Leap of Faith

Cover Illustration by Rube: https://twitter.com/justrube https://ko-fi.com/rubespresso

Based on Halo 3: ODST, © Microsoft Studios 2009.

This work was made possible by the generous support of my Patrons:


Disclaimer: This work of erotic fiction is intended for adults only. The story contains the following themes:

size difference, large breasts, blowjob, boobjob, oral, vaginal, long tongue, kissing, creampie, Brute, Rookie.

The Rookie – five minutes before drop, aboard the UNSC heavy cruiser Say My Name in high orbit above New Mombasa.

The Rookie was jolted awake as his comrade gave him a less than gentle tap with the butt of his sniper rifle. His nap interrupted, he opened his eyes to see his fellow ODST peering down at him with a wry smile on his face. It was Romeo, the blue coloration on his BDU’s chest piece giving him away.

Wake up, buttercup,” he said as the Rookie reached up to adjust his helmet. Dutch appeared to his right, shoving his rowdy comrade out of the way, Romeo stumbling off in the direction of his drop pod. Dutch’s battle dress was adorned with a skull and crossbones that had been etched into his orange chest piece, and a skull motif that decorated his helmet. Many of the more experienced ODSTs sported such decorations, they were a tough bunch, and they had seen a lot of action during the war against the Covenant. UNSC dress standards had gone out of the window lately, there were more important things to worry about.

Relax, Rookie,” he began. “He don’t mean nothin’ by it. Besides,” he continued as he appraised the submachine gun that he was holding in his hand. It was an M7S, the suppressed variety, the flashlight that was mounted on its barrel already lit. He thrust the weapon into the Rookie’s hands as the glass on his helmet’s visor went opaque. “Now’s one of those times when it pays to be the strong, silent type...”

The Rookie stowed the weapon beside him in his drop pod, slotting it into place next to his seat with a mechanical click. The last thing that you wanted when you were hurtling towards the ground in a metal coffin was your gear bouncing around and hitting you in the face.

Was it already time to drop? He hadn’t been paying much attention to the briefing, he had learned to take every opportunity for sleep that presented itself. You never knew when you might be forced to spend seventy-two hours wide-awake behind enemy lines. He knew their mission, however.

The Covvies had invaded Earth. Fuck knows how they had located it, the Cole Protocol had seen the ODSTs running from ship to ship, scrubbing navigation data to protect that secret for years now. Either way, they were here, and they had made landfall in New Mombasa, a Kenyan port city. There was a big-ass Covenant assault carrier hovering right next to the city’s orbital elevator, and intel reported that it was the Prophet of Regret’s personal ship. If they could board the carrier and kill a Covenant Prophet, that would certainly give the ugly split-jaws something to regret. Better yet, capture the bastard and use him as a bargaining chip to broker an end to the war. The Prophets were holy figures in Covenant society. They were like an Admiral, a President, and a Pope all rolled into one. Who knew what he was doing on Earth, but the UNSC wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth.

He leaned back in his padded crash seat and strapped in, the windowed door of his drop pod closing to seal him inside with a loud clunk. The SOEIVs, colloquially known as eggs, were single-person vehicles that could rapidly deploy a soldier and his equipment to the surface of a planet from orbit. They were angular, teardrop-shaped pods, about five meters tall and weighing half a ton. The rapid part came from the fact that the pods would drop feet-first at terminal velocity, literally falling into battle. They had limited maneuvering capabilities that would allow the occupant to make small corrections, but they were pretty much fire-and-forget. If command sent you down into a blanket of anti-aircraft fire, then there wasn’t much that you could do about it besides grit your teeth and try not to piss yourself.

As he secured the straps, the thirty-second countdown began, the comms equipment that was built into the pod coming to life as it slowly rotated to face space. Two monitors to either side of the narrow window flickered on, showing the helmeted faces of two of his superiors, along with readouts displaying navigational and tactical data.

Latest intel reports that Covenant troops are massing beneath the carrier,” he heard over the radio. Dare was speaking, the Naval Intelligence operative who had been assigned to their unit. He could see her name stenciled across the brow of her Recon helmet.

They’re pulling back?” Buck asked, his commanding officer’s helmeted head appearing on the leftmost monitor. “Why?”

We’re not gonna find out way up here,” Dare replied tersely.

Troopers!” Buck continued, the Rookie’s heart beginning to race as the countdown neared its end. “We are green and very, very mean!”

The pods that were nestled along the ship’s underside began to drop, streaking towards the clouds below, trailing plumes of smoke as their main engines fired. The Rookie’s stomach lurched as his own pod detached from the heavy cruiser, a brief moment of weightlessness making him feel like he was floating before the engine kicked in and sent him hurtling towards the ground. He gripped the twin control sticks for all the good that it would do, his knuckles white.

Beyond the window, he could see the remnants of the orbital battle with the Covenant. There were the burnt-out hulks of damaged UNSC ships floating amidst a field of debris, some of the larger ones still burning, pieces of scrap metal tumbling through low orbit like a floating scrapyard. They’d be lucky if their pods didn’t slam into that junk like billiard balls. The orbital elevator penetrated the layer of grey clouds, rising up into the darkness above, where it was joined to an orbiting station. It was made up of massive concentric rings that were supported by kilometers of thick cables. The Mombasa Tether’s job was to provide an inexpensive way to ferry supplies and ordnance into space, it was the economic heart of the city, and it was a relief to see that it was still standing.

The Navy got its butt kicked,” Romeo muttered over the comms, the Rookie watching as they passed by a frigate that had been all but cleaved in two. It hung there in the microgravity, like time had stopped for it, its exposed decks burning.

Hey Romeo, remember when I told you to shut your mouth?” Buck asked.


Consider that a standing order...”

Everything went white as the pod passed through the clouds, turbulence buffeting it. When he emerged, the Rookie could see the city beneath him. The Covenant cruiser was floating serenely beside the tether, looming over the artificial island at its base, the silver water of the ocean sparkling in the African sun. The alien vessel had a long, rounded hull, the midship flared outward almost like a pair of stubby wings. He could make out odd lights glittering along its surface, its design contrasting sharply with the more angular UNSC ships that he was accustomed to. It was massive, over three miles long, its armor plating a shimmering grey-blue in color.

Captain? We’re fifteen klicks off the deck,” Buck said as the ground rushed up towards them.

Stand by to adjust trajectory,” Dare added, “on my mark.”

What’d she just say?” Romeo asked, struggling to hear her over the sound of the rushing wind.

Mark!” she added. The Rookie gripped his control sticks and followed the other pods as they made a correction, their engines flaring a brilliant blue.

We’re way off course!” Mickey complained, another of the ODSTs assigned to their squad. He was right, there was no way that they were going to land on the carrier. Even with a course correction, it was too far away. Had someone made a mistake?

We’re heading exactly where I need to go,” Dare replied cryptically.

But we’re gonna miss the carrier!” Mickey protested.

Radiation!” Dutch shouted, the Rookie looking at his display to see the Geiger counter spiking.

Did the Covenant just set off a nuke?” Mickey asked in disbelief.

No. The carrier’s going to jump!” Dare replied, the wavering in her voice betraying her alarm. The Rookie looked past the reinforced glass of his pod’s canopy, watching as a brilliant ball of light engulfed the carrier’s rounded nose, crackling with energy as it began to spread. “It’s a slip-space rupture! You need to-”

The spreading ball of mesmerizing light suddenly collapsed into a bright point, sucking the three-mile-long carrier and a few nearby buildings into it in the blink of an eye. There was a brief moment of eerie stillness, and then the singularity released all of its energy in a monumental explosion. It engulfed the city beneath it, erasing entire blocks like they were nothing, impacting the orbital tether and rocking the great structure like a sapling in a hurricane.

EMP!” Dutch warned, his voice crackling with static. “Losing power!”

Stabilize, then pop your chutes,” Buck ordered. “We’re going in hard!”

The other pods began to brake, panels on the tops of the teardrop-shaped vehicles popping off to release their drag-chutes, slowing their descent and keeping them upright. Before the Rookie could pop his own chute, the shockwave from the slip-space rupture reached them, catching the pod directly in front of his own and slamming it into him like a wrecking ball. His canopy cracked, sparks showering him, his displays flashing with red warning symbols as collision alarms blared. His pod began to spin out of control, and he reached over to grab one of the handholds for purchase, desperately yanking at his control stick in a futile attempt to right his doomed pod. He was spinning like a top, the scenery beyond his shattered window flashing like a strobe as it caught the sunlight that reflected off the water.

He fought back the nausea and the dizziness, feeling like he had left his stomach behind a few thousand feet above him, every muscle in his body tensing as he prepared for the impact.

Alba – fifteen minutes before the slip-space rupture, aboard the Covenant assault carrier Solemn Penance.

Alba fiddled with her power armor, the skin-tight, rubbery underclothes that she wore beneath it doing little to prevent the chafing. It was made with males in mind, and it was uncomfortably tight around her chest. There were few females serving in Jiralhanae packs, only the strongest and most resilient managed to rise through the ranks, and she was one of those few.

Against the odds, and in spite of her chauvinistic superiors, she had risen to the rank of Captain in the Covenant military. Her status afforded her command over her own pack, although it was comprised entirely of aliens, rather than Jiralhanae of lesser merit. As she made her way across the assault carrier’s cavernous hangar bay, a gaggle of yapping Kig-yar and waddling Unggoy trailed behind her.

The Kig-yar were avian creatures, pirates and scavengers, for the most part. They stood a little over six-feet tall, their long, scaly snouts full of razor-sharp teeth. They had large eyes, and a crest of quills on their heads, their fingers and toes tipped with wicked claws. They walked on a pair of digitigrade legs, bobbing their heads with every step, examining their surroundings with a jerking motion that Alba always found off-putting. They were wielding point-defense gauntlets and needle rifles, clad in form-fitting jumpsuits that provided little protection for their slim frames.

The Unggoy were the runts of the Covenant litter, little more than cannon fodder, less than half her size at four feet. They were methane-breathers, carrying tanks of the foul-smelling gas on their backs, which were connected to their helmets via snaking tubes. They were arthropods, resembling large crustaceans, encased in a tough exoskeleton. The diminutive creatures struggled to keep up with their longer-legged comrades, clasping plasma pistols in their hands with their stubby fingers. They made poor warriors, but as someone who knew what it felt like to suffer the disdain of her superiors, Alba did not mistreat them as many of her peers did.

Make your way to the troop carriers, runts!” she heard one of the more senior Jiralhanae yell over the noise of the bay. He growled at a passing Unggoy, raising his imposing gravity hammer as if threatening to crush the creature, the little alien hurrying along to join the rest of its group. He was a Captain Major, his golden power armor catching the light, his shaggy fur a mature shade of silver. Alba preferred to keep hers shaved, the armor was uncomfortable enough without it snagging on her hair, and it wasn’t as if the males would afford her any more or less respect because of it.

There were packs of Jiralhanae wearing their brightly colored armor loading into the transports, the ornate designs of their helmets displaying their respective ranks. Alba was just one of many Captains leading her pack to their assigned dropships today, the High Prophet of Regret had ordered them to occupy the Human city below. They were searching for something here, something important. They hadn’t told her what, she didn’t need to know, her only orders were to suppress any resistance that she met down on the surface.

She missed Doisac sometimes, things had seemed so much simpler on the homeworld. Out here, everything was shades of grey, war was not as black and white as the preachers had led her to believe. She’d had faith in the Covenant, at least for a time. They had offered her something that her own people had been reluctant to give her, status, respect. Although there was a great deal of animosity between the Jiralhanea and the Sangheili, the reptilian warriors that made up the bulk of the Covenant’s elite troops, they had always afforded her a modicum of dignity that had earned them her respect in return. Many of the Elites, as they were known, had already deployed to the ground. She couldn’t see any among the troops in the bay.

She mounted one of the dropships, its curved, purple chassis shining under the bright hangar lights. Her pack hopped in behind her, gripping handholds on the walls and ceiling as their pilot prepared for takeoff, the deck humming beneath her feet as the engines spooled. She selected a carbine from the weapon rack beside her, checking its payload of radioactive ammunition, glimpsing the city beyond the hangar bay as the ventral doors of the dropship began to close. The skyline was jagged, the native buildings blocky and strange. Fires were already raging, black smoke rising into the air in thick plumes. At least it wasn’t cold here, that was usually her first complaint.

The Phantom rose from the deck, flying out over the city, the alien landscape now obscured from view behind the ventral doors. Almost immediately, the dropship began to shake as it sustained anti-aircraft fire from the city below, human shells exploding beneath it and hammering it with shrapnel. They were primitive weapons, they didn’t pose much of a threat. The Unggoy whimpered all the same, huddling together, the Kig-yar jeering at them and snapping their jaws.

There was a dull thunk sound as the gunner returned fire with the nose cannon, spraying a stream of plasma at the enemies below. Alba gripped one of the handholds in the ceiling as the craft dodged and weaved, avoiding the worst of the flak, one of the Unggoy bumping into the far bulkhead as the Phantom came to an abrupt stop. The ventral doors began to open, the wind rushing in. Alba was blasted in the face by a stream of hot air, the smell of baking asphalt, and the scent of acrid smoke stinging her nose.

She gripped her carbine and stepped towards the edge of the troop bay, looking down at the street below. There were odd, colorful vehicles that looked like beetles scattered about, their metal carapaces shining in the harsh sunlight. They didn’t look like military vehicles, they had no obvious armaments, no armored plating. Their occupants were long gone, many of them leaving doors ajar and engines idling, as though they had left in a hurry. Besides that, the city seemed deserted, there wasn’t a soul in sight. There hadn’t been any fighting in this area, there were no signs of combat, no bullet holes or plasma burns, no charred corpses. Alien trees in planters blew gently in the breeze, angular structures made from metal and glass rising to either side of the pathway below like the walls of an artificial canyon.

Her pack crowded behind her as she prepared to jump. It was a long drop, twenty feet at least, but the gravity on this planet was half that of her own. She steeled herself, then leapt from the Phantom, landing on one of the colorful vehicles and denting the metal roof like it was made from tin. She stepped down onto the path below, the black surface pleasantly warm beneath her feet. It was patterned with regular, white markings, glowing lighting strips barely visible in the sunlight. She shouldered her carbine and covered her pack as they dropped down behind her, the Kig-yar scrambling up onto higher ground, and the Unggoy spreading out to form a defensive perimeter as they had been trained to do. There was a rush of air as the Phantom above them moved away, soaring off over the tops of the spire-like buildings and vanishing from view.

After a moment, Alba lowered her weapon, noting that there were no Human soldiers here to meet them. The natives had fled, or perhaps they were hiding in their dwellings. The shadow of a Covenant assault carrier looming over their city might have put the fear of the Great Journey in them.

She looked up to see one of her Kig-yar marksmen perched atop a tall, metal bar that overhung the street with his needle rifle in hand, jerking his head from side to side as he searched for targets. The pole was adorned with glowing signs written in an alien script that she couldn’t read, and a trio of lights that flickered randomly between green, red, and orange. The rest of the Kig-yar had taken up similar positions, scrambling up onto balconies that protruded from the faces of the buildings, or hopping atop some of the larger derelict vehicles. These Jackals had keen eyes and a good nose, they made fine scouts and snipers.

What do you see?” she demanded, the Kig-yar who was standing atop the lighting pole turning his snout in her direction.

Nothing, Captain,” he hissed. “There were Humans here before, but no longer.”

H-Humans all gone!” one of the shrill Unggoy added, perhaps relieved that they had not dropped down into the midst of a firefight. The little creatures were cowardly at the best of times, always glad to shirk their duties.

What are your orders, Captain?” another of the Kig-yar asked from its vantage point in the fronds of a nearby tree.

We begin our patrol,” Alba replied gruffly, setting off along the asphalt path. “The Prophets want to take control of this place, and it is not our station to ask why. Spread out in a loose formation, and keep your wits about you. We have orders to suppress any resistance that we meet.”

The Jackals yapped and hissed gleefully, flanking her to either side of the street, leaping gracefully between perches as if they were afraid of touching the ground. The Unggoy waddled along behind her, wheezing as they sucked in gulps of methane from their packs. Some of them dropped to a three-legged gait, supporting themselves with one of their long forelimbs as they shambled along, grasping their pistols in the other. As much as Alba disliked working with the bloodthirsty Kig-yar and the useless Unggoy, at least they respected her authority, which was more than she could say for her own kind.

They made their way along the winding streets, the Human buildings breaking up the lines of sight. It was confusing, in a way. Everything looked the same to Alba, there was little to distinguish one building or one plaza from another. The clues might be in the flickering, scrolling signs that seemed to adorn every surface, but the strange glyphs and pictures that decorated them were a mystery to her.

As they rounded a corner, the smog-choked sky was lit by a brilliant flash of light, Alba shielding her eyes reflexively as the Unggoy turned to look back in alarm. Everything around them was cast into deep shadow for a moment, and then it was gone. When she turned to look back in the direction of the carrier, it was no longer there. In its place was a spreading shockwave in the distance, the crackling energy tearing up the buildings around it, the massive space elevator that dominated the skyline swaying as it weathered the impact.

Alba considered giving the order to take cover, but the blast was a good distance away, dissipating long before it reached them. The same could not be said of any Covenant troops that had been closer to the assault carrier. There was a sudden blast of air, sending debris and foliage flying, knocking the Unggoy down as Alba braced herself against the howling gale. It rushed between the buildings, rocking the trees, one of the Kig-yar losing its footing and toppling to the street from atop a nearby pole. It abated almost as soon as it had arrived, a secondary effect of the explosion that she had witnessed, no doubt.

Has the Solemn Penance been destroyed?” she asked in disbelief, watching as the fallen Unggoy picked themselves up off the ground. One of them cast aside a leafy frond from one of the trees that had been blown into it, looking about nervously as it tried to get its bearings.

The Kig-yar who had been blown from its perch rose to his feet and brushed himself off, snarling at a nearby Unggoy as if it had somehow been the creature’s fault, sending it scurrying away.

No, Captain,” he replied in his tinny voice. “That was a slip-space rupture. The carrier, she has jumped away.” Alba was inclined to take the Kig-yar’s word for it. Their people were pirates, they had a lot of experience when it came to ships and their operation. “To initiate such a slip-space jump in atmosphere...there must have been great danger.”

Many of our troops were stationed below the Penance,” Alba snarled, her brow furrowing beneath her ornate helmet. “How many were just killed in the blast?”

It is not wise to question the Prophets,” the Kig-yar replied, glancing about nervously as though someone might overhear her. “Not over open channels, at least...”

More of the Kig-yar descended from their vantage points, the Unggoy scurrying over and grouping up in front of her, looking to her for leadership and reassurance.

T-they’ve left us behind!” one of the little crustaceans wailed. They were on the verge of panic, she had to rally them before they scurried off like frightened hatchlings.

Calm yourselves,” Alba replied tersely, “I’m sure that they have some kind of plan. For now, we continue the mission that we were assigned. What is it that the Sangheili tell you when your courage falters?” she asked, the little aliens pausing for a moment to consider.

When in doubt, shoot,” they chorused.

Good, now move out.”

The nearest Kig-yar glanced between her and the Unggoy, perhaps not approving of her methods. Most Jiralhanae would have threatened them, keeping them in line through fear. He held his tongue, brushing himself off and resuming his patrol.

Alba was lying, of course. She had no idea if the Prophets had a plan or not, if they intended to send reinforcements, or if they had merely abandoned their troops out of simple convenience. If they were willing to sacrifice the soldiers that had been staging an invasion from beneath the carrier, then why would they care about what patrols were still roaming the city?

Worrying about it right now was pointless, but it might be wise to meet up with some of the other patrols and coordinate. She allowed herself a worried glance at the space elevator, still standing, but visibly weakened by the blast. The last thing that she wanted was to be caught beneath that thing when its supports gave out, and it came down...

The Rookie – Occupied city center, six hours after drop.

The distinctive sound of a Phantom soaring by overhead greeted the Rookie as he opened his eyes groggily, his head pounding as he looked around the interior of his battered pod. It took him a moment to remember where he was, and what had happened, the memories coming flooding back to him. The slip-space rupture, the crash...where was the rest of his squad? The monitors and readouts were all either too damaged to make out, or hissing with static, and his comms were completely shot.

Through the cracked glass of his canopy, he could see the street a good distance below him. He was high off the ground, had his drop pod somehow embedded itself into the side of a building? He was almost afraid to move lest he dislodge it. He needed to get clear of the crashed pod as soon as possible, both because it would draw the Covenant to him, and because he wasn’t sure that he would survive a second fall. There was a worrying creak as he tried the manual release on the door, finding that it was jammed shut.

He reached out and armed the explosive bolts that were spaced about the inside of his pod, initiating an emergency hatch release. There was a hiss of escaping air, and then the door blew away with a bang, the force of the ejection sending it careening away to land on the hood of a derelict police car on the road below. The Rookie fumbled for his SMG, finding it mercifully intact, and then peered down at the sheer drop beneath him.

As he had suspected, it seemed that the drop pod had ended up lodged into the side of one of New Mombasa’s buildings, suspending him high in the air. It was a miracle that he wasn’t painted all over the inside of his SOEIV, the chances are surviving a botched drop were slim to none.

The Rookie clutched his weapon in his hand, bracing himself for the jump. It was going to be rough, but there was no other way down…

He dropped from the wreck of his pod, the asphalt rushing up to meet him. He tried to roll when he impacted the ground, but it didn’t do much good, a damage warning flashing on his helmet’s HUD as he felt something give. The landing was hard, and he struggled to his feet, one of his legs almost buckling. Something felt...wrong, broken, or maybe sprained.

For the first time, he took a good look at his environment, turning his helmeted head as he took in his surroundings. He had landed on a city street, it was impossible to estimate precisely where, and it was completely deserted. It was unnerving in a way, to see a metropolitan area that should be bustling with traffic and pedestrians as quiet as a grave, as if its inhabitants had just up and vanished.

Night had fallen, hours must have passed since the initial drop. The sky above him was overcast with dark, ominous clouds, the crack of distant thunder echoing. The empty streets were lit only by the eerie glow of the street lamps, the neon glare of electronic billboards, and the LED lights that helped drivers to make out road markings in the dark. He reached up and tapped at the side of his helmet, turning on VISR mode. The world around him took on a slightly brighter quality, his onboard computer outlining nearby objects in yellow, helping him navigate in the gloom. If he came across any friendlies, they would be outlined in green, while any enemies that the algorithm recognized would appear in red.

He could see plenty of cars, although their drivers were nowhere to be found. The vehicles had been abandoned, their doors left ajar, some of their engines still idling as if the occupants had fled them in a panic. There were police vehicles too, their flashing lights illuminating the area around them. Some of the cars were billowing plumes of dark smoke, and it looked as though the emergency barricades that rose from the street had been erected in some places, perhaps in a futile attempt to control panicked drivers or to impede the progress of the Covenant.

He stumbled along, keeping a careful eye out for signs of the enemy. As he made his way past the burnt-out wreckage of a bus, he wondered what had happened to its occupants. It was difficult to ascertain whether there had been fighting here or not. There were wrecked and abandoned vehicles everywhere, litter and debris all over the street, but he couldn’t see any bodies or any telltale signs of a gunfight. The damage might well have been caused by the slip-space rupture. Even miles from the epicenter of the explosion, the blast wave would have ripped through the city streets like a tornado.

The Rookie winced as he put weight on his injured leg, the pain making him dizzy. He shuffled over to a nearby public bench, leaning on it as he caught his breath. Right now, he had more to worry about than the Covenant. First, he needed to find a health kit, or maybe a can of biofoam so that he could patch himself up. After that, he needed to figure out where the hell in New Mombasa he was, and where he needed to be. He wouldn’t get anything done if he was wandering aimlessly with a busted leg, he needed to meet up with his squad.

There had to be a first-aid station around here somewhere, they were all over the place in most cities, self-serve kiosks that dispensed medkits. He limped along for a few minutes longer, taking in the devastation around him. Even if he couldn’t determine whether there had been fighting in this area of the city, the smoke that rose into the cloudy sky, and the glow of fires on the horizon told him that not all areas of New Mombasa had been so lucky. There were pieces of jagged metal resting atop some of the buildings and blocking areas of the street. Could they be fragments from the orbital elevator?

Need immediate medical assistance? Choose Optican!”

The Rookie almost jumped out of his skin as the robotic voice blared, and he turned his head to see one of the kiosks that he had been searching for. He hobbled over to it, the company’s logo flashing on the built-in monitors. There were two health kits in sockets on the front of the machine, and he snatched one, sitting down beside the kiosk as he opened the container and disgorged its contents onto the ground. He had expected to see a green canister of biofoam that resembled a grenade, a stitch kit, adhesive dressings, and a few doses of painkillers. Instead, there was only a transparent packet of what looked like green gel. He turned it over in his hands, reading off the label and the included instructions. It was MediGel, some kind of proprietary alternative to biofoam that was produced by the company that operated the kiosks. The instructions said that it had to be applied locally.

The Rookie removed his boot gingerly and detached his shinguard, rolling up the leg of his BDU to inspect the damage. His ankle was already red and swollen, even the gentle breeze that was blowing the dust and litter felt like a thousand tiny knives against the tender flesh. He tore open the packet and began to rub the gluey gel on the swelling, wincing as a jolt of pain shot through him.

The MediGel was already doing its work, however. It must include a local anesthetic because the skin was quickly going numb, and it was pleasantly cool. He applied more of it, leaning back against the wall and breathing a sigh of relief. There was no way for him to know if his ankle was broken, but he could still move his toes, and the gel was taking the edge off the pain.

After waiting a few minutes for the painkiller to do its job, he put his gear back on and rose to his feet, noting that he could walk well enough. It didn’t hurt too much anymore, the sharp pain had been replaced with a dull ache, and the swelling had already gone down considerably. He stashed the rest of the gel packet in his pocket and made his way out into the street. Time for step two…

There must be a terminal around here somewhere that would let him connect to the Superintendent, the dumb-AI that managed the city’s infrastructure, and download a map of the area. With that, he could start figuring out where he was and how to find his way back to friendly lines.

A flash of lightning illuminated the roiling clouds above him, followed by the far-off echo of thunder. As he looked up at the sky, droplets of rain began to fall, rolling down his visor. Great, just what he needed.

The Rookie set off along the street, dodging past traffic cones and bollards, his boots splashing in the growing puddles. The rain gave everything a shiny, slick quality, the bright neon of the city’s lights reflecting off the wet asphalt. He hugged the overhang of a nearby building, staying undercover, seeing the world through shades of yellow as his VISR picked out the details of derelict vehicles and palm trees that had lost most of their fronds in the blast. He leaned into the windows of nearby cars and chanced a look through the open doors of the buildings that he passed, searching for bodies or survivors, and finding neither. It was looking more and more like there had been a moderately successful evacuation, which was his hope.

A sudden splash of red gave him pause as he rounded a corner, and he took cover behind one of the ever-present planters, peering through the foliage of a shrub as the droplets of rain made its leaves bounce. His VISR was picking something up, and as he focused on the red outline, he recognized it.

Perhaps a hundred feet down the road was a Covenant patrol, the aliens emerging from behind an abandoned semi-trailer. There were three squat Grunts waddling along at the front of the group, he could make out the triangular shape of the methane tanks that they carried on their backs, and they were tailed by a hulking Brute.

The creature was nine feet tall, resembling a cross between a rhinoceros and a gorilla, the blue power armor that it wore glinting beneath the streetlamps. Between the ornate armored plates, and the rubbery underclothes that it was wearing beneath them, he could make out its skin. Its hide was tough and leathery like that of an elephant, grey in color, the creature shaved almost clean save for a scruffy beard that reminded him of a goatee that protruded beneath its helmet. Its tusk-like teeth jutted from between its thick lips, its face contorted into a perpetual snarl. It was broad-shouldered, with long, powerful arms that held a wicked looking weapon that was adorned with bayonet-like blades. The Rookie recognized it as a Spiker, a carbine that fired super-heated, metal nails.

As he watched, the Brute gave one of the slower Grunts a kick in the back with its two-toed foot, sending its subordinate tumbling into a puddle. It huffed beneath its helmet, appearing to laugh at the creature’s plight, gesturing and waving its bladed weapon as if giving it orders. The Grunt picked itself up and hurried along to join its fellows, dropping to a three-legged gait, using one of its arms to run as a chimp might as it clutched a plasma pistol in the other.

The Rookie ducked back into cover, checking the magazine on his SMG and thumbing the safety. He ensured that it was properly synced with his helmet’s HUD, his loaded and reserve ammunition displayed down in the right corner. Facing off against Elites or Jackals was one thing, but Brutes were downright sadistic. If he engaged that thing and lost, it wouldn’t give him a quick death, and it would probably make a meal of him once it was finished.

They were heading his way, he didn’t stand much of a chance if he confronted them head-on, he was no Spartan. He had to be smart about this…

The SMG was equipped with a suppressor, as was his sidearm, and the rain should help to cover the sound of his footsteps. He didn’t know how good Brute hearing was, but he’d have to find out the hard way. There was a fragmentation grenade on his belt too, but he’d have to be very careful how he used it, as there was no telling when he would be able to resupply.

He hopped up into the planter, the leaves rustling as he obscured himself inside the bush, where he lay in wait with his weapon at the ready. All that he could hear was his own labored breathing from inside his helmet, and he tried to calm himself, trusting his VISR to keep track of the aliens through the foliage.

The trio of four-foot tall Grunts hobbled past him in single-file as he watched, making their way back up the road in the direction that he had come. Their faces were obscured behind rebreathers, snaking tubes connecting the masks to the unwieldy tanks that they carried on their backs. Their exposed bodies were a blue-grey in color, their carapaces the same texture as a lobster’s shell. Behind them lumbered the Brute, even more massive up close, its muscles rippling beneath its form-fitting suit. It was heavy enough that he could feel the vibrations of its footsteps through the concrete planter, its already superhuman strength further enhanced by the powered armor that it wore. It was equipped with a shield generator that could absorb a lot of damage, even before the assailant reached the inch-thick plating beneath it.

There was no reason to engage them if he could just let them pass him by, he wasn’t about to save New Mombasa by taking out a single Covenant patrol. The Rookie controlled his breathing, keeping as still as a statue as they made their way around one of the abandoned police cruisers.

One of the Grunts stopped abruptly, raising its head and seeming to sniff the air like a dog. Its comrades did the same, pausing to sniff at the ground, their beady eyes scanning the gloom. The Brute growled at them, its voice low and gravelly, the smaller aliens responding with high-pitched voices that were filtered through their rebreathers. Could the little creatures smell him through their masks?

The three Grunts spread out, their noses to the ground like bloodhounds, the Brute watching them as he gripped his bladed weapon in his hands. The Rookie clutched the forward grip on his SMG, his mind racing. Should he stay still and try to hide, knowing that the Grunts might sniff him out, or should he use the element of surprise while he still had it?

His hand roamed down to his belt, his fingers brushing the metal of his grenade through his fingerless gloves. He slowly detached it, trying not to make a sound, even the rustling of leaves could give him away. He gently pulled the pin and then tossed it out of the bush. The grenade bounced on the wet asphalt, then rolled, arriving at the feet of the lead Brute. By the time the alien was looking down to see what had just rolled into it, the Rookie was diving for cover behind the concrete planter, the sound alerting the Grunts.

Heretic!” he heard one of them shout in its shrill voice. It was speaking English for his benefit, apparently. The Brute realized what had just happened, bellowing a guttural roar, which was drowned out by the deafening crack of the grenade exploding. Shrapnel tore through the air, digging deep into the concrete, shattering the windows of nearby cars and buildings. One of the Grunts was caught in the blast, the debris rupturing its tank. The methane ignited, sending the pressurized container flying off the creature’s back, spiraling into the air on a plume of green gas before exploding like a firework. The two remaining Grunts were sent into a blind panic, screeching as they fled in random directions, green bolts of plasma reflecting in the puddles and lighting up the gloom as they fired their pistols randomly.

The Rookie took advantage of the chaos, leaning out from behind his planter and loosing a burst of muffled gunfire at one of them, the squat alien falling on its face as the caseless rounds tore through it. He couldn’t see the second one, his VISR had lost track of it.

The Brute came back into view as the smoke cleared, and to the Rookie’s horror, he saw that the beast was still standing. The grenade had collapsed its energy shield and had stripped away some of its armor plating, but the shrapnel hadn’t penetrated deep enough to bring the thing down. It glared at him with its yellow eyes, its thick lips pulling back in a snarl to expose its tusk-like teeth, its brow and its stunted snout wrinkling like an angry wolf.

It loosed a bestial war cry that shook his bones, throwing aside its Spiker and charging towards him like an enraged animal. It had lost all reason, coming at him like a freight train made of leathery skin and muscle, hunched over as though it was preparing to tackle him like a nine-foot linebacker. He began to fall back, putting as many miscellaneous obstructions between him and the alien as possible, watching as it knocked aside cars and plowed through barricades like they were made of paper. The Rookie unloaded at it with his SMG, the rounds sparking against its damaged armor, the hail of bullets doing nothing to slow it down.

He emptied his magazine, fumbling as he tried to reload his weapon, the beast swiping an errant traffic cone aside with such force that it bounced off the second story of a nearby apartment complex like it was made of rubber. When he succeeded in slamming in a new mag, he once again turned the suppressed weapon on the alien, it was so close to him now that he could see the red sclera around its yellow pupils.

As it climbed over a wrecked car to get to him, the vehicle’s chassis buckling under its weight, his rounds found their way through its armor. More of the damaged plating fell away, dark blood spraying. Even as he riddled its exposed chest with bullets, it kept coming, finally faltering as his second magazine ran empty. The Brute swayed drunkenly, then fell sideways, landing on the hood of the car and denting it inward.

The Rookie edged closer, reaching out and giving the limp creature a prod with his suppressor. It didn’t react, its eyes were glassy, and blood was oozing from its nose and mouth.

T-take this, heretic!”

A bolt of green plasma impacted the door of the car about an inch to his left, slagging the bodywork, the metal glowing as it sank inward. He spun around to see the remaining Grunt. It had clambered atop a nearby car, and it was aiming its weapon at him, the pistol flashing as it sent another shot wide. The Rookie let his SMG fall to hang from its sling and drew his sidearm, putting two rounds through its rebreather. The Grunt slumped over and tumbled to the road below, wheezing as it exhaled its last breath of methane.

He stowed his pistol, breathing hard inside his helmet, taking a moment to calm his racing heart. That had been close, too close, and now he was down a grenade and two SMG mags. That grenade blast would have echoed through the streets, alerting any nearby patrols to his presence. He had to get out of here quickly, before they came to investigate.

He reached across the sagging hood of the car, checking the Brute’s limp body for gear, and found a Covenant plasma grenade that he stowed on his belt. He made his way back over to where his frag grenade had detonated, noting the jagged shrapnel that had pocked the nearby vehicles, stooping to retrieve the Brute’s discarded Spiker. It was far heavier than it looked, it felt like a solid lump of lead. The Rookie had to wield it with two hands, despite the Brute being strong enough to aim it like a handgun, and he turned it over as he examined it. He had expended a lot of ammunition, and it was better than letting his SMG run dry if he found himself in another fight.

The Rookie stowed the weapon on his back and set off again in search of an uplink to the Superintendent.

Alba – Occupied city center, seven hours after slip-space rupture.

The rain was coming down hard, pouring off Alba’s armor in sheets, seeping beneath her helmet and making her short-cropped hair damp. It wasn’t doing much to lighten her already sour mood. They had been patrolling until sunset, and there had been no sign of Human resistance. The streets were empty, and the defenders were long gone. The Unggoy were pleased, but the Kig-yar were becoming even more restless than she was. They were bloodthirsty creatures, spoiling for the hunt, eager to sink their claws into whatever hapless native might cross their path.

She had been able to link up with a couple of other patrols, it seemed that there was still a substantial Covenant presence in the city. What’s more, after the High Prophet of Regret had withdrawn aboard the Solemn Penance, the High Prophet of Truth had dispatched a large fleet to reinforce them, engaging the Humans in orbit and deploying more troops to the ground. That, at least, was some good news. The Prophet of Truth was a friend to the Jiralhanae, and his fleet was crewed primarily by her kin.

She glanced up as the whine of a Phantom’s engines drew her attention, watching as the craft floated over the city, the bright beam of its searchlight aimed at the ground as it scanned the ruins for the enemy. The fleet was up there somewhere, probably tearing into the defenders in orbit, but she couldn’t see them from the ground.

A crackling in her earpiece distracted her, and she paused, listening as the gravelly voice of a Jiralhanae Chieftain came through on her communicator.

This is the Shipmaster of the Sacred Fury, calling all Jiralhanae forces. Rejoice, for today is a day that will go down in our people’s history. With the blessing of the High Prophet of Truth, we have been made the sole protectors of the Covenant. The Sangheili are disgraced, ex-communicated by order of the Prophets. We have slaughtered them aboard their ships and taken control, our hour has finally arrived. Kill those that you find on the ground, show them no mercy, their reckoning is at hand.”

She turned to see the Kig-yar and the Unggoy staring at her expectantly, the Jackals watching her like hawks from their high perches as a flash of lightning illuminated the roiling clouds above.

What is it, Captain?” one of them asked as he clicked his jaws impatiently. “Do we have new orders from the fleet?”

We do,” she replied, still trying to get her head around what she had just been told. “The...Sangheili have been declared...traitors. Our new orders are to kill any that we encounter. It is the will of the Prophets.”

The High Prophets wish that we should...slay the Sangheili?” the Kig-yar repeated in disbelief. “There has been no mistake?”

Those are our orders,” she replied solemnly.

Why were the Prophets decreeing that the Sangheili be slain? She had fought alongside them in battle, and while the Sangheili and the Jiralhanae had always had an antagonistic relationship, she could think of no one less likely to betray the Covenant than the Elites. They were zealous and honorable, they would never go back on their sworn oaths. It was the Writ of Union, the battle-cry of the Sangheili. On the blood of our fathers, on the blood of our sons. They alone had shown her respect when no Jiralhanae would, they alone had treated her as their equal in combat, affording her a dignity that she was unaccustomed to.

Fight t-the Elites?” one of the Unggoy stammered, trembling where he stood. “As if the Demons and the Imps weren’t bad enough, now they want us to fight the Elites!?”

The Unggoy were almost in hysterics, but the Kig-yar seemed to find the situation amusing. They chattered to one another in their native dialect of hisses and shrieks, seemingly energized by the news. They didn’t care who they were fighting, and they were no great believers in the faith, they cared only that their pockets were full and that their magazines were empty.

Perhaps you will eat of Sangheili meat before the day is through, Captain,” one of the Jackals laughed. His comrades joined in, whistling and barking as they continued on their way. Many of her kin devoured the flesh of their fallen foes, a practice that Alba had always found distasteful.

The comment brought her back to a scene that she had witnessed while serving alongside the Sangheili during the invasion of a Human colony planet. The fleet had crippled the orbital defenses in less than an hour, and then she had been deployed to the surface as part of the invasion force to secure sacred artifacts before the glassing could begin. On the ground, the Humans had fought like demons, delaying the Covenant advance for days. They had eventually quelled the resistance, but it had been a hard-fought victory.

The Elites had held a ceremony after the battle had been won to honor their dead, saying prayers for their fallen comrades, and showing respect for the defenders. The Sangheili had a weakness for the Humans that some in the Covenant found inappropriate, they admired their bravery and praised the way that the aliens would continue to fight even when their cause was futile. While the Sangheili had been praying, her fellow Jiralhanae had been eating their fill…

The Rookie – Occupied city center, eight hours after drop.

The crack of thunder echoed through the empty streets as the Rookie pressed on, dodging beneath the cover of a bus stop for a moment as a Phantom passed by overhead, its searchlight scanning the ground below for signs of life. There were more and more of the ships clogging the skies, perhaps more of the Covenant fleet had jumped into orbit to reinforce their armies. He needed to get out of here, and fast. He hadn’t encountered any more patrols yet, but it was only a matter of time.

As he entered the foyer of a public building, his sidearm drawn, he finally found what he was looking for. There was a public data terminal mounted on the wall, shaped vaguely like a payphone. It would allow the user to access information such as bus schedules, emergency services, and maps of the city. He activated it, relieved to see that it was still functional, and apparently still connected to the municipal intranet.

The city was managed by a dumb-AI known as the Superintendent. It was responsible for keeping the trains running on time, making sure that there were no traffic jams, plotting garbage collection routes, that kind of thing. After the slip-space rupture, he wasn’t even sure if it was still online, but he needed access to it if he was going to lower the blast doors that were blocking his path. He had come across a few of them while exploring, massive, reinforced doors that blocked off entire streets. The AI must have activated them to box in the Covenant, or perhaps to cover the evacuation. Unfortunately, the Rookie was on the wrong side of them.

An icon flashed on the screen, and suddenly, he had a wireless connection. His onboard systems interfaced with the terminal, and data began to stream. Access codes, evacuation routes, a map of New Mombasa. Everything that he needed was here. In moments, he had a complete database, and he pulled up a three-dimensional map of the city on his visor. It was like a maze, winding streets and plazas creating a complex, interlocking web. That was to say nothing of the underground metro lines, and the above-ground walkways that weren’t shown here.

He needed to either join up with his squad, if they were even alive, or he needed to exfiltrate. He wouldn’t last long if he remained in the city center while the build-up of Covenant troops continued. There was no GPS connection, the satellites might have been victims of the invasion fleet, but he plotted a course through the city all the same. He had to hope that there weren’t too many obstructions that didn’t appear on the map.

The Rookie returned to the street, hearing the rain pattering on his helmet. It had been hours, and the storm still hadn’t let up. Fortunately, his BDU was rated for vacuum, and so there was no chance of him getting wet.

He darted back inside the cover of the building as a Phantom made a low pass overhead, blocking the rain for a moment as it hovered directly above him, the bright circle that its searchlight cast on the wet street very nearly catching him. Perhaps it would be wiser to avoid open ground, for the time being. He should try to make his way along the route that he had plotted through the buildings where possible. He turned, and headed inside, pausing to check his map for a moment. He could make his way through this structure, cross a walkway on the third floor, and then proceed towards the nearest blast door that he needed to open.


The Rookie explored the hallways of the abandoned building as he made his way towards his destination, using the flashlight that was mounted on his SMG in addition to his VISR. It was extremely dark inside, very few lights were turned on. He saw a few flickering monitors through open doorways that led into apartments and offices, but that was about it.

There had been little evidence of fighting between the Covenant and the UNSC in the street, but the more he explored, the more evidence of something far stranger began to emerge. There was what could only be described as Covenant graffiti drawn on the walls in many places, glowing eerily when viewed through his VISR, like fluorescent paint beneath a blacklight. There were messages left by the evacuees too, taunts for the invaders, or instructions that had been scrawled in marker in the faint hope that it might help reconnect lost family members.

It was as he had suspected, the civilians had left in a hurry. He passed by one apartment where there was still dinner laid out on a dining table, the television flickering with static. People must have grabbed whatever essentials that they needed, and hauled ass before the worst of the fighting reached them.

The Rookie crossed a sky bridge into an adjacent building, New Mombasa was remarkably navigable without even having to touch the ground, and he came upon the strangest sight yet. Something very odd had gone down in this corridor. He was up on the third floor of an upscale office complex, a drab carpet lining the floor, office cubicles and computer terminals visible through automatic doors that were stuck open due to a lack of power.

There was dried blood staining the carpet, not Human. It glowed through his VISR, splashed on the walls, and even on the ceiling. There were plasma burns too, and spikes from Brute weapons embedded in the dividers between the cubicles, along with little circular objects that he recognized as spent magazines from Covenant carbines.

As he explored deeper, his flashlight beam waving between the cubicles, he came across the source of the blood. There was a dead Grunt here. He knelt beside it, checking the body. It was cold, it had been dead for some time, but what had killed it? There were no bullet holes in its carapace, it hadn’t been bludgeoned. The only evidence that he could find was a curious, two-pronged burn mark in its chest…

A plasma sword.

He rose to his feet, his mouth dry and his heart quickening as he scanned the cubicles around him for movement. Plasma swords meant Elites, and Elites were bad news. He wouldn’t be able to take one down as easily as he had the Brute, and that fight had been close enough. Elites were the shock troops of the Covenant army, seven-foot-tall reptilians that were as fast as they were powerful. Unlike the Brutes, they were master tacticians, able to outwit as well as out-fight. For all he knew, he could be surrounded right now, the aliens using cloaking devices to remain hidden while they prepared to skewer him.

But why had a Grunt been killed with an Elite weapon? Had a human somehow stolen it from its original owner? That seemed unlikely.

He pressed on, and as he rounded a corner, he got his answer. Lying in a heap at the end of a corridor was a pile of bodies. The Rookie recognized the telltale design of their armor and the strange, finger-like mandibles that they had instead of jaws. They were Elites. He edged closer, stepping over another dead Grunt, and avoiding the hulking mass of a felled Brute. There had been a firefight here, the Elites had been cornered and killed. Their armor was charred by plasma rounds, perforated by metal spikes, and stuck with pink needles. It looked like an execution to him, like they had been corralled here, and then gunned down. The wall to their rear was splattered with blood and charred by plasma. Covenant were fighting Covenant, that much was obvious, but why?

He wouldn’t find out by waiting around for the Covvies to stumble across him, he needed to keep moving. This couldn’t have happened very long ago, the perpetrators could still be in the immediate area. The Rookie discarded the unwieldy Spiker that he had retrieved after his encounter with the patrol, exchanging it for an Elite’s plasma rifle. The weapon was much lighter and more ergonomic, a vaguely horseshoe-shaped firearm that was made from shiny polymer, and which fired a stream of super-heated plasma. He checked that the battery had a charge, then stowed it on his belt, making his way to the nearby stairwell.

Alba – Occupied city center, eight hours after slip-space rupture.

The Kig-yar snapped their jaws gleefully as the patrol emerged onto an open plaza, surrounded on all sides by native buildings wrought from glass and steel. There were fewer derelict vehicles here, it seemed to be reserved for pedestrians, and the ground was covered with regular patches of alien grass in places. The center of the open space was occupied by a group of Covenant and a deployable watchtower, there was enough room here for the Phantoms to land so that they could deliver gear and supplies. Beams of energy suspended the circular platform in the air, the Kig-yar snipers that were perched on top of it peering down at the newcomers with their large eyes, an Unggoy manning a mounted plasma cannon beside them. There were weapons crates stacked at its base, some of them open to expose the racks of carbines and plasma rifles within. It looked as though they had fashioned a kind of makeshift forward operating base here.

What had the Jackals so excited was not the presence of friendly troops, but the pile of dead Sangheili that occupied one corner of the plaza. There were maybe a dozen Brutes and twice as many auxiliaries, and they had clearly been hard at work. Alba hadn’t even come across a single Human yet, had the Covenant traveled all the way to this remote planet for the sole purpose of killing one another?

Alba and her procession of aliens were greeted by a Captain Major, a Jiralhanae wearing golden armor, and wielding a grenade launcher with a wicked bayonet on one end. His demeanor changed when he realized that she was female, seeming more amused by her presence than anything.

Report,” he said gruffly. He outranked her, and so it would be wise to obey.

No contacts along our route,” she replied, “no sign of any Humans.”

The Heretics are lying low,” he huffed in reply, shifting his considerable weight from foot to foot as he readjusted his weapon. “At least the Sangheili are making for better sport.”

The Kig-yar laughed at his comment, Alba looking past him, appraising the corpse pile as the aliens jeered. There were at least a dozen dead, maybe more. She couldn’t help but think that the Sangheili had exacted a similar price on the opposing side, but those bodies had probably been left where they had dropped. These were trophies, proof of the Major’s accomplishments to his Chieftain.

Have we received any new orders from the fleet?” Alba asked.

We are to push deeper into the city, there are still pockets of Human resistance remaining. These cursed barriers are impeding the progress of our patrols,” he grumbled as he gestured to a nearby blast door that had closed over the street, crushing one of the colorful vehicles between its interlocking jaws. “They are too thick to burn through, not without a Scarab, at least. We are using the Phantoms to hop between these large plazas.”

There are still Humans who remain?” she repeated.

Hungry, perhaps?” he chuckled in his gravelly baritone, glancing over his shoulder at the pile of bodies. “I waited a long time to taste Sangheili, and I must admit, it did not live up to my expectations. It’s tough, chewy. Now, Human, that’s a tender meat that pulls right off the bone...”

What is our new patrol route?” Alba asked, ignoring his comment.

Eager to do the will of the Prophets?” he chuckled, “if only my mate back on Doisac were so obedient.”

Alba tried not to visibly snarl at him as he checked in with the assault carrier, a few of the other Brutes who were sitting on the ground nearby turning their heads in her direction, perhaps picking up her scent. She could certainly smell their musk.

Your patrol is ordered to board the next Phantom, it will drop you off in the next plaza over,” he said as he gestured in the general direction. “Scout the area for Humans, and call in backup if you come across any Sangheili, little sister. They are formidable, despite their small stature. Do not underestimate them.”

I can handle myself,” she replied gruffly.

I’m sure you can,” he replied, looking her up and down conspicuously. “Rearm if you need to, then await the incoming dropship. Eat, if you wish, but the meat is starting to spoil.”

She made her way to a quiet corner of the plaza, the Unggoy tailing behind her, where she sat with the intent to catch some sleep before her Phantom arrived. She sat cross-legged, her carbine resting in her lap, the Kig-yar wandering off to join their fellows on the watchtower as the Unggoy settled in beside her. One of them picked up a rock and began to play with it idly, the others sitting with their heads bowed as they rested.

Almost as soon as she had closed her eyes, the musk of a pack of males roused her, and she opened them to see a trio of Jiralhanae lumbering over to her. She sighed in exasperation, knowing what was coming next, preparing herself mentally for their clumsy advances.

The one at the head of the pack was clearly the ringleader. He was a Jiralhanae Minor, identifiable by the color and the design of his armor. He was lower ranked than she was, a member of a larger squad that would be led by a more senior warrior, perhaps the Major that she had met earlier. He had the musk of a male who was just coming out of adolescence, not yet mature enough to control his pheromones, his roiling hormones imbuing him with the brashness that would let him approach a superior in this way.

His shadow loomed over her, and she looked up to see him peering down at her from beneath his helmet, his unshaven fur protruding between the joints in his power armor.

A female serving in the military is a rare sight indeed,” he began, crossing his massive arms across his chest piece. “Come, celebrate with us. The age of the Brutes begins tonight, we shall be the escorts of the Prophets as they tread the path of the Great Journey. We have finally put the filthy Sangheili in their place, I slew a number of them myself,” he added in an obvious attempt to impress her. “We have meat to share, none too fresh, but the company of such a…fecund female would satisfy more than a growling stomach.”

His two companions huffed with amusement at that, and he exposed his tusk-like teeth in a grin. Alba had suffered this kind of crude proposition before, it was commonplace while serving on a carrier where there might only be a handful of females, leaving the males frustrated for months on end. She had learned to restrain her anger, as some of those who approached her were sometimes her commanding officers, not above trying to leverage their status to get some time alone with her.

I must decline,” she replied through gritted teeth, “I have but a short while to rest before my next deployment.”

She waited to see whether he would accept her reply, or try to press the issue, rolling her eyes when he didn’t turn about. The young male had been so sure of himself that he almost seemed offended by her rejection.

We won’t keep you occupied for too long,” he complained.

I’m sure that you wouldn’t,” she replied sarcastically, his brow furrowing. He began to snarl, the stink that he put off growing stronger as he geared up for a fight, and Alba gestured to her helmet. “Now leave me be, that’s an order, Minor. Or perhaps you’d like me to call over your Captain Major so that he might correct your insubordination?”

The rowdy male seemed to get the picture, snapping his jaws as he turned about, walking back in the direction that he had come in a far less agreeable mood than he had arrived.


The Phantom skimmed the spires of the native buildings, its searchlight scanning the streets below, the ventral doors open so that Alba could appreciate the view this time. The endless downpour of rain had not managed to quell the fires that were still raging inside the city, there were dark plumes of smoke rising to join the ominous clouds everywhere that she looked, their red glow illuminating the facades of the alien structures around them like giant bonfires. They seemed to stoke the storm, the rumbling thunder audible even over the noise of the engines.

The fighting had intensified, every so often she would see plasma or tracer fire rise up in the distance, painting glowing trails in the darkness. Covenant Phantoms and Banshees dominated the skies, but they were not unchallenged. More than once, she saw the flash of human craft breaching the cloud layer above, delivering reinforcements to the surface. This planet was more heavily defended than any that she had seen before, how was it possible that the Humans still had access to space?

There were two door guns on her Phantom, plasma cannons manned by a pair of Jiralhanae, ready to provide ground support should they encounter any resistance while landing. She shared the dropship with another patrol this time, a fellow Brute who was leading a similar squad of Kig-yar and Unggoy. The larger pack that had been led by the Captain Major had remained behind, possibly because they had been ordered to keep the area secure so that it could be used as a staging point for future operations.

She gripped a handhold in the ceiling as the dropship banked, their landing site coming into view. It was another large, open plaza, this one occupied by odd stone structures that might be monoliths or memorials of some kind. There were four of them set up in a square configuration, planted in green grass, raised off the ground slightly such that steps were needed to reach them. It might be some kind of Human holy site, perhaps the natives worshiped their heathen Gods here, or it might be purely decorative. It was so hard to tell.

The ship came to a hover maybe ten feet off the ground, and everyone dismounted, dropping down amidst the alien monuments. Alba took cover behind one of the stout rocks, her troops scattering to take up defensive positions, the Phantom hovering for a minute longer to provide them with cover. When he saw that the coast was clear, the pilot rose into the sky, off to his next assignment.

The two patrols split up, Alba heading down a street that led away from the plaza to the East, and the other going West. Her Kig-yar took up their usual positions, flanking her to the left and right as they clambered up onto overhanging balconies in search of vantage points, and mounted the metal poles that lit the street below. The Unggoy trailed behind her, dropping to all fours every so often as they struggled to keep up with her longer strides.

Her orders were to seek out Sangheili as well as Humans, but she had no intention of doing so. Whatever turmoil was currently devouring the Covenant from within, she wanted no part in it. She had never been much of a believer in the faith, and the Prophets were not as noble, nor as infallible as they made themselves out to be. The Prophet of Regret leaving in the way that he had smacked of cowardice to her, of panic. Then there was the Prophet of Truth labeling the Sangheili heretics and traitors, calling for their genocide. There was nothing divine about it, it was a purely political move by the scheming San’Shyuum. If the Prophets would abandon their loyal troops, and betray their staunchest supporters, then how could they be trusted? Honor, loyalty, service. These concepts clearly meant nothing to them.

No, Alba would not obey this decree. In the spirit of the Unggoy, she would waste time, and avoid the worst of the fighting. Hopefully, things would have died down by the time she returned to the carrier. But what then? There was no guarantee that the Jiralhanae would not be discarded once they had outlived their usefulness, just as their Sangheili counterparts had, and it might be Alba who was killed by her own assault carrier’s slip-space rupture next time a Shipmaster lost their nerve.

We should search the interiors of some of the buildings,” she said, “make sure that there are no Humans hiding out inside.”

Would we not stand a better chance of meeting the heretics in the street?” one of her Kig-yar asked.

Perhaps,” she replied, “but I want to be thorough. Do as you wish with those that we find.”

The Jackals yapped excitedly at that, no doubt imagining huddling, defenseless prey. In reality, she doubted very much that there was anyone left in the Human dwellings, all signs pointed to them having evacuated long before they had arrived. Either way, it gave the Kig-yar something to occupy themselves with.

The Rookie – Tayari Plaza, nine hours after drop.

The Rookie crept through an automatic door and emerged into what looked like a courtyard, surrounded on all sides by buildings, a garden area with trees and grass occupying the center. The sky above was still overcast, the rain coming down heavy, a vaguely blue glow still lingering in the air from the slip-space event. That was ionizing radiation, he’d need to get his damned chromosomes scrubbed clean after this was all over if he didn’t want to contract ten different varieties of cancer.

He was following the route that he had plotted to exfil, but there was something else. The Superintendent had placed a beacon on his map, the last known location of one of his squadmates. Why the AI was helping him, and what capabilities it even had were unclear, but he would take any help that he could get at this point. The waypoint was some distance ahead, near an area named Tayari Plaza.

He made his way through another foyer and out onto the street, seeing the plaza before him. It was recessed into the ground, overlooked by balconies and walkways, four stone monuments arranged on the grass in the center of the space. After searching for a moment, he noticed that the beacon wasn’t coming from the plaza, but from a building just across the street. It was up on one of the higher floors.

There were no Covenant in sight, and so he took a minute to rest, sitting on a public bench that overlooked the plaza and tending to his swollen ankle. The anesthetic from the MediGel was starting to wear off, and his limp was returning. Fortunately, he had thought to bring more. He removed his boot, and then retrieved the packet from his pocket, rubbing some more of the soothing substance on the swelling. After giving it a moment to do its work, he put his boot back on and stood up, testing his leg by putting some weight on it gingerly. It seemed good to go, at least for the time being.

The sound of his boots splashing in puddles echoed through the deserted street as he crossed the road, on his way to the ominous building that loomed in front of him. He weaved between abandoned cars, his SMG shouldered. The readout on his HUD showed that he had one magazine left, and while it might be more prudent to ready the plasma rifle that he had recovered, the SMG at least was suppressed. He didn’t want to draw any more attention to himself than necessary.

His thoughts were popped like a bubble as a crystalline, pink spike the size of a knitting needle embedded itself in the chassis of a nearby car with a dull thud. It passed so close to his head that he heard it whistle, missing him by less than an inch. Its pink glow slowly faded as he dove into cover, a trio of follow-up shots shattering the glass of a car door where he had just been standing.

Not knowing where the fire was coming from, he huddled behind one of the cars, peeking out and praying that his VISR would pick out enemies that he couldn’t see with the naked eye through the gloom and the rain.

There, in an open window on the third floor, the red outline of a Jackal sniper. If it had been wielding a beam rifle rather than a needle rifle, the Rookie’s brains would be cooking inside his skull right now. He popped out of cover above the hood of a car and returned fire with a burst from his SMG, debris spraying around the window frame as the bullets dug into the concrete. He hadn’t intended to hit the alien, not at this distance, only to force it into cover. Where there was one Jackal, there would be more.

He took the opportunity to examine his surroundings more closely, searching both for more hostiles and for anything that might provide him with better cover. To his dismay, besides for the wrecked cars that clogged the street, there was nothing within reach. The Jackals had prepared their kill zone well, if he tried to run for the cover of the buildings, he’d be gunned down in the open.

Another volley of needles embedded themselves in the other side of the car that he was hiding behind, he could hear the report of more than one rifle firing at him. His VISR spied movement, and he saw a red blob leap up onto a traffic light to his right, aiming its rifle in his direction. It was perched on the metal pole like a giant parrot, the pink glow of the needles that protruded from the weapon’s ammo compartment illuminating its reptilian face.

Instinct kicked in, he needed to act fast, and he wasn’t going to get anything done by hanging around and letting them close the jaws of the trap that they had set for him. He stayed low, keeping the cars between him and the building, running in a hunched position as though he was navigating a trench. Fortunately, the vehicles were completely gridlocked, stacked bumper to bumper to provide him with enough cover to move. He couldn’t cross the open areas between him and the buildings to either side of the street, but he could make his way along the road. He rushed in the direction of the traffic light, the alien in the window popping off more shots. The one on the traffic light fired too, as did more unseen assailants, pink needles whizzing through the air. They impacted alarmingly close, the dull thunk sound of them penetrating the metal making his heart skip.

He had one advantage over the aliens, his helmet was equipped with the VISR, and they had to rely on their eyes. As good as their vision might be, it was pouring with rain, and it was an overcast night. The harsh shadows cast by the working street lamps and the electronic billboards hindered visibility more than they helped it, the flashing logos and scrolling text purposefully distracting. Without his helmet, the Rookie would scarcely have been able to see ten feet in any direction.

He felt something hit his shoulder, a stab of sharp pain flaring, but he ignored it as he moved into position. He dove behind an abandoned van, leaning around it to get a bead on the Jackal that was sitting atop the traffic light, his HUD providing a targeting reticle on his visor. He aimed carefully, the smart-linked scope allowing him to zoom in on his target, loosing a well-placed burst of gunfire that caught the alien in its chest.

It crumpled, dropping from the light like a lead weight, falling to the roof of a car below where it lay still. The Rookie wasted no time, making for the pink glow, sliding into cover as another barrage of needles missed him by a hair’s breadth. He snatched the Jackal’s rifle, casting his near-empty SMG aside, looking it over briefly.

It was a long, streamlined weapon, the metal barrel protruding from a purple housing that was made from some kind of shiny polymer. Crystalline needles protruded from the receiver, glowing as though they were radioactive, and there was a two-times magnification scope mounted on the top. This was a Type-31, ODSTs were familiar with Covenant armaments and their operation.

There was no smart-link on this weapon, and so he had to rely on the built-in scope, resting the rifle atop the hood of a car as he aimed it at the window from which one of the Jackals had been harassing him. It would have been hard to see through the sheets of rain under normal circumstances, but his VISR highlighted the Jackal’s outline in red, allowing him to put a needle the length a railroad spike straight through its head.

The creature dropped out of view, and then the Rookie was forced to duck back into cover to avoid a hail of return fire. He counted two more rifles, but that wasn’t his only problem right now. From the door of the same building emerged a trio of Grunts, he could just make out the triangle-shaped points of their methane tanks rising above the traffic jam, outlined in red. They were pushing him, trying to flush him out of cover so that the snipers could finish the job. They clambered over the cars to reach him, the green glow of their plasma pistols reflecting off the wet bodywork, pointing and jeering as they made their way towards him.

Without even thinking, he reached down to his belt, priming the plasma grenade that he had taken from the dead Brute. He tossed it like he was pitching a softball, watching as it stuck to one of the aliens like glue, the creature beginning to screech and wave its arms in the air as the explosive lit up in a brilliant shade of blue. Its comrades fled, throwing themselves between the cars as they sought cover, the unfortunate creature erupting into a fiery explosion. An expanding ball of white-hot plasma incinerated the Grunt and slagged the car that it had been standing on, the methane in its pack igniting, creating a secondary blast that shattered the windows of the nearby vehicles and sent shrapnel hurtling through the air.

The Rookie took advantage of the chaos to scope in on another Jackal, this one firing from a balcony on an upper floor, given away by the VISR. His shot went a little wide this time, hitting the thing in the shoulder, and he heard it trill in an oddly bird-like voice as it leapt out of view. He couldn’t be sure that it was dead, but it wouldn’t be returning fire.

The needle rifle didn’t have much ammo left, and so he ditched it, reaching for the Elite plasma rifle that he had picked up at the scene of the execution. He slid across the hood of the car that he had been using as cover, dodging and weaving as he made for the building on the far side of the street. He had no idea where the last shooter was, but if he stayed in one place and tried to hunker down, the remaining Grunts would corner him.

As if on cue, a masked face appeared from behind a derelict vehicle in front of him, a ball of green plasma shooting from its pistol. The bolt hit the Rookie right in the chest, it was an admirable shot for a Grunt, but it stood little chance of getting through his armor. It splashed against his chest piece, leaving a dark smear as it singed the protective coating, but it didn’t have the power to penetrate.

He returned fire with his plasma rifle, a stream of blue projectiles spraying from the conductive rails in an almost unbroken line, felling the Grunt as they burned through its suit. They melted the metal of the vehicle behind it, leaving glowing holes in the chassis, sending flecks of molten metal spraying like sparks.

The last remaining Grunt turned to flee in a panic, and he hosed it with plasma, the weapon overheating in his hands as two cooling vents to either side of the receiver opened up with a hiss. The rifle became almost too hot to hold for a few moments, and he let the excess heat dissipate as he moved towards the door to the building.

There was at least one Jackal still in fighting condition, and the Rookie suspected that a more senior alien was likely commanding their squad. Could be a Brute, could be an Elite, there was no way to know for sure. Whatever it was, it was probably inside the building, that was where they had attacked from. He eyed the dark hallway beyond the open door warily. The last thing that he wanted was to take on one of the more dangerous Covenant species in such close quarters, but he had little choice. If he let them live, they would certainly call in backup, assuming that they hadn’t already done so. Besides, one of his squadmates had been here, and he had to follow up on that lead. They might be injured, or just as lost as he was.

Now that he had a moment to breathe, he noticed the needle that was embedded deep in his shoulder. He had been so high on adrenaline, so focused on the battle that he hadn’t even noticed it. The pain seemed to come flooding back all at once, as though his awareness of it had brought it into being, and he lowered his weapon for a moment as he took the needle in his hand. Fortunately, it hadn’t exploded into jagged shards as the projectiles sometimes did, but it had punched right through his BDU and had embedded itself a good inch into his flesh. He tugged at it, trying to stifle a cry of pain and failing, agony blurring his vision. He took a tighter grip, then gave it another tug, succeeding it dislodging it. It fell to the sidewalk with the delicate tinkle of shattering glass, breaking into a million tiny fragments. He wanted to apply some of the MediGel to the wound, but there was no time right now.

He braced himself, then entered the building.

Alba – Tayari Plaza, nine hours after slip-space rupture.

Alba heard the shot while she was searching one of the cramped rooms in the Human structure, the telltale sound of a needle rifle echoing through the corridors. She rushed to the source of the gunshot as more followed it, her carbine at the ready. When she pushed her way through one of the narrow doorways, she found one of the Kig-yar firing out of a window that overlooked the street below, his fellow Jackals rushing to get into position. One of them leapt out of a nearby window, making his way down to the street below, another perching on a balcony as he fired into the vehicles that clogged the road.

What’s happening?” Alba demanded, not making any attempt to hide her displeasure. The damned Jackals were so bloodthirsty, they never stopped to think about what they were doing.

Human below,” the alien replied, keeping his scope on his target. The weapon kicked back against his shoulder as he popped off a couple more rounds, the barrel of his rifle flashing with pink residue.

So you took the first shot, and missed?” she snarled. “If you had alerted me, we could all have fired on it at once. Use your tiny bird brain next time you want to bag yourself a prize. How many?”

One in sight,” the Kig-yar replied, “an Imp.”

An Imp?” Alba repeated, her brow furrowing. “What were you thinking? Imps are shock troopers, they work in packs. Where there is one, there will be more. Keep the pressure on it, make sure it doesn’t escape. It may have already called in its packmates.”

She heard the patter of feet behind her, turning to see the trio of Unggoy waiting nervously in the doorway.

Captain?” one of them asked, “what’s happening?”

Head down to the street below and drive the Imp from cover,” she replied with a commanding wave of her hand.

A-an Imp!?” one of them exclaimed in its shrill voice.

Yes, an Imp. Flush it out into the open, do not delay!”

The squat aliens exchanged alarmed glances, but they did as she asked, hurrying towards the stairwell that led down to the entrance. Damn those Jackals, they should have coordinated with their team. Imps were not the lightly armored, inexperienced soldiers that made up the bulk of the Human forces. They were second only to the dreaded Demons, equipped with advanced armor and equipment. More than that, they were hardened soldiers, easily a match for lower-ranked Jiralhanae and Sangheili in a firefight.

She was distracted by the muffled chatter of a Human weapon, the Kig-yar at the window snarling.

It killed one of ours,” he muttered, snapping his jaws as he loosed more shots.

Where is it now?” Alba demanded. She didn’t want to get close to the windows, she had seen what the large-caliber rifles that the Humans wielded could do, they punched through shields and armor alike with the ease of a bayonet through a ripe fruit.

I can’t see it anymore,” the Jackal replied, “it moved to the far end of the-”

His head snapped back as a pink needle embedded itself deep into his skull, the Kig-yar swaying for a moment, dead before his body had even hit the ground. The Imp had recovered the needle rifle from the felled Kig-yar that had moved down to the street, they were resourceful little bastards. The Sangheili wouldn’t even touch a Human weapon, as if they were worried that the heresy might somehow rub off on them, but she had seen Humans pick up everything from plasma pistols to fuel rod cannons.

There was another crack, and then the Kig-yar that had made his way out onto the balcony came rushing back inside, throwing himself through the open door and onto the carpeted floor. There was a pink needle jutting from his shoulder, protruding from his back where it had passed most of the way through his body and then gotten stuck. The alien squealed, purple blood oozing from the wound, his hand hovering over the projectile as if he was afraid to touch it.

Pull it out before it pops!” Alba bellowed, but it was too late. The needle glowed in a brilliant rose hue, and then exploded, sending razor-sharp shards of shattered crystal tearing through the Kig-yar’s flesh. He slumped to the ground, a wisp of smoke rising from the torn meat of his shoulder, now a crater the size of Alba’s fist.

She cursed in her native tongue, had she really just lost three Kig-yar to a single Imp? Where was the fourth? There was another racket from down in the street, it sounded as if the Unggoy had finally made their move. With the Imp distracted, she chanced a look out of the window, shouldering her carbine. Through the pouring rain, she saw the alien, clad in black armor and wielding an Elite’s plasma rifle. Had he killed a Sangheili before arriving here? Surely not.

She watched him stick one of the Unggoy with a plasma grenade, then vault over one of the abandoned vehicles in pursuit of the others, hosing them with streams of glowing plasma. The Imp moved between the vehicles like a river winding through the rocks, never so much as faltering as he cut down his foes.

Alba scoped in on him, her carbine’s reticle hovering over his angular helmet, but something gave her pause. There was a needle lodged in his shoulder, its pink glow reflecting off his visor, the Kig-yar had not missed after all. It hadn’t exploded, it must not have penetrated very far, but she could see that a good inch must be embedded in his flesh all the same. A similar wound had seen her Kig-yar writhing on the ground and screeching, but this Human scarcely seemed to notice that he had been wounded.

She had hesitated for too long, and her target slipped beneath her angle of view, heading towards the entrance to the building below her. She took a look at the street beyond, but she couldn’t see any other Humans. Whenever she had fought the black-armored Imps before, they had been part of a pack, working in concert with at least half a dozen squadmates. They coordinated closely, fighting as one entity, their battlefield tactics putting pressure on even the most experienced Sangheili Majors. Why was this one alone? Had the Imp become separated from his pack? Had they been killed?

She lowered her weapon, turning towards the corridor. Whatever the Imp’s story was, he seemed to be coming this way.

The Rookie – Tayari Plaza, nine hours after drop.

The Rookie moved into the building, the waypoint on his HUD leading him towards the nearest stairwell. He checked his corners, sweeping his plasma rifle across open doorways and pockets of shadow. This place was still crawling with Covvies, but he didn’t have time to clear every room. He mounted the stairs, trying to ignore the pain in his shoulder, passing the first floor, and then emerging onto the second.

A sudden screech from somewhere above him almost made him jump out of his skin, and he raised his head just in time to see a Jackal drop from the stairwell above him. The alien landed on him, grappling with him as it knocked him to the floor. The thing was far heavier than it looked, two hundred pounds at least, its sharp claws tearing at his BDU and glancing off his armor plating. He found himself on the floor with the alien on top of him, scrabbling at his belly with its taloned toes like a cat trying to disembowel its prey. Fortunately, there was too much armor and gear in the way, and its claws couldn’t penetrate. He tried to aim his plasma rifle at its chest, but it swiped the weapon out of his hand, sending it bouncing along the carpeted floor.

He managed to throw it off him, the creature darting away as he rose to his feet unsteadily. The two of them squared off, the Jackal snapping its jaws, its bulbous eyes fixed on him intently. The sharp quills that protruded from its head were standing erect, its rows of needle-like teeth bared in a snarl. These things looked small and frail at a distance, but their slim frames were packed with sinewy muscle, and they stood a head taller than the average Human when they weren’t crouching on their digitigrade legs.

It had obviously been hoping that its initial ambush would finish him off, and it very well could have if it had managed to penetrate his BDU. The alien lunged at him again, alarmingly fast, swiping with the claws on his three-fingered hand. He raised his arms to protect his face reflexively, exposing the unarmored areas of his forearms. The alien’s claws tore through the padded fabric and the Kevlar weave beneath, biting into his flesh and drawing red blood.

The alien drew a plasma pistol from its belt with the speed of a gunslinger and activated the point-defense gauntlet on its wrist, the Rookie reaching for his handgun in kind. He fired off a shot, but the round simply bounced off the glowing barrier of wavering plasma that the alien had erected, ricocheting into the ceiling and raining debris down on them. The alien poked its weapon through a convenient cut-out in the edge of the shield, the Rookie diving to the ground as a plasma bolt shot a burning hole in the wall where he had just been standing.

Scarcely taking the time to aim, he emptied his mag into the creature’s feet and ankles, firing beneath its round shield. The alien screeched in pain, its legs cut out from under it, joining him on the floor as its shield collapsed back into its projector. His handgun now empty, the Rookie reached for his weapon of last resort, drawing a combat knife from his boot. As the Jackal struggled to right itself, he plunged the blade into its skull from above, feeling it sink up to the hilt. The alien went limp, the Rookie climbing to a kneeling position, breathing hard as he struggled to pull the knife free.

He stumbled to his feet, wiping the purple blood that soaked the blade on his sleeve as he retrieved his plasma rifle, then turned back towards the stairs that led to the third floor. With a bloody knife in one hand and the compact rifle in the other, he pressed onward.

Alba – Tayari Plaza, nine hours after slip-space rupture.

Alba heard the scuffle as the remaining Jackal launched its ambush on the Imp, along with the squeal that informed her of its outcome. She readied her carbine, aiming the reticle at the shadowy stairwell down the corridor. There was only one way that the Imp could come, and the radioactive rounds from her carbine would punch straight through his jet-black armor with ease.

His helmeted head emerged, but she hesitated once again as he mounted the steps and came into full view. There was a slight limp in one of his legs, his black chest armor was scarred by plasma, and crimson blood was seeping from wounds on his shoulder and forearm. In one hand, he held a tiny knife, its blade wet with Kig-yar blood. In the other, he held the Elite’s plasma rifle, the red glow of its ammo counter indicating that the charge was almost depleted.

He had torn through her squad like a Zealot, and how many more before it? Where else could he have obtained the rifle and the plasma grenade? He was injured and alone, he should be hiding in some dark corner somewhere, waiting out the invasion. Yet he kept coming, never faltering. This was the tenacity that the Sangheili so respected.

The Imp aimed his weapon and fired, the shields on Alba’s power armor absorbing the bolts harmlessly, flickering waves of energy passing over her body. She knew that he didn’t have the charge left to collapse them, it would take half a battery at least to overload her shielding. She let him have his moment, the projectiles growing weaker and less precise as the weapon sputtered and died. He glanced at it for a moment, perhaps not understanding what had happened, then let it fall to the ground. It seemed that the little kleptomaniac had run out of stolen weapons, now all that was left was his knife. What would he do next?

To her surprise, he swiveled the knife in his hand so that the blade was facing downwards, taking up a fighting stance. She had three feet over him, and she weighed several times what he did, but that didn’t seem to faze him.

Alba considered simply cutting him down with her carbine, he was defenseless now, but something about him stayed her hand. There was no fear in him, no hesitation, and he was ignoring the wounds that peppered his body. He was injured, no doubt exhausted, separated from his allies, but he stared at her unflinchingly through that angular visor.

The Imp charged at her, sprinting down the corridor, racing headlong into certain death. His knife was scarcely long enough to penetrate her thick hide, but he was going to try all the same. He covered the distance quickly, and there was a flash of sparks as his dagger met her armored forearm, glancing off the blue material harmlessly. Undeterred, he tried again, his strike easily deflected. Her power armor could stand up to some of the most powerful Human firearms, there was no way that he was going to penetrate it with just a combat knife.

That said, her shields would not deflect a blade as it would a bullet, and there were joints in her armor where the underlying suit and her naked skin was exposed. Was she in danger?

As if to answer her question, the little alien darted in under her arms, planting one hand on the pommel of his blade for leverage as he drove it towards her ribs. It sank deep into the rubbery vest that she wore beneath her blue armor, slipping between the protective plates, the sting of its point penetrating her skin.

She reacted reflexively, catching him with her forearm, lifting him off his feet and throwing him across the corridor. He flew through the air like a doll, hitting the adjacent wall hard enough that the plaster cracked, dust raining on his limp body as he settled onto the floor.

Alba cocked her helmeted head at him as he struggled back to his feet, his knife still clutched in his hand. He took up another stance, the knife flashing as it caught the light from the street outside that bled in through the windows. Incredible, he still wanted to fight.

Have it your way,” she muttered in her native tongue, stepping forward and throwing a punch at him. Her fist was as large as his head, and it impacted the wall where he had just been, sinking up to the wrist in the flimsy material and sending a cloud of white dust billowing into the air.

The Imp had dodged out of the way, he was a fast little creature, and she felt the bite of his blade as it cut into the unarmored area of her thigh. She wheeled around with the intent of catching him with her elbow, but he slipped through her grasp once again. She searched for him through the lingering dust and the darkness, wondering how he was able to see so well, when she felt him stab her just above the rump.

Enough, she was no longer amused by his antics.

Alba bellowed, spinning and charging down the hallway, her arms outstretched. They were easily the span of the corridor, and she snagged him, picking him up and carrying him with her as she barreled into the far wall. There was another puff of dust as she pinned the Imp against the surface, his boots dangling off the carpet, the blow dazing the creature for a moment.

It didn’t last for long, and she soon felt his blade glance off her helmet, bouncing off her mouth guard. He tried to get it into the joint between her pauldron and her neck guard, but she reached up and enclosed his hand in her fist, squeezing until he dropped the weapon. It bounced off her armored shoulder, falling to the floor below.

The dust began to clear, and his helmeted face came into view. She had put him at head-height to her, their eyes level, Alba pressing him against the wall with one forearm across his chest. He was disarmed now, Humans didn’t have talons or sharp teeth, there was no way for him to hurt her.

They stared each other down, Alba seeing the reflection of her own eyes in his opaque visor, her breath misting it. Just when she was starting to think that his bloodrage might have faded, he headbutted her, slamming his helmet into hers and making the metal ring. It was a futile gesture, but she found it somehow endearing. This Imp just didn’t give up.

An idea crossed her mind, one that she would never have entertained even hours ago. She didn’t want to kill this creature, he didn’t deserve it. Nor did she want to return to the Covenant, not after they had betrayed the Sangheili, and the Prophet of Regret had abandoned her to her fate in the city. Perhaps there was a way that they could help one another...

Enough, tiny man,” she said in her gravelly voice. That seemed to surprise him, and he stopped his struggling abruptly. Alba knew their tongue, as did many of the lower-ranked members of the Covenant. It was commonplace for the Unggoy to learn the language so that they might translate for their superiors, and even some of the Jiralhanae and Sangheili could speak a fair bit of it.

Alba waited for some kind of response, but she didn’t get one, the alien just stared at her silently.

Alba has proposition for you,” she said, hoping that her English was as good as she had thought. “My pack is dead, you are alone. Alba wants no part in this any longer, San’Shyuum are not my allies, the Covenant wars with itself. Tiny man must know how to get through gates that block the way, and Alba knows where the patrols go, knows how to avoid them.” She tapped at her helmet with her free hand, hoping that he understood the reference to the Covenant communications network. “You will help Alba, Alba will help you. Both walk out of here, yes?”

She kept him pinned, watching for any sign of life from his featureless visor. Had he even understood her? Should she try again?

A’ight,” he replied, shrugging his shoulders. Was that really his only response? He seemed to be agreeing to her proposal, and so she gradually lowered him to the floor, taking a few steps back and watching him cautiously. He had proven himself to be far more dangerous than his diminutive appearance would suggest.

He knelt to pick up his knife, returning it to his boot, craning his neck to peer up at her.

If I arm you, you will not betray me, yes?”

The Imp nodded his head, an affirmative gesture, and so Alba thrust her carbine into his arms. She almost knocked him over, she sometimes had trouble gauging her strength in his low-gravity environment, and the alien turned the weapon over in his hands as he examined it. To her relief, he kept his finger off the trigger, aiming the barrel at the floor.

Wait here,” she said, “I must arm myself.”

The Rookie – Tayari Plaza, nine hours after drop.

The Brute spoke. It opened its mouth, its breath misting his visor, its tusk-like teeth and its long tongue on display as he practically looked down its throat. Its voice was coarse and gravelly, but the deep contralto unmistakably feminine, the rumbling speech shaking his bones. There must be female Brutes, but he had never heard of such a thing. Its yellow eyes peered at him from beneath its blue, horned helmet, its features obscured by the gleaming material.

He had expected it to kill him, he was out of ammo, hopelessly outmatched against the hulking mass of armor and muscle. And yet he was still breathing. The thing was pinning him against the wall, but not applying enough pressure to crush him. It could have pulled his arms off like a child playing with a rag doll, but instead, it was bargaining with him.

You will help Alba, Alba will help you. Both walk out of here, yes?” Alba? Was that the Brute’s name?

The Rookie had no idea where his squad was right now. He was deep behind enemy lines, completely out of contact with command, and he had no hope of rescue. He was going to have to walk out of here under his own power, and if this alien really did know the Covenant’s patrol routes, then she might be his only ticket out of his mess. Besides, if he said no, she’d probably just crush him like a soda can.

A’ight,” he replied. Her yellow eyes seemed to widen beneath the brim of her helmet, and then she slowly lowered him to the floor. He paused to pick up his trusty knife, stowing it in his boot, then waited for her to make the next move.

If I arm you, you will not betray me, yes?” He nodded, he had no intention of shooting her in the back. On a normal day, he’d kill a Brute with a rusty spoon if that was what it took for him and his friends to make it home, but this one was...different somehow. Brutes were never reasonable, it wouldn’t have surprised him in the least to learn that they were kept in cages on their carriers, and unleashed like attack dogs when the need arose. But this Alba was willing to have a conversation with him, and that alone was reason enough not to just plug her and move on.

She shoved the carbine that she was holding into his hands, knocking him off-balance, then vanished into a side room. Now that he was paying attention, her figure and her gait were different from that of a regular Brute, too. There was a flare to her hips that was visible even beneath her armor, and she carried her weight differently from the males, an ass the size of a beanbag chair swaying left and right as she walked. If she really was a female, then that was a whole lot of woman, even for a Brute to handle.

When she returned, she was carrying a needle rifle, and he had to resist the urge to aim his carbine at her. Every instinct in his body, all his years of training and combat experience screamed danger like an air raid siren going off in his head, but he suppressed it. This was an opportunity that he would not get a second time, not in a million years…

Her footsteps made the floor beneath his boots shake as she came to a stop in front of him, peering down at him as if she was waiting for something.

Well?” she asked, gesturing down the corridor. “You lead.”

The Rookie made his way past her, checking his map. If his squadmates had been here, then they weren’t here now, and there was no indication that the Brute had killed them. The aliens tended to leave a rather conspicuous mess. It was time to continue along the exfil route that he had originally planned. If the Superintendent wanted to add any more waypoints, then he would deal with them as they came.

They made their way down the stairs, the Brute’s weight making them creak worryingly, emerging onto the street again. The Rookie paused for a moment as he checked his map, his companion waiting impatiently.

The dead Grunts were nearby, their fluorescent blood was splattered all over the cars, and it was pooling on the asphalt like spilled motor oil. The rain didn’t seem able to wash it away, it was oddly viscous. If the Brute was in any way angry with him for slaughtering her squad, then she didn’t show it. What was it that she had said when she had been pinning him against the wall? That the Covenant were fighting each other. He had surmised as much from the pile of dead Elites that he had come across, but it was nice to have his theory confirmed. He didn’t know anything about the political makeup of the Covenant save for the fact that the Prophets were the head honchos, and that the different races were arranged in a hierarchy from most dangerous to least. Were two of the member species having a spat, or were two of the Prophets fighting each other with their private fleets? Perhaps he should ask the Brute, but he wasn’t in the mood for conversation right now.

The path on his map sent him down the East road that led away from the plaza, but as he turned in that direction, he felt the alien’s hand on his shoulder. It was as large as a dinner plate, heavy, too. He bristled, resisting the urge to wheel around and shoot her.

We must not go that way,” she said, her low voice making the hairs on his arm stand on end. “Patrols are that way. We go that way,” she added, pointing down the Western road.

Alright,” he mumbled, taking a moment to reconfigure his map marker. It wasn’t much of a detour. They made their way down the street, sticking to the sidewalk this time, as the Brute was too large to fit between the cars. At least she was fulfilling her part of the bargain. What bargain was that, exactly? They were going to cooperate to make it out of the city, but for how long? What would the reaction be when he eventually linked up with UNSC forces? Perhaps she would claim asylum, or offer information in exchange for her safety. It wasn’t a trick, he knew that for certain. She could have crushed the life out of him without so much as breaking a sweat if she had wanted to, and he didn’t have any useful information to accidentally reveal to her, he was completely lost.

They arrived at one of the massive blast doors that had closed over the street, creating an impenetrable wall between two buildings. The Brute, or Alba as she had referred to herself, watched as he walked up to the small control panel that was built into the middle of the door. He accessed the files that he had downloaded from the city’s Superintendent, cross-referencing the correct codes, then tapped in the sequence. There was a mechanical crunching sound as the two doors parted, sliding back into recesses in the buildings to either side of the road, their way clear.

Almost as soon as they were on the other side of the barrier, it began to close again of its own accord, no doubt the Superintendent’s doing.

So you can open doors, tiny man,” Alba muttered. “They have been thorn in our side since we make landfall. Which way now?”

He pointed down the street, and they pressed on, the Brute lumbering along beside him. It was hard to keep his eyes off her, the only Brutes that he had ever seen up close like this before were either dead or viewed through a scope. They moved with such ease that it kind of downplayed their sheer mass. She must weigh at least a thousand pounds, and she had the figure to carry all of that weight. Her thighs were as thick around as his torso, packed with muscle, and sheathed in a layer of fat that shook with every step of her two-toed feet. Her hips were wider than the span of his shoulders, and her ass was similarly scaled up, her copious cheeks wobbling with the impact from within her skin-tight suit as she walked. Apparently, the Covenant was not too concerned about its soldiers being shot in the butt because there was minimal armor plating there.

Her skin was varying shades of grey, as was the rubbery jumpsuit that she wore beneath her blue armor, making it difficult to ascertain where one ended, and the other began. What he could be sure was exposed skin was leathery and thick, reminding him of a rhinoceros, and he noted that there wasn’t a hair on her. Some of the Brutes looked like a Sasquatch, while others were shaved clean, save for their beards. If Alba had any fur, then it was out of view. Her facial features were obscured behind her helmet, and he wondered whether they would be any different from those of the male Brutes.

You do not talk much, tiny man,” Alba said as he peered up at her through his helmet’s visor. He shrugged in response, eliciting a rumbling chuckle from her. “Most talk too much, I find it refreshing.”

What would we chat about?” he replied, “the weather?”

She chuckled at that, a huffing sound that shook his bones.

They walked for a little while longer, and then the Rookie led his unusual companion into the shelter of a bus stop, the alien waiting outside as he sat down on the bench beneath the awning. She was far too large to fit inside it without crouching. The rain pounded on the curved, transparent roof, an animated advertisement illuminating him as he began to remove one of his boots.

What are you doing?” Alba asked, cocking her head at him as he rolled up the leg of his BDU. He retrieved the pack of MediGel from his pocket, opening the bag and smearing some of the green-tinted gel on his swollen ankle.

Healing,” he replied, the anesthetic soothing his growing discomfort. He had more injuries to deal with now that he had a moment of peace, and he examined his forearm where the Jackal had scratched him. Its bird-like talons had gone straight through the material, leaving him with a trio of nasty cuts. He rolled up his sleeve to expose his forearm as best he could, the material was padded and protected by Kevlar, then began to smear some of the goo on the wounds. This time it stung, but the pain-killing property of the mysterious gel soon put a stop to that.

Next was his shoulder, where the needle had embedded itself a good inch into his flesh. The bleeding had stopped by this point, but it was so sore that it hurt to lift his arm. It hadn’t reached his bone, or it would hurt a hell of a lot more, but it was a deep wound that needed to be disinfected. He also needed to remove any fabric or debris that the projectile had carried into his body. Even a single strand of fabric from his BDU could cause a potentially lethal infection.

The Rookie exhaled, bracing himself as he smeared some of the green gel on his index finger. It was a good job that he was wearing fingerless gloves. Alba watched without comment as he pushed the digit into the open wound up to the first joint, stifling a groan of pain. It began to bleed again almost immediately, crimson blood oozing past his finger and soaking his clothes as he fought back a sudden wave of lightheadedness. Feeling something that wasn’t wet meat, he tried to pull it out, succeeding in retrieving a small fragment of his BDU that the needle had dragged in with it.

Certain now that he had done all that he could to sanitize the wound, he squeezed more MediGel onto his finger like toothpaste onto a brush, pushing it into the hole. He sagged back into his seat as he took a moment to collect himself, willing his hands to stop shaking. What he wouldn’t give for an actual UNSC trauma kit right now, he could stitch himself up and apply an adhesive pad. Optican’s finest would have to do for the time being.

The Brute was looking at him strangely, peering at him with her yellow eyes from beneath the shadow of her helmet. He didn’t know what she was thinking, he couldn’t see her expression.

We should move,” she said. “If we linger too long, Phantoms will spot us. Come.”

He rose to his feet unsteadily, wishing that he had some polypseudomorphine to take the edge off.


They walked for a while longer, passing through several more of the large gates. The Rookie was starting to see how much of hindrance they must have been to the Covenant, the aliens couldn’t go a block without encountering one of them. The only way to get past them without the access codes would be to mount a dropship and play an endless game of leapfrog.

They came across a few more of the Phantoms, the ships scanning the streets with their searchlights from above, but he and Alba were able to stay out of sight beneath balconies and inside the foyers of public buildings.

They didn’t talk much, there was nothing to talk about, really. One might have expected the Rookie to quiz the Brute at length about her culture, her home planet, or the day to day life of being a soldier in the Covenant. After all, how often did a Human get to have a conversation with an alien that wasn’t being held down the barrel of a gun? But the situation was tense, and the Rookie didn’t want to be distracted by small talk, not when he was miles behind enemy lines. Besides, she might be a turncoat, but she was still a Covvie. It wasn’t exactly easy for him to brush off years of conflict. He had killed Brutes, and she had no doubt killed her share of Humans.

Eventually, his alien companion stopped, and he turned to look back at her.

Wassup?” he asked.

She reached a four-fingered hand down to her stomach, and he heard a growl that didn’t come from her mouth.

Alba must eat,” she replied, “I have been too long without food.”

What do Brutes eat?” he asked, “besides people.”

She scowled at him from beneath her blue helmet, not taking kindly to his jibe.

What you can eat, I can eat. Show me where there is food in this city.”

He shrugged his shoulders, then waved for her to follow him. He was getting rather hungry himself, he hadn’t eaten for about twelve hours, and he had been burning calories with all the fighting and walking. But where might they find food? Unfortunately, the Covenant would have driven off all of the street vendors, there would be no Nyama Choma or Mandazis for him today. The safest bet might be the vending machines, it was just a matter of finding one.

He brought up his map and checked the immediate area. There were no supermarkets in this part of the city, it was more geared towards finance and tourism. There were a few restaurants nearby, but that food would need to be prepared, and anything that needed to be refrigerated would be inedible after so many hours without power. Where might there be vending machines? Perhaps a sports center, or some kind of gym? They wouldn’t have power either, but warm soda and shrink-wrapped sandwiches wouldn’t do them any harm.

This way,” he said, marking a nearby gym on his map and setting off in that direction. It wasn’t more than a block away, and the skies seemed clear of Phantoms for the moment. When they arrived at the building, the windows that lined the facade and overlooked the street beyond were dark, and the lights in the interior were all off. The streetlamps were on in most places, as were the electronic billboards, but it seemed that the private buildings were all cut off. Perhaps there was a municipal power grid that had a backup system, or perhaps only some areas had been affected by the fighting and the slip-space rupture. The Rookie stood in front of a pair of sliding glass doors at the entrance, but the sensor was offline, and they were jammed shut.

He pulled out his knife and pushed the blade between them, attempting to pry them open without much luck, Alba growing increasingly impatient as she waited behind him. After a minute, she uncrossed her arms and marched towards the doors, the Rookie dodging out of the way as she walked straight through the glass. It shattered into tiny shards, making a terrible racket, and he glanced around nervously before following her inside.

What is this place?” Alba asked, pausing by a side door to examine a row of treadmills that faced out onto the street.

A gym,” the Rookie replied, searching the foyer.

And what is a gym for?” she asked tersely, irritated by his curt reply.

Exercise,” he said, finally finding what he was looking for. There were three vending machines lined up against the far wall next to the entrance to the locker room. There was one for drinks, one for sandwiches, and another for snacks. He felt the floor shake beneath his feet as Alba sidled up beside him, leaning down to examine the contents through the transparent windows. Her eyes played over the rows of colorful, plastic packaging, the Rookie wondering what she must make of them.

Do you have codes for this too?” she asked, noting the numeric keypads on the machines. The Rookie shook his head. “Then stand clear, tiny man.”

He took a few steps back as Alba set down her needle rifle, then reached out and dragged one of the machines away from the wall, tearing the cord out of its power socket and throwing it violently to the floor. She must have expected the glass window to shatter like the doors had, but it was made from some kind of reinforced plastic, intended to be tamper-proof. It clearly wasn’t Brute-proof, however. Alba flipped it over onto its back and dented the window with her fist, pounding on it until it bent enough that it came away from its metal frame. She tossed the glass aside, and gestured to the now windowless vending machine, the contents strewn all over the interior.

The Rookie knelt beside it and picked out a few choice items, tossing a shrink-wrapped sandwich to Alba. It was a spicy chicken burger, not exactly the most sophisticated cuisine that Earth had to offer, but it was better than going hungry. She snatched it out of the air, the packet so small in her giant hand that it fit snugly in her palm. She sniffed it experimentally, then cocked her head at him. He retrieved a similar packet and mimed opening it, Alba mimicking him with her oversized fingers. The Brute could be surprisingly delicate when she wanted to be. She tore the plastic wrapper open, then brought the sandwich to her mouth, lifting off her horned helmet in the process.

For the first time, the Rookie got a look at her face. Her features were indeed softer than those of a male Brute, with a less pronounced brow, and a smaller jaw with no beard. She had a dull snout, and her thick lips were tinted pink, the upper one split slightly in a way that reminded him of a cat. Her thick, dark hair was cropped short in what almost resembled a pixie cut, Alba shaking it out as though glad to be free of the stifling armor. Rather than the jutting, yellowed teeth of the males, the two tusks that protruded from her lower jaw were white and symmetrical. She had a couple of prominent, pink scars on her grey skin, but nothing disfiguring. Her eyelashes were just as thick and as dark as her hair, framing a pair of yellow eyes that almost seemed to glow in the low light, her sclera red instead of white.

She popped the sandwich into her mouth and chewed experimentally, raising a bushy eyebrow as she noticed that the Rookie was watching her.

Alba has tasted worse,” she said, “it will suffice for now.”

The Rookie nodded his head at the other two machines, and she seemed to get the picture, knocking those to the floor too.

Alba – Nehru Street Gym, ten hours after slip-space rupture.

Alba sat beside a pile of discarded wrappers, wolfing down processed meat and bread. The Human portions were tiny, she had already gone through a dozen of the packaged food rations, and she still wasn’t satisfied. It didn’t hold a candle to eating fresh meat straight off the bone, but at least the only thing that they had slain in order to obtain this meal were the glass machines.

The Imp had removed his helmet so that he could eat, giving her a look at her unlikely companion’s face for the first time. She had seen Humans before, she had faced many in battle, and they weren’t always easy to tell apart. Some of them had beards like a male Jiralhanae, while others were bald, and still more had darker or lighter complexions than their fellows. Unlike in Jiralhanae culture, their grooming seemed to have no ritual purpose, it might be purely decorative. This one had short hair, skin on the lighter side, and dark eyes with white sclera. Their people lacked snouts, and instead had sloping noses that jutted from their faces. They had no tusks, and their jaws were small, with dull teeth that weren’t suited to biting. Despite his alien appearance, it was somehow more familiar than the split mandibles of the Sangheili, or the gas-sucking orifices of the Unggoy.

She watched as he chewed on one of the sandwiches laboriously, his mouth too small to swallow it in one go. He glanced up at her, noticing that she was watching. He was a very quiet creature, he had scarcely spoken at all during their time together, and he was curt when he answered her questions. Even so, she didn’t get the impression that he resented her. Their people were enemies, it was only due to circumstance that they were cooperating, but he had not made any attempts to betray her. It might be a different story once he reached his destination, she had no real idea of where he was actually leading her, but they had a shared goal in wanting to get as far away from the Covenant lines as possible.

Besides, it was a refreshing change from having overly eager males or blabbering Unggoy chatting in her ear all day. She relished the peace and quiet.

The Imp tossed her another packet, and she caught it, turning it over in her hands. He watched as she opened it up, a sweet smell rising to her nose. Inside were small, dark cakes filled with some kind of white sludge, and she picked one out of the molded tray that it was resting in. It was chewy, and the filling spilled out into her mouth when she bit down on it, surprising her with its sweetness. These were not simple military rations, the Humans ate these for pleasure.

Her companion drank from small, round containers filled with liquid that smelled too syrupy for her taste, but there was plenty of fresh water in transparent bottles. Water was water, no matter what planet you were on, and she had no concerns about the alien food making her sick. Humans were omnivorous mammals just like the Jiralhanae, whatever they could eat, she probably could too.

Her appreciation for him had only grown since their first encounter by the plaza. He was as tough as a Mgalekgolo, as stubborn as a Chieftain, and he fought with the fervor of a Sangheili Zealot. He ignored his injuries, completely focused on battle, and he wasted no time outside of it. If her fellow Jiralhanae were as reliable and as single-minded in their tasks, then this war would have been over long ago. The Imps lived up to their devilish namesake.

Your wounds,” Alba said, her low voice breaking the silence. “They are severe? Alba does not know how fragile tiny man’s people are. It would not do to have you die before leading me out of this city.”

I’ll live,” he mumbled over his sandwich.

You never tell Alba your name,” she said, the Human seeming to ignore her for a moment as he finished off his sandwich and sucked his fingers clean.

Do I need one? Don’t see many other Humans around.”

Then tiny man will have to suffice.”

Been called worse things,” he replied with a shrug, starting on another food packet.

Tell me, how did tiny man end up all alone?” Alba asked. “Were fellow Imps slain in battle?”

Got separated from ‘em when your carrier jumped out,” he replied, taking a bite out of another unidentifiable morsel of food. “Guess I can blame you for that.”

Alba also was stranded here when assault carrier jumped,” she muttered, turning her eyes to the shattered doors and the city beyond. The residue still lingered in the air, like a blue-green, glowing mist. “Our Prophets forsook us. Those who were beneath the vessel when it fled were certainly killed in the rift, and now we slaughter our own.”

Sounds good to me,” the Imp said, Alba shooting him a scowl.

It will not be so good when Brutes lead the Covenant in place of Elites. It is a coup, Alba is sure of it. Jiralhanae cruelty better serves the Great Journey, the Sangheili were too honorable, too sympathetic towards Humans.”

He scoffed at that, and she glared down at him. He met her gaze unflinchingly, confident, despite how imposing Jiralhanae must appear to the tiny Humans. She was reminded of how he had come at her armed only with a knife, this one was not easily intimidated.

If you think the Sangheili cruel, then just you wait. They, at least, will not dismember and eat their victims for amusement.”

The Imp shrugged, turning back to his meal.

What about you?” he asked, “you’re a Brute too.”

Alba has always found the behavior of her kin to be...distasteful,” she muttered. “War is duty, it is necessary. I fight...I fought out of obligation, because my people and my Covenant required it. I was proud to serve, and I was admirable warrior. I enjoyed the thrill of combat, the camaraderie, the satisfaction of victory. There is no way to feel more alive than to best death. But Alba never reveled in killing. Do not misunderstand, tiny man, defeating enemies and seeing them routed is pleasure with few equals. Taking on worthy opponent in single combat and besting them? Even better. But cruelty for the sake of cruelty, violence for entertainment...this, Alba cannot abide.”

Guess RoE isn’t a thing where you’re from.”

Humans have laws that govern war, as do the Sangheili. I have seen this to be the case.”

Maybe we should mail the splitheads a copy of the Geneva Convention,” he mumbled, taking another bite of his packaged meal. “I don’t think glassing is covered under collateral damage.”

She waited for him to elaborate, but he didn’t. Instead, he tossed her another package of food.

The Rookie – Occupied city center, eleven hours after drop.

Once they were done with their impromptu meal, the Rookie led Alba out onto the street again, following the route that was plotted on his map. They were finally nearing the city limits, and once they reached the freeway, they could hopefully follow it all the way out of New Mombasa. That was the plan, at least.

They reached another one of the massive gates that blocked the street, this one had closed on a car, cutting it almost in two. There was no driver inside it, fortunately. It wasn’t as though the doors snapped shut like a trap, the owner would have been given ample time to get out of the way.

Alba waited as he checked his files for the correct code, entering it into the numeric keypad that was embedded in the metal, then he took a step back as it began to slide open with a mechanical rumbling. There was a creak as it released the car, the metal bent beyond recognition. They stepped through, dodging around more abandoned vehicles, the glow from the streetlamps casting eerie shadows. The sky was still dark, storm clouds roiling, the glow of far-off fires staining the horizon red. As the gate began to close behind them, Alba stopped him, holding a finger to her helmet.

Wait,” she muttered, “I am picking up something...” Her eyes widened beneath the shadow of her helmet, and she took the Rookie roughly by the arm, practically dragging him off the street and into the darkness of a nearby alley. Before he had time to ask her what was wrong, his VISR alerted him to enemy movement nearby, a shape outlined in red rounding the corner ahead of them.

Be silent,” Alba whispered, “Covenant patrol.”

Which faction?” the Rookie asked.

It does not matter, both are bad for us...”

He watched from the shadows as an entire pack of Brutes made their way along the sidewalk, strolling about like they owned the city, he counted at least a dozen of them. They looked so out of place, contrasting with the mundane scenery around them, the colorful armor that they wore reflecting the light of the street lamps and scrolling advertisements. They were armed to the teeth. The Rookie could pick out the purple shine of Carbines, and the gun-metal glint of Maulers, cruel shotguns that the aliens wielded one-handed. At the head of the pack was a Brute in ornate, golden armor, a gravity hammer clutched in his hands. These guys meant business, if Alba had not been with him, he would have wandered right into them.

He wondered why they weren’t picking up Alba’s transmissions in kind, but perhaps their comms system could be set to receive-only. The Covenant BattleNet, as it was known, had notoriously poor counter-intrusion security. The Rookie had even been in a combat situation where they had been broadcasting unencrypted orders over the E-band frequency, the same one used by the UNSC. Even with the civil war going on, it might not occur to them that hostile parties might be listening in.

The pack of Brutes approached the door, the golden-armored alien at their head shouldering an abandoned van out of his way, pausing to inspect the now sealed gate. The blue-armored Brutes that made up his entourage fanned out, as though they were trying to figure out how the door had been opened. Perhaps the noise had alerted them.

The gold one put a finger to his ear, planting the haft of his long, heavy hammer into the asphalt as he appeared to have a conversation with someone on the other end of the radio. The weapon was massive, to say that the head of the hammer was as large as an engine block would be no exaggeration. It was probably just as heavy.

He speaks to the carrier,” Alba whispered over the Rookie’s shoulder. “He heard the sound of the gate opening and is confused. He wants to know how to proceed.”

You can eavesdrop on their comms?” the Rookie asked, and she nodded her helmeted head.

The golden Brute seemed to grow frustrated, walking up to the door and examining the numeric keypad. He tapped at the buttons clumsily with his sausage-like fingers, a warning icon flashing in red as he was denied access. He roared like an angry gorilla, lifting his gravity hammer over his head and bringing it down on the gate, the metal ringing like a gong. It was a futile gesture, but the force of the blow sent a spiral of dust into the air, the windows on the buildings to either side of the door shaking in their panes.

The Brute barked at his pack, and they fell into formation, heading back the way that they had come. The Rookie watched them from the safety of the alley, thanking his stars that they hadn’t been sniffed out. It was probably only thanks to the dumpsters that surrounded them, the stench of rotting garbage sneaking its way through the filters in his helmet.

He waited with bated breath until the last red outline had vanished, then finally exhaled, Alba checking her comms to ensure that the pack was gone.

We should be safe,” she said, “they continue their patrol.”

She sounded as relieved as he was, she really wasn’t fucking around. He got the impression that she would have been in as much trouble as him if they had been discovered. How could she explain why she was wandering around in a deserted city with a Human in tow?

The Rookie took a moment to modify his route, steering well clear of the street that the Brutes had vanished down, then waved for Alba to follow him.


They wandered the empty streets, the Rookie keeping watch with his VISR, Alba monitoring her radio carefully. The sky was starting to clear somewhat now, a few twinkling stars visible here and there between the dark clouds, and the rain had finally let up. They came across another large, open plaza, areas that Alba told him were used as staging points by the Covenant. Due to the gates blocking the streets and sectioning off the different parts of the city, the aliens had been hopping between the plazas in Phantoms, setting up FoBs wherever there was room. They had been tasked with patrolling the walled-off areas, finding and killing any enemy forces therein.

We should go around,” she warned, “there will be Covenant forces stationed there.”

The Rookie pulled up his map, checking the maze-like layout of the streets. They all funneled into that plaza, there was no way to avoid it without doubling back and taking a completely circuitous route that would add hours to their journey. It was more of a traffic circle than a plaza, really. Four large roads intersected there, and the simplified map showed a circular junction with an island of grass in the center. That would be where the Covvies would have set up shop, it would make an admirable landing pad in a pinch.

All roads lead there,” he muttered, Alba keeping a lookout while his map filled his field of view. “Can’t go around. We’ll stick to the buildings, stay under cover.”

She still seemed nervous, but they had little choice. He closed the map, peering up at her as she was lost in thought for a moment.

Very well, but we must be careful.”

They made their way towards the junction, staying off the street as much as possible, cutting through empty buildings wherever they could. As they neared what they assumed to be a Covenant FoB, Alba stopped him, one finger pressed against the side of her helmet.

What?” he asked, “you pickin’ up traffic?”

No,” she replied with a shake of her head. “That is the problem. Alba knows that there is a forward base here, or we would not have encountered patrol, yet I hear nothing. There is no chatter, the local channel is quiet. There should be two teams patrolling at least, and large Covenant presence at the plaza.”

So what does that mean?” he asked.

I...do not know. It is unlikely that they would change their broadcast frequency.”

We have to pass by there anyway,” he replied, checking the ammo counter on his carbine. “We’ll take a look see.”


The Rookie led Alba to an office block that overlooked the junction, and they made their way to one of the upper floors, giving them a higher vantage point over the traffic circle. He instructed her to stay away from the windows, making sure that the room was clear before taking a look outside. It was a generic office, packed with cubicles and computer terminals. This place would be a great sniper’s nest, and he didn’t want to stumble across another pack of Jackals.

He crept over to the nearest window as Alba watched from the doorway, peeking over the sill, exposing as little of his head as possible. His VISR was able to penetrate the gloom, outlining objects in yellow, and enemies in red.

There was indeed a large, grassy island in the center of the intersection, the circular road absolutely clogged with abandoned vehicles. The Covvies had erected a forward operating base there, just as Alba had said. He could see a floating guard tower, stacks of pod-shaped crates that must have been offloaded there by a Phantom, and the aliens had erected rows of purple barriers to serve as fortifications. He counted three plasma cannons, and one of the broadcast towers that the Covenant used to boost their comms signals. They had the place on lockdown, even with a full team of ODSTs, it would have been a pain in the ass to assault.

What do you see?” Alba asked.

There’s a base there,” he replied, “but no Covvies.”

What?” she grumbled, perhaps assuming that he had made some kind of mistake. “Your primitive visor must be malfunctioning, move aside.”

She ignored his request to stay out of sight, marching across the office and shouldering him out of the way. Her eyes narrowed as she looked out over the intersection, her frustration replaced with confusion.

The Rookie gestured to the window as if to say I told you so.

But this is not possible, where could they have gone? They would not have been recalled to the carrier, the battle is all but won.”

He gestured for her to hand him the needle rifle, and Alba tossed the weapon to him. He leaned his carbine against the wall, then shouldered the rifle, peering through the magnified scope.

There’s your answer,” he said, “they’re dead.”

Dead?” Alba repeated, failing to conceal her shock. “Impossible, give me that.” He passed her the weapon, and she looked for herself, muttering something under her breath in a language that he didn’t understand. “We must go down and take closer look.”

Uh...thought you wanted to bail?” he said, gesturing behind him with his thumb.

We met full Covenant patrol not half hour ago,” she replied, leaning down to pick up his carbine and thrusting it into his arms. “We must solve this puzzle. If your UNSC are the culprits, then salvation may be closer than we think. If it was someone else, well…”

The Rookie swallowed, the implication not lost on him. If there were Sangheili in the area, then they needed to get the hell out of dodge, and double-time it. Those ugly bastards wouldn’t care whose side he and Alba were on, they would shoot first, and ask questions never. As much as Alba liked to tout their concept of honor, he had seen more than one person impaled through the back by a cloaked Elite.

They headed back down the stairwell, creeping out onto the street, their weapons raised as they scanned their surroundings for movement. Everything seemed quiet, but there was no telling what might be lurking in the shadows.

In his black BDU, the Rookie could go unseen when he needed to, he was the size of a mouse in comparison to some of the Covenant species. Alba, on the other hand, was nine feet tall and covered in gaudy armor. Going unseen was the last thing that she was built for.

He clambered over the derelict cars, Alba simply pushing them out of her way, wading through them like she was walking through waist-high water. When they reached the grass, the Rookie shouldered his carbine, checking behind one of the purple barricades. He swept his weapon across the Covenant base, checking the watchtower that was suspended on a beam of energy, his VISR picking up nothing.

I smell blood,” Alba said, sidling up behind him and lowering her rifle.

As they moved into the base, the Rookie began to paint a picture of what had transpired here. There were dead Covenant strewn everywhere, Brutes, Jackals, and Grunts alike. Technicolor blood stained the grass, burn marks, and embedded needles peppering the barricades. There had been one hell of a fight.

Tiny man,” Alba said, getting his attention as she pointed to a pile of dead Brutes. He recognized one of them, its armor tinted gold. “This is the patrol that crossed our path.”

Fuck,” he muttered. He and Alba hadn’t been far behind the Brute patrol, and they must have been relatively close when this firefight was going down. If the timing of events had lined up a little differently, they might have been caught up in the slaughter.

Don’t see any UNSC,” he added, turning over a dead Jackal with his boot. It had been killed by plasma fire, its wounds cauterized and blackened.

Here is culprit,” Alba said, the Rookie rounding another purple barricade to see a dead Elite slumped against a crate. It was wearing armor in an odd style, colored a dark shade of purple that bordered on red, with black underclothes. The shoulder pads were rounded and curved, tapering into a triangular point, the full-faced helmet similarly pointed.

Stealth Sangheili,” the Rookie muttered, “probably assigned to a special operations team.”

They use their cloaks to launch surprise attack on base,” Alba added. “Is no wonder they suffer so few casualties, they would have taken the defenders completely unawares.”

If they’re not lying here full of holes, then they’re out there somewhere,” the Rookie said as he looked about nervously. “Just what we need, fuckin’ SpecOps splitheads runnin’ around...”

We should not linger here,” Alba said as she moved over to the dead Brutes. “But first...” She leaned down, facing away from the Rookie as she seemed to struggle with something for a moment. She stowed her needle rifle on her back, then stood up, the golden Brute’s massive gravity hammer clutched in her hands. “Alba always wanted one of these, but they would never have bestowed the honor upon a female.”

The Rookie gestured for her to follow him, and they set off into the night.


Now what?” Alba asked. They had stopped in front of a long, underground tunnel that passed beneath a section of the city, leading to the coastal highway that they intended to follow out of New Mombasa. The mouth of the tunnel was closed off by a gate, but that wasn’t the issue. The pileup of abandoned cars that completely blocked their path was. Closing blast doors on a busy highway seemed more dangerous than blocking off random streets in the city, and it had caused a large traffic accident.

Can’t get through this way,” the Rookie muttered. “There’s gotta be maintenance access somewhere.”

He began to clamber over the derelict cars, making his way towards the tunnel. It seemed as if those at the front had stopped suddenly, and those behind had rear-ended them. There were no bodies that he could see, but it was hard to imagine there being no injuries in such a big crash.

To the left of the closed gate was a maintenance access door, as he had hoped, but it was protected by a metal cage that was secured with a hefty padlock. Only city workers were supposed to be able to get through this way, and there was no keypad on which to enter a code. He wrapped his fingers around one of the iron bars and pulled, straining against it, but to no avail. When that failed, he tried to break the rusted lock with the butt of his carbine, but it held fast.

Step aside, tiny man,” Alba said as she arrived behind him. He moved out of her way, expecting her to tear the cage from the door with her brute strength. Instead, she raised her hammer, the jets that were built into the engine block-shaped head flaring to life. The Rookie retreated a little further back, Alba swinging the weapon like a baseball bat, slamming it into the metal bars. The concrete around the door frame shook, beginning to crack where the rusted hinges were secured to it. She drew the weapon back and swung it a second time, her muscles rippling beneath her rubbery body suit. There was a monumental crash as the door, the cage, and the crumbling concrete that they were secured to detached from the wall and were sent toppling to the ground. Dust billowed, more of the concrete wall collapsing into a heap. When it cleared, there was a dark, jagged hole that led to the other side.

He gave her a thumbs-up, then stepped gingerly through the breach, emerging into the tunnel. Thankfully, it was not as dark on the inside as he had feared. The lighting strips along the curved ceiling had power, illuminating the road in a pale glow. There were cars in here too, and a few large trucks with semi-trailers, but they were far sparser than they had been at the gate. Before him, the tunnel curved out of sight, he couldn’t see the exit from where he was standing.

Alba followed him through, examining her surroundings. It must seem so alien to her, he doubted that the Covenant even used cars, this must look like a giant bunker from her perspective.

He stepped down onto the asphalt, feeling strangely out of place. Nobody ever walked down a road tunnel, that just didn’t happen. It was almost as surreal as seeing aliens erecting forward operating bases at traffic junctions.

Their footsteps echoed as they walked along, weaving between the vehicles. What the Rookie wouldn’t give for a Warthog with a flatbed that Alba could sit in right now, they could take a leisurely drive along the shoreline and leave New Mombasa far behind them. The only time he wanted to lay eyes on this city again was in a rear-view mirror. Unfortunately, it seemed as if pretty much all of the cars had been abandoned in such a hurry that they had been left idling, their batteries quickly draining. Maybe he could ask Alba to push one to a charging station, but it hardly seemed worth their time.

As they passed by a truck that was blocking two of the four lanes, Alba placed a hand on his shoulder, stopping him as she tightened her grip on the haft of her hammer. He wondered if she was picking something up on her comms, but she didn’t have a finger to her helmet.

Hold,” she whispered, “I smell something...”

Brutes?” he asked.

No. Alba works with Sangheili long enough to know their scent.”

The Rookie raised his weapon, scanning the tunnel with his VISR. He wasn’t picking up anything, they were probably cloaked. It must be the rest of the SpecOps team that had assaulted the FoB, they had tracked them all the way here. The Elites had probably been aware of their presence from the moment that they had opened the gate. The Sangheili were far more agile and far craftier than the Brutes, the blast doors might not have proven as much of a hindrance to them.

The gates at both ends of the tunnel were sealed, and so they must have come in through the hole that Alba had made in the tunnel wall. At least they had some idea of where they might be attacking from, and the tunnel was narrow enough that the aliens couldn’t flank.

How should they prepare? How could they fight an enemy that they couldn’t see? If only his helmet were equipped with a motion tracker, like the ones that the Spartans used, then he might stand some chance of defending himself.

Stay behind me,” Alba said, stepping in front of him and blocking his view. She gripped her hammer in both hands, standing in the road defiantly, almost as though she was daring them to attack her first. Knowing the Elites, that might well work. He was about to ask her what the hell she thought she was doing, and why she thought that he needed protection, but then he remembered that her power armor had shielding. It could take some punishment before it shut down, and the enemy would be forced to reveal themselves in the process. Active camo systems collapsed when the user fired their weapon.

They waited for a few moments longer, the stillness in the tunnel growing unbearable, until there was a sudden flash of light. The glow of an energy sword projecting from its hilt cast its shadow on them, the dual prongs of its blue-tinted blades cackling with magnetically-shaped plasma. The air shimmered, its wielder’s cloak not quite perfect, distorting the scenery behind it almost imperceptibly.

The Elite was fast, but Alba was ready, leaping back and throwing the Rookie clear as the alien swung its sword. The blade cut through the air with an audible swish, missing Alba’s belly by an inch, cleaving through the cab of the abandoned truck where they had just been standing. It went through the chassis like a hot knife through butter, the metal slagging where it came into contact with the weapon, the camouflage system collapsing to reveal the Elite as the Rookie picked himself up hastily.

The thing stood seven feet tall on a pair of powerful, digitigrade legs that ended in two toes. It gripped the handle of its alien weapon with two long fingers, and two opposable thumbs, one on each side of its hand. It was wearing the same armor as the one that they had found dead at the junction, colored a dark purple that bordered on wine, the glowing lights on its stylized helmet resembling a pair of eyes. The Rookie had seen them without their armor on before, and they looked like grey, scaly dinosaurs. Rather than having jaws like most vertebrates, their mouthparts more resembled the mandibles of an insect, split into four finger-like appendages that were lined with sharp teeth.

Wort wort wort!”

The alien issued a command, and its comrades opened up with their plasma rifles, three more of the aliens appearing as their cloaks collapsed. They were stood on the roofs of nearby cars, and one of them had clambered up onto the trailer of another truck, raining down bolts of energy as they sprung their trap.

Alba weathered some of the fire, the shield that protected her body flickering and flashing, the Rookie joining her as she took cover behind the truck’s long trailer. He tried to calm his racing heart, getting his breathing under control. They would have a hard enough time taking on a Sangheili SpecOps team with a full squad of ODSTs, and he had already seen the Brutes that they had massacred. He aimed his carbine, waiting for the Elite to round the cab of the truck in pursuit of them.

The Sangheili was smarter than that, however. There was a thud from atop the trailer as the alien landed on top of it, loosing a war cry as he brandished his blade. They were so agile, the thing had jumped at least fifteen feet straight up. Before the Rookie could even aim his weapon at it, the Elite was leaping at them, swinging its blade wildly.

Both he and Alba were forced to back up, the crackling plasma blade flashing as the Elite bellowed in its coarse, alien language. One swipe from that thing could cleave either one of them in two, and the other Elites would be coming to help in seconds.

I will deal with this one!” Alba yelled, facing off against the swordsman. “Hold off the rest!”

Easier said than fucking done. The Rookie cursed, sprinting to the right, heading for the cover of a nearby car that would give him a view around the jackknifed truck. He dove behind the vehicle, plasma bolts impacting the chassis, sizzling as they melted the paintwork. His VISR highlighted his three targets in red, they were pushing to support their friend, using the cars for cover just as he was. The difference was that the Elites were seven feet tall and weighed three hundred pounds, making for far easier targets than a Human.

Two of them dipped behind a car, popping in and out of cover to harry him with rapid-fire plasma from their weapons. They were strong enough to wield them with a single hand, as though they were mere pistols.

The Rookie was forced to duck, the third alien racing forward as his comrades provided covering fire, weaving between the derelicts with surprising grace. The Elites were so aggressive, fearless, but that also made them vulnerable.

He took a knee behind the car and shouldered his carbine, firing through the driver’s side window, the radioactive round punching through the glass and exiting the passenger's window. He didn’t wait to see if the first shot had done the job, the aliens were shielded just as Alba was, now was not the time to be conservative with his ammo.

He tapped the trigger, the carbine jumping in his grasp as it fired in semi-auto, the barrel accelerating super-heated, radioactive projectiles. They left green trails in their wake as they shattered the car’s windows, the advancing Sangheili staggering as the sustained fire collapsed his shield, tearing through his armor plating. He loosed a pained roar, planting his face in the asphalt, his wounds smoking as the projectiles continued to burn his innards.

Almost immediately, his two friends switched up their strategy, the Rookie throwing himself to the ground as a stream of return fire came through the same shattered windows. The bolts zipped by above him, their blue light illuminating the interior of the car as they passed through it, melting glass and searing the upholstery.

Alba’s roar distracted him, and he looked to his left to see the two aliens battling it out behind the cover of the trailer. She swung her weapon overhead, slamming it into the ground with such force that he could have sworn he saw the truck bounce, the road beneath her cracking like the surface of a frozen lake. The Elite was agile, leaping out of the way, the hammer’s bladed head missing him by a hair. Even so, the gravity field that was generated by the weapon sent him reeling, pieces of smashed asphalt bouncing off his armor as he was knocked back, slamming him into the trailer hard enough that the metal dented.

Alba took full advantage of his disorientation, drawing back her hammer like she was about to swing a golf club. She brought the weapon towards the Sangheili, the jets flaring, the gravity generator in the head crackling with arcs of blue energy as it compounded the kinetic force. It slammed into his torso, his shields collapsing instantly in a flash of white light, his armored chest piece crumpling like an empty soda can beneath a boot. There was another flash of light as the gravity hammer released its charge, a spreading shockwave kicking up dust in a circle around Alba, the Elite’s limp body forced straight through the side of the trailer by the impact. He was already dead by the time his corpse slammed into the other side of the container, his internal organs turned to sludge, the blow strong enough to send the semi-trailer toppling over. It landed on its side with a crash, dragging the cab along for the ride, Alba ducking behind it as a stream of plasma came her way.

The Rookie emerged from behind the car to take a few more pot shots, the odds now even. It was two against two, the Sangheili were now on the defensive.

Alba stowed her hammer on her back, some kind of magnetic holstering system securing it while she shouldered her needle rifle, the pink projectiles joining the Rookie’s radioactive trails. She made a pincushion out of the vehicle that the Elites were hiding behind, the glowing spikes embedding themselves deep into the metal.

The Rookie managed to tag one of them a couple of times as the alien emerged from cover to fire at Alba, the Elite’s shields shutting down, leaving him vulnerable. Alba took full advantage, the Rookie watching as half a dozen needles embedded themselves in his chest. Their pink glow grew more intense, the Sangheili raising his clenched fists to the sky as his roar echoed through the tunnel, his companion leaping clear. The needles detonated, the Sangheili reduced to red mist and fragments of purple armor, the explosion tipping the nearby car onto its roof and destroying the lighting strip on the ceiling directly above him.

The remaining Elite was out in the open, spraying his plasma rifle at Alba and the Rookie randomly as he scrambled to reach cover. The Rookie ducked his head behind the car as the bolts narrowly missed him, but Alba leapt over the felled trailer, her shield flashing as she weathered the gunfire. She discarded her rifle and drew her hammer, the ground shaking as she landed on the road, charging towards the Sangheili. He poured plasma bolts into her, the Rookie’s heart skipping a beat as he saw her shield collapse, but she was already within range of her target. The Elite popped a glowing energy knife from a projector on his wrist as she closed, intending to face her head-on, to his credit. Alba’s hammer lifted him clear off the ground, the release of kinetic energy from the gravity generator hitting him like a truck a moment later, sending him careening through the air. He hit the far wall of the tunnel a good ten feet off the road, the concrete crumbling behind him, his body falling listlessly to shatter the windshield of a car.

Now say to Alba that she cannot wield chieftain’s hammer!” she bellowed, her triumphant laughter echoing. She turned to look at the Rookie, planting her weapon in the asphalt as her chest piece rose and fell with her labored breathing. “Tiny man, are you hurt?”

He stood up and brushed himself off, giving her a thumbs-up as he let his carbine hang by his side.

We fight well together, tiny man,” she added breathlessly. “Alba never imagined that she would work alongside an Imp. You are like little Demon. It is pleasant change from useless Unggoy and impulsive Kig-yar. Here,” she said as she reached into a pouch on her armor. She withdrew a fresh magazine for the carbine, tossing the cylindrical object to him. He snatched it out of the air, then ejected the loaded mag, which was almost dry. It shot out of the magazine well with such force that it bounced off his helmet, the Rookie slowly turning his expressionless visor towards Alba as she chuckled at his reaction.

Little humor helps with tension, no?”

He loaded the weapon, then made his way over to the nearest dead Sangheili, stooping to retrieve one of the plasma rifles and stowing it on his belt. There was no telling when they might be able to rearm, better load up whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Tiny man!” Alba called, getting his attention as she ducked behind the toppled semi-trailer. She emerged with the inactive grip of the energy sword in her hand, waving it at him. “Souvenir?”

I’ll pass,” he replied. “More chance of killin’ myself with that thing than anyone else.”

Perhaps my carbine is a better fit for you,” she said, leaning down to retrieve her needle rifle. “You wield it with purpose.”

Uh, thanks?”

She walked back over to him and gave him a pat on the back, the blow enough to wind him through his armor.

Come, we must press on. Later, you can tell story of how Alba saves you from Sangheili, win her favor with your kin.”

Pretty sure it was a team effort,” he replied, rolling his shoulders as he caught his breath.

If you say so, tiny man,” she teased.

Alba – Waterfront Highway Tunnel, eleven hours after slip-space rupture.

Alba’s heart pounded in her chest, she could hear her blood rushing in her ears, she felt so...alive! How long had it been since she had overcome such odds, since she had faced off against such a worthy foe in single combat? A Special Operations Sangheili, one of the most skilled soldiers in the Covenant, and she had bested him with a gravity hammer that her people would never have permitted her to wield under normal circumstances. Now that she was free of the Covenant, she could do whatever she wanted, there was nothing to hold her back from reaching her full potential as a warrior.

The Imp walked along beside her, unmoved, like a rock standing defiantly against the waves. Nothing ever seemed to shake him, he had no fear, he just accepted whatever life threw at him and made do with whatever he had on hand. She felt a swelling in her chest when she looked at him, was that pride? Camaraderie?

He was so unlike anything that she had encountered before. The Unggoy were cowardly and unreliable, they panicked under stress. The Kig-yar were impulsive, they lusted for violence, often compromising their tactical advantage by being overly eager. Her fellow Brutes were similarly violent, flying into a rage and behaving erratically when provoked, not to mention their disdain for her as a female soldier. The Yanme’e and the Lekgolo were so alien as to be unknowable, and while she respected the Sangheili for their principles, they were inflexible. They stuck to their traditions so rigidly, dying avoidable deaths and throwing their lives away for the sake of their honor.

This Imp, on the other hand, this Human...he embodied everything that she sought in a squadmate. He was stoic, adaptable, brave. Not only that, but he didn’t treat her the way that other Covenant did. The Imp didn’t care about her rank, the color of her armor, or the design of her helmet. He didn’t care that she was female, what her species was, or what Gods she prayed to. He cared only that she fought at his side.

They continued on until the gate that blocked off the end of the tunnel came into view, but the Imp took a detour, leading her to a door on the left wall perhaps a hundred feet in front of it. He tried to open it, but it was locked, another door that he lacked a code for.

He took a step back and gestured to it, Alba getting the picture. She raised her foot, bringing it down on the door, tearing it from its hinges and sending it crashing to the ground. She ducked beneath the low doorway as the Human led her into a room, lit by a dim lamp in the ceiling, the walls lined with bulky pipes and trailing wires. It was clearly some kind of maintenance room, there were shelves towards the back that were loaded with parts and strange tools.

What are we doing here?” Alba asked.

Gotta rest, get some shuteye,” the Imp replied. “Been on my feet for twelve hours, been awake for twice that. Seems as good a place as any.”

You wish to sleep?” she asked skeptically. “Gravity here is half what Alba is used to, tiny man must be twice as tired.”

He sat down on the floor gingerly and set his carbine aside, pulling the packet of gel from his pocket and beginning to tend to his numerous wounds again. Alba lay her weapons on the ground and took off her helmet, running her fingers through her hair, and finding it damp due to the exertion of their recent battle. She was still flooded with adrenaline, the last thing that she wanted to do right now was rest, but her companion wouldn’t be very effective in combat if he was exhausted. Who knew what dangers they might have to face together in the future.

She walked up to the felled door and lifted it off the ground, leaning it against the entrance to block off the little room from the rest of the tunnel.

There, a little safer maybe,” she muttered. “No wandering Unggoy will stumble upon us.”

She lumbered over to a nearby wall that was mostly clear of pipes and electronics, leaning against it as she sat on the ground. It wasn’t the most comfortable place to rest, there was nothing but cold concrete on all sides, and her armor wasn’t exactly making it any more tolerable. Her companion was already settling in. He was done applying the green, foul-smelling gel to his wounds, his arms and legs crossed as he leaned against an adjacent wall. She couldn’t tell if he was already asleep or not, his helmet obscured his face from view, but she wouldn’t put it past him.

She willed herself to sleep, not knowing when the next opportunity might present itself, but just as her eyes began to close, there was a sound like a crack of thunder. The ground shook, dust raining down from the ceiling, the tools rattling on their shelves. The solitary bulb that lit the room swung back and forth, casting long shadows. The Imp was jolted back to life, his head jerking left and right as though he might be able to locate the source of the sound, his hand creeping towards his carbine. The roar gradually began to fade into a less alarming background noise, though it was no less ominous.

Alba has heard this sound before,” she muttered, the Imp turning his visor towards her. “The fleet has begun glassing the city.”

Glassing, the process by which Covenant ships employed their plasma weapons to destroy the surface of a planet, razing it to the point that it became unable to support life. All that was left when their work was done was the melted bedrock, resembling the volcanic glass from which the strategy got its name. It was another barbaric practice that made her glad to be free of her former masters.

To her surprise, the alien lowered his head again, relaxing.

Should we not seek cover?” Alba asked.

Nah,” he replied from beneath his helmet. “Ain’t gonna get out of the way of a glassing on foot, and we’re already beneath a few feet of concrete. We’re as safe as we’re gonna get.”

Once again, his aloofness impressed her. They could be lanced by a giant beam of energy that would reduce the pair of them down to clouds of atoms in the blink of an eye, and there was nothing that they could do about it, but he didn’t seem in the least bit worried. It was outside of his control, and so why waste energy panicking? The result would be the same regardless of how much he fretted.

Alba took a page out of the Human’s book, taking a few deep breaths, calming herself and trying to drive the images of the burning city above them from her mind.

We make good team, tiny man,” she said, the Imp glancing across the room at her. “Alba wishes that she had a dozen like you, war would have been long over by now.”

You’d make a decent ODST if we could find a drop pod big enough for you,” he replied, and she chuckled at him. There was another rumble, a reminder of the glassing. The Imp might have an iron will, but Alba needed to distract herself, or she would go crazy. She had only ever seen glassings from orbit, she had never been on the ground when they had begun, never this close.

You do not talk much, tiny man, but you listen well. When I was a warrior in the Covenant, nobody listened to me, not as you do. My underlings did as Alba bade them out of fear, and those of higher rank cared not for my opinion, they expected only obedience without question. But now...Alba answers to nobody,” she added excitedly. “There is no Chieftain to yell at Alba, no Shipmaster, no Alpha Pack. They cannot tell Alba what she must wear, where she must go, how she must act.”

She reached out and lifted her hammer, planting it on her lap, admiring it as the Imp watched her curiously from beneath his helmet.

On Doisac, only Chieftains may wield this hammer. Chieftains must be male, and so Alba would never have been granted this honor. Even if Alba were somehow to slay Tartarus himself and take Fist of Rukt from his cold, dead paws, she still would not be recognized. With tiny man, Alba can wield her hammer, realize her true potential.”

Big mistake on their part,” the Imp replied. His arms and legs were still crossed, his head bowed as though he was asleep, but he was still listening. “You’re lethal with that thing.”

Alba smiled to herself, her cheeks reddening. Needless to say, she was not accustomed to receiving compliments.

Life in Covenant is all about status,” she continued, setting her hammer down at her side. “What species you are, what color armor you have, shape of your helmet. Alba reaches rank of Captain after years of struggle, should be commanding pack of lesser Jiralhanae. But males will not obey a female, and so they assign me teams of Kig-yar and Unggoy, different ones each time. There is no bond, no camaraderie. Even if Alba should care to know her squad, they will be gone by next deployment. Makes Alba feel...lonely,” she muttered. “But now that Alba is more alone than ever, I have new comrade,” she added with a chuckle.

Never thought I’d fight alongside a Covvie,” he said, “but you’re growin’ on me.”

When Alba found you, you were wandering like lost cub,” she said with a teasing smirk. “Injured and alone. Alba could not kill tiny man, he was too cute.”

Helljumpers ain’t cute,” he grumbled.

One can be both cute and brave,” she laughed. She rose from her sitting position, marching over to him and planting herself beside him, draping a long arm about his shoulders. He sagged under its weight, but he didn’t complain, Alba exposing her sharp teeth in a grin.

Alba and tiny man, we are our own squad, yes?”

I’ve fought alongside less reliable Marines, sure.”

In Jiralhanae culture, a warrior’s merit is measured by success on battlefield, prowess in combat, bravery. Tiny man may be Human, but he would make admirable Brute,” she said as he rapped her claws on his helmet. “Now Alba sees why Sangheili are so taken with your kind. They argued on your behalf, you know. Wanted to induct you into Covenant, same as Lekgolo. Those worms resisted the Prophets, fought hard, earned respect of the Sangheili. They wanted you to serve alongside Covenant troops, but they never imagined that it would happen like this.”

There was another loud rumble, the room shaking, more dust falling from above.

We might die at any moment,” she mumbled, glancing nervously at the ceiling. “Alba is not used to this, not being in control. If I should make a blunder in combat, then so be it, but this...”

Best not to think about it,” the Imp replied.

Listen,” she continued, her tone turning sly as she drummed her fingers on his helmet playfully. “Alba wonders if tiny man will help her...distract herself, take mind off glassing.” The Imp glanced up at her from beneath his helmet, her grip on him growing a little tighter as she leaned closer, her warm breath misting his visor.

Now that Alba is no longer Covenant soldier, she can do as she pleases. Has been long time since Alba could let guard down, relax, ease tension.”

She planted her large hands to either side of his helmet, slowly lifting it off.

The Rookie – Waterfront Highway Tunnel, twelve hours after drop.

The Rookie felt Alba’s dinner plate-sized hands close around his helmet, and she lifted it off slowly, the unnatural colors and outlines of his VISR replaced by her grey skin and her pink lips. He wasn’t an idiot, he knew what she was proposing, but he wasn’t sure why. Was it because they were probably going to die, or more because the previous fight had filled her with adrenaline that she needed to burn off? Either way, he hesitated for a moment, peering up at her as she gazed down at him with those yellow eyes. Her pink tongue emerged to wet her lips, her warm breath washing over him. He had expected it to smell bad, like carrion, but that wasn’t the case at all.

What do you say, tiny man? We have privacy now, no need to hurry...” He watched in silence as she began to remove pieces of her shining, blue armor. She started with the heavy pauldrons, detaching them from the rubbery underclothes that she wore beneath, discarding them on the ground. Next, she reached behind her back, taking off the bulky plating and disconnecting the thick tubing that must feed power to the rest of the suit, or maybe it was responsible for her shielding. After that came her chest piece, Alba hooking her thumbs under it, popping it free as though it was magnetically attached to the hardpoints beneath.

As soon as their support was removed, a pair of monumental breasts fell free, their weight straining against the flexible material that made up her suit. His eyes were drawn to them, and how could they not be? They were at least as large as his helmet, if not slightly bigger, the tight-fitting garment leaving little to the imagination. She draped her arm around him again, letting the considerable weight of her chest rest on him, her yielding flesh spilling over his shoulder like molten metal as her suit struggled to contain her. It was like carrying a sack of fertilizer, not heavy enough to be uncomfortable, but impressive all the same. He felt her breast press up against his cheek, his head sinking into it like a down pillow, tantalizingly soft through the thin barrier of her clothing.

Alba has spent so many months fighting off pushy suitors,” she muttered, “has been too long since I felt the warmth of a male. Assault carrier is not best place for courtship, very little privacy, along with...low-quality mates.”

She leaned closer to him, the Rookie feeling her blunt snout descend into his hair, her breath blowing it as if she was taking in his scent.

We do not have all night. Will you keep Alba waiting, tiny man?”

What the hell. They might be dead in a few hours, and it wasn’t as though he’d get this chance again. If he could drop from orbit in a tiny, one-man coffin with jet boosters, then he could take on a Brute in the sack. It wasn’t exactly regulation to sleep with your coworkers in the UNSC either, how long had it been since he’d had shore leave? Not since the start of this damned war, that was for sure.

A’ight,” he said, Alba’s bosom quivering as she chuckled at his reaction.

If you will not use that tongue to speak, then perhaps Alba can find other uses for it.”

He felt her hands close around his rapidly warming cheeks, large enough to encompass his head entirely. Her skin was rougher than that of a human, thick and leathery, yet still far smoother and more pleasant to the touch than he had imagined. Her rosy lips neared his, her protruding tusks brushing his face as she locked him in a tentative embrace.

Her lips were so much larger and fuller than those of a human woman, the metallic taste of her saliva pricking his taste buds as her alien tongue pushed into his mouth. It was much longer than he had been anticipating, thick and fleshy, tapered into a point. The slimy muscle began to explore the inside of his mouth, the sensation of its velvety surface sliding against his inner cheeks and his palate sending sparks of electrical pleasure weaving their way down his spine. She was so warm, her winding organ almost alarmingly strong, coiling around his tongue like a snake as she cradled his face in her hands. He felt its tip brush the back of his throat, Alba drawing back a little as she felt him tense, settling into a slow and placating rhythm of gentle licks and flurries instead.

The Rookie would never have imagined that Brutes kissed, nor would he have imagined that Alba would be so good at it. His spine arched as she teased him with her skillful strokes, painting the inside of his mouth with all the finesse and care of an artist’s brush, the lurid sound of it filling his head. She could have picked a lock with that thing, written her name, she had such fine control over it.

She paused for a moment to let him breathe, the Rookie watching as her dexterous tongue withdrew, linked to his lips by a glistening strand of her saliva. She peered down at him with her yellow, alien eyes, seeming to glow like those of a cat in the dim lighting of the maintenance room as they were framed by her red sclera. For a moment, he had forgotten where he was, so engrossed in their kiss that the room around him had seemed to melt away. Taking their minds off things indeed…

Alba drew away from him, kneeling before him as she reached up and began to pull down the zipper that was built into her suit. He took a moment to admire her figure without the armor obscuring it. The rubbery garment clung to her like a latex glove, thick enough to be insulating, but thin enough that he could make out every curve and contour of her body.

Calling her a stout woman would have been an understatement. At nine feet tall and at least a thousand pounds, she had more in common with a rhino than a woman, yet her body was soft in all of the right places. Her breasts were full and heavy, her hips flared to give her an hourglass waist, despite the obvious strength of her core. Her thighs were so round and packed with the muscle required to hold her massive body aloft that there was no gap between them.

As she slowly dragged the zipper from her collar to her chest, teasing him, the weight of her bosom began to spread the garment open. The suit was pressing her breasts together, creating cleavage so deep that he could have lost his arm in there up to the shoulder, the fat wobbling subtly with her movements. He noted that there was mottled, dark grey coloration near her collarbone, what almost looked like large freckles patterning her chest.

Soon, the rubbery clothing reached its limit, the tearing sound of the zipper being forcefully parted as her breasts sprang loose making the Rookie’s heart skip, almost as though they were making a willful attempt to escape their prison.

As the two halves of her clothing tore open, her breasts fell free, bouncing gently as gravity wrested control of them. They were pert and shapely, despite their immense size. He had to keep in mind that these were breasts designed for far higher gravity than that of Earth, retaining their flawless, teardrop shape in spite of their sheer mass. They were closer in size to beach balls than anything that he was accustomed to, hanging there, swaying gently in time with her breathing. Her nipples were pink, contrasting with her slate-grey hide, already erect as she dragged the zipper lower.

She had the belly of a powerlifter, packed with muscle that was just barely visible beneath her paunch, but there were no sculpted abs. This was functional strength, muscle developed from necessity, rather than from the diet and exercise regimen of a bodybuilder. There was some of the same patterning on her midriff that he had noticed on her chest, as well as a couple of pink scars that stood out against her dark skin.

When the zipper reached the piece of blue armor that was serving as a kind of loincloth, she stopped, grinning at the Rookie as she licked her chops with her long tongue like a wolf anticipating its next kill.

All in good time,” she chuckled, her low voice shaking his bones. “Now, stand up and show Alba what tiny man has for her...”

His erection was already straining against the fabric of his BDU as he rose to his feet, and he reached down, fumbling with his zipper through his fingerless gloves. He removed his belt and cast it aside, along with the satchels and tools that were clipped to it, pulling down his fly and moving his underwear aside. His member bounced free, as hard as he had ever seen it, bobbing in the air in time with his heartbeat as Alba’s yellow eyes played over it covetously. He had no idea how endowed male Brutes were, but she made no indication that she was disappointed, her lips pulling back to expose her sharp teeth in a mischievous grin.

She pounced on him suddenly, wrapping one arm around his rump as she pulled him closer, the meat of her bosom squashing up against his torso. He sank deep into her boundless cleavage, her breasts pressed tightly together by her biceps as the muscles bulged beneath her suit. His view of anything below his waist was obscured, there was just a mass of grey flesh, Alba leaning down so that her head was about level with his chest. He lurched as he felt her unfamiliar fingers brush his erection from somewhere beneath.

Alba traced the contours of his member with her fingertips, following a vein with her dull claws, the sensation tickling him. Something about not being able to see what she was doing made it all the more intense. She let his organ rest in her palm, feeling it throb in her hand, her warmth permeating him to the core.

The Rookie reached out and sank his fingers into her cropped hair, finding it soft and fluffy, his knees threatening to give out on him as she squeezed him gently. It was more like fur than human hair, it reminded him of petting a very shaggy cat, Alba blowing warm air out of her nostrils as he took handfuls. It seemed to arouse her, her yellow irises flashing as she glanced up at him, her desire palpable. There was a hunger in those eyes, one that he found himself hoping was not literal.

He lurched as his feet left the floor, Alba supporting his weight with her forearm alone, like he was sitting on a swing. He kept a tight grip on her hair for fear that he would fall, but she had a good hold on him, Alba lifting him until he felt the weight of her breasts spread across his lap. She wrapped her other arm around him, pulling him into her bosom.

His exposed member was buried between the shifting globes of fat, their weight bearing down on him as she pressed them together with her upper arms. The skin here was still rougher than that of a human, but smoother than he had expected, its texture oddly pleasant as it brushed against his shaft. It reminded him of leather, but far more supple, the flesh beyond as soft as melting butter.

Tiny man might want to hold on tight,” Alba said, grinning at him as she turned her gaze down towards her bust. Her boobs were large enough that the Rookie’s member was completely buried in her cleavage, not even its tip visible.

He couldn’t help but thrust into them, every impact of his hips sending a ripple through her bosom, Alba squeezing her breasts together gleefully as he bucked into the depths of her warm cleavage. Despite the fact that her flesh provided almost no resistance, they wrapped around him tightly, their weight bearing down on him from all angles.

She parted her lips as he watched, giving him a lurid smile as her long, pink tongue emerged from her mouth. She let a rope of her drool droop from it, his eyes tracking the strand of clear fluid as it landed on her bosom, sliding down into her cleavage and out of sight. More followed, Alba letting her viscous saliva slough down between her breasts, its warmth soon reaching his member. It coated his skin in a slippery, bubbling sheen, sliding down his shaft and wetting his pubic hair. It acted as a lubricant, making his throbbing erection glide against her skin. It was so hot and slimy, her bosom so tight and soft that it could be mistaken for a lover’s loins.

Alba began to move, lifting her breasts, then letting them fall back down into his lap with an audible slap. He was still wearing his BDU, but he could feel the impact through the fabric and Kevlar, her bosom wobbling like a plate of jello as she struggled to contain it between her arms. She pulled him closer in the process, his member assaulted on all sides by twisting, shifting meat, made wonderfully slimy by her spit. She found a slow, punishing rhythm, the Rookie unable to stop himself from rutting into her cleavage, a fact that seemed to amuse the eager Brute to no end.

He leaned back as the sensation got the better of him, forgetting where he was for a moment, his stomach lurching as he began to topple over backwards. Alba’s hand found the small of his back, supporting him as he squirmed in her tight grasp, his toes curling in his boots as they dangled a good foot off the concrete floor.

Alba chuckled, watching him rock into her bosom intently, biting her lower lip with her sharp teeth as he tugged at her fluffy hairdo inadvertently.

Tiny man has stamina,” she said with a smirk, flexing her biceps and crushing her boobs together. A jolt of pleasure coursed through him as he felt her already tight cleavage narrow, the walls of wobbling meat bearing down on him, his alien partner smirking at his reaction.

Alba has something else that she thinks you will like...”

The Rookie released his tight hold on her hair as she leaned down, her dull snout pressing between her boobs. After a moment, he shivered, feeling the pointed tip of her flexible tongue meet his glans as it wormed its way deeper. Stars flashed before his eyes as her organ brushed his tip, sneaking beneath his foreskin and sliding against his tender flesh. It was as smooth as silk, damp her with her saliva, setting his every nerve aflame as it dragged across his most sensitive anatomy.

She wound its obscene length around his shaft like an anaconda trying to constrict its prey, squeezing him tightly, her organ long enough that it could reach the base of his pulsing member and glance his balls. His hands quickly found her hair again, Alba chuckling contentedly as he held on for dear life, as though he might float away. Her deep, feminine contralto resonated within him, he could have sworn that he felt it in his very bones.

Alba used her tongue like an appendage, maneuvering his length between her quivering breasts, guiding it towards her mouth. She kissed the head, her full, puffy lips sliding over it to encompass it entirely. The Rookie arched his spine, his eyes snapping shut of their own accord as she pursed her lips around his cock, the flat of her tongue rubbing against the sensitive underside of his glans.

He was somewhat worried about her teeth and her tusks, but she kept them clear as she began to swallow more of his length. Her soft lips crawled down his shaft, inching their way along as the coils of her velvety tongue flexed around him, her snout vanishing into her cleavage like she was digging for truffles.

Her breasts seemed to get in the way, and she grew momentarily frustrated, the Rookie’s head spinning as she switched positions without any warning. Through wide eyes, he saw the naked light bulb dangling from the ceiling above, the room around him a blur of movement. The next thing he knew, he was lying on his back on the concrete floor, his BDU shielding him from the cold surface. Alba was now kneeling between his parted legs, his member glistening with her saliva as it bobbed in the cool air, the alien watching him covetously as he propped himself up on his elbows. Suddenly, she wrapped her strong arms around his lower body, lifting his butt off the ground, her exposed breasts pouring over his legs like melting candle wax.

Alba wasted no time, she was ravenous, picking up where she had left off as her smooth lips engulfed his erection. They finally reached the base, Alba taking him to the hilt in her mouth as her muzzle pressed against his stomach, sucking gently as she drew him deeper. The warm flesh of her inner cheeks sealed around him, like he was being vacuum-packed in damp silk, her lips pursing as his member brushed the back of her throat.

She was sucking so hard, as if she was trying to draw out his emission through sheer force alone, his member sinking into the cushiony surface of her tongue. The organ began to lap at his exposed glans, swirling around the head, teasing him with gentle licks. It was all that he could do to lie back on the floor, almost upside-down from his perspective as she suspended his lower body in the air, the waves of pleasure dizzying him.

Is tiny man nearing his limits?” she asked, the vibrations tickling him as she talked around his member. “Alba must wring one out of him if she is to enjoy him to fullest.” Her pace increased, Alba sliding him in and out of her mouth, coiling her tongue around his length as she went. There were so many varied sensations. The smoothness of her cheeks, the maddening roiling of her tongue, her lips sliding against the veneer of drool that clung to his skin. It was all too much, he felt like someone was frying his brain in a pan, his neurons fizzing and popping with every throb of stark pleasure that rolled over him.

A familiar pressure began to rise, an urgency that tugged at the back of his addled mind, demanding that he seek out more stimulation. He started to thrust into Alba’s mouth, and she allowed it, letting him set the pace as she brought him closer and closer to his peak.

A sweet ache washed over him as his abdominal muscles began to tense, Alba feeling the abrupt change in his tempo, gripping him tightly in her arms as she slid her lips to the base of his member. She met his gaze with those yellow eyes, watching him intently, the corners of her mouth turned up in a wry smile as she got the better of him.

His back arched as the first rope of his emission splashed against the roof of her mouth, Alba’s eyes widening for a moment, her bushy eyebrows raised. He gritted his teeth against the ecstasy, every nerve in his body lighting up like a switchboard, pleasant shivers running up and down his spine like cold fingers as his member jumped between her lips. He was afforded a scant moment to recover before the next wave of his orgasm made him its plaything, the wracking sensations rolling over him one after another as he filled Alba’s waiting mouth with his seed.

He lurched as he felt her tongue moving through the warm, gelatinous blend of his fluids and her saliva, the feeling of its slippery surface grazing his glans cutting through the haze of his pleasure like a hot knife. It was as though all of his senses had been dialed up to eleven, the doting stroking of her practiced organ amplified tenfold.

The Rookie could do little else but relax in her arms as he rode out the pangs of his climax, the euphoria of his afterglow falling over him like a heated blanket, Alba easing out the last surge of pleasure before gently lowering him to the floor.

He watched, panting as she seemed to sample his essence, rolling it across her tongue as her gaze met his. She swallowed conspicuously, wanting him to see it, his heart fluttering as her tongue emerged to lick her lips. His eyes wandered down to her chest, where her ample breasts hung enticingly, the sheen of her slaver still clinging to her grey skin.

Impressive, for someone so small,” she said as she peered down at him. “But that could be said of all of your feats this night.”

She dropped to all-fours, supporting herself with her hands as she crawled on top of him, her breasts swaying with the motion. Their difference in stature was such that when their faces were level, she was practically straddling his knees, the heft of her breasts coming to rest on his torso as she brought her lips down towards his neck.

The Rookie tensed as Alba’s lips found his throat, planting a sucking kiss above the collar of his BDU, a pleasant tremor disturbing his afterglow. He felt the warmth of her tongue as it grazed his jugular, leaving a smear of saliva in its wake, her teeth pinching his skin as she nibbled at him playfully. They were surprisingly dull, not sharp at all. She would have to apply a great deal of pressure to break the skin.

She paused her affectionate nuzzling, sitting atop him as she gazed down at his red face with a satisfied grin. She seemed to think that she had gotten the better of him, but he was about to prove otherwise.

How will you have me, tiny man?” she asked as she exposed her pearly teeth in a smirk. “Will Alba take you on your back?”

No, on yours,” he replied defiantly.

Her smile grew even wider, Alba shuffling off him and letting him up. She looked around the room, perhaps considering where would be the most comfortable place to sit, then decided on leaning against a nearby wall.

The Rookie rose to his knees, his member still rigid despite his recent orgasm, a string of her drool dangling from it. Alba parted her thighs in invitation to him, so thick that he could scarcely have gotten his arms around one of them, her lower body still armored and obscured beneath her rubbery suit. The garment ended just above her knees, almost like an old-timey bathing suit, her shins protected by a pair of blue greaves.

She removed the plating from her thighs, setting it aside with the rest of her discarded armor, then began to unfasten the straps that secured the greaves to her legs. He noted that none of the small, blue lights that were recessed into the armor were lit now. The backpack-like assembly that had been connected to the rest of her suit with snaking tubes must have housed the power source.

As she removed the greaves, she gave him a view of her lower legs. Her knees almost seemed to have natural pads, and her shins were armored with thick skin that was a darker shade of grey, reminding him of an elephant.

Now the only piece of armor that she was wearing was the one protecting her crotch, like a rigid loincloth made from blue metal. She pulled it away from its hardpoint as he watched, revealing the clear outline of her mound beneath her clinging suit. It really was skin-tight, how did she even get into that thing? The zipper continued down between her legs, and Alba took it in her hand, slowly dragging it lower. Between the parted teeth, he saw more of her grey skin, mottled with darker coloration here and there. As the zipper passed between her thighs, the rubber garment opened to reveal her loins.

The Rookie’s gaze was greeted by a pair of thick, puffy lips, her mound smooth and hairless. Between them was an enticing sliver of pink flesh, already glistening with moisture, a sagging web of her excitement linking the fabric to her skin as it pulled away. His eyes followed a solitary droplet of clear fluid as it fell to the concrete floor below, Alba was more than ready for him, she was drooling.

She reached down with two of her thick, clawed fingers, spreading her meaty lips apart to expose the delicate folds within. Her flesh was rosy and flushed, swollen with anticipation, shining under the light of the naked bulb.

We do not have all night,” she said, running her tongue across one of her protruding tusks. “Does tiny man only wish to stare?”

He shuffled closer to her, kneeling between her legs. Alba must have expected him to skip straight to intercourse, because she cocked an eyebrow at him as he leaned down, a shiver making her bosom wobble as she felt his warm breath on her sex. He planted his hands on the rubbery material of her jumpsuit and was somewhat surprised when they sank into her flesh almost up to the wrist. She was impossibly soft, her thighs were like a pair of giant marshmallows. He dug deeper with his fingers, feeling her muscles tense beneath the layer of fat, like bundles of steel suspension cables. If she were to snap her legs shut right now, she could probably have crushed the life out of him. Good job they were on the same side…

What are you doing?” she asked breathlessly, another tremor passing through her as he planted a lingering kiss just below the limit of her shorts. The suit was in the way, and so he took hold of the hem, pulling one of the legs up to expose more of her inner thigh. She was beginning to redden now, her grey cheeks warming. Her thighs and her mound were also taking on a subtle, pink hue, blushing along with her face.

He paused to remove his gloves, then ran his hand from her calloused knee to the rolled-up hem of her suit, finding the skin there thinner and smoother than he had expected. It seemed to be more sensitive too, because Alba batted her long lashes, sucking her lower lip into her mouth and chewing on it lasciviously. She was like a living tank, coated in a thick, leathery hide that he would have struggled to get his knife through. Yet even a creature as formidable as this one had her weak points, and the Rookie found himself wondering where else she might be sensitive…

Will you not mount me?” she asked, more a question than a request. She didn’t seem to have any objections to what he was doing right now. “Male Jiralhanae do not really...”

Her voice trailed off into a low, rumbling purr as he leaned down and left a sucking kiss on her belly, just beneath her navel. She was sensitive here too, there was that same pink flush that was visible where her skin was thinnest, the taut abdominal muscles beneath her paunch hardening at his touch.

It wasn’t hard to guess what she was talking about. Brutes likely didn’t go down on their women, and it was easy to imagine what sex with one of them probably consisted of. If they behaved the same way in bed as they did on the battlefield, then they probably weren’t considerate lovers. A few frenzied thrusts followed by a Baboon-like screech was probably all that their females could hope for. He felt no need to explain himself, however. He needed his tongue for other things.

Alba rolled her hips, her spine arching, her breathing growing ragged as he crawled his lips across her thighs. They were as pink as a blushing cheek now, warm to the touch, the alien shivering with every glance of his tongue. She was so large, so powerful, yet he had her dancing with only an inch of wet muscle.

He made his way to her mound, her loins now leaking a steady stream of sticky, slippery fluid. She was so excited that he could feel her heat on his face as he drew closer, hovering with his lips a mere inch above hers, glancing up at her to see her peering over the mounds of her breasts with an expression that bordered on pain. She wanted it so badly, but she didn’t want to beg for it, perhaps that would wound her Brute pride.

He relented, throwing all semblance of restraint to the wind as he delved between her lips, dragging his tongue across her dripping vulva. Her flesh was slick with her juices, feverishly hot, its texture like pleated silk as he explored her folds. He traced their contours, lapping at her sex with the flat of his tongue, mouthing and kissing. Her gluey fluids clung to his lips, her feminine scent filling his nose, the smell of exertion and leather making his head spin. She tasted of almost nothing, like the coppery flavor of a kiss, chased by a hint of salt from her sweat.

Now it was her turn to sink her fingers into his hair. Her digits were too large, and his hair was too short for her to get much of a grip, so she planted her massive hand on his head instead as he made her shiver and growl.

His nose brushed something hard, and he felt her lurch, a sound escaping her lips that might have been intimidating under different circumstances. He wandered higher, his lips brushing her clitoris, the firm nub of flesh about the size of a marble due to her exaggerated stature. Alba exposed her teeth in a snarl as he played his tongue across it, trapping it between his lips and drawing on it gently, his damp organ flicking across its surface as he drew shapes on her burning flesh.

Tiny man has more hidden talents,” she grumbled, the Rookie feeling her thighs close around his head as the pleasure began to get the better of her. He was alarmed for a moment, pausing his doting licking, but Alba was being gentle. Her thighs were cushiony enough that he merely sank into them when she squeezed. He glanced up at her, watching as she cupped one of her breasts in her hand, the grey flesh spilling between her fingers like fresh dough as she began to knead it.

It would not be wise to stop,” she added, pushing his head back down with her other hand. She was putting on a tough front, but the glow in her cheeks and the drooping of her eyelids betrayed her true feelings.

She began to rock her wide hips against his face as he resumed his work, buffeting him, as though she was trying to grind against his lips. He picked up the pace, painting every inch of her glistening vulva with his tongue, sucking her swollen clitoris into his mouth and swirling his organ around it. He brought up one of his hands, sliding a finger into her twitching opening, Alba letting slip an unbecoming gasp as her muscles clenched around it.

Despite her size, her strength made her tight enough to grip him like a fist, he hadn’t been expecting that. It felt like his finger was surrounded by shifting, flexing satin, her slimy walls seeming to draw on him in waves like an eager mouth trying to swallow him up. There was so much heat, so much wetness, his heart beginning to pound in his chest as he imagined what it might feel like to slide his member into her.

His oversized partner tensed up as he began to move his finger, matching pace with his licking, the stimulation making her dance as she rolled her head back and let her long tongue loll from the side of her mouth. He could feel her pleasure mounting, she was getting closer and closer to her peak, the contractions of her narrow passage coming stronger and faster as her muscles wrung his finger.

Just as he began to fear that she might throw him across the room with her violent thrusting, she stopped abruptly, hooking her thick fingers underneath his chin and lifting his head from her between her thighs. She peered down at his face, her heavy chest rising and falling with her labored breathing, her cheeks flushed a rosy shade of pink. His lips were linked to her vulva by a slimy web of her fluids, which she scooped up, watching as the glistening juices drooped from her finger in a dangling rope. She bit her lip again, the sight seeming to fill her with lust, her yellow eyes meeting his.

Enough preparations, tiny man. Jiralhanae do not get any wetter.”

Thought you said there was no hurry?” he shot back, wiping her slime from his face with the back of his sleeve. Her brow furrowed, but her lips curled into a smile, the alien gripping his chin between her thumb and forefinger as she guided him closer. He shuffled forward on his knees, thankful for the padding on his BDU, as the concrete floor beneath was rough and cold.

His renewed erection brushed against her sopping lips, her heat even more apparent now, as his member had been left exposed to the cool air of the underground tunnel. His shaft pressed against her vulva, he could feel her pulse, her loins practically throbbing in anticipation of their coupling. He reached down and slid his glans between her lips, guiding it towards her opening, her flesh so slippery that there was almost no friction between them. His alien partner shivered, the Rookie glancing up at her to see her wetting her lips, her gaze dripping with anticipation.

Alba wasted no time, the Rookie lurching as he felt her hand reach around behind him and cup his ass, the alien copping an unapologetic feel as she pulled him into her. There was no resistance as his member plunged into her passage, slick with her oozing excitement, his hips slamming into her pillowy thighs and making them ripple like the surface of a pond being disturbed by a pebble.

The Rookie doubled over, momentarily overcome by the sensation of her velutinous, fleshy walls embracing him. The delicate lining of her tunnel clung to him like a second skin, the powerful muscles beyond it shifting and squeezing from every angle, massaging him as though trying to drag him deeper. He could feel every subtle crease as she clung to him, each little nub of soft flesh as they scoured his length, a whirlwind of texture and sensation making him grit his teeth.

He would have planted his hands to either side of a human partner when he was on top, but Alba was too wide, he wouldn’t have been able to get his arms even halfway around her waist. He leaned on her stomach instead, his weight sinking his hands into the layer of fat, the muscles beneath it as hard as the concrete that he was kneeling on. He remained still for a few moments longer, acclimatizing to the wet flesh that was spiraling around his buried length like a dozen questing tongues.

Is tiny man too afraid to move?” Alba teased, giving him a squeeze that almost had him collapsing onto her torso in a shivering heap. She had such fine control over her pelvic floor muscles, and why shouldn’t she? She was built like a powerlifter in every other respect, she could probably lift a dumbbell with her pinky finger.

The Rookie recovered, determined not to give any ground, sliding his member out of her until only the tip was still gripped by her pillowy loins. It was like trying to remove a latex glove, she clung to him, the pressure making his head spin. Alba fluttered her lashes as he slammed back inside her, burying himself up to the hilt, his hips slapping against her inner thighs. He struggled to find purchase, it was almost like trying to make love on top of a waterbed, his fingers roaming across her soft belly and her flared hips. He felt her buck, her insides narrowing around him, a burst of laughter escaping her lips.

S-stop that!” she giggled, an uncharacteristically girlish sound coming from such a fearsome creature. “That tickles!”

He sank his digits up to the knuckle in the meat of her wide hips, taking handfuls as he used it for leverage, beginning to rock into her as he found a slow rhythm. Alba’s guiding hand on his rear increased their pace a little, she wanted it harder and faster, he should have anticipated that. He was about a fifth the weight of a Brute, two of the aliens going at it in earnest would probably demolish the average house.

Do not be afraid of hurting me, tiny man,” she said with a grin on her red face. “Alba can take whatever you can give her...”

She was deceptively soft for someone so strong, every thrust making the cushiony parts of her voluptuous body shake. Her plump thighs, the paunch of her belly, the heavy globes of her bust. She watched him as he worked, leaning back against the concrete wall, her cheeks flushed, and her short-cropped hair bobbing with each impact.

He had to do something to distract himself from the maddening sensation of her silken loins sliding up and down his length, or he wouldn’t last for much longer. He could feel the wonderful texture of her walls as they scoured his tender glans, like silk that had been soaked in lubricant, hot and quivering as though they had a life all their own. Her iron muscles wrung him, milking him with intent from beyond the barrier of her flesh, a cruel massage that threatened to rob him of his sanity.

In an attempt to stave off his climax, he began to explore her alien body, finally able to satisfy his curiosity. Her torso had more in common with the trunk of a tree than anything that he was used to, thicker around than a barrel of crude oil, her core so heavily muscled that he felt certain that she could deadlift a Warthog. It was all wrapped in a layer of fat as soft as memory foam, her hide completely shaved clean of fur, thin enough around her tummy that the pink blush shone through. There were beads of sweat welling on her skin, glistening like morning dew as they caught the light of the naked bulb.

Realizing that he was at about head-height to her breasts, he switched his focus to them, watching them bounce as she moved in time with his thrusts. He reached out and attempted to take hold of one, the generous flesh escaping his grasp, too heavy for him to capture with only one hand.

Alba laughed at him, then he felt her free hand sneak behind his head, the alien burying his face in her cleavage. Her grey skin brushed against his burning cheeks, made slick with her sudor, the scent of wet leather filling his lungs. She smelled so damned good, and he couldn’t really explain why. There was the aforementioned hint of leather, the smell of sweat and exertion, along with a distinctly feminine musk that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Some kind of pheromone, perhaps? He recalled reading about that somewhere…

His thoughts quickly faded as Alba hugged him against her body, with one hand on his butt and the other in his hair, the Rookie’s entire world consumed by her heaving flesh. His hands wandered up to her bosom, better able to get a grip now that her boobs were mostly stationary, Alba’s muffled voice emanating from somewhere beyond her breasts as she squeezed them around his head.

Tiny man punches above his weight,” she chuckled, “Alba likes this...”

She released him from her hold, and he emerged from between her boobs like a diver surfacing for air, her pink lips waiting to meet him. She drew him in for another lurid kiss, her tongue worming its way into his mouth, its slimy surface roiling inside his head. If she cared that he still tasted of her juices, then she didn’t show it, locking lips as she subjected him to a bawdy and unrestrained embrace. Her tongue wrestled with his own, glancing the back of his throat, bulging his cheeks as her saliva dripped from his chin. It was so sexual that he hesitated to even call it a kiss, letting himself sink into her inviting body as her practiced licking enraptured him. She locked him there for a minute or two longer, then pulled away with a wet smack, smirking at his dazed expression.

You taste so good,” she muttered, pushing her snout into the nape of his neck. He felt her wide, flat tongue rake his throat, a pleasant shiver turning his legs to jelly. She bit him gently, pinching him with her dull teeth in a mock attack, her tusks brushing against his skin. A person should never be less aroused than when they had a Brute’s hot breath blowing down their collar, alien teeth pressing against their pulsing jugular, yet it made him feel like he might melt into a puddle.

She crawled her puffy lips up his neck, the tip of her tongue sneaking into his ear as she whispered to him in a low and comely voice.

If we escape this doomed city, and we have more alone time, Alba shall sample every inch of tiny man’s skin. Should be incentive to fight harder, yes?”

She drew back, grinning down at him, her head seeming so far away due to their difference in height. The Rookie wanted to pay her back, but he couldn’t reach her neck, and so he turned to her bosom instead. He caught one of her weighty breasts in his hand, feeling Alba’s loins tense around him, his fingers sinking into its grey surface like he was pushing them into soft clay. Her fat filled his palm when he squeezed, spilling between his fingers, the Brute arching her back as she sucked in a gasp through gritted teeth. She seemed far more sensitive here, and he noted that her chest was flushed a subtle shade of pink just like her cheeks and her thighs. That meant that the skin was thinner, there were more blood vessels near the surface.

He began to knead, clawing at her boob, taking her advice not to hold anything back. Her reaction was strong and immediate, the rhythmic clenching of her sodden passage intensifying, her thighs closing around his hips to keep him locked inside her.

It was hard to conceal his fascination, the Rookie playing with her flesh, watching it bounce in time with their rutting. When he dug beneath the blubbery fat, he encountered firmer breast tissue, Alba growling appreciatively as he mauled it with his fingers.

He caught her nipple between his lips, drawing it into his mouth, lashing it with his tongue as his alien lover began to squirm. Her massive hand found his head again, gripping it like someone might hold a softball, pulling him closer. He trapped the protrusion in his teeth, pinching it gently, alternating between sucking and licking. Alba’s massive body quaked as he circled the engorged nub of flesh with his tongue, her hand pressing his face deeper into the yielding surface of her breast as though that might somehow increase the stimulation.

Yes, like that,” she growled as he chewed softly on her nipple. “Alba is close...”

The Rookie upped the tempo, slamming into her, Alba loosing a satisfied moan as he drove his member into the delicate walls of her tunnel with renewed vigor. The sensation of his glans sliding against her slippery, hot insides was so harsh and stark, every crease and imperfection of her satin flesh sending jolts of ecstasy tearing through him. Alba shivered and growled in turn, the two of them feeding into each other, as though their nervous systems had been linked with a patch cable. The pleasure of one was felt by the other, the Rookie’s erection flexing, Alba’s passage clenching around him with every thrust.

The exertion was making their contact slippery. Alba’s grey skin was coated in a reflective sheen of sweat that made her shine, the Rookie’s hands slipping on her wet body. He slid them back down her torso, following the hourglass curve of her waist, settling about her flared hips and digging his fingers into her fat for leverage. He too was starting to sweat inside his BDU, their little maintenance room was now filled with the lurid aroma of exertion and lovemaking, his face hot enough that it might as well be steaming. Alba especially seemed to revel in it, taking his head in her hand and doubling over, her warm tongue grazing his neck as she tasted the moisture on his damp skin.

Her hand crept down to his rear again, squeezing his cheek through the fabric of his pants as she pulled him into her, their bodies slamming together with an audible clap as she applied more force than he would have been able to muster under his own power. The Brute liked it rough, and yet he was still surprised by how gentle and considerate she had been. She could have thrown him to the ground and pinned him beneath her massive body, smothering him with her breasts as she bruised his pelvis with her powerful thrusts, but she had chosen a position that was comfortable for the both of them.

The world around them seemed to melt away, all of the Rookie’s attention focused solely on Alba, as if nothing outside of the tiny maintenance room existed. There was no Covenant, there were no alien ships glassing the city above, there was no war. There was only this solitary moment in time, there was only their heaving bodies, the dizzying pleasure that was coursing through him.

That wonderful ache returned, a pressure welling inside of him and threatening to erupt, but he gritted his teeth against it. Not yet, not until he felt Alba’s body quaking beneath him.

They moved as one, Alba pushing back against his thrusts, his member parting her narrow passage as she took him ever deeper. It was a novelty to not have to worry about causing her any discomfort, to throw all pretense of restraint to the wind, plunging into her most intimate reaches and feeling her mound slap against his belly. Her wracking contractions were coming stronger and faster, her tight, slippery insides seeming to pulsate around him. Her breath came in sharp, ragged bursts, Alba kneading one of her breasts as her eyelids fluttered in time with his movements.

Do not slow down,” she warned, baring her teeth as she fixed him with her intense gaze. Her cheeks were practically glowing, she was barely in control of herself, and somehow that idea only excited him further.

As his member slammed into her depths, her yellow eyes lost their focus, her jaws opening in a silent cry. Their rhythmic lovemaking stuttered, Alba lifting the Rookie as her spine arched off the concrete, the cushion of her thighs sealing around him as she snapped her legs shut and dragged him even deeper into her spasming loins. She began to tremble, her vast body shivering, her hips bucking reflexively as an orgasm took her by surprise. Her insides seemed to seal around his shaft like molten plastic pouring around a mold, conforming to his every vein and contour, waves of muscles rolling from his base to his tip as she squeezed him like a tube of toothpaste.

The Rookie had to stifle a moan as her clenching drew his own climax out of him, Alba wrapping her arms around him and pulling him tight against her writhing body as she felt the first rope of his emission flood her. The sensation was so raw and unfiltered, every wad of semen that he pumped into her sending a blinding burst of pleasure tearing through him, his muscles seizing as he gave her everything that he had. The Rookie’s burning cheek slid against Alba’s damp skin as she pressed his face between her wobbling breasts, her breath blowing his hair, her thighs squeezing him tightly enough that he could feel the taut muscle through her fat.

He took handfuls of her flesh, incapable of hurting her no matter how rough he was, the two of them shuddering in unison as the throes of their climax crashed over them like a tide. They rode it out together, their conscious minds taking a back seat to their animal lust, the two of them reduced to a pair of panting beasts as they writhed on the concrete floor.

Gradually, the sharp pleasure faded, giving way to a deep and permeating afterglow that made the Rookie feel as though he had been submerged in warm water. He awoke as if from a dream, slowly coming around to see Alba’s yellow eyes peering back at him. He was lying face-down on her belly, his head nestled between the soft pillows of her boobs, the rise and fall of her chest lifting him as his arms dangled listlessly over her sides. They were still joined, and he shivered as one last aftershock rippled through him, Alba purring in response as she felt his member jump inside of her.

He rose to a kneeling position, then planted his hands on her thighs, slowly pulling out of her. There were muffled gasps from both parties as the sensation of her clinging flesh sliding down his tender shaft elicited another pulse of pleasure. The Rookie peered down at her splayed lips as they leaked a blend of their sordid fluids, cloudy and thick as it clung to her petals in globs.

Alba may have to keep tiny man around after war is over,” she muttered, wetting her lips with her long tongue as she looked him up and down conspicuously. “You are good at other things besides fighting.”

He gave her an exhausted thumbs-up, and she laughed, the motion making her bosom bounce. “Alba is satisfied,” she added, extending her arms to him in invitation. “Now, come. Tiny man needs his rest, and Alba will not have him sleep on cold, hard floor.”

A’ight,” he replied with a shrug, shuffling into range and letting her capture him in her arms. She pulled him up onto her torso like a doll, hugging him tight, her bust making for an admirable place to rest his weary head. She really was soft, he had compared her to a waterbed during their coupling, and the description was no less apt here. Although she was a little wetter now, so perhaps a waterbed that had sprung a leak would be more fitting. They were both drenched in sweat, and sticky with more sordid fluids, but not having to care about that was oddly liberating.

He breathed in her enticing scent, feeling her press her snout into his hair, nuzzling as he let himself relax. This couldn't exactly be called spooning, but it was close enough, the slow beating of her heart calming him. A pleasant, satisfying soreness joined the Rookie’s post-coital bliss, his eyelids growing heavy.

Sleep, little warrior,” Alba whispered to him. “For tomorrow, we fight.”

The Rookie – Waterfront Highway Tunnel, nineteen hours after drop.

The gates opened with a mechanical crunch, the golden light of dawn pouring through the widening gap. Alba and the Rookie rushed through the breach and out of the tunnel, their weapons drawn, ready for any Covenant forces that might be lurking on the other side.

Fortunately, there was nobody around. The four lanes of the highway extended into the distance, littered with abandoned vehicles in all shapes and sizes. The animated exit signs that towered over the highway flashed with cautions, warning that the road ahead was closed.

The ocean was to their left, and the Rookie could make out the ruins of the space elevator in the distance, the remnants of the shattered structure rising from an artificial island in the Mombasa bay. Above them, the telltale silhouettes of Covenant cruisers hovered, their purple hulls contrasting with the vibrant yellows and oranges of the sunrise. They were still glassing, glowing beams of plasma descending from their flared midsections, but their activities seemed to be mostly confined to the city center further inland. Still, it was an intimidating sight to see them flying so low, the alien ships were enormous.

So, what is your plan, tiny man?”

Walking down the highway had seemed like a good idea when he had been making his way through the deserted city, but now that he was staring at miles of asphalt, it was somehow less appealing. He looked around as Alba waited, searching for a vehicle that might still be driveable.

It looked like the UNSC had been helping with the evacuation of the city, there were a few supply crates around, along with some abandoned vehicles. The highway was probably a good place to land Pelicans, they might have brought many of the refugees here for evac.

He finally found what he was looking for, breaking into a jog as he spied a Warthog. The M-12 was a light ground vehicle used by various branches of the armed forces, a rugged, all-terrain truck equipped with a four-wheel drive and a mounted gun. These things didn’t run on electricity, they used hydrogen fuel, which meant that this one should still be operable if its tanks weren’t drained. They could go about five hundred miles before needing to be refueled, and so that seemed an unlikely prospect.

He climbed into the driver’s seat and stowed his carbine as Alba walked over to join him, peering inside the open cockpit as he thumbed the ignition switch. The engine roared to life, and it was the sweetest sound that the Rookie had ever heard.

Climb on,” he said, gesturing to the flatbed where the chaingun was mounted.

I will not fit inside this,” she protested.

Nah, hop on the gun.”

She walked around to the rear of the vehicle, then the Rookie felt the suspension sag as she clambered aboard, the Warthog threatening to tip. She spun the mounted gun so that it was facing forwards, having to crouch to use it, but otherwise having enough room to stand. Alba was heavy, but there were variants of the M-12 that were configured as troop carriers, able to seat twelve people. If it could carry a dozen Marines in full gear, then it could carry a Brute too.

He revved the engine, looking back over his shoulder to see Alba grinning down at him.

Perhaps our people have more in common than Alba thought,” she said. “Let us drive, tiny man.”

The Rookie put the Warthog into gear and pulled out onto the highway, weaving between the derelict vehicles. Alba removed her helmet and tossed it into the passenger's seat, letting the wind blow her hair, the Rookie laughing behind his visor. After spending so much time lurking around a dingy, claustrophobic city, it was a relief to feel the wind and the sunlight.

He put the pedal to the metal, these things could do a hundred and fifty miles per hour on a stretch, and he didn’t want to be anywhere near New Mombasa right now. The M-12 was armored, and so he bulldozed past a few of the smaller cars and pieces of debris that blocked their path, Alba whooping enthusiastically as she watched a small electric car roll onto its roof.

Alba likes this vehicle!” she shouted over the roar of the engine. “Reminds me of a Prowler!”

They drove through one of the short tunnels that were spaced out along the highway, the lighting strips blurring into an unbroken line on the roof above them, their engine echoing. Something was wrong. The blast doors on these tunnels should not be open, the ones on the previous tunnel hadn’t been, and the Covenant shouldn’t have any way to unlock them.

As they emerged from the tunnel and out into the light of dawn, the Rookie spied something ahead of them. There was a massive vehicle occupying the rightmost lane, and it was moving, barreling through whatever cars and barricades were in its way. It was of human design, and his first impression was that it resembled an Elephant, a two-hundred-ton troop transport and mobile command center used by the UNSC. This one was different, however. Its chassis was entirely enclosed, and it had New Mombasa Waste Management stenciled on the side of its cab. Was it a garbage truck?

Hold your fire!” he called to Alba, who had swiveled her mounted gun in its direction.

He pulled up next to the behemoth and honked his horn, the tank-like garbage truck grinding to a halt on its four sets of tracks. A hatch on the top of the cab opened, and a helmeted head emerged, a hissing sound coming through on his radio as someone joined the local channel.

What the...Rookie? That you?”

It was Buck, his commanding officer. They had lost contact during the slip-space rupture, he hadn’t seen sight nor sound of any of his squadmates since.

Yes, Sir,” he replied.

Where the hell have you been, soldier? We thought that you’d kicked the bucket during the drop. Everyone else has reported in save for you. You sure picked one hell of a time to show up!”

He seemed to notice Alba for the first time, practically jumping out of his skin as the Brute peered back at him.

What in God’s name is that?” he asked, pointing at the Rookie’s companion. “Is that a Bravo-Kilo?”

From Buck’s right, a small head emerged, patterned a vibrant blue and sporting six beady eyes. It didn’t seem to have a mouth, and its moist skin was wrinkly, almost resembling that of a sea slug. It rose from the hatch on a long, serpentine neck, weaving back and forth ethereally. The Rookie had never seen anything like it before.

What the hell’s that?” the Rookie replied, pointing at the creature.

Guess we both picked up some hitchhikers along the way,” Buck said, placing a hand on the curious alien’s head and pushing it back down into the cab. “If you can vouch for yours, I’ll vouch for mine.”

We don’t have time for this,” another voice said over the radio, this one female. It was Dare, the ONI captain who had been assigned to their unit. “We need to get to the shipyard at the end of the highway, there’s a stolen Phantom waiting there to extract us. Trooper, cover the Oliphant.”

The massive vehicle’s engine roared as it started up again, the Rookie matching pace in the Warthog, Alba swinging her gun to cover their advance.

These are your allies, tiny man?” she asked.

Yeah, got separated from ‘em before we met up. What the hell was that thing beside him? You ever seen anything like that before?”

That was a Huragok,” Alba replied. “We...the Covenant, use them as living computers. They store information, repair broken machines. This one must have information of value to your people.”

Looks like you’ve just been drafted into the UNSC,” he added, steering the Warthog around a burnt-out van. “Keep the Covvies off that truck.”

They arrived at the next tunnel, pausing while the Huragok bypassed the locked blast doors from inside the Oliphant. Whatever the thing was, it sure was useful, it had even managed to give the truck rudimentary energy shields to help protect it.

When they emerged onto the other side, they were met with a Covenant emplacement, much like the one that they had encountered at the junction further inside the city. There was a gaggle of Grunts guarding a levitating tower, with Jackal snipers and a plasma cannon mounted on top of it. They began to fire on them newcomers almost immediately, the operator of the cannon foolishly directing his fire towards the armored and shielded Oliphant.

The Rookie hit the gas, charging at the tower as Alba opened up with the chaingun behind him, a stream of tracer rounds flying over his head and harrying the guard tower. She cut down a trio of Grunts, their squat bodies shredded by sustained fire, their blue blood splattering the asphalt as their methane tanks erupted into flames. The other defenders seemed to realize the threat posed by the Warthog now, turning their attention towards the incoming vehicle, but their needles and plasma rounds could do little to harm it. The M-12’s armor made it practically immune to small-arms fire.

He hit the handbrake and spun the wheel, drifting the vehicle into a group of Grunts, sending them scattering like bowling pins. He knocked over a barricade in the process, the suspension bouncing as the reinforced tires rolled over something soft. Alba angled her gun up towards the floating platform, taking out a Jackal that was leaning over the rim, the Rookie gunning the engine before they had a chance to return fire.

He weaved and dodged, making them as hard a target as possible. While the Warthog could soak up fire, Alba couldn’t. In his rear-view mirror, he saw a bright, purple explosion. The guard tower collapsed, she must have hit its power source, the ring-shaped platform crashing to the ground along with all of its occupants. She picked off a few stragglers as they moved on, the Rookie matching pace with the Oliphant once again.

Eyes to the sky, Rookie!” he heard Buck warn over the radio. “Banshees, ten o’clock high!”

The Rookie pointed to the sky, Alba turning her gun in that direction, opening up as a pair of Covenant aircraft swooped down on them. They were made from the same blue-purple material that characterized much of the Covenant’s technology, with rounded chassis, and a pair of stubbing wings extending from either side that housed propulsion jets and anti-gravity pods. They were single-occupant fighters, smaller than anything used by the UNSC, but they were better armed and more maneuverable than their small size would suggest.

As soon as the stream of Alba’s gunfire reached them, they began to dodge and roll, taking evasive maneuvers. This wasn’t a random attack, the Covvies seemed to have it out for the Oliphant. Whatever information that Huragok was carrying, it must be important. Had that been the real reason for Dare’s commandeering of their squad? Why their drop pods had been set to miss the Prophet’s assault carrier even before the slip-space rupture? The Office of Naval Intelligence to which she belonged was secretive, lots of cloak and dagger stuff. He wouldn’t put it past them to divert an ODST drop for their own ends.

One of the Banshees fired a fuel rod at the garbage truck, a projectile weapon roughly analogous to a grenade, a bright green flash of plasma erupting as it impacted the Oliphant’s shields and made them flicker ominously.

Damn it, Rookie!” he heard Buck’s voice come through on the radio. He sounded breathless, shaken. “I told you to keep those Banshees off us!”

Alba wasn’t privy to their conversation, but she had recognized the threat, leading the offending Banshee as it swooped in for another attack run. This time she tagged it, the bullets tearing through the lightly-armored fuselage, blue-tinted flames erupting from the wreckage as it plunged into the ocean to the left of the highway.

That’s what I’m talking about!” Buck laughed. “I don’t know how you ended up with a Baby Kong in tow, but I’ll take whatever I can get right now. Feed that thing a banana from me, or something...”

The Banshee’s wingman set its sights on the Warthog, the Rookie almost tipping the vehicle as he swerved to dodge an incoming stream of plasma fire. The fighter swooped low, its jets leaving glowing trails in its wake, Alba ducking reflexively as it passed over her head. She spun around, leading her target again as she loosed a carefully-placed burst, catching the Banshee’s right wing and severing the struts that joined the engines to the body of the craft. It spiraled out of control, corkscrewing into the road below, exploding in a shower of purple sparks and blue flames.

I like this gun!” Alba yelled. “The projectiles have greater velocity than those of Covenant plasma cannon!”

They continued on, the Oliphant smashing through any obstacles in its path as the Warthog followed behind. They encountered a few more squads of Grunts along the way, but they were easily dispatched. Alba hadn’t been a defector for more than a day, and she was already racking up a kill count that would put many UNSC Marines to shame.

After emerging from another tunnel, the distant cityscape came into view. The tall spires of New Mombasa’s buildings punctured the clouds, the shining glass and steel reflecting the glow of the rising sun. Looming over them was a vessel that was itself the size of a city, a Covenant carrier, its bulbous hull passing behind the skyscrapers and making them look like mere toys in comparison.

Assault carrier! Look at the size of that thing!” Buck marveled, his voice crackling with static.

It’s charging its excavation beam!” Dare exclaimed, failing to conceal her alarm.

From beneath its rounded nose came a bright glow that rivaled that of the sunrise, the ball of light morphing into a searing beam of energy that lanced towards the ground below, kicking up a rising plume of debris. After a brief delay, a tremor made the earth shake, the Rookie feeling it even through the Warthog’s suspension.

The alien vessel occupied the entire skyline, passing deeper into the city as it dragged the brilliant beam across the ground like a giant blowtorch, the Rookie watching in silent horror as one of the towering buildings began to topple over in its wake. Millions of tons of steel collapsed in on itself, creating a cloud of dust that rose to join the wall of dark smoke that marked the path of the beam, its foundations reduced to molten lava by the incredible heat.

Damn it, no!” Buck growled over the radio. “They’re gonna burn this city and then glass the whole planet! Covenant bastards! It’s just like Reach all over again!”

We made it out of there,” Dare said, her tone reassuring. “We’ll make it out of here, too. You can do this, Buck.”

Right,” he muttered, getting himself back under control. “Yeah, okay.”

Alba has never witnessed glassing from the ground,” she muttered, the Rookie glancing back over his shoulder at his alien companion as he flanked the Oliphant. “So much destruction...”

There was a hiss of static as Buck switched everyone over to another radio channel, the Rookie listening in as he maneuvered the Warthog around a crashed truck that was blocking their lane.

Mickey, you read me?” Buck asked. “Change of plans, you’re coming to us.”

Sky’s kind of crowded, Gunny,” Mickey replied. The Rookie was relieved to hear his voice again, it seemed that everyone had survived the ill-fated drop, and had been able to link up in the war-torn city. ODSTs were tenacious if nothing else.

There’s no other way,” Buck continued. “The Covenant just glassed the highway ahead of us, we’re gonna keep rolling as far as we can. Get that stolen Phantom airborne, we aren’t going to be able to make it to the shipyard. Home in on my beacon.”

Understood, Gunny.”

And whatever you do...stay clear of that carrier.”

As they rounded a bend and sighted another blocked tunnel in the distance, the Rookie saw something that almost made his heart stop. From the water to the left of the road emerged a shining, purple shape, sheets of water sloughing off its massive chassis as it rose from the depths like a mechanical Kraken. It walked up onto the shore on its four, insect-like legs, the huge cannon that was mounted on its back turning in their direction. It was a Type-47 Ultra-Heavy Assault Platform, better known as a Scarab, one of the largest ground vehicles that the Covenant could deploy. At a hundred and sixty feet long, and thirty-five hundred tons, it had more in common with a spaceship than a tank. There was nothing that they could do to touch something like that, not with the weapons that they had on hand.

It clambered up on top of the tunnel that their little convoy was heading for, turning to face them, its cannon glowing green as it began to charge. It had probably been heading further into the city to join the fighting, but no pilot would turn down such a juicy target.

Scarab!” Buck shouted. “Look out, it’s onto us!”

What do you want me to do, take evasive maneuvers?” Dare snapped as the Huragok’s alarmed wailing came through in the background. “We’re driving a garbage truck!”

Just floor it!” Buck shot back.

The Scarab fired, a torrent of green plasma leaving its main cannon in an uninterrupted stream, splashing against the Oliphant and melting the highway beneath its tracks into pools of bubbling asphalt. It sustained its barrage for a second or two, hosing its target, the super-heated gas almost behaving like a liquid. The garbage truck shuddered, its shields flashing as they collapsed, smoke beginning to billow from its chassis as one of its internal components was damaged.

The Rookie feared that a second barrage would finish the vehicle off for good, but the Scarab lost its bead on them as they raced into the tunnel beneath its feet, passing below its angle of fire. As the Rookie hit the handbrake, and the Warthog skidded to a stop before one of the blast doors, he worried that it would come marching down onto the highway in pursuit of them. Alba swiveled to face behind them, fearing the same, and they waited with bated breath as the smoking Oliphant ground to a stop to their right. Fortunately, the Scarab seemed to have more pressing matters to attend to, dust raining from the ceiling of the tunnel above them as its footsteps shook the concrete.

What’s your status?” the Rookie asked, glancing over at the cab of the Oliphant.

We’re...we’re okay,” Dare replied, coughing into her mic. “But this garbage truck’s had it.”

The blast doors that blocked their path began to open, the mechanical rumbling echoing through the tunnel, the Warthog leading the way as Alba kept an eye on the sky. There were so many Covenant ships that it was hard to see the clouds, entire squadrons of Banshees and Phantoms flying in formation as they disengaged from their carriers and headed deeper into the city.

There must be a whole fleet up there,” the Rookie muttered.

They came here in search of something,” Alba replied cryptically. “When my assault carrier arrived, the Shipmaster was not expecting such resistance, the Prophets did not know that this was a Human stronghold. Whatever they seek, it must be important. Important enough to commit so many ships to the cause.”

It ain’t just a stronghold,” the Rookie replied, “this is planet Earth. This is our homeworld.”

Alba balked at that, not knowing how to respond. She hadn’t known until now, she had assumed that this was just like any other Human colony, no different from Reach or Harvest.

I...I am sorry,” she replied remorsefully, “Alba did not know.”

War ain’t over yet,” the Rookie muttered, “we still got some fight left in us.”

Buck’s voice came through on the comms, interrupting their conversation.

Take the next off-ramp, trooper. I see a building, North side of the highway. We’ll hole up there and wait for evac.”

The Rookie could see it on their right, some kind of squat, commercial structure. He spun his wheel, changing lanes and entering an underground exit, the Warthog’s tires lifting off the ground for a moment before bouncing back down onto the asphalt. The Oliphant followed close behind, the damaged vehicle limping to a stop beside them as they encountered a raised barrier that blocked the road ahead.

Out of the vehicle, trooper,” Buck ordered. “Looks like we’re on foot from here.”

He clambered out of the Warthog’s cockpit, the rear suspension springing back to its original position as Alba dismounted, drawing her trusty needle rifle and securing her helmet. The hatch on the cab of the Oliphant opened up, and Buck leapt to the ground, adjusting his helmet and shouldering a suppressed SMG as he took point. He and Alba shared a glance for a moment as the Rookie looked on, but if Buck had a problem with her, then he wasn’t about to make an issue out of it right now.

Veronica,” he said, “wait here and keep an eye on the gasbag. Rookie, let’s secure that building.”

The Rookie nodded, reaching into the passenger’s seat of the Warthog and retrieving his carbine, checking the ammo counter. He and Alba took up position beside Buck, following him as he vaulted over the waist-high traffic barrier and made his way up the incline into an open plaza.

Before them was a kind of gazebo that was surrounded by a ring road, and behind it was an upscale visitor’s center. There was a set of four staircases leading up to the building’s lobby, decorated with ferns in planters, and flanked by two bronze statues of zebras. The sign on the facade of the structure read Uplift Nature Reserve, the logo decorated with a pair of flat-topped trees that brought to mind images of the Serengeti. There were fluttering banners displaying some of the animals that were on show in the reserve, along with visitor kiosks that featured maps and information about the park.

Well ain’t this a treat,” Buck muttered, foregoing the radio now that they were on foot. “My gunny never took me on a trip to the zoo when I was your age, Rookie.”

They passed by the gazebo and mounted the steps, Alba covering the rear. When they arrived at the entrance to the lobby, they came across a pair of sleeping Grunts. They had probably been assigned to guard duty, and they were slacking off, in usual Grunt fashion. Buck dispatched them quietly with his suppressed weapon, then they moved through the open doors of the lobby. The interior was similarly lavish, decorated with artistic sculptures, a large map of the facility mounted behind the welcome desk. It was empty, and so Buck called in Dare, the Rookie watching from the top of the steps as she made her way across the plaza with the Huragok in tow.

The alien was even stranger now that he could get a better look at it. It seemed to float just off the ground, its slug-like head connected to a bulbous body that was made up of what looked like clusters of air sacks, a snail-like tail and several tentacles with luminescent tips trailing behind it as it glided along.

He heard a hiss of static as Buck switched channels on the radio again, contacting their ride.

Mickey, what’s your ETA?” he asked.

Had to reroute, Gunny, the whole damn city’s on fire!”

Trooper,” Dare interrupted sternly, putting on her most commanding voice. “I have a Tier One asset on site, and a whole bunch of Covenant who want it dead. Whatever you’re going to do, you’d better step on it! Is that understood?”

Yes, Ma’am!” Mickey replied hastily.

Heads up!” Buck yelled, taking cover behind one of the stone pillars at the entrance. “We got Phantoms incoming, and they ain’t the friendly variety!”

The Rookie ducked behind a planter as he spied their purple, curved hulls, the dropships making a beeline for the plaza. The enemy knew that they were here now, and if Dare was right about the Huragok being a Tier One asset, then things were about to get very hairy. The ONI operative guided the floating alien deeper into the lobby, keeping the fragile creature out of harm’s way.

Hey, Covvie,” Buck added. Alba turned her head to look down at him, giving him a frown from beneath her blue helmet. “Can you shoot straight?”

Alba can fight,” she growled in response.

Then Alba needs to stay on this side of the firing line, or Gunnery Sergeant Buck might accidentally plug her in the back of the head. Rookie, cover the right, and I want the Brute on the left. I’ll take the middle. Nothing gets past these steps, understood?”

Two Phantoms swooped in over the plaza, their ventral doors opening to disgorge squads of aliens. A small army of Grunts and shield-bearing Jackals dropped to the ground, making their way around the gazebo and across the road, heading for the foot of the stairs. Perhaps they hoped to overwhelm the defenders with their sheer numbers, but they had to cross open ground to reach them, and the ODSTs were firing from an elevated position.

The attackers were met by a hail of gunfire. Caseless rounds, radioactive bullets, and glowing needles tore through their ranks. Some of the Jackals were successful in deflecting the shots with their energy shields, but the Grunts took the worst of it, the defenders focusing on the soft targets first.

The squat little aliens keeled over in piles, their fluorescent, blue blood staining the ground. One of them took a hit to its methane tank, creating a fiery explosion that caught two of its comrades in the blast. Another’s tank was ruptured, lifting the hapless creature off the ground and sending it spiraling into the air, where it exploded like a firework. They attempted to return fire, but it was imprecise, the creatures panicked and uncoordinated.

The Jackals closed ranks and used their glowing shields to form a protective phalanx, but Buck tossed a frag grenade their way, sending them leaping for cover before it exploded in their midst. The shrapnel took out several of them, the rest scrambling to their feet, their unit cohesion broken. Individually, they were far easier to deal with. Buck hosed their shields with his SMG until they collapsed, exposing the wielder, while Alba and the Rookie preferred to place precision shots through their cutouts. In a matter of seconds, a dozen Jackals lay dead, along with twice as many Grunts.

These were just fodder, however. The Covvies were only trying to soften up the defenses before deploying their more elite troops.

We got more incoming!” Buck yelled, the Rookie watching as another pair of Phantoms drifted over the plaza. These ones began to fire on the building with the heavy plasma cannons that were mounted beneath their noses, the glowing balls of energy crackling as they arced through the air towards the lobby. Ferns burst into flames as hot plasma splashed, the projectiles exploding like grenades on contact with the ground, forcing the defenders into cover. Fortunately, they were not terribly accurate weapons. The nose guns were joined by streams of suppressive plasma fire from Brutes manning door guns, covering their comrades as they dropped to the ground below.

When the Rookie dared to peek out of cover again, the two Phantoms were flying away, and several squads of Brutes were advancing on their position. They were wearing blue armor, mostly minors and a few captains, the same rank as Alba. The Rookie remembered the last time that he had faced a Brute one-on-one, and how the thing had kept coming even after he had collapsed its shields and shredded most of its armor, more like a vicious animal than a thinking creature.

The defenders had one advantage, Buck had chosen their holdout well, and there was little cover in the plaza. The Brutes had to cross open ground, one of the squads taking refuge in the gazebo and laying down covering fire with what sounded like Spikers.

Metal nails impacted the concrete pillar that Buck was hiding behind, glowing red-hot for a moment before they cooled, the ODST answering them with a bark from his SMG. Spikers were not accurate weapons at any kind of range, but the threat of being impaled with what was essentially a molten railroad spike would keep most people’s heads down.

The rest took advantage to advance on the steps, firing volleys of glowing plasma bolts, and leaving green trails of radioactive material that lingered in the air. Their fire was imprecise, they likely didn’t know how many defenders there were, or where they were located. They were attacking an elevated position that afforded their enemies ample cover.

The Rookie rose from behind his planter and scoped in on the rounded helmet of one of the minors, whose squad was maybe two hundred feet away, loosing a couple of rounds from his carbine. The first collapsed its shields, and the second punctured through its helmet, the towering alien slumping to the ground as the irradiated projectile cooked its brains.

Buck was firing, but he hadn’t heard anything from Alba yet. He felt a pang of concern for a moment, wondering if she would have the resolve to fire on her own kind. Grunts and Sangheili were one thing, they were as alien to her as she was to him, but her own people were another matter entirely.

His unspoken question was answered as he watched one of the captains lurch, identifiable by his horned helmet. A volley of glowing, pink spikes penetrated his shield and dug into his flesh, his bellow of pain and surprise silenced as the projectiles exploded. He was torn apart, the blast catching two of his underlings, fragments of flying shrapnel sending their limp bodies crashing to the ground.

The Rookie glanced over to see that Alba had made her way further to their left, catching the enemy from a different angle, a raised area of the concourse giving her a good view of the battlefield.

Covvie bastards must want that gasbag real bad,” Buck growled, hosing a Brute that had made it to the foot of the steps with his SMG. He had to dump the entire magazine into it, the suppressor on his barrel glowing red-hot, the ODST reloading with practiced precision as another alien took its fallen packmate’s place. “Last time I saw this many uglies in one place, I was watching New Alexandria burn. Here’s a postcard from Reach!” he shouted, plucking a plasma grenade from his belt. He primed it, tossing the glowing, blue ball at the advancing Brute. It stuck to the creature’s helmet, the alien scrambling to remove it, but it was too late. There was a brilliant flash of light, accompanied by the stench of burning hair, and then the creature was no more.

Jump packs!” he heard Alba shout, her powerful voice rising above the sound of the gunfire. From over the far wall leapt a trio of Brutes, plumes of orange flame from their backpacks slowing their descent as they landed inside the plaza. The Rookie had seen these squads in combat before. They were the Brute equivalent of special operations soldiers, and they were not to be trifled with. Their jump packs made them extremely mobile, and they were often equipped with advanced gear that the Covenant rank and file did not get access to.

The aliens sighted the defenders, then took off again, rising high into the air on jets of licking flame. The Rookie had to crane his neck to keep track of them, taking his eyes off the advancing squads below.

Don’t let them get behind us!” Buck yelled, loosing another burst at the advancing squads from behind the concrete pillar. The Rookie abandoned his position by the planters, staying low, spikes and plasma bolts whizzing over his head as he made for Alba’s side of the concourse. It was more open than the area at the top of the stairs, that was where the Jump pack team seemed to be headed.

Alba retreated a few paces as the trio of Brutes touched down nearby, kicking up clouds of smoke, the bright glow of their jets petering out. Two of them were equipped with Maulers, wielding one of the vicious shotguns in each hand, while the third was holding a fuel rod gun over his shoulder. The telltale yellow housing and the recognizable shape struck a pang of fear into the Rookie. Those weapons were the Covenant equivalent of a rocket launcher, and they were extremely dangerous. A direct hit from one of those fuel rods would kill the average Marine or ODST outright.

The Brutes were not turning their weapons on the ODSTs, however. They seemed more interested in Alba.

Traitor!” one of them bellowed in his gravelly voice, baring his jagged tusks beneath his helmet.

Heretic!” another added, aiming his pair of shotguns at her. The rotating magazines began to spin as he fired at her, her shields flickering under the barrage of shrapnel. The one with the fuel rod gun put some distance between them, not able to fire on her with his weapon for fear of catching his packmates in the resulting explosion.

Alba was not one to back down from a challenge. She cast her needle rifle to the ground and reached behind her back, unholstering her prized gravity hammer, the massive head cratering the concrete where she let it fall to the ground. She gripped the long handle, swinging it in a wide arc, bellowing a Jiralhanae war cry as the weapon slammed into her attacker’s side. These aliens were more lightly armored than their infantry counterparts, the blue plating confined mostly to their chests, and his shield stood no chance of stopping that much mass. His left arm snapping like a twig as it was crushed beneath the war hammer’s weight, the limb driven into his rib cage, bones shattering like glass. The blow alone was enough to knock him off his feet, and then the gravity generator kicked in, a pulse of kinetic energy pulverizing what was left of him.

The nearby Brute was knocked off balance by the blast as his companion’s ruined body was sent rolling across the concourse like it had just been tossed from a moving vehicle, Alba taking advantage of his lapse to dart in and smack him across the face with the haft of her weapon, wielding it like a polearm. It impacted the cheek guard of his helmet, knocking it clear off his head. As he recovered from the blow, raising one of his Maulers above his head and bringing the bladed handguard down towards her face, she engaged the gravity generator again.

There was a flash of blue light as the head of the weapon was propelled off the ground under its own power, the massive blade that was mounted on the rear of its engine block-like mass scything through the air. It impacted the Brute in his midsection, cleaving through his armor like it was no thicker than plywood, his yellow eyes widening in shock. He stood there for a moment, frozen in place, the hammer’s blade buried deep in his stomach. Dark blood began to pour from his mouth, the Mauler falling from his raised hand as he slumped to the floor.

Alba planted a foot on the fallen soldier, yanking the blade from his body with some difficulty, turning to see the fuel rod pointing in her direction. She bared her teeth, bracing herself, her assailant too far away for her to reach him before he pulled the trigger.

There was a flash of light, but it didn’t come from the barrel of his cannon. His shields collapsed under a barrage of irradiated rounds, the Rookie rushing to Alba’s side, his carbine shouldered. He dumped the remainder of his magazine into the Brute, the alien convulsing with every shot that tore into him, the super-heated slugs charring his flesh from the inside as they dosed him with lethal radiation.

Well fought, tiny man,” Alba laughed. She seemed to be having fun, how she could be so flippant in such a desperate situation was beyond him. “Alba will have to find way to repay you, but for now, do not relent!”

Got any more ammo for this thing?” the Rookie asked, gesturing to his now empty carbine.

No,” Alba replied, slinging her hammer across her back and stooping to retrieve her needle rifle. “But these Jiralhanae no longer have any use for their weapons, help yourself.”

She rushed back to the fight, firing down into the plaza below, the Rookie turning over the skewered Brute with his boot. He pulled one of the Maulers from its hand, finding the weapon surprisingly heavy. It felt like it was made from solid lead, he needed two hands to stand any chance of holding it steady. It had a cruel bayonet on the handguard, as many Brute-made weapons did, and there was a cylindrical magazine that reminded him of a revolver.

This party ain’t over yet!” he heard Buck shout. “Get your ass back over here, Rookie!”

A yellow glint caught his eye, and he made for the Brute that he had brought down with his carbine, struggling to lift the fuel rod gun. The damned thing must weigh about fifty pounds, despite the exotic, alien materials that it was made from. He stowed the Mauler on his belt, hefting the launcher onto his shoulder. He wasn’t too thrilled about having a stack of what closely resembled spent fuel from a nuclear reactor right beside his head, glowing an ominous green, but these things could put a whole lot of hurt downrange.

He sprinted back to his position beside Buck, seeing that Dare had left the lobby of the building, and was doing what she could with her sidearm.

Buck did a double-take as the Rookie knelt at the top of the stairs, an advancing squad of Brutes beginning to point and roar as he aimed the launcher’s barrel in their direction. He pulled the trigger, feeling the weapon kick into his shoulder, emitting a dull thunk sound as it sent a glowing projectile flying towards them.

The missile hit them dead center, half a dozen minors and their captain sent sprawling as the concussive explosion knocked them off their feet. The super-heated gel contained within the canisters was like a hellish combination of plasma and napalm, the substance burning those who were not killed outright by the initial blast, eating through their armor and shields alike as they howled in pain.

Good kill, Rookie! Keep the pressure on ‘em!” Buck yelled as he fired his SMG. There was another pink explosion as Alba tagged an unfortunate Brute with her needles, and the Rookie fired a second, carefully-placed rod that sent another pack scattering.

The enemy was routed, the dead were piling up at the foot of the stairs, and the road that ringed the gazebo was littered with myriad alien bodies. The remnants of the last surviving Brute squad were falling back towards the highway tunnel, the Rookie watching as Alba tagged one with a glowing needle, his body slumping to the ground.

Yeah, that’s right! Run, you ugly bastards!” Buck shouted as he waved his SMG at them.

Don’t celebrate just yet,” Dare muttered, pointing to the sky. There was another Phantom swooping in, flying low over the plaza, the cannon on its nose pointing in their direction.

Don’t these guys ever just call it a day?” Buck snarled, retreating to the cover of the lobby as indirect plasma fire began to rain down on them. The Rookie followed after him, watching as a plasma bolt impacted one of the two zebra statues that flanked the steps, its snout melting into a glowing slurry as the bronze slagged under the intense heat. He glanced behind him, seeing that the Huragok was hidden away towards the rear of the lobby, floating maybe a foot off the ground.

Alba returned to their side, taking refuge as the arcing plasma rained down on the building’s facade, her heavy footsteps shaking the floor.

Hey, Covvie,” Buck said, nodding his helmeted head at her rifle. “You got ammo for that thing?”

Alba is almost empty,” she replied, watching him suspiciously as he reached for his belt. He produced a red-colored plasma rifle, not unlike the one that the Rookie had recovered from the dead Sangheili in the city center, and tossed it to her. She caught it, turning it over in her hand as she checked the charge on the battery.

Picked that up during my travels, prefer the good old M7 myself,” he added as he gave his SMG an affectionate pat. “Make it count.”

Thank you, Imp,” she replied as she tossed her needle rifle. She was strong enough to wield the plasma rifle one-handed, it was the size of a pistol to her.

Imp?” Buck muttered, Dare giving him a shrug.

They hunkered down until the suppressive barrage ceased, then returned to their defensive positions, Alba staying close to the Rookie as he lugged his fuel rod gun to the top of the stairs. The Phantom was retreating over the highway, and standing in the plaza were two massive, armored creatures. They were taller and broader than a Brute, their layers of thick, dark-blue plating giving them the appearance of beetles despite their humanoid body plan. They stood on a pair of thick legs, one arm sporting a ballistic shield that was as large as the hood of a truck, the other equipped with an assault cannon. The weapon was a variant of the fuel rod gun, which fired the incendiary gel in a continuous stream, rather than in self-contained canisters. It had three mechanical, grasping claws surrounding the barrel, allowing the creature to grip objects. The Rookie could see the glowing containers that housed the gel, protruding ominously from the weapon. From its back emerged six long, tapering spines, their purpose unknown.

These were Hunters, the heavy infantry of the Covenant. They were not individual entities at all, but rather colonies of sentient worms, as alien as anything that Humanity had so far encountered. The squirming, foot-long creatures wound themselves together by the thousands, filling out their armor, moving it around and operating its weaponry. They always fought in pairs, perhaps one suit was not large enough to house an entire colony.

Hunters!” Buck shouted, a touch of genuine fear creeping into his voice.

We must try to get behind them!” Alba yelled. “Split up, divide their attention!”

They scattered as a stream of burning gel came arcing towards them, splashing against one of the pillars, globs of it melting the glass in the windows of the lobby.

We’ll keep them busy,” Buck panted, vaulting over a planter as a second beam narrowly missed him. “Veronica, babysit the asset, stay out of sight!”

He headed right, drawing one of them off, peppering it with bursts from his SMG. The caseless rounds stood no chance of penetrating its thick armor, they might as well be tanks, but it served to piss the thing off. It loosed a rumbling call that was felt more than heard, charging off towards him.

Alba and the Rookie went left, the second Hunter giving chase, a stream of green gel melting the metal railings on the elevated concourse as it fired at them from the road. They dove behind the cover of one of the large kiosks, the structure ringed by scrolling information panels, pausing for a moment to formulate their plan.

I will challenge the Mgalekgolo with my hammer,” Alba panted, “while you fire on it with your fuel rod launcher. There is weak spot on their lower back, where the Lekgolo within are exposed. Aim true, tiny man.”

What about Buck?” he asked, shifting the weapon’s weight uncomfortably.

We must act quickly, the Imp will not prevail against such a foe.”

A’ight, let’s do it,” he said. He gave Alba a pat on the thigh, bracing himself as she drew her hammer.

Wait until it turns its back you,” she added, “and...try not to hit Alba.”

She loosed a war cry and ran out of cover, the Rookie hearing a low rumble as the Hunter answered her. He waited for a moment, then emerged from around the other side of the kiosk, watching as Alba leapt over the guardrail and down into the plaza below. She rushed the armored behemoth, the creature lowering its massive cannon as she neared, resorting to its shield instead. It lifted the slab of metal high into the air, bringing it down on her, Alba dodging out of the way as it struck the concrete where she had just been standing. The road shattered like glass, dust billowing, its sheer weight enough that a strike from that thing probably rivaled the destructive power of a gravity hammer.

Alba swung her weapon, slamming the head of her hammer into its shoulder. The Hunter barely flinched as the impact sent fragments of its armor raining to the ground, even as the blast of kinetic energy rocked it, loosing another rumbling call as it knocked her back with its clawed arm-cannon.

She circled around it, taunting it to lunge at her, the Rookie keeping his head down as he tried to get a bead on the weak point that Alba had described. She gave it another smack with her hammer, the Hunter blocking it with its huge shield, the impact ringing the slab of metal like a gong. The forces at play were titanic, its thick armor fracturing in places, and yet the creature barely reacted. After the damage that he had seen that hammer do, it was incredible to him that the alien could weather it.

It swung its shield at her head, and she managed to duck under it, finally drawing it into a position where the Rookie could see its back. Just above what would pass for its waist, there was a cutout where he could see a mass of shiny, pink worms. They were writhing, shifting grotesquely, wrapped around each other to form glistening ropes.

He aimed carefully, the weapon’s alien scope zooming in on the weak point. He had to wait for the perfect moment, if the shot went a little wide, he might splash Alba with the burning gel. He wanted to signal to her, to tell her to get clear without the Hunter realizing, but he needed both hands to hold the weapon steady.

The writhing mass passed in front of his crosshair, and he pulled the trigger. There was a green flash as the launcher sent a fuel rod speeding from the barrel, the projectile glowing a sickly green, leaving a trail of sparks as it raced towards the Hunter. He hit his target dead center, the fuel rod boring into the column of worms, a bright green explosion blinding him for a moment.

When his vision cleared, the Hunter was shuddering as the super-heated gel cooked it from the inside, orange goo and dark smoke pouring from the joints in its armor. The worms within lost coordination, slithering clear of the suit as it began to sag, desperate to escape the heat. As more of the foot-long, snaking aliens fled, the Hunter began to collapse. One of its arms fell away, dropping heavily to the ground with a hollow clang, the pink worms within scattering like insects from beneath an upturned rock to leave an empty husk in their wake.

Alba gave it a slam with her gravity hammer for good measure, sending the discarded pieces of its armor tumbling away, scattering a cloud of worms and turning many of them into an orange paste.

From across the plaza, the Hunter who had been pursuing Buck abandoned its chase, turning to look back at its fallen comrade. It loosed a mournful call, a sound so deep and resonating that it made the Rookie’s teeth chatter, then it came barreling towards Alba.

She rolled out of the way as it sent a stream of burning gel in her direction, the Rookie hesitating, not wanting to waste the two shots that he had left. The things were so heavily armored that he doubted whether even a direct hit to the face would do them any serious damage.

Buck emerged from cover, firing over the railing on the far side of the concourse, succeeding in landing a few shots on the Hunter’s exposed back. The thing spun, as enraged as a colony of worms could look, answering him with a barrage of gel as he retreated out of sight. Now, the Rookie dared to fire, sending another gel canister flying towards the creature. The projectile exploded on the ground beneath its feet with a loud thud, the Hunter lurching. The blast was powerful enough to send fragments of its armored suit flying, stripping away its protection to expose more of its flesh, but it wasn’t enough to kill it outright. There was only one fuel rod left in the magazine now, he had to make it count.

Alba darted in and gave it another slam with her hammer, sending more pieces of its shining, blue armor flying through the air. It swung at her with its shield, catching her in the midriff and lifting her off her feet, sending her slamming into a nearby planter. Her shield flickered off, the concrete crumbling under her weight, her hammer flying from her hands and cratering into the foot of the steps. She was dazed by the blow, fumbling with her plasma rifle as the Hunter raised its assault cannon, intending to finish her off.

The Rookie fired, the fuel rod impacting the Hunter in its shoulder, shredding more of its armored carapace and sending a splash of orange slime splattering across the asphalt. The glowing gel seared into its armor, leaving dark smears where it melted the alloy, but it was another ineffective shot. The things were just too resilient.

The distraction gave Alba enough time to collect herself, however. She rose to her feet and went for her hammer, lifting it off the ground, and swinging it into the Hunter’s leg. The limb buckled under the impact, the secondary pulse of kinetic energy stripping more of its defenses. From across the plaza, the Rookie spied movement. Buck had leapt from the concourse and was running towards the creature, wielding a spike grenade from one of the fallen Brutes in his hand. The thing looked more like a mace than an explosive, like a table leg covered in blades, Buck yelling a warning as he drew his arm back and prepared to toss it.

Heads up, Covvie!”

Alba turned to run as he threw the grenade, the explosive tumbling end over end as it arced through the air, its cruel spikes hooking into the Hunter’s dorsal armor. The great creature whirled around, howling with rage before a fiery explosion ripped it open. What was left of its armor broke apart, a torrent of shredded worms and orange goo fountaining into the air like someone had put a firecracker inside a pumpkin. It slumped over in a smoldering heap, no longer recognizable as a humanoid construct, little more than a pile of gelatinous mush.

Headcount!” Buck shouted, “everyone in one piece?”

The asset is secure,” Dare said over the radio, Buck scoffing at her reply.

Screw the asset, what about you?”

I’m...fine,” she confirmed, seeming almost flustered by his concern.

The Rookie gave him a thumbs-up from atop the concourse, Alba marching back over to the steps, turning her nose up at the pile of smoldering Lekgolo. If it smelled bad to the Humans, then who knew what it must smell like to her sensitive nose. The Rookie discarded his now empty fuel rod gun, making his way back over to his comrades.

Mickey,” Buck said, contacting the Phantom over the radio as he paced at the foot of the steps with a finger to his helmet. “What’s your ETA? We’re not gettin’ any younger down here.”

Had to reroute to avoid the carrier, Gunny,” he replied. “We’ll be there in a couple of minutes.”

Then let’s hope that the Covenant have run out of uglies to throw at us,” Buck muttered. “Alright people...and other critters, if you’ve got bags, then start packing. We’re leavin’ this shitshow in two mikes.”

As if on cue, a massive bolt of plasma exploded on the facade of the building above them, shattering windows and sending chunks of masonry tumbling down the steps.

What the hell was that?” Buck snarled.

Dare emerged from the lobby above them, pointing in the direction of the highway.

Two Wraiths, they’ve got a bead on us!”

The Rookie turned to see a pair of the tanks in the distance, taking up firing positions on the elevated highway that overlooked the plaza, their purple hulls reflecting the light of the rising sun. They more resembled aircraft than conventional vehicles, with two lateral fins that stabilized their bulbous chassis, their gravity drives causing them to float just off the ground. Wraiths were mortar tanks, they fired enormous, indirect balls of energy from their main guns that exploded with catastrophic results. They were primarily siege weapons, used to destroy defensive structures and to take out enemy armor. The Covenant were done trying to flush them out, it seemed that they had decided to simply pulverize the entire building.

The two tanks began to fire in tandem, more plasma mortars crashing down on the plaza. The fire was imprecise, but even a near hit with one of those things would vaporize the average person. They retreated back up the steps, running for the cover of the lobby, as much good as it would do them. Those Wraiths would bring the entire structure down on their heads, it was no bunker.

As the Rookie took refuge by the doors, he saw another purple glint on the horizon. Damn it, how many more troops could the Covenant throw at them?

Another Phantom incoming,” he warned, hearing Buck curse as he slammed a fresh magazine into his SMG. As they watched the vessel float over the highway, it began to hover, its nose gun swiveling to track one of the Wraiths. It began to rain down fire on it, sending pieces of its purple armor tumbling through the air, brightly colored sparks showering as explosions rocked the tank.

Whoo, yeah!” Mickey’s voice came through over the comms. “Light ‘em up, boys!”

It was the Phantom that the ODSTs had commandeered, the ventral doors opening to reveal two mounted guns, streams of plasma harrying the Wraiths below.

Romeo, take the one on the left,” Dutch said.

I got it,” Romeo grumbled in reply, “keep her steady.”

It was a relief to hear their voices again, the Rookie unable to resist pumping his fist in the air as he watched the second Wraith explode into a rising cloud of blue-tinted, crackling smoke. The Phantom glided over the burning wreckage, sliding to a stop above a parking lot to the right of the building.

They make one hell of a team,” Dare muttered, holstering her sidearm as she coaxed the Huragok from its hiding place.

Just nice to know they really do listen,” Buck added, waving everyone forward. “C’mon, let’s get out of this city.”

They jogged over to the parking lot, with Alba and the Huragok in tow. As they neared the landing zone, a figure descended from the gravity lift, the skull and crossbones etched into his orange chest piece identifying him as Dutch. He raised his SMG as he saw the two aliens approach, Alba baring her teeth at him as she clutched her hammer, the Huragok waving its tentacles in alarm.

These things on our side, Gunny?” he asked warily.

Long as the floating one doesn’t get hit, and you don’t piss off the big one, yeah.”

The ground shook beneath their feet as a massive carrier exited slip-space above them, alarmingly close to the surface. Its massive, shining hull loomed over them, casting them into shadow as it blotted out the sun. A bright glow began to emanate from its excavation beam as the weapon started to charge, intending to simply glass the area.

I think we’ve overstayed our welcome,” Buck muttered. “Everyone into the Phantom, move it!”

The ground beneath their feet began to quake as a beam of energy shot down from the carrier, sending dark smoke pouring into the air as it melted the ground beneath it into lava. It was so bright at this distance that the Rookie had to look away from it, like a ray of sunlight, or a giant welding torch. The Huragok seemed to become panicked by the sight, refusing to budge and waving its head around as Dare took it by the tentacles, attempting to drag it into the beam of the Phantom’s gravity lift.

Come on, damn it! Move!” she huffed, the creature putting up a considerable amount of resistance despite being primarily comprised of hot gas.

Oh, for...” Buck shrugged in exasperation, taking position behind the frightened alien and giving it a shove with his shoulder. Together, they managed to force it into the beam, Dare rising into the air as the anti-gravity field caught her. She kept a hold on the Huragok’s tentacles, pulling it into the Phantom with her. Buck ushered Alba and the Rookie inside after her, the Rookie’s stomach lurching as he felt himself become weightless, his boots rising from the ground as he floated up into the circular hatch in the belly of the craft. He emerged into a troop bay, more spacious than that of the Pelicans that the UNSC used, blue lights and holographic readouts illuminating the space. Buck rose up behind him, giving Alba a wide berth as he removed his helmet, taking in a breath of fresh air.

Alright Mickey, fly this thing like you stole it.”

I did steal it, Gunny,” Mickey replied over some kind of intercom. Wherever the cockpit was, it was out of view of the troop bay.

There was almost no sensation of acceleration as they took off, the Rookie watching the landscape fly past through the open ventral doors, the Phantom rising swiftly into the smog-choked sky. Buck walked over to Romeo, who was manning one of the door guns, gesturing for the Rookie to help him out. They eased the ODST up into the troop bay and lay him down on the deck, Romeo grunting in pain. He had been injured at some point during their trek through the city, his BDU was soaked with dried blood.

Easy does it,” Buck said, gently removing the man’s helmet.

Where the hell have you been?” he coughed, glancing up at the Rookie. “Typical, we put in all the groundwork, then the Rookie shows up and takes all the credit.”

Give him some meds, would you?” Buck asked as he passed the Rookie a shot of morphine. He pressed the needle into Romeo’s exposed neck, pushing down on the syringe, his breathing growing more regular as the painkiller did its work. “You look like you might need some too,” Buck added, gesturing to the Rookie’s wounded shoulder, but he shook his head.

I’m good, Sarge.”

Maybe it’s the morphine talking,” Romeo muttered weakly, “but tell me that you guys see the Brute and the floating squid too.”

The squid is important,” Buck said, kneeling beside him on the deck. “It knows things. As for the Brute, well...we needed all the help we could get down there.” He looked over his shoulder, glancing at the Huragok. “Mickey,” he added, “I’m sending you a very special co-pilot.” “Aw, come on!” Mickey complained. “I don’t want one of those things in here!”

It won’t bite,” Buck insisted, the Huragok drifting in the direction of the cockpit. “And unlike you, it knows what to tell those cruisers to keep ‘em off our tail.”

I think they’re too busy to care,” Dare said, standing beside the nearby ventral door as she looked out over the city. It was hard to make out the ground due to the smoke, and the skies were clogged with Covenant craft of impressive scale, drawing burning trails with their excavation beams. What was left of the orbital tether was in view, perched on its artificial island. It looked like a shattered tree stump, only the base and some of the broken rings remaining, the rest of them scattered about the landscape.

Looks like they’ve found what they’re looking for,” she added. In the distance, just beyond the limits of the city, the Covenant had unearthed a massive construct. It was larger than anything that Humanity had ever built, dwarfing even the Covenant’s giant carriers, shining metal and strange indentations reflecting the sunlight. Whatever it was, it had been buried deep, and it had been there long before Mombasa had been built. It was some kind of Forerunner artifact, had to be, a relic of the ancient Galactic empire that the Covenant worshiped as their Gods.

Well, I think this is above my clearance level,” Dutch muttered as he stared out of the door in awe.

What do you suppose they’re gonna do with that thing?” Buck asked.

Nothing good,” Dare replied solemnly. “But the Huragok has information that can help us prepare, maybe even find a way to stop them.”

And what about the Brute?” Buck asked, gesturing over his shoulder with his thumb. Alba was standing beside the Rookie with her massive arms crossed over her chest, looking like some kind of giant bodyguard.

Taking anything larger than a Grunt alive is very rare,” Dare replied, glancing over at the alien. “Defectors who are willing to talk are pretty much unheard of. We’ll bring her in along with the Huragok, ONI will want to find out what she knows. If she cooperates, then she may qualify for asylum. Can’t say that those laws were drafted with aliens in mind, but we can’t exactly send her home after the amount of Covenant that we’ve seen her kill.”

I’ll vouch for her,” the Rookie interjected, Buck and Dare exchanging a glance.

Don’t think the likes of us will get much of a say in the matter, Rookie,” Buck replied. “But for what it’s worth, I’ll put in a word for her. Lord knows we might not have made it out of there without her hammer.”

We don’t capture many of those either,” Dare added, “the engineers may want to take it apart to see how it works.”

Alba snorted like an angry bull at the remark, frowning at the pair.

Or...maybe we let her keep the hammer,” Buck said, adjusting the collar of his BDU nervously.

Dutch pressed a button on one of the holographic control panels, the two ventral doors beginning to close. The Rookie took one last look at the blasted cityscape, and then they were sealed in, the Phantom accelerating into space.

The Rookie – ONI Orbital Facility, one month after drop.

The Rookie opened his eyes as Alba nudged him with her elbow, raising his head from her lap as the door to the interrogation room slid open. Alba was sitting on the deck beside him, her legs crossed, while the rest of his squad waited around nearby. The Huragok was floating beside a table in the middle of the small room, toying with the optics package of an F-99 UAV, fascinated by its intricate machinery and electronics. When presented with the opportunity, all the alien wanted to do was take things apart, and then put them back together again. The spooky part was how they tended to work better than they did before...

Dare entered the room with a man at her side that the Rookie had never seen before. He had a dark complexion, and he was wearing the battle dress of the Marine corps, along with their signature cap. His insignia identified him as a Sergeant Major. The two appeared to be in the middle of a conversation, the Rookie catching the tail end of it as the door slid shut behind them.

Lord Hood may have given you clearance,” Dare said. “But it was my op, and this is my interrogation. We only captured one Huragok, and it’s very delicate.”

Don’t worry,” the Marine replied, “I know what the aliens like...”

They approached the Huragok, the alien abandoning its project to greet them.

It has access to the Covenant BattleNet?” the Marine asked, appraising the hovering creature as it blinked its three pairs of dark eyes at them.

Limited, but yes,” Dare replied. “We’re not entirely sure how it manages a remote connection to the w-”

The Marine tossed something at the Huragok, a Zippo lighter, the ODSTs jumping to attention and aiming their weapons as the alien caught it deftly with one of its glowing tentacles. Alba snarled, her hand reaching for the hammer that was slung across her broad back.

Whoa, stand down! Stand down!” Buck exclaimed.

Sergeant Major, please!” Dare gasped. “It’s extremely flammable!”

The Marine seemed nonplussed, sauntering over to the Huragok and taking a seat on one of the two unoccupied chairs beside the table. He pulled a cigar from his pocket, glancing up at the creature as it cocked its head at him curiously.

The Covenant,” the Marine began, bringing the cigar to his mouth. “The bastards who enslaved your friends, who killed millions of my people...they’re digging a mighty big hole. You’re gonna tell me exactly what they’re looking for, and then you’re gonna help me stop ‘em.”

The Huragok flipped the lighter open, igniting the flame, everyone in the room holding their breath as the alien brought it towards the cigar. It held it beside the tip, the Marine taking a puff and exhaling a cloud of grey smoke.

I take it we have a deal, then? Good. And you,” he added, turning to face Alba as he took another long draw. “You’ve been into the lion’s den. You’ve served with the Covenant, you know how they think, how they operate. You’re trained in their battlefield tactics, the operation of their equipment, you know ‘em better than our experts ever could.”

Alba huffed in agreement, sinking back into her sitting position beside the Rookie and crossing her arms as she watched the man warily.

You tell us everything that we wanna know, and I can guarantee your safety. Now, you ain’t a prisoner. You came here of your own free will, and the UNSC appreciates that. As far as I see it, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, but we can’t have Brutes runnin’ around unsupervised. I’m sure you can understand.”

Alba will tell green man what he wants to know,” she replied.

That’s what I like to hear. And you, man of few words,” he continued as he pointed to the Rookie with his lit cigar. “Since we can’t seem to separate you two, you’re gonna have to stick around for a while. Call it guard duty, call it babysitting, I don’t give a damn. But seen as how you’re the only one that she’ll listen to, I’m holdin’ you responsible if she goes on a hammer spree.”

The Rookie nodded his head in reply, the Marine smiling as he chewed on his cigar.

Alright then, looks like we’ve all come to an understanding. If only every interrogation went this smoothly. Now, if you’ve gotten enough beauty sleep, we can begin the debriefing. Miss Dare, if you would...”

The Rookie – Sydney suburbs, eighteen months after drop.

Try to keep pace, tiny man,” Alba laughed. She was jogging a short distance ahead of the Rookie, easily outpacing him with her long strides. She liked to stay fit, Earth’s gravity was around half that of Doisac’s, and so she would start to lose muscle mass pretty quickly if she didn’t keep up with her exercise regimen. The Rookie was a military man, and he was no stranger to two-mile runs, but Alba was in a class of her own.

They weren’t too far from home now, the sun was just starting to set, painting the distant hills to their left in shades of red and orange. To their right were rows of suburban houses with carefully tended lawns, the road deserted this late into the evening. They had chosen Australia as a place to settle after the war, not only because the hot climate suited Alba, but because the ONI headquarters was located in Sydney. The Navy liked to keep her close, both so that they could reach her easily, and for security purposes. The stifling heat was starting to subside a little now, a cool breeze blowing in from the ocean to the East, making the Rookie glad that he had thought to bring his sweater.

Alba was wearing a pair of tight jogging shorts that gave him an admirable view from his position behind her, along with a sports bra that struggled to contain the weight of her chest as it bobbed up and down, her bare feet thudding against the sidewalk. Finding clothing for someone of her size was one thing, but finding shoes for her was quite another, not that she seemed to want them.

Almost there, tiny man,” she said as they rounded the corner into their cul-de-sac. She knew his real name by now, of course, but the nickname had stuck. They jogged up the driveway and arrived at the door to their house, being on ONI’s payroll came with its advantages, and the Rookie followed Alba inside. It was fairly large by Human standards, but Alba’s fluffy hair just skirted the ceiling. She had let it grow out since leaving the Covenant, tying it back in a ponytail, and letting her thick bangs fall over her face.

The Rookie shrugged off his jacket as Alba stretched, throwing it over the gravity hammer that was now serving as a coat rack, the massive weapon sitting head-down in the hall. The ONI engineers had been very interested in taking it apart so that they could study the gravity generator, but Alba was rather protective of it. She had little use for it now that the war had ended and the Covenant had split apart, but it held a sentimental value to her. Woe betide any burglar who was unfortunate enough to choose this house as his target…

Alba turned to face him, her cheeks flushed pink, her shoulders wide enough that she almost blocked the hallway like a cork in a bottle. Her grey skin was dripping with sweat, her bangs damp, her ample chest rising and falling rapidly as she caught her breath.

Perhaps is my imagination, but tiny man is getting better at keeping up with Alba,” she said with a toothy grin that exposed her sharp teeth.

The Rookie was doubled over, his hands resting on his knees, his sweat stinging his eyes. He gave her a ‘time-out’ gesture with his hands, and she slapped her thigh as she chuckled at him, sending a ripple through her flesh. Those shorts were criminally tight, the hem riding high on her muscular legs, the subtle paunch of her tummy overhanging the elastic waistband. She stretched again, reaching her arms behind her head and twisting her torso, her breasts straining against the sodden sports bra.

Time for a shower, maybe?” she asked. “If tiny man is not too tired...”

He perked up at that, and she reached down to mess up his wet hair with her giant hand, leaving a tangled mess in her wake. She was not the only one who had let her regulation cut lapse recently.

Oh, now you are no longer tired?” she teased. “Come, Alba will need help.”

They moved into the living room, shedding their clothes as they went, Alba slipping out of her clinging shorts with some difficulty as the Rookie hopped on one leg in an attempt to remove his pants. They had the usual amenities, a couch with a metal frame that could take Alba’s weight, along with a television that she had taken a liking to since settling in. He watched the heavy cheeks of her rump roll as she strode across the carpet, Alba pulling off her top, keeping her back to him as he followed behind her. She liked to tease him, her demeanor had become so much more playful now that the threat of death was no longer hanging over their heads, yet she still retained that warrior’s pride.

Once he had succeeded in shedding his clothing, he joined her in the bathroom, Alba waiting for him inside the shower cubicle. This was one amenity that had to be Alba-sized, and it took up most of the room, the Rookie pushing past the glass door as he squeezed in beside her. There was just enough room for the both of them, the shower head hanging a mere inch above Alba’s bouncy hairdo. He found himself facing her, his head at chest-height to her as she peered down at him with a smirk on her face, nude save for the scant fabric of her oversized thong.

Her breasts hung in front of his face, as full and as firm as ever, swaying gently with her every breath. Her voluptuous figure filled his view completely, his eyes drawn to the wonderful way that her fat dimpled where her hips met her waist, the elastic of her underwear cutting deep into her supple flesh. He knew her body like the back of his hand now, every dark-grey freckle, every pink scar that served as a reminder of her former life as a soldier. His own skin was a patchwork of healed wounds, including those that he had sustained during his time in New Mombasa, the scar from the needle that had hit him in the shoulder had never fully disappeared. There were plastic surgery procedures that could make his skin as soft and as clear as a newborn’s again, and the UNSC would cover the cost, but Alba had refused. She liked his scars, said that it was proof of his bravery, and he wasn’t inclined to challenge her on that.

She pressed him up against the cubicle wall, leaning on it with her forearm, letting the meat of her breasts cascade over his shoulders and weight him down. He didn’t complain, feeling her slick, warm flesh against his cheeks as he breathed in the sweet scent of her exertion. It was one that he had become very familiar with since ONI had released them, not a day went by that they didn’t reenact their encounter from that dismal highway tunnel. It seemed like so long ago now, but those emotions were still fresh, the fire that they had kindled together still raged as hot as ever.

Alba reached over and turned the shower on, letting the jets of water flatten her fluffy hair against her head, loosing a satisfied sigh as it flowed across her shoulders and down her back. The Rookie couldn’t restrain himself any longer, letting his hands wander across her waist, his fingers tracing the curve of her hips as they roamed around to her rear. He stood no chance of getting both arms around her, she was far too wide for his fingers to meet on the other side, but that didn’t stop him from weighing her cheeks in his hands. He felt her muscles tense as he delved his digits deep into the doughy flesh of her rump, burying them up to the knuckle, her iron glutes dimpling her fat. He hooked his thumbs around the string of her underwear, pulling it down over her thighs, Alba raising a leg to help him.

Tiny man always grows feisty after workout,” she rumbled, shifting her shoulders to redirect the water onto him. She laughed as her cleavage began to fill, creating a small pool around his head, the Rookie blowing bubbles. She finally took a step back lest she drown him, the collected water spilling down his chest.

She reached for one of the shelves on a nearby wall, plucking a bottle of body wash from it, upending it onto her chest and letting the water carry the ropes of clear gel downwards. The Rookie raised his hands and began to spread it, turning the clear fluid into a white foam, wasting no time as he slid down to her bust. Alba bit her lip as he began to massage the slippery suds into the sensitive skin of her breasts, delving his fingers deep as he kneaded them like fresh cookie batter, before letting them spring back to their original shape.

Alba thinks that tiny man is not taking hygiene seriously,” she muttered, rubbing her thick thighs together lasciviously as he circled one of her erect nipples through the slimy lather. He moved lower, running his fingers lightly across her stomach, feeling her powerful core flex beneath her soft exterior. He knew that she was ticklish where her leathery skin was thinnest, and those erogenous zones were already flushing pink, as if in invitation to him.

He passed over her navel and moved down to her thighs, sliding a hand between them, stroking their sensitive inner surfaces. She leaned more of her weight on the wall behind him, slumping over as he teased her, her breasts bumping him in the face as they swung with the motion. She was low enough that her neck was in range, and so he stood on his toes, Alba murmuring under her breath as he began to bite and kiss at her throat. Her hide was so thick and tough that he stood no chance of breaking the skin, and she seemed to enjoy it when he bit her hard, perhaps it was something that Brutes did to each other.

As his questing fingers roamed higher, he encountered a heat and wetness that was not a product of the shower, Alba shivering as his fingertips brushed her lips. She was swollen, needy, strands of her juices leaking over his digits.

The Imp must finish what he starts,” she whispered, squeezing her thighs together to trap his hand there. He traced the folds of her vulva with his fingers, planting a sucking kiss on her neck, his touch too light to give her much satisfaction. She began to squirm, rolling her wide hips reflexively, her breathing growing heavier as her tension mounted. How he loved to watch her cheeks turn red when she was frustrated, too proud to simply ask for what she wanted.

He slipped a finger inside her, feeling her grip him tightly, a sigh escaping her lips as she leaned on the wall above his head. Her eyes slowly closed as he began to move, stroking her from the inside, her sensitive walls flexing around his digit. He found the firm nub of her clitoris with his thumb, wetting it with her excitement and making slow circles, feeling her shudder at his touch.

You know me too well, tiny man,” she sighed.

They stayed that way for a few minutes, letting the warm water soothe their aching muscles, washing away the sweat and soap. The Rookie could feel her growing more excited, the way that her insides narrowed around his buried finger in ever more frequent spasms betraying her lust, despite her seemingly collected exterior. Eventually, he felt her large hand close around his wrist, withdrawing it from between her thighs.

Enough teasing,” she grumbled, turning and leading him out of the shower cubicle. She left the water on, leaving the door ajar, not even taking a moment to let him reach for a towel as she guided him out into the living room. He felt the fluffy carpet beneath his damp feet as she tugged him along, her grip like iron, pushing open the door to their bedroom. She released her hold on him by the doorway, sauntering over to their bed, another amenity that had to be scaled up to handle Alba’s size and weight. At more than nine feet long, and nearly the same across, it was larger than any king-size that you could buy from a store. It was even more spacious than the main living area of the Rookie’s first apartment had been. They shared it, of course, and it was not uncommon for him to wake up to find Alba clutching him so tightly in her sleep that he had trouble escaping.

She flopped down onto the rat’s nest of mismatched sheets and pillows, the frame creaking worryingly, the bed springs screeching their displeasure as she sank into the soft mattress. Her knees were on the carpet, her upper body resting on the bed, her ample rear on display. The sheen of moisture that clung to her grey skin made her shine, her body catching the light from the setting sun as it bled through the slats on the window above the headboard, picking out the fine details of her muscular back. The sunlight seemed to make her powerfully built shoulders glow, the deep channel that ran down her spine, and the dimples just above her rump cast into deep shadow. The sheen of water on her round rump was practically enough to make it reflective. She propped herself up on her elbows, peering back over her shoulder at him in invitation.

Seeing that he was transfixed by the sight, she reached back and gripped one of her cheeks, spreading it to expose her loins as the soft fat bulged between her fingers. The rosy pink contrasted so starkly with her grey complexion, her lips puffy and flushed, aching for his touch. His eyes followed a rope of her excitement as it drooped from her lustrous vulva, falling to the carpet below, like oozing nectar leaking from the folded petals of a flower.

We’re gonna make the bed wet, y’know,” he complained.

Since when is bed ever dry?” she replied.

Fair point...”

He walked across the carpet, planting his hand on her rump, the clap sending a ripple through her cheek. She flinched, the Rookie watching as the muscles along her toned back tensed, droplets of water raining to the sheets below. Alba’s legs were long enough that her loins were at about waist-height to him in this position, and he took his growing erection in his hand, parting her heavy cheeks with the other as he drew closer.

He felt the heat that she radiated as his glans pressed against her vulva, a droplet of her fluid rolling slowly down his shaft, her flesh like wet silk. He sank his fingers into her padded butt, taking handfuls of her doughy flesh for leverage as the tip of his member pushed into her, spreading her narrow passage as she engulfed him. He slowly slid all the way to the base, his hips pressing up against the cushion of her rear, her juices leaking around his shaft as it vanished inch by inch. Her muscles flexed and clenched around him in a cruel rhythm as pleasure welled up inside her like a geyser, her toes curling, her spine arching beautifully as she pushed back against him.

They found a leisurely pace, slow and relaxed, rather than frantic and greedy. They were both tired from their run, and there was no need to hurry, they had all the time in the world now that there were no Covenant cruisers glassing everything around them. Alba rocked back against him to meet his thrusts, taking him deeper, his member kissing the furthest reaches of her passage as the bed frame creaked. She shivered and sighed every time that he brushed her sensitive walls, her insides shifting and roiling, her muscles kneading him through the barrier of her flesh. He could feel every bump and wrinkle as it raked across his glans, sliding up and down his shaft, caressing him from every angle.

He toyed with her rump, running his hands across her wet skin, sinking his fingers deep into her flesh until he felt the hard muscle beneath tense at his touch. His thrusting sent waves through her cheeks, making them shake with every impact, their flesh clapping together as their pleasure mounted. Her butt was like a pair of exercise balls that were being squashed together, her hips wider than his shoulders, more flesh and brawn than he knew what to do with.

Alba peered back at him over her shoulder, her eyelids drooping, her head rocking gently as he moved. He wanted to take her ponytail in his hand and give it a tug, she’d probably enjoy that, but her head might as well have been a hundred miles away from him. She dug her claw-like nails into the sheets, the Rookie hearing the sound of tearing fabric, and it wouldn’t be the first time. Their wooden headboard looked like a scratching post for a giant cat, its varnished surface scored with claw marks from their previous sessions. The drywall behind it was dented where the headboard had been repeatedly slammed into it during their more lively encounters, and the springs in the mattress were pretty much shot after only a few months of use.

He admired her back as they rutted, reaching out and tracing the long dimple of her spine with his fingers as far up as he could manage, watching her muscles shift beneath her damp skin as they caught the orange-tinted sunlight that bled in through the blinds. There were more dark freckles here, or perhaps mottling would be a better way to describe the patterns, along with pink scars that stood out against the slate color of her thick hide. He saw one just above her rump, the very same that he had inflicted himself during their first encounter, his combat knife scarcely more than a pinprick to her.

The Rookie slid his hands back down to the small of her back, leaning his weight on her as she shifted, Alba rolling her hips to change the angle of his thrusts. His member dug into her satin walls, the fluids that were seeping down her inner thighs making him glide, her tight grip on him creating a wonderful friction despite it.

Go a little faster,” she sighed, “but not too fast. Alba wants to enjoy this a while longer...”

He increased the tempo of their coupling, his eyes losing their focus as he felt her tunnel flex, her pillowy insides pressing around him like a silken glove. There was no respite from the ceaseless sensation, the rings of muscle in the depths of her sodden tunnel tightening, stroking and sucking at him in pitiless waves as they rolled up his shaft like her body was trying to swallow him. Every subtle movement of her hips sent another throb of pleasure coursing through him, the mounting bliss making him feel like his head was full of static.

That feels good,” Alba muttered. She shifted suddenly, rolling onto her side, lifting her legs up onto the mattress as she kept him inside her. Her textured, clinging tunnel swirled around his shaft, the sensation making his knees go weak. She pressed her thighs together as she reclined, the pressure inside her seeming to increase with the motion, her rump practically hanging off the edge of the bed. Her massive breasts sandwiched together under their own weight, the upper one weighing down on the lower, spreading it out like someone sitting on a beanbag chair. She rested her head in her hand, looking down at him expectantly, wiggling her butt and making it wobble.

Well? Keep going, tiny man.”

He took hold of one of her love handles with one hand, delving the other into her meaty thigh, pulling himself into her more vigorously now. He noticed that her hand had emerged from between her legs, her fingers rubbing vigorously, wet with her leaking fluids as she stroked her mound. He could feel her excitement mounting, her casual demeanor slipping, Alba sucking her lower lip into her mouth and chewing on it as she shot him a seductive glance.

The Rookie redoubled his efforts, the bed starting to shake, the headboard bumping against the wall. Alba’s fingers began to move faster, and she bowed her head, letting her soaking wet bangs fall over her snout as she bared her fangs in a snarl. He couldn’t hold out much longer either, there was a pleasant numbness spreading through his lower body, his legs threatening to give out. Everything was blurring together into a soup of euphoria, fuzzy and indistinct, every clap of his belly against her pert cheek accompanied by a surge of tingling pleasure.

Fill me,” she growled through clenched teeth, “I feel you beating inside me like a racing heart.”

It was a request that he couldn’t refuse, and he clawed at her flesh, taking rough handfuls as he gave in to his desire. Their rutting reached a fever pitch, the two of them shuddering and moaning in unison, the pressure that had been building up inside them finally releasing like a storm breaking. The Rookie doubled over, leaning on the wide curve of her hip and the cushion of her rump as the first wave of his orgasm rocked him, Alba’s loins clamping down on him as she felt his warmth pouring into her. Her powerful muscles tensed, her fingers moving frantically as she eased out her climax, joining him in his bliss. Her passage seemed to pulsate around him, drawing out more of his emission in a ruthless stroking motion, like a farmhand milking a cow. The sensation of her slimy, velvet insides sliding against his glans made him see stars, his climax heightening his senses to the point that it was almost unbearable.

The Rookie felt all of the stress melting from his aching muscles with every pulse of pleasure that tore through him, a wonderful blend of afterglow and fatigue lulling him into a kind of trance, everything taking on a dream-like quality. All that he could focus on was Alba’s heaving body, the way that her walls massaged him with every thick rope of his seed that splashed against them, the way that her cheeks and thighs shook with his rutting.

He almost felt as though he could fall asleep right there, all of the strength draining out of him, the Rookie swaying drunkenly as Alba’s yellow eyes gazed back at him. They remained joined for a while, as though moving might somehow interrupt the euphoria that had overtaken them, jolts of lingering pleasure interrupting their afterglow to make them twitch and shudder. The Rookie finally pulled out of her, wincing as another pulse of sensation caught him off-guard, a lurid concoction of their pearly fluids leaking from her splayed lips with the consistency of honey. Globs of it trickled down her thigh as it seeped from her swollen loins, thick, gelatinous strands sagging to the mattress below.

Alba’s breathing had become deep and regular, shivers passing through her voluptuous body as aftershocks rocked her. She was no doubt wallowing in the same post-coital bliss that he was, the lingering afterglow spiced with the sweet ache of exertion.

She gave the bed beside her a pat with her large hand, and he climbed up to join her, Alba ensnaring him once he was within her reach.

Her breasts spilled over his shoulders as she trapped him in a one-armed hug, holding onto him possessively as she pulled the sheets over them, burying him in the heavy covers and her warm flesh. She tugged him tight, sinking him into the paunch of her belly, her firm bicep pressing against his cheek. They were both wet with a blend of shower water and sweat, amongst other things, but he was so relaxed that he could have slept on a bed of nails.

Alba buried her nose in his damp hair, her warm breath blowing it, the steady rise and fall of her chest making her bosom heave around his head.

Not sure there was much point in us taking a shower,” he muttered, feeling Alba lean down to nuzzle his cheek. Her soft lips found his neck, crawling down to his shoulder, her teeth pricking him as she gave him a mock bite. She took his cheeks in her hand, turning his head to the side, her long tongue winding its way towards his mouth as she subjected him to one of her bawdy kisses. Her pace was more gentle today, placating, her taste so familiar to him now. The long, deep embrace dragged on for what felt like minutes, Alba clinging to him possessively as her slippery organ swirled around his own. She was so overpowering, yet gentle, her doting licking and stroking making him melt into her arms. It felt like she was pouring all of her affection into this single act, her low moans escaping from between their locked lips, his heart fluttering with every deft flurry of her tongue.

She finally drew back, her slimy muscle sliding past his lips, and back into her mouth as she grinned at him.

Now sleep,” she whispered, “tiny man will need his strength for tomorrow.”

We doin’ more cardio?” he asked, suppressing a yawn.

You could call it that,” she replied with a toothy grin.