He awoke to darkness, mired in terrified confusion.

"Did you get that Kane? Are you there?"

Ashton Kane blinked several times, staring into the abyssal gloom that seemed to enshroud him. He rubbed at his eyes, trying to piece together his current reality. He was in a bed, beneath blankets, there was a soft blue glow in the room. He focused, seeing the uncertain outline of furniture: a desk, a chair, a small table.

Instinct, tempered by years of military training, came down like a hammer. He reached up and groped for the reply button on the comms console embedded in the wall near his bed. Beside him, he felt someone stir.

"Negative. Say again, Sergeant," he replied, his voice hoarse. He cleared his throat.

"I said I need you in Briefing Two in ten minutes. Something's come up."

The Sergeant's tone, cautious and wary, sent warning signals pulsing through his already keyed-up body. "Affirmative, Sergeant. I'll be there."

"Good. Going to need to be sharp for this one."

The call was cut and there was just the soft hum of an open channel. Kane killed it.

"That didn't sound good."

He glanced over and saw Lara rubbing sleep from her eyes.

"No, it didn't," he murmured.

"You okay? You look a little freaked. I thought I heard you talking in your sleep."

"Um...nightmares," he replied. "I have them...I haven't really told anyone, but I can't really hide it from you anymore."

She reached up, laid a warm, soft hand against his bicep. "You don't have to," she said.

He wasn't sure what to say to that, so he just laid his hand over hers, gave it a gentle squeeze and then pulled the blankets back. Getting to his feet, moved across the starkly furnished room into the squalid bathroom. He flipped on the bright white light and screwed up his eyes. Placing his hands on the counter, he frowned as he studied himself in the mirror. He really looked like crap. When it wasn't insomnia, it was nightmares.

His eyes were bloodshot and a darkish shadow lay beneath each. He was paler than usual too, and usual was very when you spent a lot of time in space or sealed inside of a suit of power armor. He heard rustling and a few seconds later, Lara appeared behind him, her head over his right shoulder. She was really tall, almost the same height he was. One of the many things he liked about her. Her hands came up and laid against his shoulders. She hugged her bare breasts against his back. "You okay? It's not going to get weird now, is it?" she asked.

He chuckled softly and turned around. Leaning against the counter, he pulled her to him. "No, it'll be fine. It won't get weird," he replied.

Last night was their first time together. They were both in uncharted waters at the moment, but he felt confident that things were going to be...well, not fine, he had never been any good at relationships, but not immediately terrible. Lara was a good person, a great ODST, he trusted her. He just wasn't sure what she'd seen in him, or why she'd initiated the relationship last night. It was still coming as a surprise to him.

"We need to shower," she said, breaking the embrace reluctantly.

Kane nodded and studied her nude form briefly as she turned on the shower before turning back around and looking at himself once more. He studied his pale skin, his frame of rangy muscle. He knew that he was looking for wounds. It was stupid, a paranoid old habit of his, but he did it after particularly bad nightmares out of some kind of instinctual reaction. In the dream, he had been back on that cold metal slab, a sadistic Elite presiding over him with a plasma scalpel, calmly attempting to extract information from him.

Kane reached down and touched his stomach. There was no scar there, they'd fixed a lot of the damage, but he still remembered it all. The Elite had done surgery on him without anesthetic, pulling his appendix out.

Trying to push the thoughts away, he ran his hand over the dark stubble staining his jaw and head. Have to buzz it again soon, no time for that now, though.

"You coming?" Lara asked as she slipped into the shower.

"Yeah," he replied.

She didn't know. No one on the squad did. In the four months since he'd rotated in to replace a Corporal who had been killed during a mission, he hadn't found any reason to bring it up, though Sergeant Goll had probed gently about his experience when he noted it on his record. He'd relented quickly when Kane made it clear that it wasn't necessarily a thing he wanted to relieve in any real capacity.

He joined Lara in the shower and they quickly washed the sleep and sex away. He didn't know how to feel about last night. He felt good, to be sure. Lance Corporal Lara Hendrix was a stellar person. He'd picked up on that quickly. Initially, he'd been worried that she would resent him. The man he was replacing had been Goll's second in command, and technically Lara could have taken the job, but they'd opted to just do a direct replacement. Kane's record spoke for itself, but he still didn't like the politics of rank and file.

But Lara had no such ill will towards him.

As they finished washing off, he killed the water, then studied her as she dried off. She was a sniper, godlike with the weapon on the field, and spectacular with throwing knives. He'd seen her take down more than one Elite with a well-placed throw. She was tall and sparsely built, thin and wiry like him, though definitely thinner. She was only maybe an inch shorter than his six foot frame. Her skin was snow pale, like his, and she kept her short brunette hair usually pulled into a little function, no-nonsense ponytail.

Her brilliant blue eyes were what gave away her intelligence, her quickness. He'd initially mistaken them for implants, they seemed to glow.

And all of this was what fed his other feelings right now. Guilt. He felt guilty that she was with him, because surely there were better guys she could shack up with. ODSTs were supposed to be crazy, but Kane thought that if the war wasn't going so poorly and the UNSC wasn't so desperate for guys and girls with guns that were willing to fight and kill, he'd probably have been put out on a Section Eight a year ago.

But beggars couldn't be choosers.

He wasn't feeling sorry for himself, he just knew that he was bad at relationships. Though he was loyal, respectful and honest, he'd figured out that he was bad at opening up in any meaningful way. That's why most of his relationships were short or very casual. And he didn't want to do that to Lara. He genuinely liked her.

He and Lara had been cautiously flirting for almost three months now and she'd finally come to him last night, following him back to his quarters after a rough training session. They tended to train together in a variety of methods, and she was particularly good at hand-to-hand. She was damned quick and she'd taught him a few things.

When he'd realized she was lingering with him outside of his quarters, he'd asked why and she'd sprung the question on him.

Sighing, Kane put this out of his mind.

Although he did have a lingering question.

They were both getting dressed. She'd gone out after they'd made love the first time to grab a fresh uniform last night.

"Lara, um...we didn't really talk about, you know, what you're hoping this to be. I mean, like, was this a one-time thing or do you want to keep it casual?" he asked awkwardly, not looking at her as he laced up his boots.

This was ridiculous. He was twenty six with a decade in the military, the last three of those years in the ODSTs. He'd killed probably a thousand Covenant during his career and had faced down life or death situations a hundred times over. But he was crap when it came to social skills or anything personal.

"I like you," she replied simply. "I want to be your girlfriend, I want you to be my boyfriend. I want this to be exclusive and a bit serious."

That was another thing about her: she was blunt.

"Oh," he replied.

"Is that not what you were hoping for?" she asked.

"Oh, no. I mean, yeah. I mean," he sighed, "I mean yes, I'm happy with that. you. Um, a lot," he replied.

Lara laughed. As they finished zipping up their black jumpsuits, she stepped up to him and kissed him briefly on the lips. "I like you too, Ash," she said. She was the only one he was on a first name basis with. "Now, let's get going before Goll decapitates us for being late."

She had a point. They began to head for the exit, but he stopped abruptly, patting at his pockets. He turned and stalked over to his nightstand. He opened the drawer and fished out a crumpled pack of Yeheyuan cigarettes and his battered silver Zippo, stamped with a raised emblem of a flaming skull. He fished a cig out, bit down on it and lit it up. Snapping the metal jaws of the Zippo shut, he placed both items in his pocket.

"Okay, that is something we're going to argue about," she said.

"Aw come on, really?" he asked.

"Yes! They smell awful. Take up smoking weed, like I do."

"Weed smells like a freaking skunk, Lara."

"Yeah, but it' acquired smell."

He rolled his eyes as they headed out of the quarters, he almost walked into Private Thompson, the youngest member of the team, though only by one year next to Kane. Slim and average height, he faded easily into the background. He didn't have what those in space tended to call a spacer's tan, but only because he was black. He was their resident technician and Kane rarely saw the man. Where Kane was typically antisocial, Thompson was shy and awkward.

"Sorry, Kane," he mumbled, stepping aside.

"It's fine," Kane replied.

"I saw that, you two."

The three of them stared down the hallway and spotted their medic, PFC Huxley. He had an average build for an ODST and close-cropped blonde hair, but it was his eyes that might as well have been flashing a neon sign that said Born Pissed Off. The man was always looking for a fight. "You came out of his room," he said.

"Leave them alone, Hux," Private Diaz said, walking passed him. "Just cause you're not getting any doesn't mean none of us can."

"First of all, Diaz, I get some all the time. Second of all, that's easy for you to say because you've been riding Thompson," he shot back.

Diaz rolled her eyes. Short, Hispanic and tougher than most ODSTs he'd come across, their weapons expert faced every threat head on. In fact, it was kind of a problem. He'd seen her take some pretty stupid risks, much to Thompson's chagrin. He had always found their relationship a bit curious. They were so different in personality, but, well, Lara was apparently interested in him so...relationships were weird.

The group of ODSTs made their way down the brilliant lit corridors of the Winter's Edge. They'd been on patrol for the past month and it had been a boring four weeks. They'd just had one bit of action two weeks ago when a Covenant scouting party had been reported on a moon with a low population count. There'd been conflict with the local Marines and the Winter's Edge had dropped in out of slipspace to render assistance. Kane and his seven person squad of ODSTs had dropped in and kicked ass for two solid days.

But other than that, this region of space had been quiet. Apparently, something else had come up. He puffed away nervously on his Yeheyuan as he navigated the too-bright corridors. Why was he nervous? Combat didn't really scare him anymore, just gave him a kind of machine-adrenaline. He tried to shrug it off, but couldn't easily do so. He'd honed his instincts, pared them down to tools of razor sharp survival over the past decade, and they were very rarely wrong. By the time they'd reached the briefing room, he'd killed about half his cig. While the others went inside, he paused and stubbed the cigarette out on the bottom of his boot.

Dropping the remainder of it into his pocket, he followed the others. A small room dominated by a metal table surrounded by swivel chairs awaited him. Their good Sergeant Goll was already there, presiding over the table at its head, scowling fiercely into a datapad. That was a bad sign. Goll was a twenty year man, the last ten of them in the ODSTs. He was a battle-hardened vet and looked every inch one, being six four and two sixty of solid muscle. He kept his head shaved and his eyes were a flat white. Kane had never gotten the straight story on what had happened, but there'd been a battle injury and he'd needed replacements.

Why he'd gone with white, Kane wasn't sure.

But as grizzled as the man was, Goll had a great game face. He kept morale high and inspired fierce loyalty in his troops.

When he scowled, there was a damned good, (or, strictly speaking bad,) reason for it.

The final member of their squad, PFC Ross, sat stoic and patient in his seat. He was a short Italian man made out of bulky muscle. Despite being their demolitions expert and looking like he should be as pissed as Hux normally was, Ross was a very reserved, calm man, and a very pleasant one. Off the field he was amiable and sociable, always good for a laugh or a story and a great drinking partner. Kane found himself, on the rare occasions he was actually feeling social, seeking Ross's company. He quickly settled into his seat.

As the others finished gathering, Goll finally dropped his datapad.

"All right, Helljumpers, we've got an assignment. The call just came in twenty minutes ago. From ONI."

That got Kane's attention. Normally their missions came through the UNSC. ONI very rarely handed them assignments.

"I've always been honest with you and I'm not going to stop, so...this assignment stinks of bullshit. Officially, we're being routed to a small edge world, a colony planet, named Darkholm. We're to take a Pelican down into the Blackmore Forest and recover the data core of a research satellite that went down yesterday."

"S…seriously?" Hux asked. "They woke us up in the middle of the night for this?"

"Yes. Believe me, I asked why local forces couldn't handle it, especially after I learned that it went down within a few miles of a Marine outpost, and they said this was a sensitive issue and we were the best, closest option." Goll looked down at the console built into the table in front of him. He punched in some commands and the lights dimmed. A holographic projector built into the center of the table flickered to life.

"Here is the Blackmore Forest. Points of interest include an abandoned UNSC bunker, a small UNSC Marine outpost, a failed mining operation, a quarry and a power station. ONI has told me that local forces are working on evacuating the local population, which should be relatively small. There's also a ranger station, some cabins and houses, a restaurant and a few other structures."

"Why is there an evacuation?" Kane asked.

"Again, I don't know. They won't give me any further intel, which is why this stinks. So we're going in heavy. We're going to be dropping into the region in about two hours, so I want you all sharp and ready. Study up on the region and be in Hangar Two in an hour and forty five minutes in full armor and armed. Questions?"

There were several, but none Goll could answer.

He looked around at them all, his white eyes touched with apprehension. Goll had to feel what Kane had earlier, the pang of worry.

Something was wrong with this mission.

"Dismissed," he said.