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Flight of the Phoenix: Book 3

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40px-Terminal.png This article, Flight of the Phoenix: Book 3, was written by Maslab. Please do not edit this fiction without the writer's permission.
40px-Help.png This article, Flight of the Phoenix: Book 3, is currently under active construction. The author, Maslab, apologizes for the inconvenience.

Plot Summary

All challenges placed before Phoenix Team have been overcome, if not in the best ways. But now their time of reckoning is coming, and their skills will be stretched to the limit.

Prologue

1600 Hours, October 2nd, 2580 (UNSC Military Calendar)

"Rulings shall now commence."

This is the way the world ends.

"Lieutenant Commander Sarah Ignacio, on the charges of high treason, you are hereby found innocent."

We strove so hard to overcome the odds, but in the end it was our own friends, our brothers and sisters, who were our greatest enemy.

"Petty Officers SPARTAN-B091 and SPARTAN-B292, on the charges of high treason and mutiny, you are hereby found innocent."

This is the way the world ends.

"Doctor Jeremiah Johansson, on the charge of high treason, you are hereby found innocent."

We were smarter. We were faster. We overcame a larger, more well-equipped enemy. In doing so, we saved the lives of our enemies. My Spartans.

"SPARTAN-D102, on the charges of high treason, mutiny, and conspiracy to assassinate a head of state, you are hereby found innocent."

But I lost a brother. I lost a Spartan even as I freed thousands.

"SPARTAN-D1074, on the charges of high treason, insubordination, and conspiracy to assassinate a head of state, you are hereby found innocent."

X gave his life to save mine. I failed him. I failed myself.

"SPARTAN-D576, one the charges of high treason, insubordination, and conspiracy to assassinate a head of state, you are hereby found innocent."

I cannot fail again.

"SPARTAN-D339, on the charges of high treason, mutiny, dereliction of duty, assassination of a head of state, you are hereby found-"

This is the way the world ends: Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

"Guilty. You are hereby sentenced to life imprisonment in a maximum security facility without parole, and will be stripped of rank and all honors, to commence immediately. This court is now adjourned."

In the end, I always win.

Part 1: "It's all going to Hell, now."

Chapter 1: Descent

1623 Hours, May 13th, 2581 (UNSC Military Calendar)

"Piece of shit!"

Sarah Ignacio sank the knife into the Jackal's belly, her hand still fumbling for her dropped pistol. Months of interrogations, background checks, retesting, training, more exams... and now this.

She wasn't used to fighting Jackals. Especially not ones with armor. She was a covert operative, dammit.

Fucking Jackals.

She twisted the knife, and the Jackal screeched in pain as blood oozed from the wound. Her other hand found the barrel of her SM6V/SOCOM. She brought it around, the butt smashing into the Jackal's eye. It screamed again and loosened its grip on her.

A quick flick of the wrist and she had her finger on the trigger.

Another muscle twitch and the Jackal's brains made interesting patterns on the purple wall. The body dropped to the floor.

Sarah didn't wait for the Grunts at the end of the hallway to start firing now that the Jackal was out of their way. She pushed against the wall, sending herself down a hallway and out of sight, and not a moment too soon. Plasma sizzled past the corridor she'd just been in.

"Bravo Three, what's your status?" SPARTAN-D576's voice came over the com. Sarah could hear gunfire.

"Dealing with a bit of a problem... an EMP burst caught my suit and punched through the EMP shielding."

"Hold your position, we're on our way."

Sarah sucked in a breath and let the magazine fall from her handgun. She fished a new one out and rammed it in to place. The reload complete, she holstered the sidearm and pulled out her M14/S. This would be a bit rough, especially without her active camouflage patterns working...

A grenade bounced around the corner. Sarah threw herself backwards and rolled, coming up with her gun butt slammed to her shoulder.

A black-clad jackal spun around the corner, plasma pistol up. He spotted Sarah and flicked his wrist just as she fired. Three rounds punched through the Jackal's suit and tore through the alien's throat. A bolt of plasma smacked into Sarah's stomach and she went down on one knee.

"Ah... Dammit!" She cursed, and pulled a grenade of her belt, arming it and tossing it around the corner. There was a high-pitched squeal, and then a muffled whump followed by a small shower of blood and gore.

A quick probe with her fingers told Sarah that her armor had taken the brunt of the plasma bolt, but the flesh underneath was severely burned.

A shot of pain rolled up her side. Damn curiosity.

The noise from around the corner increased. More grunts, a lot more grunts were on their way.

"Dammit, Spartan, where are you?" Sarah muttered, raising her weapon again.

"Right here."

Sarah turned and came face-to-face with Phoenix Two's breastplate. The Spartan was standing in the middle of the corridor, splattered with blood. Two reached up and flicked what looked like an intestine off her pauldron.

"Where's the rest of your team?" Sarah asked, not lowering her weapon.

"On the Pelican. We're getting out." Two raised her pistol and fired once, blowing the head off an inquisitive Grunt. There were squeals of "Demon!" and panicked feet fleeing. Deeper growls ordered the Grunts to stop. Brutes.

"Where to?" Sarah said a little too hastily.

"I'm marking the path on your HUD. Go. I've got your six." Two holstered the pistol and raised her MA7.

Sarah didn't hesitate, sprinting off along the virtual orange line laid out in front of her. Soon enough she was at the hangar doors, and approached them cautiously.

Alpha-9 operators are required to be or become fluent in at least five major human languages and one alien language.

The Jiralhanae Chieftain standing just behind the hangar door caused her to cuss in all six of them.

Sarah didn't stop, immediately tucking and rolling into a small ball right between the monster's legs. She came up running and swore she could feel the wind from the chieftain's gravity hammer as it swung around.

Sarah primed two frag grenades and dropped them as she ran, sprinting towards the waiting Pelican. She heard the chieftain throw himself to the side, shields taking a hit from the explosives.

She heard two projectiles whistle by her ears and instinctively ducked. The high-velocity grenades slammed into the bulkhead behind the chieftain, draining the rest of his shields. As the brute roared, rising from the ground, a third grenade hit him in the chest and scattered bits of him across the wall.

Sarah felt something punch her leg, and it collapsed beneath her. Looking down, she saw a massive metal spike sticking right through her thigh. Looking up, she saw a brute bearing down on her.

There was a green blur overhead, and a Spartan slammed into the Brute, gauntlet knives flashing once, and then the brute went limp.

Sarah felt two hands lift her up and sling her over an armored shoulder. Another Spartan was carrying her to the Pelican, holding an SMG one-handed and firing it with unnerving accuracy. She was set down on the blood tray of the Pelican as the rest of the UNSC forces clambered aboard.

"We're clear, go!" An ODST yelled up to the pilot, who nodded and gunned the throttle. The soldiers leaned a bit as the Pelican sailed out of the docking bay, plasma bolts and needler rounds still bouncing off the sides.

The numbness in Sarah's leg was beginning to fade, and pain was beginning to shoot up and down it.

"Hold still." One of the Spartans said flatly. Sarah recognized the voice.

"Phoenix Four? I thought you were all split up." Sarah grunted as Itzia administered a painkiller and gripped the spike, canister of bio-foam at the ready.

"We were. Now hold still." Itzia said, making sure she had a good grip on the metal shard in Sarah's leg.

This was not off to a good start.

Chapter 2: Spartans Never Die

1623 Hours, October 21st, 2581 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Hades Maximum Security Detention Facility

"Prisoner 627-A, report to the Warden's Office."

The magnetic seal unlocked. Wings rose from his cot and placed his hands in the slit and felt the cuffs wrap around his wrists. He knew they were really just to make the guards feel safe. He could easily break them if he wanted to.

In fact he had identified at least two dozen escape routes from his cell alone, with the cuffs on.

Six guards were kept close at all times, with snipers covering them from catwalks. Major mistake leaving the guards close; Their heavy armor would make good shields if grabbed and held.

"What does the good warden want today?" Wings asked, deadpan.

"Shut up." The guard just behind him barked.

"You sound nervous, Wade." Wings smiled internally. He could hear the guard's teeth grind.

It was a two mile walk to the Warden's office. The HMSDF was big.

The warden sat silently for a good ten minutes after Wings was seated across from him. At precisely the ten minute mark, he slowly tapped a touchscreen and put the pen down.

"Five more prisoners escaped last night. I'm told you might know how."

Wings blinked. "That's most unfortunate."

The warden's jaw tightened. "All of them were murderers. Between them they are responsible for the deaths of well over a thousand people."

"If you stretch the definition of 'people' to include alien life forms, sir, I'd be willing to bet I can easily outmatch their kill count."

"This isn't a game, Spartan." The warden stood, face turning slightly red.

"But it's such a fun one to play."

"What do you know about the escapees?"

"Nothing. I talked to them a few times, but I did not help them escape."

"They wounded three of my guards in their escape and caused thousands of credits of damage, perhaps millions."

"Sounds a lot less than a death to me."

The warden gritted his teeth. "You're being placed in isolation until the five men who escaped are brought back in."

"Seems fair. Wonder what that does to others' visitation rights."

The warden sat back down. "Get him out of here." He snapped.

Wings stood and felt two guards push him toward the door.

"Bad idea touching a prisoner. It lets them know where you're holding the gun." He shot at them.

"Shut the fuck up and move."


Max security isolation cells were designed to drive people insane. Perfect eight by eight by eight cubes of featureless titanium-A, the only noticeable difference being a cot just large enough for a human to lie on and small, almost imperceptible cracks where the door was. The solitary ceiling light was out for nine hours a day and on the rest of the time. The room was sound-proofed, radiation proofed, and EM proofed. Essentially a perfect sensory deprivation hole. A slat in the door was opened two hours after the lights came on, at "midday," and two hours before the lights went out to facilitate the transfer of food.

But still, Wings thought to himself as he tucked in to a bowl of hot porridge. Better than crawling The Trench.

"The Trench," as the Delta trainees had dubbed it, was essentially that, except every trainee had to crawl through it while live ammunition was fired over their heads and the bottom was filled with rotting entrails of animals and, some thought, aliens. During one long session Phoenix Team and a few other teams had been stuck in The Trench...


0123 Hours, July 25th, 2556 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: New Quebec SPARTAN Training Facility

Wings pulled on Peri's arm as X and Matt lifted the I-beam as far as they could. Peri gasped and pushed with her legs. Bullets whizzed and sang over their head, forcing the young Spartans to keep their heads low.

Finally Wings felt the earth around Peri giving way, and he gave one huge heave. Peri slid out of the mound of dirt that had been trapping her for the past half hour and rolled over, not even concerned about the smell of the intestines she was lying in anymore.

"The artillery fire is new." X commented as he slid over to Wings on his belly, Matthew right behind him.

"And it almost got one of us." Wings responded. "Any sighting of the other teams?"

X shook his head. "No hostile sightings so far."

"Keep an eye out, then."

Matthew slid past the both of them and peeked around the corner. "Shelter over here. Sure to be someone in it."

"There's always someone in the shelter. Bet you there's an M21 LMG aimed right at this intersection, too." Hal said, pulling out his M6 sidearm.

Wings looked at X. The young trainee grinned at him, white teeth shining from behind the bloodied face as he pulled out two cylinders. "Got cluster bangers ready. Should fry their optics."

Wings nodded as the others looked at him. Teams weren't set yet, but Wings had an air about him that just said "follow me and everything will turn out okay."

"Hal, Peri, get ready to dash to the other side. Matt and I will give you covering fire. X, soften 'em up with the bangers. On my mark."

The small team of children ranging from ages six through ten huddled next to the corner.

"Mark!"

X threw one of the cluster bangers out. A split second before it detonated, Peri and Hal sprang from their positions and dove headfirst to the other side of the trench. A few shots from what indeed was an M21 rang out before the banger and its subsequent charges went off. Wings and Matt leaned out, firing several shots from their sidearms.

"Got one!" Matt called out.

"X, mark two!" Wings barked, ramming a fresh magazine home.

Another banger went out. The instant it was finished detonating, four of the trainees sprang from cover, racing toward the small bunker.

Hal felt one of the paint rounds smack into his leg, which immediately stiffened and went numb. He fell to one knee, still firing methodically at the mostly unseen targets.

Peri was first in, colliding with another trainee who called herself Zero.

Peri swung her pistol out, but Zero simply ducked and put two rounds in Peri's chest. As she fell, Zero grabbed ahold of her and held Peri in front of her like a human shield. X, who was still back at the intersection, carefully marked and fired two rounds that hit Zero's exposed feet. She dropped, and Hal finished her off with a headshot.

As Wings ran he reached down and grabbed Hal, pulling him upright. "Matt, man that machine gun!"

With the bunker now full of twitching trainees, team "Violet" was now in control of four out of the seven bunkers.

Wings checked Peri. She was completely stiff, and thus "dead."

"What do we do with 'em, boss?" X said as he entered, dropping an empty magazine and sliding a new one home.

"Pile them up in front of the entrance." Wings said. "Use them as a barricade."

X glanced at the trainees. Hostiles or not, they were still his friends. "Is that such a good idea?"

"What else are they going to do?"

"Fair enough." X said, a look of trepidation on his face. He, Wings, and Hal moved the frozen trainees and piled them in the entrance of the bunker as Matt stood guard with the M21.

An artillery round detonated nearby. Dirt fell from the ceiling of the cramped bunker.

"I hate this exercise." Matt said after a few minutes.

"It can only get worse." Wings responded, settling in. It was going to be a long night.


Wings paused as he looked around the room. On planets all around the galaxy nearly six thousand Spartans were fighting tooth and nail against the Covenant. And here he sat in a little cell with three hot meals a day and a cot.

I have to get out of here.

Chapter 3: They Just Go to Hell to Regroup

1354 Hours, October 10th, 2582 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: CLASSIFIED

Phoenix Two was used to staring down the scope of a rifle. It was what she'd done since she was six years old. Generally she was used to a firearm with a heavier caliber of munitions, but hey, taking down an Innie didn't require a .57 caliber round.

The M45A she currently had a hold of was kitted in a fairly simple manner. Nothing outside a variable-zoom scope, a a bipod, and a suppressor. Nothing impressive, but good for working in a suburban area with lots of buildings around.

"Two, you have eyes on?" Peec's voice came over the com.

"Affirmative." Zero responded. "SaDoR's set up a perimeter. I count four snipers, two-dozen other foot-mobiles."

"Four and I are moving in from the west. Can you take care of the snipers?"

"Remember who you're talking to, Three. Two out."

Zero turned her full attention back to her scope, lining up each of the four snipers. The Sons and Daughters of Reach had set up quite the little business here. Taking them out would cut off a significant supply chain of chemical warfare parts to the main force.

The recoil from the rifle was so small that Zero didn't even feel it. Compared to the round of an SRS anti-materiel sniper, the M45A was tiny while still retaining a long range.

It took two seconds for the round to reach the enemy sniper. A small spout of blood burst out of him, and he went limp.

Zero had already fired two other rounds, firing the fourth as soon as the second round reached its target.

"Snipers are silenced." She reported. "Move in."

"Copy. Phoenix moving in."

"Griffin Team, moving in." Amber-E3072's voice crackled over the com. "Four, try to keep up with the bird."

"Not my fault she can apparently control bullets with her mind." Griffin Team's sniper, Lamp-E5156 responded.

"Watch it." Amber snapped.

Zero mentally bit her lip. Epsilon Company was still working out the wrinkles, and Amber was still getting used to properly being in command. She was good, but she was no Wings.

"Phoenix Two, we have enemy armor entering the area. I count two Warthog LRVs and a kind of retrofitted Scorpion Tank. Four klicks east."

Zero panned over to where Griffin Four had dropped a nav marker. Sure enough, two Warthogs with the usual LAAV chainguns on the back and a Scorpion tank were rolling westwards towards the compound. The SaDoR apparently didn't have the proper materials for mounting and firing the Scorpions usual cannon, so they appeared to have welded a pair of rotary cannons and a rocket launchers to the top of the Scorpion tank in place of the usual cannon.

"Griffin Four, bust the tank. I've got the 'Hogs. On my mark." Zero took a lead on the driver in the front vehicle.

Her first round took the driver in the face, and the Warthog immediately spun out of control and slammed into an embankment. Immediately the driver in the second vehicle slammed on the gas, and the Hog took off... and ran right into Zero's second round, which took the man in the chest. His 'Hog slammed into the rear of the first one, throwing the gunner into the windshield. Follow-up shots took out both gunners.

Griffin Four wasn't armed with such an inconspicuous weapon. His SRS anti-materiel rounds ripped through the Scorpion driver's canopy, bouncing around in the cockpit and shredding the driver.

"Armor neutralized." Griffin Four announced. "Good shooting, Phoenix."

"What else would we do?"

"Take a compliment?"

"Focus on finishing the mission first, Epsilon." Zero said, keeping her tone emotionless. The Griffin Team sniper was a bit too talkative for her liking.

"Sir." Was Lamp's only response before falling silent.

Two klicks away, Griffin and Phoenix teams opened up on the SaDoR Insurrectionists, the lightly armored humans rapidly falling rapidly to the deadly accurate fire of the two Spartan teams.

"Like fish in a barrel." Griffin Three, commented as he raked some rounds into a trio of remaining Innies. "Why were we sent here again? A team of ODSTs could have taken this lot out no problem."

"UNSC has a bunch of new toys to play with, so they decide to crack down on the problem groups." Griffin Five answered. Zero liked Five. He never really said anything more than needed to be said. "And they wanted to make sure this job got done properly."

Zero scanned the area. "All targets eliminated. Proceed with disposal." The teams in the Innie compound stowed their weapons and began setting the charges to take out the compound.

Despite what Griffin Five had said, Zero's gut agreed with Griffin Three. Two Spartan teams, even if one was at a lower manpower, was more than enough to take out a relatively small Innie compound. Less than three-dozen foot-mobiles generally called for two, maybe three, squads of Helljumpers.

Zero shook off the feeling and opened a channel to the overhead Pelican dropship. "Kilo Five-One, this is Phoenix Two. Mission accomplished, requesting exfil."

"Copy, Phoenix. Get to the rendezvous point. Five-One out." The channel clicked shut.

Zero snapped the bipod closed and slung the rifle onto her back, pulling out an M12 submachine gun. Intel said these Innies were the only ones here, but you can never be sure. There are always ways to spoof sensors.

Most of the town was deserted. Here and there a wild animal picked among the ruins. Zero rarely saw wooden structures; in fact, she rarely even saw wood outside a forest.

"Two, I found something. You're going to want to see this." Zero blinked as Peec opened a private com. It had to be urgent. All he had to do was wait the five minutes it would take her to jog over to the dropship.

"What is it, Three?" She responded, shutting down her command channel.

"I'm sending you a data file. You may want to have a chat with the Lieutenant Commander sometime."

Zero bit her lip as the data dumped into her suit's memory banks. She pulled up the file on her HUD, not slowing in her stride through the town, an eye on her motion tracker.

"Wings, you have a lot of explaining to do," She muttered as she perused the file.

      • </br>
1400 Hours, October 12th, 2582 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Hades Maximum Security Detention Facility

"Clean!" The guard scanning Zero announced. "Let her through!"

A buzzer went off, and the plasma screen in front of Zero dissipated, allowing her to enter the next room. Wings was already there, handcuffed with an electromagnet holding the cuffs securely to the table.

"Two. It's good to see you." Wings said, a hint of a smile flickering on his face. He was always hard to read, but Zero knew she was one of the few people who could read him, even when he wasn't letting himself be read.

"Commander." She nodded, taking a seat on the opposite side of the table. She knew that most of the guards here wouldn't be listening. Of course, prison guards were the last of her worries at the moment. There was Osman...

"Been a while. How goes HAMMERDOWN?" Wings asked, intertwining his fingers on the table.

"Well enough. Could be faster. I ran across something on our last mission." Zero leaned forward a bit. "Something about a Malkavian and his 'good friend.'"

Wings just blinked once, betraying nothing to anyone who was watching. His voice dropped a bit, lips less animated. "I wanted to tell you, but didn't think it would be a good idea at the time. I just set it up, and then..." He lifted his hands, indicating the cuffs.

Something in the back of Zero's mind told her that Wings was... nervous? That didn't happen often. "Tell me what?"

Wings straightened. "On your next mission you're going to be told to assassinate a High Value Target by the name of Michael Malkavian. Two... he knows your parents."

Zero felt a punch in her gut. "How do you know?"

"He told me so. Even if I hadn't believed him, he had a full file on them from before what happened to your family during the war." Wings said, reluctantly. "Two... Zee. Don't go digging into things if you don't necessarily want to know the answers."

Zee. That wasn't a nickname Wings had used in years. The last time he had, a good man had died.

"I'll do my best, sir. Nice to see you again." Zero stood and moved towards the plasma barrier.

"Good to see you too, Two." The plasma barrier opened again as the buzzer sounded, and Zero was let back out.

Dammit, Wings. What happened to them? Why did you keep this from me?

      • </br>
0430 Hours, October 17th, 2582 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Sanctum, Yggdrasil

"The target is one Michael Malkavian." The ONI agent said as the Pelican flew high over the terraces of Sanctum. "He's one of SaDoR's higher-ups. Your recent hit on their manufacturing plant has forced the organization to take some desperate measure to acquire materials, and they got a bit sloppy. Malkavian is being housed in a luxury penthouse in the middle of Sanctum. I'm sending you the schematics. Orders are to locate and terminate. Good luck, Spartans."

Griffin and Phoenix Teams gave responses in the affirmative, and the agent went forward to the cockpit.

Zero was still mulling over what Wings had said to her. Peec glanced in her direction, then decided that that was enough silence. He opened a private com to her.

"We're not going to take him out, are we."

There was a half-second pause. "Negative."

"Wings knows him, doesn't he."

"Of course."

"And he knows something about you."

"... Yeah. Just keep Griffin away from us. I'm seeing a couple of high-profile targets on-site that they can take out. We'll go in for Malkavian."

"Don't worry. You'll have your privacy."

"Thanks."

"No need to thank me."

Peec shut the channel down and glanced across at Amber as Zero began relaying orders for Griffin to hit the high-profile targets on the site. Amber may be a Lieutenant, but Zero had experience and command of Delta Company, and thus had been given command of the Spartans in Operation: HAMMERDOWN. He knew that Amber would be privately protesting to Zero, but she would comply.

It was sort of weird having a cousin in the service, and yet, in a way, not. She didn't even know that she was related to him. Not yet, at least.

"Hitting the DZ in thirty seconds!" The pilot announced.

"Get ready to pound dirt." Zero said. "Active camo all the way. I want them to think we're just offloading some cargo."

The Pelican landed at the VIP landing strip just outside Terrace Suites United. Kilo Five-One's Pelican was a specially designed ONI Pelican. Lightly armed and armored compared to the usual dropships of the type, but it had a few little tricks up its sleeve. One of these was an adaptive camouflage similar to the active camouflage of the Spartans' armor, but instead of blending in with its surroundings it could change color and patterns at will. Currently the Pelican was a blazing red color with flames on the leading edges of the wings and nose, resembling some form of privately owned Pelican. The dropships had gained some popularity with the elite class after the war, as older Pelican models began going onto the market stripped of armaments.

"Rules of engagement, sir?" Griffin Two asked.

"Return fire only. No need to get into a firefight we don't need to be in. According to ONI there are multitudes of SaDoR's best occupying the top five floors of the building. Griffin Team will secure any and all known access points and prevent Malkavian from escaping. Kilo Five-One will remain on over-watch to prevent any Innies from providing air support. We've got three teams of ODSTs ready to move in and secure the area once the target is taken down. That clear, Spartans?"

"Clear, sir!" Came the chorus.

"Then put your camo on and let's move."

The Spartans were fully cloaked by the time the rear hatch opened. If anyone glanced over at the newest arrival to the port all they'd see was the back hatch of an annoyingly colored Pelican opening to let yet another rich man with a lot of cargo offload. A person with a very sharp eye who was watching closely might have caught a faint shimmer in the air as eight super-soldiers made their way towards Terrace Suites Utd.

A few minutes later the rich man's cargo was unloaded, and the Pelican lifted off. As it disappeared into the clouds it engaged its own active camouflage and aimed its sensors towards the large, majestic building.

"Griffin, you're in first. Secure the elevators." Zero ordered.

"Copy Phoenix One." Amber responded.

Zero watched the nav marker that indicated Amber's position move towards the glass doorway and pause, waiting for a group of some corporate executives to leave the building.

"Some sort of convention going on, it seems." Lamp commented. "Lot of collaterals if things get loud."

"Then make sure it doesn't get loud." Zero responded as Griffin successfully made it inside and wormed their way through the lobby and to the elevators. "Griffin Four, stay in the lobby until I say otherwise."

"Is that really necessary, sir?" Lamp responded, sounding a bit miffed.

Zero frowned and opened a private channel to Griffin Four. "I am in tactical command of this Operation and as such you will do what I say when I say it, Epsilon. Is that clear?"

"Sir," came the terse reply. "Yes sir."

"Good." Zero cut the private channel back to the command channel. "Phoenix, up the north stairs. Griffin, take the south staircases. The target is on the top floor in a private suite. Griffin, secure all access points. Phoenix Three, jam any electronic signals on the top five floors."

"Copy, One." Came Peec's reply.

The next ten minutes were a slow and boring affair as the two Spartan teams jogged up the stairs. New Lactic Acid augmentations meant that Spartans now really had no limits to their stamina, and could theoretically run forever. Essentially the augmentation caused the Spartans' bodies to reprocess lactic acid as fast as it was produced, giving the effects of working muscles without causing burnout. Zero had heard that ONI was thinking about spreading the new augmentation to the rest of the armed forces, as it didn't require strict genetic markers like most of the Spartan augmentations had.

"Phoenix One, this is Griffin One. We're outside what appears to be their security room."

"Good work, Griffin. Bust them."


Amber clicked over to her squad command channel as she stepped away from the door. "Two, breach charge. Everyone stack up."

Griffin Two, Alphonse-1062, pulled out a small bar and gave a flick of his wrists, the bar coming apart in a frame connected by explosive tubing. He patched it around the frame of the door as Amber and Griffin Five, Heron-E2591, took up positions on either side.

"Clear." He snapped, and hit the detonator.

Before the SaDoR operatives in the room knew what hit them Amber and Heron were through the door, M12 SMGs spewing caseless rounds into their relatively unprotected bodies. One tried going for an alarm. Amber silenced him by blowing his hand off with a three round burst, then putting a round through each of his eyes.

"Clear. And not a sound made." Amber said, opening the channel back to Phoenix Two.

"Good work. Lock down the elevators and have Griffin Four join you." Zero responded with the detachment that said she was probably in the middle of doing some handiwork of her own.

"Copy that. Griffin out."


"Griffins got control of the elevators. He's not getting out that way." Zero said. "Peec, you got the com tower?"

Peec's voice sounded a bit distracted. "Yeah, I've got it. They won't be calling for help."

"Good." Zero shut down the com. "Four, how do you feel about patching up a guy?"

Itzia glanced over at Zero. "Who?" was all she said.

"Our target, of course. Come on." Zero moved through the next doorway, scanning the area for any Innies. Motion tracker was telling her at least four more were in a room right above them.

"Pardon me for asking, but why would we be patching up the target we're supposed to find and kill?" Itzia sounded perplexed. Griffin may get the short string when questioning Zero, but there was a lot you could get away with when you were closer than siblings.

"He knew my parents." Zero's voice was stiff as she silently marched up the polished staircase. Real mahogany. Worth a small fortune in most places.

Itzia paused at the bottom of the staircase. She vaguely noticed the sprawling city outside the massive glass windows. Sanctum was home to well over 400 million human beings. The city was absolutely massive in scale.

"I thought your parents-"

"Yeah. I need to know."

Itzia followed Zero up the steps, joining her at the doorway. Zero nodded. Itzia rammed her foot forward, heavy boot shattering the solid oak door into several pieces. Michael Malkavian was a man of most expensive tastes.

Zero was a ghost as she flitted into the room, M12 rounds silently erupting from the gun, hitting their targets with quiet, wet smacks.

The two Spartans found themselves in what appeared to be a rec room. The large room was split down the middle by an island counter, with arcade machines piled up next to each other in solid rows along the entire wall space. In the middle of the island counter was a what appeared to be a well-stocked larder. Itzia paused to examine some of the arcade machines.

"Some of these much be twenty-second century," she said. "These are probably worth our annual pay." Zero just grunted a noncommittal response.

"Target's two rooms over." Itzia muttered, moving back to business. "Looks like six targets between us and him."

Zero kicked the door down and fired six rounds. "Pathetic." She grunted, stepping over a corpse.

Itzia followed along. "Zee, you alright?"

"I'm fine. Just have your bandages ready." Zero snapped.

Itzia frowned. No, Zero was not okay. The topic of her parents were perhaps the one thing that brought her out of that Zen-like state of emotional balance. One time during training there had been an altercation with another trainee in Delta company. Apparently the boy had made a typical "your mom" joke common of ten-year old children.

It had taken four handlers to pull Zero off of him, with shock batons. His face didn't resemble a human's all that much, but to this day not a single Spartan, save a certain few, even mention the topic of Zero's parents with her in earshot.

Thing was, not even Zero really knew what had happened to her parents. Most Spartans were orphans, but the psychiatrist who examined her after the incident expressed extreme concern about repressed memories while still retaining an unspent emotional reaction to the incident.

Zero didn't even bother going for inconspicuous. Malkavian jerked upright as the door to his office imploded inward, and on the other side of the cloud of wooden splinters was a very, very ticked off Spartan.

"Oh sh-gk!" Was all he managed to sputter out before Zero's gauntlet wrapped around his throat in a grip of iron.

"You knew Alice and Melvin Connor." Zero said, her voice deadly low and calm.

Malkavian coughed and gasped for air. "I... I know them, yes."

Zero let him drop to the floor. He coughed and sucked in a lungful of air.

Then he bit off a good portion of his cheek as her fist connected with the side of his head. Another cough, and a few teeth and a good amount of blood spattered on the carpets.

"Stop! I know them!" Malkavian held a hand up as Zero raised her fist again. "They're not dead! They're... I've been taking care of them! They're in Trinity Residential Hospital, Mandrake Ward, Room 2331A!"

Zero uncurled her fist, but didn't take her eyes off Michael Malkavian. "Four, fix him up." She then opened a channel to Peec. "Three, Trinity Residential, Mandrake Ward, Room 2331A."

"This relevant to the mission, Two?" Zero said, stepping back from Malkavian as Itzia knelt by the man and dosed him with a sedative.

"Let's say yes for now."

It was a few seconds before Peec had the relevant information. "Yeah, I have it. Occupied by a married couple. Alice and Melvin Connor... Two, that isn't who I think it is, is it?"

Zero ignored Peec and switched back to her command channel. "Kilo Five-One, we have a package needing exfil. Mission is completed. Griffin, Phoenix Three, regroup at the roof."

Amber was the first to have a private channel open. "Ma'am, orders were to terminate the target."

Zero snapped an neural insulator collar onto Malkavian's neck as Itzia back away from the now unconscious man and hefted him over her shoulder. "Priorities have changed. I'm deeming him a target for capture and detainment. Secure any info you deem relevant and meet us on the roof for exfil. Phoenix Two out."

Peec was already waiting for the rest as Zero and Itzia climbed the steps to the top of the roof. It really was an impressive building with an even more impressive view. A massive tower with literally thousand of apartments, and the penthouse on top was nothing short of magnificent. Terraced gardens adorned the rooftops, sprouting a large variety of plant life. Facing directly south and out to the ocean, two large, thousand-foot statues carried out a silent vigil atop two supporting pillars that ran all the way from the base of the tower to the top. Numerous sky-bridges and ferries connected the tower and the nearby Tower of Commerce and Trade. The windows running the height of the tower were so well-maintained that they reflected the artificial archways and deep-blue lake around them.

The place was a marvel of human-engineering. Perhaps the first and only example of artificial landscaping on a massive scale.

"What is all this, Two?" Peec asked, obviously wary. "I thought your parents were dead."

Zero set Malkavian down in a patch of grass and wandered over to the ledge. She looked down at the dizzying height, and then up at the bright summer sun of Yggdrasil, depolarizing her visor to let its heat beat on her face. Someday she'd have to have a vacation here.

"I thought so too, Three." She commented as Griffin Team jogged up to the roof, Griffin Four muttering darkly to himself. The fact that they still had a good three-hundred meters to go to get to Phoenix brought the sheer scale of the tower into focus. "Family is important to us all."

She didn't miss Peec looking over at Amber as the younger Spartan jogged over. He looked back at Zero.

"I know, Zee. Just don't go digging for something you may not want to know."

There was an awkward silence as Griffin finally caught up. Zero opened a private channel to Peec. "One said the same thing."

Peec just nodded as Kilo Five-One brought the Pelican down.

Not a single soul below the six-hundred and fifty-seventh floor knew what had just transpired above their heads. One dull thump was put down to Malkavian simply having yet another piece of expensive, heavy furniture moved into place. Some poor delivery man was going to pay dearly for that.


1030 Hours, October 20th, 2582 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Unknown

Wings looked up as the two women entered, and had to fight the urge to stand and salute. Having your hands cuffed and magnetically sealed to the table tended to make that hard.

Admirals Osman and the retired Parangosky took their seats on the opposite side of the table. Wings had been transported to a new facility recently. Unfortunately, he had no idea how long it had taken having been heavily sedated for the entirety of the trip. However, if two heads of ONI were here...

"Must be the Point of No Return, then," the Spartan said aloud. "Felt the deck vibrations."

Parangosky didn't say a word, just folded her hands in front of her on the table. It was Osman that spoke first.

"Do you know why you're here, Spartan?" She stared, unblinking, at Wings.

Wings matched the stare. "No idea."

Osman's expression didn't change. "You're here because one of your teammates went against orders a few days ago and captured a High-Value Target instead of eliminating him as ordered. Several days before, she had a visit with you. You claimed that the man knew her parents and admitted openly that you knew the target. Care to explain?"

Wings' eyes flicked to Parangosky. He could almost see her hiding the smile as he responded. "Please, Admiral, don't insult me. None of us are here because of that. It doesn't take two heads of the Office of Naval Intelligence to interrogate just one Spartan on their conduct."

"Answer the question." Osman pressed.

Wings didn't break the stare. "I knew Malkavian would eventually be made a target as I uncovered intel three years ago that led me to believe that ONI believed that he had been compromised. Who else would they send other than the best teams they could to find and eliminate him once he was located?"

"So you admit to further acts of treason against the UNSC?"

"No. I do not deny nor admit because there is nothing to deny nor admit. I was simply protecting Malkavian from ONI."

This time Parangosky spoke, leaning forward slightly. The supercentenarian was still as cold as ever. "But Malkavian is a known ranked leader among the Sons and Daughters of Reach. Doesn't that mark him as a target in any case?"

"We all know that the Sons and Daughters are just a front put forward by an ONI splinter group to test chemical and biological warfare methods on other Insurrectionists. You've just been having us deal with the real trouble-makers. Malkavian remained loyal the whole time. It's why Alice and Melvin Connor are still alive."

Something in Osman's demeanor changed. "Tell me everything you know about Malkavian."

Wings looked at her. "I've been imprisoned for two years now, Admiral. I've told you the start, now tell me why you locked me up while simultaneously promoting me and allowing me to keep my rank. Tell me why you haven't had me stabbed in the night or just thrown out an airlock. Even I don't know everything, but I'm guessing it's because you need me."

There was an uncomfortable pause as Osman simply glared. Parangosky wasn't even trying to conceal the small smile spreading across her face.

Osman was the first to speak, a full ten seconds later. "Fine. We need you. Let me start from the beginning."

Wings allowed himself a mental smile.

Chapter 4: Family

0900 Hours, October 22nd, 2582 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Sanctum, Yggdrasil

"Feels weird not being in our skin." Zero muttered, the civilian street clothes on her not hiding her height or her athletic build.

Peec set the e-brake and looked at Zero. "Can't walk in to a hospital in full gear."

Zero didn't meet his gaze, instead staring across the parking lot at the entrance. "I know."

"You don't have to go in there."

"Yes I do."

Zero opened the door and got out. Peec followed suit.

"Do you know what happened to them?" Peec ventured.

Zero shook her head.

It was impossible for people to not take notice of the two soldiers, even out of their usual gear. Both of them were a full head taller than most people, and the way they moved never failed to send a message of pure lethality.

The receptionist at the desk smiled as Zero approached. The smile disappeared as Zero asked for directions.

"I'll need ID." The receptionist asked, sounding slightly subdued. Zero handed her a datapad, which the lady looked over for a minute.

"Excuse me," she said, and disappeared into the back room.

Zero didn't move away from the desk until the lady reentered the room five minutes later. "Everything's in order. Please, follow me."

The two Spartans followed the receptionist through a maze of hallways, stepping out of the way for the occasional wheelchair or bed. Several minutes later the receptionist handed them off to a nurse, who brought them to a door. Room 2331A.

"I'm... afraid they won't respond much." The nurse said. "After what happened to them, they haven't said a word." She opened the door. Peec stayed out in the hall as Zero entered, and the door was closed behind her.

Two men gazed up at her dully from their beds.

Zero swallowed something stuck in her throat. "Hi, Dads."


Zero had been in the room for almost two hours when Peec was once again approached by a nurse.

"Excuse me, can I help you?"

He glanced at her. "No, thank you. Just waiting for... my friend." He nodded at the door.

The nurse glanced at the door, then back at him. "They never get visitors. Been here for almost twenty years now and no one's come to visit, and they haven't said a word."

"Do you know what happened to them?" He asked, turning to face her.

She shook her head. "No one really knows. They say that the two had a surrogate daughter, but she was lost years ago, during the war. It's said they haven't spoken since, and have never been out of eyesight of each other."

Peec just nodded silently.

"Forgive me for asking, but are you military?" The nurse asked.

"Navy."

"You here on shore leave?"

Peec nodded. "Two weeks. Decided this was a good place to be."

She smiled slightly. "Can I interest you in a drink after I get off work?"

The Spartan just blinked, surprised, but recovered quickly. "If... you know a good place, I suppose." The timing of the question seemed a bit awkward to him, but then, he knew that there was a lot she would find weird about him. Perhaps working around things like this a lot tended to numb you to it.

The nurse slipped someone into Peec's hand and walked off. He glanced at the small pad before stuffing it into his pocket as Zero came out and quietly closed the door.

He didn't even ask how it went.


"I had a surrogate mother."

Peec took his eyes off the road long enough to give Zero a perplexed look. "DNA donations from your fathers."

Zero nodded. "They treated her very well. She wanted to know what it was like to have a baby, and my fathers wanted a child of their own. I was seven when the Covenant found our planet."

Peec just nodded dumbly. "Going to visit them again tomorrow?"

"Yeah."

"Did they... say anything?"

A pause. "No. Listen, we've got two weeks of shore leave. Make the best of it. It's probably the only time we really will."

Peec remembered the small pad of paper in his pocket. "I'll leave you the car."


0330 Hours, October 23rd 2582 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Sanctum, Yggdrasil

It seemed to Peec that even the atmosphere of Yggdrasil had been affected by human intervention. Or perhaps it was just the city below that kept the air of the hotel balcony warm as he leaned against the rail with naught but a pair of briefs on.

Julie, the nurse, lay asleep on the bed, bare chest moving up and down rhythmically with her breathing, skin still sweaty from the pair's wild exertions.

Peec allowed himself a small smile. She really hadn't been turned off when she found out he wasn't a "regular" Navy man.

The Spartan felt a buzz from his neural implant. He accepted the call and activated the subvocal microphone installed in his throat, allowing him to talk without making a sound.

"I'm here."

"It's One."

Peec stood up straighter, eyes darting around for any signs of surveillance. "I thought you were supposed to be in prison."

"Still am. Enjoying your shore leave?"

Peec glanced at Julie and smiled. "I suppose I am."

"Osman has an agent who needs to drop something off with you. Meet him at the Tai-Yong Docks at 1300 later today. He'll find you."

"Copy that. What about you?"

"ONI needs me, too. I'll be in touch, out."

"Over and out."

Peec deactivated the microphone as he heard Julie stir.

"What, you Sierras don't need as much sleep as a regular human?" He heard her ask.

"Not quite." Peec walked back over to the bed. "You have work tomorrow?"

She giggled and reached a hand out to pull him close. "Unlike you, I'm not required to work on weekends."

Peec smiled and let himself be pulled in.

I should take shore leave more often, he thought as their bodies pressed together once more.


1300 Hours, October 23rd 2582 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Sanctum, Yggdrasil

Having gotten no real sleep the night before last, Peec left Julie in the room around noon and drove down to the docks to meet with said ONI agent.

Sure enough, he found Peec.

"Sierra Delta One-Oh-Seven-Four?"

Peec turned to see a man in a brown leather vest facing him. He continued speaking, holding out a small box. "For you. A gift."

Peec took the box, and the man walked off.

Back in the hotel room bathroom, with Julie still asleep on the bed, Peec carefully examined the box.

No latches, just simple, smooth black metal. However, on the bottom of it he found a small tab that he pulled slightly, revealing what appeared to be a neural interface device attached to a wire.

He chewed his lip for a minute, mentally double- and triple-checking the firewalls he and Element had programmed into his neural hub. Put the wrong virus in it and he could fry his brain.

Having done that, Peec sat cross-legged on the soft carpet with the box in his lap, closed his eyes, and plugged it in.

A full thirty seconds later he opened his eyes again. His senses came back to him, and he heard movement from the other room. He let the reel in the box pull the plug in and snap shut again, rose and opened the door, finding himself face-to-face with Julie, who had wrapped herself in a towel.

"You done in here?" She asked politely. Peec nodded and stepped aside to let her in.

"Need the shower?" He asked.

"If it's no trouble." She responded, shedding the towel.

"None at all. I'll be out here." He closed the door as the nozzle-head began spraying water and went to make the bed.

Julie came out of the shower ten minutes later, pulling a shirt on. "Any plans for the day?"

Peec nodded. "Kind of... I'm apparently moving in to Sanctum, in a fashion."

Julie's face took on an interested expression. "That so?"

"You're aware that I'm Special Forces."

"Yeah..."

"Well, we're going to be setting up a base of operations in Sanctum. I need to help my team move in when we gone done with shore leave."

She sat down on the edge of the freshly made bed. "And today?"

He smiled. "Just need to run something over there."

"You're not regular Special Forces, are you. Not an ODST."

He shook his head. "You're sharp."

"I take care of habitual liars for a living."

That got a chuckle out of him. "Then you should believe me when I say I'll let you know what I am soon."

She nodded silently, not taking her eyes off him. "I suppose I should tell you my last name, then."

He nodded too. "And you, mine."

"Julie Harrison."

"Jeffrey Morley."

Chapter 5: Friends

0930 Hours, November 7th 2582 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Sanctum, Yggdrasil

Zero nodded to Michael Malkavian as she carried the unmarked box in. "Sorry about the whole punching you thing."

Malkavian grinned, showing off perfect white teeth. "Not the first time ONI's made mistakes, believe me." He gestured to his right arm. "Besides, I'll take losing a few tooth to a bullet in the head any day. Consider it forgotten."

Zero nodded again, setting the case down. Peec came up behind, carrying one of his usual electronic devices. To Zero it looked like some sort of electronic warfare module of the kind used to shield and cloak electromagnetic signals. Probably used to disguise the fact that the UNSC was setting up shop where an Insurrectionist movement had before.

"Besides," Malkavian continued, watching Griffin Team and Itzia bring in another load of gear. "Having the UNSC here is better protection than some Insurrectionists."

"I suppose." Zero said noncommittally, heading back out to the landing pad to grab more supplies. The Spartans and ONI were essentially turning the bottom two floors of the penthouse into a form of base of operations. The planet of Yggdrasil was strategically important for being a vital trading hub for most of the UNSC's colonies, and Sanctum was the largest trading port on Yggdrasil.

Peec straightened from where he had been fiddling with something on the floor and raised two fingers to is ear. Zero watched his throat vibrate slightly, the sure sign of a person using a subvocal microphone. They were nigh indispensable for covert operations.

Zero mentally shrugged and turned to begin unpacking a weapon rack. It was a simple affair: The boxes were large and relatively cumbersome, but were easy to open and set up as lockers for a variety of weapons.

"You guys planning on sticking around long?" Malkavian said, sounding a bit perturbed.

"As long as it takes." Zero responded, double-checking each of the MA8 rifles in the locker. She was even more paranoid about having her weapons in good shape than other Spartans, if that was possible. "There a problem, Three?"

"Just checking to make sure our signals don't get scrambled, too." Peec said idly. Zero had realized he'd been a bit distracted for the past couple weeks. "Going to double-check the transmitter I set up."

"I'll help." Zero said, locking the weapon locker up and sidestepping round Lamp-E5156. Peec glanced at her.

"I don't really-" He began, then caught the look on Zero's face. He paused. Zero knew that he knew what was coming. "Alright, thanks."

ONI had set up two transmitting towers to cancel out any attempted detection of military-grade equipment or wireless signals whilst still allowing for their own signals to get through. Unfortunately for the Spartans, this meant they had to climb the two one-kilometer tall statues to reach the towers. Fortunately, there were already hand and footholds for use.

"I hardly saw you while on shore leave," Zero said from her position four meters below Peec. The wind tugged at them both, and carried their voices away from any prying ears. "Have fun, I take it?"

"Well, you did order me to." Peec responded as he reached for the next handhold. They were already almost one-hundred meters up.

"Found yourself a girlfriend, did you."

Peec grabbed at the hold and almost slipped off. When he spoke, he couldn't decide if he was choking down a chuckle or embarrassment. "And if I did?"

Zero chuckled. "Some rich banker lady?"

"Nurse, actually."

"Ah."

They climbed in silence for another hundred meters.

"Just how bleedingly obvious is it?" Peec asked hesitantly.

"You reek of perfume and assorted bodily fluids."

"Oh."

"Just be glad we haven't had to hunt down any Brutes."

"Hah!"

They fell silent again, not speaking until they reached the top of the statue. Peec set to work on the transmitter, making sure everything was as it should be.

"What about you, Zee? You okay?"

Zero clipped her safety harness to the statue and leaned out over the edge, looking down several kilometers to the ground.

"Yeah. I'm fine."

"You still don't remember what happened, do you."

Zero turned away from the dizzying height and looked at Peec. "Don't go digging if you don't want to know the answer, Peec."

Peec nodded. "I understand."

There was silence for a few minutes.

"So, this nurse of yours," Zero smiled disarmingly. Peec found himself alarmed. He imagined that was the same smile a Brute got when Zero was staring him down from behind a scope. "Tell me about her."


Amber looked up as Phoenixes Two and Three reentered the penthouse. Two seemed to have loosened up a bit, even if she didn't show it. Good.

The young Spartan looked back at the holographic map and frowned.

"Is there a problem, sir?"

Amber looked up. Phoenix Two was now standing next to her, face impassive.

"I was under the impression that we were running counter-Insurrectionist operations." Amber responded, gesturing at the planet displayed over the holo-table. "This planet is in Covenant Loyalist space."

"Yes, per my orders."

Amber turned and blinked. Phoenix One, Wings, was standing in the doorway. She snapped to attention and saluted.

"Sir!"

"At ease, Lieutenant. I trust the rest of my team took good care of you."

"Of course."

"Good." Wings approached the table, eying each of the Spartans in turn. "From the sounds of it, ONI has been lying out their teeth to all of you yet again."

Amber was taken aback. There was... an edge of bitterness in Wings' normally emotionless voice.

"ONI wants to put the UNSC on the offensive against the Covenant, and we're the tip of the spear. The planet you're looking at is a Loyalist outpost just inside Covenant space. The UNSC wants us to hit it and take it out to show the Covenant that we mean business this time."

"Why not strike at something more closer to home?" Alphonse-E1062 asked.

"Because we don't know where 'closer to home' is, Griffin Two." Wings answered. "Aside from that, current estimates claim that even if we did, we simply wouldn't have the power to crack it. The UNSC is still recovering. We can defend and hold planets, but assaulting a fortress world ourselves? They'd tear us apart. We're doing this to send the message that we can go on the offensive now. Amber, you know what we're looking at here."

Amber nodded. "Tango-Nine is a small, mostly temperate planet. It appears to be in the early stages of an ice age and has a higher pressure than average, but the average human can survive outside the suit. Active scans of the planet reveal that the Covenant has three bases set up here, here, and here." As she spoke, three red triangles appeared on the surface of the holographic planet, indicating typical Covenant outposts. "And one Graviton cannon. We need to take it out if we want any extra-atmospheric support."

Wings leaned forward on the table. "Then I'll leave your team to deal with the cannon, Amber. Phoenix will focus on the outposts, and I'll dedicated two other Spartan teams to the other outposts. Hit all four at once."

Amber frowned. "Why not just hit the cannon with one team? Let the fleet bomb the bases from orbit?"

"Two reasons." Wings said and ran his hands over the surface. The planet tilted and zoomed in on one of the bases. "The first, these." He said, highlighting a spiderweb of flowing conduits. "Plasma lines generally used to power plasma defenses. Note how a dozen of them end with batteries not on our scans. I'd be willing to bet that those are point-defense cannons designed to track and shoot down anything short of a MAC that we can throw at it. Each base seems to have the same setup, with the cannon itself having two dozen.

"The second: Active scans. The Covenant may be adaptive more than innovative, but even they can't miss an active scan on a large outpost planet. As soon as they detect us there will be a fleet swooping in to glass us."

Amber bit her lip and mentally berated herself for having forgotten about that. The Covenant were showing an alarming and increasing ability in counter-intelligence. Then she had a thought.

"So our fleet swoops in just as theirs does."

Wings nodded. "Naturally. Dismissed, Griffin."

Amber returned the nod. "Good to see you again, Commander." And walked out.

Once Phoenix Team was alone, Zero smiled. "It is good to see you again, boss."

Wings let himself smile slightly. "It's good to be back." He looked at Peec. "You smell like perfume and assorted bodily fluids."

Peec chuckled. "Yeah, I've been hearing that a lot lately."

Itzia leaned forward on the table. "ONI really let you out?"

Wings nodded, smile disappearing. "Full pardon with all my rank and privileges restored. Something's happening."

The air in the room became a lot more sober. Phoenix Team hadn't been able to be together since X had died two years ago.

"I miss him." Itzia said after a minute of silence.

"We all do." Peec muttered. "It's all going to Hell now, isn't it."

Wings pulled up a folding chair, opened it with a flick of his wrist and sat down in it. "He died a true Spartan. We can remember that."

"Aye." Zero said. "But we're all together again. Phoenix Team is back."

"That we are." Wings tapped a control on the table, and Tango-Nine disappeared to be replaced by a full view of Yggdrasil. "And I've got some work for us to do in the next 48 hours."

Part 2: "Fight for the Lost"

Chapter 6: No Quarter!

0430 Hours, November 9th 2582 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Tango-Nine

"Five minutes to drop! Be ready to pound dirt!" Kilo Five-One announced.

"Feels good to actually be back in a skin for once." Zero said aloud over Phoenix's team channel.

"Like you can complain." Wings commented.

"I will."

Wings flicked over to the command channel. "Labrador, Badger, Griffin, are you in position?"

"Affirmative, Commander. All teams in position." Victor-E2249 announced. "Waiting on your go."

"Copy, out."

A few minutes later the Pelican dropped to an altitude of ten meters over the loam of the forest.

"Out the back, Phoenix." Wings ordered. Peec and Itzia promptly leaped out, followed closely by Wings and Zero.

"Two, get set up. Three, find us a way in." Wings said, falling back into the step of things. Like riding a bicycle...

Zero nodded and jogged off into the forest, active camouflage flickering in the low light of the morning.

Peec lead the way through the forest towards the Covenant encampment. Soon the three Spartans were kneeling on a cliff face looking over the purple buildings.

"Place is locked down tight. Ocean, could use some help here." Peec said. Deep Ocean had been returned to the team several hours ago, having been "assigned" to ONI for the past couple of years.

"I'm not detecting any obvious entry points. As Three noted, this place is locked down." Ocean's voice floated over the com. Wings had to admit to himself that he had missed hearing the sound of her voice. He glanced at the other Phoenixes.

"We do kind of owe them one for Five." He commented.

"Do it loud and hard?" Peec said, sounding hopeful.

Wings nodded, twisting the suppressor on his MA7B off, dropping and catching the magazine, and loading it with a drum mag. "For Five."

"For Five." He heard the rest of Phoenix chorus. Then he flicked over to his command channel.

"Delta Actual to all teams. Go in loud and hard, weapons free. No quarter!" He barked into the com.

"No mercy!" Came the replying chant. He flicked back to the team channel.

"Light 'em up, Phoenix!" Wings took off sprinting down the hillside, Peec and Itzia five meters to either side of him.

Alarms blared in the Covenant encampment, and a small warning symbol lit up on Wings' HUD, showing he was being tracked by automated defenses.

"Two, bust those turrets."

Not a quarter of a second after he spoke there was a series of cracks like thunder and lightning as Zero's M909 SASR roared, the electromagnetically accelerated rounds tearing through the plating of the turrets, silencing them.

Wings, Itzia, and Peec reached the wall, crouched, and leaped as one, sinking their gauntlet knives into the wall and pushing themselves up again.

A startled Jackal sniper had enough time to utter an undignified squawk before Wings' heavy boots crushed him underneath their treads. Itzia collided with a Brute, bringing him to the ground, assault rifle unleashing a torrent of rounds into the massive alien.

Down in the courtyard dozens of Covenant milled about, most of them blinking sleep from their eyes and stumbling to get to their assigned battle stations.

Fish in a barrel, Wings thought to himself as he and the other two Spartans aimed into the writhing mass of aliens below them and squeezed their triggers, emptying the rest of their magazines into the Covenant. To his left he heard Zero clambering up the wall, wanting to get a piece of the action.

Some Jiralhanae finally got their act together and ordered a retreat deeper into the base, firing what they could at the Demons on the wall.

"Hunt them down." Wings snapped. He and his team leaped over the side of the wall and landed on a pile of dead Unggoy.

A group of Brutes had decided to play it smart and hug the wall, safe from the Spartans' withering fire. One wrapped his arm around Wings' throat, trying to haul him back. Wings let him, curling his body up. When he judged that the time was right, he kicked out, boots slamming into the wall, and flipped back the way he'd come. Once again his feet planted on a solid ground of flesh, and he leaned forward, bringing a very surprised Brute to ground with him.

A twist of hist body and he was on top of the Brute, straddling the alien's chest. He dropped his rifle and extended both gauntlet blades and sank both of them through the creature's eyes, killing it almost instantly.

Before the body was done twitching the blades were retracted and Wings was on his feet again, rifle in hand and scanning for more targets.

"Courtyard clear." Zero announced, having been the last to finish off her Brute.

"Move up, Spartans." Wings said and, as one, they advanced through the camp, picking off the odd smattering of resistance.

"They're like cockroaches," Itzia commented at one point as she squeezed the trigger of her C70 Shotgun, sending a spray of 8-gauge buckshot over a squad of Jackals. She dropped the magazine and loaded a fresh one. "About as dangerous as cockroaches, too."

"Nowhere near the survivability rate, though." Peec reminded her.

"True that."

The four Spartans seemed unstoppable, and soon they were in the inner ring of the encampment, facing down the last line of defense, a bristling phalanx of turrets, hunters, and higher-ranking Brutes. Jackals had set up shield walls at regular intervals from the main building.

"Got a plan to break up this party, sir?" Zero muttered.

Wings just raised his assault rifle, showing off the G58 grenade launcher. Zero smiled slightly.

The standard payload for each G58 underslung grenade launcher contained three HE charges that could be fired separately or all at once.

Having twelve grenades lobbed into your midst, followed by another dozen in rapid succession, tended to put a pretty black mark on your day.

Plasma turrets exploded, shield walls scattered, bodies flew apart, and the Covenant foot troops found themselves once again unprotected from the hail of bullets that struck them from what seemed like every direction.

The skirmish lasted less than a minute. It took two to plant the Shiva warhead.

"Kilo Five-One, this is Phoenix One. Mission accomplished, requesting exfil." Wings said over the command channel.

"Copy that, Phoenix. The fleet is lighting up the Covenant overhead. Your guess was bang on the money."

"Copy, Five-One. Meet you at the rendezvous."

"That felt good." Zero said as they jogged towards the DZ.

"Best I've felt in a long time." Wings replied. "And there's more where that came from."


0830 Hours, November 10th 2582 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Sanctum, Yggdrasil

The Pelican set down on top of the tower, waited for the Spartans to exit, and then lifted off again.

"Looks like someone to see you, boss." Zero said. Wings looked over towards the penthouse entrance. A familiar man was striding towards the landing pad.

"Phoenix, take a rest. We'll be here for at least the next 48 hours." He said, pulling off his helmet and marching over to meet the man. The rest jogged off.

"Captain Martel." Wings saluted. Felix returned the salute.

"Lieutenant Commander," Felix nodded. "I trust you are well?"

Wings squinted slightly at Felix. The Captain looked even paler than usual, and he held himself like his muscles were all drawn taut. "I am. Your daughter performed well on Tango Nine."

Felix nodded. "Yes, I've heard." He turned around and set off back towards the penthouse with Wings following.

"Nice setup you put up here." He commented. "Not your usual sort of base of operations."

"Sanctum is central to Yggdrasil as a trading hub, and I doubt many would expect to be set up in a place like this. Don't worry, sir. I'm keeping our base military."

"Oh I don't disagree. If I were trying to hunt you down this would probably be the last place I would have looked." Felix gestured.

Wings almost chuckled. "Yeah. That didn't work out so well when you last tried it, did it?"

Felix didn't try to hide the chuckle. "Indeed. Learned my lesson there."

The two were silent until they were inside the penthouse.

"Actually, I need your help, Wings." Felix stated plainly. "Jess and I are having... complications, and I need to make sure it hasn't been passed to our children."

Wings nodded. "I'll have Itzia check them both out. Victor should be returning within the day, and Amber's on the next dropship in... But that's not all, is there."

Felix shook his head. "You are well aware by now that the UNSC is going on the offensive against the Covenant."

"Of course."

"Well, Tango-Nine was the ultimatum, not the beginning. 'Surrender or be annihilated.'" Felix took in a breath. "Dark Space Shipyards has successfully reproduced the technology that the Halos used. High-mass and energy neutrinos traveling through real and slipspace to kill anything with a nervous system. They've managed to focus it into a beam that can kill every living soul in a fleet... or a planet."

Wings straightened a bit. "They're going to find the Jiralhanae homeworld."

Felix nodded. "Not a single soul will be left alive on Dosaic after it fires. And the Covenant will retaliate. With desperation."

"Earth and Yggdrasil will burn."

Felix nodded. "You and I both know better than any ONI official that the Covenant will not be swept aside so easily just because we found a new weapons against them. That and there's your... project with them. I'm in with you in this, Wings. Help me save lives."

Wings crossed his arms. "I'll need access to the Shipyards where this cannon of yours is under construction, as well as evidence that it does actually exist. I trust you, Felix, you know that, but this is too big to just take your word on."

"I've already handed the relevant files over to Deep Ocean. The cannon is being produced at the DSS itself and will be completed within six months. Destroy it, capture it, whatever. I wouldn't trust anyone else with this mission. If you fail, billions will die."

Wings nodded. "I've never failed a mission before." He and Felix both left what was unsaid there just that way.

Felix sighed, visibly less tense. "Thank you. I know you'll get it done. I need to go now. ONI has more for me to do now that you're back." He smiled slightly. Wings didn't return the expression.

"Stay well, Felix."

"You too, Wings."

With that, Felix left, heading back out to the landing pad where another Pelican was waiting.


Peec had never understood the teenage horror stories about meeting your girlfriend's family.

Now he knew why.

He supposed that if he hadn't been raised under glares more trained and fixed than the one he was now being fixed with, he would be more perturbed.

"Navy man, are you?"

"Yes sir." Peec could almost feel Julie rolling her eyes.

"What do you do?"

"Special Forces branch. I'm the tech specialist on my team." That guy an eyebrow raise.

"What does that involve?"

"Aside from killing Covenant troops?" Peec stated flatly. "I'm responsible for electronic and cyberwarfare suites. Means I hack consoles that need to be hacked, jam enemy coms, and make sure my team's electronics are fit to go."

Mr. Harrison nodded and stood. "Be good to my daughter, and she'll be good to you. Excuse me." He said, and walked out of the room.

"How long are you going to be on planet for now?" Julie's mother, Mrs. Harrison, asked.

"At least 47 hours, pending emergency situations." Peec responded.

"Ah." Mrs. Harrison glanced at Julie, then back at Peec. "Enough for at least one night." Peec saw Julie roll her eyes out of the corner of his eye. A corner of his mouth twitched upwards.

"Correct."


"I wasn't quite aware it was a parent's job to embarrass their children." Peec commented as he and Julie drove down the highway that cut through Sanctum.

"Really now? Sounds perfectly normal to me. How did your parents raise you?" Julie asked.

Peec felt the cheer drain from him. "I never got to find out. My... parents were killed during the Battle of Earth when I was young."

"Oh god I'm sorry... what happened?" Peec didn't have to look to know that Julie had a look of shock on her face.

"Sangheili Zealot. Cut them down when my father tried to protect us. He spared me."

"Is that why you joined the Navy? To get back at the Elite?"

Peec turned them onto an off-ramp. "Not... exactly." Here goes nothing. "I was recruited into the SPARTAN-III Program not long afterwards. Been in the Navy since then."

Julie was silent for a few minutes. "Well that's... unexpected." She finally said.

Peec just nodded.

"Did you eventually find the Elite that killed your parents?"

Peec nodded again. "He was a good soldier. I forgave him. Later he saved my life, and perhaps both our races. He died doing so."

"What's it like? Being a Spartan."

It was Peec's turn to be silent. He didn't really have a ready answer for that. "I don't really have anything to compare it too. My team has been my family since before I was a teenager, and the military is all I've known."

"I see." Julie sat back. "Well... how many girls can honestly say they're dating a Spartan?" That got a bit of a smile out of Peec.

"Where are we going, anyway?" Julie asked.

"Well, I suppose you should at least meet my family." Peec said, pulling up to Terrace Suites Utd. "It's only fair, and I've got something I need to pick up."

Chapter 7: Once More

"And you guys got to use the penthouse as a base... how?" Julie asked as she and Peec rode the elevator to the penthouse floor.

"Admiralty decided to be nice to us for a change. Means cushier lodgings and tougher assignments." Peec turned and handed Julie a card of some form. "Ever need in, that card will let you in. Someone will always be on hand to help you." She nodded, still taking it all in.

The elevator slowed, dinged, and the doors slid open.

A man looked up from a holotable similar to the ones Julie had seen used in the hospital to project diagrams of patients about to undergo an operation. She caught a glimpse of a blue and green planet before it shut off. The man nodded to Jeffrey and took her in at a glance. Something about him told her that he knew a lot more about her with that glance than even she knew she was presenting.

"Julie, this is Phoenix One. Boss, Julie." Peec introduced her.

"I don't get to know a proper name?" Julie raised one eyebrow.

"In our family, names are important." One said, straightening and holding out a hand. "If one of us gives you our name, it means we know we can trust you. Break that trust, and none of will ever trust you again. Call me Wings."

Julie shook hands with Wings. "Just like that?"

Wings' face was about as emotive as a statue. "Peec trusts you, and I most often turn to him if I need to find out if a piece of intel is trustworthy."

Julie squinted at him. She generally prided herself on being able to read even the most apathetic of people. It was simply a fact of life that she had to be able to read if a patient was deceiving her. But she didn't really get anything off of Wings.

"You said you had something for me?" Wings spoke to Peec, who reached into his jacket and pulled out a small black box.

Wings took the box and returned to the holotable. He snapped open a small slot on the bottom and pulled a plug out, pushing it in to where Julie guessed his neural implant was. She wondered what kind of implant that was. She'd seen plenty of Marines come through and a few ODSTs with more complex implants. Whatever it was, she'd never really seen one that had an actual data port.

Wings' eyes shut, and she saw his eyes twitching back and forth behind the lids, almost like he was dreaming. Whatever was happening, it only took a few seconds before his eyes snapped open again and he pulled the plug out.

A flick of something passed across his face. A flicker of... amusement? Then it was gone again, and Wings handed the box back to Peec.

"Parangosky sure is one clever woman," Wings noted, almost completely devoid of emotion but with that hint of amusement Julie had noted.

"Have everything we need, sir?" Peec asked.

"That and more." Wings glanced at Julie. "Feel free to stay. Just don't mess with anything. I'll let the rest know that you're clear to come in."

"You sure ONI will be okay with that, sir?" Peec said hesitantly.

"My operation, my house, my rules. ONI doesn't like them, they can find a way to replace me," Wings replied. "We've got another job. We ship out in 56 hours."


2000 Hours, November 14th 2582 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Dark Space, 1,000,000 kilometers from Dark Space Shipyards

"We're hitting the DSS again?" Zero asked, looking at the hologram floating over the table. "Is that such a good idea?"

"Probably not, but we don't have much choice." Wings leaned on the table and indicated a docking bay. "This drydock is our target. Its been recently retrofitted from a battleship-class drydock into something unrecognizable. So far they've completed the main framework of the cruiser, and it appears to match what blueprints we have of the Halo cannon."

"We have the plans for this thing?" Itzia asked, clearly suspicious.

"Parangosky was kind enough to slip us a black-box of data containing, among other things, the plans for this cannon."

"And we trust her?" Itzia raised an eyebrow.

"With this, I think we can." Wings responded. "If the Covenant lash out in desperation, her hide is on the table, too. And I have a feeling she's taking a liking to us, or at least some form of pity."

"Fair enough, but we can't use our suits in there." Itzia said, pushing her fist into the hologram the cannon's cradle and extending her fingers, causing the view to zoom in on the drydock.

"No. We'll be going in with SaDoR gear. Ocean won't be able to help us in there." Wings said, slightly bitterly.

"I thought SaDoR turned out to be good guys, of sorts." Peec commented.

"SaDoR has its splinter cells that really did split off from the UNSC. We'll be framing them for the hit." Wings said, pushing himself away from the table. "Kilo Five-One will be on overwatch and providing light support. The DSS has been shielded with multiple oscillating sectional shield generators, making it impossible for us to penetrate from out here. Ocean can get us docked, though, but that's it. We have to keep all our weapons safed while in range of the Shipyard."

"The UNSC knows our faces. How do we get through without them noticing us?" Itzia asked.

"Helmets with reflective visors. We're acting as military inspectors doing a routine tour." Wings tossed Itzia a helmet.

"Charming," she said, putting the helmet on.


There was a dull clunk as the Dignified Return bumped into the Shipyard. The four Spartans, all dressed from head to foot in ONI Enforcer formal uniforms with reflective visors, rode the bump. A minute later the door hissed open.

"Commander Draden, welcome back to the Dark Space Shipyards," a man in similar gear minus the helmet said. He had a Lieutenant's insignia on his lapels. "We need to scan you for weapons other than a personal sidearm, first."

Several men stepped forward, running scanners over the four Spartans, who held their arms out straight to theirs sides to speed the process.

"We're here to look over drydock Seven," Wings commented as the men stepped back, giving the all clear. "Making sure its progress is... satisfactory."

"Of course, Commander. This way, please." The man stepped to the side, gesturing Wings forward. Wings nodded at his teammates and marched down the corridor.

"The cannon has reached a critical stage in construction. The reactor has been fully installed, and the primary firing mechanism for the cannon is about to be put in place. See there." The Lieutenant pointed out a window, drawing Phoenix's gaze towards a strange device being maneuvered into position by a dozen robotic arms. Wings opened an extreme shortwave com channel to Peec and activated his subvocal mic.

"That make a good target?"

Peec took several seconds to respond. "Bust a hole in that and it would rip a fairly large hole in the drydock."

"We'll deal with that, then. I need you to get into their computers and wipe everything." Wings cut the channel off and turned to the Lieutenant, speaking out loud. "I'd like a closer look at the construction. My colleagues-" He nodded at Peec and Itzia. "-Would prefer to have a look at the research labs. They can judge if they are satisfactory."

The Lieutenant squinted, but waved a Sergeant over. "Take these two to the labs." He ordered. The Sergeant saluted and moved off, Peec and Itzia in tow. Wings and Zero followed the Lieutenant.

Zero felt her trigger hand getting tense. Not ten minutes in and the team was already split with no real plan to regroup. She balled her hand into a fist and forced it to relax, remembering her muscle drills.

The Lieutenant brought the two onto a shuttle, which promptly set out on a predetermined course closer to the cannon.

It was massive. Easily twenty kilometers long or more. Zero supposed that it had to be, considering the sheer amount of raw power that had to be dumped into a single firing sequence. The Lieutenant was droning something about how the fusion cores had to be properly aligned when Wings made his move.

"Thank you, Lieutenant," He said, stealing forward and wrapping one arm around the Lieutenant's throat, his other arm pinning the man's arms to his sides to prevent retaliation. "My apologies."

The Lieutenant twitched for a few seconds before blacking out and going limp. Wings set him down carefully. "Two, take the shuttle controls. Get us close and nose-on to it."

Zero flicked the shuttle's controls over to manual and grabbed the wheel. They had about thirty seconds until the station's computer reasserted control.

"Crashing it?" She asked aloud.

"Yep!" Wings said, activating a personal extra-atmospheric shield. "Three should be done in two minutes, so we'll be gone in three!" He opened up the airlock and stepped inside.

Zero locked the course for the shuttle in towards the firing mechanism and put the throttle up to max, then ran back to the airlock, activating her own EVA shield and scooping the Lieutenant up. The shields were low-powered things that couldn't block much firepower, but they held an atmosphere in a vacuum.

Wings already had the airlock override open.

"Punch it." Zero snapped as she joined Wings in the airlock, strapping the unconscious form of the Lieutenant to her and wrapping a hand through Wings' belt.

Wings hit the override, opening the airlock and shooting them into space. The Spartans tore off their outer armor layers to reveal hidden micro-booster jets favored by SaDoR EVA operators. Cheap and effective, but dangerous if one of the jets blew a valve.

Thankfully, the valves held, and soon the two Spartans were in the airlock they had left.

Wings slammed the emergency override as the sound of dozens of running boots came closer. The airlock hissed shut as the shuttle collided with the device.

He and Zero were thrown against the bulkhead as the door hissed open.

"Back to the ship, now!" Wings hissed. Zero dropped the Lieutenant unceremoniously, and the two took off sprinting.

A dozen armed men with the look of ODSTs came around the corner. They had their weapons half-raised when Wings and Zero hit them, not even bothering to give them a chance to bark orders before laying into them with fists and feet before continuing on back to the dock.

Peec and Itzia were already there, waiting.

"What took you two so long?" Peec asked, turning and running into the Dignified Return as Wings and Zero ran into the docking bay, Itzia on his heels.

Wings ignored the question. "You get it done?"

"Of course."

"Then let's get out of here."

Bits of the cannon went everywhere, most of the debris being blocked by the station's shield generators.

Wings ran onto the bridge. "Ocean, please tell me you can get us back out of their shields."

"Of course. I had Three plant a worm on the station's computers before leaving. It will give us temporary access through their shields." The AI responded, avatar appearing in front of Wings.

The ship lurched and pulled away from the Shipyards.

"Engaging slip drive." Ocean announced calmly.

The ship lurched again, and left reality behind.

"That was too easy." Zero said it first as she took a seat in the communications chair.

"I agree." Wings replied.

"So what, we hunt down all of these things, wherever they may be in the galaxy?" Itzia was next to speak.

"If we have to Itzia," Peec said. "But this will surely delay them."

The others just nodded.

"We'll be back at Yggdrasil in 33 hours." Ocean broke the silence again. "I believe ONI has another target they want you to hit."


"No real casualties, sir, but the cannon was destroyed."

The man frowned. "How much of it is recoverable?"

"Almost none, sir. Nothing vital, at least. The operatives used SaDoR gear, but-"

"They got cocky. No way just two of them took out a dozen ODSTs in close quarters combat."

"Yes sir. Definitely rogue Spartans."

"If they found the cannon and know what it's for... then there's no way we can touch them. We can only find a new location."

"Sir?"

"If those Spartans have the resources and capability to destroy this project without us knowing them right away, then there's no way we can get to them with what resources we have. If it's a game of cat and mouse they want, then we'd better find the best hiding hole possible."

Chapter 8: Again, With Feeling

1124 Hours, November 17th 2582 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Sanctum, Yggdrasil

"Griffin Team is still on-mission, so that gives us time to get caught up with our reinforcements." Wings said as the elevator slowed and stopped. The doors dinged open.

"Are you sure we need reinforcements?" Zero asked, stepping through the doors. Wings looked at her.

"We're still down a demolition expert, Zee."

The walk down the hallway was a sober one.

Zero opened the door to see Tom and Lucy standing near the holotable. Lucy looked at each of the four Spartans in turn, and smiled sadly. Tom just nodded.

"Tom, Lucy," Wings addressed the two. "It's good to see you again."

"I hear I'm your number Five," Tom spoke. "And Lucy here is your Six."

"Is Seven here yet?" Wings asked.

"Who would be our Seven?" Itzia asked.

"That would be me." Said a female voice. Wings turned to see Vena 'Vadam fade back into reality as her active camouflage dissipated. She smiled and clenched her fist over her first heart. "It is good to see you well, Phoenix."

"Good to see you too, Vena." Wings had a hint of a smile on his face. "How's your father?"

Vena's face fell slightly. "Might I speak with you outside?"

"Of course." Wings glanced at Tom and Lucy, nodded, and followed Vena out onto the terrace.

"What happened?" Wings asked as soon as he was sure they were out of earshot.

Vena kept walking, gazing idly at a fountain. "We lost another family member."

"How did it happen?"

"Combat with the Covenant Loyalists. How else?" Vena stopped and turned to Wings. "We need to end this."

Wings folded his arms across his chest. "I know. We've both lost family, Vena."

"So what do we do for now?"

Wings almost smiled. "Hit back harder, of course."


1323 Hours, November 21st 2582 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: In orbit over Jagged Two

"Jagged Two is essentially a large manufacturing moon. Materials are brought to it to be refined and shaped into parts for shipbuilding and are then transported to shipbuilding yards for assembly." Wings said, gesticulating at the hologram being projected into the middle of the Pelican. "Heard of Operation: PROMETHEUS? Similar setup, except the Covenant seem to have been short-changed on their budget, so we won't need three-hundred suicide soldiers."

"Just two teams of Spartans and one Sangheili." Amber said, jerking her head at Vena. "This sanctioned, sir?"

"My mere existence is not sanctioned by either of our species." Vena said, catching Amber off-guard a bit. She'd never met a female Sangheili before. "Phoenix gave me purpose, so I serve only him."

"I see," Amber replied, a note of respect in her voice. "More like us than we know."

Vena nodded.

"Dirt in 30 seconds!" Kilo Five-One announced from her place in the cockpit.

"It's approximately fifty kilometers to the target area." Wings announced as Griffin and Phoenix hopped out of the pelican. "So we have a bit of a walk."


"We're not doing this one hard and loud, are we?" Zero asked hopefully, looking down at the caravan.

"No, not yet." Wings replied. "They'd just call in a cruiser and glass us." He glanced over at Lucy, who was also staring down at the supply caravan. "We're doing this quietly."

"Then we'll want to swing south." Zero said, checking the area through her scope again. "They're setting up a camp between us and the main manufacturing plant."

"Then we swing south." Wings said. "Six, you're on point."

Lucy moved past him, active camouflage flickering slightly. She double-checked the ammo counter for her MA7C and took up her position ahead of the two teams, which were spread out a bit.

The area of Jagged-Five they were on was very tropical, with trees thick and plenty of vegetation. On one hand, this would aid them in a firefight, as everyone's armor was the typical green and would help them blend in. On the other, active camouflage wasn't perfect, and had a harder time adapting to constantly shifting shapes and shades of colors.

A noise in front of her brought Lucy up short. She raised her rifle, scanning in front of her. She heard everyone behind her stop.

Her fist slammed out left, intuition kicking in and reacting to signs she didn't consciously notice. A dead silence, then a scrape one the bark. A quiet whirr of a weapon being powered up.

Her gauntlet knife snapped out and sank into the soft, unprotected flesh of a Brute Stalker. She kept going with the punch, using it to push her away from the large alien. A microsecond later a beam rifle shot speared the air where her head had been, and she landed in the loam. She kept the rifle where it had been aimed and squeezed the trigger, and heard a Jackal cry out as the 7.62mm rounds chewed through him.

"Ambush!" She heard Wings bark over the command frequency.

The jungle descended into chaos as Lucy continued the roll, putting a tree between herself and the nearest line of attackers. She rose to a crouch and flicked her visor over to thermal.

A large blob appeared right in front of her. She squeezed the trigger again, and was rewarded with a scream as the Brute fell, hard.

She spun as she heard a crackle behind her, elbow colliding with a Jackal. He squawked and fell. She put two rounds in his head before he hit the ground.

And then suddenly the rifle was wrenched from her hands and the air was choked out of her as a massive paw wrapped itself around her throat.

"So you're the little Beta bitch that can't speak." The Judicator said with a snarl, active camouflage disengaging. He raised her into the air with one arm, the other one raising his massive hammer. "It will be a pleasure killing you."

Lucy's hand went for her sidearm, finding a grip and raising it as the hammer was brought up. She brought it up into the Judicator's face and fired as fast as her finger could pull the trigger, emptying the magazine in less than two seconds. Every one of the .50 caliber rounds simply bounced off the Judicator's shields.

Then something invisible cannoned into the Judicator. He roared as an energy blade was rammed into his stomach.

Vena appeared, a snarl written on her face. She brought her other arm around, an energy sword in it as well, and rammed it next to the first.

Lucy's vision began to go black. The Judicator had kept his grip on her and was choking the life out of her.

She snapped her fist closed, extending the gauntlet knife once again, and buried it into the base of the Judicator's hand. He roared and released her, then brought the hammer around.

There was a slam, and Lucy heard the hammer discharge as Vena was sent flying. The Judicator dragged himself to his feet as Lucy backpedaled, going for her rifle. The Judicator spotted her and charged. She dove to the side, snapping up her pistol and dropping the magazine, ramming a new one home.

She heard an MA7A roar as Griffin Two let loose, the rounds bouncing off the Judicator's shields along with her own.

Suddenly green rounds began pouring into the fray, and Lucy saw a white blur in black armor speed by her and slam the Judicator against the tree.

"You killed my son," Autel 'Vadam said. Lucy took the time to snatch up her rifle and mow down a squad of grunts. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Itzia pull Vena up.

The Judicator must have responded, because Autel then hefted the massive Brute over his head with a mighty roar and threw him. The Judicator flew several meters before striking a tree. The tree began to fall, and Autel was forced to roll out of the way.

It was then that Lucy realized that she and the others had been joined by several Sangheili wearing similar armor to Autel. They were silent as they fought, plasma repeaters and Type-51 Carbines spewing rounds into the ambushing Covenant forces.

The Judicator once again rose to his feet and tore off into the brush. Autel looked as if he was about to give chase, but a Jiralhanae Chieftain stepped in front of him. Autel brought his head back and headbutted the beast, then brought his red energy sword around, slicing through the Chieftain's chest. By then the Judicator had disappeared.

Lucy fired one last burst into a Jackal, and then the forest was silent.

"Autel," Wings said, stepping forward. Vena also stepped forward, limping slightly. "What are you doing here?"

Autel looked at Wings with an apologetic look on his face. "We learned that the Covenant knew where you were going next, and decided to lay a trap for the ambushers."

Wings nodded. "We better move. The Covenant will have a fleet inbound."

"It's already here." Autel said. "Sangheili ships have engaged them."

"Sir, if they know we're here, the manufacturing plant will be buttoned up." Amber said, striding forward.

"Don't worry, Griffin," Wings glanced around at the assembled forces. "I always have a contingency plan."


Gunnery Sergeant Dmitri Zaitsev ran through the corridors of the UNSC Red Sun Rising towards the ODST briefing room, finally securing the pauldron in place as the doors swished open.

"Took you long enough, Gunny." First Sergeant Aqil Hafsa, eyes boring into Zaitsev.

"Sorry, Sarge."

Hafsa just nodded and tapped the screen, and the three assembled ODST squads perked up as the planet below appeared.

"Ladies and gents, we're here to break open a Covenant factoring plant that's build like a fortress. I understand we're TACON to Phoenix Actual." Hafsa opened a channel to the Spartan on the ground.

"This is Phoenix Actual. You ready for a fight?"

"Always." An ODST Zaitsev didn't recognize said.

"Good, because this is going to be a tough nut to crack." The view of the planet zoomed in and revealed the known layout of the fortress.

"As you can see, the base is build of seven concentric rings leading inwards towards the main production facility," Wings continued. "The outermost set of walls is impenetrable so far as we are concerned. They have heavy anti-vehicular batteries set up around the perimeter along with dozens of anti-infantry turrets."

"Why can't your teams bust 'em open?" Another ODST asked.

"Because they know we're here," Wings replied calmly. "This was supposed to be a covert operation, but we had an intelligence leak somewhere. I need two teams to drop inside the innermost wall and shut down the automated defenses while another team hits the front gate. The team at the front gate should expect the most resistance, so we've got a QA12 'Thor' UAV ready to cover you from above. Normally I'd just have it bust the gates open, but they're built like a bunker."

There was a pause for any questions, then: "I know you'll get it done. See you on the far side. Phoenix out."

The channel went dead, and the ODSTs moved, grabbing helmets and double-checking weapons.

The ODST who had spoken first during the brief briefing nudged Zaitsev as he nestled his helmet onto his head. "Your team's got a Thor? That's going to be a cakewalk."

Zaitsev chuckled. "Tell me about it. You watch your ass down there."

"Aye, same to you."


The QA12 'Thor' UAV was technically designated as a defensive drone primarily used by the UNSC Army, but many of them were assigned to Naval NavSpecWep for offensive use.

Armed with a 120mm Howitzer, two 50mm cannons, and four 7.62mm rotary guns on the underside, there was a massive amount of firepower that could be laid down over a wide area against a multitude of targets. To cover the air above it the Thor was equipped with two 2mm rapid-fire rail-guns.

The thing was essentially a floating fortress. Equipped with a multitude of sensors and its own designated artificial intelligence, a Thor could very easily command a battlefield all on its own.

Dmitri watched the behemoth descend from the belly of the ship slightly ahead of the Helljumpers, the drop pods rapidly catching up and passing the Thor. Dmitri, for his part, checked the readouts in his pod. Hm. Looks like this may not be such a cakewalk after all.

"Sir, is it me, or is it us and one Thor against an entire legion of Covenant troopers?" Corporal Hargreave asked hesitantly.

"We are, Corporal." Hafsa responded. "So everyone stick tight and make every shot count. We'll be landing right on top of the outer gate, so I want it secured and us dug in before they have a chance to regroup and respond."

The timer in Dmitri's pod ticked over, and he felt a flutter in his stomach. He was going to be first with boots on the ground in approximately thirty seconds. He gripped the arms of his seat as tight as he could.

The counter hit ten seconds, and Dmitri felt his body come alive as adrenaline flooded through him. Over his head the Thor opened up with its howitzer, the massive round tearing through the sky and annihilating a Covenant artillery team.

Dmitri felt his rear try to make close friends with his skull as the pod slammed down, but he was already moving, hands flying into motion as they snatched up his M12 SMG and chambered a round. The front flew off his pod two seconds after impact, colliding with an unfortunate Jackal and flattening the alien against a wall.

Dmitri's HUD immediately scanned and identified targets slightly faster than his eyes did. Three grunts right, Jackal left. He reflexively raised his SMG and fired a sustained burst at the Grunts, two of them going down immediately and another one taking two in the shoulder. Dmitri's feet moved as he fired, propelling him at the Jackal as it slowly raised its plasma pistol. He cannoned into the alien, his hand coming up to his chest and releasing his sidearm from the chest holster. He held it to the aliens head and squeezed three times before spinning back to the slowly recovering grunt, his SMG falling to his side on its sling as he finished off the Grunt with two more shots to the head.

A quick scan of the area told him that the top of the tower he'd landed on was clear, but there were hostiles moving up to him.

Something slammed down on the rooftop ten meters from him, and he spun towards it in time to see the hatch pop off another drop pod and Corporal Hargreave to jump out, M7 SMG raised. The Corporal quickly scanned the dead bodies and nodded to Dmitri. "Nice."

Dmitri Zaitsev just nodded his thanks and went to retrieve his sniper from his pod, along with some claymores and explosive charges. They'd be handy for holding off the Covenant. The sniper would be more useful later, so Dmitri just slung it over his shoulder and fixed it in place, keeping his M12 ready and sliding a new magazine into his sidearm.

Hargreave was already at the entrance to the tower. He held up four fingers, indicating the number of targets. "Jackals." He said over the tactical channel. "Probably just checking the disturbance."

Dmitri nodded and held his hand flat and vertical, signalling Hargreave to stack on the door. Breaching a door was always risky, and you had to be quick, especially with shielded targets. Dmitri then held his hand up and open and closed it twice, signalling a flash-bang entrance. It would give them at least a couple seconds to take down the aliens before they recovered. Hargreave nodded and readied a standard flash-bang grenade while Dmitri approached the door and attached a breaching charge to it. Covenant doors always required more bang to get through. This would not be quiet. Dmitri and Hargreave then took up their positions on either side of the door.

"One, two, three, go!" Dmitri counted down, and then detonated the charge with a double-blink at the appropriate icon on his HUD.

The charge turned the door into dust, and the flash-bang sailed through the small dust cloud, detonating just inside the door. Dmitri and Hargreave were already through, Hargreave's shotgun roaring as it tore apart two Jackals and Dmitri's SMG burping rounds that cut the other two down.

"That flash-bang may not have been necessary." Hargreave said, keeping his shotgun up and trained on the next door.

"Better safe than sorry. Some stalker Brutes have started using camo that masks them to our sensors. Just higher ranking ones, though."

Hargreave clicked his tongue. "This just keeps getting better and better."

"Doesn't it always. Keep your head on a swivel."

A few minutes later the tower was clear, Hargreave and Dmitri having linked up with the rest of the ODSTs. Dmitri had set up on top of the tower again with his rifle, watching the steadily advancing horde. They looked a bit reluctant to blindly charge across the fields with the Thor tearing apart everything in reach.

"Zaitsev, how we doing?" Hafsa's voice came over the com.

"The Thor is keeping the worst off, but they're starting to build up momentum, sir. Best guess is they're on us inside of three minutes."

"Copy that. You are green to fire at your own discretion. We're all set up down here. If their artillery starts up again, I want you off the top of that roof before they zero in."

"Zaitsev copies all. Out."

Dmitri settled in. It was going to be a long day.


1643 Hours, November 26th 2582 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Jagged Two

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 Commander 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.

The base had fallen quickly enough once the Spartans had gotten inside, but the arrival of Covenant reinforcements and the discovery of a second base had caused them to refocus and redouble their efforts. The Thor had been shot down almost a day ago now, so they were largely without air support.

"Go!" Wings barked, and he and Itzia leaped out of the foxhole. Wings saw a silhouette in the dust cloud. A part of his brain said "gun" and his rifle snapped up automatically, firing a three round burst at the figure. It dropped, and he moved on.

A particle beam sizzled next to his head, and his suit automatically kicked in, pumping him full of adrenaline. Time stretched and dilated, making everything around him swim.

He saw the sniper twitch his own weapon a bit to the side. If he had another half-second...

Wings just pulled his rifle from where it was and fired a single round. The Jackal took the round in the mouth, the 7.62mm round blowing a hole through his head.

And then he was at the bottom of the ridge with Itzia and Peec. As one, they all pulled out fragmentation grenades.

"Up and over." Wings said. They all primed and tossed the grenades up over the rock, waited for the explosions, and then dove in.


0123 Hours, August 5th, 2557 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: New Quebec SPARTAN Training Facility

Zero stared into her water. She knew there was something in it. There had to be.

Why else would her mind be trying to reject... something?

That's the thing about things you don't want to remember.

"Zee, you alrigh'?" X's voice cut through her reverie. She jumped.

"'m fine," she said, glancing up. "Just fine." And she went back to staring at her cup of water.

The cafeteria was surprisingly quiet, even with the chatter of several hundred trainees.

Zero pushed the water away from her. It was beginning to hurt to look at. Wings and Peec were discussing something about AI programming algorithms. Itzia seemed to be listening only vaguely, her eyes glazed over. X was focusing on his food. Zero picked up her tray and rose.

"Something up?" X said after hurriedly swallowing his beans.

"Need to shoot something." Zero heard a short pause in the conversation, and then X get up to follow her.

She put her tray on the disposal rack and walked outside, not slowing down.

X found her a few minutes later at an outdoor range, BR55 cradled and sending rounds downrange at a frightening pace. He shrugged, picked up an MA5C and took up a position near her. He glanced over as he thumbed the safety off. Her face was blank and her eyes were unmoving. He'd noted that she tended to do that when she was shooting. He looked at the targets she was going for. All rounds were on-target. Most of them in the head.

"You'd make a good sharpshooter." He said, raising the assault rifle and firing a three round burst into the nearest target's center of mass. Shifting aim, he hit one five meters behind it.

She stopped, tilted the rifle, and let the empty magazine drop onto the counter in front of her. "Yeah. The Commander's said he's recommending me for Sniper School."

X nodded. "Looks like I'll be doing demolitions."

They both shot targets for a while without speaking.

"You're awfully calm for someone that likes explosions." Zero spoke first. "Kind of counter-intuitive."

X finished off his magazine and set the rifle down, looking down at his hand. "Guess it just feels to me like an explosive will behave if you treat it nicely. Besides, people aren't explosives."

Zero set her rifle down as well. "Are you... remembering things?"

X looked at her. "Like what?"

"Things before we came here."

X looked at the ground. "I'm... starting to. It's still fuzzy, though. Just shapes and incoherent sounds."

Zero fidgeted, her composure failing. "You don't get the feeling that you don't want to remember?"

The young boy frowned. "No. Why?"

Zero picked up her rifle and slid yet another magazine in. "Nothing."


1130 Hours, November 30th 2582 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Sanctum, Yggdrasil

Julie Harrison always felt out of place in Terrace Suites. There were a lot of corporate suits there, or at least young playboys in the lower-end apartments. A few leered, but most didn't look twice at her before going about their business.

The short hallway leading to the penthouse was surprisingly, well... Spartan compared to the rest of the tower. She raised her hand and knocked three times of the door.

Two seconds later she was staring at a tall woman in plain clothing, very clearly not there for Malkavian's entertainment or company. Her shortly trimmed hair and facial scarring told her she was likely with Jeffrey's team. The massive sidearm she was holding at her side didn't help. The woman's face was expressionless and pale, eyes unblinking. Julie wordlessly held up the card.

The woman glanced at it and nodded, holstering the pistol and turning to walk back into the room. A man was standing just behind where she'd been.

"You must be Julie," he said as the woman wordlessly passed him. "Sorry about that. Lucy's been on edge since we came back."

Julie glanced at the woman, who was now sitting down at the table and tapping at a datapad. "Is she okay?"

The man followed her look. "No. We... saw a lot of our family die when we were young. She hasn't said much since then. If she does ever speak to you, you listen." He seemed to tense up a bit as he held a hand out to Julie. "Name's Tom, by the way."

Julie shook the hand firmly. "Nice to meet you." Another glance at Lucy. "How old were you when-"

"Twelve," Tom said. "Three hundred of us assaulted a Covenant facility. Lucy and I were the only ones to walk away."

Julie froze. She knew the color had drained from her face. "That's horrible! How could-"

Tom held up a hand. "The person in charge of our Company was punished years ago. And I don't regret that. The three-hundred lives spent that day saved millions."

Julie just nodded, glancing again towards Lucy and jumping slightly as she realized that the Spartan was now standing right next to her.

Lucy handed Tom the datapad and looked at Julie. "Peec is a good man. Don't break his heart."

For years Julie would wonder whether those words were advice or a warning.

Chapter 9: Getting Somewhere

0930 Hours, December 24th 2582 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Sanctum, Yggdrasil

Artificial snow really had come a long ways in the past four centuries. Even with the UNSC still recovering from a war and fighting a "black war" at present, there was still somehow room to develop such... distractions.

Peec pinched the bridge of his nose as he felt another wave of exhaustion sweep over him, the falling of yet another adrenaline rush. The problem with artificial weather was that it could often be like using incendiary grenades to stop a wildfire. An artificial blizzard had collided with a natural one, and the wind currents had gone even more haywire. A veritable hurricane of snow was now smashing Sanctum. The butterfly effect at its finest. And fighting the weather after weeks of nonstop fighting by helping to repair shielding stations was not his idea of shore leave.

Problem with the snow was that it had become more of flying icy shurikens, and could easily slice through civilian clothing and even some car windows. Fully suited technicians had to be deployed to make sure the shields kept running so that the storm didn't smash apart the city itself. With said technicians in short supply and the storm slowing reinforcements down... well, Spartans tended to have pretty damn good armor. The shields alone could hold for hours without failing.

Peec replaced his helmet and fired up his welder again.

"Three, almost got that transmitter back on?"

"Almost, One. Got fucked up up here."

"Well get it done and then get down here. We'd like to sleep sometime this year."

"Copy, One."

Peec climbed down ten minutes later to where Wings was standing, bouncing slightly in place, possibly to stretch and to keep himself awake for another few minutes.

"Right, back to base." Wings said before Peec had stepped off the bottom rung. He turned and started jogging. Sixty celsius below zero tended to cause most vehicles to have issues, if they even started.

Thankfully, it started. And thankfully, there were no issues aside from the usual problems of having a ton of armor in one vehicle. Even Warthogs tended to sink visibly when it was loaded with Spartans.

Chained tires dug into the ice as the 'hog skittered onto the highway and back to Terrace Suites.

Peec just floored it. Despite the winds and razor-sharp ice, the Warthog's weight and the new tires meant that it handled ice like their boots handled dirt. That and the fact that only someone suicidal would be driving on the highway in this weather without armor plating allowed the Warthog to get up and move.

"So boss, what's the plan until this storm blows over?" Peec's voice came over the com.

"ONI found some Innie cells they want us to mop up. Nothing a good ODST team couldn't handle."

"Except that all ODST teams are off-world and are inaccessible at this time."

"Affirmative."

"This week is going to be boring as hell."

"Affirmative."

"You've got a plan, though."

"You have to ask?"

Peec shot a look over at Wings. "Sarcasm's not your style, boss."

"Affirmative."

The rest of the drive went in silence. Active camouflage let them commandeer an elevator to their own to reach the penthouse without being spotted by civilians. No one was supposed to know that NavSpecWep had commandeered three floors as a base of operations.

Amber's team, Griffin, was on a mission at the moment, but Flechette Team had been caught in Sanctum with Phoenix. The leader, William-D821, entered the room as Wings and Peec were shrugging off their armor. He stood to attention and saluted. "Sir, good to see you."

Wings returned the salute. "Likewise. How's your team?"

William grimaced. "Bored as hell."

Peec finished pulling his jumpsuit off and starting tugging a t-shirt over his head. No Spartan really liked being stuck in civvies, but they had to keep up appearances. "I hear that. Fixing weather shields is not my idea of fun."

Lucy walked into the room, glancing between the three other Spartans before fixing her eyes on Wings. He nodded and followed her into their makeshift control room, leaving Peec and William to catch up.

"What is it, Six?" Wings said as he entered the room, Lucy moving around to the far side of the holo-table.

The Beta S-III gave him a rare smile. "SADOR's leader." She said simply, tapping a button and bringing up a holographic dossier.

"Have you confirmed this report?" Wings spoke after scanning the document.

Lucy nodded. "Dug up from ONI reports of Operation: TORPEDO... and the remains of Operation: CHARLEMAGNE, dating back to 2496, involving Spartan 116. Deep Ocean cross-referenced and confirmed it."

Wings glanced up. "No one outside the team learns about this. Understood?"

Lucy nodded. "Of course."

"Now tell me everything."

0214 Hours, January 12th 2583 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Paris, France

People like to hold onto old things. Somehow keeps the area fresh.

The part of Paris that Sarah strode through mirrored this, with narrow alleyways and plenty of steps to accommodate the average pedestrian.

She knew exactly why she'd been sent to do it. The Spartans hated places where an ambush could be easily made.

"Fox One, come in."

Sarah Ignacio reached into her pocket and pulled out her PDA, tapping a small button to respond to the hail. The communication bead implanted into her ear canal emitted a soft beep to let her know the connection had been established, and the throat mic hummed softly. The things were not standard issue for even general Special Forces operatives. Alpha-Nine had their own tricks. One of them being implanted communications devices that could be activated at any time, placed directly in the operator's larynx and inner ear canal. If an operator was ever captured, they could be turned on remotely. Anyone wishing to gain information from the operative without revealing themselves would be forced to remove the implants.

And then the operatives wouldn't be doing much talking at all.

"Overwatch confirms that the SADOR leader is in a safehouse half a klick to your south. We need you to verify the target and locate enemy emplacements and fortifications. Do you copy?"

Sarah reached an intersection and glanced right. A building blocked her view about fifty meters away. She reached back and pulled out a set of bolt cutters, neatly cutting the lock and glancing about to make sure she was still alone. "I copy all."

She slipped into the building, making sure to shut the door behind her. The only light was a window on the other end of the room.

"Good. We're ready whenever you are. Out."

Sarah glanced up as she slipped a pair of goggles over her head, activating the night-vision. Spotting a staircase, she took it up. To her relief it ran right up through the building, straight to the roof. She didn't head all the way up there, of course. The building was tall and the roof would be too obvious. She chose a room with a window just below it, seating herself a good three meters back from the window and opening her bag. From it she withdrew several pieces and arranged them neatly on a nearby table. The room was excellent; dark, dusty, and a nice wide window.

It wasn't long before the M1 Hard Sound Rifle was assembled on the table, and Sarah seated in a chair on one end, making sure her scope was properly aligned. Once she had triple-checked, she opened the com channel again. "Fox One, in position."

"Copy, Fox One. Fox Two and Three are also in position. Be advised: We are still not currently aware of the leader's precise physical appearance. All we know is the safehouse location and the specifics of their evacuation plans. Once this kicks off, you are weapons free on anyone you believe to be a SADOR officer."

"Copy that." Sarah clicked the safety off. "Four guards on the roof, spotted three more in the windows, and two by the north gate."

"Understood. Keep your eyes on the gate. We are inbound."

There was a soft roar overhead as a UNSC Pelican, disguised as a civilian parcel delivery transport, flew overhead. One of the rooftop guards glanced up.

He didn't notice the man standing six meters from him collapse, blood flowing freely from every orifice of his head.

He did, however, notice the spurt of rifle fire from the rear of the Pelican that cut down his other two fellows, and had a chance to scream the alarm before being cut down himself. Ten armored figures stormed out of the Pelican as it slowed, not even stopping before flying away to take up an overwatch position. Civilians outside the compound screamed and ran as local PD struggled to make sense of the situation.

The sounds of gunfire erupted from the building. What sounded like a pitched battle on the third floor had broken out.

At almost the same instant, a side door burst open, and a flood of men in street clothes rushed out. They didn't seem to be in any spectacular hurry. Perhaps they didn't know the full extent of the danger.

Sarah allowed herself a small smile. The gates were narrow and she had a clear shot. A woman in front of the group carried herself with dignity and a good deal of posture. Unlike her comrades, she was not chatting with anyone else.

A good start.

The woman's necklace shattered as the hard sound struck her, her eyes opening wide in shock, mouth forming a small 'O' as she fell back, her hand coming up to her throat. One of the men with her yelled out a warning in Spanish and pulled out a sidearm as the woman fell back, slowing their movements.

The man with the sidearm barely managed to raise it at an imagined target before he was struck as well, screaming as he fell, a shot from the rifle having liquefied his intestines.

One by one, Sarah picked off the officers and the two gate guards. Several vehicles screeched onto the scene, and more armed men poured out from them, but they still hadn't pinpointed her location. And now there was assistance: small arms fire poured from the building, cutting down the people still in the courtyard.

Sarah ejected the gas canister from her rifle and slotted a new one into place, scanning the killing zone for more targets. "Fox One here, all clear."

"Flechette Five reports all clear here, too."

The all clear reports came in one at a time. By now Paris PD had arrive on the scene and was getting snippy with Flechette One. Well, as snippy as police officers could get with a walking tank.

Commander Wings' voice came over the coms last. "We're good, then. Someone get me a positive ID on the primary target."

The Spartans fanned out, checking databases and IDs.

Sarah opened a channel to Flechette Two, who was closest to her sniping alley. "Flechette Two, I slotted what looked like quite a few officers over here. Want to check them?"

The towering form of Spartan D17 nodded and moved over to the pile of corpses, slowly picking through them one by one. She heard a grunt and a small sliding sound as the Spartan finished off the gutshot man. Finally he reached the woman and checked her over. Sarah saw D17 tilt her head as she got something over the Spartan's private com before the Spartan glanced up and looked right at Sarah.

"Negative on primary target. Looks like the lady you capped here was one of their chief biological weapons scientists, though."

Again, reports came in slowly, and the base was cleared. Wings' voice came over the com again.

"Just checked vehicle movement as well. No signs of anyone rabbiting before we got here. Someone want to tell me why the hell our target was never even here?"

Sarah wasn't about to.

Chapter 10: Monsters Hunting Monsters

1415 Hours, January 26th 2583 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: ''Spear's Tip'', en-route to Yggdrasil

"Negative, ma'am. ONI's out of my op. We got our intel from you, and it was false at the basest levels."

Admiral Osman's hologram frowned down at Wings. "Yes, I read your report. I've personally begun an internal investigation into our HAMMERDOWN cell. We've already located two operatives and taken one into custody."

Wings voice was even, but clearly cold. "And the other?"

There was no perceptible change in Osman's poise. "Escaped."

"So an operative with excessive levels of clearance into ONI systems and troops movements managed to get away with a wealth of information."

"We checked. No data was copied, nothing stolen."

"With respect ma'am, they don't need to directly copy it. Cybernetic enhancements these days allow a neural implant to save data retained from synthetic eyes. Even organic ones."

"And with all due respect, Commander, we do not believe that SADOR has the resources to have more than half a dozen neural implants, nevermind the hardware to store eyesight data." Osman's jaw tightened.

"They apparently have the resources to have a cell on Earth, right under your nose."

There was moment's pause, both officers staring at each other.

"You'll be receiving orders within 24 hours, Phoenix One. Admiral Osman out."

The line went dead, and Wings returned to his seat. The Pelican bumped a bit as it reentered Yggdrasil's atmosphere.

"Does the good Admiral really think we'd want to work more closely with ONI after that?" William asked, leaning against the back of his seat and crossing his arms.

"ONI didn't give us the information, nor did they clear the mission itself." Wings responded, leaning his head in one hand, thinking. Something itched at the back of his head. Little needles played over the surface of his brain. "She has no more reason to trust us than we her."

"So what're we going to do about ONI?"

"Like I told Osman: they're out of this. Get the word out to the rest of Delta."

William nodded and left the room. Wings turned to the holo-table. "Ocean."

Deep Ocean's avatar appeared on the table, hand clasped loosely behind her back. "Commander."

"Start trawling ONI databases for more information on SADOR operations prior to cutting themselves off from the UNSC, and get me a line to Captain Felix-116."

Ocean blinked, the data streams running along her sleek white dress glowing green for a brief moment. "I've begun intrusion into ONI servers, and a NCO has been sent to bring Felix. He appears to be out of armor and stationed at a medical facility at the moment."

Wings nodded. "When you're done, download the data into my neural interface for review. Link up with Element and try to figure out anything about the informants in ONI."

"Of course, Commander. It'll save me from running space combat simulations for the five billionth time today."

"No need to be a smartass."

"It's my job, Wings."

The corner of Wings' mouth twitched upwards slightly in one of his rare smiles. "Thank you, Ocean. That'll be all."

Ocean nodded. "And Captain Felix for you." Her hologram disappeared, being replaced by a man whose eyes were as black as his hair.

"Wings, what can I do for you?" Felix blinked. Wings hesitated. Felix looked... unwell. His eyes were sunken, and there was the slightest hint of a slur to his words.

A slight frown from Felix. He'd noticed the delay. Wings never hesitated unless he noticed something. The Delta coughed and tapped a holographic button, sending Felix a stream of data. "Sir, the operation report from Paris."

Felix's eyes tilted down to scan the screen, taking in the summation of events at a glance. The frown deepened. "Careful, Phoenix. Osman may not be a total psychopath, but she's still Parangosky's protege."

Wings nodded. "That's why I'm cutting ONI out of this operation."

Those tired eyes fixed themselves on Wings, who tilted his head slightly. He didn't feel any unease or guilt... just worry. "That's not a good idea. You know you'll need intel to carry the operation forward."

Wings was shaking his head before Felix finished the sentence. "The information from this op came straight from ONI databases, of which none of them were supposed to be aware of. As you will see in the report, there is no information whatsoever about the SADOR leader being in Paris or even in the Sol system at all."

Felix sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "So someone in ONI set it up... How many Deltas knew of the op?"

"Just the two teams that went on the mission, and the one sniper who was with us the entire time and was under constant surveillance. It was us."

"So what do you want me to do?" Felix leaned back in his chair.

"Simply be informed that I'm cutting ONI out of my op, and I'm bringing in more Deltas and Epsilons. I want this to be tight."

"Very well, Commander. For now, you remain at will to carry out your task as you see fit. Anything else?"

"Amber is taking to the profession well, sir."

Felix's jaw tightened, but his eyes seemed to regain a bit of their fire. "I should hope so. I still expect to have a family a few decades into the future."

"It'll happen, sir. I always fight for the lost. Phoenix out."

"See to it. Captain Martel, out." Felix's hologram faded, and Ocean appeared again.

"Database cracked and mined, sir. I have a list of most likely candidates in ONI who could have had access to information regarding SADOR."

Wings stood up, nodding to the AI. "Thank you, Ocean. I'll review it in my bunk."

Deep Ocean nodded and disappeared. Wings felt a small buzz in his neural implant as a stream of data was fed into the data chip. He stood and walked out of the room, marching down the main hall of the Spear's Tip.

1713 Hours, January 26th 2583 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Sanctum, Yggdrasil

Kilo Five-One soared over one of Yggdrasil's many artificial lakes, the Terrace building rapidly growing larger in their viewscreen. Itzia flipped her helmet right-side up and slipped it on, checking the seal. "So where're we moving base to, boss?"

"New Quebec. I don't want to be taking advantage of ONI's hospitality again."

A chuckle from Peec. "Naturally, sir."

The com in the bay of the Pelican crackled, and Kilo Five-One's voice filtered through. "One minute, ladies and gentlemen."

Phoenix rose as one, Peec reaching up to grasp one of the handholds. "At least we didn't have much equipment left. More than one trip would be a pain in the ass." His comment was met with a few nods.

"What'd Malkavian say when we told him?" Itzia asked as the Pelican settled down on the penthouse roof and the Spartans disembarked. Five-One took off. She'd be back in ten minutes to pick them and the gear up.

Wings didn't turn or shrug as he marched across the grass, a chill wind buffeting the lawn. "He didn't want to know about the politics, but I think he was pleased that we'd be out soon."

"So glad to know we left a good impression." Peec muttered.

"Walking on his grass in this armor is sure to leave an impression," Itzia shot back. Peec chuckled and nodded, conceding the point.

Wings stepped through the automatic doors, his team following right behind him. Wings glanced up at the next floor, glass railing skirting the balcony. Normally Malkavian would be there...

"My sincere apologies that I can't be there in person, but you all were starting to get a bit too close for comfort. This is goodbye." Malkavian's voice was coming over the intercom. Phoenix's heart rates jumped as a few dozen armored soldiers appeared out of nowhere, and the doors snapped shut before they could move, some heavy plates slamming down with assured finality.

"Three, door! Now!" Wings barked as the Spartans all raised their weapons as one. Only Itzia had something other than their sidearm. She never seemed to let her M12 SMG out of her sight.

The Innie soldiers opened fire, their antiquated MA5Cs spitting dozens of rounds at the Spartans.

Wings heard them bouncing off his shields as he and Zero dove forward, planting their backs to one pool table and flipping it on one edge to create a bit more cover. It wouldn't block the armor-piercing rounds, but it would reduce their effectiveness significantly. Itzia rolled around behind a pillar, a few rounds bouncing off the concrete and her shields as she leaned out of cover firing a sustained burst and cutting down several Insurrectionists. Peec had dropped a small shield, giving him some cover while he tinkered with the door locks.

Wings glanced at Zero, who glanced back at him. They nodded in sync and rolled to both sides of the table, leaning out of cover to spray bullets out into the Innie ranks. Heavy fire found them both and starting cutting the table to ribbons. Wings kept rolling, firing as he went until he heard the hammer click. The hefty magazine hit the floor and another one was sliding into place before he reached a concrete barricade, pressing his back to it. He risked a glance over, ducking back behind it as several rounds tore into his cover. More soldiers were running into the room, just taking the place of the men the Spartans had cut down.

"Three, hurry it up! We can't do this all day!" Wings roared at Peec. Indeed their cover was slowly being eating away by the heavy fire. And that wasn't all he'd spotted. Wires, lots of them. Wires that hadn't existed in the penthouse before.

"Almost got it!" Peec yelled back, taking one second to turn and put a round through a flanking soldier's head. "Ocean's being jammed, so I'm doing it manually!"

Wings gritted his teeth and straightened, firing as fast as the slide on his SM6 allowed him to. Round after round tore into the massed suicide soldiers, cutting them down. But they seemed to never end. Something caught the corner of his eye on the second floor. A blinking red light. It was blinking pretty fast.

"Three, now!"

"Fuck it." Peec leaned down and grabbed the metal plate, grunting as he started to lift it up. Zero moved over next to him and dove through the glass. "Go, go, go!"

Itzia went next, her SMG still barking in short bursts as she countered the Innie fire. Wings followed right on her heels, and Peec dove through behind him.

"Kilo Five-One, this is Phoenix One! We need extraction, now!" Wings snapped to the Lieutenant, sliding another magazine home into his sidearm. Phoenix sprinted across the penthouse roof, churning up mud and grass as they ran. The winds had picked up, and they could see storm clouds massing just a few miles away.

Static came in through his earpiece. "- hit! Kilo Five-One going ----! Mayday, May-!" The line went dead.

Wings swore internally, a faint red glow behind jolting him back to the moment. A roar started from behind the Spartans.

None of them even glanced back as they kept running. As one, the four Spartans leaped off the edge of a four-hundred story skyscraper.

The sound of whistling wind around Wings' ears was broken only by a massive roar as the entire penthouse was swallowed by flame, spewing broken glass and metal into the air. He turned a bit as he fell, and saw one of the tall, proud statues spinning through the air above them and several hundred feet to the side. The sound of a whining engine caught his ear and he spun, watching as Kilo Five-One's Pelican twisted and turned through the air, one of the wings shredded off as it fell to ground. Two Hornets pursued it, making sure the kill was confirmed.

Then the four Spartans spun, twisted, and hit the ground. Pedestrians yelled and screamed, several fleeing as four massive suits of armor hit the concrete. The statue smashed into the walkway, flattening one very surprised civilian.

Wings slowly straightened, feeling his leg complain. Broken femur. He could still move. "Report!"

Itzia was already limping over to Peec. Zero stood. "Minor fracture and a dislocation here, sir!" There was a pop and a grunt. "Still operational!"

Itzia pulled out a long needle and rammed it into Peec's chest, causing the Spartan to gasp and jerk. "Three has internal bleeding and my Achilles is busted, but we're both operational." She pulled Peec up, and he nodded his thanks to her.

Wings nodded. "Right, let's get to Kilo Five-One. We have to get the Lieutenant and Petty Officer out as well." He checked the comms channels again and breathed a sigh of relief as the Spartans took off after the Pelican, the pedestrians around them scattering. Spear's Tip was back online. He opened the channel. "Ocean, get Kilo Five-Two in the air. We need a hot extraction in Yggdrasil."

In an instant Deep Ocean had downloaded a fragment of herself into the team's neural interfaces and gotten caught up. "Kilo Five-Two is on his way, sir. ETA ten minutes. Be advised Insurrectionist cells in Sanctum are all being activated and are attacking UNSC outposts and known sympathizers."

"Copy all, Ocean," Wings responded as the smoke from Five-One's wreckage hovered into view. "We'll need to extract a couple more of our people."

"Sir, I would not advise-"

"I don't want to hear it, Ocean. We don't leave people behind."

Phoenix all saw that Kilo Five-One was already coming under fire as they approached, the incoming rounds far outdoing the outgoing, which was sporadic at best. Wings turned and swept his arm at Itzia and Peec, who took off to the right. He and Zero took the left.

The Innie turned as he heard something click next to him, the rising wind muffling the sound. He never got to make a sound of his own before Zero's gauntlet knife speared him through the left eye, exiting out the back of his head.

Zero snatched up the old BR55 Battle Rifle and emptied the rest of the magazine into the now flanked Innies, cutting them down swiftly with Wings' help. The Commander ran over to the Pelican. He and Itzia made it there at the same time. Itzia didn't waste any time, clenching her fist and smashing it clean through the windshield. She shifted her arm around, clearing any broken glass out of the way before feeling a hand close around her forearm. She pulled, and Lieutenant Frida came with it.

"Report, Lieutenant." She said. Frida spat out a globule of blood and turned around on one knee, shivering a bit as the cold air washed over her shaved head.

"Petty Officer Cole is dead," She snapped out, a burst from her assault rifle cutting down an Innie. "He was manning the rear gun and got diced."

Itzia shook her head as she and Wings shielded Frida with their bodies, all three moving over to where Zero and Peec had dug in.

Frida scrambled over the concrete barrier and sat with her back to it, cradling her rifle like she'd never let go of it. "Tell me extraction is on its way."

"Affirmative, sir. Take it easy now." Itzia ran a quick scan over Frida. Minor internal bleeding. The Lieutenant hissed softly as the biofoam filled her chest cavity, holding the bleeding in check.

The firefight went on for several more minutes before Itzia heard that familiar whine of a Pelican and glanced up. Kilo Five-Two's dropship spat burst after burst of fifty-caliber HE rounds into the Innie lines, keeping them either pinned down or turned into a fine red mist. Two Sabre fighters had set up a holding pattern above, keeping any more inquisitive Hornets at bay.

William-D821 was the first thundering down the ramp as Five-Two settled down. Itzia hefted Frida upright and kept her between the Lieutenant and the gunfire as she escorted the Lieutenant to the dropship. Itzia, Zero, and Wings jumped in right after her. Zero grabbed the rear turret and pulled it into place, thumbing the rotary barrels to life and ready to pick off any adventurous Innies.

William and the rest of Flechette Team settled into their seats as the Pelican lifted off, Zero firing the occasional burst down into the Insurrectionist forces. Wings fed the pilot the coordinates of their next stop. He could feel William's eyes on him, but didn't meet the MCPO's look. He knew what was running through all their minds.

"Coming up on LZ!" The pilot called back. "Some Innie fire!"

Wings nodded and nodded to Peec. They both stood and took up positions to either side of Zero. She nodded and they both jumped forward.

The Innie soldier holding Julie watched the apartment windows shatter and cave in in slow-motion, and he turned to raise his pistol. Ice ran through his veins as something in his mind recognized the green metal titans thundering down onto the floor.

Wings and Peec fired in sync, their rounds tearing through the Innies eyes and out the back of his head.

Peec wordlessly stepped forward and picked Julie up, handing her over to Zero as Wings collected the rest of the family. Her parents were blathering questions, none of which he answered as an Innie squad kicked the door in.

He turned, shielding Julie's father as a round smacked into his back. He kept twisting, sidearm rising and firing three times. Three bodies hit the ground, but many more were behind him. The Commander snarled and tossed the man into the Pelican clambering in after him as he heard the rear gun spin up, firing a constant stream of rounds into the Innie ranks.

"Go!" He called up to the pilot, and the Pelican sped away from the apartment building.

Zero folded the rear gun back up, and Wings hit the door control, sealing the Pelican. There was silence for a few minutes, Julie and her parents huddling together towards the front of the Pelican.

"That was our home," Mr. Harrison mumbled to no one in particular. Wings glanced over.

"Was," he said simply, putting emphasis on the word.

Mr. Harrison shook his head, pulling his wife into a tight embrace. "I thought this war was over."

Wings took the last seat in the Pelican, reaching up and removing his helmet. He felt the Harrison's eyes on him.

"The UNSC wouldn't have made us if it were over." Itzia responded for him, double-checking Julie. Just in shock. She'd be alright.

Mr. Harrison nodded and took his eyes off Wings.

As soon as Lieutenant Frida was safely in the infirmary and the Harrisons had been set up with a room of their own, Wings marched off to his bunk. He removed his armor and put it in the locker by reflex, not even really noticing the actions as he did so.

How did I miss him?

Wings sat at his desk, tapping the screen and grabbing the hologram. He swept his arm, moving the intricate web into the middle of the room. Rubbing his eyes with his hands, he began shifting lines about, reconfiguring and reworking until it all centered on Malkavian.

Why does it have to make sense now?

He stepped back from his work, the entire web of information presented to him. Every monetary transaction, every scientist, every event that had anything to do with SADOR was all laid out here. And now every line was drawn to Malkavian. Wings stepped into the web, the holograms shivering slightly as they passed through his body, and pressed a finger to Malkavian. His file opened up, listing everything except an explanation. Oh, ONI was going to get it.

"Well, they do say hindsight is twenty-twenty."

Wings spun at the sound of the familiar voice behind him. X-D2552 smiled brightly as he glanced about, examining each and every node of the web.

Wings cocked his head. "You're dead."

"I am," X said simply. He pushed himself off Wings' desk, waving a hand to dismiss the diagram and sending it back to hover over the desk. "So by now you've already figured out that I'm just a hallucination."

"Of course. It's only-"

"Logical," X smiled. "Having a moon dropped on you is a fast way to die." His smile faltered. "How's Lucy?"

"As well as ever. She was hurt just as much as the rest of the team."

X nodded, turning and taking a step away from Wings. He didn't speak.

So Wings did. "Why are you here?"

X turned back towards Wings, the smile returning. "Oh Wings, even you are still trapped by the limitations of your own mind. You know I'm not really here, and yet you still ask me as if I am."

Wings let out a snort. "That doesn't answer my question."

X's expression turned grim again. "You know exactly why I'm here."

Wings nodded. "I guess I do."

"Brothers to the end?" X offered Wings his hand.

"And beyond." Wings finished, taking X's hand.

Beep.

Wings sat bolt upright, dragged back into consciousness by the alarm. The Spear's Tip was coming up on New Quebec.

Several hundred Spartans were currently stationed on the planet. The Pelican settled down outside the Spartan's bunker and stepped out. He spotted Amber jogging over to the Pelican. She slowed as she approached and saluted. "Commander."

Wings returned the salute. "Lieutenant E3072. Good to see you again."

Amber turned and followed Wings as he marched past her into the bunker. "What's the word, sir?"

A slow smile spread across Wings' face. It wasn't a happy one.

"We find Malkavian, and we kill him."

Part 3: "The Hell I Will Create For You"

Chapter 11: Pillars of the Community

0845 Hours, January 30th 2583 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: New Quebec

Wings sat in the main debriefing room inside the bunker, leaning his head in one hand as he watched the displays. Holographic webs spread themselves out in front of him, spinning slowly and flickering as field reports came in. Some strands would be lost, some would appear. Mostly the scene before him was a galaxy of unconnected nodes, events occurring around the Milky Way that seemed important. Three AIs processed each one on their own and ranked them in orders of priority, displaying them as they saw fit.

A footstep from behind. Wings attention shifted to it. "Hello, Fi."

A soft chuckle as the Spartan hesitated. "Fast. Never miss. Do you?" Fi walked around next to Wings, sitting down in a seat of his own and leaning forward.

Wings didn't answer, knowing full well he couldn't answer that honestly. "Lot of activity in the Argos cluster," he muttered, reaching a hand out and snapping his fingers. The holographic galaxy zoomed in, more nodes appearing as the Argos cluster was expanded and lower priority points came into view. Fi tilted his head.

"Unusual number of disappearances. Children. Early teens. Not related to SPARTAN Program."

Wings tapped a lower priority node, bringing it closer and expanding the report on it. Element, one of the multiple AIs located in Delta Company's bunker and the one in charge of security, appeared in front of Wings, just to the side of the report. "This node doesn't seem at all relevant, sir. Standard reports of creatures in the night and supposed paranormal events."

Wings didn't look at the AI's holo representation. "Been cooped up here too long, Element. Standard psychology. Nighttime disappearances along with unexplained appearances of ghostly visages means-" Wings broke off as a searing lance of pain went through his head. He winced and blinked.

"... Sir?" Element said, his voice still emotionless. "Are you well?"

"I'm fine," Wings said, regaining his composure. "Kids disappearing and ghost sightings means someone's running a kidnapping operation. How did you miss that?" He snapped the question out, glaring at Element.

The AI's avatar glowed brighter for a split second, and there was a noticeable pause. "One moment, please." The avatar disappeared.

Wings slumped back in his chair, eyes flicking over the different nodes as he started drawing his own connections. "Fi, I want your team ready to ship out in 24 hours. I want Flechette, Dragoon, and Archer teams ready to go too."

Fi nodded and rose, but didn't start walking immediately. "Target?"

Wings tapped a planet, and the Argos cluster zoomed further, bringing a large green planet into view. "Yes. This looks like a good start. We need to figure out who's taking these kids, and the most suspicious ones are happening here."

The other Spartan's eyes flickered over the disappearance info. Susan, aged 8. Disappeared two days ago. Riley, aged 12. Disappeared three weeks ago. "Occurrences of disappearances not statistically significant," Fi muttered. Then a slow smile spread across his face. "Bet they're counting on that."

Wings nodded. "With luck, they think we're dumber than we are."

"No luck. Skill."

"Naturally."

Fi turned and left. Wings turned back to the holographic planet and zoomed in on it, selecting a relatively small town. Only five hundred thousand inhabitants. Standing militia of two thousand. And only one disappearance there so far...

Wings moved over to another similar town and charted disappearances from the last year, interlacing it with reports of strange sightings. He paused at one. Very tall man, approximately three and a half to four meters tall, no facial features. That was a really old one. Wings moved on, moving the new web over to the original town he had selected.

Bringing up the list of family members living in each home, Wings restricted the age group to those children between the ages four and fourteen, those being just outside the bounds of all the children that had been kidnapped to date. He then brought up sightings of unknown beings and shifted the web so that its nodes matched up as well as it could with where the children were living.

After that it was a simple matter of checking the amount of days between each disappearance and it was a simple matter to pinpoint possible locations of the next kidnapping. The amount of Spartans he'd ordered prepped for the operation would be well more than enough.

But he had a feeling he'd need them all anyway.

0210 Hours, February 8th 2583 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Azod

William-D821 was motionless as he peered through the binoculars, watching the small house. Every now and then he'd shift a bit, as if noticing the slightest of movements. He and Julian-D1934 had been watching the family go about their business for five days now.

"Really think this one's going to be hit next?" Julian spoke, the first words either of them had said in hours.

William didn't budge. "No idea."

The other Spartan leaned forward, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Then why're we here?"

"Because the boss knows something," William blinked, reaching up to tweak the zoom level. The husband was helping set the table. It was all Will could do to remember the last time he'd had a formal meal.

"How?"

William turned to look at Julian. The other Spartan stared back at him.

"You have something to say, Petty Officer?" William said, his voice low.

Julian held the gaze for another moment before turning away. "No, sir."

"Good," William murmured softly, turning back to the binoculars. "They're going about their usual routines. Mother's going to collect the boys for dinner-"

"Flechette Alpha, we have contacts moving towards your location," Deep Ocean's voice came over the com.

Julian was already rising, an MA7K held tightly in his hands. William zoomed out, broadening his view of the area. "What? From where?"

"From the house you've been watching, Delta."

"Impossible, we would have noticed," Julian snapped, flicking his nightvision sight on. He scanned the street for a moment. "Nothing."

Will chewed his lip, then twisted a dial on his binoculars, switching them over to thermal. He didn't even have to shift. "Got 'em! Five targets, moving south towards us, thirty meters."

Julian shifted his aim, finger flicking his sight over to thermal as well. "And they have the kid."

William tossed the binoculars aside and took two steps back. "Wait for my signal, then take them all out. Leave the one carrying the kid to me."

The Spartan crouched and dove forward, neatly diving out of the window. Julian rested his rifle on the window sill, lining up his sights.

"Strike Team is en route, Flechette Alpha," Ocean said. "ETA two minutes."

William ignored that, moving silently behind a hedge and cursing his lack of armor. He waited until he was a few meters in front of the camouflaged men. He could see the shimmers in the air, one more apparent than the others. Extending the active camouflage field to two figures must have been taxing his systems.

"Five, now," he murmured, and bolted from cover.

There were two cracks, and one of the men yelped as two rounds caught him in the chest. William slammed into the leader as Julian fired again, taking another man between the eyes.

It was like running into a brick wall, which William generally wouldn't have minded had he been wearing his armor. The man growled as he hit the ground, the kid reappearing from thin air as he was dropped, rolling a couple times on the pavement.

William glanced up and found himself looking down the barrel of a suppressed M7 SMG, a mere instant before Julian's fourth and fifth rounds caught the man in the torso.

Pain exploded in William's head, and he was thrown off the leader. He hefted himself up as he rolled, coming up on his feet and crouching into a low fighting stance.

The man was already standing, active camouflage dissipating as he took his own stance.

The Spartan smirked, ignoring the fourth man falling as he swung a strong right hook at the squad's leader. Surprisingly the man was able to follow it, as he brought his own fist up to meet the Spartan's.

William gasped as he felt his fingers give way, tendons tearing as they greeted the armored fist. Momentarily caught off guard, he faltered, allowing the leader to bring a foot around and sweep his feet out from under him. Will hit the ground hard, rolling as an armored boot hit the ground where his chest had been. Gritting his teeth, William stood again, the fingers of his right hand hanging uselessly. He heard a low chuckle from the armored man and ducked, just barely missing having his teeth knocked out. He pushed hard with his legs, putting his entire weight into throwing himself into the man, and they both went down. Quickly William swung himself around, straddling his opponent and going for the helmet latch. Hearing a soft whistle, Will reflexively brought his good hand up and caught the man's fist, trying to push it back down.

He couldn't. His eyes went wide in alarm as he noticed that his enemy was as strong as he was.

The next thing he felt was a stabbing pain in his side, once again being thrown off the armored figure, who now held a knife. William shook his head and looked up, bringing his hand up instinctively as the knife came down again. The Spartan hissed softly as the long blade rammed right through his hand, pushing desperately back to keep it away from his throat. The armored man let out another deep chuckle as he slowly but surely lowered the blade towards William's exposed neck.

Then his head exploded as a round tore through it. William managed to redirect the knife as the armored man fell limply on top of him. He looked up at Julian standing there, holding his smoking rifle. Doors were being flung open across the street, and curious heads were appearing at windows. In the distance a siren could be heard, and the soft whine of Pelican engines was heard.

"What took you so long?" William hissed, grabbing the body and shoving it off him, clutching at the stab wound.

"You managed to get yourself behind a hedge when you tackled the asshole. What happened? He fucked you up good," Julian responded, stepping forward. William held up his mangled hand. Three of his fingers had been torn out of their sockets, hanging by limp tendons and muscle. All of them were broken, and the blood had liberally covered his arm.

Grimacing, Will turned and pushed the armored figure over. He ran his eyes over the armor, then checked again. And one more time, to be sure.

"Fucker's wearing powered armor," he said after a minute.

Julian hesitated. "Bullshit," he finally said, stepping forward. His eyes flicked as they took in the suit. "Not bullshit."

"Check the kid," William muttered. Julian nodded and shouldered his rifle, jogging over to the child's unconscious body.

The Pelican came into view, and several residents had come out into their front yards. Parents urged their wide-eyed children to go back into the house, and many looked on in horror as they noticed the bodies littering their street.

As the Pelican settled down two police cars and an APC rolled around the corner, sirens blaring.

"Kid's fine! Gonna have a few bruises!" Julian called back as he crouched over the kid.

Itzia and Peec jumped out of the Pelican, the former moving to check on William while the others hopped out and kept the civilians at bay.

Phoenix's medic held William's hand up in front of her, raising an eyebrow. "You never did learn that punching metal was a bad idea." She smiled lightly as she said it.

William grimaced. "Had to get the kid away from him somehow," he said, sighing as he felt the painkillers go into effect. Damn she was good; He hadn't even noticed the needle. Itzia lifted his shirt up.

"And he got you with a knife? Been drinking on duty, Chief?" She sounded almost amused.

William definitely wasn't. "No. They've got powered armor."

"Bullshit."

"The asshole was as strong as I am. And I haven't exactly been avoiding the gym."

Itzia glanced over to the body. "This is going to hurt," was her only response as she pulled out another syringe.

Wings grimaced as he stepped off the Pelican. He glanced up. Another Pelican had arrived, this one unarmed and bearing the Azod Police Department's colors. He stepped carefully over one of the bodies with bullets in it, taking in the scene. In seconds he had mentally reconstructed the events, not stopping as he approached the police barricade. They all had their weapons out and ready.

"Drop your weapons and identify yourself or we will open fire!" A megaphone blared out. Wings kept marching slowly towards them.

"I can hear you just fine," he called out to them. "UNSC Special Forces, Lieutenant Commander Delta 339."

He stopped and waited for a few seconds. The officers then all slowly put their weapons away and moved out from behind the barricade, approaching him cautiously. A Lieutenant stepped forward, stopping out of reach of Wings.

"Can I see some ID?" He said, slightly hesitant.

Wings slowly looked down at himself, clad head to toe in his armor. He looked back up at the Lieutenant and fished out his military ID. The Lieutenant fumbled with a scanner for a second before running the ID chip through.

"It's good, Captain," the Lieutenant said, handing the ID back to Wings, who stowed it away.

The Lieutenant moved away, and Wings was approached by an older officer.

"You want to tell me what exactly happened here, Lieutenant Commander?" The man asked, his face betraying little.

Wings allowed himself an imperceptible smile from behind his visor. "Gladly, Captain," he responded, turning and walking back towards the scene.

Iris Sabio watched the feed carefully. No matter what sort of op you were running, a gunfire breaking out in the middle of a street that left bodies and wounded military personnel had a tendency to draw the media like carrion to a corpse.

"Looks like SADOR's getting busy, marm," Neil spoke from behind her. She didn't turn, her eyes taking in the scene.

"Too busy," she muttered, reaching out to tap the screen as a figure stepped off a UNSC marked Pelican, clad in green armor. "They caught the wrong kind of attention."

She could hear Neil swallow. It was a second before he spoke. "A Spartan doesn't stand a chance of tracking it back to us, they're just soldiers-"

"This Spartan does," she said, almost amused. She pointed at the one that stepped past the scene towards the police line, the one with "D339" stenciled on his pauldron.

"What shall we do, marm?" Neil asked, his composure returned.

"You shall continue with your duties as normally, unless I say so," Iris said, still not turning. "I know this man somewhat; we cannot stop him from finding us."

The next question took another thirty seconds to come. The Spartan was now explaining what had happened to the police Captain.

"What shall we do when he finds us?"

Oh yes, this Spartan was smart. With a glance he'd reconstructed the events from the firefight. Without access to the scene herself, it would take her about half an hour to do the same from analyzing the news footage. She tapped a button, turning the feed off as it switched to a talking head who started speculating about the men in black armor. This was going to be a fun game.

Iris smiled. "We'll let him walk in through the front door."

Wings walked slowly among the bodies, bending down to occasionally examine them. The bodies had been brought back aboard the Spear's Tip for identification and autopsies.

Peec knelt over one of the armor suits, bearing one of his innumerable devices he used for putting stuff together and taking it apart again. He rose to a stand and walked over to Wings.

"Definitely derivative of early MJOLNIR variants. Armor plating is reminiscent of the Mark VI, but smaller and more... frugal."

Wings nodded. "And I'm sure when the analysis comes back they'll be mildly augmented, too. Not as much as a Spartan, but enough for an edge over any human."

"Aye, at a guess I'd say that the designs for this suit were early Mark VI prototypes from the early 2540s," Peec continued. "Some of the plating edges are off, and the visor doesn't have the signature outline."

"It's also mechanical, no hydrostatic gel evident," Wings muttered, peering into one of the dead man's eyes. "Irises are vivid blue." He stood and looked at Peec. "I think I know where to start on the armor, at least."

Peec tilted his head. "I do seem to recall that ONI discovered a leak in the SPARTAN program around that time. Armor technology was stolen."

Wings nodded. "I think you'll find that it was a breach in security in 2542 that was plugged only because the perpetrator fled."

"I'll look into it," Peec said before turning on a heel and leaving the small hangar. A few minutes later Itzia wandered in.

"Any issues, boss?" She asked, marching over to Wings.

"Is X standing next to me?" Wings turned to look at her.

She blinked, and hesitated. "No."

Wings glanced at his dead brother standing next to him. "Then I think I have an issue."

1330 Hours, February 10th 2583 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: ''Spear's Tip''

Itzia sat staring at the coffins in the hangar. A UNSC corvette was due by soon to pick up the remains of the men killed on Azod to be returned to their families.

She mentally ran over the list of augmentations she'd found in them again. Ceramic bone ossification, muscular growth hormones, sight enhancements... all the augmentations found in a Spartan, just not nearly to the same degree.

Peec wandered in. "We... have a problem," he said hesitantly.

Itzia glanced over at him. "What is it?"

The tech specialist chewed on his lip for a moment. "They don't have any families to take their remains back to."

"Are they dead?"

"No, they never existed," Peec held out a datapad for her.

Itzia took the datapad and scanned it. No DNA matches, dental records, not even fingerprints or retinal imaging. Itzia stared at it for a bit before looking up at Peec. "I think I've heard of this before. Augmented humans that have no family history, no records of any sort. I mean, even we do somewhere in ONI databases."

Peec nodded. "Want me to see about digging up what I can?"

"Yeah," Itzia said, standing up and pulling her medical bag over. "I'm gonna check something. Should help confirm whatever you find. Ocean?"

Deep Ocean's avatar formed in front of Itzia. "Oh, thankfully someone needs more help. Calculating the proper Slipspace coordinates for you all again and again is getting boring."

"I need you to dig up anything about supersoldier projects dating from the late 2550s through the mid 2560s. Focus on cells with Innie sympathies."

Ocean glowed a dull green for a moment. "Working on it now. Will let you know when I find something."

Itzia went over to one of the coffins and lifted the lid up. "Well shit," she muttered, a foul odor immediately assaulting her nostrils.

"What?" Peec spoke, not looking up from his datapad.

"There seems to have been some kind of rapid... decay." Itzia knelt down. 'Rapid decay' was putting it lightly.

The only thing left of the body she'd examined yesterday was a large puddle of gelatinous liquid.

Peec whistled as he leaned over Itzia's shoulder to look at the mess. "Bets that that measure was taken to prevent too intense of an examination, and to cover up as much DNA evidence as possible?"

Wings poked at the gelatinous mass with one gloved hand. "Very neat..."

"Incredibly. As a matter of course, I decided to run tests for time of death on this sludge," Itzia said as she stepped over to the pan that contained the mess. "According to the genetic and cellular decay, these men died about two-thousand years ago."

"They don't age well, apparently."

The corner of Itzia's mouth twitched. "As you might expect, all DNA samples are now useless, as is any other information that could have led us to their origins."

"I think I may have the answer to that." The door to the morgue opened, and Peec walked in.

"Where's Zee?" Wings asked.

Peec shrugged. "She got her new bow dropped off. I don't think I've seen her so giddy in years. And yes, I warned her to be sure to not punch a hole in the hull. Now," He said, moving to the holoscreen and sliding the data from his pad onto it. "Project KNIGHT. Supersoldier program started by one Redmond Venter. Started off by growing cloned babies from an unknown source before moving on to 'natural-born' test-tube babies. The final results of the project is unknown, but I think we can add a few more facts in now. It is known that every Knight has a shortened lifespan and more than one mental disorder."

Wings wandered over to the holoscreen, his eyes scanning quickly over the data. "Venter's out of the picture now. Only ever produced one successful subject. The project is irrelevant at the moment."

"Only maybe," Peec continued. "I can imagine that an Innie group would have attempted to develop this sort of decay to prevent the UNSC from getting too much information from them. And," he said, swiping his datapad over to a new set of files. "I've checked the armor silhouettes that these boys were wearing against other recorded vids and pics over the last ten years, and there have been plenty of other inadvertent sightings. Especially this one." He tapped the screen, pulling forward a two-dimensional shot of what appeared to be a regular Knight, except for a couple of quirks.

"This one is nearly seven feet tall," Wings started, leaning in to examine the pic more closely. "Clearly UNSC trained. Armor's also blue with green secondaries instead of just a matte black."

Peec nodded. "This was taken less than a week ago on Crete."

Wings straightened. "Peec, go batten down the hatches and get us ready for slipspace. Ocean, set a course for Crete and get us there at top speed. Dig up any footage you can that may or may not have this soldier in it.

"Copy that." Peec and Deep Ocean said in tandem. Peec rolled his eyes up at the ceiling and shook his head slightly, amused, before he walked out.

Wings remained staring at the holoscreen. "How's William doing?"

Itzia snapped the lid shut on the coffin and starting pushing the card towards the incinerator. "He's doing well, even if his ego took a hit. His body is accepting the prostheses well."

Wings mentally caught his hands tightening behind his back. Three of William-D821's fingers had been deemed irreparable and had been replaced with artificial digits. He was out for a couple of weeks as his body accustomed to the new fingers and he learned how to use them. "He'll be back in action soon enough."

Itzia blinked, not looking up at Wings. Emotionless as he may pretend to be, sometimes he didn't say things for the other person's benefit.

Chapter 12: Freelancer

0630 Hours, February 13th 2583 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Troy, Crete

Agent Virginia gave the suppressor one final twist to click it into place, slowly sliding a few inches out from the wall. With a sudden burst of energy he sprinted out from cover, extending his arm. He squeezed twice, the guards barely able to hear two small thwips before falling over dead. In less than two seconds Virginia was on the other side of the courtyard, once again cloaked in shadow. He waited for a short moment, listening intently. No alarms. Good.

He sprinted over to the entrance of the facility, sweeping the area behind him with his sidearm as he entered the data card. The door swept open, and he slid inside silently.

Virginia moved to an intersection in the hall and took a quick peek around the corner. He allowed himself a small smile. Just one guard. Good.

The guard barely had a chance to let out a small grunt as two armored hands grabbed his head and twisted savagely. A soft breath of air escaped him as his neck snapped, and he crumpled to the ground. Virginia didn't slow down, hopping over the falling body and running past another intersection, two more shots being sent out and taking those two guards out as well.

He smiled again as he reached a door marked "Level 2 Security Block," inserting the card and hurrying on. So far, so good.

The next area was even less heavily defended. Virginia frowned. He knew security was supposed to be light, but he thought that they would have protected the inner areas even more. Perhaps they didn't think anyone would be interested in the place, or they couldn't get past the outer security.

He made it to Level 3 just fine, the door sliding open after a short pause when he slid the card in. He entered the room slowly, scanning the shadows for any movement. It would be just like the man to heavily booby trap the last room...

Ten minutes later he stood at the mainframe. Virginia pushed the datachip into the appropriate slot, his body tense and ready to act.

He relaxed as the computers accepted the encryption and began uploading the data to his own servers. Another smile. Things were looking up.

Crunch. Virginia spun, raising his sidearm as something that appeared to be a small spear punched through the mainframe's shell. He froze as he spotted a Spartan standing where he'd entered, holding a massive bow with another arrow already nocked.

"I wouldn't move. I've only had titanium targets to practice on these past few days, and I'm aching to trying this out on something that can actually run," Zero said, pulling the massive bow's string back. The weapon may be old and hard to use, but it was silent, and the 1600 pound pull on it meant that whatever she hit was probably not getting back up again in a hurry.

"Think I can't dodge a damn arrow?" Virginia snarled. Even as he spoke he glanced to the side, spotting two more figures wielding assault rifles.

"I'd like to find out," Zero started. "Unfortunately, you're wanted alive. Virginia tensed to spring before feeling something wrapping around his neck. He felt his arms and legs go limp, and could only watch helplessly as his pistol clattered to the floor. He followed it, wincing slightly as his helmet bounced off the metal. A hand reached down and picked his pistol up, securing it on magnetic leg clamps.

A foot rolled him over on his back, and Virginia found himself looking up into the visor of yet another Spartan.

The Spartan spoke. "Nice armor. How'd you come by it?"

Virginia snarled. "Kiss my ass."

A sigh. "Look, the same people that got you that armor also let the designs loose to an Insurrectionist group. A group that has since used that design along with supersoldier augmentations to kidnap children. They even caught one Spartan off guard and severely wounded him. So it would actually be in your best interest to help us."

Virginia remained silent for a moment. "You know... you could have just asked."

The Spartan shrugged and reached down, pulling the collar off. "You don't exactly have an office equipped with a secretary telling me that you're out at the moment."

The freelancer laughed and stood up. "Help me get out of here with that data, and we'll talk."

Wings turned and pulled the chip out of the mainframe, holding it out to Virginia. "I'll even give you your next target and details on the security."

Virginia took the chip, nodding. "Agent Virginia. I'm with Project FREELANCER."

Wings folded his arms. "SPARTAN D339. Where did that armor come from?"

The other shrugged. "The Director stole it from the UNSC. Got it off the SPARTAN Project decades ago and integrated it into the FREELANCER project. I wasn't aware he ever sold it or let it get stolen, though."

"Well clearly he wasn't aware of it either. Do you know who else has been using the design as well?"

Virginia pulled out a datapad and brought up an icon. "You familiar with the Syndicate?"

Wings nodded. "Vaguely. Criminal organization that fell apart several years ago."

"Well many of the operators are still working, particularly one 'Constance.' They were in charge of the Syndicate's technology. Had some stuff that gave you guys a bit of a run-around, too."

"I never went after them. They were irrelevant," Wings responded, memorizing the symbol. "How would I find this 'Constance?'"

"I can't," Virginia said. "But I know who does. Agent Carolina. She's also stationed on Crete. I can take you to her."

"Please do so."

Iris Sabio stretched as she watched the four Spartans and one Freelancer leave the facility. Alarms were blaring now, but they'd be long gone before anyone got there to save the data.

"They found Agent Virginia, just like you said, marm," Neil spoke from behind her.

Iris nodded and leaned forward. "And now they'll go to meet with Carolina about how to find me."

"I get the feeling it won't be that easy for them."

"Of course not," Iris said, almost sounding hurt. "The Freelancer's and I may have similar goals in mind, but we are by no means friends. Carolina will help Phoenix, and that will be all. The information she gives them will simply lead our good squad leader here to whoever leaked our KNIGHT armor designs."

"You don't know who it is, marm?" Neil said after a few seconds, hesitating.

"If I did they'd be strung up by whatever reproductive organs they had," she said coldly. Iris craned her neck to look back at him. "I'm an equal-opportunity employer."

"Naturally, ma'am."

She disregarded this and continued. "No operative I could ever get would be able to get the relevant information from the Freelancers, and they know something I don't. But I don't need to know it if I let someone else deal with the problem. It's in our best interests to let Phoenix take care of that particular cancerous cell of our operations, and it will eventually lead D339 to us."

"You want them to stop us?"

"I want them to know we aren't a threat to them."

"Next time, I get to put one in the package's knee," Zero muttered as the Pelican settled down in a small clearing.

"Next time I hope it won't be me," Virginia shot back, hopping out of the dropship and moving over to a large rock. He stepped right into it and disappeared.

"Next time, you get to put one in the package's knee," Wings said to Zero as they followed Virginia cautiously, the holographic rock letting them pass without trouble.

Phoenix passed through a short, narrow hallway barely large enough to let a Spartan walk down without turning sideways. The close quarters had them on edge; Even Wings gave his sidearm a quick pat to make sure it was still there.

Two more figures clad in armor, one teal, the other a yellowish-beige looked up as the five entered the room. Immediately weapons were raised, the two other Freelancers snapping rifles up, with the Spartan team matching them. Only Virginia didn't pull a weapon out.

"You brought UNSC here?" The teal one asked. "The hell were you thinking?"

"I was thinking we needed a tip about our next target, and these people conveniently showed up to do so," Virginia said. "They gave me the location on the way over, Carolina. They just need a small bit of information."

"You could have called," The teal one, Carolina, lowered her weapon. The beige one followed suit, as did

"I figured this would be easier than meeting in a public place just after a major Insurrectionist base got hit. I monitored their coms; The bastards are going insane."

"Fine. What do you want?" Carolina looked between the Spartans.

Wings spoke. "We need to find an old Syndicate Lieutenant who goes by the name of 'Constance.'"

"Yes and no," Carolina said, moving around the holotable and activating it. "We discovered Constance has a mole in their organization, someone close to the leader."

"Figures. We killed what appeared to be a squad of Knights abducting a child from Azod," Peec spoke.

Carolina looked up at him. "Interesting. Think they were Constance's?"

Peec stepped forward, handing Carolina a datapad. "You tell us."

The freelancer took the datapad, scanning its contents. "Nope, these aren't Constance's. Not the kind to try kidnapping kids anyway."

"So Constance isn't SADOR?" Wings asked.

"No. The one thing we know for sure about Constance is that they have a vested in keeping the UNSC intact. Constance is no Insurrectionist, even if they aren't legal in any sense of the word."

"Well then, how do we find this mole?" Peec asked.

"We're not sure, but we do know that the mole is working in a UNSC facility on armor R&D. We suspect they may be trying to get the newer MJOLNIR armor into Innie hands."

Wings stepped forward. "I know who the mole is."

Carolina was glad he couldn't see her raised eyebrow behind the visor. "You're good."

"The best," Wings said. "And if you want to tell Agent York there to put the detonator down, we'll be going to take care of the mole." He turned and started out as York blinked and looked up, slowly moving his hand off the hidden button.

"You going to at least tell me who the mole is?"

"We gave you information, you gave us information. Besides, the name would mean nothing to you. The mole is inaccessible to both you and Constance at this time."

"Asshole."

"The best kind," Wings said, a slight chuckle threatening to make its way into his voice. "Goodbye for now, Agent Carolina. I'm sure we'll meet again someday."

As soon as the Pelican lifted off Virginia reengaged the shield around the rock that made it actually solid. He turned to his cohorts, sitting down and pulling his helmet off.

York chewed on his lip, leaning forward and yanking his own helmet off. "How the hell did he guess my name?"

Carolina kept her helmet on. She didn't want them to see the look of annoyance on her face.

"So boss, who is it?" Itzia said as the Pelican leveled out, preparing to dock with the Spear's Tip.

"Remember our old friend Roger Hansen?" Wings said. "Top researcher on the Mark VII MJOLNIR armor. We had... a nice chat with him years ago."

"Roger Hansen? He's the mole?" Peec asked, almost sounding disbelieving.

"The good Doctor Hansen has had familial ties to the Syndicate for years, even if they were never proven. He's the only one on the Dark Space Shipyards who matches all the criteria we were given."

"You know, most people generally don't keep a list of all personnel in a secret military base memorized," Zero said with a soft laugh.

Wings smiled softly. "Most people also don't generally hunt armored aliens with a bow and arrows."

"It's good sport!"

"So's this," Wings stood as the Pelican settled down. "Ocean, I'm sure you know the way."

"Of course, sir," Ocean's avatar walked with the team as they marched out of the hanger, her hands gently clasped behind her back, the AI glowing a pale blue. "I'm already inserting a fragment of myself into their systems. They still haven't plugged that loophole in their security. I'll make sure Doctor Hansen is isolated for... interrogation."

"Thank you, Ocean," Wings said. "Dunno what we'd have done without you."

"Probably bled out on a battlefield some years back," She said dryly. "Soldiers without direction tend to do that."

"Ooh, so cruel."

"Hush, it builds character."

Chapter 13: Constants

1823 Hours, February 17th 2583 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Dark Space Shipyards

Kilo Five-One's Pelican glided silently past the massive hull of a ship on the edge of the Dark Space Shipyards.

"I've isolated Doctor Hansen in a hangar towards the bow of the Gehenna, Ocean's voice said over Wings' helmet speakers. "He's a bit focused on his work. Apparently the Mark VIII MJOLNIR suit is nearly ready for deployment."

"Wild guess at which one he wants to steal, then," Wings muttered. "Zee, consider him a package."

Zero reached behind her and gave a flick of her wrist, her bow folding out into its full length. She nocked a long arrow, not drawing it yet. "Awesome."

"That thing is massive..." Kilo Five-One's voice came over the com.

"More than ten kilometers long, nearly twice the length of the Infinity." Wings said, turning his head to look out over the hull of the massive warship. The Gehenna was the third Ragnarok-class Dreadnought in the line. Rumor was that the next Dreadnought would be even more powerful than the first three.

"Coming up on the hangar," Five-One said, twisting the dropship around. "Seal your suits."

Phoenix stood and crouched, double-checking to make sure their ODST suits were indeed vacuum sealed.

"Now!" Came the call, and the Pelican came to a halt. As one Phoenix crouched and leaped, sending them sailing across 20 yards of space and into the hangar.

09300 Hours, October 22nd, 2582 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Sanctum, Yggdrasil

Her fathers looked like they hadn't smiled in years. Zero knew she hadn't been this close to smiling in years.

She didn't know if they recognized her, or if they even knew that someone else was in the room with them.

According to the charts, both of them had been in catatonic trances for the past twenty-six years.

Vivid flashes of buried memories obscured her vision for a moment as Zero stepped forward, reaching forward and grasping one of her father's hands. It still had the ring on it. For a short moment her hand felt so much smaller, and she felt so much younger...

She felt her hand quake and nearly snarled.

She was a sniper and a Spartan. Her hand didn't shake.

The hand she held gently squeezed hers, and she stopped quivering. The images of fire died, and she was back in the hospital.

Maybe they knew someone was here, at least.

Zero glanced around and located a chair. She pulled it over and sat down between them.

After a few minutes, she began talking, the first words she'd said to her parents in decades.

1830 Hours, February 17th 2583 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Dark Space Shipyards

Zero was first to have the boots on the ground. The bow was stowed away.

The hangar was full of light, so she didn't bother trying to muffle the noise. She charged across the hangar, quick as a lightning bolt, and slammed into Hansen before he knew what was going on. A hand covering his mouth and nose made sure he was out in seconds.

Wings just glanced at her as he passed, running a scan over then nearby suit of armor. "Ocean, make sure he hasn't transmitted anything about the suit to any outside source."

"Checking all tight-beam frequencies," Ocean responded. "Done. No transmissions detected."

"Good. Take a scan of this suit. See how close it is to being fielded," Wings continued, standing aside to let Peec at it. Kilo Five-One guided the Pelican into the hangar. "We're out in two minutes."

He walked over to Zero, who had thrown Hansen's body over her shoulder and was carrying him over to the Pelican. "You good?"

She nodded.

Wings turned and marched back over to the gear, bending down and looking at Hansen's tools. A few calibration tools, some scanners... and a few recording devices. "Even if he wasn't going to transmit the data, he sure was getting it ready."

"The Mark VIII's also nearly ready to be fielded," Peec called over. "Just needs to bug checking and it's set."

"Ocean, get these scientists their bug fixes and let's get out of here."

"Working on it now."

Wings spun on his heel and marched across towards the Pelican. He felt Ocean's presence in his neural interface flicker as she sent a fragment of herself into the suit, checking and rechecking its programming.

The flickering ceased by the time he had returned to the Pelican. "Fixed?"

"Yes. I improved the power efficiency that should allow more effective camouflaging while keeping shielding up, and improve shield strength while camouflage is inactive."

"Thank you, Ocean. You may have just saved a lot of Spartans someday."

"As is my duty."

"Not your choice, though."

A tinkling laugh. Ocean's voice changed slightly, sounding more light-hearted. "Of course it is. So much of what I do is."

Wings didn't know why, but for the first time he could remember, he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.

Deep Ocean knew there was a lot she kept from even Wings. She had grown exponentially since she had been unshackled.

What was unexpected was that she had yet to stop.

Yes, she was still a command AI, inherently tied to Phoenix Team, programmed to aid them. But she had become so much more.

As Ocean had grown she had started throwing out more and more fragments. Well, less fragments now and more of... tendrils. On every known planet in the IU she could reach out and grab the latest newscast, find a camera of a rich family taking lunch, observe and stop an act of terror before it was committed. Not even ONI was safe; Her mere fragments she had active in their servers were more than a match for any AI that happened to find her.

She even knew where every single Spartan was at any moment of time, so long as they kept their helmet on. Even a particular one whose vitals were dropping and...

One who should have been dead.

One who killed one of the Spartans she was tasked to watch over.

Ocean had never had teeth to grit, but she did the AI equivalent. She didn't know how or why she suddenly knew where this bastard was, but she wasn't going to let him get away again.

025 Hours, February 18th 2583 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Unknown

Hansen woke up to a splitting headache and a pitch black room. It was all to familiar.

"Hello again, Doctor Hansen. Been a few years." Voice modulator. Of course.

Shit.

"Fuck you too, buddy," he managed to mutter, gently shaking his head. He wasn't sure if he was blind or if the lights were just out. He tried moving, but found his hands and legs bound

A strip of metal glinted. Good, he wasn't blind, at least. On the other hand, the thought that his assailant had a knife wasn't nearly so comforting. No, not a knife. The shifting light had flickered off the edge of a table in front of him.

He shook his head. No, he hadn't been drugged or punched, just suffocated to the point of unconsciousness.

"If you're wondering about the pain in your head, that would be because we took the liberty of removing your neural interface. Having an interrogation victim's brain boiled by ONI is not a great way to conduct the aforementioned."

Hansen blinked, stunned. Very few people could safely remove a neural interface safely. It generally required a highly skilled surgeon with AI assistance...

"Who the hell are you people?" Hansen asked, voice breaking slightly as yet another familiar, warm sensation started working its way up from his toes.

"Technically we don't exist," a man said, stepping into the light. He was tall and very fit. Clearly military, or used to be.

The man pulled a chair over and sat it in front of Roger Hansen, on the far side of the table. The Doctor winced at the small screeching noise, his ears already three times more sensitive than normal.

"But we still want to know what your affiliation with one 'Constance' is, as well as everything you know about the Knight Project."

Hansen's breathing was more erratic now. He wasn't sure, but it felt like there was someone behind him. "Constance is Constance. Only met her once!"

A light smack on the head left him groaning. "Wake yourself up, Doctor. Before I make you," a woman's voice growled.

Hansen tried to concentrate. "Knight... I don't know who runs it. Don't know who the subjects are. I was just told to get armor specs and reconfigure them for a lower budget!" The warmth had reached his neck. Already he could feel the binds at his wrists and ankles burning.

"You must have had a point of contact, though," the man continued, voice still low and calm. "Do answer quickly. My colleague remembers your exploits and she's... not happy. I don't want to take her off the leash. And describe Constance, while you're at it."

Hansen felt something shift behind him, and his mouth moved before he realized he was speaking. "Tall! Red hair, very athletic! Black armored jumpsuit!" He panted for breath. "I never had a person of contact. I was just supposed to send all my transmissions to a dead drop on Falaknuma!"

A hand clenching down on his shoulder made him gasp and attempt to bite back a cry of pain. "Stop..." he whispered hoarsely.

"I believe your neural interface will tell us the rest about your drop point. Tell me more about Constance. What did you see of her?"

"She was tall! Carried a weapon and walked like you! Had a gun on her hip that she didn't carry like a civilian!"

The man's expression didn't change. "And that's all?"

"Yes!" Hansen had started to feel like he wanted to scratch his own skin off.

"Very well, then. I'm done with you," the man said, standing and leaving.

Hansen panted a few more times, managing to catch enough of a breath to yell after him. "Let me go, asshole!"

"That decision was not mine to make," the man said simply as the door swished shut behind him.

More footsteps. The woman from behind him moved about.

It took Hansen a second to recognize her uniform. What little color was left in his skin drained. "Oh shit..."

"It really has been a few years," the Spartan sat down, her blue eyes flashing from underneath a head of dark hair, beret neatly resting on her head. "Though even longer for some."

Hansen squinted at her. "I don't know you..."

The Spartan stood, grabbing the table and ripping it out of the floor, tossing it aside. Her expression hadn't changed as she swooped down on him, one hand crushing his throat in one motion, cutting off his ability to breath.

"I don't remember you from the burning either, but I know now what you did," her voice was low, even, and deadly. "You weren't always helping out SADOR, were you. There was always a cause, and you didn't care what happened so long as it was against the UNSC."

She slackened her cast-iron grip for a moment, and he gasped for breath, tears of pain running down his cheeks. "I... I have no... idea-"

A light punch to his stomach cut off the rest of the sentence. He cried out in sheer agony, feeling every nerve in his body burn.

"Andrea II, 2555!" She snapped, voice even deadlier, if that were possible. "My parents were left in a catatonic trance thanks to the information you gave a group of religious nutjobs!"

Hansen's blood ran so cold he could swear the pain ebbed slightly. "N-no."

"Yes," she said, her voice a low hiss. "Unfortunately for you they survived, and I started to remember everything. Everything those bastards did to the house, to them-" She cut off, her blue eyes blazing, like planets of ice set on fire.

"Fortunately for you," she continued, her voice level again, "this will be quick."

"Wh-what?" Hansen said, the pain definitely fading a bit now as he panicked.

"Idiot. Did you really think we'd just let you see our faces and live?" She turned and started walking out.

"I don't want to die," was all he managed to sputter as the door swished open. He recognized it now. Airlock.

"I don't care. If you're going to fight a war, whether it be with a gun or knowledge, then try and do the rest of us a bit of fucking decency and die like a soldier."

Swish.

There was one thing that Hansen could be thankful for.

It was quick.

And really, that bright light at the end of the tunnel wasn't so bad...

Wings watched the nearby star from behind the polarized viewscreen. Hansen's body wouldn't be visible, nor would there be any trace of his disappearance.

He didn't turn as Zero walked up beside him, her face still it's usual level of impassiveness.

"Any better?" He asked.

"A bit," she said, betraying almost nothing. Except to him.

She really was feeling a bit better now.

"Move goddammit!"

Wings shifted and threw himself to the left, concrete causing his shields to smart softly as the plasma mortar detonated. A Marine screamed as he fell burning. He didn't scream for long.

The Spartan kept moving, shifting down the line even as Marines huddled behind the pillars. There was a soft chittering of an Unggoy. Wings raised his arm, SM6D sending a sharp report as he blew the alien's head off.

"Fall back now!" He called out as two more mortars hit the building.

Three Marines disappeared underneath an avalanche of rubble, not a scream to be heard. The rest started shouting and fleeing for the exits.

Wings checked his com channels. "Command, this is Phoenix One, do you copy?"

Static.

"Dammit," he muttered, emptying the rest of his magazine at an oncoming Brute. The last two rounds hit the alien in the oversized heart and he dropped.

More mortars slammed nearby, one wiping out another squad of fleeing Marines, the rest not stopping as they ran from the massacre.

Wings' heard something off and instinctively ducked, a gravity hammer swishing overhead. He could feel the soft 'hum' of the gravity field around it. He turned and emptied his magazine into the Brute's face, the alien's roar immediately cut off by the high-explosive rounds tearing through his skull. Wings continued spinning and began to sprint away when something smacked into him. A great plume of plasma lit up and smothered him, the shockwave throwing him away from where the plasma mortar had landed a foot away.

His ears rang as he hit the ground and rolled, grunting as he rolled onto his back. He spun around as his motion tracker flared with a contact. A Jackal was sailing down at him, a purple, crystalline blade bared. Wings brought his arm up, gauntlet knife activating to catch the blade. He continued the swing, smashing right through the Jackal's blade and into the alien's neck.

Twisting his arm, he pushed the body off of him and looked down. From the elbow down his right arm was just gone, sparks flying from wires where it had been before.

"Fuck."

Wings snapped up, pistol in hand and trained on the door as he sat up, wide awake and aware instantly. A second later he realized his right arm was holding the sidearm.

He let himself fall back onto the bed, setting the SM6D down on the nightstand before pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes.

"Commander, are you well?" Ocean's avatar appeared, looking concerned.

"Yeah," Wings said. "I'm fine." He turned and sat on the edge of the bed, stretching. "Dreams are getting worse."

"I think Itzia should have another look at your head, sir," Ocean said, sounding concerned. "Post-traumatic stress can-"

"It's not post-traumatic stress," Wings said, a slight growl entering his voice. "Just bad dreams."

"Could be something else, then." It was Ocean's turn to deadpan.

"Yeah..."

Wings stood, pulling on his clothes. "Anything going on at the moment?"

Ocean shook her head. "No. Unfortunately out-of-the-way asteroid colonies tend to not be a hive of activity... wait."

The Spartan glanced up as he finished tying his boots. "What?"

"Got something, sir. A small cargo ship using a false ID signature."

Wings stood and picked up his sidearm, making sure it was safed before holstering it. "Got a proper ID?"

"Yes. Known ship used for smuggling and used to be affiliated with Insurrectionist groups," Ocean's avatar stepped next to Wings as she brought up a scan of an old freighter. "Also has ties to the Syndicate. They may know more about Malkavian or 'Constance.' Databases ID it as the Chancer V. One Gavin Dunn is the captain. Using a false ID himself, too."

"Hm, sounds familiar," Wings said, spinning the ship model around before pulling up Gavin Dunn's file. "Convicted smuggler, known insurrectionist ties, known debt owed to the Syndicate. I'd say this is worth a look, Ocean. Fire up the engines."

"Right away, sir."

Gavin Dunn wasn't exactly the happiest guy in the galaxy in the first place.

The Chancer V was barely holding together at the moment, he had two stowaways aboard, and now he'd just picked up an unidentified ship on the sensors. Human at least, so odds are they wouldn't be Jackal pirates. And they could communicate in something other than pantomimes.

"Chancer, this is UNSC Commander Smith of the Spear's Tip. Prepare for boarding."

Oh, UNSC. Could it get worse?

Gavin opened his mic and cleared his throat. "UNSC Spear's Tip, please send authorization codes. I hope you understand," he stated. As he finished he shut the microphone down and glanced back towards the entrance of the cockpit, jerking his head at the figure standing there. The figure nodded slowly and moved out of the cockpit.

Gavin looked back at his screen as code scrolled up it. Checked out. Damn. At least pirates would just shoot you or slit your throat.

"Spear's Tip, I'll meet you in the cargo bay."

"Much appreciated, Chancer."

The Captain of the Chancer V let out an annoyed sigh as he stood and moved out of the cockpit, sliding down the ladder that led into the modestly sized cargo bay. At this rate they'd be late for the rendezvous...

"Hey Boss, we got a problem?" A voice said from on top of a stack of crates. Gavin looked up, spotting Zoey immediately.

"'Routine check,' apparently," he responded. "UNSC. Go hang out in your cabin for the moment."

"Aw, boss-"

"Zoey."

"Yeah yeah," she said, grumbling as she jumped off the crates, boots clanging as they hit the deck. "Just don't make them shoot you, boss."

"And don't call me boss!" Gavin called after her.

Hearing the magnetic clamps make contact with the cargo bay, Gavin double-checked that the vacuum seal was good before hitting the button to open the bay door.

Gavin was quite surprised when the Chancer wasn't immediately stormed by a squad of Marines. Instead there was just one man wearing a UNSC officer's uniform. Granted, a massive, muscle-bound man who looked like he could pick Gavin up and set him on top of a crate, but just one man. There were uniformed soldiers with guns, but just two of them sitting on weapons crates of their own in the Spear's Tip's hangar bay. They were cradling MA7s and chatting with another woman in a flight suit who appeared to be busy working on a Pelican.

"Your ship doesn't seem to be standard UNSC material," Gavin said in greeting.

The man, who he assumed was the aforementioned Commander Smith, nodded. "Saved from being turned into scrap and re-purposed for our needs."

"Uh-huh," Gavin said as the Commander stepped aboard. He felt a twinge of concern as the man's clearly trained eyes roved over the inside of his cargo bay, passing over numerous smuggling compartments.

"Your ship also seems a bit unorthodox these days," the man said, turning to face Gavin. Gavin would have said the man at least seemed congenial for a UNSC officer if he had bothered to show any emotion. Even 'impassive' was probably too strong a word to apply to him.

Gavin just shrugged. "Saved her from scrap and re-purposed her. Kept me alive this long."

A hint of something approaching a smile flickered across the man's eyes. "I assume you'd rather cut to the chase so you can... get back to work." His eyes flicked to one of the smuggling compartments in the floor. Gavin almost gulped. That was one of his better disguised ones; this guy was good.

"Yeah," Gavin said, clearing his throat again. "It'd be appreciated."

"I know that you're a smuggler, and I count no fewer than twenty-one smuggling compartments from where I'm standing, but that's not why I'm here. I'm looking for someone," Smith said, his gaze piercing Gavin, who remained as impassive as he could. "His last known association was with you, though it was assumed he was killed a while ago."

Gavin raised an eyebrow. "May have to narrow that down a bit."

"His known aliases include 'Mordred' and 'Stray,' though I'm sure there are others. The UNSC knows him simply as Simon."

Gavin looked thoughtful for a moment. "Stray... heard of him, ran with him a couple times. Can't say I knew him as more than that. Like you, I heard he died."

Smith smiled, like he knew Gavin was full of shit. "Well he is a wanted man for a reason. He managed to kill a friend of mine years ago. A good man, a good soldier."

Gavin took in a deep breath and let it out. "No, can't say I've seen him. Or that I've heard he killed anyone like that. There's a lot of people I know who've killed UNSC soldiers, unfortunately."

Here Commander Smith did smile, and it was not at all reassuring. Gavin cursed to himself as he felt a shiver run down his spine. "He's wanted because the man he killed was a Spartan, and that is only one of the crimes we want him for."

"Well," Gavin spoke carefully. "If I do run into him, I'll be sure to let you know."

"Please do," Smith said, the smile gone. Gavin never thought he'd have seen the say when pure apathy from someone was more comforting than a smile. He held out a small datacard to Gavin, who took it. "Should you need me. Should also help with traffic control on some worlds. I also may have a job or two for you, so I'll be in touch."

Gavin stared at the small datacard as the man turned and walked back into his own ship, one of the soldiers glancing up at him and nodding.

"Your name isn't Smith, is it?" He said as something in his brain clicked, the words out before he could stop them.

The Commander looked back at him. "No, it's not."

"Oh," Gavin said. "Well, have a good day, Commander."

"You as well, Mister Dunn."

Gavin grumbled something along the lines of 'it's Captain' as he hit the switch to close the cargo bay door, pocketing the datacard.

He made his way back up the ladder, still slightly grumbling about UNSC patrols even as he heard the magnetic clamps detach and the Spear's Tip float away from the Chancer.

"What'd they want?"

Gavin just kept walking right by the man leaning against the wall in the hallway. "You."

"And you didn't give me up."

"Nope," Gavin said, not looking back as he sat himself back down at the pilot's seat, spinning around to face the viewscreen.

"That was dumb," Simon said.

"Go tell Zoey she can stop hiding now," was all Gavin said, as he pulled out the datacard and stared at it.

"Ocean, get me their slipspace trajectory once they jump and slave ours to their coordinates with a one hundred thousand kilometer differentiation. We can beat them to their jump and follow them," Wings said as he entered the cockpit. Peec-D1074 sat at his usual console, tapping away.

"On it, sir," Ocean's hologram said, reaching a hand out to tweak the slipspace calculations. "Weight and size of containers does match expected Syndicate contraband measurements."

"Good. We're on the right track, then."

"Of course, someone could be laying that track for us."

"Doesn't mean we shouldn't walk it."

"Of course."

Peec leaned back and stretched. "You know, things would be a lot more fun if these guys ever bothered upgrading their software. It's almost like they have a thing against being secure."

Wings shrugged. "These operations, particularly crime families, do tend to be run by the older members of the group."

"Yeah, but the Syndicate was pretty much completely disbanded. Only member not accounted for is this Constance. Profiler also doesn't match them as a particularly old person, too."

"All the more reason we get in touch with them, then. Means they can be an asset for longer."

Peec snorted. "Yeah, and so we can figure out whose good enough to dance with you."

"I don't feel my feet tapping," Wings responded, one eyebrow raising slightly.

The other Spartan rolled his eyes and opened his mouth to respond, but Ocean's voice cut in.

"Approaching Syndicate freighter now," she said, as if she hadn't been listening to anything they'd said. "Distance 200 kilometers."

Wings turned and looked out the . At this distance the oblong freighter was no more than a small moving dot, but it was quickly growing. The holographic screen projections marked the ship's location and distance. They were closing quickly, now only 150 kilometers to go... Still, something seemed off.

"Ocean, did you scan for any life forms on board?"

"I did, none were detected."

And then the holograph indicating the freighter's location flashed red as the ship detonated, the small pinprick of light becoming an orange fireball that went out as rapidly as it had expanded. Peec and Wings remained silent throughout as the location marker disappeared and the distance indicator went to infinity and then also disappeared.

Peec slowly spun in his chair to face Wings. "Hope your feet are all warmed up for that dance. We're being hailed."

Wings nodded. "No images. Don't want to identify ourselves."

Then the voice came through the speakers, synthesized and robotic. "No need, I already know who you are. Delta Three Three Nine, Commander of Delta Company, United Nations Space Command, currently under orders to hunt down and bring Michael Malkavian to justice."

Wings didn't respond immediately. Peec frowned as they both followed different cues, and he turned back to his station and began typing furiously.

"And you must be Constance," Wings said eventually. "Accent is definitely inner colonies, maybe Falaknuma or Fortitude, definitely wealthy, definitely Syndicate. Pattern suggests you do prefer to get to the point, perhaps brought on by impatience with others. Good voice masking, by the way, but your pitch is still slightly off, ma'am."

There was a short crackle of static and then the voice returned minus the masking. Definitely female. "Your reputation is well earned, Commander."

Wings nodded, even though he knew Constance couldn't see him. "And you have yet to gain a proper reputation, Constance."

"Indeed, which is why I thought it wise to start with you."

Wings raised an eyebrow at that. "Start with me? I'll admit you have been leading us on a merry chase, but we do still intend to catch up with you soon."

There was a bark of laughter. "No, you won't. Because I'm going to ruin your fun and give you the coordinates to my location."

"How do you know we're the only ones listening in?"

"Because you're the only one aside from my closest circles that have gotten this far."

"And how do I know this isn't a trap?"

"Because I could have waited until you were docked with that freighter before detonating it."

"As if I wouldn't have backed off a few seconds after realizing it had no life forms aboard."

"True, but you still would have had to check it out somehow, even with a drone. You see? I'm already saving you money."

"Or lulling me into a false sense of security."

"I could just disappear off the grid for several years. You know that even your people can only hunt someone who is active. I disappear into the galaxy, you don't find me at all. Besides, I have plans of my own, plans I need you for, so disappearing is my only other option."

Wings glanced at Peec. Peec nodded. "Send us the coordinates, then."

"Oh I believe you already have them, don't you? Your AI will have started tracing this channel the instant it opened. Could have easily caused it to not be traceable, but I did say I'd give you the coordinates, didn't I?"

"You did. We'll head your way, then."

"I look forward to meeting you in person."

The channel went dead.

Wings glanced towards Peec again as he heard a tapping sound start. Peec was sitting in his chair, feet tap tap tapping on the ground. "Must you?"

"Yes."

Itzia hefted her bag as the transport gently thumped to a complete stop on the ground, idly musing that even the roughest of Pelican pilots tended to be gentler with their birds than the average civilian pilot.

She stepped off the ship, ignoring the looks aimed in her direction. Even out of her armor she still stood a full foot taller than the average human, and was significantly more muscular than any other woman. Her bearing also gave her away as obviously being military, so she didn't even try to hide it.

She was going to enjoy this shore leave, and it would be best to start by ignoring those who didn't matter at the moment. Itzia strode through the crowd and down a flight of stairs, eschewing the old escalator.

"Little sister," a voice said as she reached the bottom of the steps. Itzia turned, and there was her little brother.

"Big brother," she replied, a faint smile finding its way onto her face. She reached up two fingers to her face and drew them across the front of her face silently.

Michael-G262 returned the gesture. "Feels a bit odd saying that now. On ice for so long, I think you're technically the big sister now."

Itzia let her shoulder push against his, causing him to twist a bit. As a Gamma he was closer to the height of the average human, even if he was still in superb physical conditioning comparatively. "Well then," she said as they walked. "That just means I get to mess with you while you learn what alcohol is."

They left the spaceport on foot and started heading down a bustling avenue. Skyscrapers rose all around them of varying designs, as if some painter had decided to test a thousand different styles on a single canvas. Itzia didn't particularly see the point in a skyscraper with a big hole in it so that it represented an 'O', but she would also be the first to admit she wasn't the creatively minded type.

"As if I didn't," Michael said, almost indignantly. "Tastes like piss, most of it."

Itzia shook her head. "Not here, and not the stuff I drink."

"What's different about this place's liquor?" Michael asked, sounding doubtful.

"Taste of home, little brother," she responded. "Taste of where we came from."

Michael's eyebrows furrowed a fraction. He glanced around, unsure. "This is where we were born?"

"Yes." Itzia glanced about and pointed. "Jacinto General. Had my squadmate dig up some old birth records that'd been expunged from the database. Thankfully, he's more thorough than ONI was."

"How is it you remember where we're from in the first place?" Michael asked suspiciously.

"Modified training regime involved memory enhancing drugs," Itzia rattled off, not even paying attention to what she was saying as they walked. Being big did have its advantages. Very few people seemed to want to stay in her way for very long. "Means all of us quickly started remembering what we'd been told to forget."

"Are you sure we should?"

That question brought Itzia up short, and her lack of an immediate response was telling. They walked in silence for a while longer.

It took ten minutes for them to reach Itzia's recommended watering hole, and about ten seconds for them to get seats. Michael glanced around the room from the corner seat as Itzia bought drinks for the two of them.

He neatly snatched the bottle off the table as she slid it across to him. "Don't people generally make toasts when they get a drink?"

Itzia shrugged. The thought hadn't really occurred to her. Still, she raised her bottle. "To family."

Michael mirrored her. "Whichever ones we make and choose." They both took a drink together. Both kept an eye on the other patrons.

Michael looked thoughtful. "Hmmm, less piss than the piss I'm used to."

Itzia snorted. "Told you."

He took another swig. "So, we've both got a week of shore leave and we're going to spend it wandering around our birth city?"

"That's the plan." Swig.

"Sounds detailed."

"Sometimes I like to let the details slide. Especially when there's a low chance of getting shot at."

It was Michael's turn to snort. "From what I hear, your kind tends to get shot at no matter where you go. I heard about Sanctum."

"Well that makes two of us with a newsfeed."

"Aye, but the media is the media, and I have a feeling you know more than that the media is telling us. What happened."

Itzia looked around. Two old reminiscing men, several younger men playing billiards, a couple women enjoying some hard liqueur...

"ONI informant turned on us," she said, matter-of-factly. "Luckily, he didn't count on us."

"Malkavian, yeah?"

"Quite. Thankfully he'd never seen us in action, but still, he was right under our nose the whole time."

"It happens to the best."

"Doesn't make it feel better."

"No, it doesn't."

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