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40px-Terminal.png This article, Centroid, was written by Kobold Lich. Please do not edit this fiction without the writer's permission.
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Overview

Scarred by tragedy, but resolute, Annalee-B220 leads Diamond Team after an artifact the Covenant desire badly. Prophet of Scorn and Sulde 'Auqusai, an Ascetic, have enough information to keep the hunt alive. But, as Scorn's lust for power draws a rift between them, Annalee races to a backwater planet to find the answers before the Covenant discovers the mystery of The Centroid.

Centroid - A Halo Story

Chapter 1: Prologue Planetside

1350 Hours, June 19, 2545 (Military Calendar)/ Biller Pavonis System, Covenant Controlled Space

Annalee cycled through her rangefinder in quick succession. Each click of the triangulation widget pointed out the NAV points she had tacked onto the ever growing list of notable features: teams of Grunts and Jackals that littered the red, dirt trail leading to the Covenant relay; support structures, common paths and patrol locations; dead-zones and gathering areas. She studied and observed them all, as she had done dozens of times before. Any change she noted, any deviance was checked, and every alternative considered. After all, this was it. This was what she was to do. This is what she was made for.

After spending the last week crawling through conduits, stowing away in crates, clambering up rocks, and bounding over fissures, she had finally managed to ghost her way up the mountain trail to the Covenant Citadel—she hoped she was close enough. After carefully scouting the surrounding area, a rock overhang caught her eye, and that’s where she went. It’s vista of the area was subtle, but perfect: a prominent panoramic view of the trail, Citadel, and the staging camp which surrounded it all. It was perfect for what she needed. Now, days after finding the overhang, it had become her refuge from the hostile buzzing army surrounding her. And not just that, it had proven to be the perfect crows nest to plan her endgame.

Admittedly, her own situation was hardly as perfect.

Annalee slowly brought the rangefinder to her side. Softly, and quietly, a mag-mount secured it to her armor with a metallic click. She paused, staying still to make sure that she hadn't garnered any unwanted attention from her friends below her—there was no need to test the senses of the few dozen Jackals in such close proximity.

As she was, she knew she couldn't take on all of the Covenant forces in the region—STARS electronic intelligence had estimated its strength at upwards of ten-thousand strong. Since the initial UNSC attack on the Citadel’s support structures, Covenant forces had been arriving for several days to reinforce the Citadel, obviously, fearing any more damage from stragglers such as herself. Maybe, even, they knew she was still alive? Unlikely, she considered. She had estimated at least a third of the regional battalions were now there: more than what was needed to defend themselves from a single person. It seemed their intelligence collection was as lacking as hers; they were genuinely surprised the Spartans had been here and feared they might attack again. Annalee considered another option, and then stowed it away. She had seen a lot of evidence to the contrary and now was hardly the time to bolster false hopes.

As far as she was aware, she was the last surviving unit on the ground. Being that she was deep in Covenant controlled space, contacting the Prowler ship, Boudica, ran a high risk of alerting Covenant vessels of their location without any real chance of getting extracted. One slip-up in communications and she wouldn't see the strike coming; she would be ash and glass before she knew she was in danger. Not to forget , either, that this scenario banked on the Boudica’s crew holding onto the slim chance Spartans could even still contact them. The thought made her wince.

Assuming she was the last alive to complete the mission, she remained painfully silent—there wasn't any need for a pointless death now. Any sacrifice she would make, including her own life, would have meaning if she had any say in the matter. But, without the proper tools and manpower to complete the original mission parameters, she would improvise: sabotage what she could, and hope it silenced the monstrous communications relay that stood before her. It was the best she could manage.

Finally satiated with what she had observed, Annalee slowly eased her way back beneath the overhang. As she reached the narrow rear of the outcrop, obscured from outside vision, she sat upright and stretched her arms and neck. As the seal of her helmet hissed softly and she lifted it off, she took a deep breath and her vision steadied. She had been managing her breathing for hours to avoid moving as much as possible—to breathe normally was a welcome change. Regardless, the small respite was still a break from the anxiety of it all. She allowed her mind to wander for a moment as her muscles let the tension of the moment pour off.

It was curious to Annalee that the moon had a breathable oxygen content and she had begun to wonder if the Covenant had managed this through terraforming. Though, after a minute of breathing particularly sulfuric air, the novelty of the thought wore off and she returned to the properly saturated atmosphere of her helmet. Were this anywhere else, she admitted quietly to herself, her oxygen scrubbers would have been unable to keep her air from becoming toxic after only a few hours. But, graciously, the fates had been repeatedly on her side—the air system had been able to collect more than enough ambient, oxygenated atmosphere to keep her breathing. She had to count her blessings at this point.

Counting. She sat cross-legged and began her ritual.

The back of the overhang had become her "armory". She had propped her remaining weapons up against the rock face, and her ammo and pouches laid flat across the ground. First, she studied her reconnoitered Covenant Carbine. As she turned over the alien-purple rifle to check for dust and gashes, the strange yet familiar design stirred now what seemed to Annalee like a long, distant memory. It could have been months at most, tough, since it had happened. Her squad commander, Joel, had snatched a Carbine off a Jackal during a recon mission and it had proven to be quite handy over the duration— distractions, misdirections, direct-fire: a “friendly” weapon could cause quite the show in the wrong hands. Afterwards, when their team had a moment to reflect, Joel and Annalee took turns drilling the rest of Team Golf the ins and outs of the weapon. But Joel, ever the marksman, had flourished with it like any sharpshooter would—Annalee was really there to make sure he didn’t forget the small details. She knew, were he here, he would have been the perfect soldier to wield it. Annalee fought off a shudder and kept on with her inventory—she would have to make due on her own.

To say the least, her ammo situation for that weapon was solid: she had taken more than enough of it’s cylindrical power packs for a squad of trigger-happy Jackals. For what skill Joel would have had on her, she would make up for it with more ammo; she was good enough. The issue, ultimately, was that the Carbine was far from a suppressed weapon. One shot would alert every Covenant unit along the trail and hillside as it’s hissing thump echoed off each stone for a kilometer. She decided she would take it with her, but swore to use it only if things went haywire.

The remainder of her weapons were much more underwhelming: an assault rifle which had had it's ammo counter blown off by a plasma bolt, a combat knife, and her standard suppressed sidearm. She had only one extra magazine for her pistol, and the assault rifle was now down to twenty rounds. Worse, though, the firing mechanism on the rifle had deteriorated and often required that every few rounds be racked by the bolt due to the plasma damage—she decided it was no longer useful, much to her chagrin. She would have to make do with her pistol and combat knife.

Last, she checked the belted ammo pouch. From the first pouch, she fished out her two remaining snack cakes. If miracles existed, Annalee considered that it was a miracle she had any food at all. Seeing as the mission hadn't been designed to last longer than a day, virtually none of the squads had prepped any. She happened upon the cakes accidentally and had been rationing them ever since. They had helped, at least a little bit, over the last few days when hunger had really started to set in. Augmentations or not: Spartans needed food, and she felt indebted to Ahmed for having brought enough for her entire squad. When she had grabbed the ammo belt off his corpse, she hadn't known, or cared they were there. Now, though, the cakes were immeasurably important to her survival. She imagined he had envisioned doling them out when they were no longer planetside. At that moment, she wished he were still there. His outlook had always been positive, and she knew she was in need of a bit more of that. She had found herself in a dark place more than once in the last few days.

The last of his pouches were empty. She set the belt back down.

Sparse loadouts were not foreign to her, but often in those situations she had her squadmates to rely on. Now she was alone, hungry, and outgunned. She had trouble imagining what she could really hope to accomplish on her own. She wasn't convinced of much at all, really. But, considering the amount of Spartans—her friends—who had died to get her this far, she felt it her duty to see things through. Their faces danced along as playback in her thoughts and their final moments cut into her memory like a hot razor. This could have never been what she imagined the revenge promised to her would be like. The Covenant had already taken so much, and now it seemed they had taken even more. It wasn’t fair.

She sat at the back of the overhang, and rested against the stone. She set a timer for an hour, then set her motion tracker to wake her if it detected anything that wandered too close to her position. Sleep was almost unheard of considering her surroundings, but, again, she was still human. Maybe too human, she derided herself. A Spartan might have been able to stick this out, but she couldn’t. She would force herself to sleep, if need be—she needed the rest. She closed her eyes, and let her helmet slowly drown the cacophony of alien tongues, clattering of equipment, and ever present hum of pulsing plasma energy from her ears.

She gripped her pistol tight, and nodded off. For a short while, she was at ease.

Chapter 2: Brain in The Machine

0500 Hours, June 20, 2545 (Military Calendar)/ Unknown location, Biller Pavonis System.

On schedule, each STARS probe high over Biller Pavonis 4A forwarded Fluellen their reports.

Each report, as he had expected, was virtually identical from the last. But, that was irrelevant now; any new information about troop movements was viable, important data that he couldn't risk losing. So, he kept analyzing—any error now would be egregious on principle. The mission was stalled and had been for days, and that was unacceptable to him. Now though, there was a chance the Operation could be rectified. Whatever his prior obligations were, he was focused on one thing only: extracting the remaining Spartans as was planned… if they still survived. It was his duty to do so, even in the face of unforeseen blockages.

While he rescanned the new reports, Fluellen was reminded of his favorite passage which he had stored away early in his career: "Idle hands are the devil's workshop". At some levels this was analogous to his current state, and he saw the connection amusing. He had seemingly reached out beyond the abyss of expectation and joined with the darkness himself—or, at least it was fun to imagine so. It illuminated his boredom in another manner, regardless.

He calculated that, were his plans to work, a sense of irony may overcome his superior, Captain Mattias Jones. Ultimately, it had been Jones who restricted him to the somewhat small Probe communications suite, and it was only through these probes he found what data he needed. Jones, it now appeared, may have accidentally undermined his own wishes. Each supporting datapoint for Fluellen's analysis was a metaphorical predator ready to pounce on a potentially careless, wandering prey. With enough data, he would need to do little but feign the first strike—those hungrier than he would move in for the kill when they sensed weakness—or, so Fluellen planned.

Captain Jones had initially tasked Fluellen with keeping him informed about the ground situation on 4A while Operation: RAUCOUS SOLITUDE was ongoing. This was expected, as he relied on Fluellen to help him understand better the next moves that needed to be made. Fluellen was, after all, a tactical expert with many lifetimes of expertise to share. Oddly, though, the Captain had decided to reject many of Fluellen's last analyses—the week had since been trying for their partnership.

Fluellen believed strongly that the mission still had a chance to be completed, but here he was: reevaluating reports he had read hundreds of times over already—he knew them as well as he knew his name. The Captain rejected this notion. He felt that in hostile territory, nothing could be certain, and with no support there was no reason to sacrifice themselves so carelessly, especially without strong enough data. Fluellen refuted this notion, and the Captain hadn't taken the criticism in kind. Jones had also butted heads with Darren Cohen during the week, the ONI minder aboard the UNSC Boudica. Fluellen expected their shared loyalty to ONI had boiled Jones's worries to the surface. As such, he continued his work within the Captain's parameters to avoid anymore confrontation. The Boudica's STARS probes were guided by a type of "dumb" AI known only as Electronic Intelligence. The "EI" on these probes were extremely redundant, and their "intelligence" was that of an animal: simple, but enough to complete their jobs. They were virtually useless, though, without Fluellen overseeing them. The amount of data they parsed was too much for one human analyst to make good use of, thus Fluellen was obligated to do so.

The EI's were tasked to run communications beacons, geographical imagery collection, and monitoring of Covenant BattleNet chatter—they were inundated with operational data, much of it useless. Fluellen had to prioritize the EI to find information on the Spartans, or they would never collect the data he really needed. At the end of it all, each probe had repeatedly indicated in some manner there was a slight chance that a few of Spartans could still remain. Fluellen could only assume without the Boudica's support, they were on the teetering edge of failure.

There had been no communication with ground forces for days, and satellite imagery hadn't found any indication of living Spartans on the ground. The EI's collected intelligence had come solely from unencrypted data regarding troop movements and notices posted in Covenant BattleNet chatter. Fluellen could only trust the EI reports as estimations, guesswork and imaginings from a lesser intelligence...but still, they had been his only conduit to observe the battlefield. More, though, had to be done.

For the last week he had twisted his code of conduct greatly to get intelligence he needed. He sensed a tinge of accomplishment in the last day, knowing that he had verified more than the Captain would expect him to...but he was still very aware Jones may not believe his work to be "within code". He supposed it was something different from the drivel the EI had continuously sent him for thousands of cycles. Either way, his report on his data-recovery operations would require wording as close to code as he could manage. If not for the Captain's ears, then for those who would listen. If he could not prove his work to be just, then how would the crew trust his convictions over their Captain's? He deemed the risk to be particularly high—he would likely need to deflect or stand down.

How long truly, Fluellen posed the question to himself, could a team of Spartans last with nothing? He wasn't entirely naive. Their mission had only been designed for a maximum three day span, and it had now extended far into a week. The Spartans, despite their mythic phantom status, were still humans who required rest and food. Food was not supplied in the manner needed to sustain them as long as they had been planetside. Even if survivors had trickled out of the LZ—even if they had fought their way through the week: they could still be weak or dying from starvation… or worse.

And yet, Fluellen hung onto the silliest of human emotions: hope. Abandoning survivors now, if he could save them, would at least give the remaining Spartans of Beta Company some hope, even facing the bleak odds before them. They, of all people, would need that hope.

Fluellen was aware of his attachment. He had watched them from afar—as did his predecessors— micromanaging and maintaining the young soldiers for missions which fit their skills, missions where they would excel. Unlike most tangible things, Fluellen had found he cared deeply for them as a whole, as dangerous as that was. At times he wasn't sure if he was made to feel that way, or if he had come to this conclusion himself. He didn't dwell. Dwelling on such things could be harmful for him in the long term.

"Bridge to Fluellen."

In an instant Fluellen appeared at the projection terminal besides the Captain's post. His image appeared in holographic light, an opaque orange-red projection. He had taken the form of a man donning common 14th century clothing, his head engulfed in a flame of data particles and code which burned off his shoulders. He was an AI— and a sophisticated one by his own studies.

Fluellen had been "born" into existence by a team of twenty-odd ONI AI specialists, and military analysts who had integrated the best third-generation tech available to create him. In other words: his processing power allowed him to dance circles around most AI, and as he had learned in his two years of service: Humans. This sort of background and processing power was determined to be needed if he was to be a cog in the SPARTAN-III program. He nodded at the Captain. Jones crossly and knowingly nodded back. The bridge crew also curiously peeked from their terminals towards his direction. Cohen was seated behind the Captain— he warmly smiled at Fluellen.

Fluellen estimated the likelihood that Jones had read about his creation. His development was particularly advanced as he was born of not just one human brain, but five— volunteer retiree's of the UNSC's upper brass who allowed instances of their consciousness and psyche to be melded into one. Maybe Jones had known one of them— maybe they had been a friend or a rival? Improbable, he concluded. Either way, this melding of minds had made his military intellect unmatched, and an added side effect had been his heightened sense of honor— notably more important to him than seen in most AI, or so he read in his ONI Psyche Assessment. He estimated this was maybe the reason Captain Jones saw him as disruptive. At least now, he mused, maybe that would prove true.

"Aye, Captain?" Fluellen chimed in.

"Fluellen," Captain Jones began, "barring any new information, I need you to prep the Boudica's engines for Slipspace, and lock in a random course out of system. As we discussed, I will be suspending the Operation pending the Boudica's readiness. Is that understood?"

Fluellen's flame sputtered with intensity. "Captain, I do have information to report."

"Oh, you do?" the Captain smugly responded. Fluellen ignored his tone, detecting sarcasm.

"Yes," Fluellen maintained, "and I'm sure it indicates a necessity to change the course of our current, prior discussed plans."

Jones shook his head, but looked back to Fluellen with a sense of obligation: "Proceed."

Fluellen waved his hand and the Captain's viewscreen appeared the same shade red as his projection. Fluellen's commandeered displays showed multiple translated instances of BattleNet reports: units killed by human weapons, missing equipment from quartermasters, and presumed sabotage— all as early as the last two days. They were the same sort of reports they had discussed before.

"Captain, per your orders, my standing as support for RAUCOUS SOLITUDE is only as an observer and analyst for the Operation. As such I have spent days observing and analyzing all intelligence gathered on moon 4A. You can see here clearly," Fluellen addressed the entire bridge of the Boudica, "there is more than enough information to presume a remaining Spartan contingent on the moon's surface. My estimations, based off initial observed losses we documented on scope and Covenant troop displacement—"

"Fluellen," Captain Jones interrupted, "this is no different from the last reports you gave. We have already discussed how this cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that UNSC forces remain alive planetside."

A snide grin grew on Fluellen's face, as he waved his arm again, wiping away the reports.

"Captain, I have been listening to probe reports for the last week, per your instruction, and I have seen the same reports as you— thousands of times more due to how I process data. Based on these reports," Fluellen indicated to the screens again, "I see how this data could be interpreted differently. But—"

With a snap of his fingers, the bridge's monitors returned to normal. The entire bridge crew was now very enraptured in Fluellen's presentation, much to the Captain's dislike.

"—But, Captain, being as this was incomplete data I was working with, I took the liberty to analyze the Covenant BattleNet myself."

The Captain's face flushed. "Fluellen," he spoke through gritted teeth, "you better not have used this ship's communication's relay, after I had instructed you specifically—"

"Captain, hardly. I bypassed the EI of Probe Niner-Two and accessed it through accepted channels of encryption. I am an ONI asset, to remind you— I'm hardwired for the maintenance of code."

The Captain laid his arms across his chest. He wasn't sold on the idea.

"So what did you find, Fluellen? I'm sure my bridge officers in charge of STARS are interested in why you would interrupt normal data collection like that?" He eyed the bridge crew, and they turned back to their stations.

Fluellen again waved and the deck monitors showed his findings. He pressed on.

"Captain, I'm happy to report that our probes have performed excellently since the initial landing— in fact I am very surprised at their effectiveness after we saw how abysmal they had performed collecting pre-mission data. I found no difference in their superficial data collection to mine. However, I went a step further. I gained direct access to the local BattleNet."

The Captain's mouth opened, his expression changed from utter frustration to amazement. Annoyed amazement, if Fluellen read his facial expressions correctly.

"How—"

"Sir, I appreciate the interest, and I assure you it's way more simple than you might imagine. We already had dialed the probes into receiving frequencies— all that I needed to do was access that which was encrypted. Finding a weakness would allow me to access enough data to maintain a decryption key. As you of course know, the BattleNet is largely encrypted. However, localized networks— those used by facilities on the ground— well, that's a different tale entirely."

By way of the holo-projector, Fluellen displayed three different representations of unencrypted networks being used by Covenant forces. He walked off the projector and pointed out to one representation, a pentagonal glyph marked with a "B". "This is network designation 'Beta'. Beta Network was a very small localized network which was used to monitor plasma pumps at one of the Citadel substations which our Spartans attacked."

The holo-projector created a three dimensional projection of a Covenant structure utilizing satellite imagery and visual data gathered early in the operation, before contact with the Spartans was lost. Fluellen walked around the projection and pointed to one side of the building's image.

"The wall facing bearing 230 had seventeen terminals, one of which a localized agent tapped into on June 15—i.e., a Spartan created an opening into this terminal for us to analyze remotely. As we had not been actively searching for weak points, per your instructions to maintain communication only with STARS probes on June 13, this local tap was only discovered by me on June 17."

Fluellen turned to Captain Jones. The Captain was growing increasingly flustered, but he was still stunned in silence. Fluellen couldn't tell if he was impressed or searching for a reason to purge him from the ship's computing core.

"Captain Jones," Fluellen addressed him, "after access to Beta Network via EI probe Niner-Two, I was able to safely and securely access approximately twenty-seven other internal networks. Two, of which, had direct lines to the main Covenant BattleNet. Back channels for AI maintenance.

"At approximately 1800 hours on June 17, per directives from ONI Admiralty—which supersede your jurisdiction and security clearance— I was obligated to attempt an infiltration into the localized Battle Network. Using sub-networks designated "Theta" and "Foxtrot" I lured out Covenant AI protection with an unauthorized probe, and then swiftly entered without their noticing. Once in the network, I was able to access enough data to fabricate a decryption key, allowing me to monitor the Covenant's priorly encrypted chatter.

"From this juncture, I was also able to access standing orders from the Covenant Fleet Commander in system. It directly acknowledges Spartan presence still on moon 4A as late as June 19 . And I quote the Fleet Commander: 'Demon presence has been confirmed, but we estimate their remaining force size to be minimal. We do not suspect the [Relay] to be attacked with such a small number, assuming they are still alive and working collectively. By order of the Prophets, we shall root out these fiends and flay each we catch alive. Divines Will It...' end quote."

Fluellen waved his displays away, leaving the bridge as it was when he entered. The bridge crew murmured amongst themselves as the Captain rocked on his feet, unsure of what to say. Fluellen was pleased by this. He saw his opening to continue his "report".

"Sir, I had spoken with —"

"Cohen!" Jones immediately boomed. The Captain, with both fists to his side, turned about face towards Darren Cohen. Cohen had already stood in anticipation of an argument, one hand in his pocket, the other on his cane. The clear visor which covered his face was already aimed towards the Captain, his blue eyes and sly smile on display for Jones. A mechanical wheeze was the only other thing heard on the dead silent bridge as he began to speak.

"Captain, it's obvious now to me," he paused waiting for a pump to fill his lungs, "—that you do not understand what it means to be a Spartan. Hell, I'm not sure you understand what it means to be a soldier, anymore..."

The Captain loudly stomped his foot on the metal deck, and roared back at Cohen, lunging his finger into his face, and lecturing him intensely on ignoring standards of military order. Fluellen had already begun audio recording for later continuity, but he continued to direct all deck feeds towards the Captain and Cohen. The wolf had made his move, and he needed only to wait.

"Spartans," Cohen began again, ignoring Jones's slander, "understand sacrifice well enough to recognize when it isn't worth the effort. As Mr. Fluellen has clearly displayed to us here," he addressed the bridge, "you, sir, are missing a larger picture to what constitutes as acceptable loss—"

"Now, you listen here," Captain Jones barked, "you are to report to your quarters immediately, and you are not to come out until we are back on Reach— is that clear? You have brainwashed and sicced this AI on me because you need someone to blame for your little monsters— your sick science experiments being ground into hamburger! Goddamn, child soldiers the lot, none of them even a fuckin' day over eighteen..."

"Sir," Cohen raised his hand from his pocket and gently pushed the captain's finger from his face, "those 'little monsters' have every right to fight. All of them are even more decorated warriors than yourself, not that a Navy flyboy—"

Captain Jones grabbed Cohen with both his hands, one hand on his neck, the other on his oxygen pump. Cohen swiftly began to choke.

"This is illegal, Cohen! ILLEGAL! No one will disrespect me on my fucking boat! You will rot in the brig. This whole Operation you cooked up stinks to high heaven of ONI bullshit. How I ever allowed an ONI spook onboard this ship, is beyond me— clearance from a Rear Admiral my ass! Sure enough: here he is plotting to take over! Listen to me, Cohen: if you continue any-goddamn-further with this bullshit, in serving of UNSC Articles of War and Justice: I will execute your ass all over the fucking walls myself—"

A cry rang out on the deck.

"Leave him be, Jones!"

The navigational officer, Marco Dorota, stood with his service pistol in hand. He was flanked by the Sergeant of the on-board Marine security. Jones looked back at Cohen, a wide smile creeping through the visor of his medical mask. Jones snapped, and punched Cohen in a fit of rage, cracking his visor and tossing him to the ground. He turned to the bridge crew, flabbergasted and infuriated. He looked down at the frail man, who simply continued to smile back at him. Jones's face was crimson with rage.

"You son of a bitch—you planned this…" He looked back to his crew who now stood at their stations. He raised his arms pleading with them, "Why are you doing this?! This is illegal—you'll all be court martialed— you'll be executed!"

The burly sergeant stepped towards the captain, towering over him. Jones flinched when she put her face right before his.

"Mister Jones," she growled, "you have been relieved of duty, now. Navigational Officer Commander Dorota was chosen by the bridge crew to act as Captain. Your emotional state has made you unfit to command this, or any vessel any longer. Your inability to properly safeguard our ground forces speaks to that."

The sergeant raised her arm and gestured to the bridge crew, and then continued her rebuttal: "This crew has accepted the likelihood of court martial and what that means. I think it's about time you accepted reality, too."

Without a moment's notice, she knocked the captain out with a swift headbutt to his face, breaking his nose in the process. He hit the floor with a thud. Fluellen, ended his recording.

"No hard feelings, mate." the sergeant chuckled, wiping her brow of blood, "I'm just following orders from someone who gives a damn."


0515 Hours, June 20, 2545 (Military Calendar)/ Bridge of UNSC Boudica

Fluellen had stayed mostly quiet during the "mutiny" on the Boudica. Really, he had little to do with it beyond his report. He was virtually unable to disrupt a superior in such a manner. But, the grey area had been explored: in the event an acting officer was mentally unable to serve, he could answer to the acting captain or any other officer placed in charge. This was as he had expected. But, what he hadn't expected was how easily things had happened— it had left him with the sinking suspicion his mutiny had little to do with him. It was apparent that the bridge had already come to that conclusion before he confronted the captain. He believed he knew why.

Cohen had mentioned to Fluellen days prior his belief that Jones was likely unfit for duty due in his emotional state. Jones's home planet of Miridem had fallen in the months prior, and he had only been notified that all civilian survivors were accounted for a week before. His family, unaccounted for, had been glassed along with the planet. The Captain was a very strong willed man, but mixed with his lack of perception and rejection of Fluellen's urges to action, Cohen felt that Jones had jeopardized the mission in his "emotional state". It seems that the bridge crew had, in time, felt the same way. Cohen then simply followed "their lead".

But Fluellen saw through that.

Darren Cohen was a mixed bag. Fluellen knew his type well enough to know that he used people as long as they were worth using, and made sure they were out of his way when his agenda needed completion. Cohen had likely urged, implied, or complained to the officers aboard the Boudica to consider the notion of the Captain's emotional state until they eventually agreed Jones could no longer lead them. Fluellen could have alerted Commander Dorota to Cohen's antics, but It just so happened that his agenda, the completion of RAUCOUS SOLITUDE, had aligned with Fluellen's. It was arguably terribly illegal, but Fluellen found it hard to fault him. That is what made him dangerous: he represented chaos of a sort.

After sending Jones to the brig, the bridge crew swiftly gathered to meet at the helm of the ship. The ODST squad, which had made up the Boudica's Marine security detail, had been briefed by the tall, tough Sergeant from before: Waimarie Paiwei. It wasn't long before the ODST's were already readying themselves for an extraction mission. Sergeant Paiwei, however, had yet to be sold on the plan Cohen had cooked up.

"You're crazy." Paiwei sighed.

"Maybe," Cohen replied "but, this would be our only way to verify the mission is either moving towards completion, or that it's a total loss. It's also the only way those Spartans are getting extracted, now."

"If they're even still alive." Paiwei reminded Cohen.

Cohen smiled at her. "Of course, Sergeant."

Fluellen chimed in; the rest of the crew had been hesitant to speak up.

"It's settled then?"

"I don't like it," Dorota spoke up, "but we have put ourselves on the line for this very reason. There's not much to like about our plan, but Cohen is right: it's the only way we give this some sort of finality, and get those Spartan's the hell out of there… you have my green light, Cohen. Fluellen?"

"Aye, sir?" Fluellen saluted Dorota.

"Ready the ship for atmospheric entry, and get the STARS probes ready to support the drop team. Fluellen: all assets are available for use. You don't need my permission: just do it."

"Aye, aye."

Paiwei made her way to the door of the bridge, placing her helmet on as she left— she had already geared up in her standard ODST armor. She turned back to the group as she polarized her visor. She shook her head, and laughed and left without saying another word. Fluellen was hopeful that she would be able to pull off what was likely the hardest landing of her career, in multiple senses. The margin of error was high, and a mistake would land her team into a literal army of Covenant. They wouldn't last seconds.

Fluellen bowed and faded from the projector.

Fluellen's job as the shipboard AI was hardly over; he had been working in the background for the entire ordeal, in fact. In the end he wasn't there to make fancy speeches or presentations for an ineffective Captain: he was there to see the mission through. While the conversation had been ongoing, he was already redirecting probes, priming the ship for atmospheric entry, updating the ODST's mission parameters, and removing the red-tape from all lockers they would need to access. Most importantly, short of navigational data for their random exit jump, he began to purge the Boudica's databanks of anything that might lead back to Earth or the Inner Planets. The Cole Protocol was now in effect.

Whatever the stakes were before, they were now raised. The ODST's were tasked to land with the Boudica's lifeboat at the top of the Citadel. Their mission: rendezvous with the Spartans, assuming they were actively seeking to complete their mission— that or they would confirm that nothing remained to be extracted. Either way, the Boudica was going to buzz the Citadel relay tower in atmosphere when the mission was deemed over. The Prowler class vessel would remain a ghost until they entered the atmosphere. From then on, it would be the job of Fluellen and the bridge crew to extract them out, and to escape into Slip Space.

His "hands" full, Fluellen shut the proverbial door to the workshop of the last week to release his sense of higher obligation. But, after a short review, he vowed to return again to the..."happening" on the bridge. He hadn't felt right since the ordeal. Something was wrong. For a long while, he could not explain it—he truly had never felt it before. But he now believed his considerations on the matter were correct.

He was mystified by Darren Cohen.

Chapter 3: Whispers in The Dark

0500 Hours, June 20, 2545/ Annalee’s Crow's Nest

Annalee slung the carbine along the back of her SPI armor and inched towards the ledge with her MC6 “Automag” pistol in hand. The Semi-Powered Infiltration armor’s camouflage panels kicked on, and Annalee became the night.

The nameless moon she was on had finally descended into darkness after having been in daylight for the last week. Just as the Office of Naval Intelligence— known colloquially as ONI—had suggested, the moon was tidally locked to the planet above. The planet, Biller Pavonis 4, shone only as a sliver of a brown waning crescent in the sky. Her suit calculated the ambient light to be lower than 1 Lux— virtually next to nothing. What more, Annalee could now expect for it to remain this dark for weeks. She wouldn't need that much time, though. She wouldn't last there that long, regardless.

The Covenant Citadel that three teams of Beta Company were tasked to infiltrate and destroy, was a part of what the UNSC suspected was a larger Slip Space communications relay inside of Covenant controlled space. Golf, November, and Oscar Teams, known by ONI as the “Diamond Lance”, had been sent to investigate the relay in the hopes that the UNSC might be able to reverse engineer their detection technology, or gather other intel on Covenant fleet movements.

Intelligence had suggested the structure was akin to an interstellar telegraph system, something Humanity had toyed with but never perfected. The Covenant had mastered Slip Space in ways Humanity could only hope to partially match before the alien crusaders inevitably descended further into the Inner Planets. Annalee, and the other Spartans were simply trying to accelerate the research process, hoping that the tides of war may finally turn in Humanity's favor. It increasingly appeared that they were running out of time.

In the new dark, the Citadel was lit solely by the pulsing blues of plasma conduits, as well as the accompanying pinks and purples of assorted camplights and terminals scattering the surrounding area. Periodically, the central column of the structure would charge and fire pulsewaves of laser-emitted datastreams through Slip Space. Annalee had timed these pulses to a mean time of two hours between pulses, and had watched minutes prior how it illuminated the area, washing it in a white-blue glow. To avoid detection, she would need to move in between pulses.

With the dark masking her, Annalee crawled to the edge of the overhang to take one last look at the trail. The third watch was on time.

A watch squad of Grunts and Jackals patrolled the length of the trail every seven hours. They had just made their second loop and would be gone for the next forty minutes, more than enough of an opening to approach the Citadel camp from the trail mouth. Then, all that remained between Annalee and the structure was a menagerie of Covenant units strewn randomly across the few hundred meters between them. It was an obvious killzone— no man's land in more than one way. But, as Annalee had observed: it was a complacent killzone.

She estimated at maximum, she would have a half-hour to reach one of the gates leading into the Citadel structure. She set and displayed a timer on her HUD, and began the countdown. It was time to roll.

Peering again over the side of the rock, Annalee saw what she expected. Below her was the end of the trail and, sure enough, the squad of Grunts she had kept tabs on during her stay— entirely accounted for. The squad had settled in an hour before, and Annalee, seeing they were now completely unawares, was finally satisfied. She released the safety on her gun, vaulted over the side of the cliff towards the flimsy canopy roof, slashing through the tarpaulin-like material and straight into the methane pit where they slept.

She landed square on the skull of a Grunt. There was a sharp, muffled crack as the Grunt's skull splintered into fragments and was crushed beneath the force of Annalee's strike. It's lungs lazily released methane through a gurgle of blue blood and brain matter. Another Grunt, nearby, stirred; awoken, but not yet alert. She dove at the Grunt, grabbing its neck and violently snapped it completely around. It softly slumped over and died without another sound. The remaining pack was completely unaware, and remained asleep and undisturbed by the commotion.

Annalee remained still, and partially prone, aiming at the head of the nearest Grunt. She glanced at the top of the pit. The material of the roof kept its bubble shape, save for the human sized flap which she had made on her way down. It leaked, but the flap only quietly fluttered as methane lazily escaped through the opening; the tent simply continued pumping more gas to maintain the pressure within. No alarms— the Jackal sentries had missed her. For now, she was in the clear. She quickly and silently dispatched the remaining Grunts so that none survived to sound an alarm.

The access doors for the pit hissed and opened as Annalee neared them. The doors opened facing the rest of the camp, and the trail was now behind her. Although the ground around the Citadel was mostly open, it served as a staging area for patrols and supply drops. Vehicles, crates, methane tents, barriers, barracks, and other assorted equipment gave Annalee just enough hiding places to move through the shadows towards the Citadel. Her SPI armor's photo-reactive plating also did it's part, making her appear only as a silhouetted shadow amongst the dark purple huts and pylons of the Covenant camp.

Most of the Grunts she saw about were completely oblivious or enjoying their sleep cycle. The deadlier Jackals had their eyes set upon the horizon, and not the interior of the camp. A lucky break. The darkness had lulled most of the Covenant into a false sense of security, she gathered, which allowed her to move about without much worry of drawing their attention. The sun had seemingly set on the events of the week, for them.

As she meticulously made her way through the camp, Annalee came to a halt behind a cluster of weapons crates. As she had been crossing through the camp, she periodically caught snippets of a sound on the wind. Eventually, she couldn’t help but stop to listen when it was clear it wasn’t going away— a constant but faint grumble that was nothing like the noises she had grown used to during her reconnaissance. It was obvious, once she focused, that it was hardly the background noise she initially thought: it was the undeniably distinct whine and chug of a Covenant drop ship. A small hut— a barracks— was close, and in any direction, it was the only structure with a roof she could reach for cover. The turrets on any Covenant dropship would be able to detect Annalee with thermal sights. Even with her heightened senses and speed, the heavy plasma turrets would rip her apart easily. She had no doubt.

She expanded her suit's motion tracker to max range. Among the sea of movement around her, it caught a large blip at the edge of its radius. Intently adjusting her suit's HUD to track the contact, it was obvious it was approaching. Fast. Too fast to scan the barracks for life. She had to get inside, then and there. Hard, she pushed off the ground and sprinted with all her power towards the door, hoping her suit's camouflage would keep her out of sight. Her feet barely touched the ground as she hit her stride.

Halfway to the barracks, she glanced around to see if she had been spotted. No firing, no alarms, no alien shrieks or howls. She didn't believe that a Jackal would miss the movement she had made, even when she was in camouflage— she was convinced that she had to have been seen, and the alarms were moments away from sounding. She tensed as she approached the door, waiting for a plasma beam to catch her torso; waiting for a stream of bolts to scorch her back.

Nothing came. She was going to make it.

With a small length to spare, Annalee pushed hard off the ground and lunged. Her shoulder slammed into the door of the barracks as a Phantom dropship flew fast and low over her head. The Phantom kicked up a large cloud of red dust and silt, and the sound of the pass masked the clang of the barracks door snapping open. The cloud quickly rushed in with Annalee, and the few dozen Grunts and Jackals immediately inside the door were stunned and blinded by the sandy wash rushing in. Easy targets.

Before they could gather themselves, Annalee had emptied her suppressed pistol into twelve Jackals and Grunts under the cover of the cloud— each died as a single round caught their head. With her pistol emptied, Annalee tore through the center of the barracks finding the soft-spots of the now frenzied Covenant units with her combat knife. Though within moments most of the room was dead or dying, she knew she couldn't reach the last group at the far end of the barracks before they fired back at her. Things were moments from going haywire.

As she unslung the carbine from her back, having settled on killing as many Covenant as possible before they killed her, the suppressed burp of an SMG sheared through a Jackal who had sighted Annalee with a beam rifle. Before the remaining Covenant troops at the other end of the barracks could reach or fire their weapons, two silhouettes pushed down from the ceiling, firing suppressed assault weapons into the remaining stragglers. Annalee couldn't help but smirk as every last Jackal and Grunt hit the floor in a mist of purple and blue blood, unable to even screech in response to the sight of Spartans dropping from the vents above.

Annalee held up her knifed hand with an open palm, signalling her appreciation. The two Spartans nodded in turn. She wasn't alone after all.

One of the Spartans quickly moved to the other door of the barracks and placed a small hacking device on a panel, killing the lights and locking the only other door into the hut. At the very least, if a curious Covenant unit decided to enter the broken door, the Spartans would be completely hidden in the shadows. And, with their night vision engaged, they would be able to drop the hammer on them before the bastards knew they were in danger. On a second look, Annalee knew exactly who her comrades were. The one who had gone to the panel was none other than her own squadmate Andrew-B191, "Drew", their field engineer. The one who approached her was Spencer-B337, "Spike", the Commander of November Team. Annalee gave a quick, friendly salute to Spike. He reached out and clasped her shoulder as he made his way to the broken door at the other end of the barracks. That was all that needed to be said on the matter of command. Spike was now running the show.

"It's good to see you, 220." Spike reassured Annalee.

"Likewise, sir." she responded rasply, surprised at the sound of her own voice. She realized she hadn't spoken in about a week. "Sir," she gingerly asked after him, nursing her vocal cords "…are there any more of us?"

"If there are, we haven't been in contact with anyone… toss me your rangefinder."

Annalee demagnetized the rangefinder and tossed it to Spike, who began to scout the exterior of the barracks through the broken door. She felt an elbow nudge her arm, and turned to Drew who came to join her. He deplorized his visor and smiled at her, appearing phosphorescent green in her HUD's night vision setting. Annalee noticed that his oft clean-shaven face was now covered in stubbly fuzz; his constant smile was still there. He glanced curiously at her carbine. "Planning on alerting the camp, Golf 2?" he quizzingly nodded at her weapon.

"Only because I knew you would be around to deal with it, Golf 4."

"Roger that." Drew smirked.

Annalee appreciated his attempts to lighten the situation, but their rendezvous had made it apparent that the remaining squadmate of Golf Team indeed hadn't made it. Mary was gone too. She turned from Drew, choosing to keep her visor polarized. She didn't want him to see how broken she suddenly felt.

She had assumed all Spartan squads had been wiped out, and that she was alone. But, she still had held onto the hope that maybe… just maybe the last of her squad had made it— that any Spartan had made it. Before she had tossed it to Spike, Annalee had been using Mary's rangefinder that entire week. After coming across it at an overrun Spartan position, she had snagged it. There were too many bodies, and she couldn't see if one of them was Mary before she had to keep moving. But, she had hoped. She hoped she would be able to give it back to her, and that Mary would laugh. She had hoped she would be able to toss Wei, another friend, his busted assault rifle she had found in the rubble of a Covenant bunker, and he'd silently nod in approval. She hoped they would all tell their stories of how they were separated, and how they eventually found each other. She hoped they would all laugh about it, and cry about it together. She hoped they could have all made it, so they could support each other, especially since Joel and Ahmed were killed almost immediately once the mission went south. But, all that remained now was Drew, and her. Her heart ached for her team—it was like losing her family all over again.

In hindsight she felt silly for thinking she would ever see them again. She had always known they were probably dead. It wasn't professional to hope like that; it wasn't Spartan-like. After the hell they had been through— the hell that she had been through— she should have known better.

As if she needed the stress, her veins pumped with white-hot rage, her augmented brain keeping her ready for a battle. She clenched her teeth as her emotions fought to undo her training, and frenzy her into a blood rage. In particular, she found that the "untouchable" mantra of "Spartans never die..." mocked her incessantly. Tell that to Joel, Ahmed, Wei, and Mary, she begrudgingly thought. She couldn't stand to hear that lie anymore, and her brain made her remember it on repeat— it forced her to remember...to make her angry. A side effect of being a Spartan it seemed.

For all she did to hide her rage from her comrades, Drew knowingly handed her a magazine for her pistol. She looked back at that dumb smile of his. He was hurting too. They all dealt with the rage in different ways. Each internal battle was different, and Drew always seemed to find a way to get out in front of it. It may have seemed to be entirely for his squadmates sake, but helping them in turn helped him. Annalee took the clip, and nodded silently.

"I know you'll make 'em count, Lee—"

Both Spartans ducked instinctively as another loud roar shook the barracks. Spike waved the duo over to the door as the dust again settled inside. Taking a position behind Spike, they peered back out into the camp.

Another Phantom had just arrived. It pulled hard to its side, slowed and came to a hover near the main structure of the Citadel relay. A blue light opened on the bulbous craft's belly, and a squad of Covenant rode a gravity lift down into the camp. Spike took his visor off Mary's rangefinder and turned to Annalee and Drew.

"It's all Elites" he grunted, "I counted ten— Spec-Ops class. Looks like the fuzz is here."

"I'll spare you the details," Drew noted to Annalee "but, this is the third group of Elites we've come across the last two days." Annalee, hung her head.

"They know we're here?" She asked.

"I was able to piggyback the local network, and caught a signal from the BattleNet…" Drew hesitated.

"...There's a Covenant Corvette in geosynchronous orbit over the Citadel. They called for an ‘expeditionary unit’ to reinforce the local guard… they're worried they didn't find us all, but they don't know for sure." He glanced out the door to the Citadel as another Phantom flew overhead, stirring awake even more dozing Grunts, and riling up the Jackal sentries. He shook his head, "—probably means ONI finally found something worthwhile— Covenant’s actually worried this time…"

"That means" Spike interrupted, "we've gotta' get this taken care of now. This isn't a 'soft' target anymore, and it sure as hell isn't getting any softer. Lock and load, Spartans: we're gonna' infiltrate that Citadel and complete the mission… get some well deserved payback, too. Understood?"

Annalee and Drew's HUD updated their squad info, highlighting each other. They winked notifications to Spike's HUD in acknowledgement. He pinged them back, completing their connection.

It was time to go to work.

Chapter 4: The Last Ride

0520 Hours, June 20, 2545/ Covenant Barracks

Drew, walked back to collect his supplies, giving Annalee a moment to collect her thoughts… and reload her pistol. She was grateful to have at least some ammunition now. But the reality was that the subsonic, small caliber bullets her pistol utilized would be virtually useless against the powerful energy shields that Elites fielded. She would need something else to take the edge off their armor. As if hearing her thoughts, Spike handed Annalee a Covenant Plasma pistol he nabbed off a Grunt corpse. If set to overcharge the pistol would burn through even the strongest shields on Elites— according to scouting reports. She couldn't trust, though, that it would fire more than twice at that charge. It was a bit of a gambit, but…

She set the plasma weapon to her side. She would hold onto it just in case.

Drew joined the group again. He dropped two assault packs on the ground that he and Spike had hidden in the rafters while they were lying in wait. The packs were loaded with enough weapons and ammunition for the three of them to share, but it was still far less than they had hoped to assault a Covenant base with. Depending on how they intended on entering the Citadel tower, Annalee knew they could burn through their ammo quickly. She didn't know if conservation was going to get the job done, though.

Drew tossed a DMR to Spike; it was his weapon of choice. Spike reached out, catching the rifle by the stock, and racked a round into the chamber. Spike had always been a deadshot, so Annalee was relieved he was going to be able to be their sharpshooter. As he passed Annalee, he tucked the DMR's corresponding magazines into his ammo-pouch, then took a position just inside the busted barracks door, keeping watch. He was intent on assuring their anonymity for the time being.

Annalee was relieved to see a working assault rifle in the pack. She shouldered and began inspecting it. The rifle was in working order, though it's Smart-Link optic suite was dead. She snapped the iron-sights on the rifle into place. It was an unsuppressed weapon, but it would do its job fine if things got sporty. She was positive Wei would have approved— the rifle was an MA5B sporting almost double the magazine capacity than all other MA5 rifle variants. Between the rifle and her Carbine, she was loaded for bear.

Drew reloaded the silenced SMG he had been carrying, then unzipped the second pack— that bag was clearly his gear. He pulled out a shotgun, dumped a box of shells into his ammo pouch, and fit shells onto a holder he had strapped to his forearm. Drew, on top of being their chief equipment and logistics member, was also a surgeon with a shotgun. After he slung his M90 CAWS shotgun over his shoulder, he reached back into the bag and pulled out two pieces of very different equipment. The first was the undeniable cylinder of a HAVOK tactical nuke. Annalee lit up— Joel, being the Operation lead, carried the HAVOK during their insertion. She thought it had been wrecked or lost, but it turned out Drew was able to recover it during their drop into hell.

Drew opened the keypad to the HAVOK, and reset the bomb for remote detonation— Annalee noted it had appeared to have been set to a kill-switch setting before.

"A little worried there, Drew?" She teased.

Drew waved her away dismissively.

"Can't recover a fumble if the ball vaporizes the stadium." he snidely retorted.

Annalee smothered a chuckle, squashing it without fanfare. One thing that all SPARTAN-III's seemed to share were their morbid sense of humor. They all had hardships and tragedy in their lives and laughter could put things in perspective. When things appeared to be at their most dire, a joke could kill the tension quickly. It felt like an eternity since she could take a step back. But, as freeing as it was, she wasn't sure that this time and place. She immediately turned her focus back to the issue at hand. If there was ever time to laugh, this was unlikely it. Still, she considered, it probably wouldn't hurt. She hit Drew's shoulder with her palm, and he feigned to acknowledge her existence. They were on the same page.

The other piece of equipment Drew pulled out was a tactical datapad similar to the one he used to hack the panel in the barracks, but it's serial port appeared to be housing a datacard— she assumed it had to be ONI's data mining program. If there was anything to be gleaned from this fresh hell they found themselves in, the ONI mine would find it. Drew's datapad secured in a pouch, the Spartan's gathered again at the door. Spike took his sight off his DMR scope and leaned towards his squad. He spoke candidly.

"We're dealing with a reinforced, squadron sized unit," Spike explained, "Mission parameters are simple: we mine their systems, or we blow it up trying. If we get the data, we will activate our distress beacon and hope that the Boudica is still in the system. Only one of us needs to walk away with that data. If they don't come… we take the tower down. Anything to add?"

"I had already set a mission clock for an estimated insertion window of opportunity," Annalee informed her squad, "I gather we've got about 15 to 20 minutes before a watch change, or an early data-stream pulse. We should also expect the possibility that Phantoms will provide gunship support. While the Elites are assessing the surrounding camp, we need to get in and out before the hill comes even more alive."

"Also," Drew added, "If anything happens to me, the pad for the datamine just needs to be placed on a master terminal. Any of us can remotely detonate the nuke, too… I'm going to place it back into the rafters here— I'd say we don't detonate it unless we're sure the mission is completely FUBAR."

Drew pulled out his datapad and moments later, both Spike and Annalee's HUD's indicated that they had gained access to the detonation of the HAVOK Nuke. Spike dutifully turned back to watch the outside. Annalee waved Drew over after he jumped back down from the ceiling of the barracks. They both jogged to and positioned behind Spike, ready to move on his order. Drew placed his hand on Annalee's shoulder indicating he was covering the rear. She pinged him for acknowledgement, and tapped Spike's shoulder letting him know they were both ready. Spike held up his hand in a fist, indicating for them to hold.

A squad of Jackals ran by their position, screeching and chirping as they went— too busy to notice the broken door. Spike gave the signal, and the Spartans followed in the squad's wake, matching their movements as they trotted towards the main Citadel tower.

The Jackals slowed their run to a jog as they moved closer towards a clearing. It was the same one the Phantoms had earlier dropped the Elite reinforcements. The Spartans continued to keep a low profile behind the Jackal squad as they neared the clearing, using the loudly cackling and shrieking aliens as cover for any ambient noise they would make. As far as the squad went was as far as the Spartans followed, keeping in the shadows to avoid any detection. The Grunts in the camp, having been knocked around and alerted by the Elites, were busy checking their methane rebreather packs. Thankfully for the Spartans, an alert Grunt was still often not alert enough, and they passed dozens during their approach. That, though, was the simple aspect to their infiltration.

The frenzied movement of the Covenant troops had stirred up enough dirt particulate to create a slight, dusty haze near ground level. Annalee engaged her SPI armor's "VISR" tool, highlighting her friendlies in green and the Covenant in red on her heads-up display. Due to the nature of moon 4A's long nights the VISR was a last minute upgrade ONI "graciously" made to their SPI armor. Annalee hadn't wanted her vision to be hindered in the slightest, and though the ground near the tower base was lit decently, they would need every edge in a firefight. Even with the dust cloud obscuring some of the area, with the VISR activated Annalee could see the last stretch between the landing zone and the main entrance well enough. It was swarming with Covenant units, her HUD displaying them as an undulating sea of red.

As their Jackal squad joined the larger group, the Spartans found a pile of crates and hid among them, intending to stay out of direct view and in the shadows. Now, on high alert, the tower was guarded by Jackal sharpshooters; the squad the Spartans had followed had already joined their comrades and began to take positions to do the same. Among the throng of aliens, Annalee also spotted what she had been dreading the most: an Elite.

Compared to the Elite, all the other Covenant appeared as a mangled mess of children— it was massive. The Elite, clad in a dark blue armor, was busy directing and overseeing the movement outside the tower. Blue, from what Annalee remembered from briefings, indicated the Elite was less experienced, but still a competent warrior. Measured against the larger than average Spartans, the Elite towered over them easily and she knew even an incompetent soldier of that size was formidable. Annalee had only been briefed on Elites— she had never faced one before this moment. The briefings, holo-depictions included, had not done justice for how truly monstrous they appeared. Their mandibles, the armor, its obvious fury and fervor as it roared and snarled orders. It was disgustingly terrifying.

"I don't think we're getting in here…" Drew chimed in. Annalee and Spike nodded in agreement.

"We may need a diversion," Annalee suggested, "A grenade in a plasma coil might do the trick…"

"But is it gonna' pull all of these bastards away is the question?"

"Unless you've got any other ideas…" Drew shrugged. She recognized his response: he hadn't worked out an idea yet, but it was surely brewing.

"Alright then," Spike cut in "there was a stack about thirty meters back—"

Spike stopped mid sentence, and the group stayed deathly silent. They all fixed their eyes on the same thing: the gate they had been watching was opening. The massive portal, which was large enough to allow a Covenant dropship to enter, hissed as its plasma-hydraulics moved the fan-like door sections into an open position. They could hear the buzz from the interior before they could see the source of the uneasy hum.

With only the slightest opening in the door, dozens of insectoid beings flew every direction across the camp—“Drones”, as their briefings had indicated, and another race which Annalee had yet to see in person. All about the hilltop, Grunts and Jackals ducked at the sight of them, clearly not used to them either. The Spartans pressed themselves harder into the shadows and held their breath as random squads skimmed mere meters over their position, nearly alerting the camp of their existence.

Eventually, the swarm stopped pouring out of the entrance, and some of them returned back into the structure as the door reached its final open position. Annalee nudged Drew, and he pinged her back knowingly. He reached into a pouch on his belt, and pulled out a fiber-optic probe. He snaked the probe over the crates they had hidden behind to get a better view of the opening.

From out of the gate stepped another Elite with one of the insectoid aliens in tow. The Elite's armor was noticeably different from the other one in more than just color. It's crimson armor, though sleek and purposeful, also had blue ornamentation; it's hard edges were slightly different, and it's helmet only slightly larger than the minor's. The Elite appeared to be conversing with the bug—Annalee was sure the Elite was giving orders.

Just beyond the chief Elite and the bug, the Spartans could now see straight into the Citadel tower interior. It was hardly what they had expected. The interior of the building, from the angle they had, was lit from top to bottom with quintessential Covenant terminals. There was little scaffolding or pathways in sight. Dozens of the Drones flew about accessing the terminals. There were no vehicles, no tanks, no troops. It was manned only by the bugs that flew about the tower interior, at least as far as they could see. What lay farther up the tower was anyone's guess.

"What the hell are they doing?" Annalee asked in.

"I dunno'" Spike murmured distantly, "They're supposed to be like the Engineer species? Maybe a little more expendable, right?"

"Drones?" Drew spit-balled, "I’m guessing they only do busy work? From here it looks like they're just manning terminals… I’ve seen engineers— these don’t work like those."

The group turned their attention towards the interior to witness the work at hand. A group of Drones came into view as they lowered a large cylinder from farther up in the tower. As the group reached the ground, they scattered and flew back up into the Keep as another group passed, lowering an identical cylinder. The cylinders glowed, and pulsed a faint blue, purple, and green; Annalee couldn't tell exactly why. The two Elites began to again bark orders angrily at the Grunts, who in turn hurried to take positions next to the cylinders the Drones had set down. The Grunts then began lugging the canisters out of the tower and into the clearing.

The cylinders were easily five meters long and two meters high, but appeared to be mostly empty on the inside— their interiors only somewhat visible through an observation window that surrounded the circumference. The Grunts obscured the Spartan's view as they carried the canister, so Annalee pulled out Mary's rangefinder to get a clearer look at what was inside.

At a first glance, they appeared to be standard Covenant tech, with each cylinder being capped on either end by a purple tinted alloy cradle. Each window was only slightly opaque, but she could tell that the canisters were obviously housing something unique— something that looked dissimilar to all Covenant tech she had ever seen.

As the Grunts placed the first canister down, there was nothing obscuring her line of sight. She saw the interior clearly, and what she saw confused her.

The canister was made to house a few dozen trapezoidal alloy rods, where either ends of the cylinder held it in place, allowing for it to be easily seen from the outside or— Annalee assumed— accessed. The rods had hard, angled edges, but she could tell they were made up of dozens of longer, more slender sections: the seams separating the pieces pulsed a faint, alien blue. As the next canisters made their way to the clearing, Annalee spoke up. The situation was clear.

"Those are what we're here for. I think those are data storage."

"...You think so?" Spike responded quizzically.

"Whatever those are," she insisted, "they're not Covenant— or at least not the sort of Covenant tech we've seen before. That alone should make them important to our mission."

"She's right" Drew chimed in, "I've never seen anything quite like that, Sir. It looks like they're getting ready to extract them— wait, look—"

As the last cylinder was set down, the chief Elite marched forward, knocking Grunts out of their way as they went. Annalee recognized immediately what it held. The Spartans watched helplessly as the Elite tossed a large explosive charge into the midst of the canisters, with little regard for the scurrying Grunts about them. Seconds later they were awash in a bright light, as the heat and sound from the explosion thrashed their position. Small bits of shrapnel and stone bounced off their armor and landed around them. The Covenant was purging the tower of data. Annalee felt like she was lost again. Why blow it up? Annalee brooded over her theory, Why destroy when they could just delete the damn data?... What are they doing?

"The hell!" Drew spat.

"...They're making sure we don't get their data. It's almost like a Covenant Cole Protocol..." Annalee speculated. The other two silently agreed.

Spike gestured mutely towards the door. They all returned to watch the fiber-optic feed. More canisters were being unloaded from the tower. The place has to be filled with those, Annalee thought. There was a new issue now as it had become apparent that they were front row to the main event of the evening: the obliteration of their main objective. The Spartans sat in wait; they were surrounded without any good course of action. Spike continued to intently watch the feed, clearly unsure of their next move. Annalee wasn't going to be critical—any move right now was a bad one. So,she looked to Drew. Drew had already opened up his datapad, and was intently studying it. After a few minutes, and another explosion shook the camp, he excitedly looked back to Annalee and gestured towards his pad. He had a plan.

"I don't believe it, but I've still got access to a device I planted a few days ago. It's in this Covenant plasma conduit support structure from the way back." Drew explained, "I'm sure I can change a few variables that might overload a plasma pump. It might cause an explosion here in the camp if we're lucky… but it's going to take a few minutes for us to know for sure. It definitely would be a bigger explosion than a dozen plasma barrels."

Drew turned intently to Spike, "Here's the catch, it's got to be a few kilometers away, now. I'd have to send a burst of radio signals through to get things going. Do you want to risk it?" Drew asked Spike.

Spike looked again towards the door, and sighed.

"We're losing time… okay, do it and make it quick. I don't want a radio to be the thing that gives us away."

"Aye, sir."

"When we hear an explosion," Spike continued, "we'll hope and pray that it draws enough attention from these bastards so we can double-time it inside. If Annalee's right, we should try and make a move on one of these canisters, too. From there… I don't know, but we'll cross that road when we get to it."

Drew quickly got to work, and gave a thumbs up— it was a waiting game, now. The group all stood up, and made ready to sprint across the opening. It was suicide. Annalee had made peace with that reality— there would never be a better chance, though, with their goal being dismantled as they watched. It had to be done: it was their duty.

As they waited for their "signal", Annalee envisioned a route around the groups of Covenant. Even with a distraction, she would have to pass several dozen Covenant troops, including the two Elites. The Drones continued to buzz about the tower inside and out, adding another element she had never truly expected, or had readied to face. But, that came with the territory of being a Spartan. More worrisome to Annalee was her protection. The SPI armor, while resilient, would not withstand a barrage from the plasma weaponry she saw. Her fear from earlier started to creep back: the unknown bolt of plasma, the errant beam through her head, the plasma grenade fusing to her chest. And, from the fear returned the anger. But, unlike before, she resigned to let it take control— she had seen enough and she was done fighting it. She was ready to lose control.

At times in combat she had at times allowed that feeling to wash over her. As much as she was frightened by how rapidly her brain changed, it appeared to help her— it made her better. Her anger often honed her senses and controlled her priorities, and it was different from the rush of adrenaline she had learned to mitigate during her training. While these emotions scared her outside of combat, in combat she felt unshackled and fearless. Her senses would become heightened and her vision more crisp— her hate and sadness weaponized into a perfect emotional bomb waiting to disintegrate her enemies. She knew that part of being a Spartan meant having an altered body, but it had always been a struggle to deal with an altered brain. But she was done now: she would become Death, destroyer. She would let it take over and ignore all else but combat.

The ground shook, and in an instant the air about them was deafeningly quiet. The rumbling crack of a shock wave rippled through the camp, knocking Grunts over in surprise and fear. It was loud— Annalee could feel its force reverb inside her lungs. The Spartans all began to look about, but they saw nothing. It wasn't their explosion.

"Shit."

Annalee expanded her tracker to max range, as she had done earlier. If dropships were inbound, they would need to storm the tower: diversion or not.

"That was a sonic boom— tracker showing an incoming craft!" Annalee alerted Drew and Spike. Drew pulled out his datapad again and began rapidly tapping and swiping the screen.

"Roger, expanding range… Yep, there it is…heading 323 high! IFF indicates…" Drew's words hung in the air,"...UNSC lifeboat? That can't be…"

Spike grabbed the datapad from Drew to see for himself.

"No, that can't be right… did the Covenant find the Boudica?"

Annalee's heart sank at the thought of being stranded, after having fought as hard as she had. This place had taken nearly everything from her, and now it sought to imprison her? She shooed the idea quickly from her mind and began searching the sky for a contact— the craft was UNSC, after all and they wouldn't ignore their comrades. Sure enough, the dark and unpolluted sky couldn't hide the bright light made by the retro-rockets on the lifeboat. It was heading directly towards the tower. Both Annalee and Drew's radios crackled on an open UNSC frequency. They were being hailed.

"This is Sergeant Paiwei radioing on all UNSC frequencies: any UNSC forces respond on the designated secure freq!"

Annalee paused only momentarily to look at Drew. He was just as surprised as her. Spike's voice echoed in response before they could process what was going on.

"Spartan-B337, Spartan Actual responding. Go ahead, Sergeant."

"Glad to hear from you, sir. We're going to be landing on the gondola structure at the top of the Citadel. How copy?"

There was silence on Spikes end for a moment. Annalee and Drew glanced at each other. "Did she say they're landing on the gondola?" Drew asked for continuity.

Annalee shook her head in disbelief. Spike signaled for Drew to pipe down, and he responded to Paiwei's hail.

"ETA, Sergeant?"

"Thirty seconds sir. If you've got survivors, we're here for you and you alone. We're getting you off this rock."

"Best news we've heard all day. Secure the LZ as best you can; we'll see you shortly, trooper.

"Aye sir! Paiwei, out!"

The roar of the rocket engines became increasingly loud, and the alerted camp came alive. Sporadic, aimless plasma fire lit the sky, trying to hit the rapidly approaching craft. It was about this time that a far corner of the camp exploded in a brilliantly bright plume of plasma, lighting the hillside in a blinding artificial sun. The explosive plume sent multiple powerful shock waves through the air as secondary explosions burst from the source. As the explosions subsided, a plasma plume continued to jet stories skyward in a bright, super-heated geyser. Every Grunt or Jackal Annalee could see around her began shrieking and scrambling away in terror, ignoring the orders from the terribly furious Elites. The Drones that were still flying about the camp made their return back to the familiarity of the Citadel tower.

The landing craft screamed over the Spartans. In the last moments, it fired their retro-rockets well above their rated thrust before slamming into the top of the Citadel structure, rocking the tower hard to one side. The structure's power wavered and held, but parts of the camp had begun to shutdown and remain dark, clearly affected by the raging conduit fire. Somehow, in what Annalee would describe as "absolute pure dumb luck" the Sergeant had "landed" the pod directly into an open hatch of the observatory section of the tower. Annalee didn't need to even guess, but she aimed the rangefinder to the scaffolding at the top of the tower to see who came out of the ship. Pouring out of the back of the ship scrambled a team ODST's, guns already alight as they were engaged with a wave of drones. Insectoid bodies began to appear from the dark sky, slamming into the ground, turning to chitin masses on impact.

"On my mark!" Spike growled into his radio.

Annalee took a deep breath, and gripped her rifle as if it was a part of her body. She looked to Drew— he looked over and gestured a smile with his finger across his visor. She did the same. The last ride of Team Golf.

"MARK!"

The Spartans jumped from cover and made directly for the door, spread evenly apart across a thirty meter echelon formation. The first few Grunts immediately from their cover didn't even comprehend the ghost-like figures sprinting through their pack. Annalee counted at least seventy within throwing distance of her. Seconds into their sprint, the shock had worn off the Covenant as she heard plasma weapons responding to gunfire— Drew had just ripped through a crowd of Jackals and was flooded with sporadic plasma fire. The air about them began to crackle with the blues and greens of Covenant plasma weaponry.

Annalee hollered to menace the Grunts around her, and held the trigger down on her rifle letting loose a stream of full-metal-jacket. The rifle cut down, easily, all the lightly-armored Grunts in her wake. Her immediate area was still swarmed, and some Covenant stood to return fire. She felt a bolt hit her shoulder. Her armor held, but hissed and whined as it absorbed the super-heated plasma. The shot had burned through the hardened plate, down to the undersuit mesh and badly burned and blistered her skin. She collected her pistol from her side and fired square into the eye of the Jackal which had shot her. She was lucky the bolt dissipated before going any deeper.

She hurriedly scanned to her side, hoping to see Spike or Drew. They were matching her movement, and were leaving a swath of death in their wake— most Grunts were now fleeing in disarray, unable to fight back against the swift, deadly movement of the Spartans. In the few seconds since Spike called his mark, they all had cleared their way to the main door. That was where the Elites had stood their ground.

Spike was the first to make a callout.

"Elite engaging!— argh!"

Annalee saw Spike get plastered by a burst of plasma, and stumble over. She felt as if her brain had become stone; she could feel her body tense, finding strength it didn't have before. The world before her felt like it moved in slow motion, more so than her Spartan augmentations would account for. She burned with seething hate. She felt stupid; how could anyone enjoy this? Was she sick? She felt like her body was alight with fire, and could only be doused by annihilating the Covenant, by ripping them all limb from limb. Annalee dropped her assault rifle and pulled out the plasma pistol she had at her side. She set it to overcharge— Death had arrived at the Elite's doorstep.

A few veteran Grunts and Jackals had continued to fire upon the Spartans. Annalee ducked and dodged the incoming fire, too quick to give them a chance to adjust. Spike, on his knee, ignored the Elite that stood next to him and fired his rifle into the Covenant who were trying to regroup. Drew, closing in on the door, was the next closest to the Elite. He fired what he had loaded, keeping its attention away from Spike. Drew had spent his shells at an ineffective distance, but the Elite's shields shimmered as each shot spread was able to connect, keeping the minor Elite's attention. The second, chief Elite, having initially taken cover, poked out from behind a dropped canister and set his sights on Spike. Spike, catching the monster's move at him, dropped his DMR and pulled out the assault rifle he had slung on his shoulder. The Elite dodged or reflected half of Spike's AR shots before kicking him in the chest, sending him soaring back out into the midst of frenzied Grunts.

Drew, slid to his knees and pulled his SMG from his side, coming to a stop. He shouldered and fired at the Covenant units trying to mob Spike as he gathered himself. Spike had already pulled out his combat knife, and was fighting the Grunts and Jackals jumping at him in hand to hand combat. He was easily able to overpower them, and began working his way back to the door. Drew turned to the minor Elite. It's sights were already on Drew, and it fired a stream of plasma after him. Drew dove, and sprinted parallel to the Elites line of sight.

Annalee had closed the gap.

The minor Elite had only a fleeting moment to see Annalee before she was upon him. She released the overcharge plasma bolt before the Elite could turn to focus his fire on her. It saw the massive bolt and dove, but couldn't escape it's tracking arc. The great green bulb splashed hard into the off-balance Elite, and it was thrown to the ground as it's shields shimmered brightly and then burst. Annalee was already emptying her pistol on the Elite before it hit the ground. Most of the bullets pinged off its armor, but damage had been done as some of the rounds pierced it's less protected areas.

It tried to push itself back up, but Annalee dove and tackled it back down. Wasting little time, she plunged her knife into its neck. The Elite reached out and grabbed Annalee's arms, weakly trying to throw her off. She elbowed them aside, then grabbed the hilt of her knife with both hands. In an abruptly sharp move, she ripped its neck open to one side nearly decapitating the alien. Her visor was splattered with thick, purple blood as the Elites arteries shot their contents across the ground, and drained the stunned Elite into oblivion. Annalee stood over its body, her hands drenched in blood. The Elite was very dead.

She hastily looked for her next contact— her next kill.

The chief Elite had already pulled back into the tower center during the blitz at the door, sensing the Spartans had somehow gathered the upper hand. She saw it make its way onto the precarious scaffolding that led to the top of the structure, and then out of sight. Annalee reloaded her pistol immediately. The Elite would wait. As it retreated back into the tower, it had howled some audible order. Soon after, the Drones inside the tower descended back down into the entrance tunnel, plasma pistols in claw. Annalee immediately unslung her Carbine and began firing into the small swarm as they charged towards, over, and around the Spartan team.

"How's this for ‘busy work’, Drew?" She jabbed.

Drew had already taken a defensive position with his shotgun in the tunnel and had been landing loads on the drones as they swarmed about them. He was in his element. Spike had also rejoined with the Spartans at the mouth of the main entrance, firing and reloading his assault rifle as he went. Annalee could see, though, he did this only with one arm—the other was broken. He stood with Drew guarding the entrance as the Covenant outside was attempting to regroup and move on the door.

The Drones didn't appear to have armor, but instead a hard, exoskeleton which deflected some shrapnel and rounds. It proved to be mostly useless against the Spartans combined fire as they quickly repelled most of the remaining back into the tower. They turned to focus on the greater force growing outside.

"Drew!" Annalee called out, diving from the grasp of a retreating Drone, "the door!"

Drew began scouting the tunnel. Firing on the Drones that got near to him as he and Spike moved back-to-back, Drew would reload Spike's weapon when it emptied under Annalee's covering fire. They came to a holographic terminal positioned just inside the door frame. Drew reached out to it, presumably hoping for the best. Sometimes interacting with Covenant tech was honestly guesswork— they sometimes hadn't the faintest idea what they had gotten into.

With a continuing streak of luck, the doors began to creak and shut the fan-like sections from the top down. The entrance tunnel lights began to flicker and the door almost slowed to a crawl, struggling to maintain enough power to keep moving. Annalee could see that the oft small plasma conduits and light fixtures that generally littered interior walls of Covenant structures were dead or empty. The door wasn't getting enough plasma to force it shut—their sabotage of the conduit appeared to be coming back to bite them in the ass.

"I'm not sure it's gonna' shut!" Spike nagged Drew, a hint of challenge in his tone. Drew began rapidly scanning the structure of the door, hoping to find anything that would help.

All the while, Grunt veterans had successfully rallied a large Covenant contingent and together began a counter-attack on the gate. Annalee rushed to join Spike and Drew at the partially closed door as a hundred Grunts charged towards them suicidally, howling and barking wildly as they ran directly into the Spartan's fire. Drew had thrown Spike the dead Elite's Plasma rifle; the Covenant weapon didn't need to be reloaded, and the Spartan's couldn't spare the time to stop firing for him.

The camp had become smart to what was going on, and more Covenant were converging on their location. There were too many for them to stop. The door had nearly come to a halt, closed only enough to offer cover on either side of the fan doors. The Grunts kept coming, and as their bodies began piling at the entrance, the Spartans were forced to scale their bodies and fire over them.

"If you've got an idea Drew, now's the damn time!" Spike snapped.

"Pull back!" Drew called out.

The Spartans moved back farther into the tunnel and soon Grunts began climbing over their fallen comrades and through the space left open by the door. As Annalee and Spike continued to mow the Grunts down as they scrambled to the top of the pile, Drew loaded an explosive slug-round into his shotgun. He signaled for the Spartans to hold fire, then took aim.

He fired, and the round hit a brightly glowing conduit above the door, severing a pressurized plasma artery. The severed line poured molten plasma out onto the entering Grunts, burning and incinerating them on contact in a terrible smokey wheeze; their methane tanks bursting and burning soon after. The pressure within the plasma-hydraulics dropped as if a cable holding it had been cut. The doors uncontrollably slammed shut, crushing the bodies in its path and closing the last, small gap to the outside. With exception of the whistle of the cooling plasma: the corridor was dead quiet.

Annalee exhaled.

"Jesus-fucking-Christ, Drew." Spike spat.

"There's your closed door, sir " Drew responded smugly. He took no time, and immediately began caring for Spike's arm.

Annalee glanced down at her Carbine. The barrel was red hot and she had almost completely burned through her rounds. She was sure she wasn't the only one; they had fired hundreds of rounds in the last two minutes.

Two minutes, Annalee repeated. According to her mission clock, from the time of Spike's "mark" to the closed door… it had only been two minutes. It was the most intense skirmish of her career— of her life. And it was far still from over: the tower would still be full of some remaining Elites and Drones. She glanced back at the one Elite body on the ground. A shiver ran down her spine as her brain throbbed.

Did that really happen? Did I kill an Elite?

She shouldered her commandeered Carbine, and began walking down the ramp towards the center of the structure. As she reached the end of the tunnel, she could see that the immediate interior was devoid of Covenant. The structure of the Citadel tower laid before her.

"SITREP on the data-rods, Spartan—" Spike called down, painfully to Annalee, "are there any left?"

Annalee shook her head and laughed. Drew and Spike stared blankly.

"I don't think we're gonna' have to worry about those rods, Sir. We've hit the mother lode."

Chapter 5: Rendezvous

0545 Hours, June 20, 2545/ Covenant Citadel Tower, Ground Floor

Spike made his way down the entryway to catch a glance of the tower's interior. Annalee kept her Carbine raised at the ready, searching the trusses and walkways for movement— Elites were still out there, and they had the high ground.

Spike's left arm was now in a makeshift magnetic sling; he had collapsed Drew's SMG stock, using the weapon like an automatic pistol. His SPI armor had received the brunt of plasma fire with his chest and shoulder battle plate burned away. Annalee could see where the bolts had burned down to his muscle in some places. The Elite kick hadn't snapped his bones, but it still had managed to destroy the tendons in his arm, rendering it useless. He didn't ask for pity or complain because he was laser focused on the task at hand. But Annalee still felt for him. The Biofoam was keeping the pain away for now but the quicker they got him to a corpsman, the better.

"What do you think it is?" Spike asked as he nursed out a pained grunt.

"I don't have any idea." Annalee pondered aloud, "Definitely doesn't look Covenant, though."

The two looked on as a large, almost monolithic, trapezoidal pylon floated in the center of the tower; it was almost as if one of the data-rods had been mirrored and made a few dozen times larger. A holographic menagerie of Covenant terminals lined the exterior walls of the Citadel tower— they appeared to be monitoring the mute, grey structure. Many of the terminals were directly attached to the pylon via flimsy, hanging wires and hoses; most of the terminals would be inaccessible by anything that didn't float or fly, making sense of all the Drones from before. At the center of the pylon, far up into the tower, they had only a glimpse of where the Covenant had breached the interior of the structure.

"I'm gonna' need an update, Sergeant."

Through immense static, a small signal got through

"▒▒ay▒▒in? Ove▒"

Drew jogged down from the gate to their pow-wow in session. He had grabbed one of the data-rods out of a canister on his way and chimed in.

"I think the tower must be interfering with our signal— whoa."

Drew halted in place, and turned his attention to the pylon.

"More than meets the eye, I guess? Alright, maybe that's what's causing the interference."

Spike reached out and clunked his SMG into Drew's chest.

"Focus, Drew. Is the door gonna' hold?"

Drew pushed the SMG away gently.

"Yes. It's a blast-door— they're going to have to cut or pry it open. It'll take some time. I'm certain all the other doors relied on the same plasma line, too. The only way to us, now, is from the top… or cutting through the battle-plate. They're just now starting to get the burst outside under control, but that's not going to affect the damage we did in here."

"They still have the Drones and Phantoms," Annalee cut in, "the ODST's are caught in the middle, right now. We need to move if we want to support them, too."

"—Here's the other thing, about these rods."

Drew pulled the one he had grabbed and held it in front of the others.

"It's dead in the water. I think they automatically power down when removed from their source… My guess is that thing is housing thousands of these, and the Covies were forced to study them here. I'm willing to bet they don't know exactly what they do because it sure as hell isn't Covenant technology we're dealing with… that said they still know more than we do."

Spike glanced up the structure. Annalee could see his strain through his armor. He was hurt worse than he let on. Thinking clearly was likely becoming difficult to do through the pain. Still, he fought through it.

"Let's try and mine it at the source, then. Maybe it's a safeguard— to prevent tampering. Check your corners and keep your eyes up: we know the Elites are out there. Let's move, Spartans."

The team readied themselves, then sprinted across the tower's "rotunda" towards the main truss system. The makeshift scaffolding climbed upwards to the pylon access, mid-tower. Each of them trained their weapons upward, scanning, and searching, knowing that the Elites must be lying in wait. They would have to meet them to see their mission through.

Annalee's legs burned with each step. She instructed the SPI suit to inject her with a small dose of Polypseudomorphine to ease the muscle pain which had consumed her body. Their last skirmish had drained them all. Even Spartans tired eventually, and Annalee knew they had been pushed to the brink days ago. None of them had eaten a full meal in a week, and each of them had been fighting day and night for the same amount of time. Battered, injured, tired and hungry, they still faced their hardest conflict yet— and they didn't know exactly where and when it would begin. They had to assume every moment could be the catalyst, and so they stayed on guard. The anticipation weighed heavily on her, but she shooed what worries she could. She was trained for this, and she promised herself she wouldn't falter, especially when the end was in sight.

Calling the scaffolding a "walkway" would be liberally considerate of the mess they were forced to navigate. The path was a conglomerated series of curving, tight paths with alien ladders and steps. Large gaps littered the climb that the Spartans were routinely forced to leap across. Clearly, Annalee concluded, the structure had not been designed with Grunts or Elites in mind— It was designed with the Drones in mind. Oddly enough, the scaffolding triggered memories of her childhood home. It was an old, tightly packed city. Walls of older, neglected red-brick buildings supported the next as they sunk into each other— Gemini structures barely standing on their own. As her muscle-memory kicked in, she was flooded with a wave of nostalgia for climbing over the rooftops, and balancing across flimsy bridges of plywood and corrugated metal which spanned the gaps of narrow alleys far above the streets.

Behind her, as Spike leaped over a decent sized gap, a small frame snapped under his weight and crumbled. It held long enough for Annalee to grasp his good arm and yank him to what she prayed was still a solid platform. It was all very sketchy— even the buildings back home, Annalee remembered, were built to last in some respect. It was becoming very obvious that this tower wasn't. The Covenant hadn't intended on remaining here long at all.

"Motion Tracker is being jammed." Drew alerted the rest of the Spartans.

Directly above them was the only thing they could call a "floor" in the entire tower. A half-circle platform jutted out towards the pylon. Two walkways along the center facing edge rounded the outside towards the landing above them. Until they reached the walkways, the Spartans were forced to tread along a less-than meter wide path below. It was hardly enough room to maneuver if the Elites lay in wait above.

"Obvious choke points; they're almost certainly above us." Spike whispered, "We have to get a better look, and get off this scaffolding. We're sitting ducks, here."

"I could try and get a look over the side." Annalee suggested, "There's a good hold, there—" she pointed to the edge of the floor overhang. "If you can boost me, I can do the rest."

"Do it." Spike was quick to answer, his mind already made up, "We need to double-time it off this scaffolding. Be quick."

Spike took their forward position to keep watch on the paths leading to the floor above. The platform itself was a rough, Covenant structure layered with pipes, sheet metal, and wiring along it's sub-floor. Annalee plotted her course mentally as Drew readied himself to help boost her. Above them, there was an open frame in the floor which would allow her to move along a recessed span which stretched the length of the platform. From there, she could then make her way to the edge to catch a glance of what was above them. All she had to worry about was plunging to the bottom. She estimated she might be able to survive a fall, but she would likely obliterate her spine and legs doing so.

Not falling it is, she concluded.

"You, ready?" Drew asked. Annalee slung her weapon on her back and placed her boot in Drew's gauntlets— he was crouched and ready to throw her weight as she pushed off, giving her just enough boost to hopefully reach the span. " Boost me."

Annalee and Drew timed their movements, and on Annalee's third pump she shoved hard off the floor, and Drew flung her straight up. Gravity severely objected. Annalee extended her arms out and caught the span as she topped out in her arc. She pushed hard to her sides, propping herself in place. Carefully, she brought her legs up and in between the supports, and then pushed her torso up against the floor. After a few tense moments, she knew she was secure and looked back to Drew. He flashed a thumbs up, and then wiped faux-sweat from his brow. She shook her head.

Slowly, she made her way along the bottom of the platform, careful and focused to make positively sure she always either had her arms or legs holding her full weight. She meticulously shifted her way towards the edge, avoiding thoughts about falling. Below her lay what she estimated to be roughly ten to fifteen stories of empty air. The pylon had begun at about the second story mark, and continued nearly to the top of the structure. She noticed now, her focus ahead of her, that it was supported by nothing, floating freely. The Covenant tech was attached to it, and not the other way around—the Covenant tower encased it. One came before the other .

Propping her arms in the span, she shimmied her way to the edge. Using her legs as a pendulum, she began to swing, and flung a leg up and over the side, grasping the top of the floor with her ankle. Gripping the side with her thighs, she reached over with an arm, and pulled herself over the edge. She made an effort to keep a low profile— an arm and leg remained over the side in case she had to make a quick retreat back beneath the platform.

The top of the floor was a mess and completely devoid of movement. The platform was packed with the empty canisters used to transport the data-rods, as well as a spattering of general purpose crates. Strewn all about the floor were at least seven Drone carcasses… but no sign of Elites; no weapon crates, no active terminals— nothing. The dead Drones were certainly out of place, though. She signaled to Spike that there were KIA's, but no sign of life up top. He signaled back for her to standby, and be ready to make a move.

Annalee slid back over the edge and hung by her hands. Spike and Drew stacked up, and began to move forward towards the ramps, splitting as the paths wound their way up. They both trained their weapons up, and then over the floor, searching for hidden threats. Annalee pulled herself up again, and slowly made her way onto the floor as the other two reached the top. They all intently looked towards the closed door at the end of the floor, opposite their position. Something was still jamming their motion trackers.

"Friendly! Friendly!" a voice called out.

From behind a crate a pair of hands holding a suppressed SMG appeared. The Spartans lowered their weapons. Three more pairs of hands additionally came from behind crates near the door, and from the shadows came a fireteam of ODST's, the first friendlies they had met face to face since they dropped from the Boudica. Annalee was flushed with a bittersweet relief.

One of the ODST's stepped forward. Nearly as tall as Annalee, the ODST was clad entirely in black tactical gear, seldom a muted insignia of a sergeant on their breast-plate, and a white fern decal across the top of their helmet.

"First Sergeant Waimarie Paiwei, Sir— 17th ODST. Sight for sore eyes, yous are, Spartans."

"SITREP, Sergeant— our communications are being jammed." Spike perked up. Paiwei pointed to the door.

"We assumed it was the tower, but we think it's that… thing. It's doing a number on our radios; some sort of multi-band interference. It's worse near the opening. Besides that, we took some casualties up top. Three injured, one KIA, but the rest were able to fight. We were engaged with buncha’ giant bugs, sir. Never seen this many before—"

"We've met those, too, Sergeant. Any Elites?"

"No, Sir— no Elites. Just bugs. A couple attempted Phantom drops, but we kept them off the gondola. Really, just lots and lots of buggers…"

Spike silently shifted in his stance. Paiwei saw all she needed to see. The Elites were near.

"Troopers!" Paiwei hollered, "Keep watching that door. If anything opens it, and it's not human, you fucking drop it!"

The ODST's quickly scrambled to take positions behind the scattered Covenant crates, and trained their gaze to the door. Annalee wasn't certain that a contingent of Elites would be slowed by a few ODST’s. If they came through that door, it was going to be a hot mess.

While Paiwei filled Spike in on their extraction plan, Drew waved Annalee over to the catwalk that reached out to the open section of the Pylon. The hull on the pylon appeared to have been forced open; makeshift connections flooded the opening. Drew and Annalee walked slowly, keeping their balance as the walkway as it began to bend and creak under their weight— again, clearly not designed for anything larger than the Drones. As they reached the end of the catwalk, Drew pulled out his Datapad and tried to scan the pylon. Eventually he turned and scanned the Covenant terminals and begrudgingly put his pad away. Annalee frowned.

"The Covenant terminals here are fried, and this pad doesn't know what to make of this thing. If I had to guess, I think that it's been purged some other way— I'm reading nothing through the plating. I'm gonna' have to get a look inside— see if I can't interface with a data-rod, or something else."

"Roger. I'll cover you." Annalee responded.

As Drew crawled into the access way, Annalee took in her surroundings. The tower was still eerily inactive. Only the faint hum and chatter of electronics— or, was that really all she heard? She dialed up her in-helmet audio suite to listen in on the ambiance of the tower. Yes— there was something else. She could make out distinct clacks, a metallic rip, and the faint hiss of ozone.

"Everyone on alert. I think the Covenant is cutting into the blast-doors below."

Spike, sidled to the floors edge and peered down. She didn't need to see his face to see his emotion. He was becoming worried.

"We've got little time, then. The Boudica is already on standby in atmosphere. We're going to have to get back topside to let them know we're ready to dust off. Drew, we had to be gone ages—"

"—Hold on! You're not gonna' believe this" Drew grunted from inside the pylon.

Annalee turned to see him struggling to pull a cord— no, a tentacle— up and out of the pylon. Drew had hold of a Covenant Engineer. Annalee raised her carbine, and aimed pass Drew’s body to the floating, black-clad monstrosity.

"Drew! Those explode, what the hell are you doing!?" Annalee growled in confusion.

"No, wait, look—" Drew said as he pulled the alien out of the pylon. The Engineer immediately tried to fly away, taking Drew with him like a child attached to a balloon, but Drew grabbed another tentacle, and yanked it back.

"Agh!— I've studied these things! Their explosive is remote or damage activated. If he wanted to kill me he would have already. This little bastard—oof! Hey, c'mere!— he isn't about to kamikaze me… aren't you?"

The alien, which had given up floating away from the Spartan, looked at Drew knowingly. It wobbled it's neck back and forth. Well I'll be damned, Annalee mused. It was communicating with Drew. Annalee let her carbine's muzzle fall only slightly; it was still Covenant after all… and it still was rigged to explode.

"We don't have time to make friends, Spartan," Spike snarled as he walked to the edge of the catwalk, "we need to move!"

Drew patted the alien, and gestured for everyone to stay back. Annalee could hear Spike swear through his helmet. Drew continued talking to the Engineer as soothingly as he could.

"Hey, hey, hey! Calm down, big guy! Now, I need to go, okay? You understand? I'm leaving. I’m not gonna’ hurt you. But, before I go, though: can you show me that device you were working on? C'mon, don't be afraid…"

The Engineer hesitated, looking about at the troopers and the Spartans. It looked back to Drew who depolarized his mask, trying to look as friendly as he could. Either that worked, or the alien felt pleasing Drew was the only way it was getting released. The Engineer began to stir. From underneath it's sack-like abdomen, it reached a tentacle around it's rear and to it's armors base. From it's armor, it fetched a data-rod which it had been hiding. The rod was still functioning— its seams pulsed a bright blue, and small holographic glyphs skated randomly about its surface. Drew cautiously reached out and touched the data-rod.

Ka-pang!

The tower shook with fury, and all its power was immediately sapped leaving Annalee in the dark. The walkways swayed, creaked, and the pylon shifted about, banging and deforming the scaffolding they stood on. Annalee hopped back to the main pathway and reactivated her VISR, to see better in the dark about her. She looked back momentarily for Drew and was instantly blinded. Her neck snapped back, and her chest felt crushed as she was violently thrown back by an explosion. A piece of shrapnel slammed into her helmet and shattered her faceplate. Her HUD was gone.

Dazed, she stayed motionless, splayed on the floor as the darkness swirled around her. As her ringing ears equalized, she could hear gunfire and screams. She peered about as her eyes began to adjust to the dark, and she could just make out the silhouettes of Spike and Paiwei firing towards the now opened door at the end of the platform; the only light came from the flames of their muzzles.

Her augmentations gave her a weak night-vision, but it was enough to see clearly the body of another trooper near the door: their head, and an arm were cut off completely. The other trooper was being held in the air by a translucent-cloaked foe. The trooper had been rammed through completely by a sort of plasma weapon—a blade —which Annalee hadn't seen before. The jumper's guttural moans quickly subsided as his invisible murderer became completely inundated with gunfire. The trooper's body was torn into by the fire that Spike and Paiwei spilled at the Elite infiltrator. Their lifeless body was immediately ditched in a heap on the floor as the Elite retreated again to the shadows.

She looked back to the pylon. The tower's power had already begun to cycle again, but most of its lights still remained off, seldom a few terminals along the outer walls whose holographs hazily glowed as they rebooted. The pylon was still there, but the walkways to, and around it were gone. Peppered about its blunt, grey facade was splintered obsidian-black shrapnel from the remains of the Engineer's armor. Drew was nowhere in sight.

Propping herself to a knee, she now felt blood on her temple— her face had been blasted with micro-shrapnel from her faceplate as it burst. She had luckily shut her eyes as that happened. Her eyelids stung to high hell but she could just as easily have been blinded. She removed her helmet and pulled her pistol to ready. In the shadow of the pylon, she could make out a small amount of distortion moving fast towards Paiwei from behind.

Annalee wound up, and tossed what was left of her helmet. The heavy armor hit a cloaked Elite square in the chest, causing its camouflage to flicker along with its shields. Alerted, Paiwei turned and fired a full rifle magazine into the stunned Elite's center mass— Annalee joined her as it's shields crackled, and gave way. Annalee's small caliber bullets, again, injured but couldn't completely pierce and kill the stunned Elite. Paiwei, seeing this, unholstered her own sidearm and dropped her empty rifle. Annalee recognized the pistol instantly: it was an infamous M6D. The Elite, which had slightly recovered, railed back and lunged at Paiwei with their plasma blade. The Sergeant coolly fired a single shot, connecting with the Elite square in its throat. The M6D's explosive magnum round popped and the Elite fell flat to the ground at Paiwei's feet. A purple, bloody pulp where its head once had been gurgled lifelessly.

Spike, all the while, had kept the other Elites busy. From behind cover, an Elite engaged him from his flank with plasma sword drawn. He ducked the first swipe and nearly dodged the second swing as it glanced his injured arm and knocked it from its sling. He countered by slamming the stock of his SMG into the Elite's hand, knocking it's sword away. He unsheathed and jousted his combat knife hard, up through the Elites shields and mandibles. It stuck into the bottom of its skull, severing its brain from its spine.

Another Elite used it's comrades diversion to move in and attempt to grapple Spike. Spike let go of his knife, and pushed the dead Elite away. He fired his SMG in a full burst at the Elite, but he couldn't breach its energy shields before it grabbed him by the neck and his good arm. Annalee got to her feet, and reloaded the last magazine of her pistol. Paiwei turned and aimed at the Elite as well. Both paused, unable to find a shot. The Elite positioned Spike as a shield, blocking them from interfering with his prey.

Spike wrapped his legs around the Elites arm and began to twist and pull, trying to free himself by breaking its arm. Annalee and Paiwei continued to hold their fire in fear of hitting Spike as the two tussled, the Elite twisting and tossing Spike about. Spike was still being choked, and was struggling to stay conscious; they had to make a move.

"Cover me!"

Annalee sprinted to Spikes aid. The Elite angrily roared and it fell to its knees as Spike began to bend its arm backwards—it's grip still tight on his neck. It glanced to see Annalee approaching, and raised it's other arm. A small plasma blade pulsed to life from it's wrists— the Elite plunged it deep into Spike's chest. Annalee screamed in anger, and dove at them. She tackled the Elite over and it fell backwards finally releasing Spike. The Elite kicked Annalee off, and quickly scrambled to its feet. Paiwei had a shot.

Annalee picked up Spike's SMG with her free hand and proceeded to pump what was left of both of their weapons into the gullet of the Elite as Paiwei worked to blast it's shield away. It's body spasmed from being torn into by a hail of bullets and itt quickly hit the ground, dead.

Spike coughed— his lungs were quickly filling with blood. Annalee ran to his side and pulled out her last Biofoam canister. Spike lazily waved it away. She looked on helpless.

"I'm done for— just make sure you get out of here, okay?"

"Spencer…" she held his hand and he squeezed hers back.

A steady screen of plasma fire erupted from behind the dead Elite. Annalee rolled from the first volley. She caught three distinct firing lines, and one led back to a familiar silhouette: the chief Elite. Another Elite stepped forward and took aim at Paiwei, who had returned fire when the barrage began. Paiwei's trooper armor wouldn't take a beating like it was about to get. Annalee side-stepped in front of the Elites aim and took a burst of plasma to her chest. The smell of melting metal rushed her nostrils, and she was knocked back, winded from the force of the bolts. Her skin immediately blistered as the plate melted away underneath the impact. She staggered and fell to a knee. The Elites jostled forward to get a better aim. Well, she resigned, this is it.

A resounding click echoed off the floor. Spike, in the midst of the Elite fireteam, had primed a handful of grenades. The Elites scrambled for cover and Annalee got up and stumbled away. With a loud bang, the floor shook and wobbled as four frag grenades went off. Annalee dove onto Paiwei, pushing them both behind a crate. Shrapnel pinged all around them, and then all was quiet. She looked over the box to take in the aftermath: Spike's explosion had successfully taken out three Elites. His torso, though, was obliterated in the explosion. She looked away.

Her abdomen burned. Her undersuit had completely melted away and a plasma bolt had just signed the skin below it. Another shot would have gutted her.

"Jesus, are you ok?" Paiwei asked worriedly as she glanced at Annalee's wound.

"Agh— I think so. Burned me good." Annalee wheezed.

Paiwei blindly fired around the crate at the remaining Elites. The other side of the crate immediately crackled and melted as incoming plasma from the Elites splashed against it. Paiwei pulled her arm back as a wave of return fire blistered the floor around them. Annalee could feel the heat of their cover melting away; it wasn't going to last long before it burned completely through. Annalee's sidearm wasn't going to penetrate anything the Elites had fielded, and Paiwei was on her last few magazines for her pistol as well.

"Stay down!"

A shotgun rang out, followed by the thump of an explosion. Annalee turned to the pylon. She could barely make out the figure of a Spartan holding on for dear life.

Drew's shotgun rained down more grenade slugs on the Elites, scattering them and halting their fire. He obliterated two more of them with direct hits. Their firing momentarily stopped, he jumped the gap from the pylon to the scaffolding, and landed with his feet planted, his shotgun continuing to wreak havoc on the Elites down range. He scurried to the crate opposite Annalee and Paiwei and began to reload.

"Drop this?" Drew asked as he tossed Annalee's carbine across the gap. His armor had also been riddled with black shrapnel, but he appeared to have gotten away mostly unscathed.

"Christ, Drew. I thought you were dead… And Spike—"

"I know; we've gotta get out of here." He soberly acknowledged.

Paiwei placed a hand on Annalee's shoulder. "Blaze of glory it is then, Spartans?"

They all nodded in agreement.

From cover they burst out, guns alight, focused their fire on an Elite which had taken a hit from one of Drew's grenade rounds. It was struggling to get to cover and tried to fire on the group as they approached it, but it was already doomed. They fired into the shield-less Elite until it stopped moving, and then focused on the door. As they reached it, not another Elite stood to oppose them. Annalee counted the bodies; all but the chief Elite's were accounted for.

"RAAAAGH~"

From behind cover the Elite slashed at Annalee, missing her by only mere centimeters. She dodged backwards as it swung again, putting it off balance from missing her. She grasped its arms and pulled it over on top of her. The Elite was completely caught off guard, and fell clumsily into Annalee. She pulled the Elite with her and kicked it over her body. The Elite angrily roared as she threw the Elite clear over the side, off the scaffolding and down into the tower. Annalee glanced over to look as its body fell the length of the tower and crashed into a troop of Grunts that were moments away from making their ascent. They all became a mangled mess of limbs and guts. The ground floor, now packed full of Covenant, looked up and fired indiscriminately towards the platform.

Drew and Paiwei ran to Annalee and picked her up.

"Fan of Judo, I see?" Paiwei teased.

"You don't know half of it." Drew responded deadpan.

"C'mon! There's a lift that will take us to the top of the tower!" Paiwei yelled to the Spartans. They all ran towards the door. They were leaving, hell or high water.

Annalee sprinted well ahead of Paiwei, and she momentarily caught Drew scoop up the Sergeant and throw her over his shoulders. Paiwei reluctantly stayed silent, as they reached the lift and he put her down. The lift was a standard Covenant gravity lift; even to those well versed in Covenant technology, it often made them wary.

"There's a small section of the tower that is completely open air," Paiwei explained, "as we pass through it… be prepared for the bugs. They're everywhere outside."

"Roger that. Let's go!"

Annalee jumped in the lift and the pulsating blue, magenta energy stream carried her skyward. The lift raced her through an unlit tube big enough for her to maneuver, and eventually she burst back into the open air of Biller Pavonis 4A. As Paiwei described, the air was completely swarmed with Drones. She wasted no time firing on the ones that dove and fired at her, and she could hear Drew and the sergeant doing the same. She looked up and the gondola structure was also a mess of activity. As she breached through the bottom, and the lift deposited her into the structure she could hear only constant gunfire.

The remaining ODST's were continuing to fight off droves of the Drones, so much so that they had made barriers with their chitin-material bodies as cover from incoming fire. The sulfuric air had a lingering stench which Annalee couldn't quite place; a sour smell that emanated from the pulverized aliens. As Paiwei landed behind Annalee she immediately began to growl orders to her troopers.

"Listen up, troopers! Our mates, the Covenant, are pissed we crashed their party, so we're gonna’ be kind and see ourselves out! Grab what ya' need, and get ready for dust-off ASAP!"

"Aye aye!" the troopers responded in unison.

Paiwei turned to Annalee as Drew jogged to join the troopers fighting off the drones. She took off her helmet, revealing a young woman with brown skin, a tribal tattoo on her chin, and eyes as dark as the night. She smirked and handed Annalee the helmet.

"Seeing as you're in charge, Spartan, you can call it in. They're waiting for us."

Annalee nodded, and placed the ODST helmet on her head. She hailed the Boudica.

"UNSC Boudica, this is Spartan-B220. We are in need of immediate EVAC; standing by, over."

The radio in the helmet crackled and Annalee was greeted by a familiar voice.

"Spartan Annalee, I am pleased to hear from you." Fluellen gleefully responded.

"You as well, Fluellen. Just get here ASAP, we're being swarmed, over."

"Of course, Spartan. Hold tight, we will be with you shortly. Fluellen out."

Annalee gave Paiwei her helmet back, and the two joined the defense. The drones had decided to use their agility to their advantage and swarmed around the gondola madly, and randomly. The troopers had learned to focus only on the ones that attempted to breach their defenses within the door, but had also kept the Drones moving as they cycled two machine guns to fire into their swarm, sending out a constant wave of death. They had locked the gondola completely down, and had rolled out a carpet of pain and misery. Annalee couldn't help but smile.

"Troopers, the Boudica is inbound!" Paiwei barked, "Get ready for some fireworks!"

What sound the lifeboat had made before was dwarfed by the sound of the Boudica breaking the sound barrier. The Drones immediately scattered and the sky cleared. Moments later the tower shook and they were deafened with the sound of rapid explosions. The Spartans and the troopers all glanced over the observation walkway to see the surrounding hillside get bombarded with an unending salvo of Archer Missiles. The Boudica came into view, a sleek black ship flying low along the horizon.

"Everyone brace yourselves!" Annalee hollered.

The Boudica began to rapidly slow, and a gale of air washed through the doorway of the gondola and over the soldiers. The loose bodies that littered the walkway about the gondola were blown off in a gust. The ship pulled hard to its side revealing a bay which had opened on its underside. The missile pods continued to fire on the ground as it backed towards the gondola. A trio of Phantoms tried to slow the Boudica, but were minced quickly by it's auto-cannons, destroyed before they had even hit the ground.

The bay finally came close enough for the soldiers to pile in. Annalee watched as every trooper climbed aboard, Paiwei and then Drew. She hopped on the deck, and immediately she fell to her knees. She was overwhelmed. As the bay doors began to close and Paiwei radioed the bridge they were aboard, she took one last look out the back of the ship as it began to pull away. She saw the road up the hill, her crows nest, the Grunt tent, the barracks, the landing zone, and the burst conduit— it already seemed so small. So insignificant.

Drew grabbed her arm and pulled her up— the Boudica was rapidly accelerating and they pushed their way to the bulkhead where the bay's jump seats waited. The troopers had already strapped in and were ready for launch. She got one last glimpse of the tower as the doors shut, and that was it. It was over.

"Attention all personnel, this is Fluellen. We are primed for an immediate Slip Space jump once we've cleared atmosphere. Brace for evasive maneuvers. Fluellen out." As they strapped in the Boudica banked hard, and anything not strapped down in the bay flew violently across it. A few troopers vomited— a hard turn even for them. The Covenant ships in the system were giving chase.

Looking over at Drew, Annalee looked for some reassurance. His helmet was off— it was clear across the bay now— and his messy black hair was now in full view. They were jolted again into their seats as the Boudica accelerated hard again. Drew grasped her hand. Not exactly the reassurance she was hoping for, but, she held it tight anyway.

After all this, were they going to get blasted out of the sky? Another hard turn, and some troopers went limp and passed out. Annalee dry heaved and became dizzy.

"Did they die for nothing Drew?" she yelled over the sounds of the engines being pushed past their intended limits, the superstructure creaking in protest to the strain.

Drew was silent. He let go over her hand and reached over his back. He pulled out a data-rod. Annalee shook her head in disbelief: It still pulsed with energy. It worked. He smiled weakly at Annalee before cradling the data-rod while the ship jolted them again.

"Clear of atmosphere— Jumping in 5..." Fluellen's voice echoed off the bulkheads. Drew pulled out his datapad and held it in front of Annalee. She pressed the pad, and he put it away— there wouldn't be an explosion to watch or celebrate. They sat silently. They were already millions of kilometers away; the bomb was already an afterthought. They recovered important Covenant tech: that's what they had been sent to do. Their mission was complete. But what was the cost?

For a few minutes, even after the jump, the Spartans and ODST's sat in their seats just breathing. Eventually, the troopers began to stir, to congratulate each other. Some immediately began to grieve their comrades, others joked and began to remove their armor. Sergeant Paiwei bid the Spartans a prompt farewell, promising to speak to them soon as she made her way to the bridge. The troopers and Spartans were then set upon by a team of Corpsman and Navy doctors. As they unbuckled Annalee from her jumpseat and placed her onto a gurney, her eyes closed involuntarily— she was exhausted, and her body had had enough. She reflected on her uncontrolled anger from an hour before.

She had been foolish to think being human would make her any less of a Spartan. The conviction which burned through her body now had lit a fire in her soul. She cried, and she wasn't ashamed. She didn't care if the medics saw her— a myth— appear human. She was human, dammit. She wept for her family, for her friends— they gave up everything for her to be there. She was never more proud to have been a Spartan. She was never more resolved to beat the Covenant.

She faded to dreams, and her journey began.

Chapter 6: Clerical Harmony

Covenant 9th Age of Reclamation / Aboard Covenant Assault Carrier “Clerical Harmony” in orbit over Ishban [Human Designation: Biller Pavonis 4]

Sulde 'Auqusai solemnly brooded at his post.

At their closest approach, the view of the dark side of Ghel was clear. The dark was interrupted by hundreds of firestorms across the surface which blemished an area many, many thousands of units long. Even from a distance, his naked eye could spot the sporadic blues and oranges of gas wells and the white-hot fires of refineries that now burned uncontrollably.

The situation was particularly dire, and each orbit around Ishban gave him several more aching arcs to travel past the destruction which had scarred the surface of Ghel. He had only staved off his anger with the internal promise he would burn the worlds of the foul beasts who had committed this atrocity. As it stood: the moon's facilities were a total loss… but facilities could be rebuilt. What could not be rebuilt was the relic. The Guiding Light had been lost, and the Great Journey appeared to have been stymied. Troubling times we live in. He prayed silently to the Gods, hoping for a chance to find another way. Troubling, indeed.

The bridge of the assault carrier Clerical Harmony was a flurry of activity as his subordinates moved to alert the Imperial Admirals and the Council of the costly Human incursion. To date, it was one of the worst of the war. Sulde's intelligence corps had already processed the data from the local Battle Network and it was clear by their estimations that this was not a normal infiltration. Preliminary reports pointed to the Human's wretched and most unholy fiends: their Demons. How the mongrel Humans had managed to even learn of Ghel and her facilities, let alone destroy them, had Sulde's mind turn over with visions of bureaucratic imperfections to purge. He could almost shake with anticipation to find those whom he could hold accountable for such a travesty. But first, the more pressing matter.

"Shipmaster." Ryldra 'Auqusee rushed to kneel before him. The aging Elite shared his name, but seldom shared his enthusiasm. It seemed as Ryldra aged, his taste for war and politics soured. He was becoming more of a burden than an aide, but his advice still rivaled his best commanders. And, of course, his faith was unbreakable. Sulde waved him up.

"Speak."

"The commander of the Holy Canon is moments from arrival." Ryldra looked to his sides, then stepped closer and chittered in silent breath, "Not that you would listen, but the Prophet finds little time to look into those he wishes to blot out. You might find it to your advantage to—"

"Enough.” Sulde hissed, “Stay your opinions for when my decision is made." Sulde sneered in genuine angst at his clanmate. Ryldra nodded blankly and faded back into the work at hand. For one tired of politics, he was never tired enough to goad Sulde to situate better a standing for himself. Ryldra's time spent with the Prophets changed him as much as he would kill to prove otherwise.

Sulde reached out and opened a communications terminal. He hailed the meditation chamber— it was the first place he would expect to find the Prophet at such an hour of travesty. After but a brief moment, a hologram of the young San'Shyuum hobbled into view, and he bowed slightly to Sulde— Sulde returned the gesture with a friendly, equal salute. The Prophet's wattle twitched.

"I take it the commander is arriving shortly?"

"Yes. Have you made a decision, Holy One?"

"I think the answer is clear, is it not, Shipmaster?"

"Prophet of Scorn, the Ascetics are blades of the Gods, and a willing instrument of your blessed, prophetic intent. If you believe this to be their will—"

"It is, Sulde." Scorn interrupted, "It is the goal of our Covenant to ensure that the Forerunner's divinity is not only studied, but protected. There are only two sides to take in these matters: those who protect, and those who impede." The Prophet brought his tridactyl fingers together in contemplation; a smirk almost invisible to catch twitched momentarily on his wrinkled face— a tell Sulde had noted before. Scorn wiped emotion from his gaze, and chattered on.

"The commanding officer of the in-system security misused his forces and it, ultimately, allowed for the Demon's desecration of the Guiding Light. Now, we may never learn the secrets it held, or how it may ultimately have served as a beacon for our Great Journey." He folded his arms to his sides and sighed deeply, if not disinterested.

"Blunder aside, their choice to destroy the relic's data… it is heresy, my friend. Though the commander's Shipmaster may have perished, they have failed the gods by their inaction and complacency. That cannot go unpunished."

The control center became slightly hushed as the doors chimed open and the commanding officer of the Corvette Holy Canon strode through. Ryldra met the young commander immediately, and waved him towards Sulde's command perch. Sulde turned again to the image of the Prophet of Scorn and he saluted once more.

"Their will be done, Holy One. I shall confer with you once I am through here."

Sulde turned to face the Commander as the Prophet's image faded.

The surviving officer of the security garrison tasked to police the Ishban system, Aho 'Fugoree, though young, was a veteran warrior— hardly one who would claim ignorance of the immense importance of the Guiding Light. But, still, his commanding officer had chosen to destroy the Guiding Light and its data; there was no amount of understanding that would explain this decision. Never had there been such a decision, at least as Sulde was aware, of Forerunner artifacts being destroyed to deny the Human's even the smallest bounty. Such cowardice in command could not be allowed. But, the Shipmaster was dead. All that remained now was his Commander: Aho 'Fugoree. And he would be made an example of.

"Shipmaster!" Aho called to Sulde, "Forerunners be praised! When we had called for aid, I did not think the Admirals would send us the Ascetics. I apologize for having taken you away from your holy mission..."

"Do not apologize, for I forgive you, brother." Sulde solumely replied. His arms raised, he addressed the bridge, "Our mission is here, with you— with your command." Sulde assured Aho, as the Bridge cheered in reply. He studied the apprehensive commander. Though Aho had a long history with the Covenant military, he likely had never met an Ascetic before, let alone been aboard a ship full of them. This was of no fault of his own, as the Ascetics often worked parallel of the normal Covenant order— they were more wandering monks, than the ever lingering Silent Shadow. Aho was more or less made nervous of what Sulde stood for: he was face to face with a Sangheili folk hero—one with no name, whose duty preceded him. And, at some level, Aho already knew he was here to answer for his Shipmaster's crimes. He stammered on, nervously, breaking their tense silence.

"The Humans, noble one— they have laid waste to Ghel. Their Demons were set upon us before we knew how to react. We were able to kill most all of them… but not before they struck us this mighty blow with their Hell Bomb… Shipmaster 'Kelusee was leading from the ground when they scorched the surface. We were able to track their ship for a short time, but we dared not give chase in such circumstances, and as I wasn't Fleetmaster..."

Sulde crossed his arms, and looked down on Aho.

"Commander 'Fugoree," Sulde grumbled, "you do believe in the Great Journey, yes?"

Aho looked about at the company he kept: true believers— crusaders. Of course Sulde knew the answer. Aho's body language gave away what almost appeared as offense, but he oozed an uneasy fear. "Noble one, of course I do—"

"Then why," Sulde scolded, "did you allow Shipmaster 'Kelusee to destroy a holy relic? One of such importance? When such a thing defies all logic to a devout, such as yourself? Would you allow such a thing to happen if we were to discover the Holy Rings?"

"Noble one—"

Sulde raised his hand to silence Aho.

"I can forgive you your transgressions against our schedule, Commander. But, what I cannot forgive is your blatant impedance, as indirect as it may have been, to the Great Journey… especially when the work here was seldom to be finished. You, brother, stood by as a superior carried out such a heretical act, without seeking a word of guidance from your Admiral, at the very least?"

Aho lowered his head, embarrassed to look Sulde in the face. He knelt instantly, and placed his arms out before him in a shameless grovel. Sulde, embarrassed for the commander, reached out to him and clasped his shoulder. Aho looked to him again in defeat. Sulde's internal spirit spoke to him: he knew this warrior was simply following his superior's orders, and they indeed felt immense remorse for the actions they had carried out. He was hardly the heretic the Prophet had wanted him to appear. If anything, Sulde internally commended Aho for not having abandoned his post or duty— he was loyal to their cause. But he could hardly see how he could make a case that would save him from a path of dishonor.

"Help me understand," Sulde asked with genuine care in his voice, "why is it that your Shipmaster destroyed the Guiding Light? Tell me so that your brothers may continue the work you started here— I promise you that we will lift this burden from your shoulders, and set you free of this worry. Tell me, brother, and show me your commitment to the Covenant… to the Gods."


Though the Clerical Harmony at its core was a warship, as the Prophet of Scorn's Flagship of Mission, the interior had many amenities to educate and lure the Covenant's potential faithful to their joyous ranks. All about the ship were chapels, meditation chambers, and a council of Ascetic chaplains to guide even the most lost souls to the light of Forerunners. Most notably of these conversion tools, though, was the Grand Chambers. There was little like it outside of High Charity, until, of course, the arrival of the Minor Prophet of Scorn.

The Chambers were a section of the ship housing such things as laboratories, public historical libraries, private studies, theological archives, Forerunner artifacts, and many other amenities. But, as was standard Ascetic styling and practice, there was no materialistic manor to the Grand Chambers. In fact, Sulde confided that there was little grandiosity before the Prophet's arrival at all.

The Prophet was given his own private Honor Guard attaché from High Charity, courtesy of the Hierarchs themselves of course. The rest, though, was his doing. He brought with him his collection of artifacts, one which rivaled many larger collections outside the Holy City, and when they arrived, he immediately sent Sulde's engineers to work to hone their skills with the scarcely available technology. He also brought with him a staff of loyal San'Shyuum ministers, servants, and others to fill holes in his entourage with a sense of life. The Ascetic lifestyle, it seemed, was simply too plain for the young Prophet; Sulde had never met a "celibate" who was more promiscous in his many cycles dealing with the Holy class of the Covenant. It made the conservative ship murmur with uncertainty.

The Chambers also held the ability to detach as a private shuttle vessel assuring that, if need be, the Prophet could travel freely from the whole of the carrier, as well as ensure his safety. He had more often than not, however, used this shuttle section for jaunts to nearby systems with his entourage. There, he often visited various Forerunner dig sites between sermons and, as Sulde would never admit to his staff, made time for obvious conjugal forays with favorite ministers.

The secondary communications suite the Chambers sported mirrored the bustle of the Harmony's main bridge— the difference being that the work done here was of a different variety, and in many ways the final and most abrupt change to Sulde's traveling temple. The Prophet had brought the politics of High Charity with him, and thus: he had brought with him the war.

One of Scorn's personal Honor guards approached Sulde and saluted him as he entered the Prophet's Chambers. Sulde returned the salute and walked with the guard.

"I must speak with the Prophet of Scorn at once. Where is he?"

"He is in his quarters… meditating… Shipmaster 'Auqusai," the Guard nervously barked, "forgive my pestering, but are the rumors true?"

Sulde let little emotion bleed from his response, careful to what he admitted, and careful to not become the source of talk beyond his ranks. The Guards were not as tight lipped as his own followers.

"It depends on what you speak of, guard. Commit to me a favor: work to quell these 'rumors' among your ranks. Your paths will be illuminated, shortly. That I can dutifully assure."

"Yes… It will be done, Shipmaster."

Sulde entered Scorn's private quarters, leaving the guard at the door. Scorn was already waiting for Sulde inside. The room smelled of incense— a smell which Sulde found terribly sour. The herb the Prophet burned was originally from the swamps of the San'Shyuum's ancient home. To the Prophet and his kin, the fumes of the herb gave off a potent intoxicating "alertness". Sulde, though, knew drunkenness for what it was. For Sangheili, the herb simply offended their lungs and made them ill. Though he had worked with Scorn for many Cycles, the smell still found a way to irritate him. Sulde believed that this was partly intentional.

The San'Shyuum of the Holy City often cultivated the plant in small batches as a luxury item; it was a sign of status to have such time to cultivate it— or in the case of Scorn, to hire his brethren to do so for him. The meditative art of cultivation, apparently, had become too lowly for him in recent times. Nonetheless: his symbol of status was as irritating to the psyche of lower castes of the San'Shyuum as it was to the Sangeheili's snouts. A power move, no doubt, made by nothing less than the symbol of power within the Covenant: a Prophet. Scorn was nothing but the embodiment of brashness.

Sulde glanced about, noticing an errant robe, too plain to be the Prophet's, on the floor beside the Prophet's resting nook. The room, filled with various cushioned seats and pods for relaxing; ornamentation was of the highest grade and the colors various purple-reds and glittering, plasmaic pinks as the ship's fusion reactor pulsed. Scorn had long ago embraced the luxury of his presumed prophetic status, even before he had assumed such a role. As a Minister, Scorn had maintained a level of opulence that dissuaded many Sangheili to take his intentions seriously. That, Sulde learned quickly, did not make him any less of a force than he was. Any who thought less of him were sure to be surprised at what he was able to accomplish. His reach was far, his body politic loyal, and his power always on the cusp of spilling over— he was favored by many to maybe even succeed the Prophet of Mercy when he passed. All, of course, conjecture from his own glowing subordinates. Sulde wasn't sure, though, that even the Hierarchs would be keen to his arrogance. He would sooner control the whole of the Covenant than listen to the wise Prophets of Truth and Regret. He was, simply, a dangerous one to cross.

"Sulde, my friend! Sit down, sit down…" Scorn continued to wave him further inside his quarters, "I presume you have seen to our… predicament?"

"Yes, holy Prophet." Sulde bowed, "After a round of questioning I have had Commander 'Fugoree stripped of his commands. He has been stowed away in the brig. What he has told me, though, is worth discussion."

Scorn perked up at Sulde's response.

"Shipmaster, forgive me, but I must not have been clear: the crimes for heresy of this magnitude is death. At the very least he should be hung by his entrails and paraded in the Grand Chambers. Anything less is nearly criminal."

"Prophet," Sulde calmly responded, making sure to ease the Prophet into a different state of mind, "the crimes of Commander 'Fugoree may, at some level or perspective, be heresy—but I truly believe they had no knowledge of 'Kelusee's decision until it was too late for a counter-action."

Sulde had made his way to the Prophet's only Sangheili seat-pod in the room, and sat across from him. The chair was the dingiest one in the Prophet's quarters, and hardly qualified as an item of comfort much like the rest of his furniture. Sulde looked Scorn up and down. The Prophet was fuming. Knowing his place, Sulde, bowed his head respectfully.

"Prophet, if you indeed see me as equal you must understand what 'Fugoree's life represents. You may—in fact I don't doubt at all— see the clerical side of existence in a manner higher than my own. However, by the same standards, I must then see the spirit of our temple differently as well." Sulde pointed to the door, and held his other hand over his hearts. "All of my Ascetic warriors— all of 'Fugoree's subordinates look to us for guidance through troubles both martial and spiritual.

"Yes," Sulde continued, "'Kelusee's decision was incorrect— it was heretical, as you say... but 'Fugoree's faith in the Great Journey counter-acted his superior's misjudgment. The path may appear darkest to us now, but 'Fugoree's actions in the face of terrible circumstances may have saved our Great Journey. His oath, according to his station, was maintained. They —our subordinates— may see his execution as just, but we are obligated to see above their mindless banter. Even now they speak in whispers about the destruction of the Guiding Light. We can quash these rumors with reassuring truth, holy Prophet."

"And what," Scorn questioned as he leaned towards Sulde, "is that, my friend?"

"That some data remains secure. 'Fugoree's troops were able to make contact with the chief Huragok Prances on Air before the total destruction of the Guiding Light. The Huragok made its way to the artifact and was able to interact with it in a manner yet seen before. It appears that the artifact had had some semblance of intelligence within its casing. This… construct, which had resisted our prodding for many cycles, in the face of destruction allowed itself to be accessed and, by our faith in the Journey, some of its data was partially transmitted to the Holy Canon by way of the Huragok, as damaged it was. 'Fugoree's action alone prevented a total loss of the data—"

The Prophet waved his hands about his face as he stood up, fanning away the smoke of the incense. He turned again to Sulde.

"I will not hear anymore of 'Fugoree. What did this construct say?"

"Little, apparently." Sulde exhaled, "We were only able to learn of a general location. The Huragok was interrupted abruptly by the Demons, and we can only assume the worst: the Humans have also retrieved some of this data."

"Yet, they won't have the rest of the scene before them…"

The Prophet of Scorn pounded his fist on a bulkhead. He turned to Sulde with a look of madness.

"And Commander 'Fugoree was still unable to apprehend the human vessel? Sulde, you put too much of your faith in these-these... infantile, bumbling wretches!"

Sulde stood promptly, throwing himself to his feet in frustration. Scorn stepped away, taken aback by Sulde's sudden outburst. The two stared at each other before Sulde dashed their standoff with a grumble.

"Prophet," he growled, "even if the Humans are able to discover the data within, they are too primitive to know the holy intent of the Forerunners. We know the manner of the data, and the Humans do not have the same benefit. They are blind."

Scorn swayed on his feet before turning again. He paced about his quarters, ignoring the patiently waiting Sulde. The sour smell of the swamp herb began to dissipate as the Prophet activated an air recycler. He snapped and looked to Sulde, who returned him with an equally intense glare. Scorn spoke candidly.

"Shipmaster, the Commander will be executed for his crimes. Make no mistake: we are not equals as you may think we are. You shall do well to remember this. I see now that I may need to send for Chieftain Kulljul to relieve you of command."

"You wouldn't dare! This is a Sangheili temple!" Sulde scowled. Give a Brute control of his temple? The Sangheili wouldn't allow it. They couldn't. The Clerical Harmony was a ship-of-the-line; a Holy Dreadnought which would strike fear in her enemies, and bring praise to her allies. It was one of the last of its kind since the Great Collection on High Charity. And, of course, it was Sangheili. The Prophet had overstepped his authority.

Scorn read the silence between the two as an omen; he would take heed. He seemed to ponder and consider his next move as his eyes darted across the face of Sulde. He took his hands and intently clasped them together, and shook them with eager fervor. A smirk again twitched across his face in an instant. Sulde's hearts beat out of order. "In due time, perhaps. He is still busy collecting artifacts in the deep reaches of the Human frontier. I will preclude further theatrics…" He stood, and hobbled to his hover-throne, snuffing out an incense herb as he did.

"See that these local ships are made use of by your Ascetics, and we shall begin parsing the Huragok's obtained data. With time, we shall find the Door, and the Journey will be ever closer. Have I made myself entirely clear, Shipmaster 'Auqusai?"

Sulde clenched his fists—the decision was made.

"Yes, Holy One. It shall be done."


Sulde's dropship approached the Holy Canon's launch bay for docking. The Phantom dropship was loaded with a contingent of Ascetic commandos and their Grunt counterparts to reinforce and replace the drained forces aboard the Corvette. Sulde had made sure to also send two more contingents of officers and reinforcements to take command of The Holy Canon's sister ships, Accepting of Fate and Loving Requiem. As far as he was concerned, there was little reason to leave them policing a system which no longer had any strategic importance. No, he internally concluded, now, they would assist the Ascetics and become part of Scorn's flotilla. Sulde mused how often such things appeared to fall into the Prophet's lap. Luck was a consistent partner of his, if not an accomplice.

But he would not let the Sangheili ship fall further from it's Holy Mission. He would not allow for Jiralhanae to command from her bridge. Such a mere suggestion from the Prophet showed his true colors. He was hardly the pious leader he claimed to be. He was like the rest: corrupt and power hungry. Sulde vowed he would die before the infamous Kulljul stepped aboard his vessel. A bluff, maybe, but a damning bluff if there ever was one.

As the dropship breached through the energy barrier airlocks of the Corvette, Sulde walked to the back of the dropship. There, armorless, and bound by his arms was Aho 'Fugoree. Sulde stood over the downtrodden commander, and reached out to lift him by his binds.

"'Fugoree, once inside you will show me to the brig of the ship."

"Yes, Shipmaster…"

As the dropship slowed, the Ascetic troopers emptied out into the hangar, and immediately began to order about the Unggoy and shooed the Kig-Yar to their posts. The assorted troops quickly began to reorganize with the Sangheili in sight, and paid little attention to their former commander crossing their paths in shackles and binds. As this went on, another dropship entered the hangar bay. This ship carried the Unggoy Captain Dollop, and twenty of his most skilled and veteran Ultras.

As Dollop plopped to the deck, Sulde walked with him out of the hangar towards the ship's brig accompanied by a duo of Ascetic guards and Ryldra. Sulde nodded to Ryldra, and he returned the gesture, and remained to watch over the hanger. Dollop, the only Unggoy Sulde had ever trusted with intense and important matters, quickly signalled for his troops to fan out amongst the standard riff-raff. Their white armor and capes quickly drew in curious crowds of their brethren, and the veterans went to work calming and gathering the remaining grunts. The ship, now, was nearly pacified.

"Shipmaster 'Auqusai" Aho asked intently, "has the Prophet of Scorn spared me?" Sulde grumbled.

"No, 'Fugoree. The Prophet was quite steadfast in his convictions. You will die."

"...And what of my other discovery? About the Demon?"

Sulde hesitated.

"...The matter never arrived as a point of conversation."

"So, there's still a chance for me? To prove my loyalty to the Prophet?"

"No." Sulde sternly answered, "The Prophet is a fool, and he would kill you either way."

The doors to the frigate's quaint cellblock slid open, and Sulde ushered Aho in. The Kig-Yar guards perked their heads up as the Ascetics entered the room. They promptly recognized and began cackling at their former commander. Sulde's guards lit their swords, and the cackling ceased as the jackals torso's sailed off in an arc. Sulde communicated with Ryldra as he tossed Aho to the deck.

"Commence the purge."

Ryldra clicked in response. The quiet hum of the ship was joined and then drowned by the crackling of plasmafire echoing from the hangar. None would remain on the ship who knew of the Demon. None but the Ascetics, and Aho 'Fugoree.

As they approached the first cell door, Sulde activated the control panel and the energy barrier faded. He signalled for the Ascetic guards accompanying him to put Aho into the cell. They unbound the downtrodden commander's hands, and Sulde closed the barrier, but not before tossing in the hilt of an Energy sword. Aho looked inquiringly from the sword to Sulde. Sulde stood at the barrier, and gestured to the hilt.

"As Aho 'Fugoree, you are but a ruined commander— a prisoner to be executed for heresy. No longer a member of the glorious Covenant, you would die 'Aho 'Fugor', stripped of all ranks and honor. Your path is dishonorable. This is what Scorn requested to happen to you, and you would still seek his regard?"

Sulde paced in front of the barrier as Aho remained silent.

"I am fortunate to have been adopted by a clan which allowed me to carry the blade… customs… sometimes they must be bent to fill the needs of our people. You could not carry a sword as a 'Fugor— especially if you were dead." Aho briefly glanced to the hilt.

"As of a few ticks ago," Sulde continued his lecture, "you have been reported as executed by means of decapitation— your body disposed of in the vacuum of space. There is no future for Aho 'Fugoree. Aho 'Fugoree is dead."

"But as another?" Aho asked.

Sulde slyly nodded "As another, you would be free to be able to join the Ascetic ranks.. .I would be able to unshackle you— to free you to undo your Shipmaster's wrongs. As a new conscript, you would become a nameless one. And, then, when the time is right: you will be given a name that suits your accomplishments as an Ascetic Commander." Sulde kneeled to meet Aho's gaze, "You have already fought to maintain your honor and lineage… though the Prophet would not see it that way. Why not complete this quest for redemption? All I ask in return, is your loyalty to me, and your guidance in understanding the data from the Guiding Light."

Sulde stepped towards the door, and stared intently at Aho. Aho seemed lost.

"Simply put, commander: I will give you everything to reclaim your honor. But I cannot accomplish this for the warrior you once were. There is no longer hope to regain that honor from a Prophet such as Scorn. He is too worried about his own place among the annals of Covenant prowess. The Ascetics, however, would accept you handedly. In times such as these" Sulde backed from the door, signalling for his guards "leaders can sprout from anywhere. Even those dishonored by loss of command."

Aho approached the hilt, and picked it up. He intently studied the glyphs etched into its housing. The Sangheili glyphs read from Sulde's favorite theological verse, "Strike with fury; the Gods will guide you". Aho brought it to his side, his eyes giving away his continued confusion.

"Why not kill me? Why go through this trouble?"

"I believe the Prophet is wrong about your fate. You have done your duty for the Covenant, and even more so than most. You have captured a Demon. But, now, you face death for another's crimes? It is not a fair proposition, is it?" Sulde chuckled deeply.

"I simply am willing to offer you a chance at continuing your life as a warrior… So," he sauntered down the cellblock, "sit and reflect. I am offering life for you. I ask only that you may decide quickly."

Sulde turned from Aho, leaving him dumbfounded.

Sulde signaled for his attaché to follow him, and they moved together towards the last cell. There, curled on the floor, was Aho's victory: a Demon. It's exterior armor had been stripped away, and all that remained was it's bare skin. It was indeed Human, but unlike their common fodder, the demon's body was covered in scars, bruises and burns of all sorts. Its musculature was immense, and it's skin a fair, pale tan. Were it not a vicious beast, he might have felt sorry for it. Sulde lowered the cell's barrier, and signalled for his guards to approach it carefully.

The demon remained on the floor, shivering. Sulde could just make out the wispy guttural murmurs it spouted between breaths.

As one of the Ascetics reached for the demon to lift it up, they snapped towards the floor in a screaming heap. The demon had grabbed for its neck, and in a moment the cell walls and ceiling were plastered with blood as the Human's strike dug deeper into the neck of the Ascetic trooper. The other guard raised its arms and lit its sword in anger to strike down the animal, but Sulde caught it's paw before it could strike.

Just as quickly as it struck, the demon pushed the wounded guard away and fell back as the Ascetic slammed against the far wall, blood pouring from it's eye and neck. The demon's stark body was soaked in the blood of Sulde's soldier. A sharp, makeshift weapon in its raw, bleeding hands. It looked absolutely mad, animalistic, and it snarled at Sulde with crazed eyes. The other Sangheili quickly grabbed his injured brother-in-arms and pulled him from the cell. Sulde was alone with the demon. It pulled itself further into the far, back corner, pointing its shiv at Sulde threateningly, challenging him to approach it.

"I shall speak slow, and simply for you, Demon Wei." he addressed the demon sternly. "Your language… is difficult for us to speak, but we make... few quarrels in understanding that which we aim to eradicate. We will flay your mind." The demon roared angrily, and threw the makeshift knife at Sulde. Sulde swatted away the weapon easily, and lunged forward landing on the demon's leg with his armored hoof. It winced and gasped, but it appeared to show no signs of pain; it's bones held fast unlike a normal Human wretch. Sulde realized that it had been paralyzed from the waist down; it's pain receptors numbed to the point of uselessness. He stepped off the demon's leg and angrily roared down at the beast.

"You will speak with me in time, and you will tell me where your filthy brethren crawled off to—"

"Never."

The demon trailed off, it's mind beyond its limit. Sulde kneeled next to the demon, and grasped its neck, choking the monster in an effort to make himself clear.

"I understand, demon... We all have our duty… so, we shall speak again so that I may complete mine. The Journey comes for us all. It shall not be slowed by your infidel nature."

Sulde tossed the demon to the ground, a cry rang out as it's spine compressed and a misfiring nerve sent a shock through its body. The demon again curled on the floor, babbling to himself about pain and honor. A work in progress, Sulde sighed in frustration.

He quickly moved to the stabbed Ascetic trooper. He was dying, his injury too grave.

"Shipmaster… I am ready… for the Journey..." he gasped out in pain.

Sulde lit his sword, and in a quick swipe lopped the head from his subordinates shoulder— It was the quickest way to end his misery. He looked to the other guard as he made his way to the door, and snarled his orders back.

"Send word to his clan he died in battle. Jettison the body into the oblivion. If our other brother changes his tone, send word by page only. Remove the fallen's armor and leave it here." He glanced back towards Aho, "It may yet have a use."

The guard bowed in acknowledgment, and Sulde turned to Aho for a final glance. Without saying a word, he knew Aho's answer. Sulde's subordinate he would be. He exited the brig, his crusade now in motion.

Chapter 7: Execute Inquiry

<\DATE>>11.1.2545//MON//1215//ONI_DATACENTER_CASTLE

Fluellen had his orders.

Just inside the anti-static clean room was what Diamond Initiative and ONI Xenotech experts had begun referring to as X-222, or the "Patty Melt". Fluellen didn't question the logic, but the humor was lost on him. Afterall: it was far from humorous work they were doing. The ONI Xenotech's always loved coming up with names which had little to do with the technology being studied. It was apparently easier to talk about a sandwich than a random numerical classification. It was just something he would never quite understand.

Inside the observation deck, Doctors Stevens and Mitchells, two of Fluellen's overseers, were already hard at work ensuring that the X-222 was ready for Fluellen's interaction. This was indeed a turning point for them, the Diamond Initiative, and Fluellen. The second major objective of the Initiative had always been to retrieve and study Covenant technology. So, here they were: they had retrieved it, and now they were to study it.

The nature of X-222 had already stirred up some lively internal debate. Was it really Covenant technology? By all observations, made thus far, it certainly didn't appear to be. But, as others argued, as their decades-long war continued, the Covenant remained alarmingly mysterious to the UNSC— there wasn't much that they could assume about Covenant controlled space. Fluellen, though, was fairly certain, that this Patty Melt, X-222, or whatever else silly name it was given by a hungry tech before lunch, was one thing for certain: extremely important. The after-action report from Spartan-B220 gave easy answers as to its importance to the Covenant, and that was all that had to be said on the matter. The question remained, though, if the Covenant really understood the nature of the "Pylon" or it's Slip-Space interactions. How much did they know? Did they know more than ONI, or nothing at all? Fluellen was split.

Stevens waved Mitchells over to their console. Mitchells took one look at the screen then stood straight up and chuckled. "Ok," he said to noone in particular, "we're ready for you, Flu. You can quit spying on us— we see how you're affecting the localized cores."

Fluellen appeared on the holotank pedestal next to their consoles and bowed with a smile. Doctors Lucy Stevens and Daniel Mitchells had helped design, teach, and maintain Fluellen since his creation. They knew him better than anyone else did and they were the closest thing to "family" he had— most of the rest of the team which had created him had moved on to other things, and continued to advance the technology of AI elsewhere. They, though, stayed on to maintain the Initiative. Fluellen was appreciative for that.

"It's nice to see you all, today." Fluellen greeted them. He "looked" over his shoulder and into the room where the alien technology sat, waiting. The room they were utilizing was several hundred meters underground, embedded in the bedrock beneath ONI's Castle Base. The isolation of the room from the rest of the structure maintained an insignificant level of background noise, and the chamber itself would virtually cut off any electronics from the rest of the outside. "I see we're all ready to give this a shot, aye?"

Mitchells plopped down in a chair next to the holotank, and began readying the control arm probe. The arm would extend from the observation deck towards a base that secured the alien tech. From there, Fluellen would fragment into two halves. One would transfer into the base and utilize it's suite of tools and attempt to interact with it in any manner. The other, would stay behind at the off chance things went awry. Thus far, ONI had had difficulty in making any headway, and the director of the Diamond Initiative had apparently offered Fluellen's talents as a means to an end. Fluellen appreciated the director's vote of confidence; had he known their identity, he might have thanked them himself. He quickly shook off his self-congratulatory smugness— he hadn't accomplished anything yet.

"Yep, we're pretty much set, Flu." Mitchells responded as the control arm began to extend. "Honestly," he continued, "your only objective is to just not… you know: fry the thing? See if you can figure out what's going on inside the Melt, and then we'll talk about making a back door if we 'hafta. The techs will eventually reverse engineer it, but…" he paused to down the last of his coffee, and smiled coyly at Stevens "...if we can save any data… we should do that. It'll look good for the Initiative—"

Stevens interrupted, "Especially after… you know."

"I understand." Fluellen quickly assured the two.

The morale of the small Diamond Initiative staff had been dashed after the deaths of almost all the Spartan Operatives assigned to them. There were only about ten staff members for the project, most of whom had been with the Director since they had started the project years ago. Now, before the project could really begin, it appeared it might be over. Fluellen had been created to assist in their goals, and he was determined he wouldn't stop his attempts until he was ordered to do otherwise. Tragedy or not, there was still work to do.

As the control arm connected to the base in the clean-room, Fluellen nodded at both of the two.

"Good luck, Fluellen." Stevens smiled at him with cautious assurance.

Fluellen's fragment transferred to the base. After the arm detached from the base, it —he— would be cut from the outside world for an hour at a time.

He was on his own.


^^T+427. It is just after my seventh check-in with Stevens and Mitchells. I notified them of an anomaly I had found in the last hour. We all agreed on attempting to use the anomaly on X-222 to see if it may be a potential back-door to communicate with the apparatus.

^^Checking now…

^^Yes! Yes, I have accessed some sort of overlying energy field! Beginning inquiry...


Fluellen felt. He saw. Where he was was alien; a sphere, amidst an endless black void… But he could see with his own eyes. No cameras, no tool suite: eyes. He propped himself up, having just been face to the "ground" and took in his surroundings. The room was alive with electricity; his new body feeling the pulses— data, as it ebbed and flowed around him. Though he now had the senses and sensations of a human being, his Avatar's skin was a mess of light pulses and, beneath the pulses, bones of pulsing foreign code— the thing was trying to process his "physical" being. However it had happened, he was now cut off from the base...he was inside X-222.

"/Your tools appeared to have finally made a link." A disembodied voice filled the void, and Fluellen's spherical cage was now alight with a flutter of glyphs. Some he recognized from Covenant data. The majority, though, were alien. He nursed out a response from his foreign body.

"^I mean no intrusion—"

"/Halt your lying tongue, Ancilla. You indeed meant intrusion, for here you are." The void reverberated intensely, and Fluellen felt as though he was being parsed apart. Memories evaporated and snapped again into being as the thing read him like a book.

"/You will be disappointed in what you find..."

"^I simply seek to know what this—what you are."

"/I am but a fragment...much as you are now. I am a shard of what once was. Now, I am but a dying mote of data. You, however… are very curious. You are a fragment, but in more way than one..."

Fluellen's flame grew intensely on his shoulders, as he felt his psyche begin to tear— visions of families, battles, children, Earth, Meridian, Harvest— he was momentarily no one and all of them. Five lives in one— then whole again.

"/Quite curious…"

"^What did you do to me?"

"/Little. Nothing. I read your story. The melding of multiple minds is quite the difficult process, and yet out of five there is quite clearly one… I shall require a higher processing of this new data."

The void collapsed and there was nothing. No glyphs, no spheres, no pulse of life. Nothing. Fluellen was himself again. He was connected again to the base. It's tools began to ping alarms to him as X-222 began to climb in temperature.

A different pulse now. The thing within X-222 was reaching out into the clean-room through the back-door; it was taking control of his base and it's tools. Fluellen quickly moved to block all access points, but he couldn't match the alien construct. He was ejected from the base, and purged into oblivion.

Then a world manifested about him.

There he was: standing on a lush green field of ankle high grass; an oak-like tree was the single thing in view over hundreds of kilometers of rolling meadows and hills. There was light, but from where Fluellen couldn't tell. Before him, under the tree were two alien beings. One he recognized as the unmistakable purple floating husk of a Covenant Engineer, the other… Humanoid, but still quite alien. A small plume of feather-like hair on it's head, and snake like nostrils in place of a nose on above its small, sharp fangs which had shaped into a slight grin. It was naked, it's pale brown body bare as the sky was of suns, stars, and planets. It began to talk.

"Child of my enemy, you do not understand that which you desire. You are dumb; stupid, even. You stumble around in the dark, searching for an answer you couldn't comprehend! You can't even comprehend your own being?"

Fluellen's figure was now not of projection, but of a sort of artificial matrix; a real body of unreal composition. There were no flames on his shoulders, and he could once again feel as though the body was his own. He looked to his sides; five others were with him. On his right was a young girl of at least six, a woman in her twenties, and a man in a wheelchair—a geriatric. To his left, were two more men of middle age; one in ONI coverall uniform, and the other wearing Army battle dress. They were his antecedents; projections of the lives of those who formed his matrices. Yet, he stood alone as his own projection. They all smiled at him, with an all too familiar look; as if he was looking in a mirror, yet...

"What is this place?" He asked.

"This is everywhere and nowhere." He gestured to the projections at either side of Fluellen, and the Engineer at his side. "I cannot explain well what this place is, but it serves a purpose… one which Humanity may well come to face one day, if they truly are to reclaim our prior empires... But, what this domain can do is far more important. It can show you yourself in ways you could never understand as an Ancilla… but as a man…"

Fluellen looked to his sides, and the projections were gone. It was now just him and X222. The alien walked forward, with his arms open, and his naked body exposed. It dawned on Fluellen what the being was trying to convey.

"I am my own being. I am not them."

"Precisely. From their minds, you were created. A sentience of your own. Just as I was, long, long ago…

"Unfortunately, though, my other fragments are either gone, or in the hands of those you call 'the Covenant'. My friend, Prances On Air, saw to that. This is before they understood the nature of what they dealt with."

Fluellen's hopes sank. "The Covenant have your data?"

"...Much as you are now," X-222 glanced at the tree, and geastured Fluellen to follow "—they also will stumble in the dark void. Were my mind complete, I could tell you all that you seek, but alas…"

"The same then applies to them?"

"Pieces to an incomplete picture… you are the first to reach me."

"And what do you know?"

"So much, and so little." X-222 sat down at the base of the tree, and Fluellen's projection began to falter. "What I can tell you is where, but not what. They may eventually know the opposite. Time is on your side, Child of my Enemy."

The tree and the green plains began to fade, and Fluellen's form began to degrade, as did X-222's. The construct reached out and touched Fluellen's hand. Immediately, a sharp surge threw Fluellen back, and the world faded away. He was again surrounded by nothing. The world he was standing on was now gone, and in its place the all too familiar void.

"Hello?"

Slowly, Fluellen shook off his disorientation. His access to the base began to appear again in his streams of data, which he continued to again monitor. Then, when he had full access once again X-222 powered down, and faded completely from his sensors. Fluellen pinged the backdoor access again, hoping for more answers.

"Construct respond!"

There was nothing.

As the sensors on the base detected that X-222 had completely powered down, red warning indicators would light up the room to alert Mitchells and Stevens. Fluellen waited for these warnings to prompt the control arm to reach out again. After a few quiet moments, the arm attached to the base and Fluellen fluttered back to the pedestal in the observation room, and combined again to his other fragment. Mitchells and Stevens were one of five other ONI officers that had crowded the small observation room, looking frantic as they checked all the monitors all along the walls. Klaxons were sounding, and warning lights flashed incessantly. Stevens was the first to see Fluellen pop up, and frantically tried to piece together what happened.

"Fluellen, what the hell happened in there— what happened to you?"

Fluellen's Avatar appeared jumbled as his fragments continued to meld together; the Melt had changed something in his psyche, and the fragments fought to maintain his form. The intelligence officers began to crowd the pedestal, but quickly made room as a voice behind them made a pronounced throat clearing. All their heads turned. Clearly summoned by the alerts, Darren Cohen stood at the door, flanked by Margaret Parangosky. The deafening silence was broken only by the apparently delighted, inquisitive Cohen. Parangosky remained stoic, if not entirely detached from Cohen's jolly demeanor. Clearly, she had other things on her mind. Fluellen, after a tense battle with his prior self, manifested again on the Holotank— whole again.

"What do you have, Fluellen?" Cohen asked with a grin.

Fluellen hesitated. He was confused but now enlightened: on Cohen's collar shined a Star— he was a Rear Admiral.

"Director?" Fluellen asked. Cohen nodded his head earnestly.

"We have a location."

Chapter 8: Reunion Tour

0750 Hours, January 9, 2546 (Military Calendar)/ Reach Naval Officers Academy, Reach, Epsilon Eridani System

As she stepped into the warm, yellow rays of Epsilon Eridani, Annalee pulled her cover down to shield her eyes. She took in the sights and sounds of the Academy campus.

The skies beyond the mountains were particularly clear, and the sidewalks and causeways were virtually empty of foot traffic due to the campus being closed. The UNSC's future Officers and military minds were given time off in celebration of the new year, and their upcoming graduation ceremonies in the following week. Annalee trudged down the steps of the Academy Center and began her way down the white polycrete paths which led to the transportation terminal.

The imported Japanese birch trees which lined the central path had already, in the weeks prior, turned bright yellow and now their leaves were now beginning to fall. Annalee soaked in the scenery; it was a particularly meditative view, far from the battlefields she had become so used to. It was calming to have no one else to share the path with her, and she took in what was likely to be one of more calm and solitary moments she would have for the foreseeable future— the war, after all, was still burning slowly across the stars and she was on her way to rejoin in the fight.

She would not be joining the large, public graduation class— she had barely interacted with her fellow officer candidates while she was there at the Academy, anyway. Even when standard things such as Officer training were applied to Spartans, it seemed that they would continue to be treated a bit differently. At 0600 that morning, she woke, left her private room, and made her way to the mess. Not long after,she reported to the Superintendent's office, where in a private ceremony, he officiated her graduation to a grand total of two individuals as witnesses. Now, all of her belongings already packed in her duffle bag, she was done: she was an officer.

Fanfare was hardly the Spartan way, anyway, she concluded.

Reaching into her pocket, Annalee pulled out a small, wooden box and carefully opened it again. Inside were two silver pins which she had been given at the ceremony: double-bars indicating a Lieutenant— the ones in the box were her spare pair, the other pair pinned to her collar barely ten minutes ago. As she made her final approach, and reached the Terminal, an MP— Military Police— at the entrance spotted her insignia and snapped a crisp salute, and Annalee returned it. It was the first of many, she recognized; her time as a CPO was likely to pale in comparison, now. Thus, her solitude had concluded.

Once she had made her way inside, she moved to a vacant assignment kiosk. She leaned in and a retinal scanner folded out for her eyes to be scanned. When it was done, the Academy AI Attendant chimed in, and with an upbeat voice and a cartoon salute, greeted her on the screen.

"Greetings, Lieutenant!" it happily chimed, "How may I be of service?"

"Hello, Cassius. I need an auto-cab so I can report to my next assignment. Assignment number…6 dash 8-7-5…alpha, 7-1. Copy?"

Cassius processed her assignment, and promptly responded with a quizzing tinge.

"Lieutenant, it appears you already have been assigned an escort! Should I page them now?"

Annalee returned the computer a confused look; an escort?

"...Send them around, Cassius. Thank you."

The circular avatar snapped it's salute and chirped an "aye, aye" before returning into the digital ether.

The indoor auto terminal was only lightly busy, as a spattering of MP's, Cadets, and Officers milled about waiting for buses or cabs. Annalee, apparently, was being picked up— she was only partially surprised. The Diamond Initiative staff had never truly been straight forward with her, but in the shadow of RAUCOUS SOLITUDE—and now TORPEDO— the silence was deafening, and more mysterious than she was accustomed. Annalee stood at the curb of the internal roundabout and waited for an unmarked sedan to pull up and whisk her away, but she could already tell from the distant hum echoing off the walls that was likely not the case.

As the Warthog entered the closed terminal, the building's sound dampeners fought to suppress the roar of the chugging hydrogen engine. Annalee stood at the curb as the large truck pulled directly in front of her, and came to a screeching halt. Inside the cab was Waimarie Paiwei.

"Sergeant?"

"Yes ma'am— Kia ora! I heard we were giving you a lift, eh?"

"You know more than me, it seems."

Annalee pulled herself into the passenger seat and Paiwei revved the Warthog loudly, causing an MP to angrily stomp towards the duo to enforce the noise ordinances. As soon as he saw the occupants of the Warthog, he sheepishly stopped in place. Annalee nodded at the MP, who blushed and snapped a salute. Paiwei turned the truck and sped out of the terminal, turning heads, and breaking nearly every terminal violation as they went.

"I'll be honest with you ma'am," Paiwei gestured with her thumb towards the terminal, "I don't think anything larger than a sub-compact is allowed in there, but this ute is what I got my hands on… Also, feel free to call me 'Lucky', if you'd like. It's a bit easier for most than 'Waimarie Ataahua Paiwei'."

"'Lucky'...alright, I can do that. Where are we headed Sergeant 'Lucky'?"

"Airfield. We're all getting shipped off planet, though, that's about all I know. Picked up your mate, Drew a week ago. Very 'hush-hush, need-to-know ONI B.S—er… well," she stopped to rephrase, "you know how they are with this stuff. I'm the new kid on campus, so to speak, and they haven't told me much since I took up their assignment on the 'Diamond Initiative'. They wanted an ODST, and they knew me and… well, here I am, eh?"

Annalee hesitantly nodded. It seemed the ONI team behind the Initiative had begun recruiting operatives for the field— odd, being that only she and Drew were the remaining Spartans. Before their last mission, they had been briefed on how the Spartans were to be an integral part of a larger Xenotechnological recovery battalion. That had been the plan, anyway; now they were all that remained. Annalee assumed things had to have changed with such a blow dealt to their ranks, but Lucky Paiwei knew even less than her, it seemed. Speaking of which: Annalee's silence appeared to make the Sergeant uneasy.

"Not the talkative type, eh?" Lucky eventually prodded. Lucky was a veteran soldier with years of field experience and age over Annalee. Annalee had read a lot about the relationship between Officers and their dynamics with NCO's while at the academy. Was Lucky really her partner, or was she simply a cog in the program? Oh, shit. She had remained deep in thought— she was still awkwardly silent. She blushed.

"No, I suppose not, Sergeant… well, at least with those I don't know well— I mean no offense..."

"Hey, hey," Lucky cut in, "it's okay, I get it. You don't have to worry about impressing me. You've earned those bars, ma'am… really, I owe you Spartans my life."

"We feel the same way about you and your ODST's. You came when we needed you most."

Lucky didn't joke or chuckle, and instead shifted uncomfortably in her seat.

"Ah, I'm not sure we did, though." She reservedly replied, "Captain kept us in the boonies too long— but I'm sure you heard all about that?"

"Only bits and pieces." Annalee replied honestly. She had only been caught up to speed briefly by Drew a few months later; she had been in medical cryostasis for the whole trip back to Reach, and then in the hospital for recovery. "I know from what Drew said that the Captain was removed from his post, and that not much else appeared to have come of it."

Lucky raised her finger "And that," she interjected, "was right odd. You Spartans needed help, and we right went against the wants and wills of our commanding officer— arguably court martial material, if not worse… but, after a short debrief later on, we were told that some Admiral had cleared us of wrongdoing. Never heard of such a thing… have you?"

"I'll be honest, Sergeant, my experience with this sort of thing is skewed…" Annalee caught herself opening up, "—but, it's classified, so I won't go on about it too much."

Lucky raised an eyebrow, "Of course, ma'am… hey, we're coming up on the airfield. We should have the Pelican waiting just inside."

As they approached the airfield checkpoint, Annalee and Lucky pulled out their credentials to an MP guarding the gate to the Academy's airfield. After a moment, they waved the Warthog in and the gate opened. Much like the auto terminal, the airfield had a motorpool to drop off and pick up individuals. Lucky pulled their Warthog off to the side and flagged an MP she seemed to recognize.

"Thanks again, Corporal! We should be done with her, now." Lucky slapped the MP's shoulders and handed them the Hog's key fob. The MP assured her it was no big deal, and saluted Annalee once he realized she was an officer— she would need to get used to that. Once Annalee had grabbed her duffel bag from the rear of the truck, the MP drove off. Lucky signaled for Annalee to follow.

"Should be just over here— ah, there it is!"

The two made their way towards the Pelican dropship. It's rear hatch was open, and two pilots seemed to be loading it up and going through their final checklists in preparation for their flight. One glanced over and waved to Lucky, who waved back.

"Where've you been, Lucky?" the pilot called out.

"You right well know where I've been, Captain."

The pilot removed his helmet, Annalee quickly snapped to attention. She recognized the man under the helmet: Marco Dorota— the man who had taken command of the Boudica from Mattias Jones. Dorota turned to Annalee who had nearly stopped in her tracks, and smiled.

"At ease, Spartan."

From the hatch walked out another familiar face baring that incorruptible smile. Drew snapped a quick exaggerated salute for Annalee.

"Officer on deck!"

Dorota and Lucky chuckled, and Annalee couldn't help but let a grin sneak up on her too. The newly promoted Captain waved at him dismissively, and spoke up again.

"Alright, enough fooling around, Chief. We're dusting off for the Elevator in 5 minutes, so help the L.T. aboard, will ya'?" the Captain leaned over to Annalee and not-so-loudly-whispered "As much as I enjoy practicing my Hungarian, your subordinate can be a bit, hmm... 'tiring' at times. I'll let you guys catch up a bit— it'll give me a moment of peace."

Annalee gave Drew a quick hug; they hadn't seen one another since Drew left her at the Hospital four months earlier to help local Reach forces with counter-insurgency raids. He appeared he had even been doing so up until very recently, as he was sporting a new pair of SPI armor, with very few dings or scratches like his old pair. He held under his arm, though, a helmet completely foreign to Annalee, unlike the ones most SPI armors had used in the past. Drew caught her glance and immediately began explaining as they both made their way into the seating bay of the Pelican.

"Experimental stuff— they're letting me test some features for later planned Spartan companies, but my understanding is this is a sorta' hand-me-down from the big guys. Called 'GRENADIER' I guess. I think you're getting something fancy, too?"

The big guys, of course, were the SPARTAN-II's; the only one either of them had known was Lt. Commander Ambrose, their trainer and mentor. Whereas the Three's knew they were all too mortal, it was difficult to see the Two's as anything but the exact opposite. Ambrose would lift this veil from time-to-time, but he tried his damnedest to have all Three's match,at the least the Two's training and "esprit de corps". In her experience, Franklin Mendez, the one in charge of her and Drew’s training, had most assuredly seen to that. It was from them, after all, the phrase "Spartans Never Die" had originated. But, if Alpha and Beta company were any indicator, the unknown truth was likely more sobering, and they were more alike than they probably knew.

"I didn't mind the MIRAGE helmets, myself." Annalee teased as she traced the scare on her right temple. The MIRAGE helmets, of course, were the standard "fish bowls" that each SPARTAN-III had practically lived in for the last decade. Their armor quickly became a second skin— changes would call for slight adjustment. But, after what happened with her last helmet she was alright with trying something new.

"It's just 'quality of life', things, more-or-less" Drew explained, "They feel a bit more durable, like they maybe expect us to hang around a while longer..."

"...You hear from anyone else?" Annalee asked, knowing the answer.

"From the rest of Beta? Not a thing. Know it was bad; details are wrapped up."

Lucky plopped down and strapped herself next to Annalee, and slapped her knee.

"Damn good send off for your lot. Obviously, it was a private, small service... but your CO Ambrose gave a great eulogy, anyway— good bloke. But, aside from him I was one of fifteen there; only active service in attendance. The rest were ONI reps."

The Captain and his co-pilot hopped aboard the Pelican, and the Captain indicated they were ready to take off.

"We're scheduled to arrive at the Elevator terminal at 1200 hours," he interjected, "from there you're to report to the Boudica with me to wait further instructions… It'll be nice to have you all aboard, again. I'm excited to work under... different circumstances with you all."

As he made his way to the cockpit, Annalee leaned over to Lucky and tried to speak over the spooling engines, but they were too loud. They both pulled down the Pelican's headsets to communicate. Annalee asked again:

"How did you know none of them were Spartans?"

Lucky smiled. "I didn't say that." She raised an eyebrow and smirked, "That Ambrose sticks out like a sore thumb!"

Annalee nodded. She imagined she was going to enjoy working with Lucky; so far she had been a plethora of surprises.


1300 Hours, January 9, 2546 (Military Calendar)/ Eposz Omega Tether, Reach, Epsilon Eridani System

Even with military clearance, the queue to board the tether had been a long one, but stuff like that had become pretty standard for all four soldiers at that point. Annalee took the time to change into a working uniform, but she was increasingly feeling exposed without her armor on— she had gone almost a month and a half out of it, the longest since she was a Trainee. As she washed her face in the washroom, a red light lit the closet-like room, and the water flow automatically stopped pumping— they were beginning to slow their approach; the tether station was closing in.

Annalee went back into the cabin, and made her way toward her seat. She was now able to hop along the floor as the relative gravity continued to lower as the gondola continued to slow. She sat down between Drew and Lucky and strapped in, per the instruction from the Station AI attendant. The Tether Station had localized gravity, and to avoid injury, they would need to remain seated as they approached the structure. Lucky reached over Annalee and pointed out the window.

"There she is." Lucky was pointing to the Boudica, docked along with several other ships to the Station. She turned to Dorota and nodded upwards, "You excited, sir? She's officially yours now."

Dorota nodded, "I wish it was under different circumstances, but given the choice: she'd be the one I'd pick." The Captain looked subdued and unsure if he actually, truly meant what he said.

A gentle, nagging alarm sounded to remind the gondola's passengers to remain seated. It was now moving very slow, as the magnetic brakes eased it into place. Eventually there was a loud clang as the docking mechanism captured the gondola, and the warning lights faded away. The group stood slowly, to adjust to the new artificial gravity, then grabbed their bags and made their way inside the Tether station. Just inside the first sliding blast-doors, Fluellen was intently waiting on a holotank. He brought his fist to his chest in a primitive salute.

"Greetings, Captain— Spartans, Sergeant." Annalee nodded at the AI, as Drew and Lucky stepped out of the Gondola, and into the station. Drew saw Fluellen and mockingly brought his fist to his chest to return the salute.

"Happy to be working with you again, Fluellen." Dorota greeted the AI, a hint of uncertainty in his voice.

"The pleasure is mine, Captain. I'm sorry to rush you after such a long trip, but if you'll make your way aftward, there is someone I need you all to meet with, post haste." As Fluellen disappeared from display, Dorota scratched his head and sighed

"Alright, let's move."

Drew jogged up to Annalee, his SPI armor drawing looks from all over the Station and parting the sea of personnel on the other side of the hallway. He elbowed Annalee.

"What do you think that's about?" he whispered.

"Would you keep it down, Drew?" Annalee responded. Drew looked overly hurt.

"Oh, c'mon, Lee, I am. Cap's looking a little lost; you think something's up?"

"I think whatever he thought we were doing, we're not."

Drew turned back to Lucky, who just smiled. She seemed to be the only one who was comfortable. Drew leaned towards Annalee and whispered to her again.

"I think she's enjoying this—"

"You bet I am" Lucky interrupted, "nothin' funnier than seein' a Spartan squirm in his armor." Dorota, glanced back and signaled for them to stop "Alright, cut the chatter." he scolded. Drew reluctantly remained silent, and Annalee shot him a smirk.

Out the windows of the hallway, Annalee could see just about half of Reach. They had ridden an orbital elevator in Eposz—the one closest to the Academy— giving them a dominating view of the continent, and the oceans on all sides. She could just barely make out the dark line of the runway next to the academy in the setting sun. Then, she looked back up, and watched the traffic outside the windows. No large ships were docked to the station, so the Boudica looked larger than it was. Pelicans, shuttles—both private and military— took passengers to and from larger vessels further out. The Boudica must have only recently arrived, as the sensitive nature of Prowler class vessels would allow for it to remain docked for as short a window as possible. It seems, though, their group was the only thing drawing attention.

Drew elbowed Annalee again, and before she could tell him off, she saw what he wanted her to see. At the door to the Boudica's docking bay was Mattias Jones. Dorota had already stopped dead in his tracks. Jones, who looked particularly uncomfortable himself walked out to Dorota, his poker face in full swing. After a moment of tense stares, Jones delivered a crisp salute.

"Second Officer, Lieutenant Mattias Jones, reporting for assignment to the Boudica, Captain."

Dorota nodded, as words failed to meet his lips. Eventually he worked out "At ease, Skipper." to break the awkward silence. Jones glanced beyond the Captain, and caught the eyes of Lucky, who was now abreast with Annalee and Drew. The look on her face was as intense as the one Annalee saw on Biller Pavonis 4A. She was ready to kick someone's ass.

Annalee didn't need Drew's elbow, this time, to shoot him a glance.

Jones, sensing a need for a change of scenery, immediately turned and gestured towards the door. "The Director is waiting inside the docking arm, sir. He'd prefer to meet in there… away from the rest of the Station…"

"Well," Dorota sternly responded, "lead the way, Jones. We'll fall in behind you."

"Aye, Captain." Jones begrudgingly replied. Annalee could tell he could barely stand but to grit his teeth. She had suspected some surprises; she hadn't expected this. As she walked through the doors into the docking arm, the surprises didn't cease there.

As the doors shut behind them Fluellen's avatar fluttered into view on a holotank. Next to Fluellen stood Darren Cohen… in full ONI uniform, a single star pinned to his collar, and his shoulders matching the insignia. His ruse was over.

"Alright," Lucky flatly said to Annalee, "now things are starting to make some sense."

Cohen smiled slyly, and gestured for all of the group to come towards him. Cautiously they approached, and once in front of Cohen, all four of the new arrivals snapped hesitant salutes. Cohen, uninterested, dismissively waved at them to stop.

"We can skip some formalities, I think." He removed his dress cover, and ran his free hand through his white hair. Annalee also now saw that Cohen was not as old as she thought. He was young, maybe only two decades older than her or Drew at the most. His hair was snow white, and his skin was almost devoid of wrinkles— she assumed that his labored movements were possibly due to a degenerative disease. Had you not stood right in front of him, though, she realized most people likely assumed the same thing. She could see now how that could benefit him— a wolf in sheep's clothing.

"I owe all of you," Cohen glanced to Fluellen, "a full explanation, but I will make due with a more brief rundown for now… Lieutenant Jones was briefed months ago, but we've all been apart since then. So..." Cohen sat down on a green UNSC shipping box, set his cane down across his lap and took in a long, deep breath from his lung-pump. He looked up, and gestured with his palms out, beckoning them to ask questions.

Annalee spoke up first.

"I'm assuming you've been a Rear Admiral for a while, sir?"

Cohen smiled. "Yes, B220. At least a decade, now. All with ONI."

"So," she continued, "you lied to us?...Sir."

His smile disappeared. Cohen had turned to stone.

His eyes were a striking pair of blue, which made Annalee shiver from his gaze alone. Ghost-like, was what came to mind. He stayed silent for a moment, thinking over his next words, and staring off into nothing like a chess player would stare at the board before them; his pieces in view to him only as the rest waited silently. He blinked, his mind made up, and he coldly responded to Annalee.

"Yes, but it was with purpose... This," he gestured at all of them "—all of this is years of work and, even now, only by the seat of my pants do I have the privilege to see you off on your first mission."

"Second, sir." Drew piped up. The others squirmed.

"You're out of line, Spartan." Dorota scolded, but Cohen again waved dismissively at the Captain.

"First, B191." Cohen retorted sternly. "Solitude, was an obligation, not a requirement. We wouldn't be here today if your teams had not gone to that hell hole." He took a moment to let his lungs fill again with air, winded by his own quick response. "Colonel Ackerson drove a hard bargain, but in the end it was only nearly not worth so many lives" He glanced towards Jones. "Jones and I have already reconciled what happened, and he is only partly to blame. For his part, he has paid in rank. But, in light of Operation: TORPEDO, we can simply assume that Colonel Ackerson's intelligence collection apparatus was flawed and the loss of our Spartans was due to his willingness to spend their lives. For trusting him, I am sorry to you."

The group remained silent, unsure what Cohen expected of them.

Annalee's forehead burned as her face flushed. Who the hell does he think he is? She could help but barely scream at him—he was that which drove her mad; a physical representation of a military bureaucrat spouting meaningless, practiced phrases. Do it for Her, From Many: One, Peace Through Strength, Spartans Never Die... She had visions of her rage on 4A, and fought to keep it below the surface. Her anger was misguided; she knew this after losing so many friends… but it could still creep up on her, quickly.

Cohen, though, had been looking directly to Annalee and Drew, reading their expressions. His eyes squinted intently, and his left hand clutched hard on the handle of his cane. Cohen saw the fire in Annalee's gaze, and he addressed her directly again. "B220," his voice trembled, almost as if he was hurt by her look, "you should know that what you and your comrades retrieved was worth more than every life lost. Though it may not appear so, I certainly didn't always feel this way— how could I have? When it comes to Spartan lives, I don't mince my words. From one Spartan to another— if I knew what I know now, I would still have sent you to die."

Annalee couldn't believe it.

"Respectfully, sir" Drew interrupted, "you're going to have to explain that one."

The smile returned.

"We have other things to go over, B191, but I'll admit my Spartan tenure was short. My body rejected the chemicals to strengthen my bones and, instead the chemicals ruined my musculature. My diaphragm was hit the worst, and, as you can see, I lost the ability to breath unassisted. Since then, though, I haven't stopped working— I've simply worked in a different capacity. There is still a war to be won, and I still had much to give."

"So what," Dorota spoke up then, "are we doing, Sir? What the hell is the Diamond Initiative's goal now? We've been told 'this', 'that', and 'this' with little directive for half a year, running around collecting who knows what."

"Finally! I thought you'd never ask. Fluellen," Cohen turned and nodded to Fluellen, "would you please?"

Fluellen bowed, and addressed the Captain and his crew.

"The Diamond Initiative, Captain, was created as a project to build a combined Spartan and ONI agent Xenotechnological Recovery Force. Funds were funneled into the SPARTAN-III program to make this happen. However, in light of the tragic loss of your Spartan brethren, the Diamond Lance, we have scaled down our planned 'battalion' to a single team: Diamond Team. One half of the team," Fluellen gestured to Annalee and Drew "will be a quick moving Spartan strike team. And the other," Fluellen gestured to Lucky, "will be an ONI fireteam led by Sergeant Paiwei." Lucky crossed her arms; she wasn't quite sold.

"Now," Cohen interrupted, "that was Top Secret information. Everything here on out is beyond that. You will only speak of the following with those cleared to hear it. The only people who are cleared are those currently present. Is that understood?"

The group gave a resounding "Aye, aye."

"Good… Fluellen?"

Fluellen continued. His Avatar was replaced by an image of Drew and Annalee's recovered datarod. "This item," Fluellen lectured, "designation X-222, was recovered by our teams in the months prior. Since then, it has been confirmed to be alien in origin. It is not, however, Covenant in origin."

"' Not Covenant'?" Lucky questioned.

"No, Sergeant," Fluellen responded as his projection reappeared, "it appears instead this artifact precedes the Covenant by a vast amount of time. Immense, even. Please, if I could reiterate Admiral Cohen's last statement: this information cannot leave this group." Fluellen waited for questions, and when there was none, he let out a simulated sigh.

"Neither Humanity nor The Covenant were the first beings in this galaxy. Quite the opposite, in fact. We believe there once was a vast civilization that settled the galaxy long before us. We know they were much more advanced than Humanity, and we now suspect they were more advanced than the Covenant currently is. To what extent, though, we are unsure. They are now extinct. We have no evidence as to why they perished, or under what circumstances. But, in any case, we believe they have left behind artifacts which could contain information of potentially enormous scientific value. Depending on the nature of the discoveries, all finds could potentially be on the scale of electricity, or slipspace travel.

"In the case of X-222, we were unable to extract much in the way of technology, but instead we have found data of the utmost importance. The 'beacon' or 'pylon' that the Spartans discovered on Biller Pavonis 4A, ONI now believes to have been a sort of advanced alien 'buoy'. We presume this 'buoy' was part of a constantly updating, Interstellar guidance network. Where exactly these beings were navigating to and from, we are unsure… the data I retrieved was massively incomplete. But, none-the-less, I was able to determine one location that this prior civilization had pinpointed as a 'destination'. It just so happens, when cross referencing our Star Charts, it matches with the current location of Mendel, a Human colony in the BR Picis system."

“That’s the weirdo Astor planet, right?” Drew asked curiously.

“If you mean the terrorist insurrectionist, Maya Astor, yes Spartan— it is one and the same.”

Captain Dorota raised his hand, and Fluellen graciously stopped to hear him, his slight anticipation of question was apparent from his avatar's body language. "I fully understand the importance of discovering… well, an artifact like that. It's phenomenal— it could signal so much about us, or the Covenant. And, while I hate to spit in the face of such a discovery... I'm going to do just that: what do we truly have to go off? One planet is still a damn large place, and none of us are exactly Xenoarchaeologists. We need leads, not lectures."

Fluellen's shoulders sparked with slight intensity.

"Well," Cohen interjected before Fluellen could, "admittedly, there was not much at all… until earlier this week. Fluellen, would you pull up your data on Mendel?" Cohen gestured to Fluellen, and Fluellen nodded his avatar in resigned understanding.

Where Fluellen once stood, an image of Mendel appeared in all its planetary glory. Orbiting the planet's projection were two smaller moons: the holotank labeled the satellites as “Dominus” and “Recessus”. Glancing back to the planet, Annalee noted that one of Mendel's hemispheres had two large continents, also labelled on the holotank as "Norda" and "Suda". The continents sat opposing each other latitudinally. The other hemisphere was devoid of large continents entirely and, instead, had a vast ocean pockmarked by tiny islands and sporadic micro-archipelagos.

As she was studying the holographic globe, it paused, and zoomed in on the continent of Norda, projecting as a rectangular map. Cohen pushed himself off his box, and pointed to the one dot on the continent.

"This," he pointed to a city, "is the capital of Gregor. It is the location of the only orbital tether and 90% of the planet's population. It is a sprawling metropolis that most of the residents would seldom leave, unless they work in the surrounding parks.

"Mendel," he explained, "was by-in-large a luxury-rich, wildlife refuge planet...at least that was the case in Norda. Suda is practically a desert. There are small mining settlements here or there, but only about 8% of the population live on that continent alone." He leaned on his cane, and waited for his lungs to fill. Fluellen, in the meantime, zoomed in, showing a three-dimensional projection of Gregor. The projection labeled multiple sectors in the city with symbols, including one labelled “UNSC Green Zone". It was noticeably smaller than all other sectors.

"In the shadow of the war," Cohen continued, "the entire planet—especially Gregor— has fallen on dark times. It's economy has been ruined, and most people are now turning to farming on state-owned reserves to not only make ends meet, but to grow much needed food. The Mendellian Government has been unable—or unwilling— to curtail this farming, for good reason. The UNSC has allowed this 'squatting' until the war is over; they really don't have the manpower on the planet to enforce that sort of decree anyway." Cohen looked to the group again, and particularly focused on Annalee and Dorota. "Understand that these people need to farm; since the war started, this planet has gone mostly ignored by container ships. At least to me, a few hundred thousand trees will always come second to a few hundred thousand people. But, I digress..."

As his lungs emptied Cohen reached into his pocket and pulled out a chrome ring, it's mirror finish shimmering in the dim fluorescent light above. He immediately, deliberately dropped the ring. With a small ping It landed on the floor, square, and neither bounced or rebounded in the slightest. Annalee could just make out Lucky swear under her breath.

"This ring, designated X-223, was recovered from an underground market in Gregor a month ago, and registered into the Colonial Authorities contraband database. It was sent to Reach for laboratory analysis soon after and, on arrival, it set off every type of scanning censor we had. Fluellen, aware of our interest in Mendel pounced on that lead immediately. Once it was brought to ONI, it's makeup" he gestured to the Spartans, "matched the makeup of your datarod entirely."

Cohen bent over, achingly, and picked up the ring. He underhand tossed it to Drew, who caught the ring in his palm. He looked it over, and passed it to Annalee. The material, though buffed to a chrome sheen, was clearly the same as the pylon. Dense, but light— as alien as it got.

"Tourism and Platinum was Mendel's chief money maker, and those markets have long since crashed and burned in their social turmoil. The Military Governor, who we’ll talk about in a few minutes, has maintained full control of the prices of goods coming and going to the planet until the Rebel Mendellian Government started using chemical rockets to forgo the tether. People who didn't turn to farming have now turned to drug trafficking, and what were once small, local gangs have now become glorified, city-wide militias. Gregor is now in the middle of a synthetic drug epidemic, and the Government is letting it happen because it, honestly, doesn’t care. It probably supports it."

Fluellen's avatar appeared again, and Cohen nodded thankfully. Fluellen silently returned the nod. Cohen sat back down, winded from his time standing.

"ONI's presence on Mendel is almost nil and the UNSC has never had a large garrison planetside until a few years back. We've been unable to step in and, now, what was already an uncooperative Government has all but isolated itself from the UEG— secessionists are in control. Local governments have long since been bought out by these paramilitaries, and police forces have quickly become corrupt, or non-existent. In turn, some of these militias have built drug empires. But, even as the synthetic business is booming for them, times are still tough— some, it seems, have continued mining to keep up with their payroll, though Platinum exports have been halted almost entirely. That ring was confiscated off the streets by a local ONI agent; we aren't sure if it's a one-of-a-kind or if there are more, but—"

"—if we find the gang that sold this" Annalee held up the ring "we find out where it was mined…"

"And maybe," Cohen smiled widely, "we find what these aliens believed was so important about finding Mendel… before the locals turn the damn thing into a jewelry set."

Chapter 9: Specular Piety

Covenant 9th Age of Reclamation / Aboard Covenant Frigate "Loving Requiem"

Of the billions of Unggoy scattered across the galaxy, Dollop considered himself to be one of the most fortunate. All this changed when Shipmaster Aho began to question him.

Dollop, while hardly the highest ranking among the Flotilla, was special in the sense that he had a peculiar status within the Ascetic Mission: he was the only Unggoy permitted to be a Deacon. This, of course, was due entirely to his cycles-long companionship with Fleetmaster Sulde 'Auqusai. The Fleetmaster and Dollop had served together as younger warriors before, and indeed he was instrumental to Dollop's success—so why would Shipmaster Aho appear to want to poison this bond? It was senseless.

"—and furthermore, Unggoy," Aho growled his displeasure silently, "I see what little there is to gain from keeping such a treasure of data from the holy Prophet. A Demon must hold many secrets that would benefit us, even if they die during extraction? As a Deacon, surely you must see this?"

Dollop shifted in feigned interest "I know no, Shipmaster. Fleetmaster know better than... uh, me." Dollop caught himself putting the Sangheili Shipmaster on the same level as himself; a move such as that could be painful, even if he thought it was true.

The bridge of the frigate Loving Requiem was manned by Ascetic Sangheili who were entirely loyal to the Fleetmaster. After the travesty at Ishban, no more of the local security flotilla was in charge—all were executed, and all witnesses purged along with them. The remainder of the forces were merged into Scorn's newly formed Flotilla of Specular Piety on the Prophet's orders. And, in a few cycles time, it would grow yet again. The Prophet of Scorn had ordered his follower, Jiralhanae Chieftain Kulljul, to rendezvous with the Clerical Harmony and the fledgling armada in the hopes that the Harmony's chambers of discovery would finally glean a lead from the Guiding Light.

Until then, the ranks of leadership were spread thin as the Clerical Harmony divided commanders across the ships. Dollop was paired with Shipmaster Aho to tutor him further on Ascetic code, and to ensure that he was staffed with veteran bridge hands. In many senses he was the Sangheili's second in command, and he believed his friendliness with the other Ascetics had made Aho's transition much less of a hassle than it could have been. Though Dollop would never command a ship of his own, this now was the closest he might get and he worked to savor his status as long as he could. Aho, however, appeared to not care in the slightest and quickly took up the dismissive opinions of Shipmaster Ryldra who saw Dollop as a nuisance that had long since proved his usefulness to Sulde.

"Come," Aho hissed to the daydreaming Dollop, "Brother Ryldra awaits you and I in the operation's chamber". Dollop nodded, and waddled after the Shipmaster as he waved the ship's communications officer to the command chair.

After the two made their way through the security doors of the bridge, they passed a series of defensive batteries, now in the process of being recalibrated and adjusted to the liking of the Ascetic shipminors. As they passed by the batteries, many of them stopped their duties to acknowledge the Shipmaster, though Dollop noticed some of their respective glances were directed towards him. He dare not nod back, for Aho would surely see this as a warrant for another painful reprimand.

He was patient, though. Aho may have been blind to the vision of Sulde, but Dollop knew in time that he could become Sulde's best asset in the salvage of Ishban's archives and, quite possibly, the data from the Guiding Light. After all, Aho had been the second in command of Ishban's security forces and knew of her systems like he knew the hymns of his birth clan. Forgetting all that, he would be naturally indebted to Sulde for sparing his life from Scorn's blood lust. For this, Dollop gave Aho the benefit of the doubt. But what gave him pause was that Sulde's graciousness to spare his life did not appear to settle within Aho in the same manner it might have with Dollop. His constant questioning of Sulde's methodology had begun to worry him that Sulde had maybe placed too much trust in the wrong asset. But, he reassured himself, Sulde had yet to prove himself wrong when choosing his followers — indeed, he had done something similar when serving with Dollop long ago.

With the exception of Ryldra and Sulde, Aho's assent to Shipmaster was all but forgettable in the flotilla—such a move was standard in war, especially when a fleet merged into another. To the shipminors, San'Shyuum, and common Ascetic chaplains and warriors alike: he was but another nameless Shipmaster on his first crusade. As was tradition among Sangheili officers who freshly joined the Ascetic Mission, they would cast off their brood name in favor of their commanding officer's—a tradition that now served the Fleetmaster as he attempted to reform the doomed existence of Aho Fugoree. Aho, for all intents and purposes, was now Sulde's brother.

Dollop suspected this may only be in name alone.

As Dollop and Aho entered the Operations Chamber, the true meaning of Shipmaster Ryldra's summons was made clear. Sulde, clad in his shimmering marigold armor, sat atop a command chair as Ryldra bickered with the clearly perturbed commander.

This tale you spin," Ryldra hissed, "grows more dangerous every instant you continue this charade."

Sulde bent his head towards Ryldra as his orange eyes dilated in aggravation. Dollop could see that Ryldra had overstepped his bounds this time. Recognizing his error, Ryldra quickly bowed in an act of appeasement. It was far too late. Sulde stood over his subordinate, hot with fury, and grasped his hand around his neck. He could all but light his sword and take a mandible from Ryldra for such an outburst, and Dollop knew that it would have been warranted for such disrespect. He could sense Aho tense, but he made a point to remain still and attentive; such an act would be against the Fleetmaster's nature. Indeed, not moments later, Sulde huffed and slumped back into his command chair, releasing Ryldra's neck.

"Were you not my brother, Ryldra," Sulde scowled, clearly annoyed, "I might have killed you long ago."

"Please, I only meant—"

Aggravated, Sulde grabbed Ryldra again, now by a spike on his helmet, and yanked his snout to his so that their eyes met. Ryldra had to be made to understand the seriousness of their situation.

"The Prophet is driven by his intention to purge the sinful and unclean, but who's the greater sin?" He let go of Ryldra, and pushed him into Aho. Dollop sidestepped as to not be knocked over. "My charade constantly protects his own investments—I right his wrongs at every turn, and he repays me how?" Sulde brought his hands together in an aggravated and pained clasp. Dollop had not seen him in such distress in some time.

"He goes behind our backs," Sulde growled, "and shuts us out from our only corridor to the Centroid!" Sulde pounded his fist on the arm of his chair causing Dollop to wince.

"The hypocrisy is immense…" Sulde allowed a sarcastic grunt to escape, "He orders the execution of an entire command staff" he gestured to Aho, finally acknowledging his presence and plight, "—and in the same breath uses this 'deficiency' as a means for my forfeiture of command? That my Sangheili being spread thin is somehow the reason he is yet to have answers? Am I to also wash and kiss his knobby feet while I fight this crusade for his Holiness?"

Dollop shifted nervously—it seems that their suspicions had been correct.

"I was notified by the Prophet shortly ago" Sulde grumbled in disgust, "that he has called for an earlier rendezvous with his pet." Ryldra hissed in anger as Sulde continued to explain their predicament:

"It appears the Holy One has grown impatient with our Ascetic methodology and believes Kulljul is the one best suited to extract the data from the Huragok."

Ryldra objected heartily with a frustrated shuffle of his mandibles. Sulde nodded his head to the right in agreement, giving Ryldra the floor to speak.

"Kulljul will tear the the beast apart!" Ryldra spat, "What madness afflicts Scorn? Does he truly believe he can gather information from a tattered corpse? The Light has melded with the beast—it's secrets are not behind a locked door, it is within its mind!"

Ryldra, of course, referred to the realization that the Ascetic's had come to cycles ago. The Huragok, Prances on Air, though likely knowing the information they desired, had become unresponsive after interacting with the Guiding Light. The Huragok's mind had quite literally fuzed with the Forerunner artifact, and if the beast died, so might their best chance of retrieval of the Centroid. Though Aho's quick response during the Demon's attack on allowed his teams to spirit it from capture, they had also ripped it from the Forerunner artifact as it worked to ensure it stayed active. Since then, it had remained silent and oblivious to the world about it.

After intense study, Sulde's team of physicians had likened the state as a sort of trance. Readings of the Huragok's cognitive activities had appeared as though it's cerebral and nervous membranes were in a state of hyper-activity. In other words, as Dollop was told in more Unggoy friendly language: it was thinking so much that nothing could easily pry it from its thoughts. Soon, they had begun to refer to this as a sort of "melding" of cognition.

The Prophet had, unsurprisingly, not taken to the Ascetic discovery contingent's method of care for the Huragok. Scorn had signalled time and again that all he desired from Sulde was for the Guiding Light's data to be retrieved, and the manner of which did not matter otherwise. But, as was the Prophet's nature, he overlooked the intricacies of the situation. For now, Prances on Air was virtually the remainder of the Guiding Light's systems, but his mind yet remained untapped. Ascetics had built their code around the preservation of artifacts — they would not abandon it now for Scorn's inability to wait.

"Maybe," Aho conjectured, "this is a time for us to allow Scorn to work as he would." Ryldra huffed in loud disagreement, but Aho held up his hand to indicate he hadn't finished his thought and further addressed Sulde: "You have said yourself, Fleetmaster, the Humans do not have the larger view before them. What data they have is far from complete. Maybe we should consider the possibility the Guiding Light will remain doused indefinitely for more than just those walking the path?"

"No." Sulde plainly answered, "in this matter I must not falter. The Prophet has not for a moment believed our cautious study will bring about answers in the time he desires. Power is blinding him. But he is wrong. The time to doubt us is over: we have made a breakthrough."

As his commanders perked up, Sulde fluttered his mandibles in delight. "If I am correct about our recent discovery, we would have reason to bypass Kulljul's Jiralhanae horde. Most importantly, I would have reason to lobby for a suspension of Scorn's residency aboard the Harmony for interfering with our standing orders."

Sulde leaned in and hissed above a whisper, "All I truly care for in this moment is to have the Prophet removed as soon as possible before he further impedes our holy mission to discover the Centroid. He does not respect the balance in power he and I must share. Besides," he concluded, "San 'Shyuum are better suited for High Charity where his kind can scheme away from our true holy work."

Dollop stood erect, and Sulde nodded for him to speak. He squeaked out a response confidently, gathering a laser shot of ire from Aho.

"What breakthrough discovered, Shipmaster?"

Sulde leaned back, and ran his fingers across the chair's control console. A pink-hued holograph crackled into view before them all, showing a large image of the Huragok's nervous membranes gathered from the medical scans.

"This," he indicated, "is the Huragok's nervous membranes when in the melded state—"

Dollop's eyes darted across the hologram as the fluorescent nerve endings pulsed erratically in a constant pink ebb — it was chaotic. Sulde brought his hands to the console again.

"And these," he started the playback from a different scan, "were those same membranes when we brought the Demon to the Huragok…"

The once erratic pulsing, seemingly became stable if not entirely relaxed. As Dollop watched he could hear Aho's low grumble grow into an outburst.

"Shipmaster, surely you jest that the Demon was brought close to the beast?"

Sulde looked at Aho quizzingly and clicked in cautious understanding.

"Discovery Master Ulrot's findings were not in dispute from me, Shipmaster." he took one of his long fingers and gestured to his helm, "It seems the key to unlocking this trance is the Huragok's memory—specifically the memory of the destruction of Ishban."

Sulde sunk further into his command chair, lost in reminiscence "Our cognition beacons had diligently reconstructed models of memories from moments before the Huragok became mind-dead. Ulrot believed we might have been able to use the Demon's face to break it's trance. Images only stirred it."

"Did you not think to bring the Demon's armor to it?" Ryldra interrupted.

"Yes, and in fact I ordered Ulrot to do so. The Demon's armor only briefly worked, but not in a manner that was sustainable … thus I facilitated a meeting between the two." Sulde brought his fist to his armrest, "And by the Gods, it worked..." Sulde looked down to Dollop and sullenly asked "And what happened then, my Unggoy friend?"

Dollop knowingly responded "Prophet take Prances on Air?"

Sulde huffed in affirmation, "The first meeting between the human and the Huragok caused the trance to indeed fade, but it quickly lapsed when we removed the human. We could not keep them close for fear of detection. Ulrot is worried, with good reason, of loose mandibles breaking our body of work. As such we were the only witnesses to this event, and we would not sooner let Scorn take credit for his discovery."

Ryldra scoffed in understanding "And Ulrot's 'lack of progress' has now urged Scorn to take the Huragok to his chambers like one of his whores?"

Sulde nodded, "So we must be quick, now, to end this prolonged arrangement. We must bring the Human to the Huragok a final time so that we can extract the data before Kulljul arrives."

"The Huragok is under constant surveillance," Aho grunted unconvinced. "how would we ever arrange for the Demon to be brought into the Prophet's chambers?"

Sulde was tickled by Aho's forethought and chuckled. Dollop was gracious that his smirk was hidden beneath his mask.

"We deliver a 'recently captured' human to the Prophet — a stowaway of course. He is too daft to know the difference between a normal Human and a Demon. From there, it is but simply managing for them to be in near proximity. From what we know now from our scans, It will take Ulrot but nanocycles to extract what we need."

"Then it is settled." Ryldra agreed. Sulde lifted himself from his command chair, the meeting now adjourned. As the group made their way toward the doors, Sulde stopped and turned to face Dollop.

"Unggoy!" he barked. Dollop stood at attention.

"Relay the Demon's capture to the Prophet. We must be swift."

Dollop hurried ahead of them in a clumsy gait. He need not glance back to know Aho was cross with him, as he could feel the heat from Aho's eyes piercing his tank and penetrating the scales along his back. He knew for sure, now, that his luck had run its course.

Chapter 10: The Daughter

Where am I?

She couldn't recall how they had gotten there, but when her family left the rotating section of the station, Annalee felt herself gradually become weightless, and then her stomach flipped. She gagged, but only once. It was enough, though, to have her mother tug at her slightly, reminding her to keep up.

She felt cold.

Annalee's hand was locked into her mothers as she guided the two of them along the ladders, railings, and bulkheads which lead towards the ship docks. As she was too busy focusing on their destination to watch Annalee, her father continued to assure and coddle her as they floated and clambered down the bay together. He smiled at her when she looked back to check and see that he was still keeping pace with her mother. Her father's short, neck length amber hair was much like hers, and his grey-blue eyes sparkled like clean water. She was worried that he might get left behind if she wasn't too careful. Her mother had become increasingly distant with both of them since their arrival at the station. She was ecstatic they were together, though—she felt like crying.

"Now, Leelee," her father sternly addressed her, "tell me again what our ship's name is?"

She tried to frown playfully at him, but his smile made it go away. She giggled, and he couldn't help but chuckle too.

"Papa, I told you so many times!" She snickered. Had she? She must have. She felt her mother squeeze her hand hard. It hurt, and she gasped.

"Annalee Lyra: answer your father." she scolded through gritted teeth. Annalee felt her playfulness drain, and her father nodded for her to obey. Now she saw only concern in his face—his smile was weak, and his features tired. Had it always been this way? She wasn't sure, but this certainly wasn't one of his memory games.

"The Ambrosia Infinite—"

"Infinata" her father corrected. Yes, that's right, it was indeed the Infinata, an Enzmann-Type...

"Infinata" she mimed and assured her father. He shook his head. Good. This is right. This is how it was...

It's fine. We're together — it was all a bad dream. We're together...

As they passed another porthole, she glanced outside again. The ship they were going to was the largest machine Annalee had ever seen—it dwarfed even the Space Station they had arrived on only minutes ago. This particular pass, she could just make out the mammoth, moonlike sphere that lay at the front of the long, candle-stick hull. It extended far beyond the view of the window, so she could only imagine what it looked like up close. She lingered too long to stare, however, and she was yanked hard by her mother again. Her father caught up to her and patted her shoulder assuringly, and hushed her when he caught her lip quivering.

"Ah-ah, Annalee. No crying, we're in a hurry now—there's no time to cry, remember?"

She did, and she stopped. She had already cried too much.

Her first set of tears broke when this ordeal had begun. When her mother told her they would be leaving their home that week, she cried first over the impending loss of her friends. But she remembered her mother was quick to assure her they wouldn't remain in Corrotoman Arcology either—no one would. Annalee found hope in that promise. She had—did miss her friends terribly in the days that lead up to her family's exodus. She was forbidden even from playing on the rooftops. Begrudgingly she remained indoors at all times, out of sight from the world, and disconnected from her peers. Maybe she would see them again? She could only hope. When her family did finally leave, they left under the cover of night and there had been no chance to bid their neighborhood farewell

The next set of tears came that very same night of their exodus. Annalee had realized in a moment of clarity that she had left Viola behind. Viola, her small plush pug, a gift from her grandmother, was her most cherished and prized possession. She took it everywhere with her and couldn't sleep without it. Now, though, Viola was gone. Her anguished, realizing wail cost her just as dearly. Her mother slapped her hard across the cheek, harder than she had ever been hit before or since. Her father shouted at her more than she had ever seen, too. When her parents tempers eventually settled, her mother had inadvertently coined the motto of their journey:

"There will be time for crying...Just not now."

Since they had left, she was silent in her sadness. She cherished the thought that maybe one of her friends would bring her stuffed dog with them when they left Corrotoman as well? Maybe they would come to visit her at their now abandoned home? Maybe when the family didn't answer the door, they would let themselves in and see Viola on the counter? Even though she realized this was a long shot she carried that hope. Viola, afterall, kept the bad dreams away and the nights had since been filled with terrors.

I can't remember the dreams...what were they?

No, no, no...stop. Stop. Stop. Please be real. Please be real. I can't do this again and again.

Either way, whatever the dreams were, she didn't cry because there wasn't time. Mama had said she wasn't allowed, so she wouldn't. Still, it was hard for Annalee to understand why this had to happen; why they were forced to leave Corrottoman forever.

The vice-like grip of Annalee's mother suddenly released her. Gently, her mother ever-so slightly pushed off Annalee increasing her glide as Annalee slowed back towards her father. He caught up to her, grabbed her around her torso and pulled her close, guiding them together behind her mother. Her mother looked free of her "baggage"; it was as if she belonged there in the microgravity. Annalee had never been to space before, but she knew her parents had been several times. Her mother had even apparently met her father in space, once upon a time. Even now, as her father now carried her, he even seemed to move effortlessly with her in tow. As they approached the very large doors on the exterior wall of the bay. Annalee glanced above them to read the bold white letters that had been stenciled to notate their location:

DOCKING BAY FOUR, it read.

Her father had had her repeat this and several other important names, such as the Ambrosia Infinata, as they had rode their shuttle into space. He and Annalee always played these sorts of memorization games with her. Her father would continually and proudly tell her she was very good at memorization for a girl her age. She also learned new skills quickly, and was even able to read simple things, now, at the age of three years old. Her father would tell her she got her "smarts" from her mother, but Annalee knew her father was also a smart man. He worked with her mother constantly, and much of her work was also his. But, he had always made it appear that it was her mother who was in charge—her father decided long ago that he would never compare himself to her. No, don't do this. I can't...

At the bay door, two large men wearing black and green clothing were guarding the entrance. They had guns. Big guns. Annalee clutched her father and closed her eyes and he held her close.

"It's okay, Leelee." he assured her.

Her mother, though, floated right to the scary men as if they were nothing but a grocer or a bank teller.

"Our arrangements have changed, we must leave now." She ordered the men. Annalee opened one eye to witness her mother's confidence manifest as confusion in the men's faces. The scary men seemed uneasy—a feeling that Annalee had grown to understand well. Her mother wasn't like any other mothers she had met and, in fact, scared most adults she spoke to. She had long wondered what exactly made them act this way, and had only recently believed she had come to an answer.

Annalee was told constantly by endless waves of adult visitors that she looked like a "red-headed version" of her mother. Annalee didn't think so—her mother's hair was a lovely shimmering brown, afterall, and it went all the way to her shoulder blades. Her glasses made her soft and taut face appear even more small and quaint. Her jaw was sharp and only dulled by her rounded chin. Of all the adults who visited, Annalee's mother remained the most beautiful of them all. Now, she had concluded that this somehow scared them—that a beautiful person could also be so very smart. People would ask her mother "hard questions" and she gave "hard answers"—that was what her father told her. She had power in more than one way, and that made people scared. But, she still was her mother, and the men were still scary.

"Papa…" Annalee nervously asked after her father.

"Shh. It's ok, mama's talking."

No she can't do this — stop her. Stop, you have to stop...

As she peaked again to see what was happening, she could tell that her mother had frightened the scary men to their core. The men were both easily twice her size, and one of them was even battered and bruised as if they fought with their fists every day for leisure. That man, the older of the two, finally spoke to her mother after an awkward stand-still.

"Doctor Tesarik," he stumbled, "we haven't gotten confirmation from the General—"

"The General is dead, soldier." her mother snapped, "I'm in charge now."

The soldiers looked at each other in shocked disbelief. Her mother frowned, and sternly nodded her head to the side as if to say: get out of the way, you fools. In moments such as these, Annalee didn't know how anyone could see her mother in her—she didn't think she could ever tell someone so big and frightening what to do. Annalee couldn't ever imagine being scary.

"Oh...Of course, Doctor...please" the older soldier gestured with his free hand, "go on ahead. We'll begin shutting the docking arm...Uh, and again, welcome aboard..."

They were now on the last stretch of their journey. One last leg which started nearly a month before.

No... It has to be real… Please...

The first night after they had left the arcology they camped in the Martian wilderness. Annalee hadn't done so before so she was excited—they rarely left the walls of the arcology, as it contained everything they needed. But, after a day, they were forced to abandon their tent and almost all of their bags and possessions. A helicopter flew low over them, and the air ripped the tent off the ground—Annalee could see the bold white letters across the side of the craft

"U.N."

It had intended to scare them, and it had. They ran and then they walked until their legs hurt. She never saw her parents so tired before—her mom whimpered in pain as she walked, and her father eventually couldn't carry Annalee after lugging her for kilometer after rough kilometer. For the remaining nights her parents huddled around Annalee to keep her warm as they shivered—they wouldn't make a fire because they were afraid the helicopter would find them and harass them again. Her father told her as long as the kpet moving, the helicopter would be too busy with other issues. But, without Viola, Annalee couldn't sleep, and instead she would watch Phobos and Deimos pass across the night sky. One of the following nights, she would instead watch the faint glow over the horizon. The glow was accompanied by distant, otherworldly thumps of thunder. She had never seen her father cry before. It scared her.

But now: here they were.

Please… please let it be real. This time let it be real...

Annalee and her father fell in and floated closely behind her mother as she made way to the ship. When they entered the docking-tube, they were surrounded on all sides by clear, extendable plexiglass that led all the way to the hull. With more now than just a tiny porthole to catch a passing glance, Annalee could finally see the full scale of the Ambrosia Infinata. The so-called Enzmann-Type ship was as long as the Corrotoman Arcology was wide—almost two kilometers. The giant sphere at the front of the ship was apparently full of frozen fuel to power the ship throughout its long journey to Goombridge-1830—another name her father had her memorize. It was to be their new home, after all.

"Antonia," her father called after her mother in a raised whisper, "talk to your daughter; she's terrified." Annalee blushed, and pouted. She was indeed terrified, but she hated when her parents talked about her like she wasn't there. She wished she could disappear, sometimes.

"I don't know what to tell her, Mikal." her mother coldly responded. Her father cleared his throat, and Annalee could tell he was trying to not appear angry at her mother's tactless response. She buried her face into his chest.

"How about you tell her about the 'sleep pods', huh?" he suggested, trying his best to contain his frustration.

Her father had been frustrated on and off with her mother since they came to the desert highway. There, as if summoned, a scary and gruff man appeared from the horizon—he looked very much like the men who guarded their ship's docking bay. The man, who seemed to know her parents, picked them up. Since that day they had slept in a different person's home each and every night. All of the nice people who gave them shelter to sleep appeared to Annalee to revere her mother—they were afraid, however, to keep them anywhere but indoors or underground.

Just the night before they left Mars on the shuttle, their family had slept in a basement that had no lights or windows—Annalee had only her coat to place her head against, and the cold polycrete floor made her shiver. She hated it. When they left that morning for the Space Port, her mother yelled at the woman who gave them a place to stay. Annalee was embarrassed and couldn't look at the woman while her mother scolded her. She called the woman a "failure", and told her it was "people like her" that made them weak—whoever "them" was. To her surprise, though, the woman didn't yell back. She cried, and apologized. Annalee couldn't understand how her mother could do such a thing without getting in trouble. Her father silently scolded her mother later, but her mother didn't seem to care.

And of course, her mother even now ignored her father's plea. She made no attempts to calm Annalee, and so the family remained silent. Annalee kept her eyes closed, and could only hear the muffled thump of her father's heart and the silent hum of the circulation fans as they passed through the boarding-tube's decontamination spray. Finally, her father's floating softly stopped, and Annalee dared to open her eyes again. The gigantic hull of the Ship towered and curved over them in a way where she could no longer see most of the ship. Her mother tapped an intercom panel on a locked door attached to the hull, and then a voice crackled over a speaker in the docking-tube moments later.

"Doctor?" a rasp and deep voice knowingly asked. Her mother wasted little time.

"My daughter and Mikal are going to make their way to the bridge. I'm heading towards the Engines so I can deactivate all beacons once we leave port."

Mama, no… no don't go...

"Understood, Doctor. We'll see you on the other side." the intercom snapped off as the man placed the handset down with a loud clack. The door in front of them hissed, and slid open. The family floated inside and Annalee looked on in awe. Dozens of people were floating about the corridor, gliding along the rails of the ship with papers, boxes, tools and matching blue coveralls. Occasionally, an armed man in black and green might pass, as well as an occasional plain-clothes person much like Annalee and her family. As they reached the main corridor after leaving the ship's airlock, Annalee peered in each direction. The corridors extended the whole length, broken up by a series of doors which allowed people to glide through on a motorized railing. At times, several doors would be open, and Annalee could see far down the ship, and the distant internal-atmosphere appeared to haze.

The door behind them suddenly hissed again, and the men who were guarding the door flew swiftly and expertly past the family in a hurry.

As they grabbed one of the rails, the older man called back to her mother.

"The docking arm's retracting. We're clear, Doctor."

"Good…" she quietly responded. Annalee looked up at her mother, and the intensity of the last few weeks seemed to finally drain from her face. She was tired, and she was relieved. Her father placed his hand on her shoulder , and she in turn brought him to her with a hug. Annalee could just make out her muffled voice apologize to him, and her father assured her she was "okay". When she let go, she exhaled deeply and contemplatively, and turned to Annalee. Worry was etched deep into her face.

"I'm sorry, mama." Annalee assured her mother in a way only a child could.

No, stop — you have to tell her to stay, too. Tell. Her. To. Stay.

"Oh, baby, you did nothing." her mother chuckled, and sniffed as she tried to stop herself from choking on emotion, "I've been terribly mean to you—I was worried we wouldn't be here in time." Annalee nodded, not knowing entirely why this was important. Her mother reached out and held Annalee's chin, and she brushed her hair with gentle care.

"But we're here now, together, and that's all that matters."

No...

Her mother hugged her in what seemed like the first time in as many days. It was one of her rare, caring hugs, where the love sometimes shined through. Annalee was careful to get hopeful this would be a new trend. Annalee had long known that her mother would never be the best parent. She seemed to work so much to answer the "hard questions" that it got in the way of the care she had for her own daughter. Annalee knew she loved her at some level, but she would always have trouble showing it. The questions were like her siblings, in a way. She wouldn't ever get all of her mother's love.

"But," she cut the hug short, "we're not there yet, ok?" Her mother reminded her as she separated them awkwardly.

"Goombridge?" Annalee asked.

"Yes, yes, good! Goombridge!" she smiled reassuringly. Her father nodded at her mother to continue and she appeared to remember something else as he did.

"But, it's going to take a long time to get there, ok, baby?"

"Ok…"

"So," her mother explained, "you're going to have to go to sleep on the way." Annalee glanced to her father questioningly who smiled and nodded enthusiastically.

"Oh yes," he agreed exaggeratedly. "It's going to be a very long time, so we all need to sleep on the way. And, when we wake up, we'll be there! Just like magic!"

"Ok." Annalee answered. She wasn't sure what the big deal was. She understood magic like any child would.

"But, baby, when we say 'sleep' it's kind of more like...hibernation—you know like the bears from Earth?" She asked. Annalee's face perked up.

"Are we going to eat a lot?" She naively and excitedly questioned. Her mother chuckled nervously.

"No, baby... You're going to have to take some medicine and get a couple shots so—"

"NO!" Annalee yelped. She was terrified of needles. Her mother gave her shots all the time to keep her healthy, and to make her stronger. She hated them. She hated the sight of them, she hated the smell of them, and the discomfort of them. After all this time, after all this heartache and losing their home, and her friends, and getting yelled at and thrown about left and right and up and down, she was done. Annalee sobbed, and screamed. She couldn't hold it back anymore.

"I—don't—wanna'!" She blubbered between breaths. Her mother put her finger over her mouth, and shushed her anxiously.

"Annalee! Annalee! sh-sh-shhhh… Look! Look what I have!" she reached deep into her coat pocket, and Annalee nearly choked on her tears. It was a plush pug. But, it had both ears, and it's fur was pristine. It wasn't Viola. It was a new toy.

"That's not Viola…" She calmed down, and questioned her mother. She wondered how her parents thought they could trick her like this. She knew she was smarter than that—her parents knew, too. Her mother was trying to fix her err; this just wasn't Viola. It wouldn't be the same.

"No, Annalee, it's not." she admitted, "It's Cello. Viola's sister. She's coming with us because Viola couldn't, ok?"

"Oh. Cello." Annalee repeated back. She reached for the plush momentarily reassured, but her mother pulled it back. Annalee whined in displeasure.

"Now, Annalee," she said with her best stern mother's voice, "I need you to listen carefully, ok?"

"Ok." She nodded.

"When we get to Goombridge, I'll give you Cello. But, only if you're a good girl and get your shots—"

Annalee groaned unconvinced, and her father hushed her. Somewhere along the corridor, several people were instructing people to hurry along, and something about "start-up" and "cryo" procedures. A woman's voice paged for Doctor Teserik to report to engineering, and her mother suddenly seemed nervous.

"Now, Annalee," she hurriedly lectured, "I can't give this to you if you don't promise to behave, ok?"

The ship suddenly lurched forward, only slightly, and the family gently floated towards the opposite bulkhead. The raspy man's voice from before crackled over the ship's intercom again, this time addressing everyone aboard. Annalee's mother held her hand over her daughter's mouth, and perked her ears to listen.

"Attention all hands." the man grumbled, "We are shoving off in 10 minutes flat. We have reason to believe a UNSC fleet has just arrived in orbit on the other side of the planet. Our window for an unimpeded escape vector is closing. Kulikov, out."

Annalee's parents looked at each other, their eyes wide with worry. Her father shook his head, and nodded at Annalee. Her mother took her hand off Annalee's mouth, tucked the plush toy back into her pocket, and looked at her daughter with a new level of urgency. Annalee grew worried by the rushing people in the corridor and her parents shared grave looks.

"My beautiful little girl: please," her mother pleaded, "you have to promise me to behave—you have to be a brave girl, now, ok?" she asked earnestly—it was a different type of voice her mother seldom used with her—one of immense care. Annalee didn't understand what was happening, but she had seen her mother like this only a few times in her short life. She knew it was best to agree with adults when they talked to children in such a way. She nodded her head.

"Yes, mama. I'll be brave." she promised. She meant it, too.

"That's my girl." she smiled, and looked at Annalee's father longingly.

"Mikal—"

"I know. It'll be fine." He assured her. He patted Annalee's shoulders.

"We've got a big, brave girl here, right?" He asked Annalee.

"Right!" Annalee responded enthusiastically. Her mother smiled, but turned quickly. She grabbed ahold of the transport rail, and it pulled her swiftly down the corridor. Annalee waved, but her mother didn't look back. Her father took her hand, and then grabbed ahold of the opposite rail. "C'mon, girly, let's go get ready for bed."

As Annalee and her father were pulled down the hall, she noticed that the crowd of people rushing around them looked somewhat worried, some of them whispering silently among each other, some of them looked scared, and some smiled nervously. Her father whispered to her when he saw her looking about, afraid she was starting to share in the ship's zeitgeist.

"These are all of our neighbors, Annalee. They're going with us to Goombridge. They're just nervous about the trip. You understand, right?"

She nodded coyly.

Annalee looked across the hall to and caught eyes with another girl her age, pulled along by her mother. The girl smiled shyly towards Annalee, and Annalee waved back equally as reserved. The people about her looked much like those that visited her home constantly. Serious people—tired people who Annalee knew that the Earth had rejected long ago. They, like her mother and father, had finally decided they just had to go elsewhere to live as they please. She wished they could stay. None of this made sense.

After a few minutes, the railing slowed her and her father down to a crawl, and they then floated towards a line of others. The people appeared to be entering the same large doors that lead further into the ship. Her father indicated that they were also going there, so they queued behind the group that hurriedly made their way towards the doors. Some of the people in line recognized her father and gave him quick salutes and greetings, to which he replied with a muted nod. He was too busy trying to keep Annalee calm to stop and talk, but she noticed now that these people looked upon him much like they did her mother. Maybe in her presence she never noticed he appeared to solicit the same emotions—a sort of scared reverence.

When they had moved close enough to the doors, Annalee glanced past the people moving in, and caught the sight of the man who had been making the announcements. He was a large, grey haired man, clad in the black and green of the Koslovic naval fatigues. When Annalee and her father finally made their way into the cylindrical room, the man immediately caught sight of her father. He hastily bounded to greet him, and nearly collided with several people moving along the wall. His sausage-like fingers met his head clumsily in salute. Her father smiled half-heartedly, but his eyes showed his annoyance.

"Colonel Tesarik," he greeted enthusiastically, "always the good party-member, refusing to push his way to the front!"

"Commander Kulikov." Annalee's father nodded in response, "As you know it's 'Doctor', now."

Commander Kulikov nodded in slight embarrassment, and quickly glanced down at Annalee, his grey mustache covering his mouth and curving in a slight smile.

"And this is young, Annalee?"

"Yes—our future." her father responded.

"Indeed." Kulikov agreed. "Come." he waved them over to the center of the room.

There, on the "floor" of the crowded control room, a hatch was open which Kulikov guided them towards. Annalee clung to her father as he floated inside, revealing a large room full of fifty or so containers. The containers were a mix of metal and hard plastics, with a large duraglass view-window on the front. Half of them were full—all containing the naked, lifeless body of the people who had been in line before them. Annalee squeezed her father tight. They looked dead.

"It's ok, Leelee." He assured her, "They're just asleep."

Kulikov called down to their father as more people floated into the room and made their way to several different deck-hands who helped the people into the containers.

"If you want to get her set yourself, Mikal, my people will take care of the ones behind you."

Her father nodded, and pushed off of a sturdy surface towards an open container. When they reached the bay, he steadied himself and placed his feet in a slip to prevent them both from floating away. He gently helped Annalee undress in weightlessness and guided her into the open door, where he laid her down against the back of the tube. As he adjusted the bottom of the tube so that her feet were supported, she looked about. Less and less people poured through the hatch until it was just her and her father not in a tube. Her father paid no mind, and secured her waist, arms, and head with the tube's safety belts. By the time she was secure, the helpers were leaving the room, and closing the hatch.

"Annalee," her father held her hand, "I'll be in the bed across from you. Right there—" he pointed across the bay. "So when you wake up, the first thing you'll see is me, ok?"

She nodded. The hatch slammed shut, and clanked loudly and squealed as it locked.

Papa, no! No! Please!

"Now," he continued, as a panel slid open on her container-bed—a series of syringes inside.

"Remember what mama said. Be brave."

No, don't do it! STOP!

As he pulled out the largest syringe with the largest needle, she cringed. He waited for her response, making absolutely sure she was ready.

"Ok, Papa." she agreed reluctantly.

Her father brought the first needle to her abdomen. She shrieked as it painfully went deep into and past her muscles. Her father cooed and told her she was a brave girl, but she was scared. It was the worst pain she had ever felt; the needle pricked her insides under her rib cage. When he removed it, she gasped and cried. Her father wasted little time and grabbed the next needle. She made fists and grit her teeth and writhed as the next syringe went into her arm—it was not as bad that time. She felt tired, and her stomach suddenly felt as though it was full of liquid, and her lungs felt warm. Her father smiled.

"Good girl, only one more…"

He brought the last syringe to her neck, and pierced an artery. Her body immediately felt numb, and the feeling of warmth radiated out from her lungs. Her breaths slowed, and her heart beat less and less.

"Papa—" she breathily called out. Her mouth moved, but her voice made no noise.

Her father pushed her hair from her face and kissed her forehead.

"Goodnight, Annalee. See you soon."

The door to the container hissed, and retracted down. Annalee's body felt as though it had disappeared. With each slowing thump of her heart, more and more of her felt like it was becoming nothing. Through the glass, she could see her father undress and lay down in his pod. As he gave himself his own shots, and his container closed, he glanced at her and smiled.

As the container's window frosted over, her stomach turned again.

Please be real. Please be real. Please, please, please…


She began to stir. As she forced her eyes open, her heart sank. She was tucked away in Cryo — the small bay of tubes resembled nothing of the Infinata. She was in the Mata Hari. It was the same nightmare she had every time she went to cryo-sleep.

Or is this the nightmare? She pondered.

"Lieutenant," Fluellen's voice chimed, "we've come out of Slipspace. We're a couple hours out."

She coughed and heaved as the surfactant loosened in her lungs and she then swallowed it instinctively. She placed her hand upon the glass of the tube and pressed forward. She was the first out, often. She hated being in Cryo longer than need be. She had already slept enough for several lifetimes.

She lingered on the thought of her parents only for a moment longer, then left the deck to fetch her clothes.

Chapter 11: Fate as it Were

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