest that dominated this sector of the shield world it might well have been cut out by a laser and dropped in from somewhere else. As aerial passes had failed to reveal an entrance, either to instruments or the Mark One Eyeball, they would have to try it on foot. Tom, Lucy, and Bravo-8 had disembarked and the noncombatants had piled into the Spirit, which now loitered two hundred meters in the air waiting to land or flee with its squishier, academic cargo; whichever came first. The pair had formed one team, three Humans—transponders tagging them as Specialists Gilligan, Lincoln, and Beatles—and two Sangheili—Rangers 'Temar and 'Lewai—formed a second, both to search the base of the installation while the rest established a perimeter around the landed Pelican.Which was how Lucy found herself once more in the field, covering Tom's back as he covered hers. It was reflexive, so second nature they could do it as easily as breathing, and despite the potential danger, despite how waist high grass like what they were currently standing in was the scourge of camouflage operators everywhere, it was calming. They could have hugged the wall they were searching, but the odds of being translocated into a time dilated pocket dimension were much lower if they kept some space between it and themselves.As they neared the middle of their first side, Tom tagged a section of the wall on her Heads Up Display. Lucy advanced past him to inspect it, since she did not quite come up to his shoulder and he was thus far better equipped to pull her out of harm's way than the reverse, and promptly identified a three meter across hexagon recessed less than a millimeter into the edifice. She drummed her fingers along the barrel of the XM510, but made no move to touch it. Too risky."Penitent Vigil, this is Bravo-8 Actual . . ." she heard him begin, before her attention was taken by the appearance of a small, unidentified contact on the edge of her motion tracker's range and its rapid advance through the grass. Lucy brought up her left hand to get his attention, though he was probably already aware, and pointed towards the unknown."—Break break break! Abort descent! Unknown at ten meters and closing—"And then it was in sight, rising from the grass less like the pigeon it was the size of and more like an anti-personnel mine. Silver-grey in color, the machine looked to be little more than a mostly spherical yellow-white sensor array and drive unit. It flitted about erratically, like a hummingbird, seemingly scrutinizing the two of them in turns before beeping shrilly and fixing its mechanical gaze upon her. The array brightened and her visor automatically polarized, HUD flickering with static as the yellow ray it emitted panned up and down her body. Her initial, automatic response was to go for her MA5K and empty the magazine into the machine's lens. However, between Tom's wary but not worried stance and a distinct lack of pain on her part, conscious thought quickly subdued instinct, and the grenade launcher merely remained fixed on the Sentinel as it did its work.As swiftly as it had appeared, the drone cut off its scan, turned, and rushed headlong towards the center of the indentation. Before it could dash itself upon the unyielding wall, a flicker of light appeared in the middle of the hexagon, spreading outward like fire. The drone passed through unharmed, leaving the two Spartans to watch the depression melt away.They moved as one, taking positions on either side of the doorway as the light died. She listened with half an ear to her partner's voice as he directed the other team to rendezvous at their position. The newly revealed corridor, laser straight and made of the same maybe-not-metal as the structure's exterior, matched the dimensions of the entrance exactly and was devoid of any noticeable branches along its four hundred meter length. It was well lit, in the kind of sterile white that reminded her of a field hospital, though no actual lights were visible. Less than half the distance to the opposite side. No obvious traps, but no Sentinel and no cover. The floor was only half the width of the hallway and the ceiling only just hit two hundred sixty centimeters. Fine for Humans, but cramped for Elites.The second team arrived several minutes later and Tom immediately motioned 'Temar into the passage, then Lucy. He followed and she could tell from the heavier footfalls that 'Lewai was bringing up the rear of their line. The three regular Humans, lacking the shields, camouflage systems, or enhanced physiology the four of them possessed, remained behind in cover; where they wouldn’t get underfoot in an ambush.As they silently walked single file into the heart of the building the walls began to shift, melting away as the entrance had, though now they revealed more conventional doors--all of which stayed stubbornly locked against their efforts to enter. Still, as the floor and ceiling remained unaltered and no Sentinels materialized to stymie them, they reached the end in short order. Here, again, the wall vanished to reveal a door, which opened with a discordantly cheerful chime when she approached it.The chamber beyond was illuminated as well, but more warmly, like sunlight through trees. They entered in a smooth breach and clear: 'Temar first; Tom and herself after, low and cloaked; 'Lewai was close on their heels, but by then they had confirmed it empty.They spread out and Lucy scanned the room: perfectly circular and the expected sixty five meters across according to her HUD; ornate geometric inscriptions in blue, red, green, and orange so elaborate she couldn’t find a place where they repeated; a subtle thrum of power in the background, less heard through the ears than felt through the bones; the floor a matte black that seemed to suck in the light, both infinitely deep and—Wait—a memory clicked into place.The hum of power spiked.Black floor—Dante dead, the Covenant pressing in."Out now! Teleporter!" Tom barked. She was already moving.The door was sliding shut. She saw 'Lewai duck back out, then 'Temar followed a heartbeat later in a desperate roll, Tom not far behind. Lucy automatically assessed the distance and realized that she wouldn’t make it in time. Tom would though. He’d be safe and find her if she couldn’t make her own way back, no matter how long it took.On the cusp of salvation, he stopped. Looked at her.No.Bolted to her, grabbed her hand in his. Drew her close.No.The door closed.Sound rose beyond hearing.The light turned blinding white.And they were unmade.//////7:30 am August 31, 2277, MegatonShiloh Breen stood in the shadow of Megaton's entrance, soaking up the last of the morning's fading cool. She gazed past the bizarre mutant cattle, the armed guards, and the eccentric trader that employed them; past the centuries ruined town of Springvale; staring at both nothing and something only she could see.Her .308 hunting rifle—Simms and Jericho were ardent proponents of select fire guns, but a weapon she couldn't both afford and keep fed wasn't much use—sat propped against one of the support struts, the backpack that contained most of her worldly possessions beside it; both behind cover and within arm's reach. The rest were on her person; stored within the pockets and pouches of the reinforced vault jumpsuit she had been half-gifted, half-loaned. A desperately procured Vault Security helmet was securely fastened to her head (Stockholm, perched in the watchtower above the entrance, had many tales of raiders who had gone without such protection and all of them ended graphically.) and a similarly acquired police baton was nestled in the small of her back; a knife, for utility, was sheathed at her right boot; in a torso holster sat the 10mm pistol her best friend had shoved into her hands one morning, a lifetime ago and a world away (It had been two weeks and four and a half miles to the northwest.). The self defense training she had gotten alongside Amata over the years had been unexpectedly valuable during her flight from the Vault and during her stay here (Jericho was certainly less condescending now), but being within arms' reach of most wasteland dangers was considered to be a Bad Idea.And to think, she owed the Overseer for those skills . . . okay, she owed his inability to refuse his at the time eight-year-old daughter and Officer Armstrong's willingness to take on the extra work, more than the Overseer himself. He had intended it for Amata alone, for what he no doubt considered the inevitable attempts by the boys in their class to force themselves on her. It was a mostly unjustified and almost wholly misplaced concern, in her experienced people watching opinion. She couldn’t call it completely without merit, because who knew how far Butch and his friends could egg each other on if someone didn’t, say, take five seconds to imply that Wally Mack was a follower instead of a leader. The Tunnel Snakes' belligerence generated spectacle for the sake of spectacle; less concerned with the organized crime that being a gang implied and more, between poor home lives, depression, or the Vault's stifling demand for conformity, intent on having some control over their own lives.  If anything, he should have been more leery of Vault Security; Officers O'Brian and Mack were power-tripping thugs and Chief Hannon had never made any effort to rein them in. The two would probably be worse now, what with how O'Brian had gunned down the Holdens without hesitation, and how Mack's interrogation of Amata had ended, in Amata's recounting, with him spitting out teeth. She still harbored guilt about leaving her best friend with the same man who'd killed Jonas, but with the Overseer watching them and half of Security nipping at her heels, it had been the best option. Her only option.Granted, on August sixteenth she wouldn't have thought that the reaction to one of the Vault's two doctors slipping away would be to have the other beaten to death and to order the execution of their only pupil. Really undermined her belief in how well she could read people, that had.There hadn't been many opportunities since for her to blend in and watch to reaffirm those skills, either. The bright blue and yellow Vault jumpsuit she’d arrived in meant that she stuck out like a sore thumb to anyone who wasn’t blind and maybe also stupid.  By the time she'd gone to haggle out a change of clothes or three with Moira, she'd been working sunrise to sunset; be it with Walter in the water processing plant, Doc Church in the clinic, assisting Moira with the Survival Guide in Craterside Supply, or out in the wastes with whoever. She was too tired by the end of each day to linger at the Brass Lantern or Moriarty's Saloon, instead sleeping like the dead in the common house. Purified water and the least contaminated foods were expensive. At least she hadn't needed to scrounge up a hundred caps for Moriarty. It was amazing, truly amazing, what could be accomplished by treating someone—the Ghoul bartender Gob; it was hard for her to look at him and he smelled a little worse than the rest of Megaton’s denizens, but that was no grounds for cruelty—like an actual person, not property or a leper. . . alongside a bobby pin, screwdriver, and the cover of darkness.Still, the bar owner's tale about seeing her infant self was less of a revelation than it was a crucial piece of the puzzle sliding into place. Offhand comments and mysterious disappearances throughout her childhood had fostered a suspicion that 'no one ever enters, and no one ever leaves' was a bald-faced lie; her father's sudden, secretive flight and the vague goodbye she'd found on Jonas's body had fanned it. The Overseer's private terminal had all but confirmed it. Being flat out told, by a grimy pimp with delusions of being a mob boss, that she was born in the wastes was an anticlimax, really.Shiloh still didn't know why he'd left though, or his ultimate destination. She had guesses, of course: the nebulous experiments he spoke of in his notes for the former no doubt, offshoots of something abandoned almost twenty years now; Rivet City or the Citadel for the latter, the only places in D.C. that possessed both advanced technology and the experience to actually use it, as well as possibly the openness to take him back after so long.He might even be there now. As long as she’d been in Megaton paying, bribing, or cajoling people for crash course lessons in wasteland survival, the saloon terminal's lead of Galaxy News Radio would probably end up as a pointless, inconvenient detour.Unless he died on the way there. God, I hope I'm looking for him to give him a piece of my mind and not just for my peace of mind.He had to have known as well—better than I did that Almodovar's a petty, paranoid tyrant.He should have known that leaving would cause a crackdown on everyone associated with him.He should have—a hand clapped down her on her armored shoulder.She was quietly proud that she didn’t flinch at the surprise contact."You take care now," said a familiar, jovial voice; Sheriff Simms. She hadn't heard him approach. Now she was glad she’d stayed still. Knocking the man on his ass might have eased his mind, but that would have been a terrible thing to do to such a gracious host.She turned to face the light armor clad lawman, and didn't bother to hide her chagrin. "Thank you, sir. For the help. . . I know that it couldn't have been easy getting people to make time for a wet behind the ears Vault girl—""Nonsense," Simms cut in, "you've done more for us in two weeks than some of the people who've been here for years. Kinda want to know what you said to Leo to get him down to Doc Church, though. Kid looked like he'd seen a ghost."Huh; he wasn't supposed to have known about that. 'Beware old men in a world where men die young,' indeed. She smiled. "A master negotiator never goes out of her way to make herself less in demand, Sheriff.""Hmph. I reckon so." He chuckled, then reached into one of his duster's pockets and withdrew several Pungas, pricey imported—from all the way across the Chesapeake Bay, apparently—fruits sold down at the Brass Lantern. "Here, from Harden. As thanks for the baseball gear. Don't eat them all at once."Shiloh nodded. "Give him my thanks.""Sure thing." He replied lightly. Then, more sternly: "Don't get lost, and don't lose track of time. The metro system's a maze and even by the wasteland's standards, the D.C. ruins are no place for anyone to be wandering through at night.  Especially alone."She suppressed a reflexive, sarcastic 'Yes, Dad'—she'd been hearing that warning from everyone since she'd first mentioned her destination—and settled on a sober "Got it.""Good. Wolfgang'll be leaving in half an hour; he won't wait. Good luck."She would walk with the caravan east until the Super Duper Mart—Moira wanted her to investigate it, but that had waited almost two hundred years, it could wait a few days more—then take the bridge north across the Potomac. Farragut West station was just downstream from there, and the Brotherhood of Steel had marked the path to GNR through the subways."Thanks," she murmured, turning back to look at the cloudless sky, "I'll need it."//////1446 HOURS, JUNE 22, 2554 (MILITARY CALENDAR)\[ERROR: LOCATION UNKNOWN]\SPARTAN-B091 MISSION CLOCK: 0:7:46:20They existed once more.Lucy collapsed to her knees, fighting the nausea and the feeling that her organs had been pulled out and stuffed back into her body out of order. She could hear Tom nearby, dry heaving.Hate. Teleportation.She forced the bile down and stood, shaking the sandy dirt from her gauntlets as she did, to gaze at the rising sun. "Where," Tom croaked, "are we?"//////(1) The SPI Armor on the cover of Last Light is noticeably different from the one on the cover of Ghosts of Onyx. I'm going with it being the next iteration.(2) I'm using a piece of Halo: Reach concept art and giving it the name of the one from Halo Wars. The round size isn't from anything official.(3) From the Headhunters short story in Halo Evolutions. For Fallout fans, it's basically a Pulse Grenade.
Under an Atomic Sky Ch.1: The Right Place and Time"We don't know what they're capable of. Stick with the by-the-book drills and we'll never find out, either. But put them in an impossible situation, and maybe they'll surprise us." "Short definition of a Spartan."—Lt. Kurt Ambrose and SCPO Franklin MendezWord Count: 4538//////[LOCAL TIME\DATE UNAVAILABLE] 2153 HOURS, JUNE 23, 2554, (MILITARY CALENDAR)\ [ERROR: LOCATION UNKNOWN]\ SPARTAN-B292 Mission Clock +14:53:42The earth baked beneath the might of the midday sun; no relief came from the sickly green sky save the occasional grit-filled breeze. Of course, not much stirred upon the ruined ground to complain. . .Well, not much other than Lucy and himself. The two sat in meager shade at the northern base of a small hill; a road, the asphalt cracked and crumbling, curved around it on its own north-south run. A car, heavily rusted but not enough to disguise the bullet holes perforating the driver's side, sat on the hill's western face.With no solid leads on where to go after several hours of wandering, they opted to halt and make a more thorough effort at finding an active frequency without draining more of their SPI armors' batteries than absolutely necessary. The suits were meant for extended operations, but that usually meant months at the most, not years. . . and on a world with no discernible UNSC presence, being found in years was optimistic.He cast a glance at Lucy. She balled both hands into fists with her thumbs pointing away from each other, brought them together, then back apart, palms up. Anything?He shook his head. Most frequencies were silent. Static garbled one beyond identifying, while another was a looping beacon with no discernible purpose. They'd covered enough ground for their armors' to attempt to triangulate the sources of both, and if they found nothing better, they'd investigate the nearer one.A dozen more frequencies were broadcasting "Enclave Radio" from mobile transmitters. What they'd heard from it was long on platitudes and propaganda, short on facts, and even shorter on context for those facts. Several of President John Henry Eden's speeches did, however, have similarities to how the Office of Naval Intelligence talked about political dissidents. They weren't inclined to try to seek out the Enclave just yet.He almost suggested that they resume walking when he heard the faint hum of a jet engine. Lucy heard it too, and was already fading from view as the optical camouflage came back online. She ducked behind a rock outcropping as he bolted to the ancient car. Tom searched the sky for the aircraft, only to find—Nothing? He frowned, the Visual Intelligence System, Reconnaissance (VISR) wasn't picking out anything either. Stealth aircraft seemed even more dubious, so he switched to watching the ground for a hovercraft.There! A drone advanced along the road from the south—a spherical central body, olive drab paint faded and flaking, with a trio of bulbous sensors on articulating stalks sat atop a rocket-based propulsion system while three segmented limbs were attached where chassis and thrusters met. He doubted "flying octopus" was the image the designers had meant to evoke, but it was the first that came to him.He blinked his acknowledgement lights, two red & one amber—unknown detected south—and received two red, one green from Lucy; another contact from the north. He turned to identify it, and blinked in bewilderment.Scuttling not quite towards them was a blue-gray scorpion the size of a small car. The main body didn't come up to his waist, but the poison gland with its half-meter-long barb towered over him and the pincers were broader than he was at the shoulders. If either of them were afraid of bugs, he would've had to entertain the possibility that they'd died and gone to Hell.The creature halted, having finally noticed the robot, and shuffled to face it head on. Tom looked back to the machine, which had likewise stopped to assess the wildlife."Is that someone who needs me to kick their ass?" it barked in a passable impersonation of a drill instructor.Maybe it was intelligent, perhaps just territorial, but the scorpion responded with a low, warbling hiss and charged."You just made my day," the machine shouted as it's arms rotated around the central chassis to switch a basic pincer manipulator for one with the end glowing an actinic green. "Opening fire!"The projectile it fired wasn't as fast or focused as he was used to seeing, but when it struck the scorpion's carapace, it burned through it and into the flesh beneath like any other plasma weapon.The scorpion shrieked in pain and staggered momentarily before surging on with a speed borne of desperation. It took three more hits as it closed, two legs gone and it's right claw burned to a useless stump. It tried to grab the machine with its other claw, but its opponent maneuvered clear, arms rotating again. The scorpion lashed out wildly with its stinger and managed to barely drive the robot back as the next weapon settled into place.This one was a flamethrower. "Is that the best you can do?" the robot mocked as flames engulfed the creature.The scorpion shrieked again, now in primal terror, and frantically backpedaled before scrambling away in a blind panic.The robot tracked it as the plasma gun was brought around again. "Running will only make the pain last longer!" it called out as it continued firing.A ball of plasma burned through the tail halfway up and the creature faltered. It managed several unsteady steps before it took two more shots and collapsed in a feebly twitching heap. The robot put two more blasts into it and it stilled.The robot hovered over to inspect its kill—"That's how we do things in the U.S. Army!" it declared. "Hoo-ah!" Or gloat, I guess."Move it out people. I want this place searched top to bottom." it said as it floated off, arms rotating to bring the manipulator front and center again. It didn't hold to a straight line—instead it arced out in an outward spiral search pattern.I guess it's time for a calculated risk, Tom thought as he watched. He flashed Lucy a pair of amber lights—wait—and left cover uncloaked, carbine mag-locked at his hip. He interrupted the search when the robot was positioned where Lucy would have a clear line of fire on it."Step forward and identify yourself!" it barked."Sierra-B292, of the UNSCDF," he supplied. They didn't exactly have a cover identity to feed it."You had better remove yourself from this area before I am forced to declare you an enemy of the U.S. of A!" it said with no indication that it had heard him or cared if it did."Understood." he said as he turned away. It had been worth a shot."Looks like this is my lucky day!" it said.Lucy's green light started flickering.Tom dropped to the ground as a staccato bark split the air. From the corner of his eye, he caught a flash of glowing green sailing off into the distance. He drew the carbine as he rolled into a proper firing position.The machine pinwheeled through the air, sparks leaking from new gashes in the main body. Tom snapped off a two-round burst before it could recover, destroying one of the sensors in the process. The central chassis deformed some more, but the robot stayed in the air.Lucy put a burst directly into the thruster assembly. With a bout of flame and a scream of tortured metal, the apparatus exploded and the machine crashed limply to the ground.Tom stood and cautiously approached the wreck, MA5K at the ready. Between his own augmented vision and his MK. III SPI's VISR, he could just barely observe his longtime partner making for the giant scorpion's severed stinger. It might be worth some supplies when they found whatever passed for civilization here—wherever here was. Otherwise, they both knew several quick-and-dirty anti-venom recipes if they had to risk it.Kneeling down to inspect the machine's weapons, he idly wondered if its owners would react poorly to its destruction. Assuming they still existed and it wasn't just an automated system rotely executing its last orders or the onboard AI deteriorating under Rampancy or something like it.The flamethrower's small fuel tank detached easily enough and Tom stood again, slipping it into one of the armor's pouches. He ignored the energy weapon and the main body. Curious as they both were about the compact plasma gun, he wasn't confident enough in his mechanical skills to attempt disassembling it without it having even odds of exploding in his hands. Plasma weapons were still essentially black box tech to the best minds in the UNSC and the robot probably used a microfusion reactor, which the two of them had never worked on. The ones in Pelicans and Scorpions, yes, but those were far larger and well known for being less temperamental.He turned to Lucy—now identifiable by the large venom sac seemingly floating amidst a distortion in the air—and noted the tilt of her head. Most people, in his experience, were terrible at consciously interpreting all but the most obvious body language, and many of those who could would have had difficulty with someone who was nearly invisible, but they had known one another for most of their lives and she had been unable to speak for the majority of that time. Every movement she made was deliberate, adding a depth and context to every exchange in Sign or Beta Company's own private code that only he was privy to; he tried to return the favor, but she was better by far. He cast his gaze to the northwest, following her own, and increased the magnification on his HUD.Thin, gray tendrils snaking into the sky. Smoke. Fire. Possibly people, and not far off—five kilometers, max.He didn't say anything, didn't need to. Twenty seconds later, they had gathered the rest of their supplies and set off.//////[LOCAL TIME\DATE UNAVAILABLE] 2227 HOURS, JUNE 23, 2554, (MILITARY CALENDAR)\ [ERROR: LOCATION UNKNOWN]\ SPARTAN-B091 Mission Clock +15:27:45They reached the source of the smoke after half an hour. At a dead run it would have taken less than ten minutes, but they deactivated their camo systems to conserve power and covered the ground with due diligence.Before nuclear Armageddon made a visit, the collection of identical, single story houses had probably been a suburb inhabited by workers who commuted to the ruined city in the southeast. Now, most of the buildings were gone, the only reminders of their existence the concrete foundations and the occasional blackened frame. Many of the survivors had been boarded up—whoever lived here having decided that exposure to the elements was safer—and then cannibalized to erect a ramshackle wall around and in between the houses at the subdivision's heart.In Lucy's professional opinion—formed before they had gotten close enough to see the bullet holes—and in reality, said wall offered concealment at best, not cover. The patchwork affair of plywood, rusting sheet metal, and floorboards lashed together with a mixture of barbed wire and power lines stood taller than Tom and, from inspection of the irregular—too few and too random to be murder holes—gaps in the construction, had no means of allowing normally sized humans to easily fire down on attackers.Unless the inhabitants were the size of Brutes, they had made a cage for themselves, not a fortress.They had yet to observe any sentries either, as they crept around the unattached homes after stashing their heavy weapons and the duffel bag in the shadows of what passed for a back porch. Lucy knew she wasn't the best at judging how civilians would allocate limited personnel, but if any group she had fought alongside, or against, couldn't post a lookout, then they were either all dead or in the midst of a complete organizational collapse. And there were people here: her VISR's thermals had tagged a column of warmer air rising from the middle of the settlement—too small to be what she had seen earlier, that had to have been the scorched house up ahead that was still much hotter than its surroundings—while she could faintly hear what she thought sounded like digging.That assessment was formed, considered, and filed to the back of her mind in the time it took to dash across the ground that separated one townhouse from its neighbor. She reached cover and halted as the armor's camo system deactivated, years of experience allowing her to shift the abrupt stop into a smooth pivot facing the settlement. She kneeled, MA5K in hand, but safetied and pointed at the ground, and upped the HUD's magnification. Jagged chunks of metal and sharpened wooden posts faced the world at large before a sandbag wall, the attempt at an Abatis undermined by the burnt, propped up hulk of a car towering over it and blocking any possible line of fire. The windows of the house it ran up to had been boarded over. Finally, some respectable defenses, though overdone compared to the rest. Must have run out of materials after the main gate.She flashed Tom three green lights and pointed to the sandbag line, then drew her arm back and clenched her fist. He raised his free hand in acknowledgement, engaged his cloak, and moved out. While she waited, Lucy withdrew her fiber optic probe from the hardcase over her heart and readied it.Ten seconds later he reappeared, pressed up against the front of the house on the other side of the road, and waved her over. She vanished into thin air and darted past him before halting, crouched, at the apex of the sandbags. We, a small, detached voice in the back of her mind mused, had a vastly different version of leapfrogging from what regular children grew up with. She ignored it.Noting the pile of dry-rotted tires immediately in front of her, that the sandbags across from her could actually be used as a firing position, and the posts to a rope bridge between the two, she ran the line over her cover. A screen opened in the upper left corner of her HUD, black and empty for a heartbeat before images began to come through. Tom would see the same.A rope bridge, as expected, and the water it crossed—too murky for her to tell how deep, but a major hassle to cross under fire if there was more debris in it than the half-submerged car. On the other side of the bridge sat another Abatis-and-sandbag emplacement, though neither extended far enough to prevent an attacker from taking cover against the concrete walls of the adjacent house's back porch.And a person, the first they'd seen since the teleporter, sitting miserably behind those sandbags. Some model of SWAT helmet protected the tanned, haggard face of a man who couldn't have been much older than Tom or herself. A thick black jacket—workable, but not ideal attire for the region's climate—with extra padding strapped over his shoulders, and a battered rifle held like a lifeline rounded out what she could see of him. A sentry then; was his limited line of sight a sign that most threats came from the north, that the locals couldn't risk a more elevated position, or both?Lucy saw little in the courtyard, save that the two buildings she had an angle on from her position had had their porches reinforced with scrap to become better fallback positions.Lucy flashed the green status light three times as she reappeared and holstered her carbine. Noting the single green blink of Tom's status light and his approach on her motion tracker, she whistled the six note, six beat tune Kurt had taught them all. Redundant to her companion and functionally meaningless to outsiders, it nonetheless served to get the sentry's attention. Through the probe she saw him bolt up—jacket's missing its left sleeve, she observed absently—and shoulder his rifle properly, though shakily. Whether from nervousness, burnout, or lack of confidence she couldn't be sure."H-hey! Who are you?" he demanded, voice cracking and rifle jerking about, less a deliberate search pattern than the spastic twitching of prey looking for a predator. "Show yourself!""Relax, I'm not here to cause trouble," Tom replied. He placed his carbine on his back rather than his hip or over his shoulder to appear less threatening—well, as "less threatening" as a two-meter-tall, post-human-cyborg death commando in heavy armor could be—and taken on the calm, authoritative tone Kurt often used on the Gammas, and Beta Company before them, when someone was about to have a panic attack in training.". . . Right. What do you want?" the guard asked and lowered his gun, facade of bravado vanishing. She could hear it in his voice that he didn't trust them, but that was just good sense and she would have been more concerned if he did."Supplies. Information. We're new to the area; want some firsthand knowledge, before we find out the hard way.""There's nothing here," the stranger said forlornly, melodramatically, more to himself than Tom, "but the stench of death, and the threat of attack looming over every sunset. You're better off scavenging the dead out in the wastes or continuing on to Megaton." He pointed behind himself, more south than east.He's trying to warn us away, but what he's obtained is our undivided attention, Lucy thought.Strictly speaking, they shouldn't involve themselves in the problems of a dying subsistence community and should instead try to either return to the UNSC—not possible now, if ever—or find a wider-reaching authority to ally with. Of course, with no map of the area and only the vaguest of knowledge about local factions and hazards courtesy of the pretentious Enclave Radio, the latter path was a shot in the dark. Pragmatically, helping these people would hopefully make them more pliable to sharing that, and other, information with the two of them. Personally, if they didn't use their skills and augmentations to try and keep others from suffering as they had, then what would have been the point of all the trauma they'd endured and awful things they'd done?And if the locals decided they'd rather pay the two of them with a knife in the back. . . they'd be dealt with summarily.Tom folded his arms behind his back and she knew he was watching the man intently. "What kind of threats?" And like that it was gone, back to the aloof, professional bearing that characterized most interaction between SPARTANs and those they did not know.He swallowed, and was silent for a moment. "There was a Super Mutant attack last night—they killed some of our friends and carried off some more—and where there's one big ugly, there are ten more just waiting to grab you by the throat. They always come from the north; Hatchet thought they were set up in the old police station." He paused. "Then the slavers will come and pick over your carcass and drag any survivors to Paradise Falls—it's to the north or northwest, we think, and near enough for them to risk the Muties. The best we've ever been able to hope for is that they attack at the same time and kill each other."Lucy idly looked up at the sun blazing away in the sky. It seemed to be between 1500 and 1600 hours in the planet's estimated twenty-four hour day. If she or Tom had orchestrated a night raid, they would've aimed for between 0100 and 0300 hours when everyone would have been at their lowest ebb. A possible fifteen-hour lead was bad news for a purely on foot pursuit, especially if the withdrawing force wasn't being hindered by its prisoners.Beneath her helmet, Lucy frowned at the new name; she had never heard of anything, Covenant or otherwise, referred to as "Super Mutants." Never seen a car-sized scorpion before, either, but it happened. Right, she thought, new world, new enemies, hopefully the same rules. They had a place to start looking, at least.Slavers were both more and potentially less straightforward. More, because slavers were considered hostis humani generis; UEG laws and UNSC regulations (an irony that wasn't lost on them) called for an arrest and trial, but due to the War, the latter considered in-the-field summary executions perfectly acceptable. Less, because a large-scale hostage situation was part and parcel. They'd probably need support if they tried to tackle something like that."Alright," Tom said coolly, "we'll help however we can. Who's in charge here?"He blinked. ". . . We?"Lucy stood and waved.He paled, briefly, before shaking his head and recovering. "Flash walks around town with his gun, trying to watch out for Mutants. He should watch the horizon more, then he'd see them. Red, the doctor, was the one to really go to. Too bad the Mutants took her in the last attack. Another victim to add to their list." He sighed. "Come in. Just . . . don't cause any trouble, okay?"Tom nodded. "Thanks. We'll leave you to your duties . . ." he trailed off, expectant."Huh? Oh . . . uh, Dusty. My name is Dusty." he sputtered, but didn't ask for theirs—probably wasn't expecting to see them again. The boards creaked ominously under their weight as they crossed the bridge, but held. She gave him a slight nod on passing.The reduced distance did a little to improve appearances—the buildings to her left had been similarly reinforced like their opposites—and the scrape-fwump of shovels was clos—ah.Bodies, three, shrouded in blankets so covered in dirt and dried bloodstains it was impossible to tell where their wounds began or ended. Three more still living toiled at shallow graves—and for a moment, she was back in Onyx mourning the ones who hadn't made it that far. One, a black woman with her hair tied back in a messy bun and wearing an outfit similar to Dusty's. The second, a man slightly darker skinned than Tom, clad in rags, and short hair damp and clinging to his forehead with sweat. The last, a dirty blond boy in a grungy, oft-patched shirt and coveralls with a lovingly polished revolver at his hip. None looked as old as Dusty."We're going to try to rescue your friends," Tom announced without preamble. "What do you know about the Super Mutants?"All three came to a dead stop at that particular bombshell and looked up at the two of them. Such a novel experience, Lucy thought, if only it were under better circumstances. The older-looking of the men watched them with naked suspicion, while the woman looked on the verge of tears—whether of joy at their timely arrival or from having to bury her friends, Lucy didn't try to guess. The blond just appeared dumbstruck.The blond—Flash, she assumed, as he was the only one with a gun—recovered and looked them over incredulously for a few seconds before speaking. "What . . . you've never seen a Super Mutant before? They're big—""Bigger than you." Rags cut in dourly, pointing at her partner."—and ugly and scary as hell!" Flash continued, as though never interrupted. "They came and rounded up a bunch of us and carried them off! God, they must be doing awful things to them.""Do you mean it? Can you do it? Are you sure you can find them? And rescue them?" Leathers blurted out, then frowned. "We don't have much to offer as payment . . .""Once someone tells us what we're getting into, we'll do all that we can," Tom replied.Rags snorted. "You've decided to rescue our friends? Unlikely. You two probably just figured out a way to take advantage of the situation." The man fumed. "Well, if you feel like dying, go right on ahead. If they're not in the ruined church at Hallowed Moors, or the trainyard, the next place would be that police station up near Germantown. No one here knows where they go after that."Tom nodded. "Where, exactly, are these places?"Rags looked at them in surprise, as though just realizing they were serious, before Leathers interjected. "Nearby! You can see both from the top of the hill . . . if you have binoculars. The trainyard first, to the northeast, then the church is northwest. The police station's farther away and hidden by the ruins, though. About . . . ten miles? I think.""Hatchet," Rags picked back up, "could have told you more, but . . ." he cast a weary glance at the covered bodies, "everyone's luck runs out sooner or later. Won't be long before we all end up like Timebomb: dying on a table in Red's clinic." He jerked his head towards the house on the settlement's far side.Flash made a valiant effort at putting on a brave face and a show against the somber air. "I'd go rescue them myself, but then who'd defend Big Town? I patrol every day now. And I got a little present for those Muties when they come back. You know what it is?" He brandished the revolver for all to see. "This kick-ass gun, that's what! Yeah baby!""Terrifying," Tom drawled, not bothering to sound the slightest bit impressed, but drawing a perhaps intended chuckle from Leathers. "Now, tell us about the Super Mutants themselves—how they fight, how best to kill them."Lucy could see something like hope in their eyes now. Maybe it was having the two of them walk in and offer to enact a daring rescue or revenge fantasy. Maybe it was just being given something to think about other than burying their friends."Bring lots of guns and shoot the hell out of those Muties!" Flash sounded genuinely happy now. "I'll hold down the fort here!" She wouldn't hold him to that."They use whatever they can find as weapons," Leathers continued more helpfully, a haunted look in her eyes, "but they seem to like big things. Axes. Sledgehammers. Any rifle they can work the trigger for. One last night had a flamethrower." She gazed in the direction of the smoldering house. "Grenades when they can find them. And they have these . . . things . . . that follow them around that'll trap you with their tongues if you're close enough and spit at you if you're not. It burns." She shuddered."They're a solid wall of muscle when they hit the bridge," Dusty called back to them. "No scouts or rearguard that I've ever seen, just the overeager and the stragglers. No maneuvers or tactics, just an unstoppable wave.""As for killing them?" Rags took over, placing an arm around his fellow and holding her close. "We've never had much luck. Dusty's rifle only seems to make them madder and Flash'd piss himself—""Hey!""—and faint if he had to stand and fight. The caravan guards—when the caravans would risk coming out here, anyway—always said they ate a lot of 5.56 ammo though."Lucy mentally catalogued all that they said. The two of them would examine "Timebomb" before they left. Their medical supplies, like all the others, were finite, but they might be able to at least ease his pain."Right," Tom declared, "we'll be heading out once we've retrieved our supplies and checked your wounded. If you have anything else to add, don't hesitate."As Tom turned away and began walking to the clinic, Lucy parted with him and headed back to the bridge. It seemed they would need their big guns after all.
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Hey so I'm currently working on this fan art piece for the release of H5 but I can only do pencils and I think it would look pretty cool in color.  I know it is late notice with less than 2 weeks to go, but if anyone is interested, lemme know.  I'll probably finish the pencils early next week to give an idea of time tables.
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TheShyLion Featured By Owner Apr 24, 2019
Admin(s), can you please kick the person who keeps posting casino and party posters? Doesn't really fit in a Halo group, if you ask me...
TOA316XDNUI-OFFICIAL Featured By Owner Jan 4, 2019  Hobbyist Filmographer
TOA316XDNUI-OFFICIAL Featured By Owner Dec 31, 2018  Hobbyist Filmographer
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spiderxand Featured By Owner May 30, 2016  Hobbyist Photographer
I ask that everyone, in America at least, to take a moment to reflect on those that "gave their last full measure of devotion". On this somber Memorial Day.

ZCrims Featured By Owner Mar 19, 2016  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Thanks for requesting my art! :D
justsumguylol Featured By Owner Mar 22, 2016
No prob. It rocks
AtlantisOrca Featured By Owner Feb 24, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Thank you for Affiliating with my group :iconunsc-armory:  Handshake
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Thank you for accepting me into this group add me on facebook:…

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