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The Knife's Edge by CaptainRaspberry

Miklosfy Istvan - The Knife's Edge
Date: 26 February 2010, 1:02 am

1. Miklosfy Istvan

Days after the end of the Human-Covenant War, a message was received from the colony Barthes. Insurrectionists of the Baszac faction, sensing the UNSC's weakness and thirsting for independence, had taken control of the capital city of Saricas. Unwilling to falter despite its severely reduced resources, the UNSC conducted a vicious ground war against the insurgents.

After two months of fighting, only a small pocket of resistance remains in the capital, isolated in the center of the city. They do not control the power nor the water, and have nothing but their resolve to keep them warm in the face of approaching winter.

9:14 [L;AM], 17 Október 2553 (Local Calendar)/
Saricas, Barthes -- Baszac-controlled sector

The sun woke Istvan, as it normally did. His alarm clock no longer worked, nor did the automatic lights that had once kept time for him. But that was alright: he much preferred it this way. It felt right, almost natural. Like his classmates -- but what were they without a class to attend? Certainly not friends -- the only thing stopping it from feeling completely natural was that Barthes' sun was not Sol, this planet not Earth.

His father always said they didn't need Earth, but Istvan couldn't help wondering if maybe it wasn't completely true. What if the desire for that planet, that yellow star was encoded in every human's DNA?

He slipped his feet to the floor, and found it colder than the previous day. The seasons were changing, it was becoming difficult to ignore. Staying his teeth from chattering, he wrapped his thin, dirty blanket around himself and stood, yawning, to face the day.

The window looked onto the street. Children younger than he played absently in the morning light as it filtered down through the twisted wrecks of the upper floors, dappling against their pale skin and burnished metal toys. Here and there stood the resistance fighters, dressed in whatever they could find, marked by red strips of cloth round their arms and the weapons they carried. Few numbers here meant more numbers at the gates, watching, maintaining vigil.

Istvan's heart fluttered. Today, he would join them.

Feet slapped across the bare floor as he went to the bathroom. He was careful not to use too much water, just enough to scrub the cuts on his face, and always keep the dirty water away from the clean supply. The UNSC had cut off their water and power, and with the dry Barthian winter coming, rain was becoming scarcer. His father talked often about "ice farming," what it would be like to scrape the thick ice from the windows in the morning, gather it into cups, and warm it by a fire until it was precious water again.

Somewhere in this three-story ruin was Miklos Vadas, talking of ice farming and revolution, preparing for the day before his son.

Properly washed, Istvan descended to the first story, where more soldiers lingered. Most held bowls, either waiting their turn in line or sipping gingerly at the cold broth within. He envied their haggard faces, dirt smeared over wounds; certainly they complained of being miserable, but within a hot fire burned, one of internal dignity and righteousness.

It was a face he longed to possess.


The raspy paternal voice summoned him, and he turned eagerly. His father waved to him from near the wall. "Come, speak to the commander of the watch."

He approached the large, balding man slowly. Perhaps not a man; the commander of the watch was better known as The Fox, for his powerful stare and quick wits. He eyed the boy before him like a wary predator gazing upon new prey for the first time. "You are Istvan?"

"Istvan Miklosfy Vadas, sir!" The boy snapped a salute.

The Fox turned his eyes to the elder. "He is so scrawny, Miklos. How can I take him?"

"Men of brains eat for their brains," Istvan's father said. "Look at his head. Perhaps he has trouble with the rifle, but his eyes? Sharp. Sharper than yours, Eszes, I think."

Huffing, the large man turned back to Istvan. "So, you are to join us this afternoon? Are you ready for the watch?"

"Yes, sir!"

"The Yoonies' snipers are good. If you are not careful, not diligent in your watching, you will be gunned down. Or worse, you will let them see an opening, a place where they could get their soldiers in. Will you let them do this?"

"No, sir!"

"You must understand: we are the last of us. All other Baszacs have been driven away or killed or surrendered, like the once-great General Emericus. I must know, without doubt, that you can be counted upon, or it is straight to the pipes with you. Am I understood?"

"Yes, sir!"

His peace spoken, The Fox left. Istvan looked expectantly at Miklos, who chuckled lightly.

"My son, you are a man of brains and heart. Were it not for this war, I would see you at university. But this is much more important. Do you know?"

Istvan nodded. Miklos scratched at his son's hair affectionately. "We will see. By the end of today, we will see."

7:24 [L;PM], 17 Október 2553 (Local Calendar)/
Saricas, Barthes -- Baszac-controlled sector

The sun was in decline, the warmest part of the day over. Istvan pulled his recycled jacket tighter, mindful of the cloth round its arm and the wide, stained hole in its chest. He had been cautioned as to the poor luck of the previous owner, a victim of a lucky sniper's shot. Istvan didn't believe in luck; just in war. Those who cowered behind walls and waited for it to be over weren't worthy of Baszac. They should have been pushed past the gates and into the UNSC's waiting claws long ago.

Shouting broke his reverie, and he realized that The Fox was calling for attention. The massive man didn't so much speak as project, which he was doing now to great effect. Behind him, Istvan could hear the shattered window rattling in its pane with every syllable:

"Tonight, we are joined by the latest rookies to take the watch. They are brave, but their skill has yet to be determined. Each járőr will be made up of four people, two rookies and two veterans. You will stick to your assigned routes, break when permitted, and you will stay alert! Watch for Yoonie movement! Stay sharp, for they are seeking you as heartily as you are seeking them! Remain true to Baszac, and you will be seen safely through. Believe!"

"Believe!" The chorus sounded, a harmony of enthusiasm and dry humor. With a nod, The Fox sent the patrols out.

Istvan had been paired with Laszlo, a fellow rookie, and two veterans: Tamas and Marton. They saluted him with indifference, but Laszlo quickly took up conversing. They discussed their families, and what they could recall of their lives before the war. It seemed like a lifetime ago.

When they reached the buildings, Tamas hissed, "Shut up!"

"What," countered Laszlo, "can the Yoonies hear us now through the walls?"

"No," said Marton, "but talking will break our concentration." Istvan regarded the two veterans closely. Tamas was very edgy, with patchy stubble and slits for eyes. He hunched, even when walking through windowless hallways. On the other hand, Marton seemed very level, like a friendly bear. He had a full beard, and stood tall, even when passing the windows.

When Istvan asked him about it, Marton motioned to the setting sun. "So long as there is light, they cannot see through the windows. And they will not use their night vision until it is truly dark."

"I had heard stories," said Istvan, "that there were certain soldiers that had helmets which could see through walls."

For a moment, Marton was silent. At length, he said, "No. We will not see those soldiers."

In just a short time, however, the sun set, and now everybody was careful to hunch over. At each window, the járőr halted and scooted beneath the pane as the veterans taught the rookies how to use a mirror. The Baszacs of Saricas, boasted Tamas, had once possessed the equipment they needed to patrol without such primitive devices: armor and helmets, cameras, weapons with SmartLink software in their scopes.

"But when that cowardly bastard Emericus surrendered, he gave up our armories under torture. Now we have mirrors." And he demonstrated how to position the mirror to attract the least attention from snipers, and what the signs were to spot a Yoonie.

The next few windows were handled by the veterans, but they finally gave the rookies their chance to try. As Marton and Tamas stood off to the side and shared a cigarette, Istvan held the mirror awkwardly. He was paranoid about being seen, however, and made his sweep too quickly. Then it was Laszlo's turn.

As Laszlo held it up, he whispered excitedly, "I think I see one!"


"Perhaps... twenty meters away. I saw a long, straight shape, between gaps in a fence. I don't see it anymore, I think it's gone." He brought down the mirror and frowned. "I think I held my hand too high."

Istvan was about to ask how he knew when thunder shattered the wall, blowing a neat fist-sized chunk through the plaster and concrete and Tamas's ribs, followed by a distant crack. Three more roars followed in quick succession, two missing and one more striking the now-lifeless body of the veteran. It hit the ground with a sickening thump, cigarette dropping from between limp fingers.

Later, Istvan would wonder if he had screamed during the onslaught, but now everything was quiet. There was whimpering, perhaps from Laszlo, and a horrible smell.

"Stay down," Marton cautioned; it took Istvan a moment to realize that they had all dropped prone at the attack, but pride in remembering his brief training was quashed by the pool of red expanding in his direction. Bile rose in his throat, but out of sheer force of will he kept it down.

When it was clear that there was no more shooting, Marton got up into a crouch and started checking what was once Tamas. Laszlo was whispering prayers of forgiveness over and over, an unbroken chain of repentance.

"Oh God," he said, "oh God, oh God, I killed him. I killed him, I must have held the mirror too high, they saw, I killed him..."

"No." Marton withdrew some papers from the jacket of former Tamas, edges stained with blood. "Those shots were much too accurate. That Yoonie sniper knew what he was doing. Tamas must have blown smoke in the wrong direction."

It frightened Istvan that such a small error could be punished so fiercely.

The veteran seemed finished. "We shall return now," he said. "I think you have seen enough bloodshed."

"What about him?"

For a moment, Marton looked stricken with grief. "We leave him. Carrying his body would only be a liability. Some other time we will recover him."

11:49 [L;AM], 18 Október 2553 (Local Calendar)/
Saricas, Barthes -- Baszac-controlled sector

In the morning, Istvan barely noticed the cold floor. If there were children playing, he didn't see them. He didn't wash his face. Downstairs, he just felt drained as he took a bowl of soup. Since last night he hadn't eaten anything, only vomited out his window. Looking at even the watery broth, he doubted that he could keep it down. A table in the corner called to him.

Before he started to eat, his father sat down across from him. "I heard what happened last night."

Istvan said nothing.

"Watching a man die is a difficult thing, especially when it is done by another man. You are too young to remember, but before we knew of the Covenant, humans were killing humans every day. There was no outside force, just human greed. If the Yoonies were ever right about one thing, it's that we needed to come together as a species to survive."

He pulled something from his pocket. "Your grandfather wished you to have this." It slid across the rough artificial wood: a leather sheath with a red and black handle. "It is a Baszac combat knife," said Miklos. "My own father gave it to me, expecting me to use it during the revolution, but I was chosen for a role other than combat." He shrugged. "Yet I am alive, and he is not. Such is life. But if you are a soldier, I wish you to take it."

Istvan just stared at it for a moment, but eventually reached out a hand and picked it up. On the back was a loop, through which his belt fit snugly. His father nodded his approval, then leaned across the table and kissed him on the forehead. "Do great things," he said. "No matter what you do, so long as you do it for greater things, you may sleep easily at night."

With that, he left. Ten minutes later, Istvan had finished his soup and joined his fellow soldiers to recover the body of Tamas.

Atacameņo - The Knife's Edge
Date: 5 March 2010, 5:31 am

2. Atacameño

Days after the end of the Human-Covenant War, a message was received from the colony Barthes. Insurrectionists of the Baszac faction, sensing the UNSC's weakness and thirsting for independence, had taken control of the capital city of Saricas. Unwilling to falter despite its severely reduced resources, the UNSC conducted a vicious ground war against the insurgents.

After two months, the insurrection has been contained to a single sector within the capital. Faced with tight, urban close-quarters combat, which most general Marines were neither trained nor equipped for, HIGHCOM decides to call in the special forces.

0854 Hours, 15 August 2553 (Military Calendar)/
UNSC Boom Headshot -- orbit around Barthes colony

Sylvester Bishop never tired of seeing the briefing table light up: a hologram, sketched into being by photons that rose to glorious three-dimensional life in front of him. It was spectacular, no matter how many times he had sat in front of one and counted the minutes until the CO stopped talking. This briefing was one, however, that he had never experienced before.

What made this novel was the attack being planned. For the first time in the history of Corvo squad, their target was neither occupied by the Covenant nor suspected of soon becoming occupied by the Covenant; their enemy was a group of insurrectionists.

More than that, though, was that they would not be dropped in via SOEIV.

The lieutenant giving the briefing elaborated: "Simply put, negotiations are still in effect."

Sergeant Kimmle crossed his beefy arms over the chest of his combat armor. He was a "buck" sergeant, just recently promoted to fill the hole left by the passing of Gunny Nolan on Earth, but Bishop knew the man's talents. "Negotiation" was not one of them.

"What do you mean, 'negotiations are still in effect'?"

The LT spread his hands wide. "Groundside, they're still exploring diplomatic alternatives."

"If they're intent on being diplomatic, sir," asked Lena Doyle, "why are we here?" She was on the other side of the table, just to the left of the officer giving the briefing.

"HIGHCOM wants to keep its options open. I've been allowed to disclose that, statistically, it's likely your squad will be deployed to assist the regular Marines in counter-terrorism operations."

Adjacent to Bishop, Valentin Reeves gave a snort. His standard sign for "incoming sarcasm."

"So, statistically we get called in. What're our rules of engagement?"

"As the situation requires," answered the lieutenant. "No matter what, it's a close-quarters action. Your equipment and load-out will be adjusted accordingly. You'll be authorized to shoot to kill the Baszacs, but only their soldiers. Intel suggests that they have civilians in there too, women and children who were caught in that part of the city and weren't allowed to leave after the innies occupied it. HIGHCOM also wants their higher-ups, for a public trial."

"More like a public hanging," muttered Reeves. Kimmle shot him a look, but if the LT heard, he gave no sign.

With the press of a button, the latticework of light dissolved into nothingness, leaving the briefing room darker than before. "You'll be briefed further by the Marine element on the ground," said the lieutenant. "Your bird flies in thirty. Make sure you're ready by then." He saluted, which the assembled ODSTs returned, and left.

Once safely out of earshot, Reeves sighed. "Fuckin' El-Tee."

"Private!" Doyle snapped.

Kimmle just raised a calm hand. "Stow it, guys. Nobody likes this, and we don't have to. We just need to follow orders."

No longer distracted by the hologram, Bishop looked up. "Do you think we'll need to go in, Sergeant?"

"Probably." The sergeant scratched at the back of his head. He didn't add the, "hopefully," but everyone assumed he was thinking it. For a while, he was quiet, and then, "Does anyone remember their counter-terror training?"

"No," Bishop replied. "Well, kinda. It's blurry. We rarely had the opportunity for a stack-and-breach against the Covenant, though."

Doyle slipped off the edge of the table and stretched. "The benefits of running Delta-Golf-Sierra ops, I suppose." She was dressed in a stripped-down version of the ODST armor meant mostly for reconnaissance, a specialty she shared with Bishop. However, her armor had become ragged and worn out, like the rest of the squad: they hadn't been issued replacements since the Covenant arrived at Earth. "Has anyone here shot another human? Just asking."

No one made any response, except for Reeves, who raised his hand. He had been a corpsman prior for being picked for the ODSTs, having impressed some big shot with death-defying rescue runs on Tulane. "Well," he amended, after getting several stares, "I didn't shoot him, but he was shot by another Marine. Friendly fire, they said. I can't attest, I only went over when I got the call."

"How many mortars did you dodge doing that one?"

The sergeant stood. "All right, pack it up," he said. "Get to the armory double-quick and grab your gear, then get ready for the most boring drop of your lives."

0920 Hours, 15 August 2553 (Military Calendar)/
Saricas, Barthes -- UNSC Local Command Center

The Pelican's skids hit the deck, far gentler than Bishop had ever experienced. He realized as the turbines died that he had been tensed for the jarring impact of a SOEIV against hard ground. Sheepishly, though he was pretty sure his comrades had done the same, he relaxed his muscles and unbuckled himself from the harness.

"Welcome to Saricas," said the crew chief. "Make sure you guys've got your stuff. We won't be sticking around."

Reeves glanced back at him as he took his M7S off the rack. "Where are you off to in a hurry?"

The man flashed a quick grin; from where he stood, Bishop could see that a lot of the chief's teeth were artificial. Too white. "Got a hot date. We're going back to the Headshot for some non-frozen sack time. Except for cryo, we haven't gotten a good night's sleep in months."

Corvo squad disembarked, and true to the man's word, the Pelican took off momentarily. Dust filled the air, and for a moment Bishop wished that his helmet had been on his head rather than secured to his thigh.

A voice called out over the fading winds: "Corvo squad, over here!" A man in older model battle armor waved to them, and one didn't need a HUD to tell he was an officer: clean face, though marred by scars. He was a veteran, no doubt, and though there were lines of age across his face, it was impossible to judge how old he was. Like most of his generation, he had grown up too fast.

They approached, Sergeant Kimmle up front. At the right distance, they saluted. "Sir, Eighty-Second Battalion, Corvo squad. Reporting for duty."

"At ease," replied the officer. "Major Ghest. Nice to make your acquaintance. Come on inside, it's not quite as cold in there." They followed him off the landing deck and into a long, rectangular ops room. Men and women bustled back and forth, but their faces were almost serene. Compared to the do-or-die atmosphere of the Covenant, dealing with an ill-equipped insurrection must have seemed like a vacation.

"My office is over here." The major motioned to a door, through which sat a desk and enough standing room for the four Troopers. They entered, Reeves closing the door at the officer's bidding. Ghest settled into his chair and offered a pitcher of water. "Drink?"

"No thank you, sir," Kimmle replied.

The major shrugged and poured for himself. "You boys must still be wound pretty tight."

"They had us in the jungles, sir," responded the sergeant. "Looking for any Flood that the split-lips might have missed in Voi. It was a little... tense. Glad to be out of there, sir."

"I'd imagine." The major finished his cup in one gulp, and refilled it. "I'm not going to ask if you're ready for the task at hand. I had to make sure the regular Marines would be comfortable in this operation, since most of them are too young to remember that their guns were designed to shoot at Innies. But you ODSTs are supposed to be cold-hearted bastards, ready to do what's necessary. Am I right?"

Kimmle only gave a slight nod. "We try, sir."

Ghest hummed and downed his second cup. "The Barthan government is still being high-and-mighty about negotiating with the Baszacs, but smart money isn't on that. My Marines have been shooting up the walls, picking off whatever we can, but it's just a matter of time." He paused as he was about to take his third refill. "Are you sure you don't want a drink?"

"Yes, sir."

"It's good stuff. Ice farming around here comes up with quality Aich-Two-Oh."

"I'm sure, sir."

"At any rate, I'll need your squad ready at the drop of a pin when the time comes. Until then, I'll mix your men in with the regulars. Will that do?"

"If that's what you need us to do, sir, then that's what we'll do."

At that, the major grinned. "Son, you're so formal right now, I'd think I was talking to a Spartan. Any of your boys have sniper qualifications?"

Kimmle nodded. "That would be Lance Corporal Doyle and PFC Bishop, sir. They're usually our sniper-spotter team."

"I might put them to good use. What about you two?"

"PFC Reeves is our unofficial corpsman. I was formerly the sabotage specialist, but..."


The sergeant straightened. Bishop felt sorry for him; it had been hard on everyone when their old commander died, but Kimmle had taken it the hardest. Well, hardest visibly; they all knew how bad Doyle was afterwards. "Sir. Gunnery Sergeant Nolan was killed in action on Earth. I was promoted to... replace him."

Silence. The major stood, crossed around the desk, and put a hand on the sergeant's shoulder. "I understand. The whole war was tough, a lot of good men died who didn't deserve it. I'm sure your sergeant was a hero, but I'm also sure you can lead your team effectively. We don't have much call for sabotage anyway." He glanced at the clock on the wall. "I've kept you cooped up long enough. Report to the duty sergeant and see if anyone is willing to give up their patrol route, I'd like Corvo squad to get an idea of how the city is set up. Any questions?"

Doyle stepped forward. "Sir, I was under the impression that the Baszacs were confined to a particular sector."

Ghest smiled. "I'm sure you weren't around to experience it, Corporal, but when the UNSC was dealing with insurgencies, external patrols were standard practice. Their main force and leadership may be trapped, but they have agents everywhere. With ODSTs walking around, I'm hoping to put the fear of God into 'em. Give them something to report to their leaders, make them piss their pants."

"Sir," Kimmle asked, "are we the only ODSTs on the ground?"

The major shook his head. "We have others deployed elsewhere. If -- when -- we go in, like you, they'll serve as our vanguard to soften up our prime targets."

No more questions. Corvo squad was officially on Barthan soil.

1049 Hours, 15 August 2553 (Military Calendar)/
Saricas, Barthes; Isabella Myne Shopping Complex

"I'm so not used to this."

"No kidding."

On patrol with their helmets on, Corvo squad had closed-link communications that were perfectly silent to the outside world. To any of the thousands of civilians who milled about the mall, keeping their distance from the black-armored soldiers, Bishop's comment never happened. Inside the confines of their helmets, however, the ODSTs agreed.

Their specialty had been deep ground surveillance, a form of invisible reconnaissance. To DGS teams, being seen usually meant being dead. In a different theater, an entirely different operation, they were all having issues adjusting.

There was another significant difference: they had to be even more alert than usual. "It's easier when you're surrounded by the enemy," Doyle said, "but when you're surrounded by people not knowing who the enemy is..."

She let that thought hang in the air.

The mall was standard fare for such things: stores with wide windows, showcasing products that were the most opulent and expensive. Bishop realized with a start how lucky Barthes was to have escaped the war, and purely by chance. A lot of the clothes in the windows were extravagant, of a variety he had never seen on any other world, even Earth. Given that the colony had been almost entirely autonomous prior to the Covenant, there was little surprise that they wanted to break off.

"Excuse me."

Bishop felt a light tug on his arm. He looked down to see a little girl, maybe eight years old, holding onto his elbow. "Are you a soldier?"

He glanced back and saw that the rest of Corvo squad had stopped and were looking at him expectantly. Two fingers went up. Two seconds. Bishop bit one of the contacts on the inside of his helmet, and his visor un-mirrored. He hunched over. "Yeah, sweetheart. I am."

The girl's eyes went wide. "You killed aliens?"

"Yes I did."

"Wow." She took a few steps back, as if suddenly aware of how dangerous the ODST could be. "Are you a war hero?"

Sylvester laughed and straightened, about to reply when he saw a green glow. The rest of the scene faded away, melding together until it was just him and two tell-tale motes of light. Instinctively he bit down on the mirror contact and brought up his M7S.


Before he could even think, he had pulsed the trigger twice, sending two bursts of rounds into his perceived target. The shape crumpled to the ground. Given the silent nature of the weapon, it took most people a moment to realize he had fired, but when they did, there was screaming and running.

Corvo squad was in action in moments. The sergeant had unslung his shotgun, Reeves and Doyle their SMGs. They coalesced around the fallen shape as Bishop saw clearly for the first time whom he had shot.

It was a man. His face was frozen in pain, the syllable of some forgotten word the universe would never hear. He had stubble and small scars on his cheek. A thick cotton coat was wrapped around him, as well as a thin piece of red fabric on his arm. The significance of such a thing was lost on Bishop, who could only see the obvious:

He had shot a man.

He barely got his helmet off in time to throw up.

Inside a moment, Reeves was kneeling beside him, patting him on the back. "It's okay," he said. "It's over now."

"Oh God," Bishop whispered. "Oh God, Oh God. I shot him."

"Yeah. You got 'im."

"I shot him."

By now the civilians had formed a distant, curious ring around the spectacle. People peered over the banisters on the story above. Kimmle knelt down and rolled the man over. "Jesus," he said, picking up a familiar C-shaped device with two glowing points of green light. "This guy had a plasma pistol."

"I just... I just saw it, and it was so automatic."

"It's okay," said Reeves. "Remember what the El-Tee said? On the Headshot? Baszacs wear that red cloth. Okay? He was a bad guy. He was going to shoot you."

"I know." Bishop's voice was getting steadier. Slowly he reclaimed himself from the edge of panic. "I know, just... I don't know."

"Come on," said Kimmle, pulling on his arm. Bishop rose to his feet, first putting his weight into the sergeant and then shakily moving it onto his own two feet. Reeves handed him his helmet. "Let's head back to base. We'll get you something to drink."

A Passing Shadow - The Knife's Edge
Date: 11 March 2010, 5:56 pm

3. A Passing Shadow

Days after the end of the Human-Covenant War, a message was received from the colony Barthes. Insurrectionists of the Baszac faction, sensing the UNSC's weakness and thirsting for independence, had taken control of the capital city of Saricas. Unwilling to falter despite its severely reduced resources, the UNSC conducted a vicious ground war against the insurgents.

With the Baszacs confined within a few city blocks, the UNSC is relying on its ODSTs to act as its special forces: infiltrate and eliminate key targets. However, some of them are so young, they have never fired at fellow humans in war.

2202 Hours, 15 August 2553 (Military Calendar)/
Saricas, Barthes -- Baszac containment perimeter

PFC Sylvester Bishop stared glumly through the spotting scope. "I must have seemed like a real rook out there."

"How so?" Doyle didn't budge from her crouched position, legs of her SRS99C-S2 AMB sniper rifle resting on the low wall. In her full combat armor, she looked like the poster image of the perfect predator, absolutely still, waiting for her enemy to make a mistake.

"I blew chunks all over the ground. Tell me that's not the lamest thing ever."

The corporal snickered. "Yeah, maybe." She seemed to sense Bishop's sudden downturn in mood and quickly backpedaled. "Nobody blames you. Who the fuck has shot at his own species before? The enemy's been an alien for so long, it's hard to remember that we used to kill each other all the time."

Bishop huffed, the force of his exhalation blasting a few streams of fog onto the inside of his visor. "I guess. But I fucking puked. I'm lame."

"Yeah," she finally agreed, "but for other reasons."

"Movement," said Bishop, forgetting their tête-à-tête. "Third window in, second row from the top."

"High-down-two, third in, roger that." Doyle adjusted her pose ever so minutely and waited. "I got nothing."

"Fast bastards, aren't they?"

"To hear everyone tell it, this is how they check the lines. Using mirrors in the windows. Look for any reflections."

"Roger." He adjusted his scope. "So, uh... about the sergeant."

"You mean Kimmle?"


Despite her stillness and armor, he could hear it in her voice when she tensed up. "What about him?"

A beat.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

"Not really."

Bishop felt her getting uneasy. "You haven't talked about it at all."

"How often do you guys talk about us?"

Bishop didn't answer.

8:18 [L;AM], 19 Október 2553 (Local Calendar)/
Saricas, Barthes -- Baszac-controlled sector

Istvan was up earlier than usual, he and Laszlo having been roused by Marton. The three of them joined with several others in various states of wakefulness crowded around The Fox, who seemed ready to begin a speech when they arrived. A tall mug of coffee was being passed around.

"Comrades," he started. "The Yoonies continue pressing us to give in, but our glorious leaders do not waver in the face of this deception. Were we to give in, we'd be marched straight from our gates to the gallows. Our enemy's patience wears thin, and it is likely that they will strike at us harder than they yet have."

The mug reached Istvan, but he only took a light sip and passed it on. His mind was tortured slowly every night by images of Tamas, life torn from him like his guts, bleeding on the floor. It was hard for him to imagine a harsher attack. Since then, he had felt like a nervous wreck on every járőr he undertook. He fidgeted with his grandfather's knife, which hung at his belt now. It was more for comfort, as what blade could fight the black night?

He hoped for the opportunity to avenge Tamas with this blade.

The Fox continued, "We will be increasing the watch to include shifts around the clock. It is vital that we draw the Yoonies' attempts towards this sector of the city so that we may implement our next stage."

Laszlo perked up. "What stage is that?"

"We will use our agents on the outside to take several of their soldiers hostage. Once we have them within our lines, we will demand their forces leave this city and acknowledge the sovereignty of the Baszac."

A veteran within the crowd grunted. "We must be careful. One of the lookouts last night said they saw some of the Yoonie's special forces on their side of the line."

Immediately, Marton's head snapped toward the speaker. "What kind of special forces?"

"The kind with mirrored visors."

The Fox and Marton exchanged a brief but knowing look that Istvan only barely caught. He did not know the significance. "The schedule for patrols has been written down," said The Fox. "Learn your times and be on duty then. Move around so the Yoonies know you are there, but do not let them know where you are. Believe!"


1134 Hours, 16 August 2553 (Military Calendar)/
Saricas, Barthes -- downtown

The air had a sweet aroma to it that Bishop found relaxing, and he wondered if it came from the myriad bakeries down the street or if it was a natural quality of the air. The major had given him a day pass after the incident yesterday while he was on patrol; today, Corvo would be staying on-base to give rudimentary counter-terror crash courses to the regular Marines.

He felt guilty that he wasn't suffering beside his team, but it had been so long since he had just been able to breathe without the air being either filtered through his helmet or choked with ash. Being in civilian attire was refreshing, too. He had been ordered to lose anything and everything that marked him as a soldier so that Baszac agents -- like the one he had shot yesterday -- didn't know to target him. Though he could do nothing about his military haircut, his 82nd tattoo on his bicep was safely concealed beneath a fleece and a faux-cotton jacket.

An outdoor restaurant caught his attention at the same time his lacking stomach did. It was reminiscent of the twenty-third century architecture that tended to ooze history: a steel waist-high fence surrounded the dining patio with famous scenes from wars imprinted in the upper bar. His eyes traced the frieze in reverse, going all the way back to the Rainforest Wars until he stopped being able to identify the distinct conflicts.

Bishop settled himself at a small bench and ordered a drink of water and a menu. The selection quivered into view, suspended half an inch off the surface of the table. He decided to wait until the water arrived before he made his decision.

Instead he turned his attention back to the street and watched people walk. It amazed him still, their leisurely pace: what little he remembered of his childhood included the frenzied pace of people who knew they could die in any given moment. But now he saw how people who truly didn't have a care in the world lived.

There was a tap on his shoulder. "Excuse me."

He turned and saw a woman with bunned brown hair and a little boy.

"Could we share this bench? All the other tables are taken."

"Uh." She was plain, but pretty all the same. Something in her cheeks. And the boy couldn't have been more than five as he gnawed at the knuckle on his index finger. "Sure, sit down."

"Thank you." The pair took their seats, her fingers nimbly dancing over the table as she made the choice for both herself and... her son? Maybe, but she seemed too young. He watched out of the corner of his eye until he was sure they weren't paying attention to him, then looked back to the street.

It seemed like instantly -- though it had probably been a few minutes -- the boy spoke. "Who are you?"

Bishop looked back and saw the woman scolding the child. "Nicholas, that's incredibly rude!"

"No, it's okay," Bishop said, smiling. "My name's Sylvester."

The boy gave a gapped grin. "I'm Nicky. This is Awn-tee Georgia."

She smiled, though it seemed awkward. "It's nice to meet you." They shook hands. "I don't recognize you. Did you just move here?"

"Um... sort of. I'm here working for the UNSC, I guess."

"Oh. Hm."

"Is that a problem?"

"It's just..."

"What? Oh. Are you...?"

"Baszac? Oh, no. No no no. Nothing like that, no."

"Then what's the matter?"

"Well, with the war and everything, you know, everybody knew somebody."



"I'm sorry. Who?" His eyes flicked to Nicky. "Or shouldn't I...?"

"No, it's okay. My sister and her husband. It was difficult to accept for a while. She was older than me, and always there, so... yeah. Afterwards the state left Nicky to my care."

"I'm so sorry. Where did it happen?"

"Here and there. They didn't say."

Bishop nodded. "Yeah. The war was... well, it's hard to believe it's actually over, huh? I mean, when I was growing up, at any time the world could end."

"I know."

"It did eventually, though. Pearl."

"Oh. Were you there?"

"For part of it, yeah."

"Oh my God. Did any of your family make it off-world in time?"

"I don't know. Never found out, which happens a lot more often than you might think. I mean, the fighting lasted months, enough time to evacuate a lot of people, but my parents lived way out in the sticks..."

"That must be hard, not knowing."

"It is now, kind of. Not so much while the war was still on, but..." He felt a pressure behind his eyes and throat. "But now that I have the time to think about it, it's tough."

"You can't even go home after the end of the war."

"No." Suddenly he wanted to laugh. "But," he said, trying not to giggle, "you know who had it worse than me?" He wasn't doing a good job of it. His shoulders shook and he felt his voice crack.

She looked bewildered, maybe a little afraid. "Who?"

"My first sergeant. He was from Harvest. Already signed up, so he was away on deployment on some Innie world. And at first the military tried to keep it so hush-hush that he didn't have a clue why they were delaying his leave to go home. He thought... well, I don't know what he thought!"

Bishop burst out laughing.

She just stared.

"And when... when he did find out, it was when Admiral Cole was assembling that monster fleet, and... and..." Now he couldn't remember what was so funny. He lapsed into silence and stared at the table, his untouched menu still flickering.

"I'm sorry," he muttered, not looking up, "I shouldn't... that probably seemed pretty psycho."

Unexpectedly, she slid her hand across the table -- carefully at first -- and laid it on top of his. "You just needed to get it out."

He nodded. "Thank you."

A moment later, the waitress arrived with their food. Nicky had macaroni and cheese, which he went at with zeal -- apparently oblivious to the conversation that just happened. Georgia had some kind of sandwich, and Bishop had his water. He poured himself a glass from the pitcher and drank it greedily.

"Hey," he said after a moment, and Georgia looked up. "This stuff is pretty good."

She smiled. "Ice farming around here is the best."

Orion - The Knife's Edge
Date: 19 March 2010, 12:19 pm

4. Orion

Days after the end of the Human-Covenant War, a message was received from the colony Barthes. Insurrectionists of the Baszac faction, sensing the UNSC's weakness and thirsting for independence, had taken control of the capital city of Saricas. Unwilling to falter despite its severely reduced resources, the UNSC conducted a vicious ground war against the insurgents.

After weeks at a diplomatic stalemate, the Baszacs have become desperate to force the UNSC to break their bloc around the capital of Saricas. To do so, they have prepared a risky kidnapping operation to provoke a reaction from the ground forces.

12:49 [L;AM], 26 Október 2553 (Local Calendar)/
Saricas, Barthes -- Baszac containment perimeter

One by one, the Baszac soldiers slid into position in the wet grit of the alley, concealed by darkness. Istvan Miklosfy hunkered down right behind The Fox. For this mission the resistance had broken out its special cache of weapons: captured Covenant models, obtained on the black market during the war. Though Istvan was unfamiliar with their use and was acutely aware of the glowing spots that would betray their stealth, they were said to be quieter and more easily concealed. At least, some of them.

A plasma pistol sat awkwardly on his hip, covered by his coat. The same went for most others, including Laszlo who was somewhere behind Istvan. The Fox, however, had tied a leather strap around a Carbine and slung it over his shoulder.

"Be ready," he muttered, though with the deep timber of his voice it carried far.

Someone had apparenty bribed the sentries, as Istvan couldn't see any UNSC Marines anywhere nearby. This was one of the rarely-patrolled areas anyway, but still he felt nervous. What if this were a trick? Snipers or worse could be hiding anywhere.

Suddenly he wished Marton was here. The veteran seemed to be able to spot the enemy no matter what.

A single point of light flashed rapidly far ahead.

"Go!" hissed The Fox. Together the Baszacs ran across the open ground between them and the UNSC bloc. Nobody fired at them. They crossed through a gate that had been left unlocked and unattended, and into the city beyond. Despite the dark, he could see that the buildings on this side had been repaired and had power.

Someone opened a door to their left. "This way!" Silhouetted in the light, a man beckoned them into the building. They hurried in; once everyone was inside, the metal door slammed shut. The man saluted, smiling. "I am glad to see you, comrades. You must be tired, but with your valor, we will soon be in control of this city."

The Fox stepped forward. "What of the mission?"

"The patrol we will kidnap comes through here in half an hour. Two or three men will be decoys, out after curfew, to draw their attention. Then, when the stupid fucking Yoonies come to investigate, we will swarm them, make them drop their weapons, and you will take them back through the wall."

Istvan felt anxious. Who would be selected as decoys?

The Fox looked over the assembled soldiers. "Istvan, Laszlo, you will be decoys with our new-found comrade. Do as he says. Everyone else, outside and get into position. Who has the jammer?"

One man stepped forward, holding a crude device that had been assembled from the gutted remains of a microwave and two radios. "Here, sir."

"Good. Activate it now and hide it in here. Istvan, Laszlo, why are you still standing here? Get moving!"

1:21 [L;AM], 26 Október 2553 (Local Calendar)/
Saricas, Barthes -- S. Lorinne Street

The night was cold. Istvan had wrapped his arms tightly around him, trying to keep his heat from escaping into the air around him. His coat still had that hole in it, and he cursed its previous owner's poor luck at avoiding bullets. Laszlo shivered next to him while their new "friend," named Markos, stood at the corner, peering around.

"This plan," muttered Laszlo, "does not make me feel patriotic."

Istvan was about to agree when Markos returned. "They're on their way. Here," he said, pulling out a pack of cigarettes and handing them one each, "smoke these. They will make you look like you belong here, and maybe will warm you up. What the fuck are you doing? Put your hands in your pockets!"

They did as they were told, lighting the cigs and putting their hands in their pockets. Each had cut holes in their pockets where their weapon was, and Istvan ran his finger over the alien metal of his plasma pistol. He had been shown how to use it, but he hadn't fired it; apparently there was no way to reload them, and every shot was valuable.

An M6 would have been nice.

He tensed as he heard the Marines turn the corner, and could hear them conversing.

"Fuck! What's up with our radios?"

"I dunno, maybe one of these assholes is running a broken microwave."

"Shut up and pay attention... Hey! You three! It's past curfew, get inside!"

Markos turned to face the Yoonies. "Hey, we're just enjoying our cigarettes! Do you want to join us?"

"You can enjoy those inside." The Marines approached slowly but without raising their weapons, though Istvan thought in the dark he could make out the faint click of them being unsafed. Nervousy he gripped his hidden weapon, feeling it hum unnervingly in his grip. A glance to the side showed that Laszlo was still shaking, but with cold or anxiety Istvan didn't know.

Markos made a small hand gesture. Wait for it. "Come on -- sergeant, right? Relax. You are among allies here." He held out the pack. "Would you not like one? They keep you warm."

"Last warning," said the sergeant-apparent. His weapon was starting to come up. Laszlo was shivering even more. Istvan wanted to say something, but Laszlo's hand was coming out of his pocket. Too fast. One of the Yoonies noticed it. "Watch it--"

Shots rang out. Two green bolts zipped out from beneath the fabric of Laszlo's coat, one melting the pavement and the other hitting the sergeant in the side. His rifle went wide, spraying an arc of bullets that caught Laszlo across the chest and Markos in the shoulder as he was turning towards the door. Instantly the two Marines raised their weapons and hollered; Istvan was still trying to get his weapon clear of his coat.

The night came alive with green and blue lights, the other Baszac soldiers emerging from the darkness in a ring. "You are surrounded!" In the haze of instinct, Istvan could still recognize The Fox's voice. "Put down your weapons!"

Looking around them, the two Marines hesitated a moment before letting their rifles drop to the ground. The resistance came around them, binding their hands and picking up their discarded MA5Cs. Istvan rushed to Laszlo, who was convulsing on the ground.

He turned back to the group. "Someone help me!" The Fox strode over. "Please, Laszlo is hit! We must get him back to a medic, or he'll die!"

In one motion The Fox lifted Istvan by his coat's collar. "What the fuck did you think you were doing?!" Istvan squirmed.

"Please... Laszlo..."

"Fine." The Fox dropped him, then turned away. "Andris, Gabi! Get over here and help our wounded comrade."

"Hey!" One of the Marines struggled against the hands that gripped him. "What about our sarge? That fucker shot him!"

"Him too." The Fox looked down at Istvan. "And when we get back, you and I will have words."

0839 Hours, 24 August 2553 (Military Calendar)/
Saricas, Barthes -- UNSC Local Command Center

Sylvester Bishop sat on the observation platform, cradling the datapad in his hands and carefully reading every word on the screen. He was so focused that he didn't detect Lena Doyle's approach behind him, until her shadow fell over his back.

Looking up, he saw her twisted smirk. "Another love letter?"

"Asshole," mumbled Bishop, thumbing the screen dark. Just over a week ago he had met Georgia Bohley at the restaurant, and since then the two had kept up communication. He certainly felt an attraction to her, but their exchanges so far had been platonic. Next time he got a day pass, he was hoping to visit her.

"Jeez, what's got you wound up?"


She took a seat next to him on the bench and together they looked out over the training area that Major Ghest had ordered constructed. It was an instacrete and plastic mockup of the inside of a building; at three stories tall, the top floor had no roof and monitors installed on the observation platform allowed observers to see the two hidden floors.

Sergeant Henry Kimmle and PFC Valentin Reeves had just started a training op with the regular Marines, teaching them how to breach and clear a building. Their weapons were loaded with TTR rounds, soft projectiles filled with a paint-like anesthetic that tripped the electronics in their armor, making whatever body part that was hit freeze up. Kimmle had divided the Marines into two teams, one acting as breachers and the other as insurrectionists. He insisted that forcing them to take the role of the enemy would help them learn how to think like a Baszac soldier.

After a while of watching them, Doyle cleared her throat. "So, uh, do you remember when you asked me about Nolan?"


"I..." He looked up, and saw she was biting her lip. "After Benny -- after the sergeant died, I didn't know what to do. I just felt so lost, I looked for anything that would make me feel like I was still with him somehow. Then one night, I tried looking up his service record, to see where he had been. I was desperate.

"But I couldn't access it. I was denied."

Bishop frowned. "Classified?"

She nodded.

"That's weird. I didn't think the sergeant's actions were classified."

"They're not, after he joined ODST. But when I try to read what came before it, I'm blocked out."

"What does it say?"

"Here." She took his pad and logged into the UNSC Database. Luck was with them; the Slipspace beacon was active, probably processing some other claim, so they wouldn't have to wait hours until her request went through. In minutes, Gunnery Sergeant Benjamin Nolan's service record was scrolling across the screen.

The gunny had been old, but the time he spent in cryo tended to fudge the aging process. Sometimes Bishop wondered if maybe the UNSC kept soldiers in cryo for a long time on purpose, just so their tours of duty could be stretched. Still, counting the time he had spent in cryo, Nolan had been in service since before the Covenant showed up. He had renewed his tour several times.

Doyle was right. His service record listed up to his first action as an ODST, fighting Innies on Tribute in 2524, but nothing else. That couldn't be true; nobody could join ODST while they were still green. While technically a volunteer outfit, you had to impress someone and get invited before you were allowed to sign up. Bishop had gotten noticed for his actions on Pearl, but he had stayed with his old unit for a couple of months before he made up his mind.

"And look," Doyle said, "when I try to see what he did before? All I get is this."

The datapad processed her request for only an instant before a warning sign popped up, flashing text visible:


"Jesus," Bishop muttered. He took the pad and canceled out. "I don't even know who you have to be in order to have black-level clearance." They sat in silence for a moment, staring ahead. The tide had turned somewhat as the Marines on the third floor blocked the stairway up, firing down at the intruders below. "Why are you showing this to me, anyhow?"

She hesitated. "I finally may have found somebody who can help me out."


"I've been... I've been talking to Headshot's A.I., and... I think he's willing to lift the clearance for me." Bishop's first thought must have shown up on his face, because Doyle shook her head. "I know it's crazy, but he said he'd help me out."

"Yeah, maybe, but you know Gosford. You do something for him, he wants something back."


A shrill alarm cut through the air. First there was stillness, as everyone took a moment to react. Then people started moving; the training exercise was forgotten, the Marines dropping their weapons and pounding out of the fake building. Bishop and Doyle were themselves already in motion.

"Attention, attention," said a voice over the intercom. "All combat Marines are to report to their designated briefing stations. Repeat, all combatants are to report to designated briefing stations. This is not a drill."

Corvo squad shared their station with Foxtrot company and another group of ODSTs, Noz squad. As they entered, they saw Lieutenant McGehan waiting beside a projected map of the city. "Hurry it up, people, quick, quick," he said, giving sharp hand gestures. "Gather round and listen up. This everybody? Good.

"At approximatley oh-one-twenty hours last night, a Marine patrol went missing near the Baszac containment perimeter. As of ten minutes ago, we received a transmission from the Baszac Party leaders, in which they've claimed credit for kidnapping the patrol. They're holding them hostage and demanding the UNSC back down.

"The Barthan government is still advocating a peaceful solution, but word just came down from the brass: we are putting an end to this shit. Orbital surveillance has shown us that the Innies' command structure is holed up in one of five buildings. Corvo and Noz squads will be inserted via rapid response Pelican to this building" -- he pointed to one towards the northwest -- "to infiltrate and neutralize whatever threats may lie within. Your primary objective is to locate and apprehend the Baszac Party leaders, so we can force a cease-fire and hopefully some kind of surrender.

"The rest of us will be rolling in and knocking on doors. Our main area of interest will be in the same general sector, but our job is a hell of a lot more fun: locate and eliminate any and all armed resistance elements. The sensor frigate By Your Command is already in position and will be beaming us real-time intelligence as the situation unfolds.

"What the hell are you still doing here, Marines? Let's make some noise!"


Fool Enough - The Knife's Edge
Date: 26 March 2010, 3:10 am

5. Fool Enough

Days after the end of the Human-Covenant War, a message was received from the colony Barthes. Insurrectionists of the Baszac faction, sensing the UNSC's weakness and thirsting for independence, had taken control of the capital city of Saricas. Unwilling to falter despite its severely reduced resources, the UNSC conducted a vicious ground war against the insurgents.

Following the loss of a patrol to Baszac insurgents, the UNSC has decided to put an end to the conflict. It is deploying its entire ground element to capture the Baszac Party leaders, while the resistance scrambles to defend its ill-gotten territory.

0909 Hours, 24 August 2553 (Military Calendar) -- Mission Clock: +00:09:29/
Saricas, Barthes -- Baszac-controlled air space

The Pelican rattled its cargo of nine Orbital Drop Shock Troopers as it soared over the center of Saricas. Despite the dampening effect of his helmet, Sylvester Bishop still heard the roar of the engines; he was finding it hard to believe it was supposed to be stealthed for fast insertion. Granted, a SOEIV entry wouldn't be much quieter, but at least he was used to those.

"Here's the game plan," said Staff Sergeant Cesar Bridgmon of Noz squad. "City planning shows two stairwells, an east and west. Corvo's taking east; Noz, we're going west. Get set to deploy by the numbers down the ropes. Let's go!"

"Yes, sir!" The two squads stood together and prepared for a rope insertion.

The radio crackled. It was the pilot, call sign Dropkick: "We'll be coming in from east to west, so Corvo, you're up."

Bishop double-checked that his hook was secure on his armor, giving it a light tug. They fell into line, with Kimmle first, followed by Doyle and Bishop, and Reeves bringing up the rear. Everyone in the bay shifted, rolling their shoulders; for most, this was the first combat insertion they had taken without needing heavy packs. In anticipation of the close-quarters fighting, they had eschewed most of their gear.

"Approaching the El-Zed, get ready... oh, shit. We got a problem."

Staff Sergeant Bridgmon was on the radio first. "What is it?"

"I think ORBINT forgot to mention that half the fucking building is dilapidated. It looks like the east stairwell might be intact, but the west is just... damn. Your call, sarge."

"Feed us the image."

A moment later, a live video of the target appeared on their visors. Their target building stood several stories tall, but apparently it had taken an artillery round somewhere in its midsection on the western side. Half of the building had fallen in on itself, spilling out into the street; it looked like only the three lowest floors had escaped total destruction.

One of Noz muttered, "There's no way in hell we're landing on that."

"All right," Bridgmon said after a moment, "we've still got an objective to secure. Corvo is still going in on the east stairwell. Dropkick, if you can settle us on that low-rise, we'll do a ground-level insertion."

You could hear the grin in Dropkick's voice. "Buddy, I've dropped through Covenant flak to get groundhogs like you onto a zone the size of a 'Hog. There isn't even anybody shooting at me this time."

Kimmle cut in. "If you're such a hot shot, mind giving us an update on the other squads inserting?"

There was a pause. "Uh, looks like everybody's doing okay. Honestly I'm surprised they haven't... whoops, spoke too soon. Hotel-Niner-Niner is reporting some small-arms fire aimed at her. Looks like this'll be fun after all."

"Yeah," Reeves muttered. "Real fun."

"Corvo, your El-Zed's coming up fast. Get ready to go!"

The descent rope was coiled up on the magnetic underside of the Pelican's tail, a steel cable with a weight on the loose end. At a command from the cockpit, the magnet disengaged, dropping the cable down. The end struck the roof heavily.

"Go, Corvo! Go, go!"

Kimmle was first, disappearing down the line. Doyle followed. When Bishop got up, his mind was already sliding into that beautiful Zen, where his muscles did all the thinking. He clipped onto the line and jumped; the hook tightened as he picked up velocity, keeping his fall from being lethal while making sure it was also quick. The drop was about fifteen meters, and it went by in seconds. As he approached the bottom, he manually tightened the hook to slow, and as soon as his boots touched the roof he broke off the hook. It clattered on the ground just as he stepped away and Reeves came in.

Instantly their weapons were up and visors mirrored. Their load out had been adjusted for indoor combat, under the assumption that they would remain unnoticed as long as possible. Each had an M7S and an M6S/SOCOM, both specifically built with suppressors; however, Kimmle had a shotgun attached to his back for the inevitable discovery encounter.

The Pelican backed off and Bishop realized it really was quieter on the outside. However, he could also hear the distant cracks of automatic weapons fire; all he could hope for was the regular Marines to keep their attention away from the command structure.

Corvo squad stacked up next to the door entrance. "Lock's busted," Kimmle noted. "Everyone ready?


9:11 [L;AM], 26 Október 2553 (Local Calendar)/
Saricas, Barthes -- Baszac-controlled sector

One of the larger rooms that had survived without collapsing was now the infirmary. Istvan was seated beside the bed that held Laszlo. Despite the area of his wounds, the bullets had caught him below the heart and - as much as the medics could tell - missed his lungs, mostly. Since dragging him in, Istvan had stayed there, spending hours watching over his fallen friend.

When alone with him, he had dwelled on the circumstances that led to Laszlo's current condition, but now he had company. Marton, who sat on the other side of the bed and held Laszlo's other hand, and The Fox and Miklos Vadas, Istvan's father. They towered over him.

"What happened?"

Istvan had explained so many times his throat hurt. He felt his reservoir of patience and patriotism running low. "Laszlo was shot," he said, "and now he's dying in a hospital bed instead of being evacuated. Why, I don't know."

The Fox growled and seized Istvan by the lapels of his coat, but before he could be thrown off the chair Miklos put a hand on The Fox's elbow. "Now is not the time for violence, Eszes," he said in a low voice. "Our plan is in motion. We have the kidnapped soldiers and made our demands. It is time to act."

"Fine," muttered The Fox, "but take your worthless son with you."

Perhaps there was still patriotism left in him after all. He jumped up from his chair and drew his grandfather's knife. "Worthless? We stood and faced our enemy while you cowered in the shadows! Why did you not act sooner to save your two comrades, sir?" He spat the last word like a curse and lunged.

However, passion rarely overcomes experience, and The Fox turned sideways, letting the blade pass, then brought his elbow down hard on Istvan's arm. There was a loud snap, and his vision went white. When he recovered, he was on the floor looking up through eyes blurred with moisture, as his father knelt beside him and The Fox had turned to address someone else.

"They're already inside?"

"Yes, sir. While the Yoonies assault our edges, they have dropped special forces teams on our roof. They are even now descending, but with most of our soldiers in the streets..."

"No matter. Fight where you can, but our priority must be our leaders."

Out of his vision, Istvan heard a chair scraping and Marton's baritone voice, "I will meet them." Two shadows, The Fox and Marton, passed out of the room.

"Come, Istvan," said his father. "You will come with us, the Party Leaders. You can be part of our honor guard."

Istvan felt the tears running down his face, and hoped he hadn't been sobbing. "Where are you going?" he asked.

"Away. To start revolution elsewhere."

Away? It did not register with Istvan. Where was away? Their place was here, in Saricas, on Barthes. The Baszacs would drive out the Yoonies and Barthes would become the spot from which they would move the galaxy. There was no away.

But he nodded, and with his right arm pushed himself off the floor. His left was swollen and red and at an odd angle, but he didn't feel it. The medic hurried over and gave him a piece of wood wrapped in gauze. "Bite this," he said, "and try not to think about it."

He did.

0918 Hours, 24 August 2553 (Military Calendar) -- Mission Clock: +00:18:43/
Saricas, Barthes -- Baszac-controlled sector

Corvo squad pounded down the steps, hard metal and concrete creaking under their boots as they passed another landing. They were wary now; two ambushes had been laid on similar platforms not long ago, though they had survived with no serious injury. There was little enough light that their VISR systems operated at peak effectiveness.

Bishop reflexively evened his breathing as they started down the next flight. In the barely-controlled panic of each firefight, all he could do was rely on his training; he wasn't sure if he had shot anyone yet. Kimmle and Doyle seemed to be doing a good enough job on their own.

A pang of something crossed his mind. Jealousy? He and Doyle had usually been the pair to beat in Corvo, both having specialized in sniping/spotting and quiet infiltration. But no, that wasn't it.

"Heads up, squad," said Kimmle, barely sounding winded, "we're approaching the floors we suspect house the Baszac Party Leaders. We'll be doing standard clearing from here on out. Sound off."

"Yes, sir!"

They reached a doorway into a hall. At first glance, there didn't seem to be many doors, but any one of them could hold an infinite number of threats. They stacked up and Kimmle dropped his M7S, unlimbering his shotgun instead. "By the numbers. Clear the corners, sweep. Got it? Let's go."

The rooms were small and dank, most having beds and bunks surrounded by personal clutter and debris. Here and there were stacks of books, dusty personal video pads that had run out of power weeks ago and were left forgotten, some cups sitting on crates that served as improvised tables. It looked as if all useful components, either electrical or physical, had been pulled from the walls: holes in the ceiling where light fixtures may once have hung were now empty; not even stray wiring remained.

Choruses of "clears" were called out across the channel. One by one they made their way through the rooms on this floor, finding no one. Part of Bishop was relieved.

They moved down to the next level and started the process over again. They cleared rooms in teams of two, Bishop and Reeves as one team and Kimmle and Doyle as the other. Of course, ODSTs usually operated in five man squads, and being short one left the position of "look-out" conspicuously empty. So it was that, after clearing another pair of rooms, Bishop and Reeves were barely able to duck back inside the doorway as a spray of bullets and plasma chewed up the hallway.

"Ah, shit!" Bishop cried out as he popped out from cover and tried to lay down suppressing fire with his M7S. The hail of incoming fire shifted to him and he was forced to hide again. "I can't get a good look, they've got me pinned down!"

"Frag out!" called Doyle, and Bishop heard the Baszacs shouting. The floor rattled as the grenade went off.

No one was firing now. Bishop eased out, looking carefully. Only a few had gotten out of range of the grenade in time and were retreating towards the staircase at the other end of the hall. "Push forward, Corvo," said Kimmle, breaking cover and running after them. Now they checked the rooms hurriedly, just glancing in to confirm to major enemy presence: they didn't want to accidentally let hostiles get behind them.

Corvo squad harried the insurgents as they pressed forward, cutting down their numbers and confidence until it went from a retreat to a handful of guys flat-out running away. They fled down the stairs, Corvo following closely.

In the next hallway, it was clear the Baszacs had been trying to set up a bottleneck, but their attempts were interrupted by the arrival of the ODSTs. Most fled upon seeing them, but some held their ground and fought. Bishop found himself hanging towards the back, avoiding the fight. Occasionally he sprayed where he thought an enemy might be hiding, trying to suppress them.

Doing this, he caught sight of a large shadow ducking between the sparse cover the insurrectionists had set up. "Contact right," he called out, adjusting his fire. Maybe he could discourage another casualty.

Maybe it would help if I close my eyes and think of them as Covenant.

"I see him," said Kimmle. Bishop watched as his sergeant leveled his M7, then suddenly lurched backward.


Kimmle collapsed on his back. Doyle grabbed him and dragged him into the safety of a doorway. "Reeves! I need you over here!" Beside Bishop, the corpsman crouched low and ran across the hall, a few stray bullets glancing off his armor.

As he knelt beside the wounded sergeant, Doyle signaled Bishop. "Private, you cover your side of the hallway, I'll cover mine! Take down that bastard!"

The shadow had resolved itself into a person -- a massive person, easily six feet tall if not more. Dark hair sat on his head, a full beard around his jaw line. He clutched a hand cannon, undoubtedly the weapon that took down Kimmle, and he dove behind a barricade as Doyle opened up on him.

Bishop raised his weapon, but the target had anticipated him and fired blindly over the top. The slug blasted a hole two inches above Bishop's helmet, forcing him back into cover. Doyle responded with fire of her own but also had to step back out of the line of fire.

By now, the remaining Baszacs had regained their nerve and were slowly advancing behind their large comrade. Bishop peeked out again...

And found the large man staring him in the face.

It's over.

He heard a shot.

A heavy weight slumped against him.

His senses slowly returned, and he found the large man was on top of him, smoke and blood leaking out of a hole drilled in his head. On the other side of the hallway, Kimmle held a pistol while Doyle concentrated on the remaining insurgents, now thoroughly demoralized.

With great effort, Bishop slid out from under the bulk, pausing only when he realized his gun was still under it. "Sergeant, you okay?"

"Yeah." Kimmle's voice was strained. "The slug shattered my armor, but it didn't penetrate." He forced himself up into a sitting position. "Reeves, gimme a clean bill so we can chase those guys down."

"Sarge, I have to get that armor off."

"Reeves! We don't have time!"

"Fine. Judging by the impact, I'll say without a proper examination that you've suffered only heavy bruising on your chest from the shot, maybe a couple of cracked ribs. But I swear to God, Kimmle, when this is over I'm carting your ass over to the aid station."

As Reeves pulled Kimmle to his feet, Bishop cast a glance back at the dead mountain. His shirt had been torn open, and a tattoo could be seen between the tattered lips of fabric. It was a comet and skull, emblematic of the 105th ODST Division.

9:50 [L;AM], 26 Október 2553 (Local Calendar)/
Saricas, Barthes -- Baszac-controlled sector

The constant crackle of gunfire filled Istvan's head as the group ran. The Party leaders, Miklos Vadas among them, were in the center with loyal Baszac soldiers surrounding them. They had taken Istvan's weapon, but not his grandfather's knife, which he gripped tightly. His other arm was cradled in an improvised sling, and throbbed with every step.

So far, the group of about ten had gone unnoticed. They were retreating deeper into the sector, towards the old warehouses that had been untouched since the UNSC's initial bombardment of Saricas. Istvan didn't know why there were going there, or why the Party leaders were running. They were the bastion of hope and sense, the pillars who stood strong against the Yoonies and their unjust, authoritarian rule. What did they have to fear, when the cosmic Truth was on their side?

After his family had left Earth, Istvan had grown up seeing these men only in shadow, assembled in dark rooms and smoky bars. His memory painted them as golems, supermen, perfectly sculpted forms of muscle shrouded in jet.

In the daylight, they were something else: sweaty, sallow, with a wild fear in their eyes.

Even his father.

There was a booming noise that shook the ground. Turning, Istvan saw a cloud of smoke rise, heard screams. Unearthly wails they were, echoing between the buildings, transmitting something deeper than fear.

He felt a hand on his good arm. "Come, my son," Miklos said, pulling. "We are almost there."

The Fox ran in the lead. A warehouse that was missing its roof dominated the landscape before them, and as they came to the door -- sealed metal, newly installed -- he rapped hard on the door. A peephole was pulled open and then shut quickly. Thunk went the lock and the door swung open on oiled hinges.

"Inside, comrades!" The Fox and another escort stepped through the door, then motioned for the Party leaders. Miklos led his son through, and Istvan could see his father's eyes wide with fear.

The space enclosed looked much different than the outside suggested. The roof was indeed missing, the rays of the sun skipping over the high walls, but any interior debris had been cleared out. In the middle of the floor sat a Pelican dropship, with tubes and cables leading off from the sides. One was obviously a fuel pump, but the rest were unfamiliar to Istvan; he was not educated in the mechanics of flight.

A man dressed in orange coveralls with a cigarette hanging limply between jaundiced lips approached. "Comrades, we have finished fueling. She will be ready to fly in twenty minutes."

Miklos shook his head. "We may not have twenty minutes. Can you go faster?"

Frenzied pounding sounded behind them. Someone was banging on the door from the outside; one of the escorts went to check the peephole, and then opened the door.

A disheveled soldier staggered in, identifiable by the red cloth still wrapped around his arm. "The Yoonies have deployed their special forces! We were in the headquarters when they came tearing through. Poor Marton is dead. We fled here to--"

Instantly, The Fox was upon him. "You fled here? You led the Yoonie troops to the Party leaders themselves!"

Stunned, the soldier simply stared. The Fox punched him in the face, and turned to the escorts. "Shut that door! Prepare to repel the enemy!" Istvan nodded and moved to take the now-unconscious soldier's weapon, but The Fox stopped him. "I still don't trust you, son of Miklos. Go with your father, get on the Pelican and guard him with that stick of yours."

Before Istvan could object, he felt the insistent tug of his father on his arm and hurried aboard the dropship. He and the five Party leaders sat in the back while the man in the coveralls -- armed with a fresh cigarette -- closed the door and the pilot began to turn on the engines.

Istvan turned the blade over in his hand. This was not the glorious battle he had envisioned.

Outside there was a sharp bang and gunfire. Rounds pinged off the Pelican's armor, and though they couldn't penetrate, the Party leaders dove to the floor. Istvan stood.

The noise continued, dying slowly as Baszacs screamed and were cut short. The pilot, Istvan saw, raised his hands and put them against the glass; they were coming in.

Istvan heard whimpering, and felt shame for a moment: how could be blubber at a time like this? But it soon dawned on him that he was not the one sobbing. On the ground, at his feet, he heard his father praying and crying, imploring someone.

It didn't make sense. Miklos Vadas had taught Istvan there was no God, no help on high waiting for the just. Humanity had to make its own justice.

A loud knock sounded against the sealed hatch. In the cockpit, the pilot thumbed the emergency release.

Istvan tensed. It was time to make his own justice.

As the door fell open, he lunged, blade extended. A black-armored, mirror-visored trooper stood before him. By chance, or perhaps by fate, the blade slid through a seam in the armor, going deep. The soldier fell back, knocked over by the force of impact.

Pride welled up in Istvan. It was over. Justice...

He looked up as another pointed his weapon at him and watched a sun bloom from inside the barrel.

United Nations Space Command Priority Transmission 39857V-05c
Encryption Code:
Public Key: file /excised access Alpha/
From: Major Richard Ghest, Barthes Ground Operations Chief
To: UNSC AI GFD 0503-8
Subject: Re: Operation Bar039 After-Action Report
Classification: RESTRICTED (BGX Directive)
/start file/


I've attached individual action reports to this file. Be sure that all section commanders see them.

Your last message was somewhat puzzling, and entirely alarming, though it goes above my pay grade by a few notches. I'm disappointed to hear about the CO of The Big Stick, but I guess it goes to show you that some people will cut deals with anyone. We shouldn't be surprised after all the careless drafting at the end of the war if a few sympathizers emerge from the shadows.

As you probably saw in my previous report, 82SD/12Br/5Ba/Bravo-2-Corvo will be groundside until PFC Bishop recovers. His wound was definitely the worst from the whole operation, but I can't help wondering if perhaps the Headshot wouldn't have better infirmary capabilities than the local hospital. Still, I suppose I'm in no position to go against your judgment.

On another note, we are having a problem with the security protocols. SATLINK confirms that the Slipspace transceiver is active, and yet our security confirmation codes don't seem to be working. We probably won't be able to tell who's accessing encrypted material, say Level Black, or when it's accessed. Our techs don't seem to have a solution at hand, either. I guess we'll have to wait it out.

I hope this doesn't come as a disappointment to you.

Maj. R.G.

1121 Hours, 26 August 2553 (Military Calendar)
Saricas, Barthes -- Ryan Ganoush hospital

Bishop's world was a dull, glowing red, shot through with crimson veins. Slowly he cracked an eye and let the searing light in. Instinctively his eyelid clamped down, but the damage was done, and saline flooded out of his tear ducts. With no other recourse, he opened his eyes and returned to life.

"Oh good," said a voice. "I was hoping I'd be here when you woke up."

He rolled his head. He was lying in a hospital bed, head slightly elevated. The anti-septic white was unmistakable, as was the woman sitting in the chair beside him. Doyle gave him a crooked grin.

Bishop tried to say hi, but it sounded more like a dry croak. He might have tried to ask for some water next, but Doyle was quick to hand him a plastic cup. The contents vanished down his parched throat.

His vocal cords wet, he tried again. "How long was I out?"

"About two days." She leaned back in her chair. "You might've been able to wake up sooner, but the doc kept you medicated for a while. Didn't want you moving around, tearing her careful stitch-job."

Trying to sit up made his abdomen feel like it was on fire, so he stopped trying. "How bad is it?"

"Little bastard got your intestines good. Kimmle would be here to give you a lecture about armor maintenance -- bad seal, that's how the blade got through -- but he's getting some shut-eye. Morning's my time for watch, anyway. If you hadn't woken up in the next hour, I'd have lost the bet." Her grin faltered for a moment. "Don't worry, though. I got the guy who got you."

Bishop nodded. At least that didn't hurt him. "What's been going on?"

"Those guys in the Pelican were the Party leaders, all right. The sergeant's hunch on the fleeing Baszacs was good. We've got them all in custody now, getting shipped back to Earth. A few cells of the rebels escaped into the city, but the regulars are hunting them down. Looks like our time on Barthes is done."

"Did we lose anyone?"

"You mean besides you?" She chuckled. "No. A few bruises and cuts, one guy shot in the leg, but you were just about the worst casualty."

They lapsed into silence for a while. Bishop saw her nervously fingering a data pad on her lap.

"Is that what I think it is?"

She blushed slightly. "Probably."

"I thought Gosford wanted payment."

"He did, and he got it. That Pelican wasn't going to just fly off into space; turns out the commander aboard the cruiser The Big Stick was taking bribes. He was going to receive the Pelican as wounded civilians from the surface and hide 'em until they got somewhere safe. Gosford was working for ONI and wanted to know who the weak link was in orbit, since there was no way the Baszacs were so well-informed on their own."

A pause. "So... we gonna read it?"

"I dunno. I don't want to take up too much of your time. That girl you're sweet on is in the waiting room with her kid -- is it her kid? Anyway, I figured maybe later..." She started to rise.

Bishop reached out and tried to grab her wrist, but it was a little too far. His fingers brushed against her arm, though, and she got the intended message. "They can wait a couple more minutes," he said. "I want to see."

Doyle hesitated, then sat down on the bed and turned the data pad on. It loaded to the UNSC personnel database, and then to ONI.

And they read.

"No one is fool enough to choose war instead of peace -- in peace sons bury fathers, but in war fathers bury sons."