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SOTFS6MAP1

SOTF S6 MAP 2

TO BE REVEALED


Season Six

Introduction

The control room was abuzz with activity, technicians darting from console to console as screens lit up across the high walls. Scenes of bloody combat played out on each one, depicting fierce battles and gruesome deaths as warriors both Human and alien fought for their lives. Beyond the plexiglass windows sat a darkened chamber filled with pods, each holding a comatose figure. A door shuddered open, and a white-suited individual stepped inside.

"How many?" He strode forward, clasping his gloved hands together. The assembled workers scattered before his approach, not meeting the man's gaze.

"Fifty-four!" a technician called, bringing up an image of the pods on-screen.

The man nodded, looking over their future combatants. They had been plucked from all corners of the galaxy and even from different universes, or at least different versions of the same universe. They would be armed with weaponry that best suited them, and were all of prime fighting condition. Some lacked a body altogether; two tiny AI chips floated lazily in their pods. Their presence - unusual though it was - would have to be accommodated for in-game.

"Not as many as last time," the man muttered. "Still, we might do better with a smaller roster this time round."

He glanced to a raised dais on his left, where six marble plinths sat, bathed in artificial light. Only the first and fourth contained statues; one of a man in green armour, the other of a roaring Sangheili warrior. The others were empty; indicators of failed seasons past and the one about to begin. He raised an arm.

"Generate arena!"

The view of the stasis chamber before them disappeared, replaced by that of an enormous, artificially-created world. The locales for this season were to be changed around throughout the course of the game, ensuring that their contestants did not grow too accustomed to a single area. The first, an island, flashed up before them. It had been meticulously crafted as an arena beforehand, and would serve as a fine initial stage.

"The volcano's a nice touch," he nodded towards one of the technicians, who beamed with pride. "Let's get started."

A green light shone on a nearby terminal, indicating that their contestants were ready to transport. They would awaken almost immediately after arriving in the island, placed safely away from danger for the time being. Naturally, there would be a great deal of confusion as to where they were and what they were supposed to be doing. Some would refuse to participate in the game altogether; they would likely die early on. The stasis pods flashed as their occupants disappeared, one by one. Bold, white lettering scrolled across the central screen.

SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST, SEASON SIX - GAME START

Adjusting his tie, the man in white stepped up to a nearby microphone and waited for a nod from one of his assistants before speaking. On the island far below their monitoring station, hundreds of speakers blared to life.

"Hello, and welcome to the sixth season of Survival of the Fittest! I am the Announcer. Now, you might be wondering where you are and how you got here. I'm not going to give you answers to that. What I am going to give you, is an order: kill or be killed. There are currently fifty-four of you dotted about this island, and only one of you gets to live through this. It's really that simple. You cannot escape. You cannot fight back against me. Refuse to fight at all and you face immediate termination - if you aren't killed by another contestant first. So have fun, enjoy yourselves, and fight to stay alive! We'll be in touch."

Stage One: The Island

1

Western Beach, SOTF Island

Day One, 0802 Hours


Arn-G287 sat alone on the beach, trying to make sense of where he was. His MJOLNIR suit's GPS was unable to properly identify the surrounding area or locate any nearby UNSC signals. Either it was being jammed, or they were on a completely new planet. He'd just woken up here minutes before and been told by some voice from the sky to kill everyone he saw.

Is the rest of Team Kunai here? I need to find them.

He checked the pack he'd been provided with. The number 48 had been printed onto it in black lettering. Inside were some basic supplies - bread and water - and a couple of weapons. Whoever had set up this sick game seemed to know his preferences, as he withdrew an M45D Tactical Shotgun in pristine condition. There was enough ammo in the bag to last him a few days if he needed to. Arn slapped it onto the back of his suit before holstering the combat knife, Magnum, and frag grenades he'd been provided with as well. Suddenly, a dot flashed up on his HUD's motion tracker.

White dot, thirty-five meters away. Can't tell if it's friend or foe.

Picking up his bag, the Spartan drew his shotgun and racked it as he span round to face whatever was coming.

2

Twenty-Three's Point, SOTF Island

Day One, 0807 Hours


Staring at the weather-worn sign, Leon Sikowsky had to wonder why they named a spot on this island after a number. There didn't seem to be any other distinguishing features about the area, a rocky outcropping of land that jutted out over the nearby beach. The only thing he could hear was the crashing of waves nearby.

Shrugging, he turned round and tried his COM again. "This is Spartan Leon Sikowsky calling any UNSC personnel, please respond."

He waited thirty seconds. Still nothing. Either all communications were cut off or he was truly alone on this island. As he trudged towards the cliff's edge, looking down on the beach, he wondered how they had even been brought here in the first place. His memories of the past few weeks were hazy at best. Perhaps-

"Hey!"

A shout from nearby snapped Leon from his momentary reverie. He dropped to one knee and snapped his MA5D round towards the source of the noise. His motion tracker hadn't picked up any movement, so whoever was nearby was either stationary or moving at a crawl.

"Identify yourself!" he barked, slowly moving towards a large rock for cover.

"I'm not looking for trouble!" the voice called back. "I could've taken you out already if I wanted to."

Leon wondered if the newcomer was lying or not. Tapping the side of his helmet, he activated his helmet's vision enhancement system, nicknamed 'Promethean Vision' after its discovery during the Requiem Campaign. The world changed colour, outlining rocks and trees in muted blues and greens as he looked around. After a couple of seconds, a bright orange flash appeared in the form of a humanoid figure.

Found you.

He could tell it was a Spartan from the outline, carrying a heavy-duty sniper rifle and several other weapons. He'd likely spotted Leon from a distance, and was slowly closing the gap to see if he'd decided to listen to their captors and partake in this deathmatch. He decided to take the risk.

"Okay, come out and we'll talk!"

He stood up and walked out into the open, holding his rifle aloft. The other Spartan did the same, making it clear that he didn't want a fight as he approached. Clad in RECON-class MJOLNIR armour, the IFF tag that flashed up on Sikowsky's HUD identified him as holding the rank of Petty Officer, Second Class.

"I'm Lee," the Spartan nodded. "Sierra Alpha One-Three-Seven."

"Spartan Leon Sikowsky. Let's try and find a way out of this mess."

3

The Outpost, SOTF Island

Day One, 0815 Hours


"No, I don't think you understand. I need to know what planet we're on."

"We must protect this base, sir."

"You're useless."

"Thank you sir."

This was certainly a strange day for Spartan Corin Davis. Having woken up suddenly in this outpost's barracks, he'd first assumed that the announcement that they had to murder everyone was some kind of bad dream. If it was, then he was having difficulty waking up. He had no idea where he was and aside from a bag containing some weapons and supplies he had very little to defend himself with. The base didn't even have an armoury.

And then there's these assholes.

The UNSC Marines defending this base had been completely unable to answer any questions as to their location, commanders, or even their own names. All they seemed to know was that they had to defend this outpost against the Covenant. At first he'd assumed that they were his 'competition', but when they showed no hostility he came out and began his fruitless attempts at getting answers. They were all identically clothed, armed and upon closer inspection, all seemed to be the same man. It was then that he had begun to worry.

"Sir," one of the Marines walked over, his voice dull and lifeless. "I have discovered another newcomer in our operations room."

"An intruder?"

"No sir. She is not a threat to this base."

Corin glanced over towards the ops room. He'd been here for nearly a quarter of an hour now and not seen anyone, so he wondered how someone could've gotten into the base undetected. Shouldering his M379 machine gun, he slowly crept into the room, watching for the slightest sign of movement. A row of computer terminals buzzed faintly, as did a holotank by the back wall. Nearby was what looked like some kind of UNSC recruitment poster. An image of the Earth sat pasted onto a dark background with three words printed boldly above it. Corin raised an eyebrow and smirked.

'FIHGT FORE HER.' Well someone didn't proofread this.

"It's pretty sloppy, right?" said a voice from behind him.

The Spartan span round, ready to unleash a hail of fire at a moment's notice. For a brief second, there was a flicker of light above the nearby holotank as something flashed out of sight. He stepped forward.

"Come on out," he said calmly. "I know you're in there."

After a brief pause, there was a second flash and the holographic avatar of an Artificial Intelligence appeared, taking the form of a young woman clad in dark armour. She gave what looked like a sigh and folded her arms.

Corin lowered his weapon. "I take it you're the new arrival?" he asked.

"Yep. I'm Diana."

The Spartan's visor depolarised for a moment as he stared at the AI. If this was supposed to be a no-holds barred deathmatch, then why would an AI be sent in? Without access to a lot of sophisticated electronics, they would be absolutely harmless in a fight. Could she put me in danger?

"So," he stowed his weapon on the back of his MJOLNIR suit. "I take it you're one of us fifty-four lucky souls, huh?"

"Probably."

Corin nodded, and took a deep breath before stepping forward. He could see the tiny slot in the base of the holotank where her chip was located. All he'd have to do is eject it and crush the thing to pieces, or wreck this entire room if that didn't work. His gauntleted hand reached forward.

"Don't!" the AI snapped. He froze for a moment.

"Why?"

"I can help you, Spartan," her holographic form moved to the very edge of the holotank as Corin knelt down.

"How?"

"I was created with advanced cyberwarfare suites. I can improve your reaction times and provide you with information to help you survive. You've heard of SPARTAN-AI partnerships, right?"

"Yeah, they usually match 'em up for compatible personalities beforehand though. Who's to say you won't try and get me killed?"

At this, Diana shrugged. "You've only got my word. Neither of us want to die, and there's not a damn thing I can do outside of this base's systems. We can help each other out."

He pondered the decision for a few moments. He could easily just leave her here, though the next person to come along might not be as merciful as he was. Despite the lingering bad feeling in his gut, he eventually relented.

"Fine. Eject and we can leave."

Diana beamed at him and disappeared. There was a tiny click and her data crystal chip slid out of the receptacle. He picked it up, holding it before his visor for a moment. One movement and he could destroy the AI right then and there. Corin sighed and slid the chip into the port at the back of his helmet, making a mental note to tear his helmet off if he started feeling funny.

"That's better," spoke Diana from inside his helmet. "We'd better get a move on."

As the Spartan exited the dark room, Diana grew accustomed to her new home. She hadn't enjoyed pleading for her life, but hopefully this brief alliance wouldn't end in disaster. Corin wasn't saying much, so she re-checked the data files she'd extracted from the base computers. Aside from a copy of the short speech this 'Announcer' had delivered after they ended up here, only orders to defend the base had been given. Every single piece of equipment had been checked over and rather worryingly, had records of going online for the first time ever less than half an hour ago.

"So," the Spartan ascended a flight of stairs to the outer wall, several of the identical Marines saluting at him. "My suit's GPS is on the fritz, can you-"

Suddenly, an explosion echoed across the trees from the dense forest to the south. The fighting had already begun.

4

Deepwoods, SOTF Island

Day One, 0839 Hours


From his elevated position atop the nearby hill, Elijah Cavorel spotted the young woman as she emerged from a thicket, covered in leaves. Armed with his well-maintained SRS99C-S2 AM rifle, he had opted to hold his position until nightfall before moving out. However, the arrival of a live target changed everything.

They said kill or be killed, and I've no intention of dying just yet.

Careful not to make any noise, Cavorel shifted his position slightly. As luck would have it, she was walking directly towards him, totally unaware of the sniper's position. He took slow, deep breaths as he prepared to line up his shot, aiming for center mass. At least then she'd likely die instantly; a mercy compared to some of the deaths he'd seen on the battlefield. Checking his scope one last time, he waited for her to walk just a little further so he could take his shot.

It's you or me.

***

Zoey Hunsinger was lost. She'd been lost when she woke up in these woods, she was lost twenty minutes ago, and aside from the brief glimpses of what looked like a distant mountain through the treetops, she still had no clue where she was. Armed with only a handgun and a combat knife, she knew her best chances were to probably flee if attacked by anything particularly dangerous. Glancing down, she noticed that one of her bootlaces had come undone.

"Damnnit," Zoey grumbled, kneeling down to tie them. "Can't even-"

There was a loud crack as a bullet struck the tree behind her.

"Holy shit!" she exclaimed, throwing herself to the ground moments before the second shot sailed past her. Had she stayed still for a moment more, she'd have been killed. Zoey scrambled on her hands and knees into some nearby bushes, rolling over as far as she could before she hit another tree. The enemy marksman likely had two more shots, so she'd have to either wait where she was or run and hope he missed any subsequent attacks. Suddenly, she heard a loud shout from somewhere ahead of her.

"Fuck!"

Gunfire ran out across the forest once more, the rhythmic blasts of shotgun rounds battling the crack of the sniper's rifle. Zoey leapt to her feet immediately and ran up the slope, darting from tree to tree as she ascended. Peeking out from behind cover, her eyes widened at the sight of a towering figure in dark powered armour standing there, reloading his weapon. On her right there was a flash of movement as a man - presumably the one who'd been shooting at her - pelted past, clutching his wounded side. The pursuer's pace never moved above a slow walk as he watched the man run. To her surprise, he began to laugh.

"Keep running!" a male voice reverberated across the forest. "You'll only die tired!"

Zoey flattened herself against the tree, one hand clasped over her mouth to quiet her breathing. He hadn't seen her as far as she was aware, so as long as she stayed absolutely still the frightening Spartan would likely just pass by in pursuit of the sniper. She sat there for nearly a minute, sweat dripping from her face as her ears strained to listen for any footsteps. Eventually, she chanced a peek around the side of the tree.

"About time," said the Spartan, who had been leaning against a nearby tree. "Catch."

She caught a brief glimpse of the grenade flying through the air towards her, and was able to dive away a split second before it detonated. The trees protected her from the worst of the shrapnel, though the blast sent her flying downhill, rolling out of control through the dirt and grass. Ignoring the pain of half a dozen bruises, Zoey dragged herself up and decided to follow the sniper's example and run for her life.

Back up the hill, Ajax-013 shrugged and glanced up towards the towering mass of the nearby volcano. He'd briefly considered killing both of the other Humans, who were likely both Insurrectionists by their manner of dress. He'd not take any chances with anyone who wasn't with the UNSC - no - anyone not a fellow Spartan.

I'll track them down later, he decided, checking his shotgun. Better get to higher ground for now and figure out where I'm going.

5

The Gorge, SOTF Island

Day One, 0901 Hours


Yeah, there's no way I'm jumping across this.

Aylla-G021 sighed, stepping back from the edge. After roaming around for some time, she'd come across this gaping crevice in the middle of the forest. She'd shone her shotgun's flashlight into it and couldn't see to the bottom, and so had rightfully assumed that risking a jump would likely be fatal, even with her MJOLNIR suit.

Around it is then.

Careful to keep an eye on the bottomless pit that spread further into the forest, Aylla began trudging uphill, waiting for it to get small enough for her to leap over. She'd heard the distant crackle of gunfire not long ago, and had begun to wonder who her foes would be.

Covenant? Innies? Other Spartans?

The thought chilled her to the bone. Faced with death for refusing to fight or having to murder their fellow soldiers, what decision would another Spartan make? She had tested her skills against her peers in training matches, but that was it. The prospect of having to actually kill one planted a feeling of worry in her gut. She clutched her weapon a little tighter and climbed up a short slope. Not far ahead it looked like the gorge was getting smaller. Aylla sped up for a moment, only to catch a glimpse of movement out of the corner of her eye.

"Shit!" she gasped, turning to open fire.

***

Teno Salz Kreral had been meditating alone in the trees, pondering over the correct course of action to take. It would kill as it asked, but the choice of whether to await foes or hunt for prey was a difficult one. The Mzigolekgolo - a word other races would equate to 'berseker' - had found itself alone on this strange world, given orders to slaughter everything in sight and attain victory.

Not an order I haven't heard before.

Teno's massive form remained completely still, its weapons lowered as it stood in a small clearing. The sound of Human weapons discharging had echoed over the treetops, though it could not discern its exact origin. As it decided to actively search for battle, the sound of rustling leaves nearby attracted the hulking alien's attention. It turned slowly, and caught a glimpse of armour from between the trees.

Human.. Teno paused for a moment. Demon.

This would make a fine kill.

***

Aylla fired two blasts from her M90 towards the Hunter as it crashed through the nearby trees, emitting a rumbling roar. The alien's massive shield deflected both shots, forcing her to dive to one side. It smashed down where she'd been just seconds before with a loud thud. The Spartan began to circle around her foe, trying to edge away from the nearby gorge. Knowing that she was keeping her distance, the Hunter raised its right arm, where a series of green tubes began to glow.

Blast or beam?

Aylla tensed up, ready to spring away as the Hunter's assault cannon prepared to fire. A single globule of sizzling green energy shot towards her at blinding speed, though the Spartan's augmented reflexes allowed her to easily dodge. With the moment she had before its weapon charged up again, she tossed her shotgun aside and drew the M41 missile launcher stowed around the back of her armour.

"Eat this!"

The Hunter, sensing danger, had already lunged forward when the first rocket fired. It glanced off its shield and detonated with tremendous force, knocking the mass of armoured worms off-balance for a moment before it resumed its assault. Aylla leapt to her feet, snatching up the shotgun in one hand before retreating back towards the nearby gorge. A second ball of energy missed her by inches, making her energy shields flare up with a whine. The Spartan glanced back for a moment, checking to see if she was fighting a single foe.

These guys usually come in pairs. Where's his buddy?

While it was entirely possible that a single Hunter had been dropped into this deathmatch, she couldn't be too careful. Her pursuer continued to make a low rumbling noise as it stomped after her, a noise Aylla realised might have been some approximation of laughter. It raised its shield as it moved, not chancing a direct hit from the Spartan's missile launcher. Aylla waited until it was just outside of striking distance before throwing herself backwards and firing her remaining shot. The missile struck the ground as her foe stomped past, tearing a sizeable chunk of rock into the gorge.

You're dead.

Focused entirely on crushing the Demon into a bloody pulp, Teno Salz Kreral did not realise he had fallen into a trap until it was far too late. Its armour-plated boot came crashing down as the rocket impacted, and slid to one side as the ground underneath fell away. Teno's entire body lurched towards the gorge, arms scrabbling for something to hold onto as it went. Its right arm managed to grasp onto a portion of rock, straining to hold on and heave its entire body back up. Then, the Demon began to approach, holding a shotgun.

"Down you go, big guy," Aylla smiled.

She fired three blasts into the Hunter's unprotected elbow joint, tearing the worms that comprised the alien's true form to shreds as the weight pulled the rest of the beast down. It let loose a mighty roar of anger as the arm detached, sending the hulking alien down into the dark pit below. Aylla kicked the severed arm in shortly after. She stood there for nearly half a minute until a distant thud echoed across the rocks.

COMPETITOR 044 - TENO SALZ KRERAL - ELIMINATED

6

The Lake, SOTF Island

Day One, 0918 Hours


Spreading out over several kilometres and surrounded by forest, the lake's blue waters were a rather beautiful sight on an island created solely to hold a deathmatch. After wandering around aimlessly for over an hour, Leonardo Simmons sat at the very edge, thinking of how to proceed. The command to go around murdering others had evidently been heeded, if the distant sounds he'd been hearing were actually gunfire. He looked down, seeing the reflection of his ODST helmet in the water below and wondering if it was drinkable.

I'll wait until my supplies run dry before trying this out, I think.

As he stood up, a brief flash of movement to his left caught his eye. Simmons drew his M7S in a flash, aiming into the darkness of the dense forest. He was sure he'd seen someone or something move. His sniper rifle wouldn't come in particularly handy at this range, so he left it with his pack as he moved forward.

"Someone out there!?" he yelled, edging to the side behind the relative cover of a nearby rock. "If you're UNSC, we can talk!"

The reply came in the form of three bullets that barely missed the trooper. Simmons threw himself behind the rock to evade the subsequent flurry of rounds and rolled out, firing a burst back with his own weapon. He tapped the side of his helmet and activated his helmet's Visual Intelligence System, Reconnaissance - VISR for short - system, outlining the nearby woods in green. It was then that he caught sight of a tiny red outline - his opponent's foot - behind a particularly thick tree. He raised his weapon and fired.

***

The tree provided protection from gunfire for a brief moment, giving Mitchel Sanders more than enough time to dive away. He had hoped to get the drop on the trooper and eliminate him without firing a shot, but through sheer luck he had been detected. Clad in a black bodysuit, he was forced to emerge from the shadowed forest and into the sunlight as rounds screamed overhead.

If he's using VISR to track me - and he probably is - he'll lose his advantage in the light.

Knowing that the system's low-light vision would only give him an advantage within the darkened woods, Sanders chanced a run out into plain view for a moment and was glad to see the ODST hesitate as he reached for his helmet to deactivate the system. The trooper fired a few rounds blindly at him before his gun clacked empty, forcing him to draw a sidearm. The assassin knew he wouldn't be fast enough to reach his target in time, and so wrenched his body to one side in a dive that landed him unexpectedly in the lake itself.

Crap.

The ice-cold waters took Sanders' by surprise as he plunged several feet below. His bodysuit would stave off the worst of the cold, though he would have to surface sometime. Above him, the trooper had begun to fire into the lake, aiming for the area where the man had jumped in. Sanders held his breath, struggling to keep his eyes open as he propelled himself a little further down the shore towards shallow waters. Though he'd dropped both his guns, he still possessed his backup weaponry, which he intended to put to good use.

***

"God damn," Simmons breathed, firing his last round into the lake. Whoever this guy was, he wasn't just some Innie punk who'd been dropped down here. If he had to guess, the man had military training and knew the weaknesses of his armour. He began to reload.

Still, bastard gave up his advantage by jumping in. He'll have to surface and get shot or stay down there and drown.

As the trooper slammed a new magazine into his M6C, he heard a loud splash from his left and turned just in time to see something small and bright flying towards him. The front of his handgun was cut in two and a second object slammed through the side of his helmet, sizzling just a couple of centimetres in front of his face. Simmons tore off his helmet and looked down to see what looked like a white-hot blade sticking through his gun. A moment later, he realised that it was an energy knife.

Who the hell is this asshole?

Simmons tossed the useless weapon towards his assailant, who had brandished two more bladed weapons. Knowing that a single hit would likely cut through his armour like butter, he waited for the first swing before sidestepping and delivering a heavy punch to the man's jaw that knocked him off-balance long enough for a follow-up kick to the stomach. A vicious swipe from the assassin cut a smoking streak through Simmons' chest armour. Pressing the attack, he continued to dodge stabs with surprising agility for a man in heavy armour and countered with punches, followed by a sudden throw that sent his foe sprawling across the floor, his energy weapons dropped.

"Shouldn't have tangled with a Helljumper," Simmons grinned, picking up one of the blades and reactivating it. "Let's get this shit over with."

Simmons charged as the man, seemingly dazed, tried to clamber to his feet. As he lunged to deliver the final blow, his black-suited opponent darted to the side, drawing a long hilt from his back. The trooper's eyes widened as a long, slightly-curved blade of energy erupted from it, coming down towards him at lightning speed.

Is that a katan-

Leo Simmons' body hit the floor, followed a moment later by his severed head.

"Damn," Michel Sanders breathed, deactivating his one of a kind weapon. The assassin wiped a trickle of blood from his nose, trying to ignore the bruises blooming across his body. Had he used the sword first, then chances were that he would've been disarmed and killed fairly quickly. He felt some respect for the man he'd just killed, though he knew that the only way out of here was to kill any and all he encountered.

That's one down. Thanks for the supplies.

Picking up his weapons, Michel left the decapitated corpse where it lay by the lake and headed off in search of more foes.

COMPETITOR 022 - LEONARDO SIMMONS - ELIMINATED

7

Unmarked Base, SOTF Island

Day One, 0920 Hours


"Why the hell is nothing plugged in?!"

Cailean-378 kicked the computer terminal aside in frustration. It cracked open with a hollow thud, revealing that the inside was entirely empty. He'd wandered into the completely empty base some time ago, and by the look of things it had never housed a single person despite its pristine state. Stuck to the back of the empty terminal was a note, which he picked up and read.

PROP TERMINAL FOR TEST BASE. DO NOT USE.

He tossed it aside and shrugged. He'd already woken up in the middle of nowhere with no memory of how he got here, with orders to kill fifty-three other people for no adequate reason. Some part of him wondered if this was ONI's idea of a sick joke or worse, a test of loyalty. Resentment welled up inside him as he walked out, crossing a metal bridge and heading up towards the gatehouse which - for some reason - seemed to have been built without a gate. As he approached, he heard the distant sound of voices.

***

After their initial encounter on the beach, Leon Sikowsky and Lee-A137 had agreed to move up to higher ground, making their way towards the distant volcano to get the lay of the land. They had been arguing about the perpetrators of this whole mess, with answers ranging from Insurrectionists to ONI to the whim of an uncaring God - or Gods.

"Has to be ONI," Lee said once more. "This is probably some messed-up combat sim."

"And I'm supposed to have blown your brains out the moment we met?"

"Maybe. Or it might be a trick; we all refuse to kill other Spartans and gain a moral victory, or something."

"Oh come on, you don't-"

As they had approached the military base, a figure suddenly emerged above the gatehouse. Sikowsky snapped his rifle up in an instant and fired two shots, making the unknown person reel back. The pair jogged behind cover, keeping their weapons trained on the gate.

"What the hell did you do that for?!" Lee hissed, his sniper rifle ready. "What if that was a friendly?"

"It startled me."

A voice rang out from nearby. "Spartans, I'm not here to fight!"

"Identify yourself!" Sikowsky called back.

"Cailean, Sierra Three-Seven-Eight!"

They eased up immediately, moving slowly out of cover. Another Spartan meant another ally, they hoped. A tall man in a slightly outdated MJOLNIR suit strode out to greet them, carrying an MA37 assault rifle. After looking at them in turn, he holstered the weapon and waved them inside.

"Anything useful in here?" Lee inquired hopefully.

"Nothing yet. This place was either ransacked or never had the damn furniture put in."

The trio walked into a nearby building, which was supposedly the operations centre. Aside from rows of inactive terminals and empty weapon racks, it was totally empty. Cailean pulled over two of the terminals with surprising ease and tossed them on the ground before gesturing for them to sit.

"So, what's your story?"

The pair briefly told him of how they'd met, and that they hadn't seen anything of note on the island thus far. It seemed that everyone had woken up here alone and armed with weapons which - as the Spartans admitted - suited them nicely. They had been more or less prepared for combat, and the supply of food and water suggested that they were expected to fight for days, if necessary.

"I think it might be a simulation," Lee crossed his arms, ignoring Sikowsky's snort.

"Doesn't feel like one," Cailean removed his helmet and pinched his face. "We're in a bizarre situation to say the least."

Sikowsky sighed. "Well, we need a plan. Do we go around killing everything or try to make friends?"

"Good question. We'd last a week or two if we rationed our supplies and holed up here, but you heard what was said when all this began: refuse to fight and you'll be killed. I say we keep moving, maybe try to find out who's behind all this."

The other Spartans nodded in agreement, and stood up. They followed Cailean through the rest of the disturbingly empty base, checking room after room until they came across a locked door. Sikowsky booted it down and after stepping inside, they finally found something useful: A vehicle bay.

"Looks like our luck's starting to change," the SPARTAN-IV said as he approached one of three Warthogs parked in the room.

Cailean approached one and gave it an experimental kick, half-expecting it to fall apart. The other Spartan clambered in and activated the vehicle, which roared to life. Lee walked across the room and flipped a switch, raising the heavy shutter nearby.

"Let's roll," Sikowsky wheeled it towards the exit. Cailean clambered into the passenger seat while Lee took up position on the chaingun. He honked the horn twice and the jeep thundered out of the vehicle bay, heading along the dirt path that would take them towards the volcano.

***

Atop the deserted military base, an armoured alien watched them depart in silence. He cursed as is hours of tracking the pair of Spartans were now wasted, and leapt down to the ground. The fresh tyre marks in the dirt would be easy to track, though they would likely get too far away for it to matter. Glancing inside the vehicle bay, his spirits lifted as he sighted two more of the Human vehicles parked side-by-side.

It seems like my hunt is not yet over.

8

Cornfields, SOTF Island

Day One, 0933 Hours


"Got to fight. Got to stay alive."

Wandering aimlessly through the sea of golden stalks, the man once known as Lancaster-205 continued to mutter his little mantra under his breath. Since his arrival on the island, he had paused only once to eat and drink, desperate to find a way out of his current situation. The announcement that he had to kill everyone else might have been met with fear or disgust by some, but he had taken it in stride. If nothing else, he was a consummate survivor.

Hell, this place isn't so bad compared to what I'm used to, he grimaced.

From a distance, one might have mistaken Lancaster for an actual Spartan. Upon closer inspection, however, his armour was pieced together by hand; cracked MJOLNIR plates interlocking with battle-worn ODST gear and silver Forerunner metals strapped to places ripped bare by the elements or gunfire. Strapped to his back were a pair of rifles; one an outdated Human MA3A, the other a high-tech Lightrifle. However, the weapon the half-mad supersoldier carried was a long, jagged piece of alien metal, fashioned by hand into a makeshift knife. Cornstalks dropped as he slashed lazily, more out of boredom than necessity.

I'll be out of this place soon. Got to find shelter, someplace to hole up in.

Lancaster opened his mouth to continue his muttered words of survivalism when his ears picked up the distant crunch of movement. He froze, clutching the knife in his hands as he silently turned and crouched down. About thirty feet away, another person was making their way through the cornfields, completely unaware of his presence. He began to move, stepping as lightly an quietly as possible between the stalks, his thoughts now entirely focused on the distant figure - his prey. He poked his head up high enough to get a good glimpse at them, his eyes narrowing as he realised what he was dealing with.

A Spartan.

Thoughts cycled through his head; strategies, weak points in armour, weaponry to use. He sheathed his knife quietly and drew the Lightrifle, which hummed with power in his hands. He patted it gently, and smiled as he turned away.

***

The moment a red blip flashed up on her motion tracker, Amy-G094 knew she was in trouble. Clad in Pathfinder-class MJOLNIR, she was well-equipped to deal with hostile environments and personnel. She span round, drawing her SR99 rifle. While aiming would be incredibly difficult in these cornfields, she knew that a single direct hit would be more than enough to put just about any foe out of commission.

All I've got to do is wait for this guy to move.

She inched forward, awaiting the tiniest blip of movement on her tracker while ensuring that nobody was crawling towards her. Suddenly, there was a flash of movement to her right and she swivelled round, firing off two shots immediately. She leapt towards it, smashing the long stalks aside before coming to stop before an object on the ground. It was an old MA3A assault rifle, two smoking holes punched into it.

What the-

The first shot from the Lightrifle hit her before she could turn, making her energy shields flare as Lancaster closed in. The second hit on-target, though the shields stood firm long enough for Amy to loose another two shots into her attacker. The first struck his left , severing two fingers in a plume of blood as he dropped the weapon, while the second struck him in the chest and landed the man on his back.

Who the hell's this supposed to be, then?

She stepped towards the man's body, taking his size and patchwork armour into account. She honestly couldn't tell if he was some kind of heavily-armoured Insurrectionist or a Spartan by the state of his suit, which had been welded together from multiple parts. Blood poured from the stumps of his missing fingers. Amy went to check the second wound, peering in towards his chest armour. Though the high-caliber round had torn through what looked like part of a Marine BDU, beneath it was a silvery metal that only appeared blackened by the blow. Which meant-

"Die!"

Lancaster sprung forward as his attacker realised he wasn't actually dead, kicking the female Spartan in the chest and knocking her rifle away. Though the pain from his hand was excruciating, he put it aside to focus himself entirely on killing the Spartan. She attempted to draw a submachinegun as she scrabbled away, only for Lancaster to leap forward and wrench it from her hands, tossing the weapon aside. He was closing in too fast for her to get to her feet, and had drawn his makeshift knife. A mighty kick dissipated her energy shields and he began his final attack.

"I'm going to fucking gut you!" he yelled, leaping towards her with a snarl.

Amy brought her armoured boot up as Lancaster moved down, landing a heavy blow to his groin that made him sag for a brief moment. For all her foe's might, he lacked the cold, calculated aggression of a Spartan that she possessed. He slashed wildly with his knife as the pair struggled on the ground, trying to go for her throat. After one particularly hard stab struck the dirt just centimetres away from Amy's helmet, she rolled onto his arm and tossed the larger man over before plunging her combat knife into his neck and tearing it across his throat. Bright arterial blood sprayed across her visor as Lancaster's body convulsed violently, making one last vain attempt to stab her before he finally succumbed, choking on his own blood.

Quiet descended over the cornfields once more, Amy panting heavily. Her energy shields popped into place once more, wiping the blood from armour in an instant. She picked herself up, wondering who her attacker might have been for a brief moment. It didn't matter now, she supposed. He'd struck first and paid the price. Turning away, Amy sheathed her customised combat knife, privately thanking Chief Mendez for gifting it to her long ago.

COMPETITOR 045 - LANCASTER-205 - ELIMINATED

9

Southern Cliffs, SOTF Island

Day One, 0954 Hours


A new scent. Human.

Crouched by the cliff's edge, Attilus sniffed the sea air. This land was completely alien to his senses, but every so often a familiar smell drifted across. Across from cliffs was a tiny island with a squat Human building in the middle, completely inaccessible by any bridge. He had no intention of swimming across, though in the distance he had sighted the familiar form of a Sangheili walking along its far-off beaches.

I will deal with him later. For now...

The Jiralhanae turned, pulling his heavy Gravity Hammer out of its holster on his back. Though of heavy stature and clad in the ornate power armour that denoted him as a Chieftain, Attilus moved soundlessly towards the nearby trees, keeping low as he followed the scent of his prey. In the distance, a smaller, black-armoured Human was walking towards the cliffs, completely oblivious to the warrior's presence. Breathing slowly in anticipation, he prepared to leap forward and crush the Human in a single blow.

***

After well over an hour of walking, Ash Mitchell had reached the coast. Completely alone and with no COM available, he'd decided to just hole up somewhere and hope for rescue. All the crap he'd heard about killing each other was - in his mind - a load of bullshit set up by whoever had taken him and the others captive.

It's strange, though. I can't even remember what I was doing before all-

There was a sudden flash of movement, and Mitchell leapt back with a shout of surprise as a massive hammer swept past him. Had he been just a second slower, the blow would have decapitated him easily. He racked his M90 shotgun and raised it at the massive Jiralhanae Chieftain that stood before him, sharp teeth bared in a vicious grin. Much to his surprise, it spoke.

"You move quickly, Human," Attilus growled. "You could have had a quick death."

Mitchell responded with blast after blast from his shotgun, each hit depleting the alien's energy shields as it lunged towards him. He managed to duck under the second swing, though as he leapt to his feet and span round to fire a swipe of his foe's hammer smashed the front of his weapon to smithereens. He tossed the useless pieces aside and backed off slowly. Attilus seemed to be waiting for him to take action, evidently enjoying himself.

Okay, I'm out of options here.

Snapping his M6C sidearm up in one hand, the ODST loosed two shots at the alien before turning to run away. Laughing, the Jiralhanae bounded after him, casually smashing aside tree trunks with mighty hammer blows as he advanced. Within seconds, Mitchell realised his mistake, slowing down as he approached the cliff's edge. It was at least a hundred foot drop into the churning waters below, if the jagged rocks didn't rip him apart on impact.

"Nowhere to run," Attilus spoke from behind him, hammer ready.

Mitchell turned towards his foe, face grim behind his helmet's visor. All he had was his pistol with ten rounds remaining. It wouldn't be enough. He'd die if he jumped off the cliff, and he'd die if he tried to fight. All he had to do was choose. The Jiralhanae knew this too, and was in no hurry to kill his prey. The man sighed, raised his handgun, and waved for Attilus to come at him.

"Let's do this, ya fucking ape!"

He pulled the trigger as fast as he could, rounds plinking harmlessly off his foe's flaring energy shields as Attilus lumbered towards him. They dissipated just as Mitchell expended his last round and he tossed the gun at the alien's face in frustration, diving to the left to avoid the hammer blow. Though the weapon would almost certainly kill Mitchell in a single hit, he could just about anticipate each swing and scrambled to his feet, intent on escaping. As he moved, something slammed into the ground a few feet in front of him, creating a shockwave that sent the trooper flat onto his back. Attilus' Gravity Hammer stood in the dirt, head-down. The Jiralhanae approached him from behind, now holding a Spiker.

Well shit, I tried.

Mitchell turned as his foe raised the weapon, prepared to meet his face. Suddenly, he caught a glimpse of movement from the left as an armoured figure sprinted towards them. Attilus' head snapped to one side as he let loose a volley of spikes towards this new foe seconds before they clashed. It was a Spartan. Clad in dark grey and red armour, the supersoldier's rush to save Mitchell had brought the Jiralhanae's full attention as his combat machete met with the jagged blades of the Spiker. Surprisingly, Attilus didn't seem particularly bothered and even laughed in the Spartan's face as he kicked his foe back.

"Hah, this is what I wanted!" he roared, lunging to impale this new foe.

The Spartan sidestepped and slashed at his armour, though the recharged shields held fast as he pressed the attack, using his size and strength in an attempt to toss him off the cliff. While the Spartan's augmented reflexes gave him equal footing in the battle, it was clear that Attilus had fought his kind before. Feeling slightly dizzy from the earlier shockwave as he clambered to his feet, Mitchell picked up the hammer from nearby, hefting it onto his shoulder. On the cliff's edge, the Jiralhanae reeled back for a moment as a slash cut his arm, giving the trooper time to advance on his exposed back.

"Spartan, move!" Mitchell yelled, breaking into a sprint.

In an impressive display of agility, the supersoldier avoided a brutal stab and vaulted over the alien's shoulder, rolling away as Mitchell brought the weapon down onto Atillus' chest. The hammer smashed through his shields and crushed even his heavy armour to shreds, making the savage warrior cough blood as the resulting shockwave blasted him off the cliffs, screaming in anger and pain all the way down. Mitchell peered over the edge in time to see his ruined body smash against the rocks below.

"Not bad," the Spartan spoke up from behind him, sheathing his machete. "Good thing I saved you."

Still holding the hammer, Mitchell grinned. "Likewise. I'm First Lieutenant Ash Mitchell, ODST."

"I'm Cody. Spartan Beta Forty-Two."

"Think we can find our way out of this?"

"It's worth a shot, trooper. Let's get moving."

COMPETITOR 051 - ATTILUS - ELIMINATED

10

Western Forest, SOTF Island

Day One, 0959 Hours


It had been nearly two hours since their first clash, and Arn-G287 was seriously pissed off.

Come on, you bastard. I want a fair fight.

Moments after his suit's tracker had picked up movement on the beach, the Spartan had come under heavy plasma fire from the nearby treeline. Naturally, he had counter-attacked, pursuing his unseen foe into the forest. What had ensued was a gradual uphill pursuit, trading fire every so often and trying to catch a glimpse of his opponent. It was a Sangheili, judging by the footprints Arn had spotted, though this one seemed to be avoiding conflict, or so he had thought.

As it had turned out, the alien warrior had been leading him straight into a trap.

Intent on chasing down the red-armoured alien as it moved into a clearing, Arn had been taken by surprise as a massive tree trunk smashed into him, having been cut loose by an Energy Sword. While not enough to badly wound the hulking Spartan, he'd been stunned just long enough for the elusive Sangheili to hit him with a flurry of plasma bolts. While most had either dissipated on his shields or struck his MJOLNIR suit, a couple had burnt right through, sending burning arcs of pain through him with each movement.

"Come on," Arn muttered, his breaths slow and calculated. "Show youself again, split-lip."

He patted his injured chest, ignoring his seared gash. As he began to move towards the clearing's exit, a quick flash of energy caught his eye and he leapt back as a second tree crashed into the dirt. Standing beside it was the alien he'd been feverishly chasing for so long, now out in the open. In a single bound Arn leapt up the nearby embankment, racking his shotgun with barely-concealed excitement.

***

After injuring the Spartan, Kambei 'Nerevar had expected a half-dead, delirious foe. Instead he was facing an angry, much more animated enemy, pumping round after round towards him as he backed off towards a denser thicket of trees. With the Spartan's energy shield active, his Storm Rifle - now at less than a quarter charge - would be near-useless. The power-armoured Human tossed aside his weapon instead of reloading and sprang forward to cut him off.

Only a fool casts aside his advantage.

Stowing the rifle away, he drew his energy sword and ignited it once again to meet the Spartan's primitive combat knife. The first and second swipes were deftly avoided, though the third scored a burning cut across Arn's right pauldron. Much to his surprise, the man only pressed his attack, an incredibly fast slash narrowly missing his face and putting Kambei on the defensive in spite being better armed; he simply couldn't get a fatal blow on the Spartan. Suddenly, Arn jumped back, tossing two grenades towards the Sangheili warrior.

"No!" he roared, ducking behind a tree.

He would have died instantly were it not for his energy shields; the blast sent Kambei hurtling back, his armour scorched and dented as he crashed down into the mud. The warrior's energy sword fell from his fingers, the hilt deactivating as it hit the dirt nearby. The Spartan's dangerous ploy had evidently turned the tables, as Kambei barely had time to dodge as his foe came down with immense force, seeking to crush his skull with a thruster-powered punch. The Sangheili got to his feet, still backing away as his free hand groped for a weapon. His Storm Rifle had fallen somewhere nearby leaving him only with last resort - a well honed Curveblade - to defend himself with.

"You fight well, Spartan," he said, deigning to use the given name for these Human warriors.

"And you fight like a coward," Arn replied contemptuously. "But you can't run forever."

Though his foe's words stung his pride, Kambei had used those precious moments to stall for time as his armour's shields recharged, backing off yet again past a particularly large tree into a nearby crevice as Arn drew his pistol and opened fire before charging after him. From his position, Kambei could easily strike a killing blow the moment the Spartan emerged from either side of the tree. Barely a second later, an armoured form stepped through with weapon raised and he brought the Curveblade down across the Human's throat. It passed through without making a mark, and the Spartan dissipated into nothingness. Kambei's eyes widened in surprise.

A hologram?! Then-

At that moment, Arn stepped round the other side of the tree and punched him in the face. The Sangheili felt his teeth rattle in his skull as he staggered back from the blow, thankfully protected by a thick helmet. His plan now ruined, Kambei was being forced back into an open arena. The moment they had space, Arn lunged for him again, matching the Sangheili blow for blow with his knife. A lucky hit sent the Spartan's handgun spinning away into the forest as he tried to level it, though despite the adrenaline of combat Kambei could feel himself slowly tiring. He'd have to end this, and soon. Spotting a moment's advantage, he took it.

Your overconfidence has become your downfall, Human.

As Arn lunged for his neck, Kambei blocked the blow with his right shoulder, dropping low and driving his Curveblade into the Spartan's gut. The knife fell from the Spartan's hand as he doubled over in pain for a moment, though Kambei's roar of triumph was cut short by Arn's own bellow of rage. He tore the Sangheili blade from his body in a spray of blood and advanced on Kambei with alarming speed and ferocity, a mighty kick smashing him into the dirt. the red-armoured Sangheili scrabbled backwards, his arms reaching for something - anything - to defend himself with. His grasping fingers finally found purchase on the familiar shape of a sword grip, which he brought upwards and ignited as Arn moved in for his final blow.

"RAAAGHHH!"

The pair of them cried out simultaneously as the final blow was struck. The Curveblade hung inches from Kambei's throat, unable to move any further. Kambei's blade had impaled the wounded Spartan through the chest, and was burning more of his body away with every second that passed. Arn whispered something in an unknown Human dialect, and finally collapsed forward as Kambei moved aside. It had taken hours, but the warrior had finally emerged victorious. He stood above his foe's corpse, slowly catching his breath as his body began to take its many wounds into account. He'd live to fight another day, though if all his opponents were as tough as this, then even Kambei doubted he could emerge victorious.

Nonetheless, he thought, I have won, and the Human is dead.

There was a distant rumble and as he looked skyward, it began to rain.

COMPETITOR 048 - ARN-G287 - ELIMINATED

11

The Armoury, SOTF Island

Day One, 1008 Hours


Standing at the entrance to the base, Lhor Konar was taken by surprise as the downpour began. Only moments ago, the skies above the island had been clear and blue, wheras now they were a murky grey. He moved into the doorway, holding his Type-51 Carbine one-handed as he moved his gauntleted fingers over the control panel. It was evidently Human in design, and beeped twice before opening the heavy metal door for him.

Strange that a Human outpost would be unguarded.

With only a moment's hesitation, he slipped inside, keeping his weapon raised as he moved along the cold, grey hallway. It had power at least, as evidenced by the active lighting across the ceiling. He advanced swiftly, clearing empty rooms and checking his helmet's motion tracker for any sign of movement.

Nothing. I've come here for no reason.

The Sangheili Ranger had, through much careful planning, been able to cross from the main island to this outpost using his armour's anti-gravity pack, skimming just above the water as it lifted him - just barely - over the waves. He had expected to find an abundance of supplies or at least other combatants within these halls, but found himself severely disappointed. He'd have to wait for the rain to stop before attempting to journey back towards the mainland. Sighing, Lhor stepped carefully down the stairs into this base's lower level, noticing a prominently highlighted sigh that read 'ARMOURY'.

***

An intruder.

Sat within the base's control room, Avalokiteśvara had been deep in simulated thought. The AI had found itself suddenly activating within this base over two hours prior, and had a great many questions to ask whoever had designed this sick joke of a tournament; notably why one would even choose an intelligence to contend in what was clearly a battle of martial skill and physical prowess.

Such things will have to wait while I deal with this one.

Using the solitary base's minuscule security cameras, Avalokiteśvara surveyed the armoured Sangheili warrior as he crept through the empty halls and down towards the security room. While it could not defend itself conventionally, the AI had been placed in a location it could use to its advantage. Beneath the floor and behind numerous wall panels sat an array of defences, ready to be activated at a moment's notice. While it would likely take several Human operators to manually prime each, the Smart AI was perfectly capable of running them all.

Fire.

***

The tiny click as Lhor moved into the room alerted the warrior, but even he could not predict the onslaught he was about to face. Across the floor, walls and ceiling, panels opened or flipped around to reveal numerous fully-loaded turrets, all pointed towards him. The Sangheili would have been blown away instantly were it not for his thurster pack, which he used to blast himself across the room barely a second before the shooting started. he tossed his Carbine straight into the nearest turret, which cut it to pieces but brought him enough time to draw his energy sword and slice the machine in half.

"This is a coward's trick!" he roared defiantly.

The Ranger pushed himself off the ground, his blade chopping and slashing through turret after turret as gunfire raked across the walls behind him. He knew that to stop moving for a moment would spell his demise, and so kept his anti-grav pack on to boost his speed. Every so often a few stray rounds would impact his armour, the shields slowly depleting as he moved across the room as a maelstrom of precise sword blows. His shields screamed in protest as they struggled to fend off multiple hits, prompting a desperate burst of sped from Lhor that launched him towards a nearby door, rending the steel apart with a single heavy blow.

"Now, scum," he breathed, free of the deadly hail filling the room behind him. "I will show you how a warrior fights."

As he advanced towards a brightly-lit room, Lhor felt a stinging from his right shoulder. He'd been grazed by a few rounds as his shields collapsed - something his attacker would pay for tenfold. He'd suffered much worse pain in his life, though if he was feeling this wound then his onumerous others would likely start to hurt soon. At least his pack had been filled with a generous amount off ainkillers - just the kind he usually used, strangely. The door was wide open and as he barged through, the warrior saw that aside from rows of beeping terminals, it was completely empty. Had he just activated some security system?

"Show yourself," he called, holding the blade aloft. "Do not prolong your own demise."

Ahead of him, a vaguely Human form flickered into existence above the main control terminal, its hands raised in a gesture of surrender. Lhor strode forward as the construct tried to speak.

"Please, can we attempt to talk about-"

He brought his sword down on the terminal, smashing the main screen in a shower of glass and sparks before dragging his blade through the machine, ripping it open from top to bottom. The hologram vanished with a scream. Lhor made sure to cut deep into the metal, ensuring that the Human AI construct could not hide. As he stood back to survey his carnage, a tiny chip fell from the ruined terminal, cut neatly in two by his blade. He brought his boot down on the smoking device and crushed it into dust.

"Worthless," he murmured. If all his opponents were like this, then Lhor had nothing to fear from this contest. He turned and strode away from the control room as the surrounding terminals began to shut down.

COMPETITOR 023 - AVALOKITEŚVARA - ELIMINATED

12

Deepwoods, SOTF Island

Day One, 1013 Hours


"Goddamn, this hurts."

Elijah Cavorel sat by the stream, his right side heavily wrapped in bandages as he watched the rain. The rebel sniper's rifle and pack lay on a nearby rock, right next to a stack of twigs and leaves. The wounded man was afforded some protection from the weather thanks to a rocky outcrop just behind him, which also hid him from view. As Cavorel moved slightly, wincing as the pain flared up once more, a man in glistening black armour rounded a nearby tree, M45 shotgun in hand.

"I told you to stay still," Sergeant Brandon Smith shook his helmeted head, scattering water droplets everywhere. "You'll only agitate the wound."

"I can't sit around all day," the rebel grunted.

"Well don't bleed out on me just yet."

Cavorel flipped the heavily armed ODST off and reached for his pack to get some food. After his near-fatal encounter with that Spartan on the mountainside, he'd ran through the forest as far and fast as he could before passing out. Much to his surprise, he'd awoken to find Smith injecting his wounded side with biofoam. and setting about bandaging his chest. As someone who expected no mercy whatsoever from a soldier fighting for the UNSC, Cavorel was still on-edge around the other man. He gulped down some of the meagre rations in his pack before speaking.

"So uh, thanks again."

Smith glanced up. "It's fine."

"No, it's not. Why'd an oonskie like you stop to save me?"

"You were bleeding out in the dirt when I came along. It was this or put a bullet in you."

"Then why didn't you?"

"The way I see it," the trooper removed his helmet before unscrewing a water bottle. "We've been thrown into this shit together. For what reason or by who we don't know, but if you're Human, that's good enough for me."

The pair sat in silence for a short while, Smith taking a few sips before replacing his helmet. Groaning, Cavorel reached for his bulky rifle and began to reload it, keeping the weapon pointed well away from the trooper to show that he meant no harm. With nothing but trees to see for miles around the area was completely quiet, save for the sounds of the trickling stream.

"Yeah," Cavorel nodded. "Fair 'nuff."

***

The moment the ODST had returned to his encampment, Tal 'Zerex had begun to move. Slipping the Type-50 Concussion Rifle out from his combat harnesss, the white-armoured Sangheili darted through the forest, leaping over fallen tree trunks and making surprisingly little sound for one of his massive stature. He'd been lost in these woods for hours, and the distant glimpse of the Human had finally given him proper direction.

Consider your death a mercy, Human. Your elimination from this tournament will spare you from having to battle those who survive to the end.

Unlike some others, Tal had no illusions of beating this sick game; it was not dissimilar to the gladiator arenas he'd faced in the past. He'd survive until the end, no matter the cost. A direct or close hit with his rifle would likely gravely injure or even kill the Human outright, making this a short battle; there was no sense in prolonging things. As he drew close to the stream where the Human had made his camp he dropped into a low crouch, shifting through the undergrowth as slowly as his armour would allow. For all Tal knew, his target could be holding some serious weaponry. He-

There was a short, sharp snap.

Tal looked down at the twig he'd stepped on, its breakage noisy even over the sound of pouring rain. Had it been in his path a moment earlier? An armoured helmet poked out from behind a nearby tree and spotted the heavily-armoured Sangheili, who stood out like a sore thumb between all the greenery. He let loose a trio of deadly bolts from his rifle that sent the Human scurrying for cover before advancing on the encampment. As a stray shot lit a nearby tree on fire, he heard voices ahead.

"-I'll hold him off!"

Much to his surprise, the black-armoured Human leapt forward, blasting away with his shotgun before ducking behind a nearby tree. Tal's shields flared for a moment as they traded fire, though the Sangheili was in little danger. As he reloaded his rifle, the trooper surprised him yet again by charging forward in spite of their massive difference in size and strength. The tree beside him splintered as two more shotgun rounds struck it, Tal tossing aside his weapon and meeting the charge with a heavy blow to his foe's armoured chestplate. To his credit, the Human merely staggered back, though this gave Tal the chance to tear the weapon from his hands and throw it aside.

"You fight with bravery, Human," Tal spoke as he easily parried a punch. "But you stand no chance against me."

"Go to hell!" the ODST spat, backing away and drawing his sidearm.

The weapon seemed rather ineffective even by Human standards, its rounds pinging off his shields as the hulking Sangheili advanced. Even if they somehow penetrated his shield and thick armour, Tal's heavy cybernetics would likely protect him from any damage. Through the adrenaline of battle, he even felt a tiny inkling of pity for the Human's futile defence. He slipped a pair of knucklers onto his gauntleted fingers and prepared to deliver the final blow.

"Enough of this. Die with-"

Four piercing cracks sounded through the air. Tal wheezed and staggered to one side as each high caliber round smashed into his side. As his vision clouded and blurred, he looked aside and could make out the form of another Human, barely standing as he held a smoking sniper rifle. The warrior lunged forward, smashing the ODST aside with a single blow before drawing his Storm Rifle.

It was a trap. So be it.

As the Human sniper attempted to load another magazine, Tal let loose a deadly torrent of plasma towards him, one finger gripping the trigger as tightly as he dared. The man was far too slow to evade, and screamed in pain as each searing globule struck him until he collapsed face-first into the dirt. Dropping the rifle, Tal suddenly felt invigorated, the pain from his wounds fading as his cybernetics pumped combat-enhancing drugs into his system. Purple blood poured from his side, though the warrior only seemed dimly aware of this as he turned to deal with the wounded soldier.

***

Smith winced as he watched Cavorel go down in a blaze of plasma fire. Just about any regular split-lip would've gone down after one or two direct hits from a rifle of that caliber, let alone four. The fact that his foe wasn't dead was a testament to the Sangheili's sheer endurance. His breathing slow and laboured after Tal's rib-cracking blow, the trooper crawled through the grass, struggling towards his fallen shotgun. The moment the firing stopped, Smith knew he was next and pulled himself upwards, ignoring a wave of nausea as he staggered forward, fingers outstretched towards his one hope for survival.

Come on, come on, come on...

Behind him, the trooper could hear the Sangheili crashing through the undergrowth, grunting with exertion. He picked up his M45 and racked it. Three shells left. It would have to do. Armed only with his knucklers, Tal 'Zerex leapt towards him, bloody droplets streaking his white combat harness as he bore down on the ODST. The first shot missed entirely as Smith evaded a blow that would've taken his head off, and span round to inflict two direct hits at near-point blank range on the alien warrior, blowing away most of his remaining armour and nearly tearing one of his arms off. Even that wasn't enough to stop Tal, who kept going ahead in a blind rage. He fumbled to reload the weapon, swiftly slamming in shell after shell as he retreated before colliding with his back to a tree.

"Just! Go! Down!"

With each word, the Sergeant fired at the injured alien, hitting him again and again until he finally collapsed in a heap, his breaths ragged and uneven. The Sangheili tore his helmet off with his one good arm, staring into the dark skies above as rain continued to pour around them. The ruined cybernetics across his body sparked every few seconds, blood beginning to pool around him. After a few seconds, Smith walked over and pointed the weapon at Tal's face. He gave a huff of amusement and closed his eyes. The gunshot shook the rainsoaked trees.

In silence, Brandon Smith walked away from the corpse to pack up his camp, and bury the body of the man who'd saved his life.

COMPETITOR 007 - TAL 'ZEREX- ELIMINATED
COMPETITOR 008 - ELIJAH CAVOREL- ELIMINATED

13

Oasis, SOTF Island

Day One, 1022 Hours


Typical. I finally find water up here, and a damn thunderstorm breaks out back in the forest.

Zoey Hunsinger crouched by the water's edge, empty bottle in hand. The island's northern coast seemed to have a completely different climate compared to the fairly cool, temperate southern portion. What she had first assumed to be a beach had stretched out into a sandy desert of sorts, the heat beating down on her. Just as Zoey had considered turning back, she'd spotted a distant shimmer and headed over to find a veritable oasis among the stands; sparklingly clear water surrounded by palm trees and greenery. It looked like something out of a storybook.

But is the water clean? she wondered, the bottle just inches away from the pool. Suddenly, a voice drifted over the sands.

"Hey!"

Stowing the bottle in her bag, Zoey rolled over and stood up to see a fully-armoured Spartan atop a nearby dune. She froze, fully aware that the supersoldier could easily kill her with the hefty machine gun he carried. Instead, he stowed the weapon away and approached, arms raised slightly in a friendly gesture.

"It's been a while, Zoey," spoke a familiar female voice through the Spartan's helmet.

"Wait," she looked the armoured supersoldier up and down. "Diana?!"

"The one and only. Now, if we can-"

The AI's voice was cut off as the Spartan rapped on the side of his helmet, clearing his throat before speaking in an even, friendly voice.

"That's enough of that. I'm Spartan Corin Davis, UNSC. Your AI pal here said she knew you when we spotted you."

"He'd have put two rounds in your skull if I hadn't said something," Diana chimed in happily. The Spartan decided to switch off his helmet speakers, and took the tiny chip out from inside his helmet. He tossed it up into the air and caught it without looking, no doubt as a warning to get the AI to shut up.

"Never thought you'd team up with an actual Spartan," Zoey smirked. "How'd you two meet up?"

Corin jerked a thumb westwards. "Woke up in a military base. We agreed to help each other."

Zoey glanced down at the data chip, which Corin held in front of her before slotting it back into his helmet.

"I found water over here," she pointed towards the oasis. "Can't tell if it's safe to drink, though."

"It's fine," Diana spoke, her voice not quite as loud. "Everything on this island was made so we could survive here."

"What?"

"She's right," said Corin. "Makes sense, doesn't it? Someone built this whole island as a place for us to fight."

"But why?"

The Spartan shrugged. Even Diana neglected to speak. It was entirely possible that there was no reason for this entire deathmatch, but the presence of dozens - fifty-four if Zoey remembered correctly - of trained killers in such an absurd place suggested that they were in the hands of some incredibly powerful faction at the very worst. She finally stooped down and dunked her water bottle in the water, filling it to the brim and taking a swig before stowing it in her pack. Before she could speak, the Spartan suddenly wheeled round, drawing his weapon.

"Movement!" Corin barked. "Get behind me."

She did as told, drawing her handgun and crouching behind Corin's armoured form. In the distance, another Spartan had shown up, standing a good distance away from them. While she couldn't hear a thing, Zoey had a feeling that Diana and her host were likely discussing whether or not to open fire within the sealed confines of his helmet. She shifted out of cover to get a better look at the newcomer, who spotted Zoey and stopped in their tracks. After a couple of seconds, the new Spartan put away their rifle, prompting Corin to do the same.

"See," Corin murmured, deliberately letting Zoey hear. "No point shooting another Spartan first."

"Can't take any chances," the AI said coolly. "She looked ready to kill."

She? While it was difficult to tell from a distance with the armour, the figure approaching them through the hazy desert was indeed female. She and Corin looked each other up and down, no doubt sizing up armour and combat capabilities. Eventually, both saluted simultaneously.

"Aylla," she crossed her arms. "Sierra Gamma Twenty-One."

"A Three, huh? I'm Spartan Corin Davis. Wasn't sure if they'd dropped other Spartans into all this."

"Me either. I took down a lone Hunter earlier, and there's other Covenant on this island."

"Like?"

"Was tracking a Brute before he gave me the slip not too long ago. The big bastard was heading that way."

She pointed eastwards, toward the a far-off lighthouse. That had been Zoey's target as well, it being the biggest man-made structure she could see around these parts. It was likely that various others had the same idea. Moments after they turned to look at it, the top of the building was lit up by an explosion.

"Looks like the fighting's already started," Corin said, stating the obvious. "Any objections to heading over?"

"Nope.

"None."

"Like I've got a choice," Diana gave an exaggerated sigh.

With that, they set off at a steady pace towards the distant firefight, ready for combat.

14

Mountainside, SOTF Island

Day One, 1039 Hours


Not far to the summit now.

Climbing up the slopes of the massive volcano was much easier than expected. High above the wide sea of greenery that coated much of the island, the dark, rocky landscape gave one an impressive view of the land around them. Cassandra-G006 halted her ascent for a moment to admire the view, her SPI armour's visor polarising as the sunlight struck it. Though usually a dull matte green, her armour's photoreactive panels had darkened to a slate grey to match the nearby environment. The rainfall around most of the island had stopped just a few minutes ago, and the sky above was bright and blue again as if it had never happened.

Even the weather here's strange, she thought, clambering upwards.

The ground beneath had been getting warmer, indicating Cassandra's close proximity to the volcano's smoking summit. From there she intended to get a good look at the entire island and plan her next move. The idea of this game - 'Survival of the Fittest', they had called it - sickened her; having to slaughter dozens of others for no real reason was absolutely baffling. She'd found herself waking up in the forest, with her favoured weapons and equipment conveniently placed nearby. As the Spartan reached for a nearby rock to lift herself up higher, a figure emerged from the summit. She froze.

A Spartan.

Cassandra flattened herself against the rocky slope, her SPI suit's photoreactive panels shifting to camouflage her. The heavily-armoured newcomer began to move forward, clutching an advanced battle rifle. His dark grey armour had been blackened slightly due to his close proximity to the volcano, and lacked a conventional visor. After a few paces, he stopped, looking around slowly.

"I already caught you moving on my tracker," said Ajax-013. "Just get out here already or I'll start shooting."

Despite her concealment, Cassandra felt very much exposed as the SPARTAN-II towered above her. After a few seconds she rolled over and drew her M395 DMR, springing to her feet and tossing her bag to one side as a distraction. Ajax snapped round instinctively and fired two shots into it before realising he'd been tricked.

"Wait!" she called, holding one hand up. "We don't have to fight."

Across from her, Ajax hesitated, lowering his weapon by a fraction. He'd been fine with killing any innies or Covenant he'd come across, and even UNSC troops were fair game provided they were desperate enough to try and attack him. But Spartans? Even a seasoned killer like him had some doubts about hunting down his fellow supersoldiers.

"I'm listening."

"Look, whoever set this all up wants us to kill each other. Who's to say they're not just bluffing about killing us?"

Ajax shook his head, sighing sadly. "I thought the same at first. Really, I did."

"Then we don't have to kill each other. There's got to be a way out."

"No, there really isn't," the older Spartan gestured around them. "We're on an island, totally cut off from any means of escape. What's more is that this whole place is artificial."

"What do you mean?"

"Did you see the rain start?"

"What? No."

"I did. One minute, there wasn't a cloud in the sky. The next it was a damn monsoon, thunder and all. The weather here's controlled by someone - or something, so I'd wager that we've either got someone with some serious Forerunner tech on their hands, or this is all a simulation."

Cassandra had slowly been shifting back towards the cover of a nearby rock. "So...?"

"So if this is a simulation, then it'll end when this competition is over."

"You're going to kill everyone because you think this might be a simulation?!" she snapped angrily.

Ajax shrugged. "For what it's worth, I take no pleasure in doing this."

The two Spartans fired and dodged simultaneously, both missing their marks. Cassandra darted into cover as a trio of rounds struck the nearby rock, Ajax swiftly advancing on her position. With his MJOLNIR armour, he benefited from energy shielding, heavily enhanced strength and reflexes, and a motion sensor. Cassandra had none of that, and while her own modified suit gave some protection from gunfire it wouldn't hold out for long. As she heard the crunch of Ajax's boots on the rock above her, Cassandra sprang forth.

Had she been just a second too late, the SPARTAN-II would've smashed down on her with his rifle. The younger Spartan leapt nimbly from rock to rock as she ascended the volcano, firing a few one-handed shots from her DMR towards her attacker. Ajax ignored the hits as they pinged off his shield and pursued her, covering more ground in a single bound than Cassandra could in three. He switched his rifle to burst-fire and let off several rounds, trying to hit her in the skull. Using her own augmented speed to duck and weave at just the right moments, Cassandra was able to evade most rounds, some impacting her armour.

"Stay still, will you!" Ajax yelled, sounding slightly annoyed. He'd barely been trying against the people he'd encountered earlier, but Cassandra was presenting him with a real challenge even with the vast difference in their abilities.

That's it, she slowed slightly, edging behind a jutting shard of volcanic rock near the volcano's edge. Get mad.

Tired of the pursuit, Ajax put in an impressive burst of speed, kicking up chunks of dirt and rock as he leapt at her momentary hiding place. Even if she got a few hits in, his shields could easily hold out long enough for him to kill her. As he rounded the corner, Cassandra swung her DMR like a club at Ajax, aiming not for him but for his own rifle. Both weapons were smashed to pieces by the blow and as the SPARTAN-II staggered slightly she kicked him backwards. Taken by surprise, Ajax was almost sent tumbling down the mountain, and punched his gauntleted fist into the rock to stop his descent. Shields beeping madly, he lifted himself up to see Cassandra still making her way up to the summit.

"Right," he said, mostly to himself. "Now I'll give it my all."

The rim of the volcano was surprisingly wide, and incredibly hot. Even in her armour, Cassandra could feel the heat as she reached the top. A dozen meters down was a fiery cauldron of bubbling lava. This would likely be her only chance at victory; she'd taken Ajax by surprise with that last attack, but had lost her best weapon. He wouldn't give her an opening like that again. Sure enough, the other Spartan had leapt up towards her, his shields recharging.

"Last chance!" Cassandra called down the mountainside.

Ajax responded by drawing the combat shotgun he had across his back, forcing her to back away and out of sight. She drew both her combat knife and M6H Magnum, prepared to make her last stand. Retreat wasn't an option, as fleeing down any side of the slope would make her an easy target for the Spartan hunting her. Ajax crested the top with a sudden leap, two blasts from his weapon narrowly missing her. Cassandra closed the gap as he landed, two handgun rounds striking his shields before she dodged a heavy blow from the butt of his shotgun and kicked it from Ajax's hands.

"C'mon," she taunted him. "Can't fight without a gun?"

Her foe laughed as Cassandra mockingly dropped her own pistol, backing away towards the edge of the volcano. Ajax couldn't help but respect her bravery, even if he was trying his damnedest to kill her. He straightened up, drawing his own combat knife with a deliberately dramatic flourish. The two simply stared at each other for several seconds until the SPARTAN-II lunged forward. Their blades sent sparks flying with each resounding clang, Ajax pitting his incredible strength against Cassandra's surprising speed. While she could match him for a time, the younger Spartan was being slowly backed towards the cliff, unable to force Ajax back. As she teetered on the edge, he went for a fatal stab to her throat. At the very last second, Cassandra twisted to one side, grabbed Ajax's arm, and used his own momentum to fling him into the volcano.

"Down you go," she panted as Ajax fell out of sight.

She began to walk away immediately, not wishing to see the other Spartan's horrific demise. It had been a desperate move; any other attempt to grab the SPARTAN-II would have ended poorly for her. Spotting her handgun lying a few feet away, she made her way towards it, only to hear an unfamiliar noise from behind her. Turning around, she saw Ajax-013 rocketing out of the pit towards her, thrusters on his armour at maximum power as his shields flickered.

Oh my-

Ajax's fist connected with her visor like a freight train, smashing it to smithereens and sending Cassandra flying backwards. The pain was indescribable as Cassandra felt blood filling her mouth. She had a broken jaw at the bare minimum. Groaning, the SPARTAN-III rolled over and picked herself up, running with reckless abandon towards Ajax as he found his footing. His right knee connected with her stomach, denting the armour and forcing her to double over as she gasped for breath. Clinging to her foe for a moment, Cassandra swung her knife around and buried it into Ajax's side before his shields had properly recharged. He grunted in pain and landed another blow that not only sent her sprawling to the ground, but knocked her helmet off too.

"Shit," Ajax muttered, calmly walking over to his discarded shotgun with the knife still in him.

As she picked herself up yet again, coughing up blood, Cassandra found herself overcome with rage. The agony of her numerous injuries seemed dulled, with every instinct telling her to kill the Spartan in front of her. She charged yet again as Ajax levelled the shotgun and fired. Each successive shot sent her staggering back as it tore into her, blasting apart armour and flesh and bone in bloody chunks. By the time Ajax had expended the entire magazine, Cassandra was barely standing, drenched in her own blood. Her vision blurred and she found herself unable to move, simply baring her teeth in a feral snarl. The other Spartan removed his helmet for a moment and mouthed something, but she could not hear.

It's over.

Ajax landed a powerful kick into Cassandra's chest. She felt herself flying backwards, then everything went black.

Atop the mountain, SPARTAN-013 sighed and put his helmet back on, watching her corpse tumble down the mountainside like a ragdoll. The fight had come to a particularly messy end. As he walked down the slope, ignoring the throbbing pain of the combat knife in his gut, he spotted Cassandra's bag and approached it. Inside were an array of medical supplies, ranging from biofoam to bandages to suture kits. He sat down beside it, yanked the blade from his side, and set about patching himself up. As the adrenaline of combat began to slowly fade, he felt the tiniest twinge of regret.

Guess there's no turning back now. I'm in this to win.

COMPETITOR 012 - CASSANDRA-G006 - ELIMINATED

15

Fishing Village, SOTF Island

Day One, 1051 Hours


Whoever built this place clearly wasn't living in the 26th Century.

Since he'd arrived in the fishing village nearly half an hour ago, Jonathan Watts had scoured every nook and cranny of the place in search for anything even remotely electrical - computer terminals, lights, power sockets - to use. So far he'd found nothing. Either the place had been built by some serious technophobes, or it was some kind of thousand year-old relic, preserved in time. Rows of houses built of ornately-carved wood sat neatly along the sides of this cove, while dozens of little wooden boats floated by the pier. Walking out of yet another abandoned house, only one question was on Watts' mind.

Where the hell are all the people?

He kicked aside an empty lobster cage, walking down the cobbled street towards the pier. Everything about this place seemed strangely surreal, like something out of a picture book. Armed only with a handgun and minimal body armour, Watts felt incredibly vulnerable; he'd be much more at home in the cockpit of a Pelican dropship than here on the ground. As he approached a rickety wooden pier, a distant snapping sound caught his attention. Looking round, Watts spotted a SPARTAN-II supersoldier in yellow armour moving through the remains of one of the village's outer walls.

Oh shit.

***

That wasn't my most quiet entrance, I'll admit.

Kicking aside a few loose planks of wood, Bailey-132 took the time to look around the quaint little village he'd stepped into. After wandering aimlessly along the island's eastern coast for quite a while, he'd spotted this place on the horizon and made for it, expecting to find others. The Spartan, like so many others, had been trying to decide whether or not this deadly contest was worth fighting in, and what to do against any opponents they came across. Bailey had opted simply to shoot first and ask questions later.

So here's my next question, Bailey frowned as he walked between a set of wooden houses. Do I wait and see who comes to me, or do I go looking for trouble?

Unsurprisingly, the village was be completely empty. Bailey knew the island was fairly large, but even with fifty-three others he thought he would've run into someone by now. He'd heard what could have been gunfire echoing across the treetops not long ago, though he couldn't properly discern where it had come from. Sighing in frustration, he edged his way into a well-built wooden house, MA5D assault rifle at the ready. Like the rest of the village, it seemed to be completely abandoned. He set his bag down carefully on the table; he'd found two powerful satchel charges inside upon awakening earlier.

I'll check this place out, then move on. Probably try to get a vantage point from the top of that-

Suddenly, something red flashed up on Bailey's motion tracker and there was a loud thump from upstairs. The Spartan fired a few rounds upwards, smashing through the wooden floorboards. He waited a moment, only to notice a second noise moments later. Checking his ammo counter, he dashed towards the stairs and ascended the dozen or so steps in two bounds, kicking a flimsy door off its hinges and stepping into an upstairs bedroom.

"Come out!" Bailey commanded, his voice echoing across the house. "We can talk."

It was a lie. He fully intended to empty his magazine into the first living creature that moved into view. Aside from numerous bullet holes in the floor, there didn't actually seem to be anyone up here. Something had to have made such a loud noise; either that or he was getting jumpy. Bailey crouched down, and saw a muddied rock lying under the bed. It didn't look like it belonged here. The nearby windows were wide open. There was a second flash of movement on his tracker right behind him, and the Spartan span round to find nothing there. After a split-second of confusion, he realised that he'd been tricked.

Downstairs.

***

Jonathan Watts knew this was a risky plan. Suicidal, even. He could have quietly slipped out of the village and ran for his life, but instead he chose to be brave. The moment the Spartan entered the house across from his hiding place, he had begun to inch towards it on his belly. He knew full well that they used motion trackers in their suits of power armour, and that they could be fooled if someone moved slowly enough towards them. Then it was only a matter of tossing a couple of rocks through the upstairs window and waiting for the sound of armoured boots thundering upstairs and he could enter the building. Of course, once he was inside he realised that he had no idea what he was going to do, until he noticed the Spartan's discarded bag.

That bastard's carrying enough explosives to level half the town.

Acting quickly and knowing he only had seconds, Watts had taken both satchel charges and given them a ten-second timer before getting out of there as fast as his legs could carry him. The Spartan was downstairs in seconds and began to fire at his retreating back, a round in his shoulder making Watts dive to the ground, curling into a ball and stuffing his fingers in his ears. Inside the house, Bailey glanced to the table and heard a loud beep.

"Oh, motherfu-"

The explosion was tremendous. The wooden house and the two next to it were completely incinerated in the blast, which sent burning splinters flying in every direction. Watts felt bits of his uniform smoulder slightly as the heat washed over him, though he was mostly unharmed. The village was not, however. All around him buildings were going up like torches, smoke filling the air. Groaning, he pulled himself to his feet and stared at the absolute ruin he'd made with those two little charges.

"Shit," he muttered, spotting something on the floor. "Better you than me, buddy."

He shook his head and jogged away, heading north. Lying in the mud just outside what remained of the house was a severed arm, clad in yellow armour.

COMPETITOR 027 - BAILEY-132 - ELIMINATED

16

Lighthouse, SOTF Island

Day One, 1114 Hours


Crouched by the shattered remnants of the building's window, Colin-142 ducked aside to reload his MA5D and avoid a stream of plasma bolts. They'd been stuck in this firefight for some time now, neither side able to gain an advantage as they battled their way around the lighthouse and the tiny village it loomed over. The Spartan slammed in a magazine, and prepared to move out of cover the moment their foe stopped firing.

"One more to the south!" he called downstairs. "Should give us an opening if that hinge-head's moved."

The staccato of rifle fire echoed from below, where Colin's fellow Spartan was guarding the lighthouse's front door alongside the man they'd picked up en-route to the building. As the last bolt of energy struck the wall above him, Colin rolled past the window and moved carefully down the rickety metal staircase. A red-armoured SPARTAN-II glanced round as he approached.

"We moving out?" asked Riker-012, checking his ammo counter.

"Whenever you're ready."

Across the room, a tall - for a regular human - man stood up, hefting his own rather outdated assault rifle. After meeting up on the coast not long ago, Riker and Colin had come across Jonathan Ulan not far from the lighthouse. While his military garb suggested that he was part of the Marines or Army, he had not been particularly forthcoming with information about his unit and seemed rather suspicious of the Spartans in general. Considering the fact that they had been given instructions to kill everyone, this was understandable.

"Wait, we're moving out?" he protested. "We're pretty well-protected in here."

Colin shook his head. "They're whittling this place down. It's a miracle the entire lighthouse didn't collapse when they blew up most of the damn roof. We need to stage a proper counter-attack."

"Agreed," Riker nodded. "No sense letting a bunch of Covvies pin us down."

Ulan sighed deeply, but joined the others at the door. "Easy to say when you're in a suit of power armour. Lead the way."

There hadn't been any plasma fire coming their way for almost a minute now, which Colin took as a sign of their enemy regrouping for another attack. They'd come under heavy fire shortly after coming across the lighthouse, a group of Unggoy suddenly appearing as if from nowhere in a nearby building. Though they'd been swiftly killed, they were now being hunted by several skilled Covenant warriors and would have to strike back quickly to end this. The trio stacked up by the door, ready to spring forward.

"Anything on the tracker, Riker?"

"Nothing."

"Okay, we're sprinting this; head across to the closest building and we'll sweep across the town from there."

"Got it."

"Ulan, stay down and cover us if you can."

The other man nodded. Colin held up three fingers, then counted them down as they readied their weapons.

***

The moment the Humans stopped returning fire, Felo 'Ranak knew they were preparing to leave cover and launch an attack towards him. The Sangheili stood atop a nearby building, clad in the shining golden armour of a Shipmaster. He had initially been hesitant to attack the Spartans as they entered this settlement, though as he had watched them massacre a group of Unggoy from afar it became clear that they fully intended to survive this tournament by killing any not of their own kind. Felo turned slightly as another figure clambered up onto the roof beside him.

"Major," he nodded.

Josh 'Konar returned the gesture, reloading his Carbine as he looked towards the tall structure they had trapped the Humans in. He'd been peppering the outer walls and windows with plasma fire for some time now, moving from position to position and probing for weaknesses in their defences. So far he had found nothing.


"The Demon on the upper floor has moved," he said, gesturing to the gaping hole above that had once been a window. "I suspect that they are preparing to leave."

"As do I. Move to a vantage point and prepare to fire on the entrance, we-"

There was a sudden crash as the lighthouse's front doors burst open and two armoured figures moved out at an alarming speed, with a third Human bringing up the rear. The two Sangheili sprinted along the rooftops, firing a few shots towards them with their plasma rifles as their foe ran for a nearby building. Felo reached for his belt and activated a plasma grenade, tossing it through a broken window. Seconds later, a flash of heat and energy had incinerated much of the interior, forcing the Humans back.

They're exposed.

"Cover me!" Felo barked, drawing his Energy Sword as he leapt from the rooftop, hitting the cobbled streets with a loud thud.

"And the Kig-Yar?" Josh called down.

"Ensure that he actually fights this time."

As Riker, Colin and Ulan moved back into the street and away from the now-burning building to face the advancing Sangheili warrior, a figure moved into view from behind them.

***

Dekd Nok crept slowly around the grey walls of the lighthouse, Carbine in hand as he tried to remain as low as possible. The Sangheili had been trying to keep up the fire on the Humans, but he saw little point in wasting ammunition against hidden enemies. He watched as the Demons and their ally opened fire on Felo, whose shields held fast as he advanced, cutting one of the Demon's weapons in half. Above him, the red-armoured Major let loose a hail of fire down that sent the others running for cover. Dekd continued to creep forward, watching and waiting for his time to strike.

"Ulan, get back!" yelled Colin, tossing the pieces of his rifle aside.

With Riker exchanging fire with the other Sangheili on the roof, the Spartan was forced to fight alone against his gold-armoured foe. Unable to draw his handgun, Colin could only dodge and duck under swipes and stabs from his opponent's blade as he continued to back away. Felo remained entirely calm as he advanced, each blow designed to cripple or kill as it landed. As the Spartan facing him moved to dive away, the Shipmaster lunged forward and kicked the armoured warrior to the ground with a well-aimed kick. Colin hit the ground hard as Felo advanced, raising his weapon for the killing blow.

"Forgive me," Felo said, allowing only the Spartan to hear him.

As he brought the sword down towards Colin's chest, Felo was knocked off-balance as Ulan tackled him, stumbling to one side as the smaller Human drew a pistol and fired it harmlessly into his side. The Sangheili's shields flared and dissipated, and as Ulan brought his gun up to shoot him in the head, there was a tiny click.

"Oh shit!" the man smacked his gun futilely as it jammed.

Felo smacked the useless weapon from the man's hands with one swipe before bringing his blade horizontally across Ulan's chest. His upper half slid to the ground, followed shortly by the rest of his body as his legs buckled. The Sangheili tore his vision away from the smoking, cauterised wounds just in time to see Colin's fist flying towards him. The warrior grunted in pain as the blow connected, smashing into two of his mandibles and sending him sprawling to the ground. As his vision shook and blurred, he saw his energy sword deactivating as the handle fell from his grip.

He sacrificed himself for his comrade, Felo thought as he rolled over. A worthy death.

The Spartan loomed over him, unholstering his handgun. Before he supersoldier could raise the weapon, several Carbine rounds impacted his armour, forcing him to dart aside. Felo shook his head and ignoring the throbbing pain in the side of his head, grabbed the handle of his fallen blade and leapt to his feet, running for the exposed back of the other Spartan, who was still exchanging fire with Major 'Konar.

"Riker!" Colin called, firing a few rounds in the direction of the newly-arrived Kig-Yar warrior.

The red-armoured Spartan span round and dropped to one knee, tossing aside his Battle Rifle and drawing the heavy-duty sniper rifle from his back. Felo had no time to dodge as his foe fired all four rounds into him, the last striking him in the head. The Sangheili's bloody corpse smashed into the ground at Riker's feet.

"Thanks for the save," Riker began to reload the weapon. "Now let's-"

A beam of energy smashed through the SPARTAN-II's head, passing through shielding, helmet and skull in an instant. He slid silently to the ground, still holding his rifle.

Watching his comrade's body fall, Colin let out an anguished shout and pelted across the street as the Sangheili sniper above them fled. The Kig-Yar he'd been fighting laughed at the Spartan's death, raising his weapon in celebration for a moment. Colin barely slowed down and fired a trio of rounds from his Magnum that blew Dekd Nok's head off as he scooped up Riker's sniper rifle and raced after Riker's killer. A tiny red blip flashed on the edge of his motion tracker, speeding away from the tiny village and into the desert-like expanse to the east.

Keep running, asshole. You'll just die tired.

Josh 'Konar leapt off a nearby rooftop and sprinted away from the vengeful Spartan, easily clambering over the first dune and rolling as he hit the soft ground below. While there wasn't much in the way of cover aside from the rolling hills of sand, his enemy would have nowhere to hide behind the moment he turned his beam rifle towards them. The Sangheili Major glanced away for a few moments, and saw a figure atop a distant hill watching him. He blinked, and saw that nothing was there.

"Accursed heat," he murmured, shaking his head.

COMPETITOR 010 - JONATHAN ULAN - ELIMINATED
COMPETITOR 032 - FELO 'RANAK - ELIMINATED
COMPETITOR 049 - RIKER-012 - ELIMINATED
COMPETITOR 046 - DEKD NOK - ELIMINATED

17

Northern Dunes, SOTF Island

Day One, 1133 Hours


As Colin-142 crested the first sandy hill, a beam of energy missed his helmet by mere inches. He ducked back down, sprinting to the north and keeping as low as he possibly could in an attempt to flank the Sangheili marksman. At full speed, he could probably move faster than his enemy could line up a shot, though the uneven ground made it a risky endeavour. However, if he moved a far enough he could run along the island's northern coast with ease.

I'll have to take the chance. If it means taking care of this bastard, I'll risk it.

***

From his position half a kilometre away with his rifle half-buried in the sand, Josh 'Konar could easily gun down the Spartan the moment he emerged without risking injury himself. The fact that his foe's armour was brightly coloured, unlike the usual greens and browns that Humans preferred, made his job much more easier. The warrior would hold his position for the next half-hour at least before falling back, preferably into the much cooler forested area of this island.

At least I've been supplied well.

Looking away from his scope for a brief moment, Josh opened up the bag he'd woken up with on the island. Though of Human design, it carried a number of food and drink packages native only to Sanghelios, as well as medical equipment used by the Covenant military in its prime. Whoever had trapped them here had certainly accounted for their preferences, as in addition to his beam rifle and carbine, Josh had found a rifle and fully-loaded Needler inside as well. Some would consider such an armament overkill, but if he was to fight any more Spartans then such weapons would be sorely needed. He fished out a small container of liquid, and took a few sips.

If I ration this well, I may be able to survive for at least a week. Longer, if I scavenge from others.

His thoughts drifted back to the Shipmaster he'd seen die back at the lighthouse. Felo 'Ranak had possessed a bag similar to his, no doubt also containing the essentials for long-term survival. The deceased warrior wouldn't miss them. Josh wondered how long their partnership would have lasted, considering how the population of this island was likely dwindling rapidly with chosen warriors killing each other left and right. The Kig-Yar would have almost certainly been killed first, though.

Once I eliminate this Human, I will return and -

At the very edge of his motion tracker, Josh caught the tiniest glimpse of movement and panicked, believing that he'd somehow been outflanked. Fumbling for a moment to put down his rifle and snatch the Carbine that lay nearby, he turned to find himself looking down the barrel of a large Human-made sniper rifle. To his surprise, its wielder was not the Spartan he'd been hunting.

"How did you-"

The rifle fired once, blasting Josh's head apart in an instant. His body jerked back against the dune and was still.

***

Thankful that his MJOLNIR armour's systems kept his body cool under the beating sun, Colin-142 peeked his head over the top of the sand dune, sighting his target far ahead. The Sangheili's red combat harness was impossible to miss in the desert, and it looked as though the alien was staying put and waiting for him to make a move.

Guess he thought we were gonna play chicken.

From his position, it would have been easy for Colin to simply take aim and dump four rounds into Josh 'Konar from afar. However, he wasn't feeling particularly merciful, particularly towards someone who'd just killed a Spartan. He slid silently down from his position and began the agonisingly slow process of crawling slowly towards the sniper's position. He knew from experience that many variants Sangheili armour possessed motion trackers similar to his own, and that only by moving at an incredibly slow speed could he truly get the drop on him. Eventually, he found himself within killing distance, and prepared to pounce forward to choke his enemy to death. Tensing up for a brief moment, he pounced forward.

"Gotcha, you son of a bitch!"

Colin realised something was wrong before he'd even landed atop Josh's body. The Sangheili just wasn't prone, he was absolutely still. As he turned the alien over he saw that the entire front portion of his face had been blown away somehow, with cold dead hands still clutching his beam rifle. The Spartan's eyes travelled downward as a tiny black object rolled out from under the bloody corpse.

"Crap-"

While his visor would usually lessen the effects of a regular flashbang grenade, the weapon went off at such a close proximity that even Colin was momentarily blinded by the weapon. He leapt backwards instinctively, feeling a sharp pain rip through his left leg as a high-velocity round tore through him. The Spartan continued to roll and leap to the side as his vision returned, intent on avoiding any subsequent shots. By the time he could see again, there was no sign of his attacker.

Great, another sniper.

After just a few moments, he twisted his entire body round as another round flew past, catching sight of an armed figure atop an impressively tall ridge. He leapt upwards, using his MJOLNIR suit's thrusters to send him over the edge and barely dodge the remaining sniper rounds as he moved to take out this new foe. It was a Human male, clad in a black armoured bodysuit and armed with several military grade weapons. The man's face appeared completely neutral as he and the Spartan circled each other for a few moments, before Colin leapt forward. With no time to reload, Colin's opponent tossed his rifle at the Spartan, which was smashed aside as he ran for a nearby bag, stooping for a moment and snatching up something out of its recesses. Still intent on charging the man, the Spartan didn't notice what he had until it was already firing.

Needler. Shit.

A flurry of crystalline shards squealed through the air, tracking Colin's movements as he tried to dodge. Though the Spartan's augmented reflexes were good, a number dug straight into his armour and by the time they'd either stopped or hit him, the man in black had reloaded and sent another barrage towards him. This time, only a few more needed to strike the Spartan before the shards ignited in a supercombine explosion, tearing huge chunks of Colin's armour away and sending the Spartan flying backwards in a spray of blood and pink mist. Still standing, he teetered on the edge of a nearby dune for a moment, and could've sworn that the other man smiled before turning to walk away. Colin fell backwards, toppling down the sandy hill as he passed out.

***

It wasn't a long trek back to Josh 'Konaree's body. There was a valuable plasma rifle the man wished to loot there, in addition to the mostly-charged beam rifle that would come in handy now that his sniper rifle was destroyed. As he turned to pick it up, he heard a voice from nearby.

"Hey you!" called an armoured figure. "We're not looking to harm you, don't shoot!"

Turning round, he saw two new Spartans and a young woman approaching him, weapons drawn. He raised his arms in surrender, stepping away from the Sangheili's body. One of the Spartans looked it over for a second, and shrugged.

"He attack you?" Corin Davis asked.

"He had me pinned down for a while, but I managed to outflank him."

"Fair enough. I'm Spartan Corin Davis. This is Aylla-G021 and Zoey Hunsinger. The AI in my head's Diana. I don't suppose you've seen any other Spartans on the island, have you? We're looking to increase our numbers and fight our way out of this mess."

"No, sorry. There was a firefight by the lighthouse, but I barely escaped."

"That's fine," Corin and the others holstered your weapons. "So what's your name?"

The man smiled. "Winston Zhou. Nice to see a friendly face."

***

Colin felt like dying, but his body seemed to disagree. His entire right side burned from the needle detonations, and he could barely shift his right leg. Nonetheless, he continued his slow crawl along the northern shore, clutching the tattered remnants of his bag on his one good hand. His MJOLNIR suit's biofoam dispensers were almost empty from trying to seal his numerous wounds at this point, only making his journey feel much slower. After some time, he stopped and lay back on the beach, listening to the sound of the waves.

"I've got to get up," he said aloud, trying to will his body into moving.

At the corner of his HUD, a small yellow dot suddenly flashed up. Colin turned his head and through the sunny haze, saw a man in MJOLNIR armour jogging along the shore towards him.

Guess I'm not out of this yet.

COMPETITOR 018 - JOSH 'KONAR - ELIMINATED

18: First Announcement

SOTF Control Room

Day One, 1200 Hours


Every single screen in the control room was abuzz with activity, either tracking the still-living participants of this season's game or replaying footage of the fights that had occurred up to this point. The game might have only been going on for four hours by this point, but many of the chosen combatants had wasted no time in slaughtering one another across the carefully-constructed arena. Some had questioned the absurdity of their location or the pointlessness of the deathmatch, but that was to be expected. Soon enough, even those who once considered each other the closest of comrades would be fighting to the death. On the wall, an oversized clock chimed, and the doors were flung open.

"Midday!" the Announcer boomed, looking immaculate as ever in his white suit. "How many is that now?"

One of the many technicians checked a screen. "That's fifteen dead, bringing us down to forty-three surviving competitors."

"Fifteen," he flashed a toothy smile. "Our friends down there have been rather busy, haven't they? Let's let them know how well they're doing."

At the end of the room, a podium rose from the floor, complete with microphone and a single sheet of paper with the prepared speech. Beyond the room sat a massive hologram of the island, complete with the realime locations of every single living soul down there. The Announcer descended the stairs and put on a little set of spectacles before clearing his throat and picking up the paper. He nodded towards a technician, and across the island thousands of speakers activated alongside his microphone. The room fell silent as the man in white began to speak.

"Hello again, to both the lucky living and the glorious dead. It's been a whole four hours since we last spoke, so I thought it'd be time for a little chat. Namely about how well all of you are doing with our orders to kill everyone and everything that isn't you, really. So before I give you some pointers on survival, I'd like to read out a little list of who hasn't been able to make it this far, and if you're lucky, who managed to kill them.

First to die was Teno Salz Kreral, who thought he could crush a young lady to death and got more than he bargained for. It involved explosives, dismemberment and a long, long fall. Great way to start the season.

Next off was Leonardo Simmons, who fought bravely but lost his head at the hands of an energy katana-wielding assassin. Yes folks, real life really can be stranger than fiction.

After that, Lancaster-205 decided that he'd prey on a fellow Spartan, and paid for it with a knife to the throat. At least he's not crazy any more. He's just dead.

Our second non-Human death was Attilus, who was doing so well for himself until he was smacked off a cliff with his own hammer. Tough break buddy, but at least you died on impact when you hit those rocks.

Not long after we had a truly close fight between a pair of fine warriors, but in the end Arn-G287 succumbed to his injuries first. Those Gammas just don't know when to lie down and die.

Avalokiteśvara went down shortly after that, proving that when you're nothing but crystal and wiring you don't stand much of a chance in a fair fight.

During our brief rainy spell, we have a brief but lovely tale of friendship and sacrifice as Elijah Cavorel went down in a blaze of plasma fire to protect his new friend, who soon managed to avenge him by killing off Tal 'Zerex with enough rounds to bring down an entire platoon. Aw.

As the rain dried up, we got to enjoy a truly excellent battle between a pair of Supersoldiers atop the volcano, which sadly ended in Cassandra-G006's untimely death by getting shot to pieces. I guess where Spartans are concerned older is better, am I right? We'll see.

After that we really had one for the highlight reel as Bailey-132 fell for the old 'blown up with your own bomb' trick. Seriously though, we're gonna have to clean him up with a mop and bucket. Calling dibs on his arm.

Meanwhile, the lighthouse saw an extended display of violence that ended rather suddenly. Jonathan Ulan tried to take on a Sangheili with an energy sword and soon found himself being chopped in half, while Felo 'Ranak caught a high-velocity sniper round with his skull. Not a good idea. Shortly after that, Riker-012 did the same thing, only with a beam of plasma energy, and Dekd Nok was shot dead by someone who in all honesty wasn't even trying too hard to kill him.

Last but not least, we have the sudden death of Josh 'Konar, whose marksmanship really didn't count for much when someone managed to sneak up behind him with a gun. Oh well. That's all for the death list right now folks, so mourn, celebrate, or go out there and look for revenge as hard as you can!

Before I leave you, a few notifications and pointers. First of all, we'll be dropping in a few handy-dandy vehicles for you to take. They'll be dropped in at the Fishing Village, Armoury, Outpost, and Abandoned Base for you to fight over. Oh, and don't fly to far up or away from the island, or you'll have to be eliminated. Seriously, it sucks to die like that. Finally, I'd ask that you folks make for higher ground now that there are aren't as many of you left now, and though the waters are looking fairly calm right now, sea levels may rise a touch within the next few hours. I'll get back to you at 4pm, island time. Until then, this is the Announcer, signing off."

With a wave, the speakers and microphone deactivated and the podium lowered back into the floor. The assembled technicians broke out in polite applause as the Announcer gave a theatrical bow.

"Now now," he laughed. "Save your clapping for the finale, because things are only going to get a lot more brutal from here on out. I'm off to speak with that lot upstairs, so you fellows keep an eye on the game while I'm gone. Have fun!"

With that, he strode out of the room, the door automatically slamming shut behind him.

19

The Armoury, SOTF Island

Day One, 1207 Hours


Standing atop the armoury's roof, Lhor Konar paid close attention to everything their captor said. He was evidently Human, though by the sound of things this place had not been constructed solely for his kind to fight. Several Sangheili warriors had been killed, in addition to a few of mankind's feared 'Spartan' supersoldiers. Worse yet, they seemed to be fighting each other. Lhor wondered if any of his own kind would see him as an ally, or if they would attack him on sight.

I will not risk my life with any temporary alliances.

He'd heard this place's name read out during the announcement, and had ventured outside to see if the vehicle he had been promised would arrive. So far, nothing had happened and the Ranger had begun to wonder if he'd been lied to. Now that the rain had passed, he was willing to risk the journey back towards the island, ensuring that his anti-gravity pack was fully charged for the trip. As he moved towards the edge of the rooftop, there was a flash of light from behind him. Lhor whipped out his sword as he span round, ready to attack.

"What?!" he exclaimed, momentarily stunned.

Just a few feet away stood a pristine Type-26 Banshee, thin mist fading away around it. Lhor carefully stepped around it, keeping his weapon raised just in case. He prodded it with an armoured boot, and it seemed real enough. This had to be the transport he had been promised. The warrior deactivated the sword and pulled open the cockpit, clambering inside and sealing the hatch. With the press of a button, the vehicle hummed to life and floated a few inches off the ground.

They said not to stray too far away from this island, Lhor recalled the warning they had been given.

He'd simply have to search their arena for foes, hunting down the other combatants until there were none left to oppose him. It might not have been the most honourable method of combat, but considering the strength of his foes it was better for him to simply kill at a distance. The Bashee shot forward, rocketing upwards as it turned towards the mainland. The whine of his craft's engines would be the last thing his prey ever heard.

20

Refum River, SOTF Island

Day One, 1215 Hours


The river flowed gently, its water trickling over the stones on the banks. The air in the valley was still and clear, making it easy for the lone figure kneeling at the riverbank to hear the death announcement that reverberated throughout the strange world that had become his prison.

One name after another. Behind his cracked and dented visor, the Spartan’s lips tightened. Less people in this twisted game, less people for him to fear. Ever since he’d been transported to this bizarre hell he’d taken shelter in a cave a few yards away from the river, patiently biding his time as everyone else busied themselves killing each other off. There was no particular shame in hiding. It was just a secret of survival that most people seemed keen to ignore. If this long list of names were any indication, most people were ignoring it.

The cave was cool and damp; it wasn’t the worst place he’d ever slept, not by a long shot. No one had bothered him there, at least until that gang of Jackals had come along. Their corpses were strewn about in the grass behind him. Hardly cream of the crop. Almost makes me wonder if I’m wasting my time hiding from these clowns…

He was clad in battered SPI armor, the plating pitted and scored by countless burns and bullet impacts—evidence of encounters he had survived and someone else hadn’t. A grubby, tattered poncho was draped over his torso, concealing the worst of the damage as well as the assortment of pouches slung across his combat webbing. He dipped a machete into the river, washing purple blood off of the blade as he listened to the list of names.

A familiar name: "…killing off Tal ‘Zerex with enough rounds to bring down an entire platoon. Aw."

So Tal was dead then. He wasn’t one for pomp and ceremony, wasn’t even shy about mocking the dead if they had it coming, but even he rankled at this announcer’s tone. As if this whole situation weren’t fucked enough without some prick with a microphone to make light of every death.

And then the next name: "We got to enjoy a truly excellent battle between a pair of supersoldiers atop the volcano, which sadly ended in Cassandra-G006’s untimely death by being shot to pieces. I guess where Spartans are concerned older is better, am I right? We’ll see."

He froze. A part of his mind ran the announcement over and over, trying to find some way he could have possibly heard it wrong. But the rest of him knew that there was no point in denying it. So she was here, all this time. And now she’s dead.

His fingers tightened against the machete’s hilt. He was surprised to realize that he didn’t feel any pain. Just a sudden, gaping emptiness. She was dead, killed while he hid in a cave. He probably wouldn’t have been able to stop it one way or the other, but even so… even so…

So that’s how it is. A thin, ragged sigh slipped through his teeth as he looked over his shoulder, out of the valley and at a distant mountain. A volcano. So that’s how it is.

He felt a sudden burst of emotion welling up inside his chest. Sorrow, anger, pain… inspiration. It was such a long list that prick had just rattled off. What was the point of cowering here, waiting for someone to come stumbling on him, when he could be out there, making that list a bit longer?

You want some interesting fights, pal? Alright, how about I give you some?

Simon-G294 slipped the machete into the sheath on his back. Picking up the shotgun at his feet, he straightened and turned away from the river. He walked past the dead Jackals, past his cave, and off towards the volcano. He couldn’t help but feel afraid—it was only natural. But behind that fear lurked an even fiercer beast: excitement.

21

Base Camp, SOTF Island

Day One, 1219 Hours


"Is that thing active?" Cailean asked, gesturing at the looming volcano from his position in the Warthog's passenger seat.

"Sure hope not," Sikowsky replied, carefully guiding the ATV around several clusters of trees and rocks. They'd been fortunate enough to have a smooth drive so far, but the path towards the volcano was winding and increasingly boxed in. The Spartans were keenly aware that each hill and grove of trees could hide a deadly ambush. Lee kept careful watch from his position atop the mounted gun, swiveling the turret back and forth toward each new object that came into sight.

"Imagine that thing going off while we're going up the slope," Sikowsky continued. "We're halfway up, then bam! it just erupts. Takes half the mountainside out in one big torrent of lava."

"Jeez, careful what you wish for," Lee said, swiveling the turret and glancing down at the driver. "People might be listening."

It was a sobering thought to realize that not only could someone be listening, they might very well have the ability to make Sikowsky's prediction a reality. The Spartans fell silent, each pondering just how dire their predicament really was. They were trained and equipped to handle nearly any situation, no matter how difficult or insane—just not this insane.

Cailean opened a private channel between himself and Leon. "Hey, are you alright?" he asked quietly.

Leon blinked, then realized that his hands were clenched so tightly around the steering wheel that they were beginning to crush the metal. He relaxed quickly, looking back up in time to avoid an oncoming tree. "Yeah," he said quickly, embarrassed by his enthusiastic outburst."I'm fine."

"So what's the plan once we get to that volcano?" Lee asked. "Provided it doesn't erupt on top of us."

"We'll set up a firing position on the slope," Leon explained. "We can't be the only ones trying to use it as a landmark. If we dig in there, we can maybe hook up with anyone else who wants to cooperate. And if they're looking to fight, well..."

He looked pointedly at the chaingun. "Guess we'll just have to use that."

"And what then?" Cailean asked. "Eventually we're going to run out of people who want to fight us."

"One thing at a time. We still don't know who's running this island or why. But if we get more people together, who knows? We might just have a better chance of getting off this rock."

"Fair enough," Cailean said with a shrug. "It's as good a plan as--"

"Contact!" Lee yelled. He jerked the gun around and ducked as a stream of plasma streaked past his head. The chaingun roared to life as the Spartan fired at a nearby grove of trees. Chunks of bark were blasted into the air as bullets tore through the trees, toppling several.

Leon swerved the Warthog, weaving it back and forth to present a harder target. "You get it?" he demanded.

"Don't think so. Can't see that far in--" Lee was cut off as another burst of plasma shot out from the trees. This time he raked the grove with an extended burst that ripped through nearly all of the remaining trees.

Cailean glanced back, weapon at the ready. "I can dismount. Cover me while I take care of that bastard."

Leon shook his head. "Not worth it. We don't know how many of them there are, and I'd rather not risk an ambush." He pointed ahead: the Warthog now had a clear path towards the volcano's slope. "If they want to chase us, we'll be waiting for them up there."

He gunned the Warthog and sped onwards.

***

Fero 'Guraza huffed with irritation. He lay prone amidst the ruined grove, not even daring to lift his head up to watch the retreating Warthog in case a sniper was waiting to take his head off. It was risky to attack the vehicle with the weapons he had, but after he'd been lucky enough to actually reach the slope of this mountain before his quarry he hadn't wanted to waste the opportunity.

Foolish. I cannot take risks like that in the future.

He had pursued the Demons ever since they had driven away from the abandoned military outpost. Their vehicle gave them speed, but he had mobility. While they navigated the winding path, he had correctly guessed their destination and taken a far more direct route.

For all the good it seems to have done me, he thought irritably. He was lucky the machine gun bursts hadn't cut him in half, and luckier still that the Demons had chosen to drive on rather than turning to attack him. They would be on guard now; he would have to be far more cunning in the future.

But I still know where they are. And next time, they will not escape me.

He would need to pursue them, and soon. But for now he was content to remain here on the ground, catching his breath and being grateful that he was even still alive.

22

West of the Waterfall, SOTF Island

Day One, 1225 Hours


Joshua-G024 listened intently as the names boomed across the island he found himself on.

“After that, Lancaster-205 decided that he'd prey on a fellow Spartan, and paid for it with a knife to the throat.”

“Fuck,” he said under his breath, as his body instinctively stiffened up. It was one thing to be on a strange island, it was another to know that fellow Spartans were fighting each other. He reclined his bare head against a tree, his eyes staring vacantly over the cliff face. To the west, he could hear the sounds of a waterfall. He closed his eyes and allowed his mind to drift slightly, picturing the small galaxy of rainbows that often formed at the bottom of them.

Another boom across the island shot his eyes open. “Avalokiteśvara went down shortly after that, proving that when you're nothing but crystal and wiring you don't stand much of a chance in a fair fight.”

Josh’s thoughts immediately turned to Amy. If Svara was here – she must be here, too. He wasn’t worried. Amy was more than capable of winning this thing, this grotesque showing. Josh was determined to ensure that if anyone won, it was her.

He stood up, rotated his shoulder blades and lifted up his helmet. He stopped and squinted his eyes. He saw a lens flare in the distance.

“Shit!” He barked as his helmet exploded in his hand from the impact of the sniper round.

Josh rolled behind the tree, breathing raggedly. He peaked round the cover, another shot went off and a piece of bark implanted itself under his right eye. He groaned as he yanked it out. Blood began to gently trickle down his face.

The young Spartan took two deep breaths as he rolled round the cover and managed to pick up his Designated Marksman Rifle. He sprinted towards the next closest tree, skidding and landing his shoulder hard against it with a metallic thump!

“Where are you?” He cursed. Josh shouldered his DMR and slowly left his cover, his eyes firmly fixed down the scope. His heightened senses quickly found the lens flare, squeezing the trigger three times. He heard someone else curse. A smile appeared upon the young adult’s lips.

Josh advanced forward, moving further inland away from the cliff’s edge on his left, and deeper into the forest. The sounds of the waterfall becoming ever closer.

The huge beads of sweat that had formed on top of his head, had turned into torrents that streamed into his eyes, stinging them. He raised an armoured finger and wiped away as much as he could. Immediately following, two, three round bursts impacted against his chest causing his shields to flare only a little.

Whoever fired that must be far away, he thought. Am I facing more than one person?'

Josh’s hand gripped tighter on his gun’s trigger as he swung it around recklessly, desperately trying to find his attacker.

“Come out!” He screamed.

Josh got another glimpse of a lens flare and was barely able to get out of the way as he felt the wind of a passing sniper round.

He had to take several deep breaths to calm himself down. Easy, Josh, easy. He took one more and began moving forward again, moving slower than before. Ahead of him he could see the spray from the waterfall and decided that would be the best place for him to go.

The headhunter moved delicately between trees, desperate not to get caught by what was an unusually high-powered sniper. Josh took cover behind a rock, and then positioned himself over it, looking down at the river that fed the waterfall. He couldn’t see much, but on the other bank he saw a vague shimmer. It reminded him vaguely of the Semi-Powered Infiltration armour he had used before being assigned to ONI.

With nothing but faint hope to go on, Josh slowly depressed the trigger. It impacted on the vague shimmer, causing the photo-reflective panels to fail momentarily.

“Got you!” He said, as he began to fire more rapidly. The enemy Spartan took three rounds in the back before a forth finally broke through the armour and hit impacted in his shoulder. The other Spartan swung round and began firing a pistol at Josh. Several bullets impacted just on the rock he was positioned on, forcing him to duck.

Josh grit his teeth and peeked over again. He could see his opponent scrambling behind a tree. Josh fired until his clip was empty and began to reload it, his eyes plastered on his enemy’s position. The camouflaged Spartan popped out of his cover and threw at grenade at Josh.

Josh jumped from the rock and rolled on the ground. The blast went off a few metres away from him, the shrapnel caused his shields to flare, with a few pieces puncturing his suit around his ribs: he felt no pain. He stumbled back up onto his feet and looked across the river. He couldn’t see his adversary any more. Josh inhaled deeply, and exhaled sharply; steeling himself for the advance across the river.

He moved forward not in cover and between the cliff face and the treeline. His head screeching in agony. The Spartan kept moving forward. This time, he didn’t see the lens flare and instead found himself staring above the foliage and directly at the blue sky. He struggled to his feet. An intense pain flooded his body. Josh looked at the ground below him and saw a pool of blood, slowly growing larger. It dripped from his abdomen.

“He got me,” he said, smirking slightly.

Josh got to his feet, finally, and charged towards the river bed. The pain in his abdomen having subsided.

As he reached the middle of the river bed, he was thrown from his feet by a huge explosion. His body flew over the edge of the waterfall, and was dumped into the river below; face first.

“Not like this!” He screamed into the water. Josh tried desperately to right himself, but found to his horror that in the explosion, both legs had been completely severed, and both arms had been reduced to stumps from below the elbow. The water continued to rush mercilessly into his lungs. With his brain starved of oxygen, he began to feel euphoric.

“At least I got my wish,” he said laughing maniacally. A smile found its way onto his face as the blackness became total.

***

Kyle-B115 watched Josh’s body fly through the air with the help of the scope on his heavily customised sniper rifle. A twang of regret formed in the chest of the surviving Spartan. He lifted his head from the sniper and slid down into a sitting posture behind the firing position he had made for himself.

“This isn’t right,” he said aloud. Kyle didn’t want to kill fellow Spartans, but Kyle didn’t want to die either. It was an existential spiral from which he knew he would never, truly recover.

He removed his helmet and set it down before taking out his canteen. He took some of the water and sloshed it about his move before swallowing with a gasp. He poured some over his head and rubbed his scalp vigorously.

Kyle placed his small handgun back into the hilt of his sniper and carefully attached it to the magnetic plate on the back of his SPI armour. He put his helmet back on and shouldered his battle rifle.

He set off, his eyes fixed ahead with a deep determination to survive any way he could.

COMPETITOR 036 - JOSHUA-G024 - ELIMINATED

23

Eastern River, SOTF Island

Day One, 1248 Hours


Even over the distant roar of the waterfall, Jin Cheung could hear the gunfire. Clad in a suit of RANGER-class MJOLNIR armour, he moved slowly along the river's edge, clutching his MA5K carbine. Glancing upwards, he saw the spray of water as an explosion sounded. Moments later, he caught sight of a figure dropping over the edge and hitting the bottom with a tremendous splash. Cheung dashed forward, splashing into the river. Moments later, he froze.

Oh shit, it's a Spartan.

A bloodied, mangled corpse drifted towards him. Cheung grabbed hold of its shoulders - the body was missing its limbs - and dragged the remains over to the riverbank. These grisly injuries made even a seasoned veteran like him feel uneasy. That announcer had listed several Spartans as KIA, and by the looks of things everyone was fighting for themselves in this game. He shook his head sadly.

"Sorry you had to go like this," he muttered, standing up. "Better track down your killer."

***

From across the river, David King watched from the trees as the other Spartan rose. He'd been tracking Jeung from afar for some time now, watching his movements and waiting for the time to strike. His own MJOLNIR suit had been designed for the hunting down of targets, and despite the other man's augmented senses, King had evaded him thus far.

Need to wait for him to rest. The moment he lets his guard down, I'll strike.

King dropped down, crawling as slowly as he dared to stay off Jeung's motion tracker as he edged into the water. It was barely knee-deep, and the waterfall masked all noise as he kept his eyes on his prey's exposed back. Jeung finished checking the dismembered body for equipment, and began to walk towards the nearby cliffs, totally unaware that he was being stalked by the black-armoured Spartan.

***

The cliff face ahead of Cheung might have seemed impassable to most, but the Spartan's keen vision had already spotted a number of potential handholds to help in his ascent. It would likely be a slow climb, but quicker than the alternative of heading south until the steep rocks became an easily-climbed slope. He stowed his MA5K on his back and readied himself for a moment before leaping ahead, armoured fingers digging into a crack as he began to heave himself upwards. It was then that he noticed a red dot on his tracker heading towards him at some speed.

What the-

David King collided with Cheung with a great deal of force, a thruster-powered charge sending the other Spartan crashing to the ground, shields dissipating. The black-armoured assassin drew his M6 pistol and fired a flurry of shots that would have killed Cheung, had a desperate burst from his own thrusters not allowed him to roll into a nearby ditch.

Damn, King shook his head. Was hoping to take him out instantly.

Stowing away the weapon, King drew his BR85 rifle and steadied it, moving towards Cheung's position. He couldn't afford to be reckless now that he was facing an armed Spartan, especially in the event that he was facing an opponent whose skills surpassed his own. His foe's shields had recharged by the time he came into view, giving Cheung protection as he took the first two bursts to the chest before ducking behind a large tree. King sidestepped as a hail of gunfire from the Spartan's carbine emerged, firing blindly to buy a few more seconds.

"Hey!" Cheung called. "We don't have to do this. We're both Spartans, so let's talk this out."

He's practically begging for his life here.

King's reply was to empty the rest of his magazine into Cheung's cover, smashing through enough of the tree that his enemy had to roll away, still backing off into the woods. This had gone from a quick execution to a hunt in seconds as King began to run, chasing his quarry further into the woods. His armoured boots kicked up dirt and grass with each heavy footfall, slowly catching up to the retreating Spartan. Eventually he'd tire or try to fight back, giving him more than enough time to end this.

"Okay!" called Cheung from ahead. "You had your chance."

As King had predicted, the enemy Spartan slowed down for just a moment. Having reloaded his rifle, all the assassin had to do was lay down enough fire to break through those shields - four to five bursts by his reckoning - and it would all be over. While Cheung drew his carbine once more, he began firing at something far ahead.

Did he spot someone else?

Zooming in on his HUD, King couldn't quite make out what Cheung was shooting at, and so simply decided to keep going. He sprinted forward and raised his rifle towards the other man's exposed back. While the first few shots found their mark, there was a sudden creaking from nearby as the Spartan dived to the floor. King looked up just in time to see a tree trunk coming towards him, and attempted to step aside - a second too slow. While it missed his head, the heavy wood smashed into his shoulder with tremendous force. King hit the ground and tasted blood in his mouth as the rifle fell away from him and realisation dawned.

The tree. That bastard was shooting at the tree.

He would've found the very idea hilarious if it hadn't just cost him his chances of victory. King's armour was badly dented and while his augmented bones probably weren't broken, the pain in his shoulder was incredible. He rolled over, gritting his teeth as he clambered to his feet. His backup weapon, a MA5D Assault Rifle, had been crushed by his fall and his discarded it, drawing his half-empty handgun. It was then that King heard a click from behind him.

"I warned you," Jin Cheung spoke from behind him, a suppressed pistol raised.

At this range, he'd be able to take out King with just a few shots, shields or no shields. King froze, weighing up his options. He was outmatched here, and he knew it. He doubted that any attempts at diplomacy would work at this point, nor was he about to beg for his life. With one hand grasping his gun and the other slowly drifting towards his belt, he spoke.

"I hope you're ready."

The moment the words left his mouth, King span round, drawing the combat knife from his belt and flinging it towards Cheung's throat in a single motion as he opened fire. For the briefest of moments, the assassin thought he'd won, only to look on as the Spartan's hand shot up and caught the knife mid-flight and toss it back even harder. It sliced through two of King's fingers, and as his weapon fell from his hand Cheung emptied his entire magazine into the now-unarmed supersoldier's chest. His attacker spasmed as each round hit him, audibly coughing up blood as he futilely reached out towards him in a last, desperate gesture. Several seconds later, David King slumped over and fell still.

Cheung sighed. "Yeah, I was."

COMPETITOR 038 - DAVID KING - ELIMINATED

24

Northern Deepwoods, SOTF Island

Day One, 1259 Hours


In the eerie silence of the island's wooded area, the sound of Brandon Smith's boots seemed unnaturally loud as he wandered aimlessly through the trees. His battered combat armour was spattered with dirt and blood, both Human and alien from his earlier battle. While he'd tried in vain to bury the corpse of the rebel soldier he'd befriended, the rain had made such a task impossible and forced him to abandon Elijah Cavorel's corpse as he journeyed onwards. The man who'd been running this game - the Announcer - had said something about vehicles being dropped in bases around the island, meaning that there had to be some buildings for him to hole up in.

At the very least, I'll be able to find others. If they're not fixed on murdering each other, we could find a way out of this mess.

Sighing wistfully, Smith continued through the woods, intending to keep heading north in search of others.

***

Aleksander Makosky was starting to crack.

After awakening on the foothills of the nearby volcano, the rebel pilot had been trying his best to stay out of everyone's way, creeping through the forest and keeping his only weapon - an M6H Magnum - at the ready. Right now he was sat inside a hollow log, which had offered some protection from the rain. Aside from the distant crack signalling a gunshot or the shrill whine of plasma fire in the distance, he'd run into no one. At first, the man had simply assumed that this was some kind of sick experiment run by the UNSC until the announcements had come in.

"...as Elijah Cavorel went down in a blaze of plasma fire..."

He knew - or at least knew of - the likes of Cavorel, who'd made a name for himself back on Victoria. While he wouldn't have put it past the UNSC to round up Insurrectionists for a murderous game like this, news of alien races and even the feared Spartan supersoldiers killing each other had worried him beyond belief, especially since a number of them had died already. As a pilot, Makosky knew he stood little chance on the ground, even with the promise of airborne vehicles being dropped in on the island, he had no idea of where he was and was content to stay put for as long as he could.

But am I just delaying the inevitable?

There was a chance, however small, that everyone else in this contest would end up dying before he did. He could simply hide for as long as possible and at the very end, hope to meet a tired, wounded opponent that even he could easily kill. It wasn't much, but the prospect did comfort Makosky slightly. He reached into his nearby bag and took out a water bottle, intending to ration his supplies as much as possible. As he begun to unscrew the cap, a loud snap from nearby made him jump and drop it. He froze in horror as the bottle rolled down the nearby slope.

***

It might have just been due to the silence of the woods, but the sound of the twig breaking underneath Brandon Smith's boot sounded particularly loud for some reason. Pausing for a moment as he considered swapping out his shotgun for Elijah Cavorel's sniper rifle, the ODST caught a glimpse of something rolling towards him and threw himself to one side, expecting a grenade. After a few seconds of lying face-down in a pile of leaves, he rolled over to see that it was little more than a water bottle.

"The hell..." he muttered, creeping forward.

This was either a gift, or someone had dropped it. Taking out the sniper rifle, he edged forward, keeping it aimed up the nearby slope. Glancing around, he called out into the woods.

"Hey, anyone out there?! If you're Human, we'll talk."

Aleksander Makosky hadn't moved from his position, crouched with his back to the tree bark. With his handgun in one hand, he turned a fraction, peeking through a tiny hole in the wood to see who was calling out to him. It was an Orbital Drop Shock Trooper, and by the looks of things, he'd already seen battle. While the man was calling out in a friendly manner, Makosky could see that he was heavily armed. He'd likely kill him the moment he showed his face.

"If you don't come out, I'm coming up there!" Smith warned, standing up.

Sweating profusely, the rebel airman quietly placed his flight helmet on for extra protection, took a deep breath, and readied his handgun. The trooper had no idea where he was or how well-armed he was, so Makosky reached into his pack for a second bottle and inched towards the other end of the hollow log. Taking a deep breath, he flung it down towards the armoured soldier and quickly dashed towards the other end, raising his pistol.

It's you or me, you oonskie bastard!

Smith swivelled round as the second bottle shot out from his left. In the split-second it took for him to realise it was harmless, a figure dived out from within a log above him, firing a handgun wildly. Two shots glanced off his armour and a third buried itself in his shoulder plate, prompting the ODST to drop to one knee and fire twice. Both high-caliber rounds hit his attacker squarely in the chest, sending him staggering backwards through sheer force. He tossed the weapon aside and rushed uphill, drawing his own Magnum.

"Goddamnnit!" he yelled as he approached the dying man. "I told you I was friendly, didn't I?"

Numbed with shock, Makosky could barely hear the soldier's words as he approached. He hadn't stood a chance, just like he thought. Slumped against a tree in a sitting position, his vision blurred slightly as he looked up, sunlight peeking through the forest canopy.

It's not so bad, I-

Shaking his head, the trooper knelt down by the bloodied corpse and closed his lifeless eyes. It was clear to Smith now that he'd have to contend with a lot more than just Covenant forces on this island, and perhaps even some famed Spartan supersoldiers willing to kill everyone else just to stay alive. He sighed, and prepared to gather up his supplies for the journey north.

COMPETITOR 019 - ALEKSANDER MAKOSKY - ELIMINATED

25

The Lake, SOTF Island

Day One, 1316 Hours


"You see that?"

"Yeah. Poor bastard."

Emerging from the forest, Ash Mitchell and Cody-B042 strode along the outskirts of the island's lake, the former still hefting the Gravity Hammer they'd taken from that Jiralhanae earlier. The pair had spent some time trying to raise local UNSC forces on multiple frequencies before deeming it useless, and had decided to head for the island's volcano while they still could. Moving across the grassy shore, they stopped by the headless corpse of Leonardo Simmons and stood in silence for a few moments.

"Must be a few hours old," Mitchell mused, crouching by it.

"Split-lip, judging by the cauterisation."

The ODST looked around, spying spent shell casings in the grass around them and the hilt of what looked like an energy weapon still clutched in the dead man's hands.

"Looks like he went down fighting, at least."

"Yeah."

"Should we bury him?"

Cody sighed. "No point, really. Besides, where would we get-"

The Spartan stopped abruptly and held up a hand to silence Mitchell as he slowly turned round, looking towards the island's southern point.

"Hear that?" he said, drawing his MA5K.

"No, what is it?"

"Banshee. Heading our way."

It took a few seconds before the horribly familiar wail that the Covenant flier had been nicknamed for drifted into hearing. Sure enough, a distant speck was growing larger on the horizon as it streaked towards them. Mitchell gulped and looked to the Spartan for direction. Cody glanced back and forth between patches of forest and realised that they'd gotten themselves caught in open ground; there was no way they'd make it back into cover in time. Still, they had to try.

"Mitchell, start running. I'll try and draw him away."

"You sure?"

"I'm faster than you, trooper. Now move!"

As they parted, Mitchell headed north and Cody ran westwards, keeping his eyes on the sky. Sure enough, the Covenant flier had spotted them, and changed its trajectory to pursue the Spartan and his ally. Its plasma cannons opened fire and bolts of bright energy streaked around him as he ran, burning up grass as the banshee made its first run. He let loose a one-handed burst from his carbine, though it did little more than ping off the vehicle's outer hull. Finally reaching the treeline, Cody threw himself to one side to avoid a second volley and rolled as far as he could before leaping up again. The banshee broke off its attack, unable to locate the Spartan.

That's you beaten, bastard. Now, just gotta-

To his surprise, the banshee had begun to fire once more, not far from his position. Mitchell. Against his better judgement, Cody raced out to see the trooper zig-zagging left and right with the banshee's plasma bolts barely missing him. He soon realised why the trooper hadn't gotten to cover: the treeline was on fire.

"Ah, shit," he muttered, checking the ammo counter on his weapon before jogging forward.

***

Even if the two Humans had heard him coming, they could do little to fight back against him.

Pulling up from another strafing run, Lhor 'Konar was impressed at his foes and their ability to survive this long. The Demon had fled instantly, leaving his companion to run for his life by the lakeside. He took no pleasure in gunning down the other participants in this game in such a manner, but it was certainly easier than risking his life against the pair in a ground engagement. After setting the ODST's escape route ablaze with a well-aimed fuel rod blast from his craft's cannons, he would simply continue to attack until the Human could no longer evade him.

Then, I will burn this entire forest down if it means drawing out this Demon.

On the ground, Ash Mitchell found himself trapped. With the fire spreading just ahead of him, he'd have to retreat back towards Cody if he had any chance of survival. Jumping in the lake would spell the death of him if it was too deep to climb out, though his suit did have enough air to survive a few minutes underwater at least. With any luck, the Banshee would think him dead.

"Okay," Mitchell muttered to himself. "Time for a swim."

He began running at full-pelt as the Banshee opened fire, each shot barely missing him as he dashed ahead. Out of the corner of his eye the trooper spotted Cody-B042 exiting the forest, firing his carbine in a futile attempt to hamper their attacker. This momentary distraction slowed him down for a split-second, and as he turned back towards the lake, Mitchell was struck twice in the side by white-hot energy bolts. He staggered towards the water, tossing the heavy hammer aside as he grunted in pain. As he prepared to jump, there was a tremendous flash of green energy right next to him. Everything went black.

"Mitchell!"

Across the grassy field, Cody watched in horror as Ash Mitchell's body was sent flying into the lake by the blast, his gravity hammer landing close to the headless corpse they had discovered earlier. After raking the water's surface with plasma fire as though ensuring Mitchell's demise, the banshee slowly turned back to face Cody, who tossed aside his empty weapon and clenched his fists in anger. His Shotgun would do no good here, but a plan was already formulating in the Spartan's mind as he took off.

This is absolutely insane, he thought, racing across the grass with one arm outstretched. But it'll work. It's the only chance I've got.

Vaguely noticing that the flier had opened fire once more, Cody leapt ahead and stooped to pick up the Gravity Hammer. His fingers had barely closed around the heavy weapon when he was forced to throw himself to the ground as the banshee rocketed past, attempting to ram him. Even in MJOLNIR armour he wouldn't have survived such an impact. The SPARTAN-III steadied the weapon, walking slowly to a more open area as his foe began yet another strafing run. He'd have exactly one chance at this.

Gotta line it up just right...

For whatever reason, Lhor 'Konar's banshee wasn't firing. Seeing that the Spartan intended to stand his ground, it was attempting to crush him to death once more. Cody smiled, inwardly thanking the inherent stupidity that surrounded a Sangheili's idea of honour in battle. He raised the weapon like a javelin and, waiting to the very last moment, leapt to one side with this armour's thruster pack before flinging the weapon directly at the decelerating banshee. The weapon hit its mark, smashing into the outer hull and emitting a shockwave that sent the aircraft spiralling out of control. It attempted to turn around, only to have most of the right wing fall to pieces as it lost power, finally crashing into the dirt by the lakeside.

Gotcha.

As Cody approached, the banshee's cockpit was flung open and a white-armoured figure emerged - a Sangheili Ranger. Though slightly dazed from the crash, Lhor was no worse for wear, aside from the intense anger that followed losing his vehicle so soon after acquiring it. Cody drew his M45 Shotgun as Lhor leapt forward, only to raise it in defence as the warrior flung an active plasma grenade towards him. It stuck to the weapon's barrel, forcing him to toss it aside and move as it detonated with a bright flash. Sighing as he drew his machete, something dawned on Cody.

He was aiming for my gun with that, wasn't he? Just so we could fight like this.

He really, really, really hated Sangheili.

Standing across from the Spartan, Lhor ignited his Type-1 Energy Sword. So far its only use had been against a bunch of worthless machines and that AI construct. Now he could actually use it against a real foe. The Demon possessed only a primitive metal blade, though he knew enough of their speed and skill to know they should not be taken lightly. Lhor's own cybernetics would more then make up for his disadvantages in this fight - he hoped - and hopefully prove to be the deciding factor. After a moment of circling each other, the pair lunged forward. Beneath his helmet, the Sangheili was privately overjoyed.

This is what I've been waiting for.

Cody ducked under the first swing, attempting to stab his foe through the gut. He missed by inches and was forced back by a flurry of swipes and slashes that even he had trouble avoiding. Lhor was surprisingly agile, using his armour's antigrav pack to augment his attacks and dodge any counters from Cody. The Spartan knew full well that a direct clash would rend his weapon asunder, and so was opting to dodge and stab when necessary. As he evaded yet another attack, Lhor kicked his suit's thrusters into gear and slammed directly into the Spartan, knocking him down and sending the machete spinning out of his hand. Cody activated his own thrusters and kicked the Ranger back, though his antigrav pack kept him upright.

"You lack a weapon," Lhor mocked his foe, "Surely you realise you cannot win?"

At this, Cody laughed. "You think I need a weapon to beat you to death, split-lip? I was just being fair."

"Your empty bravado will do you no good."

"Eat shit."

Lhor dashed forward and delivered what would have been a fatal stab, only for Cody to step aside and grab his right arm. His prosthetic arm. The Spartan paused for a second in surprise as the limb did not break under his immense strength, and received a punch in the face that sent him sprawling to the ground. Lhor noticed deep grooves in his armour where Cody had attempted to snap his limb in half, but no real damage. He approached Cody, who backed off as quickly as he could before the warrior's blade.

"Make peace with your Gods, Demon, for you are about to meet them."

As he moved in to deliver the final blow, Lhor caught a blip on the side of his HUD heading straight for him. He turned to see a badly-wounded, soaking wet Human in charred black armour charging him with a machete in hand. As the Sangheili brought his sword round to behead the interloper, Cody pounced forward and delivered a heavy kick to his abdomen that knocked the air from his lungs. While his sword dipped for a moment in his left hand, Lhor was able to bring up the right just in time to take the brunt of Mitchell's blow. The blade sunk deeply into his robotic arm and became stuck, allowing him to send Mitchell flying backwards with a punch.

"Hey asshole!" Cody yelled from behind him.

He span round with a slash, only to have the Spartan's fist slam into his face, smashing his helmet's visor. The energy sword's handle fell from his fingers for just a moment, only to be snatched up by Cody mid-air. Unable to move quickly enough, Lhor 'Konar could only roar in anger as he was stabbed through the chest with his own blade, finally succumbing moments later.

"Damn," Cody breathed, deactivating the blade as Lhor's body went limp. "I guess we're even now, trooper."

A few feet away, Ash Mitchell climbed shakily to his feet, clutching his side. The ODST tossed his helmet to the ground, his breath ragged.

"Yeah," he muttered. "Something like that."

"Mitchell?"

As Cody got a good look at the Helljumper, he felt a hollow pang of grief as he saw the man's injuries. The plasma fire and fuel rod explosion had gouged massive chunks of flesh from his abdomen and several fingers on one arm were missing entirely. The fact that Mitchell had survived getting out of the lake was a miracle. Looking incredibly pale, Ash Mitchell gave a pained grin and shrugged at the Spartan.

"Guess we won't have to kill each other now, huh."

Cody didn't respond, unsure of what to say.

"I'm done," Mitchell continued, suddenly swaying on the spot. "Good luck with the game, I guess."

With that, his eyes rolled upwards and he pitched forward onto the grass where he lay, unmoving. Cody stood rooted to the spot for well over a minute, internally and externally recovering from his arduous battle. He'd only known the trooper for a few hours, but had come to respect Mitchell's bravery in a situation like this. Standing completely alone by the lakeside, surrounded by corpses, the SPARTAN-III began to gather supplies for the battles to come.

COMPETITOR 002 - LHOR 'KONAR - ELIMINATED
COMPETITOR 041 - ASH MITCHELL - ELIMINATED

26

Western Mountainside, SOTF Island

Day One, 1334 Hours


As the last Marine collapsed to the ground, uniform smouldering with plasma burns, Sev 'Ikavowattinrzo exhaled. He lowered his customised plasma rifle, God's Word, and surveyed the nearby landscape.

Where could they have come from?

Only minutes ago, the Sangheili had slowly been making his way up the cliffside, only to come under fire from a group of Human soldiers not twenty feet away. How he hadn't heard their approach was beyond him, as even he had made a lot of noise ascending towards the summit. They'd been quickly dealt with, of course, though their surprise appearance gave him pause. Everything about this island was strange to him.

Make for higher ground, they said.

From where he was, Sev could get a good look at most of the island's western side. While there wasn't much to see beyond the sea of trees, he soon realised that something was different from the last time he'd looked back. After a few moments, realisation dawned on him.

"The beach is gone."

They'd been told that the tides of this area would rise, no doubt to force them together as the competition was whittled down, but he had no idea it would happen so soon. At this rate, he guessed that most of the forest would be underwater by the end of the day. Those who survived long enough to make it up here were either competent fighters or blessed with a great deal of luck. Sev hadn't encountered any opponents aside from the odd group of roaming Humans, but something about them made him doubt that they were his true foes.

I'll reach the summit soon. Need to be prepared.

As Sev stooped for a moment to check the charge on God's Word, a shadow fell over him. The warrior barely had time to throw himself to one side as a blade slashed through the air where he'd been jut a moment ago. Jumping to his feet, Sev ignited his own sword in one hand, moving into a combat-ready stance as he got a good look at his attacker. It was another Sangheili, clad in battered, dirty red armour. He'd evidently already seen combat.

"Impressive," Kambei 'Nerevar turned slowly, raising his weapon. "Any slower and I would have beheaded you."

The two Sangheili stood still, each waiting for the other to make the first move. This would not be an honourable duel, Sev could tell. A bloodstained Curveblade hung from Kambei's belt, while a muddied Storm rifle sat attached to his combat harness. His armour's unusual design only served to make Sev more wary. Standing slightly above the warrior in white and gold, the red-suited Crusader had a definite advantage on this sort of terrain.

"You will wish you had ended this quickly," Sev remarked, his body tensing up.

"Perhaps."

Kambei sprang forward, and Sev let loose a torrent of plasma fire towards his foe. To his surprise, the Crusader neglected to dodge or even slow down, simply raising his heavily-armoured left arm and swatting away bolts as if they were nothing. A shield had been attached to his gauntlet, which unlike the rest of Kambei's armour appeared to be made from something akin to starship metal. Holstering his weapon, Sev dashed forward as the pair clashed, energy swords hissing as they locked together for a few moments.

He's stronger, Sev reflected as Kambei pressed forward, But I'm faster.

As it seemed like the Crusader would overpower him, Sev kicked his foe and launched himself away, falling backwards and rolling to dodge a vicious swipe from Kambei. He moved quickly, darting back and forth with swift cuts and stabs that put Kambei on the defensive as he deftly parried blow after blow with frightening speed. Sev began to doubt his previous thoughts; Kambei's first attack had been fairly slow yet powerful, but had evidently been just to test Sev's own strength. After that initial exchange, he had sped up to easily match his opponent.

Kambei stepped back to avoid another blow before speaking. "The gap in our skills is evident. Do not prolong your demise."

Sev knew the Crusader was taunting him; trying to trick him into making a fatal mistake. Crouching low for a moment, he sprang forward with a roar, making it look as though he had been provoked. Kambei moved to fell Sev in a single strike, raising his blade in anticipation. At the last moment, Sev reeled back and snapped God's Word up into his hand, firing on Kambei's unprotected right side. While his shields took the brunt of the damage, it was enough to throw him off-balance as a few bolts seared his armour. Taking his chance, Sev lunged to impale the Crusader.

Then, Kambei dropped his sword.

Time seemed to slow down as the Sangheili Crusader tossed his weapon aside, the blades dissipating as the hilt struck the rocky mountainside. While he wouldn't have been able to move in time to block Sev's blow with his blade, it gave him the opportunity to drop to one knee and raise his shield. Both prongs of his sword hit the metal, burning through the already-charred surface as Kambei was slowly pushed to the floor.

It's useless, Sev thought, knowing that the other warrior could reach neither of his backup weapons.

With a heavy grunt of exertion, Kambei twisted slightly just as Sev's blade broke through his targe. It cut deeply into the flesh of his left arm, but gave him time enough to reach forward and snatch something from Sev's belt. Fumbling for just a moment as he tried to put aside the agonising pain, Kambei primed both of the stolen plasma grenades and punched them into Sev's chest armour before kicking the other Sangheili away.

"No!"

The warrior in white roared as the glowing orbs of energy grew hotter and brighter against him. He ran towards Kambei, who had pushed his injured body towards the edge of a nearby slope. Within the next few seconds, he realised he wouldn't make it. Sev 'Ikavowattinrzo disappeared in a flash of blinding light, blasting apart the nearby mountainside.

***

Halfway down the mountain, Kambei 'Nerevar hung over a sheer drop, his curveblade planted deeply into the rock. His body burned from a dozen new injuries, and there was little feeling in his left arm. His Storm Rifle had been lost in the fall, and he had no idea if he'd be able to recover any other weapons from above. With an almighty push, he heaved himself back up to safety, giving a silent prayer to whoever had made such a sturdy weapon.

That's two kills to my name now.

He lay on his back, staring up at the cloudy sky. Kambei would rest a while longer and recuperate before making his ascent once more, knowing that there would be tougher foes to come.

COMPETITOR 024 - SEV 'IKAVOWATTINRZO - ELIMINATED

27

Eastern Beach, SOTF Island

Day One, 1341 Hours


"Shit, I've gotta get out of here."

Splashing through shin-high water, Jonathan Watts was regretting his decision to stop and rest by some nearby rocks. Before he knew it, the tide was rising far quicker than he'd expected and he was running for his life. Glancing towards the distant volcano, the Insurrectionist pilot changed course as he finally moved onto dry land and a nearby hill that led into the forest.

Those bastards weren't lying when they said to make for higher ground. Guess we're being fenced in.

Pausing to ensure that the ocean wasn't rushing uphill towards him, Watts sat on a nearby rock to empty the water from his boots before continuing. After his narrow victory over that Spartan back in the fishing village earlier, he'd been laying low in case any of the supersoldier's vengeful comrades had come looking for him. Through sheer luck, nobody had found him yet.

Can't run forever, he reflected, wringing out a sock. At best, I can hope everyone else kills each other before-

As he prepared to move, Watts caught the tiniest movement from the left and span round, drawing his handgun. Down the slope was a man in black, slowly creeping through the forest. By the looks of it, he was well-armed and prepared for combat. The rebel knelt down, pondering over what to do. While he stood a much greater chance in combat against a regular Human than he did against a Spartan, he still only had his pistol. One wasted opportunity could lead to his death. Slowly inhaling, he levelled the handgun and lined up a shot just as his target stopped. As Watts finger squeezed the trigger, the man threw himself to the ground.

"Fuck."

The next three shots missed as Watts tried to hit the man in black, who was using the dense foliage to cover his advance. Moments later, a hail of suppressed submachine gun fire hailed past, forcing him back. There were a few moments of absolute silence, Watts flattening himself against a nearby tree while carefully peeking downhill. What he had hoped to be a swift assassination was turning into a drawn-out gunfight.

***

Well, damn.

As he straightened up behind the cover of a dense thicket, Mitchel Sanders felt blood trickling down the side of his face. Checking with a finger, he realised he'd been hit through the ear. While not a serious injury, it was starting to burn like hell and served as a reminder that someone had almost got the drop on him.

He's got the high ground, but isn't well armed.

The assassin had made slow progress through the island, keeping as hidden as possible as he searched for new opponents. The death of several Spartans during the announcements had pleased him, as he had no wish to go up against the armoured supersoldiers in a fight, fair or otherwise. He shook his head and wiped away the blood, checking his gun in one hand while the other fingered the hilt of his unique energy katana.

This guy doesn't seem like much. If I get in close, it's all over.

***

Watts had backed away from the precipice of the hill, and realised that any retreat towards the south would likely be cut off by the advancing tide. While he could swim, he'd be a sitting duck if he attempted to escape that way. He sighed, checking his handgun's ammo before crouching low and preparing to make a break for it to the west. The trees would likely give him enough cover to evade gunfire if he was fast enough, and he'd be nigh-impossible to track with conventional methods if he made it to those far-off cornfields.

"Well, here goes nothing," he whispered to himself.

The pilot's choice to escape was hampered somewhat as an object flew towards him the moment he began to move, burying itself in his left shoulder. Watts yelled and fell to one side, pulling out a black-handled hilt as his flesh charred and cauterised in an instant. Blinking back the pain, he held it up as he tumbled to the ground. It looked like a Human-based weapon - a sai, if he wasn't mistaken - fitted with a Covenant energy blade. He deactivated it and stowed the weapon away in his belt.. Gritting his teeth as he heaved himself up, Watts had to move once more as bullets thudded into a nearby tree. He ducked and weaved until he found himself at the water's edge; the waves were creeping over the sand and towards the grassy forest.

Shit, dead end.

He span round and dropped to one knee, snapping up his handgun instantly. While wounded, Watts was a crack shot with his personal M6C. With four rounds spent, he had another eight to spare. He doubted his assailant would give him a chance to reload. To his right he caught a flash of movement as a dark figure ducked out from behind a tree. He loosed three shots, the last one striking the other man's chest with little effect.

"Body armour?" Watts shook his head. "What a load of shit."

Sanders had been winded by the direct hit, which had almost penetrated his bodysuit's armour. Panting slightly, he kept low and out of sight. While the other man didn't know it, he'd just expended the last of his SMG rounds in that burst of fire. While he had a handgun of his own to fall back on, exposing himself to fire it would only make him a target. As such, he drew the hilt of his katana and tossed the empty gun through the trees towards Watts' position.

I'll have one chance at this.

By the water's edge, Watts jerked to one side as something came spinning through the air. He fired three shots, knocking the empty weapon down as his attacker finally emerged, firing wildly with a handgun. The rebel was struck in the upper thigh as he rolled over, emptying the rest of his magazine in an attempt to down the advancing assassin. All but one shot missed, and though wounded in the arm Sanders kept going. Watts clambered to his feet, eyes widening as the energy katana flashed to life before him. While injured, he was quick enough to dodge the initial slash and jump backwards into the water.

"Nowhere to run," Sanders finally spoke, taunting him as he twirled the weapon.

He was right. He'd be dead before he reloaded his M6, leaving only the stolen sai tucked into the back of his belt as a defence. Sanders slowly began to advance, preparing for a two-handed strike that Watts couldn't possibly dodge. Judging by the half-empty handgun the assassin had holstered, the man had made the conscious decision to kill him up close and personal.

"Yeah, guess I'm in trouble," Watts sighed with a defiant smirk.

He wasn't sure why he was smiling in the face of near-certain death, but he was pretty sure it was pissing the other guy off. Backing away until the waves were nearly waist-deep, he slipped a hand beneath the water, fingers clasping around the deactivated weapon's hilt. As Sanders raised his weapon and lunged forward, Watts slipped the sai up, thumbed the activation switch and threw it at the other man's face. The sizzling blade struck Sanders' left eye and began to burn its way through his skull. The assassin screamed in sudden pain, letting go of his sword as he scrambled to wrench the sai out of his face. Watts dived forward and grabbed the falling weapon, raising it high above his head.

"Wait-"

He brought it down and in a single strike cut his foe's' head in two. The stink of burnt flesh filled the air, mixing with the salty sea breeze as Mitchel Sanders fell face-forward into the sea, his body slowly carried towards the shore by gentle waves. Jonathan Watts sighed deeply and began his own journey back to what little remained of the beach and the hill where he'd left his backpack. His wounds were thankfully minor, though he'd have to patch himself up before heading up towards the volcano. The rebel pilot deactivated the energy katana, having survived his second brush with death today.

COMPETITOR 043 - MITCHEL SANDERS - ELIMINATED

28

Southern Mountainside, SOTF Island

Day One, 1404 Hours


How long is this going to last?

From his lofty perch, Orval-163 watched as a pitched battle ensued halfway up the mountain. In the distance, a smoking M12 Warthog lay on its side, one half of it twisted beyond recognition from repeated plasma strikes. A trio of armoured figures were hunched nearby, periodically trading bursts of fire with a group of unseen assailants. They'd been at it for almost two hours now, with neither group able to gain a proper advantage.

"It's not gonna end," the Spartan muttered to himself as a fresh volley of plasma bolts erupted in the distance. "Might be time to move."

Careful not to stand up and give his position away, Orval began to slowly edge backwards, flattening himself against the rocky cliffside as he retrieved his bag and rifle. Since waking up on this island earlier, he had resolved to simply remain out of sight and defend himself if need be. Nobody - not a Spartan nor any UNSC personnel - could be trusted. The various deaths so far had proved that. As much as it pained him to do so, Orval would have to let his former comrades die. He sighed, and halted to check his motion tracker as a pebbled pinged off the side of his helmet.

How-

Orval dived forward as a blast struck from above, barely skirting his suit's energy shields. He hit the rocky ground hard, rolling round to bring his weapon to bear on the unseen attacker. Standing on the precipice just above Orval's hiding place was a shimmering figure, racking a well-used shotgun. Sighing, the Spartan raised his weapon and opened fire.

"Ah, fuck."

Throwing himself to one side, Simon-G294 cursed his rotten luck. He'd spent so much time scaling this mountainside as slowly as possible, maximising his Semi-Powered Infiltration armour's concealment abilities as he moved towards the Spartan's perch. He'd caught the tiniest glimpse of Orval's camp earlier, and despite identifying him as a SPARTAN-II had chosen to kill rather than avoid the other supersoldier.

"I guess where Spartans are concerned older is better, am I right?"

That's what the Announcer had said. There had been a fight atop this volcano, and Cassandra had died. Simon had no clue whether or not this guy had been the one to kill her, but he wasn't going to take any chances. He rolled as he hit the ground and sprang nimbly away as Orval's rifle fire raked past him. Moving this quickly messed with his suit's photoreactive panels, making it look as though a green-grey blur was ducking and weaving along the mountainside. Eventually the SPARTAN-II's rifle clacked empty, and as he reached for a second magazine, Simon dashed forward.

Six steps.

Simon knew that's how far he'd get by the time his target reloaded. Even with his enhanced speed, he'd never make it in time. That said, it'd be more than enough distance to get Orval close enough to his shotgun that energy shielding would hardly matter. Simon's boots crunched against the stones as he got closer, slowly raising the weapon. Then Orval dropped his gun and his hands went for a sidearm.

I was really hoping you wouldn't do that.

SPI armour was tough, but a full barrage of shots from an M6H handgun would be enough gravely injure the SPARTAN-III if they hit him in the right places. Once again, Simon tried darting to one side, flinging his shotgun at Orval as he evaded the first two bullets. The weapon gave his enemy pause for barely a second; enough for Simon to push off from the cliffside and leap at Orval. Two rounds struck him in the shoulder and helmet, though both barely grazed the side as he used his momentum to send the much bigger man tumbling backwards down the mountain. He wrenched the Magnum from Orval's hands and flung it away as they rolled down the rocky slope, tumbling over boulders as both Spartans attempted to slow their descent.

"Get off!" Orval yelled, digging his armoured fist into the ground as he kicked Simon away.

The air rushed out of the other Spartan's lungs as he felt the impact, which bent part of his chestplate inwards. Simon hit the ground hard as he smashed past a spindly tree, his vision blurring for a brief moment. They'd fallen some ways down, and had almost reached the slowly-flooding forest that blanketed the island. Simon sat up, ignoring a dozen cuts and bruises as he checked himself for weapons. His pistol had been lost somewhere in the fall, though he still had his bag and machete with him. As he clambered to his feet, something in the nearby bushes caught his eye. Simon approached it warily, drawing his blade with one hand. Then, he stopped.

No-

Lying in a nearby thicket, utterly drenched in blood and dirt, was a corpse in SPI armour. Its limbs were bent and broken in awkward angles, and most of the abdomen had been blasted away, exposing stinking flesh and cracked bone. The neck was clearly broken, and as Simon knelt down to touch the helmet, he saw that the visor had been smashed inwards. He knew who it was even before he gently turned it over, seeing the horribly disfigured face; a mess of blood and matted hair trailing over numerous lacerations. A pair of lifeless brown eyes stared up at the other Spartan. He closed them and stood up, gripping the handle of his machete all the tighter.

***

Orval had taken his helmet off to spit out a tooth he'd lost in the fall, but was otherwise none the worse for wear. He'd been cursing his inability to detect his attacked since that little bastard had opened fire on him earlier, and was now fully prepared to take his foe apart. He briefly wondered if the Spartans fighting near the summit had heard their little engagement, though chances were that they were too occupied with their own battle to take notice. The trail of dust from Orval and Simon's downhill tumble was still dissipating.

He's a brave one, I'll give him that. Or crazy.

The Spartan took a few strides uphill, spotting a glint of metal half-buried in stone. He stooped, and fished out a fully-loaded M6G Magnum. Now he knew his foe wasn't armed. A direct MJOLNIR-assisted kick would damn-near kill most people, but for another SPARTAN - which the other man almost certainly was - it probably wouldn't do much more than slow him down. Orval walked across the slope, eyes fixed on the forest's edge. He didn't want to risk moving in and risking another ambush unless it was absolutely necessary. Suddenly, he spotted a tiny flicker of movement at the farthest edges of his tracker's range.

"Gotcha."

He had both pistols raised before he turned the corner. Catching sight of a green-armoured figure laying in the grass, he unloaded both magazines into it. The body jerked soundlessly as high-caliber rounds ripped into it, splattering the grass with more flesh and blood. It was only after the last shot that Orval realised something was off. He approached the body and saw that its armour was utterly wrecked with damage; no fall or handgun injuries could've inflicted that on someone. As he turned the body over with one boot, there was a sudden flash of movement from his motion tracker.

"Motherfucker," a voiced hissed from above as Simon landed on Orval's back.

He had barely a second to act. Simon had ripped his poncho in half, and quickly draped it over Orval's visor. As the SPARTAN-II tried to throw him off, he tied the cloth tightly and rolled to the floor. He'd be blinded for only a moment until he ripped it off, but that was all the time he needed. Simon grabbed his machete and lunged forward, the metal piercing through beneath Orval's chestpiece and ripping apart his bodysuit underneath. Simon's grunt of exertion built into a feral cry as he continued to push forward, eviscerating the Spartan's insides with the blade as the supersoldier fell backwards. Removing it for only a moment, he plunged the blade into Orval's guts again.

And again.

And again.

By the time he had finished, Orval had long since stopped moving. Blood and guts littered the grass all around him, with Simon's dented suit drenched in dark ichor. Breathing slowly, he stood up, leaving the machete buried in his prey.

"Had to use her body as bait," he spoke, murmuring to himself. "No other way I could've won."

Losing and winning. That was what this game was about. He'd won, the other guy had lost. Above him, gunfire still echoed and others from across the island still journeyed towards this mountain, fleeing the water and numerous deadlier foes. Simon sighed, and prepared to gather his gear.

COMPETITOR 025 - ORVAL-163 ELIMINATED

29

Mountainside, SOTF Island

Day One, 1420 Hours


"You see that?"

"What?"

"Someone else is fighting up here. They just fell halfway down the damn mountain."

"Didn't notice, Sikowsky."

The three Spartans - Leon Sikowsky, Cailean-378 and Lee-A137 - faced quite the conundrum. After being attacked as they tried to ascend the mountain a few hours ago, their attempts at getting their Warthog to the volcano's summit had only led them straight into a second ambush. Plasma fire had blown out the LRV's tyres and melted most of its armour, leaving them with a lengthy stretch of barren slope to climb if they wanted to reach the top. After a beam rifle shot had almost killed Cailean on their first attempt, the trio decided to hold their position and simply wait.

"Ammo?" Lee inquired, looking up from his partially-disassembled sniper rifle.

Aside from the odd burst every few minutes as far-off figures shifted in the rocks below, they had been saving most of their ammunition for any major assault. Leon crouched down and emptied their bags: four magazines of M5-series assault rifle ammunition, six for their handguns, one spare for Lee's rifle and two for an M7S submachine gun.

"Enough," he said.

Lee returned to cleaning his weapon while Cailean shifted over to check their left flank. Sikowsky tapped his helmet for the fiftieth time that day and activated his suit's 'Promethean Vision'. The entire mountainside below them changed and shifted as the enhancement scanned everything ahead of them. By the treeline at the mountain's base, indistinct red blurs moved, never daring to come out into the open save to loose a few plasma bolts their way. So far, they knew that they were outnumbered, though not by much. Their foes were definitely Covenant, at least.

"Well, they're still moving around down there, watching us."

Cailean sighed. "Think you could snipe a couple."

Sikowky shook his head as the enhancement switched itself off. "They're moving constantly. Even Lee might have trouble at this range."

"You said it was mostly Jackals and Grunts, right?" asked Lee, now loading his rifle. "No split-lips?"

"Not in sight, no."

"Call me selfish, but I don't want to waste sniper fire on little fish. If we-"

Beneath them, the ground began to rumble. The Spartans froze for a moment as the entire mountainside shook. Glancing off to the right, Lee shook his head in annoyance as the ground began to crack open.

"Shit, is it erupting?!" Sikowsky almost got to his feet, only to crouch back behind the cover of the Warthog.

"Looks that way!"

Another tremor shook the mountain, and as a tiny fissure emerged nearby, their burnt-out vehicle suddenly shifted towards the edge of their little alcove, teetering on the brink for a moment. As it slowly edged towards the slope, Cailean nodded towards his comrades.

"Guess we're going on the offensive. Let's move!"

The trio sprang forwards as the Warthog dropped, skidding sharply down the mountainside. Cailean, Lee and Sikowky leapt atop the vehicle, guns blazing towards the forest as a deafening crack sounded from the volcano's precipice.

***

At first, Fero 'Guraza believed he had found an ally. Now he wished he had continued journeying across this island alone. He paced through the forest clearing, glancing back every so often towards the array of Kig-Yar and Unggoy his companion had ordered to watch the Humans. Perhaps it was just his imagination, but this Lance seemed rather strange; their speech dulled and actions incredibly methodical.

Had I killed the Demons at the base camp, we would not have faced such problems.

Across from him, Andromeda 'Vadum stood with arms folded and eyes closed, patiently awaiting any sign of activity. He had found this group of infantry wandering the forest, and had gotten them to join him without question. Fero had approached them to take control and lead them against the Demons, only to run into an annoyance.

"You seem agitated, Supreme Commander," Andromeda spoke.

"I simply tire of waiting, Supreme Commander. Your strategy has led us to stalemate."

At this, Andromeda opened his eyes and stepped forward. The chances of not one, but two Sangheili of such high rank being placed on this hellish island were seemingly impossible, yet here they were. The two would have likely crossed blades already, were it not for the trio of Human supersoldiers currently camped up above them. With news of the island's waters rising to flood the land, it would not be long before they had no choice but to charge uphill.

"It would be folly to attack," the black-armoured Andromeda said calmly. "They will tire and waste ammunition in meaningless attacks, giving us a chance to strike."

Fero grunted in agreement. As he turned to check on their troops, there was a distant rumbling. He paused, and as tremors rippled across the earth he and Andromeda exchanged looks. Ahead of them, A Kig-Yar yelped a warning as Human gunfire echoed down the mountainside. Moments later, the volcano let loose a tremendous blast as it erupted.

"By the Gods..." he murmured. They had to retreat.

Instead, Andromeda 'Vadum dashed forward, drawing two plasma rifles of Jiralhanae design. Cursing silently, Fero followed him, only to stop dead in his tracks at the sight speeding towards them. As molten lava spewed from fissures around them and volcanic tephra rained from the sky, the three Demons they had trapped rode atop their useless vehicle as a landslide carried it right towards them. One fired, and blew the head off a nearby Kig-Yar. Fero drew his Energy Lance as Andromeda raised his own weapons.

"Kill the demons!" they yelled in unison.

***

"Damn, missed!" yelled Lee, having struck a Jackal instead of the Elite he'd been aiming for.

"Looks like there's plenty for all of us."

Using their magnetised boots to keep them steady, the Spartans were moving too fast for snipers to hit them and were too determined to get the hell away from the volcano to slow down. Bursts of fire from Sikowky and Cailean sent groups of Grunts fleeing for cover as they cut the aliens down in droves. A pair of Elites in ornate armour stood before them, firing plasma bolts wildly up the slope. As several struck their shields, the Spartans leapt off.

"Take 'em down!" yelled Sikowsky, landing on his feet and firing towards a retreating Fero.

The others didn't need to be told twice. Cailean darted left and right to dodge plasma bolts from their other foe while Lee readied his own rifle. Andromeda 'Vadum jumped back just in time to avoid a headshot before running back into the forest with an angry roar. Both Spartans sped after him, wary of any reinforcements they had waiting for them.

"Shit, where'd he go?" Lee stopped suddenly as the red blip on his motion tracker vanished. "Anyone see him?

"Negative, spoke Cailean over TEAMCOM. "Sikowsky?"

***

"Little busy with this guy right now. I'll get back to you when I'm done."

With his enhancement, tracking the fleeing Elite was easy for Sikowky. The SPARTAN-IV kept an easy pace, checking the ammo counter on his rifle. Even with half a magazine, he could easily take down one split-lip in close combat. He activated Promethean vision once more, catching sight of Fero as the alien warrior slowed to catch his breath behind a tree.

"I can see you, you know!" he called, smiling as Fero's head jerked upwards. "No use trying to hide."

As expected, his opponent stepped out into the open, clasping an ornate lance in one hand and a plasma rifle in the other. Sikowky opened fire immediately, chipping away at Fero's rather strong energy shields as the alien charged. As they finally dissipated, his ammo counter hit zero.

Typical.

The Spartan sidestepped the first swing and took a few plasma bolts to his shields without flinching as he tried to wrestle Fero to the ground. As he brought out his handgun, the Sangheili dropped his own rifle and grabbed Sikowsky's hand, pointing it far away from his now-unshielded body. Several shots whizzed by, some grazing his armour as they fought in near-silence. As strong as Fero was, the Spartan's heavily enhanced strength allowed him to pull free, firing the remainder of his M6H2 at his foe. With an impressive display of speed, Fero leapt back and span his lance, destroying several of the rounds with its blade before one struck him in the shoulder. Sikowsky sighed and drew his combat knife, stepping forward.

"Hah," Fero taunted the Spartan, readying himself. "You meet your demise with bravery, at least."

"Shut the hell up."

The pair moved quickly, Fero's quick stabs matching Sikowsky's slashes and lunges as the Spartan attempted to blow past the Sangheili's defences. While well-trained in close combat, Fero's experience with a weapon the Spartan was unused to gave him a slight advantage as near-misses scored marks across his grey MJOLNIR armour and the odd swipe came tantalisingly close to ending their duel. Eventually, Sikowsky began to move back, now completely on the defensive as he avoided multiple hits. Moving close to a set of trees, the Spartan suddenly leapt back and kicked off one, using his suit's thrusters to rocket towards Fero and smash him to the ground. Forced to abandon his weapon, the Sangheili raised an arm to protect his throat just as Sikowsky's blade came down, jabbing through a gauntlet and into his flesh. Roaring, he rolled over and flung the Spartan off, tossing the knife away as he scrambled for his lance. He stood up, and began to run at the warrior as he grasped the handle.

This is it.

With all his might, Fero 'Guraza flung the Energy Lance at the Spartan at the very last moment. The blade activated mid-flight, and struck Sikowky through the chest as he tried to avoid it. It burned through his armour, bodysuit, and flesh, eventually striking the supersoldier in the heart. The SPARTAN-IV collapsed to the ground in a heap, unmoving as Fero stared in shock.

It is done, he thought, staring at the corpse. His thoughts briefly drifted towards going back to help Andromeda, but he doubted the other Supreme Commander would've extended him the same courtesy were their positions reversed. Eventually, he picked himself up and grabbed his weaponry, prepared to face the worst as he headed north.

***

Lee cursed as he fell backwards, his sniper rifle now in two useless pieces. With chunks of burning rock falling all around, his motion tracker had gone from clear to near-useless with inactivity as objects rained from the sky. As he moved through the forest at the foot of the mountains, Andromeda 'Vadum had sprung from his hiding place and and surprised him.

"Damnnit!" he flung the rifle parts away, backing off as quickly as he could with no time to stand up.

The black-armoured Sangheili laughed. "Fool."

As Lee drew his M7S, Andromeda kicked the weapon away and stomped on his chest. He struggled, but having the weight of an eight-foot tall alien on you wasn't something that was easy to move. His attacker looked down on him with a look that he could only interpret as a grin, and raised the Energy sword for the killing blow. Lee continued to grasp futilely at Andromeda's leg, only to let go after a few seconds. The Supreme Commander paused for just a moment, staring into Lee's opaque visor.

"You surprise me. It is not often that your kind makes peace with their death."

"Not quite, asshole."

As Andromeda spoke, Lee had been watching the tiny yellow blip on his motion tracker get closer and closer. The moment the blade began to come down, Cailean crashed through the undergrowth and knocked the Sangheili to the ground. Wasting no time, Lee sprang up and grabbed his fallen submachine gun, letting loose a torrent of fire that smashed through the warrior's shielding just as his comrade whacked the alien in the head with the butt of his rifle before aiming at his face. Cailean emptied half a mag into Andromeda before stepping away, just to be sure.

"You okay?" he asked Lee.

"Yeah, fine. Sikowsky?"

The two Spartans checked TEAMCOM, having linked their vitals earlier after agreeing to fight as a team. Leon Sikowsky had flatlined, his tracker several hundred metres to the east. Lee and Cailean looked at each other in silence, the sky clouded with ash and blazing rocks. Nearby, a fire had started and was spreading south.

"We've got to get moving," Cailean spoke eventually, pointing towards the relative safety of the eastern mountainside. "Can't waste time."

"Agreed."

With that, the surviving Spartans set off from the forest, intent on climbing the fiery mountain for the second time.

COMPETITOR 053 - LEON SIKOWSKY- ELIMINATED
COMPETITOR 003 - ANDROMEDA 'VADUM- ELIMINATED

30

Deepwoods, SOTF Island

Day One, 1442 Hours


Marco-025 was beginning to grow annoyed.

For the past few hours he had crept through forests and caves, resting only in brief intervals as he stayed alert for Covenant, rebels, and even fellow UNSC forces—anything that might pose a threat in this insane dreamworld he’d been thrust into. On guard for any booby traps or ambushes, he moved at a snail’s pace, wary of every tree, rock, and bush. He’d spent over an hour lying prone in one position, waiting to ambush anyone unfortunate enough to cross his path. Every ounce of survival training he’d received during his gruelling years of training was put into practice here.

And yet, for all his careful stalking, Marco had yet to come across a single living being.

Perhaps his caution was getting the better of him, slowing him down so that he missed every engagement. He’d come across signs of battle: bullet casings, plasma scorings, even a handful of broken bodies. But so far he hadn’t seen so much as a Marine private, let alone Covenant warriors.

Or maybe I’m just going insane, he thought wearily. It wasn’t that unreasonable of a notion. This whole situation—transported to an unknown planet, ordered to participate in some demented survival game—struck him as patently crazy. Marco had born witness to all manner of odd and extraordinary things in his years as a Spartan, but this bizarre death scenario surpassed all others in the field of unbelievable occurrences. Maybe I’ve died somewhere in the real world and this is purgatory.

Of course, if he could consider the possibility of being crazy, didn’t that mean he couldn’t be crazy? Marco shook his head irritably. The solitude was beginning to take its toll on him. It grew harder and harder to filter his coherent thoughts with each passing hour. There was nothing to be gained from pondering the unknowns of his situation. All he could do was press on in the here and now, hoping for the best even as he prepared for the worst.

Marco slowly swept his assault rifle’s aim over the clearing in front of him. His MJOLNIR’s HUD took in the trees and bushes, filtering and processing the sights and sounds for any sign of danger. From where he lay in the undergrowth, he could find no signs of life. Of course, that was just from this position. For all he knew, a sniper was perched up in a tree somewhere, just waiting for him to slink out of the undergrowth and into the waiting crosshairs.

The Spartan’s target was a small structure at the far edge of the clearing. The structure—which struck Marco as being of Forerunner design—was little more than a cavernous opening in the ground. Past the entrance the floor sloped downwards and beyond that was anyone’s guess. Perhaps it led to some control room or other useful facility. Perhaps a dozen Covenant warriors waited at the bottom, ready to ambush a Spartan tired and impatient enough to walk into their stronghold.

Marco was no stranger to uncertainty. It was the sheer amount of unknowns that bothered him. He had no idea where he was, what sort of enemy he was facing, or even if there was truly an enemy at all. How was anyone supposed to operate with any sort of plan in these conditions?

Such a simple goal: survive. It occurred to him that the utter simplicity of this whole situation was the root of most of his anxiety. No politics, no military structure, no big picture. Every reality he’d learned to accept as a part of his world had been stripped away. His life as a soldier had become distilled into a single desperate reality: kill or be killed

The Spartan squeezed his eyes closed for a moment and shook his head. I need to focus, he told himself sternly. I need to push forward here. Nothing else matters.

A few hours ago he had come across a trail of footprints. The indentations were infrequent, as if the walker was making a cursory effort to cover its tracks, but Marco had identified the footprints as belonging to a Sangheilli warrior. He had followed the trail as far as this clearing and now he was certain his quarry had entered the Forerunner structure and headed down below.

Or that’s what it wants me to think. Marco couldn’t help be suspicious at the half-hearted effort made to cover the tracks up. This could all be part of some elaborate ruse to lure him into a trap. The safest thing to do would be to simply back away. This structure, sitting peacefully at the edge of the clearing, seemed to grow bigger and more threatening with each passing moment. Like the maw of some disguised predator, waiting for the prey to step between its waiting jaws.

But Marco was tired of creeping around like some hunted animal. He had no way of knowing where he was or what he was facing, and so far all the caution and survival procedures in the galaxy had done nothing but make him more tired and uncertain of the situation. Perhaps it was time for a more direct approach.

He activated his helmet’s communication system, broadcasting on an open channel: “This is SPARTAN-025, United Nations Space Command. I am isolated and in need of assistance. Any friendly personnel, respond immediately.”

The channel fell silent. No response came.

Marco sighed. He hadn’t expected a response, not really. But at least he’d tried. And it felt good to hear someone’s voice, even if it was his own. He broadcasted the message three more times. Even if no one responded now, at least they could try to triangulate it and get a fix on his position. If it attracted friendly forces, so much the better. And if it drew in enemies, at least he’d know where they were.

The Spartan pulled himself upright. Crouching low, he carefully moved along the clearing perimeter. He kept his rifle trained on the structure’s entrance, still wary of an ambush. The only movement to be seen was that of the trees waving in the breeze. Reaching the edge of the tree line, Marco swept his gaze over the clearing one last time. He flexed his hands against the assault rifle and steeled his nerves, fully knowing that the first step he took out of concealment could be his last.

He had nothing to be gained by waiting any longer. Marco broke cover and sprinted towards the structure’s entrance. He threw himself up against the side of the entrance, waiting for an explosion or the whine of a plasma rifle to break the silence.

Still nothing. The wind continued to rustle through the leaves, the trees continued to tower above him, the blades of grass continued to wave gently in the breeze.

I could have just walked over to the entrance, couldn’t I? It was not the first time Marco had used an overabundance of caution for nothing—that was just part of what tactical movement was. Still, he couldn’t help but be annoyed at the idea that all his precautions over the past few days had been wasted effort. If he was going to go to all the trouble of acting like an ambush waited at every turn, someone should have the decency to prove his suspicions right at least once in a while.

Marco slipped around the side of the entrance and aimed his rifle down the structure’s slope. His helmet cut through the dim lighting, showing a featureless path that led down and out of sight. There was still no signs of life.

Stepping carefully over the threshold, Marco crept down the slope and into the structure. He advanced downwards, rifle at the ready. The lighting inside the tunnel wasn’t as bad as it had seemed outside; the structure was full of small strobes that bathed the passageway in soft light. Had Marco not been so focused on rooting out any possible traps or ambushes, he might have found it calming.

He reached the bottom of the ramp and looked around. The path split off in two directions: the first ended swiftly with a featureless wall while the other kept going and curved away.

Marco checked the shorter passage first. He swept the alcove with his assault rifle and, finding nothing, turned to head down the longer route. Something in the corner caught his eye and, spinning to investigate, he discovered a small pile of feces.

The Spartan lowered his rifle and shook his head, teeth clenched in annoyance. Had he gone to all this trouble just to investigate some alien’s makeshift latrine? It would have been funny if it weren’t so infuriatingly pointless.

A sudden rustling noise from down the longer passageway seized his attention. Marco snapped back into alertness, rifle coming back up as he advanced swiftly but silently in the direction of the noise. His fingers pulsed against the weapons surface and he swept around the corner, ready for whatever lay ahead.

He heard a soft yelp of surprise; Marco was so tense that only years of carefully honed trigger discipline kept him from sending a spray of bullets down the corridor. He trained his rifle on the source of the noise: a young Sangheili wearing the light armor of a Covenant Storm, just beginning to rise from where it crouched in the corner. The warrior was adjusting a strap on his harness and Marco saw that it had just finished relieving itself against the wall.

Marco had stalked and killed many such warriors in his time, but he couldn’t quite remember any time he had caught one in such a compromising position. The novelty of the situation stayed his trigger finger long enough for the Sangheili to raise its hands carefully in a sign of surrender. Spartan and alien observed each other quietly in a moment of mutual embarrassment.

The young Sangheili coughed. “Well,” he said with forced levity, as if struggling to maintain its dignity. “This is embarrassing.”

Marco kept the rifle pointed at his opponent’s head. “Are you alone?” he demanded in a hushed but authoritative tone.

The Sangheili carefully used one hand to indicate the dim passage behind him. “It’s a dead end,” he explained. “This passage leads nowhere. I have tried all sorts of ways to find secret doors, with no luck.”

“So you decided to use it for a toilet.”

The warrior’s eyes darted from side to side and it clicked its mandibles ruefully. “I had to do it somewhere,” he admitted. “I hoped the trap I left at the top would keep me safe from intruders.”

Marco’s clenched his jaw, thinking back to his careful descent. “I didn’t find any trap,” he informed the warrior.

“Oh.” The warrior looked crestfallen. “Perhaps I hid it too well then.”

He shot Marco a hopeful glance. “At least this proves I am not alone out here. You are the first living creature I’ve seen since this bizarre event began.”

“Right back at you.”

The warrior inclined his head. “Perhaps we can work together then. Work towards a common goal…?”

Marco didn’t lower the rifle. “Sorry. I’d have enough trouble trusting even my own people in a survival game like this. Can’t spend the whole time waiting for you to stab me in the back.” It seemed like a waste of time to deceive the warrior when he already had him dead to rights.

“I see.” The warrior glanced down, then back up at Marco, hands still raised. “That is unfortunate.”

“Wish it didn’t have to be—“ Marco began to say, but at that moment the warrior leaped to one side and darted forwards. The Spartan immediately adjusted his aim and fired, but the bullets bounced off the Sangheili’s shields.

Marco spun and fired another burst, but the warrior darted around the corner. Realizing that his opponent intended to flee out through the entrance, Marco hurried after him. The warrior was already halfway up the ramp; Marco fired another burst up at him. He saw a flash as the Sangheili’s shields failed, but the warrior leaped over the threshold and vanished outside.

Determined not to let the alien escape, Marco raced up the slope after him. He reached the top and dashed outside, weapon raised and ready to fire at the vulnerable warrior.

A sudden roar filled his ears and a hard impact struck him in the back with the ferocity of a rampaging truck. Marco was thrown forwards, his shields blasted away. He sprawled amidst the dirt and grass, tasting copper in his mouth. Plasma grenades, he realized belatedly. The warrior had mentioned a trap. Marco’s careful entrance had kept them from detonating, but in his haste to catch the Sangheili he had forgotten all about them.

The warrior stood before him in the clearing, an energy sword in hand. Veins of light ran up his arms and legs as his shields recharged, but he didn’t rush to attack Marco straight away. It was as if he himself was surprised that the grenades had caught Marco off guard.

Sensing the hesitation, Marco pushed himself upright. His rifle had been blasted out of his grip, but he drew his sidearm in one swift motion and fired at the Sangheili. The young warrior’s shields protected him again and he threw himself to the side, crouching and scrambling to close the distance between them.

Marco had strength and experience on his side. He fired the pistol again with one hand while reaching for his combat knife with the other. He’d dodge the warrior’s first blow, then get in close and finish things with the knife…

But his left hand was nowhere to be found. Phantom fingers closed around the knife and, feeling nothing, Marco looked down at his left arm for the first time. His entire forearm had been blasted away in the explosion, leaving only a stump of bloody flesh and melted armor. Marco blinked in surprise and pain. How did I not notice that? He regained control quickly and seized his knife, but by then the warrior had darted past and aimed a swift cut down at his legs. Marco fell to one knee, tendon severed. He raised his pistol, but the warrior lopped off his hand with a hasty follow-up.

The Spartan hissed in pain, falling backwards to rest his weight on his legs. His armor suddenly felt unbearably heavy as he slumped in the grass before his opponent. The sky was clear and sunny, but Marco’s vision was swiftly dimming. He felt the breeze drifting across his wounds. To his surprise, the wind did not cause him any pain. Instead, it felt somewhat soothing.

The warrior raised his blade and shook his head. “I am sorry,” he said, sounding sincere.

All that caution, and I get taken out by some second-rate booby trap. A trap set by some kid too polite to even bask in his victory. Marco wasn’t sure whether to feel embarrassed or relieved. No more slinking around this damn island.

“I’m done,” he heard himself rasp. “Get it over with. Keep hesitating like this, it’ll get you killed.”

As advice went, it wasn’t half-bad.

Tuka 'Refum brought his sword down and decapitated Marco in one blow. The Spartan’s head tumbled off into the grass; his body remained where it was, slumped down in a kneeling position like an abandoned suit of armor.

The young warrior deactivated his sword, blinking in surprise at his victory. He wasn’t sure what manner of luck had helped him triumph over the Spartan; his hearts were still pounding furiously from the fear he’d felt going up against such a legendary warrior. “Stranger things have happened,” he muttered absently.

This clearing was no longer safe. Any number of foes could have been attracted by the sounds of battle. Tuka turned and swiftly departed, leaving Marco’s body where it sat still like a monk in contemplative prayer.

COMPETITOR 005 - MARCO-025 - ELIMINATED

31

The Outpost, SOTF Island

Day One, 1508 Hours


"Hey Spartan, you awake?"

Colin-142 sat up with a start, only to wince as a wave of pain washed over him. He was helmetless, and laid out atop a sleeping bag in a military building of sorts. Pieces of his armour lay on a nearby table, alongside two open medical kits and a stack of bloodied bandages. Standing in the doorway was another Spartan, clad in green armour.

"Just about," Colin muttered, heaving himself up. "How long was I out?"

"Damn near four hours. I thought you weren't gonna make it."

"I'm a tough bastard. Got a name?"

"Petty Officer Second Class Shepard. Gamma One-Two-Seven."

"Colin One-Four-Two. Lieutenant, Junior Grade." He shook his head after a moment. "Not that rank matters here. You met anyone else?"

Shepard shrugged. "Aside from a bunch of weird-ass Marines guarding this place? Nobody."

The SPARTAN-II struggled to his feet, still feeling rather woozy. Most of his right side was tightly wrapped in bandages and no doubt sealed with wound-filling antiseptic biofoam. Shepard handed him his helmet and he placed it on, the familiar HUD flashing up before him.

"What's wrong with the Marines?"

"There's something wrong with them. With this whole damn place. Come and see."

Colin followed the other Spartan outside, moving into the main base's courtyard. Over a dozen UNSC Marines stood soundly around the outpost's battlements, guarding the wide-open gate or patrolling the walls. Upon seeing the pair, one soldier jogged towards them and spoke to Shepard.

"Sir, we suggest that you make for higher ground immediately. This area is soon to be flooded."

"Fine," replied Shepard, speaking slowly, as if to a child. "But I want you and your men to come too, okay?"

"Negative," came the immediate, monotone reply. "We have to guard this base."

"You said yourself it'll be flooded. There's a warthog in the vehicle bay, so mount up your men and go."

"Negative. We have to-"

"Forget it," Shepard turned to Colin. "See what I mean? It's like they're robots or something."

"Maybe we should leave then. How high are the waters getting?"

"Last I checked, most of the beaches were gone. We're on elevated ground so we should be okay for a while longer, but at the rate the water's rising we'd have to swim if we left it much longer."

"I see. And when did that happen?"

The SPARTAN-II was looking off in the distance, towards the volcano. Black smoke plumed out from the summit, and even from here Colin could see the distant red lines of lava trickling down the slopes. When Colin was attacked in the desert hours ago, it seemed totally dormant.

"About half an hour ago. Surprised you didn't wake up with all the noise. Good thing I was done pulling needle shards out of your side by then."

"And that's the highest point on this island? Shit, someone's got it in for us."

"So then, Lieutenant," Shepard crossed his arms. "Think we should risk it? The asshole running this show read out the names of the dead not long after I found you, and some of 'em were Spartans. Whoever managed to do that is likely heading there as well."

At this, he thought back to the man who ambushed him earlier. He clearly wasn't a Spartan, yet he'd totally gotten the drop on the trained supersoldier and had totally humiliated him in combat. It was through sheer luck that Colin hadn't been killed then. If there was a chance that that man was still somewhere on this island, then he fully intended to even the odds despite his condition.

"I say we mount up and head upwards," he jerked a thumb towards the distant volcano. "Anyone who ain't a Spartan is fair game, and any Spartans who don't stand down are targets. Is that fair?"

Shepard took a while to answer, clearly deep in thought. The SPARTAN-III had saved the life of a complete stranger - Spartan or not - on that beach earlier despite being in a position where Colin was an easy target. Some part of him had hoped that they would partner up with more Spartans and attempt to escape this sick game, but it looked like that simply wasn't happening.

"Fine," he said. "Let's go."

32

Refum River, SOTF Island

Day One, 1514 Hours


"Aw, great. I've got to climb that."

With the foot of the volcano just a few miles north, Ryuko Kawada was not looking forward to ascending its rocky slopes, especially not now the damn thing was spewing lava everywhere. After hours spent setting up a defensible position within a cave to the south, she'd been distraught to find the sea level rapidly rising. With few options, Ryuko had decided to head for higher ground, tough opponents be damned. Some part of her was even looking forward to future fights.

Volcano's gotta be crawling with badasses and lucky SOB's by now, anyway. I'll have to take my chances.

Ryuko stopped as she arrived at the river's edge. While an able swimmer, the current coupled with the weight of her numerous weapons would be a problem. She unsheathed her gladiator's weapon - a sword of unusual alien design - and tested the depth for a moment before sighing and moving upstream. Far ahead, she spotted a rocky outcrop in the midst of the river, easily wide enough for her to cross without hindrance.

"Okay," she muttered, walking forward with sword in hand, "One thing at a time."

***

Richard Jones heard the girl before he saw her.

Sat across the Refum River, the black-armoured ODST had stopped for a short break when the sound of humming drifted across the water. He glanced up, still chewing on a ration bar as he slowly moved to grab his weapon. Through the nearby bushes, he spotted a young woman in exotic-looking armour heading for the stony crossing he had used earlier. Judging by the plasma weapons and blade strapped to her back, she was no stranger to combat.

"Well now," Jones whispered as he slowly lifted up his secondary weapon, an M392 DMR, and thumbed the safety off. "Who do we have here?"

From his concealed position, he carefully took aim at Ryuko. One missed shot would give away his position, so he had to take her down quickly. Her armour didn't look like it'd do much against a direct hit, he wagered. The trooper hadn't seen anyone so far in this game, but the number of deaths made it clear that he had to look out for himself. If he stepped out and introduced himself, the girl would likely try to gun him down. In a way, he saw a swift headshot as a kindness. Jones shifted position slightly, waiting for her to reach the middle of the crossing. As he held his breath and moved to squeeze the trigger, Ryuko's head snapped towards him and she dived to one side.

The shot missed by inches.

"Shit!" Jones cursed, emerging from cover as his target hit the river with a tremendous splash. He paused, rifle moving left and right as he tried to get a good shot at Ryuko as she was swept downstream.

How the hell did she-

Then, realisation struck him. In the bright afternoon light, she must have spotted the tiniest glint of light from his rifle's scope. It was a stroke of amazing luck that she'd survived, really. As he stood up and moved to chase after her, a flurry of plasma bolts shot towards him. Jones dropped down and raised his DMR as a shield, the weapon melting as several rounds struck it head-on. In the river, Ryuko Kawada had her sword planted into an embankment with one hand, and a Plasma Repeater in the other. Bereft of a ranged weapon, the ODST dived back into the undergrowth and headed back towards his camp, where a powerful HMG-47 machine gun lay alongside the rest of his gear.

"Fucking asshole!" called Ryuko, dragging herself onto the riverbank. "Come out and fight!"

Now dripping wet, covered in mud, and seriously mad, the mercenary ran as fast as she could back towards the crossing, now intent on getting across the river in a few leaps so she could gut Jones personally. Keeping an eye on the bushes and her gun raised, she prepared to make the jump just as something noisy rocketed overhead.

"What the-"

Jones shot over the river, spraying the ground below with gunfire as his jetpack's rockets flared. His foe ran for cover as he followed, shots trailing just a few feet behind her. While hard to aim while in the air, it made up for that through sheer firepower. An errant round grazed Ryuko's right leg, making her stumble and crash between some trees. As the Plasma Repeater dropped from her hands, Jones moved in low for the kill, hovering just a few feet above the ground.

You're making me waste ammo, he thought bitterly, annoyed at the loss of his DMR. Know when you've lost and come out.

He didn't expect her to face her death, of course. He had tried to ambush her, after all. As the airborne ODST moved towards the thicket where Ryuko had crashed, he sighted an object spinning through the air towards him. He lurched backwards instinctively and let loose a hail of high-caliber rounds that shredded it mid-flight. As he glanced down, Jones realised it was just a plasma pistol. Moments later, Ryuko leapt at him, jumping from a nearby tree with sword in hand. The blade slashed across his chestpiece and down through his machine gun, cutting the weapon in two instantly.

That's two weapons you've cost me, goddammit!

Grunting in annoyance, Jones' hand went for his M6D Sidearm as he ascended, trying to move high out of Ryuko's reach as she hit the ground below. A few direct hits and she'd be down for sure. To his surprise, she'd tossed the sword and instead leapt up towards him with impressive speed. A hand closed around his right foot, dragging him down for a moment as she clambered up towards him. He fired two shots, the second of which hit her in the shoulder. Ryuko suppressed the urge to yell with pain as with a final burst of strength, she leapt upwards and grabbed Jones' jetpack.

"There we go," she hissed, just close enough for Jones to hear her.

Eager to throw her off, the ODST increased his jetpack's power and rocketed vertically upwards just as Ryuko activated her shock glove. Electricity surged into the machine for a few seconds; just long enough to make it go haywire. The mercenary let go, dropping with surprising grace into the sturdy branches of a nearby tree before jumping to the ground as Jones' equipment malfunctioned, sending him flying sideways as smoke poured from one thruster. Panicked, he fumbled with the release switch, and pressed it mere moments before the jetpack exploded, dropping nearly thirty feet into the river.

"Right then," Ryuko snatched up her blade and approached the water's edge just as a horribly-battered Jones dragged himself out, coughing and spluttering. "Time to die."

She had to give the ODST credit for being a tough old bastard. As she approached, he shakily clambered to his feet and drew not one, but two combat knives from his armour. Their blades clashed several times, Ryuko sidestepping stabs and lunges before bringing her sword upwards in a single sweep that hacked off both of Richard Jones' arms. As he froze, his body still registering the pain, she swiped her sword down again and decapitated him in a spray of blood. The trooper's body fell backwards into the mud without a sound.

"Shit," she panted slightly, only now aware of the cuts, bruises and gunshot wounds burning across her body, "You almost had me for a second there."

The corpse, naturally, did not respond. Ryuko quickly gathered her things and crossed the Refum River, deciding to rest up before braving the dangers of the volcano ahead.

COMPETITOR 035 - RICHARD JONES - ELIMINATED

33

Southern Mountainside, SOTF Island

Day One, 1525 Hours


The moment he had first heard rumbling, Ajax-013 had gotten the hell away from the volcano's top. Escaping the initial burst of lava with minutes to spare, the SPARTAN-II had survived most of his descent unscathed. Now sitting halfway up the mountain, he was beginning to feel that knife wound to his side once again.

That Three was the only one who made it up here, he reflected. Heard plenty of gunfire and fighting from the slopes, but she was the only one who got to the top.

Now though, Ajax realised he was stuck between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, there was a lava-spewing death mountain now likely to be crawling with violent attackers, on the other, there was the rest of the island, which would likely be underwater by the end of the day. If the sick bastards running this game hoped everyone would kill each other, they had done a good job of fencing everyone in. He glanced to his right, and sighed before standing up, shotgun in hand.

"You know!" he called to the slowly-moving object. "Those suits don't work so well in high temperatures. I can see you."

Once again, Simon-G294's SPI armour had failed him at the last minute. This was the second SPARTAN-II he'd been trying to get the drop on. At least the last one didn't decide to make fun of him before shooting. The suit's systems powered down, leaving him wide open and glaring up at Ajax. At this range he could avoid the shotgun, but escaping him if he gave chase would be another thing entirely. Simon slowly draped what remained of his poncho over the front of his armour, concealing his right arm as he slipped out a handgun.

"Well, what are you waiting for!?" he called, ready to spring away.

Ajax lowered his shotgun ever so slightly. He had been waiting for this guy to make a move before doing anything. It seemed they were at an impasse. After a few seconds, he shrugged and leapt downwards, making a thruster-powered leap towards Simon. He struck the ground hard as the SPARTAN-III scrambled away, firing a few rounds that pinged off his shields. He moved surprisingly fast uphill, eager to escape the near-certain death that would ensue if Ajax got close.

"The last Spartan I killed was braver than that!" Ajax strode leisurely after Simon. "Didn't help her much, but at least she went down fighting!"

At this rate, he'd have to shoot Simon in the back. Suddenly, he turned around, poncho fluttering in the breeze. He'd taken out a machete, holding it in one hand while another levelled a handgun. Though he couldn't see the younger Spartan's eyes behind his visor, Ajax was certain he was staring at him with intense hatred.

He killed her.

Those three words rattled around Simon's mind, overriding any sense of logic or direction. His opponent was better-armed, better-trained and could certainly afford to take a few more hits. Any mad charge towards Ajax-013 would likely end in his broken body lying at the foot of the mountain, just like hers. Nonetheless, for just a moment, Simon felt like charging.

Then, the volcano erupted once more.

Simon stood on the spot, barely a dozen metres away from a bemused Ajax. Fire rained around the two supersoldiers, going past but never seeming to actually touch either of them, as though the island itself would only allow its competitors to kill one another. A blackened chunk of rock even seemed to change direction mid-air as it hurtled towards Ajax, curving off and striking the ground nearby instead as they walked towards each other. Suddenly, a great chasm opened in the ground between the pair, lava spewing upwards. The second Ajax backed off from it, his shields sparking in annoyance, Simon began to run.

Ajax disappeared in a flash of golden light.

"What the fuck?" Simon froze for a moment as he too vanished with a bright flash.

Twenty-eight flashes, then the island disappeared.

34: Second Announcement

SOTF Control Room

Day One, 1526 Hours


"Well done, everyone! Well done!"

Across the control room, technicians clapped and cheered as the Announcer strode past them, spotless and shining. Before them, a holographic representation of the island slowly dissolved into nothingness, replaced by an image of the facility's holding chamber.

"What wonderful violence," crooned the Announcer, leaning over a screen to watch that final decapitation. "Truly, a great way to end our first round."

"Sir," a technician called. "All subjects have been successfully transferred and are awaiting transport to our second arena."

"Are they aware of their surroundings?" he asked kindly.

"Yes sir. We're using an upgraded version of our Fourth Season restraints."

"Good, good." The Announcer swept over to the centre of the room and clicked his heels together. The podium and microphone rose from the ground to meet the Announcer, who whipped out a piece of paper from his suit and cleared his throat before speaking.

"Why hello again, contestants! It's me, your good friend the Announcer. May I just say I'm so pleased at how busy you've been in the past few hours since we spoke. I mean, not even eight hours and half of you are dead! I guess that's what happens when you put some of the galaxy's deadliest killers together, am I right? So anyway, I'm sure you're all dying to learn about those poor, sorry souls who aren't currently with us. Let's see, then.

First to die since midday was Joshua-G024, who suffered from a nasty case of quadruple amputation before drowning in a river after encountering some explosives. Yikes, nasty way to go, folks.

Next up we have a classic case of the hunter becoming the hunted. David King turned down an offer of diplomacy and instead opted for an all-out attack on his target. Shame he died doing so.

Ever wonder what happens when you can't handle the pressure of our game? Aleksander Makosky happens. Poor guy had a bit of a freakout and paid for it with his life. Learn from him, folks; don't lose your cool.

Teaching us that being inside an armoured fighter does not guarantee you victory, Lhor Konar fell next, though to be fair it was two on one. That said, in a tragic display of camaraderie, Ash Mitchell died from his injuries shortly after helping his buddy beat Lhor. I was nearly in tears. No, really.

Ah, then we had another excellent duel between mighty warriors. Sadly, only one could survive, and that most definitely wasn't Sev 'Ikavowattinrzo and his mouthful of a surname. As good as swords are, it seems that plasma grenades are just better.

Ooh, this one's a tad violent - hide the children. Following what looked like it was going to be a quick and easy gunfight, Mitchel Sanders ended up getting his head hacked in two with his own energy katana. Yes, the energy katana from my last announcement. It's still around.

Back up on the mountainside, we had a brutal struggle between two Spartans. While he certainly held the edge, it seems that Orval-163 was taken on something of a ruse cruise by his opponent with the 'ol 'use your deceased friend's corpse as a distraction' technique. A great deal more stabbing than was needed ensued afterwards. Where are the therapists for these people?

You know what's cool? A volcano erupting. You know what's even cooler? Three Spartans surfing their broken warthog down the side of an erupting volcano into battle. Only on Survival of the Fittest, folks! In the ensuing battle, Leon Sikowsky got himself impaled on the business end of an energy lance, while Andromeda 'Vadum fell victim to a Spartan tag-team and a lot of bullets to the head.

After a brutal battle, Marco-025 was next to fall, thanks to some ingenious traps set by his opponent. At least he had the decency to face death with honour, not that honour really means anything in a frigging deathmatch, but whatever. On with the show.

Now there's few things worse than an ambush gone wrong. Getting your gun melted sucks. Getting your jetpack destroyed really ruins your day, and having your hands and head cut off is downright annoying. Now imagine how Richard Jones feels, since all of the above happened to him as the final death of the first round. Poor guy.

Now folks, I'm sure you all came to love the island very much, but it's time to say goodbye. A change of scenery is in order, so for the next round you'll all be fighting for your lives in our scenic, state of the art Survival of the Fittest Space Station! To spice things up while you all tear each other to little pieces, we'll be dropping a few heavy weapons on board too. Now you're probably thinking that we'll get a lovely change of venue once more when there are fourteen of you, right? WRONG! Only ten lucky souls will get to compete in Round Three, so make sure you boys and girls stay alive for me, you hear? Until next time, this is the Announcer, signing off."

The Announcer turned, raising his hands as the customary wave of cheering filled the control room. The contestants would soon find themselves in a smaller arena, now likely willing to do whatever it takes just to stay alive. He grinned at his loyal technicians, danced up the stairs and nodded as he swept through the door, ready to begin preparations on this season's final arena.

They were going to love it.

Stage Two: The Space Station

35

Observation Deck F1, SOTF Station

Day One, 1549 Hours


Roy Koel woke with a start.

For the briefest moment, he thought he'd been sleeping the past eight hours away, and that everything that had occurred on that godforsaken island has just been some terrible dream. Sitting up, the ex-ORION soldier groaned as he gathered his gear. By some miracle, Koel hadn't run into a single person on the island, drifting aimlessly around the northwestern coastline until the tides forced him inland. He'd barely made it to the base of the volcano by the time everyone had been teleported away.

This is my advantage, he checked his unused MA5D. Anyone who's killed to make it this far might not be in the best shape.

Koel wandered over to the room's massive viewport, which stretched all the way around and out of sight on either side. He was clearly on a space station, just like that ass of an announcer had said. There wasn't much to look at, save for the distant twinkling of innumerable stars. It seemed that once again, they were trapped. He turned away and jogged towards a nearby holotable, which lit up as he approached. A diagram flickered into existence, displaying a slowly-rotating model of the station, with its numerous decks and floors all neatly labelled.

"So I'm up here," he spoke softly to himself, a finger tracing over the upper section of the screw-shaped model, "And the command room's a few floors above."

The layout seemed bizarrely simple. Koel had been on a few stations in his life, though none even remotely resembled this one. Each section had several floors, accessible via stairways and conveniently-placed maintenance shafts. He had a feeling that like the island, it had been deliberately designed as an arena beforehand, with everything on it acting as little more than props.

At least from the top, I could fortify my position. Might not fend off a Spartan, but it's the best I could do.

Taking one last look around the room, Koel exited, heading for the staircase that would lead him to the station's command room.

36

Crew Deck F3, SOTF Station

Day One, 1554 Hours


"Is there nowhere here I can get a pack of goddamn smokes?!"

Grunting with annoyance, Carlos Driscol slammed his robotic foot through the front of the inoperable vending machine, smashing right through the flimsy cover to reveal that it was entirely hollow. He glared at it for a few moments before turning away, sighing.

Of course it's a fake. Just like everything else here.

During their time on the island, Driscol had done his best to keep quiet and out of the way, sneaking into an abandoned base once its Spartan occupiers had left and setting up camp there until he was forced to move inland. He'd heard the list of the dead being read out, and recognised two or three of them. He knew of Spartan designations and what Sangheili names sounded like, and had no intention of engaging any of them. Above all else, Carlos Driscol was a survivor.

And now I'm stuck in fuckin' space, nowhere to hide.

Picking up his rucksack, the middle-aged man checked once again that his M379 LMG was still properly loaded. Unlike many who fought under the Insurrection, he'd made weapon maintenance his top priority on the battlefield; an old habit from his days as an ODST many years ago. Driscol exited the break room and peered out into the corridor he'd woken up in. After hours of the island's unusual silence, the ever-present hum of the lighting and sounds of machinery beneath the floor was discomforting to say the least. Taking a deep breath, he moved forward, machine gun at the ready.

***

I hate this place.

As he crept through deserted hallways, deactivated sword handle in hand, Tuka 'Refum had to force himself not to jump at every noise. In minutes he had gone from the silent forest to the interior of this Human space station, with orders to continue killing all who stood in his path. After his success with the Demon earlier he was feeling rather good about his chances, though every minor noise from the humming of overhead lights and the faintest clanking of pipes was putting him on the edge.

Remain calm and focus. I will not die here. I will survive. I-

Tuka halted as a loud clank echoed down the hallway behind him. He span round just in time to see the distant shape of a Human hefting a heavy machine gun, and threw himself to one side as it opened fire. To the Sangheili's surprise, his foe laughed as he advanced, high-caliber rounds eating away at Tuka's energy shields as he crawled to safety. Moving into an alcove, Tuka drew his Type-57 Carbine and fired off a few blind bolts.

Not enough to compete with his firepower, though a single hit will likely be fatal.

Sure enough, the silver-haired Human moved into cover to avoid the shots and reload his own weapon, having expended a considerable amount of ammo already. Taking his chance, Tuka dashed forward, activating his sword in one hand. Even if the man reloaded in time, Tuka was fairly certain he could take him out before he got a shot off. Suddenly, a small black object flew out of cover towards him and the Sangeili warrior skidded to a stop trying to avoid it.

Oh, by the-

The grenade exploded with an almighty flash and a near-deafening sound that sent Tuka staggering to one side. As he bumped into a wall, the Sangheili continued to fire in the Human's direction, occasionally swinging his sword just in case. Moments later, he felt the impact of bullets slamming into his still-recovering energy shields, forcing him back along the corridor as he groped along a wall before pulling himself round a corner, panting and wounded where a few shots had penetrated his shields.

"Not bad, split-lip!" called Carlos Driscol from around the corner. "But face it: you're pretty fucked at this point."

Tuka shook his head as his sight returned, though his ears were still ringing so the Human's taunts sounded slightly muted. He had to reload his Carbine, though as a shadow neared the corner he knew there was no time. With a yell he dashed forward, slicing through with a horizontal blow that should have decapitated Driscol had he not ducked at the last minute. A swift kick from the Sangheili sent the Human's machine gun spinning away, though the man was quick enough to not only dodge the second and third swipes, but to kick Tuka back with surprising force.

"C'mon, you bastard!"

Tuka raised his blade. "As you wish."

Driscol moved surprisingly quickly for a man of his age, pumped up on adrenaline as he tried to take on the armoured warrior in a fistfight. An attempt to dive for his main weapon was cut short as Tuka slashed the weapon into pieces, though he retained his M6H handgun. At this range, only a few shots from the high-caliber Magnum were needed to penetrate Tuka's energy shields, though the Sangheili was quick enough to dart around most rounds. Suddenly, Driscol launched himself forward and headbutted him in the chest, stamping down hard on the larger alien's foot with his heavy robotic prosthesis.

"Arghhh!" Tuka let out an involuntary howl of pain; he was sure the man had broken something.

Grinning with bloodlust, Driscol was able to wrench the sword handle from Tuka's momentarily weakened grip and push away, now holding the glowing weapon. As he advanced, raising it to stab through the Sangheili's chest in a fatal thrust, the young warrior's body moved instinctively, sidestepping and drawing his backup weapon - an old Curveblade - in a single move. The metallic weapon sliced through most of Driscol's neck, sending him crashing into a nearby wall. Blood geysered from a severed artery, splattering Tuka's blue armour.

"Fuuuuck..." Driscol managed to splutter, attempting to hold his gaping wound shut with one hand.

He swayed slightly as he tried to run forward, giving Tuka ample time to advance, evade, and slice off the man's sword hand with a second swipe. Carlos Driscol stumbled, and fell back against the opposite wall with a thud. With his last breath, he spat blood at Tuka's feet before keeling over. The Sangheili waited a few moments as the Human expired before removing his Energy Sword handle from the severed hand. Looking back at the corpse, he shook his head sadly.

In close combat, he appeared to have the advantage over me. It wasn't until he picked up an unfamiliar weapon that he lost. Turning our fight into a battle of swordplay was his downfall.

Testing his weight on his injured foot, Tuka 'Refum shrugged and limped off down the space station's corridor.

COMPETITOR 001 - CARLOS DRISCOL - ELIMINATED

37

Hangar Two, SOTF Station

Day One, 1604 Hours


All these ships, and not one I can fly.

Striding along a catwalk before a row of pristine Broadsword fighters with hands clasped behind his back, Vice Admiral Scott Brooks sighed in resigned frustration. Why he, a venerable naval officer, had been abducted for this atrocious 'game' was an absolute mystery; the news of Spartans and all sorts of aliens perishing during the fighting only served to frighten him more. So far, he'd been tremendously lucky, but that wouldn't last forever.

We're being whittled down until there's only one left. I'll have to face someone eventually.

On the island, he had found himself in the bottom of a deep crevice in the middle of the woods. After numerous failed attempts to find help over the COM he'd heard gunfire from above and shortly after, the corpse of a Hunter had tumbled down, broken and torn to pieces. He had spent the next few hours enduring the gruelling climb - no small feat for a man of his age - until at last, he had heaved himself up into the forest. Then the tides had begun to rise, sending him scrambling towards an erupting volcano before a sudden flash had landed him here.

All in all, Brooks had not had the most pleasant day.

Suddenly, the hangar door clanked open and a man in a battered, stained fatigue ambled in, looking about warily. Brooks was totally exposed on the catwalk, and ran for the cover of a pile of crates by the Broadswords. Clad in a now slightly less than immaculate battle dress uniform, minus the cap he'd lost in his earlier climb, there was no way he'd last particularly long in a firefight. Even his weaponry - a M98 Compact pistol and an M2A Carbine - were hardly the most fearsome weapons around, but they'd have to do.

"Hey!" yelled Jonathan Watts, flicking the safety off his M7 SMG as he ran down into the hangar bay. "Get our here with your hands up!"

He watched as an old man in naval garb pulled himself behind some crates and raised a bemused eyebrow as he approached. Watts took no pleasure in gunning down someone who clearly didn't look like a particularly good fighter, but after his last two close calls with that Spartan and the assassin he wasn't going to take any chances. As he approached the crates, the man suddenly popped out, hefting an assault rifle. A burst of automatic fire barely missed the rebel pilot, who threw himself to the ground and responded with two quick bursts that barely missed Brooks. During the lull in fighting, he glanced towards the row of Broadwsword fighters docked nearby.

If those are operational, I could take one out, do some real damage to this place.

Watts rolled aside once more as gunfire raked across the deck, forcing Brooks to emerge slightly from cover to get a better shot at him. While a few shots were enough to send the shooter back, Watts was forced to toss aside the spent gun and dash forward, drawing the hilt of his stolen energy katana as he moved. While his experience with the weapon was minimal, it would likely only take a few swings to deal with the old man. Sure enough, Brooks' eyes widened as the rebel activated his katana, leaping over a crate and slicing the carbine apart in seconds.

"Shit!" the officer cursed, flinging the pieces in Watts' face as he scrambled backwards.

Having expected the fight to be over fairly quickly, Watts was surprised as he continued to hack apart the boxes in his attempt to reach Brooks. The Vice Admiral continued to dart back, narrowly dodging swings and thrusts before an opening gave him a chance to dash for the Broadswords. With an annoyed sigh, Watts chased after him, certain that he'd outrun and cut down the venerable naval officer in seconds. As Brooks ducked under a broadsword's nose he swung the energy katana down, expecting it to slice through with ease at it had everything else. Instead, the starfighter metal slowly began to smoulder as his weapon's speed slowed to an agonising halt. Brooks looked back for a moment to see his rebel attacker trying to pull his blade loose, and drew his sidearm.

"Oh fuck me," Watts muttered.

Scott Brooks unleashed the entire 30-round magazine of his M98 into Watts' chest on full auto, ripping through the man's body armour and sending him jerking backwards, twisting and convulsing as shot after shot tore into his body. Finally, riddled with bullets and caked in blood, Jonathan Watts toppled forward and died.

"Well," spoke the Vice Admiral to an empty hangar, "I've won."

Breathing heavily, he reloaded his sidearm and started at his attacker's corpse for well over a minute before he was certain Watts had died. He then took the deactivated hilt of the man's energy katana - a weapon unlike anything he'd seen before - and pocketed it, reflecting on his actions.

All I could do was run there. If that man hadn't made a mistake, I would've almost certainly died. As an officer of the UNSC Navy, groundside fighting was not his forte, though perhaps he could begin adapting his usual tactics to actual battles. Continued frontal assaults with your strongest weapons might work in a vaccuum, when aboard a warship, but like this? Probably not. Nonetheless, the principles remain the same. Analyse the threat and engage or withdraw. Simple.

Straightening up, Brooks left the hangar bay, wishing for the thousandth time that he were at the bridge of his Destroyer.

COMPETITOR 047 - JONATHAN WATTS - ELIMINATED

38

Storage Bay Four, SOTF Station

Day One, 1628 Hours


As the heavy steel doors slid open, Parthius stirred in the darkness. The silver-furred Jiralhanae had taken his time to rest after enduring a lengthy trek across the island, remaining hidden in the woods until the rising tide had driven him north. Having found himself in the depths of a Human space station, he had chosen to stay put for the time being. Heavy footsteps clanked across the metal floor across the cavernous bay. Parthius remained still, and listened.

Definitely Human. Well-armoured, but quick. Has to be a Demon.

He knew there would be no parlaying with such a warrior. Built to kill, Demons were infamous for their lethality and merciless nature, and this one would be no different, especially in this arena. Gripping the haft of his Energy Spear, the Jiralhanae Chieftain slowly shifted forward, crawling atop a stack of shipping containers towards the footsteps. He'd have to be quick.

***

Something's wrong.

Raising his MA5K for a moment, Cody-B042 halted between an aisle of crates. After walking in near-total silence for some time, the tiniest noise put the SPARTAN-III on edge. Though his motion tracker's display showed that there was nothing within twenty-five meters, he couldn't shake the feeling that he was being watched. After Mitchell's death on the island, he'd decided that partnering up wouldn't help him in the long run, especially as the competition was whittled down to only the fiercest fighters.

If I'm gonna have to kill other Spartans, then so be it. Even if it is the only way-

Cody froze for a moment as he caught the tiniest bit of movement out the corner of his eye, looking round, he saw a long, grey hair drifting to the ground. The Spartan glanced up to see a pair of baleful grey eyes peering down at him, and leapt back as a glowing spear slammed into the floor in front of him. The first burst of carbine fire plinked off the energy shields of the Jiralhanae's power armour as he leapt forward, grabbing the weapon with one hand and tearing it from the Spartan's grasp.

"God-fuckin'-dammnit!" Cody swore, backing off as one hand went for the stolen Energy Sword clipped to his belt.

Having lost the element of surprise, Parthius chose to overpower his opponent through sheer strength, grabbing his spear and lunging forward just as the twin blades of Cody's sword activated. sparks flew as the Chieftain's spearhead met with the other weapon, the Spartan taking a defensive stance to avoid the surprisingly rapid flurry of thrusting attacks from Parthius. Despite his size, the Jiralhanae was able to deftly avoid the chops and swings Cody delivered in response.

He's strong, Parthius mused as he backed away, edging round into another crate-lined alley, But untrained with a sword.

While Cody's prowess in melee combat was clear, it took time for Humans to master the iconic Sangheili Energy Sword. The venerable warrior could spot openings in the relentless flurry of swipes, and awaited the chance to strike back. Feinting to the left, the Jiralhanae surged forward and dodged as a slash from the Spartan bit into his left pauldron before twirling his spear round to gut his foe. As expected, Cody brought the sword up to block the thrust, only for Parthius to divert his attack slightly. The glowing energy spear stabbed not only through the weapon's vulnerable emitter, but through Cody's right middle and index fingers.

"Hah!" Parthius grunted in satisfaction.

Cody reeled backwards in pain, his weapon and two fingers on the floor in smoking ruin. As the Jiralhanae moved to finish him off, the Spartan suddenly ducked to one side, fuelled by rage and adrenaline as his left hand drew the machete attached to his back. Smashing through the range of Parthius' spear, he launched a powerful headbutt that forced the alien back a step as he moved to decapitate him with a single swing of his blade. Falling back, Parthius raised an arm to deflect the blow. The machete slammed through both energy shields and metal gauntlets before cutting down to the bone. Roaring for a moment in pain, Parthius kicked the Spartan back and struck his visor with a mighty blow from the pommel of his spear, cracking it slightly as he slammed into a nearby container.

Shaking his shaggy head, the silver-furred warrior stood tall as dark blood dripped from his left arm. Across from him, Cody's armoured form had made a sizeable dent in the side of the container, though the Spartan merely picked himself up and raised the machete once more, staring Parthius down for a few moments as the two fighters caught their breath.

"You ain't the first alien I've killed today," taunted the Spartan.

Parthius bared his fangs. "And you will not be my last."

As one, they charged towards each other, roaring with anger. Cody suddenly launched himself off the ground, his suit's thrusters kicking in as he brought the machete down towards the Jiralhanae's skull. Parthius waited until the last moment, twirled his spear round, and brought the glowing tip upwards into the Spartan's chest, driving it deeper and deeper into his body as the Spartan's momentum carried him forward. Utilising his full strength, the Jiralhanae wrenched his energy spear to one side and flung Cody off, watching as he hit the floor with a loud crunch. He stood there for nearly half a minute, breathing heavily.

The Spartan did not get up.

"Ah," Parthius spoke to himself in the now-empty storage bay. "So I did strike his heart."

Gritting his teeth, he moved the tip of his energy stave towards the deep cut in his forarm, and suppressed a howl as he quickly cauterised the dripping wound. It was not a permanent solution, he knew, but it would at least staunch the bleeding for now. Stepping over the armoured corpse, Parthius moved out into the nearby corridor. Now, he would be forced to hunt.

COMPETITOR 016 - CODY-B042 - ELIMINATED

39

Hydroponics Deck F1, SOTF Station

Day One, 1640 Hours


Wonder if any of this is edible.

Crouched amid row upon row of plants, Philip Kovals reached out tentatively towards a strawberry-laden bush and plucked a single fruit from it. Having had nothing but the bread and water stored in his backpack since he'd awoken on that accursed island earlier, he was feeling rather hungry. Kovals took a deep breath and popped it into his mouth, half-expecting it to be fake. It wasn't.

Well shit, at least something good's happened to me today.

Savouring the taste for a moment before chewing up and swallowing the strawberry, Kovals whipped out his combat knife and cut a portion of the bush apart before tossing it into his pack. After all, he had no idea how long this game would last. He'd found an abandoned military base to take cover in for most of his time on the island, seeking to simply outlast the competition by staying out of sight. As a pilot, his talents lay in flying fighters, not engaging in firefights on the ground. Armed only with a M7S submachine gun and his combat knife, he doubted he'd put up much of a challenge towards a Spartan, even if he'd made it past the halfway point.

Gotta keep my hopes up, at least. If this is a space station, then there might be a hangar or two.

Standing up, the rebel pilot zipped up his pack and wandered along a gantry, looking for more fruit to take. He'd long since abandoned trying to make sense of the sick game they'd been put into, though if he had to put his money on it then this whole thing was likely set up by the Office of Naval Intelligence for some reason. Kovals has briefly wondered if this was all a simulation that ended upon death, though he wasn't stupid enough to test that theory by blowing his brains out.

Suddenly, a door opened across the room.

***

Stepping inside, Fero 'Guraza shook his head in annoyance as he found himself on yet another hydroponics deck. Why Humans chose to build such facilities aboard stations instead of dedicating entire vessels to food production like the Covenant did was beyond him; the fact that he doubted much of it would be edible to him only made matters worse.

At least the last floor provided me with something useful.

In addition to his somewhat depleted plasma rifle and Energy Lance, Fero had acquired a fully-loaded Type-52 plasma launcher on the floor below. Apparently those running this arena hadn't been lying when they promised to leave weaponry aboard the station for their combatants to use. Due to its size, Fero kept the launcher attached to the back of his combat harness while he moved forward, keeping his lance and rifle at the ready. The Sangheili's right forearm still throbbed intermittently with pain from the stab wound he'd received earlier despite Fero's attempts at mending the injury, though the warrior strove to ignore the pain as he continued his fight. As he trudged along one of the metal platforms that crisscrossed the sea of greenery, a sudden twitch of movement caught the warrior's eye.

"Ha!" he yelled, raising his rifle and opening fire.

Bolts of white-hot plasma whined across the room in a blazing arc, charring metal and searing plants apart as Fero let loose a vicious spray towards the source of the movement. The Sangheili held down the trigger as long as he could, emptying shot after shot in one direction until his rifle overheated and was forced to vent for a few moments. He held the weapon at arms length, though the process would not harm him with his shields active. Scanning the area for signs of a body, Fero began to wonder if anyone had been there after all, or if he'd simply become jumpy thanks to the space station's machinery after getting used to the near-silence of the island.

Perhaps I was too hasty in my decision to attack.

As Fero jogged over to the unsurprisingly empty area he'd just incinerated, he felt a pang of guilt for acting so rashly. Valuable charge on his rifle had been wasted burning a few plants, all because he acted before thinking. Taking a deep breath, the Sangheili turned just in time to see a heavy bag flying towards his face. It struck him as he scrambled back, expecting it to be packed with explosives. It was in this moment of panic and surprise that a Human, clad in light combat gear, popped up from nearby and opened fire. While he did not possess a high-powered weapon, each and every shot hit its mark and Fero's shields soon dissipated. In desperation, he flung his energy stave towards the shots, which ceased immediately as the Human dived away into the undergrowth.

"Trickery," Fero growled in annoyance. The Human had simply been fortunate enough to conceal himself after his first attack.

Across the room, Philip Kovals panted as he crawled through the dirt of a potato patch to reload. The Sangheili's spear had grazed one of his arms, giving him a deep, stinging cut. He could hear the heavy, stomping footfalls of the towering alien as he moved across the room, forcing the rebel to remain as quiet as possible while he reloaded. Kovals knew he'd never be able to match his opponent in open combat, and so would have to either ambush him or flee. After failing to kill Fero the first time, he'd have to go for the latter. Wriggling beneath a gantry, he drew out his combat knife in one hand as the Sangheili approached, oblivious to his location.

Gotta time this just right...

The moment Fero 'Guraza stepped over his hiding spot, Kovals rolled out and lunged forward with the blade, planting it in the back of Fero's right leg and loosing a burst of gunfire at point-blank range. Though his foe's barely-recharged energy shields took the brunt of the attack, the alien was still clearly injured as he staggered forward in surprise. Taking this as his chance, Kovals turned and ran, vaulting over a barrier onto a nearby platform and sprinting towards his bag.

"You cowardly scum!" roared Fero, stooping to extract the blade from his leg. "Die!"

Grabbing the plasma launcher from his back, Fero activated the heavy weapon and lined up a shot with the fleeing Human, attaining a target lock in moments as Kovals made a break for the same door he'd entered the room through. Charging the weapon for a few moments, he eventually released the trigger and sent four explosive plasma bolts towards him. The first two went wide, sticking to nearby piping, while the third caught itself on a leaf and exploded. The fourth shot, however, found its mark, sticking to the back of the man's head.

You deserve this fate, coward.

As he neared the door, one hand reaching for its control panel, Philip Kovals felt something oddly light and incredibly warm touch the back of his head. His eyes widened as he realised what it was, and as it grew hotter and hotter, the pilot began to scream. The bolt detonated, utterly vaporising the man's head and shoulders in a tremendous blast. Kovals' corpse span and fell to the ground, now ablaze as his clothes caught fire.

Across the room, Fero 'Guraza gave a cry of triumph. Though this was the second time he'd been stabbed today, his injury was non-fatal once more and he'd killed his attacker yet again. Retrieving his lance from the wall it was stuck in, the Sangheili couldn't help but feel very pleased with himself as his chances of winning this wretched game increased exponentially.

COMPETITOR 031 - PHILIP KOVALS - ELIMINATED

40

Command Deck, SOTF Station

Day One, 1659 Hours


"Invalid command, try again."

"I said, pinpoint our location."

"Invalid command, try again."

It was at that point that Ajax-013 put his armoured fist through the nearest monitor, and began to walk around the deserted command room of the space station in annoyed frustration. While being unable to contact any UNSC forces on the island was one thing, he'd at least hoped to find out where they were in the galaxy. As it turned out, the station's computers either weren't allowing him access to the system, or this was seemingly the only location in an entirely empty galaxy.

Guess that settles it, the SPARTAN-II removed his helmet for a brief moment to drink some bottled water from his pack. Killing my way out's the only option here.

Ajax had spent a great deal of time since he'd woken up here thinking about the situation they were in. Back on the island, he'd killed that SPARTAN-III with little hesitation and had no intentions of showing mercy to others because of the situation they were in and the possibility that it was all just a simulation. Alone again, he'd begun to feel regret, though he quickly cleansed his mind of such feelings. As inconceivable as it seemed, he and the others were dealing with powers so utterly above them that all they had to do was play along and hope to come out of this alive. In Ajax's mind, this would be treated just like any other mission. He walked over to a nearby table, where several of his weapons lay.

I've still got plenty of ammo M108A1, and an M6H from that Three to back that up. Only used one of my frags so far, and there's my knife as a last resort. Not doing too bad, if I do say so myself.

Having been forced to listen to the announcements during the interim between rounds, suspended in some kind of stasis field, Ajax knew a lot of Spartans had died so far. Some Sangheili too, judging by some of the names. Others were Humans - probably military - who'd somehow been caught up in this. By the sounds of that oh-so-smug Announcer fellow, they'd been picked by some sort of system to fight to the death based on their combat skills, which meant that whoever was left by the end of this mess would likely be some of the toughest bastards in the galaxy; challenges even by Ajax's particularly high standards. The SPARTAN-II began to pick up his weaponry, mentally preparing himself for the battles to come.

"Right," he said to himself. "Time to kill-"

It was then that Ajax noticed the targeting laser pointed at the side of his head, and threw himself backwards barely a second before a red beam of energy blasted past, melting across a row of computer monitors across the command deck and the viewscreen above. The glass quickly melted and cracked before bursting apart. The Spartan clung to the side of a desk as a howling wind coursed through the room, sucking everything towards the breach and the endless void of space. Activating the magnetic clamps on his armour as the air was sucked out of the room, Ajax pulled himself to his feet and used his suit's thrusters to steady himself as a pair of metal shutters clamped down over the broken window.

Shit, that was close.

***

Crouched behind a pillar by the command deck's entrance, Amy-G094 deactivated her mag-boots and slowly exhaled. After picking up the SPARTAN-II on her long-range motion tracker, she'd attempted to get the drop on him using the M6 Spartan Laser she'd found sitting in the hallway below. With just a second more, she could have blown him apart from afar and avoided an actual fight. Despite his proximity to the breached viewport, her opponent had survived that as well, and had likely taken cover somewhere within the ruined command deck.

Can't retreat now, she shook her head, swapping out the laser for her submachine gun. Can't believe I left the damn sniper rifle out in the hall.

The SPARTAN-III felt torn between continuing her engagement against the older supersoldier and retreating into the hall to force him into a killzone. Between firing her laser and the breach being sealed, she'd been forced to move away from the entrance, and now sat across the room from Ajax-013. While likely stronger and faster than her like most SPARTAN-II's, that did not guarantee victory in combat. As Amy shifted around, preparing to spring out of cover, something red flashed up on her motion tracker, coming towards her at high speeds.

"Crap!"

Above her, a fragmentation grenade exploded as Ajax shot it out of the air with his handgun. Despite a thruster-assisted leap to one side, Amy's shields were still immediately dissipated by the blast, sending her sprawling to the floor. She quickly rolled over just as a much larger Spartan in grey and red armour came crashing through the desk she'd been behind, weapon in hand.

"Found you."

Amy sprang to one side in a flash as Ajax opened fire with his M108A1 shotgun on full auto, pumping shell after shell towards her as she fled behind a bank of workstations. While a few grazed the SPARTAN-III, putting deep scores in her MJOLNIR suit, she'd been quick enough to dodge what would have definitely been a fatal blow at close range. Returning fire with her submachine gun, Amy landed a few rounds that pinged off Ajax's shields as he gave chase, still firing at the retreating Spartan. Seeing that she was making a break for the exit, the SPARTAN-II tossed yet another grenade, angling it so it bounced off a nearby wall and into Amy's path.

Beneath his helmet, he smiled. That'll stop you.

Sure enough, even Amy's augmented reflexes weren't enough for her to evade the second grenade, which detonated just as her shields began to recharge. Though she wrenched her entire body towards a large terminal to avoid the worst of the blast, both the Spartan's armour and undersuit were peppered with shrapnel and horribly scorched from the explosion. Coughing as he tried to move, Amy forced herself aside as the sound of Ajax's heavy footfalls drew closer. Pushing herself under a desk, she crawled away for a few moments on her back, keeping her weapon at the ready. As the SPARTAN-II knelt to check where she was, Amy emptied the rest of the weapon towards him, forcing Ajax back for a moment as she kicked her suit's own thrusters into gear.

Without any means of control, Amy rocketed out from under the desks and ended up in the middle of the command deck, far enough away from Ajax-013 to jump to her feet and reload while her annoyed opponent leapt over the desks towards her. Forcing the other Spartan to waste the remainder of his weapon's magazine, counting every booming shell as they missed or impacted nearby, Amy awaited the tiny click of Ajax's shotgun before making her move.

This it it. All or nothing.

As the SPARTAN-II reached to reload, Amy raced forth, adrenaline dulling the pain of her injuries as she was consumed by an overwhelming desire to kill her opponent. As quick as Ajax was, she was faster. Unloading her submachine gun's final magazine towards him in a wild spray that heavily depleted his shields as he lifted a chair for cover, Amy dodged around as Ajax tossed it towards her and leapt forth, drawing her combat knife in a lightning-fast flourish.

For the first time, Ajax's faint smile turned to a frown. She's faster than I thought.

Evading a slash to the jugular by centimetres, Ajax-013 threw his shotgun aside as their ranged duel turned into a furious exchange of cuts, punches, stabs and counter-attacks that raged across the command deck. For all his power, the SPARTAN-II was unable to hit the younger supersoldier, just as Amy was unable to land a significant blow on Ajax as each switched between various forms of close-quarters combat, seeking to gain an edge. Feinting a punch from one side, Amy delivered a kick that pressed Ajax back for a moment, giving the pair a moment to catch their breaths.

"I know that move," Ajax shook his head. "Chief Mendez?"

"Yeah."

"He was a damn good teacher."

With that, they flew at each other once more, combat knives sparking as they impacted multiple times. Ajax suddenly rocketed forward, using his size and thrusters in an attempt to smash Amy into the ground. Though she was only grazed by the attack and stumbled back, he was able to wrench the Spartan laser from her back and span around, using it as a club to smack her to one side. Quickly regaining her footing, Amy ducked down rolled under a second swing before bringing her knife up under Ajax's chestplate and burying it between two of his ribs.

There, he's-

Suddenly, Ajax's spare hand closed around Amy's arm in a vice-like grip, preventing her from bringing the knife any closer to his heart. It was then that she realised that he'd been waiting for something like this; an injury that brought her within grappling distance. Pressing with all her might, she continued to stab into Ajax's torso, hearing the SPARTAN-II's muffled grunts of pain as he brought the Spartan laser round with his other hand, and held down the trigger.

Oh god no.

The next few seconds were absolute hell as Amy-G094 did everything she could to escape Ajax's grip, writhing around violently and trying her damnedest to push her combat knife just a few more inches upwards. Ultimately, it was all for naught, and her frenzied attack turned into a desperate attempt to escape, pulling as hard as she could and attempting to grab at Ajax's weapon. In response, he pushed down hard, pressing the barrel of the laser to her chest as the charging sequence ended. Her mind overrun with a mixture of terror and pure rage, Amy heard a whisper emanate from Ajax's helmet.

"Sorry about this."

The laser fired into Amy's chest at point-blank range, utterly obliterating the armour, undersuit and flesh below as the beam of red energy shot through her body and into the metal floor. The SPARTAN-III died instantly, though her body twitched and convulsed as the heat and force coursed through her. Once the weapon was spent, Ajax let go of Amy's arm and let her body fall to the floor.

"Shit," Ajax hissed, pulling Amy's combat knife out of his chest.

Though she had narrowly avoided piercing anything vital, he was bleeding badly. Ajax stumbled over to his backpack, where he fished out the first aid kit. While his armour's automatic biofoam dispensers would take care of most wounds, he had to clean and inspect it beforehand. Glancing down at the body in the centre of the command deck, he couldn't help but feel some respect for Amy's resolve. Just like the Spartan he'd killed earlier, she had fought to the end.

I'll have to rest up here a while before heading out, Ajax glanced towards a holographic map of the station nearby. And God help any son of a bitch who gets in my way.

COMPETITOR 017 - AMY-G094 - ELIMINATED

41

Storage Deck, SOTF Station

Day One, 1723 Hours

Zoey Hunsinger was sick of this ride and would very much like to get off as soon as possible, thank you very much.

The young smuggler pressed herself up against the bulkhead and tried to steady her breathing. The hand holding her M6 magnum trembled slightly. She rested her off hand on top of the pistol’s slide to steady it. Fear is like a grenade. She could practically hear Simon-G294’s gratingly callous voice in her head. The rogue Spartan had taught her everything she knew about fighting—usually midway through beating the snot out of her. You can either use it to frag the enemy or you can hold it tight and let it blow you to hell.

“What the hell does that even mean?” she muttered irritably. She wasn’t sure how she was supposed to use her own terrified quivering to kill anyone here. She wasn’t even sure if she should even try. Here she was, sixteen years old and alone on a space station filled to bursting with alien warriors and augmented supersoldiers, all furiously vying to be the first to kill everyone else. She didn’t have so much as an augmentation to fix her lazy eye. All she had to fight with was her pistol and a utility knife; her “training” consisted of the bits and pieces Simon had beat into her on Venezia and aboard the Chancer V. She should be finding some place to shelter in place and wait for this all to blow over.

Since being yanked out of the woods and unceremoniously deposited on this space station Zoey had crept about through the service corridors, watching the carnage rage on unabated. She’d seen a Brute chieftain spear an armored Spartan to death; an Insurrectionist soldier had been shot from behind by a Covenant sniper. All she could do was keep her head down and slink away.

She wondered what had happened to everyone else from her little group. She’d hoped sticking with a Spartan like Corin would improve her chances of survival, but whatever force was responsible for teleporting them up here clearly hadn’t much cared for keeping them all together. Zoey had tumbled into a service corridor with Corin and Aylla and the others nowhere to be seen. She’d give anything for some friendly company right now. She wouldn’t even mind Diana.

Zoey slipped through the door, half expecting to step into a hail of gunfire. But the storage warehouse she found herself standing in was silent and deserted. The storage crates piled up high to the ceiling cast eerie shadows in the dim light.

She moved cautiously down the aisles, pistol at the ready, jumping at every stray creak and rumbling. Every shadow was a potential hiding spot. Ever errant noise could be someone setting up to put a bullet through her head. To Zoey’s tired eyes, even the station’s cool air might be hiding some cloaked Spartan or hinge-head. Would she ever wake up from this nightmare?

Too long in the open, Simon’s voice sneered in the corner of her mind. I’ve killed you three times already. Out here you’re just a nice little target.

She dropped to one knee, huddling beside a crate and peering around the corner. Still no sign of anyone else in the storage warehouse. She had to keep moving, get out of this room before…

The faintest of noises scuffed behind her. She spun, pistol raised, in time to see a large man wearing a bodysuit step out from behind another stack of crates. His head jerked over in her direction—he had only just noticed her. The man’s blank features didn’t so much as twitch in surprise, as if his face were made of granite. A slight twinge of relief passed through Zoey as she recognized him as Winston Zhou, the man she and the others had met just before they were swept up to the station.

Zhou regarded her for a moment, face impassive. She hesitated, pistol still at the ready. “It’s Zhou, right?” she asked cautiously. “From the forest?”

“Yes.” Zhou held a Covenant beam rifle at the low-ready. “You weren’t the one I saw going in here.”

“There’s someone else?” Nervous sweat beaded on Zoey’s brow.

“Yes.” The man was a blank slate. Zoey got the chills just looking at him. “Lower the gun.”

It wasn’t a request. She slipped her pistol’s safety back on and let it dip to point to the ground. “Have you seen anyone else from our group?”

“Can’t say that I have.” Winston Zhou’s head dipped slightly in acknowledgement. “Thank you. You had the drop on me. I shouldn’t have let that happen. Mistake corrected.”

A panicked jolt passed down Zoey’s spine as she realized Zhou’s finger was curled around the sniper rifle’s trigger. She remembered the first time she had seen him in the forest, when he’d joined up with her and the others. He had smiled at them then and Zoey had found that smile cold and artificial. It hadn’t quite reached his eyes…

She threw herself down to the side and rolled. The sniper beam tore through the air where she’d crouched a moment before, punching clean through the storage crate. She scrambled for cover as Zhou calmly tracked her movement with the rifle’s barrel. A second beam snapped past her, close enough that she could practically feel her skin tingle from its passing.

“Two misses.” Zhou remarked. “Unusual for me. You have good instincts, girl.”

Zoey didn’t answer. She fled down the aisle of crates, darting around to shelter behind one particularly large stack. She held the pistol close to her chest, heart pounding. Stupid, stupid. You should have shot him when you had the chance. Now you’re gonna die.

She listened intently for Zhou’s footsteps. He had to be repositioning, getting into a spot with good sightlines for his sniper rifle. In this warehouse, any elevated space could give him the lethal advantage he needed to pick her off.

A shadow loomed around the corner. Zoey froze, tracing Zhou’s movement as the large killer advanced. From the look of the shadow he was moving carefully. The elongated barrel of his rifle shifted from one side to another as he scanned the room. Even in the midst of her terror, Zoey wondered at Zhou’s caution. Had he really lost track of her?

He said he saw someone else come in here. That’s why he was distracted when I saw him first. The two of them weren’t alone in here. Zhou was fighting someone else even as he hunted for her.

Zoey scanned the room anxiously. There was no escaping back out the way she’d come—Zhou would gun her down before she even made it halfway. But if she could slip around the room, find another way out…

Zhou moved fast, spinning around the corner to cover the aisle with his rifle. Zoey jerked her head back behind the crate but there was no way he hadn’t seen her movement. In another moment he’d be on top of her.

It’s not just you and the gun, Simon muttered from the depths of her memories. You’re fighting inside a weapon, even if you don’t know it. Use the battlefield before your enemy does.

She threw her weight against the stack of crates. The heavy containers didn’t so much as budge. Zoey gritted her teeth, groaning from the effort as she strained against the stack. The first crate jerked forward an inch, then another. The crates above it shifted and tipped forward. The slow shift became an uncontrollable tumble as the stack came crashing down.

Zoey knelt and covered her head. The falling crates struck the stacks across the aisle, bringing down everything they touched. The aisle disintegrated into a hail of falling boxes. Zoey glanced up in time to see one such box plummeting straight for her. She leaped aside with a yelp and found herself standing amidst the wreckage of what had once been aisles of neatly stacked crates.

Something shifted a few feet away and Zoey whirled to aim her weapon at the source of the movement.

A rifle report cracked and the pistol was ripped from her hands. Winston Zhou emerged from beneath the boxes, beam rifle trained on her. Blood seeped from a cut on his forehead but his face remained as emotionless as ever. “Nice try.”

He squeezed the trigger only to find it dead in his hands. The charge was depleted There was no time to think. Zoey dove for her pistol but Zhou drew his own sidearm in a single fluid motion. The bullets whizzed by overhead as Zoey threw herself flat beneath the fallen crates. She grabbed her pistol up from the ground. The front of the magnum’s barrel had been ripped clean off by the sniper round. No telling if the weapon would fire at all, but there was no choice. Zhou appeared over the top of the crates. Zoey pushed herself up on one arm, pistol raised with the other.

“Zoey, get your head down!” The familiar voice came again, this time not from her memories but from behind her. Zoey collapsed as a shotgun blast echoed from the other side of the warehouse. Zhou threw himself down amongst the crates as well; blood spurted from his shoulder as the shotgun pellets grazed him. He vanished amidst the boxes and Zoey caught sight of the figure approaching them. Even without the ragged poncho draped over his chest she’d have recognized that battered suit of SPI armor anywhere.

Simon-G294 vaulted over the first crate, shotgun raised. Another crate lurched up from the floor; Simon’s shotgun blast riddled it with holes but Winston Zhou rushed forward all the same, bowling into the Spartan and sending him sprawling. Simon lunged up at Zhou from the floor but the assassin rained a hail of powerful punches and kicks down on top of him. Even with his augmentations Simon could barely keep up with Zhou’s moves. Overwhelmed, the Spartan was forced back.

Zoey could barely register Simon’s sudden appearance. She pulled herself up from beneath the crates and tried to draw a bead on Zhou. She squeezed the trigger, only to discover that the weapon did nothing. Zhou’s shot had ruined it.

Tossing the useless weapon aside, Zoey dragged herself forward and drew her knife. Terror squeezed the air from her lungs but she forced her legs to move forward and bring her ever closer to the brawl.

Simon staggered away from Zhou. He drew the machete slung over his back and made a cut at Zhou’s head but his opponent dodged the slash with ease. The Spartan pressed the attack with brutal determination but he was clearly outmatched. Even without armor Zhou stood over a head taller than Simon. He moved with swift efficiency; each punch and jab forced Simon back until he was pinned up against another stack of crates.

The Spartan lunged forward but Winston batted his attack aside. The assassin slammed his fist into Simon’s visor, snapping his elbow in for a vicious jab at the Spartan’s neck. Simon reeled as Zhou’s fist struck his face again, visor cracking from the impact. He slammed back into the crates and fell hard to the floor. Zhou kicked down, pinning Simon’s head to the floor and stooping to retrieve his fallen sidearm.

Zoey lunged then. She aimed up for Zhou’s neck, but the assassin twisted at the last second and the blade buried itself in his shoulder. Zhou spun and seized her by the arm. He threw her effortlessly across the room, face impassive as ever.

She rolled across the floor, head ringing, vision foggy. She caught glimpses of Simon, back up and fighting Zhou once again. The rogue Spartan and the assassin clashed, trading kicks and punches. Zhou’s wounds slowed him down, but not by much. Tugging Zoey’s knife out from his shoulder he fought on, relentlessly bludgeoning Simon with blow after blow.

Her vision darkened again. Zoey tried crawling forward, struggling just to stay conscious. She wasn’t sure why she was still trying to fight. What was the point? She had no weapons left. Zhou could break her neck with one blow.

Simon’s machete lay discarded off to the side. If she could just reach it, maybe she could catch Zhou from behind again. She dragged herself forward, desperation giving her aching muscles the strength to go on.

Simon’s armored form crashed down a few feet away. Zhou straightened, bleeding and breathing heavily but still showing no signs of stopping. The machete was within her reach. She pushed herself up, straining to reach it…

Zhou caught sight of her and shook his head. He raised his pistol and Zoey knew this was the end.

Something lunged at her from the side. Rough, armored hands grabbed her, forcing her down. Zoey cried out in surprise as Zhou’s pistol cracked again and again.

Simon let out a dull snarl as the bullets struck him in the back. He squeezed Zoey tight enough to cut out her breathing as he covered her with his body. After the fourth shot hit his grip slackened and released her.

Zhou’s pistol clicked empty. The assassin winced slightly from his wounds as he reached to reload.

Simon still had a pistol holstered on his hip. Zoey fumbled with the straps, struggling to tug it free.

The fresh clip slid into Zhou’s pistol.

Zoey let out a desperate cry, finally yanking the pistol from the holster. She steadied her aim on Simon’s shoulder as Winston Zhou filled her vision.

She fired again and again and again. Winston Zhou staggered backwards as the rounds punched through his torso. He looked down at his blood-soaked chest and let out a small grunt of displeasure, as if being forced to deal with some minor inconvenience.

Zoey shifted her aim up and shot him clean through the head. The assassin fell to the ground without a sound.

Simon rolled over onto his back. A jagged, unfocused eye stared up at her from beneath his cracked visor. “Damn you,” he whispered. “Always getting in my way.”

Looking down at him she felt a crushing swell of emotion rise within her chest, a fierce mixture of love and hatred. “Then why’d you do it?” she snapped back, fumbling for something, anything to treat his wounds with. Small trickles of blood leaked out from beneath his body.

“I don’t know,” Simon rasped, staring up at her in a daze of pain and confusion. “Never did have much self-control.” His chest rose and fall beneath his armor, struggling to take one breath after another.

COMPETITOR 021 - WINSTON ZHOU - ELIMINATED

42

Corridor near Hangar 2, SOTF Station

Day One, 1730 Hours

All that effort to reach the summit of the mountain and then I get snatched up to this cramped human monstrosity. Kambei ‘Nerevar strode down the space station’s halls, anger mounting with every passing step. His energy sword snapped to life and he irritably plunged its prongs into the wall, leaving a trail of twin burn marks running down the hallway behind him. Kambei did not take kindly to being toyed with. He had fought several hard battles to approach that summit, thinking it was the ultimate goal. Instead all that pain and effort was rendered utterly meaningless by the transition to the station.

Kambei had no regrets about those he had killed, but the thought of the warriors who had died for the sake of this bizarre game filled him with righteous anger. Such a brazen, nihilistic waste of life could not be tolerated. I must press on to the end. I must emerge as the victor. Only then would the Sangheili Crusader have the chance to confront the true perpetrators and rain deadly justice down upon them.

He stopped at the end of the hall, eyes narrowing as he scanned the area for any sign of the enemy. His only remaining weapons were his energy sword and curveblade—a welcome prospect for the veteran swordmaster, but by the same token he needed to be cautious. It would not do for him to be picked off by some sniper before he had a chance to close the distance.

A sudden noise hissed behind him. Kambei whirled to see the door to another hallway slide open unbidden. His mandibles pursed in a frown. He wasn’t close enough to the door to trigger its motion sensors and there was no one waiting on the other side. Was this yet another trick?

Trick or no, Kambei could see little alternative to embarking on this newfound route. It was not for him to question the paths that revealed themselves. If someone was trying to lure him into an ambush, they were about to discover just how unwise it was to seek confrontation with Kambei ‘Nerevar.

The Crusader advanced boldly down the corridor, body tingling with anticipation.


“We don’t really need to fight, do we?” the police officer asked. “I mean, you don’t really want to shoot me. I sure as shit don’t want you to shoot me. Common ground, right?”

Aylla-G021 didn’t lower her shotgun. She had the police officer cornered inside a small operations room. Her nerves were frazzled enough as it was after being whisked away to this station and separated from Corin and the others. She certainly wasn’t about to let her guard down around anyone. “I’m not really sure I’m as worried about your safety as you are.”

“Oh, come on!” The officer rapped a fist against the front of his riot gear. The badge emblazoned on the armor identified him as Police Sergeant Edmond Dahm. “You’re a Spartan, right? Spartans don’t fucking shoot police!”

He paused, glancing nervously at Aylla. “You guys don’t, right?”

“Not usually. But it’s been an unusual day.” Aylla wondered if she should just shoot him and move on. It wasn’t a good feeling, blasting a desperate human, but she couldn’t waste any more time here. If the sounds of fighting she’d heard throughout the station were anything to go by, this place was an even deadlier killing ground than the wilderness had been.

“You’re telling me. I’ve watched half a dozen people die back down in the forest, Spartans included. This place is fucking insane.”

“You watched?” Aylla demanded suspiciously.

“Well, yeah,” Dahm admitted. “From a distance. Wasn’t really anything I could do to help.”

“So you’re useless as well as a coward.”

“Hey!” That seemed to genuinely offend the police officer. “You fucking watch who you’re calling coward. I’ll have you know I’m the best damn sergeant on the force. But I know when I’m out of my league. I’m sure as hell not going to try going toe to toe with some hammer-swinging ape.”

Aylla had to admit that Dahm had a point. Even she felt somewhat outclassed by the formidable opponents she’d seen so far. But she was alone now—her erstwhile allies were missing or dead and she couldn’t afford to leave any potential threats at her back. She was in this battle to survive.

Her finger curled around the shotgun’s trigger.

The door to the operations room burst open. Corin Davis dashed inside as plasma rounds flashed around him. The SPARTAN-IV crouched beside the door and hammered on the safety release. In the hall outside Fero ‘Guraza snarled in frustration and rushed forward, plasma rifle blazing. The door slammed closed moments before the furious Sangheili could get inside.

Corin let out a sigh of relief. He turned to find Aylla’s shotgun barrel aimed directly at his head.

“Hey!” the SPARTAN-IV protested. “Really Aylla? That’s how it’s going to be?”

Aylla sheepishly lowered her weapon. She might be desperate, but she wasn’t desperate enough to shoot someone like Corin. “Sorry. Didn’t know it was you.”

“I’ve been trying to get into contact with you for hours.” Corin hefted his machine gun and nodded to the bemused Dahm. “No luck finding any of the others, I see. Who’s your new friend?”

“Sergeant Edmond Dahm, Mira City Police Department,” Dahm said quickly, clearly relieved by Corin’s more accommodating attitude. “Can you please tell your friend not to shoot me?”

Corin shot Aylla a look. “Where you going to shoot him?”

“Yeah,” she admitted, earning a reproachful look from Dahm. “In case you hadn’t noticed, we can’t exactly trust everybody.” “Fair point.” Corin glanced around the ops center. “But still, no reason to just go around shooting everybody. Can you fight, officer?”

“Yeah,” Dahm replied. He indicated a pistol-like carbine strapped to his riot suit’s combat webbing. “But like I was just explaining to Aylla, I’m kind of outclassed here. I’m good, but I’m no supersoldier.”

“You haven’t found anyone?” Aylla asked Corin. “Besides that hinge-head who was trying to kill you, I mean. You’ve got an AI in that armor though. Has Diana been any help at all?”

“Well, not exactly…”

“Such ingratitude after everything I’ve done for you.” A nearby holotank hummed to life and the figure of a pale woman in dark armor flared to life on its base. Diana folded her arms, looking extremely pleased with herself. “It’s thanks to me he made it over to you in the first place.”

“It’s also thanks to you that I nearly got my head blown off back there,” Corin grumbled. He tilted his helmet toward the holotank. “When I showed up on the station she wasn’t in my helmet anymore. She got into the system somewhere. Not sure where the main server is here.”

“And that’s the way I like it.” Diana’s hologram smirked. “As fun as it was having you threatening to crush me at every turn, I don’t think I’ll be letting anyone near my chip again.”

“But you’re still helping us?” Aylla asked suspiciously. “If that’s the case, why don’t you just depressurize the station? You could kill just about everyone not in pressure gear.”

“Oh, that’s too easy.” The AI’s smirk deepened. “It’s much more fun watching you all fight it out from here.”

“Great.” Aylla shook her head in disgust. “That means we have to listen to you gloating around the clock now. And I can’t spare the ammo to shoot up the speakers.”

“Oh, please,” Dahm snorted. The police sergeant looked at both Spartans in amazement. “You two don’t actually believe this crazy AI, do you? If she could vent the station she’d have done it already.”

He rounded on Diana. “I know a fucking lie when I hear one. Admit it: you’re not in full control of the systems.”

Diana’s smirk became a scowl. “I might not have full access, but I can still handle doors easily enough. Maybe I’ll close one on you next time you’re passing through one.”

“Okay, let’s all calm down here,” Corin said placatingly. He turned back to Aylla. “I passed a hangar on the way here. It’s stocked with just about every space fighter I’ve ever seen. I don’t suppose they taught you IIIs how to operate Broadswords?”

“I know enough to fly one. What’s the plan?”

“We mount up and get out in space. We’ll be out of these corridors and able to get stock of where we are. I’m not exactly the best pilot, but I’d rather be out there than in here.”

Dahm looked from Corin to Aylla. “Hey, you two aren’t just going to leave me aboard here with this psychotic AI are you?”

Corin nodded reassuringly at the police sergeant. “Don’t worry. One of those fighters has to be a two-seater. And we have Diana to… Diana?”

The AI’s hologram had disappeared. Across the room the door hissed and began to open. True to her word, Diana clearly had no trouble opening doors.

“That little bitch,” Aylla growled, racking her shotgun. “When I get my hands on that chip—“

Fero ‘Guraza shoved his plasma rifle in through the opening door and fired. Corin cut loose with his machine gun, forcing the Sangheili back. Fero retreated, shields flaring, but flung a plasma grenade into the room behind him.

“Oh shit—“ Dahm yelped.

Corin grabbed the police sergeant, covering him with his armored body as he raced for the door on the other side of the room. Aylla dashed after him as the plasma grenade detonated, blasting the ops room apart.

The Spartans and Dahm raced down the hallway. Corin waved a hand at a corridor splitting off to the right. “This way!” he yelled. “We need to get to the hangar before Diana seals it!”

“I didn’t realize she’d get so pissed when I called her bluff!” Dahm panted. “Maybe I should have just let her brag—“

Another door slid open and Dahm skidded to a halt. Had he traveled a meter further the energy sword that came slashing out from behind it would have sliced his head clean off his body.


Kambei would be a fool to underestimate Spartans, but he was also not one to underestimate his own prowess in close quarters. The moment the door opened on the two supersoldiers and their jittery companion he lunged in without hesitation. The augmented humans were deadly warriors but in the cramped hallway and with the element of surprise on his side Kambei had the advantage.

He bowled Corin over with his shoulder, slamming the Spartan into the wall. Behind him Aylla cursed and brought her shotgun up. Kambei caught the weapon’s barrel with his off-hand, forcing it up past his head. The weapon fired, peppering the ceiling with pellet scars, but Kambei kept hold of the barrel in spite of the recoil. He planted a kick in Aylla’s chest and sent the Spartan flying back down the hallway.

Corin twisted in Kambei’s grip, struggling to free himself. Kambei pressed him up against the wall, not giving the Spartan an inch as he angled his sword in for a deadly cut. Corin’s fist hammered against Kambei’s side, draining the Crusader’s shields but doing nothing to ease the crushing pin.

A weapon fired and Kambei felt a searing pain in his leg. He spun to see Edmond Dahm backing away, carbine pointed at his knee.

“Okay, big guy,” Dahm ordered. “Hands up and maybe I won’t shoot you again.”

Kambei snarled in fury. Corin took advantage of the distraction and pushed back hard against his attacker. Kambei stumbled back, his wounded leg forcing him down to the ground. Corin reached for his machine gun only to find himself caught in a hail of plasma fire. Fero ‘Guraza stood at the end of the hall looking none too pleased at the sight of another warrior intent on stealing his prey.

Corin ducked for cover. A few feet away, Aylla crawled towards the hallway leading to the hangar. The SPARTAN-IV looked back at Dahm in time to see a furious Kambei rise and stalking after the police sergeant. Dahm stood his ground a moment longer, then turned and fled.

Corin gritted his teeth. Part of him wanted to go back and help Dahm, but he couldn’t risk being cut off from Aylla now that Diana had turned on them. Hating himself, he drove Fero back once again with suppressive fire from his machine gun and hurrying after the SPARTAN-III towards the hangar.


Edmond Dahm raced desperately down the corridor, keenly aware of the angry Sangheili at his heels. The bullet he’d put in Kambei’s leg was slowing the Crusader down, but he knew the alien would catch up eventually.

“Fuck me,” he panted under his breath. All the effort he’d gone to avoid bringing attention to himself and now he’d gone and pissed off one of the scariest motherfuckers he’d ever seen. Any second now he’d feel the burning prongs of an energy sword thrust through his back.

One thing was for sure: if Edmond Dahm was about to bite the dust at the hand of some hinge-head, he wasn’t going to die panting for mercy on his knees. Terrified as he was, he’d at least put up a fight.

He caught sight of a darkened doorway on his right. “Ah, fuck it,” he grunted, darting inside. If he was going to make a stand, this was as good a place as any.

Kambei stalked down the hallway, struggling not to limp from the pain in his leg. It irked him to leave a fight with two Spartans and another Sangheili behind him but this cowardly human had wounded him. It would not do to simply let him flee after inflicting such an insult. I will track that vermin down and put an end to his miserable life.

“Come on,” he growled through gritted mandibles. “Face your end with some dignity, human.”

A dark room appeared on his right. Kambei narrowed his eyes, seeing no sign of his quarry down the hallway. So the cowardly vermin found himself a bolt hole, has he?

Kambei approached the room, energy sword at the ready. He squinted into the darkness as he stepped across the threshold, his eyes struggling to adjust. He saw nothing to his front, but something shifted off to the left…

The energy sword slammed into the wall. Edmond Dahm ducked just in time with a cry of fear, one hand scrambling to aim his carbine while the other yanked down on the emergency door release.

Kambei ‘Nerevar snarled in anger as he realized he was still only halfway through the door. As it slammed closed… a moment too late.

The door crashed down upon Kambei’s off-arm. The force of the crushing impact overloaded Kambei’s shields and severed the arm with a sickening crunch. The Crusader bellowed in pain, staggering back against the wall.

Edmond Dahm’s carbine cracked over and over. Despite his nerves the police sergeant’s aim was spot on. Kambei twitched and jerked as the bullets punched through his armor, splashes of blood painting the wall behind him purple. Dahm kept firing until the carbine’s magazine was spent. When the weapon fell silent Kambei ‘Nerevar fell limp to the floor.

Dahm lay where he was for several moments, breathing heavily. When Kambei did not rise the police sergeant got unsteadily to his feet and approached the body. He drew his sidearm and put two rounds through Kambei’s head—just to be safe.

The police sergeant studied his dead opponent for a moment, an unsteady smile creeping across his face. “Well then,” he said aloud to the empty room. “Guess I’m not such a lightweight after all.”

COMPETITOR 021 - KAMBEI 'NEREVAR - ELIMINATED

43

Crew Deck F2, SOTF Station

Day One, 1736 Hours


Damn, COM's still busted.

Since he had found himself completely alone on this space station shortly after disappearing from the island, Cailean-378 had moved from floor to floor, checking every COM frequency in an attempt to contact Lee-A137. Either his ally was dead at this point, or the SPARTAN-II's hypothesis that communications were being restricted to a floor-by-floor basis was correct. Either way, he'd have to keep on moving if he wanted to stay alive, because if there was one thing that growing list of dead Spartans in the announcements told him, it was that this place was filled with incredibly talented killers.

From now on, all bets are off I suppose. Anyone who's made it this far must be dangerous.

The SPARTAN-II continued down the corridor, rifle in hand. As he neared an intersection, a red blip flashed up on his motion tracker, steadily heading towards him. Cailean froze and dropped to one knee, peeking round the corner to his right before silently shifting forward, his weapon raised. If everything went well, this fight would be over very quickly.

***

Had Brandon Smith been just a second slower, he would have died instantly.

After wandering the crew decks for close to half an hour, the ODST had grown anxious, expecting to hear the sounds of fighting echoing down the empty halls as he cleared room after room, M90 Shotgun in hand. While the island had bothered him because of its near-total silence, every tiny sound on this space station had him on edge; lights buzzing, doors clanking open and the barely audible noises from piping that ran across the ceilings had Smith one second away from pulling the trigger on the first thing that moved. As it turned out, someone would shoot at him first.

"Fuck!" he yelled involuntarily, throwing himself to the floor as a burst of rifle fire missed him by inches.

Down the corridor, Cailean stood up, MA37 in hand, and began to sprint towards him. Smith knew a Spartan when he saw one, and scrambled to his feet as a second burst zipped past him. The trooper's mind raced as he pelted back towards an intersection, trying to think of ways to defend himself against such a foe. He'd overcome that Sangheili earlier partly through sheer luck, and the crazed man who ambushed him had gone down thanks to his quick reflexes. But a Spartan?

No, can't give up. If I think I've got no chance then it's over. Got to fight back. Got to win.

As the sound of armour-plated boots grew closer and closer, Smith threw himself through a side door and into a room lined with bunk beds. Acting quickly, he grabbed one and with a loud grunt of exertion, pulled the metal frame across the doorway as it began to close. Suddenly a gauntleted hand reached through, pulling it back with ease. Smith knelt down and as the armoured bulk of a SPARTAN-II tried to force his way through the makeshift blockade, fired two blasts from his weapon. While it only blew the energy shields of his MJOLNIR armour apart, it forced the supersoldier backwards and gave his opponent plenty of time to run to another door before he could recover.

Close range with the M90's my only chance, Smith nodded to himself, loading extra shells into his weapon. shielding or no, if I can get a few good hits in, I might come out on top.

Smith chanced a look back just in time to see Cailean emerge from the room, his shields still flickering as they tried to recharge. The Spartan reloaded his weapon and chased after him, keeping his rifle raised. While he could quickly outpace the ODST in terms of speed, the number of twists and turns across the crew deck's corridors gave him a slight advantage.

It's like a maze, Cailean thought to himself, realising that the station's strange design was likely intentional if it was to be used as an arena. His opponent was certainly cunning, though it wouldn't be long before his luck ran out. Even if he moved out of sight, the Spartan's motion tracker wouldn't allow him to hide. He caught a glimpse of Smith crashing into another side room and increased his speed, running at full tilt and activating his MJOLNIR suit's thrusters to send him hurtling through the door.

No traps this time. I'm ending this.

The metal crumpled under his weight as the SPARTAN-II smashed through into what looked like a kitchen area, stopping himself as he hit the ground by a row of metal tables. Smith was nowhere to be seen. As Cailean briefly checked his motion tracker, there was a flash of movement from behind him as the ODST leapt forward, weapon in hand. Knowing that outrunning the Spartan was nigh-impossible, Smith had sought to get him into a situation where they would be more evenly matched.

The shotgun fired three times as Cailean span round, quickly dissipating his energy shields and slamming into his chestplate. The Spartan's armour buckled from the blasts as he staggered backwards, firing his rifle-one handed towards Smith. The man was forced to dive away as a spray of bullets swept past him, giving Cailean a few vital moments to recover. He tasted blood in his mouth, though it looked as through his suit had blocked the worst of the blasts. Had his opponent hit him a few more times, however, the Spartan would have almost certainly been killed.

"You're not getting away."

Cailean emptied the rest of his magazine firing at the trooper, who staggered and fell.

Smith clenched his teeth as the rounds struck his back, struggling to move to one side as Cailean reloaded. With no time to level his M90, his free hand went for the M7 submachine gun at his hip. Crawling backwards, he let loose a wild spray of rounds that forced the supersoldier into cover; without his shields to protect him and with damaged armour, he was vulnerable. As rounds pinged off the metallic surfaces and buried themselves in the wall behind Cailean, Smith used his chance to edge backwards, hoping to leave the room and make a break for another floor.

I don't think I'm hit too badly. Armour took most of the force, but I'm bleeding. Gottta escape, find a place to patch myself up-

The moment his SMG clacked empty, Cailean leapt over his bullet-riddled cover and lunged for Smith, thrusters blaring. The ODST was halfway to his feet when the Spartan made contact, bringing his fist up into the shorter man's chest like a jackhammer. Smith wheezed as the air left him and he was propelled back into a wall with a crack, his ears ringing. In desperation, he unholstered his M6C Magnum and opened fire, screaming in rage as his attacker moved in for the kill. Blood spurted from wounds in Cailean's shoulder and chest, though it was too late.

Oh, hell.

Cailean's left hand crushed the pistol and just about every bone in Brandon Smith's hand like a tin can, and as the ODST cried out the SPARTAN-II brought his fist forward into his face, smashing the visor of his ODST helmet inwards with the first blow. He hit the man again and again as he threw Smith to the floor, each blow cracking the tiled floor beneath them as he reduced his opponent's head to a bloody, smashed mess. When he finally stopped, his breath unsteady as he stood up, Cailean's right arm was caked in blood.

"This could've been much easier," he panted, clutching his wounded side. He'd live, though Smith had made things much harder for him. Cailean knew that the worst was yet to come. Leaving the battered, near-headless corpse where it lay in the midst of the destroyed kitchen, the Spartan strode back out into the corridor to resume this twisted hunt.

COMPETITOR 015 - BRANDON SMITH - ELIMINATED

44

SOTF Station Exterior

Day One, 1745 Hours


"Warning, you are reaching the arena limits."

The sudden voice from the computer of Corin Davis' F-41 Broadsword surprised the Spartan, and as warning lights flashed up on a panel next to him, he made a sharp turn and began heading back towards the space station. His wingmate did the same, having evidently gotten the same warning.

"So I guess we're stuck here," Corin sighed, feeling annoyed. "Think there's any point to heading back?"

Following the SPARTAN-IV's Broadsword, Aylla-G021 weighed up her options. They had been trapped in a hangar bay by the rogue AI Diana, leaving Edmond Dahm to fight a monstrously powerful Sangheili Crusader alone. Without their help she doubted the police officer had survived, though his foe had been wounded as Aylla and Corin had fled towards one of the space station's many hangars. There they had found a pair of Broadswords, all loaded up and ready to fly. Though hesitant at first due to her limited experience with the vessel, she had soon gotten used to the controls and was content to follow Corin around as they skirted the very edges of this 'arena'.

"It doesn't look like we have much of a choice, does it?"

"Not really. That said, I do have an idea."

"Oh?"

Corin sounded hesitant, but spoke anyway. "We've got a full missile complement on these things, right? If we're careful, we might be able to hit the station in enough key places to do some serious damage. It'll whittle down the competition, at least."

The competition. That's what everyone else is now. "It might be worth a shot, but what about Dahm or any other Spartans?"

"Like I said, it's just an idea. We can't leave the area, anyway?"

"What if those warnings are just for show?" Aylla glanced towards the vast emptiness of space that lay beyond the danger zone indicated on her console. "We could try getting the hell away from this place"

"You willing to try it?"

"No."

"Me neither. For now, let's-"

Corin stopped as two blips flashed up before him. As they had begun to approach the station, their Broadsword's threat-detection systems had picked up enemy contacts far ahead. Peering through his fighter's viewscreen, the Spartan could make out a pair of ships spiralling around the space station, autocannons flashing in the darkness of space as missiles blossomed into tiny explosions just outside the floating structure.

"So, what do we do here?" asked Aylla. "Want to sit back and watch, or are we getting involved?"

Corin slowed his Broadsword's thrusters for a moment, tapping his armoured fingers against the throttle. Both vessels were of UNSC design, though it was clear that the pursuer was close to prevailing. A GA-TL1 Longsword fighter streaked across the side of the station, spinning and weaving past gunfire with incredible speed that no regular Human pilot could match. The other was a smaller, sleeker vessel that Corin did not recognise, easily keeping pace with the larger fighter. The Longsword's 120mm ventral guns suddenly loosed a burst of fire towards it, only for the rounds to dissipate harmlessly as the other ship's energy shielding flared for a moment. While a fascinating chase to watch, the Spartan knew that it could not last forever.

"Ah, screw it," he muttered. "Aylla, we're going in. Let's give that Longsword a hand."

***

Shit, I can't keep this up for much longer.

Sat at the helm of the Longsword was Colin-142, his mind focused almost entirely on keeping ahead of the fighter pursuing him. Since his teleportation onto the space station, he'd wandered the halls in an attempt to reunite with Shepard-G127, ever-alert to the distant sounds of gunfire. After coming across a Longsword in one of the empty hangar bays, the SPARTAN-II had intended to fly around the station and use its long-range communicator to contact Shepard, but to no avail. Just like on the island, all communications were either being blocked or had been totally deactivated outside of extremely short-range radios.

And then this asshole showed up.

While its development was a heavily-classified secret within the UNSC, Colin had heard rumours about the Sabre Program and the incredibly powerful cadre of ships it had produced. Having now seen one in the field, he knew full well why they were so rarely used. Even with all his augmented reflexes, the SPARTAN-II could barely evade the near-constant barrage of cannon fire and occasional missile as he used the exterior of the station as cover. Multiple glancing hits had already peppered the hull of his Longsword, and any attempts to communicate with the pilot and identify himself as a friendly Spartan had utterly failed. As such, his only hope was to evade as long as he could until the opportunity presented itself for him to counter-attack. After pulling off a sharp turn that brought his ship less than a metre away from smashing against the station's dome-like upper section, his sensors let loose a shrill cry as two more contacts approached.

"Oh, what now?!" he gritted his teeth as a communications channel flashed repeatedly before opening.

"Longsword fighter, this is Spartans Corin Davis and Aylla-G021. We're coming in to assist, over."

Colin couldn't believe his luck. "Copy that, Spartan. Have you tried contacting my pursuer?"

"Affirmative. He's either ignoring us or his COM isn't working."

"Wouldn't be much of a surprise, then. I'm Colin, by the way. Spartan One-Four-Two."

"Nice to meet you. We'll talk more once we've blown this guy out of the sky."

***

With the sudden addition of two more fighters to their dogfight, Kyle-B115 began to grow worried.

Bereft of an environment that suited his talents as a marksman, his initial plan was to fortify a position within the space station and set up a killzone there, taking down anyone who came his way. However, it seemed as though the entire place was designed so that aside from cornering himself in a fairly tiny room, there was no corridor that fit his purpose. As such, the SPARTAN-III had made his way towards the first hangar he could find and mounted up aboard a YSS-1000 Sabre. He'd quickly figured out the vessel's systems, and after sighting an older Longsword fighter circling the station had given chase. It didn't take long for Kyle to realise that the fighter was likely being piloted by another Spartan, and despite a twinge of guilt had simply steeled himself for what would be yet another arduous task.

It's just survival. Nothing more.

As the pair of Broadswords rocketed towards him, Kyle pulled away from the Longsword's tail and circled around the station to avoid a missile strike, which impacted harmlessly on the structure's armoured outer shell. His computer flashed a warning as Colin's Longsword banked towards him, finally going on the offensive. Kyle shook his head and increased the throttle as his Sabre's thrusters kicked into full gear and the craft shifted vertically up the station's side. Yanking at the controls as he slowed down for just a moment, the Spartan span his Sabre round and sped straight towards the Longsword on a collision course.

Let's see who blinks first.

With his craft's shields at over 70%, Kyle's Sabre was able to wear the first few seconds of cannon fire as he acquired a target lock on Colin's ship. With a faint grin of satisfaction, he thumbed a switch and let loose four Medusa missiles, all aimed at his foe's cockpit. The SPARTAN-II's fighter veered off half a second too late was struck repeatedly along its left side, sending it spinning away. While he hadn't breached the hull, the crucial moments it took for Colin to regain control gave Kyle plenty of time to blast away at his fighter's engines. the back-right thruster exploded in a flash of light, leaving the flagging ship nearly helpless as another set of missiles loaded into the Sabre's pods.

Before he could deliver the killing blow, Kyle's ship flashed a warning as Aylla's Broadsword dove up from beneath him, its own missiles hammering his Sabre's energy shields into nothingness while the SPARTAN-IV, Corin, swung around to take him down with his 35mm cannons. Swerving downwards as a green light shone to indicate his missiles were ready, Kyle shot past Aylla, using her own fighter as momentary cover from Corin's attack while his shielding quickly recharged and gave him a chance to turn round.

"Okay," he said to himself. "Now for you two."

***

Corin's heart sank as he watched the heavily-damaged Longsword slowly drift away, smoke billowing from its ruined engines into space. The unknown Sabre pilot was certainly skilled, and had been able to outmaneuver both he and Aylla as they had moved in to finish him off.

"He's coming back around," the younger Spartan warned him, surging ahead in her fighter.

"Those shields of his recharge pretty quickly. We'll have to keep up sustained fire to make sure he's not got a chance to recuperate."

"Got it," Aylla's reply was brief, but Corin could tell that she was rather frustrated. He wondered momentarily if it was simply a trait of all Gamma Company members. "I'm moving in."

The two Broadswords kept their distance from the sabre, firing in quick bursts with their autocannons to preserve ammo and whittle away Kyle's shields. While slightly larger than their own ships, the Sabre appeared more nimble as it performed a series of complex rolls and spins to escape their fire. Instead of initiating another lengthy chase around the station, however, it surged towards them, blasting away at Aylla. Instead of evading, the SPARTAN-III chose to bear the brunt of it with her shields and fire a barrage of missiles towards the Sabre. It responded in kind, continuing to let loose with its cannons as four of its own missiles streaked towards the Broadsword. While the hail of death between the two ships demolished most of the projectiles mid-flight, a single shot impacted Aylla's cockpit just as her shields wavered and died, smashing most of the front of her vessel as she jerked back in her seat.

"Aylla!" Corin cried, moving as quickly as his he could to defend her near-crippled vessel while Kyle wheeled round to fire. With its shields restored, no missile or bullet would break through to damage the ship in time as it prepared to blow Aylla's ship to smitheens. Taking a deep breath, Corin increased his speed.

The Broadsword rammed the Sabre at full force, the shields of both ships vanishing in an instant as they clashed. Both Spartans struggled to maintain control, Corin yanking at the controls as the sound of churning metal echoed across his cockpit. While his ship's hull wasn't yet breached, it had taken a damn good beating as both vessels remained wedged together, each trying to break free. At this distance, he could see an armoured figure through the semi-transparent cockpit of the Sabre.

So it was a Spartan. Damnnit, we could've worked together.

Shaking his head, Corin pushed his thrusters into reverse and tried to get a good angle on the Sabre as Kyle did the same. With their shields dissipated and hulls badly-damaged, neither vessel could take much more punishment. For a moment, Corin thought that his opponent would hold off on firing if he did, only to see a bright flash from the larger fighter's missile pods. He slammed his hand down on his ship's own firing trigger, and let loose a cascade of rockets into the Sabre's underbelly just as Kyle's own ship fired.

As she shook her head clear of a momentary wave of dizziness, Aylla looked up and saw the cockpit of Corin's Broadsword explode in a fiery blast just as his the enemy ship was cut in half by a series of blasts just a second later. Watching it unfold out in the silence of space, there was nothing she could do but watch as she tried to reactivate her own ship's systems. Her weapons were offline, and her thrusters were working at less than a quarter of their actual power. As she tried to turn back towards the space station, a flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye caught Aylla's attention.

***

"Shit, that was close."

Having checked that his Semi-Powered Infiltration armour was still secure enough to hold in a vacuum, Kyle-B115 pulled the emergency release lever that opened up his Sabre's cockpit. The entire rear portion of his craft had been blown away, and had either been disintegrated in the blast or was drifting out into space in tiny pieces. The simultaneous attack between him and that Broadsword's pilot had been near-suicidal, but thanks to sheer luck and good positioning, Kyle had survived. Latching a thruster pack onto the back of his armour, the Spartan stood up and pushed the canopy away, a timer in his helmet's HUD already counting down how many minutes of air he had left.

Nine minutes. Should be more than enough to get me back to the station.

Kicking off from his doomed vessel, Kyle activated the thruster pack, his eyes set on one of the lower hangar bays. With two-way energy fields across each, it would simply be a matter of making it to one in time As he rocketed through space, the SPARTAN-III gave no thought to the fates of the other vessels; the Longsword was likely too damaged to move and though he couldn't confirm the kill, the other Broadsword's pilot had probably died when he hit the cockpit.

Not bad for my first run with a Sabre. When I get out of this, I'll have to sign on for a mission with one-

Something struck Kyle in the gut, doubling the Spartan over as he veered off-course for a moment. Blood and air began to escape from his breached undersuit and as he scrambled to cover the hole with one hand, his other went for the handgun at his belt; he'd left his sniper rifle back in one of the hangar bays. Not far away from him, stood atop the slowly-drifting hulk of her Broadsword, was Aylla. Holding her M6D pistol, she'd stood there for some time, waiting for the right moment to shoot.

"You fucking-!"

Aylla fired four times, each round striking Kyle as he tried to move away. As he was hit in the leg, shoulder, torso and thruster pack, the SPARTAN-III began to choke as the oxygen rushed out of his suit. His vision blurred as he tried to get a clear shot on the far-off Spartan, and as he flailed in a vain attempt to reach the space station, a final armour-piercing round struck him in the side of the head.

Kyle's body drifted away into space.

Sighing, Aylla clambered back into her Broadsword's cockpit and sealed it, hoping to at least conserve the ninety minutes of air she had in her MJOLNIR suit. At this rate, it would take her quite a while to reach the station, and without a thruster pack making a jump there was too risky to attempt. The fighter's thrusters struggled to turn her towards the structure, flickering rapidly as they pushed her forwards. After a minute or so, they petered out entirely and shut off, leaving her reliant entirely on the damaged ship's momentum to carry her there. Suddenly, a voice sounded over her COM.

"This is SPARTAN-142. Is anyone left out here, over?"

If he was in range to contact Aylla, then Colin was close. She craned round to see the horribly scarred, smoking Longsword slowly floating through space, its one main thruster having turned it around enough to send it directly towards the station where everyone else was fighting for their lives. She activated her ship's thankfully-functional COM system.

"This is Aylla-G021. What's your status, Spartan?"

"Bruised but alive, former injuries notwithstanding. Your partner?"

"KIA. As is our attacker."

"I'm sorry to hear that," came the reply. "I'm not far off from the station, though the best I can make is a crash landing into one of the hangar bays. How's your ship?"

"Thrusters and weapons are offline, though I'm heading for the station as well."

"Think you could make a jump for it?"

"I've not got a thruster pack. Not gonna risk it with just my suit's systems."

"I see." There was a moment of hesitation as Colin moved away from the speaker. "My armour's damaged, so I'm not rated for EVA activity. However, I've got a T-pack on board if you think you can reach my Longsword."

Aylla sat up, peering out of her cockpit towards the Longsword as it slowly made its way towards one of the empty hangar bays. It wasn't too far away, but she would have to be precise if she wanted to survive any jump. As a warning notice scrolled across her console informing her that the ship's air supply had run out, kicking her MJOLNIR's systems into gear, she made her choice.

"Copy that, 142. I'm making the jump."

With little difficulty, Aylla pushed the canopy open once more and perched herself atop the Broadsword, calculating her movements carefully as she coiled herself like a spring and prepared to push off. As the distant fighter shifted past, she leapt forwards. Her MJOLNIR suit's directional thrusters helped with guidance somewhat, increasing her momentum as the SPARTAN-III shot like a bullet towards Colin's Longsword. For a moment, she thought she was going to miss it by a few inches and kicked in her suit's systems again, only for the vessel's airlock to open and extend a boarding ramp. Reaching out, Aylla was able to grab hold of the metal by her fingertips and pulled herself up, panting ever so slightly as she crawled up towards the sealed airlock chamber. Only when the doors closed behind her did she let out a sigh of relief.

"I'm opening the doors," Colin's voice sounded through the short-range COM.

As the airlock clanked open, Aylla found herself grasping her shotgun, which had been affixed to the back of her armour through all this. While Colin had been nothing but helpful thus far, she couldn't help but feel like she was walking into a trap. Edging into the Longsword's spacious cockpit, she sighted a helmetless man sat at the controls. Pieces of battered MJOLNIR armour lay on the floor nearby alongside rolls of bloodied bandages and a half-empty tin of biofoam. This Spartan had evidently seen some serious combat.

"What happened to you?" Aylla asked, stepping forward.

Colin barely glanced back as he tried to move the Longsword through a hangar doors, slapping the barely-responsive landing gear button repeatedly as their fighter edged its way through the energy field.

"I was ambushed," he said at last as he shut the ship's power down. It hit the hangar deck with a crash and the floor shook, but they were otherwise fine. "Somebody got lucky with a Needler."

She winced in sympathy. Of all the weapons in the Covenant's arsenal, that was one of the worst. "How'd you survive?"

"I nearly didn't. It just so happens that a friendly Spartan came along and fixed me up before I bled out."

"What, in this game?"

"I guess not everyone's playing by the rules of the dickheads running this deathmatch. This guy was a Gamma like you, and we ended up travelling together for a little while. When we were teleported here, we got separated."

"You think he's alive?" she asked, sounding rather sceptical. "I mean, plenty of Spartans have died already."

Colin shrugged. "I hope he is, because I'm hoping that we can get to the bottom of this game and kill whoever's running it."

"That's a pretty big task," Aylla crossed her arms. "Impossible, probably. All the same, I'm willing to team up with you for now."

Colin smiled, and grabbed his Hunter-class MJOLNIR helmet from nearby.

"Well then, we'd best get moving. I'm sure there's plenty of hostiles out there to kill."

COMPETITOR 014 - CORIN DAVIS - ELIMINATED
COMPETITOR 026 - KYLE-B115 - ELIMINATED

45

Engineering Deck, SOTF Station

Day One, 1806 Hours


Well, this can't have passed safety regulations.

Standing by the edge of a series of catwalks that criss-crossed around the space station's four towering fusion reactors, Spartan Jin Cheung crossed his arms in disbelief. Much like portions of the artificial island, the construction layout of this place made little sense. Hallways twisted and turned for no good reason, ladders and staircases lay in odd places, and now he found himself looking at what must have been the least safe engine room he had ever seen.

"This is nuts," Cheung said to himself, drawing his MA5K as he began to cross the central catwalk.

Despite the hefty protection afforded by his MJOLNIR armour, Cheung still felt horribly exposed as he traversed the long platform. Glancing down, he saw that it was a straight drop to the very bottom of the station from here. Having found himself six or seven decks above this one after being transported here, he'd been going down in an attempt to contact other potential allies, and had found no one. Now the only thing the Spartan could do was work his way back up, perhaps towards one of the hangars where he could commandeer a ship and escape, if that were possible.

Momentarily lost in thought, Cheung was snapped back to his senses as his augmented hearing caught the distant sound of footsteps on metal. He dropped to one knee and levelled his carbine towards the source of the noise, ready to fire at a moment's notice.

***

From the moment she stepped into the cavernous chamber, Ryuko Kawada felt uneasy. As she rounded a corner and found herself looking towards an armed SPARTAN-IV supersoldier, she could only sigh and shake her head as a hand twitched towards her own plasma pistol.

"Freeze!" Cheung yelled.

Ryuko halted, weighing up her options. She'd been able to outfight the last guy she encountered, but at least they had been somewhat evenly matched. Here, her foe was better-armoured and equipped, and could likely outfight her in a prolonged battle. She closed her eyes for a moment, slowly raising her hands in surrender. Had this guy wanted her dead, he could've shot immediately.

"Hey there!" she called. "I'm not gonna fight you."

At this, Cheung lowered his weapon by a tiny fraction. Though she couldn't see his face, Ryuko could feel a sense of relief coming from the Spartan. He evidently didn't want to kill her, despite the stakes in this deathmatch. She took a few steps forward, moving onto the bridge.

"Stop right there," Cheung's gun snapped up again. "Put your weapons down. Now."

He was being cautious, and rightfully so. In addition to her pistol, Ryuko had her gladiator's sword and a Plasma Repeater strapped to her back, with her shock glove and spring blade for emergencies. She wondered if the glove would work as well against MJOLNIR armour as it had against the jetpack of that ODST from earlier. With almost theatrical exaggeration, Ryuko took the plasma pistol from her belt and tossed it over the side. Moments later, there was a clatter as it hit a bridge below. Cheung glanced down, and Ryuko smiled.

Moron.

She cleared the distance between them in barely a second, whipping the spring blade from her left gauntlet and flinging it at Cheung's neck. Surprised at her sudden haste, he whipped to one side as the metal clanked uselessly off his shielded pauldron and snapped off a burst of fire towards the young woman. Ryuko hopped off the bridge, grabbing the edge with her figertips long enough to swing away and land on a nearby platform, where she retrieved her plasma pistol.

"Damn it," Cheung sighed, turning to face her. "I'll make this quick."

She laughed up at him, raring to go as adrenaline coursed through here. "I won't!"

The SPARTAN-IV leapt straight at her, letting off quick three-round bursts with his MA5K. She dived away, rolling to one side and charging up her plasma pistol. Ryuko pulled the trigger, and a shimmering green globule burst forth. It struck Cheung's armour and dissipated his shields in a burst of energy, forcing him back for a brief moment. Drawing her Repeater, she let loose a torrent of bolts towards him. Glancing hits scorched the surface of his MJOLNIR suit, though a quick burst from his thruster pack sent Cheung flying towards a lower platform. Now Ryuko had the high ground. As he touched down on a lower bridge, Cheung immediately began to sprint, ignoring a stinging burn from a grazing blow to his side.

She's better than I thought, he conceded, letting off a few one-handed shots in Ryuko's direction as he tried to find some cover. The mercenary continued firing, so intent on finishing off the Spartan before his shields recharged that she ignored a steadily-rising indicator on her Repeater creeping towards the red zone. As a lucky hit struck Cheung in the back of the leg, making him stumble, the plasma weapon shuddered and began to vent excess heat.

"Goddamnnit!" Ryuko swore, dropping the gun momentarily as she hit the deck to avoid return fire from the Spartan. She could feel her fingers blistering, and felt annoyed at herself for being overeager in battle.

I've got to be smart here. No room for mistakes.

As a few rounds whizzed overhead and struck one of the massive fusion reactors behind her. There was a loud crackle as lightning momentarily arced from the machine in a burst of electrical energy, revealing what appeared to be a series of transparent energy shields shimmering back into place around them.

It would be a long shot, but Ryuko had a plan.

The moment his MJOLNIR suit's shielding had fully recharged, Cheung kicked his thrusters into gear and leapt up towards Ryuko's position. The young woman had begun to flee, sprinting as fast as she could towards the engineering deck's exit. He couldn't help but feel a little bad as he kicked off and ran after her, trying to put a round in the back of her head. While he had shown no mercy to David King earlier after the Spartan had attacked him, they had at least been somewhat evenly matched. Without the element of surprise that had taken him off-guard, Ryuko's chances of beating him were virtually nil.

What the hell is she doing?

At the end of the walkway, Ryuko span round, dropping her Plasma Repeater and drawing the gladiator's sword from her back. Cheung slowed down to reload as she moved into a fighting stance, hoping that he wouldn't go for the obvious choice of just shooting her. To her immense relief, he took the bait and stowed away his MA5K, evidently intent on disarming her himself. While she knew full well that a Spartan's strength and speed outclassed her own, Ryuko had some tricks up her sleeve that she hoped would work against Cheung. He approached her slowly, clearly wary of her blade. Behind the bifocal visor of his MJOLNIR helmet, his eyes searched for weak points in Ryuko's defence; ways to advance while minimising the risk taken.

In her heard, Ryuko knew she'd never be able to outfight a Spartan in close quarters. Nobody could in her situation. All the same, she stood her ground, edging forward with sword in hand. For several seconds they stood several metres apart, the only sound coming from the distant reactors. Then with a burst from his thrusters, Cheung dashed forward.

Ryuko bared her teeth. "Come on!"

Cheung moved quicker than she could imagine, ducking under a two-handed swipe that would have taken his head off and leaping behind Ryuko before launching a series of punches towards the mercenary. While an extraordinarily talented fighter with her blade, Ryuko could only afford to block as she backed away towards the middle of the room. His armoured gauntlets clanged off the flat of her sword, occasionally kicking up sparks as he pushed her back. While he could not land any hits on her for fear of being stabbed, it was only a matter of time before Ryuko's body tired, giving Cheung the opening he needed to finish her off.

She gave Cheung his opening.

Taking a heavy swing past the Spartan, Ryuko was ready as he brought his right fist towards her, seeking to take her out with a single blow to the head. Augmented by both his armour and enhancements, a direct hit would likely cave her skull in. Waiting until the very last moment, Ryuko dropped her weapon and jumped towards Cheung, grabbing onto his chestplate with one arm just as his fist struck her left shoulder. She cried out involuntarily as pain exploded from the impact point, her clavicle smashed with a single hit. Nonetheless, she clung onto him with all her might, staring right into the eyes of Cheung's MJOLNIR helmet.

"Get off me!" he intoned, sounding more annoyed than anything else as he struggled to get a good hold on Ryuko.

"Fuck you!" came her reasonable reply.

Ignoring the pulsating waves of pain from her shoulder, Ryuko managed to cover Cheung's visor with her wounded arm and resisted the urge to laugh as he attempted to throw her off. As he reached for his holstered handgun, a suppressed M6H Magnum, she was able to kick it away and watched as it clattered and bounced right off the bridge they were fighting on. With a growl, Cheung suddenly took a flying leap and kicked his thrusters into gear, flying up into the air so he could fling Ryuko off to her death.

This is what I've been waiting for.

At the zenith of his flight and at the moment Cheng's armoured fingers finally found purchase around the back of Ryuko's neck, she slammed her palm against his armoured suit and activated her shock glove at maximum power. The MJOLNIR suit's shields overloaded and dissipated instantly with the first pulse, allowing the second and third to course into the suit. The Spartan suddenly jerked backwards as his thrusters malfunctioned, dropping Ryuko as he careened away from her and towards the fusion reactors. She landed in a heap on a rather conveniently-placed bridge and rolled away, looking up just in time to watch her foe hit the energy shields.

Momentarily deprived of control of his own armour, Cheung could do nothing but flail as he tried to avert his current course, finally hurtling into the protective shielding that surrounded one of the space station's powerful reactors. The shielding split apart on impact, sending the Spartan flying right into the white-hot core. His MJOLNIR armour, already battered and scorched, was quickly began to twist and melt in the heat as Cheung's undersuit smouldered for a moment before bursting into flame. Consumed by fire, he tried to push himself away with a futile burst from his barely-functional thrusters, making it about half a metre away from the reactor core before a crackling wave of lightning bolts sprang forth and converged on the burning Spartan.

Jin Cheung disintegrated in a flash of white light.

Sat below him, slowly catching her breath as she tried to assess her injury, Ryuko Kawada let out a harsh laugh of triumph, watching the ashes that had once been a Spartan slowly float down and dissolve into nothingness before her. Heaving herself up, the young woman shook the dark hair out of her face, picked up her discarded weapons,and prepared for the battles to come.

For now, she had won. That was all that mattered.

COMPETITOR 011 - JIN CHEUNG - ELIMINATED

46

Observation Deck, SOTF Station

Day One, 1822 Hours


The moment he heard the impact of an armoured fist on the outer door, Roy Koel knew that his barricade would not hold.

Checking the safety on his MA5D rifle, the venerable soldier prepared to unleash everything he had the moment the entrance to the observation deck was breached. With no intention of exploring the entire space station and having found evidence of fighting both up on the command decks and below in some of the corridors, he had simply returned to the level he had woken up on and set up what defences he could.

And now the fight's come to me.

The stacked crates and chairs piled up by the door shook, some tumbling off the pile as another heavy blow dented the metal inwards. Koel had jammed it shut by sabotaging the electronic lock, leaving only a vent across the room as an escape route in case things went wrong. Now though, he knew there wouldn't be time to flee. Standing his ground was the only way out here. His sharp eyes crept upwards, to the tiny, circular shape hanging above the doorframe, the result of meticulous preparation on his part.

With one final blow and a tremendous creaking of metal, the barricade collapsed and door flew inwards, revealing a large, armoured figure standing in the hallway. Koel levelled his weapon, set it to full-auto, and opened fire.

***

As the red dot flashed up on his motion tracker, Shepard-G127 prepared himself for the worst and readied his BR85 rifle. Whoever was in this room had barricaded themselves inside for whatever reason, though such defences could not hold out for long against the Spartan's prolonged assault. As the heavily-dented metal began to creak inwards as the frame slowly gave out, he prepared for one final kick that would send whatever remained of this blockage flying. With a groan, the metal door finally gave way, smashing apart as the Spartan's armoured boot struck it. A pile of chairs, supply crates and other debris that had been stacked up behind it toppled over, flying across the room as Shepard stepped in, and the gunfire started.

Though fully aware that there was likely an armed foe hiding in this room, the SPARTAN-III was willing to take the risk of facing the unknown, relying on his MJOLNIR suit's shielding and thick armour to protect him. Sure enough, when someone popped up from behind a table and began firing at him, he could easily ignore the first few hits as they pinged off his crackling energy shield before returning fire with his own rifle. It was only when he realised that his attacker's arc of fire was moving upwards that Shepard paused for a fraction of a second.

Wait.

The Spartan glanced up just in time to see the fragmentation grenade dangling above the doorframe, and had barely begun to leap away when it detonated. The force of the explosion tore through his shields in an instant, peppering him with shrapnel as Shepard was sent skidding across the metal floor. He registered a few minor injuries across his lower back and shoulders, though nothing to impede his fighting prowess. Having dropped his rifle in the explosion, he snatched the pair of M6H Magnums from his legs and rolled away as Roy Koel expended the last of his ammo trying to finish the Spartan off. rolling behind a desk, he waited for the barely-noticeable sound of a magazine being changed before popping up to return fire.

"Goddammit," Koel swore under his breath as he dropped down low to reload his weapon. That ambush was his only real chance of ending this quickly. In open combat, he simply couldn't compete with the strength and endurance of a Spartan.

Doesn't mean I'm gonna sit down and die, either.

Forced to move away as Shepard's Magnum fire blared past him, Koel's mind raced as he considered his options. With the barricade gone, he could make a dash for the door, though the long corridors outside would make him easy prey for the SPARTAN-III to gun down. On the other hand, he wouldn't stand much of a chance in close quarters either. Pleading for mercy wasn't an option either. Gritting his teeth, Koel mentally prepared himself for a fight to the death. The clunk of a Spartan's boots hitting the ground as Shepard dashed across the room towards Koel to execute the Marine was the signal for him to move too, grabbing a discarded metal chair by the legs and flinging it towards the advancing supersoldier with all his might. Though Shepard batted it away with a flick of his arm, this gave Koel enough time to charge forward as well with a mighty shout, firing away with his MA5.

"Really?" Shepard sighed, feeling more than a little sorry for the aged soldier rushing him.

While his shields hadn't fully recharged, Koel's initial bursts of one-handed fire barely grazed Shepard's armour, though as he raised his first pistol to blow the man's head off it was blown apart in his hand. For the first time, he noticed something strange about his opponent. Perhaps he'd just become used to his reaction time outpacing just about everyone he fought, but the speed with which this man moved and fought back took him off guard for a moment. Raising the other pistol, his first two shots missed Koel by inches, though the third found hit his shoulder, bursting through in a plume of blood. Though he let out an involuntary grunt of pain, the Marine did not slow down, and instead continued firing at Shepard, trying to hit his unarmoured lower chest.

Shepard dropped his free hand to cover his weak point just as Koel fired, scoring a few glancing blows on his forearm but missing anything vital as he came within striking distance. Darting to the right, he brought the butt of his rifle down towards Shepard's other M6H, his weapon taking the final few rounds before smacking it from the Spartan's grip. Despite losing his guns, Shepard was easily able to move into a fighting stance and delivered a series of lightning-fast punches that would have crushed any normal man's skull in a single blow. To his surprise, Koel was able to evade each strike, if barely, though this left him open for a sudden kick that struck his chest with surprising force, sending him flying backwards into a wall.

"That should put you down," Shepard clapped his hands together, slowly walking across to where Koel lay on his side. I'll kill him now, make this quick.

Suddenly, the Marine wheezed and rolled over, tearing off his horribly dented chestplate. In this moment, the ORION-augmented Roy Koel finally felt his age, fighting through the pain and exhaustion as he struggled to his feet. Shepard's energy shields had recharged, and even with his handgun and grenade he doubted he had much of a chance. He was almost certain he'd cracked or even broken a couple of ribs, and had numerous bruises from that hard landing. Nonetheless, he stood his ground, wiped a trickle of blood from his nose, and faced the Spartan down.

"Bring it!" he challenged Shepard, drawing his M6D sidearm.

The SPARTAN-III darted forward, utterly calm as he fixated himself on eliminating Koel. Anyone able to stand up again after a kick like that was not to be underestimated. Each 12.7x40mm round posed a serious risk to the Spartan, each shot blowing away a significant chunk of his newly-restored energy shielding as he closed the gap between himself and the Marine. Koel ducked under a swing meant to take his head off, though Shepard's other hand grasped his wounded shoulder in a vice-like grip. Fighting through the pain, he emptied the remainder of the magazine into Shepard's body, blowing through his shields and inflicting some heavy damage to his right side as the Magnum rounds tore through him. Smacking the gun away from Koel, Shepard sagged slightly as his armour's biofoam injectors stymied the worst of his wound at the cost of an incredible spike of pain, and grabbed the struggling Marine by the throat.

For the briefest of moments, Shepard wondered if he should say anything to Koel, be it a few words of respect for a good fight or mockery for losing like this. Then the old man spat in his visor, and he decided that simply snapping the man's neck would do. As his fingers tightened, Koel's grasping fingers reached the hilt of Shepard's shoulder-mounted combat knife, pulled it free, and plunged the blade right into the Spartan's wrist. As a spurt of arterial bllood burst forth, Shepard's grip loosened enough for Koel to kick himself free, scrambling across the floor while the supersoldier tried to pull the knife loose, silently cursing himself for drawing out the Marine's death. As he turned back towards Koel, he saw his enemy stoop for a moment to pick something up.

"Hey Spartan!" Koel yelled, hefting Shepard's discarded BR85, "You lose this?"

He didn't wait for a response, and fired on the Spartan immediately. Bereft of energy shielding and already suffering from heavy wounds on his left hand and lower body, he had no time to duck out of the way as Roy Koel fired burst after burst into his body, striking direct hits across his body and neck. Shepard tried his best to advance through the barrage of gunfire, blind to anything but the desire to murder Koel as his augmented body ignored all pain and shock in favour of aggression. It was not until Koel put a burst through the centre of his visor and right into the SPARTAN-III's brain that Shepard-G127 finally collapsed to the floor and died.

"Shit," Koel breathed, almost immediately collapsing to his knees. "Just...shit."

Momentarily overcome with exhaustion and caked in sweat, the Marine pulled himself back to a nearby wall and leaned against it, closing his eyes as he tried to get some rest. As the adrenaline of battle began to fade, a dull throb began to emanate from his injuries. He could ignore or fight through that, at least. He'd won one impossible battle, and would likely have to do so again. Holding the battle rifle close to his chest, he would allow himself a few minutes to recover before moving on, having now committed himself to winning this game.

COMPETITOR 013 - SHEPARD-G127 - ELIMINATED

47

Storage Deck F1, SOTF Station

Day One, 1841 Hours


As he descended into yet another completely barren hallway, Lee-A137 began to wonder if he'd run into his comrades again.

Back on the island, he and Cailean-378 had been halfway up the erupting volcano when they were enveloped in a strange white light and transported to this space station. After realising he had been separated from his fellow Spartan, he'd tried all the usual COM channels, but to no avail. It seemed that whatever jamming system had prevented anything but very short-range communications back on the island was also restricting things to a floor-by-floor basis here. Raising his M7S submachine gun, he crept forward, keeping an eye on his motion tracker at all times.

Gotta keep sharp, he reminded himself. I know I heard shots before I came up here.

Having moved up through the engineering decks, which looked fairly normal by UNSC standards, Lee was rather taken aback by the strange design of this floor. Long hallways criss-crossed around sealed rooms or tall stacks of crates, and there were no signs pointing to the nearest elevator or staircase. The layout would be a surmountable annoyance, though it was the condition of this place that bothered him here. For whatever reason, this floor's main power source seemed to have gone out, leaving everything bathed in the red glow of emergency lighting. Across the walls, monitors that would normally be showing cargo manifests flickered with static. Lee halted and span round as he caught a glimpse of blue light to his left, and sighted something flashing across a row of screens.

"Anyone there?" Lee called out, snapping his weapon up. The light suddenly halted on a single monitor, which glowed brightly as he approached. Lee pondered it for a moment. Could be a logistics AI, or something to do with the station. Suddenly, a distinctly female voice crackled through a set of nearby speakers.

"Hello there, Spartan."

On-screen, the blue light coalesced into a human face; that of a young, smiling woman.

"Hey," Lee could hear something in the distance, and half-turned away from the screen. "I need a report on this station's situation, ASAP. Can you access schematics or maps of the local system?"

The AI paused for a moment, looking off to one side. Moments later, several doors across the deck slammed shut and a supply room to Lee's right opened up, revealing a number of red lights within the darkened chamber. As Lee looked back at the face on the monitor, her polite smile had turned to a devious grin as she looked up at Lee and winked.

"Here's my report: Die, meatbag!"

The AI flashed away from the screen as Lee smashed it with the butt of his weapon. Shaking his head at having been duped, the Spartan turned to see a number of spindly robotic figures advancing towards him, raising their weapons to engage him in combat. He dropped to one knee, sighted the nearest one, and opened fire.

***

There was something distinctly wrong about this station. Diana realised that the moment she transferred herself into its network. An AI of her capabilities should have gained control of just about everything within a structure of this size within seconds, from its life support systems to the simple act of opening and closing doors. Instead, she was forced to move at a tortuously sluggish pace along power conduits, moving slowly from floor to floor in search of targets. Loosing that Sangheili on her former companions had been fun, but if she was to survive, she needed an actual way of fighting back.

That was when she'd come across the storage bays.

She'd been rather surprised upon finding a number of strange, networked devices across this floor, especially when closer analysis revealed them to be robotic drones of some sort. While human technology had allowed for a wide range of cybernetics and unmanned vehicles to be developed, even she was unfamiliar with the array of robotic bipeds that lay within these chambers, each loaded up with enough weaponry and ammunition to take on an entire squad of Marines. Perhaps the designers of this game had deliberately left her with some toys to level the playing field.

I'm counting thirty drones, all in standby mode. All I have to do is mess with their targeting parameters a bit and set them loose on the station.

It had taken a couple of minutes - much longer than she'd have liked - to successfully bring the entire group online just as she detected a Spartan descending to her level. After deactivating most of the lights and messing around with the monitors, all it took for Diana to catch him off-guard was to act like your average AI - kind, helpful, and sickeningly nice. While keeping quiet and leading Lee into a trap would have been prudent, some part of the rogue intelligence simply couldn't resist making a comment before setting her drones on him. For that, he'd almost destroyed her - Diana's 'form' seemed to be relegated to whatever conduit she was in - but detecting that slight bit of fear from the supersoldier as he faced down a horde of merciless drones had made it all worth it.

And now I wait and see how this all pans out.

***

It didn't take long for Lee to overcome his initial confusion over what exactly he was fighting. Advancing at a surprising rate, these robots were dangerous but weak; their thin armour overlaying a complex array of circuits and power systems made them ill-suited for anything but near-suicidal rushes at the Spartan. While most possessed assault rifles seemingly fused into their arms and fed magazines via an automatic loader, some lumbered shakily forward, brandishing combat knives that jabbed and sliced with startling speed. The Spartan quickly burned through his three remaining magazines, downing at least a dozen of the machines before beating a hasty retreat. Several more of the drones lunged out of the darkness towards him, but were easily countered as he tore them apart with his armoured hands and used one as a shield while he drew his M6C. As Lee was slowly backed into a corner, he heard a faint giggle from behind him.

"You little bitch."

Turning away from the incoming horde, he fired thrice towards the screen with Diana's face as she darted away, only to hear a sharp gasp from the next as she fled from him. Lee tossed the drone he was holding away and gave chase, darting along halls as gunfire whizzed past him and still chasing that faint blue light.

If I kill the AI, maybe it'll shut these things down. If not, then I guess it's just one less opponent in the game.

As she whizzed away from the furious Spartan, Diana found herself simultaneously thrilled and a little frightened. Lee's quick reaction had almost destroyed her once more as she'd barely escaped through another power conduit, though the AI had felt something approximating pain on the way out. To put it in human terms, it was as though she'd been grazed by his bullet. Of course, she could not 'feel' pain in the same way an organic could, but she had been shocked by that sharp twinge that had made her disengage immediately. Deprived of the control she usually enjoyed over electronic systems, she'd have to resort to fighting dirty to stand a chance of surviving this conflict. Mapping out the entire deck before her, Diana formulated a plan within milliseconds and moved to enact it immediately.

"How many of these damn things are there?!"

While it was easy to keep track of Diana's movements as the AI was seemingly forced to flash up on every screen she passed - something put in no doubt by the designers of this deathmatch to make fighting the AI easier - her mechanical minions had doubled their efforts to kill Lee by any means necessary. His shields had flickered and died under heavy fire from a large group of them, and as he loaded the last magazine into his M6C/SOCOM sidearm, he found himself facing the very real possibility that he might not survive this engagement.

No, I'm a Spartan, for god's sake. I'm not gonna die to a bunch of machines.

Driven partly by pride, partly by anger at the thought of such an ignoble death, Lee charged headlong into battle with the drones, who had moved to block his path towards Diana. The AI seemed to be stopping every so often to watch the battle, perhaps eager to see him ripped to shreds or gunned down. Utilising every ounce of his strength and years of training, he saved the last few bullets in his handgun and tore the rifle from the arm of one of the machines before turning it on its fellows. He felt the sharp stab of a knife into his arm as another caught him offguard,and responded by headbutting the attacker into a wall and shoving his boot through its chest. Others tried to tear at Lee with claw-like metallic hands, scraping at his armour and trying to puncture his helmet. Kicking his MJOLNIR suit's thrusters into gear, Lee surged forward, sending several of the surviving machines flying before a few more latched onto him.

"Oh no," Diana's mocking voice echoed down the corridor, "I really expected you to put up more of a fight, Spartan."

Momentarily forced to one knee, Lee's reponse was an annoyed grunt as he twisted to kick his attackers off. One drone leapt towards the SPARTAN-III, firing its weapon at an incredibly close range. Lee twisted to avoid being hit, shields still offline as a few shots grazed past him. One impacted the side of his visor, creating a hairline crack across its surface that made his HUD flicker on and off for a few moments. Grabbing the robot's arm, he twisted it back as it continued firing erratically, using the drone's own weapon to gun down several of its comrades before snapping it off entirely and bludgeoning the shrieking machine to death with it. Aware of several more clanking down the corridors towards him, he leapt away just as Diana's avatar vanished, moving as quickly as it could down a long, deserted hallway towards a single room. Still holding the metal arm, he swiped away at every screen he passed, hoping to do enough damage to trap the AI, at least.


"End of the line!" he shouted, feeling slightly worn-out after the extended melee.

In response, Diana tried her best to attack the Spartan, causing one monitor to explode in a shower of sparks and plastic fragments upon his approach. While it didn't do much to damage him, a few white-hot shards hit his already-damaged visor, worsening the cracks already in it. Sighing, he tore off his helmet and cast it aside; he wouldn't need a heads-up display for what he was about to do. Stepping into a circular chamber, he found himself facing Diana, alone and trapped on a single holotank. Now, her entire avatar was visible, displaying a dark suit of armour that certainly made her look a lot more sinister. Crossing her arms as he stepped forth, a heavy metal door slammed shut the moment Lee stepped into the room.

"Too late," the Spartan couldn't help but smile. "You've trapped yourself."

"So it would seem. What happens now?"

"Now? I smash that holotank and make sure you've been purged from the system. That's what'll happen, right? If you could escape me, you would've done so by now."

"You're an observant man," came the simple reply.

"I try."

"But not that observant. Look."

Diana gestured towards a large sign above a door to Lee's right, reading one word in red and yellow letters: AIRLOCK. As realisation dawned on the Spartan, Diana smiled at him once again.

"Wait-"

"And here you are without a helmet."

As Lee lifted the arm to smash Diana's holotank, the airlock doors slid open and a rush of air yanked the weapon out of his hands, blowing it out into the cold void of space. The Spartan tried to magnetise his boots, but to no avail as he was sucked backwards, flailing madly as he gripped the very edges of the door and tried to use his thrusters to force his way back inside. Raising a holographic eyebrow, the AI simply waved a hand and a nearby panel opened up, sending several heavy air canisters flying towards him. One struck Lee in the head and sent him spiralling out of control, exposed to the freezing vacuum as he tried futilely to reach back towards the station.

Diana closed the airlock doors and waited for the Spartan to die, checking the room's external sensors for some time until he finally expired. Though she had no need to breathe, she still allowed herself a relieved sigh after so many close calls. Travelling through the battle-torn deck would be much tougher since Lee ruined so many conduits in ihs rampage and destroyed all but four of her drones, but she'd survive this somehow.

She always did.

COMPETITOR 028 - LEE-A137 - ELIMINATED

48

Hangar Four, SOTF Station

Day One, 1909 Hours


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