Annual Award Best Novel This story, Duties and Desires: Part 1, written by Sonasaurus, was voted as the Best Novel of 2011 in the Fourth Annual Halo Fanon Wikia Awards.

Duties and Desires (Part 1)
Duties&desires p1
Would you save the ones you cared about most? Or would you watch them all die, just to fulfil your duty?
Protagonist Felix Martel
Author Sonasaurus
Date Published July 16, 2011
Length 11 Chapters
26,100 words
Author's Rating Violence
Mild Language
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Next Story Duties and Desires (Part 2)
Story Series Insurrection


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Part One

Chapter 1: Barrie

1100 Hours, January 24, 2482 (Earth-standard Calendar), outskirts of Asphodel City, planet Eridanus II, Eridanus System

The Pelican dropship lowered its rear landing gear, and its hatch opened. The URF medics pulled the injured out on medical stretchers. They moved with calm efficiency towards the medical facility.

Commander Gerald Barrie stood on one side, watching them calmly. His guards were behind him, their Assault Rifles ready. His subordinates had always been unconcerned with the injured dropping into the area, but Barrie always took time to ensure they would be treated properly.

The man wasn't actually military, but was known for his combat and leadership skills. Although you never would have guessed it by his calm demeanor and relaxed expression. Everyone called him "the Commander", and had been leading the URF in the area for eleven years. Barrie was a popular commander, always giving opportunities for insight to others and willing to listen to others. He didn't take heavy action against the UNSC, or threatened the lives of anyone on Eridanus II.

The group of facilities in the area were named "the Sanctuary". Although Asphodel City and surrounding area was URF territory, the civilians were not concerned with them, and came to trust the rebels to give them reliable medical care. Barrie always welcomed them to the Sanctuary whenever they needed help. It was in some ways safer than living in Asphodel City. In fact, the civilians preferred that the UNSC (United Nations Space Command) did not bother them at all.

Despite the diplomatic feel of the area, Barrie was also consistent with any security measures in case of anything. The rebels were armed with the latest weaponry and other UNSC contraband. None of it was stolen, as the Commander felt that petty thievery was beyond them. He had contacts that owned replicated blueprints for the official weapons, vehicles, and equipment for the UNSC. The guards carried new MA3 Assault Rifles, M4C Magnums, and snipers lined the facilities at the most unpredictable vantage points. They carried access cards to garages containing Warthog Light Reconnaissance Vehicles, complete with fingerprint and retina scanners to discourage thievery (not that anyone needed to). Self-destruct explosives were planted on every ship, and the 400 URF soldiers made up over half the population.

"What happened this time?" Barrie asked as they passed by.

"Gunfight, sir," one of the medics explained, not even slowing down. "Some kind of dispute over gang turfs. We've got four injured."

"It's those teenagers that give Asphodel a bad name," the Commander sighed. "As if we don't already have the UNSC on our asses all the time." He walked after the medics, followed by his guards.

The medics laid the injured civilians on the beds, and a few doctors were looking over them. A boy was standing beside them, listening to them talk. Barrie sized him up. His hair was pitch black, with dark eyes to match, and was thin-lipped. He couldn't have been older than 10, but stood a fair height of around five feet.

"This one took a bullet in the head," Dr Walker, the chief surgeon, said. "The only reason he's not dead is because he has a metal plate where part of his skull should be. Got it from another gang fight, probably. Unfortunately, if I try to find the bullet with an MRI, it'll tear the plate right out of his head."

"But what if you use ultrasound, doctor?" the boy asked. "If we do a high-setting scan, we can make a good estimate as to where the bullet is based on the location of the entry wound."

Barrie walked up to them. "Who is this?" he asked, looking to the boy.

"This is my assistant," Dr Walker said, still thinking about it. "Okay, we'll try it. Good thinking, kid."

"What's your name?" Barrie asked him.

"Felix Martel, sir," the boy replied respectfully.

"You're pretty sharp, boy," the Commander said. "I could use someone like you to help me with things."

Felix looked pleased. "Thank you, sir."

"Felix, can you get the medical supplies?" Dr Walker inquired. The boy walked into a supply room and returned pushing a trolley laden with surgical instruments.

Barrie watched them work with the patient. Felix was serious, quiet, and very helpful. The Commander could see that the doctor was glad to have him around. He also noted how strong the boy's build was, and made a mental note to recruit him as a soldier when he was old enough.

When Felix got home, his mother, Abigail, was in the living room with dinner ready. She was a woman with dark blonde hair, and the dark eyes and thin lips that was reflected in her oldest son. She could be described as the modest type of beautiful, and smiled easily. As he sat down at the table, she handed him a plate. "How was it at the medical facility?"

"Great," he said. "One of the patients had a bullet in his head, but you know Dr Walker never failed to save a life yet."

"Is your homework done? School's tomorrow you know."

Felix rolled his eyes as he ladled food onto his plate. "I know, mom. I've finished it already. Tom probably hasn't yet, though."

"Well he has trouble with something, he says," Abigail said. "Why don't you help him out?"

He groaned. "Mom, you could have helped him. I was out all day."

"I know dear, but you need to spend more time with him. Working at a medical facility isn't what people do when they're 9 years old."

"I'll be 10 in a month, mom," Felix said. "Where's dad? He should be home by now."

"The technicians wanted some upgrades on the Pelicans, and he's staying for another shift to get it done. Oh, and Felix, Commander Barrie dropped by today. He gave me this." Abigail passed a sheet of paper across the table. "He wants you to see him next Saturday at the administration facility." Felix read it for a few moments. His mother looked at him. Her son was such a serious young boy, taking on quite a few responsibilities. He never disappointed her when it came to his studies at school, and brought home a fair salary from the medical facility every month. He had probably seen so many people brutally injured and helped bring them out from the rift between life and death.

Felix finished reading the paper, and picked his fork up again. "The Commander was here?"

"Yes, he talked quite a bit about you," Abigail said.

The former was silent, eating without giving it much thought. So Barrie had taken an interest to him. He realized he would like to hear what the Commander had to say.

The only thing that Felix felt ever bothered him was that he didn't know what he wanted to be when he grew up. There was a lot he could do, but it just never felt right for him. Maybe Barrie held the answers to his future.

Felix picked up his plate and utensils and placed them in the sink. He washed them thoroughly, and walked upstairs to Tom's room.

His younger brother was playing a computer game when he walked in. Tom had his mother's blonde hair, but his eyes were lighter and his mouth was wider. His face was screwed up in concentration.

Felix looked over to the homework laid on the table. "Looks challenging," he said sarcastically. "Division is one of life's greatest mysteries, isn't it?"

Tom turned around and quickly turned the computer off by pulling the plug. "You scared me," he said.

Felix gave a mock glare. "That's not very good for the computer."

"Shut up," Tom said, turning his computer back on. "You made me close the game. Now I have to start over."

"You know, mom said you could go on after you're done," Felix said. "It really isn't that hard."

"I know, but I just don't wanna do it." His little brother opened an internet browser, and Felix grabbed his wrist.

"Hey! What are you—" Tom turned to face Felix, and trailed off as he saw the expression on his face.

The latter was reading the article on the homepage news.


Reports of increased URF activity has been detected. Civilians on Eridanus II had been targeted, and the casualty rate numbers at greater than a thousand. The UNSC (United Nations Space Command) is sending ships to the Eridanus System to deal with the URF force. The counterattack is expected to conclude at a maximum of 1 week.

Commander Barrie always made it clear how he found the other URF in the Eridanus System to be problematic. They attracted attention to any other rebel group, hostile or not. But the UNSC never cared. To them, an Innie was an Innie.

The Sanctuary was very well defended, but even it could not prevent the ships in orbit from launching a MAC strike down on them, if they felt like it. In the last major scrap with the UNSC, the URF managed to hold their own…barely. But this time, it sounded severe. They were obviously in danger here.

Felix had never known why the URF hated them so much. From what he heard, the civilians lived their lives the same way as they did. There had been no enemy to fight other than pirates and smugglers. But he occasionally wondered what it would be like, to walk among them, as one of them…

"Felix?" Tom asked, who was starting to feel a bit disconcerted. "Are you alright?"

Felix snapped out of his reverie. He felt his thoughts drifting away, and slowly let go of his brother's wrist.

"Yeah," he said. "I'm fine."

0800 Hours, January 29, 2482 (Earth-standard Calendar), outskirts of Asphodel City, planet Eridanus II, Eridanus System

Felix walked into the administration building, followed by two of Barrie's armed guards. They escorted him into the Commander's room, and the latter was sitting calmly behind his desk.

"Thank you, gentlemen," Barrie said. "Felix, please sit down. Close the door behind you." He did so, and sat on the chair across from the Commander. the guards stood by the door.

"Now," Barrie said. "Felix Martel. I know your father. He's been very helpful from the moment he began working here. A better Tech Chief I couldn't have asked for."

Felix nodded.

"But we're here to talk about you. Dr Walker seems to hold great trust in you. And from what I saw last Monday at the medical facility, I can see why. I would like to ask you if you want to become my personal assistant. What with everything I have to take care of here at the Sanctuary, I can use a smart kid like you."

Felix thought about it for a moment. "It would be an honour, sir. But what about Dr Walker?"

Barrie waved a hand. "I'm not asking the doctor to give you up for my sake, but I would appreciate it if you could help. Why don't you ask him yourself? If he agrees, then our problem is solved. And if not, I'll respect his decision and you'll keep working there.

"But you also have a say in this. What do you think? Do you want to help me?"

Felix was silent. Finally, he said, "I'm not quite sure yet, sir. I'll have to think about it."

"Very well," Barrie said, leaning back in his chair. "Now, is there something on your mind? I can see you were rather troubled when you walked in."

"I...I'm worried about all of us, sir. The UNSC look like they're coming for something, or someone in the URF here."

The Commander frowned. "Yes, I heard about that. I will establish a meeting with their leader when they come, and perhaps we can make an arrangement. The URF do make rather foolish decisions." Felix looked slightly doubtful, which Barrie noticed. "Don't worry, Felix. I'll make sure that no one, not even the UNSC, will be hurt in the meeting. I'll come back alive, you'll see." He laughed, then leaned forward again.

"Do you intend to stay here, at the Sanctuary, your whole life?" He asked. This time, Felix responded immediately.

"No, sir. I want to leave Eridanus II when I get the chance. The Sanctuary is a great home, but I'll want to find out more about the universe."

"Well answered," Barrie said. "I once had the same thoughts, but fate bound me to looking after everyone here. But it was also a blessing, because I feel happy with where I am now. But I think you are meant to go elsewhere in your life..." the Commander's eyes became more distant and thoughtful. "I know you have great potential. I hope, Felix, that you will be the one to end this war between us and the UNSC. You are certainly capable of it."

Felix was silent once again. He felt as if Barrie's words had marked him with something different. A feeling that he couldn't draw away from his statement.

"I certainly hope so, sir," he finally said.

"This conflict will become worse," Barrie said with a hint of sadness. "But you will save many lives, at the very least. I'm sure of it."

Felix saw a woman being rushed into the medical facility by a group of doctors, and was laid onto a bed. He knew why, and hurried to fetch the usual supplies for assisting with childbirth. He pushed the cart next to the bed, and Dr Walker took some of the utensils. Felix followed his instructions and helped however he could. After a few tense hours, the chief surgeon finally wrapped the baby in a blanket and passed her gently to the lady. He turned away from her and signed a form enlisted with details. One of the doctors gave him the instructions.

"Civilian. Her name's Sophia Dalason. Been rushed from Asphodel from work. Her husband's on his way from his job, busy as hell."

Dr Walker signed his name, and laid the clipboard on a desk. "Right. He'll give the details when he gets here." He turned to the woman and gave a kind smile. "Congratulations, ma'am. What's her name?"

Sophia was breathing erratically, but managed to smile back. "Amelia."

"Just rest for now, Mrs Dalason. Your husband's coming to see you."

Felix approached him. "Sir? Can I talk to you?"

Dr Walker nodded. "Certainly, Felix." They walked out into the hallway, and the latter closed the door behind them. "What is it?"

"Commander Barrie has asked me if I would be willing to assist him," Felix said. "It's very appealing, but I'm not sure if I should do it."

"Felix," the chief surgeon said seriously. "Don't worry about us at the medical facility. If the Commander is giving you an opportunity like this, you should take it. It'll get you far. Trust me."

He nodded slowly, but decided to put the thought aside for now as he saw a man walking through the door and towards Sophia, and they were talking softly. Felix took the cart back to the supply room and placed some more supplies onto it, he stopped it next to the bed, and Dr Walker said, "Please wait outside, Mr Dalason. She'll need some more injections to recover, and then we'll have to do some tests on Amelia before we let you go."

After going home, Felix thought about Barrie's words, as well as Dr Walker's. He knew that his "promotion" from the Commander was a step up in his future, but couldn't help but feel that he was leaving something precious behind forever.

He sighed. Maybe it was just one of many changes he would face in his life. He would just have to accept it.

Felix was waiting in Barrie's office when the Commander came in, looking tired but pleased. "How did it go, sir?" the former asked.

"Very well," Barrie said. "Their CO, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Watts, is very interested in our activities here at the Sanctuary. He's willing to hold off any threat from his troops. However, he will be monitoring the URF whom have been causing Eridanus II so much trouble."

Felix looked worried. "Do all his soldiers feel the same way, sir? Because word could get out, and the Marines could do something out of the Colonel's hands."

"I know what I'm doing, Felix," Barrie said assuringly. "And we're not exactly a small force here. The UNSC might not be aware of it yet, but should they try to wipe us out, they'll find it a very difficult task."

"There could still be lives lost, sir."

"Perhaps. But remember, their intentions aren't to kill people, they want to disband the URF. And from what I can see, it looks like Colonel Watts won't be doing anything of the sort right now."

Felix nodded. There was still something that was bothering him, but strangely, he couldn't tell what it was. As Barrie wrote some notes while Felix tried to determine what his thoughts on the matter were. Finally, he began, "Sir—"

"I'd like you to come with me next time I meet with the UNSC," Barrie said, almost at the same time. "So you get a first-hand experience of what they're like."

"Yes, sir." He decided not to say aloud what was on his mind, not just yet. Maybe the Commander already saw it, and knew how to deal with it.

Chapter 2: Watts

1500 Hours, February 11, 2482 (Earth-standard Calendar), outskirts of Asphodel City, planet Eridanus II, Eridanus System

Felix stood stock-still off to Barrie's side, and watched as a trio of Marines enter through the door and into the meeting room. Two of them were obviously non-commissioned, and were unarmed, but looked around the room nonetheless. One of them spotted him, and seemed to hold back a snicker. However, the officer standing in the middle was completely serious.

The man was a fair-aged soldier. He was thin, not very tall, and his eyes were a cold grey colour. On his shoulders were the insignia of a UNSC Lieutenant Colonel. It had to be Robert Watts.

Barrie stepped forward and raised his hand. "Colonel. Welcome to the Sanctuary."

"I thank you for inviting me to your...sanctuary," Watts replied, shaking his hand. "Please make this quick. I am very busy at the moment, and it's best the rest of my men don't find out about this meeting."

Barrie spoke with the Colonel about the Sanctuary; their relations with the rest of the URF, and vaguely his plans for the future. Watts seemed to be intrigued by the fact that those at the Sanctuary were in good relations with the civilians on Eridanus II. When Watts told him about things in the UNSC and outside in other systems, Felix listened, interested. He wondered why they were exchanging information like this. It was odd, really, two leaders on different sides speaking as if they were travellers sharing their experiences with each other.

"But as a rebellion, don't you oppose what we're doing here?" the Lieutenant Colonel asked.

"Certainly," Barrie replied. "It's what we believe in, and what we'll stand by till the end. But the riots here are caused by rogues. Eridanus II has always been subject to piracy. We try to achieve our goals through different means, and possibly we can prevent the violence from spreading to the other systems. So, here are my terms—"

"Hold on," the Marine officer said, cutting across him. "I want my men to leave the room. And yours." His gaze drifted to Felix for the first time.

"I place great trust in Felix," the Commander said. "There is nothing you are to be afraid of."

"He's a child," Watts said. "And I don't want word of this spreading through your Sanctuary."

Barrie sighed. "Very well."

Felix left the room with the two UNSC soldiers, and he closed the door behind them. The Marine that laughed at him paced in circles in the hall, looking bored. But the other one was much younger, and asked, "What's it like, living here?"

"Don't talk to the Innie kid," the older one said. The Private ignored him.

"Not bad," Felix replied. "I'll bet it's better than the barracks I've heard you guys use."

"What do you guys do here, though? Why do you live in the outskirts instead of in the city?"

"Commander Barrie thinks Asphodel is too corrupted for the URF."

The other Marine gave a snicker. "Bit rich, coming from you guys, isn't it?"

"The URF wasn't created to disagree with Imperial Earth's every move," Felix said coolly. "I guess foot soldiers like you wouldn't know something like that, because you're just doing the fighting without understanding the concepts."

"You've got a real sharp tongue, kid," the leatherneck snapped, but the former had already turned his attention to the Private.

"How do you feel about this conflict? We haven't really gotten into open war, but everyone can see tensions are high."

"Well, we just do what we're told," the young soldier mumbled. "We're not supposed to question orders, we just follow them..."

"Sounds more restraining than our cause, doesn't it?"

"Shut your mouth, half-pint," the older Marine cut in. "I'll bet you don't even know what you're talking about."

Felix shot him a glare. To anyone else, it might have seemed odd that he would give a look like that to a tall, muscular soldier, but it wasn't intended as intimidation. He just did it involuntarily, because he didn't like others judging him by his age. Yet the Marine found he couldn't return his glare, and averted his gaze. An awkward moment of silence passed, before the door opened again, and Watts stepped out into the hall.

"I thank you for your hospitality," the Lieutenant Colonel was saying. "I believe I will meet you again, and perhaps after we have arranged everything, we may find more...progress."

Barrie nodded. "My men will show you back outside." He watched as the guards escorted the Marines and the officer out of the building.

"Felix, come in," the Commander said. The former complied, and closed the door behind them again.

"Colonel Watts has agreed to help our cause," he said. Felix looked surprised.

"He's joining the URF?"

"It is possible, although it's highly unlikely. But there are still ways he can assist us in our efforts to keep the URF as a diplomatic faction. He knows it is the best way we can meet our respective ends and put all this disagreement aside."

"I hope so, sir."

"Indeed. So what did you think of them?"

"They're very...disciplined, sir. But the lower-ranked soldiers are like pawns. They don't even know what they're fighting for."

Barrie sighed. "That is the difference between the UNSC and us, isn't it? And it's also why I believe we will come out on top in the end, one way or another."

1900 Hours, August 15, 2484 (Earth-standard Calendar), outskirts of Asphodel City, planet Eridanus II, Eridanus System

"Do you think it worked?" Tom asked, sitting in his chair and spinning it. "I mean, those Marines don't get fooled easily."

"Of course it worked," Felix replied, grabbing the back of the chair to stop it rotating. "Why would they expect Watts to fake his own death?"

"To be honest, I'm a little worried," Abigail said. "I'm not sure the URF would trust Barrie's new partner, and if the UNSC thinks he killed their Colonel, things could get worse."

He had told them what happened after leaving Barrie's office. He felt that Watts was a bit hard to rely on himself, but maybe it was just a first impression.

"Your father's having a look at the new vehicles Watts brought in," his mother continued. "He'll be back soon though."

When Raymond got home, he looked exhausted but cheerful. "After seeing everything on those ships, you really notice how far behind we really are. But the Colonel's provided us with a fair share of everything."

When he sat down on the sofa, Felix walked over and said, "Dad, I heard you met Watts today."

"Yes, I did," Raymond replied. "Sit down, Felix. I can see you want to ask me something. What is it?"

He complied. "It's just you think he can be trusted?"

"I expect there are a lot of people asking the same questions right now. But Watts has taken considerable trouble into helping us. I don't think he's up to anything."

"No, but what I mean is, will this work out? Having two leaders could lead to conflict."

Raymond smiled. "You're always so far-seeing, son. But don't worry...Barrie knows what he's doing. And if the Colonel becomes a problem, I'm sure he can make arrangements to remove him."

Felix nodded. He felt far from reassured, but maybe his father was right. They would get used to the change. It had troubled him that Watts' decision to actually join them caught Barrie by surprise. But I guess not even he's always right, he thought.

Chapter 3: Blood War

0900 Hours, September 3, 2484 (Earth-standard Calendar), outskirts of Asphodel City, planet Eridanus II, Eridanus System

"This isn't good," Barrie said, looking over the screens. They had been brought into the conference room and installed into the Sanctuary's system by Watts a week ago. "Your second-in-command is proving to be a problem for us."

The Lieutenant Colonel shrugged. "I couldn't do anything about Major Rawley. It would have looked suspicious if both of us 'died' at the same time. What's your idea?"

"I don't like open combat engagements. I think we can distract them a little."

"That won't hold them off for long. We can't afford to be squeamish, Commander."

Felix didn't say anything, but he hoped Barrie had something to back up his decision. In the last few weeks he observed the newcomers, Watts had shown a very aggressive personality, not hesitating to take the lives of even his former men. The Marines he brought with him had been assigned as guards around the Sanctuary, as neither the Lieutenant Colonel or his soldiers could deal with the situation physically in case they were recognized. The Commander had done his very best to keep casualties on both sides minimal, but he began to mix his ideas with Watts, and things had grown progressively worse in terms of peace. On the flip side, more rebels had joined their cause because of the former Marine officer's tactics.

"I'll avoid taking lives when it's avoidable," Barrie said. "It's what I've been upholding for years. I won't let it go now. Did you say the Marines set up camp directly south of Asphodel?"

"Yes. They're not very far from the Sanctuary, so time is of the essence."

"Of course. Here's what we'll do. I'll send out a squad to their makeshift fuel depot, which you said was here," the Commander pointed at the hologram of the camp. "They can slip in from the west, set the gasoline off, and head away from Asphodel. It'll keep them busy for a while. It'll also make the Marines think we're located outside the city district. Where did you say the reserve fuel was?"

"Here." Watts indicated a small building on the other side of the camp.

"They'll set those off as well. It'll take them at least a day to get enough fuel brought in from the ship in orbit, and with any luck, the Marines will conduct their search elsewhere."

The Lieutenant Colonel still looked dubious, but didn't say anything more.

It had been a slow day. The Marines around the camp had been taking shifts with sentry duty, running drills, and waiting for their next orders. Their XO, Derek Rawley, had been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel by Captain Warson, who was on board the Meriwether Lewis in orbit. The Marine officer was obviously very stressed with all his new responsibilities, and the fact that the Captain couldn't send help for them all the time since he had to monitor the entire UNSC presence on Eridanus II.

They should really send more ships, thought Lance Corporal Gladys Wilson. But the Innies had been relatively discreet in terms of combat, and didn't show much open hostility since they arrived here 2 years ago. Bringing in a blockade or even a small part of the fleet would cause outcries from the civilians. It was already at a stretch to send Marines to the surface and keep watch.

Gladys, as a specialist, was assigned to the camp to help keep things running, because the makeshift tech brought into the camp had a notorious tendency to have problems, especially communications. But she knew, and obviously so did Warson, that she could handle a rifle just as well as, if not better than most of the more experienced Marines. Which was probably why she had never been sent back onto the Lewis after her cycle on the surface was over.

Her COM sounded. "Gladys?"

She took the handheld device off her side and spoke into it. "What is it, Jake?"

"I need you to come over to the fuel depot. I'm having a little trouble with the nozzles."

Gladys sighed. They hadn't received the highest-class gear for this operation, and it was obvious the UNSC wasn't taking the URF very seriously. Too bad most people only learn their lesson after the damage has been done.

"Pelicans are coming in soon, Gladys. You coming or what?"

"Yeah. Hold on." There were Warthogs in the vehicle station nearby, but she preferred to run.

The fuel depot was located at the edge of the camp, next to a river. There was no other space open enough ships could land in the camp. When she reached the operating terminal, Jake was waiting for her.

"Alright, there you are," the technician said. "Wait here. I'm going to turn the valves on. Go over to the pumps, tell me what you see."

Gladys approached the fuel tanks, and there was a sound of whirring as the clamps released fuel into the pumps. She squeezed one of the nozzles, and there was a sound of rushing liquid, but nothing came out. She tried the other ones. Same thing.

"They seem to be jammed," Jake said. The specialist frowned.

"You're right. But it's too convenient. Something's not right." Even the crappy nozzles couldn't all malfunction at once just when the ships were coming in. She put the pumps back in place and walked towards the terminal, when she heard a ping behind her. He could guess what it was.

"Jake!" But it was too late. The grenade exploded, sending Gladys flying away from the exploding fuel tank, her back on fire. She landed hard on the ground, and instinctively dropped onto the ground to put the flame out. She saw Jake being consumed by a secondary explosion from the main fuel tank, and a group of black-uniformed men running away from the depot, as sentries and Marines hearing the commotion rushed towards them from every side.

The men were coming towards her—no, towards the river. They jumped in, one by one, being swept away by the current as the Marines opened fire with whatever weapons they had on them. One of them kicked Gladys in, and she fell into the swirling water with them.

The current was fast, too fast, and the specialist knew that she would pass out soon. She couldn't find the strength to pull herself out of the river, or even keep her head above the water...

Barrie didn't seem surprised to see a Pelican flying back over the Sanctuary. Felix, who would have thought the men he hired would be returning in a less conspicuous manner, watched as the dropship landed and opened its back hatch.

"Something happened in Asphodel," the Commander said. "The boys were on their way back and there was a fight. The Marines had followed them, and some civilians were caught in the crossfire."

"Did they get rid of anyone following them?" Watts asked suspiciously.

"Of course," Barrie replied. "My men know what they're doing." He watched as some stretchers were hauled off the Pelican and to the medical facility. Barrie followed them.

"It wasn't a good idea," the Lieutenant Colonel said. "Bringing the civilians into the Sanctuary."

"They know about our confidential rule," the former said reassuringly. "And we have better medical care than they do in the city." Watts shook his head, but headed off back to the main facility. Felix followed Barrie into the medical rooms.

Dr Walker raised his eyebrows at the stretchers being carried in. "Looks like quite a nasty fight. Put them on the beds." The medics complied, and began their routine checks on the civilians.

"Looks like a couple of them fell into the river," the Commander said.

One of the unconscious ones were coming to. He approached his bed.

"My name is Gerald Barrie. Are you alright?"

The patient nodded slowly. One of his arms reached into his shirt pocket.

"It's okay. You're safe."

"No one is safe..."

"Who did this to you?" Barrie asked. "Was it the UNSC?"

The patient shifted in his bed. "Yeah. And they have a message for you."

"What is it?" the Commander asked, leaning forward.

The man's expression hardened. "'Go to hell'." With surprising speed he pulled an M6 pistol out from his pocket, aimed it at Barrie, and pulled the trigger.

The Commander ducked, the projectile narrowly missing him. Felix flinched, involuntarily stepping back. The sentries raised their rifles, the barrels aimed at the patient.

The disguised Marine leaped out of bed, shooting them in the head with efficiency. Barrie swore and took cover behind a cabinet. Dr Walker and the medics ran out of the room. The soldier turned to Felix, the only visible target.

The young Innie froze. He had no doubt the Marine would see him as a hostile and kill him without hesitation. He would never make it into cover in time.

Barrie jumped over the cabinet, and held a PA microphone. He threw the device at the Marine, and knocked into Felix.

The mic smashed into the soldier's elbow, and his aim shifted. The Marine loosed a single shot, which embedded in Barrie's back. Felix heard the sickening sound as it penetrated and saw blood spray.

The guards, hearing the commotion, rushed in, opening fire immediately. The Marine didn't even have time to turn before he fell before the hail of bullets.

The other patients shouted in alarm. But there were some, watching too observantly...

"They're Marines!" Felix shouted, still with Barrie slumped over him.

"Get the Commander out of here!" one of the guards said, helping him with the half-conscious man. The disguised Marines rolled out of bed and took cover behind it as the other guards fired at them. The Commander was placed on a stretcher and taken away from the medical facility.

Felix froze as he saw UNSC ships flying towards them from the distance. Behind him were the sound of voices.

"Hurry, give me a rifle!"

"Here, this one's dead. Frank, thanks for covering me. You're a tough SOB for a sailor."

"Shit, they got Terry. Let's move, the Pelicans should be coming in soon."

Without hesitation, the young Innie dashed off, as far from the medical facility as possible.

Fortunately, Watts already spotted the incoming hostiles, and one of his subordinates was making announcements over the PA. URF soldiers were running to and fro, taking various positions and blocking off walkways. He ran in the direction of his house. He could hear the sound of gunfire, explosions, and the Sanctuary's hidden machine-guns activating. The turrets weren't designed to take down aircraft, but they were the heaviest weapons they had. UNSC ships were landing everywhere.

Felix spotted Raymond walking out of the aircraft he was working on, looking around in confusion. A group of Marines spotted him.

No! He watched helplessly in horror the enemies open fire on his father. He couldn't tear his gaze away from the sight of him being riddled by bullets, and collapsing, the wrench he was holding falling out of his grip with a clatter. Fighting back tears, the young Innie turned and kept running. He had to find his mother and Tom.

The fight was worse in the residential area. Felix ducked around several alleyways to avoid the commotion, and spotted his house. There was the sound of shouting from inside. A moment later an explosion shattered the front window, and the curtains were set ablaze.

No, please don't be inside...! He saw a group of Marines leaving the house, and looking around to see that it was clear, he sprinted inside.

The grenade had torn down a section of the living room wall, and the fire had quickly spread to anything combustible. Marines and rebels lay dead on the ground, weapons scattered everywhere.

The stairs to the second floor were on fire, but he spotted Abigail lying in the kitchen. She was breathing erratically. Hurriedly, Felix ran up to her.

His mother was covered in blood. There were several bullet holes in her chest and side, and one of her legs were blown off by the grenade.

"Mom, it's okay..."

Abigail turned her head weakly. "Felix..."

"You'll be fine. I'll get you somewhere safe..." Trying not to panic, he looked around for anything that could help her.

There was the sound of someone running in through the front door. Felix froze, but when he turned around, he saw that it was Dr Walker.

"Felix, I saw you coming in," he said. "Come on, we have to leave—"

"Doctor, my mom's still alive," he said pleadingly. "Please, help me get her out of here."

Walker looked into Abigail's eyes for a moment, and quickly nodded. "Okay, we're going to have to take her by hand. Grab her arms." Gently but carefully, he placed his hands under her back, and Felix took her by the wrists. They left through the back door, and made their way through the alleys.

"We'll put her in my house," the chief surgeon said. "I have medical supplies there." The trip seemed to take forever, especially since it was hard to move properly in the narrow alleyways carrying someone. The sound of fighting echoed from the streets.

When they reached Walker's house, he opened the basement door, and they laid her on a bed. Felix shut the blinds, while the doctor took his things and began treating Abigail. The young Innie helped clean off the blood, disinfected his mother's wounds, and sealed them, although he was trying not to think about his father, or whether Tom was upstairs when the Marines entered the house...

He began to feel more hopeful when they were finished, and Walker put a tourniquet on her leg. He sighed as the tension in his expression faded. The chief surgeon paused, walked to a cupboard, and took a pistol out. They waited, for any sound from outside...

Eventually, the sound of fighting died down. Felix pulled the blinds down slightly and peeked outside. There was no commotion.

"Attention," came a voice over the announcement. "The Sanctuary is cleared of enemies. All units, report to the main facility. Civilians, if you have injuries, the medical facilities are open..."

"We have to leave," Watts said. "They'll come back for round two soon enough."

"Agreed," said Barrie, wincing as he leaned against a wall. His spine had been nearly severed by the Marine's bullet, and although it had been reconnected, the Commander was going to have trouble walking for a long time. "We have to be inconspicuous about it, though."

"We'll move into the city in small groups," the Lieutenant Colonel said. "We'll set ourselves up inside the city, I know a few old friends that can move us underground."

Felix couldn't believe what he was hearing. Leave the Sanctuary? The thought was unbearable. It had been his home all his life, and abandoning it would be like leaving a part of himself behind. But he knew they had no choice.

"We're getting all of them out," Barrie continued. "Starting with the wounded. Robert, you should go with them. The longer you stay here, the more likely it is you'll be exposed. Here's a route we can take. If we move in from the west..."

"Don't worry," Abigail said. "I'll see you at the new location in a few days."

Felix couldn't help feeling concerned. His mother had a flushed look about her. "Mom, you look a bit pale."

"I'll be okay. I'm still recovering, that's all."

"Let me run a few scans, at least," he insisted. Taking the device, he did a few tests, and examined the readings.

"I heard about your father," she said, sounding suddenly dejected. "It was unfortunate..."

Felix's hand shook as he matched the readings with the most likely causes on a list. "They killed him just because he was there..." He shook his head, and focused on the scans. A match was found. "Mom, you have internal bleeding..." He got a cold feeling in the pit of his stomach as he realized what it meant. "You're supposed to avoid movement, and you need treatment."

Abigail shook her head. "No time, we're leaving soon. Have you seen your brother?"

He hadn't dared ask about Tom yet. But hearing the question, the young Innie felt a slight relief. "Tom wasn't in the house during the attack?"

"No. He'd gone out. I haven't heard anything about him."

"Wouldn't he have checked back in afterward? Unless..." the relief was quickly gone.

"I'm sure we would have been notified if someone found him," Abigail said, still looking worried.

There was the sound of voices as a group of people approached the medical facility.

"...should check for the more serious injuries," Barrie was saying. "What if they're not supposed to be moved just yet?"

"We don't have time," Watts said impatiently. "And it was your idea to get the wounded out first."

"I want them out of the way of danger, in case the UNSC comes back anytime soon," the Commander snapped. "Your intentions are completely different."

"Listen, Gerald. I know these Marines. They are going to be coming back, very soon. Your sensor jammers are going to let us carry out our plans, and we'll need every chance we can get. We'll be screwed if they decide to come directly, because we'll be caught with a lot of injured without any easy way to get them out. If they stay, they'll be dead for sure."

Barrie closed his eyes, sighed, and paused. Finally, he said, "You're right. I don't like it, but there's no other way." He turned to Dr Walker, and asked, "Are they ready to go?"

"Yes, sir," the chief surgeon said. "We're just getting the last of the patients out now." A pair of medics picked up Abigail's stretcher, and she looked into Felix's eyes for a moment. He wanted to say something, but couldn't get the words out, and merely watched as his mother was carried out of the facility with the other patients. As Barrie and Watts left, Walker said, "I still don't trust that Colonel. We've run into a lot of trouble since he came to our side, and his ideas are so...blunt."

The young Innie remained silent, still staring at the closed door.

0800 Hours, September 7, 2484 (Earth-standard Calendar), underground building cluster, Asphodel City, planet Eridanus II, Eridanus System

"Felix, there's nothing you can—" Dr Walker began.

He didn't pay him any heed. Rushing quickly into the medical facility, the young Innie quickly found his mother's bed.

Abigail looked much worse than she had when they were in the Sanctuary. Her skin was much paler, and she looked alarmingly dishevelled. Seeing him, she gave a faint smile. "Dr Walker's done everything he could...but there was really nothing to be done."

Felix had been able to hold onto his composure when Raymond had been killed, but it was because of the urgency of the situation. Now the thought that he was going to lose her too was unbearable. Grasping her hand, he let the tears fall freely.

"Watts wanted to bring everyone here," he said, forcing the words out and trying to suppress himself. "He should have listened to Barrie...he should have..."

"Watts knew what was best for us..." Abigail said. She seemed to have trouble keeping her eyes open.

"He doesn't!" Felix shouted, letting out his frustration, which was mingled with sadness. "The Commander does, he's just a traitor!" He squeezed her hand tightly, as if he could hold onto her if he never let go.

Walker entered at the sound of his voice. "I'm sorry, Felix. There were too many injured to look after while we were on the didn't help we were in a hurry..."

"I know," the young Innie said miserably. "I just can't..." He felt his mother's grip relax, and she let out a slow breath, slumping back in her pillow. Gently placing her hand at her side, he walked slowly walked out of the facility.

Part Two

Chapter 4: The Wrong Decisions

1200 Hours, March 25, 2487 (Earth-standard Calendar), underground building cluster, Asphodel City, planet Eridanus II, Eridanus System

"These Marines are starting to get on my nerves," Barrie said. "I'll make sure each and every one of them dies a slow and painful death if they so much as touch the Sanctuary."

Felix was worried. The Commander seemed to have become more irritable since they left the outskirts three years ago. He was adopting Watts' ideas, and more disconcerting, his tactics. He had difficulties walking since his injury in the medical facility, which gave him an air of ire. His authority over the former civilians of the Sanctuary had loosened as well. When he kept a low profile, some had opted to blend into the city. In contrast, he gathered many URF soldiers around Eridanus II, and his plans racked up more casualties on both sides in the first three month alone than in his entire career.

"I'm surprised they haven't burned it to the ground," Watts said.

"The UNSC obviously don't respond well to my lenience," Barrie continued, ignoring him. "So let's teach them a lesson they won't soon forget." Turning to the map screen, he said, "I got some of my men to set up a camp here, north of Asphodel. We'll get their attention, close them off, and then take them out."

"Sir, that won't accomplish anything," Felix said. "It'll just piss them off—"

"Shut up," Watts cut in. "Your commander's right, we need to show them what we're made of. So, what's the trap?"

There was a glint in Barrie's eyes. "You."

"What?" the Lieutenant Colonel said, confused.

"You're going to pretend you've been captured, and just escaped. Your Marines will come running at that."

"They're not my—"

"You will be escorted there," the Commander said, as two soldiers walked up to them. "Then we need to make this convincing. Boys, feel free to give Robert a beating. We can't have this look suspicious."

The former Marine officer began to stutter, but Barrie said, "It's all for our cause, Colonel. I'm sure you understand." He watched, emotionless, as Watts was taken out of the room.

"Sergeant, I assume you know what to do," said Rawley.

"Yes sir," replied Gunnery Sergeant Justin Roberg. "I'm just waiting for my replacements to arrive, and we'll be good to go. They should be here soon."

"Step on it," the officer replied. "If I'm right, then there's a chance you'll be coming back with Lieutenant Colonel Watts."

Roberg looked at the survivors in his squad. He had lost four Marines in the last skirmish, which had been a drop in the ocean compared to the total casualties the entire battalion had taken in the five years they were here. Things were getting nasty, and he didn't know how much longer they were going to cover up the open hostility that lingered in the air.

A quartet of Marines approached them, escorted by Corporal Ramsey, who Roberg had sent to fetch the replacements. "Here are the new guys, Gunny."

The Sergeant looked them over. They were young, mostly still in their late teens. One of them was female, and she looked a little nervous. He wasn't sure they would be suitable for the mission at hand. But he trusted Rawley knew what he was doing.

"Welcome to the team, boys and girls," Roberg said. "Names and ranks, if you please."

"Private Rob O'Donovan, sir!"

"Private Mikhail Miranov, sir!"

"Private Jess Morley, sir!"

"Private Owen Mackinley, sir!"

Good. They were attentive and disciplined. It would make the op a lot easier.

"You kids ever been in a firefight before?"

"Sir, no sir!"

"Well," Roberg said, watching as a Pelican landed at their pad and opened its hatch, "Get yourselves ready. You will, soon enough."

Private Jess Morley shook her head to clear the feeling of anxiety that held onto her. Relax, she thought. You've trained for this. But training was not the same as real combat, especially when you were killing other humans. She began to fidget with her Assault Rifle so she would have something to keep her mind off her apprehension. What would it be like, fighting to survive? To kill or be killed...

Jess accidentally thumbed the magazine release button, and her ammo clip fell onto the floor of the Pelican with a clatter. Sergeant Roberg, who was sitting next to her, picked it up and handed it back. He gave a slight smile. "Ease up, soldier."

"Sir...we're going to be alright, aren't we?"

"Course. These Innies are a pushover. Just follow my lead, you've got fellow Marines watching your back. This won't take too long." He stood up, and said, "Alright everyone, listen up. The pilot's going to drop us off north of Asphodel. Warson's intercepted a few transmissions, turns out the enemy's got Lieutenant Colonel Watts in a camp near the city. We'll press in with stealth, and locate him. Once we have him, we'll get out and meet the dropship south of the city. There's a lot at stake, so we can't afford to make any mistakes."

Jess couldn't help but notice that her first mission was very high-risk. Usually anyone fresh out of training wouldn't be assigned to this kind of stuff, but according to the DI, she and her friends were quick-thinking and used good judgement. Rawley had been very impressed with their CSVs, and assigned them as replacements.

All that's left to get is experience, thought Jess. It was something to be gained, not learned. She checked her rifle one more time. And we all have to get it the hard way.

"The Marines have taken the bait," one of the rebels reported. "They're headed for the camp now, sir."

"Good," Barrie said. "We'll watch them fall into the trap. Then I'm going to pay them a little visit."

Felix hoped he wouldn't be asked to come along. He was finding it more and more uncomfortable to be in the Commander's presence over the last three years. He already knew that the plan, which was most likely to succeed, wouldn't do any good to either them or the UNSC. Whether he was aware of it or not, the rebel leader was slowly moving further from his goals of peace with Imperial Earth. Everything had been falling apart, and it was likely to get worse.

"Okay, looks tough," a Marine said, ducking back under the rock cluster they were hiding at. "How are we going to do this?"

"Watts should be inside one of those tents," Roberg said, showing them a map. "We'll split into teams, and search the entire cluster. It doesn't look like the URF have a main force here, so by the time they bring reinforcements from wherever they are, we'll be out of here. We'll hit them hard, take them by surprise, get the Colonel, and get out." The Sergeant assigned the squad into teams, and indicated who was going to cover which area. When they were ready, everyone readied their weapons.

"Grenades, up and over," Roberg whispered. The Marines deployed explosives, and tossed them at the guards at the edge of the camp. The rebels gave yells of surprise but were quickly killed.

"Go, go, go!" the Sergeant ordered. "Fire at will! Farrell, Morley, cover me!"

The rebels heard the commotion, and rushed out with weapons. Jess opened fire, spraying groups of them with 7.62mm bullets. There were a lot of the rebels, but Corporal Ramsey and two other Marines joined the fight from behind them, with more leathernecks providing flanking fire. The Innies were quickly cut down.

"Good work, people, let's move!" Roberg shouted. The Marines immediately dashed into the camp and rushed in and out of the tent. Private Farrell quickly ran back out of one of them. "Not there, sir."

A sharp crack echoed through the camp. A bullet hit O'Donovan in the shoulder, and trail of smoke followed it. "Richardson, take that sniper out!" The sharpshooter moved to avoid a second bullet, took aim, and blew off the enemy marksman's head. The Innie's decapitated body fell from his outpost, and crumpled on the ground.

There were more coming. The Marines ducked behind tents. Bullet-holes began to tear through the fabric. "Mackinley, get over there and patch up O'Donovan." The Private complied, hurriedly helped his friend into cover, and took out his medkit.

Jess spotted an Innie running for Mackinley and O'Donovan, lined up her gun with the rebel's back, and shot him down. She poked her assault rifle around the tent's corner, and blind-fired until her clip was empty. The Private took a quick look to make sure all the enemies were down, reloaded, and said, "It's clear, Sarge."

"Good work, Morley," Roberg said, as they stepped into the tent beside them. "But next time, don't try to blind-fire—" he paused. Tied to a chair, facing downward, was Watts.

"Untie him," he said. Jess quickly moved behind the Lieutenant Colonel and worked at the ropes with her combat knife. "Sir, you're going to be okay. We'll get you out of here."

The officer was a mess. His uniform was tattered, his face was covered in bruises and cuts, and one of his eyes was blackened. He gave a humourless smile. "You came..."

"Yeah," Roberg said. "Christ, sir. How'd they keep you alive for so long?"

The ropes fell away. Watts gave a laugh, and stood up. "It's called...picking the right side." He grabbed Jess' wrist, wrenched the knife out of her grip, and placed the blade at her throat.

"Gunny, rebels coming into the camp!" Ramsey called from outside. "They've got hundreds—"

"You actually fell for it," the Lieutenant Colonel said. Roberg and Farrell were frozen. Rebels rushed into the tent, weapons raised. "Drop your guns." The Sergeant, still looking at his former CO in disbelief, placed his rifle on the ground. But Farrell turned, and raised his instead.

"Do as they say, boy—" Roberg began, but it was too late. The Private was riddled with bullets, jerked, and fell, oozing blood onto the ground. Watts handed Jess over to one of the rebels, and said, "Take them to Gerald. I need to get cleaned up." Spitting blood onto the ground, he left the tent.

The Marines were disarmed and marched into the URF camp, hands behind their heads. Felix stood next to Barrie, watching the ten UNSC troops standing tall, yet obviously defeated. He tried not to look at the gun in the Commander's hand. It was the pistol he had been shot with in the medical facility in the Sanctuary. He had carried it with him since he obtained his spinal injury, and sometimes gazed at it with an expression of hatred. It was unnerving.

"So few of you!" Barrie said, a chuckle entering his voice. "What did you think you could do against us?"

He went to the man standing tallest, the one wearing a Sergeant's cap. "Did you really think your Colonel was still on your side?"

The Marine glared at him.

"What is your name?" The Commander asked.

"Gunnery Sergeant Justin Roberg. 09175-25692-JR."

"Do you know what this pistol means to me?" Barrie asked, pulling out his gun. Roberg didn't answer, but merely glared at him. The Innie leader gave a nasty smile, then shot the man in the head. Felix couldn't help but flinch. The Sergeant dropped, blood spraying from his forehead.

There was a sharp intake of breath from the end of the line, and Felix looked to see. A young private at the end of the Marine line had momentarily lost her composure.

Barrie moved to the second soldier in line. He raised his pistol.

"To me, this is a symbol of revenge, you see."

"I'll give you fucking revenge!" The Marine leaped towards him. Two bodyguards immediately beat him down with their rifles. The Commander reached down and turned him on his back.

"Try again," the Innie leader said, a cruel smile on his face.

"Burn in hell," the Marine snarled, blood flowing from his mouth and nose. He moved to stand up, but Barrie aimed his weapon at the soldier's face and pulled the trigger. Stepping over the body casually, he looked to the third. "Your friends are very quiet. If you don’t answer me, I’ll make sure they stay that way." Without waiting for an answer, he shot the Marine.

"Sir?" Felix said quizzically. "Perhaps we should interrogate them. Or at least keep them captured." Gerald Barrie didn't randomly murder people. Then again, he hadn't seen him do so yet since they left the Sanctuary.

The Innie leader turned and smiled at Felix. He went to stand beside the next Marine and put his pistol to the Corporal's temple. The man just glared.

"How many do you think I can kill with one shot, Felix?" Barrie asked casually.


He fired. The bullet flew out of the soldier's head and killed a second. The Commander wiped the blood spray off his hand.

The executions went on. Felix wanted to squeeze his eyes shut and cover his ears, but could only stand there.

Barrie placed the firearm against the penultimate Marine's head.

"Sir, we can’t do this!" Felix cried out, unable to take it anymore.

"Why?" The Commander said, grinning at the young rebel.

"This isn’t accomplishing anything. We should ask them questions."

The URF leader stroked his chin stubble. "Yes, perhaps this is true. You are willing to get the information I want by any means necessary?"

Felix nodded stiffly. "I am." He had a feeling he wouldn't like it, but the alternative was letting the Marines die.


Barrie shot the soldier. Only the female Private was left.

"There. I've had my fun," the Commander said. He grabbed the Marine by the scruff of the neck and dragged her over to Felix. He dropped her and leaned in to Felix, his grin still in place.

"Now, you get to have your fun with her," he said, leering. "And once you’ve gotten what...I want, and you’ve gotten what you want, kill her."

The Private glared up at Barrie, but said nothing. The young Innie felt sick. He could only nod numbly. The images of the Marines falling one by one were still printed into his retinas. "Into the tent, now."

"Just remember," the Commander said in a whisper. "Who it was that killed your family at the Sanctuary."

Felix throat clenched. He pulled the Private into the tent.

She walked in to the tent and stood in the center. He looked into her eyes for the first time. The Marine's eyes were a light gray color, giving them a deep but attentive look that seemed to be rare even in soldiers. She had blonde hair, but the look was no less diminished despite the military regulation length. She was taller than him by several inches, and her build was slender but not overly thin. She had to be somewhere around 18 or 19. For a moment Felix could only stare at her.

"I don't care what you do to me, I won't say anything. Kill me if you want."

Felix closed the tent flap and turned to her. He took a knife off a nearby table and walked up to her. She reflexively took a step back. The blade looked mean. On one edge it was razor sharp and the other side was serrated.

"Don't move," he said, darting forward and wrapping an arm around her waist. She grunted, trying to push him off. He took a step back and she raised her fists, and then paused. The ropes fell to the floor of the tent. The Private gave him a surprised look.

"What're you—"

Felix pressed a finger to his lips. "Be silent." He said, and went to the back of the tent. He stuck his knife in it and pulled, cutting a wide tear down the center of the canvas.

"Come on." He beckoned, peeking out. "It may not be long before they check."

The Private complied. "Why are you doing this?" She hissed under her breath as they stepped back out in to the cool evening air.

"Commander Barrie is not the man I used to know." Felix responded. "He's...changed."

"Don't we all, Felix?"

Felix whirled, placing himself in between Jess and the voice. The Commander stood, flanked by two of his bodyguards. Felix still had the rebel leader' pistol out, which he held just behind his back so they wouldn't notice. His knife glinted in the setting sun.

The young rebel’s eyes roved over the guards. They cradled their MA2s in their arms, but didn't aim them. He'd have time...

"I've done so much for you, Felix," Barrie said in a menacing voice. "I never thought you'd turn your back on us. Now I know I never should have."

"What about everything you worked for?" he shouted. "You used to hold values for your cause. Now you've become a heartless...!" He waited to raise the gun and fire, but couldn't. The thought of murdering was too much, and he was frozen.

"Sacrifices have been made," the Commander said. "It was for the best."

The young Innie felt Jess' fingers prying at the pistol. He let go slowly. "It was Watts," he said. "He's changed you." He quickly stepped aside, and the Marine raised the sidearm, aimed, and fired.

Her first round caught the left bodyguard between the eyes, dropping him instantaneously. Her next round went a bit wide, simply grazing the other bodyguard's shoulder. This did, however, cause the gunman to flinch and slowed his reaction.

Barrie moved for the dead bodyguard's rifle, but Felix knocked him down, hardly knowing what he was doing.

There was a single shot, and Felix looked over to see Jess rising from the second guard's body, holding the assault rifle in a perfect position. She settled the sight on Barrie.

"No!" Felix shouted, and she flinched.

"Why not?" she asked, not taking her eyes off the Commander. Felix understood what was going through her mind. He was asking her not to kill the one man who'd just put bullets into the heads of her entire squadron.

"He's...a good man. Just confused." Felix pleaded. "I wouldn't be alive if it weren't for him."

The Private glared at him. "Good God, you do like saving people, don't you?"

He rose and turned on the sidearm's safety. The Private shrugged, clapped Barrie on the temple, knocking him out. She stood up and grabbed the other rifle and their ammo.

"You saved my life, so I'll grant you that wish. You're going to have to come with me." She said, handing the other assault rifle to Felix, as well as a belt of ammunition and Barrie's pistol ammo. "But we don't want him following us, do we?"

Felix nodded. "Do you have a way out for us?"

Her face darkened. "Sergeant Roberg said there'd be an extraction vehicle south of the city when we were done. It's about a day's walk from here. Three if we want to avoid detection. I suggest we head there."

The young rebel hardly heard her. He was now staring at the bodyguards lying on the ground, and swallowed a lump in his throat. "What was your mission?"

"Rescue our CO." She grunted. "Doesn't look like that's going to happen now, does it? Turns out he was a traitor..." She began marching off.

Felix nodded again, forcing himself to look away from the bodies, and followed her, careful to avoid the other rebels.

"What's your name?" the Marine asked.

"Felix Martel." Was all he could manage.

"Private Jess Morley, UNSC Marine Corps." She responded, not looking back.

Jess, Felix thought. That's a nice name.

Chapter 5: Race Through the City

1000 Hours, March 25, 2487 (Earth-standard Calendar), outskirts, north of Asphodel City, planet Eridanus II, Eridanus System

"We should cut through the city," Jess said as they stealthily left the camp and into a cluster of trees that edged into Asphodel. "If we go around, it'll take too long, and we'll most likely be detected."

"Okay," Felix said, trying to keep up with her. It wasn't tiring, but her legs were longer than his, so he had to move faster to keep up with her. "There's somewhere we need to go first. We shouldn't go by foot out of the city, Barrie's got men stationed inside it and out. Best thing to do is blend in."

"So where are we going?"

"My house." He became immersed in thought. After the people of the Sanctuary entered Asphodel, Felix had no desire to be stuck underground. Instead, Barrie had arranged for those who wanted to take residence in the city to live like civilians. He had initially been given a house, but didn't go back after Abigail died. His old things were still there though...

It had been a long sprint back into the city. Jess was slightly short of breath. "You're doing pretty well," she said. "I thought I'd had to slow down for you."

Felix was a bit exhausted as well, but said, "Follow me." They slipped around the toll gate, and took some short-cuts and roads less frequently used to avoid the sentries, neither of them talking. After half an hour, they reached the safehouse. He opened the door with the card he carried with him at all times, and they entered.

It was a fair-sized estate. The kitchen and living room were seen perpendicular to the hallway, and a staircase led to the second floor and the basement. Felix wanted to sit down on the couch and just let his thoughts catch up with him, but knew there was no time. Barrie would have regained consciousness by now, and he would likely guess that they came here. He closed the door behind them, and ran upstairs. "Wait here." He headed into his bedroom and changed into some fresh clothes, and retrieved some from Abigail's closet. A lump formed in his throat as he stared at his mother's sweatshirt, but shook his head and carried them back downstairs.

Felix saw that Jess was looking at a picture of him with his family. Tom was rolling his eyes at the camera, and Abigail and Raymond were standing behind their children, smiling. He handed her the clothes. "Here. It'll be a bit less conspicuous than your uniform." She looked back to him, put the picture down, and took them with a nod of thanks. She walked into the living room to change.

As he waited for her, his eyes found the picture. Again, he felt his emotions threaten to overwhelm him. The young rebel forced himself to look away from it, and decided to look for something to do. He retrieved a handful of credit chips, some extra clothes, and the key card for his mother's car. When Jess came back out, she grabbed the weapons and said, "Let's go." He couldn't help but stare at her. Abigail used to wear that sweatshirt when they were going out for a stroll...

Felix hastily tore his gaze away from her chest. He didn't want Jess to think he was a pervert. "Follow me," he said again, in a voice he hardly recognized. He opened a door next to the stairs, and they stepped into the garage. The lights automatically turned on as they entered, flickering slightly from long disuse.

The Marine whistled. Sitting in the middle of the garage was a dark-blue sports car.

"Nice wheels," she remarked. "Your folks rich?"

"Barrie pays for everything," Felix said, opening the garage door with a button on the key card. "Can you drive?"

"Yeah. I got my training in the Corps, so you're in for a rough ride." They climbed in, and the car doors slid smoothly shut behind them.

He handed her the key card, and she started the engine. Felix handed her a helmet.

"What's this for?" she asked, putting it on. A visor slid over her eyes.

"This." He tapped a button, and a holographic screen popped up over the window. He touched the grid, indicating where the south end of Asphodel was.

"Whoa!" the Marine said, surprised. Although she was the only one who could see it, a ray appeared, hovering over the road and leading out to their destination.

"GPS. Follow the route." Looking astounded, Jess drove them out onto the road.

"Wish the UNSC had this stuff on their vehicles," she said, as they moved at a casual speed.

"This type of stuff is probably pretty expensive. I'll bet it's normal for your military cars to get busted up a lot, so they can't replace it all the time."

They drove for a long time without incident. Felix found his gaze constantly drifting back to his companion. She wasn't much older than him, but seemed to have a certain tension in her expression. It couldn't have been pleasant to have watched all her fellow soldiers slaughtered for no good reason. But her eyes were so deep, so thoughtful...

After a long stretch of silence, Jess asked, "So you said your boss covered all expenses in everything?"

"Yes," he said, reemerging from his thoughts. "We used to live on the outskirts of the city, in a place called 'The Sanctuary'. Barrie said it was supposed to show the UNSC what the URF wanted, that the best way to get them to listen was through peace. He's put all that behind him now..." he trailed off sadly.

Jess' brow furrowed. She was taking in every word he said, and he could tell she was a good listener. "That's the thing about war. We go through any means to achieve what we want. We kill ruthlessly, we lie to others and to ourselves as to why we do it, we begin to become numb from remorse. I joined only because I wanted to see why people were doing this. It doesn't feel right, fighting amongst ourselves." She remembered something. "That picture...what happened to your parents, and your brother?"

Felix sighed. Slowly, his memories of everything that happened in the last few years returned as he told her about how Raymond and Abigail died.

"After the Marines left, I couldn't find Tom," he finished. "We looked for him, but no one knew where he went. And Dr Walker couldn't save my mom, it was too..." He couldn't continue, and once again felt the tears come.

"I'm so sorry," Jess said softly. "You must hate the UNSC."

The young rebel turned to look back at her, feeling the pain welled up inside him. "I don't. I...I'm so sick of hate. It's a terrible thing. So many people have died, and still no one's satisfied. I just want it all to end."

To Felix's great surprise, they reached the toll gate at the south end of Asphodel without being discovered. Jess pulled up to the booth.

"Do you have any money on you?" she asked. He nodded and reached for the cR in his pocket, and handed some to her. The Marine depolarized the window to pay, when the barriers slid apart and a row of armed men in uniforms were seen standing in front of the road. They raised their weapons.

"Shit!" Jess quickly switched gears and put the car in reverse as the guards opened fire. Bullets peppered the glass, cracking the transparent material. "Keep your head down, kid!"

Felix slipped out of his seatbelt and ducked under the hood, looked back. "Jess! Behind us!" She glanced at the rearview mirror, and saw a group of jet-black cars approaching them.

"Screw this," she said, changing gears again putting the vehicle back into gear and flooring the car. She plowed through the sentries, some of which weren't quick enough to roll out of the way and were crushed by the car's deadly tires. The vehicle lurched slightly, but sped through the toll gate and onto the bridge.

The sound of bullets peppering the ground around them was heard. Felix saw gunmen riding shotgun aiming their firearms at them, drive-by style. Some made contact with the car's trunk and back window.

Jess grabbed her COM out of her pocket and drove one-handed. She turned the device on and spoke into it. "Colonel Rawley, this is Private Jess Morley, do you read me?" There was no response. "Damn, our communications are still jammed. I'll have to get us out of the city's range..." She flinched as a round shattered the glass behind them and embedded dead-centre in the rearview mirror. "Felix, take the Assault Rifle, it's under my seat. See what you can do about those guys."

"You mean..." he swallowed. "Kill them?"

"Yes, of course I mean kill them!" she shouted, swerving onto the left side of the road to pass a car, and back again to avoid a second one heading in the opposite direction. "Come on, we're going to die if we don't!"

Felix grabbed the gun, flicked the safety off, and opened the sunroof. Bracing himself against the car's frame, he faced the cars, and squeezed the trigger.

The young rebel winced as the rifle kicked into his shoulder and the gun's muzzle flashed as it sprayed a series of bullets. It hit the hood of one of the cars, but essentially didn't have any effect. He raised the gun slightly, aimed again, and fired.

This time it had been a longer burst. The Assault Rifle nearly flew out of his grip as it discharged again. He was probably holding it wrong, but was rewarded by the sight of the bullets penetrating the windshield of the first car, and blood spraying on the inside of the glass. The vehicle, which hadn't slowed down, spun out of control and did a series of flips before a second car crashed into it and they both exploded.

Felix hardly heard the sound of the explosion, and stared blankly at the fiery mess left on the road. He had killed someone. Taken a life.

A bullet flew past his ear, and he jumped in surprise. The young rebel saw a third black car swerve around the wreckage and speeding after them. Aiming again, Felix held the trigger down tightly into it, but it was too far away for accurate shots. He saw the passenger take a few bullets in the head, drop his gun, and fall out of the car, which still chased them. He pulled the trigger again, but there was only a click.

"Jess!" he called. "I'm out of ammo!"

"Are they still after us?"

"I'm afraid so!"

"Alright. I'll pass you the pistol. Drop the rifle, we might still need it later."

A bullet sparked off the top of their car. Startled, Felix turned and saw a sniper positioned on the bridge's bracing. He ducked back into the car, dropping the rifle onto the floor. His heart beating abnormally fast, he said, "There's a sniper. I won't be able to—"

There was the sound of a loud pop, and a nasty hissing sound. Jess gripped the steering wheel as the car lurched off to the right.

"We lost a tire!" she shouted. They were running straight towards the bridge's wall, and before either of them could react, the car collided head-on with the concrete. Felix felt dazed as the crash cushions activated, protecting them from all sides.

"We have to get out of here, Felix!" Jess said. She took the cracked helmet off her head, grabbed the pistol, and shot the cushions, which shrunk and deflated. Kicking the door open, she stepped out, and he followed her.

The sniper was on the other side, but he couldn't reach them while they were behind the car. Staying low, Jess looked across the bridge. "We're too exposed. We'll get picked off for sure."

"So what do we do?" he asked, feeling extremely dizzy and trying to hold back his panic. They were trapped. The Marine looked instead over the rim of the bridge.

"We'll go under."

"What?" He was still a bit disoriented.

"The bridge has a lot of girders supporting it underneath. They're wide enough to walk across. It's our only chance."

"If we fall—"

Jess turned. Behind them was the rebel driver. He was climbing out of his car and reaching for his gun. She shot him without hesitation, the pistol's reports echoing in the open space.

The sound of the gunshots cleared Felix's mind slightly. His vision wasn't blurry anymore, at least.

"Okay, go!" The Marine grabbed the bridge's edge and flung herself over, and lowered herself quickly onto the bracing. A single bullet narrowly missed her.

Felix began to feel panic again. Would he be quick enough to do the same? He never tried this kind of thing before.

Jess looked over the rim. She fired her remaining bullets at the sniper. They were pot shots, and were obviously intended for a distraction rather than trying to bring down the rebel. Now or never. The young rebel ran over to the edge of the bridge, grabbed it with both hands, and twisted himself onto the girders, careful not to overshoot. It was a very long drop into the water.

Jess holstered her empty pistol. "This way!" She walked across the metal column, with nothing but thin air for support. Careful not to look down, Felix followed, aware of how easy it would be to lose his balance. Every now and then, she would talk into her COM, but would receive no reply. But after the fifth try, a voice responded.

"Lieutenant Colonel Rawley here. Private Morley, what the hell is going on?"

Jess sounded extremely relieved. "I'll have to explain later, sir. Right now, we need evac on the double. Send in a Hornet, we're under the bridge south of the city—" She broke off as a bullet ricocheted off one of the girders. She looked around for the shooter.

"Down there!" Felix said. "In the boat!" Another bullet reached them, flying between all the gaps and impacting on the bottom of the bridge.

"Take cover!" Jess shouted. They ducked behind a thick vertical pillar, listening to the sound of the bullets sparking off their makeshift shield.

"Damn it," the Marine said. "The boat's going to come around pretty soon, and then we'll have nowhere to hide."

"You mean we're screwed?"


Felix gritted his teeth. They had come this far only to die. What was there to be done?

"Well kid, it was worth a try," Jess said. "I honestly didn't expect you to get us this far. But you'd make one hell of a soldier." She closed her eyes. "Shame it has to end like this..."

Felix couldn't think of what to say, but frowned. "What's that sound?"

The Marine's eyes snapped open. She smiled. "Our rescue."

There was the sound of a pair of missiles firing. They missed the boat, but hit the lake with a loud splash, spraying the water high into the air. A grey aircraft strafed downward, and hovered next to them. "Strange finding you here, Private Morley," the pilot said.

"Gladys!" Jess said with a smile. She took Felix's hand, and they climbed onto the side of the small vehicle, which wobbled slightly to support their weight. Another bullet hit the bottom of the aircraft.

"We'll get back to base in a sec," Gladys said. "Let me teach this SOB a lesson first. Tell your friend to hang on." The Hornet swooped downward so quickly Felix felt like he was falling. There was a loud whoosh as two more missiles flew out from the cannons attached below the vehicle's circular engines. This time, they hit directly, and the young rebel saw the gunmen leaping into the water as the boat exploded.

"Now to finish them off," the pilot grunted, firing the Hornet's machine-gun turrets at the survivors. Felix couldn't help but feel horrified as he watched the helpless men scream as they were shot dead, their blood staining the lake's waters. War was indeed cold. He gripped the handles of the vehicles tightly, wondering what was next as they turned around and flew up and away from the southern bridge of Asphodel.

Chapter 6: Reassignment

1400 Hours, March 25, 2487 (UNSC Military Calendar), UNSC Marine camp, outskirts, south of Asphodel City, planet Eridanus II, Eridanus System

"...and they lured us to the centre of the camp," Jess said. "Innies swarming everywhere, sir. Farrell didn't want to give up, and they just shot him down..." She paused. "Then their leader, Gerald Barrie, pulls out a pistol and begins shooting us down. The entire squad was killed, sir."

"Did you find Watts?" asked Rawley, frowning.

Jess nodded. "Yes, but...he was a traitor. Working with the Innies. He knew we were coming."

The officer froze. "A traitor? Private, that's a very serious accusation. You've got to be careful..."

Anger showed in her face. "I can prove it, sir. I'm not going to let him get away with taking out my squadmates."

"We'll put that aside for now," Rawley said, looking troubled. "We'll have to sort everything out later. How did you get out of there alive?"

"Wouldn't have, if it wasn't for him," Jess said, indicating Felix.

"Who is he?" He turned his attention to the young rebel for the first time.

"Our informant, sir."

Rawley frowned again. "He looks a bit young."

Jess shrugged. "He blends in, sir."

"Right," the Lieutenant Colonel said, turning away from Felix. "So now that we've got everything we need to know, we'll pull everyone out and get back to the Meriwether Lewis. I think we should return to Reach for reporting. Then...we'll need to find out what the hell is going on with this whole Watts issue."

Rawley's COM beeped. He spoke into it. "What is it?"

"Sir, we've got an unauthorized aircraft coming in over our location." Sure enough, there was the sound of a low humming filling the air.

"Do we have anti-aircraft cannons, sir?" Jess asked.

"Negative," the Lieutenant Colonel said. "We should find some cover—" Suddenly a flaming and broken Warthog dropped fast onto the ground, showering glowing and flaming metal everywhere. Marines screamed as the deadly splinters pierced them. One of them managed to stand up, holding his rifle in a bloodied hand.

"Enemy soldiers coming in!" he shouted, opening fire.

Rawley, who had moved away from the Warthog in time, was unharmed, and Jess had pulled Felix into cover. But when the rebels opened fire, cutting down the injured Marine, she snatched up a nearby SMG and returned fire.

The rebels aimed at the pair, but didn't manage to fire before they were quickly cut down by the rapid fire, but one of them aimed at Rawley, who was fumbling for his sidearm. The enemy fired his pistol, which penetrated the Marine officer's chest. The latter fell with a yell of surprise and pain, but Jess shot the last Innie, and there was silence again. She ran over to the Lieutenant Colonel, who was struggling to stand up.

"We need to get you a medic, sir," she said, supporting him.

"How the hell did they get in here?" Rawley asked, spitting blood.

"I dunno," Jess said, worried. Turning back to Felix, who was looking horrified. "You should come with me. We'll get on board the Meriwether Lewis as soon as I find the Colonel some treatment."

Once upon a time, Felix would have been sorry to leave Eridanus II. It had been his home his whole life, but now all that remained were bitter memories. He wanted to get away from it all, especially Barrie and Watts. He had nothing left here.

This conflict will become worse. But you will save many lives. I'm sure of it, the Commander had said. Felix looked around the plain quarters he had been given on the UNSC ship. He wondered what was in his future. What was it he wanted to do?

He stood up from the bunk bed he was sitting on. Someone had told him that he was going to share the quarters with the other informant. Jess had been sent to the Marines' barracks, so at least it would be nice to talk someone while they headed back to Reach.

Reach. He knew that it was one of humanity's most important military planets, but he had never been there. What would it be like?

The door hissed open, and a pair of uniformed men stepped inside, along with a fairly tall boy carrying something in a bag. He looked like he was in his early teens, and for some reason, looked familiar. "We've had him for three years now, and they just realized it," one of them was saying. "We'll just stick him in here, it'll keep him out of our way. He's a real smart-mouth"

"He'll probably—" The other one spotted Felix. "Oh, great. Another kid. Why doesn't the UNSC hire some actual soldiers to put behind enemy lines for a change? Well, you two just stay in here. Behave," he added sternly, as if he thought all adolescents went out of their way to look for trouble. The two soldiers left, and the door closed behind him.

The other boy sat down on one of the chairs, and set his bag down on the floor. "I hate it when people talk about me as if I'm not there," he said, but didn't sound angry. There was a certain mischief in his voice.

Felix was surprised. "Tom?" He hadn't recognized him at first, because he looked so much older since the three years they last saw each other. But he recognized his brother's voice immediately.

Tom jumped out of his chair in surprise. "Felix?"

"You're alive!" The brothers laughed and embraced, both of them talking at once.

"It's been so long, what happened that night—?"

"How did you end up here—?"

"These UNSC guys are really weird, but they're okay once you get to know him. Barrie was right, they're not much diff—what's wrong?" Tom saw the look of sadness on Felix's face. They both sat, side by side, on the bed.

"Tom, everything's changed," he said quietly. Slowly, he told his brother everything that had happened, from the deaths of their parents to Barrie's tyrannous grip on the URF. Tom looked rather dejected.

"It looks like we won't be able to go home," he said. "Even if we did, we can't call it home anymore. So what do we do?"

"We'll work with the UNSC," Felix said, "and we'll bring the URF down. I see now what they are, and how even the best of them can be corrupted..." He looked over to Tom, and gave a faint smile. "You look very...mature in that uniform. What have you been up to?"

"When the Marines came, I wasn't in the house," the latter explained. "I was out, and then one of them, I'm not sure which, must have mistaken me for their informant. Then he told me to 'get back to the Pelican'. I wasn't sure what they were talking about, but I followed one of them to this big dropship, and they took me to the south of the city."

Felix remembered something. "When I was in Barrie's office, I heard Watts saying something about him discovering a UNSC informant, about your age." He felt sickened when he remembered the Colonel saying that the child had been executed. But Tom was pressing on.

"So from that point on, I was being sent all over Eridanus to spy for the UNSC. I was a bit scared at first, but it was kinda exciting to get to travel around the planet, and it turns out I was good at it too. But I certainly wasn't too eager to tell them who I really was. But they don't seem too upset after they found out," he said happily.

The door slid open again, and a Marine poked his head in. "Lights out in five minutes," he said brusquely, "I suggest you two get into bed." The door closed as he left.

"Well," Tom said, yawning. "Let's get some sleep. You can tell me how you got here tomorrow."

It looks like there's no turning back, Felix thought. But it didn't seem so bad. They had a purpose now. And it was time to start saving every life he could, just as Barrie had wanted so long ago.

The two boys were awakened by an alarm clock the next morning. Felix, who had been awake half the night thinking about everything that happened, didn't sleep too well. But he and Tom quickly got up, and the former found a new uniform next to his bed, which he put on, folding up his ripped and worn clothing and putting it under the bunk. They retrieved some rations from the cooler placed in the room, and after finishing breakfast, they were wondering what to do when a message came through to the COM on their table.

"HERMES, Lieutenant Kotowski requires a report from you," a voice said. "Inform TRITON that he will be coming along with you."

"Will do, sir," Tom replied in a practised voice. Felix cast him a quizzical look.

"Someone will be coming to your quarters to escort you there."

"Understood, sir."

Felix frowned. After the transmission ended, he asked, "'Triton'?"

"Codenames," his brother explained. "Informants all use them. I'm HERMES, and you're TRITON."

The former was still a bit apprehensive. "What am I supposed to say?"

"Don't worry about it. Just follow my lead."

Strange, he thought, watching Tom putting a report together on a laptop. His brother was certainly very different. He seemed to have gained a certain maturity and seriousness. The UNSC must have changed him. He helped, giving the details on what happened in the camp and what Barrie and Watts might be planning. When a black-uniformed officer stepped into their room half an hour later, the report was ready. Tom took the storage device containing the data out of the laptop, and they followed the escort out into the hallway.

Tom had obviously already taken a look around the frigate, but it was Felix's first time aboard any military vessel, and he was fascinated by what he saw. They were on a high catwalk with glass windows, and he could see the training rooms, vehicle facilities, and passed many crewman attending to their various duties. He wondered where Jess was.

After leaving the catwalks behind, they took an elevator down a couple of levels, and through a few more hallways. There were less soldiers here, and there was a certain silence in the air. The officer led them to a door that looked like any other part of the wall. Felix certainly wouldn't have spotted had it not just slid open to show a small room and another black-uniformed man sitting at a desk.

"I've brought HERMES and TRITON, sir," their escort said.

"Good," said the man sitting at the desk. Felix and Tom entered the room, and the door slid shut silently behind them.

"Sit down," he said. The two boys complied, sitting on the hard-backed chairs and looking across the table at the officer.

"Welcome back, boys. I'm Lieutenant Leon Kotowski. I believe you have put your reports together?"

"Yes, sir," Tom said. "If I may, what happened to Lieutenant Corrigan?"

"Beatrice Corrigan is occupied at the moment," Kotowski said. "I believe she is your contact on the surface?" The former nodded.

"Yes, she brings the information to me, so I am not surprised to see that we have not met before. However, I am surprised to hear that you are not Jack Reiley, codename HERMES."

Tom hesitated for a second. But he quickly said, "Jack Reiley was killed three years ago, sir. He was discovered by the URF and executed."

"Unfortunate," the Lieutenant said quietly. "And after that...?"

The officer didn't seem very rattled at the fact that the URF would so ruthlessly kill a child. Felix wondered if the UNSC would do the same if they found out about them. "Lieutenant Corrigan decided to replace him unofficially," Tom continued. "She knows the importance of our duty, and doesn't want word to get out that the UNSC is placing minors in danger for their own benefit."

"The matter always has been questionable. But the informants are usually volunteers, so we are hardly to blame. And I don't think either Beatrice or myself have met TRITON before."

"He's the informant placed at the Sanctuary. He had a bit of trouble obtaining intel during Colonel Watts' supposed death, but he remained at his post, until now."

"Impressive," Kotowski said. "And what does he have for me?"

"Our reports are in this file, sir." Tom said, handing over the datacard. The Lieutenant inserted it into his computer, and scanned it. His expression didn't change.

"Disturbing," he said flatly, although his voice wouldn't have suggested it. "You claim that Watts was in fact not dead, but faked it in order to join the Sanctuary?"

"Yes, sir," Felix said, speaking at last. "He...he didn't know I was stationed at the Sanctuary...but Commander Barrie trusted me, so I was able to gain a reasonable amount of intel."

"I see." Looking back to the report, he continued, "This is very important indeed. I'll need to show this to ONI, and there will be an investigation. We will see what to do about Watts once we get to Reach. Dismissed."

Chapter 7: Complications

1100 Hours, April 9, 2487 (UNSC Military Calendar), on board UNSC frigate Meriwether Lewis, in orbit above planet Reach, Epsilon Eridani system

"You two, come with me," the officer said. Felix and Tom immediately followed him out of their room. After a short walk, they were led to a hangar bay.

There was a Pelican on the deployment hatch, and a single Marine was waiting there.

"Jess!" Felix ran over, and she turned.

"I haven't seen you in a while, Felix," the Marine said, smiling. She looked slightly nervous.

"Someone will be waiting for you on the surface," their escort said. "He will bring you to the ONI office for reporting."

"Understood," Jess said. As she climbed on board the dropship with Felix and Tom, the pilot closed the hatch, and they were deployed from the Meriwether Lewis.

Tom gasped, and Felix clutched his seat tightly, trying to look away from the ship's front window but couldn't. It felt as if the Pelican was in free-fall, and the surface of Reach was seen far below them.

Jess grinned. "I was a bit scared my first time too." To take the boys' minds off the flight, she asked, "So who's this, Felix?"

"My brother, Tom," he replied. "The UNSC seems to have mistook him for their informant."

She began to look worried again. "Yes, about that...we'll need to do something about this situation."

"What do you mean?"

Jess lowered her voice, in case the pilot could hear them. "If the officers found out that you're both from the URF, they'll imprison you, maybe even execute you."

"They wouldn't..." Tom said, shocked.

"They would," she said seriously. "The UNSC doesn't want to risk exposing their secrets to the URF, and they'll do anything to win the war. No matter what you do, they'll be suspicious. ONI takes no chances."

"So what do we do?"

"I can ask someone to put your names into the UNSC records," Jess said. "It'll be risky, but he'll be willing to do it for me."

"Hack into the system?" Tom asked. "That'll—"

" reason enough for a court-martial, I know. But they'll figure out who you are sooner or later, and it's better if they think that you're already one of them. Otherwise, you'll be sure to be incarcerated or killed."

Felix said nothing. He didn't know that the UNSC would be so either-or about these kinds of things. He had thought that the URF could be indifferent to death and conflict, but now realized that there was fault on both sides.

That's the problem with war, he thought. Everyone's so focused on coming out on top, they soon forget the moral values of what they're fighting for. He thought about Barrie, and felt a stab of sadness.

"We'll have to make our report first," Jess said. "They're not suspicious of you two, so we don't need to rush our plan to modify the records."

When the Pelican touched down on a landing pad near a base, sure enough there was another black-uniformed soldier waiting for them. Felix and Tom disembarked with Jess, and the Marine exchanged salutes with the soldier. "Private Jess Morley, here for a report to ONI. HERMES and TRITON are with me."

"Follow me."

They were led past several security checks, all of which their escort cleared quickly. Finally, their escort escorted them into a low building, which was almost completely empty.

The receptionist didn't even look up as they entered. She was busy filing something on a computer, and said, "Take the lift down to level Three. They're in the main debriefing chamber."

Felix exchanged glances with Tom before they entered the lift. The doors slid shut behind them, and the platform moved downward quickly and silently. The soldiers were standing stock-still.

The whirring slowed, and the lift stopped. The doors opened, and their escort lead them into the only corridor. The walls and ceiling were jet-black, and the hall was completely straight. It gave Felix the feeling of walking down a long tunnel.

Upon reaching the end of the hall, their escort opened the door that led into the main debriefing chamber. Although the darkness made it difficult to discern the details in the room, Felix had a feeling that the debriefing chamber was fairly large. There were definitely officers sitting in the shadows, although how many of them there were was uncertain. They were waiting silently. The escort remained in the hall, and closed the door behind them.

As Jess walked to what he guessed was the centre of the room, she saluted. Felix and Tom did the same. "At ease," one of the officers said quietly. His voice was completely devoid of any emotion. But it sounded strangely familiar.

There was a short pause. Not awkward, but with a certain tension to it. Felix couldn't quite tell why, but he was feeling uneasy. It seemed to be more nerve-wracking than being under fire and trying to stay alive back on Eridanus II, or staring down into a massive lake while clinging onto the girders of a bridge.

"Welcome back to Reach, Private Morley," the officer continued. "We heard that your first mission didn't go well."

"No, sir," she replied. "Things got a bit messy at Eridanus II."

"Tell us," said a second voice. "Start from the beginning."

So Jess began to relay everything that had happened since she was transferred to Eridanus II. Occasionally, the various officers around them would ask questions, not just to her but to him and Tom as well.

"We were assigned to another squad for our first mission," Jess said.

"How many of you?" the first officer asked. Felix frowned. He had heard this officer's voice before. Where, though?


One of the other officers cut across Jess. "A question, Private. Who authorized the garrison's return to Reach?"

She faltered. "I don't know, sir. You'll have to ask my CO, Rawley."

"Major Rawley does not hold tactical command of the UNSC force at Eridanus II," the first officer said. Major? Felix thought. But Rawley's a Lieutenant Colonel. The officer could have just made a mistake, but the former rebel had a feeling that it was something else. Why he sounded so familiar. He racked his brains, trying to put the pieces together.

"We're getting off-topic here," a third voice snapped. A female one. "We will discuss the reasons for pulling everyone out later."

"We must return to Eridanus II in the future," the first officer replied. "Perhaps after we have arranged everything, we may find more...progress."

Felix started. It hit him then. He had heard the voice before...

He was standing outside Barrie's office. The door opened, and the Marine officer stepped out into the hall. "I thank you for your hospitality," the he was saying. "I believe I will meet you again, and perhaps after we have arranged everything, we may find more...progress."

"My men will show you back outside," Barrie said. He watched as the guards escorted the Marines and the officer out of the building...

It was Watts. He must have heard that he and Jess escaped from the ambush camp. The Colonel had somehow made it back to Reach before them.

"Now, about your mission," the female officer continued. "Give us the details."

Felix subtly edged closer to Jess, and gave her a slight nudge. To her credit, she didn't turn to face him, but looked sideways at him quizzically. He gave a slight shake of the head, and she frowned.

"Private Morley, hurry it up," the unknown officer said sharply. "We don't have all day."

"Yes...yes, of course, ma'am," the Marine replied, sounding slightly distracted. "We were reassigned to the squad that had lost 4 on a previous mission."

"Whose squad?"

She faltered slightly. "Sergeant...Sergeant Donald."

The officers took some notes. "And then what?" It was Watts, and for the first time, Felix noticed how wary he sounded.

"We...did some patrols in Asphodel City. We found Colonel Rawley has all the details in his file."

"Is that all?"

"Yes, sir."

"Very well. I'll send for Rawley to submit those files. Dismissed."

Jess and Tom turned to leave. Hardly daring to breathe, Felix followed them out of the room. It wasn't until they were out of earshot did they speak.

"Weird place, huh?" Tom said.

"What was it, Felix?" Jess asked.

"That was Watts in there," he replied in a low voice.

"What?" she stopped in her tracks, looking shocked.

"He got back before we did," Felix said. "Probably attended this report to see if you were the one who escaped. If you told them about what really happened on your mission, Watts would be sending his men right now to erase us."

"Do you think he knows who we are?"

"Not yet. But he's bound to figure it out sooner or later."

Tom scuffed his shoe on the floor. "Great. So what do we do?"

"We'll have to expose Watts," Felix said. "If we're careful enough and collect the evidence, we can catch him by surprise. And get him court-martialled before he catches on."

"Oh, that sounds easy," his brother said sarcastically. "Know any good lawyers on Reach?"

"Actually, it's funny you mention that," Jess said, still sounding a bit astounded, but now her voice held determination. "My brother works in the UNSC Navy Office of Investigations. He's on Reach right now, and he can help us with this problem."

Chapter 8: Anton

1600 Hours, April 9, 2487 (UNSC Military Calendar), New Alexandria, Eposz, planet Reach, Epsilon Eridani system

"No, I don't need to book an appointment," Jess snapped into her phone. "Tell Lieutenant Morley that this is important!" As she listened to the reply, looking more impatient by the second, she spun the steering wheel sharply to the left, startling her passengers in the backseat and narrowly missing the car she was passing on the adjacent lane. "No, you watch where you're going!" she barked at the driver who was shouting at them. Taking one hand off the wheel, she pulled the car up an on-ramp and onto a freeway.

Tom and Felix exchanged glances. "Is she a safe driver?" the younger whispered, as if afraid to irritate her.

"I don't know. She got me off Eridanus II alive, though."

Jess was still conversing with the person on the phone. She was now driving with one hand and picked up speed. "Hurry it up, I haven't got all day! No, I don't give a shit what your schedule is. know what? Put Anton on the phone right now. I don't care if he's with someone, put him on the goddamn phone right now." There was a long pause, and when she spoke again, she sounded a lot calmer. "'s me, Jess. Yeah, I just got back today. Don't worry about me. Listen...I need to talk to you about something, it's urgent." She looked over her shoulder at Felix for a moment, somehow managing to switch two lanes over without incident. "Yeah, it's a long story. Talk to you when I get there. See you." She hung up, and returned her attention to driving. Finally realizing how fast they were going, she cut the speed of their car, to which her passengers breathed sighs of relief.


"Yes, Felix?"

"Are you alright?"

"I'm fine. I'm just...worried."

"Well, you've been given some leave. Do you suppose you can relax a bit?"

She laughed at that, and for the first time in a while, looked a bit like her usual self. "Yeah. I'm sorry about this. My brother can sort everything out in due time."

She drove less recklessly after that.

Twenty minutes later, she pulled off the highway and stopped the car in front of the single-story building adjacent to the exit. Leading Felix and Tom inside, Jess approached the reception desk. "I'm here to see Lieutenant Morley."

The woman sitting behind the desk looked up from the document she was filling out and gave her a glare. "Must be the lady she was yelling at on the way here," Tom whispered.

"Down the hall, first door on the right," the receptionist said, giving the boys a look of disapproval before turning back to her work. A second later, the door closest to them opened, and a man poked his head out. Felix could tell immediately that he was Jess' brother. He didn't look much older than her, and although there was a close resemblance in his face, his hair was light brown, cropped short. He wasn't in uniform, but it was easy to see that he was military.

"There you are, Jess," he said. "Come in."

Felix stepped into the room after Jess and Tom. Looking around, he saw many stacks of paper on shelves, and datachips were scattered all over his desk. There were various other objects in the room bearing the insignia of the UNSC. The Lieutenant closed the door behind them, and pulling up three chairs, he beckoned them to sit down, taking his spot back behind his desk.

"Charming receptionist you've got," Jess said, seating herself directly across from him.

"She's not in a great mood today. I overheard that phone call, by the way," he added, his eyes twinkling. "Sounded like you've had better days too."

His sister gave a half-apologetic smile. "What can I say? Eridanus II is a mess."

"I'll bet." Moving his gaze to Felix, then Tom, he asked, "So, you going to introduce me to your friends?"

"This is Felix Martel, and his brother Thomas. Guys, this is my brother Anton." They shook hands.

"Nice to meet you," the Lieutenant said. "I hope you enjoy your stay at Reach."

"I hope so, too," Jess said. "But before that, we have some issues to deal with first."

Anton's expression became serious. "Yes, I've heard...rumours ever since you got back. What are these issues, then?"

She leaned forward, lowering her voice. "These two boys...are from a URF habitat on Eridanus II."

The Lieutenant's eyes flickered towards Felix again. However, all he said was, "Continue."

"The UNSC has reassigned them as informants, mistaking their identity for someone else. But sooner or later, ONI's going to find the mistake. And we need to make sure that doesn't happen."

"So tell me, how did they come into your company?"

Jess sighed, closing her eyes. "I was assigned to a squad of Marines to rescue our commanding officer from a supposed Innie camp. But it turned out to be an ambush, and the only reason I'm still here is because of Felix. So before you ask, yes, I can trust them."

Anton paused, taking this in. Then he nodded. "And what about your CO?"

"That's our other problem. He had defected to the URF three years ago, faking his death so as to make a clean job of it. He was part of the setup. After we came back to Reach, we found out that not only did he beat us to Reach, he's somehow returned to his position in ONI."

There was another pause. "So, what are you thinking of doing about it?"

"I need someone who can break into ONI records, and to modify the files on our original informants, and replace them with information on Felix and Tom, omitting what's necessary. And we need to find a way to expose Colonel Watts, before he thinks we've caught on and tries to erase us."

Anton bit his lip, thinking. After almost a minute, he said slowly, "Doesn't sound easy. Getting access to ONI undetected is hard enough, but modifying it will take a hell of a long time. Not only does the original information have be to rewritten, but all files pertaining to them need to be adjusted accordingly, while hiding the fact that they were changed. My suggestion is to make two trips, one to download everything you need to change, and the second to put it all in. Of course, it's more risky to do it more than once, but it's the only option."

"Sounds like the best we have. We'll have to plan it out thoroughly."

"As for Watts, I can build a case against him myself. It would be safer for you three not to get involved, since he might recognize you at any time. But I'm going to need all the information I can get; best if it's authorized, since anything else wouldn't be presentable in court. We're only going to get one try at this, so let's make it good. We're not sure who can trust with this, so be very careful."

Jess nodded, standing up to leave. "Thanks, Anton. I will."

"So what are you two planning to do after Anton changes your records?" Jess asked.

They were driving through the streets of New Alexandria again, but in this area of the city, the buildings were much bigger...and much higher. Some stretched up so far that even when Felix craned his neck to look up through the car's window, he couldn't see the top; the glow of the buildings' lights just faded into the mist that became thicker with elevation.

He turned away from the window, surprised by this question. "I don't know," he replied, exchanging glances with Tom. "What do the UNSC's informants usually do after they're not needed anymore?"

"Well, not anyone can be an informant," Jess said. "But some of them return to being civilians and seek jobs. It's much easier for them because a lot of big businesses like having quick thinkers who can blend in. But the others..." She stopped suddenly.

"What?" Tom asked, leaning forward in his seat.

She looked like she didn't want to say more. But reluctantly, she added, "They join the UNSC."

"Then that's what I'll do," Felix said immediately.

"Me too," Tom said.

Jess' hesitation was explained when she said, "I thought you'd say that. But you don't understand. It's a very difficult life. It's not just a job either. I don't want to put either of you in danger."

"But I've already done a lot of dangerous things for the UNSC," Tom said. "And from what Felix told me, your trip across Asphodel nearly got you killed. We can handle it."

Jess gripped the steering wheel tightly. "That's not what I mean. And there are far more dangerous things than that."

"You're not much older than us," Felix pointed out. "And you've joined."

She sighed, but didn't reply. Instead, she made a turn and they pulled closer to one of the tall buildings. "We'll be staying here for a while," she said. "This is an apartment Anton booked while he's working here at Reach."

The apartment was a lofty building that looked all the more lively at night; thousands of lights shone out of its many windows, some of them standing out in different colours. Jess eased the car onto what looked like a parking lot on a massive plate. As she stopped, a small drone floated over and outside her open window. "Greetings!" It said in its artificial voice. "Are you a resident of this apartment?"

"Yes," she replied. "Jess Morley, 149th floor, suite number 22."

"Please submit retinal scan to confirm your identity," the drone said, moving closer so that it was at eye level with her. She leaned to the left, allowing it to scan her eye. After a short pause, it said, "Identity confirmed. Here is your key card." A thin card slid out from a slot under the machine's scanner. She took it. "Please exit your vehicle. It will be taken to your parking spot."

Jess beckoned to Felix and Tom, and they stepped out of the car. As they stepped off the plate, four clamps appeared, gripping it firmly by the wheels. The plate rose a few inches off the ground and moved it towards a pair of sliding doors near the building's entrance; it disappeared behind the doors, which slid shut.

"Would you like directions to the elevator?" the drone asked.

"No," Jess said, now walking the two boys towards the entrance. "I know where it is." The machine bobbed once, and floated away.

Felix was impressed when they entered the apartment's lobby. It seemed to be almost as big as the building itself in height and length; a dark red carpet covered the entire floor, and lavender-white lights hung on the walls and ceiling. There were round tables placed near the walls, and wrap-around couches next to them.

There were a lot of people lounging around as well, talking or using datapads. A large screen hung at one wall behind a wide table and counter. A few uniformed staff were standing in front of the screen, carrying out their various tasks noncommittally.

"Is this place expensive?" Tom asked, obviously impressed as well.

"I think it is," Jess said. "But we wouldn't have had the money to spend to stay in a place like this. No, Lieutenant Colonel Rawley insisted we stay here. He covered the costs."

"That's strange," Felix said as they stepped into one of what looked like thirty elevators. Jess pressed a button on the wall, and it moved upwards rapidly.

"He said that this was the only available place to stay that wasn't too far from the UNSC outpost," she said. "Anton wanted to ask a few questions, but we didn't really have reasons to refuse."

They reached the 149th floor in a matter of minutes. Jess led them to their suite, which was no less impressive than the lobby. The faint smell of scented air hovered in the room. There was a large television placed against a nearby wall, with a large glass table and another wrap-around couch. A huge window on one side offered a spectacular view of New Alexandria, although they were so high up that all Felix could see were other buildings that reached the same height.

Tom grinned. "I think I'll like this place."

"There are four bedrooms," Jess said. "We didn't really know what to do with all the extra space. But you guys can pick the rooms you want."

Tom instantly ran inside the nearest bedroom, looking around. Felix knew that he himself would be stuck with whatever was left, but he didn't really care. Instead, he asked Jess, "Where are your parents?"

"Oh, they're back on Earth," Jess said. "I haven't seen them since I shipped out, but I'll pay them a visit whenever we can. You guys can come along."

"Don't they worry about you?"

"They do," she said with a tight smile. "But they understand. They used to serve in the UNSC too. They retired pretty recently, actually."

Felix wondered what it was like for her to to be away from her parents for so long. I've never spent more than a day away from them, he realized. They were always at the Sanctuary, until...

"Felix, can I ask you something?" Jess said, mercifully pulling him back to reality.

"Sure." He said, a little distractedly.

"Are you sure you want to join the UNSC? I know you don't think it's a big deal, but it's something you don't fully understand until you're a part of it. And then you might not want to be a part of it anymore."

"Do you feel that way?"

"No. But what I'm trying to say is—"

"Then I think Tom and I should find out for ourselves," he said firmly.

Jess closed her eyes and sighed. "Felix, you saw what happened that that camp on Eridanus II. My entire squad was killed because they were Marines, and they were assigned to go there. No one had a personal grudge against them. They shouldn't have died. Their execution achieved nothing. But that kind of stuff happens all the time. I'm asking if you really think you can risk that for yourself."

Hearing this, Felix felt hesitation grip him for the first time. He still remembered the images of Barrie's pistol flashing, the blood spurting, the bodies crumpling. He remembered the sound of the gunshots echoing in his ears, the Marines waiting for their turn...

He didn't know what to say. He wanted to say yes, he wanted to fight for something. That joining the UNSC would save lives when others were taking them. But he said nothing as he turned away and walked into his bedroom, his thoughts heavy with indecision.

Part Three

Chapter 9: Departure

0540 Hours, June 19, 2487 (UNSC Military Calendar), Kaposvár, Eposz, planet Reach, Epsilon Eridani system

"When is the ship leaving?" Jess asked.

"Twenty minutes," Felix said without glancing at the clock glowing from the vehicle's dashboard. "We're almost there?"

"Close," she replied.

Felix decided to ignore the frostiness in her voice, and assume that her terse replies and refusal to turn around was because she was busy driving.

"We're leaving pretty early," he had told her last night. "You don't have to drive us."

"I don't think you can get to the Kaposvár spaceport by yourself," was her reply.

Jess hadn't been happy about his decision to study at the UNSC academy at Luna. To be honest, I'm having second thoughts myself. Sol is pretty far from Epsilon Eridani. She had to stay on Reach, which made him all the more anxious because they still had Watts to worry about. I hope nothing happens to her while we're away. And I hope Anton can prove him guilty.

Felix exchanged glances with Tom, who was looking a bit nervous himself. We're not even going to be together for a while. He himself was going into the Naval academy, later OCS, in addition to his upcoming training in Special Warfare. Tom had signed up for secondary school and planned on going into the science field. He could be in university by the time I get back. The thought made him realize that the two of them were still growing up, but now in a completely different world. Their past life in the Sanctuary felt like a lifetime ago now.

Felix was almost as nervous about just being at the Luna academy than studying it. Three months ago, Anton had someone hack into ONI records and create new info about him and Tom. Tom's was relatively easy; it took a few mere hours to erase or alter the information that held even the slightest implication that he was a fugitive from the URF, making him a ward of state under Anton's care. After filing a request to withdraw from working as an informant and agreeing to ONI's terms to be watched for the next 6 months, Tom would return to living as a civilian and study on another planet called Taradia.

But Felix's records had a lot more to change. Even after replacing TRITON's information with his own, there had been a lot of gaps to smooth out. The tricky part was also to show that he had already completed two years at the academy (his date of birth had been changed to 2469 to match the records), and creating a corresponding record file in Luna academy's database that would show as created in 2484. This process had been the most time-consuming out of everything, and Felix had spent the time learning as much as he could from the two years he would be missing. Even after three months, he still wasn't close to finishing, and he knew he would be spending a lot of his already limited free time at Luna going over all of it.

"Why do I have to start from the third year?" he had protested after being told about the entire plan.

"Because Watts is still looking for you," Anton had replied. "And we have to take every measure possible to keep you out of sight."

"You can do it, Felix," the Lieutenant had added. "You're a bright kid."

Felix, who had grown to trust him and could see the sincerity in the statement, had felt encouraged by this. But now, as they neared the spaceport, his apprehension began to grow again. If anyone in the UNSC finds out, Watts will be the least of our worries, Jess had said.

He was so caught up in his thoughts that he barely acknowledged them entering the spaceport, getting out of the car, or walking towards the designated hangar. But as they reached a large but unused doorway, and a UNSC representative moved to speak to them, he wrenched himself back into reality.

The representative gave him a nod, and Felix tried to stand a little straighter. I hope I look like I'm 18...

He suddenly realized that ever since waking up, he had hardly spoken to Tom and Jess, and the words they did exchange hadn't been very conversational. He turned to look at them, thinking of something to say. Anything.

"Good luck," Tom said quietly. His hands were in his pockets, and he was looking rather dejected. Still, he kept his eyes on his brother's.

Jess looked like she wanted to say something, but all she gave was a tight smile. For the first time, she seemed to be struggling with herself. Felix suddenly wondered if she had decided to drive him here by more than just convenience. She looked like the same Marine who had stood in line with her squadmates at the URF camp; scared but silent. I'm going to miss her. We've been through a lot.

Felix tried again to say something, but the only sound he made was an odd cough. Feeling awkward now, he turned away, so abruptly that he nearly lost his balance. He walked through the large doorway with the UNSC representative without another word.

Jess waited for the wide doors to slide shut before letting her forced smile disappear. She stared at the doorway, unmoving. Will he be able to take care of himself? I don't even know if I'll see him again... Being an officer in the military alone was nothing easy to live up to, and if Felix succeeded in becoming a part of Special Warfare, then his life would be more demanding than it already was.

She glanced at Tom, who was also standing still, boring his gaze into the closed door as if he could still see his brother. He didn't have to wake up early either... As she absently led him back through the spaceport exit, she realized that she hadn't even said anything to Felix as he left. What is wrong with me? He was trying to talk to me all morning too...I guess I was too worried about him. And I was angry too.

I guess I should have seen this coming, Jess thought as she drove through the tunnels, heading back to New Alexandria. But was I angry at Felix for his decision? Or was I angry with myself for not being able to accept that?

I'll be returning to active duty in three days. I just hope this doesn't weigh on my mind too much.

Chapter 10: Unauthorized Operation

1345 Hours, June 21, 2487 (UNSC Military Calendar), New Alexandria, Eposz, planet Reach, Epsilon Eridani system

"Jess, it's me."

Jess picked up the phone and turned on the speakers before setting it down again. "What is it, Anton?" she asked as she turned back to packing her bags.

"I need to see you at my office immediately."

"I'm a little busy right now, Anton. What is it?"

"I can't tell you over the phone. But there's something you need to see."

"How important is this? I'm going to be returning to duty tomorrow, and I have a lot of things to pack up."

"I know. But this can't wait. It's about Watts."

Jess immediately put down the folded shirts she had picked up off a nearby table.

"I'll be right over."

Jess reached the building in less than ten minutes. Ignoring the receptionist's protests, she walked straight into Anton's office.

Her brother was sitting in his seat, looking completely composed. As she shut the door, he said, "Really, Jess, you need to practise being more inconspicuous."

"Whatever. What did you want to show me?"

Anton turned to his computer. "Felix and Tom have both been sent off, right?"


"Good. Now we can start dealing with this Watts issue without putting them in danger." He turned the screen around so she could see it. "I've been gathering information for the past few months. I finished putting them together last night."

Jess skimmed over the e-document, but said, "You're going to have to explain it to me in layman's terms, Anton. I don't have time to go over the details."

"Alright. In short, Watts is a lot more involved than we first suspected. What you saw on Eridanus II was just the tip of the iceberg. He's got his connections to pirates, mercenaries, underground organizations, you name it. From what I can see, there are things he's involved in that even his partner Barrie doesn't know about. But the problem is, he's damned good at hiding it. These conclusions I gathered were from my own hypotheses, based on the assumption that Watts has defected from the UNSC. There's no way to prove it to anyone else while he's hiding in the UNSC's shadow. Not yet, at least."


"Well, this is where you come in. Recently, it looks like Watts has unearthed something ONI Section Zero has been arranging. The evidence points towards this secret project that sounds like it'll be initiated in three or four years. Something called Project ORION. Watts has managed to take this information without ONI even being aware of it. But this ORION thing must be big, because it sounds like he's going to bring the information back to Eridanus II.

"I know you're reporting into base tomorrow, Jess. But I need you to do something for me. I'm about to hack into Watts' database and erase all the information he copied from ONI pertaining to ORION. Now, if this guy is as smart as you say he is, he'll have a physical backup copy. Once I delete the original, you'll need to head out and make sure the hard copy is destroyed as well."

"Alright," Jess said. "Where is the hard copy going to be?"

"Right here in New Alexandria, actually. I've traced it to a warehouse in downtown."

"One more thing. How am I going to do this without attracting attention? I haven't exactly been trained in stealth."

"I think Watts will be more worried about being exposed than you. My contact has stashed you some weapons near the warehouse. You should get going." Anton handed her an earpiece. "Here. I'll brief you as you go."

"You know something, Anton," Jess said as she walked out the door. "You're starting to scare me."

Jess parked her car surreptitiously in a nearby alleyway. As she climbed out, she tapped her earpiece. "I'm here. Where are those weapons you mentioned?"

"Look around. You should see a rusty truck parked in one of the alleyways. Open the door, it should be under the driver's seat."

Looking down the nearby alleys, it didn't take her long to spot it. "I'm surprised the Superintendent didn't have it hauled off yet," she remarked, opening the unlocked door.

"Let's just say that I 'convinced' the Super to ignore it."

Jess pulled out an SMG with a silencer attached to it, along with an M6 Magnum and a medium-sized briefcase. "Okay, I've got the ordnance."

"The warehouse you're looking for is just to the left of the alleyway. That's the one."

Jess stopped at the door. The warehouse looked like every other one on the street. "I won't be kicking in the door, by any chance?"

"No. You need to do this quietly. There's a Spoofer in the briefcase."

Jess opened it, and raised an eyebrow at the contents of the briefcase. "There's a satchel charge in here too. And two frag grenades."

"Yeah, you're going to have to destroy the files, remember? It's a physical copy, so you'll have to do it the old-fashioned way."

"And what happened to keeping quiet?"

"Let me worry about that. Now, hurry up, I'm preparing to enter Watt's database so I can destroy his electronic files."

Jess attached the Spoofer to the door and managed to unlock it in a matter of seconds. Quietly, she pushed open the door ever so slightly, slipped inside, and closed it again.

"Don't dawdle," Anton said. "You might have triggered a silent alarm."

"Yeah, yeah, I know," Jess muttered, looking around the dimly lit warehouse. She couldn't see any guards standing on the catwalks.

"Are you sure this is the right warehouse, Anton?"

"I'm certain. I know what you're thinking, but Watts is smart enough to hide things in plain sight. Now, do you see a delivery truck parked next to the exit?"


"There you go. The files are in there. Now, plant the satchel under the truck, and get out of there."

Jess could hear footsteps. "Someone's coming." She raised the silenced SMG to chest level, looking around the warehouse. A dark figure stepped out of one of the lower-level rooms, looking around cautiously.

"You'll have to take him out," Anton said. "It looks like I was right about the silent alarm."

Jess hesitated. "He's not armed. What if this is the wrong place, and that's a civilian?"

A bullet flew past her head, embedding into the wall behind her. The man was now holding a handgun, also with a silencer.

"Does that answer your question?" Anton asked. Jess picked up the dryness in his voice, but she could also hear the tightness that he was trying to hide. Without answering, she fired five rounds at the gunman, dropping him with barely a sound.

"I'm going to run for the truck," she said. "There's definitely going to be more of them." Clutching her gun firmly in one hand and the briefcase in the other, she dashed for the vehicle.

She was halfway there when a silenced sniper round fired into the ground an inch from her foot. A second round landed on the briefcase, sending her flying sideways. Jess winced at the jarring sensation that went up her wrist. But the sudden movement saved her, as a third sniper round sliced through the air where her head was a moment ago.

"I'm guessing that's two snipers," Anton said, the worry now evident in his voice now. Jess ducked behind the truck and set down the briefcase, hearing another bullet land on the vehicle. She raised the SMG and spotted the sniper on the walkway, who was also aiming at her. She opened fire, cutting down the gunman in an instant. Stopping to settle her nerves, she opened the briefcase again, keeping her back to the truck so the entire half of the warehouse was in her line of sight. Dammit, this is the worst place to be caught in a gunfight. There are too many doorways. I have to hurry.

Jess quickly took out the satchel charge and set it to detonate. Still keeping her back to the vehicle, she kept her gun up, creeping back to the corner of the truck. "What are my exit options?"

"The nearest doorway is next to the loading bay," Anton said. "But that one's still locked, and you'd be caught in the open too long to open it. I suggest you make a run for the door you came in through. This time, feel free to kick the door in. Now excuse me for a second. I'm sure Watts will soon have heard about your break-in, if he hasn't already. I'm going to take care of the electronic documents before he has a chance to lock those down."

"Great," Jess said, peeking around the corner. The second sniper was nowhere to be seen. Deciding not to stick around to find out where he was, she dashed straight for the exit. I'll bet my DI would have said a million things about this. How stupid my strategy is, how it puts myself in danger, how I'm not taking enough precautions, yadda yadda yadda. To hell with it. I'll bet that sniper is lurking somewhere with his rifle pointed at the exit.

Jess spun around just before reaching the exit. And sure enough, the sniper was there, standing next to the truck's driver seat, aiming straight at her. There were now also a dozen gunmen rushing out from the surrounding rooms, taking positions around the truck. She would have no time to shoot them all down.

Then she heard Anton's voice in her ear. "Fire in the hole."

The truck exploded, consuming every one of the gunmen in a fireball. The force of the explosion lifted Jess off her feet. She felt the SMG slip out of her grasp as she was flung straight out the warehouse door.

She stood up, brushing dirt off her clothes. "That was a little close," she said.

"Yeah. Good thing I destroyed those electronic files quickly. Now you should get clear of the area, Jess. The Superintendent is sure to have a field day with this—"

"Wait, what's that?" She looked down the alleyway, at one of the adjacent warehouses. Amidst the sudden halt in traffic next to the warehouse she just exited, she could spot two men holding guns hastily climb into a delivery truck, identical to the one she had just destroyed. And it was pulling out onto the street.

"It was a decoy," Jess whispered.

"Damn," Anton said. "Watts always thinks three steps ahead of us. You'll have to take out that truck. And forget quiet, just make sure they don't get away!"

"What about collateral damage?"

"We'll worry about that later! If Watts went through all this trouble to protect the files, you can be sure it's important! Go!"

Jess couldn't find her SMG anywhere, but she still had her M6 Magnum and the grenades. Flicking the safety off her handgun, she emptied her clip into the truck's windshield as she sprinted at it. She didn't see whether her shots made any hits, but didn't pause to reload. As she neared it, the truck sped out of the warehouse and onto the street. She grabbed one of the handles on the back as it put on a burst of acceleration, wincing as the sudden increase of speed stretched her arms almost out of their sockets.

Jess struggled to hold on, which wasn't easy as it swerved between road and sidewalk to avoid pedestrians and vehicles that it passed. She was veered into the way of oncoming traffic several times, almost being hit by cars speeding in the opposite direction. Now what do I do? I have to stop this thing. She wondered how she was going to destroy a truck with just a pistol. She could use the grenades, but that could end up injuring her. Wait a minute...I could punch out the tires.

Still clinging onto the back of the truck with one hand, Jess fumbled for another magazine and clumsily fed it into the handgun. Trying not to lean too close to the pavement speeding past below her, she stooped over and tried to aim the M6 at the vehicle's back tires. It was hard to keep her aim steady with one hand, especially when she couldn't keep herself from shifting from side to side. Jess closed her eyes, and squeezed the trigger twice.

The sound of metal bouncing off metal was heard. She swore as she saw the bumper, now with two bullet holes in the back. Aiming again, she pulled the trigger.

This time, there was a loud popping noise that was barely heard over everything else. Then the truck began to swerve as a hissing sound emitted from the rear left tire. As the rubber deflated, the rims began to scrape against the road, sending sparks flying from the wheel. A moment later, there was a loud smashing noise as it hit what sounded like another vehicle. The truck spun out of control but still didn't slow down.

Jess fished a grenade out of her pocket and jammed it into the space between the truck's storage compartment and its bumper. She took a deep breath, ripped out the pin, and let go of the handle as the truck flipped over and rolled down the road. She tumbled onto the road, a bit bruised but otherwise uninjured. She watched as the truck flipped off the road and collided with a tree.

Then the explosion came, blowing the truck apart. The tree was ripped open, with what was left standing burning with the grass around it. As the surrounding civilians stopped to look at the scene, Jess hid the grenade pin and the M6 in her pocket and walked away, trying not to attract attention.

"Mission accomplished, Jess," Anton said. "Zero civilian casualties, too. Now get yourself out of sight. You don't exactly look like a pedestrian. I'm coming to pick you up."

"See you in a bit, Anton." Jess ducked into an alleyway, sitting down to catch her breath as she heard the sound of distant sirens becoming louder.

That Project ORION thing, whatever it had better be important. If my CO ever hears about this, I'd be lucky not to be arrested.

Anton was hardly surprised to see the incident on live news that evening. The screen showed a news reporter standing in front of the twisted and blackened remains of the truck, and the charred field around it. Thankfully, Jess had managed to disappear before the cameras started showing up, but he knew there were bound to be loose ends. And Watts would never end up behind bars if they got put there first.

He was barely paying attention to what the news reporter was saying. He was making a call to someone. He made sure that everyone else had already left the office.

His contact picked up right away. "Yeah?"

"Cliff, I need you to do another job for me."

"Anton, hey. You know, you've been calling a lot lately. You really love to give me your money, don't you?"

"Not now, Cliff. Listen, you hear about that destroyed truck on the news?"

"Heard about it? I knew about it before it even showed up on the news! I should have known you had something to do with it."

"Yeah, well, I need you to hack into New Alexandria's central system. Go through the traffic cameras and scramble them. I also need you to erase all links to the incident from the Superintendent's database."

"Hey, hey, whoa. You know, you'd make a terrible hacker. That is probably the worst idea I've heard you come up with. Anyone with half a brain would be able to figure it out because you're making it so obvious for them. See, what you mean is that I should reconfigure the recorded data without breaking their sync—"

"Do whatever you can, I don't really care. Just make sure it doesn't get traced to us."

"You really like to get into trouble, Anton. First those kids' ONI records, now this? This is some valuable information here. You're practically begging for me to start blackmailing you."

"Stow it, Cliff. I don't have time for your bullshit. Just get it done." Anton knew that the hacker was joking, but even if he wasn't, he knew that he wouldn't try anything of the sort. He can't bring anyone down without getting his ass busted as well. Besides, he's no backstabber.

"Okay, Anton, but you might want to tone it down. At this rate, I'll have enough dough to retire by the end of the year. Then you won't have anyone to keep you out of prison, will you?" Cliff hung up, and Anton followed suit, feeling more anxious than ever.

Chapter 11: David Kahn

1900 Hours, June 21, 2487 (Earth-standard Calendar), unknown location, planet Reach, Epsilon Eridani system

Watts watched as the agent entered the room without a sound. The room was completely silent, save for the sound of the door closing behind him. It was clear that the man was nervous, his hands fidgeting and his eyes moving around the room, looking anywhere but at him.

"Yes?" Watts asked quietly.

"S-sir...we have a problem..." the agent stammered.

"You don't say. Someone has destroyed my electronic files pertaining to Project ORION. I already know that." The news hadn't surprised him when he received it earlier. He had expected the most resourceful of military technicians, electronic hackers, or some other enemy of his to have found out about his discovery, and make attempts to sabotage his findings. He just hadn't expected them to succeed so soon.

Still, I would never leave just a single copy of such valuable documents. But if whoever did this knew who they were dealing with, that would mean...

"What of the hard copy of the files?" Watts said suddenly, leaning forward. He caught the hint of agitation in his own voice, and checked himself.

"Well...that's...that's the problem, sir...the hard copy has been...has been destroyed as well..."

"I made clear instructions to have the signals traced to the decoy," he said, in the same quiet voice.

"Both the decoy and the h-hard copy are gone, s-sir..."

Watts paused. He took several silent breaths. "I see," he said, almost in a hiss. He stood up; this move must have caught the agent by surprise, for he flinched, involuntarily taking a step back. The Colonel coolly eyed the man, who looked more terrified than ever.

Does he expect me to dispose of him? But shooting the messenger, so to speak, is so childish. This setback has been irritating, yes. But I still have other things to sort out, and this is no time to become irrational.

Watts simply stepped around the quivering agent, and opened the door.

"I will find out more about this later. For now, I'll ask you to...erase our tracks from this incident. And try to find more leads to that Marine I'm tracking."

Without another word, Watts exited the room.

1132 Hours, November 5, 2487 (UNSC Military Calendar), Mantilia, planet Tribute, Epsilon Eridani system

"We're on location, sir," Jess said into her mic as her driver pulled their van off the highway. "Are the other teams here yet?"

"Affirmative," replied her CO, Staff Sergeant Lester Morales. "They're out of sight, but they're ready. Everyone in your vehicle accounted for?"

Jess turned around to count the number of Marines in the back. She hoped that the tinted windows hid their combat uniforms and the rifles they clutched. "Affirmative, Sarge. We're getting into position now."

"Alright, we'll be waiting for you. Morales out."

The driver, Lance Corporal Nathaniel Cortez, pulled the van into a hidden intersection. "Okay, everyone, sit tight back there. But get ready to move once we give the signal." Jess climbed out of the van with him and walked further down the intersection. They were dressed like civilians and were unarmed. She couldn't see the other teams, but knew that they already had the surrounding area covered. Now they were ready to begin.

The team's mission was to locate and capture a high-ranking rebel named David Kahn. ONI had noted Kahn and those working under him were capable of stealing important documents not only from the UNSC without attracting attention, but also information gathered from mercenaries and other third-party factions; as a result, Kahn was infamously hated by the military and freelancers alike. Most importantly, the suspicions Anton passed onto Jess were that Kahn was connected to Watts.

"I'll bet that it was this guy who found the files on ORION and brought them to Watts," he had said. "If you find anything important on this mission, you must bring it to me. Even if you have to hide it from your superior officer."

That had made Jess a bit uneasy, but she put it out of her mind as she followed Cortez down the intersection. Kahn is somewhere in a nearby apartment. We need to move in carefully and close in on—

"RPGs! On the roof!" screamed a Marine over the COM. Jess didn't even have time to react when she heard the sound of rockets firing behind her, followed by an explosion. They had made it out of range of the blast, but the heat still reached them.

Jess and Cortez turned around, staring at the flaming van in shock that had, a moment ago, held four Marines in the back. She spotted two figures holding M19 rocket launchers on top of the buildings on either side of the intersection run off.

"Status!" Morales barked. "All teams report in."

"We've got four KIA, Sergeant," Cortez said grimly. "Just Morley and myself still standing."

"We've lost four as well."

"We lost two. Half of them got clear...barely. But they're wounded."

"Bullshit, I'm not wounded!" protested another voice. He coughed several times.

"There's blood running down your face, Private. Hand me your rifle and go find somewhere to lay low, both of you."

"That's enough!" said Morales. "Everyone, we need to regroup. Here's the rendezvous point. I'll call in recon to find out what the hell that—"

"Innies, engaging us!" Gunfire erupted over the COM. Jess could hear footsteps, although they didn't sound transmitted.

Cortez stiffened. "Morley, we need to get out of here! Let's move!"

They dashed back towards the flaming van and ran out onto the streets. Traffic had frozen completely now, and civilians were gaping at the ambush.

"UNSC Marine Corps!" shouted Cortez. "Civilians, get clear of the area!"

"What's the plan?" Jess asked.

"We make our way to the rendezvous. If we blend in with the civilians, the Innies won't fire on us."

The sound of MA3s was heard behind them. Civilians screamed and scattered.

"Never mind. Let's move, quickly!"

It was a nerve-wracking run through the city. Rebels were appearing out of nowhere from rooftops, looking for anyone that looked like a Marine. When they reached the rendezvous point near a Maglev train station, Jess counted only four others.

"Is this all of us?" she asked. Morales nodded slowly.

"Bastards pinned down one of the teams under a bridge. Haven't heard from them since."

"Where the hell is air support?" Cortez asked.

"Recon's scoping the RPGs now," the Sergeant said. "Don't know how long it'll take them to locate them."

"This is ridiculous," Cortez said angrily. "The RPGs are constantly on the move. If we could get sniper teams in—"

"Then we'll bring down the entire Innie force down on us," Morales finished. "I know this doesn't look good. But I told backup to hold their positions. This David Kahn guy must be really determined to keep us out if he's willing to stir up all this in the city. What's more, if we bring in the big guns, he might make a run for it. So it's up to us to get to him."

Doesn't look too promising, Jess thought. There were only six of them left, and all they had for weapons were two MA3s and two M6s. "So what now, Sarge?" she asked.

"The objective is still the same. We need to capture Kahn. We don't know how much he knows about this, but he already knew we were coming and ruined our plan. So let's get into that apartment."

"We can get the Superintendent to shut off the power. Make it look like an accident." suggested one Marine.

Morales shook his head. "Too risky. Kahn will get suspicious. He'd probably have a backup plan. No, we'll go in, one at a time. It'll take a while, but if he thinks he's gotten rid of us, then he might slip up. It's the best chance we have. Let's move."

They had split up into individuals, taking random routes through the city that would lead to Kahn's apartment. Jess, who had taken the maglev to the building, was there first. She found the keycard that Morales' "contact" had hidden in the elevator and used it to get into an empty suite. She reported in that she had made it, and waited for the others.

Half an hour later, Cortez reported that he was at the apartment. Jess watched him over the camera. As he strode over to the elevator, she saw someone appear from an adjacent doorway, brandishing an SMG.

"Cortez, look out!" she shouted over the COM. The Marine didn't even turn, but leaped into the elevator as gunfire peppered the walls. A moment later, he reappeared with an M6 in his hand, and shot his attacker three times in the chest. The gunman fell, and Cortez took the SMG from his empty hand.

"Morley, speak to me. What happened?" Morales asked.

"Cortez was attacked, sir. He's alright, but—" More gunmen appeared, each holding a weapon. But before any of them could open fire, Cortez closed the elevator doors.

"I'm on my way up," he said. "Morley, this is bad. Looks like Kahn knew what we were doing."

"Copy. Orders, Sergeant?"

"We're en route, ETA five minutes," Morales said. "I'm calling in backup now. Cortez, you and Morley get to Kahn's apartment ASAP. But be careful."

"Yes, sir. Morley, I'll see you on the thirty-second floor."

Jess left her suite and headed up several more floors, hoping she wouldn't run into any more rebels. She found him by the elevators.

"Here," Cortez said, handing her the SMG. He clutched his side and was panting. "I've been keeping an eye on Kahn's suite. No one's come out of it yet."

"Have you been hit?" she asked.

"Twice," he said. "Innies coming out of both ends of the hallway. But don't worry about me. We need to take down Kahn."

"Shouldn't we wait for backup?" she asked.

"No. Morales and his backup have got the building surrounded. He's not getting out undetected. But if we wait around, one of his Innies might take us out, and we can't lose visual on Kahn's position. He might slip away anywhere. Let's go." Cortez's breathing became more ragged, but his steps were steady as they moved to the suite. Jess stayed behind him, her gun aimed in the other direction in case a gunman tried to take them by surprise.

"This is it," Cortez said, stopping in front of a door. He shot the door frame on both the top and the bottom, and kicked it in. Jess entered after him, her gun sweeping the living room while he watched the hallway.

"This place isn't that big," Jess said, advancing into the living room.

"Kahn keeps a low profile," Cortez said. "I wonder how we ever found him."

There was something about those words she didn't like. But she put it out of her mind. "UNSC Marine Corps! David Kahn, we have you pinned down!" she shouted. "Come out unarmed. If you resist, we will open fire!"

There was no reply. "Search the bedrooms," Cortez said. "I'll watch our exit."

Jess breached both bedrooms, as well as the bathroom. There was no one in sight. "Think he's hiding?"

"Doubt it. There aren't a lot of places anyone can hide here. No, I should have seen this coming. David Kahn has already left."

"Damn." As Cortez turned on his COM, Jess entered what looked like Kahn's room. She stopped at his computer, and saw that a file was still open.

/start file/
/end file/
/scramble—destruction process>>error[#anomaly21763]/→retry? [Y/N]▐▌

Jess saw the storage unit that lay near the computer. She remembered what Anton had told her. But would it be right to hide evidence from her superior officers?

"Morley?" Cortez called from the hallway. "Extraction is on its way. Morales wants us to head to the rooftop to set off a flare. We should get out of here."

"Okay," Jess said, a little distractedly. "You go ahead and meet up with Morales. I'll set off the flare."

"Roger." She heard his footsteps fade as he returned to the elevator. When she was sure he was gone, she shot the computer several times, destroying it. Then she took the storage unit and folded it under her civilian jacket. She left the SMG where it was; any investigation team would confirm that it had belonged to a rebel.

Jess headed up to the roof, her mind heavy with thoughts. I hope Anton can get some answers from these documents. If we can expose Watts, maybe it'll be worth the lives paid...and the things I've done.

"So Kahn's message hadn't been erased?" Anton asked.

"No," Jess replied. "There was some sort of error or something."

He frowned. "Kahn doesn't strike me as the type of person to make a mistake like that. Especially if he knew you guys were coming for him."

"So you think the message was meant for Watts?"

"I'm sure of it. He probably knew an investigation team would come across it, and it would eventually reach him."

"But that would put Watts at risk."

"You know something, Jess," Anton said thoughtfully. "I get the feeling that Kahn enjoys making Watts uncomfortable. He's obviously a very powerful man."

"Well, no one suspects Watts of anything."

"Because they're not looking in the right place. You see, David Kahn has thought of almost everything to keep control over what he wants."

Jess raised an eyebrow. "Almost?"

"Yes. There is one thing he hasn't thought of."

"And what's that?"

"Us. It never occurred to him that there could be others in the UNSC that are also willing to break a few rules to track him down. Which means he won't be able to avoid us for very long."

"He's doing a good job of it so far. During our mission, he's caught onto every plan we made and managed to escape without effort."

Anton leaned back, his eyes returning to the storage unit. "That is true. Based on what you told me, it sounds like the only things we found out were what he wanted us to know. Rather, what he wanted the UNSC to know. But I won't be revealing this information for a very long time. We'll leave Watts in the dark for a while. One day we'll confront him with things he can't explain away. When it's time."

"And until then?" Jess asked. Anton's gaze returned to hers.

"Until then, you can help me find out who this David Kahn is. And how we're going to find him again."