Chapter 4, Unto Fire.

"What do you mean we can't get home!" The Kig-Yar demanded, looking at the apologetic man on the viewscreen. The ship's AI had most likely received thousands of such questions in the last few minutes. The AI had just made a shipboard announcement of the Wotan's situation to the crew, as well as the alien passengers.

Runa was sitting in the mess hall nearest his room as he heard the news, the full account of what had happened. He knew they were lost in a strange place, but this was almost more than the Sangheili could bear. Another universe? Alien Humans? Not to mention hostile humans, hostile humans who were also religious fanatics bent on killing and converting anyone who they deemed to be different to themselves. Runa walked over to the terminal, listening to the AI explain the situation again, in a very calm voice, to the Jackal.

"None of us can get home, don't think you're alone in your plight, or your worries. There isn't anyone on this ship that likes the idea of being stranded in hostile space. But this is the finest ship humanity has ever built, and the finest crew the UNSC has to offer, if there's any vessel that can bear you and yours home it's this one. So please, help us get there or at the very lease don't make this any harder than it needs to be."

The Kig-Yar scowled, turning and storming off back to his food. The AI shook his head and continued explaining their situation. Thankfully the attack hadn't done serious damage to the Wotan, so their only ride home hadn't been crippled. Fockewulf continued on to explain how they were about five days away from another Imperial world, a major trade hub this time where they hoped to covertly barter for food and other needed supplies. Runa had only to look around the ship to see the supply problem.

They were short on space, passengers packed in like cargo, many sleeping on cots in any nook and cranny a bedroll could be forced into. All those extra mouths to feed were most certainly a drain on supplies. Added to that, the Kig-Yar could barely stomach plant matter so the ship's hydroponics facilities couldn't feed them, to say nothing of having to create methane rooms so the Unggoy could take their breathing gear off. Simply put, the ship needed resources, and soon if they were to survive for very long out here.

Runa returned to his meal, the reheated meat not terribly appetizing but it kept him alive and for that he was thankful. He only hoped that the Wotan found what it needed at this new world. He looked across the mess hall to see another Kig-Yar arguing with a human crewman, the two exchanging increasingly heated words and looking as though they were about to throw blows at each other, but thankfully their fellows stepped in to pull the two fighters away from each other before things got ugly.

He shook his head, wondering if the situation would improve anytime in the foreseeable future. He didn't see it happening though, they were stuck in a strange place, with no known way to return to their homes. Thousands of aliens were crammed together in a confined space, some of them had very good reasons to dislike and distrust the others. And on top of that the food was running low. All in all, it was far from an ideal situation. It could always get worse of course. With that sobering though Runa finished his mea and dumped the tray in the cleaning machine, walking morosely back to the quarters he shared with Warrick.

As he walked, the Sangheili reflected on what he had learned about the locals. This 'Imperium' was sounding distressingly familiar to the stories his father had told him of the time of the Covenant. A military state ruled through religious authority and fear. Anyone who was not pure enough, or holy enough was attacked and punished and the fear of such investigations kept the people in line. Holy wars, inquisitions, purity standards and purges, for any of the former Covenant races it was a sobering thought that such an empire could exist in another form. It was as though a nightmare you had happily forgotten had come back to haunt you once again.

Runa turned the corner, before thumping into something. Looking down, he saw he had walked into a human dressed in green fatigues.

"Hey, watch where you're going damnit!" The man said, pulling himself back and glaring up at him. He held the soldier's gaze, his expression apologetic, though he wondered if the human could read his expressions anyway.

"I am sorry human, I did not see you there. My mind was otherwise occupied."

The human grimaced a bit, not moving along. "Well maybe you should watch where you're stepping, we're not all so abnormally tall as you." He replied.

Runa grumbled a bit deep in his chest. "I did say I was sorry human, this need not be a conflict. I simply wish to return to me quarters, it has been a long day."

"For all of us pal, but some of us actually have to work on this boat." The human said, shifting his stance a bit, crossing his arms. "Not all of us are passengers, a few need to pull long boring hours of guard duty, or standing at ready stations in case we get boarded by xenophobic religious fanatics. It's not been a great time for all of us. Then there is the whole lost in space thing, which really is not as fun or exciting as it sounds."

Runa shook his head tiredly. "Please human, I have not the patience for this banter right now." He said, moving to step around the human.

The human swept aside and waved his hand like an usher opening the door. "Oh of course milord, please by all means, don't let me inconvenience you in any way, would hate for that to happen to such an esteemed honorable warrior." He said, waving him on.

Runa stood, vaguely confused and wondering if he was being insulted or this was some strange human custom. The human still bowed his head, waving his hand a bit more until he finally set off walking, not entirely sure what had just happened.

"Have a fine day sir, enjoy your luxury cruise!" The man called after him before walking off down the hall. Runa shook his head, resolving that the moment he thought he'd figured humans out was the moment he would become the greatest fool to ever live.

PFC Donovan Walker stomped off down the corridor, leaving the elite to go and do… whatever it was elites did when they weren't waxing poetic about waterfalls or the meaning of virtue or were killing people. Walker had read a book of elite poetry once, he admitted it probably lost a lot in translation but after twelve stanzas of discussing the finer points of rippling water he was almost driven into a homicidal frenzy. Maybe that was the reason Sangheili were so ornery sometimes.

Walker was an Army trooper, not one of the glory-hogging ship rats that called themselves marines, zipping across the galaxy in star liners and making headlines throughout UNSC space for daring raids and heroic victories. No, he was part of the outfit that stuck to one planet for most all the time, digging their heels in and defending every inch of territory against whatever the universe felt like throwing at them when life got too boring. When the Insurrection felt like blowing up power stations, the Army hunted them down. When the Covenant was slaughtering civilians left and right, it was the Army who stood and fought and died by the tens of thousands day in and day out to hold them back, and damn if he wasn't proud of that legacy.

His unit had been one of those which had attended the joint training event held aboard the Wotan, representing the Army for all the UNSC in the high profile exercise. Now, thanks to the heroics of their glorious captain, he was here, packed in like sardines with the rest of his squad on a ship filled with supersoldiers, marines, flyboys and about every kind of alien you could imagine. To make matters worse they were lost in a galaxy filled with overly religious nutjobs who probably wanted to kill them all.

He turned a corner, the door opening before him as he slipped into the barracks where his unit was staying. It was a fairly standard set of bunks, enough for the fifteen men that compromised his fireteam. Most of them he didn't know too well, having been recently transferred to his unit, but there were a few individuals in this group of soldiers he was lucky enough to call his friend. He saw PFC Frost, the team's marksman sitting beside Private Duncan, the squad's gunner. They were an interesting pair, one of them calm and precise, the other one preferring to hose an entire block with automatic fire until nothing moved.

Walker sat down next to them, looking over the game of checkers they were playing. "Who's winning?" He asked, checking the board.

"The people who bet on me." Frost said simply, jumping one of Duncan's kings, making the support gunner curse.

Walker grinned, "You guys gambling again in the barracks, Sarge won't be too happy if he catches you again." Sergeant Anderson was a good man, kept the boys in line. After as many years on the force as him, he'd gotten pretty inventive with his punishments.

"You know Frost keeps it subtle, if he got caught he wouldn't be able to keep his winnings." Duncan said, carefully moving a piece and instantly getting backed into a corner when Frost moved again.

As the gunner swore loudly Walker turned to the marksman. "Where's Feretti?" He asked, inquiring about the teams technical expert.

"Where do you think?" Frost asked, looking over the board.

Walker smacked his face, "What, again? Damn." He said, actually a little impressed.

"He was taking every opportunity with the training meet. Now that we're stuck out here and tensions are running high, well it's only natural really." The sharpshooter said calmly as he asked Duncan to king him.

"What species?" Walker inquired.

"Kig-Yar I think." Frost said, planning his move.

"Was she pretty?"

"Not sure, can't judge that too well. Not sure it was a she either." He said, double jumping Duncan's pieces, the gunner punching the table in anger and making the pieces jump.

"Goddamn xenophile, well at least one of us is having fun." He said, chuckling as he walked away. He jumped up into his bunk, pulling out his tablet and pulling up a book. It was said that war was long periods of boredom broken up with deadly excitement, after a few years in the Army he knew that was true. He brought up the page he'd been on and continued reading. If you were going to be bored you might at least try to have fun.

Light years away…

Guardsman Darren McGale crawled through the rubble, cuts on his arms and face bleeding a little. He dragged himself into a relatively stable nook and reached to his belt, pulling out his first aid kit. He unwrapped the little canvas bag, pulling out the purified bandages and carefully applying one to the nastiest cut on his left arm. He took great care in not touching the clean side, lest the imbued purity of the bandage be wasted. His wound bandaged he took a quick drink from his canteen before grabbing his scratched lasgun again, pulling himself through more rubble until he poked his head out of the destroyed building.

He had been taking refuge in the building for a moments rest when the damned Tau brought the whole thing down on top of him. He'd crawled through rubble and bodies for a while, finally finding the open air again. The battle had been ongoing for the better part of two weeks now, the xenos seemingly having decided that they wanted this planet for themselves and that the human residents simply had to go. Of course the Imperial Guard didn't feel very much like letting the aliens take over one of their sovereign worlds, so McGale and countless hundreds of thousands of troopers with him had been sent to this dirtball to keep their blue hands off of it.

Honestly with how the place was looking now he wasn't sure it had been worth it. The guardsman stood from the rubble, stepping out into the street. He heard the sounds of distant weapons fire but couldn't see anything himself, so he took off walking. He listened for a moment to the comm bead in his ear, pulling out a compass to try and get a fix on his position, eventually deciding he had a semblance of an idea which way to go and setting off in that direction. After a bit he heard something moving off to his left, the guardsman dropping quickly into cover as he peered out. He heard the gentle humming sound of a null-grav vehicle.

He ducked back behind a pulverized wall just in time for the Tau vehicle to not notice him. He peeked through a broken window to see a tank and a squad of infantry moving through the streets, checking buildings as they went. The building he'd ducked into was mostly rubble, there weren't many places to hide, but he did see a mostly destroyed staircase. With no other option McGale crawled over to it, huddling beneath the rockcrete stairs as the Tau passed by.

He heard the crunch of boot soles on rubble, and looked over to see one walking nearby, scanning for anyone hiding in the ruins. The Tau's helmeted face lingered on his hiding spot, the xeno soldier starting to raise his rile. McGale clutched his lasgun, hoping against hope the alien hadn't seen him. The xeno stood there for a moment, then seemed to lose interest and stomped off, leaving the guardsman breathing a quiet prayer of thanks for his deliverance. He waited until the aliens were a good distance off, then kept moving. He just hoped that there were a few good Imperials left alive in the city for him to meet up with.

McGale walked for… he wasn't sure how long. Moments bled into minutes which could have bled into hours, his chrono had stopped working so he wasn't sure how long he had been walking for. He was fairly certain he was headed in the right direction, but the number of Tau patrols he had to hide from seemed to belie his assumption. He crouched in still standing rooms, huddled behind piles of debris, crawled through broken rubble. There were moments he didn't think he could possibly remain undetected, but the Emperor was with him that day and he continued on undetected.

McGale checked the street in front of him, the ruined city seeming quiet enough, and he didn't see any movement now. So, carefully and quietly, the Guardsman started to cross the street, his lasgun in hand as he passed through the wide boulevard. He almost yelped when he heard the combead in his ear crackle to life.

"Move, frakking move right now! Get out of the damn street!"

He stood there surprised for a moment before his ingrained training took over and he charged across the street, diving though a broken window, the remaining glass shattering on his flak armor. He pulled himself back up, hugging the wall as he looked down the street.

A patrol of Tau, at least ten of them, had been just behind him, coming around the corner with their weapons drawn as they watched for movement. As McGale watched, the one with the most decorative armor snapped back, a lasbolt slamming into his head as he slumped to the ground.

The Guardsman brought his own lasgun to bear, firing into the approaching crowd, clipping one and putting a shot into the chest armor of another as someone up above him opened fire on the same group of xenos. There must have been a squad in the building above him, judging by the amount of fire being poured into the street, a flurry of lasbolts were slamming into the surprised Tau.

They tried to get to cover, but the sudden weight of fire they found themselves under was simply too much, they were cut down before they could get far, lasbolts tearing them apart before they could find protection behind rubble or walls. Soon the Tau lay dead in the street, they had never had a chance. McGale slumped against the wall, breathing tiredly for a moment. Soon he heard the sound of footfalls on the stairs coming down from the building above, but he kept his weapon down as a squad of Guardsmen came into the room with him.

McGale could tell instantly that these guardsmen were veteran troopers, far better equipped than himself. The first man down the stairs was dressed in heavy carapace armor and holding a powerful hellgun. The rookie's eyes widened in surprise as he recognized one of the regiments stormtroopers, the deadliest infantry his unit had in its roster.

The next one down was a sharpshooter, his flak armor covered in a cameoline cloak and holding a longlas. The guardsman had exchanged his normal helmet for a wide brimmed hat to keep the sun out of his eyes, though one of them was an augmetic with a dull red lens. Following him was a big man with a grenade launcher, his lasgun slung over his back, he was casually reloading the rotating cylinder feeding his weapon as he looked at the rookie.

The next man was obviously the unit's sergeant, the chainsword at his hip leaving no doubt, though he still carried a lasgun in his hands for longer range work. Finally came a man wearing what seemed to be long white robes, rather dirty under guard issued flak armor. A chaplain? It was strange to see a man of the cloth in such a small unit, and outfitted like a normal guardsman, but McGale was hardly complaining about having a holy man nearby in case things turned even worse.

"You're damned lucky those Tau didn't take your head clean off." The sergeant said. McGale clearly recognized the voice as the one which had shouted at him to move.

"Yes sir, nice timing sir." McGale said, dusting rubble out of his uniform and holding himself up before the NCO.

"Oh relax boy, I'm not some spit and polish lieutenant." The sergeant said, slinging his lasgun and resting his hands on his swordbelt. "Who are you boy, and what are you doing out here?"

"Sir, Guardsman Darren McGale, Third Company, second platoon, fifth squad, Thanis 301st." He rattled off, the name and unit designation second nature to him by now. "My unit was wiped out sir, about three hours ago I would estimate, I've been trying to link up with any friendly unit since then."

The sergeant nodded. "Well son, I'm afraid you've been going the wrong way, this is Tau-occupied territory and you were only getting deeper into it."

McGale shook his head, looking around to the rest of the squad. "Thank the Emperor I ran into you then sir. But if I may ask, why are you out here in occupied territory?"

The sergeant grimaced. "Special assignment from the brass, I'll explain in a moment. First of all, let me introduce you to the squad. This is our marksman Edmond Torrez, deadly man with the longlas." The sniper nodded coolly, hos mechanical eye glinting in the dim light.

"Erich Tarvin here joined up like you, his unit got taken out." He gestured to the stormtrooper, "Wiped out two platoons of Tau before they went down, decided to tag along with us on our mission rather than spend more time taking potshots back up on the line, can't say I'm complaining about having a stormtrooper on the team."

Next he gestured to the man with the grenade launcher. "Bradel Yuken, demolitions expert. If it was built by mortal hands this man can tear it down, implode or explode or light it on fire in any way you please." The demo man nodded, hefting his big grenade launcher.

Next up was the robed man. "Gallus Haxtes here isn't actually part of our unit. He's a retired guardsman who took up the priestly orders a few years back. He used to live here but when the Tau invaded he got his old gear back out and started harassing their supply lines. Found him a few hours back taking potshots and an enemy patrol, he joined up in a heartbeat."

The battle-priest smiled warmly at him. "And then that leaves me, sergeant Wilfred Gress. Now I'm sure you have questions, but let me first tell you why we're out here. Now that you know we're here you might as well know. Listen son, the Tau are hitting us pretty hard in this city, you look like you've been on the receiving end of that for a while now. Put simply we're being pushed back pretty steadily. Now we have a chance elsewhere, but here and now we're losing this fight. So we're doing what we can, getting out before we all die over some worthless pieces of rubble."

McGale nodded, seeing the sense in the sergeant's words. "So if we're pulling out, why are you this deep in enemy territory and going deeper?"

Sergeant Gress nodded, "Good question son. We have to get the civilians out first, that's not up for negotiation. We have a few commercial airliners we have available to get them off the ground, over the ocean and into friendly territory where they will be safe, but the Tau have anti-aircraft installations set up to stop us from doing just that. Our mission is to infiltrate enemy territory and eliminate one of those installations so we can fly the civilians, and eventually ourselves, out of here."

The Guardsman nodded, then hefted his lasgun and checked the charge. "Very well sir, Guardsman McGale reporting for duty." He rattled off, the sergeant smiling.

"I was going to ask if you wanted to sign up, you seem a decent shot with that lasgun, we can use every extra pair of hands we can get out here. You do understand this is a high risk assignment, I wouldn't bring along anyone if they had any reservations about the mission they were getting themselves into."

Darren shook his head. "Neagative sir, I won't run when you and yours go into harm's way, and those civilians need all the help they can get, I'm going in with you."

Gress nodded, checking his weapon over as well. "Good. Listen up people, we're moving out in five, recharge your packs and grab a bite to eat, we're not stopping again for a good while." He called out, addressing the rest of the team. Darren pulled out a cold nutrient bar, choking down the chalky 'food' that didn't taste of anything identifiable. He looked around to his fellow Guardsmen, wondering just what he'd gotten himself into this time.

Private Walker tapped his foot as he looked over the duty roster on the board in the barracks, assigning various tasks to the men in his unit. "Ack, more guard duty." He said, grimacing. Thankfully he at least got to sit down when he was on duty, not stand imperiously beside a door like how some people thought he should.

Still, as annoying as the task was, he supposed that it was a necessary one. With so many mouths to feed on the Wotan food was going to be a high value resource for a little while. He knew the higher ups were planning on getting more food from some Imperial trade world, hopefully without having to shoot anybody over it. Walker had some reservations about that plan, far many things could go fatally wrong for his liking, but he supposed that when one is desperate one does not often have the luxury of having numerous options.

Thankfully they weren't about to run out of food for the time being, but if some of the crew, or worse the aliens, on board got jumpy and tried to hoard some grub things could turn ugly fast. So to discourage any potential theft the food storage was kept under strict guard at all times, authorized personnel only.

Grunting, Walker pulled on his combat gear, slung his rifle over his shoulder and started tromping off down the corridor towards the transit tube. He reached it in a few minutes, sitting down on the tram as it accelerated towards the next station. He nodded at the marine sitting across from him, the man nodding in return.

Walker leaned back against the headrest, closing his eyes and breathing deeply for a moment. He hadn't really had a chance to process everything that had happened in the last couple of days, it had all moved too fast. First the revelation that they were stuck in another goddamn universe, with no known way of returning home, not to mention the fact that the universe they were in was dominated by religious fanatic humans who wanted them all dead for not worshipping their god emperor or whatever they called him. The whole thing sounded far too much like the Covenant for his liking, a massive militant theocracy with seemingly limitless reserves of manpower and supplies. And here he was, stuck in the middle of it all with nothing but the head on his shoulders and the rifle in his hands.

All in all, it sounded a lot like Sarge's war stories, which had much less appeal to the trooper now that he was living one out for himself. He would have continued such deep thoughts likely until he got off the tram, but the curses from the marine sitting opposite him snapped him out of it. "Damn buzzards." The man grumbled.

Walker looked around, noticing the cabin's most recent occupant, a Jackal of some kind, his black feathers glossy like they'd just been washed.

"Relax man, he's not bothering us." Walker said, leaning back again, but peeking at the alien from under half closed eyes.

"He's bothering us by being on the ship." The marine grunted, glaring at the alien who, for the moment, seemed to be unaware of the marine's anger towards him. "You know, if they weren't here, we wouldn't have to go risk all our lives to get food to feed them all. Hell, we wouldn't even be here if it weren't for them."

Walker thought about it. While he didn't like the marine's tone, he had to admit that those were both perfectly true statements. "It's not our call man, might as well just try to live with it." He said. The trooper had long since given up trying to understand the decisions of high command, he had a theory that the more ornaments someone got on their shoulders the more removed they became from reality.

"Hell with that, I don't want to die for some goddamn buzzards or split-chins." The marine shot back. It seemed he'd spoken just a tad too loud, the Jackal turning a little in his seat to glare over his shoulder at the marine, but not making any more of it.

"Not really our call I'm afraid." Walker replied, hoping the devil dog calmed down before something unfortunate happened to them all, probably something that involved blood, bruises and junior officers trying to look cross.

"Bullshit, our asses are the ones in the fire if things go pear shaped, I'm not looking to have my head blown off getting food for some damn buzzard. And I'm not the only one. Listen, I don't know about you 'friend', but I'm of the opinion that we shouldn't be out here, putting our necks on the line for a bunch of aliens who would probably kill us if the advantage was theirs, you know what I'm saying?"

Walker grimaced. "No, actually I don't. Now you listen here, I may not like being out in the ass end of nowhere, packed in like sardines with a bunch of aliens and not enough food to go around, but I know when to shut the hell up and do my job. Sometimes you need to question what's going on, but there are times to stuff it and get with the program, and this is one of those times." He said, not liking where this was going at all. He was no great enthusiast of aliens, but this marine was a little too vehement for his liking.

"What are you, some kind of xeno-lover?" The marine spat at him. Walker almost grinned, thinking of Feretti.

"Hardly, but to coin a phrase marine, we're all on the same boat here. I think it would probably be a good idea to stow your bellyaching, morale is bad enough as it is without people like you going around grumbling at every corner. Now knock it off before an officer comes in here and makes you go kiss and make up."

The Jackal, or was it a Skirmisher, evidently heard that and blinked in surprise, looking back over at them. Walker realized a moment later that the alien probably didn't understand the phrase and took his words literally. "Oh, uh sorry man, figure of speech." He said, though he realized a moment later that hadn't been the right thing to say at the moment.

"Sorry? Sorry! Hell no, come here you damn buzzard I'll show you how sorry I am!" The marine half-shouted, getting to his feet and storming over to the Skirmisher. The alien leapt to his feet as well, his hand flying to the curved fighting knife at his belt.

"If you want to bleed so badly then come and have a go!" The alien replied, bouncing a little on his taloned feet.

"Enough!" Walker shouted, jumping out of his chair. He racked his weapon, chambering a round with an audible 'clack'. The marine turned slowly in place, looking at the trooper.

"You'd shoot me man? For one of them? Screw you!" He said, spitting at Walker's boots.

The Army trooper looked down for a moment, before placing his rifle down on the bench, then removing his pistol belt and placing it down as well. He removed his helmet and chest piece, spreading his arms wide. "You want to fight big man? Then fight me." He said, adopting a fighting stance.

The marine was nervous, jumpy, worried. He needed to blow off a little steam in one of the only ways a warrior really could. He hardly needed any more prodding. The marine roared, rushing forward with his fists outstretched, jabbing forward to try and get through the troopers guarding hands. He blocked the punch, wincing a little at the strength of the blow, he'd have a few bruises to show for that one.

But the trooper was sure he wouldn't be the only one. Walker jabbed, catching the marine in the gut, his foot sinking into the softer flesh and making the marine gasp. Then he kicked high, his Army combat boot swishing through the air towards the marine's head.

The marine's eyes went wide and he threw his arm up to block the blow, Walker biting back a yelp as his leg hit the man's hard bone, sending shocks of pain through his leg. The marine kicked sensed his momentary weakness and attacked, kicking low at Walker's leg. The first kick hit him just above the knee, making the trooper hop back and switch his weight off the throbbing leg, the marine continuing to press the attack with another kick and a jab.

Walker dodged out of range of the attacks, sure he was already bruising judging by the throbbing pain where he'd been hit. He knew that his only shot was to go on the offense now, so he jumped forward as the marine set up for another kick. He brought his foot up, hopping forward while bringing his heel down, forcing the marine to give ground as he slammed his boot down on the floor with an intimidating 'clap'.

The marine hopped back as he brought his foot down, narrowly avoiding his attack. But the man was distracted by the sudden move, so Walker pressed his advantage with continual attacks, jabs and kicks slamming into the marine. The other man tried to attack again, grunting and wincing in pain with each attack. He stepped forward, trying to wind up for another kick, but Walker kicked at the leg supporting him, making the marine wobble to maintain his balance. Then he lashed out, punching the man square in the chest and sending him falling off balance, toppling over and falling heavily against the wall.

"Had enough yet?" Walker asked, his heart racing.

"No." Said a voice behind him. Walker turned to see the door to the tram car sliding shut, another three marines walking into the car.

"Oh, hi fellas." Walker said, reassessing his situation rapidly, and finding it to be a rather bad one. "Just a little misunderstanding between fellow men here, nothing to really get too worked up about, come on guys let's just be reasonable and let me buy you all a round after our shifts end?"

The marines of course had none of it, and the brawl began again. The tram had a fairly spacious cabin, which was too bad since a tight corridor would have only let one of them come at him at a time. As it was, the pack of marines came down the corridor towards him like the very hounds of hell. He brought his hands up to defend himself, highly doubting his abilities against a trio of pissed off marines, when something flew over his head, a black feathery something.

The skirmisher had leapt clear over him, inverting in midair to plant his feet on the ceiling. The marines slowed a bit, comically running into each other as they watched the alien move in midair. Walker saw it as if in slow motion, a truly impressive feat of acrobatics he had to admit. The alien pushed off of the ceiling, gaining speed as he twirled around, planting his talons on the leading marine's chest in a kick that looked to have hit like a pile driver. He could hear the wind leaving the man's lungs as he collapsed backwards, pushing against his fellows as he collapsed.

Walker capitalized on the opening and came out swinging, his fist connecting with a marine's cheek. The man grunted and was knocked away, before the soldier felt a Marine Corps combat boot slamming into his gut, making him back away and try to catch his breath as another marine punched him full in the chest. He brought his guard up to try and block further attacks, then he felt a pair of big arms locking around his chest from behind, holding him still. "Get off!" He shouted, the marine in front of him ignoring his yelling and punching him in the gut.

Walker gasped in pain, clenching his muscles up to protect against the next attack, the fist slamming hard into his gut, almost knocking the wind out of him. He saw the marine winding up for another attack when a pair of feathered arms wrapped around the man's throat, the marine twisting backwards as the skirmisher used his powerful legs to throw the man sideways across the cabin.

Walker slammed his head back into the face of the man behind him, making the marine stumble with blood coming from his nose. He grabbed the marine by the shirt collar and started beating him again and again, hardly noticing as the tram came to a stop and the doors opened. He only stopped hitting the struggling marine when the MPs flooded the cabin a moment later and pulled them all apart, dragging the whole group down a corridor.

A few minutes later, after being stuck in an empty room for a while to stew, Walker was standing in front of the platoon lieutenant, the junior officer giving him an annoyed glare.

"One broken nose, multiple cases of heavy bruising and a sprained ankle." The man read off, looking at his datapad before glaring at Walker again. "I hope there's a good explanation for this private."

Walker stood at full attention, despite how it made his bruises wince. "Sir, the first marine was about to attack an unarmed individual, I felt I had to step in and defuse the situation."

The lieutenant let out an explosive sigh. "Defuse? You call starting a brawl with four marines and an alien defusing the situation? You're lucky nobody was seriously injured in that fight. Private, we're in bad enough territory as it is without our people beating each other into the infirmary. Now my counterpart in the marines is up in arms and demanding punitive action. You've landed both of us in a lot of trouble soldier."

Walker tried his best to look reticent through his black eye. He wasn't sure how good a job he was doing. The officer sighed again.

"But the security camera evidence is fairly conclusive, you stepped in to defend one of our guests and then tried to avoid fighting when the other marines arrived. Also, the on board Kig-Yar representative has expressed his thanks that you stepped in to defend one of his people. You're not getting off scot free for this, you can expect a lot more guard duty in the future, private. Now go get yourself cleaned up before doing your job, morale is bad enough as it is without our troops looking like they just got run over by a truck."

"Sir, yes sir!" Walker chanted, saluting smartly despite how it made his shoulder wince. The officer returned his salute tiredly, already looking down at his datapad again. Walker turned on his heel and started off down the hall towards the nearest infirmary station, they should have something there to help reduce the bruising and swelling, those marines sure knew how to beat a man down. Waiting for him in the corridor however was a familiar face, the black Skirmisher from the tram.

"I'm not used to saying this human." The alien began after a moment's hesitation. He had a strange accent, but spoke English well enough. "But thank you, I would be in much worse condition had you not stepped in, I owe you a favor for that." The alien said, shifting a bit on his taloned feet.

The soldier stood there for a moment, surprised at the sudden display, before smiling and reaching out his hand. "No worries man, wasn't any trouble." He said, not seeming very convincing when his face looked like someone had used it for batting practice. "Name's Walker by the way. Donovan Walker."

The alien looked at his hand for a moment before shaking with his own three fingered hand. "My name is Seth, and whatever you say, you have my thanks. I will be sure to pay you back someday for this." The alien said, holding his gaze for a moment longer. "You should go get that eye checked out." He said after a moment, pointing to his bruised face, "I'll let you get on with your duties." The Skirmisher turned and walked off, Walker watching him go. Well at least the day hadn't been totally wasted, it seemed he'd made a friend.

A world away…

Guardsman McGale had been walking for a while now, moving cautiously through ruined buildings, dashing across rubble-strewn streets as he and the squad moved through the blasted city, closer and closer to their objective. Thankfully they knew the position of the AA battery they were sent to destroy, so they wouldn't have to hunt around for it too much. The city was near the ocean, the Tau having encircled the Imperial forces within and in the process of slowly grinding them down. If they destroyed this emplacement then they would be able to fly aircraft out to the ocean, and from there it was a straight shot to Imperial held territory on the other main continent.

Thankfully it seemed that the Tau were as short on manpower and materiel as the Guard was right about then, they had taken some serious casualties themselves and hadn't been resupplied recently either. The practical upshot of this was that they didn't run into as many patrols this deep in enemy territory. It seemed the Tau needed all the people they could get at the front and didn't think that any Imperials would be able to penetrate this deeply into their territory, that they would have surely been repulsed or captured by the security they had placed closer to the actual Guard lines.

Well, by all accounts it seemed that little assumption was setting up to cost them in the long run, as it only ensured the veteran squad was able to penetrate deeper and deeper into enemy territory with little to no opposition. They would occasionally stop to hide in the shadows of a toppled wall or pile of masonry, but it was usually just a supply transport or a bunch of Tau in transport vehicles being ferried up to the front. They would have been easy targets but the squad would have clearly given their positions away by attacking them, so despite the temptation they held their silence.

It wasn't easy though, especially with how they continued to pass the bodies of slain Guardsmen now and again. Judging by the blue bloodstains the Tau had removed their own bodies but left the slain humans to rot where they had fallen. McGale looked down at one of the corpses he passed, recognizing the uniform of his own unit, the Thanis 301st. He checked the unit patch on the dead man's shoulder.

"First company, I heard they were planning on pushing into enemy territory, what happened?" He asked Sergeant Gress.

The man grimaced. "This was about the same time you were dodging Tau bombs, no wonder you don't know. Seven hours ago First Company pushed back against the Tau, got a good way in but ended up encircled and cut off. I wouldn't have expected any of them to make it this far, whoever was leading them was a hell of a warrior." He said, looking down at the dead guardsman as Haxtes gave him the Emperor's Benediction.

When the prayer for the dead was done they moved on, pushing deeper and deeper into hostile territory, nearing the outskirts of the city as they went. The continued to pass the evidence of fighting, destroyed vehicles and the bodies of Guardsmen left where they had fallen in desperate last stands. It was amazing to see, but it seemed First Company had continued pushing forwards even after the heavy casualties they had sustained, it was a feat of heroism made tragic by the ultimate futility of it all.

After another half hour of walking Haxtes held up a hand, bringing their progress to a halt. "What is it?" Gress asked, bringing his gun up and scanning for hostiles.

The priest walked over and knelt beside a dead Tau, looking at the scorched holes where a lasgun had punched through his body armor. "This xeno died recently, very recently." He said, looking the corpse over. McGale thought about that for a moment, looking at the dead alien.

"Could some of First Company still be fighting?" He asked, finding it hard to believe that they could still be combat operational after the ferocity of the battle they'd been thrown into.

"Possibly." Gress said, waving for them to move on. "Though if that was the case it would stand to reason they would have been in vox contact in the meantime. If we find any survivors all the better, but we have a job to do and hunting for lost Guardsmen is not it. Let's move people."

They left the corpse where it lay and continued further on, the buildings getting shorter and shorter as they neared the edge of the city. They had been walking for about half an hour longer when they heard the first traces of weapons fire in the distance. Gress held up a hand, calling the squad to a halt. He listened carefully for a moment. "Las fire." He said after a moment, "Directly up ahead. Sounds like surviving guardsmen, let's move it!" He said, taking off at a faster pace as the rest of the squad zeroed in on the sounds of gunfire.

McGale could also hear the all too familiar sounds of Tau weapons fire, being answered by Imperial lasbolts, and it wasn't too far ahead of them. "Move up, cover and advance!" He ordered, the troopers falling into the heavily drilled formation. One group would stick to cover aiming their weapons and scanning for contacts while the other group would move forwards to cover positions, repeating the process so that they never moved blind. The simple action of the often practiced movements somehow calmed McGale, it was familiar and reassuring after spending so much time alone in the ruins with only the dead and aliens for company.

They heard the sound of weapons fire again, rapid fire lasbolts and the occasional screech of Tau weapons unleashing their deadly plasma shots, close up ahead. The shots were coming from within a warehouse just before them. "Tarvin, McGale, door breach." Gress ordered, drawing his chainsword and pointing, the sounds of gunfire and shouting in the alien language coming from within.

McGale nodded, taking a flanking position, the stormtrooper getting on the other side, hellgun whining into readiness as McGale clutched his own lasgun in his hand, reaching out to grip the door handle, knowing it was best for the powerful stormtrooper weapon to be fully ready. The veteran nodded and he threw the door open, snapping up his weapon before leaning in and sweeping the room with the lasgun. What he saw made him lose himself for a moment, for this was perhaps the last thing he had ever expected to see.

There were four figures in the room, three of them in the tan hardshell armor of the Tau, and in their midst was the fourth person, human. The man's position was eminently clear from the clothes he wore, the long black coat, the red sash and peaked hat identifying him as a commissar instantly. He was standing in the middle of the three alien soldiers, something that they were evidently extremely displeased with, judged by their attempts to club him with their long boxy rifles.

The commissar was armed with a chainsword, but it was still hung at his belt, in each hand was an ornate laspistol with a long barrel, the kind of weapon bored aristocrats used to potshot, or perhaps to duel each other over matters of honor. The man moved with the speed of an expert, using the handles of the guns as clubs as he gripped them in his hands, using the close press of the Tau against them as he struck their armor with flurries of blows, the loud 'crack' of the pistol grips against their armor interspersed with the quiet 'thump' when the hard handles struck the soft flesh at the joints.

"Not good enough, not nearly good enough!" The commissar shouted at the aliens. When one tried to pull back and raise his weapon, a sudden crack send the alien falling backwards, the front of its helmet reduced to a smoking ruin by a point blank shot from the pistol.

"Don't shoot, close combat, take them down!" Gress shouted, chainsword revving as they ran in towards the man's aid. One of the tau seemed distracted by this and turned at the sudden noise, earning him a shot through the neck by the ducking and weaving commissar. Gress brandished his chainsword but never got the chance to use it, the commissar kicking the final living Tau back, staggering him before pointing both barrels at his chest and ripping off a rapid fusillade from both dueling pistols. Silence descended in the warehouse, Gress letting the chainsword hum into silence as its teeth stopped moving.

"My thanks Guardsmen, that could have been nasty." The commissar said, despite how evidently easily he was handling them. "Glad to see loyal soldiers of the Emperor still fighting, I didn't think there were any still out this far, not after First Company's charge at any rate." He holstered his pistols within his black greatcoat, flourishing one for a moment before sliding it home in a leather holster.

"On special assignment commissar, we didn't think anybody was out here either." Gress said, pulling himself up straight before the commissar. "Going to take out the Tau AA batteries so we can…" He paused for a moment, not wanting to say 'retreat' before a commissar.

"Escape this Emperor forsaken ruin, am I right?" He asked, seemingly unperturbed at the implication.

"Just so, sir, we need an air corridor." Gress said, relieved that this commissar was not as hardline as some others he had dealt with. "If you want to get back to friendly lines, you'll have to go back,"

"Nonsense!" The commissar exclaimed, waving a gloved hand. "I'll not scuttle off whilst Imperial Guardsmen undertake a risky and vital mission behind enemy lines. If you have room in your band for one more I'd be very glad to come along with you, I still have some unfinished business with these xenos bastards." He said, thumping his palm on the hilt of his chainsword with a grin.

The smile was infectious, and Gress allowed himself a small grin. "We would be honored, and glad to have you, commissar…"

"Oh! Pardon my manners sergeant, I have forgotten to introduce myself. Commissar Wolfe!" He exclaimed, pulling himself up a little straighter, striking a martial pose, hand on sword and chin held high. "At your service."

After that memorable encounter they started moving again, penetrating deeper into enemy territory. It seemed that the Tau didn't expect anybody to have survived out this far, so the alien patrols tapered off until they eventually stopped altogether, though sometimes they had to duck into cover as an alien flyer swept high overhead. While he had felt reasonable confidant in the presence of this team of hardened veteran guardsmen, McGale felt even more pleased with their prospects now that they were in the company f Commissar Wolfe.

He had heard of the man, seen him from a distance once or twice, but even that was enough to earn his respect and admiration. Where other commissars were cold, he was warm. Where others were cruel he was encouraging. Commissars from other units struck him as figures to inspire terror, but Commissar Wolfe inspired confidence and courage. He seemed like a childhood hero who one day had stepped through the pict screen and into real life, possessing an easy confidence and effortless bravado that was infectious to be around, infusing everyone near him with absolute certainty of purpose.

He always seemed to have some quip on hand as well to lighten the mood whenever things got too monotonous or grim. "Appalling lack of discipline." He noted, discussing the alien patrol routes. "Classic case of overconfidence, leaving their own territory without security because they're so convinced they've got the situation totally in hand, disgraceful. I'd have their commander epaulets for this kind of arrogance, if he wasn't a filthy stinking xenos of course."

"Maybe they think nobody else would try, after they contained the push from First Company?" McGale offered as they crept along through the woods.

"Perhaps, they've neutralized the big obvious threat. But even the tiniest insect bite can be the sting that brings a great beast low. That's what we are lad, the little fire ant that's crept into their bed. They might not see us coming but by the Emperor they'll yelp when we bite them someplace tender." He declared with a laugh.

McGale grinned. "Just so, commissar, they'll be smarting after this."

Wolfe sighed, "Oh what I wouldn't give to see the look on their commander's face when he gets this report." He adopted a suddenly stern expression, and an odd accent. "And what exactly do you mean… the base suddenly exploded…" He asked with a narrowing of the eyes, as if glaring at some unfortunate inferior, before his good humor snapped back at once. "Priceless I tell you, priceless."

For all his bantering and jovial expression, the commissar's grip on his dueling pistol never wavered for a moment, as he kept it up and ready, his eyes scanning keenly for any sign of something off, his left hand rested casually at his belt and ready to draw pistol or chainsword, whatever the situation required.

Eventually they reached their position, overlooking the distant compound of the AA battery. "Industrious little buggers." Wolfe noted as he stared through a set of magnoculars out at the enemy installation.

"Yes sir, quite." Gress agreed. "Sentry drone sweeps, guard towers, a squad of infantry." He took the magnoculars back, looking through them again from their concealed position on a low ridge, just high enough to see over the tree line. "Tough little nut to crack, no armored support from what I can see though." He rubbed his chin, trying to work out the best plan of attack. He and the commissar deliberated for a while, each having the experience of years of service, and eventually they determined a plan that seemed to have a fairly good chance to succeed.

"Torrez, you will stay here to provide overwatch." He said, the sniper nodding, having expected this instruction. Gress drew a map of the compound in the dirt with a stick. "I will lead a group here to stage a diversionary attack on the perimeter, then Torrez will eliminate any defenders who are looking the other way. That will leave the way open for Yuken," He indicated the demolitions expert. "To flank them with a smaller group, and destroy that AA unit while nobody is looking." Yuken smiled, hefting a meltagun and nodding, seeming quite pleased at the prospect of getting to reduce an alien weapons platform to molten slag.

"Now, the Tau are likely to try and get of a distress call over the vox, so try to eliminate that vox antenna if you can, otherwise we'll have them on us as we try to make our escape, and I'd rather not be dodging skimmers and fliers all the way back to base."

McGale raised a hand. "Sergeant, what exactly is our extraction plan?" He didn't exactly like the idea of hoofing it all the way back home, back through the Tau lines a second time.

"With the AA neutralized hopefully command will be able to send a Valkyrie to pick us up, if not… Then we improvise."

McGale did not like the look in the sergeant's eyes, not one bit.

In Slipspace…

Captain Walker was in his ready room, looking over the holographic screen scrolling before him, the reports from various elements onboard the ship, from hydroponics to the manufacturing block. "It doesn't look very promising." He said after reviewing it at length.

"No sir, I'm afraid not." Fockewulf noted, the AI avatar sitting at a holographic desk pouring over piles of parchments, quill in hand.

"How long can we last?" He asked, looking to the AI and leaning back in his chair, blinking away the computer eye he got from staring at the glowing list for too long.

"Food is running short, we've got plenty of water onboard and recycling is keeping our stocks up, we can get more from any old comet we happen across so that's not much of an issue. Same for metal, there are plenty of ferrous rocks floating in the universe that we can stop by and mine for a while, manufacturing capacity is at optimal so we can make spare parts for most anything we need. The one thing we cannot make is food, at least not enough. We weren't provisioned for extended journey, we had enough supplies to sit parked over a planet for a few weeks. And our food production facilities weren't designed to provide for the dietary requirements of all these different races. We also have plenty of methane thankfully, so the Grunts are fine at least. I'd give us… a month until starvation becomes a real issue."

Roberts rubbed his temple. "So if we don't get supplies at this trading planet, then it won't matter that the ship's running at optimal capacity because we won't last nearly as long." He summarized.

The AI nodded with sad reluctance. "That appears so sir. At least the ship is undamaged, so we don't have that to worry about."

"How is morale?" The captain asked. The AI had personal contact with hundreds of people every day, and his omnipresent existence at every level of the ship made him an excellent judge of how the crew was feeling.

"Strained." He admitted. "There have been some fights, too many people packed in too tight, afraid, and still carrying anger from the war. They've all been dealt with so far, hopefully that will help curb the issue in the future but I doubt it. We have clashing cultures, and a whole lot of people who are used to solving their problems in very direct, unsubtle ways. Put them all together in a pressurized sealed environment without enough space to go around… and there's going to be friction."

"Friction we can't afford." Roberts noted. "We have enough threats to our survival right now without our crew putting each other in sick bay. And if something major starts it could lead to a riot. I'll not have it, not on my ship, we have to keep them from fracturing." He steepled his fingers, thinking. "Start the training routines up again. Idle hands are the devil's playthings. If they want to fight then we'll let them, in a controlled environment where we have a say in it, tired soldiers don't start fights because they're bored."

The AI nodded, writing a note before tossing it off his desk to vanish. "Done and done, I'll announce the restarting wargames with the evening announcements. I've also been looking over the inventory, seeing what we might have to trade for food when we arrive. I don't know very much about the local economy but I think we should be able to scrape together enough to buy the supplies we need. We can always sell weapons, the armory is very well stocked and we can replace a few rifles easily enough." Roberts grunted, not exactly liking the idea of being an arms merchant. But when the alternative was starving.

"I also believe we can produce compatible fuel with their ground vehicles easily enough, alcohol based fuels should work fine with their combustion engines, so we can trade that."

"In the amounts we need? We need food for thousands of people." Roberts pointed out.

Fockewulf nodded. "Aye, amount is going to be an issue, we might push ourselves thin but… we'll have to take what we can get. We need food a lot more than we need spare firearms or fuel reserves."

"A fair point." Roberts conceded. "What's our ETA?"

"Eighteen hours captain." Fockewulf said, checking an hourglass on his desk.

"Eighteen hours." He sighed, looking over the notes before him. "Well, at least we won't be jumping blindly into the fire this time."

Behind enemy lines…

A lot can happen in a day. For instance, this morning guardsman McGale had never expected to be creeping through the woods towards a Tau emplacement. This morning he'd been concerned with finding something to eat that wasn't a five year old ration bar. Around noon he'd been dodging Tau patrols in the city, and now he was out in the country preparing to ambush one of their installations. As days for him went, this was proving to be far more eventful than most.

Gress was at the head along with Commissar Wolfe. Haxtes and Yuken were circling around slowly, sweeping around behind the Tau camp. The objective itself was a large armored cylinder, ready to open up and spit missiles into the sky if anything took to the sky without the Tau's permission. Proof against the fire of a lasgun, but the big satchel charges the demolitions expert would be throwing around wouldn't be hampered in the least.

They were advancing slowly, trying to use the contours of the terrain as much as they could to avoid line of sight with the alien position. He knew well enough that whatever tech sorcery the Tau had built into their helmets could pierce the gloom of nighttime easily enough, so while they had waited for darkness to launch their raid, it was entirely possible it wouldn't help at all. Of course it might also be what saved them, you never could tell.

Every once and a while they would stop in their tracks as they crawled along, listening to the humming whine of the disc shaped drones flying by, but each time they avoided detection as they crept closer and closer. No sense in giving themselves away with a hasty approach, they just needed to get close enough to open up with their guns. Torrez was probably voxing information to Gress about what he was seeing, as the sergeant would sometimes make a sign for them to stop moving, then start again, but whatever was being discussed the lowly Guardsmen wasn't privy to it.

Finally, after what felt like hours of crawling on his belly across cold earth, they were in position and ready to engage in their little diversion. Then they only had to wait for the other team to get into position as well on the far side of the alien camp. In its own way that was even worse, at least the crawling gave them something to do as they waited for the fighting to begin, now they just had to lay there, keeping as absolutely still as possible lest they give away their position with the sound of shifting against fallen leaves or clods of dirt, no sound, no light, no perception of the passage of time as they waited in darkness for the other team to get set up.

Then, after a brief eternity of laying in the cold, damp underbrush, the word was given over the vox, and it was time to begin. Suddenly the night of crawling and hiding didn't seem nearly long enough, better another few hours of crawling and scraped knees than be under the sights of those powerful xenos guns again.

He shook his head, trying to shake such worries from his thoughts. They only had to take a few potshots and then run, it should be over fast enough. There was no reason why this whole skirmish should take longer than a few minutes at the most, make some noise and then blend back into the forest. Right, of course, this wouldn't be hard at all.

Continuing to tell himself those reassuring lies, guardsman McGale double checked the load on his lasgun before slowly lifting it and taking aim, centering the guns sights on the upper chest of one of the alien sentries standing to the side of the front gate. Everyone else was doing the same, lining up their shots, the more they dropped in the first few seconds the better this would be.

Then, Gress spoke the first word he had in hours. "Now."

The silence of the night was shattered in an instant as the squad opened fire. McGale squeezed the trigger on his lasgun, the weapon kicking gently against his shoulder as he slammed a ruby bolt into the chestplate of the alien soldier. Tau armor was tough, more on par with stormtrooper carapace armor than guard flak, but even so the impact was staggering and the alien wasn't prepared for it, sending him staggering back against the fence. One of the sentries in a watchtower slumped over, his rifle dangling on its sling, a smoking hole in its helmet.

Up on the ridge, a sniper was choosing his next mark.

Wolfe was firing one of his dueling pistols, bracing the gun with his left hand and taking careful aim, the weapon wasn't terribly effective at this range but the man was a good shot with the weapon, sinking crimson beams into the alien defenders or blasting chunks out of their cover. McGale's mouth was working without his conscious thought, constantly muttering litanies of accuracy and protection, taking it in turns to pray for his weapon and his armor to serve him well as he continued to fire.

"Come on." Gress muttered under his breath. "Come on Yuken." The aliens were realizing what was happening now, they were calling for their squadmates to come and help them, fixing in on the guardsmen's positions. Then off to the left a sudden flurry of lasbolts scored a line of glowing craters across the side of one of the prefab shelters they'd set up and made them dive into cover again. Somewhere else in the treeline, a stormtrooper was laying onto the trigger, his hellgun making a constant rapid crack-crack-crack as it pumped high powered shots into the enemy.

With how quickly he was firing, and it seemed by constantly shifting his firing position, the aliens must have thought there was an entire second squad on their flank. McGale fell into a rhythm, sight and fire, sight and fire, if there was movement than fire at it. It didn't matter nearly as much about hitting the target as just keeping them occupied, be loud, be visible, be terrifying. He sighted in, drawing a bead, before the hairs on his neck stood on end. He saw a flicker of motion from the corner of his eye and ducked back into cover with just enough time to avoid the blue-white flash of a Tau weapon firing just by his position.

The plasma bolt scorched the side of the tree he was cowering behind to char and smoke, the smell filling his nostrils, and some part of him realized that if he hadn't have ducked then the shot would probably have taken his head off.

Fighting to keep his hammering heart under control, he slung his rifle around the side of the tree and fired off a few blind shots, his palms sweaty and his breath coming in short gasps, the muttered litanies broken up by sucked breaths or explosive exhalations.

Then, finally, mercifully, he heard the sound of a loud explosion.

"Okay! That's it! Fall back!" Gress shouted, rising in a crouch and taking a few potshots towards the tau position. It seemed like there were far too many of them for them all to have been hiding in that one structure. "Torrez, cover our retreat, everyone fall back as planned!" He voxed, more flashes of Tau plasma guns firing ripping through the trees around them, illuminating the dark forest in strobes of light before the blinding darkness swept back in.

"Haxtes, what's your position?" The squad leader asked, trying to blink away the momentary blindness induced by the Tau guns. "Moving out now sarge, on our way to the rendezvous… hostile skimmer!" He shouted suddenly down the vox. It seemed like they hadn't pulled this off without a hitch yet, and McGale could just see the faint outline of something moving against the dark sky, obstructing the stars as it flitted by.

"Sarge, what do we?" McGale started to ask, his question drowned out by the whining roar of some alien gun firing, a near constant stream of whitish energy being spat out by the gunship.

"Just run!" Came the shouted reply, they didn't have anything that could scratch that monster. So he ran, for the second time that day, fleeing from something he couldn't hope to kill in a blind rush off into the woods, the keening whine of the alien engines like the call of a hunting beast in his ears, and the only light came from the deadly strobes of the rotary alien gun.

With his crono still broken he could never have told how long he ran, but it felt like hours. Finally, his legs burning and his breath coming in ragged pants, he let himself fall to the ground again. "Sergeant?" He said, looking around, hearing nothing. "Hello?" He asked, tapping the vox. Only static answered him. He heard the whine of the antigrav engines getting closer and in a sudden panic crawled beneath the arching roots of a tree, seeing the faint lights of the alien craft swoop overhead.

Exhausted, tired, cold and alone, guardsman McGale curled into a small ball and once again prayed that death would pass him by.

Within the bowels of the Wotan…

Seth stalked the corridors, eyes flashing as he looked around corners and checked his back now and again. He had been doing this a lot lately, both the largely directionless wandering as well as watching over his shoulder wherever he went. Tensions weren't exactly calming down and he had no desire to become a punching bag for more angry human warriors.

He walked because he was frustrated, and had been for some time. There was no solace to be had in his quarters, populated as they were with his overloud, bickering and infuriatingly troublesome bunkmates. He had been in that position once, sharing close quarters with his fellows, but the privileges of rank and success had afforded him his own private postings before, and now it felt almost like a surrender to go back to living in a small room with three other drakes.

But it was more than that, it was the situation he found himself in. More than simply being lost and alone in a hostile universe, it was the feeling of being utterly helpless. At the mercy of an unfamiliar crew and strange practices, and unable to help or take even the slightest agency in his fate. The humans were keeping the other races well clear of their military matters which was the only place Seth could be of any use. Of course they had good reason, if half of what he'd heard about the locals was true.

The construct mind of the ship was being very open about most of the details of the local human civilization, and much of what was learned on the human intelligence mission was freely available for those who cared to examine it. But even so this enforced inaction was infuriating to him. He had been further frustrated when he learned that the humans intended to pose as locals to trade with some of these foreign humans, in order to trade for nothing more special or unique than foodstuff. Herd animals. He shook his head, what he wouldn't give to get his claws on some of their goods, artifacts from a totally alien culture never before encountered would fetch a very hefty reward back home. It was a shame the locals all seemed to be a bunch of religious zealots.

He sighed. Zealot. There had been a time, not very long ago as history measured things, that his rank had carried the title of 'Zealot'. The commander of a certain number of fighting forces, essentially the infantry commander of the compliment of a small ship, or the equivalent number on a larger ship. But also a position charged with religious intent, to not only guide soldiers in battle but also guide souls in their faith and loyalty. With the sundering of the Covenant, the rank had been renamed to the more simple, sterile 'First Officer' of the ship.

He had read all the files available on these locals, these Imperials. How much they reminded him of the Covenant, how similar in so many ways. Dogmatic, all pervasive, intrusive and demanding, where everyone at least paid public lip service to the religion that was the state. A place where simply believing the wrong thing could carry the death penalty regardless of one's intent or actions. But it was also very different. The Covenant had been assimilationist, seeking to bring other races together, to subjugate and bind all it encountered together in common cause. This Imperium was xenophobic to the extreme it seemed, and would kill him just for the crime of having feathers.

The contrasts were just as startling and important as the similarities. Seth was a student of history, he knew what the Covenant had been, and he hated its memory. Like many others he celebrated the anniversary of the Sundering. But at least there was living with the Covenant, with them there was at least the chance of survival through subjugation. Here there was not even that cold comfort, only the constant threat of death through cleansing flame.

He laughed, a quiet and humorless sound. That must have been how the humans felt, during the great war, the last march of the Covenant. No surrender given, no word honored, no possibility of survival. The only chance had been to flee, win or die. Hounded by a massive state dedicated to the religion that it was built upon, coming to kill you for the crime of being born to a life they declared abhorrent.

He wondered if the tragedy of that history would be lost upon these Imperials, if they would appreciate that they were the embodiment of what their wayward cousins hated. An empire of, by and for humanity and humanity alone, resurrecting all the fears of the long dead Covenant in the minds of other humans, humans who would rather fight alongside the very alien races who had once composed that which they so feared.

He decided to terminate that train of thought before he went cross-eyed.

Still, despite all the dangers inherent in such a proposition he wished he could have the chance to grab something, anything from these Imperials. Even commonplace items from their culture would make him a rich and famous drake indeed. It would be risky, it would be dangerous, but that was the environment where Seth thrived, where he put his own life on the line, no other considerations besides his own success or his own failure, where success depended on him and him alone. Certainly that was a more glamorous, more desirable situation than to be locked up aboard this great floating island. Better to dare the galaxy and fail than rot in obscurity.

Eventually he arrived at the viewing lounge. It was often the endpoint of his meandering walks, a place where he could sit in solemn quiet and look out at the void of space, or in this case the strange non-reality of Slipspace, all twisting blue-white energy and flickering patterns of light that conformed to no pretense of the ordered laws of physical creation. It was certainly more interesting to look at than just a blank and unmoving vista of space and distant stars.

He was not sure how long he had sat there for, but he was still watching when the ship reverted back to normal space, the chaotic view of slipspace flaring a blinding blue-white before abruptly cutting out as they sliced their way between realities and returned to the one that made marginally more sense. They had come out in high orbital position over the human settlement world where they were to trade, and Seth looked down at the blue-green ball below them. It didn't look at all special, as life-bearing planets went, though they were a comparative cosmic rarity. He thought he could just make out the twinkle of cities down there on the night side, the terminator disk between day and night sitting in their view.

His eyes narrowed in a frown, and he looked harder, sitting forward. Something was itching at him, telling him that some element he was seeing wasn't right before his higher brain functions could figure it out. He stood, walking closer to the viewport and reaching into his jacket, pulling out his combat goggles and putting them on. He dialed the thin lenses up to full magnification, the holographic HUD popping up as he donned them. He zoomed in, magnifying the view before him many times, studying the cities from orbit through the crystal-clear viewport.

Seth's gut roiled as he saw the orange amorphous light of flames on the night side, and the long greasy black smears of fire on the day side.

It appeared that this would not be a peaceful trading mission after all. He had no sooner thought this than he heard the buzzing of alarms and the construct's voice speaking over the various PA systems, giving a thousand orders at once over public speakers and personal communication devices and very quickly humans were rushing this way and that, and every other race was jumping to get out of their way. Seth was about to go back to his quarters to avoid being trampled, when a thought struck him. He looked back out the window to the world below them, and the feathers raised on his head and neck, slipping into a grin.

It was insane. It was stupid. It was tantamount to suicide. But it was also a very, very attractive opportunity, the risks would be great but the rewards… These were the acts that had earned him his officer's position, and if he could pull this off then he'd be in a very good position to move up even further when the possibility arose. And it would make his enforced cruise all the more comfortable in the meantime. He turned away from his quarters, and began jogging off towards the storage rooms, and from there, the flight deck.

The flight deck was chaos, the barely controlled kind of pandemonium that nevertheless gets things done with admirable speed and efficiency despite its seeming lack of coordination. In the great sea of heaving bodies, roaring engines, whining trolleys and shouted voices, Seth was able to lose himself. Covered as he was in human battle gear it was easy to let the eye slide over him, surrounded by so many soldiers he was practically camouflaged. But nor could he see very much, and he needed a vantage point. He hopped up and clambered onto a cargo container, scanning one area of the bay.

After his run-in with the angry humans in the tram, he'd done a little digging, looking up some information on the human who had assisted him. The bonds between two fighters, who had each other's backs, even for a brief time, could be made quite strong. And it was not in his habit to let such connections go wasted if they could be advantageous. He saw the unit markings he was looking for, stenciled on the side of a human dropship, and again he was off towards it, dodging and weaving through the crowd before he got there.

"What are you doing here?" A calm voice asked, and he looked up to see a human sitting on the lip of the dropship's ramp, covered in camouflage netting with a marksman rifle in his hands.

"I'm looking for Walker." He said with the calm assurance he had used many a time, if you acted like you belonged somewhere a lot of people wouldn't question you.

The human's eyes were calm and placid, relaxed amidst the pandemonium of the drop bay. "Walker." He asked, turning in place. "You know this one?"

From within the gunship a more familiar human stood, walking over. "Hey, Seth right? What are you doing here?" He asked, hanging one hand from a grip on the ceiling.

"Paying back a favor, you watched my back now let me watch yours." He said with all seeming sincerity.

The human quirked a brow. "You know what we're going into right? Potentially a very nasty situation with people who aren't very fond of non-humans. I don't think any officers would be too happy to know you're here."

"Then they can stuff it." He said, hopping gracefully up onto the ramp, standing abreast with Walker. "You could always use another gun, I was the best on my ship bar nobody. And I can stay out of sight better than any of you, if you're going in blind then don't you need some recon?" All of that was perfectly true. Admittedly, it had been a small ship though.

The human considered. "What the hell, this whole deployment is FUBAR anyway, have a seat, odds are we're not even going anywhere." He said, relenting and letting the avian sharpshooter sit down across from him as he took his own seat, leaning back and relaxing.

"So what happens now?" Seth asked, sitting down and getting comfortable, having gotten used to human chairs by now.

"Hurry up and wait." Walker said with a chuckle. "We sit tight and see if the stuffed shirts upstairs decide it's time to unleash us and then… to war." He said, suddenly growing more sober.

"To war." Seth echoed, one hand unconsciously finding the grip of his fighting knife.

Yes! Shocking as it may be, I am still alive! Thank you all very much for your reviews, reading them again and remembering how many people liked reading this was what really gave me the push to come back and continue

I'm not writing as fast as I used to, since I'm working now, but I am writing again and it's good to be back. Reviews are always appreciated, I love to get feedback from my readers. Hopefully I won't keep you waiting as long for the next chapter.