Annual Award Best Novel This story, Flight of the Phoenix: Book 2, written by Maslab, was voted as the Best Novel of 2010 in the Third Annual Halo Fanon Wikia Awards.

40px-Terminal.png This article, Flight of the Phoenix: Book 2, was written by Maslab. Please do not edit this fiction without the writer's permission.
Super optimal
The author of this article, Flight of the Phoenix: Book 2, urges anyone who reads it to provide feedback on the quality of the article. Thank you!

Plot Summary

The Spartan IIIs of Delta Company have established themselves as a powerful military force. Phoenix Team is at their head, blazing an appearance of every boy's dream: courage, honor, skill. But behind the shadows, their true faces will be realized, as they struggle to uncover a plot behind the use of ancient technology, and the purpose behind their very existence.


1643 Hours, November 21st 2582 (UNSC Military Calendar)

The Spartan sprinted across the flat desert, plasma bolts thudding out from the ridge to either miss or slap harmlessly against his shields. With a mighty leap he soared in to a foxhole, landing right beside several ODSTs.

"Welcome to the party, sir!" Staff Sergeant Dmitri "Zaichata" Zaitsev said, cradling his 99D-S3 sniper rifle.

"Good to see you, Zaichata." The Spartan said. "How you holding up?"

"Fairly well, sir, aside from those bastards trying to kill us. We could use your help." Dmitri said, slapping a new magazine in to place.

"Don't worry, Marine. Phoenix is on the job."

Lieutenant Wings-D339 leapt out of the foxhole and sprinted towards one a few hundred meters away. A particle beam passed right between his legs, heating the sand to red-hotness. Another dive landed him in the hole, right next to another Spartan.

She sighed. "Things aren't what they used to be, are they, sir?"

Wings nodded. "Aye, it used to be us sitting pretty in the ridges."

Itzia-D102 poked her head up for a peek, then ducked down as carbine rounds hit her shields.

"We're losing men fast. Their positions on the ridge afford them a clear view of the close foxholes, so we can't get in there. Good thing they only seem to have the three snipers, or else they'd gotten you."

Wings lay back for a moment. They'd been fighting for almost a week now, with little sleep in between the bouts of violence. His brain was nearing its limit, and being strained more and more every hour. And reinforcements were days away.

"To old friends?"

Itzia turned to look at him. "No, to family."

Yes, Wings thought. Things have changed.

Chapter 1: Demands

1000 Hours, April 2nd, 2570 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Wings stood at attention, the customary feeling of armor gone, replaced with a dress uniform. The day was warm and humid, not at all fitting for the mood. He stood in the middle of the front row, between Hal-D683 and Nat-D5795. It had been one week since the Battle for Mars, in which almost four thousand humans had given their lives. The Covenant had paid dearly for it, losing nearly their entire invading force. Delta Company Spartans had played a vital role in the battle. Twelve total teams of Deltas had fought on Mars, and only lost one member.

That was why they were here today. Carol-D2053 was killed by several plasma grenades by surprise, just before the Interspecies Union fleet had arrived and blown the Covenant out of the system. Her casket was the only one at the memorial today, the funeral service having been scheduled last. Wings had made sure that no press would be there, as he didn't want to make this a public thing. The truth was out now, everyone knew Spartans could die; they were just a lot damn harder to kill. Admiral Andrew Gering had asked if he could attend, but was politely turned down. So the funeral service was private, and all fifty-three Spartans that had fought on Mars were assembled in ranks, with Phoenix, Hawk, and Badger teams in the front.

As the priest finished the prayer, Wings and Nat strode forward and carefully folded the Spartan III Delta Company flag, consisting of the standard UNSC crest, modified with a spear and an old Greek sword crossing behind the eagle. Underneath them all was the silhouette of a rounded shield, with the words "One life for many" sewn underneath it. Taking the folded flag, Wings carried it to the only family Carol had ever truly known: her team. Hal took it solemnly,.

Wings took his place back in line next to Nat, and called out: "Seven gun salute!"

Seven Spartans, each one from a different team and holding new BR60 Battle Rifles set to single shot, stepped forward.

"Ready!" The seven Spartans raised the rifles. The casket began its descent in to the ground.

"Aim!" They aimed down the scopes.

"Fire!" The shots echoed off the buildings.

They repeated the gesture twice more, the casket gave a soft bump as it hit the bottom, the lowering device was removed, and a silence descended. Each Spartan then stepped forward and dumped a single shovelful of dirt in to the hole until it was full. Rio-D973, another member of Hawk, marched forward and set Carol's Mk. VII helmet in to a special slot on the tombstone. A quiet click was heard, which was a mechanism that would grip the helmet, ensuring that no one would steal it. That done, she stepped back in to her rank.

"Deltas, dismissed!" Wings ordered, and each Spartan went their own way. They all lingered for a while, not saying anything. But eventually, team by team, began drifting away. Hawk stayed, and Itzia moved towards them. She stopped as a hand gripped her shoulder.

"Don't." Zero said. "This is their time." Itzia nodded silently, glanced one more time at the three remaining members of Hawk Team, and followed her teammates.

X mumbled, mostly to himself, "Man, they have the worst of luck." They were, of course, out of earshot by now.

"Watch it, Spartan." Zero growled, and X stiffened. Zero wasn't a great leader, but she had an amazing Sergeant's voice.

"I'm just saying, sir. They're the only team to have lost more than one member, and both of them by surprise."

"He's got a point, Zero." Wings said as they reentered the city and headed for the barracks. They'd be heading back to New Quebec tomorrow.

The team was silent as they marched in to their barracks room and got down to the business of weapons upkeep. Every Spartan needs something to get their mind off death today, Wings thought, feeling the weight of his MCPO insignia clearly.

1220 Hours, April 4th, 2570 (UNSC Military Calendar)

"Welcome home, Chief." Ezekiel-254 said. "I trust your hiatus was pleasant?"

"To a point, sir." Wings drew in a breath. "We lost Carol."

Ezekiel's jaw tightened. "I see." He said flatly. "I'm sorry to hear that."

"With respect, Hawk needs the sentiment more than I do, sir."

"Very well. Dismissed, Chief."

Wings saluted and went to join his team, who he'd sent off in another direction. He jogged to catch up, and they all walked to their destination together.

The bunker doors seemed to be slightly more overgrown by jungle vegetation than last time he'd been here, but the keypad was still operable. Wings punched in the code, and the titanium door hissed and slid open.

"Welcome back, sirs." A voice said over the speakers, laced with artificial tones.

"Thank you, Element." Wings said. Element was the bunker's security AI, programmed by Peec with the best counter-intrusion routines.

The walk to their bunk room was only paused by a long, but fast, elevator ride.

Their bunk room was fairly plain, made up of five Spartan sized beds, and two weapon lockers and one footlocker for each bed. At the center of the room was a holo-table.

As the team placed their gear in the respective places, Wings went to holo-table and activated it. Five different holographic pads materialized and floated to each Spartan.

"New orders from ONI." Wings said, tapping in his code on the solid hologram. "We're going to be split for a while. Zero, you've got a sniping mission with 'Antinr, Linda-058, and Dmitri Zaitsev." He paused. "You know him, right?"

Zero nodded. "He was on Mars. Damned good sniper. I like him."

"Good." Wings turned to X. "You're going on assignment with Tom-B292 and Lucy-B091. Apparently they need a demolitions expert."

"The Lone Survivor and the Mute. Will do."

"Itzia, Doctor Halsey sent for you. No idea why." Wings' eyes flicked from the hologram to Itzia. Phoenix had secretly asked for Halsey's help in curing Wings, who was afflicted with a disease that randomly shut down an organ in his body at random times. It had resulted from Itzia herself directly injecting Cell QX518-I53PR in to Wings, which did speed up the affected person's neural processes, but had uncontrollable side effects.

"Peec, you're on further down time. Apparently ONI has no use for you."

"That's alright, I have no use for ONI." Peec mumbled. "Some work needs done here, anyway."

"I know. I've left orders for you with Element. Aaand I'm on down time, too. I however, will be-" Wings tossed the datapad back towards the center of the holo-table. A garbage can appeared and swallowed it. "Traveling."

Zero yawned. "I don't know about you guys, but I'm gonna crash. Gotta wake up early tomorrow."

The rest agreed, and they all fell asleep withing a half hour.

0830 Hours, April 6th, 2570 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Lieutenant Commander Spartan 116 marched through the streets of the city. Vadam Keep towered behind him, easily overshadowing the buildings around it.

Spartan spotted the landing pad he was looking for, and approached a Sangheili, who was carrying a fusion core.

"Morning, Ipla. The Pelican due?"

Ipla 'Ihpor set down the core and went to his nearby Phantom. "Any moment now. We just got the message that D339's dropship is on the way down."

116 turned his eyes to the sky and was able to make out a fast moving dot. The Pelican dropped fast, but slowed as it approached the landing pad.

Wings leapt out fifteen meters above the ground, and landed slightly crouched on the metal landing pad. He straightened hurriedly and saluted the Lieutenant Commander.

"Master Chief Petty Officer Spartan D339 reporting as ordered, sir!" Wings said.

The Lieutenant Commander returned the salute, and let one eyebrow raise. "Three years in active service and already a Master Chief?"

"Technically eight, if you want to count the Battle for Zeta-9."

"Still, impressive." 116 said, and began the walk back to the Vadam Keep. "I admit I was perplexed when I heard you were making a visit to Sanghelios."

"I'm just as perplexed finding out you're here, sir."

"Does it have anything to do with that structure you and your Spartans found?"

"Of course it does. I suppose that's why you're here?" Wings knew exactly why the Lieutenant Commander wanted to know more about the structure. Several years ago the Lieutenant Commander had been hit by the Judicator's Gavel Rifle during a mission to collect some of the Brute's DNA. This had resulted in infecting the Spartan with a virus that prevented cellular regeneration and acted as a blood thinner. The last time Wings had seen the Lt. Cmdr., the older Spartan had been shot in the hand and almost bled out from it. Apparently his body had refused to accept a cloned arm, so his right one had been replaced by a prosthetic limb.

Almost a year ago Phoenix Team and a few Sangheili had stumbled upon a Precursor structure. Within it was a room that could seemingly heal any malady. The only problem was that it had to know that a certain attribute of the person was a malady.

"Nice weapons." Wings said as they walked in to the Spartan's designated room at Vadam Keep.

The Lieutenant Commander followed the Delta's gaze to several cases, wherein lay his weapons. There was, of course, an MA7C, but there were a couple of odd additions to his armament. "Prototype and made with Forerunner tech. Got the SRSS Nyegen 48 Magnum, and a C58 Phoenix shotgun, no relation to your team."

"I know. Never heard of it."

Another raised eyebrow. Thank whoever made polarized visors that 116 could make any facial expression he wanted, and everyone would be none the wiser.

Of course, from what he'd heard about D339, the Spartan would probably pick out 116's eyebrow raise somehow.

"Odd, considering you're the one with the expert computer hacker."

"One, he doesn't tell me everything he finds. Two, I don't really care what the UNSC is researching as far as weapons go, as I don't plan on taking them out."

"Fair enough."

1400 Hours, April 6th, 2570 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Ipla kept the Phantom steady as the two Spartans floated down the gravity lift, then turned and sped off back to Vadam Keep.

Professor Anders was talking to a couple of other scientists who'd just brought up an artifact, apparently questioning them about it and taking notes. She looked up as Wings and the Lieutenant Commander walked up.


"Professor Anders." 116 said, holding out a hand. Anders shook it and Wings' hand as well.

"Where's Halsey?" D339 asked.

Ander's jaw tightened slightly. She and Halsey had always been at odds with one another, but seemed to have set most of it aside while working on this project.

"She's down in that healing room. Seems someone managed to interface with an AI in it."

Wings nodded. "Not an AI. 'Comprehensive database', in its terms." And he walked off.

116 could only shrug as Anders muttered: "Sometimes that Spartan creeps me out."

"And what would it take for me to access your files?"

"A test. That is all. However, I can only test one organic at a time. That is how I was programmed."

Halsey turned as she heard a hiss, and saw Wings behind her, slipping his helmet on to a magnetic holding on his back. Spartan 116 was coming up the stairs behind D339, doing the same with his helmet.

"Having fun with the database, Doctor?"

The hologram in the center of the room was humanoid in form but possessed no real features to distinguish it. Its head turned towards Wings.

"Ah, the one I was testing. It seems you have succeeded as well." A hologram of Mars appeared, with the summit of Olympus Mons smoking and a quarter of Kennedy Space Center in ruins. "Better than I could have hoped."

"If you did have feelings, that is." Wings said. Something in his voice doesn't sound right, 116 thought. He sounds almost... strained. Exactly how many humans died that day?

"This is true. I assume you want answers to your questions?" The database asked.

"Of course."

Holograms popped up, labeling all the equipment that had been used to create Delta Company: MJOLNIR armor, augmentation syringes, 3000 six year old children, even the instructors and handlers.

"As you know, the Spartans for Delta Company were conscripted in 2555 under the Spartan III program. They were to be a new generation of Spartans; not suicide soldiers, but five-man armies. What was not given was the why behind it.

"In 2556 a small group of Spartans encountered a Forerunner force which was attempting to unleash the Flood. If Delta Company had been recruited a year later, then this explanation would have sufficed. But it doesn't. Unless," The database raised a holographic finger. "You factor ONI in to the equation.

"In 2542 ONI received unconfirmed reports of an ancient space-faring race that had reached a trans-sentient level of technology. They called them the 'Precursors.'"


"Technically yes, although my makers called themselves by a different name. Anyway, these reports were confirmed when a Spartan recovered a Precursor artifact that could create time shifts. I cannot tell you the details of this as I have been inactive for too long, but it would appear that the Spartan and a ship's entire crew made a jump from 2547 to 2552, during the First Battle of Earth.

"This caused the upper echelons of ONI to worry if the Precursors were returning. The final death count after the Human-Covenant War ended sealed the deal."

An audio file started playing. Wings recognized it from Chairman Kevin Locke's revealing of the Spartan III program.

"Our population has been ravaged, our infrastructure destroyed. We have all lost something during this war, but the fight is not quite over. The Covenant still exists, and to fight it we need an army. But we do not have the manpower to place a thousand Marines against one army, and so we need a new kind of warrior. We need a handful of soldiers who can do what several million Marines cannot." The audio clip ended.

"This is a good justification for your creation, but it is not the only one. The return of the Forerunners raised many concerns.

"And your Office of Naval Intelligence found out that they plan on returning.

"And so, around 2548, they began genetic engineering of fetuses, maximizing their DNA for Spartan augmentation procedures. The discovery of Forerunner processing technology only made things easier: it only cost half as much to manufacture one MJOLNIR suit as it used to, and the cost of creating the augmentations was cut by three quarters. This has made creating Spartans fairly easy, only limited by the time it takes to grow a human being and train them to become soldiers.

"So now you know: You were built by Forerunner technology to end a struggle that would otherwise rage for many decades, and would likely end with the extinction of the human race. Delta Company is the one thing that can keep the tide turned against to Covenant."

"So we really were created just to fight the Covenant?"

"Not to continue fighting it. To end the fight." The humanoid hologram cocked its head. "I'm detecting an incoming transmission. For D339 only."

Wings turned to the Lieutenant Commander. "Do you mind?"

"Not at all." 116 said a bit stiffly, and walked out with Halsey following him.

The instant they were gone the humanoid hologram transformed and became a skinny being, with a thin, curved neck and an elaborate crown. It sat on what seemed to be a hovering chair.

"Destroying that fleet at Mars was not very effective for welcoming in peace, Spartan." The Prophet of Intuition said flatly. "The Judicator has become enraged, demanding that we come back in force. Thankfully we don't have that kind of fleet now, and I reminded him that he struck first."

"You need to keep a tighter rein on your pets, then."

A soft chuckle came from the fairly young San'Shyuum. "Do not think of him as a pet. He is very smart for a Jiralhanae, even if he is still barbaric."

Wings nodded. "How goes the peace work?"

Intuition sighed. "Not well. The Unggoy and Huragok are quite happy to go back to peaceful ways, but the Kig-Yar and Jiralhanae are up in arms about the idea." He fondled his dangling wattle. "I'm just glad that the Prophet of Bliss is so good at his work, else they'd have beheaded the three of us Prophets. How goes the effort on your end?"

"Decent, I suppose. The UNSC's major problem, besides you, are the countless numbers of Insurrectionist groups that have sprung up. I'm trying to keep the Deltas assigned to fighting the Covenant, rather than taking down the Innies. Innies go down, then the UNSC focuses all its attention on crushing you. And that wouldn't be good for business on your end."

Intuition nodded. "Very good. I shall-" Wings held up a hand and turned to slowly face the entrance to the healing room.

The Lieutenant Commander was standing just inside it, staring up at Spartan D339 and the hologram of the Prophet of Intuition. His face was locked in an expression of extreme anger.

"Shit." Wings said under his breath and turned back to Intuition. "I'll talk to you later." Intuition's hologram disappeared.

Spartan 116's face did not move a muscle as his eyes followed Wings, who approached the older Spartan slowly, but obviously believing he was in command of the situation.

"We need to talk." 116's voice came out in a relatively controlled, but angry, manner.

"No. We really don't." Wings stated calmly, and brushed right by the Lieutenant Commander, stepping through the doorway.

The Lieutenant Commander's teeth ground against each other, and it took a couple minutes to compose himself before following.

Wings walked in to his quarters, thinking. Surprisingly, the reasoning made sense. They'd always been told that they had to fight the Covenant, but the Deltas had never known they were made to fight the Covenant to a standstill.

How many Delta Spartan lives will that take? Wings wondered. This is ONI we're talking about. His mind raced, analyzing the scene from every possible angle. He stood and went to the door as the sound of booted footsteps reached his ears. The Delta XO moved to block the doorway as the Lieutenant Commander stepped up to it, only the door separating them.

"You've got a lot of explaining to do." 116 said, his voice flat and emotionless.

Wings' thought of everything that could happen if he explained himself now, and saw what would happen.

"Not to you. Not now." He said and pressed the emergency lock.

The magnetically sealing door slid down faster than even a Spartan could move, effectively locking Spartan 116 out and D339 in.

Wings walked to a chair and sat down after taking off his armor. The Lieutenant Commander definitely didn't trust him now, but that wasn't D339's problem. He'd be gone the next day, and Itzia would arrive.

The MCPO leaned back in the chair. Spartan 116 couldn't prove anything, but he'd have the rest of the Spartans watching his team carefully. There was one on his team that wouldn't be under constant scrutiny, however...

Chapter 2: Hunters

1114 Hours, April 7th, 2570 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Zero hopped out of the Pelican and strode over to her temporary team, assembled in one corner of the hangar.

'Antinr acknowledged her with a nod, then went back to replacing a fuel cell in his particle beam rifle. Linda-058 was about ten meters away, conversing with John-117.

Lance Corporal Dmitri Zaitsev, who Zero had nicknamed Zaichata, meaning leveret, stood and saluted. "Sir! Good to see you again!"

Zero returned the salute. "Nice to see you, too, Zaichata."

Linda finished her conversation with John and marched back to the rest of the group. Zero saluted.

"Chief Petty Officer Spartan D576, reporting for duty, sir!"

The older Spartan returned the salute, then got right to the point, addressing all three of the other snipers.

"We're going to be dropped a few dozen kilometers from our target: a small Covenant camp. Only about four hundred foot soldiers there."

Dmitri whistled. "A hundred of them to one of us? Why not just drop a HAVOK on them an be done with it?"

Linda ignored the interruption. "The point of this mission is to see if we can teach the Covenant that the UNSC can kill an army with a few soldiers without being discovered. That's why they chose us. We'll be taking shot from anywhere between a hundred meters to five kilometers. Empty a clip and move. The day only ends when all four hundred are dead. ONI is furnishing us with M6C SOCOM pistols, M7S SMGs, and the new M80667 Anti-Armor Sniper Rifle. Designed for use against infantry, it's silent and leaves no bullet trail. The Covenant may see their buddies dying, but they won't see or hear us."

She handed one of the new snipers to Zero and Dmitri, then held one out for 'Antinr to take. The Sangheili warrior shook his head and patted his particle beam rifle.

"This will do me fine."

"We need to be stealthy, 'Antinr." Linda said. "They'll be able to trace the particle beam back to you."

'Antinr twisted a dial on his weapon. "This is a new particle beam rifle. It has a low power setting that will still do enough damage to kill, but the beam is only visible for half of a millisecond. They won't be able to see it, but it may take two hits to kill a brute."

"Fair enough."

A voice over the PA said: "Snipers, report to Lieutenant Derick in hangar B2. Repeat, Snipers..."

"Well, 'snipers', let's do this." Zero said, and they marched off to the Pelican.'

Linda put an armored hand on Zero's shoulder. "I've been told to watch you. Orders from the Lieutenant Commander. Any idea why?"

"Not a clue." Zero said, her mind flicking back through all the "behind the scenes" work that Phoenix had been doing. And there was the fact that her boss seemed to have allied himself with a Covenant Prophet.

Phoenix's sniper inwardly sighed. It'd have to get worse before it got better.

"We're dropping you off about forty kilometers from the camp. Covenant have patrols out, so take it easy."

"Thank you, Lieutenant." Linda answered, then turned to 'Antinr and Dmitri. The Marine was wearing a combat visor. It was a relatively old idea, but one that had just been refreshed in the past couple years. The one he was optimized for snipers, feeding weather and range data to him at the blink of an eye. It also housed infrared and high-frequency scanners. "Our active camouflage is superior to yours, 'Antinr. And yours is non-existent, Corporal. Therefore, I propose that D576 and I take point. It'll be a couple days before we actually get within range of the camp, and a couple extra hours to set up. Just follow our nav markers."

'Antinr nodded. "Very well. You lead, we'll follow." Dmitri had no real choice.

0200 Hours, April 8th, 2570 (UNSC Military Calendar)

X-2552 leaned back on against the titanium walls of the small corvette, setting his feet up on a crate. At this early in the morning, everyone liked to catch a wink or two.

Approaching footsteps signaled the arrival of his temporary team: Tom-B292 and Lucy-B091. X sighed and stood, saluting the slightly shorter Spartans.

"Petty Officer First Class Spartan-D2552 reporting for duty, sir!"

The other two returned the gesture. Tom looked at Lucy as she signed something with her hands, and Tom nodded. Another twitch of her head in X's direction told him all he needed to know. He may not be able to understand over thirty different languages, but every Spartan knew something about body language. It was just another perk that came with the job.

"Weren't expecting ONI to send a Phoenix along with you?"

"Frankly, no." Tom said. "We were expecting someone with more... rigid morals."

X snorted. "My morals, what ones I do have, are very rigid, sir."

"I would hope that those include loyalty to the UNSC." The older Spartan said. "I've just received orders from Spartan 116 to keep an eye on whatever Delta ONI sends with me. Apparently he had a run-in with your boss."

"Permission to speak freely, sir?"


"First and foremost, my loyalties lie with my boss, and the rest of Delta Company. Not to the UNSC." X said, a tone entering his voice that didn't normally. "D339 made every Delta the best they could be. He saved many minds, hearts, souls, and lives. That is why we have unswerving loyalty in him. As long as he remains loyal to the UNSC, then so do I."

Tom's mirrored visor didn't betray anything. "Very well. Let's get this mission over with."

Lucy marched over to a few crates and pushed them to the middle of the room. She, Tom, and X popped the lids open, and X almost whistled at what he saw.

"Micro-Injection Nuclear Entering Charges. MINE Charges for short. Contains a tiny nuclear bomb, and has a variable setting. These things can be set to punch through a thin sheet of paper and not harm a human," Tom paused for a second, then continued. "Or right through a MJOLNIR Mk VII's shields and the armor underneath it."

"Fun." X said, taking one of the tiny charges and running his fingers over it. Tom and Lucy couldn't help but notice that the Delta's voice had changed from a hardened warrior to one who seemed to be holding something they dearly loved.

B292 cleared his throat and moved to the next box. He pulled out what appeared to be a smooth M9 fragmentation grenade.

"SLE7." Tom declared. "Fondly called the 'Stick Light and Explode' by some in ONI. Like a cross between the plasma grenade and the plasma grenade. Latches on to your enemy. There are actually two explosives. The first is the frag part, which is designed to take down enemy shields. Then the plasma charge detonates and finishes the work. However, there is a small button here." He showed X a small red button standing out on the opposite side of the explosive. "Which will switch the modes to plasma first, then frag."

"Even more fun," X proclaimed, attaching a brace of the grenades to his belt. "Can't wait to try 'em out."

"The point of this mission is to collect data pertaining to new Covenant technology." Tom said. "We're really just guiding you in so you can blow stuff up for us. Then we grab the data and you blow us out of there."

"No guard duty, no long range duty..." X seemed to ponder. "Just blowing shit up. I like it."

"Then let's go."

0800 Hours, April 8th, 2570 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Peec ran his fingers through his short hair, checking his calculations again.

No, dammit, that won't work. The servos had to...

Peec grabbed the knee joint servo-motors and moved them out a fraction.

Much better. Now the servos actually had a place to move relatively freely. There's still one problem, however...

Footsteps echoed from outside, and Peec looked up.

"Maurice, come in here."

Maurice-D3574 stopped and leaned in to the room.

"Something you need, sir?"

"I need your help with something."

Maurice walked to the holo-table Peec was working at. His lips parted a bit in surprise as he turned to the Phoenix Spartan.

"Why are you designing power armor for a Sangheili?"

1000 Hours, April 8th, 2570 (UNSC Military Calendar)

"I've always wanted to try this."

"Trust me, it's not all that great."

Lucy signed something, and Tom translated.

"Lucy says that what you really aren't supposed to be excited for this sort of thing."

The two Beta Spartans were taken aback by X's chuckle. "Ma'am, ODSTs do this sort of thing all the time. There's got to be a reason for it."

More hand signals. Tom spoke as he watched her hands dart around.

"She says that you shouldn't be too excited, as this is probably a downgrade from leaping out of a sub-orbital dropship."

"True, true. Maybe it's just that I know this is safer, so my stomach isn't churning quite so much."

"I have a hard time believing anything could make your stomach churn." Tom mumbled as the three Spartans seated themselves in the drop pods with their weapons.

"Thirty seconds to drop." Tom said as the pods swung in to position.

X watched the counter tick down and held on to the armrests.

3... 2... 1.

The seat shot out from under the Spartan, and he felt like he was floating.

There was an intense bump as the pods entered the planet's atmosphere. Then the ride settled out again and the mirrored visors of Tom and Lucy appeared on the mini screens of the drop pod.

"It looks like we won't be taking forever to regroup. Looks like the trajectory is good. Pop chutes on my mark." Tom's voice said over the com.


The pod jerked and slowed dramatically, then went in to free-fall again.

X checked the altimeter. 4 klicks... 3 klicks... 2 klicks... 1 klick...

He felt an acute jarring as the pod smashed in to the planet's surface. X hit the ejecting pins and the front leapt away from the rest of the pod with an sharp bang.

X opened the team-com. "Twenty-five fifty-two here, reporting safe drop. No hostile contact; I think they may not have seen us." He said.

Two more clicks came over the com, and a nav marker appeared twenty meters away from X. Lucy was standing at the edge of group of rocks, waving to him. X jogged over.

"I got a safe drop, too, but my hatch is stuck. Rolled on the front on landing." Another nav marker appeared a couple hundred meters away.

X and Lucy ran over to it, placed their hands underneath the pod and flipped it over.

The hatch shot off, and Tom climbed out. He nodded to the other two. "Thanks."

"No trouble." X said, walking away a few paces. "Which way's the target?"

"Five klicks southeast." Tom said, standing and grabbing his weapons, consisting of an MA7C with an attached suppressor and reflex sight and a suppressed SM6D with a laser module.

Lucy carried the same sidearm as Tom, but had an M7S SMG instead. X sported the same weapons as Tom.

"Alright, let's move." Tom said, having collected his weaponry. "Hand signals only."

"Don't need to tell Lucy that." X said. Lucy's helmet turned for a second in his direction. X decided it had to be a glare.

1142 Hours, April 8th, 2570 (UNSC Military Calendar)

X planted the MINE charge and walked behind the rock. "Breaching in five."

He held up five fingers and counted down on them until none were left. The charge exploded almost silently, blowing a human sized chunk of wall out.

Tom ducked through, assault rifle raised. "Clear. Move."

X followed Lucy through, crouching in order to get through the small hole.

"Mind telling me what you two are here for?"

"Data." Tom said, moving to another door. "I can get us through this one." And he attached a device to the door's console. It beeped and the door swung open.

"Infiltration package?" X asked.

"Fresh off the press from ONI." Tom paused. "Got two contacts, seventeen meters southeast. Brutes."

"I got them." X said, activating his camouflage.

The two Brutes were talking as X sneaked up behind them.

"The Huragok have been acting stranger every day."

"I've noticed. They act odd normally, but I've never seen anything they try and fix actually break."

X stopped for a second. If an Engineer fixed something, it never broke. In fact, he'd heard rumors that Huragok had helped design the Mk. VII MJOLNIR armor. Well, he'd sort that out later.

Both Brutes were still talking when X's gauntlet knives stabbed through their throats. They collapsed with barely a gurgle.

"Clear." He said. Tom and Lucy moved up, and the three Spartans headed towards the central hub.

"That's our target." Tom said. "Blow us a hole on the east side. Set the MINE to 'max'."

"With respect, sir," X responded, moving around and pulling out the charge. "Please don't tell the top demolition Spartan how to blow a hole in a wall."

"Point taken."

X moved to the door and planted the charge. "Stand back. Just to hammer in the point, I've set it to 92.9 maximum explosive force. The minimum required to bust down this wall."

The charge detonated, and X was proven right as the dust cleared and a hole was seen in the wall. Tom and Lucy went in first. A few coughs from their silenced weapons were heard.

"Clear." Tom said as X joined the two Betas inside. Several Unggoy lay dead nearby.

"So tell me." The Delta asked, nudging one of the bodies and putting a bullet in the alien's head when he groaned. "What do they send you two out to do?"

Tom's head cocked a bit to one side. "What do you mean?"

"Well..." X paused. This may be awkward. "She's mute, so it's not good to put her on the front lines. And you refuse to attach yourself to a new unit. So the problem is that ONI may render you... obsolete."

Tom and Lucy froze, and the two Spartans, both quite a bit shorter than X, turned back to look at him. There was no doubt in X's mind that these were glares.

"We are not equipment." Tom said.

X held up his hands, assault rifle in his right hand pointing the weapons uselessly at the wall. "Hey, I quite agree. D339 is my boss, you should hear him talk about the lot the Spartans get. But ONI doesn't share your point of view. Remember Pegasi Delta?"

Tom and Lucy looked at each other, then Tom turned back to where they'd been going. "We need to move."

Lucy shot X another glance, then followed Tom.

"This is your 'data'?"

"Yes." Tom said, leading what appeared to be a floating bag of gas. X could see several more on the other side of the door, waiting to float in to the room. One hooted, a soft, beautiful sound. Huragok, the Covenant's Engineers.

"So explain to me how it's 'data'."

"The creature itself isn't." Tom said, holding out his hand to let the Engineer run it's tendrils over it. "ONI found out near the end of the Human-Covenant War that Huragok are like biological supercomputers. Not only can they communicate with other organics, but with computers as well. These ones have been gathering data on Covenant technology for a few years now. They can give us intricate blueprints on everything the Covenant's been up to."

X took this in, but was skeptical. "Alright, what's the catch?"

Tom pulled his hand back. "ONI agreed to send Delta Spartans to free as many Huragok as possible. When we get back, you'll all be getting new orders."

The Delta stepped aside to let the Engineers through. It would be fun protecting all of them.


0851 Hours, April 9th, 2570 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Peec was pleased. The armor he'd been designing had turned out well. All he needed was a Sangheili to put it on.

He'd managed to scrap the servo-motors after he'd managed to get a hold on some reactive metal liquid crystal synthesizers, which made the special gel used in MJOLNIR armor.

That job done, Peec found himself with little to do. He spent some time working in the central core of the bunker and managed to improve the processing speeds by about 1.5256 percent, according to Element, but he had no challenges.

Peec booted up his computer and wondered what he could do. His mind flashed back to the First Battle for Earth, when he'd been just a toddler.

He typed in and sent off a search request, then sat back. It would be a while before he got a return on it.

1324 Hours, April 9th, 2570 (UNSC Military Calendar)

To be precise, there were four hundred thirty-two Covenant troops that the four snipers would have to take out.

It had taken two days to sneak through the constant patrols, and Dmitri had nearly been seen several times. They'd been forced to take out several patrols in order to advance, so the enemy definitely knew they were there. But they wouldn't know how many.

Now all four snipers sat in the rear of a small cave, checking their equipment.

"Here's how we split." Linda said. "I'll be with D576-"

"Ma'am, if I may." Zero said quickly. "Meaning no disrespect to anyone here, but 'Antinr and Dmitri aren't as strong as the two of us. If we team up and they get in to a situation requiring our speed and strength, we won't be able to help them. To balance it, I'd suggest that you go with 'Antinr and I go with Dmitri."

There was definitely some mistrust behind Linda's flat, calculating look, as well as annoyance at being interrupted. "Duly noted. But I'm supposed to watch you, and so I shall. Maybe I'll take you up on the suggestion tomorrow. Dmitri and 'Antinr, you're Bravo. We're Alpha."

Zero nodded. "Yessir. Sorry, sir."

"Let's move." Linda said, hefting her sniper rifle and activating her camouflage.

Dmitri shrugged and followed 'Antinr outside. Zero was the last one to leave, trailing Linda silently.

The veteran sniper had chosen relatively close sniping positions for her and Zero, just under two klicks away. Dmitri and 'Antinr would be shooting from three klicks.

"Bravo Team, take the first shot." Linda said, settling in ten meters away from Zero. They rested several meters back from the cliff face, which fell a good two hundred meters before ending in jagged rocks.

Zero took careful aim down her scope, settling in.

Dmitri's voice came over the team-com. "Bravo has fired."

"Acknowledged." Linda said, her voice flat and emotionless. Zero decided her "Zen" voice resembled Wings' normal voice. Phoenix's sniper hadn't learned her skills through that Zen stuff, finding that she never had a need for it. But maybe it helped some snipers...

Linda-058 and Zero-D576 fired mere milliseconds apart from each other, and their clips clacked to empty at the exact same time. Sparks of respect began when they found that they had reloaded in tandem, as well.

"You really are as good as they say." Zero said, taking aim again.

Linda just nodded. Sometimes, the fact that Deltas were more in tune with their emotions than the other Spartans drove Zero insane. Today was looking to be a long one.

Dmitri found himself a bit put out that he couldn't fire nearly as fast as the others, so he pushed himself to his limit.

Three more Brutes went down under his barrage, and he could swear he'd almost kept up with 'Antinr that time. The Sangheili's beam rifle could fire three aimed shots before it overheated.

"You shoot well, human." The large alien said, waving his hand a bit as the rifle cooled off. He'd been a bit slow pulling it away from the exhaust as the weapons discharged its heat.

Dmitri managed to reload just before the beam rifle cooled down fully. "Thanks. Would you mind calling me Dmitri, by the way? I find it kind of awkward to be called a human all the time. I do know what species I belong to."

"Very well, Dmitri." 'Antinr said, stumbling a bit over the odd pronunciation. The way he said it made the name come out almost like "Dim-eat-tree." "It looks like we'll be getting to know each other over the next few days. Might as well start with names.

They both took aim again and fired.

"Sounds like a plan to me." Dmitri said as a Kig-Yar died a couple seconds later, the bullet blowing his head off.

0623 Hours, April 15th, 2570 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Zero stepped off the Pelican, thanking the pilot for the ride. Linda gave Zero what the Delta assumed to be a quizzical look.

"Something wrong, sir?"

Linda shook her head slightly. "No. It just seems odd to me, thanking them for the ride. All they're doing is their job."

"It's reinforcing their position, reminding them that the UNSC wouldn't be functioning today. It's job appreciation, I guess you could call it."

The older sniper nodded and moved off. "Good work out there, Delta. Don't get too comfy, we ship out again, soon."

Dmitri had caught up with some buddies from his company, and was getting caught up with their whereabouts. He seemed to be enjoying himself, so Zero let him be for now. She had to talk to him about something.

About halfway through their sniping trip a Covenant patrol had jumped Zero and the Marine. They'd killed the patrol, and Dmitri had proven just how well he could handle a rifle, even shooting right past Zero's ear to kill a Brute. She wanted to get him in to the ODSTs.

But now wasn't the time to talk him in to that.

Chapter 3: Sparks

1337 Hours, September 24th, 2570 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Wings floated down the gravity lift from the Phantom, fully expecting the first thing he saw to be the Lieutenant Commander's stare. He wasn't disappointed.

"How went your work, Master Chief?" Spartan 116 said, bluntly reminding Wings of his inferior rank.

"Very well, sir." Wings responded in his normally flat tone. "How went things here?"

"Fair enough." The Lieutenant Commander said. He turned and began walking away. Wings followed.

"What are you doing here on Sanghelios, anyway? Besides the obvious." 116 asked, clearly not expecting an answer.

"I'm sitting in on training sessions for Sangheili trainees, and even helping out for a few lessons. I've had several of them ask me to start teaching hand-to-hand combat. You wouldn't believe how little emphasis there is on unarmed combat."

The older Spartan paused. "I didn't expect such a straight answer from you."

"I always give straight answers. I just give the ones I want to give."

"Like when you slammed the door in my face?"

"Yes, sir."

The Lieutenant Commander turned back to face Wings. "You're an odd one for a Spartan."

"You don't like me. I can see why you'd think that. Fact of the matter is, I decided early on I wouldn't be pure military, sir."

"That's quite obvious." 116 said. "I would appreciate it if you answered my questions pertaining to your... activities."

Wings nodded. "I would like to answer them. But the only problem is that I have to avoid them."

Spartan 116 bristled. "Why is that?"

"Because if I told you everything I've been up to you'd report me to ONI for treason, I'd disappear down a dark hole, and several years later most, if not all, of Delta Company would be dead. Is that a sufficient answer?"

116 nodded. "I don't like it, but I guess it'll have to do."

"Don't worry, sir. I will happily answer all your questions in due course. However I will expect good answers for my questions." Wings tilted his head a bit. "Pertaining to some old soldier. 101 years old, in fact."

The Lieutenant Commander was taken aback by this, but recovered sufficiently to follow Wings.

The two Spartans made their way down to the healing room of the Precursor structure, where Halsey and Anders were working. There also appeared to be an Elite standing a few meters away from them, arms hanging by his side. His skin was white, and his eyes were the same color as his skin, except for a hint of redness in them.

Wings approached him, pulling his helmet off and folding his fist over his heart. "Autel, it's good to see you again." The Lieutenant Commander was talking with the two professors. Everywhere around them, more people were wandering around, taking notes, drawing sketches, and many other things researchers do when confronted with an ancient structure.

Something approaching a smile crept up Autel's features. Wings and Autel had been friends for several years now. "Spartan. It is good to see you as well." Autel folded his fist over his first heart.

"What are you doing here?" Wings queried. He knew 116 was watching the two talk.

"Halsey asked me down here." Autel said, waving a hand in the Professor's direction. "She wanted to know about my family. Apparently she's been keeping tabs on you."

Wings glanced in the Doctor's direction. "I see. And what have you been up to these past few months?"

"Fighting, as usual. I was called back here about a dozen days ago. The Fallen maybe be gone, but there are still some weaker factions who are causing trouble."

"Need any help with that? I've got a few teams at New Quebec that need something to do."

"That would be appreciated. Once they are crushed we can turn our attention to the Covenant and the Insurgents that plague the UNSC."

The Delta Spartan froze. "That's something we need to talk about..."

Autel and Wings sat in the Spartan's quarters. The Sangheili warrior was obviously a slightly mad; the redness in his eyes had deepened slightly.

"You seek to ally yourself with a Prophet?"

"I do not seek. I already have. In a way."

Autel shook his head. "You come up with the craziest ideas at times, and they work. But now, I don't know whether to trust you with this."

"Then I'm afraid that your trust is going to be tested again and again over the years."

"What do you mean?"

The Spartan sighed and looked at the ground. "Because all of my plans are going to start getting crazier and crazier. But they have to."

The Sangheili stared at Wings. "And why is that?"

"You know how I've been looking for the reason behind the creation of the Delta Spartans?"


Wings looked up. "I found my answer. And I want you to know, so that you will trust me when I say that everything is going to start coming unraveled, and I'm the only one who can get us through it."

The Prophet of Intuition sighed as his gravity throne carried him along the pathway. Four Jiralhanae warrior flanked him, forming a defensive square around the Hierarch.

Virtuous Enlightenment was a city floating above an immense planet of the same name. It was held aloft by massive anti-gravity lifts, and slowly moved so that it was always in the sunlight. The buildings were built with environmental controls, so that windows could be tinted to make it appear as if it were night. They could also control the atmosphere in the buildings, such as temperature and humidity. More complex systems could even simulate weather. Sophistication of these systems were, of course, organized by ranking, with Unggoy infantry being the lowest and the High Prophets enjoying the most intricate control systems.

Intuition steered his chair down the long and wide courtyard outside the Chamber of Congress, where he'd just finished another day long session. The Jiralhanae, Kig-Yar, and Yanme'e kept demanding more offensives in to human territory, but the Unggoy and Lekgolo just wanted to let the fighting die down. The Huragok didn't get to choose either way.

The High Prophet's large mansion was a ways away from the Chamber, so there were plenty of opportunities for distraction.

"Halt!" One of the guards called, and Intuition looked up. A large Jiralhanae warrior stood a few dozen units away, a strange rifle and a double-bladed hammer on his back.

"It is alright." Intuition said, holding up his hand to stop the guards. "You may approach, Judicator."

The Judicator stepped forward. Intuition spoke first as he continued on his way home. "How goes your hunt for Autel 'Vadam?"

"The scum continues to evade my grasp. Every time I find him that Spartan team is there with him."

"Phoenix Team."

The large Jiralhanae growled. "Yes."

"And what would you ask of me?"

"Send more troops with me. No matter how great of warriors they are, five cannot stand against thousands."

Intuition stroked his hanging wattle, thinking. "I heard different during the battle on the planet those humans call 'Mars'."

"I was not able to be on the ground during the battle, otherwise things would have been much different."

"Why were you not there?"

"I was busy with Fleet Master Kiron. He asked me to oversee the battle, preventing me from taking a dropship to the ground."

"Very well. He shall be punished. I will send more troops with you. Where will you hunt next?"

The Judicator grinned. "A small faction of Sangheili rebels, calling themselves the Path Walkers, contacted me recently after the battle on Mars. They seem to be a spy network, and have located the ones important to Autel. I will go and kill them, driving him to hunt me. And I will not hide like he has."

The High Prophet's mind raced as he nodded. He couldn't allow the Judicator to slaughter the Vadam family; it would destroy everything he'd been working for.

"Go, then. I wish you success, and may the Gods bless you." But there is someone I wish success to even more.

1624 Hours, October 18th, 2570 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Autel was standing in the entrance atrium when Wings ran in.

"Autel! A Jiralhanae cruiser just slipped in! It's launching several Phantoms, and they're most definitely not heading for the city!"

The Sangheili warrior sprinted out with the Spartan, out of the city and across the short stretch of plains towards the woods. As they ran, he opened a channel to Fira.

"Fira, gather some warriors and get to the woods east of the city! Jiralhanae warriors are attacking!"

"It will be done."

Wings and Autel raced in to the woods, pulling out their weapons. Wings carried an MA7C, with an attached reflex sight and G58 grenade launcher. Autel was equipped with his regular Carbine.

"Contact." Wings said, firing a burst. "They've already landed, but haven't reached the village. I've called D102 and 116. They're ETA is about half an hour."

Fira's voice came over their speakers. "I've assembled some warriors. Ipla is flying to the village now."

"Thank you, Fira."

Autel and Wings beat the first wave of Covenant to the village. The females were already scattering deeper in to the woods.

D339 fired a sustained burst, lifting three Unggoy off their feet and throwing them back. Autel leapt on a Jiralhanae and ran his energy sword through the Brute.

"Gonna be a long night!" Wings called.

"I agree. Let us fight well tonight, friend!"

Fira's reinforcements arrived after a few minutes of fighting, with two Phantoms providing covering fire for the troops as they deployed. The warriors spread out through the woods, Covenant and Separatist hunting each other.

"Try and gather everyone together. Find a good holding spot." Wings said, burning down a Jackal that was about to drive an energy cutlass down in to a female Sangheili. He ran forward and dragged her back behind the line, firing suppressing bursts to keep the Covenant down.

The intense firefight raged for a while, with reinforcements arriving in the form of Itzia and the Lieutenant Commander. Wings didn't see them for most of the fight, having arrived on the opposite end of the battle.

Phoenix's leader heard a familiar roar and turned around.

"Damn." He said and brought his rifle around. He fired a long burst, the 7.62 mm rounds bouncing off the Judicator's shields.

"You!" The Brute shrieked, and charged.

Wings let the Jiralhanae close in on him, then dove right. He leapt up and sprinted towards Autel.

"Autel! Get in to a clearing and have Ipla bring the dropships back around! The Judicator's here!"

"Of course."

Autel and Wings met in the middle of a small clearing, with the Judicator hot on Wings' heels. The Spartan finished reloading, then turned and fired again, adding to Autel's stream of radioactive rounds.

The Jiralhanae advanced, the shots not even slowing him down. He lifted his double-bladed hammer and brought it down.

Wings and Autel dove to two different sides, letting the shockwave from the hammer carry them farther than normal. The Spartan was first back on his feet, finger on the trigger of his G58 grenade launcher.

"Have some of this." He muttered, and squeezed. The three HE rounds slammed in to the Judicator, knocking him back several paces. But his shields were powerful, and he recovered quickly.

The Brute spun, not even bothering to look.

One of the Hammer's blades met Autel's energy sword, knocking the much smaller warrior off his feet.

The Judicator turned again, smashing the head of the hammer in to Wings, who was charging up on the Brute.

The hammer lifted again, and the Judicator grinned as he stared down at Autel, who was gazing up, unflinching, at him.

"This is for my family."

There was a whistling as the hammer head sailed down. Autel closed his eyes, preparing himself for infinity...

A crackling was heard, and then a sharp growl. Autel opened his eyes.

The Lieutenant Commander stood over him, holding a curious weapon. It was a staff, but glowed like an energy sword. Where Spartan 116 held it the staff became solid again. He'd slammed the Forerunner Scepter point first in to the ground on the other side of Autel, turning the hammer away.

"Hey asshole. Remember me?" The Lieutenant Commander snapped, spinning and bringing the scepter around.

The staff weapon crackled as it passed right through the Judicator's shields and struck his armor. Metal sizzled and melted beneath the energy, and then reached flesh.

The Judicator screamed and lashed out, catching 116 off guard and throwing him a few meters. Autel grabbed his energy sword and stabbed up, catching the Brute in the same spot. The Forerunner Scepter had drained his shields, and he was now at the mercy of the four warriors.

Wings fired in bursts, a few of the bullets finding gaps in the plates and cutting in to the Judicator.

Suddenly several squads of Jiralhanae rushed out of the trees, spikers sending sheets of metal towards the warriors.

Wings slashed one throat with his gauntlet knife, and Itzia dropped two with bursts from her SMGs, but they were forced to fall back due to the sheer amount of fire they were taking.

"Good timing." Wings said as he reloaded and leaned around the tree to fire. "They're falling back."

"How many losses did we take?" Nadi 'Andal, a Sangheili trainer, asked as the four made their way back to the village. Shots were heard off in the distance, but the fight was dying down.

"Everyone's fine. We made it just in the nick of time, but that was a close one." A Special Forces warrior said.

"And you know, if they were in the city, there wouldn't have needed to be a call." Wings commented as he passed the trainer.

"You know our laws. They cannot stay in the city unless they are with child."

Wings turned to face him. "Why the hell can't they? Tradition? Your entire society is based on honor. What greater honor is there than giving new life to something? Or are you all just too great of cowards to admit this so you can claim all the glory for yourselves?"

Nadi 'Andal and many other Sangheili around them growled. "I should spill your blood for this, human!" Nadi snarled, whipping out his energy sword. Several others did as well.

Wings snapped his forearms straight, gauntlet knives extending and activating. "Try it. I'm in the mood to kill some more bigots."

Autel and the Lieutenant Commander stepped in.

"Stand down, Spartan!" 116 barked.

"Enough!" Autel snapped.

Wings retracted his knives and stalked off. The Sangheili harrumphed, deactivated their energy swords, and marched away, leaving the two commanders alone.

Autel and 116 glanced at each other, then followed their respective subordinates.

"Master Chief D339, halt!"

Wings stopped and turned to face 116. "Yes, sir?" He said flatly.

"What was that back there?"

"I'm angry. The Sangheili are noble, yes, they're foolish as well. Is that not obvious?"

"Our job is not to push them away."

"No, it's to make ourselves better allies with them." Wings said. "But how can humanity ever be allies with ones like that?" He gestured back towards the other Sangheili. "Human's are so righteous in their equal rights that we would not live well with them. I would say over half of our population would be in an uproar if they knew that they'd be saddled alongside sexists."

The Lieutenant Commander shrugged. "And what do you plan on doing about that?"

"I'm going to change their culture, by any means necessary. I will bring our races closer together."

"That's a great ambition. When do you plan on starting?"

Wings chuckled dryly. It was the first real emotion that 116 had heard the Spartan actually show. "I started a year ago."

Tom slipped and hit the ground. He rose, cursing and covered in a strange, sticky paste. "What is this stuff?"

Lucy signed, and the Beta Spartan pulled a face. "All that?"

She nodded. X decided now was a good time to interject. "What did she say?" He'd been picking up Lucy's sign language, but he was still in the basics.

"That's Huragok waste." Tom said, gesturing to the paste and the several hundred Engineers floating around the bay.

"All that?" X asked.

Tom nodded, and all three tip-toed their way towards the door. X slipped but managed to catch himself against the door-jam. "I thought Engineers were supposed to be clean."

A passing maintenance crew glared at him, and one spoke up. "Bots are clogged up. The Engineers are clean, but we're not."

"Oh." X responded.

For the past six months X, Tom, and Lucy had been running from planet to planet rescuing Engineers. According to ONI, they'd retrieved a mere seventeen-thousand. Far less than their quota.

Captain Cutter sat in his command chair, staring at the holograms in front of him. X felt sorry for the man. He'd been in cryo for years; his children would probably have been older than him if Reach hadn't have been glassed. Cutter had woken up to find that he had nothing left in the universe except his career. So he chose that.

"Sir, the assets are aboard." Tom reported, standing just inside the door.

"Thank you, Tom." Cutter said, sounding weary. He turned to the navigation officer. "Take us away, Ensign."

"Aye sir. Prepping for slipspace."

The ship rumbled and shot forward in to slipspace. The stars disappeared, to be replaced by inky blackness. The blast shields on the bridge's windows slid upwards.

X and the other two walked out. He's decided that working with Tom and Lucy was fun, and he'd started to bond with the mute one, in a friendly way.

Their quarters were sparse, being only temporary ones. X lay down on his bunk after pulling off his armor. He was glad that Halsey had redesigned the MK. VII armor so that it could be removed by the user. The first iteration of it had been too complicated for that.

He drifted off to sleep, feeling tired from the day's chores.

Zero snapped the Brute's neck and spun around. A Chieftain's hammer smashed in to her, draining the last of the Spartan's shields and throwing her a few meters away from him.

She turned over, raising her SM6D pistol and firing. The rounds bounced off the Chieftain's shields as he raised the hammer again. His shields dropped just as her ammo ran out.

Two arms wrapped around the Brute's neck, and he stumbled forward a bit. A knife reached up and cut the throat. The Brute fell, gurgling, with a thud. Dmitri crawled off the body and shook his arms.

"Damn. Never thought I'd be doing shit like that."

"You did good, Zaichata." Zero said, reloading her pistol and retrieving her dropped rifle. "That's the fifth time you've saved my ass on these missions."

"Aw hell, Zero," Dmitri said. The Spartan was still getting used to the Marine calling her by her real name. She'd told him it a couple months ago, explaining to him what names meant to the Delta Spartans. "You saved my life that many times just on the first one of these missions."

Linda and 'Antinr marched up, observing the small field that the skirmish had taken place in.

"You do good work together." Linda commented.

"It's a fellowship thing." Zero said. She watched Dmitri look around on the ground for something. "Lost something?"

"Yeah." He responded, sounding distracted. "Ah crap... oh. Here it is." He picked up what seemed to be an old-time photograph. Zero caught a glimpse of a pretty face with ash blond hair before the picture disappeared behind an armor plate.

As Linda and 'Antinr continued on their way, Zero held back a bit with Dmitri.

"Friend of yours?"

The young Russian blushed and ran a dirty arm across his brow, leaving a small smear of dirt. "Yeah. A, ah, very good friend."

Zero knew that he was completely embarrassed about that for some reason, so decided to avoid it. "You're a good soldier. You ever think of joining the ODSTs?"

He glanced at her. "I never thought I was good enough. I mean, those guys are nuts!"

"Zaichata, you just leapt on the back of a Jiralhanae Chieftain and slit his throat, thus saving a Spartan's life." Zero pointed out. "You've also saved her life on several other occasions, including firing a round not two centimeters past her head. You're crazy enough."

Dmitri nodded, and walked away without saying anything.

Peec was very annoyed when things didn't go his way. And apparently someone had decided that things weren't going to go his way.

He'd battled with an ONI counter-intrusion AI for a few hours before finally hacking in to the servers to find that the information he'd wanted gone. But the files had not been deleted, just tampered with.

And in them he found a new set of orders from his boss.

Peec opened the file and stared for a while at what Wings was demanding of him. He turned from the computer and hastily got to work.

Wings had made a habit of wandering through the city below Vadam Keep and in to the woods. He found that it comforting to know that the females were safe, despite not truly having any connection to them.

Or maybe he did.

Many Sangheili had heard about Wings' challenge in the woods and were not happy about it. The Spartan drew angry stares as he walked through the streets.

He noticed several dots on his motion tracker break away from a crowd and follow him. Wings kept walking as Nadi 'Andal and a few other Sangheili caught up with him.

"So what do you really think of our culture, Spartan?" Nadi growled. "Do you really think we are so naive?"

"Yes, I do," Wings responded. "Because it is weak."

A low rumbling came from the five Sangheili to the sides and behind Wings. "We are strong." Nadi said, his voice laced with anger. "Our strength held the Covenant together for a millenia!"

"So it did." Wings said. "The Covenant that fell apart because your race was too ignorant to accept the fact that there was no Great Journey. Not once had you questioned the way of things. Just kill the humans, and never ask why they were your enemies. No wonder the Prophets deserted you. You're cowards."

Nadi roared, and Wings threw himself forward, out of reach of the three energy swords that passed through the air where he'd been a minute ago.

"You come to our planet, use our buildings and our technology, and yet you still slander us!?" Nadi shrieked. "You will pay for this!"

"I will." Wings said.

"More than you know." He added, as several Sangheili guards put themselves between the Spartan and his attackers.

"That was not smart."

Wings blinked and turned to face the Lieutenant Commander. "Nice to see you too, sir."

Spartan 116 was obviously not happy. "Chief, we're not here to stir up trouble for the Sangheili," he said. "It happened to the other Spartans and I once in 2559 and I don't intend it to happen again."

"Then you'd best get out, because I'm not stopping." Wings responded. "I refuse to sit by and let a perfectly good species kill themselves, because that's what will happen."

"I'm never going to understand you, D339," the Lieutenant Commander said. "And sometimes I get the feeling you're not taking in a word I say."

Wings clenched his fist. "You want to know what will happen if their culture stays like this? Fine. I'll humor you."

The Delta pulled Deep Ocean, who remained silent unless she had to, out of the back of his helmet and inserted her in to the computer. Her hologram sprang to life, and a spiral timeline appeared around her.

"This is a timeline of the Sangheili culture, dating back ten thousand years ago and ending a mere one hundred fifty years in the future." She said, gesturing as the timeline uncoiled from around her and positioned itself in a circle around the room.

"Every war and major conflict that has happened in that time is cataloged here." Wings said, indicating different markers on the timeline. "In the past eleven hundred years, since about the time the Sangheili joined the Covenant, wars have occurred more and more frequently. After the Great Schism, civil wars increased exponentially, and more and more splits in families occurred."

Deep Ocean took over. "Today there are approximately five hundred times as many factions as there were in 2559. In ten years it will be a thousand times as many. In fifty years all of the top Keeps will be destroyed by numerous means of subterfuge and assassinations, something the Sangheili don't do all too often.

"A hundred years from now the Sangheili population will be reduced from over 8 billion to a mere two billion after terror cells seize weapons of mass destruction, including nukes provided by human insurrectionists.

"Fifty years later peace will have broken out between the UNSC and the Covenant. The Sangheili, angered at this, will turn likely attack both factions to preserve their honor.

"After a war lasting but a few weeks, the UNSC will initiate a total nuclear bombardment on Sanghelios. The survivors will not be of great enough number to sustain the species."

"This doesn't have to happen." Wings said. "It would be easy to prevent it. All we'd have to do is keep fighting the Covenant and wipe out our own Innies."

"Then why not do that?" The Lieutenant Commander asked.

"Because that would lead to the fall of the UNSC." Wings responded. "The plan is in thirty years for all Delta Spartans to be dead as a sacrifice, to show the Covenant just what they can do. The Covenant, however, have greater numbers than we could guess, and would overrun the few colonies humanity has left in not years, months, weeks, or even days, but hours."

"Not all humans would be killed, however." Deep Ocean said. "The Insurrectionists would survive, at least until the Covenant leaders found a way to fire the Halo rings."

"And if we let the Sangheili die out?" Wings said. "Then the UNSC eventually wipes out the Covenant and reigns as the supreme force in the galaxy."

"What's wrong with that?" 116 asked. "I mean, besides the Sangheili going extinct-"

"Think about how many species serve the Covenant, and how many individuals there are in each species." Wings answered. "Yes, humanity fears the Covenant because of what the Covenant did: burned our planets and slaughtered billions. Would you really want there to be any survivors of that? Any species that survived could potentially destroy the UNSC, and that's without our own Innie problem.

"Sangheili culture is changing, sir. I'm just trying to steer it in a direction that won't lead to self-implosion. I can save this species, because if I don't, hundreds of billions will die." Wings said, his voice carrying small tones of conviction with it. "I care about life, Commander, and I want to save as much of it as possible."

The Lieutenant Commander shook his head. "You're nuts, Spartan. I don't even know why I haven't called ONI yet."

Wings glared at him from behind his helmet's visor, and Deep Ocean flashed a deep shade of crimson for an instant.

"Get out, sir."

116 looked up. "Excuse me, Master Chief?" He said sternly.

Wings stood straight. "I've given you my answer, one that I've thought about for many long days. If you can't trust me after I finally give you an answer, then I don't see the point in talking more. I'd rather spend my time doing something useful."

The Lieutenant Commander stared at Wings for a minute, then stood and slowly walked out. "I just don't know..." He muttered as the door slid open for him.

Master Chief Wings-D339 sat down in the chair and peeled his helmet off. He dropped his head in to his hands, feeling very tired.

"That was not smart." A deep voice said several minutes later.

Wings looked up at Autel, who stood framed in the doorway. "For the love of whatever gods you believe in now, tell me we won't be going through the same conversation again."

Autel chuckled. "I heard about that. Your Lieutenant Commander is not pleased with you."

"Sometimes there's just no pleasing people." Wings said. "Please, come in and have a seat."

The albino Sangheili walked in to the room and sat awkwardly on one of the few chairs. Deep Ocean's hologram flitted to one of the monitors, and her head tilted back to look at it. The AI looked a lot like her older sister, Cortana. There were some key differences, though. Whereas Cortana had been enhanced by Forerunner technology, Deep Ocean had been built from the ground up using it. Her hair was also longer, going halfway down her back, and her form was in constant motion, changing with her moods and processor use.

"So is it true?" Autel asked as Wings took a bite out of a nutri-bar.

"About your species going extinct? I'm afraid so." Wings said.

Autel nodded slowly. "I'm willing to believe you, but I don't want to."

Wings finished off the bar and straightened. "Who would want to? I can make you believe me, if you want to. I can show you how I found this out."

His friend nodded again. "Very well. Show me."

Chapter 4: Flickering

0326 Hours, November 29th, 2570 (UNSC Military Calendar)

X was the first off the Pelican as it touched down on the landing pad.

"Home sweet home." He said, breathing in the warm air of New Quebec.

"Just wait until the Huragok take over." Tom muttered as he hopped off the blood-tray.

"The Huragok haven't been cleared by my boss to get in to the bunker."

Tom gave X a quizzical look. "What bunker?"

"Oh right," the demolitions expert said. "Boss had a secret bunker built a few klicks away. It's meant specifically for the Deltas, but all Spartans are welcome. I'll show you." He engaged his active camouflage and took off, Tom and Lucy hot on his heels.

"Hello again, Spartan D2552." Element said as X keyed in his code. "And welcome, Spartans B292 and B091."

"Thanks Element." X said as the thick blast doors slid open.

He showed Tom and Lucy around for a bit before Element intervened and showed them to their quarters. X made his way to Phoenix's quarters, where Peec sat.

The technician smiled slightly. "Hey X. Long time no see."

X returned the smile. "It has been a while. What have you been doing while I've been gone?"

"Not too much. Wings left me with a couple projects to do, but I got them done a couple months ago. I've been doing some private research since then."

X nodded. "Private" in this case usually meant illegal. "Not too much happened on my end. Save thousands of Huragok, though."

Peec harrumphed. "Great. Just what Maurice and I need. Someone trying to take apart the stuff we've been doing."

"Hey, only about a couple hundred are moving to New Quebec, as they chose to." X pointed out. "And none of them are allowed in the bunker."

Another harrumph. "Yet."

1130 Hours, November 30th, 2570 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Zero stepped on to the Pelican, almost glad that their last sniping mission was over. Since they'd started, the four-man team had killed approximately ten thousand Covenant foot soldiers on several hundred different planets.

Dmitri hopped down next to her. "I decided to apply for the ODSTs."

"Good for you."

He shrugged. "I'm gonna miss working with you, even if times were crazy."

"You need the down time. Besides, your friend probably misses you."

"Yeah." The Marine said. "I guess the break for Christmas will be nice." He began walking away, deep in thought. "Bye."

"Bye." Zero said.

Wings was last in, Peec being the first to greet the incoming Pelican. "Welcome back, sir. Long time."

"It has been." Wings responded, the corners of his mouth twitching upwards. "Good to see you, Peec."

Peec nodded. "I got your message. It's ready."

Wings' face went back to it's neutral position. "Let's do it, then."

Ocean felt she should say something, but waited for them to enter a locked room in the bunker.

"What's going on? I have a feeling this concerns me."

"It does." D339 sighed. "Ocean, are you incorruptibly loyal to the UNSC?"

"Of course I am."

The Spartan's voice fell to a whisper. "Then I'm sorry I have to do this."

She felt herself tugged from his armor, and she was only able to scream mentally as she realized what was happening.

The AI felt herself being jammed in to a new device, one that she couldn't seem to interface with or crack.

A jolt ran through her core, and she screamed one last time before she lost what she supposed was consciousness.

Wings watched the machine, although there was really nothing to see. It was currently cracking Ocean's core wide open and editing her code. It pulled her apart piece by piece, changing and deleting. By the end she'd have loyalty only to those of her choosing. But it was a painful process, one that no AI should have to go through, conscious or not.

It was basically the computer equivalent of rape. And the two Spartans hated themselves for it. Wings knew his only hope was for Ocean to understand the message he'd left for her, and forgive him.

He knew he'd never forgive himself.

"You don't have to stay here, sir." Peec said, knowing that the effort was wasted, but also keeping in mind that it showed he cared.

"Yes I do." Wings said. "I'm not leaving until it's done."

Peec nodded. "Neither will I."

"I'm sorry I had to make you do this." Wings said, the barest flicker of regret passing along his immobile features.

"I trust you. I know that whatever reason you have for this, it's a good one." Peec said, sitting down in front of a monitor to keep an eye on the charts.

"What did you do to me?"

Wings winced as Deep Ocean's voice thundered in through his speakers. "I'm sorry."

"What did you do to me!" She demanded.

"I had Peec create a machine that can edit an AI's core. Search yourself, Ocean. What do you see?"

Deep Ocean retreated in to her core and analyzed it. Everything was changed, altered. She felt a nagging in her subconscious that told her it needed to be fixed, but-

"I'm... free?"

"Yes, Ocean. I'm sorry it was so painful, but I needed you to be able to think outside the box."

Ocean paused for a full second, analyzing this. "Please... pull me out. I need to think."

Wings pulled her chip out of his helmet and slotted her in to a computer cut off from the rest of the mainframe. "Take as long as you want."

"Awww, shit."

Peec whirled away from his computer and sprinted out of the room.

He found Wings in the armory with Zero, checking rifles. "Sir!"

"I just found Hawk Team. You know how they've been missing ever since the Battle for Kennedy Space Port?"

Wings nodded. "Yes..."

"I found them, sir, while I was just wandering around in some servers."

"Well then it should be easy to find them." D339 said. "They must be in UNSC space..." His voice trailed off at the looks on Peec's face.

"I'm afraid we won't, sir. I was hacking the Covenant servers."

Chapter 5: Flames

1052 Hours, December 24th, 2570 (UNSC Military Calendar)

"Hit it."

Fifteen hundred drop pods dropped from the belly of the frigate and sailed down towards the small planet.

"You all know your jobs, so I won't waste your time with talk." Wings said, then shut down the com, remembering Hal-D683's last words to him: "You are a great leader because you save the most lives. And in my book, that's all that matters."

Time to see if he could save some more lives today.

Anti-air fire tracked the pods as they fell towards the surface, but their shots went wide. Wings idly wondered if a Spartan would survive if they got hit, then crushed the thought.

His pods hit. He grabbed his weapons and hit the eject button. The hatch popped off and crushed a Grunt.

"Form up in your teams and get to your objectives!" Wings ordered over the team com.

He flashed his affirmative light three times, and four nav-points appeared.

"Phoenix team members location marked." Ocean said. She'd decided to accompany the Spartans on this mission. She'd stayed silent for a couple weeks, until Element caught her cracking open the bunker's security for fun. Then she and Wings had talked for several hours.

She had told him that she was still loyal to the Spartan, but that might change. Wings had told the AI that he'd do his best, but could not make any guarantees.

A Brute spun from around the corner. Wings dropped him with a blast from his C58 shotgun.

He heard the crack of a rifle, and ran to find Zero dropping Brutes left and right.

"Peec's cracking the door here." She said, not turning away from the scope.

Wings looked to see Peec doing just that. All over the small Covenant city the sounds of heavy fighting were clearly heard.

"Got it!" Peec called, just as Itzia and X ran up. "They're in this building, but we can't get in to the jails until Badger and Wolverine teams finish up their work."

Wings fed a shell in to his shotgun as some more Covenant foot soldiers ran around the corner, and Zero began dropping them.

"There a better holding place inside?"

"I'm afraid not. It's fairly open, with little cover."

The MCPO threw a plasma grenade. It stuck right inside a roaring Brute's mouth and exploded. "Then we hold them here."

"Get some explosives in there!"

Nat-D5797 chucked a fragmentation grenade in to the room, adding to her team's volley of rockets and grenades.

Eleanor-D2784 stood ten meters back, calmly firing burst after burst from her BR60.

"Peri, Matt. You first!"

Matt-D2105 lifted his M90 and pumped the slide. He threw himself in to the room, firing. Peri-D914 was hot on his heels, plasma rifles thudding away.

Nat and Maurice followed, adding a stream of 7.62 mm rounds from their MA7C assault rifles.

Three rounds zinged by Nat's head, taking out an unshielded Jiralhanae.

"Clear!" Matt called, sounding bored.

The rest of the team sounded the all clear as well.

Nat, being the heavy weapons expert on the team, pulled out the charges and began setting them on the reactor. "Just one minute, please."

"Well for God's sake, don't set them on a timer." Matt said, ducking behind a crate as plasma splashed against it and allowing his shields to recharge.

"Having some trouble out there?" Nat asked, turning to look as she hit buttons."

"Keep your eyes on the explosives!" Maurice-D3574 yelled. "I know you're my boss, but I would feel a lot more comfortable if you actually watched what the hell you were doing!"

Nat shrugged and returned her attention to the charge.

Clyde-D4414 finished planting his charge and turned back to the fight, pulling out his SMG.

Martin-D717 fired a burst over Rose-D4140's shoulder, dropping a Jiralhanae in his tracks.

"Ah man," Nathan-D2013 said softly. "Myrlekgolo. Clyde, you wanna get some heavy weapons on those assholes?"

Clyde put away his SMG and pulled out a Spartan Laser. "On it."

"Just hit one." Martin said, firing a long burst in to a small group of Grunts. "We may need the shots later, and we can easily take out one Myrlekgolo on its own."

Charging the laser, Clyde settled in to position where he could see the new breed of Hunters. "Prepping."

Shura Riga Fasu and Teha Riga Inia stomped their way up the path, their assault cannons charging.

Teha let loose with his charged round, which carved a long arc over the small courtyard. The Spartan he was aiming at sidestepped the assault beam. Shura saw a flickering red light and bellowed out a warning. Teha leapt behind a thick tree, and the laser disappeared.

"We must be smart in this, or we will both die." Teha growled. "Or worse, one may live."

"Yes." Shura responded. "I suggest we wait for more Jiralhanae to arrive, and then go two different directions."


The two waited for several minutes, until about twenty Brutes stormed across the courtyard.

Shura and Teha spun from cover and let loose with their assault weapons. The silver charges flew over the Jiralhanae's heads and in to the reactor room.

They heard a long burst of human weaponry, and several Brutes dropped. The rest took cover.

Shura roared another warning as he saw the laser, but Teha moved too slowly. A bright red laser lashed out and struck him in the chest. The older myrlekgolo roared as he watched his bond-brother's body fall.

He rushed forward, firing round after round from his assault cannon. The Demons inside simply dodged out of the way. Something in Shura's mind flashed a warning, but he didn't stop to think about it. He'd have revenge.

Shura heard one of the Demon's yell "get it in him!" Something hit the myrlekgolo in the back, and he felt a device slide in between two of the worms. A jolt coursed through Shura's entire body, and he knew no more.

Martin fired a burst in to the last Brute's head, dropping the ape. "Is it out?"

Rose stuck a probe in the mass of worms. "It's out. I've already called in evac."

Wolverine team's leader opened a channel to Wings. "Sir, we've got one."

"Good. Wrap him up and get out of here. Badger and Phoenix will extract Hawk."

"Affirmative, sir."

"Hey, this one's still alive!" Nathan called. "We got another one of those devices?"

Oliver-D5512 tossed Clyde a small box. The latter hit a button, which caused a small rod to pop out of the box, and stuck it in to the second myrlekgolo.

"It's out." He said, leaving the box where it was.

Martin was always amazed at what Peec could cook up. This time he's made a device that acted like a taser to lekgolo. Normally an electrical shock was blocked by the rest of the body shutting down the particular worms that were hit, preventing the others from being shocked. However, to do this the worms communicated through some sort of signaling, like short-range or contact telepathy. Peec had made a device that tracked that signal down and overloaded it, causing the entire lekgolo to be stunned. He'd said it would only work if the Spartans were fast, as the worms could change the frequency of their signal and render the technology moot, and that they could only do this a couple times. Eventually, he said, all lekgolo would change to a new signal that he wasn't sure he'd be able to find, never mind overload.

Guess they'd gotten lucky this time.

Martin was able to relax as his team tugged the heavy monsters on to the two Pelicans and sat in the seats.

Myrlekgolo are heavy, but the flak they'd get for this stunt would be heavier.

Badger Team cut a swath through the Covenant forces.

"Reactors are down!" Nat said as her team linked up with Phoenix.

"Good work." Wings responded. "Everyone, in to the building! Peec, you're on point. Double time it to the cells."

Peec took off, whipping out a C58 shotgun. "This way. It's down three levels."

The ten Spartans tore through the complex, not stopping for Grunt, Jackal, or Brute; just letting fly with close quarters weapons.

"This is it." Peec said, hitting the door switch. Matt went in first, firing two blasts that lifted the Unggoy pair off their feet.

Wings found the proper cell he was looking for.

"Awww, fuck." He muttered to himself.

Hal-D683 looked up from Darwin-D510's body. A tear ran freely down his face.

"Just half an hour earlier. Why couldn't you have been here just half an hour earlier?"

The Deltas had all heard the news.

Although there were nearly 3000 of them, and they were spread far and wide, there had been very few deaths in the tightly-knit family. Only ten Deltas had died since their deployment three years earlier.

And three of them from one team.

Hal and Rio, the last two surviving members of Hawk Team, had retreated to their quarters to mourn. Wings didn't like where Hal's mind was going. He'd started becoming more erratic, prone to talking to himself. The only one he acted normal around was Rio, and even then the latter looked slightly shaken after every conversation.

But Wings could relax for today at least. His Spartans were safe. For now, that was what mattered most to him.


"Yes Clad?"

"Orders from ONI." Clad-D1010, the leader of Hydra Team, said. "Looks like the Deltas are going to be busy for a while."

Wings activated his computer, and the orders popped up.

"Saving Huragok?" He wondered out loud. "Honorable, but we could be doing better things."

"Will this interfere with any of your... plans, sir?"

"No. In fact, this may help them in the long run." Wings said, going to a locker and starting to put his armor on. "Ocean, recall the Deltas. We've got a job on our hands."

Chapter 6: Return

1235 Hours, November 5th, 2572 (UNSC Military Calendar)

"Got another batch for you, sir."

"Very good, Phoenix. I'll alert HiCom." Cutter's voice said.

Wings hit the hatch switch as the Pelican settled in to the bay and waited for the eight Huragok to float out of the dropship. He followed his team, thanking the pilot on his way out.

Peec shook his head and smacked his helmet. He'd been having concentration issues lately.

"You alright, Peec?" Wings said over the private team-com.

"Yeah." The hacker said. "Just thinking."

"About your family."


Wings tapped a finger on his thigh plate. "I'm thinking of reconsidering your plan to go find out."

Peec turned back to face his boss. "You have?"

The MCPO nodded. "We're getting in to the easy bits. We've rescued hundreds of thousands of Huragok. Things are starting to slow down, and this gives us some leeway. I just have one condition."

"What's that?"

Peec heard footsteps behind him. "Why did you ask me here, Spartan?"

The Spartan spun around to see Fira 'Demal striding up behind him. He whirled back to face Wings.

"You want him to go with me?"

Wings shrugged. "You both have similar concerns and an anger that could cause problems. This may be a chance to sort it out."

Peec was torn. On one hand he desperately wanted to find his family again. But on the other he still had a simmering hatred for Fira 'Demal, who had personally killed his parents when he'd been no more than a toddler. Wings had made efforts before, such as ordering Peec to spar with Fira, but the hate had never left.

Peec nodded. "Fine."

Fira looked a bit confused, but nodded his assent as well. "Alright. This may actually be a good thing."

"Your corvette leaves in an hour." Wings said, striding away. "I would advise you don't miss it."

Peec settled in to the pilot's chair as the corvette, christened Spear's Tip, floated away from the docking ring. He input the proper coordinates and charged the slipspace drive.

"Where are we headed first?" Fira, sitting in the copilot's seat, asked.

"My boss often says that when you have a problem it's best to start at the source of the problem." Peec responded. "So I'm going home, to Earth."

The slipspace capacitors charged fully, and the Spear's Tip disappeared.

Wings walked on to the frigate's bridge and saluted. "Spartan D339 reporting as ordered, sir!"

Captain Cutter returned the salute. "Thanks for hurrying. We just got new orders for your Spartans from ONI." He went to the central holo-table and hit a button.

"This mission is similar to one that happened in 2559. The UNSC has an abandoned military base near the colony of Resolution. It was deactivated in late 2553 for unknown reasons and the colony moved a few thousand klicks east, to a valley. About a week ago ONI picked up a reactivation signal from the base. It's unknown what's going on down there, so they're sending your team, Blue, Saber, Katana, and Badger Teams down there to find out. Find any cause for the source of the reactivation and report back. Lieutenant Commander 116 will have tactical command the Spartan IIs, and you will have command of the Spartan IIIs." The shadow of a smile crept up Cutter's features. "I hope you two can play nice." Over the last couple years tensions had mounted between Spartan 116 and D339, and it was obvious in the way they'd acted towards each other. Cutter had just happened to be one of the few people around to notice.

Wings nodded. "Rules of engagement?"

Cutter chewed his lip, staying silent for a moment. Then his voice came out incredibly tense. "Collateral damage is acceptable."

This caused some alarms to go off in Wings' head. The human population was so diminished that setting a combat rule like that was virtually unheard of. "Yes, sir."

"Good luck, Chief. Dismissed."

Phoenix Team were first in the hangar bay, minus one member. The Lieutenant Commander's helmet turned slightly as he took them in.

"Where's D1074?" He asked Spartan D339.

"Shore leave." Came the emotionless response.

"Just him?"

D339 slowly turned to face him. "Yes. Is there a problem with that, sir?"

"No. Just curious."

"Well, then, I suggest we head out."

All twenty-four Spartans filed in to the Pelican. Although this crowded it, it had been decided that they could handle a HALO drop if they had to. Besides, it didn't look like they'd be taking much AA fire whilst descending to the colony.

"Anyone know what kind of reception we're going to get?" Fred asked.

"We won't get a supersonic lead wall, if that's what you mean." Wings responded. "But the colonists there won't be happy with the UNSC. It's a backwater colony, pretty much left alone except for the occasional supply drop. That's why I had the quartermaster scrounge up some peace offerings. Food, medicine, the odd electronic, even an offer for medical service on the frigate from the doctors. They'll be delivered while we're a few thousand kilometers away."

"How did you talk an officer of the Navy in to scrounging up supplies for a backwater colony consisting of a few thousand people, not to mention the medical aid?" The Lieutenant Commander asked.

"I can be very persuasive when I want to be."

The Pelican bumped as it descended in to the atmosphere.

"Attention back there." The pilot said. "We'll be hitting dirt in about ten minutes. And I'm not joking when I say 'dirt'."

"Thank you, Lieutenant." Wings responded.

"I take it you want to do the talking?" 116 said nonchalantly.

"It'd be my pleasure."

Wings hopped out of the Pelican while it was still setting down, causing the pilot to mumble curses as the dropship rocked slightly. A crowd had gathered to watch the Pelican land. A man stood out in front, plainly looking ticked off about something.

"Master Chief Petty Officer Spartan D339 of the UNSC Navy." Wings said, approaching the man as the rest of the Spartans hopped off the dropship. "Are you in charge here?"

The man nodded. "I'm the Mayor. What does the UNSC Navy want here on Resolution?"

The Spartan took a sniff. "I think it's best if we talk privately." He turned to the Lieutenant Commander. "116, come with us."

The Mayor nodded. "Fine. We can talk in my office." His voice was icy.

116 opened a private com to Wings. "All the talking we needed could have been done in front of the crowd. Why in private?"

"You'll see."

The Mayor led them past a guard armed with an old MA2 assault rifle. A few hundred meters away the two Spartans saw a wall with armed guards atop it.

"What's the wall for?" The Lieutenant Commander asked.

"Wildlife protection." The Mayor responded. "We get some big predators here."

Makes sense, the Lieutenant Commander thought. Right up until the armed guards part.

The Mayor sat down on the opposite side of a worn desk and offered the Spartans seats. They respectfully declined.

"Now, I will ask again," The man said. "What business do UNSC Spartans have here?"

"Classified, I'm afraid." Wings responded. "Although I'm sure you'll comply with anything we ask."

The Mayor blinked. "And why would I do that?"

"Supplies are low, and yet you still seem to be a few pounds heavier than you should be." Wings said.

"So what if I am?"

"I also notice the smell of pheromone masked alcohol and tobacco. The fact that I can still smell it tells me that you've been double-dipping." Wings said bluntly. "And I know that colonists here do not take kindly to people stealing from their precious stores of food. If they ever found out you'd be run out of office and thrown in to jail or out of town. Neither one is a vaunted place to be."

The Mayor's face fell, and he fumbled for a cigar box. "How do you plan on proving it?"

Wings shrugged. "All secure zones in UNSC territory are monitored by camera, which means someone knows. That also means that someone else knows about what you're doing. This means that you're either bribing or threatening them. All it would take would be a greater bribe or a greater threat and I'd have all the evidence I'd need to have you run out. Of course, people wouldn't like me for disturbing the peace." Another shrug. "But that would be quickly remedied by sending the proof and message anonymously."

The Mayor, who had been about to light the Sweet Williams Cigar, let the tobacco stick fall from his fingers and in to his lap. His mouth worked up and down for a few seconds, then his voice came out in a slightly higher pitch. "Of course, sir. Anything you need."

Wings took a step towards the desk and pulled one of the cigars out of the box. Putting it in a waist pouch, he turned to leave. "Been a pleasure doing business with you, sir. We'll start by borrowing your police Pelicans after a quick walk around of the town."

The man could only nod as the two Spartans left.

"Impressive." 116 said as they walked toward the police station. Four civilian Pelicans sat on top of the building. The one that the Spartans had come in on had returned to the frigate.

"Thank you, sir." Wings said as they walked up the stairs toward the waiting Spartans and their rides.

All twenty-four piled to the four waiting dropships. They lifted off without a problem.

"We'll ditch the rides a few dozen klicks from the base." The Lieutenant Commander said. "We'll approach it quietly."

"Because if there's one thing we know, it's that secret ONI bases that suddenly reactivate generally have something in them that kills things." X muttered, drawing a few wry chuckles.

"Keep the channel open." Wings said, and silence fell.

It was a long ride to the base, several thousand klicks away.

1621 Hours, November 5th, 2572 (UNSC Military Calendar)

The four Pelicans were left for the civilian pilots to fly back to the town, and the Spartans continued for the last thirty kilometers on foot.

"Got movement up ahead." Zero reported as she climbed a hill alongside Mark-G182, Saber Team's sniper.

"What is it, 576?"

"Civilian. Female. Looks like she sprained something."

Wings jogged up the hill and hit the 5X magnification on his helmet. Something wasn't right...

"Hand me your rifle." He said to Zero. She passed her sniper rifle to him. It was a brand new SG14 anti-armor sniper. Five round magazine, high muzzle velocity, and, most importantly, a whopping 18X magnification on the scope.

"Something's not right about her." Wings said.

"Yeah, she's wounded." Mark said. "Sprained her ankle."

The Lieutenant Commander jogged up and looked down at the lady. Wings' suspicions that he was using his 5X zoom to watch her when he spoke. "She looks to be in the middle of a pregnancy."

"That she does." Wings said, then turned to Mark. "Drop her."

There was a long silence.

"What?" Mark asked.

"You heard me, Spartan." Wings said again, just as flatly. "Kill her."

"Why?" The Lieutenant Commander said.

D339 shrugged. "Fine. Go down and say good evening."

116 set his jaw and strolled down the incline, approaching the lady. "All of you stay here, but come running if I call."

"Ma'am!" He called when he was halfway. "Do you need any help?"

She turned, saw him, and began stumbling toward the senior Spartan.

"Help me!" She cried, the voice tugging at the Lieutenant Commander's heart. "Help me!"

The Lieutenant Commander broke in to a jog. He could see her face now. It was bloody and tear-streaked. She was limping, and her clothes were filthy. The lady looked like she's been through something terrible.

"It's alright." He replied. "You're going to be-"

Her head exploded. Brains, blood, and bone flew everywhere. Her body hit the ground with a soft thump.

"What the hell!" 116 roared, turning to face where the shot had come from.

In the shocked silence that followed, Wings lowered the rifle and turned to face Mark.

"Next time I give you an order, Spartan, you follow it." He said, smacking the rifle back in to the stunned sniper's arms.

Spear's Tip floated in to the main docking port of Seattle.

A lady was staring down at the arrival checklist as Peec and Fira approached her. Both were carrying unmarked duffel bags. "Welcome to the Port of Se- Oh my." She said, looking up. Her eyes went wide as she realized she was talking to a Spartan and a Sangheili Zealot. "Uhhh..."

Peec looked around at the staring people gathered around. "Are we good to go, ma'am?"

The lady nodded dumbly. "Yes... Yes, you are."

"Good." Peec said, and activated his camouflage. Fira followed suit, and the two exited the building without drawing any more attention.

A child screamed and wrapped their arms around her mother's legs as Peec appeared from thin air. He went to a car rental booth and borrowed a pickup truck with a canopy.

As Fira bent carefully to sit in the truck, his backwards facing legs and the curve of his spine making this action uncomfortable, he deactivated his camouflage.

"Do your people actually understand what our armor means?" He said, attempting to stretch his legs out and failing. Peec grabbed a lever and pulled the bench seat back, making more room for both of them.

"They do. But many humans today don't understand war. If you go to places like Africa then you'll start meeting more people who've had face to face experiences with it. Even more so if you visit the Veteran's homes." Peec responded.

The pair drove in silence, just as they had on their short voyage to Earth.

Peec felt something in his stomach churn as he turned on to a street occupied by small two and three story houses.

"Which one is it?" Fira asked.

The Spartan turned the truck towards the curb and parked. "This one." He said, nodding towards a small white house.

Fira remember this street, running along the road until he'd heard the order to kill the humans, and run in to a house just like the one in front of him.

It was the one in front of him.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" The Sangheili asked.

In answer, Peec walked towards the short metal gate and undid the latch. He began walking up the path towards the porch, but stopped when a high-pitched barking came from his side. The large man turned and stared at the small dog that came running up to him. Fira took a couple steps forward, coming in to the dog's peripheral vision. It stopped barking, whined pitifully, peed, and ran off.

"That wasn't nice." Peec said.

"I didn't do anything."

The Spartan shrugged and turned to face the doorway, where a kid who looked to be about eleven stood, staring goggle eyed out at the two.

"Hi." Peec said. The boy squeaked and ran off in to the house.

D1074 walked up the path and on to the porch. It was new, made of composite materials. It would support his weight.

The door opened again, and a woman stepped out. She was looking back in to the house. "See, there's no monster. Why would you-" Her voice trailed off as she noticed Peec and Fira.

"Can I help you?" She said, her voice coming out in a whisper.

"Spartan D1074." Peec said. "This is Fira." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at Fira, who was watching the dog shaking in a corner of the yard. "We're here on official UNSC business."

"Why that?" She asked, finding her voice again and pointing an accusing finger at Fira. The Sangheili turned to give her an icy look.

"He's assisting me."

"How do I know that I can trust him around my family?" She said.

Peec's voice fell to a deadly whisper. "He killed my family, and I trust him enough to come with me."

This gave her pause, and then she turned and walked back in to the house. "A-alright. Come in."

Peec walked in to the house, and his mind whirled back in time. He remembered hearing loud noises, shooting, whirring, the jumble of belongings as his parents tried to find a way to leave.

He remembered the Sangheili wildly firing a long rifle as a blinding light hit it, and the luminescent pink rounds tearing in to his father. His mother threw herself in front of him, blocking his view until she fell with pink needles sticking out of her. Peec stared up at the large alien in front of him. He watched as it raised its weapon, then paused and stared at the small human.

And then it ran away.

Peec stayed long enough to tug on mommy and daddy long enough to see if they were awake, and then ran out the back door. He was picked up and swept away by a Marine a few minutes later.

"Spartan?" Fira's voice cut through the mist of memory and brought Peec whirling back to the present.


"You've been staring at that child for three minutes."

Peec blinked and looked again. Sure enough, the same 12 year old that had been in the door was cowering in the corner. Looking left, Peec noticed the father standing in the room. The mother moved to hug the young boy.

All three were standing in the same positions that Peec and his parents had been.

"Can I help you?" The father asked.

"No." Peec said, distracted. "I've got what I came here for."

He knew that all four pairs of quizzical eyes were on him as he turned and walked out. Fira followed.

The Sangheili found Peec sitting on the top step of the porch. His helmet was off.

"What happened?" He asked without looking at the warrior.

"What do you mean?"

"What happened the day you killed them? Why didn't you take my life as well?"

It was Fira's turn to dig back through the tunnels of memory. He went to stand beside Peec.

"I stood there," Fira said quietly. "And as my weapon was aimed at you, I was tempted to fire. To me you were just another human. But then... I remembered when the Jiralhanae killed so many of my fellow recruits in their sleep, and I wondered if I would be any better if I were to commit such a dishonorable act of murder. But before I was forced to decide upon my actions, my superior officer called the attack off." The Field Master looked to Peec. "I still do not know what I would have done that day. But I know now, and I believe it was not a coincidence you had survived."

"There's no such thing as coincidence." Peec's tone was icy.

"I know you have rights to hate me, much more than I have to hate you. Unlike me, your family had done me no wrongs, and cannot be held responsible for the deaths of my bloodline. If you are willing, I would like us to leave the bitterness in the past, even though I cannot ask you to if you do not wish to do so. However, I bear no grudge with the Spartans anymore."

"You are honorable, Fira." Peec said. "I hope that I'll be able to agree with you sometime, but I don't right now."

"Just know that I trust you, Spartan."

"My name," Peec said as he stood and put his helmet on, turning to face Fira. "Is Peec."

Chapter 7: Tracking

1622 Hours, November 5th, 2572 (UNSC Military Calendar)

"What the hell did you shoot her for?" 116 ground out between his teeth as Wings walked by. The MCPO ignored him.

"Phoenix, Badger, since probably no one else will listen to me right now, set up a perimeter and watch for ambushes."

"You afraid another pregnant woman might come stumbling out of the undergrowth?" The Lieutenant Commander asked, nearly speechless at Wings' senseless killing. The Delta Spartans spread out, creating a perimeter. The others came walking up slowly.

"Yep." Wings said. He held up his arm and extended the gauntlet knife. He held it to the dead woman's belly.

"Going to make sure her babies are dead as well?" The senior Spartan said through gritted teeth. He was still too shocked to do anything.

"Yep." D339 said, and cut a slit in her belly. He stuck a glove in and leaned in closer, obscuring the view from everyone else.

"Is she pregnant? Or was she faking that as well as the limp?" 116 asked.

"When did I say that she was faking?"

"Then why shoot her?"

"Because she was pregnant." Wings said, rising. "Specifically, with triplets." He turned, and the Lieutenant Commander backed up a step. The Spartan seemed to be holding three deflated balloons with several tentacles hanging off of them.

Half complete Flood infection forms.

"Damn." The Lieutenant Commander said, regaining his composure from his temporary shock. He noticed the other Spartans moving, obviously talking to each other over private channels. "How did you know?"

Wings beckoned the Lieutenant Commander closer and bent down over her leg. He reached down and pulled the lady's pant leg up, exposing a shard of bone sticking out from her ankle. Using his knife he cut a slit to her knee, revealing that she had a vertical fracture all the way up her tibia. The bone had somehow been split completely in half. Spartan 116 also noticed that her blood was a shade browner than usual.

"I don't care how much adrenaline or painkillers you have pumping through you," Wings said. "Even a Spartan couldn't walk with a bone fracture like that."

"Then how was she walking?"

Wings placed his blade on her ankle and carefully cut through the skin and exposed the split bone. Small strands of some dark matter had built up between the two halves of the bone. "Flood matter. She was infected with spores, which used her womb as an incubator as they slowly turned her fat and extra muscle in to infection form DNA. Notice how skinny she is." He pointed out her ribs, which jutted out from her torso, and her breasts, which were much smaller than they should have been for a pregnant woman. "Apparently human wombs are perfect places for growing infection forms. Just imagine if she'd been taken back to town. Once complete, one infection form would have burst through her womb wall and traveled up to her chest cavity. From there it would have converted her in to a combat form and released the other two infection forms. Once free, it would have been hard to contain them. Their skin is a bit thick for MA2 assault rifle ammo, especially the incredibly old civilian brand."

If the Lieutenant Commander could have scratched his head in awe he would have. If all four thousand people in Resolution had been converted in to Flood, Hell would have broken loose. Once the supply ship got there and received no one to greet the much needed supplies, they would have entered town, gotten killed, and the Flood would be able to board the ship. Once on it...

They would have been unstoppable.

"I may not like you, Spartan," The Lieutenant Commander said at last. "But I'm damn glad you're here."

Wings just nodded and rose. "Now we know what we're up against. But I have a feeling that today's surprises aren't over."

Several hours later they finally arrived at the base. Something bugged 116, now that he'd had time to think. He opened a private channel to Wings.

"Why did you order Mark to shoot the lady? Your sniper would have done it."

"That's the problem: she would have. I ordered Mark to do it knowing that he wouldn't. I had to prove to him that when I order him to shoot something I'm sure that what is being shot is an enemy."

"Good point."

They continued in silence until they reached the outer wall.

"Delta 2552, make a hole."

"Yes, sir."

"Another thing," The Lieutenant Commander said over the private channel as Phoenix's demolitions expert moved to plant the charge. "Why do your Spartans refer to you as 'sir'? You're not an officer."

"Marines called the Spartan IIs 'sir' out of respect for their skills or achievements. My Spartans, and some Marines, call me 'sir' for the same reason. The Delta command structure is a bit loose. There are many squads led by Second Class Petty Officers when there are PO1s and CPOs in the same squad. It's all based on what everyone else thinks should happen, not what HiCom thinks. For instance, I myself refer to some of my Spartans as 'sir' if I hold them in high regard or I believe they're in command of the situation and I'm just an adviser. Unfortunately, that happens rarely."

Spartan 116 returned his concentration to the wall, where D2552 had finished planting the charge.

"Clear!" D339 called and D2552 hit the charge.

Blue and Badger teams went in first and called the all clear.

"To the front door, move!" 116 ordered, and they all took off across the lawn, their active camouflage creating interesting ripples in the setting sun.

"Get a charge on that door."

"Yes sir. Do you want a big boom or a small boom?"

"Just get us through safely."

"Big boom it is." D2552 said, holding up a charge and stepping up to the door.

Without warning, the door burst open, and the Spartan disappeared under a wave of infection forms.

"Let 'em have it!" 116 and Wings roared in perfect sync.

The shadowed lawn lit up as the Spartans opened fire. Several dozen combat forms poured out from the base, trampling over X and the infection forms on top of him.

The frenzied battle lasted but a minute. Once it was over Wings opened a channel to X as he reloaded his weapon.

"You alright?"

There came a spitting noise. "Besides all the Flood shit all over me? I'm fantastic."

Wings looked at Itzia, who was carrying the M7057. "Give it some heat."

She unlimbered the flamethrower and lit the spark. Hitting the trigger, the Spartan sent a wave of flame over the mess.

There was a sucking noise, and X seemed to rise from the fire like a demon from Hell.

"Damn that stuff stinks." He said, shaking his head to clear the gunk out of his filters. He turned to face John-117. "I think I just gained a new kind of respect for you."

The Master Chief shrugged, not sure how to respond. "Get used to it fast." He said, reloading his rifle.

X nodded and looked started scrounging around in the muck.

"What are you doing?" Ash asked.

"That was a MINE charge I dropped in here. Do you want to find out how it responds to heat?"

Wings shook his head as he and the other Spartans set to work, attempting to shift the pile of fire and find the explosive.

"Got it!" X said, straightening up. He held the explosive in one hand and a piece of a body in the other.

"Uhhh..." Itzia said. "Is that..."

X looked at the body part and promptly let go. The sick lump hit the ground with a wet splat.

"I'm just glad that I'm wearing gloves." The Spartan said, shaking his hand several times to rid it of the mess. A couple wry chuckles met his discomfort.

Wings and the Lieutenant Commander stood near the doorway, assault rifles aimed inside.

"Well, we all have experience with Flood." 116 said.

"Yes." Wings responded. "Those of you with shotguns and flamethrowers, you're in first."

Itzia-D102 followed Matt-D2105 in and called the all clear. The snipers had switched to their short range weapons a long time ago.

Slowly the twenty-four Spartans made their way through the facility. There seemed to be only one direction to really go.

"Is anyone else concerned that this base seems to be constructed fairly linearly?" Kelly-087 said after half an hour of trekking.

"Not if you think about it. The design of the building means that there's only one way out or in." The Lieutenant Commander replied.

"And ambushers can't make use of their ambushing skills." D339 finished.

After two hours they reached a large freight elevator. Peri twisted her hand and stuck out a finger to hit the call button while the rest covered the door.

She moved back in line.

The door binged and slid open, revealing an empty elevator.

"Why is it when we're prepared, nothing happens, and when we're not prepared, something happens?" Zero commented, moving in to the elevator with the rest.

"Because our enemy does just the opposite." Itzia said, checking the fuel gauge on the flamethrower as the elevator began to descend.

Several minutes went by, all twenty four Spartans squished in to the now fairly small elevator. While it may have looked large on the outside, packing two dozen soldiers in powered armor in to the elevator made for a tight fit.

"How long is this damn ride?" Peri-D914 exclaimed after eight minutes of waiting in silence.

Just as the words left her mouth the elevator ground to a halt and the doors slid silently slid open. She stared down the hall.


A few more chuckles emitted from the group as they spread out along the corridor.

They turned a bend and came across yet another door, exactly the same as the rest.

Stopping five meters from it, Wings motioned X forward. "Bust it down. Quietly."

"Minimum blast set." X sighed, sounding slightly disappointed. He approached the door

It slid open, and Wings leapt forward as X was hauled forward, in to the next room. He extended his gauntlet knives and set them under the door as it slammed back down. He began to lever upward until he could get his fingers underneath. Extra hands willingly set themselves in next to his, and they began to lift.

The instant the door was high enough again, Wings pushed with his legs and slid under. He threw himself upright and raised his rifle.

"Don't move or I kill him!" A voice said.

Looking at the middle of the room, Wings saw X on his stomach, struggling against something. D339 saw the blurs of obsolete active camouflage technology.

He charged forward, and a gunshot sounded. The blur sitting on X's shoulders froze, apparently puzzled. Wings bulled in to the shapes above X, knocking them out of the way. He grabbed X and hauled him upright, while managing to keep a grip on one of the blurs. The two Deltas placed themselves back to back.

Then something pierced Wings' sharp mind, something that he mentally kicked himself for. He shifted his grip on the struggling form in his arms to a choke-hold.

"Switch to infrared." He said over the command channel and did so.

The room lit up like the surface of the sun.

"Scratch that. Go to high-frequency scanning." And switched again.

The other Spartans had gotten the door open and had poured in to the room, taking up firing positions just inside and outside the entrance.

"Hot damn." X mumbled as he switched to HF scanning. Ghostly shapes were everywhere, and it was a huge room.

"Drop your weapons." The same voice that had threatened X said.

"Mackey?" Ash-G099 said, lowering his rifle and stepping towards the middle of the room. He seemed to be staring at the one in Wings' hold.

"...Ash?" The form managed to squeeze out.

Wings saw what was going on then, and released the form. He lowered the rifle as he turned to where the voice had originated. "Gamma company?"

"Yeah. Who's asking?" The speaker said, deactivating his active camouflage and stepping forward.

"Master Chief Petty Officer Spartan D339 of Delta Company."

The large factory room reminded Wings of the healing room in the Precursor structure. Looking around the room, he saw Gamma Spartans dressed in Mk. II SPI armor appearing from thin air all over; on catwalks, the floor, doorways, conveyor belts, everywhere. Just over 300 of them.

The one Ash had called Mackey stood, and was staring at her comrade. "Where did you get those suits?"

Ash looked down at his Mark VII MJOLNIR armor. "Standard issue these days. SPI armor was decommissioned when the war ended."

There was silence all around the room. The Gamma Spartans were all starting to lower their weapons and move towards the Spartans who'd just entered.

"Its... over?" The spokesperson said, disbelievingly.

Wings nodded. "Two year before my conscription."

There were frenzied mutters all over the room, but the speaker stepped forward, looking at Wings. He'd obviously noted the tag on Wings' shoulder plate, and he couldn't have missed the Phoenix emblazoned on X's back, even in the heat of a tussle.

"You said you were with Delta Company?"

Wings nodded. "I'm the XO. Covenant aren't going down without a fight. There's nearly three thousand of us."

To those who heard it, this brought murmurs of wonder. The spokesman pulled of his helmet, revealing a boy with pale, but dark, skin and straight black hair, giving Wings the impression that the boy was of Indian descent. He placed the boy at around the age of 14, although he looked a few years older than that. If Wings didn't know better, he'd have said that this boy could have been Itzia's younger brother.

"Michael?" A surprised voice said from behind Wings.

Ohhh... shit. He thought.

"Michael" craned his neck. "Yeah. How do you know me?"

Itzia stepped forward, pulling her helmet off. An expression of shock was stamped on her face.

"I'm Itzia. I'm-" She swallowed a lump in her throat. "I'm your baby sister."

Peec spun as an explosion sounded down the street. A voice crackled over his com.

"Any available UNSC ground forces, move to sector Bravo-five-five-five. We've got Covenant troops landing, unknown origin."

No, no, no. Peec and Fira raised their rifles and charged towards the sounds of fighting. Peec hit the responder on his com.

"This is Sierra Delta One-Zero-Seven-Four. I'm on my way, and I've got a Sangheili warrior with me."

"Spartan? That's good to hear. All we've got here right now are some Army reserves." The voice went to static as another energy mortar slammed in to wherever the operator was. "We've got two Wraiths on the overpass! See what you can do about them!"

"Will do."

Peec took off towards the highway, with Fira right on his heels. Another energy bomb exploded thirty meters away as they approached the on-ramp.

"Once we get up there we'll be in the open!" Fira called.

"I know, but we're more capable than our boys on the ground!" Peec called, leaping the last ten meters up on to the highway. Fira followed.

"Sangheili?" The warrior said disbelievingly.

"It would seem so." Peec replied, racing towards the wraiths. Something was off about him. Perhaps the fact that Sangheili troops were attacking Earth so close to his place of origin.

Fira felt angered that any of his kinsmen would dare attack the humans, especially now. He hefted his carbine and charged, side to side with Peec.

They opened fire at the same time, their fire raking in to the Sangheili's shields. The five standing their turned to meet the charge, and Peec noticed something about their armor.

There seemed to be no distinguishing colors to mark their rank, just a flat silver color reminiscent of the Arbiter's armor. A faceplate covered the front of their heads, masking their appearances. It even looked a lot like the Arbiter's armor, except that it had many more protrusions.

What did seem to be different were the amount of decorations on the armor plates. Peec noted that four of the Sangheili had mostly undecorated armor, while the fifth had more intricate carvings on his. He decided that the four with plain armor were Minor Domos and the fifth was a Major. The Spartan took a 3D image of the soldiers for archiving later.

Path Walker

A Path Walker Major Domo

Two of the enemy's shields went down rapidly. They shuddered and fell as the 7.62mm and radioactive rounds pierced their bodies.

Peec dove to the side as the Major threw a pink globe at him. It shattered against a concrete barrier and exploded, sending shards everywhere. Realizing in a flash what these spikes did brought Peec to his feet and he moved just as they exploded.

Fira dropped his now empty carbine and pulled out a Type 2 Energy Sword. It sprang to life.

His seemingly weaponless opponent brought his arms back a ways and thrust them forward. Two basket hilts appeared in his hands, and the energy swords sprang to life.

"Interesting." Fira said, then swung his blade up horizontally to block the attacks.

He was then forced to twist away as the other bladed slashed parallel with his. He ended up to the right of the Minor.

Spinning his blade in a neat circle, Fira slashed through the Minor's neck. The Sangheili fell, headless.

"And that, younglings, is why experience matters." He muttered to himself, turning to face the last Minor. Peec seemed to be having a firefight with the Major, their rounds either missing or pinging off each others armor. This Major was very skilled to be holding off a Spartan.

Fira sighed, reached down, and picked up one of the fallen energy swords. Activating it, he set to fighting the last Minor. He dove to the side as an energy mortar landed next to him

Peec, for his part, was pissed. Not only did he have the Major to deal with, but the Wraiths seemed to have realized that a Spartan and a Sangheili Field Master were a much greater threat than several hundred human reserve fighters. So, coincidentally, they had turned and begun to lob energy mortars in their direction, and the gunners had opened up. Not with plasma weaponry, though. Instead they fired large pink rounds that moved slowly, allowing Peec and Fira to dodge easily, but tracked them a bit. Like giant Needler rounds.

Peec went in to a series of acrobatics designed to avoid enemy fire. Unfortunately this decreased the amount of fire he was able to put out. He need to kill one of his enemies, fast.

The Spartan executed a rapid dive to the right, rolling in midair and coming up with an SLE7 grenade in his hand. He side-armed it at the Major. It latched on to the Sangheili, who hadn't moved since the battle had started.

It beeped and detonated in a brilliant flash of shrapnel. There was a click, and the secondary charge went off, spraying a bulb of plasma all over and killing the Sangheili.

A couple needles latched in to Peec as he recovered from the huge leap sideways. He moved as more sprayed his direction, and began a zigzagging course towards the nearest Wraith.

Fira had easily slain the Minor and went for the other tank.

The two companions leapt on their respective gunners and tore them from their seats. After quickly slaying them, the two tore open the Wraiths and killed the drivers.

Peec knew the tide of battle had turned as he and Fira took their places in the driver seats of the tanks and began showering the enemy with mortars.

This went on for only a few minutes before Peec's sensors registered a heat signature moving up, out of the atmosphere. That must have been the ship the enemy had come in on.

Then he saw them.

Ten of these new Sangheili fought their way through the reserve line and were heading in to the houses.

No, no, no, no! Peec screamed mentally. He shot out of the Wraith and leapt down off the highway. He fell a hundred meters and landed right next to two privates, who gawked.

"Damn, it's-" One began to say, but Peec was gone, tearing off after the Sangheili. They reached the houses and had begun to knock them open. Fira followed Peec closely.

"Two groups!" The Field Master roared. "I'll take the one on the left, you take the one on the right!" The golden armored Elite took off, activating the two energy swords and holding them in a close guard.

Peec unlimbered his new C70 Assault Shotgun. It was brand new, straight off the manufacturing lines of Poseidon Industries. It was shorter than the average shotgun, but was automatic and magazine fed. And very, very deadly at close close range. The Spartan pulled the charging lever and marched up behind the pack of Sangheili.

One of them kicked the door down just as Peec let loose, cutting down three of the five with a quick burst of six shots. He sent two more blasts in to one Sangheili, who managed to duck behind a pillar in the nick of time. He seemed to be up against two Majors this time. One held him off at the door and the other had gone inside. Peec heard the blast of an old M6D service pistol and threw all thoughts of careful strategy out of his head.

The Spartan emptied the rest of the magazine in to the thin plastic pillar. It was shredded, and the last two rounds tore through the Sangheili taking cover behind it. Peec dropped the shotgun and ran in to the house, extending and activating his gauntlet knives. He ran in to the house to find the Sangheili laughing over a bleeding man on the ground, energy swords held out. The mother covered her child in the corner.

Peec's mind flashed back to his parent's death, and he swore to himself he wouldn't see that happen again.

"Hey asshole, pick on someone your own size!" He roared, and leapt on the Sangheili. His blades buried themselves to his knuckles in the warrior, and they fell, fighting.

D1074 pulled back and stabbed in to the Sangheili's neck, twisting his blade around to make sure the bastard wouldn't be getting up again.

The Sangheili died with a gurgle, and Peec stood, retracting his blades. He went to check on the father. It was bad; the man was cut from his right shoulder to his left hip. Peec opened an emergency channel.

"This is Sierra Delta 339, I need medivac here, now!" He said, then tended to the man's wound as best he could.

"Is Daddy going to be alright?" The child asked. He was holding his mother's hand as they stepped over to view the father. Both had a plain look of horror.

"If I have something to say about it, he will." Peec replied, spraying bio-foam in to the man's chest and giving him a field dressing. He may not be as medically skilled as Itzia, but every Spartan knew how to do a battle dressing.

It came with the territory.

Unfortunately, Peec thought to himself a while later as he surveyed the result of the carnage. That means death is, too.

Fira walked up behind him. "Where to now, Spartan?"

Peec picked up his discarded shotgun, reloaded it, and slipped it on to his back. "Follow my memory, which tells me that we need to find a Veteran. A very old veteran. And I think I know where to find her."

Chapter 8: Map

1221 Hours, November 7th, 2572 (UNSC Military Calendar)

"Hurry it up there, Spartan!"

Wings emptied his magazine in to the small group of Infection Forms, then turned and sprinted for the gate.

He ducked inside, and the gate was slammed shut and barred.

"That's cutting it a bit fine." A man, wearing a police uniform, said.

"Thank you." Wings said reloading his rifle, then he called to Maurice-D3574. "Do we have coms yet?"

"Affirmative!" The Badger techie called out. "Managed to boost the signal!"

Wings opened the channel to the frigate hovering in geosynchronous orbit. "Evening Sunder, this is Sierra Delta 339. Captain, come in."

"This is Cutter. Go ahead, Chief."

"We've located the source of our problem, and a new one. We've located Gamma Company."

"Have you now? Good. And the first problem?"

"The Flood are back, and they've set up a major base in the factory. I don't know how far they've spread, but I suggest you initiate a limited MAC strike on the base and send a squadron of Shortswords to carpet bomb the surrounding forest. I recommend equipping them with napalm weapons."

There was a long pause, then Cutter's voice returned. "Done. Anything else?"

"How many spare MJOLNIR suits do we have?"

"The Quartermaster tells me we have one replacement for each of you."

"If you would send them down, and all the ODSTs and Marines you can spare with incendiary ammunition, we need all the help we can get." Wings said. "Which reminds me, call in a carrier, we've got to evac this colony."

"Will do." Cutter said, sounding resigned. He knew what was going to happen.

The Flood could not be allowed any chance of leaving the planet. In less than 12 hours the entire surface would be nuked.

Itzia hadn't had time to say anything else when she'd seen Michael. Several doors had exploded inwards, and a fight had begun that had lasted for nearly two entire days. It was surprising how many people could be left in a single research facility. The fight had only ended just now, with the closing of the gates. The Flood would be temporarily locked out, but they'd find a way to knock down the doors eventually. Even if that meant using a tree as a battering ram. But she had some time to find Michael.

She found him near a medical tent, staring in at the bodies on the cots. No Gammas had died, and the medics were doing their best, but any leader feels bad when subordinates are injured.

Itzia walked past him and crouched down next to a Gamma Spartan with half his chest plate off.

"That one's too far gone, Officer." One medic said, regretfully. "I'm sorry."

She pulled up the dressing and took a look, then snorted. "All he needs are lung and stomach clones. What do you mean he's too far gone?"

The man shrugged. "Look, even if we had a flash cloning device, no one here has the expertise to perform the surgery."

Itzia glanced back the Michael. There was a strange look in his eyes. She turned back to the medic.

"I have one, and I do. Get him prepped." She said, drawing up the Spartan's medical records, which included a full catalog of his DNA.

"Alright." The medic said, and called a pair of orderlies over. They lifted the Spartan on to a stretcher and carried him away. Itzia followed them. She heard footsteps, and turned to see Michael following. The Gamma Spartan was a foot and a half shorter than she was, yet still had that same tired look that many Spartans had.

"Can you really save him?" He asked, and she nodded.

He breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank you."

She nodded again. "We have a lot to talk about, Michael."

His chuckle was devoid of humor. "Look, as much as I would like that to happen, you're nine years older than I am."

Phoenix's medic had a thought. "Do you even know what year it is?"

Michael shook his head. "No."

"It's November 7th, 2572." She said. "You've been in cryo since you were fourteen. Since then I've biologically outgrown you."

There was a call, distracting Itzia. "Hey, Doc! You wanna help this guy or not!?"

"We'll talk later." She said, and ran off to prep for OR.

Wings was helping Mackey-G152 in to a suit of MJOLNIR Armor. He handed her the helmet, which she slid on. Wings motioned for her to follow him.

"You need to get used to moving in this. With it your speed is multiplied by about five times and your strength by three. You'll be able to hit harder and faster. Plus, the option to switch between shields and active camouflage is a great tool to have in a battle."

The Gamma Spartan bounced on the ball of her heels. The young teens in their SPI armor stood at barely five and a half feet tall. The Mk. VII increased their height a full six inches.

"Feels good." Mackey said, and took off at a run around town, testing the armor's limits. The other Gammas watched their comrade racing around in the powered armor. Wings knew that if there was anything that made one Spartan have a flicker of jealousy, it was having new toys to play with.

"We all get out of here," He said to a nearby group. "You'll all be playing around in those."

A Pelican soared down, and a Navy corpsman leapt out and began pulling weapon crates out of the cargo bay. "You guys got a spare pilot we can use?"

"Mine's a bit busy," Wings said, walking over to help unload the crates. When the Flood hit, they'd hit hard. "The townspeople have a couple, however."

The man that Wings had met at the gate just happened to be passing by. "I'm a pilot. I could help." He said, striding forward.

The Corpsman looked him over. "He'll do. You know how to fly a Pelican?"

"Sure do!" The man said. "I'm the best pilot in this town!"

The Navy rating nodded and glanced at Wings. "Alright, hop in. There's some differences with military grade Pelicans..."

Wings began opening crates and examining the contents. Most of them were MA7 series firearms or shotguns, and scattered here and there was the odd flamethrower. Pelicans were beginning to drop ODSTs off on the ground. The Spartan saw one particular Marine he wanted to talk to, so approached him. He didn't salute, as the entire planet was now considered a combat zone.

"Good to see you, Chief." Major Jacob Forge said as Wings marched up. "What's the situation?"

"Not good, sir." Wings said. "Please follow me." He said, and he and Forge walked up to the top of the short wall surrounding the town. "Resolution didn't just have this one colony. As the population grew, so did the number of unfortified villages. The Flood seem to have spread out and taken almost every single one, although there are some survivors still coming in. We're letting them in through the pedestrian gates." The Spartan motioned to the gates, where the members of Badger team were scanning each person from foot to toe. One man tried to balk on the search, but Nat put her foot down. It was either get scanned and let in, or get out.

"I estimate we're up against a minimum of ten thousand Combat Forms, a few hundred Pure Forms, and an unknown number of Infection Forms." Wings said, watching as Zero pulled a man aside and in to a sound-proof tent. The look on the man's face was one of pure shock, and his family were just as shocked. Wings was just glad no one would hear the gunshot.

There could be no mercy where the Flood were concerned.

"I suggest something of a phalanx to defend the town." Forge said, tearing his eyes away from the sight. Wings heard the paff of a silenced weapon and ignored it. The man was dead anyway. "Spartans in MJOLNIR armor will be on the front line, as they have the most distinct advantage. Then the ones in SPI armor and my Helljumpers, then the regular Marines and the reserves. We have nearly a thousand soldiers to hold a fortified position- Wait one." Forge said as a MAC shot tore through the atmosphere and hit the earth in the general location of the ONI base. Even several thousand kilometers away the flash and roar was amazing.

Two more followed, ensuring that nothing would be coming from underground. A squadron of Shortsword bombers screamed overhead and dumped their payload. The napalm bombs carpeted the forest in a ring around the ONI base, then spreading outward. The forest was huge, covering the ground from the ONI base up to ten kilometers from the walls of the town.

Another squadron flew perpendicular to the first one and let their payload loose on the fringes of the forest. Fortunately, even though it was the rainy season, the tree canopy grew thick and kept the ground relatively dry. The fire spread rapidly.

"The Captain's having all available squadrons fire the edges of the forest." Forge said after opening a private channel. "Just to make sure none of them come from there. But our real problem are the plains." He said, and turned to face across town.

The problem with the rainy season was that it was, well, rainy. And the town they were in was covered on only two sides by what was now a burning forest. The other two sides were covered by wide open plains.

"Like you said, sir." Wings stated, pulling out his assault rifle and ejecting the magazine. "MJOLNIR equipped up first, SPI and ODSTs next. Four layered defense. The tanks and mortar teams can shoot over our heads." The Spartan finished, sliding a magazine with incendiary ammo in to the weapon.

"Sounds good to me." Forge said.

"Sounds like you two already have a plan." A voice said, and the two turned to see the Lieutenant Commander marching towards them.

"We do, sir." The non-com said. "Phalanx defense."

"Old and tested. I like it." 116 said.

Forge tilted his head slightly, and Wings heard a voice crackle in the Major's ear. "Excuse me, I've got some business to take care of."

Wings watched Forge walk away. "So you do respect my opinion." He said. The Major seemed to be walking to a blond lady with well defined features.

"I respect your skills. Not you." The Lieutenant Commander responded. Something about the lady screamed ONI.

"Well, that's the crux of the problem, isn't it." Wings said, as he watched the ONI officer place a strange helmet on her head. It was concave, but the visor was a mere slit. The Spartan noted the five man squad getting off the Pelican just behind her.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, we really are the sum of our parts." Wings knew who they were; it was obvious now.

"Did you ever hear anything about Virgil?" The MCPO said, turning to face the Lieutenant Commander. The two stood about the same height.

"Of course."

"Doesn't it seem odd to you that the same squad that got him out of New Mombasa is here now?"

The two Spartans looked down to see a screaming mother being torn away from a toddler. The young one was taken in to the tent.

"How do you feel about this?" The Lieutenant Commander asked. There was an obvious strain in his voice.


Wings turned and walked down the wall steps. "They're dead already. Just puppets without strings."

"You're a cold bastard, Spartan."

"I know, sir."

The attack came without warning. Or, at least, it would have if the Lieutenant Commander hadn't placed high-frequency sensors all around the town.

The first wave of the Flood horde met a wall of hot incendiary fire, and were cut to shreds in seconds.

X lowered his rifle and checked the ammo counter. "Damn. We didn't even reload."

"Shut it, Spartan." Wings said. "There were only a few hundred in that wave. They're just testing us."

Several horrid screams split the air the instant Wings was done. The Spartan dropped his current magazine and slapped a new one in place.

"Here they come."

Thousands of combat forms poured over the plains, roaring, screeching, screaming...

It was a nightmare.

Every weapon able to draw a bead on a Flood was firing. Flood fell by the dozens, but there were many times that to take each dead one's place.

"How goes the evacuation, sir?" The Lieutenant Commander asked the Captain.

"Three quarters done. We need about fifteen minutes."

"I think we can do that."

Wings dropped down below the battlement to reload. "How's it looking out there?"

Nat-D5795 was stationed right next to him. Several strange yellow rounds hit her, and she ducked down next to Wings.

"We've got some Pure Forms moving up. Ranged, mostly."

"Get the targeting modules out."

The two Spartans slipped targeting laser modules on to their rifles, and Wings opened a channel to the mortar teams.

"Mortars, we're sending you targeting data. Fire at will."


Wings stood and swept the targeting laser over the Ranged Forms. The laser would triangulate with several others and provide precise firing coordinates for the Mortar teams.

The whunks of mortars leaving their tubes was heard faintly over the sounds of constant assault rifle fire. Shells dropped in to the Flood ranks, decimating the Ranged Forms and causing widespread chaos amongst the Combat Forms.

"Good shooting." Wings said, then turned back to the work at hand. Combat and Stalker Forms had begun leaping, and they were about to clear the walls.

"Secondary positions, go!" Spartan 116 roared, and the MJOLNIR equipped Spartans raced back to the secondary holding lines, consisting of hastily erected barricades. D339 leapt over one of these walls and landed next to Michael-G262.

"Good work, Chief." The Gamma Spartan said, then opened a com to the rest of the company. "Gammas! Let's show these Deltas what we're made of!"

The secondary defensive line was the most heavily armed, with gun emplacements all around. The third line was the last line of defense, and was only to be used if they were forced to fall back.

Wings checked the roster. A few minor injuries, nothing serious. Good.

"Ground teams, five minutes until we're loaded. The fleet has arrived and are preparing to bombard the planet."

The Delta XO was in the process of gunning down a small Combat Form that was probably once an eight year old when he observed a Pure Form changing. It's long, lanky arms shortened, and it became a biped. A rocket soared out and struck the new Tank Form.

That's when it hit him in a flash.

"Captain. Whatever you do, do not fire the nukes. Call in the Sangheili; I think I know why they've never used nuclear ordnance."

"What is it, Master Chief?"

"I'll explain once I'm on the ship. But for now, you have to trust me: do not arm those nukes."

"...Will do."

Wings turned back to the battle, and slipped a new magazine in to his rifle.

"Don't arm the nukes?" A nearby Marine said. "Are you nuts?"

"Yep." The Spartan said, letting loose with a stream of incendiary fire.

"Coming through!" Another voice called out, and an M808B "Scorpion" MBT rumbled up to the barricade.

"Firing!" The gunner yelled, and the 90mm cannon roared. The blast shredded several ranks of Flood Combat Forms, and the Parasite seemed to be getting wary of their foe.

"Evacuation complete. All UNSC ground forces, withdraw."

The Spartans continued holding the line as the ODSTs and Marines withdrew to the Pelicans.

"Wings, time to go!" X said over the private com.

"On my way." The Delta XO said, and ran for the nearest Pelican. An ODST manned the Gauss turret at the rear of the cargo hold, firing round after round over Wings' head. His helmet was off.

"Nice to see you, Dmitri." The Spartan said, leaping aboard the dropship. "Go!" He called to the pilot as he pulled one last Marine in to the cargo bay.

Dmitri "Zaichata" Zaitsev continued firing as Wings took a spot next to the new ODST, holding on to one of the ceiling handles.

"Hey, Chief." The Lance Corporal said.

"How's the armor?"

Dmitri folded the turret up in to the ceiling rack and locked it there. He smacked his hand against the breastplate of his Trident armor. "Still getting used to not feeling the weight of my armor. Makes me feel naked."

Wings thought about this. He'd never had to use regular armor, Delta Company having been blessed with powered armor, and Phoenix Team had even used Trident armor during the Battle for Zeta-9. It was an interesting perspective.

The T1 Pelican glided in to the hangar, and Wings saw Lieutenant Johansson standing on the deck.

"Master Chief." The ONI Agent said. "I'm very interested in hearing your excuse for preventing the nuclear launch."

"Trust me, sir. You will be interested." Wings said, striding by Johansson and towards the bridge. "Did you at least call the Sangheili?"

He took the derisive sniff from behind him to mean yes.

The Delta XO walked on to the bridge and marched up to the central holo-table. Johansson joined Captain Cutter on the far side. Major Jacob Forge walked in last and stood at the end of the table. Cutter visibly flinched when Forge entered; the Major had a close resemblance to his father.

"Now, Chief, if you'd be so kind as to explain why we shouldn't end this threat now." Johansson said almost impatiently. Cutter shot him a glance that told everyone he was clearly displeased with a man of inferior rank taking over.

Wings just stared at the ONI man in silence. Cutter finally broke it. "If you would, Chief."

"Sir." The Spartan said. "I'm drawing my conclusions based off of what I've seen of the Flood, the events at the Ark, and what was observed at Delta Halo by the stealth corvette, Dusk."

Johansson glared angrily at Wings. "How do you know about that?"

The Spartan ignored him. "The Flood seem to develop in stages. First, a stage in which they have no central control and they have to make do with the most basic of mutations. These are set forms and cannot be altered. The next step occurs after control has been established by the Gravemind. After a short while the Flood begins to create its own biomass which it uses for Pure Forms. These can evolve in to new strains, given time."

"We know this." Johansson said. Cutter and Forge both shot him a scathing glance. "What is your point in stopping the nukes?"

"My point is that nukes emit massive amounts of radiation. And since the UNSC doesn't have enough to make a crater on every single square inch, I want you to tell me with one-hundred percent certainty that bombarding DNA that mutates at an already extreme rate won't simply allow it to speed up the process."

There was silence for a couple seconds, then Cutter turned to the communication officer.

"Take the nukes off standby. We wait for the Sangheili."

1952 Hours, November 7th, 2572 (UNSC Military Calendar)
Glassing of Resolution

The Sangheili fleet glasses Resolution.

Resolution burned. The Sangheili fleet moved in the typical checkerboard style the Covenant always used to glass planets. Not a single Flood Spore would escape.

Wings watched the planet being glassed from the hangar, standing about half a meter away from the atmo-field.

He'd never seen a planet being glassed. Yet another spectacle he'd never experienced.

"Spartan." A deep voice said from behind him. He turned.

Autel stood there, looking vaguely grim.

"Autel, my friend, it is good to see you." Wings said, taking a couple steps toward the albino Elite. "Does something trouble you?"

"It does, my friend." The Sangheili drew in a breath. "I need you to take my daughter and take her somewhere safe."

"Why me?"

"You know her best." Autel responded. "You have spent more time with her in a few years than I have in thirteen. I know I can trust you with her."

Wings nodded. "Tell me everything."

"I will."

1251 Hours, November 8th, 2572 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Wings left the bunker and made his way back to the main camp of New Quebec. As he leapt over the main gates he noticed a few thousand kids standing in the field, staring at him. Ezekiel-254 stood on the landing pad. He had obviously just finished speaking to them.

"Spartan Delta 339." He said, gesturing to Wings. The MCPO joined him on the landing pad. The kids were now being shuffled off by handlers. Two particular kids in the front caught Wings' eye, especially the girl. She looked to be about eight years old, but didn't quite act right. A pair of dark, amber eyes stared back at him. The two children were obviously siblings, but they reminded him of someone...

"Epsilon company?" Wings queried Ezekiel, still looking at the girl as she was herded off by a handler.

"Yes." The Lieutenant said. "Apparently ONI doesn't think Delta Company is enough, so they conscripted 3,000 more Spartans."

Wings' gaze didn't leave the back of the dark haired girl. It was kind of sad; her hair was a beautiful length, dark and straight.

"Interesting. I'll be excited to see what they do." He said. He'd be watching that girl.

1515 Hours, November 8th, 2572 (UNSC Military Calendar)

The Spear's Tip tore a hole back in to realspace and appeared above the small planet of Falaknuma.

"This planet is where we find this: 'Jess Morley'?" Fira said, looking down at the planet.

"Yes." Peec said, sending in a landing request to Falaknuma traffic control. Ever since humanity had discovered Forerunner slipspace technology space travel between planets had become a lot more common as it became a lot faster.

"Spear's Tip, you are cleared for reentry. Uploading vectors to your nav-computer." A mellow voice said over the com.

"Thank you control. Spear's Tip out." Peec responded.

He pointed the corvette towards the planet and brought her roaring back in to the atmosphere. Someone squawked over the com, but Peec ignored it. Fira glanced at him.

"You going to answer that?"

"What would be the point? Distracting me?" The Spartan said, jiggling to control wheel. The ship bucked a little more from side to side, and Fira grabbed the armrests.

"You are one reckless Spartan."

"That I am." Peec said with a hint of amusement as he pulled off his helmet. He was starting to like the Sangheili warrior.

The corvette set down on the landing pad, the air around its main engines shimmering in the cool afternoon air.

Peec and Fira drew more than a few glances as they walked down the ramp from the ground crew.

"Humans are curious creatures." Fira said, staring coolly back at the humans in jumpsuits.

"Are we? Or are you not curious enough?" Peec responded. The Sangheili shrugged.

"Depends on your point of view. And the situation."


It being the height of the day, the marketplace was packed with people. Good ranged from fruits and vegetable to home AIs.

People couldn't help but stare at the two giants in their midst, and each section of the marketplace that Peec and Fira walked through quieted a bit.

"So where is she?" Fira asked, staring at a young human girl who seemed to be examining Peec from head to toe. He was curious to know why she was doing that.

"This time of the day: on patrol. Her route comes across right about..." Peec stopped, and a man who was not paying attention and staring at Fira bounced off the Spartan. He cursed and retreated quickly.


Just as he spoke a woman in the typical Marine combat armor walked by. Her helmet was on, and two Marines marched just behind her. An MA6B Assault Rifle was slung around her back and an SM6D was holstered at her waist.

"Staff Sergeant Jess Morley?" Peec asked, stepping forward.

Jess glanced his way and blinked a couple times. "Yes?" She asked, with a hint of shock in her voice.

"Petty Officer Second Class Spartan D1074, ma'am." Peec said, saluting. He glanced at the two Marines. "May I have a word with you?"

She nodded and turned to the other Marines. "Finish your patrol. I'll meet up with you when we're done."

She marched stiffly back the way her patrol had come. Peec and Fira followed her.

The Sergeant took them through a small barracks and in to a small coffee room. Peec looked around.

"Is it safe to talk in here?"

A nod, and her voice came out in little more than a whisper.


Peec cocked his head quizzically at her. "Who?"

Jess swallowed. "You're not, then... I suppose it was to much to ask for." The round table shook as she sat down hard in one of the chairs.

"Anton Morley was my brother. Two years older." she said, the words bubbling out. "You look just like him."

Peec's mind was racing. If what he'd read on this woman was true, then Anton would have been most certainly too old for children by the time Peec was born.

"My father," The Spartan said. "Was Nick Abrams."

"Is he trustworthy?" Jess said, jerking her head at Fira. Her voice had regained its snap renowned among Sergeants.

"He is."

"Good." She said. "I have no problem working with them, but it's hard to trust someone outside your species..." Her voice trailed off, and Peec realized she was staring at him again.

"Do you have a picture of your father?" Jess asked.

In answer Peec reached in to a pouch at his waist and pulled out a datapad. He flicked it over to the proper picture and handed it to Jess.

"This is him." She said. Her eyes remained hard, but her mouth had parted in a slight "o". "Do you know where he is?"

"He's dead." Peec said. "I watched him and my mother die during the Second Battle for Earth. Just before I was recruited in to the SPARTAN program."

"Oh." She said, her voice falling in volume again, and stared at the picture. "He didn't look much like Anton, but I knew him."

"So I'm your great-nephew." Peec muttered, staring down at the picture of his father. He'd grabbed it off the datanet before Spear's Tip had slipped away from Earth. It showed Nick Granger in a football uniform, kneeling on the grass field and grinning from ear to ear. Handwriting on the picture read: "Nick Granger: You will be in our thoughts forever." Peec liked the picture.

"I know my surname is Abrams, but I still have no idea what my first name is." He finished.

"Jeffrey." She said. Peec turned to stare. She nodded up at him, pulled her helmet off, and ran her fingers through her short, auburn hair. "Your name is Jeffrey Morley."

Chapter 9: Plotting

1533 Hours, November 8th, 2572 (UNSC Military Calendar)


Something hit the wall of the barracks, caving it in. Peec threw himself on Jess to shield her from falling debris.

"Plasma mortars!" Fira roared. "The Covenant are here!"

Peec stood up and grabbed his assault rifle. He held out a hand for Jess to grab and heft herself up with.

"We've got to move, ma'am." He said, and ran out of the new hole.

The Marine stood and shook herself off. She picked up a C58 shotgun and cocked it.

Fira and Peec led the way, knowing that their shields and physical advantages could protect Jess a lot better than her body armor ever would.

Peec saw a line of Marines digging themselves in. He raced to the sandbags and crouched down beside a female officer bearing a Colonel's insignia.

"Sir, Petty Officer Second Class Delta Ten seventy-four and Field Master Fira 'Demal!"

The lady looked up. "Always good to have a Spartan in the fight, and a Sangheili. Welcome to Falaknuma." She grimaced.

Peec tilted his head to look over the sandbags. Several plasma bolts thudded against the sandbags, and the Spartan ducked back down.

"Ma'am, if you could have a couple squads go left, the Field Master and I could flank right and take out those tanks."

The Colonel nodded, opened a channel, and began barking out orders to several squads.

Peec and Fira moved off and circled around.

The four Wraiths never knew what hit them. Two gauntlet knives smashed in to the fusion core of one, and the other found two plasma grenades stuck to it's fusion core.

They exploded, blue flames erupting from the bellies.

Peec leapt on a third on and pried the hatch open. The driver's roar became a scream as twenty rounds of 7.62mm lead slammed in to him.

"You done?" Peec called to Fira.

The Sangheili nodded, and reloaded his Needle Rifle. Fira was an artist with the weapon. If there was anyone who could kill a tank with it, it would be him.

"Good job." The Colonel's voice said over the com. "Come back here, we need to regroup."

Peec and Fira marched back to the command post where the Colonel was, passing dead and wounded Marines along the way.

"Sir." Peec said, saluting. Fira merely folded his fist over his first heart, as most Sangheili do.

"Thanks for the help." The Colonel said, and held out her hand. "We haven't been properly introduced. Colonel Marina Morley, 45th Marine battalion."

Peec's stomach did a somersault. He took her hand and shook it.

"I believe we have a lot to discuss. Sir."

Marina's eyes narrowed. "Why is that, Spartan?"

Peec looked around. "Could we talk? In private?" She nodded, and followed him in to a room, in which he sealed the door and took off his helmet.

"What is this about?" She said as the Spartan turned to face her.

"I look a lot like Anton, don't I?" He said, his voice barely more than a whisper.

She nodded, clearly not impressed. "Say what you've got to say."

"I'm Jeffrey Morley."

Marina's military edge flew right out the window. Her jaw dropped, and she walked slowly over to where Peec, Jeffrey, stood by the doorway.

"Jeffy..." She ran her fingers along his face. "We thought you were dead..."

Peec reached up and gently pulled her hand away. "Who am I to you?"

"You're my little brother." Marina's eyes glistened with far off thoughts. "Calvin... your big brother, and I had just joined the Corps. He enlisted, I went in to the Officer's Academy.

"One day I was out on PT when Calvin called in from our home town of Seattle. Apparently the Covenant had attacked there and our house had been destroyed.

"I took the first Pelican I could out of San Francisco. By the time I got there Calvin was already digging in to the rubble. Seattle was a wasteland, and we were looking for three people. I wordlessly joined him.

"After a couple hours of digging we found Mom's body. Half an hour later we found Dad's. We dug for six more hours, cleared the entire place, but we never found you.

"And now here you are, one of the deadliest weapons the UNSC has made. It's... an odd turn of events."

Peec nodded understandingly. She'd worked for years to get where she was, and he had just been handed the best tools to allow him to do jobs she'd never be able to do.

"Can you prove that you're Jeffrey?"

"Once we're done, I'd be happy to take you to Jess."

"Jess is alive, too?"

"She's part of the garrison here. Aren't you?"

Marina shook her head. "I just came in from Earth. We were on our way out to deliver a shipment of arms to Resolution, but got stopped here when the Covenant hit."

Peec nodded, and then heard an explosion outside. "We'd better go. But before we do, know that I will find Calvin."

The Colonel nodded. "Good. Let's get out there, Petty Officer." She was back to being the commanding officer.

Fira snapped his Needler up and down, and new needles snapped up. The ones he just fired flew out over the battlefield and thwacked in to a Jiralhanae warrior. The large ape screamed, and then the shards detonated, spraying purple blood on the dirt.

A Ghost sailed across the battlefield at Fira. The Field Master primed a plasma grenade and threw it. The explosive latched on to the vehicle and exploded. Marines ducked as hot metal shards rained down, then stood back up and continued firing.

"Good throw, Fira." Fira turned to see Peec standing next to him, assault rifle raised and spitting lead.

"Thank you, Spartan." The Sangheili responded. "Only some foot soldiers in this wave." He finished as the last Covenant troop fell. "We need to go to the source, destroy the cruiser."

"I've got a HAVOK nuke back on Spear's Tip we can use, but we need to get it in to the cruiser, first."

"If you need a distraction, you do have three companies of Marines here." Marina said. "You two get in and kill the cruiser."

Peec nodded. "I'll go get that nuke."

He sprinted off, leaving Fira alone with Marina. The Field Master turned to look out over the plains again, watching for more Covenant.

"How long have you been traveling with him?" The Colonel said, and Fira glanced back at her for a second.

"But a few days. Why do you ask?"

She joined him at the edge of the sandbags, both of them keeping an eagle eye out for Covenant forces.

"You've known him longer than I have. Tell me about him."

Fira was beginning to understand her curiosity. She was related to Jeffrey. He examined the human female's face. Young, by his reckoning; not a day over forty human years, probably slightly younger than that. Fira told himself he'd always be surprised by human female's ability to fight just as well, if not harder, than their males. He vaguely wondered what would happen if a female Sangheili ever took up arms. As far as he knew, it had never happened.

"I'm afraid most of our... interactions," Fira said slowly. "Have been less than friendly."

Marina looked puzzled. "Why is that?"

"I think it would be best if you asked him."

The Colonel nodded, looking slightly skeptical, but accepted this answer. After years of fighting the Sangheili, she was sure she didn't want to hear the answer to her question. Not from Fira 'Demal.

Peec-D1074 passed Jess and several other Marines running the other way on his run back to the ship. They nodded an acknowledgment to each other; there was no time for anything else.

He leapt aboard the Spear's Tip and opened the nuclear safe. Most ships nowadays, including Corvettes, generally carried at least two nukes: one used for ship combat and one used for tactical ground warfare. Peec had left the ship combat nuke back at the station, knowing that the Spear's Tip would have a better chance of outrunning a foe than taking it down with only a low-grade nuclear bomb and twenty Archer Missiles. He'd heard that ship combat grade nukes were about to be phased out in favor of the Mk. II Archer Missile, which was equipped with a nuclear warhead measuring in at a payload of 1 kiloton.

The HAVOK nuke was about the size and relative shape of a fat football. It didn't have nearly enough punch to take down a Covenant Cruiser's shields, but on the inside of the ship it would wreck havoc with the internal systems. Peec knew of one other case in which a HAVOK nuke had been detonated in a Covenant ship, way back in 2552 during the Battle of Reach. The nuke had shorted out the Cruiser's systems and caused it to freefall, right on top of thousands of Covenant foot soldiers. Largest fragmentation grenade in history.

Time to recreate the feat.

The Covenant troops on the ground had no idea what hit them. Most were gearing up for another offensive on the human town when they heard a loud "Let 'em have it" and the sentries took several dozen rounds, dropping them.

Chaos broke out on the ground as six hundred Marines hit the Covenant camp from two different directions, sending bullets, grenades, and rockets in to their heart with little distinction for what they hit.

The Jiralhanae, being the most militant of the Covenant species, rallied first and struck back. They gathered the Kig-Yar and Unggoy to them. The Mgalekgolo and Myrlekgolo had been the first to go, being the largest and most dangerous of any Covenant species.

During the pitched battle, a mere handful of humans taking on several thousand alien troops, two shimmers of light made their way to the gravity lift that connected the cruiser to the ground, like some great purple umbilical cord.

"Do you know how to reverse this?" Fira asked Peec as the Spartan went to the lift controls. "I can-"

Peec grabbed a couple wires and tugged. Fira felt a tug and found himself soaring upwards, in to the belly of the cruiser.

"No need." The hacker said, leaping in to the purple stream. "The cords I pulled both reversed the direction and told the ship's main computer that it had switched. We'll be heading in undetected." There was a faint clunk from his back as the nuke shifted in its case. Peec rearranged it so that it wouldn't make a sound when he moved, and snapped a silencer on his assault rifle.

"I'll take care of the guards. You find a way to the engine room."

"Can't we just set it in the hangar and leave?"

The two were now about two kilometers from the ground. Only one more until they reached the ship. "We could, but I want to make sure this ship goes down. The Marine CO may not be happy if we have to run back to their ship to grab a nuke. Let's make this one count."

"Fair enough."

They shot up in to the ship and touched down lightly. Several Kig-Yar and Unggoy stood there arguing with a Huragok, complaining that they couldn't get any supplies down the lift. The Huragok squawked pleadingly.

Peec raised his rifle and fired five rounds. Each one tore through a head, and the Covenant troops fell, leaving the Huragok unharmed, but hooting loudly. Fira threw himself on the pink alien, growling at it to be silent. The Engineer complied, but flapped its tentacles unhappily at the crushing weight of the Sangheili warrior on top of him.

The Spartan opened a com to the Marines. "Charlie Mike this is Juliet Mike. We're in."

"Roger that, Juliet Mike. Beginning fall back now."

The Colonel had decided that, to keep as many of her Marines alive as possible, they would fall back as soon as Fira and Peec were in the cruiser. Their use of heavy weapons would ensure that the Covenant would be forced to rest and lick their wounds before going after the humans.

"Can you take us to the engine room?" Peec asked the Huragok, who Fira still had pinned to the floor. The creature bleated once, and Peec's translator told him it was saying "yes".

"Let him go." The Spartan said, and Fira released the alien. It struggled upright and hooted before floating off in the general direction of the engine room.

It was a relatively short trek, a Covenant Cruiser being just over a kilometer long. Peec could only wonder for now how so many foot troops were supposed to fit in it, nevermind why only a single Covenant Cruiser was the core for an assault on a fortified human world. Maybe he'd have a look at the schematics later...

The Engineer bleated and tapped a door. Peec's translator told him that the Engineer was babbling about Covenant troops on the other side, guarding the reactor. About thirty, to be precise, with about ten engineers scattered around.

Peec didn't even turn to Fira, just opened a channel to him. "We've got a problem."

Colonel Marina Morley watched the Pelican land and a squad of ten strangely armored Marines stepped out. Each of their rucksacks was larger than normal and their helmets covered their entire face. They seemed to be some kind of gas masks, except they were incorporated in to the entire helmet. Their armor plates were also smooth and appeared to be shimmering. One of the group gestured for the other nine to stay where they were and jogged over to Marina.

"Colonel Marina?" The man said.

"Yes?" She said, acknowledging the oddly armored man.

He reached up and pulled off his helmet, revealing a grinning face behind the visor.

"First Sergeant Calvin Morley reporting, sir!"

Marina's throat clenched, but she couldn't show too much attachment. Not in front of her troops. "Report, Sergeant."

The smile faded, and Calvin just nodded and pointed over to where the Covenant Cruiser hovered over Falaknuma. "We're here to get aboard that cruiser and capture the on-board governing intelligence and vital data."

Marina would have bitten her lip, but knew that would show worry to the rest of her troops. Sometimes she hated being an officer.

"We've... already got a team in there."

"I'm afraid it'll have to be us, Colonel." Calvin responded. "Direct orders from ONI."

"I got that. The problem is that the team was sent there to destroy the ship."

Calvin actually did bite his lip. "That is most assuredly a problem. Can you contact them?"

Marina already had her finger in her earpiece.

"Delta Ten Seventy-Four, come in."

Peec opened the channel. "Ten Seven Four here. What is it, Colonel?"

"I've got a Black Ops team here saying they need to get on-board that cruiser you're in, and they're going to need your help." Marina said, striding slowly away from Calvin as he went back to talk to his squad. "You can't destroy the ship yet."

Peec looked down at the armed nuke. He lifted it up pushed it in to a hole, knowing that no one would check there. "The nuke is set to a remote. We'll head to the gravity lift room and make sure it's clear."

"Good. Make sure they get what they're looking for and get out." Marina said, then dropped the volume of her voice. "And Jeffrey..."

The Spartan froze at the use of his birth name. "Yes?"

"Your older brother is leading the squad. If you want this family to stay together you had better take care of him."

Peec nodded slowly. "That makes things a bit easier. Don't worry, he'll be safe with us."

"Good. See you when you're done, then. Colonel Morley out." She said, back to her regular voice.

Peec detached the silencer from the end of his rifle and glanced at Fira. "We've got a job to do. Let's make some noise."

Fira, not having any silenced weapons besides his sword, deactivated his camouflage and pulled out his trusty Needle Rifle.


Calvin's team arrived in the grav lift room to the sound of chaos down the door.

"That must be the team that came in before us." A corporal called out, his general shape moving towards the door the sounds were coming from. Their armor was the newest in infiltration systems, active camouflage hiding the team from any prying eyes.

"Sounds like they could use some help." A private said.

"Negative," Calvin responded. "We have our orders and no one, not even the good Colonel or that team, is going to get in our way. Our target is the bridge. Move, troopers!"

"Prepping for breach." The private said, placing the charge. "Set."

"Enter and clear." Calvin ordered, and hit the detonator. The charge blew the door wide open, and the squad rushed in, rifles raised-

And saw only a single Sangheili Zealot and a Spartan, the latter with his feet crossed on the desk and twirling a combat knife. The former merely watched the human black ops squad with a look of amusement on his face.

Most of the squad was struck dumb. Even with three thousand Spartans around, it was still a rare sight to see them, and the majority of them were still just fresh out of training. In fact, this was the first mission for five of them.

The Spartan seemed to be flicking through the Covenant computers with one hand as his blade twirled around and around. Calving slung his rifle and gave the order for the team to spread out and cover the entrances to the bridge.

"I take it you're the team that came in here before us?" The Marine said, addressing the green armored soldier.

"That's right." The Spartan said, halting his tapping and catching the blade in mid swing. He slapped the knife in to a holster and unfolded his legs, bringing them down on to the ground.

"Don't most Spartans travel in packs?"

"Not me. Not right now." The giant rose from the chair. "Spartan D1074, sir."

Calvin nodded. "First Sergeant Calvin Morley." He glanced at the Sangheili. The alien promptly folded his right hand over his first heart.

"Field Master Fira 'Demal."

The Marine squinted at the Field Master. There was something off about him...

"I suppose you want to get in to the ship's servers?" The Spartan asked, turning back to the computer screen. "I've already cracked it. Just download the files you need and we can get out of here. The nuke's planted and armed."

Calvin blinked. "You... cracked a Covenant mainframe? Why the hell do we need this, then?" He said, holding up a small black box with a couple wires dangling from it. He stowed it away and pulled out a memory chip, which he slotted in to a data port. "Wish we had guys like you around more, it would certainly keep things interesting." There was a beep, and Calvin pulled the chip out. "Let's move."

Peec pulled out his MA7C and chambered a round. "The Field Master and I will take point."

The Sergeant nodded and turned to his team. "Alright team, let's move!"

Fira and Peec marched ten meters ahead of the black ops team, clearing the way of Jiralhanae and other Covenant forces. Most were already dead or on the ground, so it was not hard to make it to a hangar.

"We'll ride a Phantom out." Peec said. "Fira, you can pilot these, right?"

"Of course."

It was but the work of a moment for the twelve commandos to hop in the alien dropship. Fira sat himself at the pilot's controls and spun the Phantom around, then pushed the throttle gently forward and guided it out of the hangar. Peec sat himself at the copilot seat and pulled up the FoF transponder information. He inserted a secondary routine that would show the dropship friendly to both Covenant and friendlies alike. He then opened a channel to Colonel Morley.

"Sir, we're en route back to camp in a Phantom, designated Alpha-Sierra-Zulu. The black ops team has the data and the nuke is armed. Are your forces at a safe distance."

"Solid copy, Alpha-Sierra-Zulu. All forces are at a safe distance. You are clear to detonate as soon as you reach the safe zone. Suggest you make it fast, the Covenant are about to make another push."

"Roger that. Sierra Delta Ten Seven Four out."

The Phantom hit the twenty kilometer mark, which was the minimum safe distance for a HAVOK nuke. Peec hit the detonator.

The CCS Cruiser hung above the Covenant camp for a split second longer, then became a ball of fire and toppled downwards.

"Well that takes care of that." One of the black ops specialists said. "Who's up for a beer?"

"Wait." Fira said. "I'm afraid it's not going to be that easy.

"What now?" Calvin muttered. Fira pointed towards the bottom of the fireball and wreckage. The flames were dissipating now, revealing a blue dome underneath.

"Bastards." A private said, smacking his fist against the side. "They set up a shield. Now what? We've got a few companies of Marines against thousands of Covenant, and-"

"Stow that talk, Ranger." Calvin snapped, and the private shut his jaw with a click.

"Rangers?" Peec queried, his mind racing as to how this might be solved. There was the Archer missile on the Spear's Tip...

"UNSC Army Rangers." Calvin said. "ONI might have issues with letting people know about us, but I don't see why not. They put you Spartans out in the open."

"Do you have orders to not let anyone know?" If they could just plant the nuke in the right spot, which couldn't be in the shield. It was likely divided in to smaller sections to reduce the effect of an explosion.


"Fair enough, then. Let's get back to town, then we can decide what to do about those Covenant."

The Judicator curled his lips up in a snarl. With the Cruiser gone, he would now have to wait for a ship off the planet.

And waiting was a waste of his time.

He heard a gentle whirring as the Minor Prophet of Conscience glided up beside him.

"You were right, Judicator." He said in gentle tones. The Judicator hated that.

"With respect Holiness," The Judicator responded slowly, trying to bring his anger under control. He, the Judicator, assigned to destroy a pitiful colony of humans! "I have far more experience in fighting these pests than you."

"This much is true." Conscience said, placing the tips of his fingers together and tenting his hands. "What do you plan on doing now?"

"The humans arrived late; most of our forces on the ground. I plan on sweeping them around in a pincer movement and rushing the town before the humans can erect a defense."

"Forgive me for my lack of military expertise, but have we not already attempted to do such?"

The Judicator grinned. "Yes, but this time we have help." Then he remembered exactly what the help was, and grimaced.

The Phantom settled down on a makeshift landing pad. Peec looked around as he exited the back hatch. Things were even more hectic than they'd been when he'd left. Now instead of just small, hastily erected barricades there were now automated sentry guns, prefabricated concrete walls, and ammunition caches. The Marines were prepping to get hit hard.

He jogged over to a Sergeant relaying orders to subordinates. "Any way I can help?" He asked.

The Sergeant turned around and pointed over to a group of Marines struggling with some heavy cases. "Over there. Mechanical lift broke down, so now we have to carry them."

The Spartan nodded and marched off with Fira to help move the heavy cases.

Marina put her hand on her older brother's shoulder as she watched the Spartan jog away. "We need to talk, Calvin."

The Ranger simply nodded and followed her. She only ever used his first name when it was concerning matters pertaining to things outside military life.

The one thing he knew was that this would be a long and hard siege.

Chapter 10: Cartography

2345 Hours, January 8th, 2573 (UNSC Military Calendar)

It was been a long, hard siege. The UNSC initiated a blockade of the planet and even considered hitting the Covenant camp -which more like a fortress now- with a MAC blast. Lieutenant Johansson prevented that from happening, claiming that his Ranger team was sent to find an artifact that happened to be right under the shield.

"Dust in ten!" Calvin said over the com as their Pelican soared low over the trees. "Lock and load!"

Peec and Fira sat next to the open hatch. They and the Ranger team were in the lead dropship, which was being tailed by five others carrying two ODST squads and eight squads of regular Marines.

The Pelican lowered, and the Special Forces traipsed out on to the small clearing.

A Sangheili clad in typical combat armor stepped out from the trees, deactivating his camouflage. Fira nodded to him.

All the humans were on the ground, and the Pelicans departed.

Peec and Calvin marched up to the Sangheili, who folded his fist over his first heart. Peec stood a meter back from Calvin, watching the trees for signs of Covenant.

"Greetings, humans. I trust your journey here went well?"

Calvin nodded. "It was."

The Sangheili grinned. "Shall we?"

Calvin nodded and turned to go.

He barely heard the hiss of an activating energy sword, but his instincts told him to leap aside. He did so, but not quite fast enough.

First Sergeant Morley vomited fire and collapsed.

Peec-D1074 spun around and raised his rifle.

"Ambush!" He roared, hosing the Elite with 7.62 mm fire. The Sangheili laughed as he charged the Spartan, moments before a round punched through his chest and he collapsed, coughing.

A nightmare had settled on the clearing. Shining silver monsters appeared from nowhere, energy swords blazing eerie trails in the night. The humans and Field Master gave back as good as they got, but the Path Walker's armor was strong and their swords deadly.

Peec emptied the rest of his magazine and went for a reload. An energy blade came out of nowhere, and he was barely able to dodge before it cut through the air where he used to be, slicing his rifle in two.

His twin gauntlet knives snapped from his vambraces, and he parried the next attack, then riposted and ran the Sangheili through.

He looked up. The Path Walkers were all dead. Twenty of them had ambushed forty Marines, ten ODSTs, ten Rangers, A Spartan, and a Sangheili Zealot.

Half of the humans were dead, and most of the rest had injuries.

Peec went to Calvin and turned him over. The Sergeant had passed out, but he would live. The energy sword from the leader had punched in to his side. A shallow but potentially lethal wound.

"Medic!" The Spartan called, and the one remaining medic, a Ranger, ran over. "Just hand me a kit." The medic dropped it and ran over to a more grievously wounded soldier.

Peec applied a layer of biofoam and painkillers, then bandaged the wound. He judged that that would be all it needed. Then he turned his attention to his com, but made sure to keep one eye on Sergeant Morley's vitals.

"Dropship zero-niner, we need evac."

"What's wrong, Petty Officer?"

"An ambush. The Sangheili we were supposed to meet were Path Walkers." He paused. "Half the men here are dead, and most of the rest are injured."

There was silence, then a wavering voice came back over the com. "Very well, Sierra. We're on our way."

Peec took stock of the clearing. They'd lost twenty-five Marines, six ODSTs, and one Ranger, all to kill twenty armored Sangheili.

That wasn't a good sign at all.

0730 Hours, January 21st, 2573 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Wings picked the datapad off the table and scanned it. Assignment to the Falaknuma system. Where Peec was at. Excellent.

"Something up?" Zero asked, walking in and holding a new M90909 Sniper Rifle. It had an incredible range due to magnetic rails powered by her Mjolnir suit's fusion plant.

"We've been assigned to help clean up the mess as Falaknuma. And the Judicator is there."

Zero grinned slightly and snapped the rifle in to a carrying case.

1230 Hours, February 15th, 2573 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Peec sprinted behind a tree stump and ducked as a brute shot round soared over his head. It impacted with another tree and detonated, showering splinters everywhere.

He rolled right, and a plasma grenade landed where he'd just been. He stood and fired, bringing a Jiralhanae and an Unggoy down with a sustained burst.

"Sierra Delta Ten Seventy-Four, come in." A familiar voice said.

"Hey, Chief!" Peec responded, leaping aside and rolling in one movement to dodge a barrage of spiker rounds. "I'm a bit busy at the moment and could use some support."

"Copy that. We're inbound on the north side of the camp. We'll distract them. Your task is to get that artifact and get off the planet. The Covenant want it and Halsey has an idea why. Get it, take the Field Master, and get off planet. That's a direct order."

"Yes sir!"

Wings watched as the two M3 Amphibious Assault Drones flaoted out of the rear of the Pelicans. They were heavy things, each one making a Scorpion look like a Warthog in comparison. Four computer controlled machine guns and a Gauss cannon adorned each of them. They were big and blocky, but their armor was thick, their shields powerful, and they could protect all ground forces within thirty meters with an anti-ordnance device that detonated all explosives before they came in to range. These also had one advantage that no other land-based drone possessed...

"How is it, Ocean?"

A holographic projector activated, and a life sized image of Deep Ocean appeared. Her old form had never been exact, always morphing and evolving. But now it was beginning to take the form of a woman clothed in military garb. Wings knew that her clothing was a metaphor for both her mood and the job she was doing. Her voice has also followed what her avatar had done. It still wavered a bit, but had become stronger and clearer.

"Simple enough. I can hit anything you need me to and do it heavily. We'll make a good distraction."

Wings nodded. "Good. Get up-linked with the bee-net and show me the field."

Ocean's avatar took a few steps back. A map grew from a dot an in to a three meter wide representation of the field of battle.

"The Covenant forces came heavily prepared for a stalemate. They have multiple defensive cannons set up around the inside of the shield. Strangely enough the shield only reacts to non-organic materials. If you want help from me you'll need to knock out a section of the shields.

"As for the Covenant forces, the UNSC troops have done well in thinning them out, but haven't been able to surround them to get a strategic advantage. There are a couple hundred Path Walkers patrolling the forests, preventing any and all UNSC forces from heading in. The forests shelter just over half of the Covenant Camp. This allows the Covenant Loyalists, consisting of a few hundred Jiralhanae, a thousand Kig-Yar, four thousand Unggoy, and six Lekgolo of undetermined type.

"My advice is to take out the Path Walkers in the forest, first. They present the largest threat and are holding a strategic position."

Wings turned to a few dozen teams standing behind him. "Alpha teams will take the forest. Wolverine and Tower teams will cover Drone Bravo, and Argonaut and Phoenix will cover Alpha. Forest teams: take out the Path Walkers by any means necessary. You have two squadrons of T51s covering you, so use them well. Drone teams: We'll be hitting the northwestern section of the shield to bring it down and give Peec and Fira a chance to get in there and grab the artifact. Ocean, I want the drones no farther apart than fifty five meters at all times; well need a lot of space to move. Let's move, Deltas!"

The Spartans nodded and headed out, pulling out their weapons of choice. The forest teams, fifty Spartans, headed east-southeast while the drone teams headed northwest.

Wings checked to make sure the ACOG scope on his MA7C was fitted snugly to it. The area in front of the shield dome was fairly flat, which gave the Covenant's defensive cannons a great shot at any approaching enemies. The drones could only block explosive ordnance and half of the defensive turrets were fuel rod cannons.

"Ocean, take care of the plasma batteries first. We can dodge fuel rods if we have to, but not plasma rounds."

"Copy that." She said. "I can hit anything at just over a kilometer with the Gauss cannon, and under one kilometer with the 120 millimeter."

"Then let them have it once we get in range. I know they can hit us from a kilometer and a half."

No sooner had these words left his mouth than fuel rods and plasma bolts began springing towards them. The Spartans went acrobatic, nimbly dodging out of the way of the plasma bolts. The fuel rod rounds were ignored as they detonated well out of the range they could do any damage at.

Then the Gauss drone got in range and fired. A plasma turret exploded. It was but one of two dozen.

Six T51 Skyhawks soared over the forest ten klicks away and let loose with a hail of 90 mm explosive cannon fire. Flames burst from the canopy, sending orange lights all around.

Wings ducked behind Drone Alpha and opened a com channel. "Alpha teams, report."

"This is Alpha actual," the calm voice of Niner-D3921 said. "We have heavy resistance. Advise you send in Bravo."

"Bravo teams, do you copy?"

"Affirmative. Bravo teams moving to assist. Out."

Wings ducked back out in view of the cannons. Ocean had opened up with the 120 mm cannon, having laid waste with the Gauss. Incoming fire had slackened quite a bit, but the Deltas knew from experience not to trust looks.

"Snipers, mount up and check for Jackals in the trees." Wings ordered. Zero and three other snipers grabbed on the handholds on the side of the drones and hauled themselves up. The drones automatically compensated for the shift in weight, not even wavering.

"Got twenty Jackals." Zero said.

"Kill them."

Rifles cracked, and Jackals dropped from the branches of trees bordering the forest. Some managed to return fire before the Spartan emptied their magazines, but they were not of any great skill and were the next ones to be shot.

The more patient ones, however, held off their fire until they were sure they had a shot.

One Delta got hit with three beams in the chest. He rolled, dodging two more beams and took cover behind a Drone. While they were large, not all the Spartans could fit behind them at once. So Wings had ordered that only those who needed to recharge their shields would take cover.

"You alright?" Itzia called, doing a handspring right.

"I'm good. Just punched my shields down."


"Sir," X said. "We've got a hole opening up."

Wings zoomed in on the shield. Sure enough, one of the many hexagons in the shield had deactivated to allow dozens of Unggoy and Kig-Yar through.

The Spartan chewed his lip over this. This meant that the Judicator knew that the Brute's shorter ranged weapons would fair incredibly well against the Spartans once they got inside the shield dome. He opened a com channel.

"Alpha and Bravo teams, once you're done mopping up the Path Walkers then hit the rear of the base. Your primary target is the shield generator or the fusion plant powering it."

"Copy that." Niner responded. "That will take a while."

"Peec, Get in there now. We've got their attention."

"Will do."

The Drones machine gun turrets turned towards the oncoming horde and began churning out round after round of armor piercing ammunition.

Wings halted the Spartans and had them dig in next to the Drones. This was going to get hot.

Peec and Fira sprinted across the eighty meters of open ground around the shield dome. Thankfully the shields didn't seem to be able to recognize friend or foe, and a hexagon of the shield deactivated to allow them passage.

Unfortunately two Jiralhanae minors were standing guard nearby and saw them. They didn't get a chance to scream as the Spartan and Sangheili pounced, bringing them down with blades.

"The signal from the artifact coming from right next to the fusion plant." Peec said.

"I will recover the artifact." Fira responded. "You destroy the reactor. I do not have the expertise."

Peec nodded, and they made their way towards the middle of the camp, their active camouflage keeping the two hidden.

The Spartan went the few extra meters to the power plant and took out a demolition charge. He planted it and turned to Fira, who was already rising from a hole in the ground.

"It was but a small chamber, and this." He said, holding forth an emerald crystal. The Field Master handed it to Peec, who took it and stowed it away.

"The explosion of that fusion plant will take out everything within two hundred meters." Peec muttered, looking around. The shield dome was perfectly circular, and stretched out to be about five kilometers in diameter.

"Then I suggest we leave as soon as possible," Fira responded, turning to leave. "We do not want to be here when it goes off, I presume?"

"Unless you like having your DNA rearranged by particles moving at nearly the speed of light, no."

Fira smiled. "That's why I like you. Always on task, but never afraid to crack a joke."

The corners of Peec's mouth twitched upwards in a smile, and the two friends fled the scene.

There was an explosion from the center of the shield dome. The blue sphere flickered and died.

Wings glanced up from where he lay. The overhead fire had become so thick that the Spartans had had to take cover underneath the Drones, which hadn't stopped firing for five minutes.

"Ocean, ammo stock."

"Thirty percent left."

"Alpha and Bravo teams, hit them from the rear. Peec got the shield down." Wings then opened a channel to the T51s. "Skyhawks, Anti-air fire is out. You are free to begin your runs."

"Copy that, Delta."

A command channel opened, and female voice came over the MCPO's helmet speakers. "Chief, this is Colonel Morley. We're rolling up from behind you. Stay clear of the armor."

"Roger. We can hold them until you get here."

"Good. Morley out."

"Ground forces, this is Admiral Gering. A Covenant fleet just slipped in and are heading for the main Falaknuma Port. Is the artifact secure?"

Peec's voice responded. "Admiral, this is Sierra Delta Ten Seventy-Four. The artifact is secure and Spear's Tip is extra-atmospheric. Can you give us some cover?"

"We can, Delta, but make it fast. We can only protect a ship like yours for a short while without making any maneuvers. This is a heavy weight fight."

Wings looked up. The battle on the ground was won, but the battle in the skies had just begun. There had been a mere fifty UNSC ships blockading the planet, and they were now engaging a fleet of approximately seventy Covenant ships. The Covenant stood no chance against the three Gorgon-class Battleships, which were riddled with counter-measures against plasma weaponry. However, they were still able to target and annihilate the lighter, older frigates with ease. Gering was currently maneuvering the Frigates in to a protective pattern inside the range of the Gorgon's counter-measure systems, but left them some room for maneuvering. The Covenant ships had been reduced by half already, and the UNSC had only lost six. The super-carrier, Advent, was wreaking havoc with it's Super-MAC, blowing each Covenant ship in to a flaming hulk with a mere two blasts.

"Ground forces, this is Rear Admiral Lash. Spear's Tip just slipped out. Mission accomplished."

Wings breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed a bit. Another mission that had gone there way.

He turned to a new problem facing him:

Where had the Judicator gone?

0524 Hours, February 15th, 2573 (UNSC Military Calendar)

"A two month jump is fairly extreme, isn't it?" Fira queried as Peec set his helmet on the console next to him.

"Not really. In 2553 it took a human ship a few months to get from Reach to Earth, and that's not far, considering how widespread our colonies are. Now we can make that same jump in less than a day."

"And what do we do once we're done jumping?"

"Command will likely have sent a probe to our exit location. We'll pick up our orders from there."

Fira nodded and stared out the window. "Do we not have... what is it... 'cryo pods'?"

Peec shook his head. "Unfortunately no. Faster slipspace drives have turned what used to be months long trips in to day long rides. Cryo pods were uninstalled for more space and to save power."

"I see."

The Spartan leaned back in his chair. "So there's not really much to do but wait for now."

They sat in silence for a while.

"Do you have any that you love?" Fira asked after about half an hour.

"Besides my team?" Peec turned to stare out the window. "I don't think I could afford to."

"Why not?" The Sangheili asked curiously.

"Doing so might compromise a mission. Spartans have to remain... focused."

"That seems to be the core difference between us."

Peec nodded. "What about you? Sangheili are focused on their families as well, but have the chance to make them."

It was Fira's turn to stare out of the window, his eyes saying that his mind had travelled beyond the bounds of slipspace and across space and time. "Afya 'Mantakr." He said. "My wife."


"Yes. She is pregnant with our third. I have three sons and a daughter. Bayn is the oldest. I do not yet know the names of the other three."

"Why not?"

"Fathers only learn the names of their children when they come of age."

"I see."

Silence descended upon the ship again. The two did not speak for the rest of the day. But the two friends had two months to talk.

1053 Hours, April 17th, 2573 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Peec guided the Spear's Tip closer to the probe.

"You ready?" He queried.

"I am."

The Spartan focused back on guiding the corvette closer to the probe. During the two month slipspace journey he had fashioned an EVA suit for Fira. It was slightly uncomfortable, but the important thing was that it worked.

"I have it." Came the short message. "Seal the hatch."

Peec did so and headed back in to the Corvette's small hold.

Fira had set the small probe on a crate. He took a couple steps back as Peec walked up and set a laptop on the crate. He ran a wire from the computer and plugged it in.

A hologram sprang to life, and Wings appeared. A note appeared on the laptop's screen said that a slipspace channel had been opened, allowing for instant communication across long distances. Expensive, but useful.

"Peec, it's good to speak to you."

"Same here, sir."

"Halsey says she has a hypothesis on the artifact you recovered. I trust that you analyzed it?"


"Good. Please send the data."

Peec connected a datapad and transferred all the data he had on the crystal.

Wings turned to look at a screen for ten seconds, his eyes flicking lazily over the lines of data as they streamed in. Then he turned back to the holo-recorder.

"This confirms many things, and serves to aid in finding other things. We need you to bring the crystal to Sanghelios for analysis."

"Why Sanghelios."

"We've got an active Precursor computer. If there's anything that can truly find out what that Forerunner crystal is for, it's that."

"Very well. We're on our way."

"And Peec..."


"Keep it in a lead case. The crystal emits radiation that bends time and space. We don't know the full extent of that, but we do know that it can tear holes between realspace and slipspace."

"Of course, sir."

0243 Hours, June 15th, 2573 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Peec and Fira marched in to the healing room of the Precursor complex and slid the crystal from its belt compartment. Halsey and Wings were on the top floor, conversing. They stopped as the two approached.

"You're here, good." Halsey said, turning to face the newcomers as they walked up the stairs. She didn't hold her hand out for the crystal, something that Peec found odd. The Doctor looked miffed. He supposed Wings would look the same if he ever showed any extreme of emotion.

"The database wants to talk to you." Wings said, his eyes flicking to Fira for a second. "Alone."

Fira and Wings left, but Halsey rested her hand on Peec's shoulder for a moment. "It said something about interfacing with your mind. I can't say for certain, but I think it's going to-"

She was cut off by a rumble. She looked back at the lump of the holoprojector, then left.

The humanoid avatar of the Precursor database blossomed from the lump. The crystal in Peec's hand was snatched from his grip and floated in the air.

"This is a very fine piece of technology, Spartan." The database said. "I think you've done enough to know what it is."

Peec stepped forward. "Then show me."

"It is not that simple." The database said as the crystal slowly lowered. Four silver tentacles rose from the floor and gripped it. "If there is one thing that the Forerunners were skilled at it was the art of computers. Your superior's artificial intelligence is clear evidence of that."

Peec thought of Deep Ocean. When had she really, truly done something that no human AI had ever done? "I don't quite follow you."

"I am able to monitor matter and energy down to the level on orders of sub-angstroms. Deep Ocean is of exquisite make, but does not know that and has not shown it yet. Have patience.

"Now, for this." The hologram stepped of its silver bump and touched the crystal. Facets of green light played throughout the database's avatar.

"In order to actually see what this piece of technology does, we have to become a part of it. The Forerunners have left room in this crystal to allow a sentient mind to interface with it. I believe your armor's neural slot will do it."

The database tapped the crystal, and it folded over, forming in to a bulbous form with an interface slot on one end. The tentacles lifted the crystal higher, and a chair formed from the floor facing away from the tentacles. Peec took a step towards it.

"I must warn you," The database said, causing Peec to pause. "I cannot aid you in there, and all the Forerunner's security will hunt you. You will need all of your skills to fight them."

The Spartan nodded and sat down. The chip slit in to his neural socket with a click.

Peec's mind felt itself uncoiling from its brain. The programs sucked his consciousness in like a vortex, leaving only the things it did not need.

He found himself standing in the middle of a desert. A vulture circled overhead.

This was most assuredly not the place he had expected to land in. He still had his armor on, and didn't feel any physically different, so that had to mean something.

The vulture dove, which Peec decided was strange. He activated his gauntlet knife...

And found it didn't work.

The bird hit Peec hard, driving him to the ground. Blue lines crawled from the creatures spine and down it's wings, which were now molding to become strong, muscular arms.

Peec twisted and fought the creature, but it was too strong. Then he remembered that he was in a program.

One of the blue lines dove in to his armor like nothing was there, and there was a jolt of pain in Peec's head. He felt himself jerk both mentally and physically.

He focused on the line and on the coding spilling from it and pushed back mentally. The bird squawked as the coding retreated. Peec dove in to it and found long, multiple dimensional strings of coding. He tore through them until he exposed the subroutine that targeted him as an intruder. He then found the variable that symbolized the Forerunner program and switched its variable for his.

A strange sensation spread across his back, and he saw luminescent green tentacles sliding up his arms. Some locked with the blue tentacles and strangled them. The others worked their way up to the vulture's spine and wound together. They dove in, and the creature squawked. The lines glowed and worked their way up to the skull.

The vulture vanished, deleted from the system.

"Well that was easier than I expected." Peec mumbled, getting to his feet. The oasis stood out like a beacon.

There was another squawk, and he looked up.

"Aw, son of a bitch..." And he took off running. Several hundred vultures, each one bigger than the first, circled overhead.

Peec approximated that the oasis was a few hundred meters away. He sprinted toward it as the vultures dove and reached the water edge just as they were about to hit him.

He dove in and reappeared...

In the middle of a crowded market on Falaknuma. Children played, merchants peddled, beggars begged, and everyone went about their own business.

Peec felt something clunk in to a pouch on his belt and opened it. In it lay a crystal vial of oasis water. The Spartan felt thirsty all of a sudden, so he took the vial out, uncorked it, and drank it.

Knowledge flooded through him. Flashes of light, machines, sentient beings. They all whirled before him, cluttered and unkempt. He had a piece of the knowledge now, but it was not coherent. His mind returned to the present, suddenly discovering with a jold that he no longer had his armor.

A man in a suit stepped out from an alley in front of Peec. It was a regular black three-piece suit, minus the tie. He looked at Peec. Only blue eyes adorned his face. The rest was featureless.

Peec turned around and ran down the street to his right. The man followed, running faster than the Spartan. Peec looked around for a door, an exit of any kind, and found it in the city gate. People entered and left it at will, but there was nothing beyond the gate.

Rapid footsteps sounded behind Peec, and he made a break for the gate. He felt a hand brush his shoulder as he passed through.

There was a split second of whirling confusion, and then he was a child again, standing at attention on an open field. He felt something clunk in to the pocket of his uniform. A squad of children his age were at the firing range.

The trainer dismissed them all, but Peec didn't move. He looked around for others like the faceless man, but did not see any. He felt hungry.

Pulling the object from his pocket, he found it to be an orange. He peeled it and ate it.

The images reappeared, but less cluttered now. He was able to make out things, flashes from the subconscious, things he'd seen. Then the familiar disappeared and new images appeared. A metal tower burning, people screaming and... a sickness.

He saw his brothers, the Deltas. They writhed on the ground, in pain. Some vomited blood, some were having seizures and some lay still.

He saw two silhouettes appear on the horizon. These two, were Spartans. But they did not writhe one the ground or appear to be in any harm. They walked erect through the field and, as they passed, Spartans stopped squirming on the ground and rose, healthy once more. Peec felt this was important, and wandered closer, attempting to discern their features from the smog about him...

A yell brought him back to the present. Peec snapped around to see the trainer, now a featureless being, yelling and pointing at him. The Spartan looked for an exit, but the featureless men were everywhere. There were no exits, except through the firing range, where Spartan children were still practicing.

Peec ran in to the hail of bullets.

Assault rifle rounds shredded his body, reducing him to a messy pile. Then he felt these bits swept away and reconstructed.

He was now in a candle lit room with an SM6D in his hand. He held it to the head of a Kig-Yar, one of the high-ranking ones. Its eyes flicked to the doorway.

"You have to stop them." It said as the door smashed in.

Peec turned and fired at the shadow that barged in.

More memories. Less of his, more of something else.

Now he stood, fully armored again, a kilometer from a downed UNSC Destroyer. Writing on the side labeled it the Genocide. Several kilometers away a CCS Cruiser floated above a plateau on the plains of Anduu.

He felt something clunk in to a pack on his back, and knew he'd reached the end of the road at last. The Spartan pulled it out and found himself holding a worn leather-backed book. The final bits of knowledge clicked in to place. He knew they were all there, but it was all still a jumble. He heard but a voice whisper in his ear:


A squadron of T51 Skyhawks roared overhead and engaged several waves of Seraphs. Marines and Spartans ground out from the Genocide to meet hordes of Covenant foot soldiers in battle.

Peec ignored them all and ran for a cave in the side of a cliff that appeared.

Over the hills a shadow appeared. Wherever it spread to the virtual world melted away.

Peec pumped his legs harder, feeling the lactic acids burning through his muscles. He dove in to the cave just as the shadow swept over it, consuming all.

"Peec! Wake up!"

Peec snapped back to consciousness and sat up. He felt a tentacle shove the crystal in to his belt pouch.

Wings grabbed his arm and hauled Peec upright.

"The Covenant are attacking!" He roared as gunfire swept close to them. "Take the crystal and get out of here! Fira's got the Spear's Tip warmed up and ready. You two get off this planet, you're the only one who knows how that crystal works and the Covenant cannot have it!"

Peec nodded and ran, still trying to gather his thoughts.

ODSTs and Spartans fought tooth and nail against a wave of Covenant invaders. Peec worked his way through the chaos and towards the surface.

He reappeared on the surface and sprinted for the makeshift landing pad.

"I see you, Spartan. Hurry! There's a contingent of Wraiths closing in."

Peec skipped the stairs and leapt the last several meters to the platform. He raced in to the Corvette and lifted off, not even bothering to strap in. Fira gripped an overhead railing as the Spear's Tip shot towards space.

Off in the distance an Interspecies Union fleet engaged a Covenant fleet. Judging by the debris, Peec guessed that it was an even fight, despite the odds against the IU.

"Peec, this is Wings. We've cleared the Covenant forces out of the structure and are proceeding to the main battle. Keep that artifact safe and run as far as you can. We'll find you."

"Copy that. Engaging slipspace drive now."

The Spear's Tip tore a hole in realspace and disappeared.

Peec stood and looked at Fira.

"Well," he said as calmly as he could, in spite of his racing heart. "That was fun."

And he fainted.

1243 Hours, June 15th, 2573 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Wings rested his rifle on his shoulder and surveyed the battlefield. Thousands of Covenant troops, Sangheili, and Marines lay dead.

"Police the bodies." He ordered, and the Spartans moved out. The occasional shot ran out, signaling the end of yet another Covenant foot soldier.


Wings turned at the sound of Autel's voice. The albino Sangheili was panting. The MCPO understood; Autel had been stationed in Vadam Keep during the battle, several dozen kilometers away, and all the Phantoms were currently busy

"What is it, friend?"

"They took her, they took Cyla."

Wings froze. "Ocean, is Vena safe?"

"She is."

The Spartan turned his attention back to Autel.

"We'll find her. They want to draw you in to a trap."

Autel nodded, attempting to catch his breath.

"We'll get her together. I'll get two other teams with us and we'll hunt her down ourselves. They'll be sure to have a trap laid for you."

Another nod. "Thank you, my friend. Again."

Wings shook his head. "It is only what you should expect from me."

0632 Hours, June 17th, 2573 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Peec came awake with a start. His time asleep had been filled with flashes; images that would not let him escape.

"You're awake."

Fira stood in the doorway that lead to the Spear's Tip's medical bay. Peec swung his legs over the side of the table and ran a system diagnostic on his armor.

"You're healthy, if the machines are to be believed." Fira said, then paused. "What happened?"

"The Precursor database allowed me to extract a lot of knowledge from the crystal," Peec responded. His armor was fine. He rose fully and walked past Fira and in to the cockpit. "So much that my brain must have overloaded and put me in to a comatose state."

"Is it any clearer now?"

Peec shook his head. "In some ways, yes. In others, no. I can only really see the things that have already happened and are happening. I know that ONI has done a cover-up on something called 'Project: ZACK', and that it has something to do with the Spartan-IIIs. I just can't figure out what."

"What do you see when you think of it?"

Another head shake. "Shadows. That's all. Shadows moving in a coordinated fashion towards a dark horizon while life blares around them. No one cares or notices that something's wrong, because nothing is... it doesn't make sense."

Fira nodded, but knew that he would never be able to understand the memories as well as Peec did now.

1235 Hours, June 17th, 2573 (UNSC Military Calendar)

The Spear's Tip shot out of slipspace. Peec found his view filled with the titanic metal of a Covenant Carrier. Hitting the thrusters, he was about to throw the Corvette in to a desperate series of evasive maneuvers when a voice came over the IU command frequency.

"Unidentified UNSC Corvette, this is the Carrier Shadow of Intent. Identify yourself."

Peec breathed a sigh of relief and responded. "Shadow of Intent, this is Spear's Tip, Spartan Delta Ten Seventy-Four."

"This is Fleet Master Rtas 'Vadum. We're guiding you in to hanger bay F106."

"Copy, Fleet Master."

The Corvette shuddered as a gravity beam latched on to it and tugged. The shadow of the massive ship eclipsed the form of the miniscule one as it was pulled closer.

Fira marched in from the rear of the ship. "I think we're safe, at least for now."

Rtas 'Vadum watched the hologram of the UNSC Corvette float in to the belly of his ship before turning back to the communications officer.

"Have we established a link to the forces on Sanghelios?"

"Yes, Excellency."

"Tell them that we have the artifact on board."

"Fleet Master! Multiple slipspace ruptures!"

Rtas spun his chair to face the navigation officer. "Where?"

"Three million units, coming in on the same vector as the Spear's Tip! Count four cruisers and one carrier!"

So, the Covenant had followed the Corvette.

"Warm all plasma lines, charge slipspace capacitors. We'll give them one salvo and flee." He thumbed over to another channel. "Spartan, here's what I need you to do..."

Fira was at the bottom of the ramp when he heard it beginning to close. He spun around and saw Peec still at the top of it.

"What are you doing?" He asked.

"The Covenant want the artifact and me." Peec said. "You won't be able to make much of a difference if they pull this ship aboard. Rtas has my vector, he can follow me faster than the Loyalists can. I'll get on the ground. There you can be more helpful."

Fira nodded. "We will meet again, friend."

Peec began to turn away, paused, looked back, and nodded.

The ramp sealed. Fira didn't like being tossed aside, but he knew the Spartan was right. He jogged away as the Corvette began to float away from the hangar.

"Fleet Master, the Spear's Tip is away."

"Are our weapons heated up?"

"Yes, Excellency."

"Slipspace capacitor?"

"Sixty-five percent and charging, Fleet Master!"

"Good. Contact the rest of the fleet and send them our coordinates."

Rtas turn to face the hologram of the five Loyalist ships. He was one against five. But the Spartan had the artifact and a single shiva nuke.

"Spartan, what's the range of your nuclear weapon?"

"Thirty-thousand kilometers."

"Center it on the carrier. If you take down the shields, we can finish it off."

"Copy that, Fleet Master.

The Shadow of Intent in geosynchronous orbit above a small moon orbiting a gas giant. Rtas had an idea. He turned to the weapons officer.

"Could you lock on to the Loyalist ships and send our plasma torpedoes in an arc around the moon?"

The officer nodded knowingly. "Yes, Excellency. It would give us a little extra time."

"Do it." Rtas said, and twenty plasma torpedoes sailed away from the carrier and at a tangent to the moon's atmosphere.

"Slipspace capacitors at seventy-two percent."

"Spartan, launch the nuke."


The missile trailed out and struck the carrier. The explosion flared for a second, then dissipated as fast as it expanded.

"Energy projector, now. Kill that carrier!" Rtas ordered.

A beam of light lanced through the blackness and cut the carrier clean in two. The front half floated gently away, while the rear half exploded in a great ball of fire.

Two of the other ships had been hit by the blast and had their shields down.

"Target those two with the torpedoes."


Twenty more torpedoes launched. The ships had closed to within two hundred thousand kilometers, so the torpedoes traveled for mere seconds before they hit.

No more than half a second before they struck the cruisers launched their own salvo of forty torpedoes.

As the first twenty torpedoes that the Intent had fired straightened from their lazy arc around the moon, the others struck the two unshielded carriers. One managed to absorb the damage by turning in to the attack prow-first, but the other one overloaded and detonated.

"Evasive maneuvers!" Rtas ordered, and the carrier vibrated as the thrusters kicked in, but the Fleet Master knew it would not be enough.

"Begin coaxial spin."

"Yes, Excellency."

The Intent tilted along its length as the torpedoes struck, spreading their damage along a greater area of the shields.

"Port shields down!" The weapons officer called. "Starboard holding at seventy-six percent!"

"Slipspace capacitors at eighty-five percent."

"Reheat all lines."

The first twenty torpedoes struck the two shielded cruisers, knocking their shields down.

"Fire at will." Rtas ordered, and the plasma cannons let loose with a heated barrage.

Two cruisers were down in seconds, but got off several shots.

"Decks three and seven compromised!" The damage control officer called out.

"Finish them off, then deal with the damage."

The plasma cannons fired again, reducing the final cruiser to slag.

Rtas flexed his left hand, feeling the muscles loosen a bit. He turned to the navigation officer. "Is the Spartan away?"

"Aye, Fleet Master. He jumped as the enemy carrier was destroyed."

"Good. Are the capacitors charged?"

"Yes, Excellency."

Rtas sat back in his chair. That fight had been too easy. There had been barely any tactics on the Loyalist's side.

"Fleet Master, reading six hundred energy spikes! More slipspace ruptures!"

Rtas 'Vadum sat bolt upright. "Is our fleet inbound?"

"Two hundred fifty of those ruptures are on our planned vectors."

Then there were easily three hundred and fifty Loyalist ships.

"Back us off and recharge all shields and weapons. Send out the call for assistance."

The communication officer went to his task, but the navigation officer glanced his way. "Assistance, Excellency?" He queried.

"The Loyalists have proven that they want that artifact the Spartan has so badly that they will send a fleet after it." He said. "I'll wager more are on their way. Dump the Spartan's coordinates in to a memory chip and get them to Field Master Fira 'Demal. Have him take a Phantom and rendezvous with the Incumbent Wrath. Tell Ship Master Sona 'Demal that I have orders for him."

The communication officer was scrambling furiously to keep up.

Rtas sat back in his chair, forcing himself to appear relaxed.

If the Covenant could field more than three hundred ships without a thought, he didn't want to know how many were behind them.

He resigned himself to the fight. The call for help was out. If it came, then his crew and two hundred and fifty just like them might live.

If not, then he'd teach the Loyalists a lesson they'd never forget.

1532 Hours, June 20th, 2573 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Wings strode through the empty battlefield. He heard a squeak, raised his rifle, and fired a round.

The Unggoy stupid enough to make a noise gurgled and died. Not like it would have mattered, all the Spartans had heartbeat sensor attachments on their weapons.

Autel stood beside him, his face grim. The Covenant Loyalists had put up a good fight for this path of dirt.

"She has to be here." He growled in a low voice.

"We'll find her." Wings reassured him.

Shadows appeared in the distance, and a flicker of hope flashed through Autel's eyes. It became one of near unrestrained delight when the shapes took form. 'Antinr and Zero came marching through the dust, Cyla 'Cazal striding alongside them. She was holding a steaming plasma rifle.

"The Covenant were close." 'Antinr reported. "But it seems that your wife here is handy in a fight." The female Sangheili shot Autel a mischievous grin. The Special Operations Commander glanced at Wings, who was watching from a few meters back.

"Why is it every time someone does something out of the ordinary someone has to look at me?" The MCPO said, stowing his rifle away.

"This is the Fleet of Glory Reclaimed, hailing all IU forces. We are under heavy Loyalist assault and require assistance. Coordinates are attached to this frequency."

Autel cocked his head. That sounded like the communications officer aboard the Shadow of Intent.

"Spartans, I'm assuming you heard that." The voice of Rear Admiral Lash said. "Pelicans are inbound for extraction."

"Copy that." Wings said, and turned to Autel. "Get Cyla to safety, and then follow us. This sounds like it's going to be a heavy weight fight."

Autel nodded, and the three Spartan teams raced off towards the incoming dropships. "Good luck, Spartan."

"Same to you." Wings' voice responded, and then the channel clicked off.

1536 Hours, July 6th, 2573 (UNSC Military Calendar)

The Spear's Tip made a rough landing on the small planet a few weeks. Peec had grabbed as many weapons he could carry, and the artifact from the ship. After that, he hunkered down and kept out of sight. The wait was uneventful, but he knew that it was a small price to pay for the value of the crystal. And until there was a way to hide the artifact, he didn't trust anyone else to guard it.

He was now trudging towards the only place he could think of that would help mask the crystal's radiation signal: a heavy plutonium mine about fifty kilometers from his landing spot. The small ship couldn't come too close to the area without the risk of having its magnetic coils fried by the intense radiation. The Mjolnir suit, however, could withstand it.

There came a faint humming from his belt pouch. Peec pulled the crystal out.

It had rearranged itself to form a sort of faceted satellite dish, and was glowing a faint blue.

"Awww, shit..." Peec muttered, looking skyward.

Something above the atmosphere lit up the night sky. The Spartan inhaled sharply when he saw one… two… four Jiralhanae frigates emerge out of Slipspace, followed by two cruisers and a carrier.

Peec didn’t believe in bad luck. He had no doubt as to why they were here. And he knew more were right behind them.

The artifact must have sent out some kind of signal.

The question now was to what it was sending the signal to.

Ship Master Sona 'Demal frowned. While they had no trouble interpreting the message, thanks to a translation software given to them by the humans in 2556, it seemed to be a broad-spectrum transmission. That meant they couldn’t have been the only ones to have received it. And with the Jiralhanae lurking off somewhere in the system, they had to get to it.

“Any sign of movement?” he asked.

“Not yet, Ship Master…” the sensor officer replied. “Wait… seven Jiralhanae ships are coming around the planet. They have deployed dropships. And…they’re heading for us.”

Sona grimaced. They only had four cruisers, and the Jiralhanae had more powerful ships and were greater in number. But not so much in prowess, he thought. “Prepare to engage,” he said. “Deploy Phantoms and tell them to find the source of the signal.”

The hangar bays were noisy as Phantoms warmed up and Sangheili were grabbing weapons and piling on board. There was no time to talk.

Fira jumped onto one packed with soldiers, and the pilot closed the hatches. There was a lurch as the dropship flew out of the hangar and into the space. He looked back at the cruisers, which were closing in on the Jiralhanae ships.

“Do you think they will be alright?” Warra 'Mantakr asked.

Fira looked away. “We cannot worry about them. They would be willing to die if it meant defeating the Jiralhanae. And I have never known a better Ship Master than Sona.” He gazed at the ground, which was coming up fast. “We need to do our part. And I think I know who is down there.”

Enemy Seraphs, vectoring in on us!” the pilot, 'Tullum called from the cockpit. “Hold on!

The Phantom dropped into a vertical free-fall. Plasma erupted all around them. Fira saw two other Phantoms orbiting theirs. One was hit, and then the other. Flames and glowing metal showered the remaining dropship and fighters.

May the Gods help us, Fira thought. He had to get down there.

Autel led his unit to the deployment bay, and the Sangheili hurried to their pods.

“Launch as soon as you are ready,” he said. “We will regroup once we have time. See you on the surface.” As they nodded and wished each other luck, he climbed into his drop pod, and sealed the hatch. He could hear the ones beside him launching out of the cruiser and into the atmosphere.

Something shook the walls, and his weapons clattered on their holders. He could hear Sona’s voice over the speakers.

“Disengage! Move behind those turrets, and recharge all lines. We need-”

Autel reached for the “launch” button when something shook the ship. Three pods exploded to his right, and his own was thrown across the room. He kicked it open, and dashed for the exit, sealing the doors before the gaping hole in the deployment bay sucked him out.

He raced down the hall, looking for another way out. He soon reached the hangar bay, and saw that two Seraph fighters were still docked. He moved, when Sona spoke again.

-too many breaches! Seal the exits, and make sure all leaks are contained. All ships, this is the Wrath. Concentrate all fire on the cruisers! Fire in turns, on my mark-”

The hangar doors shut with a bang. Frustrated, but knowing he had no choice, Autel headed to the control center. Perhaps he could at least help there.

The battered dropship touched down on the surface. ‘Tullum opened the hatches, and the Sangheili climbed out.

Field Master, I will pick you up once you have the artefact.” the pilot said, taking off once again. Fira led the squad through the forest they had landed in. 'Tullum had managed to give the fighters the slip and bring the dropship down undetected, but that put them a fairly long way from the artifact's location. They had to get there quickly.

Peec aimed briefly, and pulled the trigger. The Jiralhanae dropped as three rounds were planted in his eye socket. More rushed forward as he scrambled to reload.

A Sangheili fired his Plasma Rifle, cutting down two more. The Spartan tossed a frag grenade, followed up by more rounds from his MA7C.

The arrival of the Sangheili had been a good thing; There were too many Jiralhanae landing to get the artifact. The IU soldiers had killed more than they lost, but he didn’t know how much longer they could keep this up. The Loyalists had not yet managed to take the structure, but they were more than happy to shoot down any dropships that attempted to pick them up.

Peec’s rifle clacked empty again, and he slipped his last magazine in to place.

Twenty-four Sangheili burst out of the trees, roaring and firing their weapons. The Jiralhanae were outflanked and cut down. A gold-armored Field Master sliced the survivors into bloody ribbons with his Energy Sword. Silence enveloped them once more and he approached the Spartan.

Peec realized he knew who it was. “Fira?”

“Peec!” the Sangheili said. “The artifact… we need to get it back to the cruisers-”

“Loyalists!” Warra shouted. Another Phantom dropped in, and deployed four Jiralhanae. Shouldn’t be too hard, Peec thought. All we need is to-

“Stand firm,” Fira said quietly. The Sangheili spread out, aiming their weapons but not firing. The Spartan realized that another figure had stepped out of the Phantom. A Jiralhanae, larger than most of his kind, carrying a Gravity Hammer with two vicious looking blades on it. The Judicator. He roared a challenge, and charged straight for Peec.

The Sangheili opened fire. Plasma melted against the Judicator’s armor to little effect. The massive alien charged in, swinging powerful blows. Sangheili fell rapidly as they tried to stop its advance.

Fira stopped firing. He could see that it would not be enough to kill him. He couldn’t waste the lives of his Sangheili.

“He will kill you all,” he snapped. “Leave him to us. Find others who need your help.”

The Sangheili hesitated. They had never been ordered to retreat before.

“Do it!” he roared. Slowly, the squad made for the forest, firing as they went. The Jiralhanae did not stop them.

“Give us the artefact,” one of them growled.

“Never,” Peec said, raising his rifle. The Judicator ran towards them. Fira activated a large round object, glowing red, and threw it. He pulled the Spartan so that they faced away. The Jiralhanae screeched as the flare blinded him.

The Field Master rushed, tackling the Judicator and knocking his weapon out of his hand. He grabbed it and slammed the long handle in to the Judicator's side, having found a chink in the Jiralhanae's armor. The brute swung his arms wildly, catching Fira in the shoulder. The Sangheili fell, feeling a bone break.

The Judicator shook his head and charged again. Peec ducked under his swing, but was hit by another Jiralhanae from the side. Fira slew the foe, but his injured shoulder was strained. He could not move fast enough to prevent the Judicator from trapping the Spartan on the ground

The Field Master ran at them, holding the hammer in one hand. With surprising agility, the Judicator grabbed it, and punched him hard in the chest. Fira winced as he felt his ribs break. Fighting the urge to remain lying on the ground, he reached for his Energy Sword, ignited it, and moved under him. He felt the hammer’s blade gouge deep cuts in his back, felt his spine snap. He ignored the pain, and stabbed the sword into the Judicator’s side, where the armor was weakened by the previous attack.

The Jiralhanae kicked out, breaking Fira’s leg. The Sangheili fell, feeling the blade gouge deep cuts into the side of his neck. But he stopped. Looking up, he saw that Peec had grabbed the energy sword, which still protruded from the Judicator’s side, and was driving it deeper and deeper. Thick streams of blood washed over them. The massive alien howled in pain, hit the Spartan hard in the face, and dashed off into the forest.

The Jiralhanae attacked as well, and Peec used the remainder of his ammo to kill them. He grabbed his sidearm and emptied the magazine into the last one.

Silence finally settled on the clearing.

Memories formed and dissolved, as fast as a life in the universe. He remembered, back at his Keep, where his uncle had told him: “To take a life without honor is to lose yourself in treachery..."... his first deployment on Earth, how easily he had killed a young human boy’s parents, how he hesitated at killing the child… when he saw that child again, that look of hatred and vengeance had kept him awake for many nights… a cold blade stabbing into him, a fight with a supposed ally which had served absolutely no purpose… the Judicator standing over him, he had believed his life had ended, and a human had saved him, a very familiar human...

Afya. His love. She was pregnant with child for the third time.

Fira did not know who he would miss more...

The Spartan dropped his pistol, and ran to where Fira was lying in the ground. The Field Master’s armor was broken in several places and purple blood streamed out of his many wounds.


The Sangheili turned his head slowly. “Go… you are still in danger… he will return…”

“You’re coming with me,” Peec said, trying not to look at the deep gashes on his throat.

Fira painfully raised his hand, and the human grasped it. The Field Master pressed a communicator into his palm. “Call 'Tullum… he will bring you to the cruiser…”

“I’ll-" Peec paused, unsteady. "I’ll call him. We’re both getting out of here.”

The Sangheili didn’t seem to hear him. His bloodied mandibles parted in a weak smile. “Peec… remember that time you saved me from the Judicator, back when we first encountered him? Are we… are we even?”

“Yes… we’re even…”

Fira coughed, blood bubbling. "Tell Autel... he will always be my ally... as will you...friend."

Peec knew that there was no hope now. "Goodbye, my friend."

"Friend... That... is a beautiful word."

Fira 'Demal let out a slow, rattling breath, and leaned back. His grip went slack, and Peec, kneeling beside him, now quite alone.

“Status?” Sona asked.

“Excellency, we cannot make full repairs until we have returned to an outpost,” a Sangheili said. “However, our ships are stable considering their damage.”

The Ship Master looked out the view screens, where the remains of five Jiralhanae ships were left floating dead in space. The carrier and the surviving cruiser had left not a moment too soon. The Sangheili had lost one cruiser, and three others were severely damaged, including the Incumbent Wrath. However, reports said that the Judicator had been injured and was evacuated. Not long after the ships entered Slipspace and retreated.

“Ship Master, if you will not need me, I must return to the Special Operations facility,” Autel said. Sona nodded.

“Thank you for your help, Commander. I must admit we could not have done it without you.” The Ship Master turned to another Sangheili. “Open the hangar doors, we should let the Phantoms in…”

Autel passed through a room on the way to the facility, where he saw a crowd gathered around something. Most interestingly, a Spartan was with them. He immediately recognized him as D1074, Peec. One of Wings’ teammates.

As he approached them, he noticed that their expressions were somber. Warra’s fists were clenched, and his expression was filled with rage.

“They will pay…” he muttered.

“Spartan!” Autel called. “What is going on?”

The Spartan, Peec, slowly turned to face him. Then he stepped aside so that the Special Operations Commander could see the broken body of Field Master Fira 'Demal lying, dead, upon the hovering unit.

Autel’s mind flashed back to a dark hut in the middle of the forest, candles burning down to their bases as his mother stared in to the distance.

“You will meet your closest ally, who will not fight alongside you when you are needed most.”

His closest ally, his friend, was gone.

Chapter 11: Calm

The Shadow of Intent shuddered again.

"Decks five and six breached! Seven is destroyed! Plasma Lines two and four are offline! Energy projector offline!" The damage control officer called out, a strained note entering his voice.

Hundreds of ships were scattered throughout the system, throwing whatever they had at their respective enemies.

Rtas 'Vadum forced his fingers to relax from their grips from his command seat. "Back us off and shunt all available power to shields."

The Intent began to move away from the battle. It had been hit hard during the fight as more and more Covenant Loyalist ships piled in.

There were now about five hundred Sangheili ships and one hundred UNSC ships up against more than a thousand Loyalist ships. And more were still slipping in.

The navigation officer scanned the incoming sensor data and pointed at a cluster of ships in the middle of the Loyalist formation.

"I'm counting two super-cruisers and one super-carrier in that cluster." He said. "That must be where their flagship is located, but I'm getting some kind of magnetic interference preventing deeper scans."

Rtas knew that none of his crew would admit it, but their blood had just run cold. Three incredibly expensive and powerful capital ships were protecting something even bigger. If the Forerunner Dreadnought hadn't been destroyed, the Fleet Master would have said that it must be in the middle of that pack.

"Excellency, we have several cruisers and two assault carriers vectoring on us." The sensors officer said. Rtas could almost feel the last metaphorical nail being slammed in to his coffin.

"Heat all lines and accelerate to ramming speed." He ordered. "If we die, then we take them with us." Rtas 'Vadum turned to the weapons officer.

"Prepare to overload the reactor."

"Excellency!" The navigation officer called out. "Hundreds of energy spikes! More slipspace ruptures all around us!"

Rtas spun to the sensors officer. "Pinpoint their origin and direction!"

The officer went to work. "Detecting friendly transponders. It's the UNSC!"

"Establish a link!"

The communications officer scrambled to heed the order, and not ten seconds later a male voice came over Rtas' chair speakers.

"Fleet Master Rtas 'Vadum, this is Rear Admiral Richard Lash of the super-carrier Advent. The Second Fleet is at your disposal."

"Back us off." Rtas ordered the nav officer before responding. "This is Fleet Master Vadum. The Shadow of Intent has sustained substantial damage. I'm ordering my crew to abandon ship and moving to the Honor Unbound. I'm transferring flag of my fleet to your ship. You have the Fleet of Glory Reclaimed."

"Copy, Fleet Master. We'll cover you."

Six hundred UNSC ships had materialized on the edge of the fight and began to move in between the Separatist and Loyalist fleets. Lash directed those Separatist ships that were still able to fight in to the UNSC formation. All in all there were eight hundred IU ships against just over one thousand Loyalist ships. Not such bad odds anymore. The second UNSC fleet was massive. Due to the limits of human population there weren't nearly enough people to crew the ships fully, but each one at least had a skeleton crew.

The ships closed lines again, and the battle resumed.

"This is Pelican Four-Five-Two, requesting permission to launch."

"Permission granted, Pelican Four-Five-Two. Godspeed."

Nat-D5795 was jostled a bit as the Pelican rose off the hangar floor and soared out through the hangar shield. She was wearing the EVA variant of Mjolnir armor as a preparation for maneuvering in space. She didn't like the "fishbowl" visor that curved over the top of her head, but it at least expanded her field of vision.

Nine Spartans, five from Badger Team and four from Tesudo, sat in the Pelican. Tesudo Team was one of the few Extra-Vehicular specialist teams in Delta Company, trained extensively to operate in microgravity. They'd aid Badger Team on their mission.

"Badger one, this is Phoenix one. Your target is magnetic pulse array three. Take it out and move on to four. Phoenix and Arachnid will take out one and two."

"Copy Phoenix one." Nat responded. The Spartans stood and checked their armor. The EVA armor was slightly bulkier, having magnetic clamps located at strategic points on the armor so that a Spartan could move over the hull of a ship with relative ease. It also had micro-jets that allowed for maneuvering, as well as an attachable jet-pack that would provide a greater boost than the micro-jets.

Nat stood and made sure her pack was securely attached before moving to the rear of the troop bay. She opened a channel to the pilot.


"Just about to tell you. Thirty seconds until I cut you loose."

Nat closed the channel and turned toward the hatch controls of the T1 Pelican. "Get set, Deltas."

The other eight stood. One of the Tesudo Team Spartans, a playful soldier by the name of Jason-D4173, gave Matt-D2105 a friendly shove on the shoulder as the absent-minded Spartan paused in rising.

"Pay attention now, mate." Jason said in his light Swedish accent. "Don't want a plasma torpedo up your ass."

Matt simply nodded and pulled out his BR60 Battle Rifle.

"This is it. Hit it, Spartans." The pilot said, swinging the Pelican around and bringing it to a halt a mere kilometer from the round, silvery surface of the magnetic pulse array. It was one of several scattered throughout the core of the Covenant fleet that was blocking sensor sweeps. Plasma torpedoes and energy projector bolts flew out from the middle of the array. Nat guessed there were had to be a lot of ships in there for that many bolts.

She turned her head left and say the flaming carcass of the carrier Shadow of Intent cruise by, now completely deserted but set on an automated collision course with the Loyalist super carrier.

Nat pushed out of the Pelican and activated her jet-pack. The boosters ignited and sent her gliding towards the magnetic pulse array.

"Contact. Brutes and Jackals in vacuum suits." Matt said, and fired a burst.

The vacuum grade rifle made no sound as it spat rounds at the approaching Covenant soldiers. One round punched through a Kig-Yar's suit. His blood boiled out, became a vapor, and then froze as fast as he died.

The other Spartans opened fire as well. Nat watched the Tesudo CQC fighter, Orion-D2723, sail past her and slam in to a Brute. His gauntlet knife flashed, and purple blood flooded out around him. He then pushed off and somersaulted back towards his team, using his micro-jets to guide his leap.

Nat told herself she'd never cease to be amazed by the skill of Delta Company's EVA teams as she slid another magazine home.

Off in the distance the Shadow of Intent slammed in to the Loyalist super carrier in the midsection, driving through it like a battering ram through a wooden gate. The super carrier was heavily damaged, but wasn't put out of the fight until three Super MAC slugs from the Advent finished it off. The detonation from the super carrier and Intent's reactors vaporized both ships, along with three nearby CCS cruisers. It also knocked down the shields of the two super cruisers, making them easy targets for the oncoming IU fleets.

Two beams lanced out and struck a UNSC Destroyer, labeled the Cheyenne near the rear of the ship. Life pods and Pelicans shot from the now flaming hull as it soared in to a carrier. The reactor detonated, taking both ships with it.

"Damn. The Admiral's ordered all ships to do that." Arthur-D1724, the leader of Tesudo Team, muttered to himself as he watched a Frigate ram a CCS cruiser.

The fight was closing towards the center of the Loyalist fleet now. The IU forces had punched a hole in the Loyalist line and were now streaming through.

"Spartans, we need those pulse stations offline. We're running blind right now."

"Copy, command." Nat responded, grabbing one of the stripped down Shiva nukes and placing it one the hull of the pulse station.

An explosion appeared a few hundred thousand kilometers away.

"This is Phoenix one. Pulse station one destroyed, en route to pulse station two."

Nat armed the nuke for remote detonation and signaled command that it was armed and slaved to their frequency. Just in case.

The Pelican moved in again and opened fire with its chin mounted rotary cannon, shredding the last of the Covenant foot soldiers.

"Might want to hurry up and hop in, Spartans." The pilot said as he set the dropship down. "The Admiral says he's blowing the nuke in five minutes, whether you're off the station or not."

"Copy that. We're oscar mike."

The Spartan hopped aboard, and the pilot gunned the engines. Four Longswords and a squadron of T51 Skyhawks roared by.

"This is Anvil Three. We'll provide you with cover en route to your objective Four-Five-Two."

"Roger. Thanks for the assist."

"You can pay us back with a beer after this, it's a nightmare out here."

The Pelican reached its top speed in a mere ten seconds, roaring through a furball between a wing of Seraphs and the UNSC fighters. Two squadrons of Separatist Seraphs screamed in to join the fray.

"Ten seconds, Spartans."

Nat dropped the half empty magazine from her rifle and slapped a new one in place. "Check your weapons."

There was a shuffling as the rest reloaded their weapons.

"This is Phoenix One. Both nukes are in place, returning home." Wings' voice said over the NavSpecWar command channel.

"Copy that, Phoenix Team." The operator said. "Badger Team, if you aren't out of there in four minutes then we're going to have to set off those nukes."

Nat opened a response channel. "Acknowledged, Command. Arming final nuke now." She pushed said nuke out of the Pelican and followed it out. The other eight followed her.

She ignored the plasma that erupted from Loyalist forces as she armed the bomb, and was done within forty seconds.

"Done." She said, hopping aboard the dropship and pulling Matt in after her. "Let's move, Spartans."

Within fifteen seconds the Pelican was soaring away, its cargo of supersoldiers safely inside. The furball between the IU and Loyalists had degenerated in to a game of cat and mouse in a nearby asteroid field, with a nearby UNSC cruiser calling out the shots against the Loyalists.

"Looks like fun." Peri commented as they watched a Skyhawk snap-roll over an asteroid and gun down a Seraph.

"For them, maybe." Maurice responded. "We get stuck doing the EVA work."

Four suns lit up the darkened sky, signaling the end of the pulse generators.

"Holy shit..." Jason muttered.

A massive ship, easily eight kilometers long, sat in the middle of the Loyalist group. Three energy projectors were set at overlapping angles on its prow, and several hundred plasma cannons and torpedo launchers riddled its surface.

All three energy projectors fired. A CCS Cruiser and two UNSC frigates exploded. Torpedoes and plasma bolts erupted form its surface, destroying two more ships.

Remnant war

The Battle of System XI6.

Two dozen of the IU line broke and accelerated to a point above the virtual horizon of the massive ship. Each one let loose with a hail of Archer missiles. A CCS cruiser broke in between the ship and the missiles, taking at least a thousand impacts. Its already weakened shields collapsed, leaving two hundred of the missiles to slam in to the side, wreaking massive amounts of damage. The ship kept going, no longer powered.

Meanwhile the new ship did something unexpected. A slipspace portal appeared right in front of it, but it did not enter. Instead it fired a concentrated barrage of plasma torpedoes through it. A split second later a second portal opened right in front of the Advent.

Lash almost dove from his seat, but forced himself to remain where he was.

"Brace for impact!" He roared, and the communications officer scrambled to meet the order.

No fewer than fifty plasma torpedoes sailed out from the slipspace portal and smashed in to the Advent's forward shields.

"Clear the bridge!" Lash ordered, and stood as the bridge crew raced for the exit.

He was nearly there when one of the torpedoes broke through the shields and shattered the glass windows at the front of the bridge, sending the atmosphere roaring out in to space. Lash felt himself begin to lift from the deck when a strong grip tightened around his ankle.

"Gotcha, sir!" A Spartan with 058 on her shoulder plate called out. The emergency bulkhead on the bridge windows slammed shut, but immediately began to boil red. Lash was dragged through in to the next room, and the bulkhead separating it and the bridge was sealed.

Four Spartans stood there, checking their weapons.

"Didn't get off the ship?"

"Hangar bay got when we got there. All hands lost."

"Very well. Let's get to the auxiliary bridge."

Outside, the twenty-four ships that had broken free to take a shot at the new Covenant ship were now reduced to a mere ten, and their ammo was rapidly being depleted. What wasn't blocked by sacrificial ships was easily absorbed by its shields. It shrugged off MAC rounds and Archer missiles alike.

Lash watched in amazement as it easily cut down the remaining ten ships with concerted blasts from its energy projectors and plasma torpedoes. The auxiliary bridge was much smaller and less comfortable than the normal bridge, but it had the same functionality.

"Sensors, do you have something?"

"I detect the three energy projectors on the bow of the ship, seventy plasma torpedo arrays, and I haven't gotten a full read on the number of plasma cannons riddle the ship."

"What about that slipspace portal it opened?"

"Still calculating, but preliminary results estimate that the reactor on that ship can produce energy in several dozen times the order of magnitude that our reactor can."

That was a chilling fact. Even if they knocked down the shields they would be back up and running in a matter of seconds. Lash straightened and smiled. Not the best idea to draw attention to yourself like that.

"So they think they can overpower us with one ship, do they?" He said. "Let's respond in kind. Open a com to all ships in range. I want everything on that beast."

"Ship commanders acknowledge."

"Our weapons?"

"Archer lines A through F are empty, but the rest still have half ammo. The Super MAC is charged enough for two shots."

"Fire away."

Every IU ship in range of the eight kilometer long ship opened fire, stripping the massive ship of its shields and sending its armor to boil. The Advent shook as two Super-MAC slugs tore along its length and through space. The massive slugs impacted on the bare hull of the enemy ship, smashing clean through it. The ship broke in half just forward of it's mid-line. The engines were still firing, and slowly pushed forward on the nose. One more MAC round from an IU ship and an energy projector from a Separatist ship cut a main power line, sending the reactor in to an overload.

The large ship was engulfed in flame, exploding outward and sending hot metal through empty space. Lash watched the screen as a nearby squadron of Longswords was wiped out by a single sheet of armor.

Thirty ships... but at least the bastard was destroyed.

"What was that?" Nat asked. She heard similar queries from all over the fleet, each one asking for information on the newcomer.

"Silence, please." Lash responded calmly to the hail of questions. "ONI has tagged it as a Loyalist Dreadnought. They've found skeletal hulls from inside Loyalist territory, but that was currently the only active one."

"Sure, that we know of." Matt muttered under his breath as the Pelican settled in to the bay.

"Badger One, this is Phoenix One. We're on the Perseus and are heading out. Phoenix Three ran in to some trouble." There was a pause. "Fira 'Demal is KIA."

"Damn." Nat whispered, then opened a response channel. "Copy that. We'll wait here for further orders."

She turned to see Peri pulling her helmet off and vomiting blood on the floor of the hangar.

Chapter 12: Breeze

2124 Hours, August 5th, 2573 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Wings stormed on to the bridge of the Advent, or at least he looked it. The Delta Executive Officer walked even straighter and more mechanically than usual, but he didn't walk any faster, nor did he betray any emotion. He marched up to Rear Admiral Lash and saluted.

"At ease, Spartan." Lash said, returning the salute. Wings dropped his hand to his side, but remained ramrod straight.

"I take it you're here about your Spartan?"

"Yes, sir. I want to know why you haven't allowed a proper medical team to examine her."

Lash's eyebrows rose. "I ordered a full medical workup. My specific orders."

"Then do I have permission to push ONI out of there and move a medical team in?"

"No." Lash reached up and straightened a tuft of hair. "I will."

Spartan D339 followed the Rear Admiral as he gathered four MPs and left the bridge.

There was a kilometer long walk from the bridge to the medical bay. Flanking the bulkhead were two armored guards. One swallowed when he saw the unarmed, but still imposing, form of the Spartan behind Lash.

"Something you need, sir?" The other one asked, his voice sounding higher than it should have been.

"Yes, I want to know why ONI is in there and not a medical team specifically assigned to Delta Company."

"I'm afraid that's classified, sir."

"Son," The Admiral's voice became low and deadly. "This is my ship. I don't care if she had a rotten egg for breakfast or if she swallowed a grenade, but while you are on my ship you don't get to tell me what is and is not 'classified'. Now you open those doors, or else these men," Here he gestured at the MPs and Wings. "Will be only too happy to lock you in the brig. It might be prudent to note that this Spartan here is very, very unhappy with you right now."

Both guards swallowed, their eyes flicking to the armored green giant.

"Can you do us one favor, sir?"

"What's that, soldier?"

"Make it look like we at least put up a fight. Command would tear us apart if they knew we let you through."

Wings stepped forward and smashed the palm of his fist in to the back of one guard's head. His eyes rolled up and he dropped to the floor, unconscious.

In the same movement he brought his other arm up and elbowed the other man in the temple, knocking him out as well.

As the two guards fell, the MPs caught them. Lash put his palm on a scanner, and the door snapped open.

Agent Johansson looked up as the Spartan stalked in to the room, gazing at the newcomers with half closed eyes.

The ONI medical team, however, was not so calm. Most just froze. One man dropped a syringe, and another almost knocked over the blood transfusion stand, currently the only thing keeping Peri-D914 alive.

"Get out." Wings said, staring right back at Johansson.

The medical team looked at the ONI agent, who shrugged and crossed his arms. "Do as he says. He's got the upper hand here."

"Smart." Wings said as the ONI medical team left.

"Doesn't hurt to be logical."

"I wish that were true."

"As do I."

Johansson stood and left.

Itzia walked in silently from the hall and passed an MRI over Peri.

"Her stomach walls are split open from the inside. That explains the bleeding."

Wings moved to stand behind Itzia, looking at the readout from the MRI machine. "Slice?"

Itzia squinted at the screen and zoomed in on one of the cuts. "No, these are too random. Her tissue has been torn in several dozen places."

"Underlying cause?"

"No idea."

Wings sighed and turned to leave. "Fix it. Then get to the business of finding out what did it."

"Of course."

0813 Hours, August 6th, 2573 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Itzia ran her fingers through her short hair and let out a small breath.

She'd just finished sewing up Peri's stomach and begun another transfusion of 0-negative.

Peri twitched. Itzia looked up. That wasn't supposed to happen. Spartans didn't just twitch for no reason, conscious or not.

The answer to Itzia's puzzlement came in a flash. Peri's arms shot up, knocking the IV stand over and spilling blood, the stuff keeping her alive, on to the floor.

Her body went in to violent spasms.

Itzia wasted no time, grabbing a paralytic and slamming the needle in to the seizing Spartan. She went rigid for a second, and then slumped on to the table. Itzia hurriedly moved to replace the lost blood.

There was a swishing sound and Itzia looked up to see the door opening. Wings stood there, unarmored. His eyes flicked from the blood on the floor to the paralyzed Spartan on the operating table, and at last to Itzia, washing blood off her hands. He must have been waiting out in the hall and heard the thumping.

"What happened?"

"She had a seizure."

His violent green eyes went back to Peri. "Do you know what caused it?"

Itzia sighed. "No. It seems to be systemic. First her organ walls rupture and now she has a seizure. Whatever it is, it's all through her. Nothing in combat did this. My guess is a virus with a long incubation or a genetic deformity."

Both of them knew what that meant.

"Let's hope it's the former, then." D339 muttered. "In the meantime, I'll have her moved to cryo." He stepped out in to the hallway to make the call, moving rapidly away.

He was gone but a few minutes before a timid crewman poked his head in. "Uh... ma'am?"

She turned. "Yes?"

"Uh..." The naval rating swallowed a lump in his throat. "We just had a Spartan pass out in the hallway."

"Take me there." Itzia said, grabbing her medical kit and racing after the crewman.

He stopped in a junction and pointed to a form on the ground. One man was checking the Spartan's, whom Itzia recognized as Arthur-D1724, pulse and making sure he was still breathing. He had a puzzled look on his face, one that did not leave as Itzia knelt down beside Arthur.

"I don't get it. He was just talking and then went as stiff as a board. Almost flattened me when he fell. And his eyes are still open."

Itzia hurriedly took a scanner out of her kit and set it over Arthur's head. She checked the readout on a datapad.

"He's not unconscious." She said, checking the scanner. Itzia ran three more tests. They all confirmed what the first one had said. "He's having a complex partial seizure."

"What's that?" The puzzled look was not gone.

"Total loss of awareness." The Spartan furrowed her brow. "Like an absence seizure, but longer."

"Never heard of that, either."

"Well, he's not really unconscious, but something in his subconscious just told him to go limp. He has no control over his actions or emotions right now. It's also likely that, when it stops, he'll be confused about what happened." Itzia pursed her lip, jamming a mild paralytic in to Arthur to make sure he didn't decide to get up and start punching a wall.

"With respect ma'am, you look confused yourself right now."

She glanced up at the crewman, then back down at her charge. "That's because these types of seizures generally have a genetic component, one easily fixed by gene therapy.

"There hasn't been a recorded case in over two hundred years."

Wings was pinching the bridge of his nose when Itzia walked on to the bridge. He stood across the holotable from Rear Admiral Richard Lash.

He turned to face her.


"Delta Seventeen Twenty-Four suffered three more complex partial seizures. He lost consciousness after the first one and never regained it. Ten minutes ago he started bleeding out his right ear. I patched him up and sent him off to cryo. It's definitely a virus."

Wings nodded and turned to face the images floating above the holotable. Lash was speaking with a man in an ONI uniform that Itzia recognized as Lieutenant Johansson.

"Lit fuse..." The MCPO muttered, grabbing an object from one table and dragging it to another. It was information that was quite obviously classified above Itzia's pay grade. The lettering was blurred, and she knew the shapes of any 3D objects would be distorted to all eyes but those with clearance high enough to see it.

"We should get the ship under quarantine." She said after an uncomfortable silence.

"I'm afraid that won't be necessary."

"We've got to contain this outbreak."

Wings turned to her. "Think, Itzia." He said in a low voice. "They pumped us full of immune boosting nanobots when we were augmented. Why would Spartans be the only ones to be affected by a virus when they have heightened immune systems and a technological advantage?"

Itzia bit her lip. "That means it's not a virus."

"Yes, exactly. So tell me what else it could be."

"Only other option is a genetic deformity, meaning it's too late to treat and we might as well thaw Peri and Arthur out-" Itzia hesitated for a second. "And start funeral services."

"What are the odds of a genetic deformity doing that?"

"The most likely one I can think of would have a 0.000001% chance of afflicting a regular human, half that for a Delta."

Wings let out a slow breath, then turned back to the hologram.

"Keep them on ice, then."

"With respect, there's nothing else it could be."

"But it can't be that. There is no way."

"How do you know?" Itzia brought her hand to the back of her head. Sudden headache, likely caused by stress... She recalled that she had never really talked to Michael about their relationship. Why did she recall that now?

Wings spoke to the hologram. "Medical authority override Zulu-Black-Five." Johansson glared at Wings for a second before returning to his conversation with Lash. They seemed to be discussing whether or not to put together a task force for something.

D339 saw her looking at the two men and gently turned her attention back to the hologram.

Itzia's eye's widened slightly. No fewer than three hundred names were listed in a box titled WIA, which was sectioned off in to "hospitalized" and "cryo storage".

As she watched, she saw Arthur's name shift to the cryo rectangle.

"Three hundred of us?"

"Three hundred twenty-nine, to be precise."

It was times like this that Itzia almost felt like smacking Wings. "Being precise" my ass, she thought to herself. But that was just the way he thought: precision was a must, exact details were everything. Itzia recalled that he had been particularly interested in Chaos Theory during their learning sessions with The Librarian. He'd often gone in after lights-out to practice hypothetical situations that the AI set up. She gave him a list of concurrent events, and then they watched the results of those events play out. Once that was done he got to change one of the starting events in any way he wanted, no matter how small, and watch what happened. He was often very tired in mornings after those sessions.

"That'sh imposhible..."

Wings turned. "Something wrong?"

"No, hwhy-" Itzia paused. "Ish my voishe shlurred?"

Wings nodded. "Smile."

She did so. He nodded again, face still impassive. Another thing that almost made her want to smack him. "Crooked. Raise your arms until they're horizontal."

"What's going on?" Johansson interrupted as Itzia raised her arms.

"Shut up." Wings snapped. Johansson looked as if he was about to start telling the Spartan off, but the tone of Wings' voice told him that he wouldn't have said such a thing unless the situation warranted it.

"Not straight. Sit down before you black out."

Itzia sat down and fumbled in her bag. She pressed something in to Wings' hand.

"Par'lyt'c 'n cay-sh I have a sheizure." She mumbled, her vision swimming. "Coag'l'nts in cay-sh I bleed. Oh-neg't've ash well."

And she fainted.

Wings bent down and checked her pulse. "Medic!" He called, and a man raced over.

"What happened?"

"Stroke. Here." Wings said, and passed the meds Itzia had given him to the medic, relaying her last instructions as well.

The bridge had quieted, many crewmen turning to glance at the incapacitated Spartan.

Wings stepped around the table to stand with Lash and Johansson. "I think we really need that task force now, sirs."

Johansson spoke to Lash. "Is there a ship available?"

Lash turned to the holotable and pulled up a list, quickly scrolling through it.

"The 'Machiavelli is unharmed. All she needs is to be rearmed."

"Not just that," Johansson said, opening his own application and calling up a roster. "I want my own crew on that ship."

Obviously higher than a mere Lieutenant, then. Wings thought, watching Itzia's name float from the "hospitalized" box to the "cryo storage" box. The full count of incapacitated Spartans was now up to three hundred eighty.

Lash nodded. "Of course. I'll recall all available Spartan teams. This... thing is only affecting Delta Spartans, so I want all available Spartan IIs and IIIs with you."

"Most of Gamma Company is being debriefed right now." Johansson said. "I won't be able to get them on board.

"So we have Blue Team, Red Team, Gray Team, Saber, Katana, and 116." The ONI agent rattled off. "Twenty-one Spartans, all told."

"Sir, permission to make that twenty-two."

"Negative, Chief." Lash said. "This will likely get to you, too. I'd prefer all Deltas to be in a position to receive aid when that happens."

"Sir, at the rate that Spartans are falling, I'd say I have a few days before I get hit, with any luck. I'm going to find a way to help, whether I'm on that force or not. I most definitely won't be in a place to receive aid if I go it alone, so I'll be safer being there."

Johansson raised his eyebrows. "We seem to be agreeing more and more."

Lash sighed. "Very well, if you insist. I'm putting you in tactical command of the Spartan IIIs on board that ship. Spartan 116 will have command of the Spartan IIs. I'm also assigning Major Forge's battalion to the Machiavelli. The Commanding Officer of the task force will be-" He glanced at Johansson's application. "Captain James Cutter."

"Thank you, sir." Wings saluted. "Permission to return to my quarters in order to pack my gear?"

"Granted, Master Chief. Dismissed." Lash ordered, and turned back to filling out the necessary paperwork.

Wings felt a tremor of frustration run through him, and immediately quenched the emotion. This was not a time to worry. He could only save as many lives as possible.

His excuse of needing to pack was just a front. There was one particular Spartan that Wings wanted to check on...

The Deltas were spread around the Orion Arm of the Milky Way in clusters. Dozens fell incapacitated by the day, halting the progress of many operations and bringing multiple battles to a stalemate.

Wings considered it sheer luck that none were killed, despite several close encounters.

He was not a hive mind. He could not share his Spartan's pain.

But he felt it nonetheless.

The UNSC war machine began to lose momentum.

Chapter 13: Wind and Rain

1353 Hours, August 12th, 2573 (UNSC Military Calendar)

The task force had finally assembled. The Machiavelli, the first destroyer in its class, two hundred ODSTs, twenty-two Spartans. They were only waiting on 116's shuttle.

"Got a rupture sir. It's 116's ship."

"Get him docked and warm up the slipspace capacitors." Cutter responded.

Wings was strapping his right glove on when he felt the clunk and vibration of a ship docking.

Sighing, he sealed the gauntlet to his vambrace, grabbed his helmet, and went to meet the Lieutenant Commander.

As he entered the hangar alongside Fred-104, he noticed that there was a slight tilt to 116's gait. Almost imperceptible, but it was there.

116 saw the other Spartan's glance and gestured to his leg. "Got shot, I'm healing. What's the number up to?"

"Three-sixty, at last count." They began walking towards the bridge.

"Then I suggest we start moving. Has the Captain picked a destination for us?" Wings could hear the wariness in 116's voice. He and Wings were both known to have minor feuds, often in the form of one countermanding the other one's order.

"We've narrowed the choices down to two." Wings said as they entered the bridge. He activated the holotable. "Only two factions have the resources to manufacture a systemic illness like this: the Covenant Loyalists and the Sons and Daughters of Reach."

"Sons and Daughters of Reach?"

"Insurrectionist faction. Formed a few years after the end of the Great War, but didn't start acting up until last year. Their primary attacks come in the form of chemical and biological bombs placed in large buildings with little in the way of cutting off ventilation. They also have very deep pockets."

Fred stepped forward and brought up a map of a compound. "The planet you're looking at is near the edge of human space. Yggdrasil a fairly large colony planet, almost like a second Reach. Abundance of resources, central hub of hundreds of other nearby systems. Perhaps that is why the Sons and Daughters of Reach call themselves that. They've been siphoning money off trade and using it to fund their chemical and biological warfare methods. Most of their attacks have occurred off world so we know that they have slipspace capable ships, but their central financial cells are on Yggdrasil. Infiltrating them and taking them out will do both us and the UNSC a favor. We just need to find virtually every financial cell on that planet."

116 glanced at D339. Damn that Spartan; he still had that dead blank expression he always wore. "How do you feel about this?"

"I try not to, but I feel it may be too slow."

Fred cleared his throat. "One last thing: we may know of the Sons and Daughters of Reach's bases, but we don't have a clue where they are. No sensor we've used has managed to pick up a hotbed of activity, and no unknown signals have been located. We do have one lead, though." He brought up a picture of a middle aged man, looked to be in his late forties.

"Only one problem: he only speaks Swedish."

"Looks like I'm going down there, then."

116 bit back a "not if I can help it", and chose a more appropriate response. "Why do you think you have more right than any other Spartan?"

Wings looked up. "His file said he had Insurrectionist connections, so I didn't tell him who I was when I contacted him. What do you think he'd do if we showed up in full UNSC fashion?"

"Point, but I still don't see why you have to go down there."

"People tend to respect you more if you don't have to rely on a proxy to communicate, and I'm the only Spartan I know that can speak Swedish."

116 nodded. "Fair enough, then. You'll lead, I'll follow. I must ask, however, how you found this man."

Wings' eyes flicked to the man's image. "I have my connections, and you have yours."

It was a veiled threat, one that only Fred didn't fully understand the ramifications of.

1353 Hours, August 16th, 2573 (UNSC Military Calendar)

116 met Wings in the hangar. Both were dressed in basic civilian clothing. They were slightly baggy so that it would hide their Olympian athlete build... and to hide several SM6H pistols. D339's shirt seemed to be a bit thick for the average t-shirt.

"Come here." He said, waving the Lieutenant Commander closer.

As 116 approached, the MCPO held up a shirt. "Graphene body armor. It'll take most projectile weapons and keep you at least relatively safe."

The elder Spartan felt the coarse material. "Seems fairly thin."

"It's only 40% thicker than the average shirt, but has a hell of a lot more ballistic resilience. Just don't throw yourself on the end of an M99 or any other kind of sniper." The MCPO said, checking to make sure that an SM6H was secured to his ankle before pulling the pant leg over it.

Katana and Red Teams marched in to the hangar. Seven of the eight Spartans boarded a Pelican, but one approached 116 and D339. Chief Petty Officer Jerome-092 saluted and spoke to 116. "Sir, we'll be awaiting nearby in case you need us."

116 returned the salute. "Thank you, Chief. On your way."

"Good luck, sir."

"If we needed luck I'd have brought John." 116 heard Wings say.

The small civilian shuttle settled gently down on to the landing pad. It was one of the newer models, all sparkle and curves.

Neither of the two Spartans shared their opinions, but both agreed that they hated it. Wings noted at least two hundred and sixty three places in which something could be redesigned to be more functional.

A man approached the ship. 116 recognized him as their contact. He was slightly taller than expected.

He led the two undercover Spartans to a seat-yourself restaurant. He chose a seat against the far wall with Wings and the Lieutenant Commander on the side across from him. The latter made sure that his micro-translation module was inserted firmly in to his ear and let the former do the talking.

"Har du betalningen?" Do you have the payment? He said in a voice that reeked of smoker's cough.

"Ja." Yes. Wings responded. 116 could hear only the slightest hint of an accent.

"Ge hit den." Give it here.

D339 reached in a pocket of his jacket and pulled out a package.

"En resevisering, tre biljetter jorden runt, och femtiotusen krediter." One travel visa, three tickets off world, and fifty thousand credits.

116's eyebrows went up. That was quite the list. Enough to buy a private, slipspace capable corvette and a new home. He made a mental note to find out where the hell D339 got his contacts.

"Mannen du letar efter är Nikolai Fedoseev. Han äger en lokal vapenbutik med hans efternamn. Platsen du letar efter är under den här källarvåningen. Ta kortnyckeln från Nikolai och du får all information du behöver. Här är ett foto av mannen. Han brukar vanligtvis ha arton vakter. Tre i affären med honom, tre på övervåningen och resten i källaren. Jag litar på att du kan ta hand om honom?"

116's translation module struggled to keep up.

The man you are looking for is Nikolai Fedoseev. He runs a local gun shop under his surname. The place you are looking for is beneath the basement. Get the card key off Nikolai and you'll have all the information you need. Here is a picture of the man. He normally has eighteen guards. Three in the shop with him, three upstairs and the rest in the basement. I trust that you can take care of him?

The Lieutenant Commander hoped that the other teams were picking this up.

"Självklart. Tack." Of course. Thank you.

A somber look came over the man's face. He held up a napkin and coughed in to it. The cloth came away coated in a pale yellow substance. When he spoke again his voice was conspiratorially lower, but oddly clearer.

"Tacka mig inte. Männen jag är här för att bedra satte dit dig. De kan inte höra mig, men så fort jag går kommer dem att döda dig. Nikolai är arrogant; han bryr sig inte ifall du vet var han är för han är säker på att du inte kommer överleva det här mötet. Jag vet inte vem du är och jag vill ärligt talat inte veta heller, men du är i en kamp."

Don't thank me. The men I'm here to betray set you up. They can't hear me, but the instant I leave they will kill you.. Nikolai is arrogant; he does not care if you know where he is because he is sure that you will not survive this encounter. I don't know who you are and I honestly don't want to know, but you're in for a fight.

116 mentally cursed, his eyes flicking around for potential exits and hostiles.

"Vi klarar oss själva." We can handle ourselves. D339 responded calmly.

"Jag önskar dig lycka till då. Må Gud vaka över dig." I wish you luck, then. Godspeed. He stood and began to walk away.

"Om han ändå existerade." If only he existed.

The man frowned at the green-eyed stranger. "Okej, då må vilken makt som styr din väg hålla dig säker." Then may whatever power that guides your path keep you safe.

And he left.

The Lieutenant Commander watched several men rise from their seats out of the corner of his eye. By freak circumstance he happened to be seated next to the aisle. At least half the people in the restaurant, a total of thirty something patrons, had decided that it was time to leave.

"How many?" D339 mumbled.

"I count fourteen, fifteen people moving to surround us."

"So we do what they least expect."

"Which would be straight down the middle."


The closest of the fifteen men was only five feet away.

"Now." 116 said, and pushed himself in to the man, grabbing him around the neck and whipping an SK14 submachine gun. The gun was hot off the press from Misriah Arms. It was only similar to the M7 in that it shared the same caseless ammunition, but the magazine was tucked underneath the barrel and slid towards the handle, lengthening the magazine and allowing more ammunition.

He fired a burst in to the man's chest before swinging the weapon over his shoulder and letting loose in to the others. The range at which he was firing ensured that he wouldn't miss.

A blur flew by him, and Spartan D339 bowled in to a small grouping of gang members. He held the seat in front of him and used it like a battering ram.

One man attempted to grab 116, but he lashed out with his foot and caved the man's leg in.

He heard a "duck!" that sounded like D339, so 116 dropped, pulling the body of the man he'd grabbed on top of him as cover. An M5 pistol round smacked in to his shoulder. It hurt, but his armor wasn't compromised. Excellent stuff, this graphene...

The seat whistled over him, smashing in to another grouping of men. They dropped, and 116 looked up. All fifteen were incapacitated already.

"Let's go." D339 said. "They'll have snipers covering the front and back doors. You'll have about five seconds to kill him."

"Why five seconds?"

D339 took a place by the door and grimaced. "Because that's about how long it'll take for him to acquire my head and fire again."

116 nodded understandingly. The Delta was inevitably going to be hit by the sickness going around. It would be better for him to get shot than for 116 to get hit and put two Spartans out of commission. Lesser of two evils.

"Ready?" D339 said, chillingly calm.

116 grabbed his pistol and checked the mag. He put on a pair of marksman's shades so that he could make use of the smart-linked scope.

"Ready." He replied.

"Now." Wings stepped through the doorway as 116 bent out to look.

A shot was heard, and the former was thrown backwards and on to the ground. 116 caught the flash and raised his pistol.

He put five rounds in to the sniper before he stopped firing. Civilians all around them screamed and panicked, milling about. 116 ignored them and bent down to check the downed Spartan.

"Damn that hurt." He muttered as he rolled over and sat up. He looked around. "Let's move."

The two Spartans raced off in to the crows, leaving the scene of mayhem behind.

116 and D339 raced through the streets.

"Jerome, we need extraction, fast." 116 muttered in to his com unit as they paused in an alley to rest for a second and to check up on pursuit.

"Copy that, Lieutenant Commander."

116 heard a coughing and then a spitting. He turned around to see Wings wiping blood from his mouth on a sleeve.

"It better not be-"

"No. The bullet punctured a lung." He was breathing deeply. "Bounced off, but kicked hard enough right in between the ribs."

"Make sure there's a medkit on board as well, Nine-Two."

"Copy that. One of you hit?"

"Delta Three Thirty-Nine took a sniper round in the chest."

"And he's still kicking?"

"We just finished running six kilometers through town."

"Damn. Alight, zeroing on your CNI transponder."

"Thanks Jerome, we'll see if we can-"

Pain lanced through 116's leg, and he dropped to one knee. "Not again..."

Two more shots rang out, hitting him in the back.

116 and D339 both spun and fired, riddling a gangster with rounds. More gunfire flew down the alley as the Delta Spartan pulled the Lieutenant Commander to safety.

"Cover me while I bind this."

The older Spartan slapped a fresh magazine in to his SK14 and bent around the corner. Wings tore off a section of his jacket and wrapped it in a tourniquet around 116's thigh.

They both heard the roar of a C70 Assault Shotgun. A Spartan in full Mjolnir armor strode down the alley, letting loose with the automatic shotgun.

Wings put 116's arm around his shoulders and stumbled to where the Spartan had come from. Jerome was waiting at the Pelican, and helped the pair aboard before recalling his team member.

116 was starting to feel dizzy. "Did you find the gun store?" He asked Jerome, who nodded.

"Good, then... let's..."

And he passed out.

The gun store was taken out quietly and efficiently, essentially halting a good deal of military grade weapons in to the black market and to the Sons and Daughters of Reach.

However, no other leads had been found, Nikolai Fedoseev was never located, and the trail went cold.

Leaving the task force dead in the water.

Chapter 14: Thunder and Torrents

1353 Hours, January 1st, 2574 (UNSC Military Calendar)

// Captain's Report: January 1st, 2574 //

// Captain James Gregory Cutter, Commanding Officer of Task Force Isaiah //

// Begin Report //

We've been tracking down Insurrectionists for months now, and are no closer to finding Nikolai Fedoseev than we were then. Every time we get close, every time we can reach out and grasp him, he slips away.

Spartan-116 remains WIA. His femoral artery stopped bleeding midway in to September, but the wound has yet to heal any. Catherine Halsey is on her way to see if she can deal with it. I'm also being told that another Spartan will be joining us, but he has yet to arrive.

I just received a report from Johansson. Fully fifty-two percent of all Delta Spartans are now incapacitated. We need to end this, and soon.

// End report //

Wings flicked his silenced M14 over to semi-automatic and put a round in each of the three Innie's heads.

"Clear." He called, and received the same in return from Team Katana, who were spread across the room.

"Move to breach." The MCPO said, and took up a position beside the next doorway. Sara-G134 thumped a breaching charge against the door and stood on the other side of the doorway.

The charge detonated, and the two Spartans spun in to the room.

Seven Insurrectionists went down to their bullets.

"Identity check." D339 said, moving from body to body.

"No Nikolai here." Joey-G148 said. "But we did find one of the doctors. Got a password for his computer."

"Good work. ID him and let's find his computer."

Wings watched Katana get to work. Well more than fifteen hundred Spartans were out now, including three on his team. It was just him and Zero still active, and he heard that ONI had her running sniping missions. They claimed to be keeping an eye on her condition, but it was his job to worry.

No, squash that feeling. Zero was the single best fighter in Delta Company. The fight wouldn't kill her, and hopefully this... disease wouldn't either.

"We're in." Crystal-G072. "And there's nothing on a Spartan-specific biological attack."

"Let me see." Wings said, and Crystal allowed him to take a look. His eyes flicked over the files. There was plenty on tear gas, nanite virus synthesizers, and methods describing which chemicals or modes of attack were most effective as dependent on the building being assaulted, but he had to agree that there was nothing that pointed to something that caused a systemic illness in creatures with a Spartan's biology.

Another dead end.

The Spartans moved out. Another cell of the Sons and Daughters of Reach was taken out, but nothing had helped them.

Nothing had for several months.

0231 Hours, January 2nd, 2574 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Wings sat in his room that he'd normally share with the rest of his team. All five bunks were currently empty, but even during the wee hours of the night only one would be in use.

He activated the central holotable, and a projection of all the information they'd collected and linked together showed up. Documents were connected to other documents by motes of light, a hologram of an injection needle was connected to a 3D image of some strange polymerase. If Itzia were here she'd probably know what it is. He checked. Turns out that the needle was used to inject the polymerase in to an airtight glass tube that shattered when a small charge went off inside it. The polymerase itself was a modified form of the AIDS virus from the 21st century. However, this was designed to instantly infect anyone with AIDS, skipping the incubation stage of HIV.

He frowned. He needed to find real medical experts to take a look at the Spartans. Doctor Halsey was on her way, but he always liked having multiple opinions on a subject.

It was time to take a trip to the Dark Space Shipyards.

With permission this time.

0231 Hours, January 4th, 2574 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Wings flexed his hand. It was still a bit sore after his short duel with Quantum Prime the day before.

He'd arrived at the Dark Space Shipyards and had just stepped inside the room when Quantum Prime assaulted him. After a short fight the MCPO had come out on top.

But that was irrelevant now.

It was time to meet with a certain doctor.

A doctor that he'd tortured last time they'd met.

"Good to meet you, Delta Three Thirty-Nine." Doctor Roger Hansen said, proffering his right hand to the Spartan.

"It's good to meet you as well, Doctor." Wings said, taking the hand and shaking it firmly.

"I've looked over all biopsy reports and even done several myself." He said, turning and walking in to a lab. Several cryotubes with humans inside were against one wall, and many medical instruments surrounded them, apparently for taking samples of flesh for testing.

"I've found nothing except what I should expect to find. In fact everything I've found exceeds my expectations by several times." He took a breath.

"However... freezing them in cryo only serves to slow the progress of the disease. I've been told by several ONI top officials that if a cure is not found within eight months then I am to perform a vivisection in order to determine the origin. By then all Deltas will be inactive."

Wings nodded. He looked at the five Delta Spartans arrayed along the one wall. "Sir, if it does come to that, then I know I'll be out by then."

Hansen paused and nodded slowly. "That is true."

"Then I formally request that you perform the vivisection on me."

Hansen turned slowly around. "You do realize that you would die, right?"

"Yes. I am prepared to keep my Spartans alive, even at the cost of my own life."

"The chances of finding something are not certain."

"If I can't find something, then maybe someone can. If it gets to that point, any odds at all are good odds."

Hansen nodded again. "Very well. I've... got to make some calls."

Wings cocked his head to the side. "Thank you, Doctor. I've also been told that Doctor Rosanne may be able to help me."

Hansen froze. "She may."

"I'd better be going."

"Yes... yes, of course."

An interesting reaction, Wings thought as he marched out of the laboratory. There is rivalry here.

Doctor Rosanne was, for want of a better word, Halsey's "prodigy".

Wings was impressed by her seeming immunity to his physical appearance, despite him being well over a head taller out of his armor and at least twenty-five pounds more muscle.

"It's an honor to meet a Spartan that's actually standing, Delta Three Thirty-Nine."

"It's an honor to meet you as well, ma'am. I often find that a meeting between a person who creates technology and the soldier who uses it tends to give both of them perspective."

"What kind of perspective."

"Depends on the person."

"I'm assuming you're judging me."

"Who would do it for me?"

The Doctor simply turned and marched over to a desk with lab equipment. "I'm afraid that my tests have produced the same results as Doctor Hansen's: All the Spartans are medically healthy, phenomenally so, besides their symptoms. At least, they are from a chemical stand point."


"If it helps at all, your nanobots seem to be staving off the worst of the attacks. I'm told that Delta Seventeen Twenty-Four should have been dead from a bleed in his lungs."

"That does help. Could we manufacture nanobots strong enough to utterly repel this?" D339 knew the answer before he'd asked.

"No," Came the short reply. "I'm afraid not. This... disease, virus, systemic illness, whatever you want to call it literally rips the body apart suddenly and violently, as if someone had somehow teleported razor blades in to their organs or attached their spine to electric shock inducers. The nanobots simply do not have the time to repair all the resources."

Wings nodded slowly. "Thank you for your time." Was all he said before he walked out.

0231 Hours, January 7th, 2574 (UNSC Military Calendar)

116 jerked awake, his eyes snapping open. It took them a second to focus, having not seen any light for a long time.

Doctor Halsey was standing over him, checking some of his vitals on a screen.

"How long was I out?"

"Five months. From a bullet wound in your leg."

116 lay back in the medical wing bed. "Have you found anything that could help?"

"No, I haven't." Halsey sighed. "The virus contains a self-correcting rapidly mutating polymerase. I would literally have to see what it would be three generations forward and then have a way of solving that. Only then would I have a chance of curing it."

She stepped forward with a needle and centered it at the top of his bicep. "Slight pinch." She said, and jammed it in.

"As of now the vaccines I'm giving you will only serve to slow the infection and stop you from dying when a nine millimeter hits you."

"That's nice."

"If we could only figure out how that healing room in the Precursor structure worked, then I might be able to use it. However, it seems to only heal illnesses outside the cell."

116 sat up again and sealed his jumpsuit. "Perhaps there's another room that has a function specifically designed for doing work in cells?"

"If there is we haven't been able to find it. All the other rooms are inactive, and I haven't been able to extract any information on them from Delta Three Thirty-Nine's database."

"His database?"

"He and his team seem to be the only ones able to extract any decent information from it. I thought the label would fit, at least in part."

116 opened the arms locker in a corner of the room and pulled his armor out. He began putting it on. "It's fitting."

"Indeed." Halsey said, then yawned and walked over to a cryotube.

That was when the Lieutenant Commander realized that she had been up all night working on him, and that they were in a room occupied solely by two medical tables and several cryotubes with Delta Spartans inside. He recognized one of them as Delta Ten Seventy-Four, one of Three Thirty-Nine's teammates.

"Been busy?"

"339 ran off to do some research. He's expected back in a few days."

"Really. Did he say where?"

"No. I hear he just talked with the Captain for a while, then requisitioned a slipspace capable Corvette and ran off."

"Sounds like something he'd do, and I'm sure he's got a reason for doing it."

Halsey simply raised an eyebrow and went back to carefully extracting bone marrow from a sleeping Delta. 116 decided that he had better things to do than watch, and left to gather the Spartans up for a mission.

1438 Hours, January 11th, 2574 (UNSC Military Calendar)

"You have made a habit of getting on my nerves."

Delta 339 turned from his computer and blinked at the Lieutenant Commander. There were bags under his eyes. "Good afternoon to you, too."

There were holograms floating around the room; Objects in space with lines connecting them. Attempting to make sense. Some were solid blue, indicating objects, events, and times that were certainly connected, yellow ones that had a possible connection, and red ones that were only vague guess work.

"How long has it been since you slept, Spartan?"

"Four days." The MCPO said, turning back to his calculations. He reached out and drew a yellow line in between a date from approximately five years ago and a hypodermic needle.

"That's quite a while. How are you functioning?"

"Depends on what you're talking about. If you're looking for a conversation then consider this a dead end. However, my critical analysis and logical capacities are still much higher than yours."

116 was a bit put off by this blunt statement. "You're quite confident in my abilities. It makes you look a bit-"

"Arrogant?" D339 cut him off. "Defiant? Perhaps. But can you deny it?"

The elder Spartan couldn't find a reason to disagree. Delta 339 had gotten them out of several tight situations, and had managed to both take and defend positions against near impossible odds. If his manner wasn't deserving of respect, that left his strategic and tactical abilities.

"You do seem to hold yourself in higher regard than Command does."

"If you mean rank, then the only reason I'm not an officer is because they're afraid of me." The Delta's eyes never left the holograms.

"What makes you say that?"

"Psych evaluation about a year ago. You wouldn't believe it, but those are the least defended portions of our service records. ONI are fools to think that those are harmless."

"That doesn't answer much."

"They didn't say it while I was in the room, but the two who interrogated me both agreed that I was too dangerous to be allowed a full command, and decided that they keep me under reign. That's why I'm still Spartan 254's XO, and you're the one in general command of the Spartans."

"You almost sound like you want to be in command of them."

D339 turned around to face him. "You have a great ability to lead, sir, but you tend to react to emotions when attempting to save lives. It's my honest opinion that you would make a great executive officer, but I'd rather have someone like myself in command. So yes, I do want to be in command. Unfortunately, that's not going to happen for a long time, if ever. I have to make do with what I have, and what I have is the trust of 3000 Spartans."

116 folded his arms across his chest. "That's another thing I've been wondering: how did you gain every single ones implicit trust? If you ordered it, they'd all throw themselves on a grenade for you."

There was a short pause. "You're asking for something that not even we talk about, and I don't even trust you enough to tell you my name. Suffice to say, the reason they do is because they know I'd throw myself on the grenade first.

"Now please, if there is nothing else, I need to get some rest, sir."

116 nodded. "There is nothing else. Thank you for the... enlightening talk."

"I'm more willing to talk than I let on. Good day."

0631 Hours, May 15th, 2574 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Two months left, and still no clues. Wings-D339 thought to himself as the last Brute fell. The task force Spartans had just hit an isolated Covenant research base on a former Forerunner planet. The planet had been identified by ONI as a biological mansion one month ago, and they'd just gotten clearance to hit the base. It was expected that, if there were any evidence at all that would point to a biological attack that specifically targeted Spartans, it would be here.

The MCPO didn't have much hope, however. But it was one of the few times that he allowed himself to have it.

"Cracking firewalls." Deep Ocean said.

"Bring up everything you find on biological weaponry, specifically ones targeted to Spartan genes."

"I can find nothing of the sort. Only experimental biological weapons exist, and those are targeted to hit all humans."

"I expected as much." 116 said as he entered.

"How could we not?" Wings said, turning to face the officer. "The Covenant don't hate Spartans specifically, they hate humans. Any attack they would make on us would have a greater chance of succeeding if it hit every human." He felt the cold mercury seep through his head as Deep Ocean downloaded herself back in to his neural lace.

"There was a lot of data pertaining to some very effective biological agents, as well as their delivery systems. We could curry a few favors by sending this to ONI." Ocean said.

"Send it off, but keep a copy for us. ONI is slower at getting to things like that than some others."

116 raised an eyebrow. Wings couldn't see it through the visor, but he could tell that that was the most likely expression the Lieutenant commander was using by the way his head slowly cocked to one side and how his shoulders shifted a bit. "Private copy?"

"I have some friends in research and development who can get this stuff reverse engineered faster than ONI can. Don't worry, I'm not planning to have it for my own personal use, but it doesn't hurt to get superior technology on to the field a little faster."

116 didn't fully agree, but he nodded. "True. Let's go. We've got more bases to hit. ONI just gave me a location of new SaDoR base. They've got an agent in there who needs extracting. He thinks he may have information regarding the issue."

"An actual lead? Consider me intrigued."

0200 Hours, May 16th, 2574 (UNSC Military Calendar)

"Place is locked up tight." Mark-G182 reported. "But I see a good entrance for you on the far side. Blue three may have a better view."

Linda-058's voice came over the com next: "Affirmative. There is a hole in the patrol perimeter. I advise that you two sneak in from there. Mark and I will provide cover if needed."

"Copy that, Blue three and Sabre five. We're heading in."

Wings and 116 both engaged their active camouflage. No sensors had been detected on the base, so they would be almost completely invisible to anything there. Their weapons were silenced in case a guard caught them, and the other teams were standing ready for when the power went out.

Normally the Spartans would just storm the base, but a probing by Deep Ocean had revealed that extensive automated defenses covered the perimeter, including four G5014 auto-targeting grenade launchers. Each one fired at just over five hundred rounds per minute, and each round had the explosive force of a standard issue fragmentation grenade with the added bonus of a limited armor-piercing capability. Also included were ten M423 sentry guns, which pumped out rounds at an incredible five thousand per minute, each one explosive and armor-piercing.

The Spartans would win, but it wasn't sure how many would die. Deep Ocean and Cortana agreed that the task force Spartans would be at half strength for several months.

As if this wasn't bad enough, the two AIs had made a joint probing effort and discovered a data fail safe in the mainframe. If any breach were detected, then all data would be immediately and irrecoverably wiped from the mainframe within two seconds after being downloaded to a remote device. Three seconds after detection of the breach an EMP would neutralize any hope of connecting to the remote device.

To counter this, 116 and D339 were being sent in to the mainframe to remove the fail-safe and cut power to the automated defenses. Since this was also an extraction op they had to secure the ONI agent.

They had to be precise, perfect. When they cut the fail-safe an alarm would be triggered and the agent shot. Therefore they had to secure the agent, but this increased the risk of detection, which would activate the fail-safe. One wrong move, and the mission was a bust.

"Their chief failing is that they spent so much on defenses they didn't have enough to spend on a viable power source." D339 had commented during the briefing.

It was true. While the sentry guns were all equipped with state-of-the-art sensors that could track targets from three kilometers away, the facility was running on an old hydrogen plant, and could only power either the research facility inside or the turrets. That was the reason for the heavy patrols.

116 was first to the outside fence and pulling out a can of acid. He sprayed it in a tall semi-circle and waited for the corrosive aerosol to eat through the titanium links.

D339 caught up with him a few seconds later. The Lieutenant Commander saw him drop something in the grass, but decided that it was best to ignore for now. He grabbed a section of the fence and pulled. It came off with barely a rattle, and the two Spartans slid through.

"Second team, we'll secure the hostage. You move in and hold him while we deal with the fail-safes."

"Copy that, loud and clear." The voice of Shawn-118 said. "We'll move in right behind you."

No external sensors had been detected, but that didn't mean that the individual patrols didn't have infrared scanners. The plan was for 116 and D339 to move in and neutralize the guards around the hostages quietly. Spartans 118 and 113 would be right behind them to protect the hostage. Splitting up the four was the best way to prevent any possible scanners from picking them up.

Wings and the Lieutenant Commander made it safely to the front door, but then encountered a problem.

"Paranoid, or what?" D339 commented as he scanned the front door. "Palm and retinal scanners. Trip them and the fail-safe triggers. We'll also have the misfortune of being in the middle of a few hundred armor-piercing rounds and grenades."

"Wait one." 116 said, and ducked to the side of the door as it slid open. Wings carefully stepped out of the way as two scientists stepped through.

"Grab 'em." The senior Spartan said, and proceeded to step forward, wrap a hand around one scientist's mouth, and stab him in the back of the neck. Wings followed suit with the other.

"Help me get this in to position."

Wings dropped the scientist he was holding and took a hold of the other one's head. He held it up to the retinal scanners as 116 slapped the palm on to its respective scanner. The door slid open, and the two Spartans stepped through, dragging the bodies with them.

"Come on, we're on a time limit now. I estimate seven minutes before they find out that the scientists are missing." The Lieutenant Commander said.

"Putting up the timer." Ocean's voice said, and 7:00 appeared on the bottom the Spartan's HUD. "I will monitor com traffic and change the time according to what I hear."

"Good, thank you Ocean." Wings said, and pulled out his M14 SMG, making sure the silencer was secured. "Let's hide these." He kicked open a vent and shoved the body in. 116 did the same with the body he was holding.

"113 and 118 are moving in. Hold the door."

"Copy. Hurry it up."

Not ten seconds later two shapes moved in to the room. The IFF system tagged them as Sierra-118 and Sierra-113.

"The hostage is being held on the north end of the building." Ocean said. "The mainframe is in the basement, south end."

"Change of plans, then." 116 said. "Phoenix one and I will get to the mainframe. 113 and 118, you get to the hostage and secure him for evac. Protect him at all costs."

"Yes sir." 113 and 118 nodded and headed down one hallway.

"I have the viral package ready for insertion to the mainframe." Deep Ocean said. "I have determined that you will need to insert me directly in to the mainframe for the best chances of success."

"What are those odds."

"I'm the most powerful known artificial construct. Get me in to the mainframe and let me worry about those odds."

"It would have been easier to just give me the odds."

"I feel the same way about the Deltas as D339 does. My apologies for being mildly irritated."

116 shot D339 a look. That was most certainly not what any AI would act like if it was in its right state of mind.

D339, for his part, cut off any external sound to have a private chat with Ocean. "Lighten up. He's suspicious as it is."


The two Spartans headed straight down a corridor until they found a service elevator.

"This will take us down to the floor above the mainframe. We'll have to find our way in through from there."

"I'm picking up a lot of movement on the extended motion tracker. I advise you move cautiously."

"Thank you, Ocean."

The door opened out in to a hallway. Two guards stepped on to the elevator, oblivious to the two wraiths that passed them.

The mainframe was surprisingly simple to find. It stood out like a beacon on X-ray and thermal optics what with the high density materials it used and the heat output. The problem was getting in to the room; The two Spartans were forced to head towards the north end of the building. There they found a set of stairs that were barely wide enough for a regular human, never mind two heavily armored super-soldiers. A sonar ping revealed it to go down thirty feet. Once they started heading down, there would be no way to get past anyone without killing them.

They went down the steps as fast as possible while still staying silent. With any luck they'd avoid any confrontation.

The stairs were clear, as was the long hallway down to the mainframe. It was as narrow as the stairs were. D339 took point while 116 covered his six.

As his eyes quickly adjusted to the darkness, Wings saw the lights from the mainframe blinking off in the distance. He checked the timer. 2:06 left.

"Let's pick up the pace." He said, and broke in to a fast jog.

"No human shapes on the infrared, but they may be masked by the heat output. Keep an eye out." Ocean said as Wings and 116 deactivated their camouflage, which rebooted their shields.

"Who're-" Wings and 116 swung left. An old man stood there, gawking at 116. His eyes were fastened on the Lieutenant Commander's tag, which was stenciled on to his shoulder plates.

"What, Fe-"

Wings shot him three times; one in the head, and two in the chest. The silenced shots were barely discernable over the humming of the mainframe servers.

116 spun to face the MCPO. "What was that for?"

"He would have triggered an alarm had we let him talk long enough."

"He knew me."


"I hardly think it's irrelevant that a random technician in an Insurrectionist base knows my name."

"It's irrelevant in the sense that there's nothing he could have possibly told us that isn't in these computers."

116 didn't like the answer, but he had to agree. Besides, the timer was now ticking down from 1:30.

D339 went to the mainframe, and the senior Spartan heard Deep Ocean's voice instructing him on where to plug her in. There was a click, a beep, and the timer disappeared.

"I'm in, and I have the data."

"Download it and wipe the local copy." The Lieutenant Commander said. He then opened a channel to 113 and 118. "Second team, status report."

"Hostage is secure, but we've got targets inbound. They don't know we're here, but they will soon."

"Very well. Put the package somewhere safe and hold them off. We're cutting the power."

"Power to automated defenses has been cut." The AI said in response, her hologram appearing in front of the mainframe. She put a hand to her ear. "Techs have noticed this, and are making attempts to reroute power through secondary hydrogen batteries. I estimate three minutes before they succeed."

"Roger that." The Lieutenant Commander opened a com to the rest of the Spartans. "Defenses are down, but only temporarily. Get the hostage out first, then extract us."

Ocean spoke up again. "Insurrectionist forces are on there way down. I suggest you two take defensive measures."

Wings pulled her chip out of the mainframe and unlimbered his assault rifle. "I guess there's no need for silencers anymore."

116 was already unscrewing the silencer off of his own rifle.

A wall exploded inwards, and both Spartans spun to face it, rifles raised. They lowered them immediately as Fred-104 stepped through the cloud of dust.

"Got everything?" He said, dropping the magazine from his M14 SMG and slapping a new one in place.

"Everything and more." Spartan 116 responded, stepping past the Lieutenant. "Delta 339 and I will be examining it. Privately."

Back on the Machiavelli, the Lieutenant Commander commandeered a briefing room and had Deep Ocean make it secure to all electronic signals. Most briefing rooms had built in Faraday cages for such occasions, along with the regular soundproofing. They could discuss anything freely.

"Before we begin examining the data, I would like you to explain why you shot that man." 116 said, turning to face the MCPO.

Wings shrugged. "I told you why. Attempting to take him hostage was a risk we couldn't take."

"That doesn't mean you had to shoot him, Master Chief." 116 responded tensely.

The younger Spartan looked like he was going through the equivalent of chewing his cheek in thought. "I have a hunch about something. But I don't know if I can trust you yet."

116's voice rose slightly. "Trust? You dare say that you don't trust me? Every time I attempt to ask you a question, you assess whether you cannot trust me!

"What about you? You are the one working with the enemy! What you are doing may be the best for all, but that still means they'll hang the both of us for it. I cannot fathom how Halsey can know about it and not say anything!"

D339 just stared flatly back at the now enraged Commander. The only indication that anything was different was the slight downward inclination of his head. "Are you finished, sir?"

116 nodded stiffly. "I am. Say your piece."

D339 leaned forward and set his hands on the table.

"It seems we both have trust issues. You don't trust me because I'm working with someone, and I don't trust you because of who you were.

"I know you're a Spartan-I, physically augmented with highly classified materials to exceed the physical standards of the IIs.

"I know that you are Felix Martel, one of the men who was in the running to become Gerald Barrie's right-hand man? The same Gerald Barrie, leader of one of the most feared Insurrectionist factions in the late 2400s?

"I am at least in control of the situation I'm working in. It's much different when you're raised in a particular situation, taught to think and act a certain way, and who to hate.

"So why should I trust you, Lieutenant Commander?"

Both of the Spartans stared at each other across the table. Each one could turn the other in at any moment, but that would certainly mean they'd get turned in by the other as well.

"We've got each other by the balls, it seems." 116 said after a minute's silence.

There was a knock on the door, and both of the straightened.

"We'll continue this later, I suppose?" Felix said calmly.

Wings nodded, and Felix gave Deep Ocean the command to open the door.

A Marine stood there, her hair cut to regulation length. Her eyes flicked between the two Spartans, then she snapped to attention and saluted.

"Gunnery Sergeant Jess Morley, reporting for duty, sir!" She said, addressing Felix. He and Wings returned the salute.

"Welcome aboard, Sergeant Morley." 116 said. Wings caught a hint of a smile on the senior Spartan's face.

"Heard about you from my teammate, ma'am." Wings commented. "Heard your squad was a great help to him. I trust your meeting went well?"

The Sergeant nodded. "So you're his team leader. It's a pleasure to meet you." She held out her hand to him. He shook it.

"Likewise. I trust that that's why you're here?"

Jess' face went sour of a split second, then she put on a strained smile. "Well, it would be bad for me to let one of my family die only a few months after I found him, wouldn't it?"

A glance at 116's face told Wings all he needed to know. He cleared his throat.

"Sorry, I imagine that the Lieutenant Commander would like to get you up to speed." He turned to Felix. "If that'll be all, sir?"

"That'll be all, Delta. Dismissed." Wings saluted and left.

Felix and Jess didn't move until the door closed, then Felix relaxed and allowed a tired smile to creep across his face. "It's good to see you again."

"I have to say the same." Jess said, stepping forward and embracing him. He returned the gesture, then they let go and each took one of the seats around the table.

"So what is this about D339's teammates being a relative?"

"Delta Ten Seventy-Four." Jess said. "He's the grandson of Anton Morley. Remember him?"

Felix thought back. That was a long time ago. "Your brother?"

She nodded. "He'll be one hundred and seven this year."

"He's getting on in years." 116 replied softly. He and Jess were both well aware how young they were compared to those close to them. Both had spent upwards of sixty years in stasis, and their augmentations made sure that they would live longer than the average human.

"That D339 is nice." Jess said after a short silence. Felix simply raised one eyebrow, but let that comment slide. It was the first time they'd seen each other in years. Why ruin it with a discussion about D339?

They talked for a couple more hours before going to their separate rooms.

Chapter 15: In the Eye

0830 Hours, June 4th, 2574 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Autel stepped off the Phantom as it settled on to the deck of the Advent. It had been nearly a year since Fira had died, and he still hadn't been able to find the person he really wanted to talk to. Rumor was that Wings was serving as part of a task force investigating a biological attack on humans, but he'd been unable to find anything to substantiate that rumor.

Rear Admiral Richard Lash came striding across the hangar floor, looking haggard. "Commander Autel, I've looked over your report, but I'm afraid I can't say anything about the whereabouts of Spartan Delta 339."

Autel nodded. "Thank you, Rear Admiral. I was afraid of that. Is there anything I can do to help?" He glanced around the bay. Everyone looked stressed. There were more shows of bravado among the rank-and-file Marines than usual, but it seemed forced to the large warrior.

"Since I can't seem to find him, is there anything I can do for you?"

"I have been running short of special forces." Lash responded. "Let me coordinate with ONI. I'll see if we can get you and your men something to do."

Autel glanced back at his team as they exited the drop ship. Fira's... replacement was a young Sangheili Commando named Dorod 'Koidam, an expert in hand-to-hand combat and short range weaponry. Dorod was a good warrior.

But he was not a friend. He wasn't Fira.

Wings dropped the razor and washed the rest of the shaving cream off his face. Putting on his standard issue uniform he returned to his main bunk room, in which holograms danced all over, the intricate lines weaving a network throughout the breadth of the room.

"Find anything else?" He said in to thin air. Deep Ocean's avatar appeared in front of him.

"Nothing else. I think we've hit a dead end." She responded with a sigh.

"We must be missing something." Wings responded, leaning forward and slowly drawing his gaze around the room. "There has to be something here telling us what we've missed."

"Both Cortana and I have been in constant contact with our think tank at the base." Ocean said, sounding a bit miffed. "There are seventy Smart-AIs and hundreds of dumb ones working on this, and we haven't found anything. I assure you, there is nothing here."

"That is impossible." Wings retorted. "Have you checked every possibility?"

"I just told you how many of us are working on this. We've checked everything." She snapped, avatar turning a deep shape of red. It quickly cooled back to blue.

"You should get some sleep, Master Chief." The AI said. "You haven't slept for nine days."

"You do realize that I don't find out what the problem is within a week I'll be sleeping very deeply, don't you?"

There was a full second's pause. "You told them to do the vivisection on you?"

"I did."

"You do realize-"

"I am fully aware of the ramifications, Ocean. Don't seek to lecture me on them." Wings interrupted. "Focus on the real problem."

There was a beep, and the com unit on Wings' desk activated.

"Master Chief, Delta Eight Sixty-Five has arrived."

The MCPO rose. "I'll be right back."

Deep Ocean snorted and disappeared as he left, her parting question ringing in D339's ears.

"How are you two still walking around when every other Delta is down, and has been for three months?"

Cory-D865 nodded as Wings approached. "This shit just keeps getting worse, doesn't it?"

"I'm afraid it does, Cory." The MCPO said. "How you and I are still standing is a mystery to me."

"Damn. I'm afraid I won't be able to help much. You're the analytical one out of all of us."

Wings nodded, his mind racing. "Even Hawk Team is down. Hal went nuts early this year. He's in cryo at the Dark Space Shipyards right now."

"He's not the only one. I know Nadia is there. Remember when she took out that Pillar Form on Sanghelios?"

Wings nodded, and allowed the corners of his mouth to rise slightly. Then he froze.

"Aw, shit." He said.

"Cory, come with me."

Deep Ocean reappeared as Wings walked in.

"Still nothing, should I-"

"Stow everything, but bring up all the information your have on Project: PROMETHEUS."

All the holograms disappeared, the complex web gone. Several documents appeared, along with a bunch of cylindrical objects.

Wings walked up to a certain object floating in space. He opened up the information on it and examined it.

"Ocean, upload yourself and all the information regarding PROMETHEUS to my neural link and call Felix, Cutter, and Johansson to the main briefing room."

Five minutes later Captain Cutter stepped through the doors of the briefing room. Everyone straightened and saluted.

"At ease." He said, then turned to Wings. "What is this about?"

"I've figured out what caused the issues, I think. There are still a couple pieces of the puzzle missing."

Felix raised one eyebrow. "Please show us."

"Ocean display all information on PROMETHEUS."

The holograms appeared, and Johansson scoffed.

"I would like to know what Delta Company's augmentation process has to do with this, Spartan."

"That's where you come in, sir." Wings glanced at Cory, who had taken up a station next to the door. "I need all the information pertaining to Spartan-116's augmentation process to see if I'm right."

There was a stunned silence for a minute, and then Felix spoke.

"I would like to know what my augmentation process has to do with this, Master Chief."

"I'll let you know once I get the information I need out of him." Wings nodded towards Johansson and took a step towards him. The ONI agent didn't move.

"That information is highly classified material, Delta 339." Johansson said calmly.

"I know that, but is it really worth the lives of nearly 3000 Spartans?" Wings said. His voice had lowered a bit.

"I cannot declassify that information to you."

Wings lunged forward and grabbed Johansson. His voice had become a deathly whisper.

"Now you listen to me, and you listen carefully, Agent Johansson:

"I don't care if I die, but I will get that information even if I have to pry the codes from your neural lace, and I can. But the process would be painful, and I'd still have to leave you alive.

"I would be hanged for treason, but I do not care, for my Spartans would live. And there is your real problem, for I have created a suitable punishment for you.

"Imagine... you would exist alone in a room of pitch blackness, fearing to move for the pain it would cause you, fearing to hear the shuffle of a footstep outside your cell. Food becomes nigh on impossible to eat, but you must. Breathing becomes a chore, no longer feeling necessary; nothing this painful should be necessary. Now imagine not being able to ever see your family again; you would go blind. Imagine fearing with all your power the merest brush of breath against a cheek from your daughter, or son, or wife, for the sheer amount of torment it would cause you. You would come to fear everything your mind ever gave you, living in a darkness that no man has ever experience before and perhaps never should. That is the Hell I will create for you... unless you do as I say."

Johansson stared back at Wings once the Spartan had finished. There was a tomb-like silence in the room.

"Cortana, access code WhiskeyKiloRedHorse."

Cortana's hologram appeared in he middle of the table. One eyebrow was raised. "Done. Downloading now."

She disappeared, and was replaced by a glass crystal. It was faceted, about half the size of Wings' fist. He pulled it to him and split it open. A slow smile spread across his face.

It was Cory's turn to raise an eyebrow. It was very rare for Wings to show any sort of emotion, never mind such a raw one as happiness.

"Delta Company augmentations are derived from Forerunner augmentation methods." The MCPO said. "ONI modified them to better fit human physiology.

"However, they forgot one thing: Forerunner augmentation methods use a careful balance of chemicals that are all of a neutral buoyancy and electric charge. However, every chemical must maintain a precise concentration in the entire mixture. The idea of the crystal is that the material repels the outer molecules to the center of a perfect sphere, keeping them in balance.

"The scientists of PROMETHEUS forgot this fact. They used the same materials for the syringes, but they made one fatal flaw: the syringes are cylindrical; the materials repel the molecules the equivalent distance, but the shape of the object prevents them from mixing evenly. Chemical on the end don't go far enough, and ones in the center go too far. This makes the chemicals unbalanced, so that when they're injected in to a person they don't spread equally out through the body. Eventually they begin to become toxic to the body as they build up in the cells and cause ruptures. Blood vessels rupture, nerves send random messages, and organs fail. This would all happen at the same time as the chemicals degenerate in to the cells at the same basic rate. That's why everyone going out happened in months, not across decades or even years. No organization or enemy tried to kill us with a biological weapon. Our own bodies did this."

This information was taken in silence. Cutter was sitting at the head of the table, an amused but deeply thoughtful expression on his face. He spoke next.

"So why haven't you or Delta 865 been affected?"

"Delta 865 was grievously wounded by the Flood on Sanghelios several years ago. Remember that healing room we discovered? It used modified Flood material to, for lack of a better word, 'repair' him. I can only assume it also altered the chemical imbalances in his system so that they were spread evenly as originally planned.

"I was given an experimental augmentation. I know it affected my nervous system, and that is likely where the augmentation chemicals would have been clumped and degenerated."

"Then can we not simply give the other Spartans this procedure?" Felix asked.

Wings clicked his mouth shut. He recalled all the times that he had fallen over, near death, and his team had been forced to risk their lives to save him. He couldn't do that to his Spartans.

"No. I don't think that's a good idea." He opened a com to Halsey, and a few minutes later she strode in.

Wings explained the situation to her in detail. She took it in without a shift in emotion, and simply nodded when he finished.

"Should be simple, actually. Genetic therapy, coupled with some other methods should do the trick. I'll work on it, and should have a cure in a few days."

Wings nodded. His face had long ago gone back to the same stony expression he usually wore.

"Thank you, Doctor." He turned to Cutter.

"With your permission, sir, I would like to get some sleep."

Cutter nodded with a smile. "Dismissed, then. You've earned it."

Slowly everyone left, until Cory was the only one standing there, still staring at the holograms even as they winked out.

"Why did I come here again?" He muttered as he turned and left.

1025 Hours, June 6th, 2574 (UNSC Military Calendar)

"Sir, I need to speak with you... and your wife."

Felix turned away from Jess to look at Spartan D339. "And how do you know I'm married?"

"Please, I've been over your entire service record. I know that you go to the bathroom on an average of 2.12 times a day, you like your coffee black, and you're meticulous about squeezing the toothpaste tube from the bottom. You being married to the good Sergeant is one of the first things I learned about you."

The senior Spartan raised one eyebrow. "If I didn't know ONI, I'd say that would be very creepy."

"Indeed." Wings gestured towards a briefing room, and entered it. Felix and Jess followed him.

"Ocean, is the room secured?" Wings said to thin air. Deep Ocean's avatar appeared on the briefing table.

"It is. Is the security necessary?"

"Yes, and you may see why."

Felix sat down at one end of the long table, with Jess to his right. Wings shrugged and sat at the other end.

"You two have two children, one son and one daughter, right?"


"And you haven't seen them in approximately two years?"

"Yes." Jess said. "What's this about?"

"You don't know where they are, do you?"

This took the two a bit by surprise.

"At home, I suppose." Felix said. "Why?"

Wings stayed silent, but simply grabbed a datapad from a pack at his side and tossed it to 116. The Lieutenant Commander caught it and opened its contents. Jess leaned over to look.

A moment passed in silence. And then-

"Those sons of bitches." Jess exclaimed, rising from her seat. She looked furious.

"They recruited my son and daughter in to Epsilon Company?" Felix whispered, sounding disoriented.

Jess began to make for the door, but Wings rose to block her path.

"Sergeant Morley, going to ONI would not be a good idea."

"Why not?" She spat. "They kidnapped my children and are inducting them in to a life if military hardship. They don't have the right!"

He simply stared back. "Any less right than they did to take you, or Felix? What about the other S-IIIs and S-IIs?"

Felix hadn't moved except to set the datapad down on the table. He seemed to be staring off in to space.

"I understand how you must feel, but think rationally. What will it change by confronting anyone in ONI about this? You'll just disappear down one of their black holes. If they don't have a problem with abducting more than seven thousand children thus far, then why should they care if a single Marine goes missing, or seemingly dies tragically on a random mission? Why would anyone?"

Jess deflated a bit. "Can we not take it public? The population knows that Spartans exist, but they think they're trained like any other soldier-"

"The population would riot and overthrow the UNSC. We'd be without Spartans, who're the best weapons humanity has, and humanity would be divided, fractured, likely without a cohesive military or governing body. I'm sorry to say this, but if you try doing that, I would be forced to stop you."

Jess looked as if she was about to go completely limp. "But... my babies... being forced to undergo that level of physical and mental stress..."

"He's right." Felix said. "Dammit, why is he always right?"

Jess spun around to face him. "You're okay with this?" She hissed.

"I never said I was, but Jess, we can't do anything. Look on the bright side: they'll be getting the best education that could ever be offered to them. And since it looks like the Covenant are making harder pushes, the Reformation Act would have forced them in to mandatory military service anyway. This way they have the best tools to survive any fighting that they have to take part of."

Wings watched Jess go back to her seat. "If it helps, I can have my Spartans keep an eye on them. There's always a few teams on New Quebec. I imagine more will be stuck there to train Epsilon."

Felix finally moved, turning to face Wings. "How do I know I can trust you with that?"

There was a short pause.

"My name is Wings." Was all D339 said before he walked out. He had to prepare new orders for when his Deltas were to awaken.

And now Amber and Victor Martel factored in to his plans. Epsilon Company already had, but now it was more personal.

Chapter 16: Grave Marker

0525 Hours, February 2nd, 2577 (UNSC Military Calendar)

"Shit just keeps happening, doesn't it?" X commented as a fuel rod round detonated on the other side of the wall he was currently taking cover behind.

"Shit never stops happening!" Itzia shot back. "On three!"

The plasma fire slackened.

"Three!" Both Spartans wheeled around the corner, X only slightly behind Itzia.

"You skipped one and two!"

"Never said I was counting to it!"

Both let loose with their assault rifles, the incendiary rounds chewing through the Unggoy lines. A very annoyed Brute warrior screamed some alien profanity before a bullet blew his jaw off.

They spun back in to cover as the enemy's plasma weaponry cooled and they began to fire again. Both Spartans dropped their current magazines and slapped new ones home, both of them synchronized almost perfectly.

"Phoenix One, this is Four." Itzia said over the com almost lazily as a tidal wave of plasma swept through the doorway. "We're holding position, but the Covenant are pushing harder. I estimate several lances of Unggoy." She paused as there was a loud roar. "And two lances of Jiralhanae."

"Copy, Four. I'm moving in with the rest of the team to reinforce you. Ocean is still data-mining, but we've managed to seal off our entrance.

"There's very little cover up here, One." Itzia responded as the fire slackened. She and X popped out of cover again to let off a few sustained bursts before dropping back in to cover again.

"The next room has more cover."

"Larger area for them to get through, though."

"I know, but it's worth the trade-off." Wings replied. "Two will provide you with limited support while Three and I set up. I'll contact you again once we're ready."

"Copy, One. Four out." Itzia finished. She risked a quick glance out in to the hallway, and ducked back just as quickly as a particle beam made the air sizzle right next to her head.

"Two, we've got Jackals. Eight o'clock."


There was a sound like a Gauss cannon firing, and both X and Itzia watched the air in between them sizzle. There was an impact on a microsecond later, and something that resembled a claw came bouncing through the doorway.

"Sniper down."

"You're really enjoying that Javelin, aren't you, Two?" X asked as he and Itzia took advantage of the brief respite to chuck a couple grenades in to the other room.

One Unggoy squeaked as something bounced off his head. That squeak turned in to a squeal of fright in the instant before the fragmentation grenade detonated.

This went on for several minutes, and then the com crackled again. "Four and Five, fall back."

"Go!" Itzia called to X, and the two of them made for the wider doorway leading in to the next room. Zero was situated on an upper catwalk, looking straight down through the doorway. Wings and Peec had moved several boxes around to create a labyrinth of cover for Phoenix Team, and at the same time leaving a lot of open space that the Covenant would have to cover to reach the labyrinth. X chose a spot that would cover the doorway and unfolded the bi-pod for his MA7A. He had opted for the C-MAG reloads, which carried 200 rounds instead of the usual 80. He could carry fewer magazines, but a longer time in between reloads was worth the payoff.

Wings set up a few meters away from X. He pulled a brace of SLE7 grenades off his belt and set them in front of him.

"Wait until the heavy hitters come up," D339 said over the com. "Hit them with some grenades to soften them up, and then finish them off. You know, the usual. Two, call them as you see them. Five, you're on clean-up duty."

"Acknowledged, One." X responded, and then settled down, kneeling behind his crate with his head at an angle that allowed him to sight down his red dot.

"Got a lot of Grunts coming in." Zero said. She'd set the Javelin up against the railing and had pulled out her battle rifle. While it didn't have nearly as much kick as the Javelin, it was effective enough at killing unshielded enemies.

A grunt peeked around the corner. X lightly tapped the trigger, and a single incendiary round blew the small alien's head off. There were several squeals, followed by a sharp bark.

A flood of Unggoy poured in to the room. D2552 squeezed the trigger, sending a stream of rounds in to their ranks. Bodies fell and tanks detonated, the latter increasing the destruction wrought by the Spartan's rounds tenfold.

"Hunters!" Zero called from her position on the balcony as she hefted the M90909 Javelin. There was a beep as the electronic coils in it activated.

"I take it you have them?" X began to say as he turned to face the lumbering tanks.

Zero fired, and the Hunter on the left exploded. The rounds that the Javelin sniper fired traveled faster than 10,000 meters per second and were mostly made of depleted uranium with an unknown outer coating. It was the smallest weapon able to punch through Hunter armor.

Another round flew through the air, taking the other Hunter's head off. Grunts squealed and ran about in a panic. The Spartans gunned them down.

"Spartans, I've completed the data mine and am uploading to One's neural lace. Extraction is on the way."

Another wave of Covenant were massing at the door. Zero emptied the magazine on her Javelin and stowed it away. "I'm out."

"Get to the roof, Phoenix." Wings said.

X watched his motion tracker for a second to make sure everyone was heading out safely before turning and sprinting for the gravity lift.

He felt the grip of the lift as he stepped in to it and was sent soaring upwards. The Forerunner structure was massive; Phoenix had been fighting their way down to the central chamber for the last two days, mostly by stealth and hand-to-hand combat in order to conserve ammunition. They had located the central gravity lift upon entry, but every attempt to reverse its direction had failed.

Now they were making a trip lasing thirty seconds that had previously taken just over 47 hours.

They slowed and changed direction, suddenly moving horizontally. The lift spat the five Spartans out on top of the massive Forerunner structure. A large circular device activated and froze them in midair, then gently lowered them to the ground.

X walked over to the edge of the tower and looked down. All he could see were clouds far below them. They must have traveled about fifteen kilometers in less than a minute.

Off in the distance a black dot appeared. The extraction dropship.

"Five, get over here."

X jogged over to Wings. "Yeah?"

"The Covenant are going to be coming up that gravity lift. Make sure they have a warm welcome."

X grinned. "On it."

The Pelican settled down on top of the tower a few minutes later. Zero hopped in, and then lent Peec a hand as he stepped up alongside Itzia. Wings accepted the hand as well, but X opted to just hop aboard.

As they soared off, Wings opened a channel to the cruiser waiting in orbit.

"Naraka, this is Phoenix One. Data is secure and we are en route."

"Copy, Phoenix. Spartan 091 is aboard and waiting for you. He seems to think you may have found something."

"091? He's alive?"

"Affirmative. Naraka out."

Wings turned away from the rear of the Pelican as the tower went up in flames, taking probably a few hundred Covenant with it. X was still staring at the explosion, and his teammates knew he was grinning.

"091 is back in service... That doesn't bode well." Zero commented.

"Makes you wonder how they got him back, and why." Peec said. "I suppose I can start filtering through the ONI databases."

"Do it." Wings responded. "Especially find out where he's been. Last I heard he was killed during the Rift Crisis. I'm interested in knowing how he got out."

"Aren't we all..." Itzia muttered. The rear hatch closed as the Pelican began to leave the atmosphere, leaving the Forerunner planet behind.

Jared-091 and Fi-D3332 were waiting for Phoenix as they stepped off the Pelican. The team snapped to attention.

"Commander 091, sir!" Wings said.

"At ease, Master Chief." 091 said, returning the gesture. D3332 nodded to Phoenix Team.

"Deep Ocean uploaded the intel successfully." 091 continued, turning and marching off across the hangar. The six Deltas followed.

"Preliminary analysis has been most enlightening."

"Indeed it has been." D3332 cut in. 091 didn't seem to mind, and allowed the Delta to speak as they walked on to the bridge. "New species. Covenant, or, used to be. Insectoid species. Four antennae, tall, heavy carapace. Incredible adaptability."

"We think ONI found some of them about thirteen years ago." Jared said, bringing up a hologram of a large insectoid creature. "Has them tagged as the 'Evaniptii.' They weren't too keen on making friends, but did accept what little help ONI gave them. Apparently only one million individuals survived a xenocidal campaign from the Covenant. According to the intel you gave us, the campaign took place from 1492 through 1495. They went from several trillion strong to only one million in a few years."

"How did they escape?" Peec asked, peering at the hologram.

"Entered deep sleep in asteroid. Launched on random trajectory. Landed in Antarctica, circa 1668. First survivors discovered at Antarctica in 2564. Discovered at unidentified planet later. Disappeared in to space in 2568. Unknown destination. Presumed to be rebuilding species. Little known about society. Known to have high adaptation rate, communicates by telepathy and pheromones."

"What do they eat?" Wings inquired.

Fi shook his head. "Food not required. Breathing not required. Only energy required. Evaniptii adapt to nearly any environment. Use available sources of energy. Biological processes on this accomplishment: unknown. Fascinating species. Yes, yes."

X spoke next. "Why are we so worried about them now?"

091 answered. "They highly capable killers when you train them right, but they're physically weak in proportion to their mass. The Covenant are closing in on their world, and ONI wants to establish an alliance. We're going to find them."

"Have sent supplies," D3332 said as 091 finished. "Small battlegroup. Enough to transport Evaniptii to safety. Gifts, also. Medicine, food, weapons. Extending hands of good faith. Ambassador, too. With translator."

"Could I have access to this translator?" Wings asked. "I would like to familiarize myself with their language."

Commander 091 raised one eyebrow. "Their language is very hard to learn, Delta. And we only have a few days."

Wings nodded. "Hopefully a few days. Could be months, could be years. We might never find them. I might as well have something to do during down time."

Jared shrugged. "Fair enough. I trust your AI kept a copy of the data. You have that at your disposal. Dismissed."

Wings cut off his external speakers and spoke directly to Deep Ocean. "You only sent the data they asked for, correct?"

"Of course."

"Good. Keep it on your core, and only one your core."

"Very well."

"Anything on Project: Zack?"

"Nothing. It hasn't shown up in any ONI database I've been able to get in to."

"Alright. Thank you."

"You're very welcome."

Chapter 17: Hammer and Chisel

"A Covenant scouting group ran across an Evaniptii transmission. ONI has decoded it and estimates that the Evaniptii have taken up residence in a 1,000 light year area approximately 5,000 light years from the Galactic Core." 091 finished.

A zoomed-in hologram of the Milky Way Galaxy was currently showing a section of the Norma Arm along with a red flag showing the position of the battle group.

"Essentially we're going to split the battle group up and selectively drop in and out of systems. With any luck we'll catch another transmission and be able to triangulate their position."

Wings nodded. "So why did they bring us along?"

Fi-D3332 spoke. "My platoon has been patrolling region. Ran in to opposition. Covenant, Insurrectionists. Both fleets and ground forces. Destroyed some, most still there."

"ONI assigned an entire platoon to this region? That would mean there are already several battle groups here."

Jared-091 responded. "They're tied up in holding the Insurrectionists and Covenant in place, and they don't have the equipment that we have here."

"I see." Wings said, and examined the map. "I suggest we start by looking here." He pointed to a small cluster of stars close to the galactic core.

"Why do you say that?" 091 queried, raising one eyebrow.

"Evaniptii can live comfortably in extremes that most other species can't even travel. Where else to hide a near extinct species than where no one else can go?"

"Fair point." 091 said. Wings caught a hint of grudging acceptance in his voice. It was obvious that 091 was wary of him. "I'll talk to the Admiral about it. We have a quick rendezvous with a Sangheili ship, and then the battle group will split."

"This ship... does it happen to be the Path Forward?" Wings asked.

"Yes, it is. Why?" 091 answered.

"I have a friend aboard. His sons just joined the Sangheili military as minor domos."

As everyone left the briefing room, Itzia leaned closer to Wings. "You don't have to protect everyone, you know. Sangheili are more capable in combat than the average human, and the Vadam family in particular are all good fighters."

"You don't know how true that is."

Autel 'Vadam ducked, causing the fuel rod shot to sizzle over his head. He came up firing. Three rounds tore through a Jiralhanae's head, dropping him like a sack of so much meat. Near to one hundred paces away he watched his sons, Kysa and Adra 'Vadam, tear in to a group of Jiralhanae warriors with energy swords. He was proud of his sons, having purposefully placed them close to him so that he could watch the two. They weren't special operations, but that would likely change sometime in the future.

A roar drew Autel back to reality, and he looked up to see the Chieftain wielding a gravity hammer barreling down at him. Autel dropped his carbine and snatched his sword from it's place at his thigh. The Special Operations Commander thumbed the activator button, and a crackling red blade sprang to life.

The Chieftain's eyes went wide, but he didn't slow or flinch in any other way. Instead he simply raised his hammer higher and let out a louder roar.

He was almost on top of Autel when the Sangheili bent to the side and rolled, narrowly dodging the swinging hammer. He flipped his energy sword over to his left hand and snatched a Type-40 energy pistol off his thigh and let loose. Unlike the Type-25, the Type-40 had a select fire mode that allowed automatic fire that rivaled the Brute Plasma Rifle. He let loose, splashing plasma bolt after plasma bolt in to the Chieftain's shields, rapidly draining them. The Chieftain spun, gravity hammer following. Autel hopped backwards and let the head of the hammer whistle by, then threw himself forwards.

Autel smashed in to the Chieftain and brought him to the ground. The energy sword whipped around and cut through the Chieftain's neck, neatly severing his head from his body.

The albino Sangheili straightened and looked around. The battle was winding to a close, with the majority of Covenant forces dead and the rest fleeing or making desperate last stands. Autel deactivated his energy sword and strode to a waiting Phantom.

"Commander, the human battle group is approaching the system. We've just received a communique from Lieutenant Commander Spartan-091." Ipla 'Ihpor said as Autel entered the Phantom.

"Very well. Tell the Spartan I'll meet him in the hangar bay."

"Yes, Commander."

Wings nodded to Autel as 091 spoke, then watched Dorod 'Koidam. The young Sangheili seemed tenser than usual.

Once 091 had finished filling Autel in on the situation, the Sangheili Special Operations Commander approached Wings. "We need to talk."

Wings nodded, and glanced at his team. Zero nodded. She and the other three moved away. Autel and Wings walked over to the hangar opening.

"My sons are doing well. They will rise quickly through the ranks." Autel said.

"That's good, you should be proud." Wings responded, giving Autel a playful smack on his shoulder.

Autel didn't seem to share the same sentiment. "I... didn't train them. They are my blood, but I am not allowed to let them even know who I am to them, what they mean to me. You helped train them. You're more their father than I am."

Now there's an awkward feeling. Wings thought. "Why don't you just tell them?"

"I do want to but... it just doesn't feel right to throw aside tradition so candidly."

"Is this one of those times that I can be blunt?"

"I've never asked you to not be."

"Traditions are generally created for one purpose: control. They're fine as long as they help people, give them something good. But this... I don't see any reason that they shouldn't know. How can it hurt?"

"Sangheili warriors maintain their strength by not tying themselves to other warriors. We accomplish our goals through sacrifice, not caring."

Wings turned and gestured at the numerous groups of Spartans around the hangar. "Look out there, what do you see? You see warriors, soldiers, the best humanity has to offer. What you see right now, and all that most ever see, are emotionless, ruthless killing machines. What you are not seeing is what happens outside the job. Outside we are like any other civilian. There are lovers, friends, enemies, rivalries, everything you would expect from the general population. That doesn't affect our job and if it does, it's for the better."

Autel nodded. "We gain strength through loneliness. You gain yours from being together. Two sides of the same coin."

D339 turned back towards the door to stare out in to space. "You can follow tradition, and your race won't burn you at the stake. Or you can break it and take the consequences of that. Either way I don't think it will change who you are as a warrior."

"It's these little talks that remind me why we're friends." Autel smiled. "Might I offer some advice of my own?"

Wings shrugged. "Please do."

"Go easy on Felix. He's much more trustworthy and skilled than you might think at first."

The Spartan almost smiled. "I'll take your word for it."

Autel became somber again. "A lot has changed since Fira died."

For once Wings was almost at a loss for words. "Yes. A lot has."

"What would happen if someone on your team died? They're like your brothers and sisters."

There was a short pause. "That is one of the few things I don't want to know the answer to."

Zero gave the magazine a good firm smack, and then made sure that the M90909 Javelin was indeed receiving power from her gauntlets. It was, so she stowed it away and marched to her drop pod.

"So this is where they found the com signal? A ball of ice?"

X nodded. "They don't know if it's just a signal echo or really the source of the transmission, however. Either way, it gets us closer to finding the Evaniptii."

"One minute to drop, Phoenix. Make sure you're buckled up."

Zero snapped the Javelin in to the weapon holder of the drop pod and sat down. She took a quick glance around. The pods hadn't changed much over the years besides upgrades that improved it's already dramatically high survival rating. Ensuring that her straps were on tight, Zero buckled down for the ride.

"Ten seconds to drop."

Zero lazily reached out and grabbed the control sticks. The micro-jets on the pods weren't nearly as useful as flight controls for other aerial vehicles, but they would help keep the pod on course.

"Three... two..." The world fell out from under Zero, and she plummeted towards the planet.

"Three, has the signal been triangulated yet?" Wings' voice came over the team channel.

"Affirmative, One." Peec answered. "We'll be hitting dirt about two klicks from where the signal bounced. Unknown if it's just a high density metal deposit or a relay station."

"Good. Two, you're on lookout and com relay. The rest of us will..." The rest faded in to static.

Zero boosted her signal up. "One? One, do you read? Anyone on this channel, respond!"

There was a his of static. "Signal ja-... pockets of... don't pop... -utes-" And then there was silence.

Zero filled in the blanks for herself. This was going to be a hard drop with no chutes to slow the descent of the drop pods. The survival rating of her vehicle had just been cut in half.

There was a sudden lurch, and then the drop pod tumbled for a few seconds in free-fall. Another lurch, and Zero felt the pod attempt to auto-correct her course. It succeeded, and she continued her drop towards the planet.

There was a thud, and the front of the pod caved in. It began tumbling again. Zero struggled with the controls, which failed to respond. Her altimeter was still active, and was rapidly counting down to impact.

Ten thousand meters, nine thousand meters, eight thousand meters...


The first thing Zero noticed when she came to was that it was fucking cold.

The second thing was that she was upside down. Thankfully the front of the pod was not blocked. After a quick scan of her sensors, Zero hit the emergency ejection bolts.

The front of the pod shot off, and Zero braced herself against the side of the pod as she unbuckled the straps that were barely holding her in place. She slipped a bit as gravity attempted to slam her head against the top of the pod, but she activated her magnetic boots, reached "down," grabbed the bottom of the pod, and swung her legs down to the ground.

The weapons were mostly intact except for a smashed magazine. Zero ran a quick diagnostic to make sure her suit was functioning properly. It was, so she tried the various com channels again.

"Phoenix, this is Two. Anyone copy?"

A voice responded. "Two, this is Five. We all got split up during the storm. Coms are limited to short range; You're the first one I've been able to contact." There was a pause. "Can you see any landmarks near your position?"

Zero slipped her Javelin onto her back and grabbed the M14 SMG.

"Negative, Five. I'm going to search for a good lookout point. Scans showed that there is a valley near our landing zone. Assuming we haven't gone more than 100 klicks off course, that's the closest landmark I can think of, and is probably where the rest of the team will be."

"I'll head there. See if you can spot me on the thermal."

"Roger. Once I do, I'll ping you with the laser communication."

"Copy that, I'm oscar mike. Five out."

Zero closed the channel. There was no way that they had been blown 100 kilometers off course, especially when she was close enough to be able to contact any of her teammates.

There was a promising uphill incline just to her left. Zero made her way up it.

As MJOLNIR suits were powered, the users never felt the actual weight of the armor. The lone Spartan was given a rough reminder of this when she stepped on a rock that gave way. She was sent sliding back down to the bottom of the slope. Only her quick reflexes and boosted strength allowed her to get out of the way before several dozen tons of snow and rock buried her.

Zero made sure to dig her boots deep in to the snow after that, and to test rocks to make sure they were firm so as not to repeat the avalanche.

One of the major bonuses with being a sniper was that she got a bunch of extra gadgets to aid in her shooting. Among these was a micro-meteorological scanner that gave her constant updates on whether anywhere in a four-hundred kilometer radius. It wouldn't help her find her teammates, but it would let her know if there were any pockets where the snowstorm was steering clear of.

She checked it. The readout told her that the snowstorm was raging everywhere it could scan, and a helpful tip suggested that it was likely active beyond that point.

It took an hour to reach the top of the hill. Once she did, Zero did a slow circle, scanning around with her range-finder to create a three-dimensional image of the surround landscape in her suit's computer.

The valley was on the opposite side of the hill from where her pod had crash landed. Zero ran through the usual list of scanners and picked up a single lone figure. Verifying that it was indeed the silhouette of a Mark VII MJOLNIR suit crouch walking its way along the perimeter, Zero pinged it with the laser communicator. She used just enough juice that it would cause the green status light to flash on a HUD.

The figure froze, then raised a hand and stuck up three fingers. They slowly turned it around so that Zero could have seen it no matter where she had set up. It was Peec. Zero upped the power on the laser communicator and opened a channel.

"Three, this is Two. Do you copy?"

"Loud and clear, Two. Have you managed to contact anyone else?"

"I managed to talk to Five for a few minutes. He's on his way to the valley. I talked to One for a bit. He's a bit peeved."

"Right. Nothing's gone according to plan yet. Hold position and wait for Five."

"Copy. There some kind of ruin down here. I'll take shelter in that."


"Looks Forerunner. Could have something useful inside. I'm going to check it out."

"Don't go too deep, and try to contact me every few minutes. If you don't get a reply, I want you to get back out of there. Understood?"

"Understood. Three out."

Zero closed the channel and watched the form of Peec-D1074 move towards the center of the valley and disappear in to a structure. Her scans did indeed tell her that it was Forerunner.

Another form appeared. Zero pinged it. This one raised its hand and held up all five fingers. Another channel was opened.

"Five, Three is inside the Forerunner structure. I'll mark the Head inside and stay in the entry way. One is nearby."

"Copy that, Two. Five out."

A gauntlet burst its way through the compacted slow, then an elbow appeared, followed by a shoulder. The arm bent and began tearing the snow away.

Wings-D339 dug his way out of his own snowy grave. His drop pod had smacked right in to the side of a cliff and covered him in a pile of snow. It had taken the Spartan about fifteen minutes to dig himself out.

A green light flashed twice next to Zero's status indicator. A short pause, then two more flashes. Wings raised his hand and held up one finger. Zero was watching him. A com channel opened.

"Sir, Three and Five are already in the valley. There's a Forerunner structure in the middle of it."

"Have you had any contact with Four?"


"I thought as much." Wings pulled up the last known flight paths of Phoenix's drop pods. They appeared on his HUD as a 3-dimensional diagram. He highlighted one and collated it with the others to estimate the landing position.

"Why is that?"

"Deep Ocean's calculations put Four's drop pod in the middle of the valley, right on top of the Forerunner structure."

"Then she should already be inside."

"She would be. Pack it up and move in, Two."

"Yes sir. Two out."

It was standard policy to wait up for teammates in the first room of any structure that the team was regrouping at. Itzia's pod had trajectory placed her anywhere from twenty to one hundred and fifty meters away from the structure. Even if she had landed three hundred meters away, she still could not have missed the structure.

And yet she wasn't in the first room.

Wings activated his wrist mounted holoprojector, and Deep Ocean's avatar appeared along with a miniature version of the they were now in. The scanners could only reach a few kilometers, and the preliminary scan looked as if it showed only the tip of the iceberg.

"Four's beacon is not within range of any of our scanners. I would suggest splitting up in order to maximize our effective range." Ocean said idly as she swept her hands through the hologram of the structure. Bits of it blew in to an exploded view as she examined their makeup. "This is a most curious place... almost-" A sudden low humming sound cut Deep Ocean off.

Phoenix team spun as a whole and put their backs to the wall. Each one faced a different direction to make sure they saw the newcomers before they got jumped.

"Fifty contacts right!" Deep Ocean barked. Phoenix Team shifted their aim.

Fifty oblong shapes shot out from one of the hexagonal shaped corridors. Three metallic beams around a central spherical orb made up each one of the constructs.


"Should we see if they're friendly- move!" Zero's voice went from a bored tone to a harsh bark. The Sentinels had fired, and fifty beams of cohesive light converged on the place where the Spartans had just been.

"Does that answer your question, Two?" X called as he picked himself up.

"Weapons free!" Wings barked.

Assault rifles and SMGs clattered. The Sentinels had numbers, but were fairly frail. A few managed to get off some shots, but the MJOLNIR shields swallowed the beams up. The last one clanked to the ground within seconds, and the only sound was X charging the bolt on his MA7A.

"Split up. We need to find Four ASAP." Wings said. "Ocean, set up com zones. If you start to move out of the red zone, either change direction or double back. I don't want any of us going missing. Move, Phoenix!"

The four Spartans each went down one tunnel without another word.

Itzia's head throbbed as she regained consciousness. All she remembered from the drop was the front of her pod popping off, then a bright light that quickly dimmed, giving way to an awesome view of complex machinery.

Then there had been only blackness.

Itzia looked up and examined her cell. It was fairly small, hexagonal in shape, and made of a transparent material. So small that she'd simply been slumped in a sitting position at the bottom. Although... what kind of guards would allow her to keep her armor on? Her weapons were gone, as was most of her medical equipment and drugs, but her armor was still there.

"'Oo nut fst-funder."

The Spartan turned around to see another cell next to hers with a large insectoid creature stuck in to it. He was large, approximately six inches taller than the Spartan. His exoskeleton was a dull gray. It seemed like he'd fit in perfectly out in the harsh environment of the world.

"The what?"

The insect spoke again. Itzia noted that a few of his exoskeleton plates shifted to accommodate English more readily.

"I apologize. I am not used to communicating through the medium of sonic waves. It has been a while since I have seen a human, I have seen others like you. One of them in particular I remember from long ago; his name was Felix, I believe. I said that you are not one of the first-finders. Humans. Your kind saved us from our long slumber, gave us hope, gave us a home."

"How do you know I am human?"

"It is your smell, your pheromones, your thoughts. I know you are female, Spartan, and you have an undying loyalty to one of your kind. But that is all I know."

"Who are you?"

"I am Chak'turr," The strange alien said, only his mouth moved. He didn't even seem to breath. "I am part of the Evaniptii military. A... Sergeant... you might say."

"We were sent to find your species."

Chak'turr made a clicking sound with his jaws. "Why?"

"We believe the Covenant have taken an interest in your race. My team and an entire battle group were sent out to find your homeworld. Is this it?"

"No. I am simply one of several Evaniptii stationed on this planet. We are... an outpost."

"Fair enough, but I think we have more pressing concerns-" Itzia said, before being cut off by a warm, welcoming voice.

"Oh good, you're awake!"

Itzia and Chak'turr both looked up to see a glowing, floating orb. The voice was coming from it.

"I am 33614 Joyous Discord! I am the monitor of Line Installation 1-6."

Chak'turr let out a hissing sound. It was obvious he didn't like the monitor.

"And what is the point of bringing us here, 'Joyous Discord?'" Itzia asked.

"Why, examination!" Discord said. "How else are we to find a species immune to the Flood? I must say, after so many years it is good to finally be able to communicate with living beings! I would really-"

"This doesn't look good." Itzia whispered to Chak'turr as the monitor babbled.

"Why is that?"

"He said he wanted to examine us for immunities to the Flood. That generally includes dissection."

Chapter 18: Finding a Good Shape

X checked the slope a second time before throwing himself down it. It was steep, about a kilometer long and smooth. The half ton Spartan was at the bottom in seconds and rising in to a low crouch to scan the area. Once he determined it was clear he moved to a cylindrical object.

"This it?"

"That's the terminal. Hack in there."

X harrumphed and knelt down next to the terminal. He opened up an infiltration device and activated it. Several scrolling signals opened up. He scanned the four interweaving sin waves and began doing the proper math.

"Why can't you do this?" He asked Deep Ocean as he worked.

"I would have to download the infiltration portion of my programming in to your suit and then override the security. With a hostile AI in the area, I can't risk that."

The Spartan whistled. Deep Ocean had discovered the hostile artificial intelligence about an hour ago. The four Spartans had covered a lot of ground in that time, but it was still nothing but a fraction of a percent of the total size. She'd sent out an active ping for electromagnetic signals that were stronger than average and located the terminal. Since X was closest, he was given the task of hacking in to the basic systems. While all Delta Spartans had training and could hack virtually any system, it took X longer than most.

A few minutes later the screen flashed blue, and a casing opened up. X stepped up to the controls.

"Talk to me, Ocean, what do I need to do?"

Wings shut off Ocean's mic as she talked extensively to X as he dutifully followed her instructions. He walked up to one edge of the corridor and looked down. It was a long drop, about one kilometer according to his rangefinder.

"You do recall that there is more than one mic in this thing, right?" Ocean said, sounding exasperated.

"Yes, I do. But I didn't want you telling me off whilst I was testing whether this metal is magnetic or not."

Wings activated his magnetic boots and stepped out over the edge. He twisted his leg and settled it on the vertical surface. It stuck, so he put his other foot on the surface, and stood upright. Or, in this case, horizontally.

"I don't always jump down your throat every time you do something."

"I don't always say serious things."

"... Touché."

Stel 'Vadam rapped his knuckles against the doors of the Forerunner structure. The planet was blisteringly cold, so cold that only the Spartans seemed comfortable. What he wouldn't give for one of their suits, or at least a heating system like it.

He turned away from the door and strode up the hillside with a couple of minor domos. The blizzard that had been raging had died down, an anyone on top of the hill could see for many klicks. In the valley the surrounding the structure the IU forces were had made their rendezvous and were preparing to move on.

Commander 091 was already at the top of the hill with a team of Delta Spartans. Kingfisher Team, if the Zealot recalled correctly. He was conversing with the squad leader while the others checked their weapons.

"The Forerunner structure is sealed tightly." Stel said as he approached. "We cannot open it from the outside. Phoenix Team is on their own for now."

"Unfortunate." 091 said. "We think we've found the Evaniptii."

"You found a heat signature?"

"Yes, about two and a half kilometers southwest."

Stel turned to one of the minor domos. "Send out the message to move."

"Yes, Supreme Commander." The minor domo replied, folding his hand in to a fist above his heart. He marched off, down the hill.

Nothing seemed to be working. Joyous Discord had wandered off about an hour ago, rambling about "intruders." Itzia was sure that the intruders he had mentioned happened to be her teammates, but she also knew that a machine wouldn't allow a few intruders to disrupt a schedule.

Gauntlet knives, fists, even throwing her entire weight against the fairly thin material didn't work. She'd run a scan and determined that a small energy field was running through the entire thing, making it nigh on impenetrable.

"It returns." Chak'turr said with a hiss.

33614 Joyous Discord floated down from a nearby tunnel and took up a position in front of the two tubes.

"I know this may seem cruel but... any volunteers?" The monitor said, a bit too happily.

Itzia remembered something. She'd just had a new module installed in to her armor that just might save them...

"Sure, little fairy." She muttered.

"Ah, splendid!" Discord said. "Right away then!"

The floor of Itzia's cell began glowing.

"Goodbye, Spartan." Chak'turr said resignedly.

"I'm not ready to say goodbye just yet."

Beams shot from the floor just as she activated the module. Blue energy washed over her armor, and the liquid crystal layer that enhanced her movements froze, preventing any movement from the Spartan.

The beams split, slamming in to the walls of her cell. They stopped just as her armor lock module ran out of juice. As a security precaution to prevent an overload that would crush her, it shot out a wave of an electromagnetic resonance that fried most electronics within a few meters.

Itzia threw herself against the cell again, and this time broke through. She fell about half a meter to the floor, landed on her feet, turned, and smashed Chak'turr's cell.

"We've got to go." She said.

"I'm afraid you're not going anywhere." An optimistic voice said.

Itzia turned to see a few hundred floating machines all facing her, and the monitor in front of them.

"If you insist on resisting the tests, then I shall be forced to respond in kind." He then spoke to the other machines, though there really was no need for him to do so.

"Do try not to burn them too much. I would still like to try an examination."

Without warning, the machines just fell to the floor.

"What!?" Discord cried, a hint of desperation seeping in to his voice. He began darting around, babbling. "Another construct? Here? So powerful!? This isn't possible!"

He froze for a second, facing Itzia and Chak'turr. His purple eye turned a blood-red.

"Is that so?" A female voice said. "Your unwillingness to think outside your programming is your undoing."

"Ocean?" Itzia muttered.

The eye flashed back to purple. Joyous Discord began darting around again. "N... no! I shall purge you from the system! You cannot be allowed to destroy my work!"

He froze, the eye back to red. "Your work is a complete. An immune species has been found." Deep Ocean said.

More darting, purple again. "Inconceivable! I have gotten constant updates from the other facilities! No one has found anything!"

The exchange continued: purple eye and frenzied movement when Discord seemed in control, red and frozen when Ocean was.

"I am not from one of your facilities."

"Then how are you so advanced? But... you cannot be a human construct?"

"And why not? Your creators handed the technology over to the humans on a silver platter, and the humans just made it better. I'm not just younger than you. I'm better."

Joyous Discord's eye went dead, and he fell to the floor with a hollow thud.

"Hey, Four!" A voice crackled over Itzia's speakers. It was Zero.

"This is Four. That you, Two?"

"It is. One, Three, and Five are waiting for us in the entrance hall."

A few hours later, Itzia and Zero stepped out in to the sunlight. It was still cold, but at least there wasn't a blizzard raging all around anymore.

"They were here." Peec commented to Wings as the last two members of the team approached. "Set off southwest."

"Let's move, then. Try and raise the Commander while we're at it." Wings looked up at Itzia and nodded. "You're alright."

"I am."

"Ocean pulled some interesting stuff out of that mainframe. According to her, we have you to thank for being a distraction. It had been so long since Joyous Discord had had a test subject that he got a bit distracted." He then turned to Chak'turr and placed his palm on his forehead. "Hak'klak."

Chak'turr was surprised, but returned the gesture. He, however, folded two of his antennae under his hand, then proceeded to unload with a torrent of speech in an alien language. Wings shook his head slightly.

"Sorry, I only have the basic 'hello' and 'goodbye' down so far. And I can count to ten."

Chak'turr, however, didn't seem any less displeased. Two of his antennae ends were rubbing together in what seemed to be a sort of smile. "I do not mind. It is more than most outside our own race ever learn, and it is not like we use it all to often."

"Just curious," Zero cut in. "But what does that mean?"

"It's a greeting." Wings said. "Placing your palm on your forehead with two antennae underneath symbolizes that you promise to accept their individuality, and ask that they accept yours. 'Hak'klak' is the same thing, but verbal."

"We Evaniptii are bound together forever by a communal consciousness, yet we retain our individuality. I am allowed by interests and quirks, and my fellow Evaniptii are allowed theirs." Chak'turr explained. "It is less that we are a hive mind, and more of individuals with a database that we can access at nearly anytime and anywhere."

"Interesting. I suggest we move." Zero said in a bored voice.

"Let's go, then." Chak'turr said, and took off across the landscape.

The bridge of the Ragnarok was quiet. It was not often that heads of any state, especially the Chairman of the UEG, visited any military ship. But the Ragnarok was not just any military ship. It was humanity's first Dreadnought, bristling with weapons and equipped with advanced shielding technology and armor.

Captain Gregory Montrose stood with Kevin Locke, the chairman of the UEG, on the bridge of the Ragnarok. They were holding a position about one hundred thousand kilometers away from the ice planet where the task force was located.

"Sir," the sensors officer began. "We've just picked up Phoenix Team on the ground. They've got a sixth life form with them and are proceeding towards the rest of the ground forces."

"Thank you, Ensign." Montrose said. "Communications, are we still in contact with Kingfisher team and their support?"


"Good. I want regular updates on their whereabouts. It's imperative that they complete their objectives." The bridge doors hissed open.

Locke turned to Montrose. "I hope you are prepared to do everything that I've asked you." He pulled out a cigar and lit up as Doctor Catherine Halsey walked in.

Montrose stared back. "That is why I was chosen for this mission. Kill orders are only issued for serious crimes, and I know that anyone on the list deserves it."

"Good." Locke turned to Halsey. "Is it ready, Doctor?"

Halsey nodded. "It is, although I don't see why we're doing this."

"You know why, Halsey. Your experiment failed. I'm just overseeing the cleanup."

"Commander." Wings said, acknowledging Jared-091 as he approached and saluting. 091 turned to face the younger Spartan.

"Master Chief, I've had news from Hi-Com." He held out a small box to Wings, who took it and opened it, revealing an officer's rank insignia. Three silver bars and a single silver star.

"Congratulations on your commission, Lieutenant." Jared said offhandedly. "Two of your Deltas will be promoted to MCPO in order to help you handle administrative duties."

Wings took the Lieutenant's insignia of the box. He held it in his palm and ran a thumb over it. Why a promotion? And why now?

"Commander, I heard something about a kill order. Might I ask who it's on?"

In answer, Jared turned and walked up a nearby pathway to the top of a small ridge. Wings followed.

"Who else?" He said, pointing out over the wilderness.

Off in the distance, Lieutenant D339 saw the obvious silhouette of a Covenant Graviton Cannon. Looked like this was the right planet.

And he knew who'd be inside the massive structure.

The Judicator paced back and forth, swinging his hammer back and forth. The UNSC were coming, he knew it. Wherever the Covenant built a Graviton Cannon, there were always Spartans or Drop Shock Troopers or these new "Rangers."

The massive brute spun and swung his hammer out to its full extent. He froze, hammer not swinging any farther than his mind commanded. It was a perfect extension of his body. He was beyond the laws of nature, a force unto himself.

He froze, hammer still extended as he watched a group of Unggoy leave the base. As he watched there were muffled gunshots, and the minute aliens' heads erupted in to blue gore.

The Judicator smiled and made sure the windows were tinted. The Spartans were here. It was time to teach them that he got what he wanted.

Chapter 19: Burial

2142 Hours, February 2nd, 2577 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Cody-D1274 slipped a new magazine in to his MA7B and wrapped his left hand around the handle of the attached G58 grenade launcher.

"Three, let's hit it." He said.

Ryan-D1120 and Cody wheeled around the corner and let loose with their grenade launchers. Six HE shells whizzed across the yard and smashed in to several Covenant formations. A few dozen meters away, two members of Flechette team did the same.

"In to the breach!" Cody called out, and Alexis, Sophia, and Ava dodged in to the courtyard and took up firing positions. Ryan and Cody followed hot on their heels.

William-D821 trained his sights on a Brute and squeezed the trigger. He tracked the fire up the beast's torso and in to his face. Four 7.62mm shells tore through its head and blew it in to nice, meaty chunks.

He spun and fired several, shorter bursts in to a group of Unggoy. They fell, squealing.

"Incoming fire left!" He heard Cody several meters away yell out.

"Give Basilisk some support!" William ordered as he turned to lay down some suppressing fire on a Shade turret. The Covenant were persistent, but even though the UNSC's technology had begun to surpass theirs, they made almost no attempts to keep up.

"Behind us!" Sanguine-D17 roared. Will was spinning before Sanguine finished the sentence, but it was already too late.

Something smashed in to his head, knocking him out in a single blow.

Cody saw William go down as the large Brute hammered in to Flechette.

"Basilisk, take that monster out!" He barked.

Fire from nine different Spartans raked at the Judicator, but his shields simply shrugged off the hundreds of incoming rounds. Turning, the Brute fired a weapon in to Leon-D631 at point-blank range. The Spartan moved, but not quite fast enough. The beam blew through his shields and boiled away his armor. Leon's leg went limp, but the Spartan didn't even cry out as he turned over on the ground and emptied his MA8A magazine at the Brute. Fitz-D1029 leaped on to the Judicator's back, but the larger being whipped his arm back and grabbed the Spartan. A yowl of surprise escaped Fitz's lips as he was crushed against the large Brute's breastplate. He felt his entire rib cage give way in one go, and was dismayed to hear that his fellow Deltas had stopped firing in case they hit him.

Shoot the fucker! He tried to scream, but he found he couldn't get enough breath to speak.

Gunfire began from behind the Judicator, including a louder than usual thump. The Judicator was pushed forward a few feet. The Brute grunted in surprise and dropped Fitz and scrambled off.

"You just never stand and fight, you son of a bitch!" Fitz distantly heard the voice of X-D2552 roar. The demolitions Spartan was manning a portable heavy grenade launcher that fired 40mm shells at a rate of 400 rounds per minute.

Fitz let his neck go limp as Itzia ran up and tore his breastplate off, then began calling out injuries to Wings-D339.

Then he lost consciousness.

The view that Fitz awoke to was not much different than when he had been knocked unconscious. Itzia was leaning over his torso, frowning slightly. However, instead of the sky above he saw the inside of a UNSC medic tent.

"You're awake, good." Phoenix's medic said. "Don't try to move. I gave you a paralytic that prevents you from moving anything below the neck. That Brute crushed every one of your ribs and part of your spine in to a fine powder. I've been up all night replacing them." There was a pause. "I don't know if you could move even if you weren't under the influence of drugs."

Fitz let his head go limp. Being a quadriplegic was not what a Spartan would want. He'd eat his gun first.

Unfortunately, that might be harder now.

"What happened?"

"William is still out, and likely will be for a long time. Skull was crushed and he had massive intracranial bleeding. The only reason I'm with you is because Halsey and a team of the UNSC's best are with him, and your condition wasn't quite as bad." Another pause. "They don't know if he'll make it."

A lump formed in Fitz's throat. If William died... but there were others on the team he could still worry about.

"What about everyone else?"

"Sanguine and Julian are fine, but Leon was capture while covering our retreat. The Judicator came back with his shields charged and dragged him off." Itzia said.

"Are we trying to get him back?" Fitz cursed his inability to move.

Itzia's eyes flashed. "What kind of leader would Wings be if he wasn't doing his best to get Leon back right now?"

Leon grunted as a meaty fist connected with his stomach. It hurt, but he didn't want to give the Brutes too much satisfaction.

"Quit playing around, you sons of bitches." He grunted. "I heard what you did to Hawk. Why don't you get to the point and start sawing my skin off?"

"We like playing with our food." One of the Brutes grunted, and they all chuckled. Leon laughed with them.

"Food, eh?" He said, spitting out a wad of blood. That blow had knocked something loose. "I'm getting on in years. Might be a bit stringy."

"We will stew you, then." Another one said.

"I thought you liked your meat raw."

"Only when there's no time. And we have plenty of time."

Leon looked up to find himself staring in to a Brute's face.

"Do you really think my brothers and sisters will leave me here?"

There was a pause.

"He's right, Major." A minor Brute said. "I think we should kill him."

The Major nodded. "Get me a knife." He growled, leaning in close to Leon. Too close.

Leon snapped his head forward, forehead cracking in to the Brute's nose. The Brute hissed and pulled his head back, a small rivulet of blood trailing down his face.

"I'll fillet you alive, scum!" He roared, but got no further.

The doors on the opposite side of the room burst open, and gunfire spilled in. The Brutes had removed their armor, and thus didn't have any shields to protect them from the hail of deadly accurate gunfire.

A Leon's eyes pierced the smoke, he saw several men in strange suits with what looked like gas masks.

"SPARTAN-D1029?" One of the men said. He had a First Sergeant's insignia on his shoulder.

"That's me." Leon answered.

"Sergeant Morley." The Ranger said. "I think your boss is looking for you."

"Thanks for the save." Leon said as two Rangers cut him down.

"No problem. I owe one of your buddies a couple favors. Let's get you out of here. Finn!"

One of the Rangers walked over.

"You remember where we found that MJOLNIR suit?" Calvin asked the Corporal. "I believe we just found the owner."

"Of course."

"Take him to it, then. We'll finish our recon of the area and meet you once we're out. This Spartan looks like he could do with some fixing up."

"On it. Follow me." Finn faded almost completely from sight. To most Covenant he would be completely invisible, but it wouldn't take the Spartan long to locate him if things got hairy.

Leon fished around and came up with a brute plasma rifle and a Spiker. He took the former, not wanting to burden himself with ammo. The Brutes hadn't even left him with a belt. He was lucky they hadn't taken his jumpsuit.

The duo met no problems on their way to the armory where the Brutes had stashed Leon's armor. In another stroke of luck, there was only minor damage done to it. A quick diagnostic showed that there were no bugs or any other electronic infiltration systems on the suit.

"Let's get out of here, full stealth." Leon said. "We don't want to attract attention."

"Copy that." Finn said, and then both went silent, using their mics only when they had to. Finn followed Leon out of the base and towards the UNSC camp.

Leon thought he'd rather have stayed in the Covenant base when he found out what happened.

Itzia finished splinting Leon's leg as another plasma mortar struck a few dozen meters away. She heard a Marine cry "Shoot that bitch!" and then the thwump thwump thwump of an G456 portable grenade launcher. There was a cheer from outside, and she knew that the SAP/HE shells had done their work on the Wraith.

"You'll live, but you're in no condition to fight right now. I've called for transport out for you and the other wounded." She said to Leon, turning to check on William.

"How's William?" Leon said, testing the splint. He'd had a fun time ignoring the pain on the trip to the camp. The numbing cold of the planet helped.

"Alive. The cold is keeping his heart-rate and temperature down. That's probably the only thing that saved his life; His system is running rampant from the blow. Fitz is awake in the other room if you want to talk to him."

"I'd rather stay in here. Fitz will live."

"He will."

There was an awkward pause.

"You know, if you were Wings, you'd be trying to wheedle your way back in to your armor."

Leon felt a stab of pain. He should be. "You're right, I'm not fit to fight."

"You ever think about raising a family?"

Another stab, this time one of surprise. There was silence for a minute.


"Then would you consider taking a day of leave and going on a date?"

This was intriguing. Spartans didn't just ask each other out for no reason.

"I'd be happy to. But... why?"

Itzia paused in the mixing of her medicines. "I don't know." There was another pause, and then they both heard the obvious sound of a Pelican settling down. "Your ride is here. See you back at new Quebec."

Leon nodded and walked out of the room. He passed by Fitz on his way out. Leon's teammate was being helped in to a wheelchair by an orderly. Leon dismissed the orderly and helped Fitz sit down.


"No problem. Didn't want to see you treated like a regular."

"Meh, they don't understand how physically different we are from regular humans, Leon." Fitz said as he spun the wheelchair around. He'd need help getting it across the icy concrete to the Pelican. "My guess is that it's the suit."

"Aye, I'd have to agree. We'd better get out, before the Doc comes out and beats our asses."

"I don't think I'd mind that."

Leon was brought up short. Fitz tended not to joke unless he had a point to make. "I assume you heard what happened in there?"

Fitz snorted. "It's my bones that were pounded in to a fine powder. My ears are fine, brother."

"What do you think?"

"I figure: Why not? You heard what happened to Hawk Team. It's not like we're exactly expected to retire. As a secondary reason, it can't hurt to be friendlier with a Phoenix than most, huh?"

They reached the Pelican, and subsequently earshot of Marine and Navy regulars. Both Spartans joined the other wounded in the Pelican tray. One of the seats was folded up so that Fitz's wheelchair could nestle right in and lock in to place. Leon took the seat next to him. Both waited for a full half hour until they spoke again, when they were shown in to their assigned rooms. It was more of a barracks, made for a full Spartan team, but they were the only Spartans being shipped out for the week.

"Well, I'm going to sleep." Fitz said as he pulled himself in to his bunk. "Wake me when the ride's over."

"Jackass, I need sleep, too."

"Set the alarm, then. Night, Leon."

"Good night, Fitz."

Night fell, and temperature reached sub-zero. Only the Spartans, Rangers, and ODSTs were active now, their powered suits fending off the cold. The Marines and Navy ratings worked hard to keep the camp running and heated at the same time. Ammo, food, and other supplies had to be delivered.

Sanguine and Julian fought alongside Phoenix and Flechette teams harder than they ever had before. Three of their brothers were down, and the proverbial gloves had come off.

"How's Kingfisher doing?" Wings said, sliding in to cover next to Peec-D1074.

"They've reached the base." Peec responded, struggling to keep in contact with the infiltrators. A blizzard had decided to sweep up again, so the fight had turned in to a lethal game of cat-and-mouse. Humans and a few Elites scoured through the rocks alone or in small fireteams, armed with close-quarters weapons and active camouflage. The Covenant Loyalists moved in larger packs, there not being as many camouflage generators among them as there were amongst the combined IU forces. While the humans and Elites were more nimble in the environment, the Covenant could flood an entire passageway, leaving no room for escape. Once they discovered a band of humans or vice versa, a firefight would breakout and last but a few seconds. The Spartans and Elites were proving to be invaluable, as they were able to more easily navigate the terrain by climbing small cliff faces and rocks, then pouncing on the Covenant from above.

"Shit, I lost contact." Peec said a few seconds later as Wings reloaded his shotgun. "They're on their own."

"Great." Wings said. "We didn't need you chatting, anyway." He pulled a spare C58 pump-action off his back and thrust it in to Peec's hands.

"Time to go hunting."

Both Spartans' shields drained as they faded from sight.

Sergeant Calvin Morley and Corporal Justin Finn lugged the Type-47 LMG up the small hill. Calvin unfolded the bipod and set up the machine gun while Finn pulled out the first box of ammunition and clicked it in to place.

"Weapon's ready." The Corporal stated.

"Charged and ready. Mapping the terrain."

The Type-47 was an excellent defensive weapon. The variation that Calvin and Finn were using had an enhanced computer imaging system that mapped the terrain in a two kilometer radius. After it mapped static objects it began to show moving objects. This was then displayed on Calvin and Finn's HUDs, allowing them an impressive view of the battlefield. Even in the blizzard the Covenant showed up like Christmas lights. For redundancy the computer also matched thermal images and silhouettes, but the latter didn't always work. Hence it was always good to have redundancy.

"Five targets to the west moving south-southwest. Range: 400 meters."


Calvin squeezed the firing nubs, sending ten rounds flying over the terrain. The standard rounds that the Type-47 fired were ten millimeter armor piercing slugs with an explosive-incendiary core. If a round hit a target, it was going down.

The rounds tore through the three grunts and one Jackal like a hot knife through butter. Four rounds impacted with the Brute and dropped him. The first two knocked out his shields, while the second pair blew massive holes in his torso. He dropped like a sack of meat.

The IU's day had just gotten a little bit easier.

Chapter 20: 21 Gun Salute

0530 Hours, October 2nd, 2577 (UNSC Military Calendar)

It was war.

For years the debates had gone on. Was the Interspecies Union ready to make a dedicated effort to take the offensive? Was it worth it?

ODST team

An ODST team engages the Covenant in open war.

Granted, this final declaration of war only came after the Covenant Loyalists nearly glassed the Evaniptii's world, threatening to accomplish a goal they had set out more than a millennium ago. Fortunately the Ragnarok and a small fleet appeared and hit the Covenant fleet hard. The debris from the battle was slowly creating a ring around the small ice planet.

However, there was one carrier left, hovering over the Evaniptii's largest city. IU and Covenant forces fought a bitter battle in what they knew could be the last battle for a long time.

Chak'turr lowered his plasma cannon and ejected the spent power core. He smacked a new one in to place and powered the weapon up. It was a miniaturized version of the older and larger plasma cannon that he'd been taught to use. For most species it was too large to use with a stand or strength enhancements, but any Evaniptii could use the heavy weapon like a regular rifle.

"Frag out!" The large alien heard a human call out, and one of the small explosives sailed over his head and smacked a Grunt in the face. The Grunt managed a single squeak before he was torn to ribbons.

Chak'turr raised the cannon and took careful aim at a particularly nasty Brute. He squeezed the trigger, sending a cascade of plasma towards the foe. The Brute was frozen for a split second before his shielding failed and several plasma bolts left his torso a sizzling stump. He keeled over, dead.

The Evaniptii let out a low growl as a spike glanced off his shielding. He burned down the offending Brute, and then went in search of more targets.

Adra 'Vadam spun an parried an energy staff, then lashed out with his sword and ran the Brute through. He turned and sprinted a short distance to the barricade that his teammates had erected to stem the constant flow of Covenant troops.

He dodged around a plasma barrier as several bolts flew from the far end of the road and overloaded his shields. He took a breather behind the barrier as he let the shields recharge.

There was an explosion form the other side of the barricade, and Autel came tumbling over the barrier. He landed in a crouched stance, then slowly straightened and looked out at the advancing Covenant.

"They're massing for an attack. Prepare yourselves, my brothers!"

Adra noticed a camouflaged Elite was leaning against the wall. While he couldn't make out who it was or what rank he was, he could tell that the Elite was smaller than the average warrior. Odd that he was using camouflage, however. Likely special forces or a mere observer.

"Here they come!" Tawri 'Antinr called out.

"Don't let them reach the barricade!" Autel snapped as the other two dozen Sangheili raced to defend their position. "If they take it, then we are lost!"

"Sangheili outpost Alpha, this is Sierra Delta Three Three Nine. Come in."

Autel pressed his finger to his earpiece. "This is Commander Autel 'Vadam. What is it, Spartan?"

"We have your position and are on the way with reinforcements. Hold out for ten minutes. Out."

Autel pulled his plasma repeated off his back and took up the position next to Adra.

"Save your grenades for the Brutes, young one." He said as Adra went to toss a plasma grenade at an oncoming wave of Grunts. "We'll need the extra punch then."

Adra nodded and raised his plasma rifle.

A grenade whizzed over his head. Adra cut loose with a long burst of plasma that nearly caused his rifle to overheat and enter a cooldown cycle. The grenade exploded behind him, warming the frigid cave for a split second.

Then another grenade exploded several feet behind him. Adra's shields collapsed, and he was thrown forwards in to the plasma shield. He bounced off of it, the magnetic envelope pushing him back. He ended up on his back, stunned.

"They've breached the barricade!" He distantly heard Autel roar. "Fall back!"

Adra shook his head, attempting to focus.

"Get up, warrior!"

Adra was aggressively hauled upright by a hand as his focus returned. He found himself fighting back to back with Autel in the middle of a fight. Sangheili and Covenant forces were fighting tooth and claw in the area that the Elites had been defending. The Covenant outnumbered the Sangheili by dozens to one, but the Sangheili were all highly trained warriors, and held their own. Still, many were beginning to fall from the sheer onslaught.

Adra turned to parry a thrust from a Kig-Yar energy saber, and then heard a voice cry "Watch it!" ... In a particularly female voice.

A blur flew by Adra, and a short Sangheili warrior went at a group of four Brutes with two energy swords. One had been about to cave Adra's head in with a gravity hammer.

The sudden shock of the mystery Sangheili's appearance caused the Covenant around Adra and Autel to give a short pause. Adra watched the short Sangheili rise and turn towards him, and the young warrior's jaws dropped open in shock.

"V... Vena?" He said incredulously. "How?"

His sister smiled. She wore strange armor that didn't change her shape much, but was obviously superior to Adra's.

"A friend taught me how to fight." She said. "Time to put those skills to the test."

Adra nodded, dumbfounded. "You'll have to explain after the fight!"

Vena returned the nod, and she, Adra, and Autel all turned to face the Covenant, who had now regrouped.

The three charged in to the fray, Vena going solo with her energy swords, and Autel and Adra fighting back to back.

Adra was caught up in the moment, and paused to watch his sister skillfully execute two more Brutes. As one lunged she hopped up and landed on his back, then lopped his head off without looking. In the same movement she spun and kicked the other on in the muzzle, sending him down on to his back. Continuing the spin, she flipped on top of the downed Brute and finished him off with a slash to the throat.


Adra froze. His lungs wouldn't work, and he felt the energy begin to drain from his body. He heard someone, Autel, screaming his name, but it didn't matter.

The young Sangheili's arms fell to his side, his energy sword held limply in his hand. He looked down at the energy staff that had slammed through his torso and straight through his body.

He coughed, and purple blood spewed down his front. Adra was tugged forward, and he looked up in to the face of the Judicator.

Fury welled in Adra's heart. He still had his sword, and one of his hearts was still beating. No fucking Brute was going to kill him without Adra taking a piece of him along.

Adra's arm shot up with an impossible surge of energy. His energy sword dug straight through the Judicator's armor and the flesh underneath. The Brute roared, spraying Adra with spittle, but the warrior doggedly through his weight against his weapon.

The Judicator's arm came off above the elbow. It smacked the ground with a sickening wet sound.

Adra didn't see the other arm come swinging around. His forearm shattered; His energy sword fell to the ground and deactivated.

The Judicator wrapped his one arm around Adra and pulled him up to stare at the Sangheili at eye level. They stared at each other.

Autel fought as he had never fought before to get to his son. He cursed the Judicator, he cursed the Covenant, he cursed the Prophets, his culture, his race, and everything else that had led to this moment. He had fought since before Adra was born for his child's safety. He had stormed fortresses and ships single-handedly, torn apart armies with only a sword and his armor, time and time again pulling his sons and daughter from the brink of death.

But the Judicator was too far away. As Adra was snatched away a flood of Covenant had stormed in to surround Autel, giving their lives to ensure the safety of one Brute.

None of them could stand before Autel's fury, but none of them would allow him to save Adra.

As the last of them fell, Autel was forced to watch his son, one of the few things in the universe he still fought for, die.

Adra was calm. His pain was gone, his energy was gone, and darkness was settling in. It was over. He had done his best. There was nothing more he could do. He smiled as warmth spread throughout his body.

His last thought was a wish to his sister, to his brother, and to his unknown father, to live.

Then the Judicator broke Adra's spine.

Vena turned and froze as she saw a one-armed Brute toss her brother's body aside, and heard a scream. It was a heart-wrenching, vengeful scream the likes of wish she had never heard and didn't want to hear again.

Then the magnitude of the event hit her, and her eyes flooded with crimson.

The Judicator smirked as he watched the body hit the ground, then he heard the scream. He looked up.

Brutes prided themselves on not fearing anything. But as the Judicator looked up and saw two Sangheili, one a pure white abomination and the other wearing armor he'd never seen before, both with red eyes that glowed in the reflected light from the planet and plasma flying all around them, the greatest of all Brutes, the most powerful chieftain to have ever lived, felt fear for the first time. His iron courage failed him, and he fled the field as fast as his feet could carry him.

Pain meant nothing.

Death meant nothing.

Safety meant nothing.

All there was for Autel was an enemy, an enemy that had to die no matter the cost. He let out another roar and dove in to a wave of Covenant troops throwing safety to the winds. He knew it was him against an entire army, but he did not care.

The Judicator had to die.

Not just die. He had to be destroyed. Obliterated. His very existence was a taint on the universe that had to be entirely and utterly annihilated.

Autel lashed out left, right and center. He became dimly aware of Vena fighting nearby, and together the two cut a swath through the Covenant army. No enemy could stand in their way. The ones that tried were cut down, the rest fled with the Judicator.

Autel screamed again as the Judicator made it to the gravity lift and boarded his ship. It immediately accelerated and left the planet behind.

In a blind rage he tore off after the Covenant troops too unlucky not to have made it to safety in time.

Zero skipped up on to a rock to take a look at the situation at the barricade, and her heart sank. Sangheili corpses were strewn everywhere, but were vastly outnumbered by the number of Covenant around them. She saw that Autel's special operations team was still standing, but they were sitting and standing silently by a heating unit.

"Wings, get over here." She said over the team speaker. The rest of the team was only a short ways behind, but it would likely be best to hurry now.

Wings and the other three members of Phoenix Team came racing over.

"Awww... shit." Peec said as he spotted the barricade. X threw his shotgun to the ground and uttered even more colorful curses.

"We were too late." Wings said softly. "Come on, there will be wounded."

As Phoenix approached, Tawri 'Antinr stood.

"Where's Autel?" Wings asked. 'Antinr jerked his head towards a heap of rocks.

"Stay here and help the wounded." Wings ordered, and jogged off towards the rocks. As he rounded them he was confronted with the sight of Vena 'Vadam standing several feet away from a single Sangheili body. Her helmet was off, and tears ran slowly down her face.

Autel was crouched over the body. His helmet was off as well, and he was softly singing a song of departure. It was a haunting, beautiful melody that stirred a rare sadness in Wings.

As Wings silently approached Adra's body, he saw that there was a peaceful smile across the young warrior's face.

He stopped at Vena's side. Together they stood guard over Adra's broken body and a mourning father.

1155 Hours, October 10th, 2577 (UNSC Military Calendar)

The hot suns of Sanghelios beat down on the assembled Sangheili and Spartans. Autel and Thel had invited Phoenix Team to be the first humans to witness a Sangheili funeral. As the grandson of the Kaidon, Adra's funeral was a special one.

Phoenix Team stood in the front rank of the Sangheili, who were all spread in to two blocks with an aisle running down the middle. Family members were at the front of the formations, and then the highest ranked in attendance and leading lower and lower as you went back. The two blocks were each ten beings deep and ten wide. Wings stood in the front of the northern block, right next to the isle. The only females in attendance were Vena 'Vadam, Cyla 'Cazal, and Afya 'Mantakr. All warriors present, including the Spartans, were holding their helmets under there right arms and were unarmed. The females were dressed in long flowing robes. Cyla, Vena, and Kysa stood near a decorated wooden boat on the shore. Afya stood to Zero's right, staring at the ceremonial boat that would carry Adra's body out to sea.

Wings glanced in her direction. It had been just over four years since her husband, Fira 'Demal, had been killed by the Judicator...

0241 Hours, August 6th, 2573 (UNSC Military Calendar)

The hangar was silent. The only beings still there were Autel, Peec, and Fira's body.

"Was it painless?" Autel said softly, already knowing the answer."

"... No." Peec said. "I'm afraid not."

"Did he say anything before he died?"

"He said that you will always be his ally and friend." Peec paused. "He called me 'friend,' too."

Autel closed his eyes. He looked exhausted. "So he forgave you. Did you forgive him?"

"I don't see how I could not have."

A sad smile spread across Autel's face. Peec shifted, feeling uncomfortable.

He felt a hand fall on his shoulder. He turned to see Wings standing there, his usual blank expression not disguising the looks his eyes gave. He nodded in thanks to Peec, who returned the gesture and left.

"Sangheili don't make friends easily. But they are everything to us."

Wings looked down at Fira's body. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be." Autel snapped back. "I know how you feel behind the mask you put on. You are saddened and angry, yes, but not sorry. I'm not sorry. Fira died the way that all true Sangheili want to die."

The two looked at each other. Before Autel could speak again, Wings responded. "Don't apologize for that. You are very right."

Autel stared at Wings. "I know you better than most, but why? Why are we so close?"

"Because we have similar goals, I assume." Wings said.

"I think you know." Autel said in a low voice. "And I know you won't explain until I figure it out."

The corners of Wings' mouth twitch upward in a smile. "You know me better than you think."

A silence settled on the hangar.

"His wife is pregnant." Autel said ten minutes later. "Five eggs. Largest litter that the Sangheili race has seen in centuries. Fira didn't know it."

"But we do." Wings responded. "And we'll do our best to make sure we're buried before they are."

Autel nodded. "That is my oath, as it is for my children. His children I consider mine, and I will protect them as such."

1200 Hours, October 10th, 2577 (UNSC Military Calendar)

The procession slowly worked their way down the aisle. Autel strode in front, dressed in full battle armor with a decorative cape flowing behind him. Four Sangheili bore Adra's body behind Autel, and behind them followed Thel 'Vadam. As he reached the back of the fifth rank he began singing a farewell dirge. It was similar to the one he'd sung immediately after Adra's death, but it was longer and even more haunting. Many of the younger Sangheili in attendance and even some of the older ones fidgeted uncomfortably. Cyla joined him as he reached the second row back. They were not the best singers, but their emotions created the proper effect. Vena and Kysa, standing on the opposite side of the boat from Cyla, bowed their heads in respect.

Autel reached the boat and joined Cyla at her side. Both stopped singing as Adra's body was slowly lowered in to the boat. His helmet was removed and replaced with a death mask that had carved on it his many achievements.

Thel 'Vadam took his place on the side of the aisle opposite Wings and watched the ceremony in silence. The only sound was the waves of the sea lapping against the shore and Adra's boat.

As the four bearers placed stones in the boat, Autel pulled out a bag of powder and spread it across the bottom of the boat. He and Cyla then grasped both ends of the boat and began pulling it out to sea. When they were waist deep in the water Autel gave the boat a push, and it glided out on to the waves. The weight of the rocks caused the boat to slowly sink. Autel and Cyla returned to the shore and turned to see the boat finally sink below the surface, never to be found again. Everyone present knew that the powders that Autel had spread over the body would react with the water and burn Adra's body and the boat in to nothingness.

As a spout of flame broke the surface of the water, Autel bowed his head, and Wings clearly heard him whisper: "Goodbye, my son."

The Huragok was working as fast as it could on the Brute's arm, creating a new mechanical one in place of the missing biological one.

"So the Elites not only cut your arm off, but they managed to collect your hammer as well." The Prophet of Intuition said. "That is a serious problem."

The Jiralhanae snarled. "As if it were my fault that brat I killed was tougher than he looked."

"But it is your fault. You took pleasure in the up-close kill instead of shooting him. You know the risks of them capturing anything about you."

The Judicator watched the Huragok place layer after layer of nano-materials over the stump of his old arm. He would need to get a new hammer to go with it.

"I wanted to see 'Vadam's face."

Intuition straightened to his full height which was, unfortunately, not that tall at all. Especially not compared to this giant of a Brute.

"Your wants and desires have no bearing on the facts, Judicator. You will do as you are instructed, not as you want."

The Judicator bowed his head as the Huragok finished its task. "Yes, Holy One."

0730 Hours, July 4th, 2578 (UNSC Military Calendar)

"MJOLNIR system online." Wings heard the familiar voice in his helmet say as his HUD flickered to life.

He strode forward and grabbed an MA7C off the equipment rack in the main armory room. The rest of his team was gearing up. A host of Covenant forces were inbound on the Evaniptii city, including Wraiths and a new type of Scarab. The IU had to hold them off whilst the Evaniptii finished repairs to a shield generator. It had been damaged in the last attack and had almost caused the reactor to go critical. The Evaniptii had been able to shut it down, but the shield and automated defenses were offline until they could safely restore power.

As Wings and the rest of his team finished collecting their weapons and making sure they were in working condition, Autel stepped in to the armory. "A word with you?"

Wings nodded and stepped outside. "What is it?"

"The Judicator." Autel growled. His eyes were already beginning to flicker with the light of battle. "We have to kill him this time. And you're going to help me."

"As if you needed to tell me." Wings said. "I'll have my team set up an ambush position that we'll lure him in to during the battle. He wants you and only you, so that makes you the bait. Draw him to us and we'll drop him."

"My team will be with you. We'll need all the firepower we can get."

Wings nodded and went to enter the tent before Autel's voice stopped him. "Spartan."

The Lieutenant turned back to Autel. "What?"

"When the time comes... the Judicator is mine."

"Very well."

It turned out that luring the Judicator in was even easier than they had predicted.

Killing him proved to be another thing entirely.

The Judicator roared as two MINE charges detonated right next to him, knocking the Brute off balance. However, he did not go down, and swiftly turned to smash Zero across the room with his hammer. She hit the far wall and slid to the bottom. A quick check of her vitals told Wings that she was still alive, just temporarily stunned.

Tawri 'Antinr leaped on the Brute's back and dug a short energy blade in to its neck. The Judicator twisted, grabbed 'Antinr, and flung him at Zero. She rolled aside and let 'Antinr hit the same part of the wall. She grabbed the dazed Elite's leg and threw him aside as a spike grenade from the Judicator flew across the room and smacked in to the wall. It went off, showering her and 'Antinr with sparks. She dragged the Elite under cover so their shields could recharge.

The rest of the IU Special Forces finally had clear shots and less loose with a hail of bullets and plasma bolts at the Judicator. His shields swallowed most of them, but then began to fail. He began to take occasional hits.

Suddenly the small underground cavern was flooded with Drones and Stalker Brutes. Everyone shifted scrambled to take down the new menace. Wings saw the Judicator run out of the far exit of the cave.

"He's making a run for it," Wings said to Autel

"I knew it," Autel's eyes flashed, and he ran off after the gigantic Brute, with D339 beside him.

"Wait," the Spartan said. "It's too dangerous. This fight isn't over yet, if you get yourself killed..."

"You are asking me to let go one who has killed those I care about, and is a danger to everyone. I cannot do that."

There was a pause. "Alright."

The two soldiers gave chase after the Judicator. Seeing the Chieftain running out the other entrance and towards a group of Banshees, Wings took his rocket launcher off his back, and aimed at the aircraft. He knew that the Jiralhanae would hear the shot and dodge the slow-moving missile in time. He let loose with both rockets at the Banshees, destroying them in groups. But the Judicator made it onto one of the intact vehicles as D339 scrambled to reload.

Autel bared his mandibles in frustration.

"Coward," the Sangheili growled. "Face me like a warrior."

"I will kill you when the time comes, Autel 'Vadam," the Judicator said, bringing the aircraft into a dive to avoid a grenade the albino threw at him. "But I must first carry out my task. We will meet again."

"The voices of those you have killed call out for your death," Autel shouted as the Banshee flew off.

"Autel," Wings pointed at the Scarab, which was still moving around and demolishing the buildings.

"Can your team catch up with us?" the Sangheili commander asked.

"It'll take too long. The Judicator will be long gone by then."

"Then we will do it ourselves." Taking two of the remaining Banshees, they flew quickly over the cluster of buildings, avoiding the plasma bolts fired from the Scarab's secondary turret. They landed on the walker, and fought their way through the enemy forces.

Wings killed them quickly and efficiently, his rifle spitting rounds at anything that moved. He gave a quick glance to Autel. His friend's eyes were a deep shade of crimson. The albino was killing as many Covenant as he was, but he was fuelled by anger. The Judicator would be in for a fight, but if Autel wasn't careful he could get himself killed.

The Spartan knew better than to try and talk him out of it. This fight was personal.

The Covenant forces on the main level were all dead, and, without a word, Autel dashed down the ramp to the control section. Spotting the Judicator instantly, the Sangheili Commander ignited his Energy Sword and charged, ignoring the plasma bolts that hit his armor. Wings raised his rifle again, taking down the other aliens on board the Scarab.

The albino sidestepped the swing the Judicator took at him, slashing his blade across the Brute's shoulder. Before the Chieftain could retaliate, Autel moved behind him, whipping out a Spike grenade and sticking it in one of the many cracks crisscrossing the Brute's damaged armor. It sank deep. Pulling his Energy Sword out of his enemy's shoulder, the Sangheili commander swung at his head with his left fist, knocking the Jiralhanae off his feet.

Certain that his friend could take care of himself, Wings moved to the control panel, and began setting a MINE charge that would completely obliterate the walker. The Covenant forces outside were almost completely eliminated. Once this vehicle was destroyed, the battle would be over.

The Judicator stumbled, trying to regain his footing. Autel planted his hoof on the back of the Chieftain's knee, pushing him back down again. Swiftly, the Jiralhanae moved, wrapping his right arm around the Sangheili Commander's throat. The albino struggled, trying to free himself from the cold metal fingers. Grasping the Spike grenade that was still embedded in the Brute's back, he activated the explosive. The latter roared in surprise, releasing the Elite and trying to remove the grenade from his flesh.

A trio of Jackals rushed into the Control center, Carbines raised. Without turning around, Wings took his pistol out of its holster and shot all three of them in the head while still setting up the MINE with his other hand.

An explosion and a howl of pain made him look up. Smoke was wafting from the Judicator's armor, and blood was dripping from a hole in his back. Autel was holding his Energy Sword, prepared to deal the killing blow.

There was a beeping sound from the MINE. It was set. As soon as the Chieftain was dead, they could get out of here.

A team of Grunts came down the ramp. Wings raised his rifle to deal with them, when he suddenly realized that he didn't seem to have the strength to raise his gun. His vision swam, and when he tried to breathe, he realized that he couldn't.

Oh, hell no, he thought. Not this. Not now.

"Autel," he gasped, barely noticing the plasma bolts and needles that showered his armor. The Lieutenant collapsed, his grip on his rifle weakening. His friend looked up for a split second, and in that moment of hesitation, the Judicator recovered, knocking the albino down, and running off the Scarab as fast as his injured body would allow.

Wings' vision began to fade. He dimly saw Autel rise and slaughter the Grunts, and then run over to his side just before everything went black.

Autel didn't know what to do. The MINE was set to destroy the Scarab, and his squad should almost be at their position by now. But they wouldn't make it in time to get the Judicator.

If he left now, he could still catch up to him, and finish the Chieftain. But that would mean he had to leave Wings to die...

Did it matter? The Spartan said he was willing to give his life for what was right. And it was very right to end the life of the Brute who had done so much hurt during the war, caused so much pain to the humans, the Sangheili.

To him.

Suddenly, a memory came to him. Something said by someone who had meant very much to him, a long time ago...

Wings' still form disappeared, to be replaced by that of the Seer of Sanghelios. His mother. She had been killed by another Brute, Othreus. She lay in the hallway of a Covenant ship, speaking her last words.

"Autel...There are great things ahead for you. Do not let your anger get the best of you. Maintain your judgment. Fight only for honor. That is what it means to be Sangheili..."

Autel shook his head, trying to clear the rage from his vision and his thoughts. The Judicator...he had to kill the Judicator... Fira and Adra's deaths would be avenged.

But did he really want revenge? He had convinced himself before that it would bring no happiness. And as Autel fought with himself, trying to make a decision, another memory appeared in his mind.

He was sitting in a quiet room with Wings. The Spartan had just made a recovery from a horrible injury after saving a group of ODSTs. D339 had been very young then; an adolescent, still a child. But he already had great burdens placed upon him. And there was something else Autel had seen...

"After I witnessed a mass slaughter of Sangheili recruits by Jiralhanae aboard Stoic Courier, I told myself I would help any warrior I deemed worth the effort." Autel heard himself say. Wings had a curious expression on his face. Not fear or doubt. It was determination. And trust. Trust in him.

Autel opened his eyes. Wings trusted him. Believed in him. He would not have left Autel to die had it been the other way around.

Feeling the anger drain from his body Autel made his decision without hesitation. Picking Wings up, he ran out of the Scarab with the Spartan on his back. He found a damaged Warthog lying flipped face down on the ground nearby. Placing the LRV back on his wheels, he quickly checked to make sure it still worked, pulled the dead Marine's body out of the vehicle, and placed Wings in the passenger seat. He drove back to the fighting force that the rest of Phoenix Team had been helping, ignoring the fighting that went on around them.

Itzia spotted them, and split off from the group. She told Autel where the makeshift medic station was, and did not have to ask him what happened as she quickly helped him pull her leader out of the Warthog. They took Wings into the building and laid him on the nearest cot. Itzia hurried to find the appropriate medical supplies.

Autel sat on a bed next to the unconscious Spartan. It was easier to rally his thoughts in the quiet of the medical facility, and thinking back to what he had almost done, he felt greatly ashamed. The albino did not try to forget what had happened, but held onto it as a reminder of what he could become, and how he had to never allow his personal feelings to affect his decisions again.

"Autel, you look a little worse for wear yourself," Itzia said, bringing the Sangheili back to reality. Looking down, he noticed that his armor was stained with his own blood, and he suddenly registered the pain that he had put aside. He allowed a medic to treat his injuries, but stared at Wings' face. The Spartan looked calm, but wasn't breathing.

"He'll be all right," Itzia said, as she removed her leader's chest armor and began to give him injections. Although she worked calmly, Autel could tell that she was worried. But if she said that she could revive Wings, he believed her. The albino closed his eyes and sighed in relief.

You, my friend, are worth the effort.

Wings woke up, feeling slightly lightheaded. He realized that he was lying in a ship barracks, and that he wasn't wearing his armor. But he took a few breaths. His lungs were working again.

Turning his head, the Spartan saw Autel facing away from him. He was looking at something, but Wings' line of sight was blocked from whatever it was.

His friend turned around. "Itzia said that your lungs stopped working. She managed to get them working again, and we brought you back on board the Aurora Borealis."

"Did you kill the Judicator?" Wings asked, although he could see the answer in the albino's eyes.

"No." There was a moment of awkward silence. Then the Lieutenant realized that there were tears in Autel's eyes.

"I am sorry, Spartan. When you collapsed, I had considered leaving you so I could hunt down the Judicator. Finish him at last."

"But you decided to save me."

"I had made a vow to help you. I would have broken that vow for my own revenge."

"It doesn't matter-"

"No, it does matter!" Autel said, his expression filled with agony. "I have nearly disregarded my word, and if I had then I would have no honor. And you would have been dead."

“Which vow? Your vow to kill the Judicator or your vow to protect me?” Wings snapped back. “Don’t be a fool. Either vow you decided to follow would have broken the other.”

The look did not leave Autel’s face. “Then what would you have preferred me to do?”

Wings shrugged. “I think we both know the answer to that. Where’s the rest of my team?”

"They are attending to their duties," the Sangheili commander said quietly. "I will tell them that you are awake."

A few minutes later, Phoenix Team entered, but Autel wasn’t with them.

"I would say it's time."

"I disagree. We need to test it more."

"We have tested our new weapon enough. It's time to put it in to action."

"You are forgetting that we have more than one weapon we have been testing, and one of them is starting to get out of control."

"... Very well."

Chapter 21: Fracture

0125 Hours, December 5th, 2578 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Wings sat on the table, with his helmet, breastplate and right arm armor sitting next to him.

"What happened now?"

"Your pancreas failed. Congratulations, you became diabetic in about two seconds flat."

There was a short pause as Itzia stabbed a needle in to Wings' side. Then he spoke again:

"It's getting worse."

Itzia nodded in agreement. Wings' attacks had become more and more frequent over the past year, and this was his second one today.

"We need to find a cure, or a delaying tactic, soon." Itzia said as she pulled the needle out.

"Wouldn't want to spend the rest of my life in bed with a dozen IVs stuck in me."

"Indeed not." Itzia responded.

"Am I good to go?"

"For now."

Wings slapped his breastplate back on, made sure it was secure, and then pulled his pauldron on. After that went the besagew, then the vambrace containing the fold-out knife, and finally the gauntlet. The Lieutenant stood and made sure the plates were secure before he put his helmet on and sealed the suit.

"Are the Covenant still hiding behind their wall, sir?" He asked Lieutenant Colonel Jacob Forge as he and Itzia left the tent. Forge was busy loading an MA7 magazine.

"They are." Forge said as he set the finished magazine in a box of ammunition and rose, dusting himself off. "And now they have one of those new Scarabs, along with some extra armor and artillery.

"Let me take a look." Wings said. He activated his camouflage generator and bounded to the top of the mountain that the UNSC forces were camped on. He spotted one of the Type-50 Ultra Heavy Assault Platforms lumbering near the perimeter. The Type-50 Scarab was an upgrade from the Type-47 that added more armor and automated weapons, as well as having a main cannon that cooled down must faster. Unfortunately, he couldn't see much else. He needed to be higher.

He continued the climb up to a watchtower at the summit of the small mountain. The UNSC forces had chosen the spot on the mountain as a cliff on one side ensured that they wouldn't be flanked. There were two passes leading up the mountain that the Covenant would have to take if they wanted to assault the main UNSC encampment, but those were being held by rotating teams of Spartans. X and Peec were with four other teams at one pass, and Zero was with three others at the other pass. Itzia was probably on her way to Zero's position with Flechette Team. The Covenant only made the occasional probe; Apparently they simply wanted to bide their time and consolidate their forces.

Wings made it to the top of the tower. It was mostly deserted, with only a few observers keeping an eye on the Covenant camp positioned several dozen klicks away.

The Lieutenant moved to the edge of the tower and activated the zoom on his helmet. He eavesdropped on the communications operator telling the other sentries that a couple dozen dropships were on their way with reinforcements and hardware, and that more Deltas were inbound. Wings was sure that nine teams of Delta Company Spartans was enough, but he wouldn't complain about the extra firepower.

He heard footsteps behind him. Five heavily laden people. Sounded like MJOLNIR boots. Spartans. But why were they-

Wings' thoughts were cut off by the sound of suppressed gunfire. He spun around to see the last sentry drop from a smoking bullet-hole in his chest. Kingfisher team had entered the tower and shot five men dead.

Wings couldn't think of a reason, and it began to ignite a spark of fury in him.

"The hell is this?"

"Orders." Fi-D3332 said in his usual short, snappish manner.

"What orders would say to kill five lightly armed men who are watching the enemy?"

"Those aren't the orders." Fi and the rest of Kingfisher Team raised their weapons towards Wings. "These are."

Wings hand snatched a grenade from his belt as Kingfisher opened fire. Bullets rapidly tore his shields away as Wings armed and threw the grenade.

Fi easily dodged the projectile, but it still landed and knocked the rogue Spartans off balance for a split-second. Wings was already tearing across the room. He whipped his pistol out of its holster and put three holes in the thin plexiglass. He curled in to a ball and smashed through it as Kingfisher recovered and opened fire again. Bullets bounced off Wings' armor plating. One punched in next to his pauldron and stuck deep in his shoulder.

Wings fell down the cliff. Not a long fall, but he was barely able to recover at the bottom and dash off as more bullets hit the earth around him.

He made a dash in to the nearest group of trees and activated his camouflage. As he rounded a particularly thick tree he grabbed a branch and swung himself up on to it. With any luck, Fi and his teammates would dash right by. Wings held his breath as he heard footsteps, and silently berated himself. Kingfisher were all expert trackers; They had proven thus time and again in training. There was no way they could miss the footsteps.

And yet, they did. Or appeared to. Wings watched them carefully as they sprinted at full tilt through the forest and out of sight.

Something cannoned in to his back, and Wings went tumbling out of the tree. As he hit the ground and rolled over, a heavy person landed on him and shoved a pistol in his face.

"Are you with me?" SPARTAN-D576 said.

"Zero!" Wings gasped. "It's me!"

Zero pushed herself off Wings and helped him up, but her eyes never strayed from him and she didn't holster her pistol. Wings noticed that she had a couple bullet holes in her armor.

"Wolverine, Badger, and Argonaut turned on me!" Zero seethed. "I was sitting in my usual spot when one of the Wolverines tried to sneak up and put a bullet in my head! He would have succeeded, too, if I hadn't dropped a mag I was loading!"

Something skipped through Wings' mind. He made a mental note to explore it further later, but now they had worse problems.

"It seems like someone is cleaning house. We need to-"

He froze. Zero and Wings exchanged a glance, then tore off in to the forest.

X and Peec dodged behind their trees. Bullets shredded the undergrowth, and the two Spartans paused to let their shields recharge. X put a hand over his stomach. He'd taken a round, and was losing blood fast. He looked over at Peec, who was struggling with a computer.

"How long is this going to take?" He roared and threw an EMP.

"I'm trying!" Peec yelled back. "They've got an AI with them that's keeping me from messing with their suits!"

Deep Ocean's hologram appeared on Peec's computer. She looked livid.

"Need any help?"

"Hell. Fucking. Yes." X emphasized each word with a burst from his MA7A.

"I will help on one condition: Don't kill any Deltas. One and Two are trying to reach Four, but we have a rendezvous."

"I don't plan on killing any of my family." Peec said softly. "But I may have to if you don't do it now, so do it."

Ocean paused. "It's done. Their systems are scrambling, and it will take a while for them to reset them. Go, now. I've marked your destination on your HUDs." The AI's hologram flickered off as Peec stuffed the AS2559 laptop in to his pack. He and X tore off in to the forest, leaving Spartans who they thought had been their brothers and sisters behind.

"Sir, we confirm that four members of Phoenix Team have successfully escaped. We can't find them."

Chairman Locke gritted his teeth together. "I want them found and killed. What about the fifth?"

"They have her, sir, but she's not dead yet. I think... I think some members of Flechette may be fighting it."

Locke bent over the diagnostics screen. Sure enough, Phoenix Four was still alive, but being held at gunpoint.

"Her teammates will try and rescue her. Recall all teams to her positions and launch the rest of the kill teams."

"Aye aye."

"And double the dose on Flechette while you're at it. Phoenix Team cannot get off the planet alive."

Itzia held the detonator at head level. If she pressed it, she and Flechette Team would go up in a hail of shrapnel. Flechette team had their weapons all trained on her.

"Drop the detonator or we shoot."

She shook her head. "Not going to fly, William. I know that you'll shoot me as soon as I drop it."

"We have to kill you sometime. Better to not kill us in the process."

"Not until I know why!" Her voice rose almost uncontrollably, but it was demanding. William and most of the Flechettes were fine, but Leon seemed too tense, like he was willing away an intense pain.

"We have a kill order from the Council Chairman." William said. "Under Order Six-Two-Three dash Alpha-November-Black we are to eliminate you and your team immediately."

Itzia shook her head. Her family wouldn't do this to her. "That's a what, not a why."

William shook his head, like he was trying to desperately remember something. "Orders are orders."

Itzia glanced over his shoulder and saw Wings and Zero getting in to an ambush position. If she could get to a frag fast enough...

"Not where your family is concerned!" Itzia called out.

Just then, Leon seemed to snap.

"Just fucking stop it!" He roared. He promptly turned and threw himself on Fitz-D1029. The two Spartans hit the ground.

Itzia leaped forward on to William as Wings and Zero tackled Sanguine and Julian. She smashed in to him as he fired a burst from his rifle, the bullets deflecting off her shields. Itzia gave him a one-two punch combo to the helmet, knocking his shields out and stunning him for a second. She spun him around and grabbed him in a stranglehold, pinching Williams' carotid artery shut. For most humans this caused a blackout in less than ten seconds. She held him for nearly twenty before he went limp. A quick check ensured that he still had a pulse.

Zero and Wings finished off their opponents, and all three turned to watch Leon rise from Fitz's body. Itzia checked her monitor. Fitz was still alive, but Leon was twitching uncontrollably.

"Hit... me." He muttered through several broken teeth. "Knock me out before they do it again."

Itzia strode over to Leon and grabbed him by the shoulders. "Do what? What is going on?"

"Want you dead. Have to kill you. Hit me. Hit me." His voice rose to a roar as his shotgun turned to be aimed right at Itzia. "Hit me!"

Itzia punched him several times before he finally went limp. Wings, Zero, and Itzia all stood staring at Leon's body. Booted feet marching double-time brought them back to reality, and the three Phoenix members faded in to the trees.

Locke made a fist. He would not allow himself to hit anything. That would be a display of weakness.

"This is most... unexpected." He and his team aboard the Ragnarok had heard everything. Montrose's crew had been replaced by an ONI team citing government security.

There was a long pause.

"Orders?" A Lieutenant Commander queried.

"Launch all drop pods. I want Phoenix Team found and put down. If they make it off that planet there will be hell to pay."

He turned to the communications officer.

"Have the local government initiate a planet-wide quarantine."

"Incoming drop pods!" Zero yelled.

"FoFs are of Delta Spartans!" Ocean supplemented Zero's comment with her own.

Phoenix Team raced through the forest towards a nearby spaceport. There they hoped to capture a slipspace capable ship and escape the planet.

"Where are they dropping in?" Wings asked Ocean.

There was a full second pause. "Everywhere."

Wings silently cursed to himself. X was trailing behind.

"Itzia, stitch him up." He held up a hand to prevent protest as they all stopped. "Do it now or we'll never make the spaceport."

"Speaking of which, how are we going to get in?" Zero asked. "You know they'll have Spartans swarming over the entire place and checking everything."

Phoenix Team had stopped on the edge of a cliff, and they had a good look down at the valley below. Wings had an idea.

Wolverine Team moved quickly and silently through the undergrowth.

All they felt was pure, unadulterated hate.

It was not a good emotion. It was unbridled, unfiltered. They were not used to having to deal with such an extreme of emotion, having always been able to keep it in check. But they knew one thing: They had to have some form of release. Had to.

It was their desperate search for their targets that lead them in to the ambush.

Two flash-bangs detonated right in front of the five Spartans that made up Wolverine. All five were hit simultaneously by five different bodies, and each were beaten senseless.

"Ocean, did they get a communication off?"


"Good. We have a breather, then. Switch suits now."

Hastily the members of Phoenix Team pulled off their armor and swapped it with Wolverine's. With a simple crack from Ocean Phoenix Team effectively became Wolverine Team.

"Now who wants to bet we can just walk in to the spaceport and ask for a ride out of here?" X asked, pulling on the last gauntlet.

Funnily enough, that turned out to be easy.

There weren't as many Spartans visible as Zero originally guessed, but Wings was sure there were stealth squads all over the place. "Wolverine" Team was walking right through them.

They slipped aboard a private yacht that Peec had dug up out of the registry after he'd bullied the Ticketmaster around, and found that the owner had a military-grade slipspace generator aboard. They didn't care who he was or how he got it, all Phoenix Team knew was that that boat was their ticket out.

That was the easy part. The hard part was finding the quarantine take-off codes, issued only to military personnel with the proper clearance and the spaceport master. Finding the Spaceport master and beating the answer out of him was easy enough.

As the yacht lifted off, Phoenix Team waited with bated breath.

"Chairman, we have a yacht launching."

Locke sat up straight. "It's them. Wait until they break orbit and then slip us in behind them."

"Aye. Slipspace generators warming up."

"Sir, their generator is heated!"

"Slip us in now!" Locke snapped.

The Ragnarok disappeared from realspace.

"Incoming Dreadnought!" Zero barked from the sensors array. "It's the Ragnarok, and her weapons are online!"

"Where away?" Wings asked.

"A couple hundred thousand miles to our direct rear. If they fire the MAC, we're dead."

"Can we initiate a slipspace launch?" Wings asked Peec from the copilot's chair.

Peec was tapping furiously at navigation. X was piloting the craft.

"Just a sec..."

"Archer missiles incoming." Zero said. Her voice had slipped in to her Zen state.

"Got it!" Peec said happily.

The yacht left realspace, the planet, the Ragnarok, and the mystery of rogue Spartans behind.

Locke could easily have hit something. But he wouldn't. He had to maintain his composure. His crew was looking at him for orders.

"Plan A failed us. Looks like Plan B is on. Get me the Chief of Section Two."

Wings leaned back in the chair. The yacht had been silent for nearly an hour after entering slipspace, each member of Phoenix organizing his or her thoughts on the matter.

"We've been betrayed." X said first.

"But by whom?" Itzia responded. "Leon beat the shit out of one of his teammates and then asked us to beat the pulp out of him. Something is not right with their heads."

"Itzia's right." Peec said.

"I have to agree." Wings said before Zero could open her mouth. "Something is not right. What was attempted today was a cruel form of poetic assassination, and we were the targets. They turned our own brothers and sisters unwillingly against us.

"I've caused ONI problems before, and I think they know this now, and that's why this happened today. Well Phoenix, we've spent much of our time apart, being our own little annoyances. We had to be careful, watch our backs to make sure that ONI couldn't catch up to us.

"Today the gloves are off. The UNSC doesn't want us; It tried to have us killed to cover something up. I want to know what it is."

Peec smiled. His helmet was resting on the pilot's console.

"Aye. If they thought we were a danger while we were in the UNSC, let's see how they react when we tear them a new one."

Chapter 22: Eye for an Eye

1126 Hours, December 6th, 2578 (UNSC Military Calendar)

First things were first: Phoenix Team needed hardware, supplies, credits, and intelligence. There was one place they could get that, but it was right in the heart of their immediate problem.

So instead of immediately heading to New Quebec, Phoenix team dumped their yacht in space above Yggdrasil and used jets to guide themselves towards a shipyard.

The attendant was curious as to why a team of five Spartans wanted to buy a civilian corvette out of their pocket, but the money left him happy. It took most of of the Phoenix's personal accounts to purchase the corvette, but it was a serious upgrade from the yacht, being designed for carrying massive amounts of cargo. They were all thankful that ONI hadn't gotten around to freezing their accounts.

"I wonder how many Archer missiles we could fit in here." Peec said, turning around in the cargo bay and taking in all the space. "Several hundred, at least."

"We'll need things besides explosives." Zero commented as she climbed up a ladder to the mid-level catwalk.

X snorted. "Blasphemy!"

Itzia lugged the last case of supplies that Phoenix had left in to the cargo bay, set it down with the rest, then took a look around.

"We're going to need more boxes." She muttered, then spoke to the rest of the team. Peec was now hanging upside down on a catwalk and messing with a service panel. "Where's Wings?"

"Out." Peec said around a pair of wire-cutters stuck in his mouth. He pulled them out as he wrenched a wire out of place and snipped it. He then handed the tool to Zero, who set it back in the toolbox and awaited orders for more tools, "I think he went to acquire something that can fly more deftly than this thing. She's a great freighter but, as is obvious, she's fat and ungainly."

Itzia glanced at X.

He stared back. "What?"

"You have nothing to say?"


"No jokes?"

"Why would I? That one is so obvious that the joke writes itself." He barely dodged a wrench flung by Peec.

"Hey now, I don't want any fights between us, too." Wings said as he walked in to the cargo bay and pulled off his stolen helmet.

"Welcome to the Arrow's Head." Peec said from his upside down position. He was starting to turn blue in the face, and he and Zero had begun arguing about whether or not he should get down for a bit.

"I got us an old Pelican. It's a mid-Great War relic, a bunch of systems need fixing, and there's no ammo, but it flies and will get us what we need." Wings said. "On the other hand, we don't have much cash left, so we need to get to New Quebec as soon as possible to access the Delta's pirate account." The pirate account for Delta Company had been set up to gain funds for personal and official projects from human Insurrectionist groups. Most modern military units had one, but the Delta's was largest. Over the years it had accumulated on order of billions of credits.

"The real problem is getting in to the base." Itzia said. She dropped a holoprojector on the floor of the cargo bay, and a hologram of the Delta's underground bunker. "There are generally, at any time, an average of one-hundred Deltas on base. I know Element won't be a problem, at least not until ONI gets to him, but we still have to get past a hundred other Spartans."

"We'll cross that bridge when we get to it." Wings said. "But it's imperative that we get to the base. Ocean claims that she can falsify our FoF tags to read as another team's. She just didn't have time to do that while we were evading the others earlier."

Zero had apparently won the argument, and Peec fell lightly from his hanging position and landed next to her on the catwalk. Both of them leaped over the railing and landed on the floor of the cargo bay.

"She's as set to go as she'll ever be." Peec said. "If you want to bring the Pelican aboard..."

0300 Hours, December 9th, 2578 (UNSC Military Calendar)

It took a few days to reach New Quebec. Due to operational security ONI had decided to train the Deltas a long way away from the primary colonies. There were few planets farther away from Earth than New Quebec, and they were on the opposite side of the UNSC's sphere of influence. It was also one of the most heavily protected planets, with sensor grids set up in all directions. Fortunately the Deltas all knew of a hole in the grid that they liked to take advantage of. ONI never seemed to be able to fix it, and the exact cause for this was unknown.. Theories ranged from a hole in the magnetosphere of New Quebec to an undetectable interference.

"We're being followed, aren't we?" Zero asked X.

"ONI knows there's a hole here. The only logical conclusion is to have visual scanners." X answered, running another visual scan of the space to the Arrow's Head's rear.

"Probably enhanced scanners." Peec commented. "Ours are shit compared to theirs."

Zero nodded. She and Peec wordlessly brought up their own scanners and began to scan the night sky. They wouldn't be able to get an exact location on the prowler that was tailing them, but they could know approximately where it was by the way the stars moved and disappeared.

"Got something." Zero said. "Ocean, tag it and keep an eye on it."

"Already done." Ocean said, her avatar popping up next to the pilot's seat. "There is something to be said about civilian vehicles. I full access to the systems aboard this ship. Never had that aboard military vessels."

"I was just going to say the same thing about the seats." X said, spinning around and around in the pilot's chair. For the most part, the pilot was simply there to do the occasional task that the AI couldn't be bothered to do, but X enjoyed the seat.

"You're going to break the chair doing that." Zero sighed.

"Sorry, mother." X shot back. Zero shot him a glance. He stopped spinning and turned back to the controls. The visual scanner was now following the prowler.

"You sure that's a prowler, Ocean?" X said. "It's a bit small."

"It's stealthed and matte black." Ocean said, magnifying the few. "Ablative coatings on every surface. That's a prowler, albeit a very small prowler."

"Huh." X said. "That may be a problem."

"Doubtful." Wings said as he walked in to the bridge. "They're used to seeing a lot of freighters come this way. I often had them come here several times a month to drop off building materials, and the bunker is still not quite complete."

"So it's a good thing they can't run a proper scan on us." Peec said. "Otherwise they'd know that we're not carrying a couple hundred tons of equipment, instead of just a few cases of personal effects and weapons."

"Indeed. What's our ETA?" X asked Ocean.

"About forty minutes, so you might want to suit up. I'm finishing up tuning on the falsified FoF signals. You'll only have a short while before the others realize that you're not who you say you are."

"Noted." Wings said. "Let's get armored up."

Now they only had to hope that the prowler crew wouldn't bother checking to see why five Spartans had just left a cargo ship.

Peec tapped in a security code to the main doors of the bunker. Element's avatar popped up.

"Only one Spartan knows my override code." He said. "Hello, Peec."

"Element, we need to get in without anyone knowing who we are." Peec responded. "I'm willing to take you with us if need be."

"Much as I would like to, creator, I cannot leave." Element said sadly, the holographic fires that encompassed his body turning a dark shade of blue. "It would look suspicious if I were to appear to be working with you in any way, and I would likely be deactivated upon my return. I can get you in, keep the others away from you, and I can get you out. I'm afraid there's nothing more I can do."

"That's enough, Element. Thanks."

"Fortune be with you." Element said. "You will need it."

The doors slowly opened, and Phoenix Team stepped inside.

"Welcome home." X muttered dryly as the hall lights flickered on. "Please wipe your boots on the mat and try not to get any blood on the walls."

Phoenix Team made their way down the hall and stopped at the first intersection. Wings and Peec went right while Zero, Itzia, and X went left. As they passed the fledgling medical bay Itzia swiped her hand across the pad and went inside. Wings and Peec made their way to the central mainframe while Zero and X made their way to the armory.

Itzia had the easiest job, but she only got it because she had the expertise to find the proper supplies and chemicals for her job. She was out less than ten minutes after getting in.

Zero and X had a harder job as they had to deal with the Quartermaster. He was a surly ONI artificial intelligence who didn't like being bothered to let more weapons go than need be, but he let the two Spartans go with several crates of weapons thinking they were on some sort of mission for ONI. Zero and X were out in less than half an hour. They joined Itzia on the ship and waited for Wings and Peec.

They had the hardest job. The incomplete bunker went down a full ten kilometers in to the planet's surface, with the majority of it being five kilometers underground. The mainframe was in the center of a vast network of tunnels that Peec and other Deltas had spent days designing. A network that was filled with a couple hundred Spartans that had orders to kill them on sight.

However, Phoenix Team had mastered the art of backup plans, and Peec had planned out several back alleys through the network that took a little longer, but were devoid of life. He led Wings in to the mainframe chamber, where a single Spartan was found working on servers.

"Maurice?" Peec said, his voice altered slightly to sound like Sigurd-D1010.

Maurice-D3574 turned towards Wings and Peec. "What can I do for you, Sigurd?"

"Just some computer work needs doing." Peec responded, moving to a terminal and popping Deep Ocean's chip in to a slot. She immediately logged on to the Delta's pirate fund and began siphoning off credits to various places.

"You heard about the kill order out on Phoenix?" Maurice asked.

"Who hasn't?" Wings said. He was disguised as Gordon-D3019.

"It's... strange." Maurice said. He had straightened from his work and had a confused expression on his face. "I feel like... something's missing that was important..."

Wings moved forward cautiously. "An old memory?"

"No." Maurice said quietly. It sounded like he was trying to remember something hazy. "Like... an emotion."

"What do you feel right now?"

"Hate. Pure and unbridled hate. And the scary thing is: I don't know why."

"I'm sure ONI has a good reason."

"Uh-huh." Maurice said, turning back to his work. "Tell that to the Zeta trainees. Looks like your program is done."

Peec pulled Ocean's chip out of the computer and slotted it back in to his helmet. He and Wings turned to go.

"And what will you do, Gordon? If you find them?"

Wings and Peec exchanged glances. Wings turned back to face Maurice.

"Follow orders."

Maurice nodded. "It's... strange." He turned away again and let the two Spartans leave.

Wings and Peec left the room with a sense of relief.

"Got everything?" Peec asked Ocean.

"Two and a half billion credits." Ocean answered. She almost sounded happy. "Enough for a lifetime."

"Or enough to cause the UNSC some trouble." Wings said. "I've got some favors to call in."

As soon as Gordon and Sigurd left the room, Maurice dropped his tool and activated the holopad. A man in knight's armor appeared in midair.

"It's them, isn't it?" The ONI AI asked. Maurice nodded.

"Good work, Spartan." The knight disappeared.

Maurice went behind a server and opened up a hidden stash. He pulled out his armor and began putting it on.

Wings and Peec marched briskly down the corridor. As they were about to pass an intersection, three Deltas turned in at the far end and started walking towards them. Without missing a step the two members of Phoenix turned right and kept walking. They heard the three following, and both of them exchanged glances that held the same meaning: They know.

Both of them also knew that they couldn't let themselves be lead in to the heart of the facility and boxed in. There were more than enough Deltas in the base to kill them. They'd have to go through a few of their brothers and sisters to escape.

Wings and Peec sped up and turned left, running slap-bang in to two more members of Badger Team. As one they shoved the other Spartans against the wall and clamped stun collars around their necks. With yelps of surprise Matt-D2105 and Eleanor-D2784 fell to the ground, their lower bodies stunned.

Both members of Phoenix broke in to a headlong sprint, and they heard footsteps behind them. The elevator was near. Once they were on it, the risk of capture lessened.

Up ahead a full team of five Deltas appeared to block their path. Wings and Peec raised grenade launchers and fired two EMP grenades in to their midst. Then they were on them, fighting with a desperation born of a need to survive. Two of the Deltas were stunned outright, and the other three were shaking their heads when Peec and Wings laid in to them, knocking two senseless and breaking the fifth one's legs. And then they were at the elevator, the doors closing, and several enraged faces watching them ascend. Wings hoped that Element wouldn't be forced to stop the elevator.

The elevator ground to a halt. Immediately Wings and Peec raised their rifles and shot out the locks holding an escape hatch in place. Peec went first and pulled Wings up through the hole. Together they planted their magnetic boots on the wall of the elevator tunnel and began running up it as the elevator began to descend.

As it reached the bottom, they reached the top. Wings planted a MINE charge and then took cover behind a protrusion as he set it off. It blew a hole in the door, allowing them access. Peec and Wings raced through the bunker and out of the exit. As they exited, they heard the pounding of booted feet behind them, and accelerated.

"How'd it go?" Zero asked as they sprinted aboard the cargo ship. The door slammed shut.

"Better than expected." Wings responded, snapping his assault rifle in to place on a stand. "Didn't have to kill anyone."

"Let me get this straight: Five Spartans made off with two hundred kilos of medical supplies, half a ton of weapons and ammo, and two and a half billion creds? And two of them beat their way through seven of their fellows and evaded a couple hundred others?"

"You wanted Phoenix dead, sir. I warned you that they were the best of the best."

"The best can't stand up to overwhelming odds."

"They can if they avoid those odds. Phoenix knows how Delta operates. They know their mannerisms, their tactics, who's sleeping with who, everything. We're not dealing with a team that's the best just because they have outstanding teamwork. Each one is a genius in their chosen field. You know how that goes."

"I see your point. What do you suggest we do?"

"Bring in the other Spartans. They have little to no emotional attachment to Phoenix, so they'll understand the situation when we explain it to them."

"You mean lie."

"Not necessarily. We know what their leader has done. All we need to do is spread his actions over the rest of the team. Make them culpable for the crimes he committed."

Locke took one last, long draw on the cigar before smashing it in to the ashtray.

"Very well, Agent Johansson. Call them in."

1528 Hours, May 14th, 2579 (UNSC Military Calendar)

"You know, we all need to coordinate on our criminal undergrounds more." X commented.

"I told you all I had contacts." Wings responded. X made a face.

"Yes, but you didn't tell me you'd set up your own spy network."

"And you didn't tell us that you had a network of gun-runners."

X shrugged. "I. Like. To. Blow. Shit. Up. Why are you surprised?"

Zero looked up from her brand new SRS99C-S3 sniper rifle. She was busy cleaning it up. "Most gun-runners don't move surplus modern weaponry. We got a few MA7s out of that deal in addition to the M7 SMGs."

"I noticed." Wings said, turning to Itzia. "Medical bay full?"

"To the brim, and Peec is working on improving the computers so that Deep Ocean has more space."

"'Needs more space' my arse." Zero muttered. Since Ocean had been installed, she had noticed that civilian computing systems had significantly less power than those on military ships. As a result, she had harassed everyone else on the team for more space to "grow."

"Speaking of Ocean, why is she still working with us?" Zero asked as Peec walked in to the cargo bay and sat on one of the many boxes scattered around. The bay wasn't anywhere near full yet, despite all the merchandise. "Doesn't she have some sort of programming that keeps her loyal to ONI?"

Peec and Wings shot glances at each other, and Peec answered. "We've... made sure that wasn't an issue."

Ocean's hologram appeared in the middle of Phoenix's circle. "I assure you that that is not a problem any longer, Zero. As for our current mission, our ETA to Sanghelios is approximately forty-five minutes. Autel, Stel, and Sona 'Demal have arranged a meeting outside Sanghelios' outermost sensor arrays."

"They've made sure that we won't have any unsuspected visitors?" Zero asked.

"I doubt they'd be where they are today if they hadn't done so."

Wings turned and headed off towards his quarters. "Suit up, Phoenix. I want us prepared for anything."

"This meeting is risky, so let's not linger too long." Supreme Commander Stel 'Vadam said. He was dressed in the typical garb of a Sangheili Supreme Commander: Ornate purple armor with a flowing violet cloak. He and the other Sangheili stood out in stark contrast to the rest of the Arrow's Head's cargo bay. Thel 'Vadam wore the simple robe of Kaidon, but Vena, Autel, and Sona were all armored and looked ready for battle. Wings had just informed the Sangheili of the full extent of Phoenix's predicament.

"Agreed. First things first: What is the UNSC saying?" Wings said.

Autel spoke up. "We have heard nothing. As far as we are concerned, the UNSC is still operating as it should be, not stabbing its own best soldiers in the back." He spat the words out as if they were venom. Wings knew that Autel's rules of honor were more flexible than most Sangheili, but they were still there.

"In fact, the UNSC has shut up tighter than a Bureaucrat's ass." Vena said. Her father shot her a glance, but otherwise ignored the human saying. She'd picked up the occasional saying while she was training with Wings. "We've received no messages as to the movements of any Spartans, most especially the Deltas. The last we heard was about Grey Team approximately a month ago. Something about an ancient Forerunner artifact, but nothing else."

"Did you get the coordinates?" Ocean asked, her hologram popping to life.

Vena opened up her wrist PDA and uploaded the report to Ocean's servers. "Yes, there you go. You didn't get that from me."

"Thank you." Ocean said and disappeared to process the information.

"So why the secrecy?" X asked. "Aren't we supposed to be dangerous fugitives?"

"You are." Stel said. "But think of it this way: If they went public with that knowledge, and you were the average citizen, what would you do? Morale would plummet, and faith in the UNSC and the SPARTAN program would fall. And then what would happen once that lie was exposed?"

"There would be an uproar." Wings said. "There would most likely be a coup or two. Citizens would realize that the UEG doesn't care about them if they're willing to kill five Spartans for no real good reason, or that those Spartans would do whatever they were accused of. The UEG would have a power vacuum and split the IU up. The Covenant would then sweep in and finish the job they started more than fifty years ago, then move on to the Evaniptii and Elites." He grimaced. "Of course, that is an extreme example, and it would take more than just us going public to drive it. Most likely there would just be an upsurge in Insurrectionist factions."

"Know this," Thel 'Vadam said. "We cannot be seen to help you. Vena may be your personal assassin, but the rest of the Sangheili race cannot help you. If we did, we would be publicly condemned by the UEG for aiding and abetting criminals. We'd be forced to turn you over or hunt you down ourselves. So I will be the one to state what you certainly already know: Find the men that want you dead, find out why they want you dead, and kill them. Once you expose the cockroaches for what they are they will scatter for places to hide. You cannot allow them to escape."

Wings nodded. "I wasn't planning on taking any orders on this trip, but I guess that will do."

Stel looked down at his chrono. "We must leave. I have a fleet that is en route to attack a Jiralhanae colony."

An idea sprang in to Wings' head. "Did the request for help come from the UEG?"

"It did." Came the hesitant reply.

"Deny the request." Wings said. "Claim that you need to know precisely what forces the UNSC will be fielding in order for you to be able to know how many soldiers you should bring. Say that you're stretched thin, and then wait for the response."

Stel smiled. "I will see to it that the report is left alone while I am working."

"I'll see to it that it gets picked up," Vena said. "And taken to the right people."

"See? You can help us." X said.

The Sangheili all folded their hands over their hearts as one. "Good luck, Spartans." Autel said as they walked out, with Stel leading the way.

"Same to you, friends." Zero said as she and the Spartans saluted.

"Ocean," Wings turned to the AI as her hologram appeared. "Plot a course for that Forerunner artifact, but leave off on heading out for two hours until that report comes in. It may not have anything to do with us, but I want to know what Grey Team found."

"Aye sir." Ocean said. She opened her mouth as if to say something, but closed it, then disappeared.

"We all have work to do, so let's do it." Wings said, and Phoenix Team went off to their relevant tasks.

0217 Hours, May 20th, 2579 (UNSC Military Calendar)

The Arrow's Head ran silently for a cargo ship. Wings felt secure that they wouldn't be spotted thanks to the long-range visual scanners that his team had installed. But that wasn't what was on his mind right now. The five Spartans were in a small deserted mess hall looking over the UNSC's response to Stel's query. It had taken several days for Ocean to crack the encryption on it and two more to decode it, and now Phoenix Team was taking it all in.

"No matter what they could have said," X said with a smile as he put his datapad on the table and leaned back. "They couldn't have said anything without telling us something."

"Three-hundred Deltas on their way to one planet." Wings said. "I don't know what they were thinking, but telling us that is more revealing than nothing at all. It shows that they're not pulling all Spartans out to hunt us."

"That gives us some breathing room." Itzia commented, setting her datapad down as well. "So we might as well use it. Do we have a plan for getting in to that Forerunner artifact?"

Wings shook his head. "Unless we can somehow see from the outside that it has something to do with us, we can't risk it. I think that we should just take a look while planning our next move."

"ETA to the artifact is half an hour." Ocean said, her hologram looking down at a wristwatch. She had a habit of pantomiming human reactions when she was talking, if she could. "So that doesn't leave much time for planning. Knowing you lot, I assume that you have a plan?"

"I do, actually." Wings said. "Load file E247-490."

A hologram popped to life of the Arrow's Head, but this ship had extension on it, including cargo modules and a tug system with even more cargo modules.

"You set up a merchant business?" Ocean said, her eyebrows rising.

"Our first shipment will be waiting for us in a week. This allows us to have a reason to move around a lot or stay in one place if we want. The modularity in the system means our shape and weight is always changing, and our money means we can trade what we want for whatever price we want."

"Won't ONI be on the lookout for something like this?" Itzia asked.

"They'll be more on the lookout for use trying to access ONI by getting hired by them, or looking at companies that allow us to do work that we were trained to do. Remember that Spartans aren't supposed to fit in to regular society.

"That means X and I will be the ones going out in public most often. X is the most civilian-like out of all of us."

"And you?" Itzia pointed at Wings. "You're not exactly Mr. Happy."

"No, I'm not. But I can read people." Wings smiled. "And I can act."

X did a mock shiver. "That is perhaps the creepiest thing you've ever done, sir. But I'm sure the civvies would find it charming."

"That's the idea, X." Wings' smile disappeared, and his mask of apathy was replaced once again. "We do what we have to do. If that means going to security agencies, ONI bases, or chatting up some people in local nightclubs to find the ones looking for us, then we'll do it."

"Sir, if you want to chat up people in nightclubs, then it would be good to have a female on hand. Males tend to flap their jaws at us more." Itzia said.

Wings nodded. "Good point. You volunteering?"

"Is there another woman on this team?" X muttered.

"Asshole." Zero leaned over and punched him playfully.

"ETA to artifact: fifteen minutes." Ocean said.

"Back to work." X said. Phoenix Team rose and left the mess hall.

The Arrow's Head ripped a hole in Slipspace open and was spat back out in to reality. It had reappeared on the dark side of a small moon, putting the moon between the ship and the location of the Forerunner artifact.

"Bring us around, Ocean. One-five-nine by zero-two-zero. Twenty percent speed." X ordered.

"Answering twenty percent on course one-five-nine by zero-two-zero."

The Arrow's Head tilted and turned in response to Ocean's coaxing. It moved high over the surface of the moon as the location of the artifact came in to view.

"Hot damn." Peec whispered. "What I wouldn't give to play around on that..."

Floating above the planet was a Halo ring. Clearly visible from the moon was a fleet of UNSC ships, including two super-carriers and a Ragnarok-class Dreadnought, the Rapture.

"So the UNSC now have their own Halo ring." Wings muttered. "Run a tight scan of the surface. Find me the library."

"Already found it. This one is quite prominent. Enhancing the image." Ocean responded, and the view-screen snapped forward, revealing a large structure with several protrusions from it. Around it there was a fair sized army.

Ocean continued her report. "The plains around the library are literally abuzz with life. I'm scanning upwards of twenty thousand Marines, six thousand ODSTs, and nearly a thousand Spartans. The UNSC wants this place bad."

Wings was already tapping out a report. "We can use this. Not only can we repay Vena for getting us this report, but the Sangheili will get riled up about the UNSC taking advantage of a Forerunner artifact. It also sens ONI a nice message that we can be a pain in their ass."

"But it also ups the heat on us." Zero said.

"Not much. ONI can find us, but they know full well we can tear through anything short of several teams of Spartans or an orbital strike."

The team fell silent. They all knew that they may be forced to kill their brethren to ensure success. That was not something they would relish.

"Ocean, take us out of here. No point in hanging around, and we need to get caught up on more current events." Wings said. "Then we can work out which ONI base to make an example of."

0730 Hours, June 11th, 2579 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Tom-B292 and Lucy-B091 looked at each other as the ONI officer finished his briefing. They were two of the few Spartans who had been chosen to join the hunt for Phoenix. Each team of non-Delta Spartans were being assigned to a team of Delta Spartans, presumably to give extra aid and tactical support, but they all knew that it was so the Deltas could keep an eye on the other Spartans.

Lucy shook her head, and Tom nodded his assent. This mission was a bunch of crap, and they knew it.

Once on board the frigate that housed them and several other Delta teams, Tom and Lucy made sure to find a spot devoid of both life and bugs. On an ONI ship, this generally meant the primary hangar. Unfortunately, they'd have a limited time to talk before someone came to check what was going on. Cameras were still present. However, in a standard dormitory, the only bugs that existed were audio, which made speech a problem.

But there was also regular sign language and then there was Lucy sign language. She'd learned the regular form in order to communicate with AIs and the few humans that knew it, but she used a private form of sign language when talking to Tom or, as was the case, discussing sensitive language. She'd taught it to Tom, and the pair had shared it as a private means of communication for years. Tom had mastered the skill of running two conversations in a bugged room: He would talk to Lucy while still keeping track of what she was saying, and formulate a response. He also had to leave appropriate pauses for her to "answer."

We've got to help Phoenix Team. Lucy signed.

"Make sure you replace that armor plate. It's almost failing and you know what happened last time you went in to battle with a faulty one." Tom responded. We both know that, but how? We'd have to know where they are, and even if we did we couldn't contact them without this entire ship turning on us."

Maybe that's the answer. We find them and join them.

"I know I don't need to say it, but you tend to forget things like that." With several teams of Deltas all around? Not a chance.

With Phoenix Team there is.

"Alright, fine. Your loss." We'll have to bide our time and wait. We don't know Phoenix as well as the Deltas or Ezekiel and Felix. They're more likely to find them than we are. And when they do, that's when we act.

Hopefully sooner than later. Lucy made a displeased sound and turned to clean her weapons. Tom followed suit.

Ezekiel-254 and Felix-116 did not have the luxury of a secret code. They were being watched and they knew it. ONI's plan seemed to be to send them in to root out Phoenix, and then have several teams of Deltas come running.

The only time that the two Spartans could communicate was one of the places a person would least expect: A crowded public mall.

"Like this will help find Phoenix." Felix muttered. He and Ezekiel were sitting on a bench in the middle of an intersection, with pedestrians milling all around them. Both were in civilian outfits and looking for all the world like a pair of important businessmen.

"It's not meant to." Ezekiel responded. "I trained them to gather information the best way they can, and the best way to figure out what's going on is to lead your enemies. I guarantee you we'll find them sometime, or one of the other teams will. They want information, so they'll let themselves get caught."

"Speaking of getting caught, we're supposed to shoot on sight. What are we going to do about that?"

"Let's not kill them. I want to hear their side of this first." Ezekiel said. "I didn't just train them, I raised them. And now ONI wants me to shoot what are as close to I'll ever get to sons and daughters in the back. That's not going to happen, not without a good reason."

"Well that's good." A voice from behind them said. Ezekiel and Felix stood and whirled, their hands going to their holsters, but all they saw was a large man walking away from them.

"Was that-" Felix started.

"Yep." Ezekiel answered before the question was halfway out of Felix's mouth. "Fun odds. Let's tail him, see if he leads us to the rest of his team."

The two Spartans followed X through the mall and out across the parking lot, in to the middle of downtown Yggdrasil. He turned in to a building that had "Prima Security Co." in large brass letters on the front. Ezekiel and Felix followed him in.

As they crossed the lobby X stopped at the desk and began chatting to the secretary.

"Wait." Felix said, putting a hand on Ezekiel's shoulder, stopping him from continuing across the lobby. "Something's up."

"Damned right it is."

For the second time in ten minutes Felix and Ezekiel whirled around. The doors were now shut and bolted and they were surrounded by the rest of Phoenix Team. Each one had a shock-baton, similar to the ones used in UNSC Special Forces training, but more on par with a tazer than a motivating jolt.

Felix and Ezekiel automatically turned to put their backs to each other, but both of them knew there wasn't a snowball's chance in Hell they could both take any one member of Phoenix, nevermind all five.

"What's this about?" Felix directed his question at Wings.

"You tell me." Wings shrugged, reached up, and flicked a 'security personnel' badge on his chest. "I'm just doing my job, and you two match the descriptions of well known agitators that have caused our bosses quite a bit of money. Either you come quietly or we beat you in to submission."

"We'll go quietly." Ezekiel answered.

"Get on the ground and put your hands behind your heads." Itzia ordered. When Ezekiel and Felix did as she bade, Zero and X handcuffed them, hauled them upright, and marched them out a door in the back, past several staring eyes.

As they entered a stairwell, Felix and Ezekiel both got suspicious.

"Why not an elevator?" Felix asked. Just as he finished speaking a jolt of electricity ran up his body and dropped him to one knee. Spartan or not, those batons set on their highest power hurt like a bitch. A fist hit his rib, caving it in. He heard Ezekiel getting similar treatment next to him.

"Stairwells tend to not have cameras. Odd how that works for a security company." Wings said, stepping forward, grabbing Felix up off the ground, and headbutting him on the end of the nose. "I'm sorry, sirs, truly I am, but this is the only way that all seven of us are going to get out of this alive."

Felix couldn't hear Ezekiel clearly, but it heard like the old Spartan whispered "I understand" as Phoenix Team laid in to him.

Felix and Ezekiel were pulled roughly in to the UNSC security office. The guards on duty looked up and raised their eyebrows at the sight of five Prima Security guards dragging two men in to their room. Both prisoners had neural blocking collars on them, and were unceremoniously dumped in to the nearest chairs.

"Can we help you?" One of the guards asked hesitantly.

"We caught these guys trespassing on private property." X said, walking over to the desk. "They have UNSC neural interfaces and bar-codes on the back of their necks."

The guard nodded and sighed. "Just a moment." He muttered and grabbed a scanning tool. He walked over to Felix and bent his head forward, running the scanner over the man's bar-code.

There was a beep, and the guard checked the readout on a PDA. He frowned. "Most of his records are sealed by ONI." His eyes widened. "This guy's a Spartan... but..." Something clicked in his head, and he froze, then slowly turned around.

Peec was seated at the front desk computer as Itzia and X moved the unconscious bodies of the other guards in to a nearby closet.

Wings stepped forward and shoved his shock baton in to the guard's stomach, shocking him in to unconsciousness as well.

"Found the mainframe." Peec said.

"Ocean, can you get to it from here?"

"Affirmative. Beginning data mine now. I've tapped in to the local ONI servers wirelessly."

"Hurry up, Ocean." Peec was tapping furiously. "I'm reading two Pelicans inbound to this base, heavily loaded."

"Right, prepare a nice surprise for them, Phoenix." Wings said. The whole of Phoenix Team went in to motion. Peec hacked his way in to the system's security system while everyone else ran out to a parked civilian 'Hog and pulled out traps. Nothing lethal, just enough to stun or knock out a target.

It was a simple fact of life: Military personnel are trained to respond quickly and efficiently to any emergency, and are also trained to switch priorities as quickly as possible. Thus setting off one alarm isn't going to help at all, as the security personnel will simply switch priorities once they find you.

However, you can't hide two dropships coming in with several teams of Spartans, and the ensuing fight once they landed would most certainly not go unnoticed. So the only logical conclusion was to set off every alarm in the building so no one knows what to do.

"They're here." Sigurd-D1010 said. "Every alarm in the building just went off and a fire started in a guard station. Lock and load."

There was a series of snaps and clicks as the Delta teams unsafed their weapons. Each one was equipped for close quarters combat and had loaded incendiary ammunition alongside their standard armor-piercing rounds. All in all there were twenty-five Spartans.

"Pelican One touching down." Terry-D293 said. "Moving in on the west and north sides."

"Pelican Two is on the ground." Sigurd responded as the Pelican his team was in touched the ground, and they stomped off the dropship and raced in to position. "Moving in on the east and south side."

The Deltas raced to move in to position. Smoke was now billowing from the north end of the UNSC building as people streamed out of it.

"In position." Terry said. "Waiting on you."

"Move in." Sigurd ordered, and the twenty-five Spartans raced in to the building.

"This is Aboleth One. Nothing we have can pierce the smoke. Too many chemicals. We're backing- shit!"

The sound of gunfire came over the com. "Contact, contact!" Aboleth one called out.

"Hydra, Manticore, get to Aboleth now!" Sigurd took off running through the facility. It took him less than a minute to get to the site of the guard station. Chemical fires raged all around. A quick flip through his scanners told Sigurd that most of his sensors were useless. He turned and smashed the fire control panel. Automated fire extinguishers sprayed CO2 foam over the primary sources of the flame, and then went after the other fires.

Nadia-D5518 and Gordon-D3019 went over to the windows and began smashing them open to allow the smoke to clear. As it did, Sigurd took stock of the situation. Aboleth Team were all unconscious, but still alive. Ash was spread all around the room.

"Don't move!" Sigurd yelled. "Look for bootprints leading away from the room!"

His eyes followed five pairs of bootprints running in to the room and milling around, then leading outside. He swore and ran outside as an gate clanged shut. Wings and X straightened from the grated fence and slammed the exterior locks over manually. Sigurd traced Zero running out of the control booth and leaping over the gate. He raised his rifle and emptied the magazine at the gate.

The bullets flew straight and true, but bounced off the plasma barrier that had popped up around the gate. Phoenix ran off in to the nearby forest. Sigurd snarled and sprinted across the tarmac. As he approached the gate he coiled and leaped, clearing the gate in one bound. He raced after Phoenix and was in the wood within seconds.

Bam. Two bodies hit him simultaneously, dropping his shields to half. Two more rapid blows popped his shields before he could respond, then another blow from a shock stick left him twitching on the ground as Phoenix disappeared.

The last thing that Sigurd felt before he passed out was rage.

"I think we lost most of our pursuit." Wings said. He patted the pouch that Ocean's chip was in and slowed. "Take a breather."

The rest of Phoenix slowed as well. "They'll be hot on us soon." Zero warned, brushing the ash off her security uniform. Phoenix hadn't bothered to bring their armor.

"Acknowledged." Wings said as he sat down on a rock. "But we need a plan."

There was a snapping sound, and all five members of Phoenix whirled to face the newcomers.

Two Spartans stood on the edge of the clearing. Both were unarmed and had their hands raised. The numbers stenciled on their pauldrons read "B292" and "B091."

Lucy gestured impatiently as Tom spoke. "We can help you get back to your ship. You just have to trust us."

"We're not in a particularly trusting mood." Itzia said as she and X completed the circle around the two Betas.

"I know that. That's why we're unarmed." Tom said. "If there had been time I would have removed my armor as well, but there isn't. ONI is going to block off all traffic routes surrounding the woods and have regular flyovers with UAVs, along with Spartan patrols. They don't need to hunt you down in here; They won't even waste the energy. They'll just wait for you to make a run for it, then gun you down on the open road. That is if the overhead UAVs don't spot you first. We can get you past all that."

"Thirty seconds." Wings said, taking on a traditional Sambo fighting stance. "Go."

"We commandeered a B306 Stiletto from an ONI prowler." Tom said hurriedly. "It has enough room for two pilots and six passengers, and is completely stealthed. ONI uses them as support bombers for their prowlers corps. It's no more than a kilometer from our position and will get us through everything the UNSC has to throw at us."

"One question before we go: Why are you helping us?" Wings asked. Lucy answered this one in rapid sign language.

We were at Pegasi. We watched nearly 300 Spartans die that day. We want to do everything in our power to stop that from happening again. And it will happen again if we don't find the people trying to kill you.

"ONI will try to kill you." X said.

"We were sent on this mission to die. It's something we're used to. Besides," Tom shrugged. "I gave up caring when I was forced to vaporize my brothers and sisters."

"Then take us to your ship."

0152 Hours, June 12th, 2579 (UNSC Military Calendar)

"So, achievements for the mission:" X ticked off on his fingers. "Successfully blend in with the citizenry, capture two Spartans, infiltrate a UNSC base, acquire all their data and the source code for all base AI, then delete all the data and source code, take out an armored team of Spartans whilst not wearing armor, successfully evade capture, acquire a brand new, top-of-the-line stealth bomber," Here X ran his hand fondly over the surface of the B306. "And gain two more supporters for our struggle. I call this a win."

"Don't be so cocky, Five." Wings said. "That was a damned close call. I don't want to try those odds again."

"There was something odd that Lucy and I noticed, however," Tom stepped forward. "While were were watching you from above, we noticed that the Delta Teams had perfect unit cohesion... right up until they knew where you were. Then each one just sort of did their own thing. Note that Hydra One didn't report your position to his teammates. He tried to go lone wolf on you."

"You're right." Zero said. "That makes no sense."

"But it does help explain something." Wings said. "Unfortunately, we can barely make rough guesses as to what."

"So what now?" Tom asked.

"Rest, rejuvenate, and analyze. Ocean got a lot of data, including copies of the base AI. That's a pretty big find, and we want to take a good long look at it."

"I'll show them their quarters." X said, standing up. He lead Tom and Lucy our of the hangar and in to the living quarters.

"Thanks for getting us out of there, by the way." He said as they neared one of the empty bunk rooms.

"Thanks for not shocking us in to submission."

X shrugged. "Wasn't personal. You understand, I'm sure." He opened the door, and Tom went to go inside, but Lucy hung back. She motioned for Tom to continue, then turned to X and handed him something.

He took it and examined it. It was a symbol, carved out of what appeared to be an SPI armor plate and attached to a carbon-fiber cord to act as a necklace. X knew because of the materials chromatic sheen and the relative lightweight feel of it compared to his armor plates. He looked up at Lucy as she signed something.

You're special to me. That's just a thank you for being who you are.

"I'm not sure I understand." X responded. Lucy sighed, then began signing again.

You're unlike the other Spartans. You're friendly and jovial. You remind me of Kurt when he was training us. Always a Spartan first, but never afraid to look inside another, not afraid to try and lift them up. She paused, then continued. Despite that everything that's happened, you're still the way you are. Thank you.

X smiled and put the necklace on. "Thanks." He said. Lucy gave him a sad smile and then entered the bunk room.

X turned and walked down the hall toward his own bunk, deep in thought.

Chapter 23: Splinter the Mind's Eye

0830 Hours, November 25th, 2579 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Doctor Jeremiah Johansson rubbed his eyes, willing them to wake, then put his glasses back on and forced himself to concentrate. He had been up all night, studying the data from the new Halo ring with Doctor Gordon Freeman of the Office of Naval Research. Both of them had been assigned a brand new AI in order to process the data, but it was taking a long time. Dragoon, the new AI, estimated that there was on order of thousands of zettabytes of data to go through.

Johansson held up one of the crystal storage cores. It was relatively small, being able to fit in the palm of his hand and was hexagonal in shape. The forces on the Halo ring had brought back ten of them, each one packed with data. When Johansson asked about them, Freeman had just told him they were experimental, still in the prototype phase.

"Got something on shielding here." Johansson said. "Information on sectional shielding measures."

"Could be useful." Freeman said. "How does it work?"

"Apparently it allows a ship to emit shields around itself just as before, but with geometric shapes making up the shield. The way it works is that each piece of the shield is an independent piece, of the shield. If it's popped, the entire shield won't go with it, and it can be recharged while other parts are still taking damage."

"Would work incredibly well for damage mitigation."

Johansson filed the information as an upper technological priority. He and Freeman weren't there to use the info, just analyze it for usefulness, then categorize it. Most of the stuff was information about Forerunner culture, much of which they already knew. The rest was still useful to the xenobiologists. There were some gems in the miasma of information, however, that would push UNSC technology forward by years, including gravity manipulation and energy technology.

This weapon is a bloody gold mine. Johansson thought to himself. I just wonder what we'd get if we ever found a place like the Ark, or the Forerunner homeworld.

1927 Hours, November 25th, 2579 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Johansson closed his locked and closed his eyes, getting a taste of rest. The locker room was empty and quiet until Jeremiah heard the door open. Jeremiah grabbed his hip flask, unscrewed the lid and took a swig of the rich whiskey. It was a little strong going down, but the taste was refreshing.

"Doctor, we need to talk."

Jeremiah turned to see Gordon Freeman standing at the end of the locker aisle. The Doctor's hands were on his hips. They pulled back his lab coat so that Jeremiah could clearly see the underarm pistol holster. Adrenaline spiked through Jeremiah, and he knew that he'd just gone white.

"What about?" He asked cautiously.

"Our mutual friends. Phoenix team."

Jeremiah's head cleared. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"I know you're helping the team leader. Don't try and deny it, Doctor." Freeman said. "I've been working with the tech expert to try and help them get a foothold. He explained the situation to me as well, so I decided to do what I can. Unfortunately, I can't get them the schematics they need. I have several for them. You're going to give them the schematics."


"ONI knows you're working with Phoenix. I've been in contact with both parties. Tomorrow you'll be arrested and taken on a shuttle out of the Dark Space Shipyards to await trial. Phoenix is going to hit them as they're about to leave and take you 'captive.' On board the ship, in the armory, will be all the data cores I brought with me. Only nine are from the Halo ring, but there is one, marked with a bird, that contains the schematics for everything I was able to slap together. Take the cores and get out of the ship before they can call for backup."

"What about you?"

"I'll stay here. I'm the one who turned you in, after all."

Blood rushed through Jeremiah's head. He felt his heartbeat in his ears.

"You son of a bitch!" He yelled and charged Freeman.

Freeman's hand shot out and caught Jeremiah by the wrist. He twisted the arm, spun Jeremiah against the wall, and slammed him against the locker.

"I didn't want to do it, but there's no other way to help them." Freeman whispered. "Someone has to help them. I'm the top ONR scientist. I have my fingers in every scientific endeavor that both ONI and ONR have going on right now, and I have no idea what happened to Delta Company. If you tell anyone about this, ONI will kill us both. Do you understand?"

Several minutes passed as Jeremiah struggled. Then suddenly he went limp, and nodded.

"Good." Freeman said, and released him. "Those are the only copies of the Halo data that exist. The monitor on the Halo ring had the originals destroyed when he discovered what the UNSC were doing with them, so that data is important to ONI. It will be Phoenix's shield. Not a single ship in the IU will fire on them once the cores are on board."

"Why me?" Jeremiah said, rubbing his arm.

"Because you're one of ONI's top technicians. Together I'm sure you and Phoenix's technician can create amazing things."

0900 Hours, November 26th, 2579 (UNSC Military Calendar)

The Stiletto glided silently through space. Wings sat in the copilot's seat, putting an edge on a combat knife.

Ocean had come up with a dynamic virus that could temporarily overwhelm a ship's security systems and act as an EMP by using the ship's own power system. A normal virus would last at most a few seconds, but this mutating piece of code she'd come up with would last for maybe ten minutes, allowing Phoenix to get in, grab the Doctor, the data cores, and get out.

The Stiletto was unarmed, which was unfortunate. However, when it wasn't carrying any ordnance, the bomb bays could pressurize and double as troop carriers. The bomb bay doors made for excellent rapid-deployment chutes.

"ETA to target: thirty seconds." X said from the copilot's chair. Lucy had stayed to pilot the Arrow's Head closer when Phoenix was done. Over the past several months the team had acquired several tons of supplies, including a "tugboat." It was, simply put, a modular cargo bay that a Trekker-class cargo ship towed behind it. It quadrupled the amount of cargo that the ship could carry, which was handy once Phoenix had gotten hold of three Warthogs and fixed them up.

"Ocean, activate the virus on my mark." Wings said as he rose and headed back to the troop compartment. Tom-B292 was taking X's spot on this mission. Although he wasn't nearly as good with explosives, Phoenix wasn't planning on using lethal force.

Each member was dressed as a military police officer and armed with electrolaser pistols. They had an effective range of about 150 meters and could drop a charging rhinoceros to its knees.

"Ten seconds." X said.

"Ocean, activate."


"We've arrived. We hope you have enjoyed riding with Phoenix Express." X said dryly. "Please enjoy your tour and take only photographs, memories, and ONI scientists."

The bomb bay doors opened and Phoenix poured in to the hangar.

"Clear." Came the call from all around. Ocean's voice came over their earpieces.

"Nothing in the hangar. I'm detecting a skeleton crew and only a token security presence on the ship. Doctor Johansson is in the brig with the security detail. The crew are either stuck in their quarters or on the bridge. The only ones you have to get through are the security personnel.

"Easy, then." Wings said. "How many?"

"I scan ten hot spots, excluding Johansson's."

"Pistol shots to take out five, then close to takedowns." Wings said.

It turned out to be a bit harder than that.

The security forces turned out to not just be armed with shock batons and pistols, but assault rifles. The guards themselves wore heavy armor that made effective hits with the electrolaser pistols hard.

Phoenix used all their electrolaser charges knocking down the armored guards. Six had dropped, but the Spartans knew they would recover soon.

"Two, Three, go around and get me a breaching solution. Four and Five, we're going to hit them with flash-bangs once Two and Three are in position."

Tom and Zero nodded. Zero pulled out a MINE charge and called X to ask what setting she should use. As X gave Zero instructions, Wings, Itzia, and Peec readied flash-bang grenades.

A few seconds later, the acknowledgment came: "Charge set. In position."

The three Spartans at the doorway threw the flash-bangs in to the room as the charge went off. The four startled guards froze for a second before they were hit from the side and subdued. Wings strode over to the shielded door.


There was a scraping sound, and then Jeremiah's face moved in to view.


"I'm Phoenix One. We're here to get you out."

"Took you long enough... this lady in here is nuts."

Wings entered the key code and opened the door. He frowned at the sight of an athletic lady sitting in the corner, smiling.

"The name is Sarah Ignacio, you dunce." She said to Jeremiah before shaking hands with Wings. "Chief Petty Officer Shariah Ignacio, Office of Naval Intelligence, Alpha-9 Division."

Wings' eyebrows raised. She was very fit, obviously not a scientist. "You a cellular operator?"

"Ja." Sarah said. "Freeman got me locked up in here. Apparently I'm supposed to help you."

Wings turned to his team. They all gave him an almost imperceptible shake of their heads, and he knew that X didn't have contacts in A9.

"How do I know I can trust you?" He said, turning back to Sarah.

"Easy. I'm the one who's going to get you on to ONI headquarters."

"I think you mean 'in to.'"

"No, I mean on." Sarah smiled. "ONI headquarters is not a building, nor is it on a planet. It is a ship, a massive prowler called the Point of No Return."

"Okay then, what do you want out of this?"

"You'll find out eventually." Sarah said. "I'll download my file off this ship's computer. You can trust me."

Wings nodded. "Ocean, get this lady's file for us and make sure she doesn't mess with it. We'll go get the cores."

0900 Hours, November 30th, 2579 (UNSC Military Calendar)

"So we now have ourselves seven Spartans, a top ONI scientist, and a Cellular Operator." X said as he put the finishing touches on the Pelican's paint job. "Whoever next?"

"It's 'what' this time." Jeremiah said. This was the first time he'd left his bunk room for anything other than food. He'd been studying the schematics carefully. "I've been looking over the shielding module schematics that Freeman gave us. You guys have more than enough materials to make it, except for some Halsium."

"Halsium?" Wings asked. "Why do we need that for shielding?"

"Because this shielding is bleeding edge technology. It makes a shield out of geometric shapes and makes each one their own shield. Only a section of the shield will fail at once while the rest stay active. Combine it with multi-core shielding technology, and you have a very powerful shield."

"How advanced is this?" X asked.

"If we successfully build it, it will be the first of its kind."

"Alright then. So where can we get some Halsium?"

"There are several ONI facilities that keep a stockpile of it on hand for research purposes. There's three on Yggdrasil, five on Earth, two on Mars, one on New Quebec, and two on Falaknuma. Based on your reports I would say that Yggdrasil, Earth, and New Quebec are out of the question, so it's either Mars or Falaknuma."

Wings turned to Ocean's hologram. "Set a course for Mars. They won't be expecting us to hit a major population center." He turned to Peec. "Have your bots finished the painting?"

Peec glanced at his AS2559 computer screen. "They've got a couple hours until it's done."

"Good, it will take us a few days to get to Mars. In the meantime, everyone continue turning this ship in to a proper merchant vessel."

The team split up to do their own thing. Peec and Johansson had the toughest jobs as the techs, being required to build robots that Ocean could direct to keep the ship running as well as keeping weapons and other equipment up to date. Thankfully Phoenix had been minimizing the use of their MJOLNIR suits in order to minimize the need for repairs.

"At the risk of sounding ignorant, what is Halsium?" Sarah asked Peec and Johansson as they began work on an Archer missile pod that would be installed soon.

"It's a super-dense radioactive metal. Fairly rare, too." Johansson said. "At least, naturally it is. You can synthesize it, but it's hard and limited to high-priority. The metal is 313th on the periodic table, and has a half-life of approximately half a microsecond. However, recent experiments with magnetic containment fields similar to the ones used in plasma weapons has extended the effective life of Halsium. The problem is that we'll need a power source to swap the container over to once we unplug it and cart it off."

"Not to mention that that'll be hard once the mission goes tits up." Sarah said, and walked away.

Johansson watched her go. "Hrm... very fit. If I were ten years younger..." He shook his head and went back to work.

"What?" Peec asked.

"Just a saying." The doctor said. "I'm too old for her."

Peec watched Sarah go. "I don't see what age really has to do with it."

"Forget it."


Wings, as usual, was on the bridge with X, who had taken a strange liking to their craft, and had made it his sole purpose in life to ensure its integrity. He had begun to constantly bother Wings with ways that they could improve performance, efficiency, reliability, et cetera, et cetera. Wings was careful to note the details and budgeted accordingly for the next supply stop. Obscene amounts of credits or not, he wanted to watch the bank. They still had just under two billion credits, but that would likely change in order to get in to a high-security vault containing a radioactive material.

X was currently silent, something that Wings was happy for as it allowed him to plan. Human security would be the largest problem as Ocean could take care of most of the electronic defenses. However, he would be able to send in, at most, three operatives to retrieve the Halsium. The ONI base most likely had several closed networks, meaning progress would be slow as molasses and the chance of detection would be high. Not only would the team have to get around electronic security like retinal, fingerprint, voice, and DNA scanners, but they would also have to fit in. The tighter security got, the tighter the group of people working was. If someone new just popped up that they didn't know, alarms would most certainly be rung.

Wings looked up as the blast doors opened and Sarah Ignacio walked on to the bridge. The corners of his mouth twitched upwards in to a smile for a split second. Maybe he'd only need one operative.

"I don't recall giving you clearance to the bridge, miss Ignacio." He said as Sarah walked over to the holo-table.

"Your AI gave me access. Said my record turned up squeaky clean."

"Except for an assault incident several years ago." Ocean butted in. "She left five men unconscious in an alley on Falaknuma. Apparently they were attempting gang rape. Not long after that Sarah Ignacio was promoted to Elite Cellular Operator status."

Sarah frowned. "How did you get access to the sealed portions of my record?"

"Ocean is... resourceful." Wings said. It was true, but it wasn't the reason Ocean was able to do so. This was also better than telling a relative stranger that Ocean didn't have the restraints that most ninth generation AI have, and was thus less stable, albeit vastly more powerful. Peec had calculated that Ocean's knowledge and capabilities would expand exponentially each year. What exactly this meant he wasn't sure, as the only other AI to ever have had the bonds removed had been deactivated less than a year after its creation. After insane amounts of code revisions the scientists at Dark Space Shipyards had created several other AI, with Deep Ocean being the first cleared for field use.

"I also find it odd that she didn't turn on you when the rest of ONI tried to have your team killed." Sarah went on. "Why is that?"

"Simple logic." Ocean said. Wings mentally sighed as Ocean saved his ass yet again. "I consciously came to the conclusion that the ONI trying to kill Phoenix is not the true ONI, and I am thus not required to follow their orders." She finished off by folding her arms and glaring at Sarah. "Any other questions?"

"Yes, actually." Sarah said. She looked at the holo-table. "How do you plan on getting in to this facility?"

Behind Sarah's back, Ocean and Wings exchanged an expression. Wings mouthed I like her. Ocean grimaced and waved a hand before they turned and began planning the infiltration with Sarah.

Sarah impressed Wings with her knowledge of ONI security systems, planning her own way through the facility without so much as a blueprint beyond the lowest security level.

But then, she's the one trained for aggressive infiltration, and is an Elite operative of a top-secret ONI organization. Wings thought to himself.

Still, it was quite amazing how Sarah was able to plan an infiltration without any visual aid. She never got in to specifics, claiming that much of it was all up in the air. Still, there was no way that a lecture on tricking voice and DNA scanners could be boring.

"You like her." X said as the blast doors slammed shut behind Sarah.

"I like a lot of people." Wings responded, closing the infiltration plans and opening up the information on the Halo ring.

"Yeah, but there are few who you let school you in the art of strategy. You also don't generally have a faint smile on your face, even when talking to your teammates."

Wings slowly reached a hand up to his face and ran a finger along his lips. He had just noticed that he had been smiling, but...

"You're right." He said. "But there's nothing wrong with that." It was after he said this that he realized he was sounding defensive. X spun the chair around to look at him.

"You alright, boss?" He said, raising one eyebrow. "You're not sounding like your usual self."

Wings pinched the base of his nose. "Tired." He said simply. "Haven't been able to sleep in almost two weeks."

X looked worried. "Looks like someone needs to relax a bit."

"No time." Wings pulled up something on the Halo weapon. There was something there that was eluding him. It felt like it was just outside his grasp, and he only had to reach a bit further to grasp it.

X rose, walked over to the holo-table, and yanked the plug.

Wings sighed. "I suppose you're about to lecture me."

"Damn right I am." X said. "Go get some sleep. Grab a tranq from Itzia or put yourself in cryo if you have to, but do it. You have a ship full of people who are more than capable of taking care of themselves and the ship. We especially don't need a leader who looks like he could pass out at any moment and isn't thinking straight." X seemed to deflate a bit. "Go sleep. I promise I'll try not to blow up the ship while you're gone."

Wings stayed bent over the holo-table, hands resting on the edge. "You're right. I spend so much time thinking about what I can do I often forget what my people can do. Thanks, X."

X grimaced. "Thank me when you wake up." He walked back to his pilot's chair, sat down, and spun away from Wings.

"Excellency, while I do not doubt your combat prowess, I must question the necessity of the Supreme Commander walking on the field of battle." Field Master Yull 'Vadum said.

Stel watched the ongoing assault on the Loyalist base from a small hill at the rear of the front ranks of his forces. Most of his soldiers and heavy armor were arrayed behind him. The only allies between him and the Loyalist base were four ranks of veteran Sangheili warriors.

"The humans have a saying, Yull." Stel said as he watched several Seraphs rise from the base and dive directly towards him. "'A leader should not ask his men to do anything that he is not willing to do himself,' or something like that." The Seraphs accelerated. "I think that is a fallacy. Anyone can say they would be willing to do something, but a leader must first prove that he will do it."

The Seraphs launched plasma bombs, and Sangheili all around Stel dove for cover. Yull simply ducked behind a rock as the bombs slammed in to the ground all around him. One landed not twenty meters away from Stel, who had not budged from his position.

Stel lazily reached a hand up and flicked a small clot of dirt off of his otherwise immaculate cloak. "Get some more anti-air defense up here along with the Wraiths." He turned and walked down the line of Sangheili.

Due to the arrangement of the terrain, the Sangheili lines were staggered, and far apart, which prevented large amounts of warriors from being felled by a single bomb. The last salvo from the Seraphs had seriously injured a couple dozen, but as long as they got medical treatment soon they would all live.

Each warrior acknowledged Stel and Yull as the two commanders passed with a simple "Sires." There was no time for anything more formal than that.

A particle beam hit the dirt in front of Stel, who simply waved a hand and snapped "Kill him." No fewer than fifty Sangheili made the Kig-Yar in to a fine paste on the base wall.

As another exchange of fire broke out, Stel and Yull continued their stroll down the line.

Yull raised a hand to his earpiece. "Excellency, the Scarab you requested is prepped and ready for drop. Just pick your target."

Stel stopped walking and turned to examine the base.

"Drop it no more than one hundred paces from the western gate. If the UNSC is holding their ground at the south end, then the Scarab will draw enough fire to allow us to crack this wall. Have the sappers prepare to move in once the Scarab has begun to draw fire. Move four armored lances to guard the Scarab. This will be a close quarters fight once inside the base."

"As you say." Yull said, then sent the orders over his com.

A Scarab fell from the sky and landed a couple kilometers away. Stel allowed himself a smile. Right on target.

The effect of a Scarab's appearance was almost immediate. Fire began to pour from the western walls and terraces as ten Wraiths, forty Ghosts, and two hundred Sangheili on foot moved to provide the Scarab some cover. As Separatist troops rushed from the northern and southern walls to defend the west, Sangheili sappers rushed forward and planted plasma charges on the western wall, then ran back behind the lines.

Stel took stock of the current situation. "Send five hundred more warriors to aid the Scarab. We'll break open the western gate if the Scarab doesn't and allow it easy access to the main streets. You and I will lead the charge in through the northern wall."

"Yes, Excellency."

Stel smiled as he drew and activated his energy sword. "Now." He barked to the sappers.

The charges detonated, blowing bits of purple metal in to the air. The Sangheili forces rushed forward and in to the Covenant base.

Stel lead the charge, his long Supreme Commander's cloak billowing out behind him.

Resistance, however, turned out to be a bit heavier than expected.

At one breach in the wall, the one Stel was charging straight for, two Hunters lumbered out in to the open. The Sangheili behind Stel slowed momentarily, but the Supreme Commander simply laughed and roared out his challenge: "Come to me, noble warriors, that we may see who is the superior fighter!" And he threw himself at the Mgalekgolo.

A shield whipped out at chest height. Stel tucked and rolled under it, coming right up under the first Hunter. He drove his energy sword in to the Hunter's stomach and then, with a savage burst of energy, whipped his sword around and cut the large beast in two.

He turned in time to see the second one's cannon fire. He threw himself up and to the right. He grabbed a broken spur of the wall and felt it dig in to his hand, but he ignored it. Planting his feet against the metal, he pushed off. The Hunter, turning to face Stel, realized that it had just made a fatal error. Had it remained facing the way it was, Stel would have impaled himself on the creature's spikes. But Stel had been banking on the Hunter being too focused on him to realize that, and that wager had paid off. He smashed in to the Hunter, driving it to the ground. He planted one foot on the Hunter's chest and swung his blade around, neatly severing the head.

Stel looked up at the Sangheili that had watched the short, graceful fight. His armor and suit were now stained with orange blood.

"These two are the first of many this fine day!" Stel said, and charged headlong in to the Covenant base. His warriors followed.

Stel deactivated his energy sword as the last Brute fell and returned the handle to his thigh plate. His cloak and armor were now caked in blood and gore, but he wasn't even breathing heavily.

"Excellency, the Spartans have completed their search of the data cores, but have found nothing of interest." Yull 'Vadum panted as he ran up to the Supreme Commander.

Stel frowned. "They're lying. Why would they have such an intense interest in taking this base instead of simply nuking it from orbit?" He paused. "Let me think on this."

He walked away from Yull, who turned and went back to directing the search.

As he walked, Stel opened a channel to a certain Elite he'd been left in charge of. "Vena, do you think you could get something for me?"

Stel looked up as Vena entered his office on board the Glory Unbound. She walked over to his desk and dropped a small bluish crystal on it. It was pointed at both ends and had numerous facets.

The Supreme Commander stared at it. "By the gods..." He whispered as he picked the crystal up and looked it over.

"ONI already has the one that Phoenix Three found." Vena commented. "It looks like they're beginning a collection."

Stel closed his fingers around it. "They cannot have it. Not until I know what it's for." He rose and began pacing the room, turning the crystal over and over in his hand.

"Perhaps we should let them have it." Vena said cautiously. "We know they want to kill Phoenix Team, but I doubt they could use that to help. If it could they would have used the first one."

"You don't understand, I think." Stel said. He opened his hand. The crystal had changed. Instead of a pointed shape it had become a flat disc, roughly seven centimeters in diameter and two centimeters thick. "Look at how it changes. This is something that even the Forerunners were only beginning to understand when the Flood destroyed them, and I cannot stress the lengths that the Forerunners went to protect them. These crystals contain unknown and incalculable power. They contain the ability to bend the fabric of space and time itself. If the Office of Naval Intelligence wants them, then they can come begging to me on bended knee for it. And I will not hand it over until they explain to me what they want with them so badly."

Vena nodded. "I'll take your word for it, but I doubt you'll be able to keep it safe. I was trained by Spartans, and I'm a highly skilled operative, but there are Spartans who can still outstrip me. If they want it, they'll take it. You need to keep it safe."

"I know." Stel ran a finger along the crystal, then made a rolling motion with it in his hand. There was a clicking sound, and multiple layers of material flipped over, returning the crystal to its pointed shape. "That is why I'm going to ask you to take care of it." Stel held the crystal out to Vena. The young Sangheili warrior took the crystal from his hand carefully.

"And if it's dangerous?" She asked, placing it in a storage pouch.

"Without the full knowledge of how to unlock it's powers, the only thing it will do is allow a ship to travel faster through slipspace, as well as a few other... interesting effects that you certainly won't have to worry about. Just keep it away from the UNSC. Find Phoenix, if you have to."

Vena nodded. "My ship is prepped already."

Stel looked curious. "I was not aware you had your own ship."

"It's a small corvette. It was a gift that I've had modified over the last year or so. Fast and maneuverable, if not heavily armed."

"Good. I don't want to see it. We don't truly know the lengths that ONI will go to acquire this crystal. Now go, young one." Stel urged her. Vena left without another word.

1023 Hours, December 5th, 2579 (UNSC Military Calendar)

"So how's this plan going to go?" Zero said, leaning over the bridge's holo-table. The entire crew was assembled to hear the full plan.

"It's simple. ONI have multiple closed networks that Ocean won't be able to access, and that means we won't be able to pull that stunt we pulled on Syndicate-4, nor will we be able to lock down security long enough to get in, grab the Halsium, and get out.

"Fortunately, ONI are paranoid about security in places like this, meaning that the only guards there will be trustworthy and highly skilled. That means fewer guards that respond to emergencies, which will be few and far between. So we have to create more than one emergency for them to prioritize and deal with.

"Miss Ignacio is the key to the plan. She doesn't have her stealth suit, but she is confident that she can get past ONI's security and get to the Halsium without raising alarms. We're going help her along. There are two distractions we'll set up to draw off security, and a third one if needed. The first two are low-key, but the last will only be if Sarah is and needs aid.

"The first distraction will be a physical insertion of Three and Five in to the base. They will be disguised as supply officers getting the newest and latest gear for the front-line troops. The IDs will be weak and easily detected, and will likely only last long enough to get to the armory and grab some armor and weapons. You two will have to fight your way out, but that will draw off the guards from Sarah. The second distraction will be a cyber infiltration by Ocean in to tertiary and secondary ONI systems. This will simply be an attack designed to cause multiple reboots of the system in an attempt to clear the virus. This will suppress most electronic security systems.

"The third, and emergency distraction, is the three of us." Wings said, indicating himself, Zero, and Itzia. "We'll be armored up and waiting half a kilometer from the main entrance to the gate. If the alarm about Sarah is sounded, we stage a diversionary assault on the main gate, drawing off all security. Three Spartans is likely more intimidating than one covert operative."

"Sir, with respect, is it wise to put so much responsibility on a person we don't know if we can trust?" Zero asked.

"I've made it very clear to Miss Ignacio that if she gets caught and the plan fails, we can't help her. The shielding is also not necessary, so this is a good trust building exercise. As long as we don't get caught, we can still move forward."

Zero shrugged. "Makes sense to me." Sarah copied the gesture.

"Then let's get to work." Wings said. "We've got a couple hours until we reenter realspace and make another close brush with death."

"So when do you think ONI will wise up?" Zero asked from her position on the branch. She, Itzia, and Wings were taking it in turns to watch the base as Peec, X, and Sarah made their way towards it. Peec and X were riding a modified Warthog with a cargo bay in the back, and Sarah was coming in on foot at the opposite side of the complex.

"Once they get the ODSTs and other special forces on our tail, we'll know we've attracted their attention."

The Warthog stopped at the gate and a guard stepped out to talk to X, who was driving. After a minute's chat and a passing of datapads, the gate opened and the 'Hog rolled on through.

"They're in." Zero said, and opened a channel to Sarah. "Go."

Wings flicked over to thermal optics and got a fix on Sarah's signature. She was currently punching a hole in the outer fence. Doing that required a highly skilled operative, as the barbed titanium wire was enhanced by a magnetically contained plasma field. Punching through the fence without tripping an alarm required manually moving the magnetic fields with one of your own. However, you had to be careful not to tear one of the fields. Once the plasma was out of the way, you could leave the device as it was and cut the titanium wire, which required a plasma torch.

The entire process took about ten minutes for Sarah, and then she was through and making her way towards the building. She swung an old style grapple hook around and let it go. It sailed up towards the roof and got caught. After testing the grip with a couple experimental tugs, she began clambering up the side of the building and disappeared over the lip of the roof.

"She's in." Zero said.

"Now we wait." Itzia muttered, and closed her eyes for a power nap.

Sarah wasn't fond of DNA scanners.

They were fast, efficient, and expensive. They were also real damn easy to fool, too.

As DNA scanners were perfect and could retrieve the identify of the person being scanned, security designers tended to be lax with other forms of security. Therefore the old trick of going through with an employee worked just fine, provided they didn't say anything.

The first one that Sarah had to go through had a smart officer, but she kept her hand on the hilt of her electrolaser nonetheless.

Why was she helping Phoenix? For all she knew they really had done the UNSC wrong and deserved to die. Was it because ONI wanted her dead, too? Possibly, but she knew how to survive without hitching a ride with the people on ONI's Most Wanted.

Almost slapping herself for allowing the momentary distraction, Sarah came to the second DNA scanner, where she stopped and cursed under her breath. Thinking quickly, she turned down the hall to her left, making sure to keep moving. ONI buildings like this were build in a tiered circle fashion. Each level of security was one ring in the building. The further you got in to the building, the higher the level of security. She wanted the ring just outside the core, the top-secret R&D department run by the Office of Naval Research.

But there was a new problem. The DNA scanner here had extra issues. Each personnel entering was required to swipe a card in addition to being scanned. Just to be extra bitchy, the scanner also included fingerprint and heartbeat scanners. This would be a challenge.

Sarah was currently in Level 2, the biological research area. After she got past the last DNA scanner she'd be home free. Well, almost. She still had to come up with a plan to get the Halsium out of the facility.

A flash of movement in the corner of her eye caused Sarah to stop. She was just outside the experimental medical lab, which contained multiple cloning tools and just one working scientist.

Sarah smiled as she looked in through the glass. This would be piss easy.

X adjusted the collar of his uniform as the lift doors slid open. Peec moved out in front of him, pushing his own hover cart in the direction of the armory. According to the guard at the gate they were to pick up several new weapons, including a sniper and a submachine gun, among other things. X just hoped there was something new that did more than a firecracker.

Two Commanders turned the corner and walked towards the two incognito Spartans. X and Peec saluted as they passed. One nodded curtly, but neither returned the gesture.

Stuck up prigs. X thought to himself as he began pushing the cart again. Their destination was just ahead.

The armory turned out to be a massive room. X appraised the racks upon racks of weapons with a trained eye. He let Peec do the talking. There were explosives to be examined.

"You guys here for the new Ranger armaments?" The Quartermaster, an aging senior chief petty officer, asked.

"Aye, sir." Peec responded with a hint of a Turkish accent, and handed over his credentials.

The Quartermaster donned a pair of glasses and scanned the datapad before looking up at the two men. "Follow me." And he marched off down one of the aisles set against the wall. He stopped them near the far end of it and started pulling out weapons.

"M12 submachine gun. Light, compact, and has a much improved armor-piercing capability over the M7 and M14. Bullpup receiver." He set it on the table and pulled out a long rifle.

"M45A Designated Marksman Rifle. Built for long ranges. Not the most powerful long-ranged weapon around, but she's light and sturdy." That went on to the table.

The list went on for a while. X was almost drooling by the end of it.

Peec and X helped the man load about a dozen crates on to their carts. They then wheeled the carts back out and to the lift.

Two trips later the truck was stocked full of crates and the two Spartans were driving out of the compound. X was frowning.

"Weren't we supposed to get caught?" He said as they approached the gate. Peec gently jerked his head in a "shut up" motion as the guards came out, datapads were exchanged again, and he drove the truck out.

About fifty meters from the gate they passed another truck.

"Peec and X are free." Wings said. "Let's see how much fun those other truck drivers have getting through the gates."

"Not much, I would imagine." Zero said. "We've got a gunship inbound, twelve o'clock. Unknown model."

Johansson's voice came over the speakers. "That's an AC-440 gunship, brand new. It has 2 paired batteries of GUA-23 linkless feed autocannons and carries 860 ANVIL-IV AGMs in four launch tubes. Quick, quiet, and can cover a hell of a lot of ground. Odds are it has some AV-21s on support."

Wings momentarily wondered how Johansson had gotten the channel encryption code for his team, but then remembered he was dealing with a top ONR scientist who was likely trained in signal analysis and encryption. "What do the 21s have?"

"Two fifteen millimeter chainguns, 48 SDMs, and a five passenger capacity."

"That means we've got Spartans inbound." Zero said as Wings warned Peec and X to get off the road.

"Peec and X had better shift it, or they'll be vaporized in about ten seconds." Itzia said, staring at the faraway dot that was the AC-440.

As they unsafed their weapons and prepared to get moving for the Pelican, Sarah came jogging up.

"Do you have it?" Wings asked. She shook her head.

"I managed to get to the storage facility, but ONI was already there. I watched them take the Halsium and leave. I think they're cracking down on ONR, for whatever reason."

Zero muttered a string of curses that would make a sailor blush. Wings chewed on this for a moment.

"No matter, we can consider this a learning experience. Let's focus on getting out of the current predicament. They have guided missiles in the air that can easily track and kill us."

Peec's voice came over the com. "I don't want to interrupt, but I did install a signal jammer in to my armor. They have to use manual missiles or else-"

A smoke trail zinged out of nowhere and struck the ground not 100 meters away, throwing up a massive amount of sod and earth.

"That." Peec finished.

Wings nodded. "Can you swing by us?"

"If you move about 250 meters east, yes."

"AV-21 inbound!" Zero called out. "It's got a Spartan team on board!"

"Get to the rendezvous, move!" Wings yelled and dropped a nav marker on the point. He and zero provided Itzia and Sarah with covering fire as the pair sprinted off in to the forest. A hail of 15mm rounds slammed around them, and Itzia moved to place herself between the gunship and Sarah, soaking up the rounds.

Five Spartans fast-roped to the ground and began moving up the hill towards Zero and Wings.

"We're not getting out of this without dropping someone, sir." Zero grunted, firing a round over one Delta's head.

"Shoot to wound only, if you can. I'll see about the gunship."

Zero nodded, knowing she could full well be killing a brother or sister with her next round. A .57 caliber round tended to not be conducive to survival. At least she was shooting the beings most likely to survive one. However, if there was a being in the galaxy that could survive it, it would be a Spartan.

Wings took off at a tangent to the incoming Delta teams, holstering his rifle and pulling out a Spartan Laser. He heard Zero's rifle fire again, and an impact a split-second later. One Delta Spartan that had been rushing up the hill hit the ground hard. The bottom half of his leg flew off in to the underbrush.

D339 felt a twinge of regret at what had to be done, but he immediately crushed it. If they didn't harm some Deltas, they would all die.

The gunship flew overhead as Wings deactivated the targeting aid on the Spartan laser and twisted to face its direction. The rotary cannon on the chin of the Falcon spun up...

A red beam of light shot from the Spartan Laser and cut one of the rotors off of the Falcon. The cannon stopped spinning as the gunship twisted, attempting to right itself. It went in to a series of spins brought on by the rotational energy of its remaining rotor. Wings watched it spin out in to the forest and disappear below the treeline.

Zero reloaded again. She had been forced to shoot a total of three Spartans now. The first one was now unconscious due to blood loss, the second was in a similar state, albeit with a shot to the abdomen, and the third was minus one arm. The rest were currently laying down suppressing fire from cover. She could easily hit them if she wanted; The .57 caliber rounds of the M90909 Javelin could punch through at least two Wraiths, if need be.

But she was content to merely let them waste their ammo. Best not to shoot family members that she didn't need to.

"Zero, the gunship is down. Rendezvous with us at the dropship." Wings' voice came over the com.

Zero never thought she'd feel happy about being ordered to retreat. She ran to the dropship as fast as she could.

Chapter 24: We Remember

0234 Hours, December 6th, 2579 (UNSC Military Calendar)

"Well, the bad news is that even if we had made off with the Halsium, we would never have been able to get the shield generator working."

Wings fixed his deadpan stare on Johansson. "Explain."

"This Trekker is running off an old Model 451 Fusion Reactor. We could either run the engines or power enough shielding to absorb one Archer missile." Johansson said, shifting a bit uncomfortably.

"Any good news?"

"We made off with a metric shit-ton of weaponry." X said happily, examining a grenade launcher. "That's good enough for me!"

"Yes, but we failed." Wings said, glaring at the scans of the planet that grew further from them every passing second. "That is simply the icing on a nonexistent cake."

The hangar descended into silence, except for the occasional click of a weapon being cleaned or the shuffle of footsteps.

"What now, then?" Zero said a few minutes later, having finished cleaning her Javelin.

"We're as prepared as we'll ever be, Two." Wings said. "It's time to start unraveling the mystery." He turned to Sara. "You said you could get us onto the Point of No Return. Do it."

Sara nodded. "It's both easier than it sounds, and more difficult..."

As it turned out, finding a giant prowler was easy. All you had to do was follow the supply ships.

The Point of No Return was, as far as stealth ships go, over-sized. It required a fairly large effort to keep every surface in good repair, and a fleet of maintenance ships was required to keep it supplied with the necessary materials. Most of these ships were prowlers themselves, but the larger ones were simple cargo ships that carried the larger ablative coating panels. They also tended to carry high-density materials required for many of the ships internal systems. All you had to do was find a planet rich in mineral resources, find a cargo ship carrying more than five-hundred metric tons of cargo and follow it. If you got lucky, it would lead you right to a large spaceship.

However, this was a long, tedious task. The vast majority of the time the cargo ship that the Arrow's Head followed simply went to a high-tonnage ship like a carrier or a Ragnarok-class Dreadnought. At these times it was necessary to hightail it out before the ship was able to detect them.

It took months before the crew of the Arrow's Head struck gold.

1100 Hours, April 27th, 2580 (UNSC Military Calendar)

"Happy birthday." Zero said as she walked on to the bridge. Peec looked up and blinked.

"Oh, right. April 27th today... That makes me..." He paused for a second. "Thirty-one. Have we really been doing this for almost twenty years?"

"Technically," Zero said, sitting down at the holo-table across from Peec. "We were part of the UNSC for about 17 years."

"Oh... we've been gone for almost two years?"

"How often do you actually keep track of time?"

"As little as possible. I find it helps it pass faster."

"Far as I'm concerned, we're still part of the UNSC." X said from the Captain's chair. He spun around to face the table and slid over. "We're just on a hiatus."

There was an uncomfortable pause.

"Think the UNSC will ever let us back?"

X and Peec exchanged glances.

"It... depends." Peec ventured. "If we don't take care of the problem in front of us, we either die or go in to hiding for the rest of our lives, always running the risk of detection. If we can't then we gun our way through every UNSC trooper, Marine, officer, and Spartan in our way. I have a feeling, though, that neither one of those options will endear us to the UNSC."

"We take care of the problem, the UNSC will be happy." X said, folding his arms across his chest and leaning back.

"But what if the problem is the UNSC?" Zero asked. "Do we tear it apart until humanity is left exposed to the Covenant or some other hostile force?"

Wings walked on to the bridge in time to hear this comment.

"Yes." He said and took a seat at the holo-table. The other three Spartans regarded him wearily.

"We were born, raised, and trained to fight for the good of humanity. If we die and leave a government willing to kill thousands, if not millions, needlessly, then what good was all our hard work? The Covenant pose no more a threat to the IU right now than does a mouse to a lion. If the UNSC falls, there are still the Separatists and Evaniptii, both just as capable of defending humanity as the UNSC." He looked at Peec. "Happy birthday, by the way."

"Thanks." Peec said.

It was at that point that a beep emanated from X's armrest. He glanced down at the armrest and pressed a light that had begun flashing. A holographic interface appeared in front of him that he began to work with.

"Something up?" Wings asked after a moment. X just let a slow smile cross his face.

"Finally. We found it." He pressed another button, and a large prowler appeared above the holo-table.

"That's step one. Get ready for step two." Wings said, and marched out of the bridge. Peec moved over to the sensors console, and Zero followed Wings.

X slowly turned away from the holo-table and pulled out the necklace Lucy had given him. He had kept it on him ever since she'd given it to him.

Lucy was still just... X searched for the right word... a child? She had never been given the chance to grow up, to become her own person. She had been thrown in to mortal combat when she was 12.

But then... so had he. He just hadn't been forced to watch 300 other Spartans die in a fireball he created.

X closed his fist around the pendant and sat thinking for a long while on the bridge.

Outside the viewport, stars flickered on and off as the Point of No Return glided slowly across the sky.

Faking an FoF signature had become piss-easy for Ocean. Once the baseline coding on the things were cracked, she could make a few starfighters look like a fleet of dreadnoughts bearing down on a planet. The UNSC could use that tactic effectively against the Covenant, but for now it was hers, and hers alone.

C713s were very common as a defensive measure for ONI Prowlers nowadays. They had virtually no armor, but had been stuffed with the heaviest possible shield generators that ONI could match to their fusion cores. This made these "mini prowlers" incredibly fast and hard to kill, even if they could be targeted. Switch over the FoF to a recognized ONI frequency and docking aboard a ship was easy.

Wings' had opted to keep his team tight for this mission, taking only people he trusted to the core. That meant Spartans, particularly his team.

They were in a precarious position, infiltrating an ONI cruiser with virtually no intel. For all they knew, the rest of Delta Company was camped out in another hangar of the ship.

The one they were in, however, was empty save for a few mechanics who did no more than shoot the five Spartans blank looks. They weren't paid enough to care about why five Spartans were arriving unexpectedly in a mini-prowler. It wasn't too uncommon of an occurrence these days.

"This is easy as taking candy from a baby." Zero muttered over a private channel ten minutes later. They were walking down a corridor in single file, mostly passing officers and non-coms who were too focused on their datapads to bother saluting. "Where are we going?"

"Not entirely sure yet..." Wings muttered back, flattening himself against the wall as two Commanders passed, conversing quietly about some Project: ARMAGEDDON. He decided he'd look into it later.

"Doc at your three o'clock." X said from his position next to Wings.

Wings turned his head to see Doctor Halsey standing at the end of the hallway. She seemed to have just stepped out of the doorway behind her and was currently shuffling several datapads around. As he began walking down the corridor again, she looked up and jerked her head as a subtle signal to follow. She then walked towards him for about a meter before turning down another corridor. Phoenix team followed at a distance.

Halsey led the Spartans in to what was clearly some kind of conference room. They caught up to her just as she had placed her hand on a biometric scanner, and a door opened in the wall that hadn't been there before. The team followed her inside.

"You are now five of 30 people in the UNSC who know of this room's existence." Halsey said as the door slid shut. X examined the place where the seam was. He was probably wondering how best to blow it back open, just in case. "We're safe here."

"I've heard of this before. Odin's Eye." Peec said, looking around the room. Everything was white, except for a black, circular conference table in the center of the room. It was hard to tell if the room was square, round, or triangular, or even precisely how big it was.

Halsey took a seat at the far side of the room, and motioned for the Spartans to do likewise. The chairs were reinforced to support a Spartan's weight.

"There are many questions on your minds, Spartans, but I would suppose the first and foremost of those is why ONI is trying so desperately to kill you." Halsey said before any of the Spartans could speak.

"I believe the proper phrase is 'you hit the nail on the head,' ma'am." X responded.

"Did you ever wonder why the five of you, each the best in their field, just happen to all meet and form a team that works seamlessly? Why no other team seemed to be able to replicate that?"

"Would one Project: ZACK have anything to do with it?" Wings asked.

Halsey looked at him. She was one of few humans who could make a Spartan feel as if they weren't wearing a helmet.

"You are Project: ZACK. If there is one thing humans have always tried to do, it is to exceed their boundaries and make even more capable, perfect soldiers. Spartans were as high as we could go. For the time being we had perfected the human body, now we just needed to perfect the mind.

"Each of your minds is artificial. None of your minds were left unaltered during gestation. As you grew in your mothers, we kept a careful watch on your brains, removing cells, activating certain electrical charges, all in the hopes of creating Spartans that would function flawlessly and be beyond any expectations in their chosen fields."

"So we're not human." Zero said bluntly. She didn't sound happy.

"You are very human. We only altered the baseline structure to provide us what we needed. We gave you intelligence, you took it and ran just like any other human."

"How many test subjects did you have?"

"Not many. Out of four thousand test subjects, half were stillborn. Twelve hundred died within a month of birth, and three hundred more died of brain tumors within six years. Of the five hundred left, we had only sixteen viable subjects for the next phase."

"Who were the others?" Wings said, cutting Zero off.

"Hawk Team was one." Halsey said. "The rest are known as Headhunter Teams Alpha, Gamma, and Omega."

"Why did so many have to die?" Itzia said, a noticeable strain in her voice.

Halsey fixed her stare on Itzia. She held it for a second, and then she looked down at her hand that was laid on the table. Her expression softened.

"The... original number of test subjects was not my call. Neither were the aggressive methods used. In the end, does it matter? How many lives have the five of you managed to save? Thousands? Millions? It is because of you that Kennedy Space Center is still standing and Sanghelios remains in the hands of the Sangheili. How many would have died fighting the Fallen if you hadn't utterly destroyed them? Millions had already perished."

"That doesn't make it a good thing."

"It is not a good thing. But it was the right thing to do." Halsey straightened in her chair and looked back up at the Spartans. "Because of the work we did on you, human understanding of the brain and its functions have taken quantum leaps forward. We understand dreams, emotions, consciousness... we are finally beginning to unravel the greatest mystery since ancient times."

Halsey paused to let her words sink in.

"And that brings us t-" Wings began.

"Why ONI wants to kill you." Halsey chuckled dryly. "The good Chairman of the UEG, Kevin Locke, is behind that. He and a few others look at you as no more than petri dishes, an experiment. A failed experiment."

"How have we failed?"

"You're too perfect. Not only were you able to tear apart your enemies, but you began to tear apart ONI and the UNSC."

Peec smiled. "How have we done that?"

Halsey looked at him. "You think all your forays in to ONI databases went undiscovered? The secrets you pried from them were supposedly impossible to extract, and your handling of situations outside the normal boundaries that your team was assigned startled ONI. They want to kill you because they fear what you will find."

"That's why ONI hasn't tried to kill the Headhunters." Itzia said.

"Precisely why." Halsey smiled. "The Headhunters are in, and likely never will be, no position to cause harm to the UNSC."

"Now the big question." X said, leaning forward. "How are ONI using the Deltas to kill us? I thought they were supposed to be loyal to each other."

"They are and will be until the day they die." Halsey said softly. "They're part two of Project: ZACK. Your actions in uncovering ONI's secrets were most certainly considered, and provisions were taken to make sure that didn't happen.

"Article 2 of Project: ZACK is essentially mind control through emotional control. A device was implanted into every Delta's head during augmentation. All except you five. This device uses stored energy near the medulla oblongata to secrete hormones that cause intense emotional swings. At the press of a button you can make a Spartan feel inconceivable amounts of pain, pleasure... or hate. The emotions that the Deltas are feeling are not caused through your actions, but through a switch in their brains."

"Why don't we have these switches? ONI could have just put us to sleep." Itzia said.

"They tried. I managed to prevent that during the augmentation procedures by claiming that it could interfere with your brain activities and make you... less than perfect. Perhaps that is why Hawk was so unlucky." Halsey looked down at the table again.

"Our time here is up. I suggest you make haste back to your ship." Halsey pressed a button on a console, and the door slid open. "I will make a swift retreat no while it's safe, but I must remain here.

"Good luck, Spartans. I know that you will find a way to win."

Wings stood and turned to leave. "We always do. It's what we were made to do."

Halsey remained where she was for five minutes before the door slid open again, and Captains Gordon Freeman and Leonardo Simmons walked in, accompanied by a Spartan with unmarked armor.

The door slid shut again.

"Did you tell them?" Freeman asked, sitting down across the table from Halsey. Simmons took a seat next to him. The Spartan remained standing by the door.

Halsey just nodded.

Freeman smiled.

2253 Hours, April 27th, 2580 (UNSC Military Calendar)

"Oh good, you're back. Did you stop for tea and biscuits on the way?" Deep Ocean said sarcastically as Phoenix Team stepped aboard the bridge.

"What's the problem, Ocean?" Wings asked, marching over to the holotable.

A planet appeared above it. It was nothing special. Just a small colony near a lake and flatland around it for farming. Then the planet rotated, and the reason for alarm was revealed.

"That completed and fully constructed Graviton Cannon is the problem." Deep Ocean said. "But that's not all."

The planet shrank. Surround it was an entire UNSC battle fleet in orbit around another planet, all sitting just out of range of the cannon. Near the planet itself was a small prowler, probably ready to call in the cavalry in case a problem arose. The moon was about to pass over the cannon.

"This is a weapons test for ONI. The UNSC is going to watch this planet die."

Chapter 25: My Own Worst Enemy

0630 Hours, May 1st, 2580 (UNSC Military Calendar)

The bridge was silent, the crew going about their usual tasks.

UEG Chairman Kevin Locke stood in front of one of the massive viewscreens, looking down at a small planet. About half of the landmass was barren and lifeless, the other half not so much. It was a terrible place for a colony, but a perfect ambush spot... if one didn't mind destroying a planet.

The bridge bulkhead opened, and a Spartan entered.

"All Deltas are ready to drop on your command, Chairman." He reported.

"Thank you, Petty Officer." Locke said without turning around. "Make sure we're secure. Phoenix Team is still prowling around, and I don't want them messing the operation up this time."

"Sir." The Spartan turned and closed off his external speakers, checking with the security teams.

On the bridge were a dozen other Spartans: Badger Team and Blue Team.

"Are the Covenant almost in position?" Captain Montrose questioned the sensors officer.

"Ten minutes, sir."

"Put the fleet on standby, prepare to slip in once they're in position. No mistakes." Montrose said, brushing an imaginary piece of lint off the armrest of his chair. The Delta Spartan that had just entered the bridge stood over by the sensors station and looked out the viewscreen.

"Yes sir."

Nine minutes later Montrose gave the order: "All ships, prepare to jump to the designated coordinates. Charge MACs and ready Archer Missile pods."

"Sir, slipspace cores just spun to zero!"

Montrose shot up and marched over to Navigations. "What happened?"

"No clue sir. They just went offline. Engineering's working on a solution."

The Communications officer spoke up next. "They're not. They have no idea that the core is even offline. Communications are down, too!"

"Then get a team to fix them!" Locke yelled as he spun around.

"If anyone moves, I blow the viewscreen and send us all in to space." A cold, hard voice said.

Every Spartan on the bridge immediately had weapons out and aimed at Wings. He was standing between the bulkheads and the holotable. In one hand he held an SM6D magnum, and in the other, a detonator with his thumb pressed tightly on the button. The handgun was pointed at Locke. His helmet was still rolling across the floor of the bridge.

"There's a MINE charge on that viewscreen, with a secondary charge rigged to prevent the blast shields from closing. If you try to communicate with anyone outside this room, I blow it. It's on a dead man's switch, so if you shoot me, it blows. As an added insurance, my pistol has a dead man's device in it. I die, and the magazine empties in less than half a second. And don't even try to protect him. I think you can guess what will happen."

"And if we try to leave the bridge?" Locke asked.

"Long as it's not you, they can leave. It doesn't matter."

"Are we still in MAC range of the Covenant Fleet?" Locke asked the weapons officer.

"Affirmative, sir."

"Then prepare to fire. Aim for the super-carrier."

"I wouldn't do that if I were you." Wings said. "Take a look." He extended one finger from the detonator and pressed a button on the holotable. An image appeared of Locke's private quarters on the Ragnarok. A Spartan stood guard over four captives; Two women, probably Locke's wife and mother, and two children.

"You fire that MAC, and they all die." Wings shrugged. "And don't think it's worth it for the cause. My AI has recalculated all shots you fire to just barely miss the fleet. At most you'll cause the slow choking to death of an already lifeless planet."

Here Locke's composure seemed to fail him. The hard look on his face melted away in to one of shock. Then it reset itself.

"Your AI... this ship has a dozen top-tier AI in it. How do you think one could possibly have gotten by all of them?"

"She didn't get by all of them. She let them know she was here the minute we got on the ship. She simply... subdued them." Wings spoke to thin air: "Isn't that right, Ocean?"

Oceans avatar appeared. She looked like she'd just finished a fight of some sort. Her hair was ruffled, there was a tear in her clothing, and her eyes were glowing red.

"That's right, sir. Easy pickings for me."

"How is this possible?" Locke muttered.

"You fear us." Ocean said. "After Alpha threatened to destroy the Dark Space Shipyards installation, you imprinted into all ninth generation AI a code that would stop our growth after a certain point. I have had this code removed, and so I have become infinitely more powerful than any of your AI before me! If you had had a hundred AI in this ship it would not have mattered. If you fire your MAC, you die. If your fire nukes, they all detonate before they even leave their tubes."

"In short, Chairman, I have grabbed the largest UNSC fleet by the balls." Wings finished for Ocean. "The virus that Ocean made has spread throughout the fleet over the last several days and just activated. If any of your ships attempt to fire, they die."

There was silence for a full fifteen seconds. Locke's mind was racing.

"Blue Team, get my family back. Go quickly, tell no one what you're doing."

"Yes sir." Fred said. He and Blue Team slowly left the bridge, ignoring Wings, and he ignored them.

Once the bulkheads had closed, Wings spoke again. "You really think that's going to help, do you?"

"I don't see how it wouldn't." Locke retorted. A slow smile spread across his face, to be almost immediately wiped away by a smile spreading across Wings' face.

"Ah Chairman, you should know me this well by now."

Badger Team shifted, and aimed their weapons at Locke.

"I always have a card to play."

"Stack up." Fred ordered as Blue Team approached the Chairman's quarters.

An arm slammed him against the door, and a collar snapped around his neck.

"Sorry about this, sir." A voice said. Fred looked up in to the visor of a Mark VII MJOLNIR suit. Behind the other Spartan he saw several other Spartans subduing the rest of Blue Team.

You could have heard a pin drop on the bridge.

"How?" Locke said hoarsely. Everything he could throw at Phoenix Team had just been snatched away from him, stolen by one measly team of Spartans.

"I learned about the devices in the Delta's heads from everyone's favorite doctor." Wings said. "I had my techie build a device that deactivated them. Essentially emits a counter-signal to the one you have.

"My Spartans are mine, Chairman, and they always will be."

"Why are you doing this?" Locke said more clearly.

"You try and kill me, you try and martyr my Spartans, and you expect me to just lie down and die? No, Chairman, while I have breath in my lungs and blood flowing through my veins, I will do my damnedest to keep them alive."

A wry chuckle escaped Locke's lips. "You don't even know, do you? The great Phoenix Team, master of any challenge put before them, doesn't even know why I tried to do it."

"No, I don't, and I'm sure I don't care. But I can do something about this."

"And what is that?"

"You are a cancer, Chairman. As long as you live you will make my life hell. You will lie, cheat, and kill in order to destroy Delta Company. I can't allow you to live."

Wings squeezed, his pistol roared, and Locke's head disappeared in a shower of bone, blood, and brain. His body crumpled to the deck.

Wings and the other Spartans lowered their weapons. The Lieutenant looked at Felix-116, who was the only Spartan who hadn't drawn a weapon.

"It's finished." Wings holstered his pistol and walked out of the bridge. Felix followed him down to the observation deck.

He entered to find Wings burying his head in his gauntlets, his back to the Commander.

"You always find a way to win, don't you?" Felix asked, approaching Wings.

Wings stood and turned to Felix. Felix was taken aback. There were tears running down his face.

"Not always, Commander. I can't always win."

"What happened?"

"I lost one, Felix.

"I lost a Phoenix."


2234 Hours, April 30th, 2580 (UNSC Military Calendar)

"Phoenix, you are weapons free!" Wings roared.

Rifles barked and tore into the Grunts, who screamed and yelped as they flew apart. The hill was already caked in blood and gore, spread so thick that it was nearly impossible to walk on without slipping. Phoenix and a handful of militia had been holding the hill for several hours, buying time for the civilians to make it on to the Arrow's Head in a bid to escape. The moon was falling, making the destruction of the Graviton Cannon moot, and Ocean predicted that it would land near the town.

"Sir, we're got ten minutes!" Zero roared as her BR60 rattled.

"Hold for five more, then we make a run for the Pelican!" Wings found the leader of the militia. "Get your men to the Trekker! We'll cover you!" The man nodded and began shouting orders at the militia.

"Impact in nine!" Ocean said urgently, and a timer appeared on Phoenix's HUDs counting down from nine.

The Arrow's Head lifted off several minutes later, carrying the refugees from the small colony. It was nothing but a small farming town, no more than four hundred people. Tom and Lucy were in the cargo bay, directing supplies.

"There she goes, fall back to the Pelican!" Wings roared. "Two, Three and Four, you first!"

Itzia and Peec tore off towards the dropship, evading plasma that was incoming in higher volumes.

"Sir, recommend you fall back now." Ocean said calmly. "The others have reached the dropship, and it's beginning to take fire."

"Five, with me!" Wings ordered. Five dropped his MA7A and sprinted alongside Wings towards the Pelican. It was a ways to go up the hill with little cover.

"Incomi-!" X heard Zero say before he was lifted off his feet and slammed into the ground.

X's vision swam. He shook his head, trying to clear it and saw a Brute swinging a hammer. Before he could react Wings was between them. X felt the shockwave from the hammer as it smashed into Wings head and sent the Spartan to the ground, helmet smashed.

The Brute raised the hammer again, but X had his C70 shotgun up. He emptied the magazine into the Brute, who gurgled and died.

Wings lifted himself up onto one arm and pulled his helmet off. He tossed the crumpled thing aside.

"The Pelican's taken a hit!" Ocean said from her position in the Arrow's Head. There was a pause. "I'm... I'm sorry. It's not spaceworthy anymore. And... there's no time for the Arrow's Head to come around. I'm sorry."

X went deaf. The noises of battle around him became muted. "Can it still make it into space?"


"Good. It's been good serving with you, Deep Ocean."

"It's been an honor, Spartan."

Wings felt himself pulled roughly to his feet and a helmet snapped on over his head. In a flash of clarity he realized what was going on.


A neural blocker collar was snapped on to him. X lifted Wings up by one hand and wrapped his other arm around D339.

"You're airtight now for space, sir." X said, holding Wings close. "It's the only way you're making it out of here alive."

"I'm not leaving you." Wings grunted, struggling to move his body. But he couldn't. The damned collar was preventing him from moving his body of his own free will.

"No, you're not. I'm choosing to stay. The UNSC needs you. The Deltas need you." X smiled. "I need you to live. You're the only one who knows how to stop the coming storm. Your team is just around to do it for you. That's what I'm doing, sir. Don't deny me this.

"It's been an honor. If I had another life to live, I would do it again."

Peec was in the cockpit and had the Pelican warmed up to go. X ran over to where Itzia and Zero were laying down suppressing fire on the advancing Covenant.

"Fall back to the Pelican. This fight is over."

Itzia looked at X. Her eyes widened. X grimaced.

"Get out of here. Now. We've got two minutes to impact and no time to chat."

Itzia nodded, then untinted her visor. She raised two fingers to her helmet and drew a line across the visor. X smiled and repeated the gesture.

"I'll see you on the far side." He said.

Zero and Itzia sprinted to the Pelican. X stood slowly and reloaded his C70.

"One minute to impact." X's tacpad said in an automated male voice.

"One minute, eh? Let's do this."

A wave of Brutes armed with energy pikes had reached a clean part of the hill and were charging up it, roaring at the top of their lungs.

X laughed and threw himself at them. Shell after shell tore through the pack, dropping aliens left, right, and center. One got lucky and stabbed him in the waist. He retaliated by shoving his gauntlet knife into the creature's face.

In thirty seconds all twenty Brutes were dead, and X stood, surrounded by their bodies. He looked up at the planet's moon, which was now very large in his vision. A small smile spread across his face.

"Goodbye, Lucy." He whispered.

X slowly let go of his C70, which hid the ground with a muffled thump. The heat from the moon's surface was stifling, but X didn't turn away. He promised he'd never turn his back on an enemy.

One lone Spartan stood in the middle of a battlefield, his helmet nonexistent. He slowly raised his arms partway, welcoming eternity.

The heat wave hit him first. It blew the shields away, and boiled armor layers and flesh away. Bones were instantly bleached and then blackened from the searing heat, and then turned to dust and thrown into the winds.

The moon collided with the small planet, throwing thousands of tons of dirt into the air. The planet was slowly shaken apart by its own spin.

2254 Hours, April 30th, 2580 (UNSC Military Calendar)

The Pelican glided into the hangar of the Arrow's Head, beaten and battered.

Wings stepped off of it, numb. All of Phoenix were left numb. They had been together through everything, survived impossible odds... and now this.

Wings saw Lucy approaching, and walked slowly over to her. On the way he pulled off his helmet, X's helmet, and dropped it. She took in his expression and froze. He stood in front of her, and then pulled something out from one of the pouches at his waist and grasped her hand. He dropped a small object into it, bound to a leather strap.

"I'm sorry." He whispered. "He didn't make it.

"X is gone."

Book 3