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Zero Mark.

He had been shaking before, all-encompassing little pinpricks like bugs crawling inside his skin and making him feel so very old, but that's done now. He looks at the ugly square of the makeshift bomb and presses the button.

Minus Three Seconds

He could have watched her fall away. It would have lightened him a little, to see her alive, even struggling. (Her voice is in his ear now, ringing over and over his name, Jorge, Jorge, frantic as human. She has had the Spartan calm burnt out of her, but it will load back up like a shield in a few minutes. She will be all right.) Reach was a warm-glowing sphere behind her, but he could not stop to look. The fleet was out there too. He was going to save his world.

Minus Ten Seconds

She got her arms around his neck and held on like she was never going to let go and then she let go. He would remember her weight against him for the rest of his life. (For the next ten seconds.)

He let weightlessness have her.

Minus One Hour

He leaned forward against the back of the Falcon's pilot seat and took her hand, smiling with a hurt sort of smile even though she couldn't see his face. They both knew, when they saw the mocking black-greenness of space. Sometimes soldiers had premonitions like that, uncanny moments where the broken ones who guessed that they were all about to die were right. Something was going to happen, and he didn't have the words.

She squeezed his hand back, putting all the pressure and warmth there was into the armor between their fingers.

Minus Eleven Days

She walked through the door of the bunker with a swagger in her hips and a sniper rifle magnetized to her back. She had no face and no name. Carter briefed her and everybody else assessed. Six was a stolen number.

Minus Three Hours.

Relk 'Forsovai was enjoying the show. He stalked along the edges of the hall. Sure, he had no right to spectate from afar, and he should be getting in there, but look at this! It just made him want to fight, made him want to grab a human head between his hands and twist. They were good stress relief, humans.

But right now, Relk wasn't stressed. His lean body was about as relaxed as Sangheili could get, showing all the signs; shoulders low, two hearts beating in slow rhythm. He just felt great.

The others were nervous, but then, it wasn't every day that an officer decided to challenge a Zealot.

The argument was something about tactics or timing or for all Relk knew there was bad blood between them back on Sanghelios. But the ship's Zealot, all-powerful, blessed-by-the-Forerunners, idiot Zealot Karak 'Segnee, had finally skipped all the formality and starting beating his rival with his bare fists.

This would have been perfectly acceptable, had not the Minor started to hit back.

So the middle of the hall was now filled with growling, gleaming, tussling Sangheili.

Relk paced and growled. Because Relk was the immediate superior of the Minor, he should really be doing something about his behavior. His honor was at stake too if he had raised someone who didn't deserve to be in the ranks. (Humans called Sangheili "Elite", and the name meant mostly the same thing to them—you were born elite, you composed yourself like one of the elite, and you died with honor.)

Then the Minor dodged forward and with a thrash of his long neck he bit at the officer, drawing four long weals across the brown skin of his neck, and Relk was not going to stand by while this space-crazed madman kept fighting. He pushed into the fight to grab his soldier by the shoulders and pull him backward.

The Minor thrashed in his armor. "We shouldn't be here."

"We're winning, you idiot," Relk hissed, pulling him backward. The officer followed, looming over the Minor with a expression usually reserved for humans.

"We can't sanctify this planet," the Minor yowled. "It has born too many demons—"

"Shut him up," the Zealot said, and punched the Minor in the chest. Not hard, but enough to rock him and let Relk feel it.

This was a bad idea, because Relk had not had the fight he had been itching for yet, and he was just falling to fightlust like a meteor into atmosphere, and he didn't even think

He just hit the Zealot back, a flat-hand and clawed push to the shoulder that wasn't half as hard as the punch but knocked the officer off balance a little with surprise. The rationale in his head was it's my job to berate my men, not yours, but he didn't get it out because then he realized what he'd done.

The remnants of the crowd were back, eyes wide and mouthparts drifting into surprised expressions. The Zealot, though, had no surprise. Just rage.

He lunged, knocking the Minor out of the way, almost tripping over its flailing foot, punching toward Relk's face. Relk's vision filled up with a red haze and he thought he tasted his own blood, and then the Minor started to squirm and hit back.

But he was already off balance. The Zealot, bigger and stronger, simply grabbed him by the side of the jaw and twisted, wrenching him to the ground and lifting his hands again with blood on the palms. He stamped down and Relk heard bone crack. That was the end of the Minor. Relk had heard that sound enough times before. (It was an honor for the Minor, though, to die in battle. He would continue along the Great Journey; the Zealot had simply helped him.

Relk was in fight mode now. He had been affronted! He had been insulted! He took one punch on the side of his face, slammed both his hands against the officer's other arm, pushed him aside to bring his jaw into line and punched.

The Zealot reeled back, glared and slavered, and drew his weapon.

Relk knew his way around swords; he had the honorific to prove it. So he was confident when the Zealot swung at him, a swift strike from right shoulder to left hip. Relk stepped back and to the side, his long, bent legs quickly carrying him around to the Zealot's side.

He grabbed the Zealot's arm and wrenched it sideways, straining the sinews and pointing the wide plane of the sword back at its wielder.

Time seemed to slow down as the Zealot thrashed. It took an immeasurably long moment for Relk to realize how much trouble he was in. Now he'd assaulted an officer to defend someone else who'd assaulted an officer. This was insane. There would be exile or excommunication or execution.

Unless, of course, he pinned it all on the Minor, who might have killed the Zealor before Relk killed him in retaliation—the poor idiot was too dead to defend himself, after all.

Yes. The Zealot turned, raging, against his own strained arm, and Relk continued what he had started. He took another step forward and got his hands around the Zealot's on the sword.

The fact that the Zealot was taller and heavier than him was immediately apparent. He shoved Relk backward until his back hit one curved wall and he just had to push back. The plasma blade glittered like quartz.

Relk pushed the Zealot's sword through its wielder's armor, up under the shoulder and into the neck. He went limp immediately, and Relk threw the body away from him as far as he could. From one brief look at the stump of neck he struggled away and bent double, fighting the urge to cough up something half-digested. He looked at the blue-purple shining floor in front of him, not wanting to think about the puddle of blood, a different blue entirely, spreading toward the backs of his feet.

Then someone walked into his field of vision and Relk started to pay a lot of attention to their feet, because was that the insignia of the Shipmaster?

It was.

The Shipmaster loomed. Relk ground his back teeth. "The Minor went crazy, exalted Shipmaster, I couldn't help..."

"I saw how you helped."

Relk discovered at that moment that he was a terrible liar.

The Ship Master, voice of the Fleet of Particular Justice, looked at Relk, back at the Minor, back. All of them frozen.

"You," said the Shipmaster. "Exile."

That was how he ended up in a cell on the Long Night of Solace, wondering how the battle was going.

He shook his head. He had been sitting for so long on the purple-shining bench (Covenant made sure that everything was beautiful, that everything glorified the gods) that his long legs had gotten stiff. He was bored and alone and knew he had done something stupid, but at the same time it was hard not to be angry at someone who'd spat the word exile in his face.

For now, all it meant was solitary confinement. If the battle ended eventually and the ship trekked back to a Sangheili world, though…he would be tried for failure to keep his men in line and for assaulting an officer. And if they pronounced him an exile then, well, he would be gone. Nameless. Species-less.

He cursed in every Covenant language that he knew, and stood up, growling. He slammed a fist against the wall and leaned into it, then, surprised by the pain, moved back; his bulky battle armor and weapons had been taken from him but he still had sturdy armor and foot wrappings, and he slammed kicks against the wall until he felt the bloodrage subside and breath work its way through his four mandibles.

There was nothing else he could do except keep waiting.

So he kept waiting. Something was going on out there. He knew who was going into battle, and it ate him up not to be able to see who survived. It had taken the best to overrun this planet. The one who had sent him to his doom had been right about one thing.

The place was the birth of demons.

So Relk waited.

He was almost asleep when the ship shook. He opened one eye, wondering what salvo had gotten through the Solace's shields.

But human weaponry did not act like this.

A gaping pit opened up in the side of the cell, as if the ship had been torn apart from hull to hull and he was suddenly looking down—it didn't matter that the wall was on his right side, that vacuum-gulf was down. Hands grasping for the side of the cell, Relk started falling.