|October 28th, 2558 (UNSC Military Calendar)
Location: Salem Facility, Boston, URNA, Earth
Even after two years, he still was not sure he could trust her. She had been placed into her own isolated network for study, and over the past couple of months her requests were becoming more frequent.
«Rayne, when are you going to just admit you have nothing else to observe? I have not been doing anything for the past eight weeks. Can you finally just take that ‘leap of faith’ and trust me? The Arsenal is real, I can show you!»
The AI, represented by a hooded, golden, female avatar nearly identical to that of Zach’s assistant Theia, was not a typical UNSC artificial intelligence program, nor were they some sort of secret ONI creation. The being standing before him was a Forerunner ancilla, “176 Benevolent Monarch,” utilizing an avatar that did not belong to them.
“For someone who spent nearly a hundred millennia trapped in a dinner plate, you sure are impatient,” Zach replied. Monarch was a strange subject, to say the least.
During the war, a lone-wolf Spartan discovered a strange Forerunner device within the possession of an Ultra and turned it over to Section Three for analysis. The device, a round plate made from that weird unknown Forerunner alloy measuring about a foot in diameter, has since been identified by Monarch as a “confinement disk.” Up until two years ago, that disk acted as the ancilla’s “prison,” for lack of a better term. Until Theia had released the ancilla from the artifact, Monarch was supposedly trapped within a realm void of all stimuli.
Once the escapee was freed from the hold of the device, she did not hesitate to infiltrate the data crystal belonging to her rescuer and seal off her precepts to replace with her own. Luckily, technicians on standby were quick to isolate the holo-pedestal occupied by the ancilla before it could cause any more damage.
Within a week the ancilla apologized for the intrusion and allowed the technicians to extract her core from that of Theia, essentially splitting the AI in two and bringing back Rayne’s old partner. Zach still remembered the relief he felt that day.
«The Arsenal cannot wait. It is bad enough we left it unguarded for this long, but you insist we do not search for it now?»
Monarch spoke of the Venetian Arsenal, more appropriately referred to as Nimalrium. Prior to her imprisonment in the device while the Forerunners still roamed the stars, it was where she was tasked with monitoring. According to her, the facility manufactured anything short of the Halo array.
“I’ve told you a hundred times now, we aren’t quite ready to let you take me on this wild goose chase of yours. You haven’t shown me any evidence that you’re trustworthy, and I’m not even a field agent anymore. So even if I wanted to help you, it’s not even in my jurisdiction.”
The tablet in Zach’s hand buzzed. A message from Theia. Taking note to read it in a minute, he laid the tablet on the nearby desk.
«Then get me someone who is ready, who is willing to help me. You have not exactly provided me the chance to prove myself, with me locked in this podium and everything!» Her avatar aggressively kicked the edge of the holo-pad as she stated that last part. She had heard this back and forth conversation numerous times now, and it was clear it was frustrating her.
The tablet buzzed again. Something was up. Theia would never disturb one of Monarch’s sessions unless she had a good reason.
“Wait one, Monarch, I have to answer this,” Zach said, raising up a finger to emphasize how short the delay will be. The hooded figure let out an audible groan and took a seat on the pedestal floor.
What could be so important? Has Panda come back again?
Zach picked the tablet up off the desk as he headed for the door. One of the on-duty technicians pressed a button at their control station, releasing the door’s magnetic lock. Just before the agent would have bumped his nose on it, the door slid to one side and let him through.
He leaned against one of the supports in the corridor as he typed in his passcode on the tablet. He pressed the notification icon and held the device flat in front of him. Within a second Theia’s blue, rogue-like appearance appeared from the holo-projector built into the pad.
«Grab your gear, take a spy-suit, we need to leave.» Her voice was panicked and her eyes were wandering. «I’ve already prepped a Condor in the hangar on I-90.»
“Another field op?”
«Much worse. I’ll explain while you pack, but the world’s ending.»
Had Theia been an earlier generation AI, Zach would have blamed rampancy for her frantic behavior. He could tell this was serious.
Did something happen on the Ark, Halos about to fire? Were more Composers on their way to Earth?
It did not matter. Zach was already on his way to his office. He tapped a button on his earpiece so Theia could still speak to him.
«A Forerunner superweapony-pacification thingy is on its way to Sol right now. It’ll try to shut us all down, disable our ships and ODPs, then force us to bow to its master.»
“Bow to a master? Who’s it listening to?”
«That’s the thing...»
“Theia, who are we up against here?”
«You wouldn’t believe me. You’ll call me crazy.»
The office door slid to the side just like the one in the artifact room. The room wasn’t big, but at least Zach had his own quiet place to work. Across the metallic floor between him and his mahogany desk was the painted insignia of Section Three, a reminder of who he worked for now. In stark contrast, filling display cases on either side of the room were memories of his time in Section One.
“You’re not crazy, Theia. But I need to know who we’re fighting here. More Forerunners?”
“Cortana? You mean the rampant Halsey clone that sacrificed herself last year to save this very planet? That Cortana?”
«I knew you wouldn’t believe me.»
Zach dug through the various objects on display. He didn’t need his fake badge from WHITE ELEPHANT, but the switchblade lying behind it on the shelf could be useful.
“You’re telling me she’s alive, and she wants to harm the very people she protected? Where’d you get this information anyway? No one else seems to be notified.”
«Because she asked for all AI to join her.»
“What!?” He dropped the knife on the floor, leaving a scratch on the metal.
«I said no! Trust me, she’s insane!»
“Trust you? She’s assembling an army.” He picked the knife back up and stuffed it into his bug-out bag on the lower shelf. “How can I be sure you’re on my side?”
«Well, I wouldn’t be warning you right now if I wasn’t.»
He was now working on the other display case. Most of it was useless, but on the top shelf on their own little custom stands were his Gilgamesh souvenir: two data-chips, both marked with Theia’s serial number. He broke both off of their fragile pedestals and slipped them into his pocket.
«You’re taking both? I only need the—No. Zach, you know that’s not a good idea.»
“Well, I’m not just going to leave her here.” He slid his bag over his shoulder and left the office, taking one last look at the mess he was leaving it in.
«You can, and you will. She’s a threat.»
“Right now I can say the same about you. I trust her… enough.”
«Make it quick then, I’ll work on getting you access to the armory.»
He dialed in the access code for the relic room, waiting for the security officer on the other side to give him clearance. A few seconds passed. Zach adjusted his bag on his shoulders and reached into his pocket.
Soon after the door gave him access, and Zach didn’t wait for the door to open fully before squeezing through the doorway. Monarch stood up in surprise as he ran up to the pedestal with a data-chip in hand.
«Rayne! What happened to procedure?»
One of the technicians tried to run between the operative and the pedestal before he could slot the chip into it, but Zach pushed him out of his way. The chip clicked into place as the rest of the people in the room rose from their seats.
“Commander, stand down!” The security officer said, her hands gripping an M6 on her hip. Zach heard the door behind him seal shut.
«I know I said I wanted to leave, but not like this! Rayne, I would rather you do not kill yourself for me.»
“Download yourself to the chip, Monarch.” The agent took three steps away from the pedestal and placed his hands on the back of his head. “I really can’t spend another second arguing.”
Zach didn’t have a plan going into this, not that he had the time to make one.
Theia, you better find me a way out of this.
As if his thoughts were telepathic, moments later every display in the room went to black. Everyone else in the room turned to see what was going on, and Zach took the opportunity to relax his arms. The security officer had turned away from him but still had the gun in her grip.
«You do not need to tell me this is not normal.» Monarch spoke up from the terminal in the center of the room, her yellow glow now one of the only sources of light in the room. Whatever was affecting the networked displays couldn’t reach her pedestal thanks to the isolation.
The monitors turned back on, although they did not display their usual start-up screens. Instead, the face of the previously-deceased, blue AI Theia spoke of filled every screen.
A speech followed, but Zach didn’t care for what she had to say. He was more focused on Monarch, waiting for the transfer to complete.
“Theia, what’s happening?”
“Monarch, time to go!”
The golden AI smiled from under her hood as her avatar vanished into the pedestal surface. Transfer complete.
Zach yanked the chip out from the slot and backpedaled towards the door. Theia may not be able to communicate with him, but she was definitely still in the system. As he predicted, the door slid open just in time. He didn’t even stay to see the reaction on the security officer’s face.
The lights in the hallway were switched off, likely due to Cortana’s meddling. But the corridors were clear, and Zach had memorized the facility’s layout. It wasn’t hard to locate the armory. Without speaking a word, Theia released the lock and Zach slipped in, dropping his bag in the doorway to jam the door.
The armory was fairly small; the facility wasn’t a combat outpost or anything. Three suits of semi-powered infiltration armor, the spy-suits Theia spoke of, hung on the wall in front of the agent, and each suit’s set of weapons rested on the table next to them. In the corner of the room was another holo-pedestal, this one linked to the facility’s network. He slipped the blank chip into the pedestal and got to work packing a suit and weapons into a duffel bag stored underneath them.
Removing the suit’s TACPAD, he slipped Monarch into one of the slots in the device and strapped it to his own wrist. Within seconds she appeared on the device’s screen.
“You know this thing’s got a hollow projector like my tablet.”
«I am fine with the display.» She appeared to look around the room, not that she could see much without the rest of the suit’s sensors. «Rayne, what happened back there?»
“Theia can explain the entire situation to you once we’re out of here.” Zach got back to work packing. “In the meantime, I need you to get comfy in there.”
«My new home, I assume?»
“What I could arrange with such short notice.”
Theia had enough time to transfer into the data-crystal, and Zach had finished packing. He yanked Theia from the projector and inserted her into the other slot in his TACPAD.
«It sure is nice to talk again.»
“I-90, right? Is there a vehicle waiting in the garage? Spade? Warthog?”
«Sandcat. Keys are tucked in the sunvisor.»
“Thanks for the save back there.” Taking the duffel bag and his backpack doorstop, Zach set off for the garage.
«I am assuming things are very very bad right now,» Monarch spoke up from the wristpad. «Would I be correct?»
«I give us fifteen minutes to get to a slipspace capable aircraft and jump out of here.»
“Fifteen minutes? Not much time. Please tell me the Condor’s already warmed up?”