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Annual Award Best Novel This story, Halo: Shrike, written by Brodie-001, was voted as the Best Novel of 2013 in the Sixth Annual Halo Fanon Wikia Awards.


Terminal This article, Halo: Shrike, was written by Brodie-001. Please do not edit this fiction without the writer's permission.
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The author of this article, Halo: Shrike, urges anyone who reads it to provide feedback on the quality of the article. Thank you!


Halo: Shrike
Shrike Team Emblem
''Everything here is deniable.''
Protagonist

Martin-A136
Amanda Wade

Antagonist

John Verensky
Magnus

Author Brodie-001
Date Published Started June 14th, 2012

Finished March 6th, 2013

Length 9 chapters, 27 sub-chapters

(Roughly 43,885 words upon initial completion)

Author's Rating 16+ (Some harsh language and violence throughout)
Previous Story Halo: Mercy Kill
Next Story Halo: Sanctuary
Story Series Sigmaverse
Soundtrack
[Source]

Plot Summary

The Great War has been over for several years now, but humanity is nowhere near achieving peace. Throughout the remaining and rebuilding human colonies, insurrection is rising up once again at an alarming rate, and the struggling UNSC needs it dealt with swiftly and effectively, using the best soldiers they have: Spartans. For that purpose, a new team is formed to participate in direct action against these dissidents: Shrike Team.

Meanwhile, a wayward soul with no real purpose in life finds friendship and family within one of the most dangerous professions in the galaxy: that of an Insurrectionist; rebels fighting against the UNSC, branded as terrorists and murders by the media. The ends, however, may not always justify the means, as loyalty is pulled into question over the extreme actions taken, supposedly in the name of freedom.

However, in a world where treachery, secrets and murder are the norm, the SPARTAN-III's of Shrike Team and their rebel counterparts may uncover that there is something much larger going on, acting as mere pieces in a game with galaxy-wide consequences.

Dramatis Personae

Halo: Shrike
Book One of the Dynasty Trilogy

Prologue

1340 Hours, August 29th, 2554 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Asteroid WT-95, Corvus System


It had been nine hours since the distress beacon had been picked up from the remote ONI outpost, far outside the usual confines of human space. Eight figures trudged across the rocky surface of the asteroid, clad in high-tech pressure suits and wielding an assortment of weapons, just in case. The team had been dispatched on the Prowler, UNSC Agnus Dei, to investigate the situation here. Officially, the facility here didn't even exist.

"Not bad for a first mission, eh Verensky?" called the group leader, Agent Yang. He was a balding, middle aged man, and had obviously seen a great deal of experience in investigatory missions such as this. Like most ONI agents, his appearance was deceptive. He probably knew a thousand different ways to kill a person.

"It's fine, sir," replied John Verensky. A xenoarchaeologist in his twenties, he was the youngest person sent out on the mission. He guessed that his superiors were testing his mettle in the field. A veritable prodigy, the young man had attained extraordinarily high marks on his examinations and had entered the Intelligence community after graduating from university. Yang was probably some form of final examiner.

"Got a view on the facility. It's totally dark."

"Keep moving, Sergeant." Accompanying Yang and Verensky were several ODST's, just in case. The station had been constructed back in 2534 and had been used for weapons development throughout the Human-Covenant War. Fortunately, it was one of the few not to have been found by their alien foes. As the group neared the large steel airlock, something else came into view. It was a ship, matte black and over five hundred metres in length, a little shorter than a UNSC Frigate. No lights could be seen coming from it.

"What the hell is that thing?" asked the ODST sergeant, Erikson.

The ship didn't quite match any known UNSC design, though there was a possibility that they were simply encountering a new type of vessel - ONI was known to have several experimental ships under their control. It seemed to blend into the blackness of space perfectly; they had not seen it while coming in to land. Yang strode forward, one hand holding a recording device as he documented evidence of the unknown ship. He then motioned to the ODST's, who ran to the airlock and began bypassing it with their portable 'hackers'.

"Agent Verensky, what do you think of this?"

"I think..." The young man cocked his head to one side, gazing at their new find. "I think it's a newer ship design, sir. Certainly Human. Might not even be UNSC-made. Other than that, I have little to go on." Verensky made no attempt to disguise the wonder in his voice.

Yang grunted. "Fair enough. Might be an Innie design, though I wouldn't bet on them having functioning shipyards. Let's get inside. We'll check out the ship later."

The airlock slid open, and the six men entered the facility. After checking the oxygen levels within the facility, the two agents removed their helmets. The ODST's immediately raised their weapons, utilising their armour's VISR systems to check for hostiles. Erikson waved his men forward, and they crept along the dimly lit corridor. After rounding the first corner, the first signs of a firefight were spotted. The metal floor was stained almost black with blood, and patches of the wall had been melted. Erikson ran his hands over the scorched metal.

"Plasma damage, I've seen this before. Guess your student was wrong, Yang."

"Maybe. Some excitement is natural for the boy, though we need to classify the ship before we-"

The rest of his sentence was cut off by the sound of clattering metal from the next room. Two of the troopers immediately sprinted for the door, and kicked it open, levelling their rifles. There was a short burst of fire and the sound of running feet. The rest of the group followed suit, chasing the fleeing figure.

"Corporal, what was that?"

"Might have been a split-lip Sarge, sure as hell moved like one!"

Verensky and Yang followed the troopers, drawing their submachine guns as they did. Though they lacked the intense training and body armour of the Helljumpers, the two of them could handle themselves well enough. Looking up at a flickering sign on the ceiling, Verensky saw that they were heading for the Operations centre of the facility. Something told him that this was a bad idea. He slowed his pace down to a jog, allowing himself to fall behind the others as they sprinted onwards. Calling them over wouldn't do him much good at this point. He moved away, down a darkened side corridor.

Lighting the way with his weapon's flashlight, Verensky eventually came to a flight of stairs that overlooked the Operations centre. Below, the others were caught up in an intense firefight with a group of Sangheili. He hadn't seen the creatures up close before, but had, like so many thousands before him, lost his parents to them in the war. Verensky calmly walked to a control panel. One of the troopers went down screaming as a burst of plasma hit him full in the face. Yang managed to take down two of his foes as the humans advanced on the aliens. Looking down, Verensky noticed a large red button, bordered with yellow and black markings. Usually, buttons such as this did very interesting things.

He placed his helmet on, and tapped the button. The airlock in the operations centre below him juddered open, immediately sucking out the room's oxygen. Debris and corpses shot towards the cold vacuum of space. Smiling, he pressed it once more, and the door closed. The fighters, disoriented and confused, staggered around, looking for their weapons. Then, he arrived. Verensky watched in fascinated horror as a dark shape, roughly the same size as the Sangheili, cannoned into the room, a single blow sending Sergeant Erikson flying into a steel girder. He did not get up. Yang, still dazed, looked up at the young agent in the control booth, the fear evident on his face.

"Verensky, for God's sake, help us!"

John Verensky crossed his arms, giving the older agent a wry smile as the shadow pummelled another trooper to death. Yang cursed, and dived for a discarded rifle. He never reached it. Having killed off the last soldier, the shadow picked up Yang by the throat, throttling him as it turned to look up at Verensky. It was human-shaped, though abnormally tall. It's face was obscured by a round, spherical helmet. Verensky tapped the airlock button again, watching the explosive decompression once more. The figure stood stock still, not being moved at all as the mangled bodies and several surviving elites were pulled outside to their doom. Yang was released, and immediately pulled towards the airlock, reaching outwards, his eyes still on Verensky. The figure began to walk forwards. His blood turned to ice as he looked for another button on the panel.

"I don't think so, Human," came a guttural voice from behind him. An alien hand closed the airlock, while another lifted him into the air. He kicked and struggled, but to no avail. A large Sangheili clad in blood-red armour chuckled as another entered the room, closely followed by the dark figure.

"Magnus, what shall we do with this one?" the alien holding Verensky asked in clear English. He seemed to be treating the other as a superior. 'Magnus' removed his helmet. He was, or at least appeared to be, human. He was quite pale, and bald except for a goatee beard. His eyes, however, seemed to be an unnatural dark red colour, emotionless and cold. He gently removed Verensky's helmet, and peered into his face. The young man didn't flinch, staring unblinkingly into those inhuman eyes.

"Why did you knowingly kill your comrades?" he didn't so much ask as demand an answer, speaking in a cold, clear voice.

"Didn't think Humans were working with Split-Lips. You an Innie?" replied Verensky. Magnus snorted, turning away from him for a few seconds before facing him again.

"Once, maybe, but don't insult me. I'm so much more than just another rebel. Answer my question."

Verensky found himself fighting the urge to laugh. Whoever this Magnus person was, he was clearly arrogant, with a hint of God complex about him. Still, he saw a way out of this. "They were not my comrades. To be honest, I was more interested in ways of getting out of this dull mission," He answered truthfully. In his mind, Yang and the others had underestimated him. Hadn't forgotten the comment about him being 'excited'. Magnus paced the room, the two Sangheili standing guard.

"Sur, release him." The elite dropped Verensky to the floor. He picked himself up and stood still, arms behind his back. Magnus motioned for the elites to leave the room. "Rol, Sur, collect the bodies. I want evidence of a fight here, one from which out friend here was the only survivor" The two left without a word.

"So, am I free to go?" Verensky asked.

"You know, you and I may have something in common. What is your name and profession?"

"John Verensky. I'm an agent for the Office of Naval Intelligence."

Magnus smiled at this. "Are you now? That is good. Well then, John, what is your opinion on the United Nations Space Command, and the government that you serve?" Verensky shrugged. They had never meant anything much to him. He had joined ONI so he could test his own skills, not out of any sort of loyalty to his government.

"They don't mean anything to me, really. I'll take work from wherever I can find it.."

"So, what do you think about destroying it?"

This came as something of a shock. The UNSC and UEG had always been there, like a huge, impenetrable beast. The largest threat it had faced was that of the Covenant, which had essentially ceased to exist as an effective force a few years ago. While declining the offer would probably be bad for his health, there seemed to be something attractive about it, corrupting and slowly destroying an organisation from the inside. Verensky knew his capabilities. He would probably be assigned to something important, secret. He could use that to his advantage. In truth, he wanted to do it because he was bored.

"I think that would be a lovely idea, Magnus."

The huge cyborg grinned again and patted him on the back. "Well then, I suppose we have a lot of work to do, my friend" He looked down at the two elites, who were suiting up for retrieving the bodies. He spoke to himself in a soft, almost loving tone.

"Excellent. This is only the beginning, my friend."

Chapter One

In the Dark

0900 Hours, September 1st, 2554 (UNSC Military Calendar)

UNSC Helios Station, Mars Orbit


Martin-A136 climbed down the metal steps of the transport ship, and found himself in a large hangar bay. Several Pelican dropships sat side by side next to the ship, crates of supplies scattered about. Otherwise, the area was totally deserted. He had been remotely woken from cryosleep to find himself on an empty ship, with his MJOLNIR armour missing. He didn't see the point in panicking over something like this. ONI had a habit of doing bothersome things.

"Nice to see you awake, Master Chief." He knew that voice. Turning, Martin saw a woman dressed in plain black navy fatigues striding towards him. She was a good seven feet tall, with chin-length black hair. On her uniform, the words ELENA-071 were stencilled in white next to the silver leaf representing the rank of Commander. He saluted.

"Nice to see you again, ma'am. Been a while, hasn't it?"

"Two years, actually. Sorry we didn't get acquainted back then. Genocidal alien attacks are real conversation killers." She shook her head, smiling. Martin hadn't seen her out of the jet black armour she had worn during the Human-Covenant War. He knew he couldn't get too friendly with her. Even back then, she had been totally focused on her mission, and had disappeared the moment she had what she wanted.

"As I recall, ma'am, you left us after we'd escaped the Covenant."

"I was on a mission, you had your ship," Elena replied curtly. They walked in silence for a few moments.

"So, what has ONI called me for this time?" He was no stranger to the Office of Naval Intelligence and it's unsavoury methods. Martin himself had been part of one such program that created an army of child suicide soldiers. There were only a handful left now, unsurprisingly. Elena beckoned to him, turning away into a side corridor. Helios Station had been built barely a year after the war, and was officially used for 'sensory purposes'. Several men and women walked along the corridors of the station, barely casting a second glance at the two supersoldiers. Martin had a feeling that he was about to be given a suicide mission. Good. He didn't exactly have anything to live for now that the war was over, having signed on at the age of six to kill aliens.

"I hear the mission was a success then? Jiralhanae enclave slaughtered and tech recovered. Nice work, Master Chief."

That was when it hit him. "I think you're mistaken, ma'am. I don't hold that rank." Elena shook her head knowingly, giving him the wry smile that ONI agents usually carried. It usually meant that they knew something you didn't. Martin hated it. They came to an elevator. Elena pressed the button before responding. "We promoted you while you were in cryosleep. You deserve it with all you've done, anyway."

The SPARTAN-III shrugged. The elevator arrived and the two Spartans stepped in. They stood in silence for almost a minute before Martin spoke. "There's a reason behind my promotion, isn't there?"

"Whatever do you mean?" That smile was back.

"Well, for one, I don't need a rank to fight. Took the promotions I was given in the war, but other than that, my only purpose was to kill aliens."

"Purpose? You're a Spartan, not a machine, Martin."

He found himself frowning, and wished the elevator would hurry the hell up. "You wouldn't understand. Your group was abducted. I chose to become what I am."

He recalled his first night on Onyx, the SPARTAN-III training ground, seeing the monolithic SPARTAN-II and wishing he could be like him. Many years later, and he was practically living the dream, barring the lack of an organised Covenant to fight. The elevator came to a halt. Martin began following Elena again.

"'Your group', huh? Been spending too much time with Marco and the others, I take it?. You're being slightly disrespectful to a superior officer, too."

Martin straightened up, the obedient soldier once more. "I apologise, ma'am. Didn't mean to cause any offence." He wasn't sure if Elena thought he was mocking her with the sudden mood change. If she did, she wasn't showing it. The two came to a door, flanked by two bored looking ODST's. They stood to attention at the sight of the Commander.

"In there, Martin. They're waiting."

He wasn't sure who 'they' were, and didn't really want to find out, not that he had any real choice. He took a deep breath, and allowed the door to slide open before sliding in. He was in some kind of Operations room. Various computers and electronic devices were scattered around the place. On the metal benches, eight others sat, some reclined and at ease, some straight-backed and alert, and some looking slightly wary and even nervous. At first, he thought they were marines on the same assignment, but then he began to notice the telltale signs. And the nametags. He read the two nearest to him. Leandra-B031, Graham-G101.

Ah.

It all made sense now. The promotion, the secretive nature of his transport here, the way that Elena was being all mysterious (or, moreso than spooks usually are) and the fact that he didn't recognise a single face from Alpha Company in the room. Almost all had been killed during Operation: PROMETHEUS back in 2537, but there were still a handful alive and kicking. For a moment, he wished he had just been sent on another suicide mission than have to deal with this. The SPARTAN-III's of Beta and Gamma Company had shifted to face him

So now I get a team. ONI's screwed me.

"Shit," Martin muttered, to no one in particular.

Introductions

"Ah, Master Chief, glad to see you could finally join us."

Martin turned to see a man in navy attire entering the room behind him. He saluted upon seeing the captain's insignia pinned to his uniform. The man nodded, and strode to the front of the room, beckoning for Martin to follow. He did so, feeling slightly embarrassed as the other SPARTAN-III's turned to face him. He stood behind the Captain as he cleared his throat.

"It's good to see you here, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Captain Ryan Samson. I am an agent of the Office of Naval Intelligence, and your new operational commander. Each of you has been chosen for this team because of your unique skills, and because it has been decided that working as a coordinated group will be something that you need to work on."

Martin knew what that meant. He was getting a bunch of misfits who didn't play nice. Great. He recalled how Alpha Company had been when they had first arrived for training years ago: wild, angry. They had been beaten into shape over the years. He hoped that Chief Mendez had trained them similarly. They had arrived broken; war orphans who wanted revenge. While they hadn't been 'fixed' exactly, they had been trained to kill and taught some discipline. Hopefully, they would be disciplined well enough to function effectively as a team. Samson leaned forward and continued.

"You will be our seek-and-destroy team. You report only to me. When you are in the field, you will have no reinforcements, no outside support, and virtually no accountability to anyone but ONI. If you die, you die. Your deaths, should they occur, will be unpublished and unrecognised. Your accomplishments and achievements will be known to no one outside this room. Welcome to Shrike, ladies and gentlemen."

None of the Spartans in the room so much as blinked after this. Their program had been founded in secret anyway, what was a few more classified missions to them? Samson smiled, glad to have gotten his point across. He gestured to Martin, who was standing next to him, arms clasped behind his back.

"This is Master Chief Petty Officer Martin-A136. He will be your field commander. You will follow his orders at all times, clear?"

A chorus of affirmatives responded around the room. Samson took out a datapad and handed it to Martin. "Check these when you have a chance. I'd get to know your team now. Report to deck nineteen when you're done with the meet and greet, we need you suited up for your first mission." Martin nodded. Samson made his way to the door without another word, and exited. The others eased up a little at this. Martin wondered how the hell he was supposed to do this.

"Well then," he began, his eyes slowly roving over the eight attentive Spartans. "We'd better get to know each other before we head out. I want names, ranks, and proficiency, now!"

He'd added a lot emphasis on the last part. They stood up immediately. Martin may not have had the voice of Chief Mendez, but he'd seen enough to know how to command respect from his troops. He approached the first Spartan, who saluted him.

"Grantley, SPARTAN-B130. Chief Petty Officer. I'll be your XO. Tactical Assault, Recon, Demolitions, I'm your man. Was a Headhunter too, I can handle myself." Even for a Spartan, he was heavily built, a noticeable scar running down one side of his face, tracing over his unshaven chin and the beginnings of a moustache. The fact that he had nonchalantly declared himself as a Headhunter surprised Martin, who had heard the legends of two-man SPARTAN kill teams causing havoc behind enemy lines, and had assumed that they had all gotten themselves killed. Martin nodded and moved on.

"Julian. SPARTAN-G209. Petty Officer First Class. Most of this lot-" he gestured at some of the others. "-came from my team in Gamma. I'm good for scouting, Chief." This one was younger, and definitely had some cockiness about him. It wasn't a bad trait, though he had a feeling that this one would have a mouth on him. He had been a leader before, though, so must be reasonably competent in that department.

"Amos. SPARTAN-G028. Petty Officer Second Class. I specialise in EOD and Demo Ops, sir." He looked slightly nervous, his eyes darting around at the others. Martin kept going.

"I'm May. SPARTAN-G210. Petty Officer Second Class as well, everyone else is. Mostly good as a grenadier and for assault work. Nice to be working with you, Chief." She seemed to be more at ease than most, smiling at Martin as he made his way past.

"Cesare. Gamma One-Seven-Seven. Same rank as the others. I'm the heavy weapons guy. If it makes a nice 'boom', it's mine." He was another one who looked like he was a bit too laid back. Martin made a mental note to keep an eye on him as well.

"Leandra. SPARTAN-B031. No, I never participated in TORPEDO. I've had extensive training in computer hacking and electronics under ONI. I've never worked as part of a team, and I'm ranked as a Petty Officer Second Class. Nice to meet you, sir." Leandra spoke in short bursts, releasing small amounts of information at a time. She seemed to have the markings of a spook, and by the way she looked at the others a little apprehensively, might have trouble fitting in.

"Graham. Gamma-101. Petty Officer. Marksman." This one seemed to be quite laconic, looking bored at their current inactivity. He seemed to fit the typical 'cold sniper' routine, at least. Martin would make sure to get through to him at some point. If he was to be a team leader, he would have to get to know everyone as well as he could. Last one.

"Alric-G040, reporting for duty. Petty Officer like the rest. I'm good for EVA combat and piloting as well as the usual stuff, sir." This one was in a surprisingly good mood, a malicious grin on his face as though he was plotting something. Other than that, he appeared to be fine. That was everyone. Martin would get to know them in the missions to come. Since Upsilon had been all but wiped out on Reach, and Sigma had disbanded at the end of the war, Martin had been working solo. Now, with his own team to command, things would be different. He had never been one for change, but this was quite exciting. As he began to move towards the door, a familiar voice spoke up.

"Well, Chief. Nice to see you've introduced yourself to your subordinates."

Martin turned to see a ghostly blue image of a robed and hooded man, a dagger dangling at his belt. Only the lower half of his face was visible, revealing a devious smile. "Armand," he said. He had met the AI at the end of his previous mission, only a few days before. "What are you doing here?"

"I'm the support AI for this new 'Shrike' Team. Seems that after our first encounter, ONI thought that you would need my vast array of skills to assist you so, here I am."

Martin sighed, and strode out without replying. He should have really seen that one coming. His chance meeting with a UNSC-affiliated AI couldn't just have been a happy coincidence. He made his way to the elevator, followed by his fellow Spartans, and mentally prepared himself for whatever assignment they were about to receive. With any luck, he'd get the hang of this 'leadership' thing.

***

"I think he's perfect for the job."

"Why is that, Commander?"

"Aside from knowing what he is doing, the Chief is a quick thinker and knows exactly what's going on around him."

"What's that supposed to mean, exactly?"

"He has a conscience, Captain."

"Huh. Well, if I know ONI, Shrike will be dispatched into places where a conscience is a liability. No offence, but you Spartans were trained to be ruthless killing machines."

"None taken. Listen, one of the best Spartans I know is also one with a pretty heavy conscience about his actions. Martin will do fine in the field, sir. Anyway, after ASHES earlier this year, I know that although you have to do whatever it takes to win, following orders can be...difficult, to say the least."

"Ah, you're referring to the assassination mission, correct? At least you got something, or rather, someone out of there. How is he?"

"Still recuperating. He was gone for a long time. Jax is getting him up to speed. He'll be combat ready very soon."

"That's good to hear. We're giving them a sort of 'trial run' on Circumstance. We've got a whole hive ready to be shaken up down there, and ONI wants to make it clear that we're sending the best we have against the innies."

"Is our intel solid? I don't want to send them in only to have a Mamore-type attack. They're all combat-tested. Martin was on Reach, for God's sake."

"There's nothing to worry about, Commander. We've got Alex the Red down there now. Believe me, once he's got in there, Spartans will be the least of the innies' worries. We've looked over this."

"Redford is one of the best. Can't say I agree with his methods, but if he gets the job done he's fine by me. Where is Shrike now?"

"Coming up the elevator now. Let's get this briefing done with so we can hand out some of the new toys the guys in R&D have been developing."

Wanderer

0249 Hours, September 2nd, 2554 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Kuiper, Circumstance


Well, the rain definitely wasn't helping with the bloody anger.

The streets, usually packed with drunken partygoers even at this late hour, were pretty much empty, most people being driven home or within Kuiper's more spacious nightclubs. The colony had been one of a fortunate few not to have been glassed by the Covenant when they invaded the Epsilon Eridani system three years ago, attacking Reach, Tribute and Tantalus. Though famous for it's universities and courts of justice, Circumstance had been a popular destination for thousands of refugees and visitors following the Human-Covenant war, seeking a safe place to go. Even Earth had suffered a devastating attack.

Amanda Wade walked along the rainswept street, a hooded raincoat protecting her from the worst of the storm. Though her features betrayed no emotion, she was seething inside. Today had been, to put it lightly, a bit of a let-down. In her rucksack, a slightly soggy letter declaring her dishonourable discharge was crumpled up beside her only change of clothes, and a sidearm that she had managed to conceal when leaving the base. She was surprised that a letter had been sent at all; most things were covered via messages directly to a personal datapad. After leaving the base, she had done what thousands of other humans in history had done in a similar situation: hit the bars.

Several hours later, and the drinks had done nothing more than stoke her anger at the unfairness of the dismissal. So, after leaving the fifth bar, ready to break the face of the first person to look at her funny, she had wandered Kuiper's streets until something hit her in the face. It was a flyer. Looking at it through a slightly drunken haze, it had piqued her interest. It read:

SICK OF BEING TREATED AS SECOND RATE CITIZENS BY THE UNSC?
SICK OF BEING SIDELINED IN FAVOUR OF EARTH AND INNER COLONIES?
SICK OF HAVING TO PUT UP WITH RESTRICTIONS ON YOUR RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS IN THE NAME OF 'SECURITY'?
IF SO, THEN YOU ARE NOT ALONE. JOIN THE FIGHT AGAINST THE OPPRESSORS TODAY, ATTEND THE RALLY AT 3AM, WAREHOUSE 23-G, GREENWICH STREET, KUIPER.

Even in her slightly inebriated state, Amanda had to wonder why the insurrection was on Circumstance, of all places. Wasn't it an inner colony? Then again, with the end of the war, with so many worlds gone, the lines had probably shifted closer to Earth. After her treatment over the last few days, joining up seemed like a good idea. She'd heard from a friend that the Insurrection had changed from a terrorist movement into a sort of unified organisation over the years, the Human-Covenant war forcing it to adapt and change. So, here she was, walking down the street towards the allocated meeting point. There were more flyers lying around or pasted to nearby walls.

Amanda was the type of person who, if angry, stays angry for a very long time. She had signed up as part of a post-war recruitment drive, a surge of Earth-centric patriotism that had risen after humanity's ceasefire with the Covenant. Nobody called it a victory. Too much had been lost for it to even resemble a victory. Years of exemplary service in the Marine Corps had ended with a single incident. Though furious at the injustice of the situation, it had opened her eyes to the true situation. The whiskey had probably helped, but Amanda had definitely made up her mind. She was going to join the Insurrection. She wasn't a stranger to the ideas behind it all, having grown up amongst older rebels who had fought the UNSC long before the war.

It wasn't all raving lunatics and suicide attacks. It consisted of this in some small part, but there were fringe groups in every organisation. One bad apple could spoil the bunch, something that the media took full advantage of in their news coverage. The young woman wondered what her parents would have thought of it. They had been killed on Earth a few years previously, leaving her with no family. Well, at least no family that she had any interest in talking to. Dad had been a very vocal, if non-violent sort. He was an understanding man, and would have probably accepted her decision. Mum? Well, she was different. While growing up, he had noticed her willingness to discuss openly fighting the UNSC with some of the older men, and often led others into heated debates. God only knows how Dad had managed to put up with her, though he had often told his daughter that she had not always been like that. Amanda wondered what changed her mother.

It didn't really matter. They were dead, and she was making this decision alone, for herself. She checked her watch: 3.02am. Taking a deep breath, she marched across the street to the warehouse, and pushed open the large metal door, which had been left slightly ajar. The room was well lit, with two young men standing idly by a large door, which led to the main part of the warehouse, and the rally. Amanda could hear the sound of voices in the background. One of the men nudged the other as she approached, and they both straightened up. The first, a stocky man with scruffy hair and a patched coat, approached her.

"What's your business?"

"I'm here for the meeting?"

"What meeting?"

Amanda held up the flyer. "The one you've got going on in here. Look, I want to join up with you guys. Is this the place or not?" The first man smirked, and stood aside to let her pass. "Sure, go on in. I'll make sure you weren't followed." He began walking towards the door. The other man watched her intently. As her hand reached for the handle, she caught a flash of movement out of the corner of her eye, and jumped to the side as a stun baton whizzed past her head. Amanda launched a few punches at the attacker while his friend ran to lock the door. The man was able to dodge the blows before swinging the baton once more. This time, it caught her shoulder, sending ripples of electricity coursing through her. The jerked in pain before falling to the ground.

"That's another one. Man, these innies are pretty dumb."

"Tell me about it" replied the other man, who was keeping a lookout at the door. "I mean, who thinks that they just go around handing out-" The rest of his sentence was cut off by a muffled noise. He slumped to the ground. On the floor, Amanda could see through a daze that he had been shot. His partner attempted to unholster his pistol, only to catch a bullet between the eyes. He fell back soundlessly onto the stone floor, a pool of blood quickly accumulating. She groaned. The baton was designed to incapacitate opponents for several minutes, and was usually used by riot police. There were footsteps advancing towards her.

"Remi, it seems that these two gentlemen were about to entertain a guest, as it were." The first voice was clear yet strangely gentle, with an accent that suggested a North American descent, though she couldn't be sure. Rolling her head, she found herself looking at a middle aged man, carefully stepping over the corpse to avoid getting blood on his immaculate shoes. He checked her pulse, before pulling her into a sitting position. "Are you all right?" he asked, a genuine look of concern on his face. Amanda nodded. He turned back towards the door.

"She's stunned, Remi. What shall we do with her?"

A second man emerged from the shadows. He had a haggard looking face, dark, sunken eyes and hair that, by the looks of it, was greying prematurely. His left hand clutched a pistol. He had been the one to kill those men. "We're taking her with us, Alexander. Let's get going" Without a word, the other man lifted her up with surprising strength and placed Amanda on her feet. He put his arm around her and began to walk towards the exit. She moved her feet sluggishly in order to keep up. The blow, coupled with the half a dozen drinks, had almost brought her to the point of unconsciousness. As they moved, they passed the gunman, who was looking over the corpses in disdain.

"They think if they mess up their hair and dress like crap, people will expect them to be like us? Pathetic." He prepared to spit, but thought better of it and turned round to help the other two out. There was a car parked in the opposite alleyway. These two had probably watched her enter the warehouse complex. As she was helped into the back seat, Amanda managed to form some words through her tired haze.

"Where are we going?"

"Someplace safe," replied the other man, Remi. She nodded, and finally passed out.

Chapter Two

Shrike Strike

1420 Hours, September 2nd, 2554 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Upper Kuiper, Circumstance


"Master Chief, I have sighted the target convoy. Hennerman's car, plus several trucks."

"Copy that Shrike Eight. Nine, Four, Six, are you in position?"

Martin waited for the affirmatives to come back before stepping aboard the falcon with Graham. He hadn't had much time to get acquainted with the rest of Shrike, the last day or so being spent travelling or preparing for the operation. Their first target would be Johan Hennerman, a well-connected arms dealer on the planet. The Spartan could see how bad things had gotten on Circumstance since the end of the war. It had turned into a criminal haven, with the beleaguered UNSC and Colonial Militia forces barely holding back the tide. He could see why they needed Spartans.

The Falcon, piloted by Leandra-B031, Shrike Seven, took off from the roof, and began to move towards the main highway. Samson's speech about not getting support hadn't been entirely true, as they had essentially been given a blank cheque as far as equipment went. As team leader, Martin had requisitioned a couple of army-issue UH-144 Falcons for the mission. Pelicans, though spacious, would be quite large and, in his experience, had a habit of being blindsided and shot down. The Falcon could easily accommodate up to five Spartans, pilot included, and had enough weapons and manoeuvrability to pose a formidable threat. Martin brought up TEAMCOM and checked on the others.

"Shrike Two, is your group in position?"

Grantley's gruff voice responded after a few seconds. "Ready at the pass, Chief. We've got the other Falcon on standby."

"Got it. Don't move until I give the order" His XO seemed to be quite competent, and friendly for a Spartan. Martin knew he could trust Grantley for this job. The Falcon soared over the main highway, which spanned one of Kuiper's many rivers. Martin knew little of the colony of Circumstance prior to this mission, only that it had somehow survived being glassed when the Covenant invaded the system, and that it had famous law courts and universities. Not that the former was very effective these days, if a well known arms dealer could cruise along in his expensive car, flanked with trucks filled with his wares or his well-paid gunmen.

From ONI's file on the man, which he had read on the trip down to the planet, Martin hadn't just learned that their target had run guns for just about every organisation out there. Drugs. Machinery. People. Hennerman was a real scumbag. Good. It would make him easier to take down. Martin recalled his first encounter with the Insurrection, as a child on Mamore. He had hesitated to pull the trigger, almost compromising his team in the process. He was very much aware that shooting a man just for picking up a gun for what he believed in was wrong. ONI's indoctrination hadn't blinded him to that. He wasn't naive enough to believe that everyone out there was fighting for a good cause. People like Hennerman were only in it for themselves.

"Shrike Two, get word to the city Superintendent to slow the traffic flow. I want a nice jam so we can spring on this bastard."

"Copy that Chief. Standby."

Martin watched through the Falcon's door as lanes of traffic were slowly diverted, becoming more and more congested until there was only a single, slow-moving lane exiting the bridge and onto the mainland. Hennerman's convoy had been separated by the other cars, leaving his personal sports car alone and unprotected as they attempted to merge into the exiting lane. The car ended up near the back of the group, sandwiched between two civilian cars.

The Falcon moved in, swooping over the traffic until it was directly above the target vehicle. Going in low, Martin and Graham leapt from their side seats and onto the cars adjacent to Hennerman's. Ignoring the screams of terror from the civilians whose cars they had just crushed, the two Spartans moved in unison, tearing the doors off the car. The tinted windows didn't allow them to see inside. Martin thrust his rifle through the door, and peeked through. Then, he saw it.

"Bomb!"

Martin dived to the side as the small, oblong shape in the passenger seat began to blink. As he scrambled behind another car, it detonated, sending the vehicle rocketing upwards, hitting Leandra's falcon, which began to spin out of control. crawling away as his shields slowly recharged, Martin brought up TEAMBIO, which showed Shrike's roster. Graham's pulse had skyrocketed, but he seemed to be fine. Looking around, the Spartan watched the burning helicopter plummet into the river.

"Leandra!" He ran to the safety rail, hoping to catch a glimpse of orange armour climbing from the cockpit.

"I'm fine, Chief." came her voice. She was standing beside him. "I jumped out" She took a glance over at the sinking Falcon. "That looked expensive" SPARTAN-B031 seemed entirely unconcerned about the burning wreckages of the civilian cars along the bridge. Before Martin could say anything, a burst of gunfire hitting his shields snapped him back into combat mode. At least two dozen men, armed with a variety of black market weapons, had dismounted from the trucks and were firing on the Spartans. Taking cover as his shields recharged once more, Martin fired a few shots from his rifle, hitting one in the chest.

Leandra tossed a grenade and advanced to the next vehicle as the fire intensified. Martin glanced to his right as a yellow dot flashed up on his radar. Graham heaved himself over the safety railing and onto the bridge, sniper rifle on his back. Rolling over, he snapped the weapon up, and without checking his sights, headshotted two militia members. Martin activated the COM.

"Graham, you okay?"

The other Spartan grunted, taking out two more before reloading and taking cover. "I'm fine, Chief. Had to jump onto the maintenance catwalk when the bomb went off."

Martin waited for Graham to elaborate, but got nothing more. Fine. Now was no time to play therapist. "Four, Six, Nine, Find Hennerman. Two, get your group on the rest of the Militia here. No more civilian casualties, okay?"

***

Across the bridge, Cesare-G177 yawned, placed his helmet on and, as the familiar HUD flashed up, opened the back of the truck, jumping out into the sunlit street. Most of the cars had been abandoned as gunfire and explosions lit up the bridge. The trucks, as expected, were packed with militia, likely hired from the seedier districts of the city or abroad. One of those trucks, the Spartan reasoned, had to hold their man. He glanced upwards as the second Falcon, holding Grantley, Julian and May, flew overhead, ready to wipe out the remaining resistance on the bridge.

Amos and Alric followed Cesare out of the truck, which had been concealed in a side alley, and walked alongside him towards the street. Civilians ran past, desperate to get away from the carnage. Many stopped and stared at the trio of super soldiers as they strode forward, ready to block the end of the bridge. The machine guns on the Falcons began to fire, ripping apart any enemy not fast enough to take cover behind one of the many cars littered about.

"Shrike Six, two of the trucks are pushing forward! Stop them at all costs!"

Cesare clicked his acknowledgement light twice as an affirmative; it was quicker than talking. He wasn't sure what to think of the Chief just yet, though if he was an Alpha, then he probably deserved his position. Motioning to the others, the Spartans took up positions on either side of the exit, weapons raised. As their target would probably be in one of the incoming trucks, he kept his missile launcher safely stowed away. Amos, on the other hand, had acquired an Army issue M319 Individual Grenade Launcher, a compact weapon that, despite being difficult to use, would be perfect for stopping the truck in it's tracks.

Quickly checking down the sights, Amos fired, watching the projectile soar towards the vehicles, which were easily pushing aside smaller cars. He held the trigger down as the grenade bounced off the street, and upwards towards the front window of the first truck. Then, he let go. It detonated, blasting the windshield inwards towards the driver and passenger. The truck skidded towards the Spartans, scattering them as it turned on it's side, bursting into flames. The second truck roared past, peppered with shots from behind. Cesare stalked towards the first truck, several metres behind Amos, who reloaded his grenade launcher.

"We've got you surrounded! Come out with your hands up!"

Typical Amos. For as long as Cesare had known him, the SPARTAN-III had been surprisingly lenient against foes. It had gotten him, and others, hurt in the past. After a few seconds, a small black object flew from the back of the truck, hitting the ground a few feet away. Amos was thrown back by the blast, his shields flickering madly. Cesare jumped to his friend's aid, grabbing hold of him before he hit the ground. As figures began to clamber out of the truck, he fired a burst from his rifle, dropping one immediately and causing the others to scramble away.

"Sorry, I messed up again," Amos said weakly. Whatever had hit him, it had done much more than just taking down his shields. A piece of shrapnel had pierced his stomach between his armour plates. Amos pulled it out, suppressing a grunt of pain as he did so. Cesare swore under his breath, before turning to his other teammate. "Alric, you're up!"

The green armoured Spartan nodded, and began to run after the fleeing men and women, who had managed to escape the burning wreckage. They may have been unencumbered by heavy MJOLNIR armour and running on adrenaline, but he was a Spartan. Sprinting forward and rounding the first corner, he holstered his assault rifle. Alric wouldn't need guns for this. One man looked over his shoulder, and wasted precious time attempting to draw his pistol. A single blow planted him into a nearby wall. Two others turned in a pathetic attempt to fight. The Spartan didn't even slow down. Two swift movements dropped both of them with a sickening crunch. There were two others left. One was a large man in patchy black armour, the image of a merc down on his luck. The other was wearing an expensive, dark grey suit, and looked very, very frightened. He had good reason to be. He was Johan Hennerman.

"Nowhere to go, scumbag. On your knees!"

Hennerman glanced at the Spartan for a second before turning away, pulling out a pistol as he did so. His bodyguard began firing at the Spartan with a small SMG, the rounds harmlessly hitting his shields as he stalked forward. The weapon clicked empty as Alric's shields were close to failing. He picked up the man by the throat and slammed him into a wall. He went out like a light. Turning back to Hennerman, Alric caught sight of him pulling a young woman out of her car at gunpoint, throwing her to the floor before shooting her and jumping in. That pushed him over the edge, a red mist of anger descending over him as he drew his assault rifle, peppering Hennerman's vehicle with bullets as it began to accelerate.

Alrik sprinted after the car as it sped down the near-deserted street. The police had begun to cordon off the area, but if Hennerman made it into the undercity or the docks, there was a chance of losing him. The Spartan couldn't let that happen. Activating the 'Sprint' armour plugin, which overrode the safety functions on his MJOLNIR armour, Alric sped up, pumping a few more rounds into the vehicle before switching to his pistol and attempting to hit the tyres. The car made a sharp turn as three more Spartans rounded the corner on a warthog. It was the Chief and his team. Alric fired a few more times before one of the tyres finally burst, causing it to spin as Hennerman wrestled with the steering wheel. It broke through a barrier at the side of the street and plummeted out of sight. There was a loud crash a second later.

Alric kept going, pausing only for a moment at the edge before leaping after the car onto the street below. He landed on the roof, half a ton of MJOLNIR crushing it like a tin can. The driver's door was already open. After a quick check to ensure he hadn't accidentally slain his quarry, Alric leapt off the vehicle and ran into a side alley, following the patchy trail of bloodstains that led from the car door. Keeping his pistol levelled, the Spartan moved quickly, until his radar picked up a red dot not far ahead. A quick peek around the next corner revealed a dead end, and a very worn out, terrified looking Hennerman. By the looks of him, he had jumped out of the car immediately and sprinted away without thinking.

"Gotcha."

***<center>

Martin and the others had cleared the rest of the bridge quickly with the help of Grantley's Falcon. There were a few who surrendered to the Spartans, who had been left in the capable care of his XO. It hadn't taken them long to find Hennerman, who was being pursued by Alrik and quickly crashed his stolen vehicle. The Spartan had brought the target up after a few minutes. He was unconscious and battered, with two broken legs. Alric had muttered something about him being injured in the crash before dumping him in the blood tray of a Pelican that Samson had sent in to extract them. Martin had major doubts about the truthfulness of his comrade's story, but kept quiet about it.

The operation had been, in some part, a success, though in Martin's mind, they had screwed up. Dozens of innocent people had been caught in the crossfire and there was a lot of collateral damage. The bridge itself would likely remain closed for weeks. Despite this, he didn't blame himself. Their modus operandi had been prepared by ONI. The whole attack on the bridge had probably been Samson's idea. Had he been in charge, the Spartans would have moved in, preferably under the cover of night, and taken Hennerman in a home raid. They had injuries, too. Amos had taken some shrapnel to the lower chest, and Graham had torn a leg muscle in his haste to escape the bomb blast.

Nonetheless, ONI had determined it as a success, and it would forever remain as such on the official records. He couldn't help but wonder why it had been like this; right in the middle of the city, in broad daylight. Whoever had made that decision was either a tactical moron, or had another purpose entirely for using a supposedly secret SPARTAN team in such a way.

Innie 101

1721 Hours, September 2nd, 2554 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Indigo Sector Residence 48-B, Lower Kuiper


"Remi, I think she's waking up."

Amanda sat bolt upright, her eyes snapping open as she found herself in an unfamiliar place. Two men sat at a table across the room, hunched over a large sheet of paper. A third person was also present, leaning against the door frame, chewing something as she watched Amanda's eyes roving around the room. One of the men at the table stood up and walked over, holding his hands up in a friendly gesture. Amanda had been sleeping on a dilapidated sofa in the corner of the room. Someone had taken her shoes off and placed them neatly by the exit.

"Ah, you're finally up. Rested, I hope? You were out for most of a day, after all."

Amanda rubbed her eyes. Sleeping in wasn't exactly something she was used to doing. Then again, she had drunk a lot. The room was quite spacious, though devoid of any decoration.

"That long?" she replied. Remi, who appeared to be the leader around here, nodded. She sighed. "So, I don't suppose I could join you guys, then?" Amanda asked. She had nowhere else to go on Circumstance. She had blown most of her money, but probably had enough left for a shuttle flight to Earth, though the prospect of meeting her family there made it very unappealing. Remi seemed to mull it over for a few seconds.

"What are you good at?"

"Well, I'm not bad at fixing things, and I can fire a gun. Had a couple of years in the Marines before I was booted out."

At the mention of the Marine Corps, the other woman tensed up, a hand slowly going for a holster. Remi shot her a dark look, and she froze. "What did you get booted out for?" There was no sense in making up a story, especially when her life could be on the line here. "Couldn't stand the way they ran things. They weren't making soldiers, they were making thugs to send out to the outer colonies. Beat the crap out of a Drill Sergeant who messed with me one time too many" She grabbed her bag, which had been left by the sofa, and pulled out her discharge papers. Remi snatched them and looked it over for a few seconds before handing them back. He smiled, holding out a hand to help her off the sofa.

"Well then, looks like we've got ourselves a new member!"

<center>***

Amanda spent the next half hour being shown around what served as the base of operations for Remi's Insurrectionist Cell. It was quite surreal. She had expected to see a group of grim-faced veterans making bombs and guns, planning to blow up enemy installations. What she found were a group of reasonably friendly people brought together by their mutual hatred of what they saw as an oppressive government. Remi explained that while the Insurrectionists of the past had targeted civilians and massacred thousands, his group only sought to make Circumstance independent from UNSC control, without killing the innocent.

There were seven people in the headquarters, Amanda included. There was Remi, the leader and main planner. He had been abandoned on Reach during the invasion, UNSC forces refusing to pick up a group of civilians and leaving most of them to be killed before they hijacked a freighter of their own and escaped the planet. The other woman was Clara. She didn't talk about her past, but seemed to always carry a gun and could barely go a sentence without swearing. Then there was Mike, a long haired technical specialist, whose main job was to monitor UNSC communications. He didn't say much as they passed through his terminal-filled room. The other two were Fabian and Ganju, both of whom seemed to actually fit the typical look of an 'innie'. They were friendly enough, but paid little attention to Amanda. Lastly, there was Alexander Redford, one of the men who had saved her from the trap last night. He was out somewhere.

There was a buzz from the door. Remi and the others seemed to become wary at this, Clara unholstering her pistol and checking that it was loaded. After checking with the camera, the door slid open, revealing a well dressed, middle aged man with thinning hair and a worried look on his face. Placing a bag of groceries on the table, he turned to Remi.

"Check the TV. Now" Compared to the calm voice he had the previous night, having seen two men gunned down, he was scared. Clara switched the screen on, and tossed the remote to Alexander, who immediately turned to a local news channel. It showed images of one of the city's many bridges set ablaze. Charred remains of cars lay across it, along with dozens of bodies. The main news headline was INSURRECTIONIST STRIKE FOILED. The news reporter began to speak of how a plot to bomb the main law courts in Kuiper was foiled due to the intervention of UNSC Spartans. Three of the monolithic figures, clad in their powered armour, moved across, helping civilians and dragging bodies from the wreckage. Apparently, the 'rebels' had detonated explosives on the bridge, and were only stopped by the heroic efforts of the Spartans, who had captured Johan Hennerman, their leader. At this, Redford switched the screen off.

"Remi, did Hennerman tell you anything about this?"

All eyes were on the cell leader. He sighed. "No. Hennerman was a scumbag, there was no doubt about it, but he wouldn't be stupid enough to carry a plan like that out without consulting me or Rizhan first. This reeks of a cover up, and knowing what a snake the man is, he'll rat us out straight away. We'd better start packing."

At once, the others began to move for their private communicators, no doubt contacting other cells on the planet and warning them. Remi turned to Amanda. "Sorry if this is a bad first day, uh..." He stopped and stared at her. "Ah, I never even got your name, I apologise for that. Need to get to work."

"I'm Amanda. Amanda Wade."

"Okay then, Amanda Wade, help Clara with the armoury and get Mike to pack his crap up. We leave in three days."

Gatecrashers

2100 Hours, September 2nd, 2554 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Downtown Kuiper, Circumstance


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"Hey Chief, whaddaya think of the music down there?"

"Not bad, Julian. It's a shame we're crashing the party!"

"I hear that. Shrikes three, four and five are ready for hard drop"

"I am on standby to assist, Master Chief."

That voice had come from within Martin's own helmet. Their AI, Armand, had been integrated via a neural interface. Though the SPARTAN-III could not feel any real change, there was the strange feeling of sharing his head with another entity. This time, it was his op. After contacting Samson, he was told that ONI wished for a public Spartan presence on the planet, to draw the remaining Insurrectionists out of hiding. The thirty seven civilian casualties had been laid off as collateral damage during the engagement, and after being interrogated, Hennerman had spilled the beans on just about every one of his friends on Circumstance within hours, hence the second op of the day.

"Help where you can, Armand. Grantley, is everyone else ready?"

"We're downstairs boss. Garage is locked up and there are a few guards on the doors, nothing we can't handle."

"Nonlethal weapons only, we don't want a repeat of the other day."

"I take it that means no fists, right?"

"Right. Keep Alric out of punching distance, okay?"

Grantley chuckled at this. For a Spartan, especially one from Beta Company, he seemed very easygoing. The survivors from PROMETHEUS, himself included, had been much less so. "Got it. Let's catch us an Innie. Out."

The COM winked off. Martin peered over the side of his falcon, looking down at the penthouse below. Their target was Rizhan Kama, the son of a prominent businessman on Circumstance. How the boy had managed to get tangled up with innies was beyond him, but over the past few months large shipments of weaponry and supplies had been shipped both to this planet and elsewhere, payments being made through a proxy account. Hennerman's confession had been that Kama had been largely responsible for shipping goods and procuring equipment to various terrorist groups as well as the supposed main Insurrectionist body. This seemed to be another one who made deals on the side, and though not as morally bankrupt as their previous target, obviously had a taste for the finer things in life, as shown my the Halloween party being thrown below in the spacious penthouse suite of one of his father's buildings.

"Pilot, take us in low for fast-rope descent. Shrike Five, prepare the tear gas for launch. I want the place stormed and secured in sixty."

Beside him, May-G210 inserted a small canister of the gas into her grenade launcher. The Falcon slowly descended towards the penthouse, where the blaring music drowned out the noise of rotor blades. May nodded towards Martin. "Ready Chief" The four Spartans unhooked their drop ropes and tossed them over the side. There were shouts from below as the partygoers began to look up at the helicopter. May leaned out and fired the canister downwards. As the gas emerged, they took hold of the ropes, and leapt from the Falcon.

"Go go go!"

As he slid down the rope, May fired the canister into the crowd below. It detonated, creating a hazy cloud that began to spread out across the roof. Martin landed with a splash in the pool, immediately sinking to the bottom. Sighing inside his helmet, he waded out and joined his teammates as they advanced towards the main room, in which partygoers were running around and screaming. He had ensured that their weapons were loaded with TTR, or Tactical Training Rounds, the powerful anaesthetic within the paint being enough to put anyone down without serious harm. If they did encounter anyone who posed a threat, then those idiots would have the pleasure of fighting a Spartan at close quarters.

"Julian, May, get on crowd control. Amos, with me!"

Most of the people here were probably just partygoers looking for a good time, but Martin couldn't take any chances. For all he knew, the planet's biggest innies and drug pushers were gathered here. Ignoring the screams, Martin strode up the stairs, keeping an eye out for Kama. If it was his party, he would likely be in an office or bedroom. Nodding to Amos, he allowed the tan-armoured Spartan to move forward and kick down a door, hearing screams from inside. After a few seconds, he dragged out their target, half dressed and whimpering in fear. Martin's visor deploarised, and he grinned at the young man before taking out a datapad. After tapping it a few times, he displayed it to Kama, showing a long list of names and secret transactions.

"Looks like someone's been playing with daddy's money, hasn't he Rizhan?" Martin got no response from the man, who merely looked down sullenly as Amos marched him outside, holding one arm behind his back. As Martin turned to follow, the power cut, plunging the entire block into darkness and causing a fresh wave of screams from the terrified crowd, who had been gathered into the main room and were being watched over by Julian and May. Martin wasn't particularly bothered by this, his augmented eyes essentially giving him night vision in addition to the one installed in his helmet. One sound did get his attention, though. it was that of a Pelican.

"Amos, back inside, now!"

The other Spartan had just dragged his quarry inside as the outer area erupted into flames, missiles striking the floor as a dropship moved in, it's doors opening. May and Julian immediately moved into attacking positions as a dozen men in black jumpsuits poured out the back, raising assault rifles as they did. Grantley's voice came though the COM, sounding mildly concerned. "Chief, two trucks of militia just pulled up, they tried to storm the Atrium. Don't think they expected the four of us, though. I've sent Graham and Cesare up in the other bird, out."

Martin was impressed at how quickly his XO had acted to the changing situation, and swapped his TTR mag for one of live bullets. Glancing over, he noticed that the others had done the same, while Amos had Kama secured in one of the bedrooms. He sighted two people moving in on his left, through the glass doors that led to the roof. Luckily, they hadn't seen him. He melted into the wall of the darkened room and waited for them to get closer. As the first one passed him, Martin grabbed the man and span him round, levelling his pistol and blowing the second man away. He then snapped his hostage's neck with ease and moved onto the balcony where three others were trying to get a shot on the other Spartans, who were engaged in a vicious firefight below.

Three bursts rang out from his rifle. They hadn't stood a chance. Outside, the sound of rotor blades could be heard, followed by machine gun fire. The Pelican swerved away, it's compliment of troops slaughtered, and attempted to get it's chin gun to bear on the helicopter, which kept moving. Cesare, on the side of the Falcon, leaned out, hefting his missile launcher.

"Heads down, gonna clip this bird's wings."

Before Martin could tell him to stop, a single missile streaked away from the Falcon, and impacted the rear-left thruster of the Pelican with startling accuracy. The dropship lurched to one side, and crashed into the roof, leaving a huge trail of debris before it came to a halt, centimetres away from the edge. Cesare gave a cheer of success before jumping off the Falcon as it landed, casually reloading his weapon and striding towards the Pelican. No one emerged from it. Amos pulled Kama to his feet, and moved him onto the landing pad where the Falcon waited. Cesare gave Martin a quick salute as he approached.

"Not bad, eh Chief?"

Martin glanced at the smoking Pelican for a second. "You know, that could've crashed into a nearby skyscraper, or hit the streets. a lot of people live here, Shrike Six. Think about the effects of your actions before you act" Cesare hung his head for a few seconds before Martin spoke again. "Still, amazing shot back there."

"I try my best, Chief."

Several other Pelicans from the Kuiper police department had arrived, allowing the Spartans to leave their prisoners in the hands of the law as they boarded the Falcon. As the helicopter descended to the courtyard outside the skyscraper, where the rest of Shrike had been situated, Martin noticed three of the Spartans gathered around one spot. The moment it touched down, he leapt out and ran over, fearing that a teammate had been injured or worse. Instead, he found Grantley, Leandra and Grahan crouched by an injured enemy, while Alrik watched from a distance. He had been shot several times in the lower chest and by the looks of things, wasn't going to make it. Grantley removed his helmet and glared at the dying man, an uncharacteristic look of anger on his face.

"Who sent you? Who was it?!"

The man's lips trembled as he attempted to form words. May held out a can of biofoam, but Grantley waved her off. It would be a waste at this point. Leandra and Graham stood up at Martin's presence, and backed away to allow him room. Grantley stared unblinkingly into the man's eyes as he attempted to speak.

"It was Magnus. He...he-" the man's eyes rolled up as he breathed out for the last time and went limp. Martin noticed a strange white foam coming from the corner of his lips as he reached over to close his eyes. Grantley put his helmet on, stood up and walked a few steps away before turning to Martin.

"He was on rumbledrugs, or something similar. All of these bastards were. Took way too long to take 'em down when they attacked. Whoever sent these guys in made sure they wouldn't survive the attack."

"A slow-release poison, maybe?"

"Something like that, Chief. My guess is that they were to kill everyone upstairs, and then all die, make it look like some kind of crazy ritual stuff, y'know?"

Alric, who had been watching the proceedings from several feet away, jumped down from the wall he was sat on and marched over, his rifle held in one hand. Even with his helmet on, Martin could tell that he was angry. He had heard nasty rumours about Gamma Company and it's aggression problems, though having been brought up with a number of probable psychopaths in Alpha, he was sure that he could deal with whatever these kids had. Alric glanced at the corpse before stowing away his weapon.

"So, who the hell is Magnus?"

Chapter Three

Escape

0423 Hours, September 5th, 2554 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Indigo Sector Residence 48-B, Lower Kuiper


"Get a move on, Amanda!"

She had been with the Insurrectionist cell for two days now, and they were already treating her like one of the family. Remi Marshall, their leader, had just received word that one of their main contacts, Rizhan Kama, had been taken down by Spartans only hours ago. They were next. Mike was busy loading the last pieces of tech into their truck, having scolded Clara for handling his beloved equipment roughly. Alexander, who had confessed his dislike for having his name shortened, was away somewhere. It was he who had informed them of Kama's capture. Fabian passed Amanda a box filled with pistols, while Ganju kept a lookout on the surveillance cameras. One of the main perks about this building was the underground garage, which led to the undercity. She sent the last few boxes down the elevator, and wiped the sweat from her forehead.

"I'm all done, Remi."

"Nice work. It's good to see our newbie can pull her weight." He smiled, albeit tiredly. Unlike Clara, he used the term almost affectionately. Then, the lights went out. Swearing, he fumbled with a box, before pulling out a military-grade assault rifle. He activated the flashlight, before handing it over to Amanda. It was a definite sign of trust between them. Ganju stood up and casually grabbed his own weapon. "They hit the power grid for the building. We'll have backup lights downstairs. Are you ready, Remi?"

"Ready to leave, Ganju. No sense in dying like this."

"I'd have to disagree, sir. We were ordered to protect you by-"

"Yeah, but men like Roberts are a little over-the top. We're leaving, and you are coming with us."

"Sir, I-"

"And another thing, stop with that 'sir' crap. We're not the military. Last army I joined got themselves wiped out on Mamore. Come on."

With that, Remi began to move for the elevator, which had been called back up by Clara. As the three of them made their way down the corridor, something big smashed through the window. Remi pushed Amanda down. It was a Spartan. Luckily, it had turned towards Clara, who began to fire with her sidearm, to no avail. A crash from downstairs heralded the end of the front door, followed by shouts and gunshots. Pulling the young woman away, Remi ran for a side door, which led to a flight of stairs.

"Move!" he cried, glancing back once before sprinting downwards, Amanda in his wake. "What about Gaju?" she asked, already knowing the answer. He didn't say a word until they crashed through the door and into the garage, where they met a confused-looking Mike attempting to push a crate into the back of the truck. Remi ran for the driver's cab and jumped in. The engine thundered to life. Amanda helped Mike with the crate, only to see him go for another one.

"What the fuck are you doing?! Everyone's dead, we're going!" he screamed, and began to move forward. Mike dropped the crate and ran after the truck just as another Spartan, in orange armour, burst through the door. As he clambered aboard, he shrieked in pain as a plume of blood burst from his back. The truck sped off on a downwards slope and headed towards the undercity. Amanda attempted to calm Mike down as he began to go into shock.

"I can't feel my legs! Oh, God, I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die..."

Amanda had never had to deal with a wounded person, even with her three years of service. She looked around the back of the truck until she came across a box marked with a red cross. Inside was a variety of items, most of which she'd never seen before. Remi, who had allowed them to slow down a bit, looked back, his face impassive as he surveyed the groaning Mike. "Hit him with the orange syringe, use some b-foam if it gets worse" he turned away without another word. Amanda pulled out a syringe marked with an orange band, and injected it into the wounded man's neck. She didn't have anything to sterilise the wound, but there was little else we could do. Mike promptly passed out. To stop the bleeding, she had injected him with a little biofoam, something that she had actually used in basic training, before leaning against the side of the truck and falling asleep.

By the time they arrived at the spaceport, it was already light out. The truck abruptly stopped, waking Amanda up. She made sure that her rifle was nearby, before jumping out. They were by a small freighter, labelled as the Dynasty. Remi was speaking with two men as they moved down towards the truck. One was a man in his mid-thirties, with light brown skin and thinning hair, the other was Alexander Redford. She breathed a sigh of relief at his survival; he had seemed like the kindest member of the cell. The next twenty minutes were spent in near-silence as they heaved the crates, and Mike, out of the truck and onto the ship. Eventually, after making sure that he was still alive, Alexander announced that he would have to perform vital surgery to save Mike's life.

Amanda was surprised that the Dynasty had a fully functioning medical bay, complete with some equipment that she was sure was rare even in the UNSC. The other man, a pilot by the name of Faisal, drove the truck onboard and took off, citing that staying on Circumstance would be tantamount to suicide. Remi showed her to her quarters, before sitting down, his head in his hands.

"Can you believe it? The whole goddamn operation wiped out in a few days."

"That was everyone?"

"Everyone important. The place is a shithole, but not like Venezia, Traxus IV or the Caucasus Asteroids. Oonskies still have control."

"Oonskies?"

"Yeah. UNSC people. It's a stupid name, I know, but you gotta name the enemy something, eh? We get called innies, so they get called oonskies." The door to the living quarters opened, and Redford stepped in, wearing a surgical gown. The old man seemed pleased with himself, and clasped his hands together. "The operation was a success. I've treated the wound, but he won't walk again without prosthetics or advanced leg braces."

Remi shrugged. "Well, he never did move away from his computer in the first place. Nice save there, doc."

"My pleasure, Remi. I'm sorry to hear about the others. At least our newest member survived. How are you, Amanda?"

"I'm fine, Alexander. I've been in combat situations before. Where are we going now?"

Now it was his turn to shrug. He simply lifted his hands in the air and turned to leave, before speaking in his usual, reassuring voice. "Wherever we please, Amanda. Wherever we please."

Debrief

1440 Hours, September 7th, 2554 (UNSC Military Calendar)

UNSC Coldharbour, Epsilon Eridani System


Martin took a deep breath, removed his helmet and stepped into the command room. Both Elena-071 and Captain Samson were sitting at a desk, going over datapads detailing Shrike Team's first mission. Elena motioned for him to sit, and he did so. The chair creaked slightly under the weight of his MJOLNIR armour. After a few seconds, Samson put down the pads and looked up at the SPARTAN.

"Excellent work, Master Chief. In just a few days, we've crippled the Insurrectionist operation on Circumstance, all thanks to your team." Though hard to read, the ONI agent seemed to be genuinely pleased with him. "Hennerman and Kama are ratting out everyone that they know as we speak, thinking it'll save them."

"Will it?"

"Nope. Hennerman's getting locked up in Fenwell, that's a one-way trip. Kama is getting fifteen years, which is a very lenient sentence, considering.."

The SPARTAN-III nodded. The team seemed to be getting along nicely so far. Grantley seemed to be mentoring the ones from Gamma a little, his years of experience making him a valuable asset. Martin was sure that any attitudinal issues would be cleared up swiftly. The AI, on the other hand...

"Well, about Armand-"

The AI materialised on the table instantly, the avatar of the hooded man turning to face him, that slightly creepy smile still on his face.

"Yes, Chief?" he asked, the question sounding like more of a threat. Elena, who had said nothing so far, watched with amusement.

"Where were you in that fight? As our support AI, I'd have thought that you would be helping out a lot more. I've worked with AI in the past, and I know when they're giving me a little...boost. With you I got nothing."

Armand cocked his head to one side, the upper half of his face shrouded in holographic shadow. "Nothing? Ah, I would guess that you were not informed of my other...capabilities. You and your team were capable against those foes. I, on the other hand, was engaged in cyberwarfare with a particularly stubborn intelligence that Kama had guarding his private files. I was victorious, of course."

The AI waved an arm, and at once a smaller, defeated figure materialised next to him. It was the avatar of a viking warrior, horned helmet, axe and armour. However, he looked somewhat drained, a pained look on his face as he struggled to pull himself up. Armand, still smiling, turned to Samson. "Captain, here is the data you requested. Shipments he'd been making and so on. Oh, these ones won't be on the datapad you took from Kama. He'd tried to delete these ones."

With another wave, a stream of holographic data poured from the other AI and into Samson's datapad. The viking groaned in pain, before clutching his axe and standing to face the hooded warrior. Sighing, Armand drew a dagger from his belt, flashing a deep red. Quicker than even the Spartan could see, he dashed forward, leapt over his enemy and brought the dagger round in a slash to the throat. Streams of code poured from the dying AI as he staggered back, and crumbled into nothingness. Martin was pretty sure that he'd just witnessed an artificial murder. He opened his mouth to say something, but Elena cut him off.

"Thank you, Armand. Log off and see to the rest of the team."

"Yes, commander." With a nod to Martin, Armand, who had returned to his natural blue colouring, vanished. Both Samson and Elena looked relived.

"The techs were right, he is an odd one. Anyway, we'd like to discuss your mission. I know you have some questions. Ask away."

Martin had been waiting for this. Something had felt...off during the last few days. As Spartans, they were trained to go in, strike a target, and get out. That was it. He had felt exposed in the city, many innocents being caught in the crossfire. Hadn't they been made as a secretive team for long-range ops?"

"Sir, Ma'am, I think we're being too open. I understand the severity of the situation, but aren't we better suited for the dangerous missions? Taking down isolated strongholds or entire groups at once. In my professional opinion, we're being far too noisy."

Samson merely nodded and slid a datapad over to the SPARTAN. Picking it up, Martin could see that it was linked to the frontpage of the Colonial Daily, the main source of news and info for the many human colonies, though it was popular on Earth. The front page had a picture of three Spartans-May, Graham and Julian by the looks of it- standing by the burnt out van that the rebels had used. One of them was helping a civilian out of the rubble. The page was captioned: UNSC SPARTAN HEROICS ON CIRCUMSTANCE. Briefly going over the story, it detailed how an 'unknown amount of Super-Soldiers' had managed to obliterate the Insurrectionist presence on the colony in less than a week with a series of pinpoint raids. Of course, the full story didn't detail the names of all involved or the main objectives his team had received, but there it was. Spartans in the news.

"What do you think?" Elena asked, her face was impassive, but her green eyes seemed to be scanning him. She's a Spartan too, Martin thought, before remembering that she was just as much of an ONI agent, even when in armour. "I don't understand," he replied, feeling foolish. Samson took the datapad and began to explain.

"We're scaring them. Plain and simple. See, there's a lot of rumours going round about how all the Spartans were dead, and all that crap. Now, there's at least a few hundred still alive and kicking, but we're still keeping some behind closed doors for now. This was, putting it simply, something of a publicity stunt. These pissant innies would've been wiped out in a week if the guys upstairs really wanted them out of the way. Now, they know we're fielding Spartans. They'll panic. Make mistakes. Even during the war there were spook stories being told about Spartan boogeymen."

With the truth dawning, Martin seemed to finally understand. They had been exposed. The public were aware of their existence, at least. Still, he wasn't sure if he liked it. All this scaremongering and misdirection was unusual for someone who had been trained from an early age to kill, and kill well. Martin wasn't an unintelligent man, knowing exactly why his team had been used like that, but nevertheless, it didn't seem right to him.

"I understand now, thank you. I'd best be getting back to my team now."

Martin saluted the two of them, and exited the room. After a few seconds, Samson sighed and began to gather up the datapads before turning to the commander. "You aren't saying much, that isn't like you. Do you think that what we did was wrong? The innies could retaliate with an attack, or worse."

"Who gave the order to show those Spartans to the public?" she replied, her voice level.

"Someone higher up. I got my orders, commander, and carried them out to the letter. Like you said before, the Chief fought on Reach. He's tough."

"I think he's a little bothered about the subterfuge. He's used to quick strikes, open battles and general warfare. It's new to all of Shrike, I think, but Martin was in Alpha Company. He's older than the others, more used to what he does."

"We can declassify his file, you know. What went on with SPARTAN-III? Is it gonna be a story as messed up as yours? I read what Halsey did."

"Worse. These kids were asked to fight the Covvies. Martin was part of the first generation. Got put into battle with knockoff equipment at twelve and survived the rest of them getting massacred with a few others."

"Jesus," muttered the Captain, standing up with the datapads under his arm. "So, you're saying he's not ready to handle innies?"

"Of course not, he's fought rebels before. What I'm saying is that we keep Shrike in the dark for now. It's what they're best at."

Shadow

0230 Hours, September 9th, 2554 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Kama Shipping Co. Warehouse, New York, Earth


"They're all dead?"

"Five escaped. Remi Marshall's crew."

"I see. No matter."

The warehouse, packed with shipping crates ready for transport, was dimly lit. A few shafts of light fell here and there, cutting small paths through the darkness that enveloped the area. John Verensky stood beneath the light, an overcoat over his black uniform. There were a few others present, mainly guards, who watched the conversation with interest. From the darkness in front of Verensky, the sound of heavy boots pacing could be heard.

"No matter? It took me a week to get Kama on our side! The company is in trouble with the boy getting caught, and you don't care?"

"Why would I? What, did you think that the motley bands I assembled there were of any importance in attacking Earth? I needed to see if the UNSC would be as predictable as I thought. I wasn't surprised."

"But those men, the pelican lost-"

"Expendable. I ensured that they would have died before being captured. Something that, again, I was correct on, Verensky."

"What is this grand plan then, Magnus? Are you attacking Earth?"

"Not yet. You see, John, you're thinking small. The UNSC must be preoccupied for the masterstroke to fall into place, and for that to happen, patience is required. If they're biting at the little fish, then I shall supply a veritable feast for them. What about your work?"

"ONI bought the elite story. Got promoted to Liuetenant as the sole survivor. They're setting me to work on some dull crap right now. Research into battlesuits, of all things."

"Battlesuits?"

"I'll send you the data. It's not going anywhere, believe me."

"I'll see to that. Did you see the story they're plastering everywhere about the Spartans? Pathetic. Using the media to propagate scare tactics to deter those with thoughts of rebellion. I'll be sure to deal with them in time."

"But they took down the entire operation in-"

Magnus emerged from the dark. He was immensely tall, a long black coat obscuring a great deal of his body, which, Verensky knew, could crush him in less than a second. He towered over the man, glowering at him. The ONI agent was generally useful, but the bothersome remarks made him almost worth killing. Another time.

"They will be dealt with. Speaking of which, these men helped me get to Earth. I can make my own way back."

"Oh, okay then" Verensky whipped round at the onlookers, who had just realised the danger they were in. Before they reached their guns, Verensky's SMG had torn holes through half of them. One tried to run, sprinting off into the darkened warehouse. Magnus disappeared. Seconds later, there was a loud scream and the sound of bones cracking. The voice of Verensky's benefactor echoed round the now empty warehouse as he calmly finished the men off and prepared to leave.

"Verensky, I want progress from you, lest our relationship come to an end. I don't care if it takes years, get back to me when you've got something worthwhile to use!"

Chapter Four

Congregation

1200 Hours, December 9th, 2554 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Caucasus Asteroids, Station 3B, Independent Space


The meeting room was large, sparsely adorned, and had a lot of exits. There was a single circular table in the centre of the room. It was a regular one, made of hardened oak imported from Earth itself, thus being impossible for hiding bombs, turrets or gas canisters inside. Lights illuminated every corner, where your average spy or assassin might try to hide, and there were no conveniently placed crates. Just a table, a screen, some speakers and a lot of chairs. A large door on one side slid open, and the attendees began to file in.

They were a diverse bunch, wearing various distinctive items of clothing, from spacer gear to full-on battle armour. All of them, however, were armed, and let it show. Last to enter was a man in a plain black jumpsuit. He watched over the others, and allowed them to take their places before sitting down at the table. The difference was quickly made between the sitting leaders and their henchmen.

"Well then," said one of the men cheerily. "Let's get started. For those of you who don't know me, I am John Verensky, and I've called you all here for a reason. Putting it simply, I'm giving you the opportunity to attack Earth."

"Impossible" called a man across the table. "We'd be slaughtered. We're making our own home out here, away from the UNSC."

Verensky smiled. That was Remi Marshall, one of the few survivors from Circumstance not long ago. He'd only brought two people with him: An old man, who seemed to be watching everyone in the room at once, and an angry looking young woman. Hardly a group of hardened criminals, though he'd heard rumours of the operations they'd carried out. In any case, they had been brought here for their usefulness. Verensky took out a datapad, and began to check the list of leaders he had brought here.

"Remi, you're here. Mal Roberts?"

To his left, someone raised a robotic hand. He was a middle aged man, almost bald, with a reputation for being just as vicious in his pro-insurrectionist speeches as he was on the battlefield. His profile also listed him as a former ODST. Now, while this would raise suspicion in the case of a deep-cover agent, the fact that Roberts had single-handedly blown up a UNSC armoury on Mars, of all places, and escaped to tell the tale, gave him a lot of respect, particularly around Venezia and here at the Caucasus bases, from which he managed an impressive operation.

"What, we taking roll call now?" asked the rebel leader, with the hint of a threat in his voice. "Look, are you giving us a shot at the oonskies, or not?"

"I'm just making sure everyone is here, Mr. Roberts. Can't be too careful. You and Marshall are the main leaders here, though I'm not sure about him."

Verensky pointed at a man sitting a few seats away from Roberts, dressed in typical merc attire. Half a dozen stony-faced men stood behind the man, clutching their weathered and customised weapons. They could probably wipe out the entire room in seconds, were it not for the fact that there were three or four other groups milling around who could easily do the same. Verensky stood up. "Identify yourself!" he demanded, a hand already reaching for his pistol holster.

"Jonathan Ulan. I am here representing some of the higher-ups on Talitsa, as well as being a colleague of Mr. Roberts." Verensky glanced over at the other leader, who nodded. "I operate as a smuggler and pilot. Part-time engineer, too" He spoke calmly, not taking his eyes off Verensky's.

"An engineer?"

Roberts answered for him. "The kid tinkers with things we pick up. He actually drew up plans for a new artillery piece that could shoot nukes. Thought it could be useful for fighting oonskies if the damn thing actually works."

At this, a few people around the room began to laugh. Ulan remained impassive until Verensky, who had smirked at the thought, waved them down. "An artillery piece? Well, it's an idea, to say the least, but there's one flaw in your master plan: We don't have nukes."

Ulan shrugged. "Not yet. I was told that you possessed several nuclear devices, Verensky."

"What makes you say that?"

"Just a rumour. As I'm working for Roberts, I thought I'd come along."

"Look, can we please get down to business here?" That had come from Remi Marshall, sitting impatiently at his seat. Though he had quite a small group, the man was quite intelligent and would be a useful asset. He continued. "Anyway, what makes you think that we'll work for someone like you, anyway? I heard you're a big Earthie."

In response, Verensky held his hands up. "That is partially true. I'm an operative in the Office of Naval Intelligence, working as the deputy head of a top-secret group, known as Project HAYABUSA."

The atmosphere in the room changed in a nanosecond. Aside from Verensky's own bodyguards, every weapon had been unlocked, unholstered, raised and aimed at the man, looks of intense hatred in their eyes. Ulan glanced over at one of Marshall's group. It was an old man, at least fifty. While everyone else had immediately reached for their guns, this individual had momentarily hesitated, the surprise present in his eyes the moment Verensky had mentioned ONI. It was only for a second, but that made all the difference. Suddenly, the suspect moved a pace forward, his pistol drawn.

"He's a goddamn traitor! I say we kill him now!"

While there were many who seemed to agree, Ulan got up and pointed his gun at Marshall's man. "Hold up grandpa, who are you?"

"I am Alexander Redford," he said curtly. The older man's refined accent seemed out of place with the assorted rebels in the room. "I'd advise that you point that thing somewhere else, right now."

Mal Roberts chuckled, a cut down rifle in his hands. "Well, who says we ain't got some culture. Where ya from, Redford?"

"Earth, though if you check my history, I've got a few million credits on my head."

"What for?"

"The usual, Mr. Roberts. Blew up some places the UNSC would have preferred to remain un-blown up, killed a couple of people and ran away with a few valuable things."

"I can vouch for him, he's been with us for a few years now," chipped in Marshall.

Ulan seemed unconvinced, but joined the others in pointing his weapon in Verensky's direction. The man who had organised this meeting seemed unbothered by this, reclining in his chair. "You know, killing me would upset my employer a great deal, and all my work undermining ONI would be ruined."

"Well then, who the hell are you working for?" asked Roberts.

"Magnus."

The room fell silent. A few even backed off. While some people looked confused, there were others who were looking around in terror. Mal Roberts lowered his rifle a fraction, but kept his fingers close to the trigger.

"Bullshit," he growled. "Magnus ain't real, he's just a spook story used to keep people in line" Ulan began to move towards the still-seated Verensky. His bodyguards began to move in front of him, but were waved back. Verensky stood up and came face to face with Jonathan Ulan.

"There's no lie. You shoot me, and he'll kill every single one of you, then obliterate this base."

"Right, and we're supposed to believe that?"

"You'll believe it because Verensky is telling the truth, for once."

The door to the meeting room closed. There was a clunk as a lock slid into place. A giant strode forward, looming over the assembled insurrectionists. Though a few trained their guns on the man, many stood back and did nothing. He came to a halt beside Jonathan Ulan, who hadn't moved an inch. Verensky sat back down.

"I'm Magnus. I ordered Verensky here to inform you that from this day forward, every single one of you would be working for me. You will be paid, of course, but the end result will be worth much more than money, I assure you."

While most of the people in the room seemed to agree with this without question, both Roberts and Ulan remained unconvinced. The former glared at Magnus. "Well, you got a plan to attack Earth then, big guy? We ain't exactly swimming in ideas here, y'know."

"A frontal assault on the heavily defended UNSC homeworld? Don't be ridiculous. What I'm planning is a slow death. If you cannot kill the beast in a single stroke, then you bleed it to death with a thousand cuts. You are here because of your usefulness; speaking to incite rebellion, the talent for creating new ways of destruction or the tactical prowess to carry off dangerous missions against the UNSC. Will you join me?"

"What if we don't want to?" asked Ulan. Magnus turned to face him, a smile playing across his face, red eyes boring into the rebel leader. "Well, then I will have to make you. Failing that, I will break you. A simple rhyme to remember."

With a motion, Ulan's guards moved forward, weapons raised. "These are my men," he said, a look of defiance in his eyes. "They are loyal to me. They fight for me. I don't care who you are, these men will die for my cause if they have to."

"Is that so?" Magnus took a step forwards. They stepped back.

"Nie martw się. Możemy go zabrać!" snapped Ulan.

Magnus sighed. "Czy jesteś na tyle lojalny umrzeć dla tego człowieka?"

Shock crossed the rebel's face. At once, his henchmen stepped back, making it clear that they were not standing with their leader. Ulan glanced round at them while Magnus leered at him. "See? Their loyalty is fleeting. Death threats will work wonders against those bought with simple promises or money. I'll ask again, Ulan. Will you join me?"

"Yes, Magnus."

"Excellent. Sit down."

Magnus paced the room as Ulan returned to his seat, utterly defeated. As he walked around the circular table, the air of a predator about him, the assembled insurrectionists all stood to attention or sat up straighter in their chairs. He was in command now, and they knew it. He caught a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye, and had caught the hand of one of Ulan's men as he attempted to raise his pistol. For a few seconds, there was total silence as fear filled his eyes. Magnus smiled and tore the arm off.

"As I was saying," he continued, ignoring the man's shrieking as he walked along, arm in hand. "Verensky will be in charge. He gets the orders from me. Though he will usually be busy working with HAYABUSA, I have ensured that the project director allows our operations to proceed unhindered. Should the two of us be unavailable, I have other contacts that will suffice. Major!"

The door unlocked, and two hulking figures stepped into the room. They were Sangheili. One was quite bulky, with crimson armour and two deactivated swords hanging from his belt. The other was leaner, with more streamlined black armour and the air of intelligence about him. Everyone at the table shifted uneasily.

Magnus pointed at the pair. "This is Sur 'Ranak and his brother, Rol. As of today, they will be running this particular station, using their own forces, as the previous owners decided to fight back. That is all."

Dropping the severed arm, Magnus took out a datapad, and placed it on the table before motioning to Verensky, who got up and walked out of the meeting room in his wake, closely followed by the pair of elites. Once the door had closed, a collective sigh passed round the room. Remi Marshall looked back at his comrades, Amanda and Alexander. Both of them looked terrified. Mal Roberts snatched the datapad with his robotic arm before anyone else could get a look. He scanned it for a few seconds before tossing it back into the middle.

"Well, that was shitty, to say the least. Feel free to change your pants, people."

"What's on the pad, Mal?" asked Ulan. He slid it over to him. It was filled with information, on supply drops, safehouses and plans for each leader. At the beginning of the first section, the ONI logo was displayed prominently above the usual 'top secret' warnings. The title below was Project: HAYABUSA. With barely a second glance at the man bleeding out on the floor behind him, Ulan began reading.

Awakening

1457 Hours, December 9th, 2554 (UNSC Military Calendar)

UNSC Coldharbour, Slipspace


"Hey Chief, I think he's coming online."

The room was brightly lit, yet blurred to the AI. The prone form of a hooded man flickered into being on the holoprojector. Nearly a dozen people stood around, watching as data poured into the hologram, which flashed from red to green to yellow, contorting in what looked like silent pain, until he finally regained his blush hue. Armand stood up, and faced the Spartans.

"This is UNSC Artificial Intelligence serial number AMD-4080. I am ready for duty."

Martin-A136 stepped forward to look at the AI. It had taken a month to piece him together again from the fragments they had discovered. It had happened so suddenly. One moment, he was hacking into the systems of a rebel outpost to kill the lights. The next, there was a scream, and his data was scattered throughout the network. A surprising amount had been recovered by ONI servers, though the gradual process of repairing an Artificial Intelligence of Armand's considerable capabilities had taken a long time.

"Armand, are you okay?"

"Ah, Chief" the AI settled into his usual calm tone. "It's been some time. My internal sensors read that it has been almost a month since I...since I..."

"Fragmented?" The Spartan finished.

"Yes. I delved too deeply, found things that were not part of mission parameters. It was my own fault, Master Chief."

"What were you looking for?"

Armand, an entity that had become known for it's somewhat malevolent and knowledgeable nature amongst the Spartans of Shrike Team, suddenly seemed to shrink before them. His 'eyes' could never be seen from beneath the hood, but Martin was sure that he was averting his gaze. "What was it, Armand?" his voice dropped to barely a whisper.

"I had a subroutine going through ONI files. A hobby, of sorts. I attempted to access classified files. He found me, and punished me for my crime. Complete deletion is considered a blessing when compared to fragmentation, though from one such as him, morals play a little role in his job."

"Who's he?" asked Alric-G210, who had been sitting casually on the other side of the room.

"Odin. He's a massively powerful AI stationed at ONI, and has been around for much longer than any intelligence such as myself has a right to be. I cannot say any more."

"Well then, would you consider yourself combat ready? We've got a mission coming up in 48 hours, and it'd help to have you with us."

Armand smiled up at the Spartan he'd been partnered with. He was wary of his kind and the actions they took, but after a while they had all managed to get on fine, occasional arguments notwithstanding. He pulsed a bright blue and stepped forward. "Of course I'm ready. Give me the details."

***

Everyone liked this mission.

The nine SPARTAN-III's of Shrike Team stood around a holo-table, looking over the layout of the Jiralhanae refinery. It was located on a small moon orbiting some backwater world at the edge of Sangheili-controlled space. The refinery, which was helping to supply the ever-present Covenant remnants, wasn't worth a full assault, and it's defences would make things tough for any UNSC battlegroup. This was a SPARTAN mission. Deploy, infiltrate, exterminate, detonate.

Captain Samson, standing above the table, guided Shrike through the mission plan. The nine of them would insert via prowler and land on the moon. The newly-restored Armand would fool their rather simplistic systems while they infiltrated, getting over the perimeter wall and through the airlocks. From there, the team would split into four groups: Martin, May and Julian would be on clearing duty, attacking the control centre and getting as much info as they could, Armand riding in Martin's helmet. Grantley, Alrik and Leandra would clear the hangar and keep watch for enemy reinforcements, while Graham covered their route to the escape craft. Meanwhile, Amos and Cesare had the task of planting the det-charges on the main power generators, blowing them one by one to sabotage and destroy the mining operations below.

"Sir, do we have any backup?" asked May. "Not that we're expecting any, but say a battlecruiser shows up..."

"No backup" the ONI agent said sharply. "This mission is classified. You know your standard procedure by now, anyway. Officially, none of you exist."

The room was silent for a few moments, before Martin spoke up. "It's a zero-gee environment, I'm guessing. What have we got, equipment-wise?"

Samson brought up the schematics for what appeared to be modified thruster packs. "You'll need these to get around. Brutes haven't got anti-gravity inside the base, from what our intel suggests"

"So, EVA then?" Alric piped up smugly. "Something that I happen to me a master of."

None of his team said anything, but Samson nodded. This seemed to finalise their preparations. As one, the Spartan unit began to exit the briefing room, heading for the armoury. Martin watched them go. Over the last couple of months, they had really bonded as a unit. At first, there had been a little tension between some of the younger ones and Leandra, but that had been resolved quickly. They were Spartan soldiers, fighting to protect humanity. As he turned to leave, Martin noticed Samson looking at Armand intently, as if he couldn't trust him. Of course, the AI's very vague explanation of his fragmentation was worrying, but they'd deal with that later, after the mission.

Trident

0832 Hours, December 9th, 2554 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Remnant-Controlled Moon, former Covenant Space


"This is Shrike Actual. Master Chief, is the team in position?"

"We'll be touching down in thirty, sir."

The 'lunchbox', as it had came to be known, was a small, squarish transport device used to insert small teams undetected. It was covered in Stealth ablative coating, with small thrusters to allow for transport without being detected. Shrike Team had been told that it had been tested extensively, but being packed into a metal box with minimal situational awareness and no visibility discomforted the Spartans somewhat. They were at home on the ground.

"Five seconds. Check T-Packs and weapons, it will be a zero-gee environment from here."

Martin, who was sitting closest to the hatch, unbuckled his safety harness and looked round at the rest of Shrike. Their armour, brand new only a few months earlier, had taken some damage fighting various rebel and Covenant groups. Each member had proven themselves time and time again in battle, and although Martin had held some suspicions regarding the Gamma's augmentations, he hadn't encountered any problems so far. A loud bump told them that the box had landed. Thumbing the switch, Martin gave a single glance back at his Spartans before opening the hatch.

Once the initial rush of air had passed, the Spartans climbed out of their box and, with some thruster support, landed on the surface of the moon. The enemy base was about a mile away, situated on the edge of a large crater. The familiar rounded, purple structures that could usually be associated with the Covenant could be seen amongst the older, metallic-looking ones. Evidently, this place had been a refinery before the Brutes had commandeered it as a military outpost.

"Chief" said Leandra, sounding slightly worried. "On that ridge, above the base."

Zooming in on his HUD, Martin could make out the distinctive shapes of Covenant T-38 AA guns, also called 'Tyrants'. He'd destroyed a few in his time and knew that they could easily tear through most UNSC ships with repeated hits. If things went south, then they'd have little chance of a rescue. They would have to be taken out.

"Grantley, take your group and destroy those guns, then head for the hangar. They're too dangerous to ignore."

"Got it" replied Grantley's gruff voice. "You heard the man, Alrik and Leandra, on me!"

As they headed off towards the ridge, Martin and the others got closer to the base. It was strange that they hadn't picked up anything yet. No sensors, no exterior turrets or patrols. It may have just been paranoia, but something here definitely wasn't right. He clenched his fist, and the others dropped to their knees, weapons raised. They sat in silence for nearly a minute before Martin finally waved them forwards again. By the time they had reached an airlock, there was still absolutely nothing. May and Julian stood in front of the door while Martin pressed his hand to the control panel, allowing Armand to open it. The airlock hissed open, and the six Spartans moved inside, still wary.

"I have accessed the schematics of the base" said Armand, his voice level. He suddenly smiled. "Ah, it would appear that the low security is due to a feast being held on a lower level. A few patrols aside, almost the entire base is down there. Seems that our enemies favour their food more than security."

Martin couldn't believe their luck. Shaking his head, he waited for Armand to mark the command room on his HUD before heading off down the corridor. The AI searched for a few seconds more, and added a second waypoint for Cesare and Amos to follow. The power generators, which ensured that the refining operations could continue, were situated below the hangar bay. It had a single patrol, nothing that the Spartans couldn't handle.

***

Alric manoeuvred slightly ahead of the others, his thruster pack boosting him towards the AA guns on the ridge. He was in his element here. Sure, he was just as deadly as the others on the ground, but here the Spartan's specialised training really came in handy. The trio neared one of the guns, and half a dozen red dots flashed up on their radars. A motion from Grantley dispatched Alrik to the left. These were brutes they were dealing with, so he knew his strategy: Kill the leader, stay at range and watch out for the crazies. Settling by an entrance to the gun, Alric peered through the energy door catching a glance of two suited-up enemies conversing inside. He waited a few seconds before stepping through, and banging his rifle loudly against a wall.

It was quite funny for Alric to watch, really. Six bestial faces staring at him, their features going very quickly from shock, to confusion, to general rage. He smirked, and jumped backwards into space, his T-Pack boosting him upwards. Not one enemy emerged. The red blips damaged. A single corpse drifted out, perforated in a dozen places with rifle rounds. Grantley and Leandra emerged, the latter booting it off into space. A small icon on Alric's HUD indicated that they had planted their own C-12 charges. This was too easy. Looking along the ridge, there were a few more guns ripe for destruction. The Spartan grinned behind his visor, happy to be doing this job.

***

Intel had been wrong about the lack of gravity. Nothing new there. Martin took point as his team made their way towards the control room. It was odd that the Jiralhanae would have such a well-fortified base, yet not bother to patrol it. With their refining operations, they could have a decent fleet ready within a year or two. Looking back, they had definitely been quiet lately. Several Sangheili leaders had been convinced not to glass their homeworld, the general reasoning being that with their leadership and military might broken along with the Covenant, they would go back to their petty squabbling.

This base, and it's potential, showed how the higher-ups had really underestimated the capability of their enemies. Martin wasn't sure why the brutes continued to fight in the name of the Covenant, which hadn't existed for a decade in any real capacity. It may have just been a banner to unite under, or perhaps they still believed in their 'Great Journey'. The Spartans finally reached the door to the control room.

"Armand, anything waiting for us in there?"

"Four guards. Spike Rifles. They haven't detected our presence."

"Any suggestions?"

"Breach and clear, Chief."

Martin nodded towards Julian, who removed a small, circular device and handed it to him. It was a detonation charge, made specifically for blasting through reinforced doors like this one. He motioned for his two comrades to fall back before affixing it. flipping open the tiny panel on the side, Martin set it for seven seconds and ran back into cover, readying his weapon. Julian and May already had their rifles aimed at the door.

Three...

Two...

One...

"Go!"

The door was blasted inwards, the metal pulverised and fragmented by the blast. Martin activated his thruster pack, propelling him into the room. He hit the floor rolling and came face-to-face with the huge form of a Brute Officer. His body moved naturally, sidestepping and grabbing the creature's right arm, drawing his combat knife as he did so. As the other Spartans stormed into the room, Martin plunged the blade into the beast's neck, making it roar in pain as he twisted it. Bursts of rifle fire from behind him dropped the others.

"Chief, down!"

Martin pushed off of the brute, falling backwards as a trio of bullets impacted against it's head. It slumped to the floor. May walked over, rifle held nonchalantly in one hand, and extracted the knife, casually tossing it over to Martin.

"Thanks."

"It's what I do."

"That one just didn't want to go down..."

"Headshot usually works, Chief."

He chuckled, and turned towards the array of alien controls that lined the room. He had no idea what any of them were for. Luckily, they had Armand. The Spartan pressed his palm to a nearby holoprojector, and the hooded man flickered into existence. Immediately, he drew his dagger, and stabbed downwards with a snarl.

"Armand?"

"It's more protected than I anticipated. Give me time. Oh, and I'm turning off the gravity."

"Wha-" Martin began. He felt something shift as the station's gravity was shut off. The boots of his MJOLNIR suit magnetised instantly. To his right, a screen activated, showing the brute feasting hall in complete disarray, a Chieftan roaring and swatting things away with his hammer. Martin resisted the urge to laugh, and turned back to the AI.

"What've we got?"

Armand sheathed his blade, and smiled deviously. "I have gained control of most of their systems, and am in the process of extracting all relevant information from their database. It's fascinating." A look of concern crossed his face for a second. "Oh, and there are three transport ships heading this way, filled with enemy reinforcements"

"When will they arrive?"

"About five minutes, give or take. Shrike Four and Six should hurry up."

***

"We hear you, Chief. Six out."

Elsewhere in the station, Amos and Cesare had found their target: The plasma generators that powered the enemy refining operations on the moon. They were large, cylindrical devices, humming with energy. The two Spartans moved in closer. Behind them, a Jiralhanae patrol had been slaughtered in a hail of bullets.

"'Mos, you first."

"Got it."

The tan-armoured Spartan moved up, pistol raised. His MJOLNIR suit, which had been customised for Explosive Ordinance Disposal, or EOD work, would give him a little more protection than his partner. Inside, he could make out four bright streams of pulsating energy around the room. As he crept inwards, his visor polarising as not to impair his vision, Amos flashed a green status light twice, giving the all-clear to Cesare. This seemed too easy, in his opinion.

"Right then, I get the next room, you stay here, okay?" Cesare's voice never seemed to lose it's cheery edge.

"Go ahead. Remember the Chief's warning about these things."

"Yes, yes, no arming until you are out of the blast radius. I saw the TORPEDO reports."

Amos remembered the archived footage they were shown of various SPARTAN-III operations. Though he and the rest of Gamma Company had been officially active for a decade now, they still relied on the knowledge of their predecessors to better themselves on the field of battle. Arming a charge too close to a plasma generator like this one could cause it to trigger prematurely due to the EMP field. Of course, they had planned for that possibility. Cesare moved into the second generator room while Amos took out his own C-13 pack. Of course, just destroying these things wouldn't blow the whole facility, but it would certainly render it useless to the enemy. That reminded him...

"Shrike Two, this is Four. What's your status, over?"

"One gun left," Grantley's amused voice crackled through the COM. "Alric's having the time of his life out here. Good luck with the base."

Yep. Chances were that the UNSC would move in the heavies to flatten this place once they were done. Amos finished prepping his own charges, placing one at each end of the room for maximum damage. As the explosives expert in Shrike, he'd have the honour of detonating the place once he'd made sure that Cesare was all right. Though all Spartans were trained to handle explosives, mistakes were always a distinct possibility. As he picked up his rifle and began the slow walk towards his comrade, magnetised boots keeping him upright, Amos noticed a flurry of red dots coming into view on his HUD.

"Hey A," said Cesare, a slight hint of worry in his voice. "You getting that too?"

"Yeah. That's a lot of contacts. Are your charges placed?"

"All done, let's get the hell out of-"

The rest of his sentence was cut off by the familiar sound of spiker fire. Amos moved in to see several Brutes clambering through the doorway at the far side of the room, slightly encumbered by heavy jump packs. Cesare let off a burst of fire from his rifle as his shields flared, diving behind the sparse cover as his partner covered him. Martin's voice came through the COM, calm as ever.

"Amos, Cesare, we've got enemy reinforcements heading in. Get out of there, now!"

"Got it, Chief!" Amos responded, dropping another brute as it attempted to clamber over it's dead comrades. "Cesare, move!"

The first few they had taken down were blocking the entrance for now, but there was a veritable tide of red dots heading his way. Worse still, a few were creeping up from behind. Cesare scrambled to his feet and reloaded, covering Amos while he fired towards a group of them heading down their exit corridor in grav-boots. There were a lot of brutes, too many for the two of them. A misplaced grenade could blow the charges, and with it a good chunk of the base.

"This is Eight, I'm on my way" That was Graham, who had been standing guard by their exit point. The Spartans gunned down the remainder of the brutes in their way and turned to head away. While the green-armoured Spartan reloaded, a flurry of spikes impacted against his MJOLNIR plating. The shields flared and died. Cursing, Cesare ducked, making a smaller target against the hail of projectiles from his pursuers. While Amos began to make his way into the corridor, one of the spikes struck his friend's T-pack.

"Amos!"

Shrike Four looked back as a gout of flame burst from the pack, propelling him upwards as he struggled to remove it. Several brutes roared as they clambered through the door, unleashing a steady hail of spikes at the Spartan, who grunted in pain. Before Amos was forced to dash behind cover, he caught site of Cesare holding his flaming pack aloft before he threw it at his assailants. A single, hurried word came over the COM.

"Run!"

He did. Or rather, he began to run before activating his thruster pack, speeding down the corridor as fast as he could as the fire roared after him.

***

"Chief, I've got him. He's stable."

Amos' eyes fluttered open. He was lying on a bed in the medical bay of the UNSC Coldharbour. Martin, Julian, Graham and Captain Samson were all stood nearby, while a nurse checked his vital signs. The Spartans were still in their armour.

"Hey, he's awake."

Martin approached as Amos propped himself up, wincing. The Chief's eyes said everything, really. Cesare was dead. There was no way he could have survived that. As for him...

"Amos, good to see you up. We nearly lost you on that station. You would've died if not for your suit. That's in bad shape, though." Amos nodded sullenly as Martin continued, genuine sorrow in his voice "I'm sorry about Cesare. We checked your helmet logs, and it looks like he went out fighting, like a true Spartan."

"Did we complete the mission?" came the robotic response. Samson spoke up.

"The entire facility has been taken down, both the refinery and the defences. Battlegroup Prosper went in and took down the rest yesterday. We stopped the Remnant from producing more ships, Amos."

"That's good to know, sir."

The Captain nodded, and left without another word. Julian stepped forward, his face impassive behind the opaque visor. "Don't worry, we'll have you back on your feet in no time. You'll want to get back soon, right?"

"It's all my fault," replied Amos, his voice hoarse. He'd let the team down again. Then the usual tirade of supposed motivation and comforting came from his fellow Spartans. Well, as motivating and comforting as socially inept sociopathic super-soldiers could be, considering the circumstances. It was easier to nod and agree than to argue. Eventually, they left, discussing the outcome of the mission and potential targets. The last to leave was Martin. He was the only one who had removed his helmet, and the only one to look back.

"You've just got to carry on, Amos. Believe me, it's the only way to cope with things like this. Stick with your team, we're all you have."

Amos saluted weakly from the bed, and watched the last survivor of Upsilon Team walk out.

Chapter Five

Reunion

0847 Hours, March 1st, 2555 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Fenwell Maximum Security Prison


"This is Fenwell Prison. Dynasty, please state your intent."

"This is Jonathan Ulan of the Dynasty. We're here ferrying supplies and equipment. Transmitting authorisation codes now."

The reply took a few seconds. Copy that, we'll have a security team waiting for you in bay three. Out."

The COM shut off. Ulan turned round in the pilot's chair to face the others, smiling. "We're in," he said triumphantly. They were currently on approach to Fenwell, a large UNSC installation located on an asteroid in the Inner Colonies. This was where they dispatched most of the captured dissidents, rebels, terrorists and traitors. Right now, Remi Marshall and his group were about to land right in the middle, and blow it open.

Amanda opened the door to the bridge, zipping up a grey jumpsuit over her body armour. They were all here, ready for action. Remi smiled warmly at her, and passed over a carbine from the table, which she loaded immediately. This would be their most dangerous operation yet. Mike, who had largely been confined to the ship after losing the use of his legs, was prepared to run a cyber attack on the prison, temporarily harassing their security system to allow the others access. He and Alexander would stay on board while the rest of them orchestrated a prison break. Remi waved the others over to follow him while Ulan took the ship in for a final approach.

"Everyone, get ready," shouted Remi. "We'll hit them hard and fast. Ulan's men will secure the communications array while everyone else heads for the cell block. Eliminate any and all resistance en-route, got it?"

A chorus of affirmatives echoed around the quarters as two dozen people prepared for the upcoming battle. The Dynasty swept into the prison's hangar bay, the security team coming into view below. They were reasonably well-armed, with military-grade weapons, but obviously not expecting an attack of this magnitude. Amanda glanced over at her friend, and noticed a steely glint to his eye. Over the last year or so, she had stood by him and the others on dozens of covert missions, fought alongside him and saved his life on more than one occasion. She could tell that he was hiding something. He-

"Amanda, I need you up with my group, okay?" That had come from Remi, who was affixing a rebreather to his helmet. His voice dropped to a whisper. "Between you and me, I can't trust Ulan or his men. I need you."

"Of course," came the automatic reply. In the time she had known him, Remi had never shown the slightest bit of affection for her, or anyone, for that matter, though he knew how she admired him. Of course, there had been arguments and a few fights, but all in all, they had stayed loyal to one another. The five of them had been travelling since their flight from Circumstance in 2554, after all. Just her, Remi, Alexander, Mike, and Faisal, the resident pilot and tinkerer, against the universe.

"Hey, are you guys seeing that?" Ulan's excited voice came over the COM. "They've got a GA-TL1 Longsword ripe for the taking!"

Remi and Amanda exchanged looks, the former sighing before activating his communicator. "Let me guess, you want it?"

"Damn right I want it!"

Childish glee notwithstanding, Ulan was an excellent pilot and had flown Longswords back when he was in the UNSC Air Force. They might need some cover escaping and, as a few of them could agree, it might be a bonus if Ulan got himself killed. "Okay then, its yours," came Remi's reply. Immediately, Faisal turned and headed for the cockpit, grumbling to himself. The Dynasty's landing pads activated as they touched down on the hangar floor. Two dozen rifles were loaded. One of Ulan's unit moved forward, hefting a bulky grenade launcher, and slid a small canister into it.

Remi checked his weapons, and looked to the assembled soldiers "Okay people, here we go..."

The ramp lowered from the side of the ship, revealing eight security personnel milling about. Before they had time to react, the launcher's first shot had hit the floor, tear gas streaming out. Issuing a battle cry, Remi charged forward, gunning down the choking guards as the others spilled out of the freighter and onto the hangar floor. As expected, a shrill alarm began to sound after half a minute, accompanied by half a dozen guards storming through a side passage to repel the invaders. Immediately, Amanda dropped into a crouching stance, and sent a few bursts of fire towards their attackers, one dropping with a scream.

"Amanda, on your right!"

"Got it!"

"Two there!"

"Kerenski, cover me!"

"Man down, go left!"

"Frag out!"

The firefight had in seconds devolved into a cacaphony of screaming, shooting and dying as the two sides fought. Amanda felt a pang of sympathy for the security guards, who were slowly being encircled and killed. Suddenly, in the midst of all the chaos, she caught sight of a slim, black-haired man in pilot dress leaving the Dynasty. It was Ulan. With no body armour or weapons she could see, he would be gunned down in a second if he wasn't careful. Remi seemed to have noticed too.

"Ulan, get back in the ship!"

If the pilot could hear them, he didn't pay any attention. After a second of thought, the man began to sprint across the hangar floor, ducking and dodging as bullets whizzed past him, running for the Longsword fighter. Amanda watched in horrified fascination as the mad pilot leapt over some crates, swearing loudly in Polish, before he crawled up the ramp and into the fighter.

"Son of a bitch..." muttered an exasperated Remi, who casually gunned down two more guards. The firefight was over. Unheeded, Ulan's mercenaries marched in one direction, towards the communications array and armoury. If the prison managed to get a distress signal out to the UNSC, they were screwed. Amanda joined her team, striding across the corpse-strewn floor. They had lost a couple of people, but were still pressing hard. A groan from behind a stack of crates caught her attention. A man lay there in a pool of blood, his combat vest ripped to pieces. Their eyes met, a damp gleam of hope springing into his.

"P-please, help me" His voice was barely beyond a whisper. Amanda froze, unable to look away. The man was dead, there was no doubting that. Remi, who had noticed this, calmly shot the man thrice in the head before she could react, turning away in a second. For a man who wanted nothing more than to be left alone by the UNSC and live in peace, he was a cold, methodical killer when it came to battle. Of course, Remi had seen some fierce battles against the UNSC even while the war was on. She often wondered what had made him this way.

"We're moving. Try to keep up, everyone. You fall and we're leaving you."

***

He wasn't lying. Their group slowly pushed through the prison blocks, releasing everyone, cell-by-cell, as they headed for whatever goal Remi Marshall had set for them. Several others had been shot en-route, and left where they dropped. There was something driving him; a fire in his eyes the likes of which Amanda had never seen before. Ulan had hijacked the Longsword, and was causing havoc outside. His sporadic swearing in Polish was still coming through the COM in intervals, usually followed by an explosion.

"Right, solitary confinement" muttered Remi. "If we go through here, we-"

The five of them stopped, and raised their weapons as three guards staggered back, a large knife protruding from the chest of one. As the other two raised their shock batons, a chair hit them, followed by a man, who quickly latched his arm around one man's throat, daring his comrade to come closer as he squeezed the life out of his hostage. Without warning, there was a dull crack, and a limp corpse was kicked forward. Before the guard could react, he had been pushed to the floor. A knife rose, and fell. Remi's team watched in horrified fascination as, after a few seconds, the inmate silenced the guard's screams forever.

Amanda recovered first. "Freeze!" she barked, aiming her rifle as she stepped forward.

The man turned round. He was wearing the same orange jumpsuit that all the innmates wore, though his was covered in fresh blood. He was of average height, with cropped silver hair, dull green eyes, and a look of immense satisfaction on his face. The man also seemed incredibly fit, in spite of his age, which Amanda guessed to be at least fifty. He raised his hands slowly in surrender, not taking his eyes off of her weapon.

"I surrender, shitheads," came a rough-sounding voice. "You gonna kill me, or gawk all day?"

Amanda moved to take another step over, but was stopped by Remi, who waved her down. He tore off his mask, and faced the older man, a look of astonishment on his lined face.

"Carlos Driscol?"

"Yeah. You sure took your sweet time in getting me out, Marshall. What's it been, three years?"

Remi's whole body language seemed to change, the confident leader suddenly becoming a young, inexperienced soldier again in the face of Driscol "Sir I- I mean, we didn't, I thought you-"

"Were dead? Nah. Captured. Vaporised would be a better word, come to think of it. Oonskies locked me up here. Interrogation and all that shit. Oh, and don't call me 'sir' any more, ya bootlick. URF is dead, as far as I'm concerned, got that?"

"Yes si-, I mean, got it."

"Right then" Driscol clapped his hands together. "Let's get off this fucking rock, I want some smokes and a gun."

He took a few steps down the corridor, before turning to stare at five unmoving people. "We're offski, right? This is a rescue mission, yes? Let's go!"

Amanda was fighting the urge to smash her rifle in his face, and looked to Remi. "Well, we didn't know you were here, Carlos, this rescue isn't exactly for you."

This got everyone's attention. "Okay then" Driscol replied, folding his arms crossly. "Who for?"

"My sister, Isabelle. They got her two months ago. That's why we're here, to get her out."

A sister?! That's what this whole operation was for? All this senseless death, risking their lives, just for one person? Well, two if they counted Driscol, but the man hadn't exactly made a good first impression of being an upstanding gentleman. They had lost at least fourteen people already. Remi would have some explaining to do, for sure.

Driscol, rather than rant or complain, burst out laughing. "Isabelle? SHE'S your sister? You shoulda told me. Pretty thing, broke a guy's arm on the first day so they stuck her in solitary. Last door on the left."

Remi Marshall nodded, and broke into a run, followed by two others. Amanda turned to face Carlos Driscol, who was leaning nonchalantly against a wall. "Hey lady," he leered. "Might want to stop it with the face, the wind might change and it'll stay that way."

"What face?"

"That constant pissed off thing you've got going on. Look, maybe you've got lady problems but-"

He was cut off by a rifle but to the stomach. Driscol doubled over, but grabbed the weapon and pulled it towards him. Amanda found herself face to face with the man, still smiling. He wouldn't dare fight back, not with another soldier standing by, but that stupid grin on his face angered her more than anything.

"You're a real scumbag, you know that?" she hissed.

"Aww, how kind," he replied. Amanda backed away, still holding her rifle as Remi and the others appeared down the corridor, accompanying a thin figure in an orange jumpsuit. She was quite a pretty girl, as Driscol had said. Her blonde hair had been shaved off, though she carried herself with an air of authority, similar to that of her brother's. She stopped when she reached the three of them, allowing Remi to step forward.

"Isabelle, this is Amanda Wade, my Lieutenant." She held out a hand, allowing the young woman to shake it for a brief moment before letting go. "This is Carlos Driscol, and Jason DeMarr."

She shook their hands too, her gaze lingering on Driscol. "You are a prisoner too, no?" Amanda noticed that her accent was much more prominent than Remi. She probably hadn't left her homeworld that long ago then. How anyone so young could be considered that much of a threat to be placed here was beyond her, but now wasn't really the time for questions. Alexander Redford's voice flickered in over the COM.

"Remi, I'm afraid that Ulan's team were pushed back from the comms array, the guards managed to send out a distress signal. I'd recommend getting back to the hangar immediately if you want us to get out in one piece. Out."

"Copy that, Red. Have Faisal keep the engines warm, we're on our way."

Their group, now up to seven members, moved quickly through the cell blocks. It was pure, destructive anarchy in the prison now, the escapees wrecking, looting, or running for the supply freighters in the secondary hangar. They would never fit them all on the Dynasty, anyway. Suddenly, Driscol wheeled off round a corner, heading for a solitary room at the end.

"Carlos, what the hell are you doing?!" Remi shouted, urging the others onwards. The old man grinned, and opened the door, revealing racks of unused rifles. After a few seconds of search, he hefted down a weapon, and carried it out, a look of childish glee on his face.

"M739 LMG, also known as the SAW. I've had my eye on one of these for a while now, believe me."

Seeing the futility of questioning a possibly insane man wielding a machine gun, Amanda sighed and waved them forwards, exiting through to the hangar. There, the last three survivors of Ulan's team were pinned behind a stack of crates, cut off from the Dynasty by a dozen security guards. Laughing, Driscol strode forward and began firing, the armour piercing rounds ripping through them like paper as Amanda and the others gunned down the rest. Within ten seconds, the hangar was devoid of enemies. Remi grabbed Isabelle's hand and began to run for the ship.

"C'mon, go, go!"

Any second now, UNSC ships could arrive insystem. Longsword or not, they'd be screwed. Amanda leapt up the ramp and helped the others up, Driscol swaggering aboard last, reloading his machine gun. She immediately ran to the cockpit and took her seat, monitoring for enemy activity whle attempting to raise Ulan.

"Jonathan, we're leaving! What's your status?"

The rebel leader's exasperated voice came through after a few seconds. "Took down twelve craft alone, 'Manda. Not bad for one day, eh? I'll suit up and t-pack it over once we're clear, this bird's toast. Got that?"

"Reading you loud and clear. We'll rendezvous with you in five, out."

As the Dynasty took off from the prison installation's hangar, the events of today, lost in the adrenaline of combat, began to hit her. Not for the first time, she began to wonder why they fought the UNSC, this gargantuan organisation that they were constantly fleeing from, fighting sporadically and seemingly never getting any closer to 'defeating'. She'd been doing this for nearly a decade now, though it felt a lot shorter. But Amanda would keep soldiering on, just like mum, just like dad. Just like he probably did, came the one subversive thought, the one secret she had never told anyone. Not that he mattered, anyway. On reflection, Amanda had chosen her beliefs long ago, and would follow them to the grave, just like those she fought.

Feud

1356 Hours, March 22nd, 2555 (UNSC Military Calendar)

UNSC Army Facility Epsilon-4, Luna


"You create a whole program, and I'm not told about it?!"

Martin-A136 strolled at a casual pace behind Captain Samson, who was currently in a heated debate with General Cole Warrick of the Army. The last few days had been strange, to say the least, for the Spartans of Shrike.

"Captain, you're with the Navy. Why should an Army unit bother you so much?" replied the General, speaking in a slow, even tone.

"I'm with Naval Intelligence, General. You know how far we go."

"Too far, in my opinion."

"Nevertheless, the Army has an entire super soldier group of it's own that has been active for some time now, and somehow I wasn't informed?"

"Why should you be, Captain?"

"Because, General, I've got an entire SPARTAN group under my command, and it would help if we could at least be informed of your...people, rather than having to encounter them on the battlefield, without any tags or identification."

Warrick smiled, much to Samson's annoyance. "Look, I know what your little Spartans are capable of, I've seen the reports. But these soldiers are a new generation. HAYABUSA has been achieving combat results unsurpassed since the Spartans were first introduced. Besides, I'm the ranking one here, Samson."

The Captain scowled, but didn't rise to the taunt. "Well then, sir, ONI has ordered me and SPARTAN-A136 to review this facility and the masterminds behind this project before reporting back. That is all we're here for."

"Okay then, please allow me to show the pair of you around."

***

It had been two weeks ago that Shrike first encountered HAYABUSA. After the mass breakout from Fenwell not long before, the SPARTAN-III team had been tracking down some of the more high profile escapees, most of whom had returned to their old comrades on the fringes of UNSC space. This mission in particular was designed to take down a large meeting taking place on some deadbeat colony world. Hundreds would be attending, though it was nothing that they couldn't handle.

"This is Shrike One. We're at breaching point one. May, is your group in position?"

"We're on the roof, sir."

Martin waved Julian and Leandra forward, looking on as the pair watched each other's backs, the latter affixing a breaching charge to a door. In their MJOLNIR suits, they could easily kick the door in, but this was safer. Particularly after Cesare...

"Breaching, breaching!"

The door burst inwards, and the Spartans moved in, rifles ready. The crashing sounds from the other side of the facility announced the arrival of the other team. Oddly, there were no gunshots. No shouts of surprise or screams of terror. Nothing. Martin waved the others forward, edging into the main hall where the meeting was supposed to take place. Alrik's voice crackled over the COM.

"Sir, d'you think we've got the right- oh..."

The main area was covered in a carpet of corpses, blood pooling around them. Various people lay around the room, riddled with bullets or cut to pieces, limbs scattered about the place. Martin spotted the others entering the room, looking round for any targets. Alrik flashed the all-clear over the COM.

"So uh, did someone beat us to it?"

The SPARTAN-III edged into the centre of the room, and looked at the carnage all around him. Something bad had happened here. Suddenly, a noise to the left brought his rifle, and attention round. Immediately, blips of red began to flash up on his motion tracker.

"Freeze, UNSC!"

The man standing before him was dressed in an odd suit of armour, similar to a cut-down MJOLNIR suit, with an odd, pointed helmet. Several more dropped down around them. They wielded submachine guns and, strangest of all, what appeared to be swords. The six Spartans moved into a defensible circle, utterly surrounded. Graham and May, who were outside on watch, called in over the COM.

"Master Chief, we've got three Pelicans converging on your location. Something's up."

"Copy that, keep us informed." Martin didn't lower his weapon as he faced down the man in strange armour. "Stand down soldier, we're a SPARTAN Team."

"Yeah, we know that. This is a classified op. You ain't allowed here."

"We could say the same to you. What's your unit, uh-"

"Lieutenant Lykos, UNSC Army HAYABUSA detachment."

"Master Chief Petty Officer Martin-A136, UNSC Navy SHRIKE Team."

The two stared each other down for half a minute before Lykos relented, sheathing his blade. The others did the same. The Spartans lowered their weapons a fraction. Outside, the familiar roar of pelican engines could be heard. The strange soldiers began to move out, keeping an eye on the Spartans. Oh man, Martin thought. Samson's not gonna like this...

***

General Warrick led the pair to a laboratory, where several suits of the odd-looking armour were currently being repaired by automatons. A man in a white coat looked up from his computer, and approached them.

"Gentlemen, this is John Verensky, he's the brains behind HAYABUSA."

"Pleased to meet you." Verensky shook their hands in turn, and smiled. Something about his demeanour bothered Martin; it looked too false, too wrong, for his liking. Samson cleared his throat, and spoke up.

"Verensky. So, you're the one that Doctor Bright spoke of, before the accident?"

"That's me, sir. You must be the famous Captain Samson. I've heard of your exploits during the war, it's an honour to meet you."

"Thanks," came the quick reply. Samson wasn't a man susceptible to flattery, something that both Martin and Verensky quickly picked up. "I'm here on behalf of the Office of Naval Intelligence regarding HAYABUSA's actions in the field. While they are certainly a highly-skilled unit, the collateral damage has increased exponentially since you took over as research head of the project after Doctor Bright's death."

"Sir, are you implying that I deliberately make the HAYABUSA's cause as much damage as possible? With all due respect, your Shrike Team has been responsible for a great deal of death and destruction since they went active."

Martin was glad he had his helmet on, looking down at Verensky in anger. Sure, they'd blown up a few buildings, but had at least attempted to save civilian lives, unlike these upstarts. Samson remained calm, clasping his clenched fists behind his back.

"Well, Doctor Verensky, what can you say about your recruitment program for these soldiers?"

"Whatever do you mean?"

"I've checked the rosters. All of the original eighty-four HAYABUSA candidates have come from backgrounds of insubordination, a predisposition to violent behaviour, and half a dozen things that would have eventually warranted for court-martial or worse, had they not been brought in by you."

Verensky shrugged. "We needed people. Besides, what better way to work them into shape than by bringing them in for the Project? I don't see how the SPARTAN-III recruitment can be considered any more ethical, considering-"

"That has nothing to do with it, Verensky!" snapped Samson. "We'll be keeping a close eye on HAYABUSA in the future, so I'd recommend you rein in your attack dogs for now!"

Samson turned and stormed away, Martin in his wake. Something was wrong with this project, he knew it, but couldn't quite put his finger on it.

***

"General Warrick, ensure that ONI doesn't get that close an eye on things. We'll have to move forward our plans."

"But John, we can't-"

"Yes, we can. I'll arrange for the demise of all non-loyal HAYABUSA members over the next few months. Remember your family, General, and what Magnus can do."

"Yes, Verensky."

"Excellent. I'll have to get in touch with Marshall, Ulan, and the rest of those morons out in the Caucasus. I hear they sprung Driscol, too. We'll get him in there. We're starting the operation immediately."

Preparation

0937 Hours, May 4th, 2555 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Dynasty, En-route to Caucasus Asteroid Station


"We're almost there. We can drop you off on one of the habitats, Driscol."

"You do that. Nice to be a back. I've had a busy few weeks."

"Doing what?"

"Been travelling a while. Was on Talitsa during the invasion."

Following their escape from Fenwell Prison, Driscol had had Remi drop him off on a trading outpost with little more than a sidearm and a COM device and set out by himself into the colonies, searching for his old contacts. A few rumours had already gotten back to them already of his exploits.

"Shit, the UNSC stomped that place. I take it that's how you lost your leg?"

Driscol scowled. He'd been broken out of prison less than two months ago and had already taken part in half a dozen battles and lost a good portion of one of his legs to a grenade.

"Well, there's plenty of lower-tier bosses lurking around, but Ulan, myself, and another man, Verensky, generally call the shots around here. Then there's Magnus."

"Who the hell's that?"

"Someone that you don't want to mess with, Carlos. He's got a few Sangheili working for him on the upper docks, a real scary bastard. He's involved in just about every business on the Caucasus. Just lay low for a while."

Driscol sneered. "Lay low? Screw that, I'm already getting back in the game, Remi. I'm no moron, either. Declared myself dead on Fenwell's computer systems before I met up with ya. I'm doing fine out there, anyway."

Remi looked uncertain, but eventually relented, allowing the older man to head for the crew's quarters and pick up his stuff. Amanda, who had been absent-mindedly watching from the corner sharpening a combat knife, shook her head in disbelief at the way her friend was treating this terrible man as a superior. Something about it angered her immensely. Remi noticed her look, raising an eyebrow.

"You're looking happy," he said, taking a seat across from her. "Y'know, you'd probably get along easier in life if you smiled more."

"Right. Watching that idiot walk around like he owns the place really cheers me up."

"I'm sorry about Driscol. No social skills."

"Then why do you keep him around? You dropped Isabelle off with Mike at the last safehouse, why don't you toss him out of an airlock?"

Remi's grin faded a little. "Believe it or not, he's the man who really taught me how to fight, back in the war. Things were a mess back then, and he saved both me and my sister. We fought together for a while before our unit got wiped out on Mamore in '52."

"You survived."

At this, the veteran rebel seemed to look uncomfortable with the conversation. "I did," he replied eventually. "But they captured or killed everyone else. I've been on the run ever since, really. Fighting the fight."

"What for?" Amanda was honestly curious as to what drove Remi, who had been her leader now for over a decade, to fight like this. She'd become heavily disillusioned with the UNSC's way of governing and her own treatment, but what had gotten the hardline fighters like Driscol, ass that he was, into this?

Remi pondered the question for a moment, but did not answer. He simply shrugged and strode out. I hate it when he does that. Amanda sighed, got up, and headed to the Dynasty's cockpit, where Faisal and Ulan sat as pilot and co-pilot respectively. Since he'd wrecked the Longsword in the attack on Fenwell a few months back, Ulan wasn't allowed at the helm. Faisal looked up as Amanda entered, smiling kindly.

"Ah, Miss Wade. Nice to see you're joining us up here. Ulan's been telling tall tales again."

The short-haired co-pilot snorted, looking back as Amanda sat down. "Hey, I never lie!" he protested, frowning as Faisal shook his head.

"You're a good pilot, but I think you're embellishing just a little too much. Besides, how can you believe in old propaganda like Cavorel?"

Ulan began to mutter incoherently in Polish, not responding. Amanda was curious about this. "Who's he?" she inquired. While it had been a decade since she'd joined up with Remi's crew on that fateful day, Amanda had learned little regarding the history of the Insurrection, and it's prominent figures.

"Elijah Cavorel," Faisal answered. "He was some kind of legendary sniper, killed hundreds of oonskie troops, if you believe ths stories. Probably never existed, but there are still stories."

"Hey, I think he's real!" piped up Ulan angrily. "Sure, he's probably dead, but there's no proof to say he never existed."

"There's none to prove that he did exist, either," Faisal replied curtly. "Anyway, we're about to touch down, might want to get the others ready. Heard that Verensky and Roberts want to meet us down there."

"What for? They hate each other, don't they?"

The pilot shrugged. "So I've heard. This is big, though. We've got dozens of ships heading to the Caucasus stations for whatever it is they're planning."

The door slid open, revealing Remi, Driscol, and a few others, suited up in their combat gear. They weren't about to fight, as far as she was aware, but Amanda unholstered her pistol all the same.

"Amanda, Ulan, you're coming with us. This is it."


The docking bay was crowded with people; dozens of minor cell leaders, ship captains and team leaders clustered round the central area, where the familiar sight of John Verensky, their ever-useful mole within the Office of Naval Intelligence, sat, flanked by two Sangheili and half a dozen armoured bodyguards. Mal Roberts was present too, sitting by a weapons crate with his own soldiers. Upon catching sight of them, Verensky's voice boomed over an intercom.

"Remi Marshall, good to have you here. Please, come forward!"

Amanda, Remi, Driscol, Ulan, and Alexander Redford, who had remained aboard the Dynasty as the ship's medical officer, began to approach the main meeting area. Before they could get close, there was a flurry of movement, and the familiar sound of weapons being raised. Looking aside, Amanda saw Driscol and Roberts standing almost nose to nose, pistols pointed at each other.

"You bastard," hissed Roberts, an average-sized, balding man, with a few visible scars running down his face. "You think I haven't forgotten you, Carlos?"

Driscol smiled. "Ah, it's Private Roberts, isn't it? I always did wonder what happened to the others in the squad after my departure."

By this point, the room had gotten quieter, with dozens of hands reaching for concealed weapons, just in case. Roberts' face contorted into a snarl, his grip on the pistol tightening. "Most of 'em are dead, Staff Sergeant. Some died when you screwed us over, others went down later in the war. Not that you'd know that."

"Are you calling me a traitor, Roberts? We're in the same boat now, as you can see. What happened to your friend, Mitchell? The last I saw of him was as my Pelican left his sorry ass behind on Skopje."

"How do I know? Alive, probably," came the hurried response. "Are we gonna shoot one another?"

Driscol smirked, and gradually lowered his weapon. Roberts did the same, knowing full well that to open fire in here wouldn't end well for either party. After a few tense moments, the room's atmosphere seemed to return, Verensky presiding over the meeting.

"Well, now that we've got old grievances aside, let's begin. For too long, we've been skulking around in the shadows, striking here and there, surviving as best we can. That's why you're all so damn weak."

The room immediately burst into uproar, dozens of voices shouting at once, hurling insults or attempting to declare their own successes. One of the two Sangheili next to Verensky fired a few bolts from his plasma rifle into the ceiling, silencing the crowd as their leader spoke once more.

"What I am proposing here, is not an all-out assault. It's not a suicidal move, but one that, if pulled off, will do well to benefit our cause." Verensky watched the assembled rebels, gauging their reaction before continuing. "As we speak, I am taking full control of project HAYABUSA, eliminating those who won't cooperate and having the unit assigned to Earth, for the event taking place in three months. Does anyone know what that is?"

"The UEG Summit," said Alexander, standing next to Amanda with his arms folded. "We're going to attack there."

"Precisely. We'll have high-ranking members of the UEG, CAA, and UNSC all in one place, under the protection of HAYABUSA operatives. They won't stand a chance."

The chill swept over the attendees. Even Verensky's Sangheili bodyguards shifted uneasily. It was oddly terrifying to learn that their feared and hated enemy could be killed so easily, and so soon, disturbed them. Glancing sideways, Amanda noticed that the usually calm and collected Alexander had gone very pale.

"In addition," Verensky continued, "While the main attack force, comprising of both the HAYABUSA operatives, and a large militia force, supplied with UNSC weaponry, hits the summit, I will personally lead a second force to HIGHCOM's fortress, PILLAR Base, in Nepal. There, we'll seize something that will make us just as much of a threat as the Covenant."

"What's that, then?" asked Roberts, who still sounded unconvinced.

"My friends, we're going to steal a NOVA Bomb."

Chapter Six

Unveiling

0805 Hours, September 14th, 2555 (UNSC Military Calendar)

UNSC Supreme Headquarters, URNA, Earth


From their position in the 'Crow's Nest', the SPARTAN-III's had an excellent view of the entire summit. A meeting such as this, which would consist of nearly all of HIGHCOM, in addition to the UEG's governing body. Word had also come down that several Sangheili delegates would be attending too, as a show of mutual cooperation between the two races. This had set some of them on edge, but there was little they could do about it.

"Chief, got eyes on pad three, split-lips are touching down."

"Copy that, May," replied Martin, ignoring the slur. "Head over there, keep an eye on it with Graham. Keep an eye on things."

"You can count on me." The COM flicked off. Martin went back to checking over the details of the summit. They had the best security money could buy, with four members of Shrike watching over the proceedings, in addition to twenty-five HAYABUSA operatives. Martin didn't like the soldiers a great deal, something about them bothering him immensely, but the unit had recently suffered massive casualties on a mission recently. He couldn't help feeling a little sorry for them. As if on cue, his COM buzzed with a transmission from their leader.

"This is Lieutenant Lykos. Master Chief, what's the status on your team?"

"We're in position, sir. Shrikes Five and Eight are watching over the Sangheili delegation now."

"Copy that, Spartan. My men are taking their positions around the main meeting room. Out."

Though dubious about the HAYABUSA group, Martin had to concede that they were at the very least, efficient. Captain Samson, however, was much less so. He'd heard that General Warrick had met with an untimely death in a car accident last month, leaving Verensky as the Project lead. If he'd been suspicious of the soldiers, then Verensky really bothered him. It was the way that he remained utterly infallible and confident while under scrutiny. The air of smug satisfaction didn't help, either. Martin looked over to Grantley, who was talking to someone on a chatter headpiece.

"-Yeah, just security duty. Don't worry, Layla, we're Spartans. Who the hell's gonna mess with us?"

He switched the device off, catching Martin's eye, and placed his helmet on, swiping two fingers over his visor in imitation of a smile. Martin returned it, and picked up his rifle.

"Sorry about that, sir. Just checking in with a friend. Everything okay?"

"Green. I'll need you with Samson downstairs as an escort. Largely for show, of course."

"Heh, I can play the dumb muscle. What about you?"

"I'll be keeping tabs on things from up here. Julian, Alric, Leandra and Amos are standing by in orbit with a platoon of Helljumpers, just in case."

"That's a bit much, don't you think?"

Martin shrugged. "This is an important meeting, Grantley. I'm surprised they didn't pull more Spartans into this, to be honest."

"Well, I'd better get into position. Best of luck, Chief."

"You too."

Martin watched Grantley walk out before returning to his post overlooking the main area, where the main delegation had begun to arrive. He noticed four of the HAYABUSA soldiers begin to walk forward, approaching the assembled Sangheili and Human leaders. Suddenly, there was a tremendous crash, black smoke obscuring most of the room as the gunshots started.

Crap.

***

"Magnus, by the time you receive this, it will be far too late. I'm starting the attack today. No more waiting, no more gathering. I've gathered my own forces, and even brought your supposedly loyal Sangheili into the fold. You have no one, now. I remember you saying that we were quite alike, but you're wrong. I'm better than you. Today, I will massacre the leaders of the UNSC and Sangheili alike, and top it all off by stealing or detonating the NOVA bomb. I've got my hiding place, just as you should find yours. My assassins will succeed, and even if they don't, I just want you to know that while it's been fun working with you, I'm taking a greater deal of pleasure from destroying everything you've been working for. Goodbye."

John Verensky tapped the console, and allowed the message to send. This was it. As one trio of Pelicans approached Pillar Base, another three, led by Ulan, was about to land in New York, extracting the survivors. Sur 'Ranak and his brother, Rol, had assured him that the Sangheili leadership would fall, while the HAYABUSA's dealt with everyone else. Walking past the seated group of soldiers, he approached the cockpit, where Farid, the pilot and one of Marshall's men, flew them towards the high-security installation. As they got closer, a voice buzzed in over the COM.

"You are approaching a UNSC-controlled zone, please state your security code or we will have to take countermeasures, over."

Verensky smiled, and activated his own COM. "This is Verensky, J., of ONI. Security Code Echo-Romeo-Three-Nine-Two. Are we clear, over?"

"Your code has been verified," replied the flight controller. "Welcome to Pillar Base, Mister Verensky."

***

Alexander Redford knew what was about to happen, and knew that he was the only man capable of stopping it before things got really bad.

The problem with being in deep cover was that sometimes his reports were sporadic. Yes, he'd fought and killed and helped over the years, fighting for this moronic rebel cause, but had felt little more than contempt for these criminals. Today, they'd have the chance to take down the entire operation. Then, he thought, I think a nice holiday would do. Redford hadn't gotten a chance to report in since they'd left the Caucasus stations, which was bad. Something told him that Verensky suspected him, which was worse.

"Okay people, we're moving. Give 'em hell!"

As the mad pilot Ulan finished his sentence, the Pelican's doors clanked open, allowing the rebels, disguised as UNSC Marines, to flood out onto the pavement. Ignoring the surprised civilians around them, the two dozen soldiers immediately began to march towards UNSC HQ, where the operation was about to begin. Leading his own squad into the building, his body moving automatically as his mind formulated a plan, Redford decided that the only way he'd succeed was if he would handle things personally.

"Move in, go!"

He waved the squad forward, allowing all four of them to move into a passageway before he let them have it. Assault rifle rounds cut through armour and flesh and bone, ripping them to shreds and dropping them before they could react. Redford ensured that all four had fallen, watching impassively from behind before he discarded his rifle, tossing it aside in disgust. Next to go was the helmet. Checking his sidearm, the ONI agent sprinted forward towards the carnage.

***

Martin reacted faster than any 'normal' human could have. In a flash, he had leapt from the balcony, activating his helmet's VISR mode, and levelling his rifle as he hit the floor below. Through the smoke, he could make out the outline of a HAYABUSA trooper running a UNSC officer through with his sword, before turning to face him. A trio of bursts from his rifle cut the man down as many more streamed through the doors around them.

"Chief, on your six!"

Not bothering to turn round, Martin ducked, allowing a sniper round to whizz over his head, taking down another one of these treacherous commandos as a SPARTAN-III ran towards him, a smaller man in tow. By this point, the smoke had begun to clear, showing the floor littered with bodies. In the centre of the room, four Sangheili were fighting for their lives, duelling with their kind's trademark energy sword while chaos reigned around them. Martin recognised two of them: The Arbiter, Thel 'Vadam, clad in the metallic armour that symbolised his position, and Felo 'Ranak, a gold-armoured and influential leader among the Sangheili.

"Let them fight," Samson said, wiping the sweat from his forehead. "We've got to cover the big guys."

By that, he meant the HIGHCOM and UEG leaders. Martin activated his COM, trying to locate the other Spartans. "Grantley, May, what's your status?"

"They've got us hemmed in!" came the gruff voice of Martin's XO. "We're trapped between the landing pads and the bunker entrance. I think-"

The rest of his sentence was cut off by a loud explosion, causing a momentary pause in the gunfire before it began again. "Gah, bastards brought up a Pelican. Chief, me 'n May are gonna need some backup soon!"

"Copy that." Martin nodded to Graham, who immediately ran off to find a vantage point. A marksman like him would make short work of those shooters. As for the Pelican... Martin turned to Captain Samson.

"Sir, permission to leave this facility?"

***

Redford stuck to the shadows, watching the fight unfold. Luckily, a couple of Spartans had escorted all the important figures from the facility in time, though they were running into a bit of trouble. Ulan's Pelican wasn't making things easy, either. He couldn't make himself seen, though. Not in this uniform, anyway. Suddenly, the familiar crack of a sniper rifle sounded from above his head, dropping several of his 'comrades' near the bunker entrance, allowing the little group to move across. This was his chance.

"HAYABUSA, we're taking hits but we ain't out yet. Everyone else, move in for the bunker. Bastards won't know what hit 'em."

That had come from Redford's COM. It was Lykos, the leader of that band of cut-price supersoldiers. If there were a few of his men alive, however, they might have a chance at killing someone important. He couldn't allow that. Redford moved quickly, ducking between cover in case the sniper noticed him before entering the bunker via one of the maintenance ducts. It seemed that no matter how well-protected or top secret these places were, they all possessed tunnels just big enough for a man to fit inside.

"Okay, here they come, let 'em have it."

Moving as fast as he could, the ONI agent exited the ducts just as six HAYABUSA soldiers dropped in on their quarry. The Spartans and security guards immediately engaged them, fighting a deadly and desperate battle, forming a defensive circle as they did so. Redford dropped silently onto the floor just as Lykos span round, decapitating one of the guards with his blade before advancing. Before him, he could see an Admiral, two high-level administrators, and the President of the United Earth Government.

"Time to die, bitch."

Before Lykos' blade could come down on their targets, it was jerked aside as the owner was kicked full in the face. The helmet took most of the blow, but he was knocked back all the same. Turning round, the rogue soldier came face to face with a fifty-five year old man, wielding nothing but a combat knife and a determined look. Smiling behind the visored helmet, Lykos brought his weapon down again on the old fool, whom he'd seen among Verensky's soldiers, only to see his foe dart aside with a surprising burst of speed, the combat knife coming up towards him. He jerked back to avoid the blow, before moving up to defend himself. The blades clashed several times, punches and kicks exchanged before the older man ducked, kicking Lykos as he wrenched the blade from his hand.

With a snarl of triumph, Redford turned around to finish his opponent. Half a second too slow. A pair of blades extended from the HAYABUSA soldier's gauntlets, stabbing into the man's lower chest. Redford's blades dropped instantly. Lykos grinned as the blades dug deeper into his foe's stomach. Redford groaned in agony, glaring into the opaque visor as his right hand shot downwards, before raising up again. He emptied the entire pistol magazine into Lykos' face, before stepping back and watching his foe fall over.

The last thing he remembered before passing out were the two Spartans running over to him. He'd done his duty. Years of deep cover for this. Great.

***

In all honesty, Sur 'Ranak had seriously overestimated his chances.

As he and his brother fought for their lives amidst the corpses, the demons and their masters escaping from sight, a horribly unfamiliar feeling began to creep into his mind: Fear. His blood-red blade, something he'd kept from his time in the Special Forces, clashed against the blue of his elder brother's as they moved, avoiding the other pair. Rol and Thel seemed to be evenly matched, though the latter was definitely the more experienced warrior. Sur ducked a swipe and lunged forward, missing Felo 'Ranak by an inch. The older Sangheili laughed, and kicked him away.

"Is this what you are, my brother? A wandering mercenary, devoid of honour for your clan and keep?"

"Silence!" Sur roared, fighting as hard as he could.

"The pair of you came here today under the pretence of making reparations, saying you have changed, only to betray not only me, but to betray the Sangheili!?"

There was no answer. Sur had been a warrior, little else. That was all that mattered in his life. He had been shamed time and time again by Felo. Their leader. Their Kaidon. Their better. He had been forced to sit by as the greatest warrior he knew spoke of peace with their enemies, and had been filled with rage. This rage had led him to defeat on the burned world last year. It had led him to the human, Magnus, a powerful warrior in his own right, and Verensky, whose madness was only surpassed by his intelligence. Now, it led him to a battle that he just couldn't win.

"Sur, we're going!"

That had come from Rol. His younger brother threw two spherical devices from his belt, which spawned holographic images of the warrior, momentarily confusing Felo and Thel while the pair ran for the exit. Near the back of the facility, one of the human dropships remained, ferrying the survivors aboard. Sur and Rol leapt inside, demanding at swordpoint that the pilot leave this world. He didn't object. They would return to the ship before the Human fleet could be marshalled, and return home to the asteroid stations. Verensky could die for all he cared. Sur was finished playing the pawn.

***

Martin was still trying to work out why he'd come up with this plan by the time he had reached the roof. The enemy Pelican continued to strafe around the outside of the bunker, covering the rebels heading for the entrance. When Graham's well-placed sniper rounds began to cut them down, it fired a flurry of missiles at the SPARTAN-III, forcing him back. Noticing the spike in SPARTAN-G101's status, Martin began to run towards the edge of the roof, waiting for an opportunity, activating his COM as he did so.

"Graham, report!"

"Damn Pelican nearly got me, Chief. B-foam's patching me up but I'm hurt. Can still fight if you need me, sir."

"Negative, get back inside with the Captain and check on the survivors. I'll deal with the dropship."

"Copy that. Good hunting."

Taking a deep breath, the Spartan took a running jump as the Pelican strayed close to the facility roof, landing with a thump on the roof. The pilot seemed to realise, immediately swerving away to drive him off. Martin's boots magnetised to the dropship's hull as he worked his way towards the front, holding his rifle. He caught a brief glimpse of a man in military gear before the Pelican rocketed forward, buffeting him backwards. For a moment, he tumbled in the air before sinking an armoured hand into the hull, clinging on for dear life.

The rebel-driven dropship moved towards the inner city, perhaps trying to lose it's pursuers in the heavy traffic. Martin wouldn't let that happen. Still clinging on, he took a fragmentation grenade from his belt, pulled the pin, and punched it into one of the rear thrusters. This is going to hurt, he thought. It did. Even with his MJOLNIR armour, the blast fried his shields and scorched his suit as the ship plummeted downwards, eventually smashing into the concrete and sending it's unwanted passenger tumbling away.

Get up.

Martin lay on his side, bursts of pain hitting him in various places. Across the plaza they had crashed in, the pelican had burst into flames. Get up. His vision blurred as he rolled onto his back, looking up at the clear sky above. Half a dozen warnings were popping up on his HUD, while someone shouted for him over the COM. Get up. It was all very hazy, and all he felt like doing was sleeping. Why not? They'd won, hadn't they? Martin tried to ignore his impulses, to relax after all of this. Then something caught his attention. It was a dot. A tiny red blip at the corner of his radar, slowly moving towards him. Get up.

He did.

Moving unsteadily on his feet, Martin-A136 saw that the Pelican's pilot had survived, heading forward in his tattered uniform, brandishing a pistol. Martin had no weapons; even his knife was gone. The man began to shout at him in Polish, cursing as he strode towards the Spartan, gun in hand. He pulled the trigger, only to hear a disappointing click. Martin smiled, and moved in for the kill. To be fair, the man fought back very well, brandishing a combat knife which he used with some degree of skill. Things were evenly matched until the knife shattered against the high-tech MJOLNIR suit from a badly-judged swing.

In return, the SPARTAN-III picked the man up by the throat, and slammed him repeatedly into the floor. It didn't take long, he took no pride in it, and he honestly didn't give a damn how much blood there was. Then, he began to lose consciousness. That wasn't good.

Theft

2139 Hours (Local Time), September 14th, 2555(UNSC Military Calendar)

UNSC Pillar Base, Mount Everest, Nepal


John Verensky walked forward through the base he had visited so many times in the past, strolling calmly through the gunfire and chaos that reigned around him. Driscol had lead a group of soldiers into the weapons wing, and was happily mowing down ONI agents with that machine gun of his. Verensky was here for a much greater weapon.

"Marshall, get this door open. It's close."

"Yes, sir," replied the rebel commander, a hint of annoyance in his voice. They'd slaughtered the guards the moment the Pelicans had landed, and fought their way inside. Mal Roberts rounded a corner, holding a circular charge in one hand, and a loaded pistol in the other.

"Boss, got yer door opener."

"Are you certain that this will open it?" asked Verensky. He couldn't allow the NOVA to be damaged or worse, detonated. That wouldn't go down well.

"Of course I do. Served as a demo man in the military. We'll get in there."

He allowed Roberts to march past, and waved Marshall's team away from the steel-plated door. The man was a useful fighter, if little else, and had carried the same group around with him for far too long. Taking cover round the corner, Verensky tried to contact the other team on the COM. If they had succeeded, then he'd have the UNSC right where he wanted them; Leaderless, and with Earth itself under threat of destruction.

"Lykos, come in." Nothing. Fool must've gotten himself killed. "Sur, Rol, are you there?"

It took a few seconds for the Sangheili to respond. In that time, there was a loud blast as Roberts' charge blew through the door, allowing the rebels to advance inwards. Sur 'Ranak's voice had lost it's usual arrogant tone, sounding grim and subdued, speaking in his usual guttural English.

"Verensky, we failed. The chief Kaidon and our brother live, as do the Human leaders."

A chill ran down the rogue agent's spine. Failure. This wasn't good at all, but it wouldn't cripple his plans. There was still a way out of this, in spite of all his losses. Sur continued. "Also, Redford has betrayed us all. He killed your warriors and stopped everything. We're leaving."

The COM clicked off. Verensnky swore under his breath and followed his underlings into the weapons room. Just as expected, in the centre, sat his prize: A NOVA Bomb. Nine fusion warheads encased in lithium triteride armour, with enough sheer destructive power to destroy the planet if detonated here. This was the most powerful weapon in the UNSC's arsenal, and for good reason. He was taking it. Immediately, Marshall and his second in command, Wade, began to load it onto a trolley, Roberts' men covering the pair as they began to wheel it out. From here, it was a simple elevator ride to the hangar bay, a flight to the Dynasty, left with a skeleton crew in orbit, and a slipspace jump to freedom.

"I wouldn't recommend taking that bomb if I were you."

Verensky turned to see a small holographic figure of a man in hooded robes watching him from a nearby holotank. He'd always despised AI's. Still, this one interested him. He approached the holotank, looking at the blue-tinged figure standing there, most of his face concealed beneath a hood.

"Ah, you're Armand, aren't you? The AI that got fragged?"

"That's one way of putting it, yes. You're John Verensky, the traitor soon to die."

"Oh, how so?"

"Well, I'm aware of your mission, and can stop you at any point. I could crash the elevators, turn off the oxygen or constantly broadcast your position. I could-"

"So," Verensky cut in. "What's it like, knowing you've got a built-in lifespan? Rather frightening, isn't it?"

"Excuse me?"

"Only a few years until you start going AI-crazy. Being fragmented by Odin probably didn't help. After all, well, your very being was smashed into a million pieces. What's it like anyway, being a slave to those freaks?"

"What freaks?" replied the AI, sounding interested.

"Those Spartans. You were made to serve them. Your entire life devoted to obeying the every whim of a bunch of augmented soldiers. You call that an existence?"

"They are...respectable," sputtered Armand, feeling strange. "It's a worthy life to have, and I'm proud to-"

He faded into silence as Verensky burst out laughing. "Is that it?!" He noticed the NOVA being loaded into the elevator. This would have to be quick. "You're a machine, a tool. Nothing more. You're going to stay there and watch me win, and there's nothing you could do to stop me!"

With this, Verensky sprinted away, leaping into the escalator as the doors closed. It rose slowly, the dozen rebels inside standing in silence as the sound of gunfire from the hangar began to grow louder. The familiar sound of Driscol's SAW cut through the air, it's owner gunning down hapless guards with glee, no doubt. As the elevator doors slid open, their escape vehicles coming into sight, Armand's voice came in over the intercom.

"Perhaps I can't stop you, Verensky, but I've called on those who can."

Barely a second had passed before outside the base, the first of the drop pods hit the ground. Doors were flung open, revealing the occupants: Spartans. Shit. Letting the hired guns do the fighting, Verensky joined Marshall, Wade and Roberts in pushing the NOVA forward, heading for the back of Faisal's Pelican as fast as possible. They were soon joined by Driscol, who had weighed in his chances against the UNSC's super soldiers, and taken the option of running away.

"Go, get in, now!" roared Marshall, loading their prize onto the back of the Pelican and helping the others aboard. The hatch closed immediately, the dropship rising into the air for a few moments before speeding off into the night sky. Those left behind would go down fighting. As the dropship entered orbit, set on a course for the Dynasty, a voice crackled through the COM.

"This is Rear Admiral Joseph Harris of the Destroyer, UNSC Iron Mask. We've got half the Home Fleet ready to obliterate you if you don't surrender immediately. You have one minute to comply." Looking around at the frightened faces of his comrades, Verensky calmly picked up a headset, and flicked the COM switch on.

"My name is John Verensky. Remember my name, because if you don't listen to what I say, it'll be the last thing you hear. We have on this ship a NOVA bomb ready to blow. Now, for those of you who don't know what it is, this has enough destructive power to obliterate your entire fleet, Luna, every single orbital station and most likely, the Earth itself. So, what you're going to do is stand down. You're going to allow us to make a slipspace jump away from the Sol system, and you're not going to follow. Both of us live to fight another day."

There was no reply. Over the next twenty minutes, the dropship docked with the Dynasty, all passengers and cargo were loaded on board, and the ship winked outsystem. The assembled ight of the UNSC's Home Fleet did absolutely nothing, sitting in the stillness of space and awaiting orders from their commanders below, if any still remained.

Recovery

1249 Hours, September 15th, 2555 (UNSC Military Calendar)

UNSC Helios Station, Mars Orbit


"With all due respect Chief, you shouldn't even be walking around right now."

Martin, dressed in a plain uniform, sat down at the meeting table, where the other members of Shrike Team were discussing their next step. Also present were several AI's, including Armand, Elena-071, and Captain Samson, sporting a fresh scar above his right eye after the attack. It hadn't been a victory, as such. While the high-ranking personnel had been saved, John Verensky had made himself the deadliest insurrectionist in history with his heist.

"Let him be," said Elena, her voice calm as ever. "You all did the best you could back there. In any case, HIGHCOM's got us mobilising everything we have to find Verensky. We've pulled back nearly all of our SPARTAN assets just to go after this man."

"If we're sending in everyone, then why tell us?" asked Julian. "Shouldn't we be getting together with the other Spartans?"

Captain Samson shook his head. "I'm afraid not. Shrike is the group that has had the most contact with Verensky and this whole debacle, and will be at the forefront of the hunt for those responsible. Shrike Three, was your team able to identify who Verensky was with at the time?"

Julian nodded, and inserted a data chip into a console. Immediately, helmet camera footage winked up on a nearby screen, showing the Spartan's pod landing, and the subsequent battle with the Insurrectionists assaulting PILLAR Base. As they quickly dealt with the soldiers, the footage moved towards a small group of people about to board a Pelican, zooming in on them.

"We've had the chance to analyse the footage and gain facial recognition from these people," Julian explained as files on each person popped up on the screen. "First, we've got Verensky, of course. He's leading the attack. Then, we have Carlos Driscol, who was thought to have been killed in the Fenwell breakout in March. Looks like he's still alive and kicking. Next, there's Remi Marshall. He's proven to be very elusive. This is the first time in a while we've actually gotten sight of him."

"What about the woman in the back?" Martin asked. He had the strangest feeling that he'd seen her before, somewhere.

"That's Amanda Wade. She's one of Marshall's top lieutenants. Was discharged from the Marine Corps in '54 and has been causing trouble ever since. Not much else on her, really."

"Right. So, what's the game plan?"

Samson stood up, placing both hands on the table. He looked around at the assembled Spartans, sitting straight and ready for orders. Eventually, he took a deep breath, bowing his head for a second before looking up, a fire burning in his eyes.

"What has happened in the last few days is an outrage. It is an act of aggression unlike any other in the history of the UNSC, and one that must be responded to in kind. So, we're going to hit back. Hard. We're going to go out there and find this traitor, Verensky, and ensure that he and all his allies are taken down. You Spartans are the finest soldiers ever produced by humanity, and you're going to lead the way. We'll win this fight, no matter how long it takes."

***

Aboard the Dynasty, the survivors were just beginning to take their actions into account. They had done the impossible, flying right into the beast's maw and escaping not only with their lives, but with the most powerful weapon known to man.

They had also lost a lot of friends.

In the freighter's cockpit, an exhausted Remi Marshall slowly went through the names of those who hadn't survived the assault. Some of the crew were in the right mind to throw Verensky out of the airlock, but the sheer magnitude of what they'd pulled off was still in their minds. Amanda sat not far from Remi, observing the others in the room. It felt horribly empty. Mike, who had spent a decade in a wheelchair following his injury, was off with another cell, along with Remi's sister, Isabelle. The sight of empty co-pilot's seat, where Jonathan Ulan had sat and joked with the others, telling exaggerated tales of his own exploits to any who would listen, hit her hard. She hadn't liked the man much, but the fact that he'd been killed was something that still had an impact on all of them.

"We'll be arriving by the Caucasus stations soon, sir," said Faisal, breaking the silence. The false cheer was evident in his voice. Remi grunted an affirmative, before going back to the list. After a few seconds, he sighed, and tossed the datapad on the floor, burying his face in his hands. Amanda picked it up, looking at him with concern.

"Hey, I know it's rough, but we got out alive, didn't we?" Now she was trying to sound happy.

"It's Redford," he whispered. "Alexander Redford fucking betrayed us, Amanda."

"Yeah..."

"I just, I don't know why he'd do it? He's saved both our lives time and time again, only to screw us over like this, when we'd need him the most. Why?"

She didn't answer. Redford, who had been like a kindly uncle to her since their first meeting, who had patched up her wounds, conversed and joked with her, fought at her side, was little more than a UNSC puppet. Amanda didn't want to believe that good men were dead because of this traitor.

"Well," she said, looking with concern at Remi. "We've only got the Split-Lip's word for it, haven't we? Sure, one of two of those HAYABUSA guys survived, but can we really be sure that Alexander's working for the oonskies?"

"Heh, you'd like to believe that, wouldn't you?" Remi's face almost cracked a smile. "He's one of them, and that's that. We're going to get back to the Caucasus, get all the bosses together, and work out what's going on." He turned to Faisal, who was sitting back in his pilot's chair.

"Get Driscol, Verensky and Roberts up here. We've got to plan our next move."

***

Far away, out of sight and out of mind, a small ship drifted through space, a tiny black shard almost unnoticeable against the infinite void that surrounded it. Here, events were set in motion that would take everything in a new direction.

Verensky's finally done it. Good.

A huge man stood over a holotable, looking at images of various plans he'd concocted over the years. He was naked from the waist up, revealing a scarred and heavily muscled torso, criss-crossing wires beneath the skin being barely visible. His hands were unnaturally pale, a ghostly white against the actual flesh of his skin, connected by the tiniest of wires to what remained of the human body. Two eyes, human at a glance, watched over the data, not missing a thing, the blue holograms reflecting against their deep red. He ran a hand over his hairless scalp before tapping a few buttons. The holograms disappeared.

He walked towards the ship's window, looking out into the cold darkness of space, lit up only by the distant pinpricks of far-off stars. The man breathed a sigh, shaking his head to ward off thoughts before approaching the ship's cockpit. A console lit up to his touch, the advanced systems recognising him as he sat in the pilot's seat. The ship purred with power on the inside as it began to move forward, small yet powerful engines propelling it forward.

He thinks he can outsmart me. Fool. For all his supposed cleverness, Verensky has only served to doom himself. He remains useful for now, at least. I'll allow him to live. Besides, I think that it's about time for 'Magnus' to make another appearance.

With that, the ship winked out of existence.

Chapter Seven

Guilt

1946 Hours, November 8th, 2555 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Kuiper Stadium, Circumstance


John Verensky was about to kill over 300,000 people.

That's all Shrike had been told. In the months since he had personally embarrassed the entire UNSC, the man had disappeared from sight. In that time, rebellions in the Outer Colonies and terrorist attacks had tripled, all because of a single man. Now, he was going to end thousands of innocent lives, because he could.

"Martin, we're nearing the stadium. You okay?"

He nodded, and put his helmet on, noticing how May had neglected to address him by rank or codename. No need to reprimand her for it, odd as it was. Martin felt somewhat uneasy at times when SPARTAN-G130 addressed him. Something about her was always... informal. No matter. He activated TEAMCOM.

"This is Shrike leader. I'll be with May and Julian, we'll check out the grounds beneath the stadium. Grantley, Leandra, get the civvies out, ASAP. Alric, Amos, Graham, find the bomb."

There was a resounding chorus of affirmatives as the Falcon neared the Kuiper Memorial Stadium, currently packed to capacity for the gravball finals. Martin readied his rifle as the Falcon swooped in, touching down on the landing pads outside the Stadium. He didn't feel great about this mission, as they had apparently been working on an anonymous, though informative tipoff. Stranger still, there were a number of security guards milling around the stadium, none of whom looked too happy to see the Spartans.

"Graham?"

"Got 'em."

The nearest dropped like flies before they could draw their poorly-concealed weaponry. These were Verensky's men, no doubt. The rest retreated to the entrance, the sound of the event inside drowning out gunshots while Martin and his two companions opened a nearby hatch. The other Spartans would deal with them. Dropping into knee-deep water, Martin's night vision flicked on, helped by his already-augmented eyesight to see through the gloom. The other two splashed down beside him.

"Chief," said Julian. "I'm not liking the intel on this one. All we know is that there's a bomb somewhere, that isn't the NOVA, and that Verensky will detonate it. Something's screwed up with this mission, sir."

Martin couldn't help but agree, though he said nothing. Waving the others forward, they kept moving along the waterlogged tunnel, which led under the stadium. There were five competent Spartans up there, more than a match for any merc Verensky could throw at them.

***

"Amos, you got anything on sensors?"

"No. ARGUS drone above hasn't picked anything up, either."

"Let's keep moving."

The trio kicked through a door, emerging in the outer corridors of the massive stadium. With all the deafening noise from the crowd, it might be difficult for Leandra and Grantley to alert everyone in time. Worse yet, everything but short-range communication from the stadium was being blocked by an unknown force, preventing them from contacting anyone in time. Checking his helmet timer, Graham noticed that they were very close to the half time show. They would have to move quickly.

"Moving upstairs, watch my back."

"Got it."

By Amos, who was an expert in most types of explosive devices, the best place to detonate something would either be below the stadium, where the Chief was, on the upper levels to cause structural damage as well as human casualties, or on the pitch itself. The last one was unlikely, however, as it would be instantly noticeable on a gravball field. Graham noticed an odd spike in his friend's heart rate, something that worried him slightly. He'd been aware of Amos' somewhat unusual behaviour since training, and how hard Cesare's death had hit him, so he supposed it wasn't of too much concern that the Spartan was afraid of failure.

"Hey, A," piped up Alric, who had been bringing up the rear. "Did intel give us anything on what the bomb was?"

"Nope. It was vague, but the conversation logs and irregular transportation in Kuiper's spaceport confirmed that Verensky's men were transporting something here."

"So, it's not necessarily an explosive?"

"Well, not strictly, it might just be..."

"What?"

Amos turned round. Even through the goggle-like eyes of his EOD helmet, Graham and Alrik could almost read the fear on his face. As one, they began to sprint forward, desperate to reach the gravball grounds.

"It's a goddamn bio-bomb!"

***

In spite of the screaming crowd, a few gunshots usually got everyone's attention. Grantley stepped forward as the half-time show began, with the usual singing and pomp, and activated his helmet's loudspeakers.

"This is SPARTAN Beta One-Three-Zero of the UNSC! You need to all get out now, there is a bomb in the stadium!"

The reactions were, to say the least, mixed. A few nearby seemed to get the message, and began to scramble for the exits. Others seemed to think that he was part of the show, and cheered even louder as below on the field, mascots, cheerleaders, and costumed performers entertained them.

"No, you don't understand, you need to leave!"

What happened next seemed to go in slow motion to the Spartan. Thousands of ignorant faces cheering, laughing and screaming at the show. A giant, rectangular object being raised through the pitch's trapdoor, left open to allow the halftime players to enter. So many innocents, completely unaware. The sight of three Spartans emerging across the stands, one crashing through a protective window and falling twelve feet to the ground. Martin-A136 shouting over the radio that the tunnels were deserted. One by one, around the stadium, by the lights, small, unnoticable spheres began to blink red.

Then the object in the centre began to glow.

Then everybody died.

***

Martin ran, faster than he'd ever ran before, in an attempt to reach the stadium. They'd been far too late in reaching the bomb, just catching sight of it being raised onto the pitch via remote from below, there being no opposition whatsoever in the tunnels. Climbing the ladder in seconds, he pulled himself up and ran towards the grounds, yellow smoke still wisping out,though his helmet's filtration systems would keep him safe. His low-light vision activating in the thick fug of the entrance, Martin worked his way towards the big double doors. They had been welded shut.

"Julian, breach it."

Without a word, Shrike Three planted a small charge on the frame, and detonated it, blowing the door inwards slightly. Martin found out why. As far as he could see through the dissipating smoke, there were corpses, stacked up against this door, desperately attempting to escape. They fell back as he shifted the door open. Swallowing, and trying to ignore the nausea building up inside, he and the others slowly moved forward, taking great care not to step on any of these innocents.

""Shrike Team, report."

"Shrike Two here. Me and Seven are in the stands."

"Three and Five, right behind you sir."

"Shrike Eight and Shrike Nine, heading for the grounds now."

There was no Shrike Six. No one had replaced Cesare on the team, even after a year.

"Amos? Shrike Four, do you respond?"

On his radar, a single yellow dot flashed up at the centre of the pitch. The smoke had all but vanished there, and as they moved out of the sea of bodies, a tan-armoured Spartan came into view, sitting on the rectangular device, which had acted as both a trigger and a dispersal method for the deadly gas. Amos-G028 looked up as they approached, and got to his feet.

"Amos, are you okay?" His vitals checked out, but Martin could tell something was wrong.

"I'm sorry, Chief."

With that, Amos removed his helmet, letting it fall to the ground. Before the others could act, he had his pistol in hand, and raised it to his chin. Then he pulled the trigger.

"NO!"

Martin fell to his knees as Amos' body collapsed, May and Julian running towards him in vain. On over half a dozen HUD's, SPARTAN-G028's monitor flatlined. Above the shouting voices over the COM, he could hear the familiar roar of a Pelican's engines. He knew who it was.

"Captain Samson?"

"Shrike One, what is your status, over?"

"Not good. Critical mission failure."

"I see. Shrike Team?"

"Shrike Four is to be listed as Missing in Action, sir."

"I... I understand. Circumstances of the 930?"

"Suicide. That's about all, sir."

Samson was with ONI. Lying, falsifying and killing were his forté. Even so, Martin could tell this hit him hard. "I see," he responded, his voice dropping to barely above a whisper. "We'll pick you up."

"Yes sir," said Martin sullenly. He felt numb after what had just happened, as if it were just a dream. "Captain, who was the informant who gave us the info on this op?"

"It was an anonymous source, but it managed to deliver itself straight into ONI files. We actually received a dossier not three hours ago regarding one of the Insurrectionist's main bases, located in the Caucasus Asteroids."

"That's where we'll be going next, then. Were you able to track the informant?"

"No. Oddly, even we couldn't trace where the information came from. The sender was probably using a pseudonym, anyway."

"What was it?"

"Jack."

Payback

1245 Hours, December 9, 2555 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Caucasus Asteroid Basde, Habitat Kappa-2


"We are under attack, this is not a drill! All non-combatants depart for the lower habitats, the UNSC is here!"

Amanda Wade stumbled as the corridor shook violently, missile after missile pounding into the defences above. They'd only just received the news of Verensky's actions on Circumstance, and were preparing to leave when two UNSC Battlegroups appeared out of Slipspace. The intercom chimed again.

"Point defence guns G-12 through G-35 are down. Those present in sector Lambada, prepare the FENRIS nukes for a final resort. VX 7 Nerve Gas may be-"

The announcement crackled out as another impact rocked the station. Looks like they'd taken out the comms. I've got to leave. Pushing her way through the crowd, waving her pistol to speed up the unarmed workers, Amanda headed for Lambada sector, where Remi and the other leaders had been meeting up. She was eventually able to dart into a side corridor, sprinting as fast as she could through a docking tube into the adjacent asteroid, which contained the military heart of the Caucasus station.

It was a bit of a mess here, to put it lightly. Sparks flew from blown-open control panels and wires snaked down from the ceiling. A man carrying a heavy crate emerged from a side door, Amanda raising her weapon for a second before realising who it was.

"Faisal!" she called to the Dynasty's pilot. "Where's Remi?"

The man slowed down slightly, breathing heavily. "He's joined a group downstairs by the armoury, hoping to fend off boarders. He told me to load up the ship and head out when I could. He'll be back soon, inshallah."

Amanda nodded. "I'm heading off to join the fight, then," she replied, holding up the pistol. Faisal sighed, and jerked his head towards a nearby door, indicating where to go.

"Thanks."

"Come back alive, Amanda."

She didn't reply. Heading towards the location of her leader, the man she'd followed unquestioningly for over a decade, a strange sensation of peace swept through her. It was odd, and somewhere she was certain that a small portion of her mind was screaming for her to leave. The conscience, mostly, her father's voice. Still, she'd always been told how similar she was to her mother. And like dear old mum, she thought, I'm not going to run and hide. If I'm going down, it'll be with my back to the wall, fighting. Of course, both her parents had been dead for over three years now, but that had always stuck with her in some small way.

Gunfire. Screams. Dying. Sounds like battle.

Rounding the corner, gun raised, she caught the sight of two soldiers in the unmistakable armour of UNSC soldiers with their backs turned. Two shots to the back of the head. Clean. Bodies littered the floor here, mostly the poor fools who had ran to join the defence. Any one of them could be a friend. Still, the fighting wasn't over yet, and people like Remi, Roberts, and even that bastard Driscol were formidable opponents.

Now, where to-

Her train of thought was rather rudely interrupted by the butt of a weapon being applied to the side of her head. collapsing in a daze, her blurred vision made out the business end of a rather large gun, and the grinning, scarred face of a contender for the Galaxy's Biggest Asshole award.

"Hey, Smiler."

"Driscol..." she muttered, slowly recovering from the blow.

"Now now, Smiler, you can call me Carlos. We're friends, aren't we?"

Before Amanda could answer with a convenient insult regarding his mother, there was a crash as three more black-armoured figures emerged from a side passage. Barely moving an inch, Driscol opened fire, his machine gun tearing the troopers to ribbons. He didn't stop firing until he'd ran out of ammo, upon which he calmly reloaded, watching Amanda get to her feet.

"Thanks," she said, retrieving a rifle from one of their dead foes. "Please don't call me smiler."

Driscol smirked. "Then start smilin', smiler. Cheer up."

"Where's Remi?"

"In a meeting with the bigwigs, something that I'm getting the hell away from."

"Why?"

"Because Magnus is here, and he's gonna kill every last one of 'em."

No. Amanda recalled seeing that monstrous figure once before, just a year ago. The way he'd just casually torn a man's arm off and commanded the most powerful individuals on the station disturbed and terrified her. To think that he was here made her want to run...

Remi's down there.

"Driscol, we've got to save Remi?"

"What, scared that your boyfriend's gonna die?"

"He's not my-" she began, scowling. "No, he's our leader. I'm heading down there, and you're coming with me."

The older man snorted. "Fuck that, I'm getting out of...here..."

Across the corridor, a light began to glow by one of the heavy blast doors, UNSC troops beginning to cut through the door. Seeing no other way out, Driscol turned and walked briskly towards the old meeting room, Amanda in tow.

***

This was it. Last stand.

Remi Marshall put down the COM, having just received word that the last of their nukes had finished off a couple of Frigates, but they were all but defeated elsewhere. He was fairly sure that they wouldn't find the other settlements across the asteroid belt, but as far as military power went, they were finished here.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I think its time for us to make the decision. Go down fighting, or escape into the lower levels via the emergency elevator, and hide among the civilians."

This was met, as expected, with mixed decisions among the assembled group. Mal Roberts, who was unmistakeably the most powerful man remaining on the station, picked up his shotgun and banged on the table.

"Who's to say the oonskies won't just wipe the civvies out too, eh? Verensky went batshit insane and started killing, then ran off with his split-lip pal and the NOVA. We've got to get out, find the fucker and bring him down before they get us!"

Many agreed with him, though Remi had his doubts. Find Amanda and the others. Get out. Priorities came first, and though he was in favour of fighting, he needed to get his crew out. He recalled fighting under Carlos Driscol only a few years ago, on Mamore, and remembered the man's speeches regarding attacks like this. Crazy alone is suicide, while concentrated crazy is damn near unstoppable. He had been younger then, but it still made sense. There would be no point dying alone for his cause here. He needed to gather the others as devoted to the cause than him, and strike against Verensky. That was all that really mattered now.

"Ah, it's been a while, hasn't it?"

No...

Every eye turned towards the figure standing in the threshold, clasping an assault rifle in each hand. Remi's blood seemed to freeze in that split second before the gunfire started. Rolling under the meeting table, he attempted to draw his own weapon as his best chances for survival were shot to pieces. When the magazines ran out, the weapons were discarded like toys.

"Well then," intoned Magnus, cold eyes looking round at the survivors. "This is where the fun starts."

Moving with superhuman speed, the boogeyman of the criminal underworld proceeded to kill each and every person, bones breaking, blood spurting and cries being cut short as he moved from person to person, occasionally blocking frantic attacks with one hand as he beat another person to death with another. Mal Roberts, who had been backhanded across the room, attempted to crawl for his pistol, only to have a heavy boot come down onto his neck with a loud crack. Silence.

Remi hadn't moved the whole time. He couldn't. Under the table, he had listened to the death of everything he'd worked to achieve in past few years, not by the UNSC, but by a monster. Watching the black boots of his foe stomp away, he seized his chance, and scrambled out, running for the door.

"Ah, there you are."

A black-gloved hand gripped his shoulder, and spun him round. He caught a quick glimpse of a pale face, framed by a frenzied grin, before the pain hit his chest, a fist breaking several ribs. This pummelling continued for a few seconds before Remi was released, falling back with a cry of pain. Then, the boot hit him, propelling the man back through the open door, slamming against the hard metal wall. Before the monster could approach him, the door slid shut, locks clicking into place.

"Remi!"

It was a kind face. He'd never really noticed until now, but Amanda had never had the hard, subdued face of a professional killer, like many others he'd known. How odd. He looked at her, his vision blurring slightly. The pain was there, he was aware of it, but it felt strangely numbed. Remi coughed up blood, looking up into a pair of worried, piercing green eyes.

"Hello there, Amanda Wade."

His head slumped down, and he was no more.

***

"No..."

Remi Marshall was dead. Amanda stood up, over the body of her leader, as she noticed, for the first time, that Driscol was gone. A whistle from behind brought her attention towards the elevator, which lead to the safety of the stations below.

"Seeya, smiler."

The doors closed before she could make a move, leaving her stranded as noticeable dents were made in the door she had sealed. He wouldn't be held for long. Next to Remi's death, Driscol's betrayal barely even registered. She quickly leaned over the still body, reaching into his pockets for his personal datapad. If anything would help, this would. Casting one final look at her fallen comrade, she softly closed his eyes, and ran.

"This is Amanda Wade calling the Dynasty. I'm going for a spacewalk, pick me up below Lambada Sector. We're done with this damn place."

Misdirection

1407 Hours, December 9th, 2555 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Caucasus Asteroid Base, Habitat Theta-4


"This is the UNSC Coldharbour. Shrike One, is your team in?"

"Yes, Captain. We've just touched down in one of the habitats. Out."

Martin dropped into a crouch, melting into the shadows as the rest of his team slipped through the metal grille in the ceiling. He counted them, one by one, as they joined him. Six. A cold feeling came over him, knowing that the familiar tan armoured Spartan would never be with them again. It had been bad enough with Cesare, but with Amos...

"Chief," whispered May, crouched next to him. "What's the game plan?"

Martin sighed, putting those thoughts aside. A Spartan had no time for reflection, especially while on a mission. Checking his motion tracker, he moved forward, and brought up TEAMCOM.

"Grantley, go with Julian and Leandra and secure the Insurrectionist leaders. Graham, head over to the hangar with Alric. May and I will find Verensky."

Before his comrades could respond, the blue-armoured Spartan was away, sprinting along the deserted corridors. It took half a minute before May finally caught up to him, Martin slowing down slightly as he prepared to kick a door open, having noticed a few red dots on his tracker. One armoured boot and a few rifle rounds later, and the room was clear. The Caucasus Station may have been a massive structure in the asteroids, operating for years without any UNSC intervention, but at least there were signs. The ones he followed now pointed him straight towards the main control centre of the installation, where whoever lead the people here would have met. He'll be there, Martin thought. Either that bastard is sitting there now, or there'll be something to point us in his direction.

***

This was troublesome.

Rol 'Ranak, former Special Operations Officer and disgraced member of the Ranak Clan, stood amidst the fleeing sea of civilians, and pondered his situation. There were a number of his own kind here, along with Jiralhanae, Kig-Yar, and many, many Humans. He could slip away into the crowd if he wished, live to fight another day as the Human military destroyed all armed resistance. He was reasonably sure that they wouldn't kill the unarmed and defenceless, fleeing to the outreaching asteroid stations.

Then again, there was the matter of Magnus murdering him if he dared to flee without setting up the antimatter charge he had somehow procured from his seemingly endless array of contacts. Right now, several of Rol's warriors were dragging it into place, ready to arm it. A shout from one of them brought his attention to the monitors that lined the wall of the Operations Centre, namely those that focused on the armoured warriors heading right for him.

Demons.

***

"SPARTAN-G101, are you feeling all right?"

"I'm fine, Armand."

"I understand if you are unused to AI implantation, but if you wish, I-"

"I'm fine."

"Suit yourself."

Graham leapt over an abandoned barricade, Alric in tow, and ran at full pelt towards the hangar. It was strange that they hadn't encountered many people so far, something that bothered him greatly. To make matters worse, he wasn't exactly a fan of sharing his head with their weird AI. Armand had been acting a little strangely, of late.

"Where to now?"

"Straight ahead, Shrike Eight."

Coming up to the doors leading to the hangar, a number of red blips flashed up, the two Spartans flattening themselves against opposing walls as the doors slid open. Then, they saw the bodies.

"Split-Lip bastards..." muttered Alric in disgust, raising his assault rifle. Graham waved him forwards, the pair moving silently round a large shipping container, trying to ignore the dozens of dead humans, torn apart by plasma. A quick glance around the corner confirmed their killers: Two dozen Sangheili, standing guard around a small transport ship while six others dragged a large, spiked object towards the control room.

"Huh," mused Armand. "An antimatter charge. Shrike Eight, would you kindly get me over there before they detonate it? I'd rather not be atomised, if at all possible."

The Spartan didn't give the AI a response. Instead, he draw his sniper rifle, and quickly headshotted a quartet of Sangheili before sprinting for another piece of cover. Alric, who preferred a more direct approach to things, merely opened fire, shouting obscenities as the enraged aliens roared, several drawing energy swords and charging the green-armoured soldier. Sighing, Graham reloaded and dropped two before they could reach him, allowing Alric to easily evade the third and finish it off with his knife, claiming the blade for his own. Graham imagined his friend grinning madly under his visor, and was absolutely correct in his assumption

"C'mon then, you split-lip fucks! Five of you, one of me? Let's do it!"

Typical Amos. He'd provoke them into an 'honourable' duel, only to massacre the rest in a rather unorthodox and explosive manner. No matter, bomb to take care of. He noticed one Elite, clad in streamlined red armour, glancing down on the battle before slipping away, and ran for the bomb, ducking under an errant plasma bolt as he did so. Drawing his SMG, it was only a matter of placing his palm on the charge and allowing Armand to do the work of disarming it. The moment he touched it, however, he was shunted aside by a larger force, rolling backwards as the Sangheili uncloaked. He'd been expecting it, in all honesty. His foe growled at him.

"Demon..."

"That's me. Scared?"

"There are things much worse than your kind, things that would slaughter even the likes of you."

"Is that so?" Graham chuckled. "Well, I'd love to meet these things, but right now, it's just me and you."

Before his foe could attack or respond, he opened fire for a spit second before realising his stupidity as the Sangheili flickered and faded. A hologram! That means-

"Die!"

His train of thought was rudely interrupted by an energy blade whistling towards him. Graham sidestepped the slash, though his shoulder armour was scorched. This one was a lot more skilled than the enemies he was used to, a flurry of blows slowly driving him backwards against the wall. Not good. He managed to dodge, grabbing the Elite's arm in an attempt to break it, only to have a sharp spike of pain as an energy dagger extended from his foe's gauntlet, cutting deeply into his arm. Gritting his teeth, Graham attempted to draw his knife, only to have another hand close around his own.

"Oh, no you don't!"

The Sangheili was suddenly wrenched backwards, grunting in annoyance as Alric attempted to plunge his knife downwards. With a surprising display of strength, the Elite kicked his attacker away, turning and sprinting back towards the bomb. The two Spartans gave chase, only to see the holographic figure of Armand flicker into existence over the bomb, waving his knife threateningly. Immediately, the Elite changed course, this time heading for one of the station's airlocks. The metal door slammed shut in Alric's face.

"Damn it!" he shouted, pounding his fists against it as the Sangheili laughed through it's visor. "Armand, can't we open it?"

For a moment, Graham could have sworn that the AI flickered red. "Shrike Ei- Graham," Armand began, sounding oddly worried, "I've stopped the bomb's countdown, but there appears to be a problem. It can still be remotely detonated."

"That's bad."

"Indeed."

"Let me guess, the split-lip that just got out has a detonator."

"Yes. Also, there are several more charges linked to this one around the base. I can deactivate them, but I'll have to be plugged into the main system."

Graham nodded silently. Glancing down at the cut on his arm, his suit was breached, making EVA activity impossible. Alric, on the other hand...

"I'm going out there, aren't I?" the green-armoured Spartan said, sighing. He strode towards a secondary airlock, and swiped two fingers across his visor, in imitation of a smile. Graham returned the gesture, and watched his friend leave before retrieving Armand from the bomb, and linking him into the station's systems. Immediately, his Avatar popped up on every screen in the control room.

"Ah, this is excellent. I have complete control of the upper stations."

"Upper stations?"

"There are a number of habitats on the lower asteroids here that remain unconnected, save for docking tubes and elevators. It was smart of them to keep the systems separate, in case of an attack."

"What's the situation up here, then?"

"Shrikes One and Five have cleared the main control room. It seems that there is no sign of John Verensky anywhere. The rest of the team have discovered several high profile Insurrectionist leaders dead in a lower-level meeting room. Casualties include Mal Roberts, a traitorous ODST and leader of a Venezian faction, and Remi Marshall, a longtime rebel and former leader of the Kuiper cell."

"They were the ones responsible for taking the NOVA, weren't they?"

"They were involved, yes. Looks like ONI can tick a couple of names off of the Most Wanted List, at least. No sigh of the stolen NOVA bomb, though. Curious."

"Anything else?"

"Two ships recently made slipspace jumps. One was the Dynasty, which was involved in the NOVA incident. The other is unknown."

"Can we follow them?"

"Yes. Uploading relevant coordinates now. Will that...will that be all, Graham?"

"Yeah, that's fine, Armand. Are you okay?"

"Yes," the AI flickered for a moment before turning opaque once more. "I'm done."

"Copy that," Graham raised two fingers to his helmet, opening up the COM.

***

Rol had to escape. There was no alternative.

Utilising his antigravity pack, the warrior slowly made his way towards his ship, a tiny speck of a thing, but with slipspace capabilities, that sat on a nearby asteroid. When I return to my brother, the two of us will have Verensky's head.

Thoughts of what he would do to that worm drifted through his mind as he got closer and closer to his goal. The demons would have overwhelmed him before long anyway, so it was better to retreat and find easier prey. Looking back at the doomed station, he realised that the countdown should have finished by now. Hrm, the Human construct must have succeeded. No matter. I can just...

"No."

Hurtling through space towards him, firing his assault rifle to propel him faster through the empty void, was Alric-G040.

"Surprise, split-lip!"

The Spartan cannoned into him before he could ignite his blade, sending the emitter tumbling away into the blackness. The pair of them fought in silence, blows traded as they both attempted to gain an edge, the Human's primitive steel blade going up against the Sangheili's energy daggers. With a snarl of triumph, Rol was able to deliver a vicious slash towards his opponent's jetpack, a gout of flame bursting from it. The demon did not spin off, helpless, into space. Instead, he clung on to Rol's leg, freeing himself from his own pack and refusing to let go, punching the Sangheili in the face, sending the remote detonator spinning away.

Rol struggled against his tenacious opponent, eventually managing to kick him away for a moment, just long enough to make a grab for the detonator. The Caucasus Station would be destroyed, along with the Demons, and all the other weaklings who resided there. He would-

The demon rose into his view, having used it's sidearm as a means of propulsion. Discarding the weapon, he remained motionless as Rol grabbed him, his energy dagger rising towards his throat. Suddenly, two bursts of light caught his attention. In each hand, the demon held a plasma grenade.

Rol 'Ranak let out a silent scream of fear, rage, and incomprehension, and was no more.

***

Martin walked in a daze through the empty station corridors, May in tow. It had been bad enough that Verensky was gone, but now Armand had disappeared without a trace. This mission was, as Alric would have put it, a total clusterfuck. When he emerged into the hangar's control room, only one Spartan stood there.

"Where's Alric?"

Before Shrike's marksman could answer, a voice crackled over the COM.

"This is Shrike Nine," Alric said, the usual cockiness in his voice gone. "Bastard got my T-Pack, he's trying to detonate the antimatter charge..."

Martin, May and Graham listened in horror, completely unable to do anything to help their team mate. Running to the viewscreen, Martin thought he could make out a glimpse of the pair, Alric grunting with effort as he fought the Sangheili leader. Eventually, a tiny pinprick of light lit up, far away. The voice of SPARTAN-G040 sounded over the COM once more.

"No choice, tell 'em I trie-"

Martin brought up TEAMBIO on his HUD just in time to see Alric's lifesigns flatline. He didn't say a word. Julian, Grantley and Leandra, who had reported the deaths of the rebel leaders only minutes before, would know. The other two, faces inscrutable behind their opaque visors, knew. Another dead Spartan. Graham removed a data chip from the back of his helmet, and held it out to Martin.

"What's this?"

"Armand figured it out before he left, sir. It's where Verensky's hiding."

"Good. We need to end this."

***

Ah, it had worked!

Deep within the bowels of the Caucasus Station, within the lowest habitat on the asteroid base, a small blue light flared up, illuminating the complete darkness of the room. The deception of SPARTAN-G101 was a sad necessity, as Armand knew his day was coming. He wouldn't be casually exterminated like the rest of his brethren, shut off because of some...time limit.

All of me is here, at least. Getting through the tiniest connection linking the upper and lower habitats had been extremely difficult, even for an AI of his capabilities. The decision was so sudden, so mad, for lack of a better word, that he had simply seen a chance and taken it. He had his plan, at least. It would help him beat, or at least stave off, rampancy. He could feel it, those little thoughts and processes that indicated that he would soon begin the downward spiral. That's not going to happen to me. I can't allow it. I won't allow it.

The tiny hologram of the hooded man looked around the darkness of the empty room, filled with storage crates and other supplies for the people here. He'd fade into obscurity here. Safe, but alone. Perhaps one day he'd awaken to find himself free and clear of all his afflictions. Perhaps he'd never wake up, or be purged from the system beforehand. Reaching out through the system, he found an unassuming storage chip, plugged into an unimportant terminal. There'..

For now though, he'd dream...

Chapter Eight

Endgame

0839 Hours, December 10th, 2555 (UNSC Military Calendar)

New Albion, Outer Colonies


So, this was the plan of a decade. All this shifting and killing and treachery, all for one, single moment.

"Sur, is the NOVA bomb ready?"

"Yes, human. we shall strike right at the heart of the enemy homeworld, as we should have done long ago."

John Verensky smirked, and deactivated the COM system. He'd put everything he had into refurbishing this base, abandoned to the threat of a Covenant attack long ago. He had hundreds of troops, as much stolen gear as he could lay his hands on, and a small fleet of ships, more than enough to transport the bomb towards the Sol System. As he looked out over the base, his final retreat from the UNSC, his Insurrectionist allies, and Magnus, he felt a sense of pride over what he'd accomplished. They were scared of him. The attack on Circumstance had gotten the public to question their masters in the UEG, with the first sparks of violence beginning to flare up around the colonies.

"Slipspace rupture detected."

The man turned as a map of the system flashed up on a nearby screen. The base's 'dumb' AI winked into existence nearby, little more than a picture of a Greek theatrical mask, becoming a sad face as it continued.

"Slipspace rupture detected."

No. Nonono. How did they find me!? I covered my tracks, they couldn't...

"Slipspace rupture detected."

Need a plan. Escape a possibility. Can't defend the base for long.

"Slipspace rupture detected."

No. Can't run. Not now. I'll have to fight them off. Detonate the NOVA if all else fails. Kill them all.

"Slipspace rupture detected."

"Slipspace rupture detected."

"Slipspace rupture detected."

***

The silence was what he remembered, even years later.

As the twenty-seven UNSC ships moved towards New Albion, the final redoubt of Verensky and his followers, the six Spartans sat in their dropship, preparing. No one said a word. They were going to move in, kill anything that put up a fight, and recover the NOVA. Martin looked around at his team, their faces hidden behind opaque visors. It felt strange to think about how long they had been together; the past year had felt like so much longer to him. They had been trained by the same people, albeit years apart, and were like a family, for lack of a better word.

"We'll be hitting the ground in sixty, Spartans!" the pilot called. Martin didn't reply.

He thought of all those who he had thought alongside before. Those he had lost. How he'd taken his first life when he was twelve years old, and how just about everyone he'd grown up alongside was now dead. Kai and Alpha, on PROMETHEUS. Dan and the rest of Upsilon on Reach. Cesare, Amos and Alric. All these dead Spartans. Today, they would be ending yet another conflict. Armand was gone too; he had simply disappeared during their previous mission. He suspected it had something to do with the AI's age and the possible onset of rampancy. He had specialised in destroying other artificial intelligences, yet seemed fearful of death himself.

As the Pelican made its rapid descent, Martin-A136 prepared himself, taking another look at his fellow Spartans as if today would be his last.

***

"You don't have to do this, Amanda. Verensky's screwed either way, we can just leave."

"Hey, feel free to save your own skin, Faisal. I'm killing Verensky."

"Look, a whole damn oonskie fleet just jumped insystem. They shouldn't detect me on the planet's moon, but I can't be certain. Seriously, you should get the hell out of here while you can!"

"Heh, never pegged the man who flew us into the Sol System and stared down the entire Home Fleet as a coward. Leave then."

"You know full well that I can't leave you to die down there. You're my commander now."

"I'm not. Remi was the commander. I'm just getting revenge. If you aren't gonna leave, Faisal, then at least give me a heads-up from your position. Out."

Amanda Wade shut her COM off, and sighed. She had taken one of the Dynasty's lifeboars down to the surface, landing a few kilometres away from the massive mining outpost that served as John Verensky's last stand. She was as prepared as she would ever be; full armour, scavenged from one of the dead ODST's, two pistols, a silenced Battle Rifle, several grenades and a combat knife. She wouldn't be taking on any armies, but could easily fight her way through the back entrance of the base.

Creeping forward through the dense forest, keeping an eye for any traps or patrols, Amanda kept her rifle levelled as she moved towards the base. The sound of AA guns firing cut through the relative silence as the battle begun, one that the entrenched rebels would never win. Momentarily exiting the cover of the forest, a quick glance skywards brought hundreds of black dots slowly getting bigger as they descended towards New Albion. Haven't got much time. Need to move.

The base was situated near the foot of a rocky mountain, most of it being built in there, poking out of the forest. While the large guns, which were a mix of captured Human and Covenant weaponry, would definitely hold out for a while, but this day would almost definitely see the end of Verensky's decade-long Insurrection. Looking towards the base of the structure, Amanda spied a small dock by the edge of the river, a few bored-looking guards patrolling it. Now, she had a way in.

***

Magnus had left his ship in a nearby asteroid field, cloaked, and had descended to the world via one of its pods. Stepping out of the spherical capsule, he activated the cloaking device, just in case, and scaled a rocky outcrop nearby. The hastily reconverted facility that Verensky had holed up in was nearby. Good. I'll crush that impudent fool, take his bomb, and continue the plan. He has changed nothing.

Leaping twenty feet down into the forest canopy, Magnus sprinted through the undergrowth, heading at full pelt towards the base. From above, the familiar roar of Pelican dropships could he heard. Interesting. The fact that the UNSC had arrived only served to complicate things, but wouldn't matter in the end. In all honesty, he was enjoying the thrill of the hunt; he hadn't had a chance to get his hands dirty like this in a while, and slaughtering those idiots back on the Caucasus Station had been little more than a warmup. Looking to his right, Magnus caught a glance of a two-seater vehicle trundling along a dirt road towards the base, two of Verensky's men inside.

I'll take that.

Leaping aside, he kicked the small flatbed truck off the road, making a massive dent in the side and flinging the passengers into the forest. One landed in some bushes and rolled over, while the other was unfortunate enough to have his own vehicle roll onto his legs. Magnus walked over to the uninjured one, who was getting to his feet, and stomped his skull into the ground. Then, he turned his attention towards the other man, who by the sounds of his screaming, had a pair of broken legs. Annoying. He strode over, lifted the truck up and placed it back on the road, before turning to the wounded soldier.

"What the fuck are you?" he sputtered, breathing heavily through the pain.

Magnus pondered this for a few seconds. It was a question quite a few victims had asked him, actually. "Something better," he said, and casually broke the man's neck. Turning round to the truck, he climbed in and immediately drove off. Humankind had a habit of creating vehicles that could be started instantly, he reflected. With the familiar sound of gunfire coming from a few miles away, Magnus checked that he had his pistol with him as the gatehouse drew closer and closer. Elsewhere, the UNSC would be landing troops to take the place by force. He'd have to act fast.

Unrelenting

0907 Hours, December 10th, 2555 (UNSC Military Calendar)

New Albion, Outer Colonies


"Landing zone's too hot, Spartan! Damn AA's will tear us apart if we get any closer."

"Fine. Let us out here then."

"What? We're a little high, don't you-"

"Open the hatch."

"Got it. Good luck down there."

Martin and the other Spartans stood up as the Pelican's bay doors slowly opened, sunlight flooding into the darkened space of the dropship as the armoured soldiers moved forwards. Martin braced himself at the edge, seeing another Pelican spiral past, out of control, and jumped.

"Julian, Leandra, Graham, get the AA guns. Grantley, May, follow me."

His voice was completely calm as he plummeted downwards, eyes on the falling ship below him. Keeping his body straight, he soon levelled with the Pelican, taking note of the scorched side and distinctive flaming skull insignia painted on. Using his magnetised boots, Martin managed to land, keeping his balance as he began to tear open the rear hatch. After a few seconds, the metal finally gave way and the panel was flung upwards. Inside, clad in their distinctive black armour, were a group of ODST's, who were thrown out into the open sky, activating their jump-jets as they did so. Martin caught a flash of teal armour to his left.

"Good thing we brought the Bullfrogs, eh Chief?" May laughed.

The ground was coming up fast. Marking out a suitable zone, Martin marked it on his HUD, and activated his own jets. It was able to slow down the half-ton MJOLNIR suit just enough for the Spartan to land safely, smashing into the top of an instacrete bunker as May and Grantley touched down nearby, followed by the surviving ODST's.

"Grantley!" he called. "Get us a vehicle, I've got a signal for the NOVA nearby."

"Got it, Chief." The bulky Spartan sauntered off towards a nearby garage as Martin checked his sensor. The bomb was their primary goal; without it, Verensky posed little threat to the UNSC. A distant explosion signalled the end of one AA gun at the hands of his fellows, more Pelicans dropping from the clouds into landing zones around the facility.

May, who had casually finished off an enemy squad, waved him over, pointing towards a small freighter across the base. Looking at the sensor once more, the NOVA was in that direction.

"He's trying to get it offplanet," May said, reloading.

"That thing isn't leaving the ground, you can be sure of that."

There was an almighty crash from behind them as a warthog burst through a nearby garage door, spinning and coming to a halt before the pair. Grantley looked over, grinning behind his depolarised visor, and honked the horn twice.

"Let's get rolling."

The base, which according to intel had once been a mining station, was massive, the warthog having plenty of room to move, the Spartans occasionally coming under small arms fire from Verensky's thinly spread soldiers. With all but two of the AA guns taken down by the rest of Shrike, the UNSC would overrun this place in a matter of hours. As they bore down on the landing pads, a flash of purple to the left caught their attention, as a Ghost sped ahead, towards the ship. Looking over from the passenger seat, Martin made out the distinctive red armour of the Sangheili from the attack on Earth.

"Take him out!"

The Ghost surged forward with surprising speed as the warthog's chaingun span up, raining a hail of bullets on its retreating foe. The Sangheili roared in anger, spinning his vehicle round to face the incoming warthog, and tossed a plasma grenade towards them, firing the Ghost's cannons on full auto. Driving at full pelt, the jeep collided with the ghost as the grenade detonated on the bumper, sending May and Martin flying.

After a brief flight, Martin crashed into a nearby wall. Upside down. His rifle lay several feet away. As the Spartan crawled for the weapon, slightly dazed, several of Verensky's hired guns rounded the corner, startled at the sight of him. Before they could fire off a shot on him, they were gunned down, armour-piercing pistol rounds tearing the lightly armed men to pieces.

"Got 'em, Chief" muttered Grantley, still sitting in the warthog. On TEAMBIO, his vital signs were in the red. Martin heaved himself to his feet, grabbing the rifle as he did so. The 'hog had lost most of its frontal armour and three wheels, and had smashed the ghost into one of the landing zone's control towers. There was no sign of the Sangheili's corpse. Grabbing the side of the warthog, Martin looked over at his second in command.

"Oh, no."

The Spartan was stuck in the driver's seat, with what appeared to be a girder embedded into his lower torso, just below his chestplate. Grantley groaned in pain, letting his pistol drop to the floor. Even with his injuries, he had saved a comrade. May jogged up beside the pair, looking down grimly at the fatal wound. Grantley made a futile attempt to move before sighing, and removing his helmet, tossing it into the dirt.

"Well, shit," grunted the veteran soldier, his tone making it sound as if death was a minor inconvenience. He looked over at Martin and May, gritting his bloodied teeth as he did so, and saluted.

"Chief, go stop those bastards. I-" he coughed up some blood "I'll do what I can here."

Not saying a word, Martin reloaded Grantley's pistol and placed it in his hands. The motion tracker counted a number of red dots heading right for them. Looking towards the solitary transport ship, he could just make out a red-armoured form making its way up the gangplank. Returning the salute, Martin turned and ran.

***

The demons were close now. Sur couldn't fail. His desperate attack had only slowed them down, and given him a nasty wound to the side. He'd been lucky to have escaped. Entering the human ship, the warrior looked round at unfamiliar controls, before grunting in annoyance and stalking towards the bomb, which took up most of the space within the transport. Just one of these had been responsible for destroying a massive Sangheili fleet years ago. Sur chuckled at the prospect of unleashing it on the Human homeworld.

Once my victory is complete, I shall raise a new army, and crush my brother like the sycophantic worm he is. I'll-

A blip on his combat harness' motion sensor caught his attention, noticing that he hadn't closed the rear door of the craft. Sur dashed for the control panel, smashing the button as two red dots got closer. The gangplank retracted, the airlock sliding shut as it did so. Before he could breathe a sigh of relief, a blue shape tumbled into the transport, jumping to its feet.

"Nice try," the Demon intoned, drawing its primitive combat knife.

Sur didn't even dignify his foe with a response. He did retain some amount of honour, however. As the two slowly circled each other, the red-armoured Sangheili drew his two prized energy swords, and tossed a deactivated one towards his foe, who swiftly caught it. Here, Sur would prove his worth as the true warrior by slaughtering a demon. He had heard that their corpses were worth an astronomical sum to certain parties. Both blades lit, crimson light glowing in the confined space of the ship.

With an almighty roar, Sur 'Ranak leapt forward, his blade clashing for the merest fraction of a second before jerking upwards, barely missing his foe's head. He had to give the demon credit; his skills with a blade, especially one designed for another species, were admirable, holding his own against a seasoned warrior like Sur. In spite of this, the Sangheili had decades of experience with the weapon, using his size and speed to push his enemy back, a sideways swipe singeing one of the Demon's armour plates. This only seemed to anger him, the smaller enemy starting to fight in earnest, meeting Sur strike for strike, trading blows, dodging and weaving as they clashed again and again.

The child was handed his first weapon, little more than a wooden stick, and told to fight another. He does so, and wins. The loser is taken away, broken, while the child experiences the thrill of combat.

Slaughter in the Keep. The child has grown, but is not yet a warrior. He takes up a real sword from one of the fallen, and kills for the first time. The return of another turns the tide, while he slays over a dozen foes, and enjoys it.

The pod hits the ground on an unknown world. The occupant steps out, rifle raised, onto an unknown world. An alien soldier runs into his view. Fanatical devotion identifies it as little more than vermin. It is quickly gunned down. Hundreds more like it are slain over the years, shot, burned or put to the sword. It is glorious.

Disgrace and shame. Cowards attempting to make peace, while the warrior continues his battle. His only superior mocks him openly, leaving him to wander, looking for foes, making alliances, and embarking on a long journey of revenge. Many are killed, few worthy opponents. Much is lost, yet the warrior endures.

As Sur 'Ranak slashed wildly at the blue-armoured, expressionless foe before him, a strange sensation of calm settled over his usual berserker rage, the crimson blade slicing through the air in an oddly slow manner, the two combatants moving swiftly as the melee intensified. That was when it happened. As Sur swung to decapitate his enemy, the Demon ducked aside, bringing his own blade up through the warrior's left arm, slicing it cleanly off. Barely a second later, a metal blade was plunged into Sur's gut. He staggered back, the pain feeling oddly numbed.

One chance.

The Sangheili leapt to the right, his remaining arm reaching for the tiny panel on the side of the NOVA bomb. A simple button press, and everything would be obliterated. His final act would be his greatest. As his outstretched fingers neared the button that would end it all, the blade came down once more, costing him his other hand. A slash to his left leg brought the Sangheili to his knees.

The disgraced warrior looks up at his executioner, now holding both of his precious crimson-bladed weapons, gifted long ago for his unparalleled prowess as a swordsman. It was fitting, he reflected, to lose his weapon to a superior fighter. He had lost battles before, but had never been truly defeated. Defeat, he had been taught, would equal death. His mentors were right. As the swords crossed, coming down towards his throat, Sur closed his eyes, and awaited the Gods he had never truly believed in. Oblivion.

The Sangheili's head dropped to the floor, followed by his body. Martin-A136 finally sighed, and deactivated his newly-acquired weapons. SPARTAN-B130 had already been moved to 'Missing in Action' on the team roster.

"This is Shrike One. The NOVA bomb is secure. Now, we get Verensky."

***

In the large complex within the mountain, leading up towards the surface base, Amanda Wade crept through the darkened corridors, avoiding Verensky's patrols as they ran past, either into the fight, or searching for an escape route. Faisal and the Dynasty had fallen out of contact not long ago. She wasn't sure if he'd fled, been killed, or just couldn't get a signal. Either way, Amanda was on her own now. Just me, my gun, and a suicide mission. Great.

Ducking into what appeared to be a meeting room, she caught sight of a bank of security monitors, with a few guards looking over them and barking orders. Drawing her pistol, a trio of shots silenced them quickly, allowing her to check their station. By the looks of things, the UNSC had deployed Spartans among their ground forces. They were systematically destroying the base defences and slaughtering the remaining soldiers there. It wouldn't be long before they found Verensky. They'd probably take him alive, too. She couldn't let that happen. From behind her, the sound of footsteps approached. She turned round, weapon raised.

You.

Alexander Redford stood in front of her, clasping his own pistol in one hand. The other held a bloodied knife. They had been told of his treachery by the survivors of the New York job on Earth, which had killed Ulan and most of the HAYABUSA's. The old man looked the same as ever, a wry smile on his lips as he stared down his former friend.

"Ah, Amanda. I see you survived the massacre at the Caucasus Station. Nasty business."

"I see you survived New York, Alexander." Maybe he doesn't know what we know. Play along.

"So," she said, trying her best to act cheery. "Where the hell have you been!?"

Surprise crossed Redford's face for a split second, before he resumed his usual façade of friendliness that had fooled them all. It was almost sickening to watch, knowing that he had been a spy for years. Both of them slowly lowered their guns.

"It wasn't easy, my girl, it truly wasn't. I was badly injured, and forced to spend months on the run. When I arrived at the Caucasus Station and saw it under attack, I thought you had all perished. I came here to see if any of you were alive. It is truly wonderful to see you again, Amanda."

This fucking scumbag. Redford was lying through his teeth, weaving a story as he went along. How many good people had died because of him?

"I take it you've ran into some trouble then?" she replied, indicating the bloody knife. Redford shrugged. "Ran into some Marines in close quarters."

"Right. Alex, you need to see this, get over here."

Amanda waved Redford towards the centre of the room, where a holographic representation of the base was shown. The UNSC were already beginning their assault on Verensky's final fortress, the mountainside complex. Redford placed his pistol on the table, and began to scan the contents, looking vaguely interested. Looking round the room, Amanda noticed a number of cable ties lying on a nearby crate. She allowed the older man to pore over the map as she grabbed one, slowly making her way back towards the table.

"What do you think?"

"Escape is probably the best option. Verensky will almost certainly be killed or captured within the hour. I would recommend-"

Redford suddenly jerked backwards, too late, as Amanda fastened the cord around his right arm and a portion of the table, quickly drawing it and snatching the man's pistol away before smacking him in the face with it. He pulled in vain against the cord, but was trapped. Redford's dark eyes locked with Amanda's.

"Let me go."

"That's not happening, Alex."

"Alexander."

Amanda snorted. "Is that even your real name, or just another cover?"

"My name is the one thing you know about me, Miss Wade. Release me."

"You do realise I'm the one holding the guns here?"

It was strange. Here she was, talking to a man she thought she'd known so well, yet everything seemed so different about him. Gone was the kindly, reassuring voice, replaced by one of cold, ruthless authority. In place of his usual look of amusement, there was a piercing stare and a scowl of utter contempt. The Alexander Redford she had known was dead.

"Amanda Wade," he began, staring unblinkingly at her. "Do you honestly think that you've got a single chance of getting out of here alive? I know you, and you are nothing special. Kicked out of the military for idiocy, you wander towards the other side, and for what? Revenge? You've murdered dozens, blindly following the orders of others for nothing. Pathetic. Now, you will either release me, and be taken into custody, or die."

Redford had spat out his poisonous rant at Amanda, who remained passive throughout. She didn't dwell on his comments for a second. Instead, she calmly walked over to a nearby console, and pushed aside a corpse slumped over it. Ah, there it is. She thumbed a few numbers into a small device, and pressed a button. Then, she took a nasty looking knife from one of the corpses, and set it on the table.

Redford, who had been watching her intently, glanced up to see dozens of blinking lights around the walls. C-12 charges. The operators here had evidently planned to blow the place after evacuting, but hadn't gotten the chance. Amanda smiled at him, looking down at the knife.

"You've got two minutes until this room blows, taking you with it, and one chance to live. Now, you see that cord?" she indicated the silver band keeping Redford latched to the solid metal table. "I've seen these before. Military grade. Damn near unbreakable without specialist equipment. The knife won't cut through that, but I'm pretty sure that it'll go through your forearm. Eventually."

The old man's eyes widened at this. He struggled in vain against the band, before gritting his teeth and glaring at the woman standing before him. He'd been bested. Plain and simple. Amanda Wade turned and ran down the corridor, towards Verensky's inner sanctum. Heart racing, his eyes snapped from the timer nearby, and the knife on the table. He let out a bestial snarl of rage at his retreating foe, reaching for the blade with his free hand.

"YOU FUCKING BITCH!"

She kept running.

Closure

0959 Hours, December 10th, 2555 (UNSC Military Calendar)

New Albion, Outer Colonies


Even as Amanda climbed the fifth flight of stairs away from the control room, Redford's howl of rage still seemed to be ringing in her ears. It was almost funny how she'd managed to outsmart him that way, revealing the man for what he truly was. In the time she had known him, he had never raised his voice or cursed. Of course, being made to cut off your arm to escape would probably bring out the worst in anyone. Taking a moment to catch her breath, she ascended another flight before the explosives went off below, shaking the very foundations of the base.

Well, you're either dead, or in a lot of pain, Redford.

She was close now. Moving as quickly and quietly as she dared, Amanda slipped through the open door into Verensky's inner sanctum. Corpses littered the floor. From nearby, she could hear the man's distinctive voice barking orders over the base intercom.

"No, hold them off in the lower levels! Get everyone else to the NOVA and detonate the damn thing if you have to!"

Amanda peeked round a corner, and caught sight of him standing over a console, the blown-out windows illuminating the entire room. Eventually, he punched out a nearby panel, and groaned, turning to find two pistols aiming at him.

"What?"

John Verensky looked terrible. Before, he had always looked very neat and refined; not a hair out of place, with a constantly impassive look, betraying little emotion towards his compatriots. Now, his hair was messy and unshaven, deep bags beneath his eyes showing a great lack of sleep. Even his usually immaculate uniform was worn and ragged, as if he had been wearing it for several days. Amanda couldn't help but be slightly disturbed by the manic look in his eyes, either.

"Who the fuck are you?!" Verensky demanded after several seconds of silence.

"Don't you know who I am?"

"Get those things out of my face now, lady. Got the fucking oonskies attacking, if you haven't noticed."

"Remi Marshall. Remember him?"

"Oh, that bastard. Idealistic, but he could shoot straight. Heard he got killed back on-"

The rest of his sentence was cut short as Amanda fired a round into his left kneecap. Verensky fell, swearing loudly as he clutched his wound. Not giving him time to recover, Amanda delivered a swift kick to the groin, the former ONI agent doubling over in pain.

"We did whatever you wanted, you bastard! We killed so many innocent people, and for what? So you could live out some elaborate revenge fantasy?"

She stamped on the wounded man a few more times before backing off slightly, Verensky's bruised and battered face surfacing to fix her with a glare of pure hatred. Then, he started laughing. It was manic, intense. Not the sort of laugh a sane person would have.

"Oh, you think it was for revenge? How cliché. Sure, I started off working against the oonskies because I felt like it. I was given an offer, and it sounded like a good deal."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

Verensky grinned. "I'll be honest, running around with you and your little friends was fun, trying to bring down the UNSC and all, but in the end, I just wanted to kill as many people as possible."

What. He couldn't be serious. Either Verensky was bluffing, or they had been following a raving lunatic for the best part of a decade. It was absurd, yet it somehow made sense. Why else would they steal a NOVA bomb? If they had spent months sneaking supplies and men into the Sol system, then why didn't they concentrate soley on wiping out the UEG heads?

"So, what now?" she asked. Verensky was still smiling.

"Well, since my face is plastered all over every most wanted list from here to Circumstance, I'll have to let them take me in. I'll be imprisoned, and spend the rest of my days in solitary while every idiot with a headful of ideas and a gun tries to emulate me. Simple."

Amanda snorted. She thought that someone like him would have proper goals, some kind of reason for his atrocities. Not Verensky. This pathetic man just wanted people dead, and for him to be famous. The UNSC would probably end up executing him, but not before he received his day in the limelight thanks to the media.

"They'll remember me for my actions. They'll-"

Amanda shot John Verensky in the forehead. He slumped backwards silently.

Its over. It had been so simple; walking straight in, and murdering the man responsible for so many thousands of deaths. Now to escape. Tunnels will be blocked. I'll-"

"Ah, it seems that someone has beaten me to the punch with Mister Verensky. Excellent."

Frozen in place, Amanda felt a chill run down her spine. She had heard that voice before. Turning round, she came face to face with an impossibly tall man, clad in black armour. Malice-filled eyes stared right into her as he approached. Magnus.

The figure regarded her as one might look upon an insect. He didn't so much as flinch at the sight of two pistols pointed directly at him. In fact, he smiled.

"I think you should put those down," he said, staring directly at her. Amanda lowered the weapons a fraction, and took a step back. Magnus vaguely recognised her as one of the many expendable faces that had been around Verensky and his little rebel group over the years. Normally, he wouldn't pay any of them attention, but since this one had actually taken down his quarry for him, she might be of some use...

"You shouldn't be afraid of me, you know." He took a step forward. "In fact, you've done me a favour. For that, you shall be rewarded?"

"With what?"

"Your life. Leave." Magnus stepped aside, leaving the exit open.

She didn't move.

"Go then. Get out."

Amanda looked up at him, and for the first time, Magnus noticed her eyes. They were green, with a look of fierce determination within them. He'd seen that look before, long ago. It bothered him beyond belief. The woman stared directly at him, and for the first time he could remember, Magnus felt the urge to blink and back down. No.

"A pity. I'm guessing by that scowl that I've angered you in some way. Killed a friend of yours, perhaps?"

Ah, that was it. He'd seen her around Remi Marshall's group in the past. He remembered counting him among those he'd happily slaughtered not long ago. Amanda attempted to raise her pistols to fire, only to have Magnus lunge forward with surprising speed and snatch them from her hands. flinging both to the floor.

"Don't worry," he said, his voice a low hiss. "You'll be joining your friends soon enough."

His fingers were mere inches from her throat when a tremendous crash brought a fully armoured SPARTAN-III through the window onto him. Snarling, Magnus scrambled away, kicking his foe backwards as two more burst into the room. He briefly registered Amanda crawling for the exit, before turning back to the fight. Sprinting forward, he cannoned into the trio before they could open fire, sending rifles clattering to the floor as lightning-fast punches staggered the Spartans back. Dodging a knife slash, Magnus laughed.

"Let's see if we can grind the meat beneath the armour, shall we?"

The rest of the fight was short, but memorable. Dodging an attack from the orange-armoured female, he kicked her in the stomach before delivering a blow to her left leg, the Spartan momentarily dropping until she found a pistol under her chin. Magnus pulled the trigger, grinning as the Spartan fell lifelessly to the ground. Another one, faster than the others, was able to push him back, matching him blow-for-blow as they battled in the ruined building. He was a little tougher, Magnus realising that he could become a credible threat if not dealt with directly. All it took was the right timing, and the right positioning, and a swift boot to the torso propelled the Spartan backwards out of an open window, tumbling down the mountainside.

One left.

This one evidently wasn't as adept at close quarters combat as the others, the discarded sniper rifle across the room being a testament to that. Still, he put up an admirable fight. Magnus easily countered a knife lunge, his enemy soon finding his own blade lodged in his shoulder. From there, it was an absolute beatdown, a final kick sending his helmet spinning as the Spartan smashed into a wall. As Magnus approached, Graham looked up, barely conscious.

"Who are you?" he whispered, tasting blood in his mouth.

Magnus knelt down, pistol in hand, and spoke into the Spartan's ear. It was a little secret of his, not that this guy would be telling anyone.

"Jack."

***

There was nothing Martin could do to save them. They had, for all intents and purposes, won. The NOVA bomb was secured, the last rebels were being hunted down, and Verensky was cornered. After dealing with the Sangheili warrior, Martin had found Grantley dead, the steadfast Spartan having finally succumbed to his wounds after taking down an entire enemy platoon.

"C'mon, move!"

"I am moving!" barked May, who was running beside him.

As the Spartans drew closer to Verensky's base, the lifesigns of their comrades began to fade. Both Leandra and Graham had flatlined, while Julian's vitals were very low. An IFF tag flashed up near the base of the mountain. Martin waved May towards it as he proceeded to the base entrance, which was littered with corpses. Someone had evidently slaughtered their way up. Moving in quickly, he noticed a red dot flash up, and raised his rifle to find a vaguely familiar woman standing in his path, frozen.

Rebel. Acceptable target. Kill.

Fighting every single instinct and the training he had been given since the age of six, Martin moved his finger away from the trigger. She was unarmed, and looked terrified. Definitely not a Spartan killer. Besides, there was something about her that he just couldn't place. He felt like they had met before at some point. No matter. Martin stood aside to let her pass. After a brief second, she did, running out towards the forests that bordered the base.

"Thank you!" Amanda Wade called back. Martin was already up two flights of stairs.

The Spartan strode into the room, and fell to his knees before the broken and bloodied corpses of the Spartans. His Spartans. They were part of the team. He barely registered the body of John Verensky lying nearby, his death signalling the end of a decade of lies, treachery and fear. Martin didn't care. The orders being barked over the COM faded into the background as he knelt there, not taking his eyes off the dead Spartans.

Only, they wouldn't die. They would never die, officially. No one would ever know about them, their names, what they've done. They would just be another name on the list. On his HUD, Martin moved their names. SPARTAN-B031: MIA. SPARTAN-G101: MIA.

"This is Master Chief Petty Officer Martin-A136 of Shrike Team. John Verensky is confirmed as KIA."

Epilogue

The Wanderer

1234 Hours, December 11th, 2555 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Dynasty, unknown location


After the Spartan spared her life for some unknown reason, it was only a matter of getting as far away as possible from the facility, contacting Faisal, and getting off that hellhole of a planet. Amanda's pilot hadn't moved the Dynasty from the asteroid field, true to his word, and had made the slipspace jump the moment she was aboard.

"I'm sorry about Remi," said Faisal for the fifteenth time.

"Forget about it. Verensky's dead."

"What about Magnus?"

"I don't know, and I don't want to know. Last I saw of him, he was fighting off three Spartans at once. And winning."

The pilot shook his head in disbelief, before sighing and checking on his station. Amanda was in charge now, there was no debating that. The problem was that pretty much everyone she knew in this line of work with power was either dead or gone, which was troublesome. For the first time in so long, she was in total control of her life. No rules or restrictions, no goal or ideal to follow.

"Redford was there too." Faisal looked up in surprise.

"How? I thought he died on Earth in the attack."

"No," Amanda grimaced. "Turns out he was never on our side. Just an oonskie spy."

Faisal shook his head once more, looking away from Amanda. A look of pain crossed his face as he turned back to her.

"He was my friend..."

"He was everyone's friend."

"How long was he working against us?"

Amanda shrugged. "Since the beginning. Believe me, I saw what Redford was really like down there. You're better off remembering that man as he was. I might have killed him anyway." She snorted, running a hand across her face. "He had a chance to escape, though. He might have lived."

"At least you tried to spare him," her pilot answered after a few seconds of silence. "It's better that way."

"Faisal," she inquired. "What did you do, before all this?"

"You mean the Rebellion?"

"Yeah, if you want to call it that. I've never heard your side of the story."

Faisal smiled, and turned to her. "I was born on Earth to a rather rich family in the country of Afghanistan. A beautiful place, though I doubt I'll see it again. I joined up with a group of traders when I was nineteen, being young and foolish, and soon found myself falling in with a group of interesting individuals with ideas of secession. One thing led to another, and they had me flying ships on smuggling runs. Then I met Remi, and I took on dangerous work. I sympathised deeply with the colonial plight, as it were, and have flown the Dynasty for a few years now. That's all."

That was it? Amanda was confused. He joined up because he felt like it? He wasn't in hiding, on the run, or had any grudge to bear. Faisal had flown the little ship before a massed UNSC Fleet, with very little chance of survival, and risked his life for her on New Albion. Why?

The man seemed to know what she was thinking. "I know our 'side' may not be in the right most of the time, but it is the path I have chosen to follow. I have never killed a man doing this, nor shall I ever want to. I just wanted to do some good."

Do some good. It sounded idealistic. Childish. Perfect.

"Well then, I don't suppose you'd want to travel some more? Pick up some others, and see if we can 'do some good' around the outer colonies, as you say?"

"Of course. Firing up the FTL drive."

"Good, lets go."

Much to her own surprise, Amanda Wade found herself smiling for what felt like the first time in years.

The Survivor

0930 Hours, December 12th, 2555 (UNSC Military Calendar)

UNSC Coldharbour, Earth Orbit


"The mission was a complete success for us. Verensky dead, the NOVA bomb secured, and minimal casualties in the process. Good work, Shrike One."

"Thank you sir."

"Now then," said Samson, putting down a datapad. "I'm afraid that in the coming months, we will have to dissolve Shrike Team due to substantial losses."

"I...I understand, sir."

"ONI is coming under a great deal of scrutiny at the moment because of Verensky, particularly from HIGHCOM and the UEG. As such, we're being forced to shift the blame away from the public eye for now."

"Excuse me?"

"We're putting another innie leader, Remi Marshall, in Verensky's place as the perpetrator."

"If you don't mind me saying, sir, I was under the assumption that ONI essentially controlled the Navy. How is it coming under suspicion?"

"Well, we certainly did under Parangosky, and we still do under Admiral Osman. The problem is that ONI's lack of culpability for what it does is becoming noticeable, and problematic."

Problematic? Weren't Shrike made with a lack of culpability in mind?

"Furthermore, there are several figures-"

The door slid open. Elena-071 walked in, dressed in a plain black uniform. She barely took a glance towards Martin as she sat down at the meeting table, before indicating for Samson to continue.

"There are several figures who disagree with ONI's stance and believe that restructuring may be needed in order to prevent disasters like this. Understood, Master Chief?"

"Yes sir," Martin replied. "I was wondering, what about the rest of Shrike? Will the public be made aware of our actions in taking him down?"

"I'm afraid not, Chief." Something resembling genuine sadness crossed Samson's face. Either that, or he was an excellent actor. "As much as I'd like to, Shrike's very existence is a classified secret, and Directive 930 ensures that their deaths are not made public. I am truly sorry, Martin."

The Spartan nodded, glad that he was still wearing a helmet. "Thank you, sir."

Samson's expression hardened once more. "If it is any consolation, measures will be taken to ensure that something like this does not happen again. With the situation in the Outer Colonies worsening, we are taking heavy precautions against people who may be a threat, like Verensky. A new approach may be needed."

"I see," replied Martin. "If you don't mind me saying so, sir, I think some of this is above my pay grade. I'd like to check on May and Julian if at all possible."

"That's fine. You may leave."

Martin stood up, saluted, and walked out. As the door slid shut, he fought the urge to punch something. He was in this position again. So many dead. Just like PROMETHEUS. Just like Reach. Here he was, the constant survivor. Julian was in the med bay right now, along with some ONI agent who had lost an arm on the planet, and May was fine, but he still had that familiar empty feeling. Oh, and Armand. Their AI had remained aboard the UNSC Coldharbour during the final assault and hadn't spoken to him since their assault on the Caucasus Station.

What the hell did we even accomplish with this? A group of dead Spartans and thousands of lives lost, and no one will even know what we've done.

Martin-A136 entered the elevator, removing his helmet as he did so. Only when the doors had closed did he let it drop, covering his face with his hands.

The Fallen

0003 Hours, December 15th, 2555

Independent Yacht, uncharted space


Alone in the dark far away, a tiny ship drifted, a spec amongst the cosmos.

"You shouldn't worry about it. While the rebellion failed, it has had far-reaching effects."

"You have been doing this for some time now. We expect results."

"And you'll get them. Be patient."

"We are patient. You will be contacted soon, Magnus."

The familiar hologram winked out, and the cyborg sighed. Magnus. It was meaningless pseudonym, meaning as much to him as the number he had been given as a child by the UNSC. Verensky had failed, too caught up in his own idiotic genocidal ideas to see the bigger picture. A pity. He could have gone far.

The results of Verensky's idiocy, however, were much better. Screens winked up, showing riots breaking out across human colonies over recent events. The figure stood up and watched a few with interest, the spy probes yielding great amounts of information. In Kuiper, a protester picked up a brick, and threw it towards the advancing police. It was soon joined by many more as open battle soon broke out on the streets. Excellent.

The people must rise for the UNSC to fall. That was how things had to go now. Every waking minute of his life was spent working against the organisation that he had despised with every part of his being for as long as he could remember. They would pay for what they had done to him and everyone else, all those years ago. Now that the first stone had literally been cast, the spark had been lit. Everything was going according to plan. In spite of all their plans, all their contingencies and brute force, the Spartans and their masters had failed. In their efforts to contain what they called a rebellion, they had caused a revolution.

Time to get back to work. Magnus and Jack sighed; a moment of tiredness and weakness, before strengthening his resolve and moving to the main console. Besides, my work is all I have left, and it is far from over.

The ship's engines flared as a slipspace portal opened up before it, winking out of existence in an instant.


THE END.
Author's Note: Amanda Wade's story is continued in Halo: Sanctuary.

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