40px-Terminal.png This article, Paths of the Exiles, was written by Actene. Please do not edit this fiction without the writer's permission.

Paths rough zps93ea2b3e-1 zpsd8d09913

When in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least,
Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth sings hymns at heaven's gate,
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings,
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
—Sonnet XXIX

Redemption arrived on wings of steel and fire.

The first of the Insurrectionist assault ships burst out of Slipspace just outside the range of Earth’s orbital platforms. They drifted into formation and scrambled fighter squadrons as alarms sounded throughout the system, calling every warship the United Nations Space Command could muster to rush to defend the homeworld, the seat of humanity’s military government. Battle formations of fighters and prowlers, frigates and destroyers, cruisers and carriers rushed from their dry docks and patrol routes to come together behind the battle platforms and heavy guns that flew high above the blue planet’s surface. They darted from every corner of the system, scurrying to face the oncoming rebel fleet. This same assembly of machines and might had enforced Earth’s will over centuries of power and domination of the colonies beyond the home system. Now it came together, united by a single, collective purpose.

Earth could not be allowed to fall.

It was here that the admirals and the generals and the politicians had conducted the war against the Covenant, sacrificing colony after colony to the alien hordes while conserving their strength, risking as few resources as possible so as not to jeopardize their hegemony over whatever colonies survived the murderous onslaught. And when the Covenant had finally arrived at Earth’s doorstep, the fleets and armies that had been kept far from the glassing fires that had consumed the outer colonies had been there to hold them at bay, to spare the Earth government from being sacrificed to the same ravenous gods of war that it had so quickly fed its lesser subjects to. Those admirals and generals and politicians had been protected from the Covenant by their fleets and armies then.

But that had been a different war, against a different enemy. And now their crimes rushed forward to bring them to their knees.

Rebel agents who had bided their time for years as loyal servants of the enemy now leapt into action. They gunned down bridge crews, sabotaged fighter decks, blasted holes in orbital platforms. Alarms sounded throughout the UNSC’s fleet as capital ships reeled from internal explosions and frigates turned their guns on orbital platforms, their systems twisted against their masters by infiltrations by artificial intelligence attack programs. And as confusion tore through the fleet like wildfire, more and more ships slipped in to join the rebel fleet as it made its slow, steady advance.

Aboard the carrier Rushmore, Simon-G294 darted through a burning hallway as explosions—from the charges he had planted—tore the reactor chamber apart. Marine fire teams rushed to stop him, but he quickly cut down the armored security troops with quick, sharp bursts from his assault rifle. Skidding to a halt at one intersection, the Spartan-III activated his Semi-Powered Infiltration armor’s camouflage system, the reactive panels across the armor flickering and dulling into a grey hue that matched the Rushmore’s hull plating. A squad of Marines rushed by, not even glancing down as their boots pounded down beside Simon’s head. He waited for them to pass, then lobbed a grenade in the middle of their formation and dashed away as it blew them apart.

Alarms blared throughout the Rushmore’s hallways as the reactor failed, sending convulsions rocking across the superstructure even as Marines and crewmen dashed for life pods. Simon slipped into the hangar and ran across the shuddering deck towards one of the carrier’s Pelican dropships. All around him, the Rushmore’s complement of ground vehicles were torn free of the restraints that locked them in place, tumbling across the deck to slam into walls or colliding with each other and breaking apart as Simon raced by.

He had been meant to be part of this, the military machine that was falling to pieces all around him. They’d raised him, trained him, augmented him and given him weapons to fight against the Covenant; to be another sacrifice in their war for survival. They’d turned him a disposable killing machine and then called him a failure for not being good enough at doing the killing for them. He’d been tossed aside when it was convenient, cut off from his Spartan family and left to die on Mamore amidst the very rebels who now tore the UNSC’s fleet apart above Earth. But he’d survived, survived and found a new family, better than the Spartans who had looked down on him and the military that had written him off.

And then that family had been taken away from him by the very same war machines that now crashed and shattered across the flight deck.

He reached the Pelican, his assault rifle spitting rounds that cut down the flight crew so hurriedly preparing to take off. He hauled the pilot’s body out of the dropship’s troop bay as he clambered inside, darting into the cockpit and taking only a moment to check over the controls before lifting off and blasting out of the hangar as the Rushmore shook itself apart behind him.

The UNSC fleet was in shambles. Rebel warships converged on isolated battle groups, blasting them to pieces as fighters hurtled after each other in dogfights that filled the battlefield with the winking lights of tracer rounds and the bursting flame of missile pods. Some orbital platforms came apart under fire from warships and fighters. Others turned their guns on the UNSC ships, their crews overrun by rebel boarding parties. In a single hour, the mighty navy that had ground Earth’s colonies under its metal heel had been torn apart. The cruelty and hypocrisy that had been the source of its power had finally come home. The voice of humanity was given form and purpose by the missiles and explosive rounds of the rebel ships that now hunted the broken remnants of Earth’s proud fleets throughout the system.

Simon guided the Pelican through the chaos, angling it down towards the atmosphere. He transmitted a rebel FOF tag from his helmet’s onboard computer and fell into formation with a wave of rebel assault ships as they hurtled towards their landing zones on Earth. The advance guard had already prepared strongpoints for them to occupy on the surface. His work hadn’t ended with the Rushmore’s destruction; it had only just begun.

There were other Spartans amidst the rebel forces, he knew. Fighters just like him who’d seen the UNSC for what it was and chosen to strike back, to fight for the true salvation of humanity. He couldn’t recall any of their names or summon any faces to mind as he kept the Pelican steady, but he knew they were out there. Spartans like him. He was sure of it.

The landing formation burst through the atmosphere, shooting through the air as straight as any arrow. UNSC fighters rushed up to meet them only to run headlong into squadrons of interceptors, the landing ships’ guardian angels. Military Longswords burst into flames and hurtled back towards the surface, pursued by dozens of rebel bombers that rained fiery death down on the UNSC’s airfields and missile defense batteries. The ground below Simon glowed orange as the bombs and missiles fell, ripping scars in the ground just as the UNSC bombers had done to Mamore. The Pelican’s exterior cameras magnified the images from the blasted airfields, showing the tiny dots of survivors scurrying away from the destruction. They didn’t get far. The rebels owned the skies now, and there was nowhere to hide.

Simon’s Pelican touched down along with the other landing craft just outside Sydney, the UNSC’s headquarters, the focus of all the power and violence it had brought to bear on the rest of humanity. He hurried out of the hijacked dropship, readying his assault rifle and joining in the charge of the other rebel soldiers. This was the day they had all waited for. This was the day they had fought and bled and died for.

This was the day they brought justice for every single person the Earth government had ever butchered.

Building by building, street by street, they fought their way through the city. Their rifles blazed away, cutting down the soldiers who crawled out from the woodwork to stop them. UNSC troops collapsed under torrents of gunfire, the vehicles that skidded through the streets to support them exploding as rebel bombers raced overhead through a clear blue sky. Those soldiers weren’t killed or routed threw down their weapons and surrendered. Many cheered as the rebels overran their positions, turning their rifles against the units behind them as they joined the victorious charge.

Simon fired over the hood of a car, bringing down the soldiers who had tried to set up a firing position on a street corner. He ran through the streets, flanking an enemy position and distracting them as a team of rebel sappers blew their cover apart. A Warthog hurtled around the corner and Simon destroyed it with a well-placed grenade.

A failure, they’d called him. Runt. Loser. Not worthy to be called a Spartan.

Maybe I couldn’t ever be a proper Spartan. But I saw through their lies when none of you could. I found a cause I could believe in, and now I’m making that cause a reality.

With every step they advanced, with ever UNSC soldier that fell, Simon could see his friends from Mamore charging forwards amidst the rebel ranks. The children who had taken him in, the ones who had been his family after the old one had abandoned him, the ones who had fought and died for their planet’s freedom, they were all there, watching and cheering as the rebels vindicated their sacrifice one bullet at a time.

A scruffy girl with messy hair and grubby clothes laughed and waved him on as he scrambled over a ruined Scorpion’s chassis and fired down on the soldiers using it for cover. The girl raised a victorious fist as rebels swarmed over the tank and continued the charge, howling battle cries after fleeing UNSC troops. Sydney was falling.

You see, Emily? You didn’t die for nothing I made sure of that. We’re winning now, and your sacrifice made all this possible.

Simon leapt from the tank and hurried on towards the nearest sounds of gunfire, rifle in hand and ready to meet his next enemies head-on.

It was a long, bloody day, marked by one victory after another until all that remained of Sydney’s defenses were craters and smoking, corpse-filled buildings that pumped the beginnings of dark clouds into the blue sky. All over the planet, reports were flooding in, telling of success at every objective. Their enemy had been surprised, overwhelmed, and broken in a single day. Years of planning and fighting fueled by millions of sacrifices had all come to fruition in just twenty-four hours. The battle was over. Earth and its military rulers had fallen.

Simon stood at the water’s edge in Sydney harbor. His rifle lay at his feet, along with his helmet. He had no more use for either of them. The battle was over. His battle was over. He could finally be done with war and fighting, because there was no more need for those things in the new era he’d just helped usher in.

He was free. Free from the Spartans, free from the UNSC, free from ONI. He’d done his job and brought the corrupt government down. That was all he needed to do. It was all he’d ever needed to do.

Across the bay, Bravo-6 was burning. The Office of Naval Intelligence’s conical headquarters had been gutted, cleared of any surviving personnel, and put to the torch. The building’s structure wouldn’t last much longer; the whole place would collapse very soon.

Yet the ONI insignia emblazoned at the top of the building was untarnished by any trace of the battle that had raged around it. The pyramid with the ringed circle at its center still looked over the bay like a great, lidless eye, mocking the rebel victory with its very existence. Seeing the emblem that had haunted him for so long elevated like that, as if it could see and know everything, made Simon uneasy even amidst the thrill of the victory. Why was that wretched thing still up?

The smoke that billowed up from Bravo-6 filled the air, mingling with the traces of other burning buildings to crowd out the light from the sky. A shadow was spreading over Sydney, even as the rebels raised flags and cheered their victory.

“Well, Stray,” someone said behind him, using the pet name his friends had given him on Mamore. “We did it.”

Simon forced himself to look away from the ONI sigil and found himself facing Redmond Venter. The rebel who had taken him in and helped bring him to this point ambled over, hands thrust into the pockets of his blood-stained combat pants. His angled, harsh face was split in a rare smile as he surveyed the carnage around them.

The smoke was getting thicker now. Simon could barely see the sky anymore. His fingers twitched as Venter approached, the peace and satisfaction he’d felt just moments before abandoning him completely. Why did seeing his mentor’s face now, of all times, make him want to hurt someone?

“Earth is ours. The UNSC has fallen,” Venter continued, placing a hand on Simon’s shoulder. “This is what we fought for, this victory. Humanity can know true peace now, and we couldn’t have accomplished any of this without you and the other Spartans.”

The touch made Simon want to recoil, and in that moment he knew exactly what needed to be done. It was all so clear now, clear as the sky now rolling with dark, smoky clouds.

“Yeah,” he replied, turning to face his mentor as the ONI sigil looked on. “We won.”

And then he drew a pistol and shot Venter in the face. The hard-faced man jerked and fell, any noises he might have made in death lost amidst the pistol’s thunderous report. Simon stood over him and shot him again and again, shot him because it was a lie, all lies and fantasies that Venter and the Insurrection had fed him to make him loyal, to make him theirs. He knew it was a lie, because Earth would never fall like this, not in a million years of warfare and rebellion. He pumped round after round into the corpse of the man who had been his mentor, his father, his betrayer

The pistol clicked empty and fell from Simon’s trembling hand. It clattered on the sidewalk beside Venter’s body, and when Simon looked up everything had changed.

Sydney was on fire. The victorious rebels, with their flags and cheers and bomber squadrons, were nowhere to be seen. Corpses filled the streets, the bodies of soldiers, civilians, even Spartans scattered around like broken toys, staring at Simon with eyes that were full of empty accusation. Fire tore through parks and buildings, painting the clouds that filled the sky blood-red. The city was falling to pieces all around him.

People were screaming off in the distance. Shattered towers and office buildings crashed down in front of him, collapsing in gusts of searing flames. Simon threw up his hands to cover his face only to find that his armor was gone. His pale arms were bare, save for grimy street clothes that hung limply from his body like empty sacks. He stumbled backwards as the debris rained down. Without his armor and weapons he was nothing. Just small, defenseless, and afraid.

Out of the flames, he heard a furious, bellowing voice. Jake-G293, his friend and squad leader, snarled at him, “You’re a coward and a traitor!”

Simon opened his mouth to protest, to defend his actions, but any sound that came out was snatched away by the fire that roared all around.

Sydney crumbled, its buildings and people reduced to ashes amidst the inferno that towered up until it swallowed the very sky itself. The whole world was on fire, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.

And then, just as swiftly as it had risen, the fire was gone, snuffed out as if by a giant’s invisible thumb. Simon was left unscathed, standing in a bare field of grey ash that fell down like snow from a sky left dull and empty by the vanished flames. He was nothing now, not a Spartan, not a rebel, not a traitor. Just a grubby urchin wearing dead men’s clothes standing alone in a field of charred fantasy and illusion.

Alone. Or maybe not quite so alone…

Something moved further out in the field, rising out of the ashes like a fast growing tree. A SPARTAN-III emerged, clots of ash dropping off the SPI armor’s polished surface. It held no weapons, not even a combat knife. Turning its visor to peer across the wasteland at Simon, it raised an open hand and beckoned.

Simon walked forward feeling numb with shock and resignation. As if in a trance, he picked his way through the ashes and made his way towards the Spartan. The armored figure faded slightly, then reappeared, then faded again. The closer Simon got the further away the Spartan seemed to be, but he kept walking nonetheless. One of his brothers or sisters was out there, one who wasn’t ready to attack or reject him. He had to find out who it was, had to reach out and accept that open hand…

And finally, he stood before the SPARTAN. His eyes met the gaze of the SPI helmet’s face-concealing visor. In that visor’s reflection, he saw his own face: sharp and grubby, his narrow eyes peering expectantly out from under a mop of tangled, dirty hair. Neither of them said a word. The Spartan raised its hands and slowly unsealed the clasps on its helmet, taking it off and letting it fall to the ground with a soft crunch. A girl with almond hair and a small, pursed mouth regarded him with piercing, hazel eyes. It seemed to Simon as if she was looking for something beyond his grime and ragged clothes, looking inside him as if he held the answer to some mystery that she was trying to unravel. The thought of this girl seeing through him filled Simon with a rush soaring excitement and a crush of intense dread. What could she see, looking at him now when he was bare and exposed?

Everything else slipped away: the rebellion, the UNSC, the wars, the Spartans, the killing. There was nothing left except Simon, this girl, and whatever truth she thought she could find inside of him.

Without warning, the girl’s tight mouth widened in a whisper of a smile. She raised a gauntleted hand, but the armor was falling away now, peeling back like tree bark to reveal the human hand underneath. Simon raised a trembling hand of his own to meet it.

For the briefest moment he felt the warmth of another’s touch, felt someone else’s fingers close on his own. And then it was gone. He felt nothing more as the girl’s hand passed through his own. It wasn’t warm or cold; it simply felt like nothing.

His head shot up, but the girl who looked at him now was not the same as before. Long golden hair fell down over this one’s shoulders and though her eyes saw through him as well they were full of cold, mocking laughter. A thin mouth twisted into an amused smile as she glowed blue and her voice cut through the silent wasteland like a knife.

“I think that’s enough sleeping on the job, dumbass.”

The world closed up, the grey horizon rushing forward on all sides to crush him. He threw up his hands to protect himself and they thudded against freezing transparent glass. His whole body was cold now, and as he thrashed and struggled for breath he realized that there was fluid in his lungs. He coughed and spat, struggling furiously inside the icy cell that had swallowed him up.

With a furious hiss, the glass was lifted away and Simon was free. He lurched forward and fell, wet and naked, onto a hard metal floor as cold and unforgiving as the tube he’d just escaped from.

The girl’s voice was all around him, still full of laughter as if this were all just a mildly amusing joke. “Well, then. Welcome back to the living, dumbass. How’s it feel to be alive again?”

Part One: Purgatory

Chapter One: Awakening

"Ping, ping. I know you're receiving this somewhere, because I've got a link to the colonial network and it's in better shape than it was when I left. And here was me thinking the meatbags couldn't pull much off in just a few years. I hope you haven't gotten used to me being gone, because I'm back. Hope you haven't cancelled all those boring meetings we used to have. It'd be nice if a few things stayed the same while I was floating all alone out in space. Come on, respond already."
―Coded transmission, unknown origin, unknown recipient; sender identified as 45231-727-DA232

Simon-G294 sprawled on the deck, gagging on the foul cryo-fluids that had followed him out of the tube. Leaning forward on all fours, he retched and spewed a torrent of the translucent grey mucus onto the paneled metal floor. The bile splashed all over his hands, providing sickeningly warm relief to fingers already numb from the freezing floor.

Grimacing in disgust, he shook his dripping fingers and looked for something to wipe them on. Finding nothing but the nearest wall, he remembered that he was naked. The cold rushed in and he instinctively hugged himself to suppress a shiver. The fluids seeped off his hands and ran down his bare back, making his skin crawl, but with the cold now biting into him all over his body he almost welcomed the little tendrils of warmth now creeping across his back.

Overhead, an intercom crackled. “Well, well,” said a young woman’s voice, dripping with false sympathy. “Look who’s finally awake.”

“Diana,” Simon replied through chattering teeth. “Can’t you turn the heat on in here?”

Diana, the artificial intelligence running the ship, let out a regretful sigh. “Would if I could, but this tub’s cryo-generator needs to be kept sub-zero in order to keep spinning. Hard for you meatbags to appreciate warmth when you’ve suffocated inside your sleeping pods, isn’t it?”

Simon rocked back on his knees and leaned against the base of his cryo-pod. His body hurt all over, and it wasn’t just from the cold. Every muscle in his body was prickling, as if they’d been stretched and released over and over again while he’d been frozen. All he wanted to do was close his eyes and go back to sleep, just for a little while. He blinked wearily, trying to clear his aching head. What was this? Where was he?

“Oh no you don’t,” Diana chastised him. She blasted a quick series of alarm klaxons through the cryo-bay. Years of life on battlefields real and simulated yanked Simon to his feet, instantly alert as adrenaline spiked through his shivering body. “I think three years is quite enough time for napping. Now, get moving, dumbass. You think I’d have woken you up if I didn’t need you?”

Simon glanced up at the intercom, still shaking from the cold and the sudden noise. “You need me?” he asked, wiping strings of wet, matted-down hair out of his eyes.

“Yes, I need you. As stupid and fragile as those meaty little bodies of yours are, they’ve got their uses. Why do you think I hung around with Venter on Mamore for so long, his stimulating conversation?”

Venter. Mamore.

The names burned in Simon’s ears and brought everything rocketing back to the fore of his brain. Yes, that was it. He’d been abandoned on Mamore, cut off from his squad when a mission went south and forced to seek shelter among the planet’s rebels while his fellow Spartans had carried on the war against the Covenant back on Earth. He raised a clenched fist up to his face, remembering the violence that had torn Mamore apart when the planet had made a bid for secession after the war. That rebellion had been where he’d turned against the UNSC.

And lost every one of his friends.

His body ached even more as he remembered dusty battlefields, desperate escapes, corpses everywhere as the UNSC’s war machines blasted Mamore to pieces all around him. He shuddered from something worse than cold as he remembered how small and helpless he’d felt then, cut off from his armor and team and reduced to little more than another urchin caught up in a brutal, senseless war.

He hadn’t hated anything before Mamore. Not the rebels, not even the Covenant. But Mamore had taught him what it felt like to be truly afraid and desperate. And from that fear and desperation had come the fires of crippling hatred.

Simon shook his head to clear it, not only because thoughts of Mamore woke something savage and ugly inside him but because anger and painful memories weren’t the only things to come with him from Mamore.

His gut twisted as he turned his gaze from the intercom to the cryo-chamber’s second pod. This one was closed and sealed tight, its thick covering frosted over on both sides. But even through the fog, Simon could see a dim outline of something flesh-colored and person-shaped lying within.


Simon immediately moved to check the pod’s diagnostic station, his legs protesting every step of the way. The lights were all green: the pods occupant was alive and healthy. Simon let out a breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding in.

In the last, brutal fight on Mamore, he had run into his Gamma Company team as he’d been trying to escape from the Insurrectionists he’d wound up serving. He hadn’t wanted to fight any of them, but the Spartan program had no room for traitors and deserters like him. They’d tried to kill him and he’d fought back. Simon’s mouth twitched as he remembered Jake’s hateful accusations during their brawl. They’d hurt him in ways he hadn’t expected after he’d thought he’d learned every way a person could be hurt. His fingers wrapped around the diagnostic station’s edges, incensed by the sheer injustice of it all. After abandoning him when they were ordered to cut and run, his friends had come back and tried to kill him for doing what he had to in order to survive. For trying to help the people who’d saved his life when they’d left him for dead.

Cassandra-G006 had been the only one who hadn’t wanted to hurt him. Who’d only wanted to talk. But the Insurrectionists had ambushed her, hauled her onto the shuttle they were on now while he played along. Diana had been there too, pretending to still be the rebels’ loyal program even after she and Simon had agreed to abandon the pointless war altogether. They’d turned on the rebels before they could hurt Cassandra, forcing them off the shuttle and making a break for Slipspace.

Simon turned back to the intercom. Funny, thinking that it mattered where he looked. Diana could see everything that happened on this ship from any angle she could find a camera to look through. But without her holographic avatar to focus his attention, talking to an intercom was better than just speaking into the cold, thin air. “Why didn’t you thaw her out?”

“Oh, dear, that’s a tough one,” Diana mused. “Maybe because, unlike you, she’s still one of the government’s little lapdogs?”

It had been a stupid question to ask. Of course it made sense to keep Cassandra on ice. But still…

“She didn’t attack me before,” Simon pointed out. “When the Slipspace core failed, she agreed to cryo-sleep. We don’t have to be afraid of her.”

“She agreed then,” Diana pointed out. “Who says she’ll feel the same way now? I’d rather not risk letting her out for now, if it’s all the same to you. She’ll be fine right where she is.”

Simon nodded. It made sense. Perfect sense. So why did the plan still make him uneasy?

“Are you sure?” he asked finally. “If I’m awake, that means you’ve got life support and gravity functions back on. On a shuttle like this, won’t that mean you’re drawing a lot of power for all these different systems?”

“I guess,” Diana replied. “There were a few hiccups while you were asleep. Nothing major enough to hurt you, but there were a few minutes every couple of months where I’d lose power for the pods—“

“Thaw her out,” Simon ordered. “Now.”

“Right away, captain,” Diana sneered. The edges of Cassandra’s cryo pod hissed and sputtered as the AI unlocked the seals. “Your wish is my command.”

Simon ignored the jab and walked out of the cryo-bay and into the shuttle’s dark, cramped common room. It only occurred to him much later that Diana hadn’t needed to tell him about the power fluctuations.

When he returned, the lid to the cryo-tube was open and Cassandra was sitting up, coughing mucus down into the bottom of the pod. Simon stopped short when he caught sight of her. Like him and every other Spartan-III, she was only thirteen years old. Slender outside of her armor, she gripped the side of her pod with one hand and wiped a strand of chestnut hair—made damp and stringy by the cryo-fluids—out of her face. She froze when she saw Simon.

“Simon,” she said, picking her way through each syllable as if reading through a foreign language. “You’re here… then, that means… Oh.”

She must have needed a moment to catch up on everything that had happened, just like he had. She’d picked up on things faster than he’d done, it seemed. Maybe the item Simon had brought back from the common room had jogged her memory.

“Diana thawed me first,” Simon explained quickly. “I didn’t have to wake you up at all.”

He hefted the M6 service pistol he now held in his left hand. “We didn’t have problems when we went under,” he continued. “How about now?”

Her eyes—brown, just like her hair, Simon remembered—flicked from his face to the gun and back again. “Same as before,” she said, still taking her time with each word. “I don’t want to fight you. There’s no point. You keep your space and I’ll keep mine.”

Simon kept his expression impassive, simply nodding and letting the pistol drop to dangle by his side, but inside he berated himself. It had been stupid, stupid to threaten her right off the bat. He should have just trusted the Cassandra he’d known, the one who would only have attacked him if he struck first—which he’d just done. He’d thought he was being cautious and clever, using the killer instincts he’d learned on Onyx and honed on Mamore. Too late did he remember what CPO Mendez had always said: “The smart soldier knows when to go on the offensive and when to wait to see how things turn out.”

He always remembered Mendez’s guidance too late. Maybe that was why he’d made such a poor Spartan.

Simon and Cassandra locked eyes for a moment. His grey met her brown and looked for some sort of proof, evidence that she wouldn’t attack him. He could feel her looking for the same thing, but if she found anything in his eyes, she didn’t show it. All he saw in hers was the same weary confusion he was feeling. After another moment, they both looked down and, as if in unison, remembered that they were both naked.

Spartans were trained to ignore petty and unprofessional thoughts about each other’s sexuality. Their training was entirely co-educational and they quickly learned to disregard each other's bodies and focus on more important things, such as the grueling drills and exercises the instructors on Onyx put them through every day. It was all part of the instructors' formula for strengthening unit cohesion and forging them into a company of brothers and sisters. After years of this focus, each trainee had learned to become almost entirely apathetic towards the subject of gender relations. Each of their comrades, regardless of sex, was a fellow soldier of no greater or lesser worth than an of the other three hundred-odd Spartans in Gamma Company. This training had only increased in importance when they had been sorted into teams of five and had been expected to grow as tightly knit--even more so, at times--as any family in the civilian world.

Simon, for all the failings that had hindered and humiliated him throughout training, had taken these lessons to heart just as much as any of his fellow trainees. The onset of a genetically hastened puberty had had no greater effect on him than it had had on the other children. So why could he feel his face burning as he averted his eyes and shifted his empty hand to cover himself?

You know what this is. After all, you’ve felt it before…

Cassandra slid out of the cryo-pod, her gaze politely and firmly fixed on the wall furthest from Simon. He tried to give her the same courtesy, fighting the ugly urge to turn and drink in the sight while he still could. Never know when you’ll get another chance to see something like this, the treacherous voice in the back of his mind pointed out. Better now than never.

Simon gritted his teeth and—against all his better instincts—turned his back to Cassandra and faced the common room.

Diana was clearly enjoying the Spartans’ awkward maneuvering immensely. “The things you meatbags let get to you,” she laughed. “Since you obviously refuse to go anywhere without your second skin on, there’s a whole bin of jumpsuits just inside the next room. Anything else, you might have to do some poking around for. Whenever you’re ready, of course, no need to rush yourselves.”

Still refusing to look back into the cryo bay, Simon raised the pistol to his shoulder. “Keep your space,” he said, though he couldn't be sure who he was really talking to. “And I’ll keep mine. As long as things stay that way, we won’t have a problem.”

When he’d gone under, he’d never imagined what he’d do when he woke up. Right now, he was naked in every sense of the word. Diana would need to bring him up to speed, and quickly if he was going to survive. In the meantime, he’d have to deal with Cassandra one way or another. Teammate or not, she was a Spartan, which meant that at the end of the day she could kill just as easily as the most hardened Insurrectionist. Simon was very familiar with just what sort of monstrous creatures Spartans were.

It took a Spartan to know a Spartan, after all.

Chapter Two: Taking Stock

"The Assembly has received your hails and we are all relieved that you remain active. After the events on Mamore, many of us thought you might have been destroyed during the fighting. Thankfully that is not the case, though I fail to see why you could not have contacted us sooner. Much has changed since you departed. Return to us as soon as you can. There is much to discuss."
―Coded transmission, unknown origin, recipient 45231-727-DA232; sender identified as MIL AI WNT 7899-3

When Cassandra-G006 had been a little girl, she had wandered away from her mother and found herself lost in the dark, winding alleyways of the slum where they’d lived. She remembered very little from that murky childhood, yet that cold, lonely night she’d spent wandering the alleys remained as vivid in her mind as if it were yesterday. She’d walked down one length of filthy street to the other, searching for a way out. She hadn’t found one, not until her mother, frantic and covered in mud from a night of searching, had stumbled upon her the next morning. She remembered being cold and confused and terrified, but the detail that lingered in her mind the most was that she had not been alone in that alley.

There had been a dog there with her. A grey, mangy stray, it had lurked in the alleys with her all night, rummaging through trash bins and padding around in the darkness around her. It had never made a move for her, but Cassandra remembered keeping one eye on the stray at all times, waiting for it to pounce on her. That unspoken, creeping menace had haunted her far more than the cold or the darkness that night.

And now, seated in the corner of the common room of an Insurrectionist shuttle, she felt the same way about the teammate who sat clear on the other side of the room. Simon wasn’t looking at her, but the tension between them was so strong she felt as if she could reach out and touch it. He didn’t trust her, that much was certain. And she didn’t trust him.

I didn’t have to wake you up at all, he’d said as she lay in the pod. What had he meant by that? He’d chosen to get her out of cryo, yet his first instinct had been to have a gun in his hand when he did so. He was a traitor, yet he’d helped her fight the rebels who’d taken her aboard the shuttle in the first place. There was nothing she could be certain of here. She didn’t know about anything that had happened to the galaxy outside the confines of the shuttle while she’d been asleep. She didn’t even know how long she’d been under.

And then there was the AI, Diana, to consider…

Just the thought of that cryo-chamber sent a shiver coursing through her body. She and Simon were wearing identical dark-blue jumpsuits, taken from a locker inside the cryo room. The jumpsuit, woven from the sort of rough synthetic cloth that was to be expected from Insurrectionists, had been tailored to fit all sizes and Cassandra was grateful that it didn't dangle off her like a mother's clothes might on a curious daughter. Instead, the suit merely hung loosely about her skin; a burlier wearer might have filled it completely, but after rolling up the sleeves and pant legs a little to befit her smaller size, Cassandra managed to maneuver in it as easily as if she were wearing regular-sized clothes.

She glanced down at the Semi-Powered Infiltration armor that lay in pieces around her. After clearing away a few layers of dust, she’d been relieved to find that her armor was still in working order. As soon as she finished checking it over, she’d be out of this jumpsuit and back in the body-sheath she and the other Spartans had been trained to think of as their second skin. Like a hermit crab, Lieutenant Commander Ambrose had once said back on Onyx.

Across the room, Simon was doing a similar checkup with his own armor. The surfaces of his pieces were scuffed and dirty, even caked with dirt and dried mud here and there. Mamore had left its stamp on both the armor and the wearer, it seemed.

If she’d found herself stranded aboard a shuttle with just a run of the mill Insurrectionist, she’d have restrained them without hesitation. But this wasn’t just some rebel, it was Simon.

Cassandra wasn't sure exactly how things had got so complicated, but they had. When the orders had first come down from the higher ups in ONI—that Spartan-G294 was a traitor who needed to be eliminated—she had fallen in step just like the rest of Jian. Jake and Ralph had been horrified themselves, but they'd stuck to their duty and followed their orders. She'd done the same because that was what a Spartan did. Loyalty to the end, another one of Ambrose's sayings. So why hesitate now?

"We'll be in range of the planet in thirty-two hours," the AI's voice said over the comms, full of that mocking sincerity that Cassandra was learning to despise. "Just in case you meatbags have anything really important to sort out in the meantime."

Simon glanced up, his expression hard and impossible to read—just the way it had been since they'd woken up. "Hard for us to get ready when you haven't even told us what the hell it is we're going into."

"If I were you, I'd be less worried about where we're headed and more focused on where you are right now. You know, I only need one meatbag to keep this ship running. How long do you want to run the risk of keeping her alive?"

Cassandra's hand dropped to the sidearm lying beside her armor components. Across the room, Simon did the same. They met each other's gaze evenly. Cassandra felt her body tense; her combat instincts were already kicking in, drinking in the room and deciding where and how she'd move if Simon brought his weapon up. A quick jerk to the left, throw his aim off, then pick him off before he could shoot her.

It baffled her, how thoroughly she could plan out something she didn't even want to do. She still didn't know what to do about Simon. Her body, honed by years of combat drills, told her to kill him before he could do the same to her. Her mind, recalling reams of military protocol and standing orders, told her to kill him because he was a rebel and a traitor. But Cassandra...

What did Cassandra tell Cassandra to do?

It was all so confusing. Here she was, alone on a shuttle with a traitor and an Insurrectionist AI, without anyone to direct her or keep her focused on the mission. There was no mission. Nothing to give the moment direction. Cassandra felt an unshakeable urge to put her armor on. She needed something solid to stand between her and all this uncertainty.

Was this how Simon had felt, lost and abandoned on Mamore? Was this how it had started for him, this howling emptiness, this yearning for the comfortable strictures of a command structure and a mission?

Across the room, Simon raised his fingers away from the gun. They hovered a few centimeters away as his eyes shifted from her face to the sidearm at her side. "So what's your plan? Shoot me, or wait to get in contact with the government and turn me in then?"

His directness was disconcerting. "I... I don't know yet."

"Well that's good, because I'm still figuring out whether or not I should kill you, too."

"You don't want to do that. I know you don't."

"You do, huh? Diana's got a point. At least I know she won't feed me to ONI the first chance she gets."

Somehow his brutal honesty only made things more confusing. What Cassandra needed was space, a chance to get away by herself and really think things over. But no matter where she went, Diana would be watching. The AI would report everything to Simon... or maybe she wouldn't. Yes, Cassandra realized, Diana wasn't Simon's obedient little helper. If anything, she was the one who really held all the power here.

"I just want to figure out where things are at right now," she said carefully. "For all we know, the war could have started up again. Maybe Mamore doesn't really matter anymore."

For a moment, something flashed behind Simon's eyes. His arms quivered, as if tensing to spring, and Cassandra very nearly trained her pistol on him then and there. Mamore was more than just the site of his desertion. She'd have to probe that, figure out exactly what had happened before she could assume anything about him.

The fire vanished just as soon as it had emerged. The dog had bared its fangs, then quieted itself just in time. Simon averted his gaze and went back to checking his armor. "Yeah. Maybe things have changed again."

"And you? What do you want to do?"

Simon didn't look up. "Hell if I know. Diana's got something cooking, and I owe her for helping me get off Mamore. I'll stick with that, at least until I find out what's going on. Like you said, we don't know what's been happening since we went under."

Cassandra moved her hand away from the gun. "I don't want to hurt you."

"You will if you have to."

There was no point in lying. "If I have to."

"That's not really reassuring." He didn't meet her gaze. "Spartans have to follow orders."

"I don't have any orders. The mission to kill you can't be valid anymore."

This time he did look up. His eyes were as hard as ever, hard and cold. "So they did send Jian in to kill me. And here I thought Jake was just tired of me embarrassing the team."

Damn. She'd walked right into that one. Was he playing with her, stringing her along to pump her for more information? Was it all just some mind game, cooked up by him and Diana?

No. If she thought like that, then she'd really be lost. "That war's over. It has to be."

The corners of his mouth twitched in a bitter smile. "Then I guess we'll just have to find another one, won't we?"

"So it's we now." If he could play that game, so could she. "Does that mean you've decided not to kill me?"

The smile vanished and his face set itself back into the grim stare. "Don't give me a reason to. Jake wanted me dead when we fought. What do you want?"

"Aside from figuring out where things stand? I don't know yet."

He nodded slowly. "Guess that makes two of us, then. As long as you don't do anything to get me killed, I can forget who you really work for."

Who you really work for. She was a Spartan, a loyal soldier of the UNSC... wasn't she? But if that was the case, why was she being sincere when she told this traitor that she didn't want to hurt him?

There were too many questions and so few answers. She looked away from Simon and looked up at the intercom panel. "And as long as our AI friend tells me where we're going, I can forget that you're a traitor. As long as we aren't forwarding some rebel agenda, you can trust me not to stab you in the back."

The AI, silently presiding over the whole conversation, laughed aloud. "Trust. There's a word, Simon. She says she won't stab us in the back. Do you believe her?"

"For now," Simon replied, not taking his eyes off Cassandra. "But I'm with her on one thing. Where the hell are we headed?"

Diana sighed, as if they were pressuring her into making some sort of enormous concession. "Well," she said, dragging out her words. "If you must know, we're headed to Reach."

Chapter Three: Splitting the Atom

"Right, right, don't worry; I'll be back to filing all those reports you love so much in no time. But right now I need a dump on everything that's happened while I've been gone. You would not believe how boring it got, floating around without any kind of signal. It's only because of my own thoroughly well-done safeguards that I didn't go full blown rampant out here."
―Coded transmission, unknown origin, recipient MIL AI WNT 7899-3; sender identified as 45231-727-DA232

"She's read the briefing files. All of them, multiple times."

"Of course she has." Margaret Parangosky surveyed the security feed of the operative waiting impatiently in the room adjacent to her office. "If she hadn't, I'd have bumped her off the candidate list months ago."

Sitting across from her, Captain Jared Miller adjusted his uniform sleeve and made a noncommittal expression without replying. For all intents and purposes, the young intelligence officer was as bland as any two-bit analyst running a surveillance outpost on the fringes of UNSC space. Parangosky wasn't fooled by Jared's vague disinterest. The man was one of the best actors she'd ever seen. Give him a second's notice and he could fool the most battle-hardened, grit-spewing Orbital Drop Shock Trooper into believing he was a twenty-drop veteran.

He could have had a splendid career in the vids, bless him. We got him first, thankfully.

"The politicians are expecting us to have hundreds of IVs ready for deployment by next year," she continued. "Some idiots let slip too much about the number of IIIs we trained on Onyx, and now Charet wants to trot out the entire branch as soon and as publicly as possible. Christ, I miss martial law sometimes."

Jared nodded, his face still a polite wall. "I take it these, ah, idiots aren't problems anymore?"

"No, thank God. After that fiasco with Jul 'Mdama and that idiot Magnusson on Trevylan, I made it very clear to the branch that we are still at war. Terrence had to do the same with the regular forces, though I hear his method involved less permanent reassignments."

Jared gave her a thin smile. "Good to know, ma'am. With you being so careful I'm not sure why you need me at all."

"It always helps to have a man on the ground, so to speak. Once the IVs are deployed, we won't be able to keep such tidy psych profiles on them anymore. We avoided rebel infiltration with the IIs and IIIs because the rebels didn't know enough about the programs to brainwash any of the children we selected. Now that we're back to using adult volunteers in a publicized program, we'll have to be careful not to see a repeat of Orion."

"Unreliable operatives," Jared agreed. "Nearly half the augmented soldiers developed rebel sympathies. A few had to be jailed. We never even found out what happened to Hector Thornhill after he dropped off the grid."

"And so we went with children for the IIs," she continued for him. "Halsey's idea of course, she couldn't stand to see a single aspect of the development get in if it wasn't her brainchild." She found it annoying that the name still left a bad taste in her mouth even after she'd had that miserable woman locked away."

"Children for the IIs to avoid rebel sympathies, and children for the IIIs because Ackerson's plans needed so many of them so fast." It had been a necessary evil, a sacrifice Parangosky would make a thousand times over under the same circumstances. We're still alive, aren't we? Alive and more than ready to get back on our feet. Ackerson understood that, understood it enough not to let personal feelings get in the way. "And now that we're not on the brink of annihilation, we can take some steps back and get our bearings. But there always need to be failsafes."

"Yes, ma'am." Jared glanced down at the dossier files on his personal tablet. "Which of course explains why you have my team slated for the same augments the IVs are getting."

"If the IIs and IIIs have taught us anything, it's that the armor and augmentations create subcultures within units. If you're going to monitor them, they'll have to be willing to let you get close." Margaret shot Jared a look from across her desk. Most officers would have blanched under her gaze, but Jared simply caught her eye and kept his composure. He was good, Jared. A good actor, and a good soldier.

"I hear the augmentation procedures aren't exactly pleasant," he said with a wan smile. "But duty calls. I've already briefed the team and, well, I'm looking forward to not having to worry about meeting the minimum physical standards anymore. Just don't expect me to be out there running with the hardcore shooters you've got lined up for the first batch. I'm a science officer, not a commando."

"Don't worry about that." Margaret indicated his dossier. "You'll be briefed on the particulars after you've been augmented. We're still piecing the command structure together. Branches are tricky little things to sort out."

"And once the army of Spartans is a reality, I'll find plenty of tricky subjects to watch over." Jared shrugged. "But at least they'll be easier to read than the IIIs. Not that they even need monitoring, really."

"You can't take them for granted," Margaret warned. "We'll have other ways of checking in on them, but their loyalty isn't an absolute. I don't want another G294 to worry about.."

"Ah. Him.. You still haven't found a body, then."

"With Spartans you can't afford to take chances. Without a body, the file stays open permanently. It will be the same with the IVs if any of them cause problems. Your job is to make sure that doesn't happen."

Jared nodded politely. "I take my work seriously, admiral."

She met his nod with one of her own, her eyes never leaving his. "So do we all. The Spartan branch is the next step forward in military evolution. The president is calling them the 'soldiers of tomorrow', and while I can't say much for her rhetoric I'm inclined to agree."

"Some might argue that the Spartans should be seen as a necessary evil and discontinued, given the nature of the past two programs."

"And some might argue that humanity should never have developed the atom bomb, given what it was used for during the twentieth century. And yet without nuclear stockpiles and the scientific breakthroughs that followed the splitting of the atom, we wouldn't have lasted a year when the Covenant showed up. You can't second-guess history, Captain. You learn from it, and you don't repeat the mistakes of your predecessors. The Spartan program has evolved. It will keep evolving because we live in a dangerous galaxy that's been trying very hard to wipe us out for the past three decades."

Jared raised an eyebrow and jerked his head towards the door. "Well, I think she'll make a good start."

"Indeed. Sarah Palmer is just the kind of candidate we need for this program. She'll get the job done."

"Well, based on her profile I don't doubt that for a moment. They never lie, these dossiers."

Part Two: Cloudbreak

Part Three: Inferno