Annual Award Best Novel.png This story, Duties and Desires: Part 2, written by Sonasaurus, was voted as the Best Novel of 2012 in the Fifth Annual Halo Fanon Wikia Awards.

Duties and Desires (Part 2)
Duties&desires p2.png
Duty means to do things you're not always proud of, because you know it's the right decision. Desire means to trust your emotions, even if your mind tells you it might be the wrong decision.
Protagonist Felix Martel
Author Sonasaurus
Date Published February 26, 2012
Length 11 Chapters
43,448 words
Author's Rating Violence
Mild Language
Sexual Content
4.5/5 stars
Previous Story Duties and Desires (Part 1)
Next Story Rights and Wrongs (chronological)
Emergence (timeline)
Story Series Insurrection


Super optimal.png The author of this article, Duties and Desires: Part 2, urges anyone who reads it to provide feedback on the quality of the article. Thank you!

Part One

Chapter 1: Thornhill

1500 Hours, December 18, 2490 (UNSC Military Calendar), UNSC High Command Headquarters, exact location unknown, Viery, planet Reach, Epsilon Eridani system

I'm nervous.

Should I be nervous?

No. They just want to talk to us, that's all.

Still. ONI has a way of getting to you. Lets your imagination run away with you.

Unless...they couldn't have found out, could they? What I've been doing for the past three years?

That's it, isn't it? Anton always told me to be careful. I wasn't careful enough, and now they know everything.

But I did it for a good reason. I didn't want to do it. But I didn't have a choice. They'll understand...won't they?

Still, I'd have a lot of explaining to do. And what are they going to do with me, then? And Anton? And...Felix?

"Morley, are you alright?"

Jess gave a start. Her superior officer, Staff Sergeant Lester Morales, was staring at her in concern.

"Yeah, I'm fine. I just..." she mumbled.

"I know what you're thinking," Morales said. "ONI always gets me nervous too. But don't worry about it. They just put it on for show."

"Any idea what they want from us, Sarge?" she asked, feeling a little better.

"I don't have the slightest clue."

They walked down the hall in silence for a few moments. Then Jess remembered something. "Sarge, didn't ONI pull Cortez out earlier today? Maybe it's something to do with him."

"Perhaps. It would make sense, seeing as...well..." the Sergeant's eyes darkened.

Jess knew why. Three years ago, Morales had taken his team to Tribute to find a URF information dealer, David Kahn. The Marines had been ambushed and outmanoeuvred not once, but three times during the operation. Not only did Kahn get away scot-free, but the only survivors of the team were Morales, Cortez, and Jess herself.

She still remembered that day. Not just because of the major losses the squad had suffered, but because of the things she had done in secrecy. She had smuggled one of Kahn's storage units containing several important documents, and destroyed the message he had left for his UNSC contact, Colonel Robert Watts. She had done it because she and her brother Anton were two of the only people that knew who Watts really was.

After setting up the flare on the rooftop, a Pelican had come in to pick up Morales' squad and the backup teams. But it appeared that Kahn had one more surprise; a set of hidden explosives lining the area around the apartment. When they had detonated, Jess had been lucky it didn't collapse. But the sight of the Pelican and the Marines gathered around it disappearing in a fiery ring was no less horrifying. It had taken the lives of several members of the backup team, along with most of the remaining survivors from Morales' squad.

The Sergeant had been moderately injured, but the explosion had put Cortez into critical condition; the Corporal had spent two months recovering at a hospital. When both of them got back on their feet, Morales was given nine replacement soldiers, a constant reminder of what had been lost and never repaid. Jess had been disheartened to lie to her superior officer and tell him that nothing of importance at was Kahn's apartment, something the following investigation teams had agreed on. It was almost as if the lives lost on that mission had all been for nothing.

I'll make it right, she had thought after bringing the storage unit to Anton. Once we corner Watts and make him answer for all of this. And we'll start by finding David Kahn.

They reached the entrance doors to the debriefing chamber. The two guards standing on either side didn't even move as Jess entered with Morales.

The room was dark. Unnecessarily dark, Jess thought. ONI really likes to be dramatic. But the light from the hallway cast a shadow across two people standing inside. One of them was Cortez, but the second person looked unfamiliar. From what she could make out of him, he was a tall male with dark hair who stood straight-backed next to the Marine. He seemed to be completely calm and composed.

One of the ONI officers shifted within the shadows, speaking from behind the wide desk that spanned the room. "Thank you for joining us, Marines."

"These are your squadmates, I presume?" a second officer asked.

"Yes," said Cortez, glancing at them a little nervously.

"Good. Then we're almost done here. Staff Sergeant Lester Morales, I believe these two Marines were part of your original squad during your mission on Tribute in 2487?"

The Sergeant's lips tightened slightly. "Yes, sir."

"I believe they remember the objective of the mission?"

"Of course, sir," Morales said, with a hint of resentment.

"Then listen carefully, Staff Sergeant. This order comes from Section One itself. You, along with Cortez and Morley, have been detached from your current squadron as of today, and will be operating with the Naval Special Warfare Command on a long-term assignment until further notice."

Morales couldn't have looked more surprised. "Sir?"

"Your assignment will be to locate the rebel David Kahn, whose whereabouts are currently unknown. You will tell no one outside your assigned team of what you are doing. It is imperative that you complete this assignment so that we can initiate an operation that will deal with Kahn as soon as possible. Understood?"

"I...Yes, sir."

"Good. Now, this is one member of the team you will be working with. Lieutenant Hector Thornhill, UNSC Special Forces. You are to begin your assignment immediately."

"Sir, my squad..." Morales began.

"Will be reassigned to separate superior officers for the time being. We will inform you if there are additional changes to be made. Dismissed."

The Sergeant looked like he wanted to say more, but decided against it. As Thornhill silently walked out of the debriefing room, Morales gave Jess and Cortez a slight jerk of the head, and they followed.

As they walked back down the hallway, she took a closer look at Thornhill. He had dark brown hair that was cropped short, and blue eyes that held what looked like an expression of indifference. Yet there seemed to be something in that look that wasn't quite distinguishable. One thing that she hadn't noticed in the dark of the debriefing chamber was how young he was. He looked like he was somewhere in his early twenties, somewhere around her age. Yet he looked so reserved for someone of his youth.

Then again, I've never worked with Special Forces before.

As soon as they were out of the hallway, Cortez gave a long exhale. "ONI's had me in there all afternoon. Asking me everything on what I remembered from our mission on Tribute. As if I can remember, I was passed out for three weeks afterward...and it's not as if I hadn't already made a full-length report after my recovery..."

"Lieutenant, where are we going?" Morales asked, cutting the Corporal short. Thornhill turned his head slightly and spoke for the first time.

"To our ship. We've already got some leads on where David Kahn might be. My partner is on board, making preparations to leave."

He took the Marines to the hangar, where there was an SKTSC-25 shuttle docked next to one of the main exits in the ceiling. Thornhill tapped his COM. "Skyfurrow, this is Thornhill. The Marine team is with me. Extend the side ramp so we can enter."

"Affirmative. Extending ramp."

They climbed on board the vessel, and Jess looked around in amazement. "This place looks pretty comfortable."

Thornhill gave a hint of a smile. "Never been on board an SKTSC-25 before?"

"No," she said. "I didn't know the UNSC made shuttles this big..."

"It's an expansion on the SKT-13. But those are just expanded counterparts to Bumblebee escape pods. The SKTSC-25 is used exclusively by the Naval Special Warfare Command, and only a handful of them have been deployed."

"I've been on board one of these," Morales said. "Only once though. Two levels, and Slipspace-capable, right?"

Thornhill nodded.

"This tiny thing is Slipspace-capable?" Cortez asked, sounding impressed.

"There have been smaller vessels with Slipspace drives," the Lieutenant said as he led them to the bridge. "The new Chiroptera-class stealth ships, for example."

"Aren't they still testing those?" Morales asked. "I thought they were classified as unstable."

Thornhill made no reply to this, because they arrived at the bridge. The doors slid open, and Jess' attention was immediately drawn to the individual in the Navy uniform who was standing behind the viewport, making adjustments on a small holographic screen. Hearing them enter, the officer looked up and broke into a smile.

It is him! She smiled back, suddenly wishing that they were alone so that she could talk to him, one on one. There's so much to catch up on. He looks so different now...and he's gotten tall too...

Jess realized that she was staring, so she cleared her throat, and stepped forward, one hand extended. He took it.

"It's, err...good to see you again," she said, suddenly feeling a tad bit awkward.

"How have you been, Jess?" he asked. He sounds different too, she thought. Older, or something...

Jess tried to think of something to say. "Err...well, it's actually Lance Corporal Morley now."

Felix gave a short laugh. "Lance Corporal, huh? Well, if we're going to be formal, then I guess I'm Lieutenant Martel to you."

She gave a start. She hadn't noticed the silver bar and the star and three-stripe insignia on each of his shoulders. That's right, he's an officer now.

Thornhill walked over to the captain's chair and adjusted the screens to fit around him. "I'll be taking us off-planet now. Lieutenant Martel, if you would take the Marines to their quarters."

Felix nodded. "Yes, sir."

Once again, Jess was surprised by how much he had changed. She wasn't accustomed to the discipline in his voice. Or his voice itself, which sounded much more mature. I guess I should have expected this...

Without another word, he led the Marines off the bridge.

Chapter 2: Taradia

1600 Hours, December 18, 2490 (UNSC Military Calendar), on board UNSC shuttle Skyfurrow, planet Reach, Epsilon Eridani system

Felix could tell that Jess was excited to see him again. He too was happy to have the chance to be working with her, but he couldn't show it openly. Not while the others were around.

I hope I don't come off as indifferent, he thought. I've really missed her these three years.

He guided the Marines down to the centre of level A, where the bridge crew bunked.

"Our quarters are a bit small," he said apologetically. "But Thornhill wanted you guys with us. It's one bunk per room, and we have one free room. I currently have a room to myself, so—"

Cortez opened his mouth to say something, but Morales elbowed him in the ribs, and said, "I'll take the extra room with Cortez. Morley can bunk with you, if you don't mind, Lieutenant." The Sergeant gave his subordinate a meaningful glare.

"No, of course not, Staff Sergeant," Felix said, trying not to laugh.

Jess was excited to see Felix again. She hoped that he was looking forward to working with her, because she really was.

I hope I don't come off as high-strung, she thought. Look at him, all professional and everything. What if the others catch on that I—

Wait, what? Did I just think that? No, I'm just glad to see him again. That's all. Nothing more. Yeah.

Felix was saying something about the bunks, and Jess noticed that Cortez was about to say something, but Morales cut him short by elbowing him in the ribs. "I'll take the extra room with Cortez. Morley can bunk with you, if you don't mind, Lieutenant."

When did we all agree on that? Jess gave a half-grimace. Looks like I was too obvious. Morales already noticed how I act when I'm around—

What is wrong with me? She shook her head. I need to get some sleep...ONI woke me up at four in the morning. I was half asleep when I was filling out those papers...and they kept me waiting all day before bringing me to Morales. Thank God this mission gives me some time alone, and now that I'm with—

Okay, never mind. This is going to drive me crazy.

Felix held open the door for Jess as Morales and Cortez walked into their sleeping quarters. She seemed to be thinking about something, and was standing blankly in the hallway. After thirty seconds of this, he nudged her. "Hey, you alright?"

She jumped, looking as if she was surprised he was there. "Oh, sorry. I was just thinking about something."

"I can see that." He examined her more closely. "You look tired, Jess."

"Yeah, it's...been a long day."

"Well, why don't you get some rest? I'll be back in a bit, I have some things to finish on the bridge."

Jess practically collapsed on the bottom bunk, and exhaled. "Finally," she said. "Thanks, Felix. You have no idea what a nightmare today was. I guess I never got used to sleep deprivation, even during training..." she trailed off into relaxed breathing, and her eyes closed.

Felix just stood in the doorway for a moment, watching her contentedly. Then he realized that he was dawdling and hurried strode off to the bridge. We have a lot of catching up to do, he thought.

When Felix arrived on the bridge, he saw that it was completely empty save Thornhill, who was in the captain's chair.

"The Marines are settled, Hector," Felix said as he approached him. Thornhill didn't even turn his head, which would have been strange as there seemed to be little activity on the bridge. But he had long gotten used to the Lieutenant's taciturn manner by now.

"We're in Slipspace now," was Thornhill's only reply. "We'll reach Taradia in eleven days."

It was quite a period of time, considering that Taradia wasn't actually very far from Reach. But SKTSC-25s were hardly designed with the most capable of Shaw-Fujikawa drives. The small vessel could only handle so much of the drive's capacity without exceeding the safety limit. Still, the Skyfurrow was a steady craft. "Taradia," Felix said thoughtfully. "I have a brother who's studying there."

Again, Thornhill didn't answer, so he continued, "It doesn't sound like a place where someone like David Kahn would hide."

"You never know," Thornhill said darkly. "One's enemies could be lurking anywhere. Like that Watts you told me about."

Felix nodded. He hadn't thought about Watts for a while. When he first left Reach, he had spent a lot of time worrying about Jess, and if Watts would try anything that would put her in danger. When he heard that she would be one of the three Marines assigned with them to find Kahn, he had initially been excited about it. But eventually, he grew to wonder why they were being put on the same mission as three members of the UNSC Marine Corps. Did they have something to do with Kahn? Of course, ONI hasn't told us anything.

"And speaking of Watts," Thornhill added, turning to look at him for the first time. "Do the Marines know about his involvement?"

Felix hesitated. "No...I don't think so."

"What about that Lance Corporal, Jess Morley?"

He felt surprised at the question. Trust Hector Thornhill to be the silent observer. I guess I should hardly be surprised. "Yes," he replied finally. "In fact, she was the one with me when we were escaping from Watts."

Thornhill turned back to his console. "Figures," he said with a hint of amusement in his voice. "I was wondering how you got to such friendly terms with a classy Marine like her."

Felix laughed. Ever since he had met the older officer, he had always and unconsciously thought of him as someone who wasn't quite...human. So on the rare occasions when he decided to display some sort of emotion, it always caught him by surprise. Yet it was still enjoyable to be teased by Thornhill. He's a nice person, Felix thought, sitting down at the ship operations console and turning on the standby screens. He just needs to come out of his shell more.

0320 Hours, December 29, 2490 (UNSC Military Calendar), on board UNSC shuttle Skyfurrow, on approach to planet Taradia, Indus Corus system

The Skyfurrow reached the capital city of New Bath and was quickly cleared for landing in the military spaceport. A hassled-sounding technician informed the shuttle that a crew would be escorting them to the administration building for a debriefing.

"These guys seem to be glad to have us," Cortez remarked as Thornhill ordered the Skyfurrow into a landing.

"The URF have has been giving Taradia trouble lately," Felix said, standing up from his chair and grabbing some equipment. "No open conflict yet, but there is a lot of hostility. The military force here is probably expecting war in a few years."

"Well, they'll be disappointed if they think we're here to solve their problems," Morales said. "There's only a few of us, and we're here to find one person."

"Who knows?" Jess said as they prepared to leave the bridge. "Maybe Kahn has been causing them some discomfort. We'd be doing them a favour."

There were four MPs waiting for them at the base of the shuttle's main ramp. When they spotted the team, they turned around without a word and walked them out of the hangar and into the spaceport facility.

As they made their way through the halls, Felix noticed that a lot of hassled-looking soldiers were running past them. Strange. I've seen less activity on colonies that are up to their necks in repelling the URF. Just how much trouble is Kahn causing for Taradia? Or is it someone else?

They soon reached a set of double doors that could only be the administration facility. The MPs stood on either side of the doorway, as silent as ever. Thornhill led them through the doors and into the room.

Felix realized instantly that they weren't in an administration facility; the equipment and tech crew scattered around the room looked far too military to be so. It looked more like an operations centre.

The most distinctive person in the room was an older man in an olive-grey uniform. Seeing the team, he snapped a sharp salute, which was returned by them.

"At ease," the man said. "Lieutenant Colonel Julius Locklin, UNSC Army. I assume you're the Special Forces team."

"Yes, sir," Thornhill replied. "Lieutenant Hector Thornhill, Naval Special Warfare Command. We're here to deal with David Kahn."

"Yes, I got word about that a few days ago," Locklin said, frowning. "You've been issued rather strange orders."

"What do you mean, sir?"

"An ONI representative at Reach has stated that the five of you are to find Kahn alone. You may make use of our resources, but trooper support is a no. Now, I don't know what the hell ONI is playing at, but someone at Taradia HighCom has already approved these orders. I'm just here to pass them on to you and help you sort out the details."

Thornhill nodded. There was no change in his expression, but Felix felt puzzled. No support? Why?

"Now, as you know, Taradia has come under some pressure from the local Insurrection as of late," Locklin continued. "We don't know how many connections this David Kahn has, but I'd advise all of you to be careful. We have intel showing that he's currently in New Bath, in a civilian district. I'm trusting that your team is good at avoiding collateral damage, Lieutenant. You're not to engage with Kahn anyway until we're three steps ahead of him. You need to get enough info to take him down before we call in the cavalry. Clear?"

"Yes, sir," Thornhill said.

The doors opened again, and the four MPs entered the operations centre. "These men will take you to get settled," Locklin said. "Best of luck, team. I'll be in touch."

"Now that I think about it, the way this mission was set up is odd," Morales commented, looking around their quarters. "I had a funny feeling when ONI said they were sending us off with Special Forces. I haven't done this sort of operation before."

"Think they know something?" Cortez asked quietly, nodding towards Felix and Thornhill, who were setting up their equipment in the next room.

"I don't think Felix does, at least," Jess said.

"Me neither," Morales said. "But that Thornhill, on the other hand, is a hard one to read. I don't meet a lot of officers of his age and rank that are so reserved. That kid could pass as ONI."

When the Marines finished unpacking their things, they joined Felix and Thornhill at the next room's table. They had set up a projector screen and it was currently active, showing a map of the city.

"This is going to be a low-level operation," Thornhill said. "We'll be mostly making plans for now, but once we've got everything sorted out, we'll be spending our time in the city, give or take a week from now."

Cortez raised an eyebrow. "A week?"

"It's imperative that this mission goes off without any mistakes," the Lieutenant said firmly. "A week should be enough time for us to decide on how this is going to go."

"So what do we have to work with so far?" Morales asked. Felix stepped forward and tapped the screen. The map shifted to one side, and lines of text appeared on the other.

"As Colonel Locklin said, we have a lot of things to sort out before we deal with Kahn," he said. "As per ONI's orders, we're to find his location ourselves. We'll have to keep tabs on where he is at all times, as he'll undoubtedly be on the move a lot. But the important thing is to determine what exactly Kahn is up to, and how big his role is here on Taradia. Again, this must be done by us alone." Felix showed no sign of disconcert, and Jess wondered if he did know the reasons behind their deployment after all.

"Now let's start putting the pieces together," he said. "We have a lot of work to do."

Since when was this kind of assignment given to non-commissioned Marines? Jess wondered. ONI is certainly acting stranger than usual.

2510 Hours, Undecimber 4, 2490 (UNSC Military Calendar), New Bath City, planet Taradia, Indus Corus system

"This is Fireteam Alpha," Jess whispered into her COM. "We're now in position to facility A."

"Fireteam Bravo here," Morales added. "We're on approach to facility B."

Thornhill's voice entered the team COM. "Affirmative, I've got all transponders showing green. Teams, feel free to begin. Thornhill out."

Jess set her COM to be connected only with Thornhill's channel. She shifted slightly so that she was gripping her rifle with both hands, and glanced over at Felix. He was also wearing a light armoured combat uniform that was almost as dark as Taradia's nearing-midnight sky. It was one thing to see him in a uniform, operating a shuttle, but to see this boy who had barely grown into his adulthood prepped for actual combat was another. The sight gave her sudden misgivings; what if he was injured, or killed?

He caught her eye, and obviously her expression too, for he said, "Don't worry about me. I've done this kind of thing in training before. Come on, let's get moving."

Training is nowhere close to an actual mission, she thought as they crept silently through the tall stalks of grass that surrounded the small facility. He finished his studies in half the time it took everyone else. And he's not as old as his records say. He's what, eighteen, nineteen? No one in the Special Forces began taking actual missions at that age before.

Jess put her doubts out of her mind as they reached the edge of the grassy area. There was no time to fear the worst; they had come this far, and it was time to get to work.

The facility was located in a grassier area of rural land about thirty kilometres from New Bath. It was about eighty metres across and a hundred long, and no higher than ten metres. In short, it resembled one of the many underground power plants that were scattered all over the counties between Taradia's cities.

But Felix knew that the facility's actual purpose was much more sinister, if their intel was correct. Just two days ago, Thornhill had come to the conclusion that it was one of at least three mass driver construction sites located in the area. What gave it away was the lack of snow that should have covered the ground about half a kilometre's radius around them; even the power plants couldn't have generated enough heat to have seeped through the thick layers of soil and melted the snow cover that blanketed Taradia's northern hemisphere during the winter season.

Felix was hardly surprised that the only entrance was unguarded. The facility was located a full kilometre away from the nearest road, but he knew that Kahn couldn't be so obvious as to advertise his authority so close to a city. In any case, the entrance looked sealed tightly enough as to discourage any wanderers.

"What do you think?" he asked Jess quietly.

"It doesn't look like the main entrance," she replied. "Probably a back door in case something happens. But if Thornhill says that's our easiest way in, then I believe him."

"Then let's move. I'll take point."

Jess looked like she was about to argue, but changed her mind and nodded instead. They quickly reached the doorway; she kept alert, sweeping the area with her rifle while he took out his Spoofer and attached it to the door.

Felix was laden with the technical equipment they would need on their operation, while Jess carried the tactical gear. The only piece of equipment carried by both of them were their M352 Designated Marksman Rifles with silencers attached.

It took him less than ten seconds to open the door. It slid open to reveal a surprised rebel guard, who stepped back as he tried to raise his gun. Felix fired three rounds into his chest, dropping him instantly. Keeping his rifle raised down the hall lest there be any more, he said quietly, "Jess, inside now."

Jess removed the Spoofer from the door and handed it back to him, closing the door behind them and locking it again. "So much for avoiding contact."

"Actually, the point was to minimize contact. Do you think there was any way to get past this one undetected?"

She shrugged, glad that Felix's back was turned to her so he couldn't see her eyes. A memory from three years ago surfaced in her mind. It was the first time he had fired a gun and killed someone. She was driving them down a highway at the time, trying to outrun some of Gerald Barrie's gunmen. But she could still remember how he had cringed at the idea of taking a life when she had told him to use her rifle.

He was fifteen then, not a lot older than he is now, she thought. And he just killed a guard instinctively. Without a thought. What has the UNSC done to him?

Felix led them to the end of the hallway and entered the elevator, he noticed that Jess seemed to be...preoccupied. It was as if she wasn't even thinking about the mission. That's not good, since we both have to be careful here.

The elevator ride was short. There was no guard standing in this hallway. "Doesn't look like this place is too heavily guarded," he said, partially to bring her attention back to the matter at hand. "I'm guessing shifts are every forty to sixty minutes. Let's move."

"Got it," Jess said, sounding more focused now. They moved silently down the hallways, listening for any movement.

The facility was old, but even underground it was warm; more so than on the surface. Felix couldn't hear footsteps, or conversation, or even machinery. He looked around corners slowly, and covered the longer hallways in minimal time.

I need to be more used to this kind of thing, he thought, glancing at Jess. She looked completely calm and hardly said a word as they proceeded deeper into the facility. He could feel a slight tightness in his chest that he knew was barely concealed nervousness. We're deep underground, in enemy territory, and it's just the two of us. If something goes wrong...what if something happens to Jess, and it's my fault?

Felix suddenly found himself face-to-face with a guard who just turned a corner. Without thinking, he lunged forward and knocked the rebel down. He felt the guard grab his DMR unexpectedly, and wrench it out of his grasp as he crashed to the floor. The junior Lieutenant pushed himself off the floor, reaching for his sidearm—

The guard's head jerked back and blood sprayed from his forehead. He slid backwards slightly, and lay sprawled on the floor. Felix, gasping silently for air, gave Jess a nod of thanks and retrieved his rifle.

Some things training can't make up for, he thought, calming himself.

They ran into sentries several more times, but managed to dispatch them as quietly as possible. They had passed by several large machines laid in some of the larger rooms, but couldn't discover what they were for. The rooms were also getting warmer as they moved on. Finally, after what felt like hours, Felix slipped through a doorway and into the biggest room yet, beckoning to Jess to hide behind one of the machines in the room.

The room itself had to be bigger than the facility's surface; it was circular and was at least two hundred metres in diameter. The ceiling looked like it was made up of several sections and could be opened to the world above. Directly underneath, in the middle, was a massive pit containing a gigantic catapult pointing diagonally at the ceiling.

There were a dozen terminals spanning the circle around the pit, which was also enclosed by tall fencing. Rebel technicians were stationed at the terminals, while additional crew moved back and forth between the machines and the pit, sometimes giving objects to the techs.

"Jackpot," Jess whispered, reaching for her COM. "Sir, we've found the mass driver."

"Copy that," Thornhill said. "Fireteam Bravo has something to relay to you."

She adjusted the COM back to all channels. "What is it, Bravo?"

"We've reached the mass driver as well, Alpha," Morales said. "We've taken a look at their database, and we've located about five hundred drivers scattered across the country."

Felix tightened his grip on his DMR. Five hundred drivers? That could easily take out any UNSC ship in the sky above Taradia. But something about the assembly wasn't right. The idea of placing so many powerful weapons to be handled from each individual position seemed inefficient, and very disorganized. What is Kahn planning?

"So we have a bigger problem," Morales continued. "We could try and disable these two drivers. But there's still going to be too many for us to take out. And we'll have the URF increasing security over the remaining facilities."

"Have you already neutralized all hostiles in the room, Sergeant?" Felix asked.

"Yes, sir. We don't know how long we have before we're found out, so if you have a plan—"

"Have you found any info from the terminals?" If Bravo Team had discovered something, then it wouldn't be necessarily for him and Jess to give away their presence. They could slip out and go from there.

"Terminals, Lieutenant?" Morales sounded confused.

"The terminals surrounding the mass driver at your location," Felix said. "Have you accessed them?"

"Sir, there are no terminals around the driver. Only a database that's linked to the entire system."

Felix frowned. So how is the mass driver going to be fired if there are no terminals?

Then it hit him. Of course. Kahn wouldn't have placed every driver on manual control. He would want them controlled from a single location. This location.

"I think I have an idea," he said. He gripped his DMR in both hands. "Corporal Morley, we're engaging. Take out everyone in the room. And try not to damage the equipment."

Jess brought up her rifle as well. "Roger."

They both stepped out of cover and opened fire on the technicians. The rebels easily fell to the semi-automatic fire; they were almost all neutralized when—

A dozen rebels armed with SMGs burst out of the doorways, taking positions and aiming at them. Felix and Jess both shifted their attention to the gunmen. Their DMRs' 7.62mm rounds easily penetrated the rebels' poor armour, and they kept moving to avoid the return fire.

A bullet landed in Felix's combat jacket, embedding in the armoured material but not penetrating. He gave a sharp intake of breath as he felt the blunt impact, but retaliated by putting two shots into the rebel's pectoral. The room was soon cleared.

"Are you hit?" Jess asked.

"I'm fine," he said, reloading his DMR. "Come on, we don't have a lot of time." He hurried over to the nearest terminal and began working his way into the database. She stood with her back to his, keeping all entrances covered.

With the help of a few devices and techniques, Felix quickly gained access into the network. He turned on his COM. "Sergeant Morales, I'm sending out a ping throughout the entire network. Can you confirm what the location is?"

"Will do, Lieutenant."

Let's see if my suspicions are correct. He turned on communications to all locations and sent out the ping. There was a pause, then Morales said, "Sir, it appears that you're at the central facility. All mass driver controls are to be relayed from your position."

I knew it. "Now we know what these terminals are for. Now I'm going to shut the entire network down."

"You'll need to do more than that," Thornhill said. "If you simply shut down the system, it'll probably be operational again by the end of the week. Kahn probably keeps backups in the network in case something like this happens."

"Any ideas, sir?" Felix asked. "It doesn't look like these mass drivers have fail-safes."

"Kahn obviously knows better than to put fail-safes on every driver that can be activated from a single location. What you need to do is sabotage the entire network. Reprogram the construction commands so that the drivers look like they're still underway, but make sure whatever you do to them can't be undone. And don't leave any tracks."

Felix grinned. "I know just the idea. Remember that training exercise we did last year?"

"Stay focused, Lieutenant Martel," Thornhill reminded him.

"Yeah, yeah," he muttered, tapping additional commands into the terminal. "We'll be heading out in two."

Felix altered the construction sequence for the mass drivers, but not so drastically that it would become noticeable right away. In fact, he doubted the rebels would know something was wrong even after the construction was finished. It would only be when they tried to operate the guns that they would realize their expensive mass drivers were so much useless pieces of metal welded together. When he was done with the construction commands, he modified the related info, such as inventory on the resources and where they were being distributed. Unless anyone memorized how much of everything they were supposed to have, no one would be able to tell the difference.

"Alright," Felix said. "Every mass driver on Taradia is now officially useless metal. Let's get out of here, Corporal Morley."

Chapter 3: Operation TRIUMVIRATE

1600 Hours, January 15, 2491 (UNSC Military Calendar), New Bath City, planet Taradia, Indus Corus system

Thornhill entered the main room in full uniform. The others looked over at him from the table where they were sitting.

"What's going on, sir?" Felix asked.

"ONI wants to see me at the hangar," Thornhill said. "Alone. I was only informed today."

"Don't we have a report to make to Colonel Locklin tomorrow?" Cortez asked.

"I'll most likely be back by then. And if I'm not, the four of you should be more than capable of doing it without me." Without another word, he walked out of their quarters and walked out the door.

Felix stared at the doorway as it slid shut. The team had been on several low-level missions together now, sometimes with Thornhill in the field and sometimes relaying intel. He himself had come to know Morales and Cortez very well by now. But Thornhill still felt like an outsider, even to him. And he was sure the Marines didn't become too close to him either.

He turned his attention back to the card game they were playing (Thornhill had declined joining in). It seemed that Jess was the best player out of all of them; even when Morales and Cortez had resolved to work together, they couldn't beat her. Felix was building a strategy, but was somewhat impaired by the fact that the Marines always tried to eliminate him first.

Currently, things weren't looking good. He still had five cards, Morales had six, Cortez had eight, and Jess had three. Everyone was trying to guess what cards she still had so they could stop her from playing them.

"Two eights," Morales said, setting down the cards.

"Two eights as well, spade and diamond," Cortez said. The Sergeant groaned.

"You should have played higher. Now she's going to win again."

Jess grinned. "You're damned right I am. Double kings. Anyone got higher?"

The two Marines both shook their heads. But Felix set down two cards.

"Double twos."

"Twos?" she leaned forward. "You just used up both your wild cards. Now you're going to lose."

"We'll see." Felix set down two tens.

It turned out Morales and Cortez both had nothing left but doubles. They both played out their cards and high-fived triumphantly. "Looks like you're out of luck, Jess."

Jess played her last card. "Yeah, I only won, what, seven in a row? Looks like you lost this one, Felix."

He shrugged. "You were the common enemy. We were trying to make sure you didn't win, so I made a sacrifice to reach that objective."

She rolled her eyes. "This is a card game, not a field op. The point is to win, plain and simple. No need to get all tactical. Honestly, you need to loosen up."

Morales took the cards and shuffled them. "Your streak is over, Jess. Now it's my turn."

Jess laughed. "Feeling lucky enough to win twice? You're on."

Thornhill felt the Pelican's gentle descent stop as it touched down the landing pad; the hatch slid open immediately. He waited for the ONI agent sitting across from him to stand up and step off the dropship before following.

Without so much as a turn of his head, he took in his surroundings. He was in a hangar, one much smaller than the one he entered. It looked rather private, as he heard no buzz of machinery or commotion from a crew. NavSpecWar has facilities like these. They're used for running classified ops.

He followed the ONI agent down several hallways, each as quiet as the next. They took a ten-minute elevator ride down the facility, and after a short walk, entered a large room.

Thornhill could tell that the room was once a cafeteria, cleared out of all tables and replaced with about seventy chairs facing a wide table at one end of the room. He knew that it was often the most spacious one in the entire facility, and the reason was obvious; it was filled with other soldiers from all branches in the UNSC. There were about sixty of them, and they were seated already.

He took his spot at the back of the group, watching the ONI agent stalk off into the corner of the room. He made several observations about the others in the room as he waited for whatever they were here for to begin. One: most of the other soldiers looked like they were in their late twenties to early thirties. Two: over half of them were Marines or Army. And three: they weren't talking, but waiting with something like nervousness. I don't suppose any of them know what's going on.

The doors opened again, and all eyes turned to the five important-looking people that strode in. The one in the middle was an older man, and the only one in uniform. The other four were wearing dark suits. The five of them made their way to the front of the room and seated themselves behind the wide table.

The uniformed man turned on a mic, cleared his throat and spoke clearly into it. "Soldiers of the UNSC, we have called you here today for an important reason. You have been pulled out of whatever teams or chain of command to be the first of hopefully many biochemically enhanced soldiers."

There was some murmuring among the others. Thornhill, however, remained impassive on the outside, but his attention remained fixed on the officer with a newfound interest.

"With the increasing conflicts between the UNSC and the United Rebel Front infecting the colonies from Eridanus and outward, the Colonial Military Administration has recently approved the recommission of the ORION Project.

"The sixty-five of you have been selected as test subjects for this project; you will undergo training and augmentations over the next few months. If the procedure is successful, ORION will be extended to any volunteers that wish to strengthen our numbers. Every one of you has been carefully chosen because you have been deemed the most capable, and I expect all of you to live up to that expectation."

So this is why we've been operating alone for the last few months, Thornhill thought. I should have known. The UNSC wants to bring the hammer down on the United Rebel Front, and they were looking for us to do it.

"Your work is almost done, team," Locklin said. "Well done on locating Kahn."

"Thank you, sir," Felix said. They had tracked down Kahn to the city of Three Gates last week. Apparently he had been there all along, and not at New Bath as they suspected.

"I've informed HighCom of your mission in the underground facility," the Colonel added, reaching for something on the table behind him. "They want to congratulate you for your quick thinking. Disabling an entire network of mass drivers was a formidable feat." The Colonel handed him a translucent box containing two sets of double silver bars and shoulder pauldrons with a star and two stripes each. "You've been promoted to full Lieutenant. Well done."

Felix couldn't hold back a smile. "Thank you, sir."

"There's something else. An ONI representative has told me that Lieutenant Thornhill will not be returning here for four months. Which means you're in charge, Lieutenant Martel."

His smile faded. "Yes, sir. Do you know what he's supposed to be doing?"

"Your guess is as good as mine. But I do have one lead."


"HighCom has stated that we will be rallying the UNSC force on Taradia to take out Kahn. We need a way of getting to him without the need of a full-out assault, especially not on a civilian district. This mission is codenamed Operation: TRIUMVIRATE, and it's scheduled to begin...in four months."

Felix exchanged glances with the Marines. "We'll wait until then, sir."

"Very well. Dismissed."

1000 Hours, May 9, 2491 (UNSC Military Calendar), Three Gates City, planet Taradia, Indus Corus system

"It's nice to have some backup for a change," Morales said as the team readied their gear inside the Skyfurrow. "I already miss having a full squad of Marines to work with."

"We're moving out in five," Felix said, strapping an MA3 across his back and placing an M6 in his holster. "We're hopping on a Warthog that'll take us to our position."

They had flown the Skyfurrow over to Three Gates yesterday and made preparations while waiting for orders. Currently, there were squads being deployed discreetly all over the city and laying low. Still, Felix wouldn't have been surprised if Kahn already knew about the operation, which was why he felt so unusually flustered.

Locklin was calling the shots on the operation, and he informed the team that they would shortly be taken by ground transport into Three Gates. It looked like ONI was done with whatever they were trying to accomplish with sending them on "independent" missions.

"Say, remember those rumours about the sixty-five soldiers that were sent to Taradia and disappeared?" Cortez asked, putting on his helmet. "Do you think Thornhill was one of them?"

Felix looked up. Why hadn't they thought of that before? "Sounds likely. ONI didn't seem very concerned about it."

"ONI never appears concerned about anything," Jess pointed out. "But if they have something to do with this operation, where are they?"

"Right here," said a voice behind her.

Everyone spun around, looking down the main ramp. There, standing right in the middle, was Thornhill.

"Hector, where have you been?" Felix asked, starting forward.

"Can't talk about it," he said. "Your transport is outside. Are you ready to go?"

"Yes," Felix said. They followed Thornhill down the ramp and to the troop-transport Warthog sitting outside.

"So you've been doing something with those other missing soldiers, Lieutenant?" Morales asked. "Where are they?"

"Can't tell you," Thornhill said. "But I can tell you that they're not here."

They clambered into the back of the Warthog, where two Army soldiers were already sitting. "Koel, step on it," Thornhill said to the driver.

As they drove out of the spaceport, Felix examined Thornhill. His brusque and quiet nature shouldn't have surprised him, but looking at him now, there certainly was something different about him. Something not right. Felix couldn't quite place his finger on it, but it was as if a part of Thornhill that was gone forever.

I don't know why, but there's something new about him that I don't like, he thought. ONI has done something to him, I'm sure of it.

Felix saw other military vehicles laden with troops pass them as they headed into Three Gates. He could see passing civilians staring at them as they moved into position. I'd be very surprised if Kahn hasn't found out about this yet. I hope Locklin knows what he's doing.

He noticed that Jess looked rather worried. It was strange, since she was usually very composed on missions, not matter how risky. Shifting closer to her, he asked quietly, "Something wrong?"

He expected her look of worry to vanish, and for her to say that there wasn't anything wrong. But instead, she looked all the more worried as she caught his eye.

"This looks like it's going to be a pretty big operation," she said. He nodded in agreement. He could tell that it wasn't what was bothering her.

"I just hope we don't need to resort to open engagement. This area is filled with civilians."

Felix nodded. "I know. This isn't a great situation."

"It's not just that...Felix, your brother is in Three Gates."

He felt a sinking sensation in his stomach. He felt his confidence evaporate. "Damn..." Tom was a civilian, and if he was caught in any crossfire...

Felix was jerked out of his thoughts by a distant but resounding boom. Everyone in the Warthog looked around. "What was that?" Cortez said. More booms followed; three, then four, then nine in quick succession. "Up there!" Koel shouted, pointing upwards.

Giant, bright projectiles were arcing into the sky, then angling down onto the city below. Chaos erupted on the street as civilians scattered, screaming.

"What the hell are those?" Cortez shouted. Then, Locklin's voice emanated from the Warthog's COM. "All units, we have enemy artillery discharging rounds into the city! Keep the civilians under control, we're sending in air strikes to take them out."

Easier said than done, Felix thought. Three Gates had a population of 2.4 million, and there were at best 400 soldiers in the city.

"Contact! Rebels swarming the city!" shouted someone over the open COM. "They're everywhere, we're taking fire—" There was the sound of a rocket launcher firing, and the COM went silent.

Koel swore as gunmen appeared from inside the surrounding buildings, pulling out guns and explosives. Spinning the Warthog's wheels, he pulled the vehicle onto an off-ramp to avoid an incoming rocket, swerving around cars in the opposite direction as the passengers clung on tightly.

The Warthog pulled onto the wrong side of the highway, sticking to the edge of the road as cars sped past. There didn't appear to be anyone chasing them, and traffic was still normal on the road. "What now?" he yelled over the sound of the wind and the vehicles screaming past their ears.

"We need to meet up with other teams!" Thornhill shouted back. "We have to ditch the Warthog, stick together and move through the city on foot!"

As they drove past roads under them, the commotion became more apparent. More artillery shells were seen flying into the city; cars began piling up on roads, sometimes causing collisions. Felix saw a few Marines taking cover behind vehicles and exchanging fire with rebels.

Koel made a sharp turn and pulled the Warthog into the on-ramp tunnel, almost hitting the cars that were speeding towards them. They pulled onto the road, which was thankfully unused at the moment. The Warthog pulled into a narrow crevice between two buildings, and everyone piled out, weapons ready.

"Industrial area," Morales said. "This might be a good place to lay low."

Thornhill was speaking into his COM with a bit more urgency than his usual tone. "This is Lieutenant Thornhill, calling all teams in the area. Any UNSC infantry teams, respond!"

"Thornhill," Felix said. "We shouldn't be regrouping. We should be splitting up."

"Wait a minute, Lieutenant," Morales cut in. "These rebels are everywhere, so we can't just regroup on the open street. We should call everyone here as a rendezvous, set up a perimeter so we can hold our position, and make ourselves scarce for now. The rebels want to keep us scattered and take us out one by one, so I say we withdraw from the fight and wait for air support before another engagement."

Felix shook his head. "We can't stay in one spot, otherwise the artillery will just have an easier job of taking us out. We need to split up and lay low."

One of the Army soldiers bit his lip. "The rebels sure have us cornered on this one."

"Not yet," Felix said. "We can hold out until air support takes out the artillery, then we'll be able to launch a counter-attack. It's not a great plan, but there's no other choice."

Thornhill ended further debate by turning on his COM. "Colonel Locklin? Sir, we've come up with a plan."

Felix tuned out from the conversation, staring at the distant districts of the city which was now partially covered in smoke rising from the damaged buildings. More artillery were firing at them. Air strike will take them out soon. It's a good thing the mass drivers are inactive, or...

The mass drivers? He slammed his fist into a nearby wall in frustration.

Jess walked over to him. "Hey, take it easy. This isn't over yet."

"There never were any mass drivers," Felix said through gritted teeth. "They were meant to keep us from finding out about the artillery. I should have known." He felt unworthy to bear the Lieutenancy that was given to him for disabling the so-called mass drivers.

Morales joined them. "Hey," he said in a low, reassuring voice. "There's no point blaming yourself for that. You're part of the Special Forces. Don't let the others see you like this. Look at Thornhill. He's handling it well."

Felix spared a glance at the other officer before returning his gaze to the districts in the distance. I hope you're alright, Tom.

Chapter 4: Retaliation

2210 Hours, May 12, 2491 (UNSC Military Calendar), Three Gates City, planet Taradia, Indus Corus system

"I don't get it," Cortez said. "Kahn builds these fake mass drivers to divert our attention so he can finish constructing the artillery. But he should have known that all we have to do is call in air support and they'll be gone. He must know that. Sounds like a pretty bad plan."

"I don't think so," said Morales. "There's more to this plan than it first appears."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, firstly, we don't know that he's finished building the artillery. There could be more underway for all we know."

"Great. Like we didn't have enough of them raining hell over our heads."

"Also, the advantage of the artillery is that the shells don't fly straight. They don't have to be exposed to fire a clear shot. So while they're entrenched, our aircraft have to fly up close to avoid collateral damage; by then, they'll have enough time to shield the artillery with plenty of armour."

"They can punch through them eventually...right?"

"I don't know, Cortez. The air strikes started three days ago. The rebels have been holding out too well for my liking."

"You think those two have figured it out already?"

Morales turned to look at Felix and Jess, who were sitting just off the street, talking in low voices. The Sergeant sighed. "I wouldn't be surprised, Corporal. Those two young ones are pretty sharp. But they're not well-suited for this kind of situation. But I wouldn't worry about them. I'd worry about...him."

The two Marines turned to look at Thornhill, who was speaking into his COM with something approaching frustration.

"Thornhill has been strange since he got back," Cortez said. "And I mean stranger than usual. He seems to be a lot more flustered. And at the same time, I get the feeling that he's becoming isolated from everything. Sounds weird, right?"

Morales shook his head. "You'd be surprised. I've known people like that." He shifted his gaze to Thornhill. "I just hope he's not becoming anything like them."

"You want to find Tom, don't you?"

Felix didn't immediately answer the question. He didn't even turn to look at Jess. He considered ignoring the question, but sighed. "Yes. But I know I can't. My duty comes first."

He looked just like the 15-year old boy she remembered, staring at a picture of his brother, and his parents. His dead parents...

"The evacuation is almost done," she said.

"That still worries me," he mumbled. "If I go looking for him, and he's not there..."

The first time the UNSC had to evacuate an entire city because of rebels. This will go down in history, all right. Without thinking, Jess made to put her arm around his shoulder, but remembered in time that there were other soldiers here, and awkwardly leaned to the side instead. Fortunately, Felix didn't seem to notice, for he turned his attention to Thornhill, who was approaching them with a visible scowl.

"Locklin denied my suggestion to destroy the artillery with orbital guns," Thornhill said. "Said there would be too much collateral damage."

"Have you told him the civilians have almost all been evacuated?" Felix asked dully. He personally didn't care much for the idea of using orbital MACs, but couldn't see another way to eliminate the artillery. At best, they had managed to take out five of the forty guns that surrounded the city.

"Yes, but apparently the shielding above most of the the artillery has been severely damaged. So if we keep waiting, and I'm quoting him here, 'The artillery will be destroyed in quick succession in a short matter of time'."

Felix forgot about his own thoughts, so surprised by Thornhill's unusual behaviour. Was he actually mocking a superior officer?

"What do you think?" he asked neutrally. He noticed that the others were walking over, obviously overhearing the conversation.

Thornhill's scowl became more pronounced. "I don't think that's going to be as much of a solution as Locklin hopes. Especially if there's more artillery that Kahn hasn't finished building yet. But it looks like there's no point in telling him that."

Felix was silent. It seemed that Thornhill wanted to take out the artillery very badly. It's strange...he's acting almost obsessively about that one objective and forgetting what the point of the operation is. But he could understand why Thornhill was so frustrated. The rebels are making fools out of us, and we've been standing around taking it for three days from the one person giving out the orders. "Any ideas?"

Thornhill locked eyes with Felix. "I'm going into the city. And I'm taking out Kahn." His look said "to hell with Locklin", and Felix considered convincing him to calm down.

No, who am I kidding? Felix stood up. "Then I'm coming with you."

"You can't," protested one of the Army soldiers. "That's against orders—"

"What orders?" Thornhill snapped. "We never received orders to stay here. I'm going, that's final. Anyone want to come along, go ahead. It doesn't really matter to me."

"I'm in," Jess said, standing up too.

"I'm game," said PFC Roy Koel, the young Marine that drove them.

"Me too," said Morales.

"And me," added Cortez.

The other two both volunteered as well, looking more like they didn't want to be left behind. The team retrieved their weapons and took their seats in the Warthog. Koel pulled them onto the now empty highway, and they sped off into the heart of Three Gates.

We're coming to get you, Kahn, Felix thought, feeling strangely reassured by the cool night air blowing past his face. He turned his gaze to the smouldering buildings that were now dimmed to add to their image of destruction.

Hold on, Tom. I'm coming.

The tension that surrounded the team was apparent; they had entered Three Gates' downtown district, and the city was eerily silent. The sound of the Warthog's engines echoed through the streets, its headlights showing the abandoned civilian vehicles and wreckage that surrounded them.

The artillery hadn't fired a round all day, but it looked like the damage was already done. The bodies of civilians, soldiers, and rebels alike were seen lying on some of the streets. Felix wondered if there were rebel gunmen hiding nearby; the Warthog certainly would be hard to miss.

"Where are all the evacuation birds?" whispered Koel.

"This area has been cleared," Morales said. "But we should be careful. You never know what surprises Kahn might have for us."

"I hear you," Felix said. "Thornhill, we should leave the Warthog here and proceed on foot. We're making too much noise."

Thornhill nodded. The Warthog pulled slowly into an alleyway and wound to a stop. Everything became silent as its headlights and engine went out.

"Our intel shows that Kahn is hiding near the university campuses. It's about five klicks from here, let's move."

The team filed silently through the darkened streets, weapons ready and listening for any noise. Felix scanned the surrounding building rooftops and doorways for signs of movement. Every streetlight they passed cast long shadows across the roads, and sometimes he could have sworn it was actually someone creeping out from an alleyway towards them. He wondered how much of a chance they would stand if they were confronted by enemies. There were eight of them, and they would put up a fair fight, but all the rebels had to do was close them off by taking positions on the rooftops and two ends of the street, and they would easily eliminate the soldiers.

About half an hour later, Thornhill gestured for everyone to slow down and move more quietly. The team moved across the adjacent street they just reached. Felix realized that it was a campus.

"Stay sharp," Thornhill said quietly. "Look for any signs of the rebels."

Felix scanned the area. The buildings around here weren't as badly damaged as the rest of the city; in contrast, more bodies, weapons, and shot-up vehicles lay scattered in the streets. "I think we've come to the right place," he said. But how would they find Kahn? He could be anywhere.

"Flashlights on," Thornhill ordered. Everyone switched on the lights that were fixed under their MA3s' barrels.

"What if the rebels see us?" Cortez asked.

"That's the point," the Lieutenant said.

"But they'll catch us by surprise."

"That's a risk I'm willing to take. Everyone, spread out. Split up into teams of two."

Felix paired up with Jess, and they edged along the sidewalk, looking in all directions. "This was a bad idea," she said quietly.

He didn't like to admit it, but he secretly agreed with her. It was a poor tactic to confine the team to an open street like this, especially when there were only eight of them and they didn't know where the enemy was. As he looked up and down the campus, he thought of something. "Jess, do you think Tom is here?"

She looked in his direction too. "I'm not sure. I haven't been here personally, but Anton said the name of the university was—"

"We've got movement, coming out of the complex," said Cortez urgently.

"Open fire," barked Thornhill.

"Wait! Hold your fire!" Felix shouted. He aimed his rifle flashlight at the doors. Jess did the same. "UNSC! Identify yourselves!"

"Don't shoot!" cried one of them. "We're not rebels! We're students!"

The others scanned the doors with their flashlights, revealing them to be a group of terrified-looking teenagers. They were wearing civilian clothes and were unarmed.

"Stand down!" said Felix. "They're civilians."

The team made their way over to the teenagers warily. He checked to see if he recognized any of them, but none of them looked like his brother. Putting his disappointment aside, he lowered his rifle.

"Why are you here?" asked Thornhill. "All civilians had orders to evacuate."

"Someone was sent to pick us up," one of the boys said. He had dark brown hair and looked like he was around the same age as Felix, about eighteen or nineteen. "But the ship was shot down. Then we saw soldiers showing up later. The fighting got really bad, so we hid in the campus. It looked like they were trying to get into one of the buildings."

"Which building?" Thornhill asked.

"That one," the boy said, pointing at a twenty-story building about fifty feet down the street. "No one's went in or come out for a while, but before that, it looked like all the soldiers were targeting that one."

"That's it," Morales said. "Kahn's got to be in there." Thornhill turned back to the team. "Everyone, let's move! We're getting into that building."

"What about us?" a girl asked quickly.

"Stay inside the campus. We'll be back later."

"Are you going to get us out of here?" the brown-haired boy asked.

"Yes. Just stay put."

The team turned off their flashlights and headed down the street, more careful than ever. They formed up on the doorway. "Morales, kick the door."

The Sergeant obliged, smashing the door open. It looked like it had already been breached several times, and gave way easily. The team dashed in, rifles up.

It looked like a business building. There were terminals along the walls and cabinets lined up in rows that split the room into two. A hallway led straight down to the end where four elevators stood.

Every light in the building suddenly turned on, flooding the room with a brightness that caused every soldier to wince. Felix forced himself to keep his eyes open when he heard gunfire from the other end of the room. He opened fire on the half-score of rebels, who were lined up in formation to block a hallway.

The others were taking positions behind cabinets, and returned fire. Bullets flew through the air and the rebels, who had left themselves exposed, were quickly neutralized.

Thornhill checked to make sure everyone was still standing. Satisfied that they were, he said, "Team, split into two groups of four. One team will head to the top floor and make their way down. The other will make their way up. Report in once you've found Kahn. I'll lead team one. Martel, you lead team two. Let's move!"

Felix nodded and moved into the ground-floor hallway with Jess, Morales, and Cortez as Thornhill and the others headed for the elevators. They checked every room on the ground floor. Some looked like they were shot out, white others remained untouched.

"No bodies here," he said. "Looks like Kahn's been cleaning up. He probably intended to stay here for a while."

"Let's hope we caught him by surprise then," Jess said.

"Come on, let's move up one level." The four of them squeezed into the two remaining elevators, and headed for the second floor. There were more destroyed rooms, but no one in them. Moving up again, the third floor was empty as well.

The fourth floor had a couple of rebel guards, but the gunmen weren't prepared and were easily eliminated. As they made their way up each floor, Felix began to wonder if Kahn really was still here. Why would he risk capture by staying here? What was he doing that was so important. I'll bet this building has been attacked a half dozen times in the last few days already.

It wasn't until they reached the eighth floor that they encountered heavy resistance. The hallway was filled with at least a score of rebels. They were packed closely together, however, which meant that they were easy targets. But now the bullets were flying towards them almost continuously.

Jess pulled out a fragmentation grenade, pulled the pin, and lobbed it into the mass of enemies. The gunmen immediately scattered and ran, but in their panic, they did little more than bump into each other. The explosive easily took out most of them and left the rest severely injured.

"Nicely done, Corporal," Morales said as they walked down the halls, executing the last of the rebels. "Now let's see what was so worth protecting here—"

Cortez suddenly fired his rifle down the hall, in the direction they came from. Felix spun around and spotted a man who was clutching a storage unit in one hand, and a riot shield in the other, blocking the Marine's shots. He backpedalled into the elevator.

"It's Kahn!" he shouted. The others ran after him, opening fire on him. The riot shield began to crack, and shattered just as the elevator doors closed behind him.

"Where's he going?" Jess asked, reloading her MA3.

Felix checked it. "Up." He turned on his COM. "Thornhill, this is Martel. We've found Kahn, but he slipped away. He's on his way up."

"Roger," Thornhill replied. "We'll be intercepting him on the roof."

Felix and the others clambered into the last elevator and headed upwards as well. Everyone changed their magazines and waited to reach the rooftop.

"Look!" Jess said, pointing out the transparent tube that made up the elevator tunnel. Felix saw a Pelican appear from behind a nearby building and flying and towards them.

"Thornhill, did you call in a dropship?"

"Negative. We see it too. It's most likely Kahn's. We'll need to move fast."

"Copy. See you on the top."

They were almost to the top when Thornhill's voice burst in over the COM. "Fire! I don't care if you have to kill him, take him down!"

Felix checked one more time to make sure his Assault Rifle was loaded, and prepared to pile out as the elevator halted to a stop.

The doors opened, and they dashed onto the rooftop. What happened next, however, forced them to scramble for cover behind the elevator.

The Pelican had landed on the roof, and its back hatch was open. Its chin gun was firing at Thornhill and his team, who were also ducked behind the elevators. Rather, Thornhill, Koel, and the bodies of the two Army soldiers other lying near their feet. They were both riddled with bullets and blood covered their fronts.

Kahn was also in cover behind a series of pipes, for Thornhill and Koel were taking turns firing on his position to keep him pinned down.

Silently congratulating him for his quick thinking, Felix said, "We need to get rid of the Pelican."

"We could call in for backup," Koel suggested. There was blood leaking from the young Marine's side and running down his armour, but he didn't seem to notice it.

Thornhill shook his head. "They'll never get here in time. I've got another plan. Now that we're all here, we can distract the Pelican long enough to get to Kahn." He leaned outward and opened fire on Kahn again as the other soldier reloaded.

"We're running out of ammo here," he said. "So let's do this quickly. Do any of you have smoke grenades?" Felix shook his head, but the Marines nodded.

"Good," Thornhill said. "Throw them behind the Pelican, I'll make a run for Kahn."

"It's pretty risky, Lieutenant," Morales said doubtfully.

"We don't have a choice," he snapped, ducking back to reload. "We're going to run out of ammo before the Pelican does, so this is our only chance. I'm not going to let Kahn get away." He realized that he was out of magazines, and discarded the empty rifle. He pulled out his M6 and braced himself against the elevator as the Marines pulled out their smoke grenades. "Now!"

Four smoke grenades flew through the air and landed right behind the Pelican's hatch. As the smoke thickened, Thornhill dashed towards Kahn, staying low as bullets flew over his head.

But Kahn moved quickly as well. Covering his mouth, he ran for the Pelican. Thornhill fired at his legs, but the rebel leaped into the cargo bay, yelling orders at the pilot. The Pelican stopped firing and lifted upward, the force of its thrusters clearing the smoke in seconds. The Lieutenant jumped as well, grabbing onto the dropship's blood tray.

"Hector!" Felix shouted, running out of cover. The Pelican lurched and sped forward, away from the building. Thornhill's M6 flew out of his grasp and landed on the roof. Felix watched in dread, expecting Thornhill to be thrown off or shot. Instead, he was pulled into the cargo bay as the hatch closed. He stared numbly after the Pelican as it disappeared into the distance.

Part Two

Chapter 5: The Coming Storm

0200 Hours, May 13, 2491 (UNSC Military Calendar), Three Gates City, planet Taradia, Indus Corus system

The team headed back to the campus with an air of dejection. All of them sported various wounds, but it was clear that none of them were thinking about that.

Say what you will about Hector, Felix thought miserably. He was a good soldier. And he was my friend. I felt safe when he was here.

He looked to the smoke-filled skies as they reached the university. I hope we can find him again.

He wasn't feeling particularly optimistic. There were only five of them left; they were in an abandoned city with more rebels than civilians around. And even worse, Kahn had gotten away again. This time it felt all the more discouraging, since they had been so close to capturing him.

The teenagers were waiting for them at the campus. They looked visibly shocked that almost half the team didn't make it back. But the brown-haired boy, who looked like the leader, said, "You guys are injured. We can take you downstairs, we've got medical supplies there."

They were taken to a medical room. To Felix's surprise, there were more teenagers downstairs. They were lying in the beds and were obviously injured.

"Take any of the beds you want," the brown-haired boy said. "You guys look like you could use a lie-down."

"We can treat our own injuries," Cortez said.

"Don't be ridiculous," the boy said impatiently. "You guys look like you're about to pass out. I'll call the medics."

Reluctantly, the five soldiers changed out of their damaged combat uniforms and laid down on the beds.

"Guys! Get over here!"

One of the younger boys walked over with a trolley laden with medical supplies. He was wearing a doctor's jacket that looked a little big for him. Felix quickly sat up in bed, wincing at the lance of pain that shot down his chest and down to his stomach. But he immediately recognized his brother. And it looked like Jess had as well, for she was also sitting up.

"Tom!" they both called at the same time. Tom spotted them and broke out into a wide smile.

"Felix! Jess! I can't believe you're here!" He embraced both of them, laughing as they winced. But Felix smiled back, instantly forgetting his injuries and his weariness.

"So you guys are the UNSC team the others told me about," Tom said, grabbing medical supplies off the trolley. "How long have you guys been on Taradia?"

"Quite a while," Felix said, lying back and feeling himself relax. "But it's a long story."

"Yeah, it sure looks like it." Tom took a closer look at his brother's wounds. "Felix, you've been pretty shot up. I don't see any bullet wounds, so I guess your armour took the hits. But you've got a lot of cuts here."

Felix took off his shirt, which was covered in blood. Tom winced. "Looks like you have internal bleeding too, and maybe a few broken ribs. We're not a hospital, so I can't do anything about those. But I can stop the bleeding."

A few other teenagers, also wearing white jackets, were treating the others. Tom didn't say anymore, so focused was he on his work. When he was done, he handed Felix a faded checkered shirt and a dark blue vest. Felix gratefully accepted the fresh clothes. He gingerly stood up and took a few steps. It still hurt to walk a bit, but at least the stinging pain in his chest was gone. "Thanks, Tom. I'm impressed. Did you learn all this here?"

Tom smiled modestly. "Yeah, but I can do more than medical stuff. Still, you're going to have to deal with your other injuries once you go back to the UNSC." The others were patched up soon as well, and watched as the assigned "medics" went to treat some of the other students. Some of them looked like they had rather gruesome injuries.

The brown-haired boy walked over to them. "So you're Felix?"

"Yes," Felix said. "Thanks for the medical treatment."

"No problem," the boy said, extending a hand. Felix shook it. "I'm Alex. Tom was always talking about you. Your brother's a pretty smart kid."

Felix watched as his brother walked around the medical room, carrying out his tasks and helping out the others. "Yeah. I hadn't seen him in four years. He sure is different now."

"I guess we were lucky to have bumped into you, then. Say, is someone coming in to pick us up?"

"Yes. I called for evac about an hour ago."

Alex sighed. "That's good. We've all been on edge for the last three days. We're almost out of medical supplies, and some of our friends really need proper treatment. I'm glad you guys showed up."

The muffled sound of Pelican thrusters was heard over their heads. Felix looked out the window and saw two dropships circling the campus courtyard and settle in for a landing.

The pilot's voice rang out from his COM. "Lieutenant Martel, come in."

Felix took the COM in his hand. "Martel here. Hold tight, we'll be up top in a sec." He turned to Alex. "Our ride is here. Let's get everyone on board."

It took them twenty minutes to get the students onto the Pelicans. The Marines were strapping everyone into the seats, a bit more tentatively with the injured ones. Felix stood next to Tom's crash seat, feeling himself relax as the dropships took off and away from the city.

"We've got a lot of catching up to do," Tom said.

"That we do," Felix replied. "But we'll have time when this is all over. Trust me, we'll take the city back soon." As soon as we find Kahn. And Hector.

He couldn't remember where he was. Or what was going on. But the images that burned into his mind were all too clear. And he couldn't explain why, but he hated them. He wanted them out of his head. He didn't want to see them.

His thoughts were hazy, but he exactly what he was looking at. Feeling an unaccustomed helplessness, he tried to shut himself out from everything as the memories flowed into his mind.

He was lying face-down in his bed, pulling his pillow tightly around his ears so he couldn't hear the shouting, and the sound of objects smashing, followed by a woman screaming...'Hurt her, just don't hurt me...please...don't come and find me...'

The memory slipped away from his thoughts. But before he could even feel relief, another one entered his mind, filling him with dread again. He knew what was coming...

He was standing alone on the hill, hardly feeling the rain that poured down on him. He was surrounded by gravestones, all of them meaning nothing to him. He was staring at the one in front of him, but at the same time he didn't want to see it, he didn't want to read that name...

"Go away!" he screamed internally. Why did he have to see these things? Why did they come back to haunt him, after he managed to put it out of his mind for years.

Then, as if his memories were ensnaring him, he felt the last one drawing him in. The worst one, the one he never wanted to relive, and the one that always found him no matter how hard he tried to escape them...

He lay on the floor, whimpering and gasping for air. A large man stood over him, a man he should have trusted, but never could. A man who was supposed to protect him, but instead inflicted pain upon him that would remain long after the marks disappeared.

'I'm sorry,' he heard himself sobbing. 'I'm sorry! Please, stop it!' The man paid him no heed, kicking cruelly at him as he lay curled up on the floor, waiting for it to be over, wishing himself anywhere else. He tried to shut out the pain, but couldn't. Why did he deserve this? Why?

His body suddenly burst with pain. He screamed, feeling as if his entire body was on fire. It couldn't be the man; no one could inflict this much agony. He writhed, realizing with horror that his bones and muscles were stretching.

Then he felt something change. The man's blows didn't hurt anymore, nor did they leave any lasting pain. He felt himself regaining energy from as the fiery sensation changed. It was still there, but now it didn't hurt him; it ran through him as if giving him strength. He stood up, and saw himself face-to-face with the man, who was now backing away from him fearfully.

Then the thought entered his mind. 'Kill him.'

He could do it too. No, more than that. He wanted to do it. He would do it. Enjoying the feeling of vengeance that now coursed through his powerful body, he struck the man, knocking him to the floor instantly. Now the roles were reversed. He lashed out ceaselessly, mercilessly, relishing the sounds of the man's screams, the crunch of his bones breaking. He would never be kicked around at someone else's feet again. The man tried to escape, but walls of fire suddenly leapt high around them, casting everything in an orange hue. While the man flinched when it touched him and recoiled from it, he himself felt unafraid. Nothing could hurt him, and the man was now trapped with him.

A long, sharp blade appeared in front of his face. He snatched it out of the air, and without hesitation, drove it deep into the man, waiting to hear his dying screams.

But it never came. Instead, he felt a sharp pain in his own body, exactly where he had driven the blade into the man, who was now disappearing into vapour before his eyes. The rifle disappeared, and he fell to the ground, feeling his strength vanish again. No, not again...


Who was Kahn?


'I am Kahn.'

'No. That's not right. I'm not Kahn. Who am I?'

"Kahn! It's the prisoner!"

'I am Kahn. Who else could I be?'

Thornhill awoke with a start. The first thing he saw was a man peering at him.

Seeing him awake, the man turned his back to him. "Kahn! The prisoner is awake!"

Where am I? Thornhill thought. What am I doing here? He was in a dark room, and was sitting on a chair. His hands were tied behind his back and his feet were tied to the chair.

The door opened, casting a bright shaft of light into the room. Thornhill winced and turned away as another man walked in.

"I'll deal with him, Watts," the man named Kahn said. "If you would give us a little privacy."

Watts? Thornhill thought groggily. Why does that name sound familiar?

The man named Watts walked to the exit, saying, "If he tells you anything interesting, tell me. I have a strong feeling he knows that Marine I'm after." The door closed behind him, casting them in darkness again.

Kahn sat down on a chair across from Thornhill, albeit at a safe distance. "You've been drugged and knocked unconscious," he said. "I realize your memory may not return to you immediately, so I won't be asking you any personal questions just yet. But while I have you here, I think we'll have a lot to talk about."

1240 Hours, May 20, 2491 (UNSC Military Calendar), New Bath, planet Taradia, Indus Corus system

Locklin looked impassive as Felix completed his report. After a long moment of silence, the Colonel said, "You shouldn't have accompanied Thornhill back into the city, Lieutenant."

Felix wanted to repeat Thornhill's words about how they never received orders to stay put, but remained silent. As if reading his thoughts, Locklin sighed, and he suddenly looked more resigned. "Of course, I know how stubborn Thornhill can be. And it was right that you didn't let him run off alone. But now we have a problem."


"David Kahn has gotten away again. And we don't know where he is right now, but we need to find Thornhill."

"I agree, sir."

"It's more than just a personal matter, Lieutenant Martel. We cannot allow him to remain a captive of Kahn. I can't tell you why, but there are a lot of things at stake right now, and Thornhill was foolish to let himself get captured so easily.

"So this is what I need you to do. Our primary objective as of right now is to clear Three Gates of the rebel threat. Without Kahn, this will become much easier. And the first step is to take out the artillery. Your team will be helping out with eliminating the rebels in the city, while I assign someone to track down Kahn. Once we know his whereabouts, I'll have you pulled out to look for him."

Felix saluted. "Sir!"


Felix walked out of the operations centre with the Marines. For the umpteenth time in the last week, he wished Thornhill was still with them.

After returning to base, they had been patched up and given some time to recover. When everyone was back on their feet, Felix and the Marines were pulled back to New Bath so quickly he didn't even have time to say a proper goodbye to Tom. Ever since then, he had been forced to take charge of the team.

Now we're heading back to Three Gates. And we're not leaving until the city is ours again.

"I don't know why you're refusing to torture him," Watts said.

"Because I need answers," Kahn said. "And I'm going to do it my own way. I don't indulge myself with inflicting pain upon others."

The Colonel flushed. "You think I enjoy this kind of thing? I never make unnecessary decisions, Kahn. But in my experience, torture is the best way to get answers."

"That's where you're wrong, Watts. It won't work on this one. I know his kind. He'll die before he gives up on what he believes in. Besides," he added. "I have a strong feeling he's part of this ORION Project you're so interested in. And even though you've lost the files I obtained for you, maybe this will make up for it." Kahn turned away from Watts' glare to turn his attention to his henchmen, who was walking over with some files in his hand.

"Boss, I did the scans, as you asked. And...you may find them interesting."

Kahn opened the files and looked over the images. "Yes, I thought so. Do you have identification on him?"

"Yes, boss. He's Lieutenant Hector Thornhill, UNSC Navy, Special Forces."

"Well done." He looked back at Watts. "Now I'll be having a few words with our friend here. I'm sure he'll have all the answers we need."

"My patience is running out, Kahn."

"That's a shame, considering I've already tracked down that Marine you were looking for. Now you'll have to learn to show restraint, or I'll be...taking matters into my own hands." Without another word, Kahn walked into Thornhill's room, locking the door behind him.

The Lieutenant was still sitting in the chair he was tied up in. This time, he was slumped over and had a glazed look in his eyes. I'm almost certain he's part of ORION. I wonder how many times he had to be drugged before it got to him.

Kahn sat down across from him again in his usual spot. "Well, Hector Thornhill, is it? It's been a while since we talked. But this time I'll be asking a few personal questions, if you don't mind."

Thornhill made no reply. He didn't move at all, but Kahn could tell that he was listening. His mind is so hazy right now, he wouldn't even notice himself telling me everything. The trick is to tell him what I know, and he'll tell me what he knows.

"Now, I happen to have knowledge of something the UNSC calls Project ORION. You may be familiar with it. I have asked my employee to do some scans on you, and I must admit, I've found out much more than I expected."

Still no reply.

"For example, your bone and muscle structure appears to be rather...scarred, shall we say, for lack of a better term. You bear many old injuries that have since healed but left their mark upon you. Mind telling me what that's about?"

For the first time, Thornhill looked up. His teeth were clenched, and there was a dull fire of rage in his eyes. "My dad," he said, his words slurred. "He always used to beat me. And my mother."

"I'm sorry to hear that."

"No, it's not just that. He was...he was an officer in the military. A distinguished officer."

"Ah, I should have known. Major General Michael Thornhill, correct? I have heard of him on many occasions."

"Yeah. Bastard was a monster under his uniform and medals. I hated hearing people talking about how great he was. They...they don't know the truth about him..."

Thornhill didn't have the energy to hold his gaze, so he let his head fall again. But he kept talking. "Five years ago, he crossed the line. I knew he had gone too far."

"What happened?"

"He killed my mother. In a fit of rage. I don't think he meant to do it...but I don't think he cared." His voice increased in volume. "And the worst part is...the fucking Office of Investigations let him get away with it! He was cleared! He was cleared for killing his own fucking wife!" He looked up again. "I knew then that I couldn't wait for justice to bring him down. I couldn't trust the UNSC. I couldn't trust anyone." Thornhill bared his teeth, this time in a savage smile. "And so...I killed him myself."

Kahn gave no reaction to this, but many thoughts entered his mind at this revelation. This is interesting. I never expected to have found out this much. Perhaps I can use all this to my advantage.

Thornhill was still talking, although more to himself. "I never regretted it. No one ever suspected me. But that was when I figured out what it meant. I could never...never hope for someone else to make the right decision. No one can ever understand me."

"You said that you don't trust the UNSC," Kahn said. "Yet you serve them with your life. Why?"

"Well...there's only one thing about the UNSC I admire," Thornhill said, leaning against the chair, his head slumped back. "Power. They know how to use it. Only problem is...you have to work your way up." He grinned humorlessly. "You know, I could have had you all killed weeks ago. I know what I had to do. But I couldn't, because some guy who's served longer than me told me not to. These officers...they all think they're so noble and righteous. But they don't know...they don't know that their holding back is what cost all these lives. It makes me sick."

"I fully agree. The UNSC is no better than us. The only difference is that we're not afraid to show it." Kahn stood up. "This has been very enlightening, Lieutenant. I will return to speak to you again."

Chapter 6: Crackdown

1420 Hours, May 29, 2491 (Earth-standard Calendar), exact location unknown, planet Taradia, Indus Corus system

Watts watched the "conversation" of his transmission to Eridanus II, observing Barrie as if he were actually talking to him.

"Kahn has located that Marine we were looking for," he heard his own voice say.

"Finally," Barrie said. "This whole issue has been a lot more trouble than it was worth."

You were the one who let them get away, Watts thought. He detected the slightest pause as the transmission device took in Barrie's sentence and find his own pre-recorded response, one of the many he had made before sending the entire message to Eridanus II. "Jess Morley. I should have known that was her. I saw her on Reach and everything. It shouldn't be too hard to get rid of her. She's in Three Gates right now."

"Wait. See if she knows where Felix is. I need to know."

"You know, Gerald, that kid obviously doesn't like you anymore," Watts' recording said. "I hope you're not trying to protect him."

Barrie looked away. "I'm not. It's better if he's dead, I know."

"I'll be heading back to Reach soon. I'll trust Kahn to take care of things here."

"I'll be in touch."

Watts shut off the screen with a sigh. Sending messages to other planets really was a pain in the ass. He had pre-recorded at least a hundred questions and replies for their conversation, which lasted about twenty seconds. But it was better than sending a single message to another planet, wait a few weeks for the ship to deliver it to Eridanus II, wait more weeks for the response to arrive, then send another message that would take just as long to be received again. But it is necessary to keep both of us up-to-date on what's happening, I suppose, he thought, standing up to leave the communications room.

When Kahn entered Thornhill's room, he could see the Lieutenant glaring at him angrily. He could tell immediately that this talk was not going to go well, but he gave no sign that he noticed his piercing look. "How have you been, Lieutenant?" he asked smoothly.

"Go to hell, Kahn," Thornhill snapped with unrestrained contempt.

"Ah, how quickly we forget. You should be grateful that I have not drugged you like I did last time. Then again, you were a lot more cooperative when you were. I don't think you recall half the things you told me." Kahn walked over to Thornhill, so close that they were almost touching. "What's the matter? Afraid that you told me things that you shouldn't have? I must say, you have revealed far more than I could have hoped. For instance, I've arranged for one Corporal Morley to be silenced, since she presents a problem for friend of mine."

"Fuck you," Thornhill spat. "You and Watts. If you so much as touch anyone on my team..."

"What's this, Lieutenant? Don't tell me you actually care for them. After all, you've already expressed your distrust of the UNSC during our last session."

For the first time, Thornhill's angry exprssion slackened, replaced by an uncharacteristic surprise. "What did I...?"

"I think I'll keep you guessing. But in the meantime, allow me to tell you how helpful you have been. The samples of your body matter that I have taken are more than enough for me to know everything I need to know about Project ORION. Which, by the way, I have confirmed that you are a part of." Kahn grinned. "I'm afraid that once this information reaches the United Rebel Front, the UNSC will be in for quite a surprise."

"You bastard."

"Don't be so upset. As you yourself said, the UNSC is nothing more than a bunch of hypocrites telling everyone they're protecting humanity. Look what they've done to you, Lieutenant. This Project ORION has stripped you of your former self. I can't say I recognize the stoic, efficient soldier the others make you out to be. They've turned you into a killer, and nothing more. It proves how selfish the UNSC is." For the first time, Kahn's expression hardened. "They only care about themselves, and get others to do their work for them. They don't care how many lives they ruin."

Thornhill calmed himself, trying to make sense of everything. It was obvious that Kahn had a grudge against the UNSC. But that wasn't any of his concern right now. I need to get out of here. But Kahn is right about one thing. I can't be involved with this. It isn't my fight.

You're a maniac, Kahn. Maybe I do hate the UNSC. But that doesn't mean I can't get rid of scumbags like you.

Thornhill kept himself still, while surreptitiously moving his wrists, trying to figure out a way to break free.

Only one of us is going to get out of this alive. And it's not you.

1210 Hours, June 25, 2491 (Earth-standard Calendar), Three Gates, planet Taradia, Indus Corus system

"Jess, I need to talk to you about something."

She looked puzzled, but entered their quarters without question. "What's up, Felix?"

"I don't want you coming along on this mission."

She looked surprised now. "Why?"

"Something's not right. I've been noticing it on our missions in Three Gates."

"What do you mean?"

"I think someone's trying to kill us."

Jess gave a short snicker. "Of course someone's trying to kill us. The rebels are our enemies, remember? I don't think they appreciate the fact that we're trying to drive them out of the city."

"That's not what I mean. By 'us' I meant Morales, Cortez, and myself. Their tactics have been...odd. It's as if they're trying to keep you alive."

She raised an eyebrow. "You notice these things during combat?"

"We've been doing this for a month, Jess. I shrugged it off at first, but I have a feeling there's someone after you. So you should stay aboard the shuttle."

"No can do, Felix," Jess said, shaking her head. "I can't just shirk duty like that. Besides, we've almost won. The rebels are all but finished. We'll have Three Gates back by the end of the week, and I'm not going to stay behind for that."

Felix's grip tightened on the door frame. "I could make it an order."

"You could," she agreed, looking right at him. He could tell that if she would refuse even if he said the words. He turned away with a sigh.

"Alright. But this is our last insertion." They had been ordered to return to Reach two weeks ago by ONI; however, he had volunteered to keep the team here until they found Thornhill. But time was running out, and Felix didn't like the idea of pushing ONI's patience. He walked turned to leave, picking up his duffel bag off the floor as he did so. "I don't want you killed just before we leave."

Maybe they think the UNSC force here is enough to finish the battle without us. But something's still not right. ONI has given us one unexplained order after another ever since this whole Taradia thing began.

The team was flown into Three Gates by Falcon. Air support had taken out the rest of the artillery about a week ago, and ever since then, the rebels had lost battle after battle after battle. It seemed that either Kahn really didn't have additional artillery, or never bothered to use them for whatever reason after he escaped the city. Either way, Felix was glad the conflict was almost over.

Not that it had been easy, he thought, staring out the Falcon's hatch. Three Gates was in ruins by now, with not a single square kilometre untouched by combat. Most of its tall buildings were heavily damaged or completely collapsed. And at least 25,000 civilians had been killed, taking a fair slice out of the city's population. It'll take a long time for them to recover from this.

"I'm dropping you guys off here," the pilot said, bringing the Falcon swooping towards the ground. "The rebels are about three klicks to the east. There are a few other teams coming down on them in the area. Good luck."

As soon as the aircraft reached ground level, the team bailed out onto the street. "Let's move," Felix said. He could already hear gunfire in the distance, and they dashed down the street, careful not to stay in open for too long. As they headed east, the sound of gunfire became steadily louder. Finally, when they passed a highway and turned a corner on the adjacent street, he spotted a group of rebels firing on a group of Marines farther down the street.

The rebels were taking cover behind a row of cars that blocked off the street, and were right between the two teams. Perfect. They've got their backs turned to us. "Let's get to work, Marines," Felix said.

Morales tossed a frag grenade into the group of rebels, killing several rebels and starting a chain reaction where the cars exploded one by one. When the following heat waves died away, the team moved up and took out the survivors.

"Nice to see you, Lieutenant!" called one of the Marines cheerfully. He realized that it was Roy Koel, the Marine that was with Thornhill before he went MIA. "Come on, there's more a couple of blocks away."

"Roger that," Felix replied. "Lead the way."

Thornhill waited for the guard to unlock his cuffs, and jab him in the back with his rifle to make him stand up. Ignoring the gesture, he walked out the door, not feeling the slightest bit intimidated by the four guns pointed at his back.

The guard jabbed him in the back again. "Hurry up, prisoner. You're on a bathroom break, not a leisure walk. If you take too long, I'll make you walk back before you reach the bathroom."

Thornhill didn't respond to this, pondering his plan for the tenth time. He had been here for six weeks now, and he had to find a way to escape soon. He could feel himself weakening by the day at the little food he had been given and the hours spent on end sitting cuffed to a chair. What was more, he wasn't sure how much longer Kahn needed him alive. I'll have to do something. Today.

He didn't even need to use the bathroom, but he took the chance to observe his surroundings and work out an escape route. He had been doing this every time he had been freed, sometimes prompting the guards to yell at him to walk faster. But it had been worth it. He now knew where all the exits were, where Kahn was, and even what the combination to his private room was. But everything he had found out was useless unless he had a way to escape.

What I need, he thought, watching the guards out of the corner of his eye as he cleaned his hands in the basin, is to get my hands on one of those rifles. If I can do that, none of these goons will be able to touch me—

An explosion suddenly rocked the building unexpectedly, knocking two of the guards off their feet. One of them stumbled into Thornhill. Thinking quickly, the Lieutenant reached into the guard's pocket with one finger and pulled out the first object he found. Hiding it in the palm of his hand, he quickly pushed the guard away. "Get off me," he snapped.

The guards got back on their feet, guns pointed at him. "Less of the lip, prisoner," the guard snarled. "Get back to your room."

Thornhill was careful to hide the object in his hand as he was escorted back and cuffed to his chair again. Feeling it carefully with his fingers, he could tell that what he was holding was a small blade. The knowledge made him a lot more confident since he had first been captured. I'll be out of here before they know it.

I'm coming for you, Kahn.

"Lieutenant, I've got news of Kahn."

It was Locklin. Felix called the team to a stop and picked up his COM. Trying to contain his excitement, he asked, "Did you find him, sir?"

"Yes. He's hiding in the outskirts New Celje. Recon teams confirmed it twenty minutes ago. As promised, I've sent in someone to pick your team up so you can find him and rescue Thornhill." There was a pause. "But you don't have much time."

"What do you mean, sir?"

"HighCom got the news too. And they've authorized heavy carpet bombing on Kahn's location."

"They what?"

"I tried to reason with them, Lieutenant. But they're willing to lose Thornhill if it means taking out Kahn. At this point, I don't think they're concerned with capturing him anymore."

Felix felt his hopes plummet. New Celje was quite a ways from Three Gates. How was he going to get there in time?

"Martel? Are you still there?"

"Yes...yes, sir."

"Listen closely. Three years ago, Kahn had stolen some important documents pertaining to some secret UNSC project called ORION. But someone working outside the UNSC destroyed those documents; even ONI doesn't know who. Now, all I'm authorized to tell you is that Thornhill was involved with it. I don't think it would be hard for Kahn to put the pieces together. I'm almost certain he would have found what he was looking for with Thornhill. And if those air bombers take out his place, the evidence could still survive. So you need to get into that facility and erase that evidence as well as find Thornhill. It's more important than I can tell you. Understood?"

"Yes, sir. Martel out." He closed the transmission and turned to the Marines.

"Listen, Marines. I have a new objective, and I need to take my team and get there ASAP. You'll have to clear Three Gates by yourself."

"Got it, Lieutenant," replied Koel. "Don't worry about us, we've got this area taken care of."

"Morales, Cortez, Morley, let's get going."

Felix led the team in the opposite direction and towards the rendezvous point, wondering how they would get to Thornhill before the air support took him out. He was so preoccupied with his thoughts that he didn't notice the expression on Jess' face, which had been present since she had overheard his conversation with Locklin.

Chapter 7: Liberation and Rebirth

1700 Hours, June 25, 2491 (Earth-standard Calendar), New Celje, planet Taradia, Indus Corus system

The explosions were getting worse. Air strikes, no doubt about it.

They had been going on all afternoon, and Thornhill was impressed that the building was still holding. Of course, it wasn't very a comforting feeling to be inside a building that was getting carpet-bombed, but he had enough experience to know that panicking wouldn't do him any good.

In the meantime, he was trying to unlock his cuffs with the knife he had taken from the guard. Under normal circumstances, it would take him about thirty seconds to pick a lock with a blade, but Thornhill was trying not to let the guards hear the sound of the knife working around inside the cuffs' lock, as well as keeping himself from moving his arms. So far, they hadn't noticed anything; they were looking too nervous about the UNSC bombers to notice him. One good thing about these air strikes is that they make a lot of noise. He himself heard the cuffs click several times, but he wasn't compromised yet.

And he almost had it unlocked. Two more turns, then one...and with a click, the cuffs opened. Thornhill quickly grabbed them so they wouldn't hit the floor. He took the knife in one hand, the cuffs in another. Keeping his eyes trained on the two guards, he flicked the blade at the one on the left.

The guard flinched, but didn't have time to react as it planted itself in his forehead. Spurting blood from the wound, the rebel fell to the floor.

The other guard was gaping at his dead companion in shock, and was about to raise his weapon when Thornhill flung the handcuffs at him. They wrapped themselves around the guard's throat, and he dropped his rifle as he clutched his neck, choking.

Thornhill jumped forward, crashing to the floor as the cuffs in his feet restrained him. But he managed to grab the first guard's rifle. He shot the remaining rebel, dropping him instantly. Without wasting another second, he retrieved his knife and uncuffed his feet in seconds.

He stood up, taking a few more magazines off the dead guards as he did so. He flung open the door and stepped into the hallway, allowing himself the slightest hint of a smile.

Time for some payback.

Felix barely paid attention to the instructions given to him by the landing crew as the Skyfurrow settled onto the landing pad. They had made it to New Celje faster than he had expected, but he was still on edge. We need transport to the outskirts, ASAP.

He did come to notice that Jess was quieter than usual. She must be worried about Thornhill too.

The next half hour went by in a blur as they took three Warthogs and sped across New Celje with a full squad of Marines. There was a bit of rebel activity here too, but nothing as bad as Three Gates. At least the UNSC didn't have to evacuate the city. But there were districts here and there that looked a bit shot up, or burning, or filled with abandoned vehicles. Just when things were getting better in Three Gates. Guess Kahn's a lot more forceful here. The fighting just started, what, three hours ago? We'd better take him out, and fast—

"Watch it! Rockets!" shouted the Marine riding shotgun with Felix. He spotted them a split second later, rebels on the rooftops with rocket launchers, firing down on them.

"Scatter!" he shouted. The three Warthogs split off in different directions as the rockets came down on the street. One exploded ten feet in front of him, just outside the splash damage range. He drove through the fireball, squeezing his eyes shut as he felt the heat wash over them—

And they were out. Looking up, Felix felt his heart sink as he saw one of the Warthogs flaming in the engine, listing off the road as they tried to outpace the rebels. It was Jess' vehicle. She looked fine, still behind the wheel, fighting for traction, but the others didn't look so good. Cortez was slumped over beside her, and the two Marines sitting in the back were both bleeding heavily.

"Jess! Get them back to base!" he shouted. "Sergeant, split up! We'll rendezvous at the outskirts, but we've got to shake these rebels!"

Jess nodded and turned her damaged Warthog right at the next intersection. Morales kept going straight, and Felix pulled to the left, hoping to find a quick detour that wouldn't take him off course.

Avoiding the areas that weren't closed off to traffic so as to maintain speed, he soon reached the outskirts, and stopped the Warthog a fair distance from the rebel facility. The air strikes had stopped, but it was still standing, barely.

He contacted Locklin. "Sir, I'm on location. Orders?" He wondered if the Colonel had been able to call off the bombers.

The voice that responded certainly wasn't Locklin's. It was far too cold. "Your orders, Lieutenant Martel, are to detonate the charges that are lined around the rebel facility."

"Who is this? Where's Locklin?"

"Lieutenant Colonel Locklin has been relieved. The remainder of this operation will be run by the Naval Special Warfare Command. We've halted our aircraft after a rebel anti-air cannon was deployed."

Rebel AA cannon? Is this entire planet going to hell?

"However, we've sent in several stealth teams to line the perimeter of the facility with explosives. As a member of the Naval Special Forces, you have been sent the clearance code. Now detonate them."

Felix's mind raced. "But why didn't you send in a team to take out Kahn? And find Thornhill?"

"Lieutenant, we do not have time to answer your questions. Our priority is to take out that armoured facility. Do it now!"

Felix gritted his teeth. What the hell is Naval Command thinking? He gripped his COM tightly, trying to think of what to do.

"Negative, sir. I have orders from Colonel Locklin to retrieve some important documents from the facility. Requesting backup."

"That order has been redacted, Lieutenant Martel. Now detonate the explosives."

Where the hell is Morales? He should have been here by now. Felix sighed. It would be suicide to take on a facility full of rebels with just a team of four. I hope Thornhill made it out. He turned back to the Warthog.

"Marines, we're leaving."

He shut off his COM, cutting off the NavSpecWar officer in mid-sentence.

"You are disobeying a direct order, soldier! You will be court-martialled—"

Felix started the engine. The Marines obediently climbed on board, and he turned the Warthog around and drove them away from the facility.

Felix found Jess in their quarters. She was sitting on her bed and looking flustered.

"How's Cortez?" he asked.

"He'll live," she said. "He's pretty badly hurt though. Did you find Thornhill? And where's Morales?"

He looked startled. "He's not back?"

"I've been trying to call him on the radio for the last hour. Still no response."

"Damn," Felix said, stepping out of the room again. "Alright, wait here. I'll go find him."

"No," Jess said suddenly. "I'll go."

"What?" He turned around, surprised.

"He's my superior officer, and I've been stuck on this ship for the whole day."

"Jess, this is dangerous. Stay here."

She stood up angrily. "I'm a Marine, Felix Martel. I've been in the military longer than you. Just because you're Special Forces doesn't mean you need to feel protective of me."

"That's not it—" he began.

"Then what? Don't think I can take care of myself? Listen, Lieutenant, I've done enough waiting around while people out there are getting killed. So do me a favour and don't try to stop me." Jess made to walk out the door, but he blocked her with one arm.

Then she snapped. "Will you stay the fuck out of my way!" she yelled, grabbing his arm and trying to twist it. He countered by slipping out of her grip and grabbing her by the wrist. She tried to hit him with her other hand, but he grabbed that as well. Then he held her at arm's length, while she struggled to free herself.

"Jess, calm down," Felix said, but she wasn't listening. Her foot lashed out, almost causing him to trip. It was enough for her to free herself, and she tried to spin him around and push him against the wall. But he reacted fast and grabbed her wrist again.

Then he felt her fist collide with his face. It was a hard punch, and he closed one eye, wincing. But he still had a firm grip on her, and flung her onto the bed. Ignoring the throbbing in his face, he said, "Look, Jess. I know you're worried about Morales. But you've got to trust me on this, okay?"

Jess sat up on the bunk, leaning against the wall. "Okay. Sorry about that. I just...panicked."

"That's alright. I'll be back soon." Felix turned to leave the room.

Jess swiftly pulled a tranquilizer pistol out from under her pillow and shot him in the back of the head. He was instantly knocked out and collapsed on the floor, breathing lightly.

"Sorry, Felix. But you've already put yourself in enough danger tonight." She put down the pistol, stepping over him carefully as she left the room.

"Now it's my turn."

Thornhill reloaded his rifle, coolly watching as the last rebel fell at his feet screaming. Stepping over the body, he reached the now unguarded door that led to Kahn's private quarters. He instantly recalled the code, and punched it in. The doors slid open.

Kahn was standing there with a pistol in his hand. He raised it to fire, but Thornhill was faster. The Assault Rifle barked, tearing apart the rebel's shoulder and forearm. He dropped the sidearm, howling and clutching his bloody arm. He fell to his knees.

Thornhill locked the door behind them while keeping his eye on Kahn. "There won't be anyone to save you this time."

Kahn looked up, his eyes blazing with hatred. "Go ahead and shoot me."

"You know, Kahn, I've had a lot of time to think while I've been here. At first I thought you were just another deluded rebel who blames the UNSC for all his problems."

"Don't you do that?" Kahn spat.

"No. I do not trust them, but I respect their power. And when I thought of that, I realized something." Taking a step closer, Thornhill eyed the wounded Kahn, who now looked almost pitiful. "You and I aren't that different, Kahn."

"So what? You feeling sorry for me now?"

"I also came to another conclusion," Thornhill continued, ignoring him. "You've single-handedly given the UNSC a lot of things to remember you by. You've always outsmarted them, until now. I've been aware of this for a long time, but it's only recently that I understood what it meant. The two observations I've made are connected." He smiled humourlessly. "I admire you, Kahn. More than I've ever admired the UNSC, or anybody else in my life. I don't like what you did, but I sure can imagine what you would have been capable of."

The Assault Rifle barked. Five rounds entered Kahn's chest, throwing him back against the wall. The rebel leader slumped to the floor, leaving a trail of blood on the wall. Thornhill watched him steely-eyed.

"Maybe I can show the world what you would have been capable of," he murmured to the body. "And I'll show them the single difference between us." He walked around the bed to Kahn's database, which contained all the information he and his men had access to. Thornhill quickly found the data on Project ORION and deleted it.

"I don't make mistakes."

That atrocity of a military program was one thing the world never needed to see more of. And certainly not in the hands of the rebels.

Bringing his attention to the rest of Kahn's data, Thornhill found everything he needed. Funding, resources, underground contacts, everything he would need to set out and make his life how he wanted it to be. He would take Kahn's place, not as a rebel leader, but as a mercenary. One who took no sides and asked no questions. Fending for myself, just like I always wanted.

The world will remember David Kahn. But that name now belongs to me.

Felix stood in the doorway with his arms crossed as he saw them approach. As Jess passed him, she gave him a half-mischievous smile, but he just stared back. He was relieved to see her back, and that Morales was with her, but he kept his face straight as the Staff Sergeant entered the shuttle as well.

When both Marines were inside, Felix entered behind them and shut the ramp. Turning on his COM, he ordered the Skyfurrow to take off and enter Slipspace, and returned to his quarters.

Jess was already there, setting her equipment down under the bed. Hearing the door slide open, she turned around. "Found him pinned down with at least fifty rebels on his ass. But we managed to pull him out. Told you I'd find him, didn't I?"

Felix didn't look amused. "Jess, you shot me."

"No," she said, still smiling. "I knocked you out. There is a difference."

"Jess, Thornhill has been missing for over a month now," he said, raising his voice a little. "Kahn is still holding out in the outskirts, and we're two weeks late on getting back to Reach and making our report. I'm currently the ranking officer, and you disobeyed a direct order and discharged a weapon on me."

She didn't seem to look worried. In fact, the smile was more evident than ever. "So what are you going to do? Have me court-martialled?"

"No," he said. "But listen—"

Jess sighed. "You know something, Felix. You've really changed these last few years. You've...grown up."

The look of exasperation vanished from Felix's expression. His gaze dropped, and they both just stood quietly in the room for a minute. "Do you know why I didn't want you to go?" he asked finally.

This question caught her off guard. "Why?"

"Because...I love you. I realized it a while ago, but...there wasn't time to tell you."

Felix turned back to look directly at Jess. He saw a faint trace of a smile that was...different. They just stared at each other for a few moments, still not moving.

Then an adventurous gleam appeared in Jess' eyes. Taking two steps, she walked over to him, and put an arm around him. Then she walked them over to the bunk.

"Why do you think I didn't let you go?" she said quietly.


"Because I love you too."

And then she pushed him.

Felix cried out in surprise and struggled to keep his balance, but he fell over onto her bed.

"What are you doing?" he said.

"What do you think we're doing?" she replied, reaching up to her neck. She unbuttoned her uniform and cast it onto the floor. He sat up from the bed and just watched her, puzzled. As she bent over to undo her boots, she looked up and said, "Well, come on. Don't make me wait for you."

Felix finally realized what she meant. Quickly, he undid his Navy fatigues, throwing it onto the floor like her, and pulled his T-shirt over his head and tossed it aside as well.

When they were both done, Jess joined him on the bottom bunk, laying her hands on his chest and pulling herself on top of him.

"Have you ever done this before?" she whispered in his ear.


"Good. Neither have I."

She rolled over, pulling him on top. Felix put his arms around her back as they moved. He could feel the warmth of Jess' body wherever they touched, dispelling the cold of the room. He tried to keep most of his weight off her at first, but quickly realized how tiring it was, and how awkward it felt for both of them. He was surprised by how much of his weight she could keep on top of her.

They kept going for a good ten minutes, before Felix began to feel the cold across his back. "Jess," he mumbled, but she put a finger over his mouth.

"Shh," she whispered. "My turn."

They rolled over again, and now she was on top, pushing her body against him. She seemed to be a lot more of a natural than him, running her hands down places that would give him chills. As she leaned over, her hair fell against his face, and he pushed it aside. Jess' face was less than an inch away from his, her eyes looking into his; the unspoken words passing between as the next few minutes did as well.

Then Felix felt it coming, a rushing sensation that ran up his body. He arched as back as he felt it give way, and at the same time, Jess gave a satisfied moan. He relaxed, laying flat on the bunk and panting. Jess laid on top of him with her head on his chest for a few moments, breathing heavily as well. Then she rolled off and laid beside him. He could feel his sweat turn cold as she did so.



"I don't think I want to sleep on the top bunk right now."

"That's alright," she murmured, pulling a blanket over them. "It's too soon anyway."

Part Three

Chapter 8: Court-Martial

0850 Hours, June 28, 2491 (Earth-standard Calendar), New Bath, planet Taradia, Indus Corus system

The battle on Taradia was over. The last of the rebel forces that were willing to go down fighting were killed, and the handful that survived were brought into custody. A few infantry teams were dispatched to comb the cities and make sure everything was clear.

The news had come in three days ago. An entire platoon of Marines had breached the rebel facility in New Celje and found David Kahn's body in his private quarters. It had explained why the ferocity of the rebels' attack had slackened. The only thing they couldn't explain was who had killed him.

Something else to think about, on top of everything else, Felix thought. Although the rebel presence on Taradia was more or less eradicated, it was hardly considered a victory for the UNSC. Over a dozen cities needed maintenance to recover, the most severe being in Three Gates and New Celje. The civilian casualties had racked up to a devastating 34,000, and at least 700 soldiers had been killed in the skirmishes as well. It was one of the most disastrous conflicts to have occurred between two sides that weren't in open war. And worse, it left a lasting impression in the minds of everyone who knew the full details of the past seven weeks.

Felix remembered his last insertion on the ground, when Kahn had been tracked down to New Celje. Naval Command wanted me specifically to destroy that facility. Why? And why didn't they do it after I refused?

And where's Thornhill? The Marines had searched the entire facility, but found no sign of the Lieutenant. The rebels couldn't have killed him, could they?

He must be alive, he thought with absolute certainty. Thornhill must have freed himself and taken out Kahn. But then...what? What happened to him?

Felix's thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the door opening. A UNSC guard marched in. "Get up. You're going back to Reach by cruiser."

Without a word, Felix walked out of the brig and headed for the Pelican that was prepped for him.

He had been taken into custody two days ago for dereliction of duty. He hadn't told Jess, but she found out anyway when the guards showed up at the Skyfurrow and brought him in. He had tried not to look at her as he was taken away.

1500 Hours, July 16, 2491 (Earth-standard Calendar), New Alexandria, Eposz, planet Reach, Epsilon Eridani system

Jess wasted no time as she drove recklessly through the streets. She had barely gotten off the Skyfurrow half an hour ago when it set down on Reach, and now she was back on New Alexandria's freeways. The thought that filled her mind for the last few days snapped her into action. I have to find Anton.

She, along with Morales and Cortez, had been given leave after the harrowing operation, but she had so much on her mind that she hardly felt relieved at the break. She had hardly gotten any sleep since Felix had been taken into custody, and couldn't get rid of the despair that clung to her on the trip back to Epsilon Eridani. But after she calmed herself, she realized that there was one person that could help him. Anton.

Jess reached Anton's building in a matter of minutes, rushing past the protesting receptionist and straight into his office. He was seated behind his desk, looking up as she closed the door behind her. She noticed that he was now wearing the gold oak leaves and two-and-a-half stripe insignia of a Lieutenant Commander on his shoulders, but she decided to address it later. He raised an eyebrow.

"You phoned ahead and told me you've landed on Reach," he said. "That was ten minutes ago. The spaceport, if I recall correctly, is at least a half-hour drive from here."

"Not now, Anton," Jess panted, "I have a lot to tell you."

"Something's wrong," he said. Not as a question, but as a statement.

"Felix is in trouble. He's been taken into custody and is about to be court-martialled."

This caught him by surprise; the sudden change in expression was evident on his face. "I wasn't expecting that," he said quietly, giving her his full attention. "How did it happen?"

"He disobeyed a direct order given by NavSpecWar during our mission. Refused to detonate an enemy building and allowed multiple hostiles to escape into a civilian area."

Anton winced. "Sounds like a tough case. I don't know if I can pull him out of that one. I'll do what I can though." He turned his attention to a screen and tapped it. Reading its contents carefully, he said, "Operation: TRIUMVIRATE, right? We've been hearing about that here a lot. I've received a few documents from ONI myself pertaining to a few isolated cases." He leaned forward. "So David Kahn has been confirmed as KIA. That's good news, at least."

"We'll worry about that later, Anton," Jess said. "We need to help Felix."

"Okay. How long is your leave?"

"One week."

"Good. His trial is in ten days. I'll volunteer to defend his case. Are you going to help me out?"

Jess' stance finally relaxed, and she sat down across from him. "I wouldn't leave if you asked me to."

"What the hell were you thinking?"

"Sir, with all due respect, it was a direct order. And he disobeyed it without reason. If you ask me, he must be concerned about his friend. That kind of emotion has no place in the field—"

"Enough! You have no idea what you're interfering with. Don't you think the circumstances are suspicious enough?"

"I don't know what you're talking about, Captain—"

"Shut up. Listen, you don't know what this is about, so you'd better keep your nose out of it. If anyone looks into this case—and make no mistake, Commander, someone's going to have the brains to do it—they're going to find fault with your actions, not Lieutenant Martel's. Now give this some thought. I need him more than I need you and your team, but I'm going to stick my neck out and make sure none of you get so much as demoted. But I'm warning you, my patience is running thin. I've got a top-level project to run, and you'd better hope for your sake that you don't come anywhere near this again. Do you understand me?"

"...Yes, sir."

"Good. Now get the hell out of my office. I've got a lot of work to do with this case, thanks to you."

0930 Hours, July 26, 2491 (Earth-standard Calendar), New Alexandria, Eposz, planet Reach, Epsilon Eridani system

"This court-martial is now in session," the judge said.

Anton looked away from the documents sitting in front of him to take a look at the opposition. The prosecutor for this case was Major Jodie Garraway, a judicial officer who had been described as "predatory" by many in court sessions. She hadn't taken on more than a dozen clients throughout her career, but often stepped up to convict others. She usually succeeded too. He had no doubt that any high-ranking officer with the right connections would call upon her to deal with someone they wanted discharged or disgraced. She didn't look particularly like the ruthless lawyer her reputation put her out to be, but he wasn't fooled. This case isn't going to be easy with her as prosecutor. He hoped that at least Commander Pedrick, the judge, was a fair one.

Anton put Garraway out of his mind for the moment and turned his attention to Felix. He didn't look particularly nervous, despite the fact that his career was on the line. In fact, he looked...preoccupied. There was something in his face that was always present from the moment Anton had seen him arrive on Reach. As if he was thinking about something other than the issue at hand.

Anton felt a momentary irritation. He's worked pretty hard to get this far in the Navy. The least he could do is be a little worried.

"Will the defendant please rise."

Felix coolly stood up, his eyes on Pedrick.

Then again, the important thing is for him not to get jittery, Anton thought. I guess he's learned that in the Special Forces. For someone who was only nineteen, the kid could sure look professional in dress whites. Felix looked as if he was attending a ceremony and not a court-martial. His court-martial.

"Please state your name, rank, and duty station," the judge said.

"Lieutenant Felix Martel. Special Forces field officer, Taradian Naval Base 271-36." Felix's voice was clear and sharp, and there wasn't even a hint of a tremble in his voice.

"Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?"

"I do."

"Lieutenant Martel, you have been accused of insubordination, dereliction of duty, and wilfully disobeying a superior commissioned officer. How do you plead?"

Anton stood up. "My client pleads not guilty, Your Honour."

"Defence may call its first witness," Pedrick said, writing something on the sheet of paper in front of him.

"Defence calls Staff Sergeant Lester Morales," Anton said.

Morales stood up and approached the stand, his hands folded behind his back.

"State your name, rank, and duty station," Anton said, stepping away from his seat to stand across from him.

"Staff Sergeant Lester Morales, Marine Corps infantry NCO, Taradian Naval Base 271-36."

"Sergeant, you were assigned to the same Special Forces team as Lieutenant Martel, were you not?"

"That's correct, sir."

"How long did you work with him?"

"About six months, sir."

"Quite a lengthy period of time. Enough for you to get to know Lieutenant Martel very well. What were your observations of him during the timespan of your assignment?"

"He's an outstanding officer and is a quick thinker. He was the right one for NavSpecWar to send to Taradia."

"Does he seem like the type of soldier to disobey a direct order?"

"No, he doesn't. Not unless he had a very good reason."

"Objection!" Garraway said, standing up. "The defence has asked a question that condones speculation when the defendant has already admitted to disobeying orders."

"Correction, Major," Anton said. "Defence would like to determine the motives rather than the actions, since the latter is already clear to everyone present. As Sergeant Morales said, Lieutenant Martel would only disobey a direct order if he had a very good reason."

"Your Honour, I would like to have that remark stricken," Garraway said. "The defence obviously prefers to deal with opinions rather than solid facts which could distort the truths we are trying to reach in this case."

"Overruled," Pedrick said.

Anton was surprised by the decision, but decided not to let it show. Still, he would have thought things would have gone bad. We're not even two minutes into the case, and Garraway's already going for the offensive. And I think she's just getting started.

"Prosecution may question the defendant," the judge continued. Garraway immediately stood up, and so did Felix. He took the stand, and she stood in front of him.

"Lieutenant Martel, you were ordered to destroy a rebel facility during Operation: TRIUMVIRATE using a series of charges, is that right?"

"Yes, ma'am," Felix said.

"Then why did you not do it?"

"Because those orders are in conflict with ones I had received previously during the operation."

"Which ones?"

"Ma'am, that question isn't relevant to this case."

"Lieutenant, whether the question is relevant or not is not for you to decide. So answer it."

"Objection!" Anton said. "Your Honour, I believe the prosecution is exceeding her authority in her methods of questioning my client."

"Sustained," Pedrick said. "Major Garraway, you may either ask the defendant a relevant question or take a seat."

Garraway didn't show the slightest hint of frustration. Looking as composed as ever, she said, "Lieutenant Martel, from whom did you receive your previous orders from?"

"Lieutenant Colonel Julius Locklin, ma'am."

"Who happened to be replaced by a representative from Naval Special Warfare Command. As you were well aware."

"Yes, ma'am. But my orders still stood. And since the Naval officer did not identify himself, I was unsure whether his authority exceeded Colonel Locklin's."

"But that still doesn't change the fact that you were given orders by a superior officer and chose to disobey them, does it?"

"Unless the orders are conflicted and I haven't been authorized to scrap my previous orders—" Felix began.

"Answer the question, Lieutenant," Garraway said, easily cutting him short. His expression hardened very slightly, almost imperceptibly.

"No, ma'am, it doesn't."

"No further questions, your Honour," the Major said, turning her back to Felix and walking away from the stand.

"Defence may call its next witness," Pedrick said.

Anton gave a silent exhale. Don't worry, Felix. We're not done yet. He stood up and said, "Defence calls Private First Class Dean Ritzer to the stand."

As the Marine took the stand, Anton took his spot across from him. "Private Ritzer, were you part of the team that accompanied Lieutenant Martel to the rebel facility?"

"I was, sir."

"And did you recall the reason you were sent there?"

"Lieutenant Martel was to retrieve several important documents from the facility, sir. My team was to provide backup for him."

"Thank you, Private. So you were confused by the change in orders?"

Garraway got to her feet. "Objection! The defence's question requires an opinionated answer and is one that disputes something that is already a fact."

Anton turned his attention to her. "Major, I assure you, my question has a purpose. Like I said, what we need to know is the motive and not the action—"

"Your Honour, I would like to question the Private in Lieutenant Commander Morley's stead," she said, ignoring him.

Anton could have sworn he noticed Pedrick hesitate. But the answer came just when the thought entered his mind. "Granted. You may take a seat, Commander Morley."

Anton sat down next to Felix without a word, trying to think of something to say. But nothing came into his mind. I'll have to wait for her to finish before I try anything. Dammit, I'm starting to lose control of this case.

Garraway stood in front of the Marine and looked down at him, her hands behind her back. "Private Ritzer, what would you do if an officer told you that your CO was relieved and gave you clear, precise orders?"

What happened to avoiding opinionated questions? Anton thought. But he knew better than to contradict her; he knew without looking that just about everyone in the room would approve of the question. Including me.

"That would depend on the circumstances, ma'am," Ritzer said uncertainly.

"Would you obey it, if you had no reason to do otherwise?"

"I suppose so."

"Can you think of any reason for Lieutenant Martel to have disobeyed?"

"We were supposed to retrieve something important, but—"

"Private, how long have you been in the military?"

"About eleven months, ma'am."

"Have you ever received overriding or updated orders while in the middle of an operation?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Then would you, under these circumstances, have obeyed the orders given to you, had you been in Lieutenant Martel's place?"

"I would, ma'am."

"Your Witness," Garraway said coolly, walking back to her seat.

Okay, here goes. Anton stood up once again, and hoping the next witness he called would turn the court case in their favour, said her name in a firm, steady voice.

"Defence calls Lance Corporal Jess Morley to the stand."

For the first time, he saw Felix look up at Jess as she made her way to the front. Strange, Anton thought. He knew she was here the whole time. But what is it that he's thinking? Jess had been working on the case with him ever since she got back. He had thought it was just determination, but at times, he wondered if it was more than that. There had been a sort of feverishness in her that couldn't even be explained away by her friendship with Felix. And Anton could still see it in her eyes, even though she looked outwardly calm and almost indifferent.

He put his curiosity aside and returned his attention to the matter at hand, and made to stand up, but Garraway turned back to him at that moment. "Your Honour, may I question Corporal Morley? Seeing as the Commander is related to her, I think it's best if she answers questions that are made by...someone who's less likely to be biased."

What? She can't do that! Trying to contain the anger in his voice, Anton said, "Your Honour, I object! Major Garraway here is making assumptions that the defence is incapable of being unbiased, when she has no reason to do so."

Pedrick paused, looking from one judicial officer to the other. "Overruled."

Furious, he sat down, struggling to maintain his composure. He barely noticed the first two questions Garraway asked Jess, but caught himself and returned to taking in the exchange.

"Corporal Morley, would you obey a direct order if it were given to you by a superior officer?"

"Objection!" Anton snapped. "The prosecution has already asked the question to another witness. She has no reason to do so again."

"I am linking this question to the ones I have made previously, Lieutenant Commander," Garraway said coldly. "Perhaps if you actually paid attention to the case, you would know that."

She's baiting me, Anton thought. But I can't let her get to me. Ignoring the jibe, he said, "You are not here to gather opinions from every witness we question, Major. I suggest you stop doing so."

She gave a hint of an amused smile, but turned back to Jess without another word to him. "Corporal Morley, the Special Forces team you were assigned to was initially led by Lieutenant Hector Thornhill, is that correct?"

"Yes, ma'am," Jess said tersely.

"I see. So Lieutenant Martel was the second-in-command. What were your observations of his ability to lead the team after Lieutenant Thornhill was declared MIA?"

"He was...is a very good leader, ma'am. As Sergeant Morales said, he thinks on his feet and carried out the operation by outsmarting the rebels."

"Was that all, Corporal? Did you, perhaps...observe more than simply leadership in Lieutenant Martel?"

Anton was surprised by the question; if rephrased a bit less formally, it was one that could be even personal. But what surprised him even more was the sudden uncertainly in Jess' expression. He had expected her to immediately give a negative response to the question. But she looked like she was struggling with herself. He took in the scenario in less than a second, and thinking quickly, got to his feet. "Objection! The question is provocative and derogatory towards the witness." He felt a sudden spasm of nervousness. Just how observant was Garraway? If she noticed something about Jess that even he hadn't, then this case was about to get a lot worse.

Anton stood there for what seemed like an eternity, forcing himself to hold the judge's gaze. Finally, the answer was, "Sustained."

"Then, Corporal," Garraway said without missing a beat, "were you present when Lieutenant Martel was at the rebel facility?"

"No...no, ma'am." There was a detectable tremor in Jess' voice.

"What was your reaction when he told you he disobeyed a direct order?"

Jess' mouth was moving, but they weren't forming words. She now looked completely overwhelmed by nervousness.

"Did he even tell you that he disobeyed an order?" Garraway asked quietly.

"...No, he didn't."

Right. I need to know what's going on. Anton stood up. "Your Honour, I'd like to request a fifteen-minute recess to confer with council."

"Very well," Pedrick said. "We'll resume at 1020 hours."

Anton maintained his impassiveness as he stepped outside the courtroom and down the stone steps. He spotted Jess standing by a nearby fountain and approached her briskly, placing his heated discussion with Garraway out of his mind.

She must have noticed him too, because she straightened slightly, looking almost stiff. I feel like I'm going to interrogate her or something. What does she know that I don't?

Anton considered standing in front of her, but he didn't want to look constraining. Instead, he stood next to her, leaning against the fountain. "What do you think so far?" he asked.

"What do you mean?" she asked, a little quietly.

"How are we doing?"

"Well, for one, that Garraway is a pain in the ass."

"I know what you mean. I've seen her cases before. She's good."

"Don't beat around the bush, Anton. I know you have something to ask me."

He raised an eyebrow. "You could be a lawyer yourself with those observational skills. Not to mention lack of common courtesy."

"Anton, you've been talking to council for ten minutes. The case resumes in five. So if there's something you need to know, just ask."

She looked a bit on edge, and it wasn't just the sleep deprivation either. "You're right," he admitted. "I noticed that you seemed pretty tense in that courtroom. Is there something about Felix I should know about?"

Jess looked away. "I don't know how to tell you this, Anton," she whispered. "He's given up so much to join the Navy, and now he might not even have that."

He could tell that there was more to it than that. "What else? You've been acting unusual this past week. You haven't been yourself."

"I hadn't seen him for three years after he left Reach. When I was assigned with him again, he was so different." It sounded like she was talking more to herself. "I never thought I'd...fall in love with him." She turned back to him, looking straight at him. She was waiting for his reaction.

Anton was caught by surprise by the statement, yet he felt that he shouldn't have. Of course.. She's worried she might lose him.

He took Jess' hand and squeezed it. "We can talk about this later. But for now, let's get Felix off the hook."

She gave a small nod, and walked back towards the courtroom. Without another word, he followed.

Anton returned to his seat for what felt like the fiftieth time, having refuted Garraway's statements again. At least, he did his best. He felt as if she was backing him into a corner.

The afternoon had been harrowing; the Major had attacked Felix with question after question, and she often left them hanging in the air to make him look guilty. Anton had been very much relieved when the jury said that they hadn't reached a verdict yet even when it was evening. But he had redoubled his efforts to try and think of something to pull Felix out of this.

I know there's something. It had been bothering him since Jess told him what happened. Something wasn't quite right. But what?"

"The prosecution may begin its testimony," Pedrick said.

Garraway stood up in the blink of an eye. "The prosecution calls Lieutenant Martel to the stand."

Felix wordlessly took the stand.

"Lieutenant Martel, when you disobeyed orders, were you aware that it would have repercussions?" asked Garraway, pacing in front of Felix.

"Ma'am? I consider every action I make to have repercussions," he replied.

"I don't just mean for you. Were you aware that because you refused to detonate the charges, others had to risk their lives to neutralize the rebel force in your place?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"The entire effort took two days. Eleven Marines were killed and eight wounded. All because you refused to take the simple action of detonating the charges like you were ordered."

Felix's head jerked up, and he stared at her almost angrily. "I have one question, ma'am. Why was it so important that I detonate those charges?"

Anton gave a start. What?

"I was on Taradia for the duration of Operation: TRIUMVIRATE. I was taking orders from Lieutenant Colonel Julius Locklin the whole time. When I was at the rebel base, I was told that he was 'relieved', and then I was given a code to detonate a number of charges supposedly placed around the rebel base."

He never told me this, Anton thought. His mind was whirling. This changes everything. I know how to win this case. He finally realized what was out of place.

"Why were the charges not detonated by whoever set them?" Felix continued. "Or why were they not detonated by someone else after I refused?"

To her credit, Garraway recovered fairly quickly. "That's classified information, Lieutenant. What you need to be concerned with is that you deliberately—"

Anton leapt to his feet. "Major, are you claiming to have access to said information?"

"That's not what I—"

"Then it's speculation. You are speculating upon something that can completely change the direction of this case, while omitting the facts that you may find against your favour. Would you say that's becoming of a lawyer?"

Garraway's expression tightened. "That's not for me to say, Commander."

"That's alright, Major. I'm sure the jury knows the answer to that."

"Does the defence have any last remarks?" Pedrick asked, having apparently "forgotten" that Garraway wasn't finished. Anton took the opportunity.

"No, Your Honour," he said.

"Very well. I think we've heard everything we needed to. If the jury would please leave the courtroom to decide on a verdict."

A look of anger flashed across Garraway's face for the first time, for the briefest moment. She took a seat wordlessly.

Here goes, Anton thought. It's out of my hands now. I've done everything I can here to prove Felix innocent.

I just hope the jurors feel the same.

None of the twelve jurors looked surprised to see Captain Warson sitting in the jury room. But they didn't say anything until the door was closed behind them.

"Well?" he asked as they took their seats.

"Lieutenant Commander Morley has found the ace in the hole," one of the jurors said.

"Took him long enough," the Captain said. "Things were getting ugly. But at least you boys can vote not guilty without making it look suspicious."

"If you're going to worry about someone being too obvious, worry about Commander Pedrick," said another juror. "He showed clear signs of bias throughout the court-martial—"

"I specifically picked the Commander to judge the case because he's someone we can trust. I doubt even Major Garraway would question him."

"I wouldn't be so sure," the juror muttered. "Knowing her, she'd probably go after him next."

"Oh, don't worry about that," Warson said, standing up. "That would make Garraway look like someone with a grudge. And she cares too much about her reputation to allow that to happen."

He walked around the jurors and opened a door hidden in the wall. "Wait ten minutes, then go back into the courtroom and announce your verdict. Don't make it unanimous or it'll look suspicious." He paused before leaving, and added, "Now if you'll excuse me, I've got some things to tie up at Naval Command. I'll be expecting Lieutenant Martel in two weeks." He stepped out of the jury room, closing the door behind him.

The courtroom was hushed as the jurors walked back in. Anton wanted to look over to Felix, who was standing beside him, but resisted the urge. He's as nervous as I am. I know it. He couldn't help but take a furtive glance at Jess though. She was clinging the railing in front of her tightly, and her jaw was set. There was a visible line of sweat on her forehead. She looked as if she was waiting to be executed.

"Does the jury have a verdict?" Pedrick asked.

"Yes, Your Honour," said one of the jurors. "By a majority of eight to four, we find the defendant not guilty."

The judge turned his attention to Felix. "Lieutenant Felix Martel, you are hereby cleared of all charges and are free to return to active duty."

Felix snapped to attention. "Aye aye, sir!"

Pedrick struck his gavel against the sound block. "This proceeding is now at an end. Dismissed."

Breathing a visible sigh of relief, Anton nudged Felix and led him towards the door as everyone stood up to leave. As Jess joined them, he gave his sister a quick smile, which was returned. They walked out of the courtroom, the feeling of tension absent for the first time in many days.

Chapter 9: Project ORION

0600 Hours, July 27, 2491 (Earth-standard Calendar), New Alexandria, Eposz, planet Reach, Epsilon Eridani system

Jess stepped out of her bedroom and saw Felix sitting in the living room, gazing out the window, his face in his hands. The morning view was spectacular when one was looking at it one-hundred forty-nine stories up from the ground.

"You're up early," she said, sitting down across from him.

"Yeah..." he said absently, still looking out across the still-waking up New Alexandria. "It's not everyday you get acquitted from a court-martial."

"Well, try not to get yourself into that position again," she said jokingly. When he didn't respond, she asked, "What's wrong?"

Felix turned to face her. "I didn't get a chance to ask you on Taradia, Jess. But what are we going to do? Fraternization is forbidden in the UNSC, you know that."

Jess sighed. "I know. But I think it's a little late to say anything now. Even if we confess, getting assigned to different posts will be the least of our worries. And I don't think you want to get yourself in trouble again, not when you just got out." It had been bothering her too. She just hadn't admitted it to herself.

"I'm returning to duty tomorrow. We need to figure this out now, before we get in too deep." His hands fell to the table.

She placed her hand on his. "I say we go with our instincts...and don't let this control us."

"Go with our instincts?" he repeated.

"Fight the ocean and you will drown. It's easier than lying to yourself. If you know how you feel and be honest with yourself, that's the best you can do."

Unexpectedly, Felix broke out in laughter. "Geez, I didn't know you were such an expert on fraternization. You should have given me a hint."

His sarcasm instantly dispelled the heavy mood. Jess couldn't help but laugh as well. Soon they were both cracking up, one laughing even harder at the other's hysterics.

Anton's bedroom door opened, and he walked out, rubbing his eyes.

"I don't know about you two, but I was trying to get my first decent night of sleep in ten days," he muttered. "So will you can it already?"

They both stared at him silently for a moment. "Yes, Your Honour," Jess said.

They burst out laughing again.

1300 Hours, August 11, 2491 (Earth-standard Calendar), New Alexandria, Eposz, planet Reach, Epsilon Eridani system

Jess turned the corner to see Morales and Cortez standing in the hallway outside their barracks, talking in low voices. They looked slightly perturbed.

"Something wrong?" she asked, approaching them. They stopped talking and turned to face her. She put her hands on her hips.

"Come on, spit it out. You asked to meet me here, and I'm here. So what is it?"

Morales frowned. "Last week, I was informed that we'd be regrouping with our unit today. But just half an hour ago, I received new orders."

"New orders? From who?"

"I dunno, some ONI spook that left me a message. Basically, there's a change of plans. I was just telling Cortez about it."

"Yeah, he was saying something about getting called to a ship off-base," Cortez said.

"You're getting pulled out?" Jess asked Morales.

"We're getting pulled out," he corrected her. "You, me, and Cortez. And God knows who else. Come on, it's easier if I showed you guys." He led them into their barracks, which were currently unoccupied. He walked over to a large table, where something small was laid on top of it. He slid them across the table so they could see it.

Cortez choked. "Is that—?"

"It is," Jess breathed, hardly believing it. Laid in front of them were two sets of triple-chevrons.

"You've both been promoted to Sergeant," Morales said. "Congratulations, I suppose. Guess someone from command appreciates your efforts on Taradia..." He trailed off, sounding slightly confused.

Jess touched the chevrons, almost afraid to pick them up. "I don't understand," she said. "I haven't even made Corporal."

Cortez was examining his new insignias closely as if checking to see if they were real. "Maybe this was why we weren't going to reform the squad, Staff Sergeant. Maybe Morley and I are getting our own squads now."

"Maybe," Morales said dubiously. "I'm not trying to drag you two down or anything, but something's going on here. The UNSC doesn't just give promotions away like free candy." He waited silently as they admired their chevrons, deciding not to spoil the moment. After a minute, however, he cleared his throat. Both Marines looked up.

"Well, what are you waiting for? Put them on, it's not like anyone's going to kill you for it." He watched as Jess tentatively replaced her Lance Corporal's chevrons with her Sergeant ones, Cortez putting his on with a little more enthusiasm. When they were done, he said, "Now let's go find out what the hell ONI wants with us now. Our ride is in the hangar."

Jess walked with her fellow Marines out of the barracks and towards the hangar, still numb from surprise. She barely noticed where they were going. I've made Sergeant after only four years of service. This is...unbelievable. I wonder what Felix is going to think...

She jerked her mind back to reality. This promotion means I've got new responsibilities now. I can't think about Felix while on duty anymore. Thinking back to what Morales had told her, she decide to find out some facts to keep her mind on what was happening. "Sarge, do you know anything else about these ships?"

"I know they're arriving from Taradia," he replied. "I guess they're done cleaning up over there."

"All the ships are from Taradia?" she asked.

"That I don't know," Morales said. "But we're to report to the Meriwether Lewis as soon as possible."

"Meriwether Lewis?" Cortez asked. "I've heard others talking about it today. Even the Navies. It sounds like ONI's planning some secret project."

Morales sighed. "I don't know about you two, but all this ONI crap hasn't even grown on me yet, and it's already starting to get old."

Cortez winked. "Speak for yourself. If ONI wants to give me any more promotions, I'll take them, no questions asked."

Jess could tell that he was just trying to lighten the mood; the tension around his shoulders betrayed his cheerful facade. She too was starting to feel tired of ONI. They hadn't gone on a standard operation for four years, and she realized for the first time that she missed it. We're Marines, dammit. Why doesn't ONI find someone else to take care of this crap? A small part of her had hoped that the promotions indicated that they were to get back to normal missions, but she knew that it wasn't the case.

1140 Hours, August 12, 2491 (Earth-standard Calendar), ONI Sword Base, Eposz, planet Reach, Epsilon Eridani system

Felix watched as the Pelican landed in the courtyard and unloaded another group of soldiers, who were quickly escorted into the base by two black-uniformed officers. He scrutinized them for familiar faces, but couldn't see any. Disappointed, he looked away from the dropship as it took off again.

"You're looking for someone?"

He turned around to see a lone Marine approached him. He was a dark-skinned young man, and had the single chevron of a Private. They were somewhere around the same age.

"Yeah," Felix said. "A friend. I don't know if she's going to be here or not..."

"Did you see her in the debriefing room?" the Marine asked, standing next to him.

"No...I don't think so."

"Can't blame you, sir. That room was dark as hell. Couldn't see my own hand in front of my face."

Felix nodded, suddenly remembering what the ONI agent had told them on board the ship they were sent onto. This ORION Project sounds heavy. And risky.

Of course, he and everyone else had volunteered when they were first told about it. So they were debriefed and sent to a base in Reach's Babd Catha Ice Shelf and waited for everyone to arrive before augmentations. He decided to wait in the hangar to see if Jess had volunteered too.

He realized that the Marine was waiting for him to say something, and suddenly felt awkward. "Sorry, I haven't really introduced myself," he said. "Lieutenant Felix Martel, UNSC Navy. Special Forces." He extended his hand.

The Private shook his hand. He had a very firm grip. "Private First Class Avery Johnson, UNSC Marine Corps." Johnson gave a friendly smile. "Special Forces, huh? Glad to see ONI isn't pulling Navy squids off ships because they were running short on volunteers. I was a bit worried when I saw your insignia, sir."

The playful tone in his voice lifted Felix's feeling of apprehension slightly, and he laughed. "Thanks, I guess. Where you from, Johnson?"

"Earth. My aunt lives in Chicago."

"I'm from Eridanus II, Asphodel City."

Johnson's smile faded. "Eridanus II. That ONI spook said that's where most of our actions is going to be."

Felix felt his stomach sinking when he realized what it meant. "Yeah..."

"You got family there, sir?"

"No...no, I don't."

The Marine clapped him on the shoulder. "Well then, you shouldn't have any problem taking out those rebel bastards, Lieutenant. Especially if these augmentations are as good as ONI says."

Their conversation was interrupted when an officer walked up to them. "You two had better get inside," he said. "Someone will show you to the augmentation room when you reach the third floor."

"Everyone's here, then?" Johnson asked.

For a brief moment, irritation crossed the officer's face, as if he wasn't used to being questioned. "Almost. But there's no reason for you to wait around here."

Felix looked up into the atmosphere, where a frigate was hovering above them. A tiny speck was moving away from it. It could be a Pelican, but it was too far away to tell. Reluctantly, he looked away and walked into the base with Johnson.

They reached the third floor easily enough and were escorted to a line-up outside a door engraved with ONI's circle-and-tetrahedron logo. As they walked down the hall, Felix noticed that the guards weren't uniformed in Marine fatigues, but black uniforms. ORION must really be a top-secret project. They didn't even assign standard guards around the place.

There were about ten others in front of them, the front-most speaking with a guard, who was holding a datapad. Felix gave a start. That's Koel. I should have known he would volunteer.

"Name, rank, and serial number?" he asked.

"Roy Koel. Private First Class. 84612-78390-RK."

The guard entered the information, paused as he read the file, and held the pad up to Koel's retina. A tiny camera scanned it, blinked red twice, and flashed green. "You're cleared." The door slid open, and he walked in. Felix tried to see what was in the room, but it, like the debriefing room, it was dimly lit. The doors slid shut again.

"They sure picked a nice place for augmentations," Johnson muttered to him. "Cold as hell all year round."

After the soldiers in front of them were all cleared, it was finally their turn. Johnson stepped up to the door.

"Name, rank, and serial number?" the guard asked.

"Avery J. Johnson," the Marine said clearly. "Private First Class, 48789-20114-AJ."

The guard tapped the buttons on the datapad, and held it vertically to Johnson's face. The screen blinked red twice, and flashed green. "You're cleared." The Marine gave Felix a subtle "good luck" gesture, and walked through the door.

"Next," the guard said.

It was his turn. "Name?"

"Felix Martel," said a voice behind him. "So you did make it into ORION after all."

Felix turned around to see Jess approach them with Morales, Cortez, and a dozen others.

"Well, you know there's not been a lot of volunteers," he said, unable to hold back a smile. "I suppose they would take anyone, even me."

"Hurry it up," the guard said. "The augmentations start in twenty minutes, and we're trying to get everyone inside."

Felix quickly turned back to him as the others lined up behind him. "Felix Martel. Lieutenant. 11642-11236-FM."

The guard scanned his retina, and let him though. Felix turned back to the Marines. "I'll see you guys inside." They nodded, and he stepped into the room, feeling a mixture of nervousness and excitement.

1310 Hours, August 14, 2491 (Earth-standard Calendar), exact location unknown, planet Reach, Epsilon Eridani system

Watts turned on the transmission device and found Barrie's message.

"Any news?" Barrie's voice asked.

He was about to tell him to be more specific, when he remembered that it was a recording. "Things have settled down on Taradia," he said instead. "Corporal Morley's body was not found."

"You're sure?" Barrie asked.

"I checked the bodies recovered by the UNSC and Kahn's men."

"Dammit. That means she's still alive."

"Gerald, you should just let this go. You're being paranoid."

"You of all people should be worried," Barrie snapped. "She's one of the people that can expose you. And what about Felix?"

"What about him? I can cover myself just fine."

"Where is he?"

"I don't know. Look, unless you want me to take Morley prisoner and ask her myself—"

"Sir?" a technician entered the communications room. "I have something to show you."

The transmission device caught the statement. "If you're sending it to me, be careful," Barrie replied. "You're in too deep to get caught."

"Halt transmission," Watts said. Turning to the tech irritably, he said, "I'm in the middle of something."

"I've found that Marine you were looking for, sir. She's been pulled underground by ONI for a project called ORION."

He was instantly interested. "Do you have the entire list of soldiers?"

"Yes, right here, sir." He handed it to him.

"Well done. Let me know if you dig up anything else." After the technician left, Watts reactivated Barrie's transmission. "I'm onto something. I'll let you know when I get some answers."

He turned off the screen.

0840 Hours, August 15, 2491 (Earth-standard Calendar), New Alexandria, Eposz, planet Reach, Epsilon Eridani system

Anton read the documents one more time to make sure everything was right. He had gone over it at least a million times now; it had taken him several months to work out every possible flaw. It was time.

He knew exactly what it was that was holding him back, and it persistently burned into his conscience despite his attempts to ignore it. He was about to not only cross the line of legal action and into espionage, but walk deep into its sinister darkness. It wasn't just the possible consequences should he fail, but the moral issues were causing doubts that were eating away at his resolve.

I've already done so much that I'm not proud of, he thought. All to try and stop Watts. I only have one opportunity at this. But is this the right way to do it? And even if I do put Watts away, he's only one threat out of so many. Is this going to make a difference...?

Anton realized that he was gripping the documents so hard they were starting to crumple. He set them down, taking deep breaths to calm his thoughts. I can do this. I've gotten this far. No turning back now. He picked up his phone and sent a call out, resisting the urge to look at the documents again.

He was answered on the fifth ring. "Hello?" said a voice that sounded half-asleep.

"Cliff, I need one last favour," Anton said, surprised at how calm he suddenly sounded.

"Anton..." Cliff yawned. "Can you not call me so early? I like to sleep in."

"Sorry. But I'm short on time, can you help me out?"

"You know my motto. I can do it as long as you can pay. Although by now I think I've more or less emptied out your account."

"I've got enough for one more job," Anton said. "I've prepared all the plans for you on documents and all too."

"Okay. Don't think it'll cut anything off your fee though. What do you need?"

"Two things. One, forge an ONI warrant that give me authorization to monitor Watts' commmunications. And two, get me something to, well, monitor his communications."

There was a pause. "Well, alright. If you really did plan it all out, you can send them to me. But like I said, my price isn't cheap. 850,000 cR."

"Done. I'll send you the documents. How long will it take you to get back to me?"

"Give me 2 weeks, tops."

"Sounds good. Thanks, Cliff."

"Oh, and Anton..."


"Watch your step. You're looking pretty precarious right about now."

"I hear you." Anton hung up, trying to push the doubts out of his mind. It's done. No use worrying about it now. He put his thoughts to the potential upsides should he succeed. Watts won't be able to aid the rebels anymore. They'll take a major blow and their power over Eridanus II will weaken. We can end this before it turns into an all-out war.

Optimism had always worked for him whenever he was preparing for a difficult case. Not this time though. He sighed, closing the documents so he wouldn't have to look at them. It'll all be worth it. It has to be worth it.

1030 Hours, August 18, 2491 (Earth-standard Calendar), ONI Sword Base, Eposz, planet Reach, Epsilon Eridani system

Felix winced at the pain that shot jabbed into his elbows when he grabbed the 50-pound dumbbells. Just the motion of wrapping his fingers around the two weights felt like someone was running blades down his forearms. Still, they didn't feel too heavy, and he was quickly able to maintain a pattern of lifting one in each hand at a time. The pain quickly faded.

He had been trying to get used to the physical after-effects of his augmentations, and it had been very exerting. Although there were some general effects that were seen in everyone, some had more difficulties adjusting than others. Jess had been throwing up regularly ever since she received hers. About a dozen soldiers had become rather moody. A few were even having trouble walking straight.

Felix counted himself lucky that he didn't suffer from any of the serious symptoms, but for the first few days it had hurt to just walk. On some days he couldn't eat during mealtimes, and was having trouble sleeping at night. The effects were starting to wear off, which was a relief. He couldn't remember the last time he had felt "normal".

Johnson sure adjusted pretty well, he thought. The Marine had almost no side-effects, and he was one of the first to recover. He was lifting weights on the other side of the room right now, ones that were at least 80 pounds. He wasn't even breaking a sweat.

Felix put down his dumbbells after a while, stretching out his burning arm muscles. He walked over to the treadmill, but something caught his attention before he got on.

One of the other soldiers were lifting a two-handed 180-pound weight. She was breathing heavily, but didn't appear to be struggling otherwise. She looked like she was in her early to mid-twenties and wasn't exactly bulging with muscles; he wouldn't have guessed that she could do something of the sort.

She noticed him watching and put the weight down. Sitting up and putting her arms on her knees to catch her breath, she said, "You know, we only have half an hour to exercise. Do you plan on staring at me the whole time, kid?"

Felix was startled by the statement. "No, it's just that...you're the first person I've seen who could lift that much weight."

She stood up; to his surprise, he saw that she was at least a head taller than him. "Ah, I'm still working on it. I can only do it for a couple of minutes right now." She held out her hand. "Corporal Gillian Buckler, UNSC Army. Call me Gilly."

He shook her hand. "Lieutenant Felix Martel, Naval Special Forces."

Gilly raised an eyebrow. "I've heard of you. Hector mentioned you a couple of times during training."

"Hector?" he repeated. "You knew him?"

"Yeah. He told me about what he was doing on Taradia when ORION first started. I never would have guessed they wanted another hundred candidates for the project. Where is Hector now?"

Felix's gaze fell. "He went MIA on Taradia. We still haven't found him."

"That's too bad. He was the only one who was allowed to leave without finishing his training. I was hoping he'd come back. Say, could I interest you in a boxing match?" she asked suddenly.

"Now?" he asked, surprised.

"Well, yeah." She walked over to the boxing ring and grabbed the equipment. "Think you can take me?"

"No," he admitted, reluctantly taking the gloves and the head guard. Gilly was already putting hers on.

"I'll go easy on you," she said. "But don't hold back. I've found that nothing gives you a better release than a good, clean match of boxing."

"Okay...what rules?"

"No rules. Just don't try to kill me and I won't try to kill you."

The others had noticed by now and were walking over. A few of the older ones laughed, and one of them said to Johnson, "The kid has no chance. Gilly's ranked top of the list. No one's managed to beat her except Thornhill."

The Marine looked like he was about to say something, but didn't get the chance because Felix and Gilly had stepped into the ring and were getting ready to begin.

Felix kept his guard up, cautiously watching her movements. Okay, I'll move in when—

Gilly leaped at him, swinging her right fist at his head. Startled, he brought up his left to block. He was knocked back half a step, but still swung a punch with his other hand in case she tried to follow up. It didn't connect with anything. Struggling to maintain his balance, he sidestepped her next punch and brought his hand down on hers with a chopping motion. His gloves didn't allow him to grab anything firmly, but he made another swing with his other hand. But Gilly was quicker. She made a counter-clockwise half-spin, and brought up her right arm before he could react. Felix felt her fist collide with the side of his face, and he fell onto the ground.

Some of the others jeered, but she kept her hands raised and her eyes on him. Ignoring the swimming vision in his left eye, he got to his feet and aimed a punch at her face. She easily blocked it, but he followed up by swinging a second punch at her side with his right hand. She blocked that too, but a split second later, he knocked her hand aside hard. Without losing momentum, Felix brought his right hand back up in an uppercut that landed on her chin and caused her to stumble backwards. He backed away, trying to catch his breath. Okay, so she moves fast. I just need a second—

Gilly was suddenly right in front of him as if she had appeared out of nowhere, hitting him in the rib cage and knocking the breath out of him. He was thrown onto the ropes, but forcing himself to move before she pinned him there, he used them to launch himself at her. But he suddenly staggered, and he felt her fist collide with the side of his head, knocking him down again.

Felix felt as if he couldn't hear anything; everything was muffled sound. Breathing heavily, he got to his feet again as his hearing returned to normal. Is she going to finish me off...?

"Johnson, Koel, Cortez, get up there, give him a hand," he heard someone say.

"I'm fine!" Felix shouted. Dammit, do they have to make me look bad too? He was a bit dazed, but the boxing gloves were relatively soft, and there wasn't going to be any lasting damage.

"I don't mind," Gilly said from somewhere on the other side of the ring. He was partially relieved that she wasn't taking advantage of his exhaustion, but felt a bit annoyed all the same. His vision and breathing returned to normal quickly though, and he saw that three Marines were in the ring now, wearing boxing equipment. Gilly, who was leaning casually against the corner pole, took two steps forward. "You boys ready?"

Felix took a deep breath and kept his hands up, standing alongside the others. "You don't have to do this," he muttered to them.

"Rule of thumb, sir," Cortez said. "We're a team. We stick together."

"So what does that make her?"

The Marine grinned. "A challenge."

Feeling more reassured, Felix turned his attention to Gilly. Her eyes were moving ever so slightly from one to the next, watching for a move. Guess she's not rushing in this time. There are more of us, but we should still be careful.

Johnson moved in first from the left, pushing her back with a series of rapid blows that were either blocked or dodged by her. A heartbeat later, Koel moved in from the other side, aiming more methodically for where she couldn't block. Still, she managed to ward off both of them, and in a matter of seconds, Koel was knocked down.

Felix ran at her, keeping his fists at his sides until he was half an arm's length away from her. He made a swing with his left hand, which was caught by Gilly. She flung his hand to the left, causing him to stumble into Johnson. He saw Cortez and Koel out of the corner of his eye; they were rushing her at the same time. He didn't see what happened next, but the next second, they were both on the ground.

Spinning around, Felix watched her, trying to think of a strategy quickly. Sure, she had said that there were no rules, but he didn't intend on playing dirty. He decided to distract her until the others were back on their feet, however. Moving in slowly, he threw punch after punch, constantly moving or blocking with one hand so that she couldn't land any hits on him. She was fighting back, but he blocked all her attacks. She's not trying anymore. What's she doing?

Koel and Cortez were creeping up behind her, hands held up. In one swift move, Gilly grabbed Felix by the shoulder and flung him into Cortez, then spinning around and delivering a kick to Koel in the face. The Marine was knocked down for the third time, and this time didn't get up.

Felix separated himself from Cortez, and made another swing at her. He clumsily grabbed her hand and pulled downward forcefully, and landed three punches on her face and chest in quick succession. He was about to make one more blow when she tackled him and swept his feet over his head, flipping him over. He landed hard on the ground yet again, unable to do more than just lie there, breathing heavily. He could hear Johnson and Cortez shouting something to each other, and saw Gilly run past him. There was the sound of aggressive punching, then ropes breaking, and someone fell next to him. Then there was silence.

Someone was walking up to him. It was Gilly. She simply watched him, looking amused. "How old are you, Lieutenant?"

"Nineteen," he gasped.

She helped him to his feet. "Well, you didn't do too bad. You certainly can take more than these three. And they're Marines and all too." To his amazement, he saw that Koel, Cortez, and Johnson were all lying down, unconscious. The latter had fallen out of the boxing ring and onto a nearby exercise mat. The others were returning to their exercises or trying to wake the Marines up.

Gilly put her arm around Felix's shoulders and helped him walk over to a bench. He collapsed onto it, still gasping for air. "You stuck with the traditional boxing rules, even though I told you we weren't playing by the rules." She frowned. "Why was that?"

"It wasn't fair," he mumbled.

"It sure isn't. But it isn't about being fair when we're in combat. And this project doesn't train you to be fair. It trains you to take out the enemy, and to survive. They knew that," she said, indicating the unconscious Marines. "And they did what they could to try and win."

He gave a feeble chuckle. "Is that why you knocked them out?"

Gilly laughed. "Could be." She stooped over and picked up her towel. "Well, that just about does it for me for today, Lieutenant. You still have twenty minutes of exercise left, although I'd suggest you get some rest." She walked towards the exit, looking as if she didn't just beat four soldiers single-handed. She stopped just outside the door and looked over her shoulder. "We should have a rematch sometime. But I won't be going easy on you anymore."

Felix groaned. She laughed again and left the gym.

Chapter 10: Two-Edged Blade

1520 Hours, August 23, 2491 (Earth-standard Calendar), exact location unknown, planet Reach, Epsilon Eridani system

"Here's what I've found out about ORION," Watts said, speaking clearly into the transmission device. "Jess Morley is in the project, but not only that, so is Felix Martel. I've sent you the entire list with this message.

"What's more, I've also confirmed Hector Thornhill's involvement in ORION. He was the only one who was deployed because no one else was 'ready' yet. I don't know where this guy is right now, but I'm glad we don't have to deal with him now.

"Still, that doesn't mean we don't have to worry about them. Since ONI wanted another hundred candidates for the project, there are now one-hundred and sixty-four subjects that are part of it. And these augmentations look very interesting. I'm sending them to you as well. Make sure we don't lose them again.

"One more thing. I'm need you to talk with a former SWAT officer named Jerald Ander. He's got connections and he's starting a union on Harvest that could be mutually beneficial to all of us. I trust you can do the talking once I put you in contact with him."

"Did you get that last transmission?" Cliff asked.

"Yeah," Anton said, adding the audio file on his computer to the file where he stored all the other ones he had recorded. "That's all the evidence I need."

"We've got him," the hacker said, sounding strangely excited for someone who was usually apathetic to such things. "This guy's going to be executed by the end of the week."

Anton had hoped his misgivings would be gone by now, but he still felt uneasy. I feel like I'm forgetting something. But I don't have time to check it all again. If there is something I've missed, I'll most likely find out what as I prepare the case. He hung up, and finally turned his attention to everything he had collected for the past few years.

Now...for the hard part.

Anton did his best to look completely composed as he presented all the documents to the ONI officer, but he wondered if she could see through it anyway. Margaret Parangosky certainly had a striking air about her that made him feel like she could read his mind.

Kinda creepy, when you think about it. She couldn't be older than thirty.

"Your warrant shows has checked out as valid," the officer said. Her voice was almost impossible to read. Anton almost sighed with relief, but caught himself.

"So do I have permission to try Colonel Watts in court with all gathered evidence, ma'am?" he asked.

"Yes. But accusations of treason are not to be taken lightly. ONI will be judging this case."

"That's fine, ma'am."

"I wasn't giving you a choice, Lieutenant Commander," she replied. "Someone will be informing Lieutenant Colonel Watts that he will be court-martialled in five days. You will see him there. Dismissed."

Anton stood up. "Aye aye, Captain."

0900 Hours, August 28, 2491 (Earth-standard Calendar), New Alexandria, Eposz, planet Reach, Epsilon Eridani system

Anton watched as Watts entered the court-room. The Colonel showed no signs of consternation, or any expression at all. Guess he's good at not looking guilty.

Then he noticed who his attorney was. It was Major Jodie Garraway. Not her again. Did she pick this case because she knew I was prosecuting? Or...does she know what Watts is doing? Did that mean she deliberately tried to convict Felix and get him discharged?

Anton shook his head. I can't be speculating. Not today. Looking away from Watts, he turned his attention to Parangosky instead, who was apparently going to be judging the case.

Not only that, but the jurors are ONI as well. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing.

"Take a seat," she said. Watts and Garraway did so without pause.

"This case is strictly closed to the UNSC Office of Naval Intelligence," Parangosky said. "Information will be disclosed or otherwise at their discretion but will not be on the record unless deemed necessary. However, any potential sentence will be delivered in full." Her eyes moved from Anton to Watts. "You will not be asked to speak under oath. But a word of caution: make your decisions carefully, because ONI is capable of much more than legal action."

She glanced down at the files in front of her for the briefest of moments. "This court-martial is now in session. Lieutenant Colonel Robert Watts, under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, you have been accused of treason, aiding and abetting, and conspiracy to pass information onto the enemy. How do you plead?"

"Not guilty, Your Honour," Watts replied.

"Prosecution may call its first witness," Parangosky said without pause.

"Prosecution calls Sergeant Jess Morley to the stand," Anton said.

His sister stood up and walked over to the stand, her shoulders a bit tense and her eyes staring straight ahead. This is it, Jess, he thought as he watched her step onto the stand. We've been working towards this trial for years and it's all going to pay off. Don't get nervous on me now.

Hell, I'm nervous. We've done a lot of stuff we weren't supposed to to get to this point. The whole case could blow up in our faces. Anton shook his head, trying to clear the doubt from his mind. It persisted. She's the only witness I have in this case. So there's no room for mistakes.

He was spared from further thoughts as he stood in front of Jess, "Please state your name, rank, and duty station."

"Sergeant Jess Morley, Marine Corps infantry NCO..." she hesitated. "...Project ORION, subject #146."

That's right, Anton thought. Everyone in this courtroom is ONI. That would make it much easier for me to present all this classified information...assuming they don't figure out how I really got it. Clearing his throat, he asked, "Sergeant Morley, you were assigned to a Marine team in 2487 to rescue Lieutenant Colonel Robert Watts at Eridanus II, is that correct?"

"Yes, sir," Jess said, rather tersely.

"Could you tell me what exactly happened on that mission?"

Jess closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When she opened them again, she looked completely composed. "Well, sir, it was my first mission," she said, raising her voice so it was more clear and confident. "I was assigned as one of four replacements to Gunnery Sergeant Justin Roberg's team. We had learned earlier that Lieutenant Colonel Watts, who was believed to be dead in 2484, was alive but was captured by rebels. We were sent to rescue him and bring him back to our duty station.

"We entered the camp where Watts was held. We took out the small rebel force that was assigned there and found him pretty quickly. Then..."

"Then what, Sergeant?"

Jess raised her eyes to glare at Watts contemptuously. "It was an ambush. Hundreds of rebels flooded the camp, tied us up like animals. The ones that struggled were shot. And Watts...he just walked away and left us to die. The leader, Gerald Barrie, executed my squadmates one by one."

"Is that what you want to believe?" Watts asked, returning her gaze with narrowed eyes.

"Colonel, I am going to ask you to be quiet," Anton said. "My client has not yet finished her statement." The defector's eyes flicked over to him for a second before turning away.

"No, Lieutenant Commander, I have said enough for now," Jess said calmly, nodding at him. Anton returned to the nod, and walked over to his seat to pick up a folder placed there.

"Perhaps Colonel Watts would like to explain how he has returned to the UNSC after the incident at the camp north of Asphodel City," he said. "I have the reports here that confirmed he was captured and placed there on the 25th of March, 2487."

"My client has never denied the truth of those reports," Garraway said, standing up. "But he does have a story that can be supported by evidence." She paused. "Of course, I believe you do have a witness to your account of events. As Lieutenant Colonel Derek Rawley reported, Sergeant Morley returned to her duty station in the company of Felix Martel, currently a Navy officer but was previously claimed to be an informant—"

"That information is classified, Major," Anton said abruptly.

Garraway smirked. "Commander Morley, this case is being judged by the Office of Naval Intelligence, in case you haven't noticed. Rawley was given confirmation of this information by the ONI contact aboard the Meriwether Lewis at Eridanus II. And I assure you, everything that is said in this room stays in this room." Turning her attention to Parangosky instead, she continued. "As I was saying, Your Honour, my client had witnessed the capture and executions of the Marine team, but Sergeant Morley managed to escape thanks to the 'informant'. After a rather distracting skirmish, the rebels gave chase, and my client managed to escape by a separate route."

"A question, Major," Anton cut in. "Why was Colonel Watts not given a neural collar? It would have effectively prevented the escape of an important hostage."

She turned her attention to him again. "I see no need to speculate on this. We will gain no answers from trying to figure out the circumstances of that day, especially since none of us are rebels." Her voice was firm, but he could see the skin around her eyes tense. She was trying to brush it off, but he decided to push harder.

"You are right, Major. Speculation would be a waste of time. But why should this story be taken as fact? I find it hard to believe that the rebels would have placed Colonel Watts in a location that makes it easy for him to hide, and being aware of this, made minimal efforts to guard him securely. Perhaps if he was paralyzed by a neural locker, this would not be necessary, but he was not. Excuse me for saying it, but that does sound suspicious." Anton turned his back on Garraway, facing the jury and adding, "And this is also given that my client had returned to her duty station without her team. Why would she be motivated to lie and discredit someone she was assigned to rescue, if not because he was a traitor and she spoke the truth?"

"Perhaps she did have a motive," snapped Garraway. He turned back to face her.

"And what, Major, do you mean by that?"

"Have you heard of the mental condition 'Survivor guilt'?"

"Sergeant Morley is mentally stable, Major," Anton said with a twinge of irritation. "She has been psychoanalyzed after her mission and has checked out."

"So it would seem. Sergeant Morley, have you ever spoken of Colonel Watts after your mission at Eridanus II?" Garraway asked suddenly, directing the question at Jess.

Looking rather startled, she replied, "No."

"Then it makes sense, doesn't it," the Major said, almost excitedly. "You wouldn't think it was your own fault. But you would blame the mission going wrong on the person who you were supposed to rescue. You think that if he hadn't been captured, your teammates wouldn't have died."

"No," Jess repeated, caught off guard by this blatant accusation. "No, that's not how it is."

"Isn't it?" hissed Garraway. "Why, then, haven't you spoken about this earlier? This supposed incident occurred four years ago. Why would it have taken four years to put us into this courtroom, with no prior mention of this at all?" She edged closer to the stand, closer to Jess. "You are lying."

"I am not!" Jess said indignantly.

"You have lied about this entire case and everything that led up to it!"

"Your Honour, the defence is badgering my client," Anton said.

Parangosky nodded. "Major Garraway, you are to cease these accusations and present evidence."

Garraway smiled. "My apologies, Your Honour," she said, strutting back to her stand and picking up a folder. "But the evidence will speak for itself." Barely concealing the look of self-satisfaction on her face, she handed the documents to Jess, who opened it, looking uncertain.

The Major's hand came down and snapped the folder shut. "Now before you open that folder, Sergeant, could you repeat to me again who your CO was on your first mission?"

Jess froze. Anton felt his own unease grow. Garraway's up to something. But what?

"You are not under oath, Sergeant Morley, but this court-martial is kept on record," Garraway said quietly. "So if you would tell us, again, who your CO was?"

"Gunnery Sergeant Justin Roberg," Jess said nervously, glancing at Anton for a moment. The Major opened the folder and took out the documents inside. She flipped to the third page and set it in front of her, pointing somewhere near the top.

"This is a written record of your report at Reach after returning from that mission on Eridanus II. Here is the name of the CO you provided. Could you read it out loud?"

Slowly, Jess glanced down at the documents. A line of sweat appeared on her forehead. Anton realized that she wasn't just wary; something was wrong.

"G...Gunnery Sergeant...Shane Donald," she said quietly.

"Gunnery Sergeant Shane Donald!" Garraway repeated, loud enough for everyone to hear. "You, Sergeant Jess Morley, have provided misinformation in your report that has led your story to have a few holes in it. Something you should have taken into consideration, perhaps, before accusing a UNSC officer of treason."

Anton's mouth was dry. This case would fall away from their favour if Garraway destroyed their credibility. Her statements would lose their value, and she would most definitely be questioned later after this revelation. This is spinning out of my control. I have to say something. Anything.

Then something clicked into place. Without pausing to even think, he said, "Major, I have to inquire how you got this information."

Garraway did not falter, although she did stiffen. "Excuse me?"

"How did you have access to the classified information you've been presenting this entire case? Maybe the jurors have clearance to these documents you've pulled up, but what about you? Has your client been tipping you off? Or did you find other means to obtain it?"

"Everything I have gathered as evidence is valid," the Major said through clenched teeth, though her false smile was still there. "You needn't concern yourself with that, Lieutenant Commander."

"In fact, how did Colonel Watts return to the Office of Naval Intelligence so quickly after supposedly being held prisoner for three years?" Striding up to the Colonel, Anton looked him, but the Marine officer was staring at the floor, his arms crossed. "I would think that you would remain under scrutiny for several years, and possibly barred from returning to ONI at all."

Watts looked up to meet his eye, and he didn't look intimidated at all. "My work, Lieutenant Commander, is crucial to the Office of Naval Intelligence," he said. "What that is, however, I am by no means obligated to reveal to you. So you could say that I have been given an exception."

"You mean you've been pulling strings," Anton snapped.

"I mean you don't know shit about what duties I have, or the damage you're doing!" Watts shouted, lurching forward and letting anger enter his voice for the first time.

Anton didn't even flinch, his face still inches from the Colonel's. "Oh, I know damn well what I'm doing. And if your duty is to your Insurrectionist friends, then it is mine to bring you to justice."

"Order!" Parangosky snapped, slamming down her gavel with a bang. "Commander Morley, you are behaving very unprofessionally. You will present your case without resorting to arguing with the defendant."

"Yes, Your Honour," Anton said. Stepping back from Watts, he folded his hands behind his back and pacing back and forth in front of him. "Colonel, how did you get back to Reach?"

Watts leaned back in his seat, his face returning to its composed expression. "I was aboard the Meriwether Lewis, the same ship that brought me to Eridanus II."

"So why had no one seen you? Particularly not Sergeant Morley? If you really did escape separately as you claimed, I think she would have remembered seeing you back aboard the ship."

"I was not permitted to speak to anyone until I was thoroughly questioned and was cleared. I was placed under guard of an ONI team, and interrogated by Lieutenant Marshall Kotowski. I finished telling him everything long before we arrived at Reach, but he decided to keep my presence a secret until I was brought to Reach HQ."

"And you were placed back in active duty immediately?" Anton asked skeptically.

"Let's say what I was tasked with at the time couldn't wait. And like I said, someone in HighCom decided to make an exception. So two days after we arrived at Reach, I was given my position back. Still under scrutiny, as you'll be glad to hear, Lieutenant Commander."

Anton took all this in for a moment. Everything sounds like it fits. I can't be certain on what he was doing for ONI that was so important, but I have no choice but to take his word for it. Damn, this bastard is good.

He had one more question, though, before he would present the evidence that would expose Watts for sure. "Colonel, how is it you are still alive, if you didn't disclose information the rebels wanted?"

Watts smiled condescendingly. "You could say I'm resilient. I am a Marine, after all."

"But being held captive for three years, you didn't say a word, and they hadn't killed you yet?"

"Now who told you I was captured for three years?"

Anton stopped pacing. He felt like he had just been punched in the gut. "Pardon me?"

The Colonel's unpleasant smile broadened. "Details, Commander. It's all about the details. In 2484, I had been presumed KIA, because I faked my own death. I did it so well that not even my executive officer knew about it. But those three years, my boys and I have been wreaking havoc all over Eridanus II. We had contacts on the planet, see, people that knew things about the rebels we needed. We had ways of getting around without raising suspicions."

"Why would you fake your own death, Lieutenant Colonel?" Anton asked, wrenching his mind back into motion. He felt like he was losing his grip on an argument that was supposed to back Watts into a corner.

Watts' expression became serious. "Working for ONI is all about doing things you're not proud of. Everyone here in this jury can attest to that. I couldn't let Rawley know what I was doing. Couldn't let him know I was going to fake my death, and not tell him I was alive. Because that was what I was ordered. Operation: BLACK ROOK, it's called. Major Garraway has the documents." He nodded at his lawyer, who walked over to Parangosky and handed the folder over to her. The Captain opened them and her eyes swept over them.

"I am familiar with this operation," she said. "It's all valid."

Watts gave her a nod of thanks, and glanced back at Anton. "Do you still think I'm a traitor, Lieutenant Commander?"

Anton's heart sank. He realized that he had no way to prove that Watts had been with the Insurrection for three years. This hasn't worked out as well as I thought it would. I'm running out of options here.

Got one last card to play. I can't screw this up. He looked at Jess, who gave him a slight nod. Taking a deep breath, he took a datachip off the desk in front of him and handed it to Parangosky. "Your Honour, this information was extracted from a list of deliveries Colonel Watts has been authorizing between Reach and Eridanus II."

"Your Honour, I ask that you don't reveal the nature of the deliveries," Watts said. "I don't believe Commander Morley has the clearance for that information."

"That's alright, Colonel," Anton said. "What's important isn't the deliveries. But the messages you've been sending to Gerald Barrie are."

Watts narrowed his eyes. "The what?"

"You heard me, Lieutenant Colonel. The deliveries are being sent to a UNSC outpost on Eridanus II, sure enough. But you have been attaching transmissions aboard the freighters to be delivered to Gerald Barrie. And I've recorded every single one of them on that datachip."

"There are no transmissions," the Colonel said angrily.

"And I don't see how you were authorized to access records of my client's classified information," Garraway added.

"I have received the appropriate authorization," Anton retorted. I don't have any more right to this information than she did hers. How ironic, but I know I what I had to do.

Parangosky inserted the datachip into the port embedded in her desk, and a holographic screen appeared in front of her. She tapped a button in the screen, and an AI's dark blue avatar flickered into visibility above the pedestal next to the port.

"Halfdan, run through these transmissions," Parangosky said. Letters swirled out of the AI's "sleeves" and around his wrists. His avatar brightened to cyan, then white. Words scrolled across the screen. The Captain read the messages, and asked, "Lieutenant Commander, how many transmissions did you find in total?"

"Five," Anton replied, feeling a bit reassured by the sight of the information processing. There was no way Watts was going to get out of this one.

"They are fabricated," Halfdan said.

"What?" Anton turned sharply to Parangosky. She was seeing the data in front of her, wasn't she? The Captain, however, shook her head.

"These messages could have been created by anyone," she said. "There is nothing tracing it to a rebel outpost, or even Colonel Watts. In fact, they look as if they had been added to the records, far too easy to detect by the ship's AI, or a dockmaster."

"But...Your Honour, I checked them myself. They weren't—"

"And it doesn't add up. You say there were five messages sent in total. And I should not be revealing this, but this ship made only three trips. And no other freighters were sent to Eridanus II from Reach."

"I can confirm that these messages are fabricated," Halfdan said. "The original contents of the first delivery did contain something. But it was removed and replaced by the message. It has been done rather clumsily, I might add."

Anton's mind was spinning. Cliff, how could you mess up? You knew how important this was. Or did you really screw me over?

"This message, if it was authentic, would have been rather incriminating," Parangosky said. "But you are now under suspicion of tampering with evidence, Commander Morley."

"Check the clearance, Your Honour," Garraway said.

Anton glanced at her. Why would she ask that? It looked like this case was already sunk. What's she trying to prove?

Then it hit him. Watts had tampered with the datachip. He duplicated exactly what the original transmissions held, but made it so obvious that it would appear Anton had added it. Of course no one would think he'd keep that evidence hanging around. But Watts isn't just going to get himself cleared; he's going to make sure I'm out of his way for good. That must mean...

"This information was supposedly authorized by Vice Admiral Lenore Wissell, Office of Naval Intelligence," Parangosky said. "Is that correct, Lieutenant Commander?" Numb, Anton nodded.

"The clearance is fabricated," Halfdan said immediately. "I have run a search for duplicate information through every data terminal on Reach and found it created at Commander Morley's office on the 15th of August, 2491."

"I thought as much," Garraway said. "You, Commander Morley, have provided misinformation and made unauthorized access to classified material. All in an attempt to ruin the career of a UNSC officer on the behalf of your sister. Your Honour, I see no need to continue this court-martial."

"Agreed," Parangosky said. "Lieutenant Colonel Robert Watts, you are cleared of all charges and will return to active duty tomorrow. As for you, Lieutenant Commander Anton Morley, you are hereby placed under custody and will be escorted to a penitentiary where you will await questioning. This case is now adjourned." She banged her gavel, and everyone stood up.

Anton knew there was no use arguing. Cliff had done a good job of digging him into a hole. That AI never detected his computer terminal, and Cliff somehow convinced it that I had created those transmissions in my office. Why did you do it? Why?

Jess looked thoroughly confused, still at the stand, staring at him in disbelief. It's over, he thought hopelessly. We failed. Watts is going to get off, and I'm probably going to be in prison for the next ten years at least.

He broke his gaze from her as he was led out of the courtroom by two MPs, trying to keep out of his mind the look of savage triumph on Watts' face.

Watts kept himself in check until he was walking into the underground facility. He walked into the room on the very far end as Garraway closed the door behind him.

"Looks like you're finally off the hook, thanks to me," she said. He nodded, but turned his attention away from her and to the terrified-looking man chained to a chair on the opposite end of the room. There was a guard standing behind him.

"Hello, hacker," he said. "I have good news. Everything worked out right for me. You didn't screw it up."

Cliff didn't even respond. He didn't even look in his eyes. "We all done with this one, boss?" the guard asked.

"Just about," Watts said. "I'll have to keep a low profile, so make sure you and your boys keep yourselves busy because I won't be contacting you for a long time."

The guard nodded. "Got it boss."

"Get the hacker over here."

Cliff was dragged in front of him and forced to his knees. He was shaking visibly.

Watts smiled, enjoying his prisoner's discomfort. "Like I said, hacker, you've done a good job, and I'll admit that I am impressed by all the information you got for that lawyer. But I can't have someone running around, accessing information I can't risk to expose. So here's your reward. You get to die a quick death." His eyes hardened. "Kill him."

The guard pulled a pistol out of his holster and pulled back the slide. Cliff managed to open his mouth before a bullet entered the back of his head and blew his brains out, sharply cutting him off in mid-scream.

Watts stepped away from the corpse, which was oozing blood and brain matter onto the floor. "Get rid of the body after I've left." He walked out of the room with Garraway.

"Now how much do you owe me again?" the Major asked.

Not even glancing at her, he said, "You're fired."

She halted. "What?"

He stopped walking too, and turned to glare at her. "I told you, when you were building my case, to play it safe. What you did in that courtroom was not safe."

"I...but...you..." her fists clenched. "You're a free man because of me. A free man who still has a career in the UNSC while the one that nearly fucked you over is going to be thrown in prison for the next decade!"

"Don't you realize that I have important things to do," Watts said angrily. "Things I can't be caught doing. And you've just made that a lot harder for me, because half the defence you provided for me was based on classified information. So now I'll have five people watching me at all times, even when I'm taking a goddamned shower. I'll be lucky if they ever let me back into ONI."

Giving a disgusted huff, Garraway stormed down the hall, shouting, "You can blame those Morleys for that. I did so much for you, fucking bastard..."

"I should have hired someone else," he yelled after her. "I should have known you couldn't stand up to Anton Morley."

The Major slammed the door behind her, the sound of it echoing through the hallway. Watts leaned against the wall and sighed.

Those other two, Felix and Jess, were still running around. But he couldn't do anything about them right now. It would look too suspicious. Not like they can do anything about me now. But I'll arrange for them to come to an unfortunate end one day, just in case. One day...

Chapter 11: Operation CHARLEMAGNE

1100 Hours, January 10, 2496 (Military Calendar), in orbit above Ehilend, Eridanus system

Are we ready for this?

Lieutenant Felix Martel didn't know if the others were just as nervous as he was, but the silence was stifling. Maybe it was the fact that they were about to be deployed on their first official operation as subjects of Project ORION. Maybe it was the knowledge that their enemies were waiting at Eridanus II, just around the other side of the satellite. Or maybe it was just because they were approaching the briefing room, and the mood was too solemn to talk.

He glanced at Jess. She had been recently promoted to Staff Sergeant, having performed exceptionally and even entering the ORION top 8 rankings. A surprise to many, considering the heat she got from ONI after that court-martial where Anton...

Felix sighed. It had been five years since that disastrous court-martial. He had heard from Jess what had happened. Watts is more cunning than we thought. And Anton's still in prison, thanks to him. He knew that Jess had come under questioning for misinformation after the trial, but someone (he suspected an officer in charge of ORION) must have helped keep ONI off her back.

At first, both he and Jess had been wary of Watts. Would he try and erase them, just to be safe? But it seemed the Colonel was being closely watched; he had been ousted from ONI as a "temporary measure" but still hadn't been allowed back in. Felix doubted he could do much for the Insurrection with so many eyes on him, and having lost his access to the crucial UNSC data he needed.

And someone at HighCom is taking notice. Without Watts to do much more than sit on his secrets, Barrie's control over Eridanus II was deteriorating. The Insurrection had finally broken out two years ago, when the rebels had captured a UNSC corvette, the Callisto in the 26 Draconis system. When three UNSC light destroyers were sent to retake it, the rebels detonated a nuclear warhead, destroying one of the ships and severely damaging two others. Lieutenant junior grade Preston Cole, the only surviving officer aboard one of the intact ships, the Las Vegas, lured the Callisto to dock, feigning surrender. When the rebels tried to capture the Las Vegas, Cole fired the ship's last Ares missile at them, crippling the corvette. The incident had sparked the war between the UNSC and the United Rebel Front.

Now they had to remove Barrie from the equation before things got out of hand. I don't know how much longer he can keep the Insurrection at bay, Felix thought. But we have to act fast before things get ugly at Eridanus II. Or worse, spread to the other colonies.

Felix looked around at the others walking with them. Over the last five years, he had gotten to know them really well. Avery Johnson, Roy Koel, Gilly, heck, even Lester Morales and Nathaniel Cortez felt more like brothers than older, more experienced servicemen. We've become a family. And now we're about to take on our first mission.

Will we all come back? I want to believe that, because we've all been trained so well. But only time can tell. There's a war out there now that we have to fight.

They reached the briefing room, and filed in. The room was large, and seats were laid out in rows and divided the room in two. Following Jess, Felix found a seat near the front, and they waited as everyone settled down.

Captain Warson stepped into the room from the opposite door, joined by a few black-uniformed men. Everyone went quiet immediately. He looked over them and gave a nod of approval. He stepped to the pedestal at the centre of the front, and spoke. "Subjects of Project ORION, we are glad you are here today. Please listen carefully, as what I have to say is extremely important.

"Five years ago, you have volunteered for this assignment, and allowed us to run a number of tests that have proved very useful. It had not been easy, and there had been..." The Captain's eyes swept the room. "...complications. This had caused some of our volunteers to leave the program, or the UNSC entirely. But your resolve never wavered. Our experiments have enhanced you, almost as flawlessly as we hoped, enough to give you a distinct advantage in combat.

"Most of you have never engaged battle before with the Insurrection, and none of you as a unit in a tactical deployment. But as of today, the UNSC is initiating Operation: CHARLEMAGNE.

"So from hereon today, we are sending you out on your first official mission. You will head down to Asphodel City and retake it for the UNSC. You will find the rebel leader, Gerald Barrie, and capture him alive if possible. Your goal, however, is not to eliminate rebels in the city, but to go in and come out with little incident. You should try to avoid combat unless absolutely necessary, and above all, do not create havoc in Asphodel City.

"You may have to get creative once you're down there. But I know every one of you will know what to do once you're on your own. Good luck, everyone."

Asphodel City, Felix thought, staring at the distant city as the team approached it under cover of night. What a fucking mess it is now.

He remembered how different it had been ten years ago. After being forced to leave the Sanctuary, he had lived in the city. He never liked it there, but at least it could be considered a home. I still remember escaping through the city with Jess, with the rebels on our asses. That had only been the beginning...

Now Asphodel was almost completely rebel-run. The entire city had become a war zone, and civilians were rarely seen out on the streets. When they were, they always travelled in groups, looking dishevelled and on edge. Barrie's turned this place into a complete hell.

Felix had been half-hoping that Barrie would relinquish his iron grip on Asphodel after Watts' influence on him was weakened. But the damage had already been done. Taking in the smoke-filled skies and the eerie quietness that enveloped the city, he doubted Barrie could hold back the floodgates now if he tried. Watts has created a monster out of these rebels, and Barrie's just struggling to keep the chain on it.

"Two more teams have infiltrated the city," Jess said to him quietly as they took cover in a ditch on the side of the road that led into the eastern district. "We should head a bit into the city and follow the outskirts."

"Just like the good old days, back on Taradia, huh?" remarked Cortez. Morales silenced him by raising his hand.

"How many more teams still need to get in?" he asked. She repeated the question into her COM.

"Four," she said. "They've spotted sentries and are working their way around them."

"We've got trouble too," Cortez said, sobering up. "Over there, looks like a rebel team on approach."

"Let's get out of sight," Felix said. They moved into the cover of an alleyway, and Jess activated her COM again.

"What is it, Koel? Are you serious? Okay, we'll meet up with you soon. Hang tight." She turned off her COM. "Gilly's team is in trouble. There's a riot in the northeast district, and the rebels are opening fire. They can't get out of the area without drawing attention to themselves."

"Alright, let's draw their attention then," Felix said. "We'll cut through these alleyways, come on."

Everyone was wearing light armoured suits rather than their standard armour; it included a helmet that didn't cover the entire head, but had several useful features, such as a visor that covered the eyes as well as a breathing mask that was connected to a small oxygen tank on their backs that allowed for ten minutes of oxygen. They currently had night-vision enabled, so it wasn't too hard to proceed quietly through the alleyway and see where they were going.

As they headed in a general north-east direction, Felix ran over the recent events in his head. CHARLEMAGNE had begun because a number of government officials had been attacked and kidnapped if not killed by the rebel forces on Eridanus II. Asphodel alone had lost seven hundred civilians in the last few weeks. The only reason they hadn't been evacuated was because the rebels' control over the city was too strong...and because they didn't have time to figure out who was on what side.

He was also glad to know that Roy Koel had recovered from his state of depression following the after-effects of the augmentations they had received. Although most of the subjects had recovered from the procedure with little or no side-effects, some had disastrous results, causing permanent physical damage to some and even death in a few instances. Koel's friend Albert had teetered on the edge for six months after everyone was supposed to have recovered, and eventually became one of the fatalities. As a result, Koel suffered from depression and was taken out of training throughout 2492 and for most of 2493. It was only thanks to Tom, assigned to help him, that he was now back on his feet.

Felix had initially been concerned for Koel, but it seemed he was doing just fine on his first mission in years. Who knew Tom would have turned out to be such a prodigy? Healing wounded is one thing, but as an adolescent, psychologically curing an ORION subject sure is impressive.

"Hear that?" Jess whispered to him. "We're getting close."

Felix listened carefully, and could hear distant shouting, and objects breaking. There was gunfire too. Forming up just shy of the road, Felix whispered into his COM, "Sergeant, we're here. Where are you guys?"

"We're inside the café," replied Gilly. "We made it inside but we were spotted. We've barricaded all the entrances, but there's not much time. If you're going to do something, do it now."

Felix peeked out onto the street, and could see insurgents trying to smash through the windows of a small diner with anything they could lay their hands on. The bodies of a dozen civilians lay dead on the ground, some of them sprawled farther down the street. Riot ended pretty quick then, he thought. This is bad. The civilians don't stand a chance. Drawing back, he said to the team, "Got twenty or so hostiles. Doesn't look organized enough to be rebels. Insurrectionists most likely, they don't have a lot of proper weapons. All the same, be careful. We're going to take them by surprise."

One of the Insurrectionists was pounding on a window with a long metal bar. A muzzle flare from inside the diner showed Gilly's face for a moment; the pane shattered, and the insurgent was thrown back as bullets sprayed him. He fell back, twitched once, and died. Yelling in outrage, the other Insurrectionists rushed to the window, but Gilly withdrew and the barricade was quickly slid back in place.

"You might want to hurry, Lieutenant," she said over the COM.

"Get your team ready, Sergeant," Felix replied. "When you hear the flashbangs go off, throw some frags, but stay behind cover. We'll take care of the rest."

"Gotcha. Ready when you are."

"Marines, deploy flashbangs," Felix said.

Jess, Morales, and Cortez threw three flashbangs, each landing far apart enough to cover the entire group. They detonated, causing the Insurrectionists to clutch their ears, screaming.

Four fragmentation grenades sailed out the broken windows of the diner, their pings barely audible as they hit the ground. The explosions wiped out most of the hostiles; leaping out of the alleyway, Felix and the Marines gunned down the survivors.

"Inside, now," he ordered. The barricade on the door was shifted aside as they entered the diner, and moved back into place. He didn't know if the Insurrectionists were resourceful enough to have snipers, but he didn't want to take that chance.

Felix was glad to see that all four members of Gilly's team were uninjured. They didn't look hassled at all after their close call. Koel was talking to another Marine, and they were reading something on a datapad. "Are your boys ready to keep moving?" he asked Gilly.

"Yes, sir," she replied. "We were on our way to meet with a group of civilians inside the city who know a way to get to Barrie."

"We've got his location?" he asked.

"Yes, a drone has spotted an armoured building five minutes ago. But things are getting ugly up there, Lieutenant."

"What do you mean?"

"Warson says the URF are pulling all the stops. They've deployed freighters, corvettes, fighters, stealth ships, anything spaceworthy and throwing it at the UNSC. We've got six destroyers up there right now trying to deal with them. The rebels are even trying to capture a sub-orbital transit station."

"Dammit," Felix said. "If we take out Barrie now, it'll just kick the hornet's nest."

"We don't have a choice," Gilly said. "That space drone that got a fix on Barrie's location was shot down by a corvette right after it transmitted the data. We know where he is, but we have no way of getting in there with what we have. And the rebel ships are dug in above it, so we can't get any more recon. We'll have to rely on our contact. He claims he knows an easy way past the building's defences."

"Can we trust him?"

"I don't know, but it's the best we have. Still, we need to be careful because there are a lot of civilians that are siding with the rebels. And Insurrectionists are crawling all over Asphodel. The URF is hardly keeping a leash on them."

"Okay, where's our contact?"

"About three klicks away, waiting for us in a storage facility."

"Alright, take point."

"Ma'am, I've got good news," Koel said, walking over with the datapad. "We've managed to sneak a stealth drone past the wall of rebel ships."

Gilly looked impressed. "Where'd you get a stealth drone, Lance Corporal?"

"It took a bit of convincing, but Warson launched it for us. It's hovering forty feet above us, and can pick up heat signatures in a two hundred metre radius."

Felix felt encouraged by the news. No rebel ships would be able to detect something that small at forty feet, especially when it was designed for stealth. It would also be able to pick up any incoming air patrols before the drone itself could be even detected by enemies. And most importantly, the drone would be able to locate enemy snipers or other hostiles in their vicinity, so the team would have an advantage over them as they moved through the city.

"Then we should get going," Gilly said. Roy handed the data pad to his fellow Marine, and grabbed his S2 AMB Sniper Rifle off a nearby table. After checking that the area was clear, the eight of them stepped onto the street and headed west, into the heart of Asphodel.

"Not picking up any heat signatures apart from our own," said the Marine with the data pad. He had a distinctive Irish accent. "No civilians in this area."

"Keep your eye on that thing, Byrne," Gilly said.

"Yes, Sergeant."

Felix felt slightly unnerved as they walked down the street. They were sticking to the side, close to crevices and buildings they could use to hide, but they were still caught in the open. He still scanned the rooftops, just in case. Don't trust everything to machines. They can be fooled.

They reached the end of the street without incident, and turned the corner, weapons sweeping both directions of the road. It was clear. Now that I think about it, this area does seem pretty deserted. Not as many abandoned or destroyed cars as I expected, and hardly any bodies. The buildings weren't even that damaged.

"Lieutenant, what do we do if we come across civilians?" asked Cortez. "Like Gilly said, we don't know if they're on our side or the rebels."

Felix contemplated this question. He knew what Cortez was asking. Do we kill them, just to be safe? Their mission would take a downturn if some rebel sympathizer spotted them and then ran off to give away their position. The safest thing to do would be to kill them on sight. But what kind of message would that bring to the ones that support us? Finally, he said, "If we spot civilians, we'll move out of sight and wait for them to pass."

"And if we can't?"

"We'll find another route."

Cortez nodded. Felix wondered if he had the same thought. The more dawdle, the harder it will be to complete this mission. But our purpose is to save lives, so we can't shoot innocent people to make it easier for ourselves.

"Got two heat signatures, on the west side of the next intersection," Byrne reported. "Elevation twenty-seven metres above the ground."

"Sounds like enemy snipers to me," said Gilly.

"And they're right between us and our objective," said Koel, bringing up his sniper rifle. The team halted, and the Lance Corporal edged to the corner of the intersection.

"Hold on," Felix said, putting his arm in front of the young Marine. "Make sure they're snipers before you open fire."

"Got it, sir," Koel said.

"That's not all. You should have someone to help so you don't have to switch targets."

"This is the only sniper rifle we've got, sir. I can do this."

Gilly gave Felix a look that said "Just trust him". He hesitated, but then nodded. Koel shifted out of his cover, aiming down his sights.

There was a momentary pause, then he fired the first shot. Shifting his grip and panning his weapon to the right, he fired the second shot less than a second later. Taking his eye off the scope, the Lance Corporal said, "Clear."

Felix was impressed. As the team filed onto the street and headed west, he asked, "Are you a sharpshooter, Koel?"

"No, sir. But I am the best shot on the team."

The team cut through a civilian district, and it became harder to distinguish the hostiles from the civilians. They mostly avoided contact with them, and the few times they encountered trouble was quickly dealt with.

"All teams have been in the city for almost two hours now," Gilly said. "Still not so much as an injury on our side."

"That's good," Felix said. "How's the fight going in space?"

"Not so well. We've lost a destroyer. These rebels have to know they can't win though."

"I think they're just trying to do as much damage as possible," said Morales. "Get a point across."

"You think Barrie ordered it?" Jess asked Felix.

"I don't know," he murmured. He didn't like thinking about Barrie, or what would happen once they found him. Take him alive if possible. That likelihood is growing thinner by the minute.

Did it bother him that Barrie was going to be captured and likely killed? Yes. But it's become clear that it's necessary to stop him. He remembered how much effort the Commander had tried to keep the rebels at peace with the UNSC, before Watts intervened. Things weren't friendly, no. But Barrie wanted to continue negotiations. How did he change so much?

Does he know what I'm doing? Did Watts tell him?

"Our contact is just in there," Gilly said, indicating a storage facility set into an alley behind what looked like a delivery bay. The team formed up on the side door. "It's not locked," she said, opening it. They entered quietly, Koel closing the door behind them.

The facility was huge, and lined with storage crates in arrays. "Where's your contact, Sergeant?" Felix asked.

"Hugo, come out!" Gilly called. "This is Sergeant Buckler, your UNSC contact."

A stocky, well-built man stepped out from inside a container. He looked wary but not anxious. He was dressed in civilian clothes that was smeared with dirt and more besides. "I was expecting more of you," he said as he approached her, ignoring the fact that everyone was watching him carefully.

"Safety in numbers doesn't really apply right now," Gilly said. "Better not to be seen."

"That's true, I suppose," he said.

She led him over to Felix. "Hugo, this is Lieutenant Felix Martel, the ranking officer in this ground operation. Lieutenant, this is Hugo Mahaffy. He's going to help us get into that building."

"Damn right I am," Mahaffy said. "Rebel bastards gunned down my wife last night on the street. I ain't going to let that go."

"Are you ex-military, sir?" Felix asked, sizing him up. He didn't seem as nerve-wracked as the other civilians he had seen in Asphodel.

"Militia," the man replied. "You're in charge of this party, kid? You look a little young."

"I'm Naval Special Forces, Mr. Mahaffy. You don't need to worry about me."

"If you say so, Lieutenant. So, enough talking, we going or what?"

Felix frowned. "You're coming with us?"

"Course I am. I've got a score to settle with them rebels. So don't try and talk me out of it."

"If you come with us, we'd have to protect you. You'd be a liability."

"I can take care of myself, kid. And only I know how to get you inside that armoured building without four tons of explosives. I'll tell you once we're there. We got a deal?"

Felix gritted his teeth. He didn't like bargaining with someone outside his chain of command, even if they were militia. But they didn't have time to argue. "Fine. We've got a deal."

"Good. Now, any one of you got a weapon? I'm not going to be hiding behind you soldiers until we're there."

Koel took his Magnum and SMG off his waist. "I'll need a sidearm too, so pick one."

Mahaffy took the SMG and pulled back the slide. "Thank you, soldier."

"Marine," the Lance Corporal corrected, replacing his M6 on his side.

"Whatever. Let's go while the getting's good then."

"Stay in the centre, Mr. Mahaffy," Felix said. "Staff Sergeant Morley here will be taking point, if you don't mind."

"No, I don't mind, Lieutenant. Thank you for asking though."

As the team moved out of the storage facility, Felix gave Gilly an exasperated glance. "Where'd you find this guy?" he muttered.

She gave a half-apologetic shrug. "You have to take what you get, sir. He's our best chance of breaching that building."

"If he's telling the truth."

They were close to the armoured facility now. There were a few more run-ins with Insurrectionists, but Mahaffy hadn't compromised them. He even took down a few of the rebels without breaking a sweat.

"Nothing much to these idiots, is there," he grunted.

"They're Insurrectionists," Felix said. "The real threat are the guns sent out by the Rebel Front. They're more organized and are armed with UNSC weaponry."

"Then you guys ought to keep a closer watch on your ordnance."

He chose not to answer, and instead asked Gilly, "Status update?"

She checked her tactical pad. "We're doing good. A few other teams have made contact with civilian informants. They've engaged some rebel hideouts and are clearing out the areas around us. There are enemy vehicle patrols being sent through Asphodel, but they're pretty easy to spot. Johnson says his team will try to link up with ours. They're heading east and are sixty minutes out." She scrolled down. "Still no casualties."

Not bad, considering how outnumbered we are. ORION's proving itself to be a success.

"Got more riots," Gilly continued. "Civilians that are fighting rebels, our teams, or even each other. It's turning messy. The UNSC has Orbital Drop Shock Troopers on standby if they're needed."

"That's the place you're looking for," Mahaffy said, pointing at a two-story armoured bunker in the distance.

"The drone's picking up dozens of hostiles in that area," Byrne said. "I'm transmitting visual now. It doesn't look like Insurrectionists. Too professional."

So this is it, Felix thought. The United Rebel Front's protecting the facility with their best.

Something beeped on Byrne's datapad. "It's detected an incoming missile!" A moment later, the screen faded into static, and there was a distant explosion in the sky. The Marine cursed and shut off the datapad. "I think we've just been detected."

"We need to approach the building out of sight, then," Felix said. "Everyone, back in the alleyways—"

"Enemy vehicles!" shouted Jess. The sound of Warthogs was speeding down the street from both ends.

"Take cover!" The team moved behind phone booths, ducked into alleyways, or dropped to the ground. One of the Marines knocked into Mahaffy, and he stumbled. Two troop-transport Warthogs sped by, and the rebels on the back sprayed the team with gunfire. The man jerked as bullets riddled him, spraying blood all over the ground. He dropped without a sound as the Warthogs slowed, turned around, and headed for another pass.

"Everyone, into the alley!" Felix got to his feet, picking up his rifle, and dashed with the team into the alleyway, rounding the corner just as bullets sprayed the narrow crevice between the two buildings. The sound of engines didn't fade away.

"Move! They're disembarking!" Taking up the rear, Felix, Morales, and Koel pulled the pins off their fragmentation grenades and tossed them up the alley. As the rebels rounded the corner, they exploded, the force of it so confining that it partially collapsed the walls on either side, blocking off those that hadn't been killed in the explosions.

The team stayed together as they dashed through the alleyways, and it wasn't long before the sound of their pursuers faded. Calling a halt, Felix made sure all eight of them were present.

"Shit," Gilly said. "We lost Mahaffy."

"Contact the other teams," said Felix. "See if they've found anyone that can get us inside."

Koel was peeking out onto the street. "Lieutenant, we should be careful. That armoured facility isn't too far off. There are rebels everywhere. They could be in the alleys."

"I hear you," Felix said. "Stay sharp, everyone. Keep your eyes above us too."

Gilly was listening intently into her COM. "Are you sure? Absolutely sure? Okay, I'll spread the word." She cut the connection and looked at Felix. "Bad news, sir. Johnson says his he's found an informant, who knows that the rebels are keeping government officials and civilians captive inside the facility."

"Can we take his word for it?"

"I don't know, but we can't risk an air strike. And Mahaffy never told us what his plan was..."

"If he had one."

"That's not important. We need to contact Warson ASAP and tell him not to authorize an air strike on the armoured facility. Remember he said he would call in the bombing squads if we didn't manage to breach the facility by 0700."

Felix checked his mission clock. It was 0652. They didn't have much time.

"Okay," he said. "Tell him right away."

Gilly adjusted her COM. She frowned, and tapped various controls, looking more and more flustered. She continued doing this for almost an entire minute, muttering, "Come on, come on..."

"What's wrong?"

"I can't get a connection," she said. "Something must be going on up there, unless the rebels found a way to jam us." After trying without success for another minute, she gave up. "Screw it, we'll have to get to the facility ourselves."

Felix shook his head. "There's no way we'd get inside within five minutes. And even if we did, we have no way of letting Warson know. If we can't get through to him, then he can't get through to us. He'll assume we didn't breach the facility, and call in an air strike, with us inside."

Gilly swore. "So what do you suggest?"

He hesitated. "We have to wait for the air strike."

"You're kidding."

"There's nothing we can do about it. Keep trying to get through to Warson, but in the meantime, we need to get to the rooftops and take out those hostiles with missile launchers. That's the best we can do." He sighed. "Relay the order to all ground teams. Let's move."

They headed through the alleyways, careful not to remain visible to rebels patrolling the streets. Felix was hardly paying attention to where he was going, so immersed was he in thought.

"Hey, you okay?" It was Jess. She was walking beside him, looking concerned.

"This entire operation is going wrong," he said quietly, trying to keep the frustration out of his voice.

"This isn't your fault," she whispered. He bristled. As if that was what he had been thinking!

"Doesn't change anything," he said, barely keeping his voice low enough so the others wouldn't hear. "What happens after this will have repercussions, Jess. You know that."

"I know..."

"What the hell was ONI thinking? Sending us on this mission without all the facts? Just because we're part of this project..."

"We can do this," she said. "We'll find Barrie and things will be okay."

"Barrie..." Felix's grip tightened on his rifle. "I hate this. This whole war. Why did everything have to change? Why didn't Barrie—!"

"Sir," said Koel, stopping and turning around. "I think that's a way up." He was looking at a series of ladders leading up balconies at the back of an apartment. Felix nodded, putting his frustration out of his mind. The team climbed up the ladder, one by one; Jess gave him a reassuring look before she grabbed the rungs and followed Cortez. He climbed up after her.

The rooftops in the area were clear. The team stayed low as they quietly headed across the roof, jumping to the next one when they reached an alleyway below. They were heading closer to the armoured facility.

The sound of gunfire erupted on a roof a hundred metres away, across the street. It looked like another team had engaged a rebel with a missile launcher. The fight didn't last long.

Koel swept the area with his sniper rifle scope. "Doesn't look like we were spotted. There are more near the facility."

Gilly activated her COM. "Team, stand down. Hold positions and stay low. We'll take care of the others." She faced her team. "Right, how many of you have marksman rifles?"

Felix put up his hand, as did Koel, Byrne, and Cortez. "Okay," she said. "We'll stay here, you guys should get a bit closer and take them all out at once, so they don't run off."

"Good idea," Felix said, nodding. The others laid flat on their stomachs, and he led the three Marines to the next roof, crouching and making as little noise as possible. They made it across three more buildings before he called a halt.

"Okay, any closer and we'll be spotted. Let's spread out." The four of them picked spots on the roof so they wouldn't be in the other's line of fire. "Koel, how many missile launchers do you see?"

"One second, sir." Koel scanned every rooftop quickly but carefully. He checked it again. "Seven."

"You sure it's all of them?"

"I'm positive."

"Okay, you're the only one with a sniper rifle. So you take out the farthest three. Byrne, you take the two on the left — they're very close together. I'll take the middle one. Cortez, you take out the one on the far right."

"Ready, sir," said Byrne.

"I'm good," said Cortez.

"Okay, fire on three. One. Two. Three!"

Bullets flew through the air, dropping four rebels. Koel shifted his aim and took the fifth through the chest and Byrne discharged three more rounds, killing the sixth. Felix, Byrne, and Cortez opened fire on the last one, but their rifles weren't accurate enough at long range; Koel fired a third shot that barely missed the rebel, who ducked and was running for the edge of the rooftop. After a barely detectable pause, the Lance Corporal fired the last round in his magazine.

It took the rebel straight through the neck, cleanly ripping off his head. The missile launcher fell from his hands as the decapitated body tumbled off the roof with the weapon.

Koel ejected the empty magazine from his rifle. Felix sent Gilly the all-clear signal, and everyone got to their feet.

"We've got five teams in total positioned around the facility," she said. "How long until the air strike, Lieutenant?"

He checked his mission clock. It was 0701. "Warson must have already sent the fighters. I'm guessing they'll be here in less than a minute."

And surely enough, the sound of B-65 Shortswords filled the air. Then four of them cut through the cloud cover and flew over them, speeding towards the armour facility. The sound of unguided bombs dropping shrieked shrilly as the aircraft passed over it and arced upward, followed by explosions engulfing the building. The force of it sent tremors through the streets that Felix could feel shaking the rooftop he was standing on.

There was silence as the armoured facility lay smouldering. The street below was littered with bodies of the insurgents caught in the blast. The facility, surprisingly, was still standing.

Then the surviving rebels looked up. They spotted the teams on the rooftops, and opened fire.

Felix ducked back from the lip of the roof as bullets cut through the air in front of him. He checked his belt for grenades. "I'm out of frags."

"Me too," said Koel. They had both used up theirs in the alley.

Byrne and Cortez were priming theirs, however, and tossing them down to the streets. Felix could see the others doing the same. Explosion after explosion sounded below, and then there was silence.

Felix activated his COM. "Everyone, get down to the ground level. But watch for survivors."

They headed down to the alleyways, and regrouped in a clearing just off the street. He checked their numbers. Forty. He was surprised that they still hadn't taken casualties, but not unpleasantly so. "Okay, it's time to finish this. We're going to get as close as we can to the facility, and then make a straight run inside. Identify any civilian bodies you see, and if any of them are alive, keep them somewhere safe."

"Lieutenant, that facility has at least five floors underground," Gilly said. "How many rebels are in there?"

"We'll have to see," Felix said. "But we have to be quick. I'm guessing that every rebel, Insurrectionist, and civilian on their side will be headed here very soon. So we have to get inside and capture Barrie if he's alive. If he's not, we have to confirm it. Let's move."

The team ran quietly through the alleyway, without a single word being exchanged. There was a solemn mood among them, but Felix was encouraged by the sight of them all still standing and ready to charge into combat. Let's hope our luck holds.

The alleyway ended with a sharp turn to the left that led straight onto the street where the damaged armour facility was. Felix looked over the team one more time and nodded. They charged into the open.

There were only three rebels standing outside the facility, and they were killed immediately by bullets fired from a dozen guns. Without even the slightest pause, they reached the half-melted door. Koel kicked it in, and no less than eight flashbang grenades were thrown inside.

They went off almost simultaneously, and the team charged in as one, gunning down the stunned rebels and taking positions beside doorways. Johnson disabled the elevators.

Felix activated the team COM. "I'll need ten of you to guard this entrance. Do not let any hostiles past you." He assigned ten of the team to remain in the main room, and turned his attention to four others. "Head up to the second floor...or what's left of it. Clear it of all hostiles, free any hostages you find up there." He hoped there hadn't been any on the second floor; he would be amazed if there were any survivors on that floor at all. "The rest of you are with me."

As he led the team of twenty-six down the staircase that led into the below-ground levels, he realized that he had been here before. After we were forced to evacuate from the Sanctuary, Barrie would carry out everything here. This facility hadn't been armoured when I was last here though. There weren't any underground floors either. Then again, there was no war back then...

The team was practically unstoppable as they reached each floor, covering each other by firing sequentially and spreading out far enough for proper movement. Most of the rebels didn't even have a chance to return fire before they were killed.

The first underground floor was a single large room, and it was easily cleared. Felix assigned three from the team to hold the floor and proceeded with the rest. The second one looked like a storage room, and had more cover for the rebels to hide behind. But it didn't take too long to clear, and three more were left to guard it.

The third underground floor had a series of extra rooms. There were three groups of rebels positioned around the room, and opened fire as soon as the team was spotted. But a few flashbangs quickly stopped their fire, and they once again cleared it easily.

One of the rebels, still blinded by a flashbang, pulled the pin and clumsily threw it in the team's general direction. Johnson snatched the explosive out of the air and tossed it back at him. The explosion wiped out the remainder of the rebels and blew down one of the room's walls.

It revealed a half dozen civilians, bound and gagged and laid on the floor. The terrified-looking rebel, covered in dust from the destroyed wall, grabbed one of them and put a pistol to his head. "Stop, or I'll kill him!"

Koel snapped up his rifle and put a round straight through the gunman's mouth. The civilian gave a muffled scream as the side of his head was sprayed with the rebel's blood. The team checked every room on the floor to make sure it was cleared. "Morales, Gladys, secure those hostages and escort them up one floor." He assigned three others to guard the floor, and proceeded with the others.

Each floor became more difficult to clear as the team's numbers thinned. But they still eliminated every rebel they could find with cold efficiency and rescued each hostage that was found. They went down not five floors, but eight. Felix assigned Gilly, Koel, and Johnson to guard the floor, and headed down to the end of the staircase with Jess.

To his surprise, they were in a vehicle bay. There was a long tunnel that led out of it, illuminated by lights that showed it curving off into the darkness. There were no rebels in sight, and the bay was almost devoid of vehicles save three Warthogs still in their parked spots.

Felix felt a surge of dread. Don't tell me... He grabbed his COM. "All teams, report in. Have you identified any of the bodies as Barrie's?"

The others reported in, one by one. They confirmed his fear. Slowly, he disconnected the COM. "Jess," he said quietly. "I think he got away..."

"Shh, listen!" she interrupted. He fell silent. There was the sound of someone close by, gasping in pain. The sound of it echoed through the vehicle bay. He beckoned for Jess to follow him, and they slowly marched towards the sound, watching for movement. Jess pointed at the booth positioned next to the tunnel, where the sound seemed to be coming from. Felix nodded, and they stood on either side of the door. Keeping one hand pointed at the entrance, he flung it open.

There, lying slumped against the wall, was Gerald Barrie. He was clutching his pistol, bent over in agony. Blood covered the floor around his legs. Looking carefully, Felix say that both his knees were shattered from gunfire.

Seeing him, Barrie stopped gasping and clenched his teeth. He propped himself upright against the wall, breathing heavily. "So this is how it ends, huh Felix? I should have known that one day it'd come to this."

Keeping his rifle trained on his former friend, Felix asked, "What happened to you?"

Barrie gave a humourless laugh, which quickly turned into a grimace as more blood streamed from his kneecaps. "Oh, those cowards who were supposedly my followers were scared shitless when you guys came calling. They thought it'd be easier for them to escape if they left me here. Remind you of someone?"

Felix ignored the remark, although he knew Barrie was reminding him of the day he betrayed him and escaped with Jess. "That's not what I mean."

The rebel commander groaned as he sat up straighter, awkwardly shifting his useless legs. "I know what you mean, kid. Why did I have to listen to Watts? Why did I change things? Why did I decide to turn Eridanus II into a hellhole instead of what I wanted it to be in the beginning?" He laughed again. The bleeding became worse, but this time he didn't seem to notice it. "You want the truth, Felix? I fucking hate this war. I really do. I wish we didn't have any of it. But even though you probably think that I've turned into an evil prick, I have one thing to tell you." He raised his eyes, defiantly meeting Felix's gaze. "Ever since I gained leadership of the rebels in this system, my goal has never changed. I wanted unity to exist between the Earth Government and the Rebel Front. And I wanted that to happen at any cost."

The fire faded from his eyes, and it was replaced by sadness, mixed with that old gentleness Felix had missed so much. "If there's you've figured out anything since you've left us for the UNSC, kid, it's that people can't learn to agree...You think you're the heroes who are saving the goddamn universe, but that's just another lie. Even in your military, some of you are tearing each others' throats out..."

At these words, Felix thought of Anton. Barrie read his expression, gave a sigh of resignation that didn't quite erase the pain from his tensed brow. He closed his eyes, looking more weary than ever. "Before Watts came along, I used to think I was doing something good. I...I knew that I was blindly hoping something would come out of it, so...I kept trying. I would keep telling myself that I could fix things...that if I tried hard enough, there would be no need for war." He opened his eyes, breathing out his next words with a strained effort. "If you want to know the truth, Felix, I was hoping that...one day you would take my place. You were...you really were...the brightest kid in the Sanctuary, and...I would always feel reassured that if my...methods of peace didn't succeed...you would do it...you would somehow do it."

Barrie's eyes darkened, and his fist clenched around his pistol, turning his knuckles white. "I guess Watts changed all that. He told me I was going nowhere, that he had seen how ruthless the UNSC was. He told me...I had to create something they couldn't hold back...I knew he was right, as much as I wished he wasn't...That wouldn't be the last time I wished he was wrong." His gaze returned to Felix. "I knew you wouldn't want to be on the same side with someone like Watts. I was hoping that if I became like him, you would as well. I guess I should have known better.

"Don't get me wrong," he said abruptly. "I don't regret these last few years. I knew what I had to do. I guess that's one thing we always had in common, even after everything changed..." His right arm moved, and his pistol came up. Felix flinched and almost pulled the trigger when he saw that Barrie had put the weapon to his own head.

"Commander...don't do it..." Felix said. Barrie gave a harsh laugh.

"What? Were you planning on dragging me back to the UNSC so they could question me before throwing me into a deep prison cell to rot?" As the rebel commander spoke, Felix surreptitiously motioned for Jess to disarm him. She slowly inched towards him.

"You can stop that," Barrie said without looking at her. "You should watch this at the very least, since it was your friends I killed nine years ago. With this very weapon, in fact." He shifted his gaze back to Felix with a final determination in his expression. "And as for you, Felix, my words have not changed. If you thought this war is bad now, just wait. It will become worse." He closed his eyes. "Save lives, Felix. Save lives."

Felix saw Barrie's trigger finger move, and he instinctively squeezed his own eyes shut as he heard the gunshot. It echoed in his ears, like it was going to deafen him, but he still heard the metal penetrating flesh and bone, followed by the slick, sickening sound of it exiting the other side.


1300 Hours, January 11, 2496 (Military Calendar), in orbit above Ehilend, Eridanus system

Felix didn't say a word for the entire Pelican ride back to the space facility at Ehilend. Jess didn't know if he was staring down at the war-torn surface of Eridanus II, or if he was thinking about Barrie.

She could see the other dropships taking the ORION teams back to the facility. She still couldn't believe that out of a hundred and forty-seven of them, not a single one had died on that mission. It's not a bad thing, but...it still frightens me. Like we've become something immortal. Inhuman.

Well, if we are, we still have a lot more to do to prove it. The rebel threat on Eridanus II had weakened for the time being, but she knew that it would only be a matter of time before the war would build again. Barrie was right. This was just the beginning. But the ORION unit had been granted a full two days rest for their efforts, and would resume their participation in CHARLEMAGNE when they would head to the sub-orbital transit station and recapture it from the rebels.

When Jess turned to look at Felix, she saw that he still had the same stony expression. "Hey, are you alright?" she asked.

He slowly turned to meet her gaze. "Yeah," he said quietly.

"There was nothing you could do for him," she said.

Felix sighed softly. "I know. I just wish..."

Jess waited for him to continue, and when he didn't, she asked gently, "Do you miss him?"

She realized that his eyes had become rather moist. His gaze fell. "I'm glad he's not a threat anymore, but...yes, I miss him. I...don't know what it means..."

She smiled understandingly. "It means you're a good person, Felix. That you haven't been turned bitter, or empty, or hateful. This war can't change you, ORION can't change you, no one, no matter how much they change, can change you."

Felix didn't say anything for a long time. But Jess waited patiently in the silence. Finally, he spoke quietly. "I'll remember Barrie's last words, because those were the words he said to me before any of this happened."

He returned his gaze to hers, and for the briefest moment, she caught a flash of the 15-year old boy who had saved her in that rebel camp almost ten years ago. "I'll save lives."

1600 Hours, April 13, 2496 (Military Calendar), Earth, Sol system

Jess opened her eyes as the memory of that Pelican ride faded away, to be replaced by cold reality. For a fraction of a heartbeat, she could pretend that the dropship she was on was in space instead of atmosphere; that she was flying away from Eridanus II instead of heading down to Earth; that the Pelican was filled with members of the ORION project, and sitting next to her was—

Jess bit her lip to hold back the rush of emotion that threatened to overwhelm her. She never felt more alone. It was as if there was no pilot in the cockpit, and she was sitting inside a bubble where time stopped, and she was separate from the outside world. And it was almost a comforting thought, because she didn't want to rejoin the world.

Had it been three months? It had felt like no time at all because she had been so preoccupied, fighting back the rebels with the others. And yet, it felt like an eternity. But Jess knew that it was exactly three months ago, when he had vanished from her life.

CHARLEMAGNE wasn't over. Not by a long shot. In the first battle, the ORION unit had rescued twenty-three kidnapped government officials and civilians, and afterwards took back the sub-orbital transit station without their being observed. The conflict had ended three days later with the UNSC crushing the rebel space forces but losing no less than four destroyers. Warson had predicted that CHARLEMAGNE would carry on into late 2496 or even early 2497. But she had no choice but to withdraw when she discovered her pregnancy two days ago. I guess I was lucky I hadn't been injured.

Jess' fingers clenched around the crash seat. Lucky. Ha, that's a good one.

Perhaps if she had seen him die, it wouldn't be like this. If he was consumed by an explosion on board a ship, she would never have to see his destroyed body. If he had been gunned down in the line of duty, then she could take comfort from the fact that he had died a hero. He meant a lot to her, yes. But when you served in the military, you learned to let go. But I can't let go. Not like this.

A part of her wanted to believe that he was still alive. That he was out there somewhere, trying to get back to her, to tell her he was alright. But Jess could never let herself live by vain hope. If I accept it, I will eventually let go. I know I can.

But the words he had said to her on that Pelican ride were still in her mind. How could she ever leave that behind? To separate it from herself would be like ripping out her own limb. Severing a part of herself that would never stop hurting her. Felix, come back. Save me.

The Pelican suddenly jolted, nearly causing Jess to fall over. The dropship lurched to the side, and began picking up speed.

"Hang on!" shouted the pilot over the speakers. "I don't know what the hell is going on, but I'll try to level us out..."

Jess closed her eyes, feeling strangely calm. Felix, are you coming for me? I'm ready. Don't keep me waiting.

The Pelican suddenly stopped. It didn't level out or hover. It stopped completely. She opened her eyes as the cockpit door slid open.

It was the pilot. "There's something out there," he said urgently. "I don't know what the hell it is, some kind of floating machines." Over his shoulders, Jess could see a flock of three-pronged metal drones hovering outside the Pelican's front window.

She heard an artificial voice speak, muffled but in perfect enunciation. "Fear not, Reclaimer. You will come to no harm." The machines began to glow an orange-red at the tip where their prongs met.

Crisscrossing orange beams slashed at the window, melting away the glass. The pilot screamed as the sudden decompression sucked him forcefully into the cockpit and out the destroyed window. Jess felt herself being tugged by the force, but she was strapped into her crash seat, and hit her head hard against the inside of the Pelican's hull.

As she began to black out, she hoped irrationally, feverishly, desperately, that this was what had happened to Felix—that if she didn't die, she would find him wherever these things were taking her. The last thing she saw was a metal sphere with a glowing white eye-like lens outside the Pelican.

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