Halo is a copyrighted franchise of Microsoft Corporation and 343 Industries and "Alien" is a copyrighted franchise of the Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. No claim of ownership over any characters, places, events or items that are not original is asserted. Many thanks to my fellow members of Halo Fanon for being just generally awesome, especially Matt-256 for lending me the character of Helen Calypso. And, as they say, read and review!


"Final launch phase initiated. Last call for the bathroom!"

There were a few laughs on the COM. It wasn't very funny, but in this line of work you needed all the humour you could muster.

ODST's used Single-Occupant Exo-atmospheric Insertion Pods (SOEIV's) to carry them from an orbiting ship to the ground. They were fast, small, and agile – the chances of a platoon of Helljumpers surviving whatever anti-air defences the ground station had were better than if the whole unit went in on a single dropship – fewer fatalities, smaller chance of impact, and so on. But they had still been nicknamed by all branches "flying coffins" – cocoons of titanium and vanadium sheathed in lead and ablative armour for re-entry.

It didn't help that you went in virtually standing – Wallace couldn't shake the feeling that he was falling. He didn't fear heights – he feared losing control. Each pod had controls to guide thrust and guidance, but they were virtually redundant – their drops were controlled remotely, either by controllers on the ship or by an AI.

The pod jerked suddenly as the final readiness check was completed, swinging out away from the entry bay along the tracks on the ventral hull. If he'd had a window, he would have seen forty identical grey lead capsules, all attached to the black hull like ticks on a sheep – he could see them in his mind's eye. He could see the flare of thrusters as they launched, the sight of dozens of SOEIV's falling away, each one carrying one of his men and women.

He'd been through just over a dozen drops now, and he hated every one of them.

"Okay boys and girls, tuck your magazines away and pull your skivvies up. We're dropping hard and fast – once we hit, we're in the dark. No contact with the Hunters Arrow, total radio silence. We take the facility, then the Spartans come down with shining armour and ONI gear. Until then, it's just us."

""Just" us? The bastards won't know what hit 'em!"

Wallace grinned to himself, even as he barked out, "Stop clogging the COM Jackson. We drop in five minutes – if you still need to go, you'll just have to wait."

More laughs on the COM. Public humiliation always earned a laugh, and Jackson was a favourite target of Wallace's. He could take it – that was a valuable trait in a Helljumper.

He ran through another last-minute check of his pod. The Navy technicians had done one when they loaded it, and he'd gone over it with a fine-tooth comb before launch – but it never hurt to make sure. Weapons? His silenced caseless submachine gun was clipped to the side of the pod, right next to the silenced M6C and extra pouched of ammunition. Supplies? A pack full of MRE's, water, some maintenance tools and electronic gear they might need in the field, and if they failed there were a few dedicated supply pods launching too – as well as the special pods carrying four M12 Warthog light reconnaissance vehicles, if they were needed.

What he really needed to check was the pod's computer systems. A last-minute crack in the processing chip could send him into a tumble that he'd never make it out of, not without some divinely inspired luck. He wished he could check the thrusters again, make sure the launch would be smooth, but for that he'd need two hours and a vacuum-resistant suit. He'd have to trust the maintenance crew.

"The launch countdown appeared on his helmet's display – five, four three…two…one.

The pod jolted, rockets roared above Wallace's head. His stomach dropped as the pod fell.

The ODST motto was "feet first into hell." Their job was to make sure it was full when they got there.

He gripped the padded titanium bars that wrapped around him, supporting and confining him, and closed his eyes.

Calypso watched from a view screen as rocket flares lit the night, flickering against the ventral hull, and the pods dropped away from the ship like stones falling through water.

"You wish you were with them?"

She turned, trying not to show his impatience. "I'm a TROJAN-grade operative, sir. I should be in the first wave."

The smiled sympathetically, his moustache curling at the corners of his mouth. "Don't worry, ma'am. If everything goes according to plan, you'll get your action. You're going down on the first bird."

"And if it doesn't go according to plan?" she asked.

"Then we'll toss you out an airlock and you can drop in on the boys on the ground," the man said, grinning.

She turned away from him. The ship's captain was a pleasant sort of man – amiable, easy to work with, and intelligent. Not the sort of man ONI usually trusted their prized stealth ships with, but he worked his Prowler with typical Navy efficiency. She understood that the crew looked up to the Captain as the isolated father figure, while the executive officer carried out his orders – she wasn't used to the idea of being in a military chain of command though.

She didn't trust him, or everyone else on this ship. Well, almost everyone.

The bridge door hissed open, and a massive figure clad in green armour stepped through. An arm snapped up in a salute, exaggeratedly slow for the benefit of the un-augmented crew and the captain.

"Sir, dropships Tango One-Four-Niner and Sierra Three-Three-Eight are nearly prepped and ready for launch. Are the ODST's away?"

The captain nodded to the view screen in front of Calypso. "They just left, Chief. ETA is twenty minutes, and then another one hour to storm the facility and disable the AA guns. We'll get you down in time for the mopping up, don't worry."

"Yes sir. Permission to return to the hangar?"


The Spartan, more than two and a half meters tall and clad in state-of-the-art MJOLNIR armour, gave another salute and turned to leave, giving a subtle nod to Calypso as he did. The doors hissed shut again.

The rest of the bridge crew had fallen silent, stunned. They returned to their bustling hive of activity almost eagerly.

Calypso grinned. She had been serving around Spartans for years – as a TROJAN operative, even she had to admit that a Spartan supersoldier in full gear was an impressive sight. She knew there were another two in the hangar below, still getting ready for deployment – she could only imagine the looks they were getting from the loaders and maintenance crew.

The captain raised his eyebrows questioningly. "I thought you'd be down there with them, Miss Calypso."

"The only thing I need to bring with me is my sniper rifle and enough rounds to give whatever I find out there on a one-way ticket to hell."

She brusquely shrugged off his other questions by leaving the bridge. The man was curious – too curious. Not about her, though he certainly tried to come off as friendly and perhaps a little too flirtatious than was proper for a man of his age. He was curious about the operation they were on, and was trying to fish for answers – and she couldn't give him any.

The planetoid below them was barely inhabitable by human standards, a dead lump of rock and the occasional lava flow orbiting a gas giant. The atmosphere was breathable, but only barely, and the ODST's would be using their own oxygen supply in any case until they secured the facility on the surface. It was hard to believe there was anything down there of interest to the UNSC, or to anyone else for that matter.

The small and innocuous sensor satellites in orbit, the trio of corvette-class human warships patrolling near the moon, and the heat blooms on the infrared imagers that represented automated thermal vents from fusion reactors begged to differ, however.

He caught the ship's elevator "down" to the hangar. The Prowler's decks were tilted on a 90 degree angle, so that they could use the ships momentum in lieu of artificial gravity, with only minor corrections to account for acceleration, deceleration and manoeuvring. The elevator that ran "down" the ship stretched along its horizontal axis, all the way to the rear and the engine room. She stepped off on the hangar deck. Prowlers were only large enough for one hangar, but it was still cavernous, and filled by two D77 Pelican dropships with people crawling all over them.

This was a rush job by ONI – fitting dropships with stealth features was like coating a rock dropping into lave with water, since mostly it just peeled off during re-entry. She hoped it would be worth it.

One of the Spartans was sitting on the ramp, fitting a Stanchion gauss rifle with a digital scope. Calypso smiled.

"Nice to see you again Laura! Are they finished yet?"

The Spartan shrugged, but Calypso kept her eyes focussed on her hands.

They're taking their sweet time as usual. Going over it again and again.

"Practice makes perfect, they say."

So they say.

She grinned, and nodded to the Stanchion. "A bit much, don't you think? We'll be firing tight corridors – a gauss rifle isn't exactly a close quarter's weapon."

Don't tell me how to do my job.

She shrugged, and turned back away from her. The Spartan hadn't said a word.

Petty Officer Laura-125, Indigo Three, was mute. Complications during the augmentation process had almost killed her, her own muscled crushing her vocal chords. The doctors had saved her life, but not her voice. Doctor Halsey, head of the SPARTAN-II Program, had decided she didn't want to risk having a mute among her precious supersoldiers, and had assigned her to training duties.

Somebody else had decided they could risk it, and had recruited her for another group – Indigo Team.

The rest of the team was made up of Chief Petty Officer Andrew-306 and Petty Officer Jeremy-068, both also recruited covertly – as far as Calypso knew, Jeremy's heart had stopped on the operating table and he'd been declared legally dead. It had come as a pleasant surprise for Indigo's recruiters when he'd gasped back to life an hour later, apparent none the worse for his near-death experience. Andrew had been more problematic, but he'd eventually agreed to join up – and after that, ONI had its own Spartans ready for deployment, outside of Halsey's chain of command.

Indigo Team weren't the only ones, but they were among the best and most experienced. Slightly over thirty years of combat against human rebels and Covenant invaders had produced soldiers who were tough, experienced, and capable of dealing with anything that was thrown at them. Calypso sometimes doubted they really needed the MJOLNIR armour they wore that enhanced their speed, strength and reflexes, and gave them a protective shield.

Right now, Andrew and Jeremy were leaning over a holographic studying the terrain, their helmets set upon it.

"Assault Force Alpha attacks Facility One," Andrew said, pointing at a point on the map, "knocking out their sensors and communications, while Assault Group Beta detonates the airfield. Assault Group Gamma proceeds to Facility Two," pointing to another part of the map, "clearing it of hostiles enough for the dropship to land. If they need it, we'll provide gunship support – if not, we just disembark and join the assault. Assault groups one and two converge on the objective, and we all link up here," he said, pointing at a third part, "to contact the Hunters Arrow."

Jeremy, taller and bulkier than Andrew even in the MJOLNIR, scratched his chin worried. "I still worry about the corvettes," he said in an accept that Calypso would have placed as Russian or another Eastern European country on Earth. "One Mac round from them will not just wipe out the objective, but it'll wipe us out too."

"Leave that to the Navy," Andrew said. "Our focus is the ground – they wouldn't send us if they thought the enemy would fire upon their own facility."

"Don't underestimate them," said Calypso as she drew near. "Rebels aren't exactly known for their code of honour."

Andrew was handsome in a rugged kind of way. He was clean shaved, hair cropped close, but still emanated a rugged feel, enhanced by the mottled scar that traced a line across his left eye. Jeremy was unshaven, sporting a small beard and moustache that was decidedly non-regulation, but otherwise bald. They both turned to look at her as she approached them.

Andrew nodded respectfully. "VECTOR. Good to see you."

Calypso smiled. "And you, Andy."

He frowned. "If we're keeping it casual, then I prefer "Andrew"."

"And I'd prefer "Helen", if you don't mind," she retorted, seeing Jeremy smirking to himself. She rounded on him. "What's so funny?"

His facial hair parted as he grinned. "You two bicker like a married couple every time you meet. It's sweet."

Andrew glared at the two of them, then grabbed his helmet, almost slamming into place over his head. "Gear up. The Helljumpers should be halfway there by now, in range of enemy anti-air guns."

Jeremy placed his own helmet on his head, shrugging in amusement. "Not the most subtle way to change the subject, is it?"

"Oh shut up," she snapped.

The outside of the Pelican wasn't the only thing ONI had upgraded. Inside, the troop bay was filled by monitors and readouts, failsafe controls, and additional racks for ammunition and weapons. The only passengers they would be taking were the three Spartans and Helen Calypso, so creature comforts weren't exactly a priority – most of the seats had been ripped away so that the technical team could fit water tanks to store additional heat so that the stealth measures would last longer.

"They're going to a lot of trouble to make sure we reach that facility," she commented. "A prowler? Stealth gunships? Not to mention the fact that they're sending us in the first place."

Jeremy made a noncommittal gesture with his head, not quite a shrug but close. "They must want it pretty badly."

"Have you been briefed on what to expect?" She asked Andrew.

"ONI is flying blind on this," he said, glad of the change of subject. "No topography, no force deployments, nothing – just what the Hunters Arrow scanned while you were still in cryo storage, and that's still not much."

"Great," she said sarcastically. "So we're going in blind, without backup or intel, and without even knowing how many of the enemy is in there? Military intelligence – now there's a contradiction of terms."

Andrew sat at one of the computer terminals and began to type as a woman in a wheelchair rolled out of the elevator, making her way up the ramp. "Not quite without intel."

The woman was young, and would have been pretty if not for her legs, which looked as though they'd been snapped in several places and healed slightly askew. UNSC medical technology could knit broken bone within minutes these days – something serious must have happened to her for it to be so hard to treat.

Calypso looked around at Andrew, Jeremy and Laura bemused. "They're sending us a cripple?"

"I prefer the term "differently able"," she said coldly, holding Calypso in a glare. "Commander Rachel Fenworth. Codename ORACLE."

Jeremy offered a hand, at which the commander was surprised but took as he gently shook her hand. "Indigo Two, Jeremy. Welcome aboard the love boat."

She smiled, and Calypso and Andrew shared a glance of exasperation as they saw that the joke had already spread.

"Yeah, I've heard about you two," the Fenworth said wryly. "I hope there won't be any problems?"

Calypso shrugged. "As long as he keeps his hands to himself, we should be fine."

Andrew stood up so quickly he sent the chair sprawling behind him "Now look here-"

"This is the captain. All hands to combat alert bravo. Indigo team and agents VECTOR and ORACLE, report to the bridge immediately."

Fenworth frowned, and so did Calypso. If their faceplates had been transparent, Calypso was sure Indigo would be frowning as well. This wasn't part of the plan, as hastily cobbled-together as it was. And if it wasn't part of the plan, it was a distraction – maybe a necessary one, but distractions got soldiers and Marines killed.

Fenworth held a hand to her earpiece. "Affirmative. En route sir."

The group disembarked from the Pelican, a group of technicians hastily filling the now-empty space to continue work on the heat sinks and install more communications gear in the already tiny space. Laura gave the Commander a nod as she passed, returned with a slightly surprised look. Calypso checked her holster, feeling the comforting weight of her customised pistol there – any unknown factors would find her a formidable force, even without powered armour.

Wallace woke with a start as the pod hit the ground, he must have passed out – that hadn't happened before, but it didn't surprise him. A lot of troopers went to sleep during drops, even the veterans – it was a way of coping with the stress when it became too much.

He knew a few relished it, though. More than a few, in fact – those who got accepted into the ODST Divisions were already one screw short of a toolbox, and to some of them their drops represented a quite literal drop into hell. Wallace had read Dante's Inferno when he'd been a university student, back on Mars – Dante and his guide, Virgil, made their way through the descending circles of hell on their way up to the rising circles of purgatory, then through that to the spheres of heaven. To get to heaven, you had to start at hell – and in their line of work, there were plenty of demons to mow their way through on the way, human and alien.

The pod rocked a little, and for a moment he worried it would tip, but in the third rock it settled mostly vertically as he sighed in relief. The hatch of the pod burst off as explosive charges blew it off its hinges, and the clamps around Wallace meant to stop him rattling inside the pod retracted, allowing him to unclip himself and drop out of the pod.

He pulled his M6, sweeping the immediate area for hostiles. When he was satisfied that the haunting and lonely landscape was inhabited only by him, he turned back to the pod and retrieved his gear – the MRE's, the M7 caseless submachine gun, and the ammunition. Then he opened his display's tactical map.

Up above them, the Prowler would still have its stealth systems engaged. Instead, a small satellite had been released a few hours prior to coordinate the ground forces – a Stealth Tactical Aerial Reconnaissance Satellite, or STARS, coordinated the management of more than forty ODST's all using their helmet's integrated digital information management systems – tactical maps, team bio sign displays, and encryption of inter-unit communications. He waited patiently as his suit linked up to the orbiting satellite, establishing a connection, and reviewed what he knew about the mission as he did so.

The ODST forces were split up into three forces – the pods of Assault Group Alpha were programmed to land near the moon's communications relay station. They would need to knock that out first before they could do anything – any counter-response would need coordination, and without COM access they'd be restricted to local radios and verbal communications. The relay was also a sensor outpost, with a radar station that could prove tricky if the enemy wanted to pinpoint either the Hunters Arrow or the STARS in orbit, if the three corvettes up there didn't do it first.

Even so, a counter-assault would be next to impossible for them to fend off, because there was an airfield not too far from the relay station – the satellite had showed a handful of dropships, and four of the older SkyHawk jump-jet fighters. Those fighters would be a problem, even if they had brought anti-air weapons – so that was why Assault Group Beta's job was to destroy the airfield. They would paint the target with a laser target painter, and the Hunters Arrow above would launch an Archer missile – destroy the enemy's entire air complement in one shot. If the enemy corvettes weren't already on the Prowler's tail, they would be after that – hence the loss of contact.

Wallace preferred to think of it as independence. Running ground operations from orbit was risky, because naval staff didn't always have the full picture. It was better in his opinion for ground commanders to be given more leeway, allow them to use the facts at their disposal for their judgement. It also removed the bureaucracy that the Unified Earth Government always kept trying to foist on the military, for "safety" reasons.

He just wished it was up to someone else.

He was commander of Assault Group Gamma, a full two squads including his own. He was barely a Staff Sergeant, and the Colonel had still designated him as Charlie Platoon's commanding officer for this mission. Usually it would be a Lieutenant or a Captain, but their previous commander had been killed a while back, on Unmoving Virtue against Brute forces. They hadn't been able to replace him, and so Sergeant Grant Wallace had been promoted to Staff Sergeant and given command.

Their job was much harder than Alpha or Gamma – they were the group that got to attack the main objective itself. Hence the larger size, and the four Warthogs. He'd meant to land further to the north-west, closer to the objective. His pod must have drifted off course – that happened sometimes, even with STARS guiding it in. He sighed, heaved his gear onto his back, and grabbed his SMG.

"You lost, stranger?"

Wallace jumped, brought his weapon up as he turned – and then lowered it as he saw a familiar face.

"Jeez, Vasquez, didn't your parents teach you not sneak up on people!"

The other ODST grinned underneath her transparent faceplate. "Guess they skipped that lesson."

Vasquez was his second in command – still a corporal, but with more field experience than the rest of the unit combined. She'd been a late transfer from the Marine Corps – they both had. They'd already fought the Covenant on seven worlds before they'd been approved for the Helljumpers – and even then, only barely.

She hopped briskly down from the boulder she was standing on, battle rifle held loosely at her side. She was a little short for a Helljumper, but more than made up for it by being a mean bitch in a fight, able to make a man in half with her pinkie. He'd seen her in a bar fight once – the look of glee as she took on four big, hulking soldier's who'd insulted her had frightened him. But there was nobody else he'd rather have fighting next to him.

"Did you see the fireworks they sent up?" she asked, polarising the faceplate again.

"No. I decided to take a nap instead."

"That's probably a good thing, because there weren't any. The big guns were quiet the whole trip."

Wallace frowned. "Really? They didn't pick us up?"

"Yeah," she said, shrugging. "I thought maybe Alpha had hit the ground early, knocked them out before the rest of us landed, but they were still up there with us. I checked."

Wallace looked around them at the bleak landscape again. "They're beginning the mission?"

"I don't know. The STARS cut them off at that point, and I had bigger things to worry about, like getting my ass safely on the ground."

Wallace grinned. "Well, I'm sure the battalion will thank you for that. It's our biggest asset!"

She made a very un-ladylike gesture with her hand.

He opened the TACMAP, zooming out as far as it would let him, the maximum scope just barely accommodating all three targets – Alpha were definitely on the move, and fast too. It didn't look they were under fire at all – no hostile signatures registered. Beta were moving as well, and seemed to be having just as easy a time of it as Alpha. Gamma, on the other hand, seemed to have gotten scattered across a plateau – still close to the facility, but now they'd have to waste valuable time linking up and humping it the extra distance.

"At least tell me the 'hogs made it," he said.

"All four in one piece, two troop transports, a Gauss 'hog and a LAAG 'hog."

He sighed in relief. That would make things easier by far – not just for the firepower, but with the mobility. They might have to make several trips, but they'd still be able to bring Alpha and Beta in once they'd secured the facility. If they secured the facility.

"Well, I guess we'd better get this show on the road", he said, adjusting the strap of his backpack, feeling the shift of the weight to make sure nothing jostled. "Let's move out, Corporal!"

"Copy that, Sarge!"

"What do you mean "dead"?"

Fenworth hadn't meant it to be quite as loud as that, but it echoed around the bridge. A few junior officers made the mistake of looking around to see what the problem was, and quickly turned to their work to avoid her glare.

The captain sighed. "I mean drifting, Commander. At first, we thought they were on patrol – they were heading in a straight line towards the SSEP One of the system, even if it was a little slow. No main or RCS thrusters, but that's not unusual in low-density areas. But they haven't made a course correction in hours, and two minutes ago this happened."

The holographic screen activated, showing the flight path of the corvettes…and a massive chunk of asteroid.

"Standard practice on any ship, UNSC or rebel, is to avoid any threat as soon as it appears. They should either have altered their course or, if it was that important, destroyed the incoming object. So far, they have done neither. In approximately three hours, the asteroid will collide with the lead ship – the debris cloud will hit the other two, crippling the both of them, sending them tumbling through space."

She frowned. "You're sure they're dead? They're not just staying silent?"

It was a stupid suggestion, and she felt stupid as the captain raised his eyebrows condescendingly. "They're right there, Commander. No stealth measures, even if their thrusters aren't operating. If they're running dark, then they must think we're totally blind."

She shrugged helplessly. "Then what? They abandoned ship?"

"No. We risked an active sensor sweep – their lifepods are still docket. All of them."

"So there's nobody left to abandon ship," said Calypso darkly.

The five of them were all arrayed around the display table in the ships CIC – the Spartans, Fenworth, and Calypso. To be honest, Fenworth would rather Calypso stay the hell away from her – the woman may be ex-ORION, but she was also ex-rebel too, a former assassin of the people they were tracking down. She'd turned on her employers, but only after wiping out an entire platoon of Marines. Her skills, however, made her too valuable to turn down, or to incarcerate, even if the UNSC was brave enough to try.

She trusted the opinions of the Spartans, on the other hand. They weren't like the other operatives their section had available – HIGH DRAGON, or ORPHEUS. They weren't arrogant, they weren't overconfident, and they didn't come with much baggage. They seemed genuine, and Fenworth appreciated that.

The captain, though, she was less sure of, for better or worse – he was curious, but didn't pry too deeply. She could feel his disdain for her rolling off him in waves – not the fact that she was in a wheelchair, but just the fact that she was an ONI spook.

The Office of Naval Intelligence controlled every Prowler. The captain was ONI too, and even he hated "spooks". It made her job harder, but it was something in his favour at least.

"What about a boarding action?" asked Andrew. "Do we have time before the Marines complete their mission?"

Fenworth shook her head. "Negative, Chief. We need your boots on the ground as soon as they're finished down there."

"What about me?"

Five sets of eyes turned to Calypso. She shrugged.

"I'm not exactly a Spartan, but if you give me a Vac suit I can go over, check them out, and report back."

Fenworth frowned. "Do we need to? If they're drifting, then they're not a threat. If they're not a threat, we don't need to worry about it, so we?"

"If something took out three corvettes and left them intact," said Andrew, "then shouldn't we be prepared? It might still be in the system, and if it is then that puts the Hunters Arrow at risk."

"And moving us anywhere near that threat puts us at even greater risk," interjected the captain. "My vote is we let them drift on their own, hit the asteroid; that, or we hit them with an archer missile each to the engines, make sure they're completely destroyed."

Fenworth sat in silence for a moment, contemplating her options. Eventually she turned to Calypso, and sighed.

"Suit up, VECTOR. But just to investigate. If you run into anything, any resistance or any threats, I'm pulling you out of there."

"Yes ma'am!" she barked, snapping off a mocking salute and leaving the bridge.

"And us?" asked Jeremy.

"You head on down to the moon and help the Helljumpers mop up the enemy defences."

"So far they haven't run into any," said the captain, raising an eye quizzically. "Dead ships, dead moon – do you think there's anything down there worth sending in Spartans?"

Fenworth backed away from the table. "To be honest, Captain, if it was up to me we'd scrub this entire operation – blow everything from orbit, and let it all drift. But I have my orders, and so do you. Indigo, head down to the hangar bay and be ready for deployment. We'll make a low-orbit pass and launch you as we make the burn, then dock with one of the corvettes and send VECTOR in. Having two teams in the field isn't what I'd planned, but my prerogative here is flexible enough for it."

Indigo team snapped off salutes of their own, crisp and clean and barren of the derision that had dripped from Codename VECTOR's, and headed out of the bridge the way they had came.

The captain and Fenworth watched them go, and then he leaned forward across the table, close to her. "Commander, you may have operational authority here, but you do anything to endanger my ship or my crew, then so help me-"

Fenworth waved a dismissive hand. "Don't worry, Captain. I have no intention of doing anything of the sort."

"Eyes-on the objective. Two guards posted on the sentry towers, and it looks like a dog patrol in the inner fence. The other sites may have been abandoned but this place is as lively as we expected – bastards look jumpy, too."

Great. Wallace shook his head in disbelief. Out of all the teams, his was going to be the only one to face any opposition. Alpha and Beta had both been no-shows, completing their mission objectives without encountering any resistance. They were on their way to Facility Two now, way ahead of schedule. He'd considered sending out the Warthogs to bring them in quicker, but he decided against it – he didn't want to let them wait, and they'd need the firepower to bust through the fence.

He held up a digital scope of his own, scouting out the enemy positions. There was a main road leading from the air field, forty kilometres to the south west, with a road block running through three perimeter fences. There was no barbed wire at the top, so he suspected they were electrified – perhaps explaining why the guards kept their distance from the fences. A sentry tower stood next to the road block, and it looked like the two occupants were snipers or sharpshooters – he zoomed in closer – definitely snipers. Damn.

They'd have to go in fast, and take down the snipers first. Then punch through the fence, take down the dog patrol, and then assault the main building itself. That was a lot of noise, and if they were unlucky the rebels might set the facility into lockdown before they could get in. If they did, the gunships would punch a big enough hole, but he didn't want it to come to that.

He looked at Corporal Nelson, the other scout. "What's the ETA on the dropships?"

The man checked his chronometer, attached to the wrist of his suit. "Forty minutes. The AA guns are silent, and air support has been taken out, but they still need time for transit. They still insist on coming in low, under the radar – just in case."

In case of what, Wallace wondered. This world was almost dead – the ground around them was black rock, eerily rolling and curving across the landscape. It looked almost skeletal, and was depressing in a way he couldn't quite define. Almost as though some giant god had ripped out the bones of the moon from the inside.

Later, that thought would return to him.

The both slid down from the rocks they had used for cover, down the smooth rock, and hit the ground rolling to their feet. The two dozen ODST's waiting for them turned in a sea of silver faceplates and black helmets.

"Alright, we'll kick this thing off in thirty minutes. I want our snipers to pick off theirs – to men to one target, I want them dead by the time the Warthogs roll out. Once the snipers are down, the rest of the assault force moves up, using the rocks for cover – Warthogs barrel through the fences, and engage the patrols. Once the perimeter guard is down, we take the building, entering through the front and rear entrances – if we had dropships, I'd order a rooftop insertion as well, but we don't so oh well. MG warthog keeps up suppressing fire until the rest of the assault group catches up, while the Gauss 'hog punches holes in the front."

It was ballsy, he admitted to himself. The enemy obviously didn't expect an armoured assault, even though the light reconnaissance vehicles were quite capable of managing the difficult terrain, but they would still be leaving their biggest assets open to destruction in the opening minutes. They'd still have the troop transports currently ferrying one of the other assault groups, but they'd only be good as rams to bring down the fences. And they'd still have the snipers to deal with. But it could work.

Someone raised a hand. He nodded. "Yes, Lance Corporal?"

The junior NCO nodded his head over to where the squad, black building sat, and said "Do we even know what's in there? What's worth an operation here? It's dead."

A Private nodded in agreement. "Yeah. The rebels can have this dump!"

"You stow that talk Private Yelnats!" barked out Vasquez. A trooper next to the outspoken Private nudged him in the ribs with an elbow.

Wallace smiled wryly to himself – he privately agreed with the man, but he'd be damned if he let them know. You couldn't have troops disagreeing with their orders – that stirred up resent, and he didn't want any of his troopers questioning their orders.

"ONI has not seen fit to tell us grunts just what makes this moon so valuable to them, no," he admitted, causing a chorus of chuckles. "But we don't need to know that. These are rebels – people who have rejected Earth as their government, and are trying to bring down the UNSC. Do you need to know why? No. All you need to know is that the men in our sights are traitors to humanity."

There were a few claps. Wallace was glad of the howling wind around them – he had a feeling that without it, the echoes would have carried for miles.

"Now, get ready to move out! Stow your supplies, pass the ammo 'round, and check your guns. Remember, hot and fast – just the way your mothers like it!"

"Or your fathers!" called one of the women Helljumpers, and the troopers burst out laughing.

Wallace called up the TACMAP again, checking the relative positions of the other troopers. The dropship was still out of range, but the assault groups were about halfway here. The terrain slowed the Warthogs down, but they could still climb over anything they couldn't go around. He wasn't waiting for them, but it was good to know they were on the way regardless.

The two Warthogs were being prepped – someone had managed to graft a couple of the titanium hatches from the SOEIV's onto the front to be used as a battering ram, so that the vehicle itself remained relatively intact. It would make it slower, but a Warthog wasn't exactly a racing car anyway so Wallace didn't care. What he did care about was the guns – the Gauss turret of one and the light anti-air gun of the other would be exposing their gunners during the run up. He'd asked about creating some kind of armour cage, but their technical experts had told him it would take hours to drag the materials from the pods, longer to weld it together, and that it wouldn't be that effective anyway. He just had to hope the vehicles got hit their targets and made it through.

"At least the terrain's good," said Nelson. "Craggy, excellent cover – hell, it's so black we'll even blend in!"

"You want to clamber across it?"

"I didn't say that, Sarge. I just said they wouldn't see us coming."

He looked at his own chronometer. "Post the snipers. We kick this off in fifteen minutes."

The Pelican launch had been uneventful. They'd kept the stealth systems active anyway, because it never paid to be overly cautious, but the corvettes didn't change course as the Prowler skimmed the moon's atmosphere, disgorged a dropship, and then made a course-correction using its rocket thrusters to bring it back out of its gravity well – an event that, even with stealth, should have been the equivalent of sending up a signal flare.

Calypso tugged at the vacuum suit, getting comfortable. It was a little too big for her, but it was the latest model at any rate, using an EVA helmet that looked like an upended fishbowl. She may look ridiculous, but it gave her a massive field of vision, and that was an advantage in any combat theatre.

The airlock was stark white and black, with red and yellow hazard stripes around the edge of the hatch. There was a tiny window in it, and she could see the corvette rapidly approaching.

The captain may have been uneasy about it, but Calypso was itching to get off the ship and into the fight. This wasn't the fight she'd been expecting, but it was the next best thing – just her, and whatever she found there.

"Once you board, we'll move out by four hundred kilometres and stay on station," said Commander Fenworth over the COM. "Make your way to the ship's black box first – whatever happened, it'll be recorded on there. When you're done, head to the engine room and set off a wild cat destabilisation. When you call for extraction, we'll move in and dock again."

"And if I can't be extracted, it's out of the debris field when the asteroid hits, right?" Calypso could be quite cynical.

"Right. Good luck."

"I make my own luck, ORACLE."

There was a clunk, and then a hiss as the pressure in the airlock adjusted to match that of the corvette.

"Atmosphere seems to be functioning, even if it is a bit over UNSC standard, but it's tolerable. Gravity isn't – you'll be floating until you get to the bridge. You can activate the gravity controls if you want – if you prefer zero-gee combat, then that's fine too."

She snorted. Just because she was good at zero-gravity combat scenarios didn't mean she enjoyed them. She'd fought Jackals and Elites aboard damaged ships, and had barely survived those encounters – she'd be switching the gravity back on as soon as she could, and looked forward to the feeling of something pulling her "down" against the "ground."

The hatch swung open slowly, and Calypso dove out of it into the darkened corridor of the ship beyond it, was caught by the weightlessness, and grabbed a handhold on the wall. There was a moment of space-sickness, and then she got over it.

"I'm in."

The hatch swung shut again, and after a minute there was another, much larger clunk as the Prowler detached itself from the corvette's hull, moving out.

"Maintain radio contact, and keep the image feed live. I see what you see."

"Copy that," she muttered, activating the small camera attached to the side of the helmet. She also activated the small flashlight integrated into the helmet – the corridor was dark, the air surprisingly dusty for an environment meant to be kept sterile, and the beams cut through the darkness as if she was underwater.

Oceans had sharks, though. She wondered what she'd find here.

She kicked off against the wall, using her handhold to change her trajectory, swinging herself down the corridor. She held her pistol in one hand, and the chatter that showed a schematic of the ship in the other. If she had to fire, then that would produce recoil and send her flying, so the shot would have to be a good one.

She avoided the elevators – the lights were off, which meant the power was off, and anyway an elevator was just a metal trap. She took a service route – a tiny tunnel burrowing through the beck to the next, meant for maintenance crew or remotely operated service drones. She barely fit through, but she managed the tight squeeze, always keeping the pistol aimed ahead of her.

This corridor looked much like the last one, except that she had company. Globules of blood floated in the air in front of her, alongside the bodies of two of the corvettes crew members. She activated the COM.

"You getting this, ORACLE?"

"Affirmative, VECTOR. Check the bodies for identification."

She gently manoeuvred herself to grab one of the corpses, pulling it effortlessly close to her and wrapping a limp arm around a handhold.

"No rigour mortis," she noted. "They've been dead for a few hours."

The jumpsuits they wore were standard issue for naval crew, even among rebel forces – warm, with a lot of pockets. It had been designed to stop microdebris wounds, but that hadn't helped them – whatever had killed them had torn right through it, gouging at their ribcage and abdomen. They'd probably bled out, floating alone and frightened as their attacker moved on through the ship – probably through the service route Calypso had just passed through. She suppressed a shudder.

She looked at the nametag. "It says this one was a Crewman Apprentice Ken Lester."

"Scan the serial number – we might be able to trace it, notify his family or pick up some "friends" of his."

She swiped the chatter across it. There was a beep – odd. That shouldn't have happened. She glanced at the chatter.

"It's telling me he's UNSC."

"Impossible. Check it again."

She swiped the chatter across the nametag again, annoyed at ORACLE. This wasn't exactly something that you could tamper with – the serial number matched a standard UNSC registry. It came out positive again.

"There's no error, ORACLE. It's telling me he's a UNSC sailor."

There was a pause for a moment. "They might have stolen the jumpsuits from a naval base, forgotten to remove the tags." She didn't sound like she thought it was very likely, and neither did Calypso.

She did the same with the other corpse, noting that this one had a crushed spine. Something had also taken quite a chunk out of the face – it was barely recognisable as Crewman Apprentice Danielle Ulster. The tag also registered as UNSC Navy.

Why had they been here? Had they been together before they died? Sneaking away for a quiet moment together, or perhaps responding to a strange noise? She'd never know. She left the two bodies dangling by their dead arms, and moved on, now very careful to watch the maintenance access corridors.

The door at the end of the corridor was locked when she reached it. She held onto the wall as she plugged an extension from the chatter into it, running a bypass program. There was a dull clunk, but the doors didn't move – she'd just unlocked them. She braced her feet against one of the doors, and pushed – the door shuddered open, scraping against the fitting around it, but opened with enough room for her to pass.

She drifted to move through it – and stopped.

"ORACLE, this is-"

"Copy that, VECTOR. Find a way around if you can."

The corridor was filled with bodies, all drifting weightlessly, bumping against each other, blood hanging like some absurd balloon next to them where the wounds had bled. She could see that these people had died instantly – that kind of damage didn't leave any life in a body.

A hand bumped against the bulkhead. The arm it had come from was still drifting in the middle of the room.

She shut the door, quietly and without any emotion showing. It was just her on this ship, but she felt it was important. Rebel or UNSC sailors, nobody deserved this – the chatter beeped again, and the door locked.

She passed through a ventilation shaft, passing up and over the scene of carnage. She was glad there were no windows – the scene played across her mind's eye vividly enough without seeing it again. She felt a wave of claustrophobia sweep through her, and suppressed that too – she wondered whether she'd pop like a shaken soft drink bottle when she got back to the Hunters Arrow.

The rest of the trip was less eventful – the occasional corpse drifting as she passed, trying not to bump against them, but at least they were all in one piece. Mostly, the ship was empty, surprisingly so. She'd expected to see signs of battle everywhere – bullet holes in the walls, torn metal, and a lot more corpses. She remembered that most sailors didn't carry a sidearm, and that weapons were kept in the armoury unless needed – whatever had done this damage must have been damned fast.

The bridge door was ajar already when she reached it – it looked like something had forced its way in. The metal was slightly bent where something had slammed against it, leaving a curved impression. She got a good look at it with the camera – ORACLE might be able to calculate approximate size and mass, which was better than what she knew right now.

The bridge was just as weightless as the rest of the ship, but most of the crew were still strapped into their duty stations, slumped forward across the keypads and screens. She noted with contempt that the captain's chair was empty – he must have tried to get out, leaving the rest of his crew to be killed.

None of the lifepods had been launched, however. His last act of cowardice had been for nought.

"I'm on the bridge. Bringing power back online and switching the gravity back on."

Lights flickered across the bridge as she flicked the switch, and she dropped with a thump to the deck as her weight returned. She felt disoriented again, but got over that as quickly as she'd overcome her space sickness – she'd done this countless times. She was used to the feeling.

She'd kept the lighting restricted to the bridge – the rest of the corvette was still in darkness. No sense in alerting the enemy to her presence, if there were any left, whatever they were. The light was welcome – it made the environment feel less like she was passing through a cemetery. It reflected off the battleship grey walls and reflective screens, bringing a little life back to the place.

The corpses were just as lifeless, but at least the ship still had a pulse.

She knelt down, lowering herself under the control panel in front of the captain's chair. This was a Mako-class corvette, mostly phased out of service in the UNSC, but she was familiar enough with the class that she knew that the black box – the data recorder for all information pertaining to the ship – was stored there. She reached into one of the pouched clipped to her suit, pulling out a pair of wire clippers, cutting through the wires connecting it to the ship's systems – the black box was heavy, and was not actually black, instead favouring a bright fluorescent orange colour for visibility. She wondered to her own amusement why they were called black boxes, and then ignored that – she had a job to do.

She reached out with a hand and clutched at a chair leg, using it to pull herself out while the other hand clutched the black box. And then she wondered where the chair had come from.

It wasn't a chair.

She heard the click of an M6 pistol's safety trigger moving, held by the owner of the leg, and she said the first thing that came to mind.


Wallace and his troopers moved silently, but swiftly, over the blackened terrain. He'd expected to have to clamber over sharp rocks, duck under low overhands, but it was surprisingly easy to move across. The ground was smooth, but just rough enough for their boots to grip on them.

Technically, he wasn't the one who had to the clambering anyway. He was seated comfortable in one of the Warthogs, submachine gun cradled in his arm. Nelson sat in the driver's seat, and behind them Vasquez manned (or "womanned") the M26 Gauss Cannon, keeping it aimed at the building ahead of them

And, as Corporal Nelson had so astutely pointed out to him, it was so black it made their body armour into the perfect camouflage. This was a first for Wallace. Usually they had to change into different gear if they wanted camouflage – the black ballistic plating that Helljumpers were typically imagined in was technically for urban combat, distinguishing them from the lighter grey of regular Marines or soldiers. He'd never before been in an operation where it blended in, except may be into deep shadows. The Warthogs, in their pale green livery, were the ones that looked out of place here, but the ODST's looked right at home.

There were shadows here, too, but they didn't need them. Deep and dark trenches seemed to roll across the landscape, like an ocean frozen during a storm. Some of the arches looked almost like waves.

They were nearly in position – Wallace activated his COM. "Snipers, take the shot. Warthogs, move up!"

Two sharp cracks would have split the air if they hadn't been wearing helmets. Through his scope, Wallace saw the two snipers slump against the inside of the guard tower – the other guards hadn't yet noticed the death of their comrades, and continued the patrol. They were about to find out.

The two Warthogs roared to life. They'd followed the rest of the troops at a snail's pace as they moved up, but now they left the ODST's in its dust, kicking up showers of pebbles and fragments of fractured obsidian as they tore ahead, their wheels digging in deep for traction.

He was glad of the helmet as Vasquez fired the Gauss turret twice – the first shot hit the guard tower, bringing it falling across the road block. The second shot hit the building, but didn't make much of a dent.

"So much for punching a hole," called Nelson dryly.

"Shut up and drive," Wallace yelled back over the roar of the Warthog's engines. He chambered around in his weapon, adjusting his grip on it.

The gauss turret cracked again, and again, and now the M41 LAAG barked out a staccato of fire as 12.7mm bullets sprayed one of the patrols, men and dogs dropping in the hail of fire. A shot hit the Warthog's windscreen, deflected, but Wallace ducked instinctively and wished, not for the first time, that Warthogs came with roofs.

Vasquez fired another round, this one tearing through the fence and leaving a gaping and smouldering hole through it, slamming into the wall in another place. A guard stared at the Warthog in shock, and then dived out of the way as it barrelled past him.

"Brace for impact!" Nelson yelled, as Vasquez held on for dear life and Wallace gripped the roll bar.

The Warthog had built up a lot of momentum, and shredded its way through the first fence, a simply wall of chain link wire., its carbon nanotube tyres crushing the barbed wire underneath it. The next layer in the perimeter was more difficult – a wall of wooden slats, which the Warthog nevertheless barrelled through, the makeshift battering ram mounted on the front going through it like the hammer of a god.

The third wall was brick – which exploded in a shower of shrapnel as the Warthog burst through it, sending debris into the third patrol, which turned their weapons onto the vehicle even as they dived out of its way.

Wallace fired a burst at a man still reaching for his pistol - the Gauss turret cracked yet again, and two men unfortunate enough to be in her way were turned into an expanding cloud of flesh and blood and gore. Blood slicked the windshield. Nelson gagged. Wallace ignored him.

The Warthog hit the wall – not another fence, but the building, squat and ebony black. The plan had been that either the Gauss turret would punch a hole, or the Warthog would – but it held. The Warthog ground to a crunching halt, jerking all of its occupants forward – Vasquez's restraints snapped, and she sprawled across the top. Wallace was sent flying out of the vehicle, and eventually collected himself enough to realise that he was on his back, out in the open, and his weapon was lying a meter away.

He reached for it, flipped over, and brought down a guard as he aimed a pistol at him. The bullets slammed into his legs and he screamed, falling flat on his face. Another burst to the head made sure he wouldn't get up again. Wallace shakily got to his feet, checking himself to make sure nothing was broken, and then limped over to the Warthog.

Nelson was lying slumped against the wheel. Wallace checked the TEAMBIOS panicked, and was relieved to see that he was just unconscious. Vasquez, on the other hand, had already clambered back into the turret, and sent a pair of gauss rounds slamming into another patrol hurrying into range.

The other Warthog rolled past them, apparently undamaged. It must have seen them hit the building without making a dent, he though ruefully. Its gunner, which Wallace recognised as Corporal Jackson, swerved left to bring the turret to bear on a pair of guard dogs bounding towards Wallace. He raised his own weapon, but it was unnecessary – the dogs yelped and died as the LAAG fired.

""Thanks for the assist, Corporal!"" Jackson jeered as the Warthog rolled on.

The other troopers had caught up now, and were setting to work taking care of the rest of the perimeter guard, submachine guns burping out short bursts, pistols kicking, and a pair of rifles cracking out from the distance as the platoon's snipers picked and brought down their targets. Wallace motioned to a Fireteam.

"You men, on me! Have you got the charges?"

"Yes sir!" the trooper responded, patting a pouch on her body armour. She handed it to Wallace, and the Marines stacked up in front of the door.

"Breach and clear!" he yelled out as the charge went off, the door thumping uselessly backward. He swept the inside with his weapon, fired into the darkness inside, and stepped in.

The guard must have been next to the door, because he was bleeding from his ears – but he was mad as hell, and terrified, and he was Wallace stepping through. He grabbed his knife, clambered onto his back, arm wrapped around his neck, and brought the knife around-

He dropped, bleeding from the middle of his forehead. Wallace gasped for breath, and flashed the trooper who'd saved his life a thumbs-up, and then waved the Fireteam forward. He let them take the lead this time – he was sick of being the first in the enemy's gun sights.

He opened the SQUADCOM channel. "First Squad, secure the perimeter, active patrol. Second Squad, move in, sweep and clear, floor by floor. I want this facility secure by the time the dropship gets here!"

There was a chorus of affirmations, and Marines tumbled through the doorway past Wallace. Outside, Nelson and Vasquez backed the Warthog up, joining the other vehicle. He nodded to them, and then moved further down the hallway into the depths of the building.

"Who the hell are you?"

Calypso held her hands out in front of her, showing the man she was unarmed. He didn't lower the gun.

"Are you with VENATOR?" he demanded. "Fuckers just sent us out here, no idea what was going on. Are you with them?"

"No," she said slowly and gently, hoping it sounded soothing. "I'm UNSC. Agent VECTOR, Office of Naval Intelligence."

The man snorted in disbelief. "You're a spook? Just as bad."

She frowned at the jibe, but tried to ignore it. "I'm not a spook. I'm just here to retrieve the black box. We just want to know what happened here. Can you tell me?"

The man looked at her for a while. The faceplate was opaque, but she depolarised it so that he could see her face. Humanising someone made it harder to kill them – she hoped.

"If I lower my weapon, you'll…you won't try anything? No sudden movements?"

"Sure." She'd say anything to get him to lower the gun. "Whatever you want."

The man sighed, and sagged, dropping the gun. Her hand whipped out effortless, snatched it mid-fall, twirled it around and pointed it at the man. He just smiled.

"Go ahead. It's empty."

She slid the magazine out, and cursed as she saw that it was. Her other hand came out with her own pistol.

"You can do that if you want, but without me you'll never know what happened here." He smiled at her, not smugly, just amused. "And I'm not going to give you any trouble if you can get me off here."

The gun stayed aimed at him, unwavering…and then she lowered it, clicked the safety back on, and held out her other hand.

"Could you help a lady up?"

The man leant down, held her hand firmly, and heaved her out from under the control panel, and now she could get a proper look at him

He wasn't tall, but he looked imposing. A few days' growth of facial hair gave his face a rugged look, but he was old enough to pull it off – some of his hairs were white, and the rest was grey. He wore a plain grey jumpsuit, with simple insignia that named him –Olars, J. Captain.

She pulled herself up, holstering her pistol, and took off her helmet. Captain Olars' eyes widened as he saw her without her helmet, and he coughed nervously.

"Er, sorry about that miss. But I've been holed up her for…I don't know how long. And for a moment I thought you might have been one of…them."

The emphasis on the last word made her shiver. "Them? Who? VENATOR?"

He shook his head. "No. Do you know what VENATOR is?"

She shook her head. "All we were told was that someone was conducting research on the moon, and we were to go in and investigate."

"Well," he said, "if you're up here then you aren't down there. That's something to be thankful for, at least."

She decided to keep quiet about the Helljumpers, at least for now. "Captain, what went on here? Who are you?"

He slumped back down into his chair, face in his hands. He wasn't crying, but she worried that he might start. "Captain Joshua Olars, UNSC Fenris Wolf. Sorry about the…mess," he said, sweeping a hand across the bridge apologetically at his former crew. "I thought about moving them, but I didn't see any point.

"We got told this was an ONI base. The only name we were given was "Project VENATOR", and we got told that anything else was way above our clearance level. We were meant to carry a shipment of new personnel, sixty people, all stored in the cryotubes. When we tried to thaw them after we jumped in-system, they stopped us – that was our first hint that something was wrong.

"We dropped off the cryotubes on the moon's surface, and then climbed back into orbit…but something must have got onboard. Next thing we know, the Rising Sun was sending out a mayday – all we could hear on the COMs was screaming. The Beetle moved in, docked, sent in its Marine fire teams – we lost contact with them both after an hour. We talked about trying to help them, but we decided it was too risky. And then the Pelican came out."

He tapped a few controls on his chair, and the display screen flickered to life. It showed the inky blackness of space, two battleship grey corvettes, and a tiny dot – the rocket thrusters of a Pelican dropship. Calypso frowned. "Why didn't they use a lifepod?"

"That's what we wondered, too. I was already suspicious, so I stationed guards in the hangar – not enough, apparently, because whatever was in there just tore through them. And then it went through the rest of the ship."

Calypso felt her finger itching to reach for the pistol. This was making her twitchy, and she needed to be on form for…whatever it was.

"Did you get a look at it?" she asked. "Video cameras? Surveillance? Sensors?"

He shook his head. "It doesn't show up on thermals, and it was too damn fast for a visual. Motion trackers worked, but you can't get a picture from that. I saw it though…" he stopped.

She put a reassuring hand on his shoulder, and he flinched. The hand stayed. "Go on, sir. How did you respond?"

His voice sounded strangely strangled now. "We…we tried to lure it back into the hangar. Crewmen Laskey and Sanders used themselves as bait. A couple of the things attacked them, and we flushed the room – but there more on the ship. They were multiplying. I don't know how. And then the Marines started firing outside the bridge…"

She could see this was traumatic, going over how his crew was slaughtered. The man seemed like an upstanding officer, and had plainly done his best in impossible circumstances. That only made it all the worse, though.

"They attacked the bridge?"

"Yeah. The Marines tried to weld the doors shut, but they weren't fast enough. They bludgeoned their way through, grabbed the Marines, dragged them through…I don't know what happened to them. And then they came in."

He shuddered as he recalled, his shiver sweeping through his entire body. "They were…black. As black as space. Maybe two meters tall, maybe a little more. There was a tail. That's all I saw, before the little ones ran in-"

"Little ones?" she asked. "What little ones?"

He shrugged, and rubbed his chest with his hand. "They were small, maybe two hand-widths, and had tails. The big ones just went crazy, killed some…but the little ones got the rest. Clamped onto their faces."

She looked around them at the dead bridge crew. None of them were alive now – there was no decomposition yet, but the gaping wounds still didn't look or smell good. She turned back to the captain.

"How did you escape?" she asked.

"I didn't."

The scream seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere, and Olars' back arched in the chair. He gritted his teeth, fixed her in a stare, and yelled, "Get away! It'll go for you too!"

"What? What will?"

He screamed again, and she heard his crash webbing tear as he strained against it – and then she realised it wasn't the crash webbing.

Something was moving around under Olars' skin, inside the chest. She watched in fascinated horror as it thumped against the ribs – she heard them cracking – and, with a spurt of blood, burst through. The captain convulsed a few times, blood trickling out of his mouth, and then was still.

It was black. It was small. It seemed to be all elongated head and teeth. And even though it had no eyes, she could sense it looking at her. It bared its teeth.

She screamed, raised the pistol and pulled the trigger. Three shots echoed around the room – none of them missed.

Outside, deep in the bowels of the ship, something screamed back at her.