Though Hell Should Bar The Way

Part I

The day is already orange when they touch down, the 906th. They are more or less gleaming when they dismount from their dozens of pelicans and flood across the industrially-beaten tarmac with crisp orders and purpose. Here they meet the marines: men who are muddy and splashed with olive, who huddle close like depressed shoeshine-boys in winter and approach these new arrivals with dirty fingernails and uncertainty in their limps. The pelicans the 906th rode in on keep their engines running after the last man hops off, and the marines take this as a sign; they sling tattered rucksacks and rifle-straps over their shoulders, ready to fight for their seats, empty and enticing like a wavering dream they dreamed for nights now.

Nobody wants to get left behind.

A female soldier who just arrived shares words with a number of her cohort, and they confirm and scatter—the lady's in charge, clearly. A tired-looking marine sergeant, Charles Thompson, walks over and gingerly tugs at her sleeve. When she turns around she seems surprised at the motion, but it only takes a glance for her to understand; he's a man who looks tired of walking and tired of talking.

"Can I help you, Sergeant?" the soldier asks the marine.

Thompson nods. "Take it you're the NCOIC?"

"Don't let anyone tell you I'm not." She smiles and offers a hand. "I'm Lake. Shield Company, 1st Platoon."

"Thompson," he says, like he's unsure. And her grip overpowers his.

"How are you boys? Ready to get out of here?"

Thompson watches his battered marines drift dazedly towards the waiting pelicans. He asks her, "Can you tell me what Army's doing on this rock?"

"Clean-up. I think you and I can both agree there's a mess that needs to be taken care of. 906th just so happened to be in the neighbourhood."

"You're going out there?" Thompson's head bobs towards the perimeter. His timid question slips past the protection of the fence and into the growling, squawking vista beyond: Cassandra is a beautiful ball of overgrown weeds. The sun is vanishing quickly behind the vast jungle canopy that stretches to the horizon, green and rolling like frenetic brushstrokes.

Lake takes a good breath into her lungs. She remarks, "The air smells nice here."

"Do you know what you're getting into?"

Her sweeping gaze travels over the shuffling column of downtrodden marines, their heads and shoulders slumping and feet dragging, and she ends back on Thompson. She gives him a long up-and-down for dramatic effect. "Yeah, I got some idea."

"Just doesn't shake you."

"Covies won't break me that easy."

Before Thompson can say anything else, Lake's radio hiccups. She listens for a moment then begins to walk off. Thompson stares after her until she looks over her shoulder and motions for him to come with her. He does so and she says, "You're like a stray, you know that? Scrappy little puppy-dog I got following me around."

Thompson's narrow eyes seem to resent the comparison. But the way he slouches from exhaustion, helmet missing, hair and beard shaggy, he's in no position to deny it. The tip of his nose is muddy. Lake, by contrast, is tall and upright, put-together in the way only eager young soldiers might be. She talks like she's tough, but keeps on this side of arrogant—confident and ready. Her welcome level-headedness keeps Thompson in check, but makes him worried for her at the same time.

"Hey," she says, "sounds like 906th OICs are already talking to your people, but I don't want this backwash." Lake taps on her helmet mic. "I drink, I drink from the source. First. So you're my guy. Cool?"

"Yeah."

"How many marines are we picking up?"

Thompson looks like he needs to mentally calculate. Subtract. It hurts him to say: "About three companies. We're all that's left."

"Long couple of weeks. I'm sorry."

"You sure you want to go out there?"

"I'll give you boys some credit—looks like you deserve it. You softened them up, I hope."

"Don't think it'll be enough." Thompson sees the wounded start to enter the stream of marines headed for evacuation. Men with blemished bandages hobble along, assisted by their buddies. Others are unconscious or comatose, bundled up in stretchers; their limbs are missing at awkward angles, taken off by heavy-handed swipes of a hissing energy blade. They're all quiet. They're all wide-eyed. Not unlike Thompson who stands close while the line passes him by. Even the marines who are in one piece are broken. He reaches out and pats a private he knows on the shoulder. He can't decipher the look he receives in return—not a smile, but not an accusing glare either. Just a blank, defeated glimpse that resembles mere recognition.

I know you, he seems to say with his eyes, but there is nothing more to say, because there is nothing left to see. There is a scalpel void of feeling and thought that follows and makes Thompson unsure of what to do with his hands, unsure of how to stand. The snaking formation of marines seems to go on forever. They seem to bleed forever.

Lake stands beside Thompson. She can see, and she knows. She resists the urge to hold his hand. Steady him. Afford him the simplest of tenderness that was stolen from the last two weeks of his life.

But it's not what soldiers do—not with so many of her own watching. And they are watching her, she's certain. So she bumps his arm with the underside of her fist—it jars her and she hates that she did it—and motions they keep on walking. Thompson kind of stumbles after her.

"Tell me about them." Voice low, soothing.

Thompson takes a labored breath. "5th Mechanized, Ferrata—Old Ironclad. We had history, you know? We pushed the Covies back dozens of times before. The unit's been around even before the start of Trebuchet. Feel like... we let them down—those who came before."

"Unit's still around, though. You lived."

"It sickens me that I did. Feel fucking ill."

"You think that it should've been you? Wish that it could've been?"

"This isn't something you live with, Lake. That I got out when they didn't."

"You and three whole companies. Saw someone sitting on that pelican crying 'cause he's happy he's going home—that the Covies only took a leg from him, nothing more. Worlds get glassed and we lose whole goddamned armies sometimes so there are people—myself included—who are relieved at least three hundred marines didn't go the same way." Lake grimaces. "So shut your fucking mouth."

Thompson is stunned into silence. Lake is too.

After a while, she grits her teeth. "I was trying to cheer you up. Fuck."

"Yeah. I know. Sorry."

"Me too."

"So, 906th."

"906th. 'The Highwayman.'"

"What's your story?"

"Suppose we go where we're needed. That's the mission."

Thompson asks, "You got a combat record?"

"Yeah, but not with these guys. Unit's new."

"Not that I'm ungrateful but—"

"Why didn't they send marines?"

"Yeah."

"We're Earth's last line of defense," Lake explains. "Could say it's what we trained for. Covies are pushing in—need to start defending sometime. I mean really defending. Even if the Covies take our worlds, for every inch they gain, 906th will be there to punish them tenfold. Over, under, and everywhere in between... at least, that's the plan."

Thompson looks out at Cassandra—the Okura river valley he managed to survive, still teeming with unseen Covenant forces. He says, "We fought 'em tooth and nail, the last two weeks. They pounded the shit out of us. They're entrenched on high ground, dug in so deep the only way you're digging them out is with the power of Christ and a fuck-ton of dynamite—even then you'd better hope for a cave-in, because once they pour out, all pissed off, you should already be making plans they don't take you alive. I say this because I genuinely want to know—and I'm hoping it's what happens, but—you think Army can do what the Corps couldn't?"

"Let you know when we do it," Lake says. "Worth a damn try, right?" Her radio lets off a burst of static and this time Lake gives a response. A trite 10-4, and she starts off again. She tells Thompson, "Hey, it was good meeting you. I gotta get moving, and you should too. You'll get separated from your outfit, you hang around much longer. But those ships up high are nice—warm showers, mess halls that are open most hours of the day... doesn't get much better for us, Pup. Enjoy it."

"I'll keep that in mind."

Lake strides away, leaving Thompson staring after her again.

She rejoins the rest of her platoon who are moving through the tide of retreating marines, talking fast and waving their hands above their heads, looking for things. Some marines hug their rifles to their bodies like it is natural instinct, their hard, trembling fingers unable to be pried from them, while others simply dump them off to the side like they are shedding unwanted clothes in the bedroom—without their rifles they are devastatingly naked.

The Shield company men holler to the marines:

"Weapons and ammo, boys! Collecting mags, anything you got!"

"You're out of the fight now, you're going home! You don't need 'em! Got no use for a rifle in a tin can!"

"Anybody got grenades? Hey! Looking for grenades!"

"Need an MA-rifle if you have one!"

One kid, Horowitz, scurries around asking for any captured Covie tech. He's trading luxury items they don't stock on the ships—coffee-liqueur, warm-shave aerosols, Dijon mustard. He manages to score a Covie Type-33 with no needles. It's a hefty-looking tool that lacks its titular sting when there are no crystalline shards poking out of the top. He also gains a satchel of captured plasma grenades, and he's happy with his haul.

Horowitz isn't alone in his mercantile pursuits. Others wave meal tickets ("food paper!") and auction off personal bunks and quarters (one with a coveted hotplate) aboard the ships in exchange for field necessities—mosquito zappers and spare batteries, spider repellent, wet wipes. There's a few men who are slipping each other pills and syringes and the bargaining you hear there gets pretty heated on both ends.

Pelicans depart and arrive in a constant stream, ferrying the marines off-world and bringing the rest of the 906th down to Cassandra. The soldiers here wheel in large crates on dollies or drag heavy weapons mounted on tripods. A woman walks alongside them, one glove off, busy scribbling notes into a tablet. She looks up and waves at the sergeant.

Lake nods back. "Klepto."

"Hey baby."

Mousy, dark-haired Corporal Klepmann is the unit's unofficial quartermaster—procurer of fine things and nobody asks how. She promised Horowitz she'd get him a Covie shooter if he didn't have any luck with the marines, she's generous that way. Her resourcefulness makes her highly valuable to an outfit that relies on hardware so much—she's attached to Dog company, the new 906th arrivals that shipped down after Shield. Her people expand out around the perimeter of the tarmac, starting to set up the equipment they brought with them. They unpack remote-controlled rocket batteries and large-calibre machinegun turrets while the grunts get to work with shovels and sacks of instacrete. The barebones spaceport will become the 906th's FOB with Dog holding in defense. Give Dog the night, the staging area will become an armoured fortress. But for now, Klepmann's next job is to take inventory on all the arms the marines relinquished.

It takes an hour and a half for all three surviving companies of marines to be shuttled away, and the 906th companies Sword and Charlie to join the rest of the battalion on the ground. Warthogs thrum their engines and form a convoy leading outside the FOB while troops load up and hold on, talking and smoking. Later tonight, elements from the 10th Air-Cav Regiment will set up shop to provide support in Falcons and Hornets, but by then 906th, 1st Battalion will already be deep into the jungle right on schedule. It's already dark.

At the landing pads, 906th's OIC Colonel Mattis and another officer Lake doesn't recognize step off a Falcon. Lake flags down her lieutenant, Moyer, and asks him, "Who's the guy next to the CO?"

Moyer squints. "That's LeFae."

"Yeah, who the hell is he?"

"Some lieutenant commander from out-of-town. Along for the ride, I guess." Moyer pauses. "He's ONI."

"What are we doing traveling with a spook?"

"I don't know but hey, 906th—Seventh Army—was built by ONI. They want to see their investment pay off."

Lake says, "You feeling confident about this op?"

"Seems pretty textbook, doesn't it? Relieve our cousins in green. Shore up. Find a bunch of Helljumper assholes who got themselves lost in the woods."

"Thought the ODSTs liked being surrounded. Makes 'em feel... alive."

"Well LeFae says find them. If we can't break encirclement of one platoon, what the hell are we gonna do when it's Earth? If this is a test-run, call it a final exam. We pull this off, we get real funding—our own air cav, heavy armour, you name it. Right now 906th is as good as a damn ground-infantry regiment. So... if we pull this off, we do the incredible." Moyer smiles. "Ain't that appealing?"

Lake smiles back at Moyer. She's always liked him as an officer. He inspires that sort of calm, take-on-the-world buoyancy Lake tries to exude. Just a stabilizing force in a whirlwind life conjured up by the apocalypse-coming Covenant menace. He'd say everything is all right, and she'd feel that it is.

Moyer stares at his watch. He counts down with two fingers. "Speaking of Helljumper assholes..."

Both Lake and Moyer glance upwards to look at a frigate hovering just inside atmo, barely visible save for winking lights in the night sky. Blots like swooping fireflies lazily plummet downwards, picking up speed. Lake tracks their descent with just her eyes.

Moyer's radio comes to life and somebody yells to be heard over the intense rattling and noise on his end: "This is Recon One! We're in freefall! Dirt in five minutes!"

"Coordinates locked?"

"All set! Inbound to the 112th's last known position! Hope they see us coming!"

"Raise us when you're ready. We're rolling out now, Reed."

"Copy that, LT! Give the rest of Shield a kiss for me. Recon One out!"

In the silence that follows, Lake asks Moyer, "How is the sergeant?"

"He might be smashed to bits in five minutes or he might not."

"He knew the risks."

"Erica."

Lake turns.

"Don't forget to breathe."

They watch the falling HEV pods for a while longer before Moyer and Lake gather their gear, slap on their helmets, and jog towards the waiting convoy of 1st Platoon warthogs.

When Lake finds hers, Captain Stern calls out her name. She marches over to him. He says, "Lake, I need a favour."

"Yessir."

"You know what happened to 5th, right?"

"Real goddamn shame, is what."

"It'd be smart of us to get some real intel on the valley. Not just through our earpieces or satellite feeds. Tactile. Real-world know-how. Which is why I've taken on help."

"Sir?" Lake raises an eyebrow. Stern steps aside and points to three men standing in a small circle that is really a crooked triangle, sharing a cigarette. At Stern's mention, they drop the spent butt and approach Lake. They're marines. Two are helmeted strangers. The last is scruffy and a little short. Bearded. Muddy. Lake narrows her eyes and really frowns.

Stern says, "Lake, Sergeant Thompson, and Privates Putnam and Meagre. They're coming with us as guides."

"They're tired, sir," Lake says coolly. "Sure they won't slow us down?"

"They volunteered and I won't turn away help. So take care of them." Stern turns and moves back to the CP—he and the rest of the company will join them soon, he's insisted. Putnam and Meagre nod to Lake and look for a ride amongst the convoy.

Thompson says to her, "Hello, Sergeant."

"You should have taken that shower, Pup." Lake leans forward and scrunches up her face. "You stink."

They move to her warthog and Lake tells Thompson to get in the back. She clambers into the passenger seat and clutches her radio mic and barks out, "Let's lead the way, Shield! Roll!"

The warthogs roar in response and Lake buckles up, the jerky motion of acceleration throwing her back into the seat cushion. Thompson hangs onto the side of the truck bed, his body being tossed by the feral muscle behind the vehicle. Dog company, still working on erecting defenses, waves see-ya to the departing platoon as one by one the snuffling warthogs tear out of the FOB into the night.

Bluish headlights blaze the trail the marines made two weeks before—the trail they marched up proudly and ran back down, Covenant hard on their heels. Farther up Thompson knows they'll find the path littered with bodies of marines and burned out vehicles lining the side of the road. He stares at the back of Lake's headrest. She turns once, catches his eye, then peers through the windshield. She doesn't look back like that again for the rest of the drive.

The convoy forges ahead, branches and leaves snapping against glass. Tires chew up the trail and mud spews from wheel-wells like exposed arteries—The Highwayman comes riding riding riding.

#

Almost forty-five minutes later, Lake's warthog rounds a bend and its headlights shoot up the trail, illuminating a lone figure perched atop a supply crate. A rifle rests across his lap as he brings a hand to his eyes, protecting them from the searing high-beams coming his way. Lake's driver pulls to a stop and she steps out, walks up.

The man says to her, "Hi, Lake."

"Reed. Fancy seeing you here."

"You have a nice drive?"

"I enjoyed it."

"I'll say. Took your time, I'm thinking. I been waiting here a while."

"Well you know how I feel about air-travel."

Sergeant First Class Reed is tickled by this—he just jumped out of a ship. He looks over the convoy of 1st Platoon Shield men. "Is this all there is?"

"Rest'll come when you give the go ahead."

"Me and the boys sniffed around," Reed says, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. "We're on the right track, that's for sure."

"Stern will be happy to know."

"Can I get a ride?"

"If you can find somewhere to stow your stuff," Lake says, eyeing Reed's supply crate.

"We can just toss out Conklin. Him and fat-ass Kinley. Should be enough room after that."

Lake gets back into her warthog while Reed motions for some soldiers in the next hog to pack up the spare ordnance, then moves to follow her. He pulls himself up and into the truck bed, depositing his rifle and helmet first.

Righting himself, Reed sees the marine sitting across from him and says, "You're new."

Lake introduces him over her shoulder. "Pup Thompson. Sergeant First Class Reed."

"Pup? That really your name?" Reed asks.

"No."

"Well nice to meet you." Reed leans back and looks at the warthog behind them—they're thumbs-up ready to move. He raps a go-on on the side of truck bed, and the convoy takes off again.

"Where are we going?" Lake asks.

"This way another ten minutes. You'll see where to turn off. Wyatt and the rest of Recon are there now," Reed tells her. "It's a good location. Not too open—riverbank against our backs. Water's deep enough 'round this bend I think Covie will drown if he tries to cross."

"You see any out here?"

"Not yet."

"So how do you know we're on the right track?"

"Meant, none that are alive. The guys we're after? 112th? They left a trail of bloody breadcrumbs, the way only Helljumpers know how."

"Suppose you'd know."

Reed just smiles because he's a Helljumper in an Army uniform.

Thompson asks him, "What's your place in all this, if you don't mind me asking?"

"Shield Recon," Reed says. "How should I explain... You study history?"

"25th century. If that."

"Second world war?"

Thompson shakes his head. "Ancient."

"When the Germans, well, the Nazis were falling back to Berlin at the end of the war, Hitler threw together a supergroup of SS commandos and called the whole thing Operation Werwolf."

Lake says to Reed, "What about Operation Valkyrie?"

"We'll get to that. Anyway," Reed says to Thompson, "Hitler's 'werewolves' would help out the retreating army units by making things tough as hell for the advancing allied ones. Demolitions, assassinations... you get the idea. Supposedly legendary at what they did."

"Did it work?"

"Well, historians are pretty fickle about it all. Think what it came down to in the end was morale. You tell a losing army there's an ace up the Fuhrer's sleeve, it's bound to make a few of 'em smile. Fight a little harder. Guess that's what we're aiming for."

"And Valkyrie?"

"It's a call to arms. Day of days, if ever there needed to be one. Hope it doesn't come to that, though."

Thompson studies Reed. The man moves with a definite swagger—an experienced soldier with good, easygoing nerves in enemy territory.

Reed isn't unique in this way... most members of the smallish Shield Recon are ODSTs or marines who washed out of the Helljumper version of Hell week but got a second chance in the 906th. Reed's is a small outfit under Captain Stern's command that, from its conception, promised its volunteers free-reign during operations—a notion that seems to excite most combat-minded individuals. As the unit stands now, Shield Recon is one of its greatest assets, built specifically for insertions both stealthy and not, in order to cause a ruckus behind enemy lines—gritty commando work—or simple reconnaissance and path-finding.

The convoy eventually reaches the position Recon's picked out. 1st Platoon dismounts and gets to work with practiced hands, digging foxholes and setting up perimeter defenses for a hasty bivouac. They put in place sensors hooked up to battery-powered klaxon systems, and for extra security, they run a wire around the entire edge of the camp with empty soup cans and jingle-bells dangling from it. Primitive system, but anyone in Shield knows it. Can determine distance immediately and accurately by its faintness in volume—the clanging sound's ingrained in their subconscious after two full years of training and drills.

They settle in around a low fire and crack open their ration kits. Lake shares half of hers with Thompson; he wolfs down the portion abashedly, but he's starving. Moyer sits across from them while Reed stretches out nearby, head resting on his rucksack and hand, and a cigarette tucked between his lips. He looks content.

He glances at Thompson. "Your first night here—how was it?"

"Two weeks back?"

"Yeah. Pounded ground, what then?"

Thompson clears his throat. "We were fighting almost immediately."

The scrape of spoons pauses momentarily. There's just the whispered cackle of anxious embers.

"Covenant wasn't just hiding in the bushes. They had air support. Heavy armour. We knocked out three wraith tanks that first night," Thompson says. "They were doing everything out in the open. Predictably. All the work was done by Air-Cav—carpet bombings that were just... devastating. Beautiful. Armoured just had to roll in, keep pushing up. Covies put AA batteries where we could see them and all it took was a couple of good mortar rounds to put them down, and you know Covie design..."

"Unsubtle." Reed blows out a puff of smoke.

Thompson nods. "We had the uglies on the run within three days. They were disappearing into the jungle. We had the spaceport, why did we care?" Thompson pauses for breath. "Somebody called in the 112th Helljumper Division. It's understandable, it's what they do—they jump behind enemy lines and try to break hard points. Nobody was too concerned. We took the weekend off—hit the beach that's about two hours from here. There were folks in my squad who were getting... bored." A wistful smile from him. "Then word suddenly came down that said the 112th were in trouble. They had gone out of contact. Weren't showing up on scanners—how that happens in this day and age is beyond me—but they were just... lost."

"They die?" Reed asks. He has a scowl on his face. "If we're out here chasing ghosts—"

"Imaging picked up a flare one night. We all saw it, it went up so high. We were elated... relieved. If there was even just one man still alive... Our CO, he scrambled everyone under his command and we went in, looking to rescue those Helljumpers. The only problem is, the Covenant are smarter than they look."

Lake, Reed, and Moyer are quiet. They know how Thompson's story ends.

He continues, "When they ran for cover in the jungle, they knew exactly what they were doing. See, we were fighting grunts up until this point, with the odd officer to keep them in line. We were equipped to deal with mechanized units in big, open spaces. It was easy." Thompson stops suddenly; he looks like he's blasphemed. He corrects himself: "It was manageable. But whoever lurks this jungle? They're more dangerous than anything I've ever been pitted against."

"What changed?" Lake asks.

"Bet you've all been in some pretty hairy situations," Thompson says, looking each soldier in the eye. "But it won't prepare you for whatever's coming."

"Christ. You need a fuckin' flashlight, Pup? Come on. Get to the part where we all scream," Reed says.

"God knows how long they were here, waiting for us to dip a toe in the water. They never hit us from the front. Always from the sides. Always from behind. Even when we regrouped, formed a defensive line, they picked us off. Forced us to move. And when we had good cover, they boxed us in like wolves would. Pushed in with shields up until they were right on top of us. Beaks. Claws. They're not a regular Covie unit," Thompson says, voice hushed. "I never saw a single grunt from the moment we entered the bush. They're all vultures. Jack infantry. Jack snipers. Skirmishers. Sometimes elite officers. Unit's hardened. Coordinated. It'd honestly put me more at ease if I thought they were mindless and stubborn, eager to charge into lines of machinegun fire and try to overcome with manpower and dogma. But no such luck. They're crack troops. They'll give up territory in an instant if they can come back and get at you from another angle. Fake a retreat, turn on a heel and blow you straight out of your socks. They're sneaky like that. Cunning. They're where you don't expect. When you walk, you watch the trees. You watch your feet."

"But don't look down too long." It's Meagre who says this. He wanders over to the fire and takes a knee by Thompson. "He'll take you when you ain't looking, 'cause you can't hear him."

"What the hell are you talking about?" Lake says.

"Who?" Reed echoes.

Thompson says, "I know you laugh when we say he lurks around here, but it's the truth. Guys who came back, running for their lives, they all shared stories that don't sound too different. There's a skirmisher out there with a gold headpiece. Like a skull, I guess. Has red feathers."

Meagre says, "We call him Rooster."

"Doesn't wear armour, or not a lot of it—doesn't gleam in the light. He moves quiet, swift. Works fast. Goes for the jugular—stops you from screaming out. He's got a damn bird-cry that's loud and makes you shiver if you hear it. And he doesn't just come for you one at a time, either. He's taken on groups of marines."

"If that's the case, where are these stories coming from?" Reed says, annoyed.

"He doesn't always kill you. There's boys who came back with their eyeballs carved out. Rooster left them stumbling around in the wild until we found 'em, brought 'em back with us. Until the Covies overran us. First couple of times, we dragged them with us, managed to keep 'em safe. Told them to think of home and just keep sticking close but... by the end of it, nothing we could do but leave them, we couldn't even take care of ourselves. I know there's a man in my squad who's still thinking we should've put them down, ended that kind of misery."

"Jesus Christ," Lake murmurs.

"Rooster is real," Meagre says. "He's scarier than any banzai squid I ever came across."

Thompson looks as if he's finished talking. With a spoon still dug into his syrupy meal of beans, his hand begins to judder. He's rattling and clattering and everyone's watching. Mortified, he sets the can on the ground and slides it over to Lake with the toe of his boot like it's possessed.

Thompson stands and digs into his breast pocket for a smoke. Lake stands too. Her fingers are less clumsy; she fishes out his packet and mercifully slaps one into his craving hand.

"I'm gonna turn in," Thompson mumbles.

"Hey, you okay?" Lake asks him.

"Pup," Reed calls to him. He tosses him his lighter. "Hold onto that for me tonight."

Thompson walks off, thumb desperately trying to strike the flint—it's one of those lighters. Cloudy-looking silver. He eventually finds a place to lie down and gets it right. Lake sees a brief flicker of light followed by a huge exhalation of smoke; his back's turned to the rest of them. Lake stares at him for a long while, maybe until he falls asleep she doesn't know. Moyer puts another soldier on sentry duty. Lake wants to ask him if he was shook up by Thompson's recount. She wants to ask him if everything will be all right but soon she can't because she falls asleep too.

#

The next morning Thompson rises and lumbers away from the camp, slinging his rifle over his shoulder. The sun's already risen; it's poking through the gaps in the leaves. He's careful to step over the jinglejangle wire and when he bends down to temporarily disable the sensors he finds them already switched off. He spots the morning sentry also milling around. The soldier waves him through.

He can hear the river from here. A lulling sound he concentrated on all last night. Getting closer. When he leaves the mess of trees, he blinks in the brightness. The water runs a gentle green over a bed of violently refined river rocks. On the bank they crunch and clack when he treads on them. A little upstream he finds Reed already here, crouched down and dipping a toothbrush in the river.

"Coming up behind you," Thompson says.

"I know." Reed starts to brush his teeth. He didn't even turn around. Through a frothy mouthful he asks, "You sleep okay?"

"Not really. Here, thanks." Thompson passes Reed's lighter back to him.

"You nervous?"

"Maybe a little."

"Area this side of the river is clear. Me and the boys made sure of that yesterday," Reed says. "Not a peep throughout the night, either."

"That's what's making me nervous."

"We're Shield company, Pup—if you can't sleep here and feel safe with us around, maybe you should've caught that ride out with your pals."

"Did Sergeant Lake tell you?"

"Wild guess. 5th's gone. You're still here." Reed slurps on water cupped inside his hands and spits it back into the river. "So what's your deal? Why don't you want to go home?"

Thompson walks around behind Reed, upstream. "Guess I felt it wasn't my time to." He stares into the current.

"Dead stay dead." Reed squints in the sun at Thompson. "You with them, or not. Doesn't matter. Nothing does, much, these days."

"Is that why you're in this outfit? You feel like this is it? The end?"

"I'm in this outfit 'cause it fits me. Can't say anything to the future. Don't ask."

"Lot of talk I'm hearing about you folks. The Highwayman. Most of it amongst yourselves. But talk, all the same."

"We all want to believe," Reed says. "Just nobody knows for sure."

"That true? Supposedly you're the last line of defense. Your uppers know something the rest of us don't?"

"They're making plans. Everybody's making plans." Reed falls back on his rump and sits a while, an arm wrapped around his knees. He scrounges for a stone nearby, flat and smooth, and hurls it into the water. Doesn't skip once. "Pointless," he says. "Things change. Too fast. You'll be too late. Always too late. Can't go in expecting... wanting for things. That's not how it works."

Reed throws another stone. It sinks. Thompson starts to walk up the riverbank.

"You want to die," Reed says.

Thompson pauses. But he doesn't turn around.

"Don't."

Thompson says nothing to that and the marine's boots crunch and clack on the rocks below, walking off. There's another splash from behind.

"I got it that time," Reed calls after him. "You weren't even looking."

Wouldn't have even known. Tree falling in the forest.

Thompson picks his way across the rocky strip. He follows the bend in the river and watches fish dart against the current. They shoot upwards, past the section of rapids where the bed is shallow.

Reed's right. Thompson is hoping for a good death, one that others will agree was good. Like there is a way of measuring, a standard. It's the way they're supposed to talk about you when you're gone. That's what he wants. Here and now he's nothing. Made to feel worthless when he thinks of their faces, remembers their names. Even the ones he never met. He can still feel them. Fingers on his spine.

He kneels down by the edge of the water and slides his hands through the caressing chill. He cups them together and brings the handful to his face when he takes an easy gander across the river to the other side.

The water sluices from his icy fingers—his whole body's locked up.

He's looking at three figures on the other side, a little unsure if they're real. They're birdlike. One's beak is dipped into the stream while the others have their backs turned to him. None of them are armed yet. The first pulls back from its drink and notices Thompson. They stare at each other for what feels like a minute, both motionless.

Then the jackal scrambles backwards, jabbering, reaching for its weapon that rests leaning a few metres away. Thompson also tugs his rifle from his shoulder and scurries for cover, suddenly already breathless. He pinches the rifle's safety and wildly puts half the magazine downrange—it fires in single, uneven barks, sending plumes of water bursting from the river and bits of rock exploding all around the group of jackals. He dives down as they return fire, plasma bolts driving hard into the clutch of small boulders he drags himself to. The water soaks half of his body as he tries to burrow even lower.

On the riverbank, two jackals extend their amber and blue shields and continue blasting away. Thompson hears their chirpy nattering growing louder. He lifts the barrel of his rifle above the boulder and rips off shots in that direction. He doesn't know if he's hitting anything—he probably isn't.

The lonesome sound of his single battle rifle is soon joined by a second. These shots are steady thuds, superior-sounding in a way. Plasma bolts fly past Thompson's cover, diverting.

He hears Reed yell "Thompson!"

"Watch it! Three on the bank!" Thompson yells back.

"I see 'em, god dammit! I see 'em!" Reed keeps shooting. His boots tear up the rocks underfoot, clack clack clack.

Thompson creeps around the boulder to get a better angle, the water up to his elbows now. Reed's hit one jackal—it arduously crawls up the riverbank, bleeding—while the other two march forward, shields locked together; they crackle with conceit as Reed's shots chip away at them.

A whistling slug of energy bursts out from the jungle behind the jackals aimed at Reed. It goes wide but it sure as shit doesn't feel that way—Reed throws himself down on the rocks with a muffled scream and snakes over to Thompson on his elbows and knees as fast as he can. Thompson's already switched out mags; he fires indiscriminately into the trees.

"Fuck, they've got friends!" Reed says, panting.

When Reed peers out across the river once more, there's a high-pitched scream from above that lasts a full second before the two advancing jackals disappear in a ferocious geyser of smoke, water, and fire. He and Thompson both flinch and cover their naked necks as shards of rock and debris come back down all around them.

"Was that us?" Thompson shouts. Reed looks around.

On the far side, more jackals emerge from the bushes. They break into a run, the jackal infantry brandishing their shields before them while skirmishers in the rear fire overtop the rapidly forming phalanx. They're determined to run the two men down.

They can maybe cross the river within seconds, but they stop awkwardly halfway in the water when at first a few jackals tumble down, howling and gasping for breath as they flounder. Then Reed and Thompson both open up, and their rifles are accompanied by more and more, until the swelling chatter of weapons fire sweeps up and down the entire embankment. Soldiers from Shield company, 1st platoon surge from the jungle, all putting rounds across the river. Over the puncture of hundreds of pops and cracks, somebody lets loose with a snarling, fully automatic MA5; its tracers blaze into shore and stitch across the trees.

The jackals trapped in the water begin to pull back, their powerful shields shrugging off most of the fire heading in their direction. The volume of returning plasma fire intensifies as more carbines and rifles in unseen alien hands pepper Shield's shore. The men can barely make out their forms behind the trees, but they're there picking away at the comparatively exposed platoon.

There's an animal growl, followed by an agonized snapping of leaves and twigs—a warthog flies out of the bushes and ploughs into the middle of the river with a thunk-crash. Nose down. While it bobs a little, its gunner jumps on the LAAG and begins to unload on the enemy. The routed phalanx of jackals hit the opposite shore and start to run, fleeing to the anonymous safety of the overgrowth beyond; skirmishers still on the riverbank duck behind ragged pieces of driftwood—these splinter and explode when the chain gun's massive rounds buzz-saw through them, suffusing the entire side through sheer savageness of noise. Two or three skirmishers out in the open are just about shorn in half when the tracers rake through them in an effortless march.

Sergeant Lake hops from the passenger seat of the warthog and attempts to make her way to harder cover on the shore, firing off her rifle and backing up at the same time. The rocks under the surface are sneaky and smooth—oily with algae—and with a yelp of surprise, she ends up ass-down with water up her nose. She splutters and tries to claw her way back to the bank. Seeing this, Thompson nearly stands but Reed yanks on his collar and hisses: "She's a big girl—just cover her!" They do, and Lake successfully pulls herself free from the water, sopping and exhausted.

A whopping mass of plasma rockets from the opposite shore, ripples the water, and slams into the LAAG's protective-shield, turning it molten and not-there-anymore. It's a close call—the air sizzles with thorny heat and the soldier manning the gun flings himself from the truck bed. He plunges his singed, blistering face and hands below the frigid surface of the river.

The chain gun's fallen silent, already a desperately missed presence in the soundscape of the battle. Relieved of the pressure, the skirmishers begin to pelt the neutered warthog with directed fire. The driver, trying hastily to reverse but is just kicking up frustrated twin jets of water, finally abandons the vehicle before the windshield blows apart. He crouches down behind a huge tire and retrieves a rifle he earlier tucked behind the driver's seat—he's still in the fight.

Reed steadies his rifle on the surface of the boulder he's hiding behind and picks off a skirmisher. The rest squawk heatedly and keep low. But knocking out the warthog moments ago gives the enemy a considerable boost in courage—the jackal infantrymen return, their resolves hardened. The skirmishers dart behind their brethren while the disciplined formation inches into the water. Bullets ping off their shields but the line holds firm. A mortar round smashes well into the rocky shore—too far behind. The jackal force is untouched, but now they're harried. Still, they're close enough for what they want to do. Reed sees the motion through the overlapping shields.

He screams "Everyone get back!" and then he hauls Thompson up and roughly dumps both of them into the section of rapids. The rest of Moyer's platoon get the hell away from the water because the skirmishers toss flaming grenades up high into the air and when they come back down, they obliterate Shield's side of the river. The scary, all-consuming blasts carve up the land and set blue fire to the fleshy vegetation; the heat nearly suffocates the platoon as they all scamper away.

The phalanx formation breaks into smaller groups, spreading out across the width of the river. When another mortar round touches down, only a few jackals are bowled over from the impact—the concussive force shreds their lungs and they slip wordlessly under the water and never re-emerge. Moyer's people take up firing positions behind sturdier trees and they pelt the jackals with everything they've got. Sometimes the aliens stagger under the kinetic weight pressing on them, but they just press back, arms locked, pushing forward. They're going to surround the platoon.

Everyone looks up when the drone of rotors winds down the valley—the men under cover of the trees, the jackals in the river. A dragon's shadow shudders in and roars hot breath over those below, relentlessly pumping fat 20mm rounds into the scattered formation. The first pass rips through the jackals like talons grabbing hold and tossing things less significant, the way they're blasted out of the water. When the chopper spins back around, hovering stable, the jackals look eerily like they're being squeezed together by some grasping hand and then held under and drowned.

The falcon pours fire over the opposite shore, its autocannon chopping down whole trees. Moyer orders his men up, and the platoon regains the ground they lost, reaching the water yet again. The falcon is met by a second, and then a pelican full of troops. The bulky transport swoops low and barely pauses for its load to deliver itself—two squads of 906th men stream out and land in thigh deep water. There's a man who takes an unexpected carbine round from a jackal sharpshooter nobody can see or hit though everyone tries. The wounded soldier's dragged to safety behind the twisted warthog carcass after losing his balance and collapsing in the water.

Moyer's platoon flings grenades across the river and wades in while the Covies catch hell from the falcon above. There's an obvious decrease and lull in return fire. Lake is careful this time, keeping her knees bent as she goes. She sees Sword company patches on these new men who assist, nods her thanks before hitting the opposite shore. From here the men bite into the trees, tearing into the bushes and leaves with entire magazines.

Proceeding farther in, she steps over contorted bodies of jackals caught by all manner of stray bullets—Moyer's platoon sure couldn't see what they were killing—or the guided punishment meted out by the utility helicopter: everything dies under that kind of rain, a gusty torrent that tears rooftops off walls and then starts a fire with carnal lightning. The trees here look like they've weathered a storm—branches hang from slivery threads, trunks are untidily hewn.

The men around her spot movement in the brush up ahead; they whoop and give chase. Lake looks back at her squad—nobody's been hit yet. She hopes to keep it this way. She tells them to stick close when she moves up. Metres away from her, Moyer also orders the platoon to slow to a creep. The only ones who don't are the boys from Sword, hollering as they tear through the undergrowth.

They leave the cover of the canopy first, and the land opens up into an enormous expanse of shivering tall grass, lazy hills that suddenly duck down then rear up into the air. Lake gets down behind a thick, fallen tree at the edge of the jungle. She calls at the Sword boys to hold up, but only some hear her. The ones that do, they crouch and look back at her expectantly but there's three who don't. They think they see the feathered cowl of a skirmisher blowing through the grass up ahead but Lake can't see shit. It's most likely the wind.

Too late, anyway.

Two Sword soldiers in the rear keel over when two rifle bursts ca-cackle out from opposite ends of the ridge and hammer through their soft bodies. The surviving man spins around in a panic and hits the ground. Lake scans the ridgeline but whoever they are, they're too well-covered. She yells over her shoulder, "Need a sharpshooter up here! Now!"

The man trapped out there tries to leg it back to the line—his head pokes above the grass for less than a second before there's a third and final crack. Blood rips across the needle blades of grass and beads together—it's now the only remaining evidence of three soldiers who disappeared beneath the undulating surface, devoured. The wind shakes the greenery like wavy fur, an agitated creature bristling in its slumber. It yawns and falls back asleep.

There's a rustle and a hefty clank by Lake's elbow—the soldier who appears is a Shield man called Paulson. He lays down a marksman's rifle across the log and says, panting, "Sharpshooter, Sergeant."

"Watch the top of that ridge," Lake warns. "Nobody else fucking move." She unclips a grenade from her vest, and with as strong an arm as she can manage, flails it into the grass. Dirt and fire spew upwards and out, and Lake peers through the sight of her rifle. A bird cries out a wail.

Otherwise silence. No nibbles. The snipers stay hidden. There's no Covie machinegun fire. Like they imagined it all, those three men dying. But Lake knows they're out there. The Covies fully understand who they're waiting for. They aren't jumpy, neither. Bad news.

Lake tells Paulson to keep watch and she duck waddles over to Moyer's defilade. She says, "Could be two, could be a battalion. Or more. No way of knowing for sure unless we've got eyes overhead."

"Maybe there's a point in moving forward. But not out in the open."

"Not out in the open," Lake agrees.

"We'll hold here for now. I'll get in contact with Battalion, see what Mattis thinks."

"I might go and fish our sergeant first class out of the drink, sir."

"Can he swim?"

"I kind of hope so."

Back on the riverbank, Thompson and Reed worm their way onto the bed of rocks, teeth chattering. The current swept them a kilometre downstream before Thompson was able to grab onto a branch—Reed clung onto the marine's leg and the two dangled uselessly for a while. Only after he let go did the river finally allow them into the shallows, grudgingly.

When they hear someone approaching, they reach for their rifles that are probably still bouncing along the river bottom but it's only Lake. She hands them two bundles she pulled off Sword's pelican; these are coarse emergency blankets that double as towels. They reach forward gratefully with pruny fingers.

Lake says to Thompson, "Least you're clean now."

He just blows his nose into the blanket loudly.

#

Captain Stern arrives in a whirring utility chopper. The riverbank is now secure—perimeter defenses are put into effect and machinegun emplacements are set up facing down both directions with camo netting strung overtop. Shield men sit under tented tarps or trees, talking quietly and smoking, watching the river flow by. Its placid temperament betrays the furious killing field it was only hours ago, but reminders of the fight linger: the tortured body of the warthog has been towed from the water, and grim technicians stand around it or crawl underneath, wondering if she'll see combat again; farther down the bank, a sheet covers the heaped bodies of jackals and skirmishers collected from the shore or pulled from the river. Army casualties—wounded, and some unlucky Shield men who died today—have already been moved back to HQ. Captain Wu of Sword company was among the wounded, hit today on the river by a carbine, and was rushed back quick—now the Sword squads hanging around on the riverbank grumble about what's going to happen to the company's vacant leadership position.

Lieutenant Moyer and his sergeants Lake and Reed (joined by Thompson) meet Shield's CO when he climbs down from the helicopter and onto the rocky embankment. They pass salutes back and forth and head into a command tent that was thrown together specifically for Stern.

"Battalion's calling it Hill 449," Stern says, laying down a printed map. "This one's big, folks."

"So we're taking it?" Moyer asks.

"Colonel Mattis and the Lieutenant Colonel talked about it for a couple of hours. We're going."

Lake says, "That hill's pretty fiercely protected, sir. We couldn't bypass it?"

"Two reasons for why we need it, Sergeant; take a look at the map." Stern taps on the dead centre of the ringed outline with a spotless fingernail. "Look how high that hill goes up. It towers over anything else in the valley."

"Covies know that too," Lake tells him. "They won't give it up easy."

"112th is out there on foot. Estimates put them in the jungle just beyond that ridge if they've been walking. If we move up that hill, call it our own, we'll have a nice little base to work out of. A good rallying point. And it'll be a damn sight better than what we've got here. We can get the 10th Air-Cav Regiment based out of 449 and you know what that means—near-instant flyboy support wherever we need it, whenever we need it. I'd rather be up that hill than on this damn riverbank, and I'm not just saying that as a soldier. Mattis talked to a couple of meteorologists... said the river valley is known to flood a few times a month and that this week's forecast says we're in for a monsoon."

"All due respect, sir, I'm not afraid of getting my feet wet," Reed says. "Can't swim, but—"

"Then you'd better learn," Stern tells him. "Flood comes high, hard, and fast, and there's more than a few warnings about mudslides. The last place you want to be is at the bottom of the valley when one hits. There's no warning when one does. You'll get buried. News like that's even got HQ sweating. They're constructing a levee around the place as we speak. Lucky them, they're in a field open enough all they've got to be worried about is water—but unlucky for us, a storm like the one that's coming, Air-Cav'll be grounded unless we take 449. Tonight."

"Nothing stopping us from heading back to HQ, waiting out the storm with a hot cup of coffee and a toasty fire to keep us warm," Reed mutters.

"Except that the 112th is still out there."

"If they're even alive."

"Lieutenant Commander LeFae's pushing for this," Stern tells them. "We don't come back 'til we've got those Helljumpers bundled up like babes. Those are his orders."

"Mattis is just gonna get pushed around by some Navy asshole?" Lake says.

Thompson and Reed, marines, both growl, "Watch it."

"Those are people out there. People who can probably take care of themselves, but still people. We're already late a week. We won't make them wait another, not if it's in our power not to. The way we go about doing that," Stern says, "is to take that hill."

Everyone in the tent is quiet. Lake's eyes are downcast because she's remembering the Sword men who were cut down there in an instant—the first casualties on Hill 449. It's the desperation behind the order that makes her anxious. The Covenant have all the power here. The water does too. For the 906th it's kill, die, or drown.

"ACR did a flyby of the hill earlier," Stern says. He distributes a stack of aerial-reconnaissance photos. "If there are machinegun emplacements, they're well covered. Imaging couldn't even pick up heat signatures. So we're looking for spider holes."

"Anti-air?" Moyer asks.

"No batteries either from what we can tell."

"From the look of things, you could take the hill with a falcon and a couple of warthogs," Reed says. "What the hell are they doing up there? How's Covie going to defend if he doesn't have any damn defenses? This isn't their kind of warfare."

"They're crafty," Thompson says. "You saw what a couple of squads with small arms did to a platoon and a warthog today. Now they're dug in, have the higher ground and the element of surprise on their side. I don't like it, sir."

Stern says, "Well isn't this what you're here for, Sergeant? To show us how to crack them open?"

"Can only offer advice, sir."

"Go on, then."

"If you can't take this hill by sunset, it's not worth taking."

"The hell kind of advice is that?"

"Anything else wouldn't be as helpful."

Stern turns red and he begins to scowl. "Helpful my fuckin' ass. God dammit, Reed, take the sergeant for a fuckin' walk please."

"All right, all right, we're going," Reed says. He gives Thompson a light smack on the back of his head. "Come on, boy. Come on."

Thompson stares at Stern, but the captain just shuffles through his papers and studies his map, waits for the sergeant to get the hell out of his sight. Then the marine turns and follows Reed outside.

"Sergeant Lake, I'm going to need you to marshal the men from Sword and Charlie companies," Stern says, still absorbed in his papers (but Lake thinks he just wants her out too). "They'll be arriving soon. Take into account what kind of ordnance they're toting, see what kind of support we'll be getting in terms of air power and wheels. And uh, see what the situation's like for supplies, too, Sergeant."

Lake doesn't like being dismissed like this, errands for the sake of errands, but she glances at Moyer and says, "Right away. Sirs."

When she's gone, there is a stuffy moment of silence in the tent. Stern lowers his voice so slightly it seems like he's talking to himself, mumbling an unholy confession, but he's really saying to Moyer, "Driving right up that hill, Ted. Frontal assault with all my power, everything I own. Could get bloody. Probably will. It'll be one long messy, bloody hike to the top, but it's something Shield's gotta do. Navy spook, LeFae, he's here for a reason I don't know. Observing, maybe. Well I pushed for the offensive, Ted. I told Mattis Shield would get the 906th on top of that hill. That promise needs to come true. Opportunities like this you have to seize, Ted. We won't become the unit we want to be unless we show them what we can do first. You agree with me, don't you? You agree this is our time—Shield's time to be great. We're a good fighting unit on paper, but we have to become more—we have to become legendary. That's the mission, Ted. The real mission. Running outta time. It's already '51—we don't have much left to lose, you understand. A war like this, the men and women on the front wherever need to be able to hear about us and stand strong one more day—and one more after that—and believe like nothing else that The Highwayman is coming, though hell should bar the way."

Moyer is barely audible when he says "Absolutely, sir."

"Shield's going straight up the centre." Stern draws an arrow on the map with a pencil. "Charlie will hold here and here in reserve, provide fire support with mortars for the time being. Sword's going to swing around and come in wide, just like in training. We'll have the hill surrounded and goddamn we'll pluck clean those avian sons of bitches."

"What about the Sword situation, sir? Any updates on Captain Wu?"

"About that," Stern says. "Wu's going to be okay. He's out for this fight, but he'll come back to the unit when he's all sewed up. There's a scramble going on for Sword, bit of a power vacuum. You probably know that, though, don't you?"

Moyer nods, eyes slits with ambitious concentration.

"Mattis is taking names for consideration, and I've got a direct line. He's expecting my call." Stern gets in close to Moyer, until the lieutenant can smell the man's smoke-tinged breath. "You gonna listen to what needs to be done? You gonna listen to what I say?"

Outside, Reed and Thompson take a walk through the trees within sight of the riverbank position. Reed has his Helljumper knife out and he's sharpening a stick he found to pass the time. Thompson sort of trudges with his hands in his pockets.

"He rubbed you wrong, didn't he?" Reed says.

"Not got a favourable impression of the man, no."

"He's not all bad. Talks real big, sometimes. But Stern's got some experience at least. He's tasted blood before—likes it. Met the man when I was in an ODST uniform some years back. He impressed me, I impressed him. Guess he remembered me enough to ask if I wanted into the 906th. Said he needed our kind of guts, knew how we liked to work—had a home for us if we wanted."

"Captain seems a little hands-on. Thought that wasn't how you liked to work."

"Stern tells us to go, we go. Only time I see him is after the job's done. That's how I work."

"You enjoy what you do?" Thompson asks. He's watching Reed flay the bark off the stick, looking blissful from the simplicity and repetitiveness of the motion.

"I don't know. What do you think?"

"Looks like it from here."

"Suppose I'm... hardened. Little more so than a lot of boys from the 906th. Suppose I've seen as much combat as you have, from the sound of things. But you're asking if I like being out here?"

"Guess I'm trying to tap into the Helljumper inside you."

"We're not too different, Pup. One enters atmo in a pod, the other in a pelican. We've got reputation, is all. That's the hearsay you're listening to, and not me."

"Joined them for a reason, didn't you?"

"Yeah, but it wasn't 'cause I had some kind of death wish," Reed says. He looks Thompson right in the eye. "Hell if I let Covie get me. I'm really hoping he doesn't. But not 'cause it'd offend me, to die that way. I'm scared of dyin', Pup, I am. Only reason why I'm here with the rest of you is 'cause I'm comfortable with killing—the whole business of it. Doesn't bring no kind of enjoyment when I do it, it's just the time we live, man. Can't remember a day of my life Covie wasn't around. Can't remember a day I looked at 'em, pictures, then the real thing, and not feel like it's okay to hate. Encouraged. Some folks they let it get to 'em, feel like they're being called upon to go fight a holy war in God's name—think they won't make it into the good place if they don't take Covie down with 'em. They take that hate and they all take a piece for themselves, pass it along like it's gospel. Then everybody starts believing in its potency."

Reed pauses. Breathes. "But me, it's lost its power, we been fighting so long. I see these things and I don't feel anger—don't feel sad—but don't feel anger. Think they're like vermin to me. Rats. Always have been. That's how it is with us, you got little girls their first instinct's to jump on a chair and scream, even if they never seen one before in their lives. The way they skitter, rats, way they make a mess, way they're uncivilized, whatever the hell's the opposite of majestic—they're it. They're unpleasant, and that alone makes it okay to remove 'em, so we do. Just remove whatever's making us unhappy. I don't enjoy killing rats; I don't enjoy killing Covie. Feel like I'm doing it 'cause of one thing and that's they're not us. Whatever reason somebody else's got, it's not mine. Even if they've set a hundred worlds on fire—they weren't mine. Covie's just a machine. Mindless, wind-up-and-go. Don't enjoy killing them, but it's just something you do, I guess. To pass the time." Reed's fashioned a stake out of the wood. He admires for a moment its tip that looks painful and surgically precise before tossing it away and not giving it another thought. "Not even a point in being cruel about it. My days off, times like this—if I wasn't talking to you, Pup—I'm not thinking of killing. Not fantasizing about it. Not keeping a rifle or tool I call beloved. Won't let it consume me like that. Make me mindless—bitter. I do, then Covie wins."

After a while, Thompson says softly, "I think I hate 'em, Reed. They butchered us."

"Well I wasn't making a case for stopping the war," Reed says. "Was making a case you shouldn't quit livin'."

Thompson thinks about this while they amble back down the riverbank. The sun's shrouded now. Rain's coming.

Up ahead, their number's grown by hundreds as men from Shield, Sword, and Charlie disembark from pelicans. They get their bearings, chat with Shield 1st Platoon who boast about their actions in the fight before and taunt their fellow soldiers, taking pleasure in scaring them about what's to come.

Sergeant Lake is still trying her best to come up with the figures Stern asked for when she runs into Lieutenant Moyer.

"Shield's ready for briefing, sir," she tells him.

Moyer says, "That one falls to Lieutenant Pelton."

"From Charlie? Why?"

"He's taking over Shield 1st Platoon, Erica. Stern put me in command of Sword." Moyer sounds apologetic, but there are no words of apology in the news he breaks to his sergeant.

"Why?" Lake asks again. She stares at him hard. She doesn't know if she's asking why Moyer's leaving Shield, or if she's asking why if Moyer wanted to leave them. Whose betrayal was it, motherfucker.

Moyer doesn't know how to answer this. So he just pats her on the shoulder, a coward's exit, and says, "Hey, it's okay. You'll just see a little less of me, Lake. I'm sure everything'll be all right."

Lake still feels a twinge when he says it. Less than before though, just now. It feels tainted somehow, perverted when it's used in this context. It bothers her like hell those words might not be theirs anymore—him to her, exclusively. She wonders if they were ever. She's not his sergeant anymore.

Moyer walks right by her towards his new family, Sword, and Lake knows it's stupid and girly to feel like she does but she feels like she's been cast aside and cannot help but feel that shitty feeling as she stumbles back to her company.

#

Shield's humping it up the hill, or trying to, anyway.

Mortars send dirt and grass spiraling into the sky and sprinkling back down. The rounds hack chunks out of the slope all the way up to the ridgeline, pounding down in a frenzied, continuous rhythm. Flashes of blue or green shoot out from seemingly the hill itself, and everybody fires at those spots until their rifles run dry or the hill meekly quiets down. As members of Shield company scurry forward, heads ducked, their trigger fingers are jammed down as far as they can go and their collective stream of fire shreds everything metres away in a powerful, outwards-rippling tide.

A warthog purrs, its driver putting it at an upwards roll, gentle enough that the gunner doesn't get bucked from the bed. He chops through the thick grass, spraying thumping bursts all over the ridge. Some soldiers slouch behind the warthog; when plasma fire flogs its armour, hissing and snapping, the men cry out and leap back. "This is crazy! Just fuckin' crazy!"

Sergeant Lake shoves them forward when they falter sometimes and roars at them to keep moving and don't stop. She keeps yelling this because she feels like her voice can't cut through the percussive blasts that slide off the hill and roll backwards into them, breezy gusts that grab hold of their shoulders and make them wrestle and strain for every step forward—that grab at her throat and mouth and smother her. Without her voice she is stripped of her power. She endures though and does what she can to get her people to follow her, advancing step by step, putting foot in front of foot because that's what she feels she has to do—they are watching her.

In the distance, a shade gun opens up on the company. Humming, burning globules splash down all around them and melt the grass, boiling the moisture that shoots out of the soggy dirt. Most soldiers dive down and disappear from view, Lake included, but she still hears a few strangled shouts all down the line—the shade's massive field of fire is devastating. A few soldiers pop up and return fire but their rounds slap off the sloping cupola of the gun and go everywhere else. When it swings around again, there's a man who doesn't duck down fast enough—the speed of these projectiles are dishonestly sluggish when they're far away—and when he gets hit, all of him becomes scattered down to the bottom of the hill where Shield's advance started. With her chin in the dirt, Lake barely knows what's happening—she can barely make out the thuds of the marksmen farther back, the continuing mortar storm, yet the shade keeps wheezing its raspy snigger.

Through a part in the grass, Lake spies a rocky outcropping that cuts a path across the hill. She doesn't know if her men hear her when she yells at them to move but on the count of three, she's gone—darting forward through the grass, head bowed low. The grass falls away, and there's an indentation here that she crawls into. She nearly head-butts a jackal who is also hiding here, and with a gasp, she throws herself painfully onto her tailbone and scoots back. She fires once, her rifle kicking her hard in the stomach like a hard, malicious boot she's felt before. The jackal in turn screeches and shrinks behind its shield, its spiky weapon nosed directly at her. Then the inside of its shield becomes a violent, murky colour and it falls forward—Lake tucks her legs in to avoid it—and its shield dissipates. It lies still. Directly behind it, SFC Reed crashes out of the tall grass with his smoking rifle.

"Hi, Lake," he says, panting, sliding down into the natural trench. His boots get buried in the muddy channel, the hill's winding drain-off.

"Reed," she says back.

Thompson also wades through the grass behind the two soldiers. Soon more men from Shield company push their way up to the trench and jump in. Lieutenant Pelton's among these troops.

"Shade's still unmolested," Lake says. "The hell is Charlie doing with those mortars?"

"They're trying!" Pelton growls.

"That gun doesn't move!"

"Are you carrying smoke grenades, Sergeant?"

"Wind's blowing hard in our direction, LT," Thompson says. "Smoke's useless if we get caught running out of the cloud."

Reed says, "Well I thought Stern told us there weren't going to be any emplacements, god dammit!"

"It's the grass—hides everything. Consumes it," Thompson says then doesn't say "Might take us too."

"Who do we got still out there?" Reed asks Pelton.

The lieutenant looks confused, glancing up and down the trench.

"It's Koerner," Lake answers for him, heatedly. "Sergeant Koerner, 2nd squad. These are his men, so where the hell is he?"

"And 2nd Platoon?" Reed says.

"Who the hell knows. They should be here too," Lake says. "But we're scattered all over this hill. We need to regroup right now, Lieutenant."

"We'd be up 449 if we had some fuckin' air support," Reed says.

Pelton looks like he finally has something to contribute. He tells them, "I spoke to Captain Stern ten minutes ago. He said Air-Cav is mustering—"

"Mustering? That means they haven't left HQ, for God's sake!" Reed flinches when plasma spurts overtop of the rocks—they all do.

"Son of a bitch Stern's gonna get us fucking killed," Lake says.

Thompson says, "He wants us to run up that hill. Sounds good to him when he says it."

Lake scowls. "I'm not budging another inch. We don't have air support, we're not getting out of this in one piece. My people aren't getting cut down because Stern doesn't want Air-Cav to mop up. Fuck that, and fuck the captain. Reed?"

Reed looks over his shoulder at his own squad, Shield Recon. Supposedly they're the best but anyone looking on might decide they're doing no better than the other soldiers hiding in the trench. He tells Pelton, "I'm with Lake on this. Until we knock out that shade, we're not goin' anywhere."

"What's happening with Sword? They left thirty minutes before we did—they should be hitting them from the side by now," Lake says. "Can you raise them on the comm.?"

Pelton tries, but he is perplexed when all he gets is static. "Interference? Covie jammers, maybe?" He attempts again and again but Sword remains silent. This is alarming to the other Shield men. When he eventually reaches out to Stern, even the captain seems nervous about it. After a moment, Pelton gets off the line and he says, "Sergeant First Class? Stern says—"

"I figured," Reed says. "Let's go do what we do, boys." He motions to his commandos, and they go and slink off into the grass, headed away from the line. Thompson holds up a hand, but Reed says, "Put that down, Pup. You're not coming."

"I can help."

"Don't need no volunteers for this. That's why Shield Recon exists—it's right in the name."

#

Reed finds the road Sword company took by following the tire tracks of a dozen heavyset warthogs. It's really a dirt path with chopped, parallel grooves that are slowly filling with water. He slogs along until a shot rings out and there's a splash behind him. Reed sees a skirmisher down on all fours, muddy and bleeding. It leers at him for a second before there's a definitive burst of rifle fire—the skirmisher collapses face first and its bubbles cease to surface from the dirty puddle.

One of Reed's men, Wyatt, peers out from a bush. "Quiet little sods."

"How long was he following me?"

"You don't want to know."

Reed looks up the road with a frown on his face. Minutes later, they find the frayed body of a soldier lying on the road, parallel with the tracks. His hands are outstretched and he's facing the way Shield Recon's coming. He seems to be pleading, turn back—you know how this ends. Recon, stoic, shuffles by after collecting his tags; he's a Sword soldier all right.

The thicket grows unruly here and Reed has two men up front to hold back the branches while the rest file through with their rifles raised, ever alert. He smells it before he sees it—the dark, bitter smell that comes with inexplicable loss, the tease of a shattering sight of something you recognized once but can't anymore because it's too different—too unbearable.

This moment comes when Reed forges through the bushes and looks.

They were people before they were these tranquil imitations, stretched out and slumped over like they are holding each other before the end. Hundreds of them like torched cigarette butts along a highway, spent, used and exhausted. Their warthogs, too, are empty and morose. But he looks up as leaves come gently from the trees above and cover up the ground as if to shield those who lie there from the world; tucking them in, rustling whispers that promise everything will be all right when they awake again.

Reed finds a spot on the ground and sits amongst Sword company for a while, listening to the stories they tell—hearing silken relief creeping into their gravelly voices—of a war they fought and someone laughs a faded kind of laugh and says I remember that.