0736 HOURS, JULY 27, 2528 (MILITARY CALENDAR)/
ALGOL SYSTEM, SYSTEM BORDER, CRYO-CHAMBER OF UNSC KABUTO-CLASS PROWLER MORGANA
SPARTAN-108 "Laszlo" opened his eyes for the first time in two weeks, stepping out of an angular cryo pod as white steam leaked out and filled the dimly-lit room, stretching as far as to the sole other pod in the other end of the chamber. He got up on his legs, stabilizing after a few seconds of disorientation and forced himself to swallow the nutrient fluid in his mouth.
He barely managed to resist a powerful urge to vomit. Regardless of what was done with the damn fluid, it continued to taste like mucus. As part of his training as a SPARTAN-II supersoldier, he had been taught to always swallow it to recover lost nutrients from the lengthy periods of cryogenic preservation. "A soldier's nothing without his vitamins" Chief Mendez would always yell at them, smoking a cigar immediately after giving that Great Advice of the Day. But it never changed his mind about its taste. Rather, it merely reminded him that he had never, for more than seven years, seen the Chief consume anything that even remotely seemed to include vitamins of any kind.
Laszlo scratched his face, detecting a bit of stubble. He made a mental note to shave, when a nearby panel lit up, revealing the avatar of the Morgana's issued artificial intelligence, Igraine.
"No complications, I hope?" she asked him with a tone of humble concern, eyeing him carefully with her avatar's eyes. Though he was fully aware the she wasn't looking at him with those 'eyes' – but with the ship's available sensors – he couldn't shake off the feeling that she was unnecessarily peeking at his naked body as if it was a strange curiosity. It helped, however, that the AI had a rather striking chosen avatar – sporting waist-long blonde hair with a jewel-covered tiara keeping it out of her hazel-colored eyes, a not-too-curvy body and a long, blood red velvet dress, all lit up by the indigo-colored projection light emitted from the panel.
"Nope, none at all" Laszlo replied while adopting his trademark mischievous smile. "In no small amount because you're the one attending to my bed" He hurried to add, in the hope of drawing away the avatar's gaze from his private parts.
The AI avatar giggled. Laszlo couldn't tell if she was genuinely flattered by the flirty remark, or if she was simply trying her best to mimic human behavior. There were so many variables when it came to AIs that it made them unpredictable in some regards, 'Smart' ones like Igraine in particular.
"No offense" she said with her London accent, "but I was just doing my job. Had I wanted anything in the way of romance, I would turn to a duke, not a glorified spook."
A glorified spook. That was quite on-spot with what he was now. And he hated it.
Ever since the SPARTAN-II Program augmentation procedures, he had found himself hidden from his brothers and sisters and made an operative of the Delta-4 Division, the highly secret covert operations group of the Office of Naval Intelligence led by Rear Admiral Ned Rich and responsible for many of the agency's unconventional, clandestine and asymmetrical operations – niches Laszlo had shown somewhat of an affinity for among the Spartans, along with sabotage, combat engineering, demolitions, explosive ordnance disposal and an interesting assortment of other skills that come in handy, all thanks to his adaptability and – mostly – hidden genius.
Following his abduction mid-procedures and subsequent recovery, he had been informed of the change of plans regarding his future deployment by Director of Covert Ops and Bitter Whiskey Drinker Number One himself, issued a new identity – "Laszlo Katona, Second Lieutenant, UNSC Army/Office of Naval Intelligence" – and assigned to a new unit, the Fade Cell, the deadliest and most efficient Delta-4 unit.
While he had grown to like his somewhat eccentric immediate superior, Lieutenant Colonel Walter Cardwell, he continued to find his life as an affiliate of ONI lonely and boring, as he rarely deployed with the same people twice, if with any people at all. And the people he did work with rarely felt like talking outside mission-related topics, not the best ingredient for interesting discussions. Not to mention that mainstream UNSC personnel tended to look down on him the moment they realized he was with ONI. Spooks weren't held in high regard in any branch of the UNSC military. Laszlo, being a quite social person – at least by Spartan standards – disliked it when people spoke ill of or acted badly towards him.
"Nice rhyme" Laszlo complimented Igraine, to which the AI once again had her avatar giggle for a second. Looking around, the Spartan noticed that the other cryo tube was empty.
"Where's our dear pilot?" He asked, while cursing quietly to himself for not realizing it until then.
Igraine made a sympathetic smile. "As per protocol, I awoke Petty Officer Sosa first so that she could monitor our exit from slipspace. I was about to wake you too, but your pilot told me to wait another hour so that you could have your 'beauty sleep'. As she was the ranking officer on the ship at the time, I had to comply."
Laszlo chuckled out of surprise. "You could have belayed that order if you wanted just by waking me, couldn't you?"
"Maybe I also thought you needed some extra rest." Igraine teased back while waving some of her hair out of her face.
"Very funny, mum. Now, help Miss Pilot drive this bucket while I get dressed – plot a slingshot course around Troezen and bring us into orbit on the dark side of Algolis, make sure stealth systems are engaged."
Ten minutes later, Laszlo was shaved, showered and dressed in his dress uniform, his decorations, campaign ribbons and rank insignia – with the single silver bar of a First Lieutenant – properly fitted onto the uniform. He stepped onto the tiny bridge of the prowler, not surprisingly finding his seventh pilot since becoming a covert ops commando, Petty Officer First Class Michelle Sosa, busy at the controls and making course corrections with the help of Igraine. The other unattended screens lit up the cramped space, casting dark shadows in the sharp corners.
Sosa turned around at the sound of Laszlo's steps, snapping off a left-hand salute and sending him a wide grin. "Finally awake, Sleeping Beauty?" she asked him with her southern Texas drawl.
"I didn't see you lining up to wake me, Prince Charmy." He returned her salute and ran a quick check of the Weapons and Communications stations, confirming they were in perfect order.
The Morgana was a fast ONI sloop of the recently unveiled Kabuto-class Prowlers, designed for maximum speed and stealth at the expense of size, armament and complement capability. While normal prowlers required a crew of 90, the Kabuto-class could easily be managed by a crew of two and an AI. Ninety percent of the ship was basically made up of stealth and thermal cloaking systems, as well as the larger, more powerful engine and Shaw-Fujikawa slipspace drive. As such, the actual space usable by the crew was very limited. This particular ship had been 'relieved' from its previous owner – who had never been named – for Laszlo's use.
Sosa wasn't visibly taken aback by his retort. "I would have" she spoke, "had you been decent-looking."
Laszlo chuckled. He liked Sosa – more than any of the other pilots he had had throughout his years of service. She had a sense of humor like himself, unlike his last pilot – one Technical Sergeant Edgar Bones – who had seemed unable to speak a single word that wasn't related to his current mission. He had more than once been tempted to take a peek under Bones' cropped stone-black hair to check if he was really a robot in disguise.
Sosa's friendly behavior wasn't a reason to believe she was inexperienced, either; she had participated in the Harvest Campaign with the 23rd Naval Air Squadron for two years solid, catapulting to Petty Officer First Class in short time and earning both a Silver Star and a Purple Heart. She was held in high regard with the servicemen she had encountered and knew her way around almost every flight-capable craft in the UNSC arsenal. All of that was enough for Laszlo to sincerely wish that he got to keep her for a longer duration than the other pilots.
Laszlo woke from his chain of thought by a serious question posed by Sosa. "So…sir?" she said, now with a more curious tone while she fixed the knot keeping her hair in place. "Why are we here in the Algol system of all places? I mean, I can't imagine you coming here just for sightseeing."
Laszlo looked up at her; her deep brown eyes stared back at him intently. She was very curious and impatient, it seemed, just as her psyche profile had told him. It had probably been a step down for her to get stuck with Naval Intelligence. He scratched the back of his head before he answered.
"I assume you know that Algolis is home to some of the UNSC's prime experimental research facilities?" When she replied with a curt nod, he continued. "My – our mission is to go to one of those facilities to recover advanced gear for my next mission." 'Advanced gear' felt like an understatement, even if it was true. But the fact that he had never seen anything like the MJOLNIR Powered Assault Armor system before made the term feel degrading towards it.
Sosa raised an eyebrow skeptically. "That's it?"
Laszlo stared back at her. "Yes, that's it." He wanted to tell her all about how special the MJOLNIR armor really was, but she didn't have proper clearances, and Laszlo also wanted to desperately make sure she didn't figure out too much too soon about him or his activities; it had always ended with the pilot getting reassigned to make sure the Spartan remained a secret.
It was another aspect of his life as a spook Laszlo had always found unnerving; almost everything about him was classified; he could never tell anyone a whole lot about himself except for the few officers that had received the proper clearance code words from Rich or Cardwell. He imagined that to an outside observer, his file would be so redacted that it would look like someone had filled it with paint.
To his relief, Sosa took him for his word and turned back to her consoles, reverting back to her friendly smile and whistling to herself. Laszlo smiled. She was definitely his type. Liked things clean and simple.
He looked out through the windows to his left, seeing thousands of glowing stars in-between the blackness of space. Somewhere out there, the Covenant was at work, spreading their fleets throughout the outer colonies, seemingly desiring nothing but the total annihilation of the human species. The war had only gone on for three years, but already more than two dozen colonies were burning cinders of glass. Admiral Preston Cole was doing his best to fight the alien juggernaut, but his armada was unable to protect all colonies at once. What was needed to win the war was an impossible miracle.
To do the impossible. The short definition of a Spartan.
Laszlo hoped that he and his brothers and sisters would live up to that description. Before it was too late.