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Annual Award Best Novel This story, Halo: In the Dark, written by Brodie-001, was voted as the Best Novel of 2015 in the Eighth Annual Halo Fanon Wikia Awards.


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Halo: In the Dark
Trident Emblem
Protagonist

Richard Mack

Author Brodie-001
Date Published Started June 14th, 2015

Finished January 9th, 2016

Length 6 Chapters, 17 sub-chapters

(Roughly 37,317 words upon initial completion)

Author's Rating 16+ (Some harsh language and violence throughout)
Story Series Sigmaverse
Soundtrack
[Source]

Plot Summary

The year is 2499. It is the end of the 25th Century, and Humanity is beset by rebellion as Insurrectionist groups spread throughout its colony worlds. Among those working to counter these groups is Trident Team, some of the ORION Project's best operatives with an impressive track record of counter-terrorism operations. After several years of success in the field, cracks have emerged within Trident and following an uprising on the remote world of Heimdall, their very existence is threatened. Now under threat of death, several operators must act quickly to stop a rebel threat and uncover a secret that may shake the very foundations of the UNSC.

Dramatis Personae

Halo: In the Dark

Prologue

Sunrise

0623 Hours, April 4th, 2498 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Phoros IV, Outer Colonies


The transport zipped over the treeline, rotor blades buzzing as it half a dozen others joined it. Flying high above the jungle canopy, they sped towards their target as one of the planet’s two distant suns began to rise on the horizon.

"We’ll be on ‘em in five minutes. Look sharp, Trident!"

Two of the Falcon helicopters flew a short distance behind the main group. Painted with red markings and other insignias, the pair were heavily armoured and modified compared to their counterparts ahead; Machine guns loaded with explosive rounds sat on each side of one, while the other carried two grenade launchers in addition to the standard chin-mounted autocannon.

"Ammo and weapons check, we’re approaching the drop zone!"

Aside from the pilots, the two Falcons were crewed by eight people; seven men and one woman. In one, a tall, fair-haired man placed a black beret on his head and loaded his sidearm before glancing back towards his teammates.

"We ready?" he asked, speaking loudly over the sound of rotor blades.

The man nearest to him, a heavyset soldier with a shaven head, spat over the edge before slapping the side of his machine gun and grinning.

"We sure are, Captain. They ain’t."

He smiled. "Just make sure they don’t get a shot off, Hawkins."

The Captain turned as his headseat buzzed. He tapped it, activating his COM system. A voice called over from the other Falcon.

"Captain LaMarche, launchers are loaded over here. We’re gonna hit ‘em with one sweep and let you guys finish off what’s left, so long as our boys don’t blow the place to pieces first."

"Copy that," he responded, glancing out of his Falcon towards the far-off mountains. "We’ve got orders to land and clear afterwards, Lieutenant, so try not to level the place."

"Yes sir," came the immediate reply. "See you down there." The COM channel switched off.

They were almost at their target. Anton LaMarche straightened his beret, and reached across the cramped confines of their Falcon for a rifle; like the rest of their gear, it was state of the art and heavily customised; a level above the equipment the Marines loaded into the other Falcons carried. He began to affix an underbarrel shotgun to his weapon as their chopper swooped in low over the jungle canopy. Mack’s voice rang out over the COM.

"Approaching the target zone now. Weapons free."

Barely a second after that, the sounds of firing lit up the air, followed shortly by explosions from the jungle below as the grenade launcher blasted the foliage apart in its search for the hidden buildings that dotted the jungle. Within seconds the ground below was ablaze, revealing dozens of structures and figures running for cover as the Falcons circled. Anton smirked at the sight of it; they looked like ants fleeing for their lives.

"Open fire!"

Beside him, Sergeant Steven Hawkins didn’t need much prompting before he opened fire. The explosive rounds from the Falcon’s M247’s cut across the dirt and blew the fleeing people to pieces. Anyone in sight below was exterminated by either the relentless grenade launcher fire or the heavy machine guns. After circling the area twice, LaMarche motioned for the other Falcon to land in the now-cleared area before speaking.

"Take us down, pilot. We’re going in."

The four soldiers held on as their transport descended, keeping an eye out for any movement in the trees around their landing zone. LaMarche and Hawkins clambered out of one side, while Second Lieutenant King and Sergeant Crowley moved from the other. Wary of possible attacks from rebel RPG’s, the Falcons lifted off immediately and ascended to a safe height. Once all eight members of Trident had disembarked, they spread out in a semi-circle towards the treeline, carefully moving past the dozens of shredded corpses that littered the ground.

"Trident, final check," LaMarche whispered over the COM. “Three meter spread towards the main site, presume any contacts as hostile and terminate immediately.”

"Copy that," Mack replied after several affirmatives from the others. "I’ll take point."

"Got it. Let’s move."

Trident moved swiftly through the undergrowth, keeping low. Their green camo fatigues offered them some cover in this planet’s dense jungle, though the rebels up at the main camp almost certainly knew they were coming after their outpost had been shot to pieces. By now the Marine contingent of this strike force was probably landing close to the nearby town a dozen miles to the west; their orders were to take and hold the area’s only known functioning spaceport.

"Movement ahead," muttered Gunnery Sergeant Redford, crouched in the bushes not far to Mack’s left. He froze and dropped to one knee as several men came into view on a nearby dirt road. With a quick nod towards Mack, Redford raised his assault rifle and opened fire. That, coupled with a burst from Sergeant Majors Hollister and Ackton nearby, dropped the patrol before they could even react.

"Targets down."

"Keep going, they’ll have heard that."

"Forest fire’s spreading. We’d better make this quick."

LaMarche motioned for the others to move forward as he activated the second COM channel.

"Oscar Three-Three, this is Trident One. We’re approaching the camp. Please move in and provide aerial support, over."

"Copy that, Trident One," the Falcon pilot replied after a brief delay. "Moving in to assist now."

The rebel encampment was already in disarray by the time their team arrived. Located by the base of a local mountain range, the prefabricated buildings and modified civilian vehicles had been hidden from radar and satellite scans for months now, until one of their undercover agents had managed to infiltrate the group. With the attack underway, it was Trident Team’s mission to find their agent and eliminate the rebels before they could give the planetary government any more trouble.

"Counting at least thirty," muttered Hollister over the COM. She slowly inserted a grenade into her rifle’s undermounted launcher, waiting for LaMarche to give the order.

“Got it," he replied. "Ackton, move into the hills with Redford and get a vantage point on the base. Hawkins, I want you covering the road. Mack and King will get the main gate while everyone else blows through the wall. They won’t know what hit ‘em."

It took less than half a minute for the team to get to their positions. From his vantage point LaMarche watched the people in the camp pulling up camo nets and covering their anti-aircraft guns, perhaps hoping that their foes had only noticed their outlying camp. As the Falcon approached overhead, he nodded to Hollister. She raised her rifle.

"Move in. Weapons free."

Trident Team didn’t need much encouragement. The area around the base lit up as all eight of them opened fire. Hollister’s first grenade blew an AA gun to pieces as sniper fire from Ackton and Redford picked off anyone not in cover. A heavily-loaded flatbed truck sped out of a nearby garage and out of the side gate, only to meet Hawkins’ machine gun. It veered off the road and crashed into the undergrowth before bursting into flames.

"Trident, move in," LaMarche spoke over the COM as he stood up. Crowley ducked through the bushes towards him, giving a thumbs-up as he passed his superior a detonator. The Captain clicked it once and the outer wall of the camp burst inwards, showering several rebels with stone and shrapnel.

"Go, go!"

Crowley was in first, casually picking off stragglers with his rifle while Hollister lay down a steady stream of fire. By the time LaMarche stepped into the enemy compound it was a mess of corpses and burnt-out buildings. A hacking cough nearby caught LaMarche’s attention. To his right lay a badly-wounded man in tattered green fatigues, one hand reaching out weakly.

"Ple-"

He fired once with his sidearm. The man fell back and was still. Orders were orders. No survivors. No mercy. The UNSC wanted to make an example of this place and had deployed their best to show what happened to dissidents in the colonies. LaMarche strode confidently into the main courtyard, stepping over bodies as his team spread out to eliminate the remaining resistance. With an almighty crash the main gate fell open, revealing Mack and King.

"Think we got ‘em, sir!" Mack called over the sound of the Falcon. "Any sign of our informant?"

"Negative. Spread out and search the buildings!"

LaMarche adjusted his beret slightly and continued his stroll through the carnage. Every now and then he’d find an incapacitated foe bleeding out in the dirt, and kindly made their passing a little quicker with his pistol. Of course, such actions would be deemed both immoral and illegal should the civilian media or any reasonable figure at command find out, but Trident Team hadn’t been part of any standard operations for years now; officially they weren’t even on this planet.

"Captain!" Hollister waved to him from a nearby building. "Got a tunnel here leading into the mountains. Should we go in or wait for backup to smoke ‘em out?"

He made up his mind in less than a second. "We’re going in."

Rifles raised, the commandos moved into the tunnel. It had been roughly hewn out of the rock with heavy mining equipment, and was wide enough that three of them could stand abreast if they wanted to. Their attack had evidently knocked out a generator of some kind as the tunnels were unlit and pitch-black, forcing them to equip their night-vision eyepieces as they moved slowly into the heart of the rebel base.

"Sir," Ackton’s voice cracked over the COM. "Truck convoy heading up the road, we free to fire?"

"Never told you to cease fire, Sergeant Major."

"They look like civilian vehicles, Captain."

"Follow your orders." LaMarche switched his COM off. Seconds later, the crack of a sniper rifle echoed from outside, followed by gunshots from other members of Trident. The group eventually came to a large steel door which had evidently been put in to seal off intruders. LaMarche stepped aside without a word as King moved to plant a charge. Though small, the device generated enough force to send the door flying back, followed by a flashbang grenade from Hollister.

"Get down, now!" King roared as the four of them advanced into the next room. They had evidently caught a few rebels by surprise; two lay on the floor already, dazed by the sudden explosion, while a third had a pistol raised. She was riddled with bullets before she could level the weapon. LaMarche waved for them to advance.

"Crowley, prisoners."

"Got ‘em." The Sergeant drew his sidearm and fired twice before rejoining the squad. What followed was little more than a standard clearing op; they had evidently missed or killed the remainder of the group already. Still, they hadn’t just come here to wipe out a few innies. LaMarche lowered his rifle slightly before calling out.

"Storm!"

After a few seconds, a weak voice replied. "Thunder!" The four commandos turned to a locker in the corner of the room, which creaked open. A thin, terrified-looking man in olive fatigues was crouched inside. At the sight of four weapons pointed towards him, he raised his hands in surrender.

"Thunder, damnnit! That’s still the countersign, right?"

LaMarche smiled. "Mister Rojas, I assume? We’re here to get you out."

"Yeah, I can see that." Rojas stepped out from the locker, wiping sweat from his brow. "I got the intel on their other bases, too. Bastards never expected a thing."

"Where?"

"Right over here."

The man opened a nearby cabinet and fished out a small chip, which he inserted into a nearby datapad. Rojas tapped it several times until the screen lit up, and passed it to LaMarche.

"Is this everything?"

"Yes sir. Managed to get everything downloaded last night. I knew it was only a matter of time before ONI sent my evac team. We good to go?"

LaMarche nodded. "Hollister, if you don’t mind…?"

Without a word, Marion Hollister stepped up behind Rojas and slit his throat with her combat knife. She held him for a few seconds as his body jerked and blood sprayed across the meeting room. He fell to the floor with a dull thud.

"Thank you." The Captain stowed the pad in his pack. "Such a shame that Agent Rojas was discovered and brutally murdered by this group of terrorists." He shook his head. "Let’s go."

Outside, the battle was already wrapping up. Hawkins was crouched by a pile of bullet-riddled crates, reloading his machine gun with a lit cigar in his mouth. He nodded as LaMarche and the others approached, keeping low as gunfire echoed through the smouldering treeline. The Captain knelt by the Sergeant as Crowley and Hollister moved into cover.

"Anything to report, Hawkins?"

"At least forty innies dead. Falcons are heading out to mop the rest up while we deal with stragglers around here, sir."

"Where’s Mack?"

Hawkins jerked a thumb towards what remained of the gatehouse. LaMarche patted him on the shoulder before ducking out and springing into a low run across the burning compound. His second in command barely glanced up as he approached, keeping his rifle trained on the corpse-strewn road. Not far outside the gate a large truck lay on its side, belching acrid black smoke into the morning sky.

"See something?" he whispered. Mack gave a fraction of a nod.

"Truck came in from the west, past Ackton and Redford’s killzone. Looked like it was carrying arms. Took a lot of fire from the four of us before it went down."

LaMarche nodded, peeking out for a second to get a better view of the mostly-obscured truck. Though the sheer amount of bullets pumped into it by other Trident members should have been enough to tear the vehicle to pieces, he could understand Mack’s caution.

"Survivors?"

"That’s what I’m waiting to see, sir. No chances."

"Right." He sat in silence for a few seconds, awaiting the briefest flicker of movement from the overturned truck. "Gonna call for evac now, be ready for a quick exfil."

"Rojas?"

"Taken care of."

"Good. Had a bad feeling this would turn into another SWEEPER."

"Unlikely. We’re being very precise this time." LaMarche knew Mack still carried scars from the operation two months ago, both physical and mental. Another lengthy campaign like that would only prove to damage the Lieutenant and the rest of Trident, considering the hell they had all been through back then. LaMarche put two fingers to his ear and activated the COM.

"Oscar Three-Two, Oscar Three-Three, this is Trident One, are you receiving me, over?"

There was a brief pause before a response filtered through. "Copy that, Trident One. We’re already en-route to the compound now, what’s your situation?"

"All objectives complete. We need a quick exfil ASAP. How soon can you get here?"

The Falcon pilot clicked her tongue. "Two mikes, Trident One. We’ll be there soon, out."

He clicked his COM off. Anything could happen in two minutes. In combat, two minutes could either blow by in seconds or feel like two hours. All Trident had to do now was hold their location and wait.

"Trident Team," he spoke over TEAMCOM. "Regroup in the compound for exfil. Ackton, pop green smoke at our primary LZ."

As the chorus of affirmatives came in, LaMarche crept from the gatehouse and moved round by one of the unburnt buildings. Just a few hours ago, people had been sleeping here, completely unaware of the storm the UNSC was about to bring down upon them. Still, their choice to live as criminals and terrorists led to this, regardless of whether or not they picked up a gun in this fight. LaMarche had few qualms about what he did, so long as it ensured that dangerous elements like this were eliminated and the United Earth Government remained as the dominant political power across the colonies. To him, the possibility of any other faction springing up to challenge Earth’s authority in the Outer Colonies could only lead to the outbreak of war; something the UNSC and UEG were desperately trying to prevent. LaMarche sighed after taking a quick glance into the building, where five bodies lay shot to pieces, probably by Hawkins’ machine gun.

"This was a cakewalk,” the Sergeant shouted. “Think Command’s running out of good ops to give us?"

"Hell if I know, Hawkins. It’s a big galaxy; I’m sure there’ll always be enough nutjobs around for them to point us at."

"Hope so." Hawkins ground the spent cigar under his boot. The man had no interest in anything beyond the next mission, and their next targets.

Across the compound, First Lieutenant Richard Mack sat behind a ruined wall, still watching the road. Beside him sat Second Lieutenant Frederick King, Trident's infiltration specialist. King, who usually wore a facemask over his mouth and nose while on missions, had pulled it down due to the heat, and was looking over his rifle in their momentary reverie.

"You always do that," Mack glanced towards him. "You really think your gun's gonna jam, considering the way you treat it? "

"You can never be too careful," King replied. He held up the gun, satisfied, before crouching down next to Mack to watch the road.

"I think there's someone alive down there."

"How do you know?"

"Just a hunch."

They sat in silence for a few more seconds, watching the truck. Wisps of green smoke blew through the air above them as Ackton's grenade marked their location. The helicopters buzzed over the burning treeline, slowly circling the compound before descending.

"Huh," Mack shrugged, and began to get up. "Guess I was wrong."

As he stood, a rocket streaked out of the undergrowth where the truck had crashed, smashing into Oscar Three-Three's cockpit before detonating. Most of Trident dived for cover as burning metal rained down overhead and the other Falcon veered off to avoid the blast. King, who had rolled away, caught a glimpse of Mack sprinting past the gatehouse.

"Lieutenant!"

Mack ran at breakneck speed, sweating slightly as he cleared the compound's entrance and headed down the dirt road towards the truck. The smoke from the rocket had barely dissipated by the time he arrived, darting round the side of the destroyed vehicle with his rifle raised. Among the scattered bodies torn apart by gunfire lay a young woman, bleeding from the chest and legs. She tossed aside the spent weapon as he appeared, drawing a small handgun and levelling it towards him.

"Die!" she gave a hoarse cry, letting off a volley of rounds. Several plinked off Mack's armour, though one grazed his left shoulder.

Barely flinching at the wound, he pulled the trigger. A rapid discharge of armour-piercing rounds ripped through the wounded rebel, her bloodstained body jerking violently as each shot impacted. He'd expended half of his magazine before the handgun fell from her limp fingers. His COM buzzed.

"Mack!" LaMarche called. "What's the situation?"

"One insurgent KIA. Looks like they were playing dead out of sight, sir."

The Captain sighed. "Copy that. I've re-routed Oscar Three-One to our location while Three-Two extracts the rest of the team. We'll wait with Ackton for the next bird."

Mack turned and began walking towards the compound, ignoring his stinging shoulder. Idiot, he thought, scowling as he neared the gatehouse, watching the first Falcon land. She might've lived if she'd just stayed there. If there was one thing about Innies that worried him, it was the absolute devotion to the cause and willingness to die that many of them showed. To Mack, it was different than a soldier's willingness to sacrifice themselves in the line of duty. It was the righteousness they felt in their cause. LaMarche or Hawkins would probably berate him for thinking about it too much. They were the enemy, and it was the duty of Trident and the UNSC to wipe them out.

Still, should've blown the truck to pieces. It's like King said; can't be too careful.

He tried not to think of the downed Falcon's pilot. At least it was a quick death. Most of Trident were aboard Oscar Three-Two, which rose steadily and flew off as he approached, leaving Captain LaMarche standing in the centre of the rebel compound

"Good work," he said, clapping Mack on the shoulder. He shot him a puzzled look when the Lieutenant winced, and saw the wound. "Oh, sorry."

"Just a bug-bite," Mack smirked.

"Get that treated when we get back. God knows what kind of shit you might catch out here."

"Will do."

Mack strode across the open area and sat on a crate He nodded towards Sergeant Major Ackton as he emerged from behind one of the buildings. Trident's marksman, John Ackton was rather easygoing for a man whose skillset involved killing people from thousands of metres away. Lugging the heavy SR-99 rifle - an Army-issued weapon he'd requisitioned - he'd recovered quickly from an injury sustained during the recent Operation: SWEEPER

"Nice shooting," he said as Ackton sat down nearby. "How many?"

"Fifteen. Armed."

The Sergeant might have been accustomed to the grey area Trident operated in, but he'd never shot a defenceless person if he could help it. Mack respected him for it. LaMarche saw it as a weakness. He glanced over to see the Captain lighting a cigarette; unlike most officers, he disliked the popular Sweet William Cigars that many servicemen paid handsomely for. Mack and Ackton weren't smokers, though the former drank on occasion. Waiting for evac was fairly tedious at times, he reflected.

"Shame about the chopper," Mack broke the silence.

"If I'd been in a better position I might've been able to take that innie bitch out."

"We sharing the guilt trip on this one?"

"Might as well," Ackton smirked. Humour was how he coped with things. While Trident and their comrades in the ORION project had only been properly active for less than three years, they had experienced more combat than your average Marine would go through in nearly a decade; mission after mission, target after target.

"You hear about Javelin Team?"

Ackton shook his head. "That's Black's, right?"

"Yeah." Mack had befriended Daniel Black at the Reach Naval Academy several years ago. "They were going after some nutjob cult on Eridanus II and the bastards were wired. Took out a half a city block in Luxor and buried Javelin in the rubble. Reynis died."

"Shit. I liked her."

"Yeah. Turns out that while they're recovering, Perrin goes nuts and kills two nurses. Psychotic break. Heard that command kept things under wraps and discharged him quietly."

"Well, shit," Ackton exhaled. "Perrin seemed like a decent guy. Surprised they even let him go civvie."

"Yeah. It's pretty messed up, man."

The pair sat for some time without speaking. While ORION's augmented soldiers had succeeded in cutting a bloody swathe through the growing Insurrection that seemed to spring up on every other colony, rumours of mental breakdowns and severe mental issues had been spreading through the ranks. Mack wondered if the chemical augmentations he'd been given years ago would one day affect his mind as well. Best not to think about it, he reflected. He was perfectly sane, and intended to stay that way.

"Chopper's here!" LaMarche called, tossing aside the stub of his cigarette as a Falcon came into view over the nearby mountains. Ackton and Mack stood up, grabbing their weapons.

"They torching this place?" the sniper asked as they approached.

"Probably. Let's just get the hell out of here."

"Nobody argued. For Trident Team, today was just another successful mission; one more win in what Mack hoped would be a long, successful career of counter-terrorism ops. They boarded the Falcon as it descended, hovering a few inches above the ground. LaMarche checked their mission clock: 0700 hours exactly. As they skimmed above the still-burning forests, he saw that the first sun had fully risen and felt a strange sense of pride.

Today, the people of Phoros IV can awaken without the threat of terrorist thugs knocking at their doors. We've brought peace and dealt with threats to this colony world's stability. They can call our methods harsh if they want, but the results are there for all to see. All this, achieved by a handful of men and women willing to do what it takes.

This was how Anton LaMarche saw things. While the rebel base lay a burning ruin and UNSC forces either killed or rounded up any survivors, he knew that they had done some good for this world. He and his men were not just fighting for the UNSC, they were fighting to maintain the stability of Humanity itself in the galaxy as it continued to expand.

For the Captain, there were no lengths he wouldn't go to if it meant that stability would be preserved..

Brief

1128 Hours, November 4th, 2499 (UNSC Military Calendar)

ONI SWORD Base, Reach, Inner Colonies


I'm not handcuffed, but they might as well have me in chains.

Richard Mack sat, back straight, in the corner of one of SWORD Base's waiting rooms. Though the friendly lighting and 'window' panels lining the wide space gave it the appearance of a normal military facility, he knew he was already several floors underground. Eight men belonging to the Marine Corps Military police stood in pairs at each doorway, each armed with assault rifles. This wasn't standard procedure; Mack knew they were all guarding him.

This isn't good.

Following a successful mission to Biko, Mack and several other members of Trident had been given several weeks of shore leave on Reach while they awaited the rest of the team's return from another operation. As he'd been walking back towards the base last night, a van had pulled up nearby and several men forced him inside at gunpoint, placing a bag over his head. At first Mack feared that it was an Insurrectionist abduction, only to find himself being thrown into a cell at this very base after several hours of travel. It was the Office of Naval Intelligence instead.

Come to think of it, I might prefer capture by Innies instead of ONI's famous 'hospitality'.

He'd spent the night there and had at least been allowed to wash and shave the following morning before being escorted to this very room less than half an hour ago. He wondered if being made to wait was just an ONI trick, or if he'd simply been given an appointment. A black-uniformed man entered the waiting room and nodded towards Mack. He rose slowly, keeping his hands at his side as the MP's silently moved to escort him.

"My apologies for your treatment, Lieutenant Mack," said the ONI agent without a trace of warmth in his voice.

"If you wanted me here, you could have just ordered me."

"True, but precautions had to be taken."

"What do you mean?"

"You'll find out. Here we are."

At the end of the adjacent hallway, a door opened into a dimly lit conference room. Mack was ushered inside and stood before a high table, arms clasped behind his back as he stood to attention. Gradually, the lights brightened and he could make out four individuals sitting before him. The agent who'd escorted him inside joined them. A bearded man in a grey naval uniform spoke first.

"Please state your rank, name, and unit."

"First Lieutenant Richard Mack, Trident Team, under Naval Special Warfare Command."

"For the course of this hearing, do you swear to only speak the truth?"

"I do."

The man seemed to relax considerably. Mack noticed the four stars signifying an Admiral's rank gleaming on his uniform. This isn't just some disciplinary shit. A quick look across the table confirmed that barring the ONI agent's plain black uniform, everyone before him was an officer either in the Marine Corps or the Navy.

"Right then," the Admiral tapped a datapad, and a holotank lit up to Mack's right. The service record of Captain LaMarche flashed before him, a list of achievements and career notes slowly scrolling past.

"Are you familiar with this man, Lieutenant Mack?"

"Yes sir."

"Could you please inform the board of the extent of your relationship?"

"I served under Captain LaMarche for several years as his executive officer. Before that, we attended OCS together and served in the same unit for some time while in the Marines."

"Is that all?" asked a brown-haired woman to the Admiral's right, staring at Mack with some interest.

He hesitated for a moment. They already know everything. "I met LaMarche briefly when I was seventeen, while he was a SWAT officer."

She nodded, apparently satisfied. He hated her already. Another one of his interrogators, a middle-aged woman with the rank of Colonel, leant forward.

"So, would it come as a surprise to you to learn that he's turned traitor?"

"What?!" The reaction spilled from Mack's mouth faster than he could think. He felt numb from shock. Her words had struck him like bullets. "I don't, understand, what-"

"-so you're unaware of this?" the Admiral cut him off.

"No sir. As far as I'm aware Captain LaMarche was completely loyal towards the UNSC."

"Any strange behaviour or pro-Insurrectionist sympathy?"

"None."

The Admiral glanced over to the ONI agent, who hadn't spoken since they sat down. The man briefly checked a datapad, his eyes flitting between Mack and the screen in front of him.

"He's telling the truth, Admiral. He has no idea."

With this, the room's lights seemed to get slightly brighter. Mack wondered if this was another ONI tactic used to show the detainee's innocence. At the other end of the table, a bald, thickset man with a Vice Admiral's rank sighed heavily.

"If that's the case, then can we get this over with? No point playing inquisitor with an innocent man."

The others appeared to agree. The Lieutenant Colonel, ONI agent and Vice Admiral all left their seats and exited the room with barely a glance towards Mack, who hadn't moved a muscle. He was confused. What the fuck is happening? The Admiral steepled his fingers, and spoke.

"I am Admiral Konrad Volkov, Commander-in-Chief of the Office of Naval Intelligence. This is Commander Margaret Parangosky, also of ONI."

Oh shit. Mack had a horrible feeling that whatever this was may be above his pay grade, but he saluted all the same. If it involved LaMarche, then what's happened to the rest of Trident? Were they dead, or had they joined the Innies as well?

"Lieutenant, I apologise for your brief detainment, but considering the circumstances we had to ensure that the rest of your team wasn't involved in what has occurred over the last forty-eight hours. Lieutenant King, and Sergeants Ackton and Redford have already stood before the board and have been found innocent."

He breathed a sigh of relief. "Sir, what has happened with Captain LaMarche?"

Volkov nodded to Parangosky, who with the touch of a button reconfigured the image floating above the holotank. A three-dimensional outline of a military facility sat before him, slowly rotating. Camera footage of armed individuals patrolling the walls appeared on a nearby monitor, gunning down Marine guards in the midst of a heavy snowstorm while alarms blared nearby.

"The Ouroboros Station, on Heimdall," Parangosky explained. "Established in 2433, it's been used for experimental weapons and armour testing since then. Staff of around eighty, including scientists. Security compliment is fifty, courtesy of the Marine Corps. As far as ONI's concerned, it's just a harmless research station on a developing colony."

Mack nodded, and was starting to get the picture. Admiral Volkov took over as more images appeared.

"We dispatched Captain LaMarche and three members of Trident there several weeks ago to assist in the testing of several weapon prototypes and field equipment, as well as a recently-developed cyberwarfare program we're hoping to roll out along with the next generation of artificial intelligences. Then this happened."

On a nearby monitor, footage flashed up showing several civilian ships landing outside the facility. Dozens of armed figures emerged, rushing into the base and gunning down a number of guards in the process. It switched between a number of cameras displaying their advance towards the command centre. There, they were greeted by none other than Anton LaMarche, flanked by Steven Hawkins and Tobias Crowley. The Captain seemed to be on friendly terms with their leader, a lean man with a shaved head clad in outdated military gear.

"We've identified the leader of the terrorist group as Oleg Lombardi," said Parangosky as the man's profile appeared nearby. "Used to be a freighter captain on Adrastos, until he got involved with a group calling itself the 'United Rebel Front' and proclaimed himself a Major in whatever ramshackle military they have. He's been involved in several hijackings and high-profile bombings over the last few years, but he's been careful to cover his tracks. Until now, we've never been able to pin him down."

Lombardi and LaMarche's profiles appeared side by side, and Volkov pointed to them. "Now, we don't know how your Captain managed to contact Lombardi, but currently they're both in control of a top-secret facility with a small army of trained fighters defending it. We can't afford to mount a frontal assault."

"ODST's?" Mack suggested, dreading the inevitable.

"They'd be shot out of the sky before they got close. AA guns would detect them coming in. Same with sub-prowlers or dropships within fifty miles of the place. Ouroboros was outfitted to be damn near impregnable, but I don't think the designers expected there to be treachery from within."

"Have they made any demands?"

"Not yet. Seems that the communications array was damaged in he initial assault, probably to prevent the defenders from calling for help. If half of Trident Team has gone rogue, then-"

"-Not everyone, sir." Mack interrupted. Volkov raied an eyebrow. "I didn't see Gunnery Sergeant Hollister in that footage. Could mean that she didn't go along with their plans."

"You're right," Parangosky muttered. "Can't believe we missed that."

"We should've had an AI review the footage," snapped Volkov. "She's probably dead then, Lieutenant. I'm sorry."

Mack nodded. I'm not the one he should be apologising to. "Have the others been briefed on this?"

"Not yet. As acting team leader we're giving you the full details first. The others were merely absolved of suspicion."

Shit. He wondered how the others would react to the news. King in particular. Trident's fairly stoic infiltrator wasn't one to emote and kept his personal life separate from his job, but it was practically an open secret within the team that he and Marion Hollister were in a relationship. LaMarche had turned a blind eye to it, naturally. He hoped she was still alive.

"Lieutenant Mack," Volkov stood up, placing both hands on the desk in front of him. "I want you and the remainder of Trident to infiltrate the facility and ensure that these terrorists are eliminated."

"Sir," he began, but a raised palm from Volkov silenced him.

"If this gets out, then the brass will want someone's head. Should we encounter a worst-case scenario in which we have to take Ouroboros Station with a larger force, who's to say that all of Trident Team wasn't involved somehow? Consider this a test of loyalty to the UNSC, if nothing else. Now, the question is, will you do it?"

Kill my frends or face execution is what he's saying. Mack had no choice. What Volkov was suggesting sounded like a suicide mission, if nothing else. Four men against a much larger force, plus whatever automated defences LaMarche had activated. He was no conspiracy theorist, but if there was some larger plot to wipe out Trident or ORION then this sounded like one. 90% chance we all die before we hit the ground, I bet. He closed his eyes for a moment, and made up his mind.

"I accept."

"Excellent." Volkov switched off the monitors and holotank. "I'll have you escorted back to join the rest of your team so you can brief them on the mission. We'll prepare the necessary equipment and manpower for the operation in the meantime."

Mack saluted, silently wondering what they'd put on his gravestone.

Descent

0319 Hours, November 6th, 2499 (UNSC Military Calendar)

U81 Condor 'Valiant', Heimdall orbit, Outer Colonies


Richard Mack, 2471-2499. Died because of ONI bullshit.

It was the best he'd been able to come up with. The Condor's deployment bay was roomy enough to hold four members of Trident, their equipment and descent gear, and two heavily armed members of ONI security, presumably there to stop Mack and the others from trying to hijack the vehicle and escape. He'd not so much as glanced towards the cockpit since they'd left Reach.

"Parafoils?" said Ackton incredulously, holding up the bulky piece of equipment that when activated, would spring out into two metallic wings. "I didn't know we stil used these."

"It's the only way we can go down," King spoke up. He'd been quieter than usual lately. "Parachutes might be too slow, and anything electronic will get us shot to pieces by those AA guns."

The commando sighed, and strapped the pack to his back. "Haven't had much training with these," he muttered. Nobody bothered to respond.

"Trident, we're five minutes out," the pilot's voice filtered over the intercom. Mack finished clasping the thick gauntlets of his body armour on, and turned to take a weapon from the rack. They'd be dropping in with no electronics whatsoever, making use of compasses and their own sense of direction to land as close to the Ouroboros Station. The heavily forested area around the facility had mostly been cleared for weapons testing, though some remained for training exercises and ruined mockup buildings lined the outskirts of the base itself. It was much bigger than Mack had first anticipated, too. Even with over a hundred men along with a number of defectors from the base's staff, their foe couldn't hope to man the entire base; most systems were run by a 'Smart AI', which had been deactivated shortly before the recent attack.

"Lieutenant?" Redford spoke, now fully geared-up. Though they were the same age, there was something about Harold that made him seem much more mature than most of the team. The soft-spoken demolitions expert had armed himself with an assault rifle and several C-11 charges.

"What's up?"

"Need a word," he said, tapping his ear twice. Mack nodded and put on his helmet, switching to a private COM channel. With his gear fully sealed, he could yell as loud as he wanted, though only Redford would hear him.

"Is this about the mission?" he asked. "You know we've got no choice."

Redford shook his head. "I know that, it's about something else. Never got a chance to ask you before."

"Sure, what is it?"

"I know we deal with this crap on a regular basis, but I don't think we've ever had a mission that I don't know if I'll come back from."

Fucking hell, don't do this to me. "We'll make it through this, Sergeant. Whatever it takes."

"I'm sure you're right. It's just, if I don't survive this, I need you to do something for me?"

"What?"

"They let me make a recording yesterday. Hard copy. I want you to take it to Anna for me."

Mack sighed. Anna was Harold's longtime girlfriend; had been since they were kids. He'd only met her once or twice and she seemed nice enough. Few SPECWAR commandos had relationships outside of the military, so he imagined that they were pretty close if she could manage his long-term deployments across the Colonies.

"Yeah, of course."

"Thanks, Lieutenant."

"Don't mention it."

"Did you make one?"

"Me? Nah."

Who would he have to leave a final message for? His adoptive mother still lived on Earth, and since he'd joined the Marines had only seen him via Waypoint calls. She'd been thinking of remarrying, from the last time he'd spoken to her. Did he have anything meaningful to say? No. It was perhaps a little cruel, but true. Before Redford could press the issue, the Condor's cockpit slid open and a familiar figure stepped out.

"Commander Parangosky," Mack managed a stiff salute in his heavy gear. "I wasn't aware you were aboard."

"Admiral Volkov has assigned me as your mission control from this operation. From here I should be able to offer tactical advice and limited support for the team."

"Won't long-range transmissions give us away, ma'am?" asked King.

"We'll maintain our position in low orbit as long as we can," she explained. "In addition to your helmet-mounted COM devices, we've provided small earpieces that should enable secure communication at long range, while allowing us to monitor your vitals from afar."

She took out a small box containing four tiny devices. Mack and the others removed their helmets to put them on. To the casual viewer these things were barely noticeable.

"We'll keep in touch," she said, checking her watch before looking at each member of Trident in turn. "This is a classified, highly sensitive mission, even for ORION. It will also be a test for each of you to prove your loyalty to the UNSC, and to Earth. Failure here will mark you down in history as traitors."

With that, she turned and strode back into the cockpit.

"Well," Ackton couldn't help but smirk. "No pressure then?"

Mack and the others simply turned and put their helmets on. He turned to the two ONI men for a reaction, only to be met with cold stares. He shrugged and joined the others, grasping his marksman's rifle. The red emergency lighting in the Condor suddenly flashed green, indicating that they were over their target location. The dropship had descended slightly, drifting through Heimdall's stratosphere. Any lower would put them at risk from the Ouroboros Station's anti-air cannons, which could easily take down a freighter with sustained firepower. However, any higher would involve a significantly increased chance of death for the four commandos, whose advanced suits would not protect them in the event a sufficiently high orbital drop.

"Trident," Parangosky spoke once more over the intercom. "We'll be over the target in fifteen seconds. Get ready."

The rear doors shuddered open. Mack shuddered; even with his suit and armour to protect him from the cold, he felt a chill creeping through him. The ORION's ensured that their weapons were tightly-secured to their armour.

"Ten seconds."

"We all ready for this?" Mack said, breathing slowly and swinging his arms in preparation for the leap to come.

"I'll be okay once we hit the ground," Ackton said, shaking his head.

"Let's get it over with," came Redford's reply, his voice level.

King was the last to respond. "No."

"Five seconds."

Land, infiltrate, kill everyone. Not so hard, right? Just an army of Innies and three of the deadliest men I've ever met, alongside whatever horrors ONI's undoubtedly got stored. What could possibly go wrong?

"Go, go go!"

With barely a second's hesitation, he jumped.

Chapter One

Insertion

0331 Hours, November 6th, 2499 (UNSC Military Calendar)

23,000ft above Ouroboros Station, Heimdall, Outer Colonies


"We're approaching deployment level. Get ready, Trident!"

Mack fell at terminal velocity, barely keeping himself level as the deafening air rushed past, threatening to toss him around like a ragdoll. Looking left and right, he could barely make out the figures of King, Ackton and Redford as they fell alongside him, ready to deploy their parafoils so they wouldn't end up as bloody smears on the ground.

"Sounding a lot like the Captain," Ackton remarked, sounding bored.

Redford chimed in. "If what ONI says is true, Mack's the Captain now anyway."

"Wonderful."

"Cut the chatter!" King barked, sounding rather irritated.

Mack didn't bother reprimanding them. He knew that if they were quiet then something was definitely troubling them. His helmet's HUD marked the Ouroboros Station as a tiny dot, far, far below them. If they were lucky, then they'd be able to land on the roof or somewhere within the defensive perimeter and make a quick attack before the rebels and defectors knew what had hit them. Easier said than done, of course. LaMarche was almost certainly planning for a retaliatory strike; he'd been involved in counter-terrorism long enough to know that negotiation wasn't an option.

"We activate our gear when I give the order, one at a time."

His voice remained level as he shook off all the thoughts burrowing into his brain. All that mattered was landing safely. Then the mission would take full priority; one thing at a time.

"King, go."

The Second Lieutenant activated his parafoil, and flashed upwards and out of sight as two metallic wings burst from his backpack. These things were built to survive small arms fire and could (theoretically, at least), survive an atmospheric insertion. Mack's team had been dropped in low enough so they wouldn't burn up as they fell, though they would have to rely greatly on speed due to their limited air supply - thirty minutes in the tanks, and another eight with their armour's own life support systems. It was more than enough.

"Ackton, go."

The Sergeant Major gave Mack a thumbs-up before deploying his device, and left only Mack and Redford in freefall. Half a minute passed.

"Redford, go."

"See you on the ground."

Now it was only him. He watched the numbers fly past as his altitude rapidly decreased, letting a full minute pass by before he triggered his own parafoil. As his deployed, Mack caught hold of the flimsy controls to steer himself, moving right as he continued his downward spiral. Having dropped far below the cloud layer, he could see the ground laid out before him like a map. A few pinpricks of light below indicated the Ouroboros Station. The four men kept going down, moving in slow, lazy circles to keep on target. While ONI hadn't given them an exact drop zone, Mack was hoping to land on the facility's main roof. A heavy snowstorm on Heimdall had blanketed the area in snow, which might cushion their landing slightly. It was a long shot, but they had to try.

Mack was fairly confident in his plan until something ripped through the air past him, and burst high above in a flash of bright light.

"Flare!" Redford yelled, veering off to to the right.

"Shit." Mack glanced down and saw more shooting up towards them. "Trident, accelerate descent immediately!"

"Drop point?" King asked.

"They're already onto us, so aim close to the facility if you can, but avoid AA fire."

As if summoned by Mack's words, the first few tracer rounds zipped past them. He swore, and angled his parafoil downwards.

***

"We're coming in to dock now, Commander."

Margaret Parangosky clambered out of the co-pilot's seat as the Condor decelerated, sliding open the compartment door and striding into the dropship's cargo bay. The two guards were sat in opposite seats, and stood as she approached.

"Ma'am," one nodded.

"At ease."

There was a long silence as the craft shuddered, slowly rising into the Sahara-class heavy Prowler's hangar bay. While the Condor's slipspace capabilities made solo missions possible, Admiral Volkov had insisted on bringing a cloaked Prowler in-system, just in case. Eventually, they stopped moving and a green light flashed up, indicating that it was safe to open the rear door. The thumbed the switch, and stood back as it juddered open. Bright light flooded the darkened bay; Parangosky hardly blinked as she stepped forward onto the hangar deck. A grey-uniformed Ensign jogged towards her, carrying a datapad in one hand.

"Commmander Parangosky," she stopped for a moment to catch her breath. "The Admiral needs you in the ops room ASAP. It's about the mission, ma'am."

Has something gone wrong already? She nodded and set off at a quick pace towards a nearby elevator. At worst, she'd just sent four men - excellent soldiers all - to their deaths. While she'd been the one to hand Trident their comm devices and personally see them off, the team's vitals were being monitored by this Prowler in orbit. She and the Ensign dashed into an elevator, and stood in silence as it quietly rose to the command deck.

It's been less than ten minutes. They'll be close to landing by now.

The door had barely opened and Parangosky was already off, boots clacking against the black-tiled floor as she approached the ship's operations room. Two guards stood outside, and barely moved as she strode past. The heavy door slid open at the last second and slammed shut the moment she'd crossed the threshold.

"Commander!" Admiral Konrad Volkov called. He'd swapped the uniform worn in Mack's hearing for a suit and coat, and had put on that old beret of his; a reminder of his early days in NAVSPECWAR operator before ascending the ranks of ONI. In her time working for Volkov, Parangosky had seen him wear it several times, usually during a crisis of some sort.

"Sir," she saluted.

Volkov swiped a hand towards a nearby holomap, which displayed live footage of the Ouroboros Station captured directly from a communications satellite. Several turrets were firing into the darkened skies.

"They've been detected."

"How are their vitals?"

"Nothing unusual, considering the situation. They're descending quickly enough and have enough cover to avoid anything that would automatically target them, and the armour's coating should conceal their heat signatures for a few hours more, at least."


She nodded. "We were hoping for a covert infiltration. Should we deploy additional forces?"

"Not yet. We can't afford to let word of this get out, and an ODST deployment would attract the wrong sort of attention from the brass. We'll wait and see what happens with Trident. Should we lose them, then we'll have no choice but to bring in reinforcements."

He wants to keep this under wraps. Parangosky merely nodded once more. There was nothing they could do except wait and see what happened. Suddenly, the satellite feed distorted slightly. The facility's roof shuddered open, and a long, metallic cylinder ascended, pointing upwards. There was a sudden flash of blue light, and the feed went dead.

"What the hell happened?!" Volkov roared, turning to a row of technicians as they ran between consoles.

"Our satellite feed's down, sir," one responded. "Looks like an EMP."

"How long until we can get our feed back?"

The technician typed in several commands, frowned, then sighed. "Sir, it's fried."

"Shit." The Admiral slammed a fist into the holotable. "They're using the base's prototype weapons against us."

"Sir," Paragosky spoke in a low voice. "The monitors."

He looked up, and saw the readouts indicating the current status of Trident Team. They had all flatlined. The entire room was silent as he slowly straightened up, adjusting his beret.

"They're dead."

"Not necessarily, Admiral. We lost their signals when the EMP hit. It's possible that it took out the electronics in their suits."

"If that's the case, then how the hell will we track them?"

She walked to an unmanned terminal, and brought up a screen not unlike that of the Waypoint or Chatternet communication networks. Mack, Redford, Ackton and King's ID's flashed up before her.

"Those communicators we gave them were designed to be secure, and were also hardened to protect from electromagnetic pulses. We may have lost our advantage in terms of surveillance, Admiral, but we can at least contact the others."

Volkov folded his arms and approached, looking over her shoulder at the screen. "Let's see if they're still alive, then."

After punching in a few more commands, a green 'call' sign shone by Richard Mack's name as she attempted to communicate.

"Lieutenant Mack, this is Commander Parangosky. Can you hear me?"

Divided

0344 Hours, November 6th, 2499 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Ouroboros Station Testing Grounds, Heimdall, Outer Colonies


Ow.

Richard Mack lay prone in a snowfield, unwilling to move after his hard landing. With the facility alerted to their presence, the four ORION's had split up, descending as quickly as possible to avoid the hail of AA fire. While he'd lost track of the others, Mack had managed to swoop in over the outer fence and into the grounds of the Ouroboros Station. Unable to turn quick enough to avoid striking the trees, he'd waited until the last second to eject and hoped that the snow was deep enough. Thankfully, it was, though his armour had taken a beating and he was bruised pretty much everywhere. As he turned over, breathing slowly and staring up at the dissipating flares above the facility, his right ear buzzed.

"Lieutenant Mack, this is Commander Parangosky. Can you hear me?"

Shaking his head, Mack sighed and sat up. "Yes ma'am."

"Good, you're alive. What's your current condition?"

Mack clambered to his feet and staggered towards a nearby thicket of trees. While his arms and legs ached, nothing seemed to be broken. He'd lost his rifle while landing, and couldn't risk searching the snowfields for the weapon. Chances were that the terrorists were already assembling patrols to sweep the nearby area for them.

"I'm fine, ma'am," he said, neglecting to inform her of his missing weapon. "What's the status on the enemy base?"

There was a long pause. "They just took out our satellite in orbit with some kind of EMP weapon, Lieutenant, and we're keeping our Prowler at a distance in case we get targeted. I'm afraid you'll have to go in blind from here on out."

Wonderful. "What about my team?"

"The EMP blast took out the electronics built into your suits, so we can't monitor your vitals. Your earpieces were hardened against such attacks, however, allowing for us to communicate with you via a secure COM line."

"Right." That partially explained why his limbs felt so heavy. While such technology was in its infancy, the UNSC had begun testing semi-powered suits of armour that enabled heavier protection for infantry while taking some of the weight off. If the electronics had been fried, then he was carrying a lot of excess weight that would impede his combat abilities. As it became clear he had nothing more to say, Parangosky spoke up.

"I'll try and check in on the rest of Trident. Good luck, Lieutenant, and stay alive."

"Will do," he replied. The COM had already gone dead. He thought he had detected the tiniest hint of warmth in that last sentence after the usual cold formality he'd come to expect from someone within ONI.

First things first: Get the hell away from here. It was dark enough that he couldn't see where his parafoil had landed, but enemy patrols would almost certainly arrive soon. He couldn't ditch his armour here either in case they used it to track him. Mack began to trudge through the snow, searching for a safe location. Without his helmet's night vision, he moved slowly, arms outstretched like a blind man. One of the planet's three moons shone in the sky, though it did little to illuminate the forest around him. After walking for some time, Mack froze suddenly as his ears picked up a distant rumbling sound; the engine of a Warthog.

Shit, they're quicker than I thought.

At first he attempted to put some distance between him and the incoming vehicle, though it soon became clear that he wouldn't outrun it in his current state. Realising that he was leaving a lengthy trail of footprints in the snow for his pursuers to follow, Mack began to retrace his steps, carefully treading through his own path before leaping to the side and rolling behind some bushes. A few seconds later a sharp beam of light cut through the trees as the vehicle approached. In addition to the headlights, several men carried assault rifles and flashlights. Voices drifted towards him.

"There!" one cried, shining a light on Mack's path through the snow. "One must've gone this way."

"Okay, let's dismount and search the area," said another, clearly the leader. "Boss wants us to report back in ten."

Mack remained as still as possible, slowly unholstering his pistol. Crouched between some bushes and a tree, he remained steady as he counted his opponents. There were six in total; three took point, with two watching the flanks and one covering the Warthog, which thankfully lacked the usual chaingun and was a troop transport variant.

"Tracks are leading into here," muttered one man, whose flashlight revealed several half-collapsed buildings up ahead.

"I've got something!" another yelled. Stuck in the trees above was the unmistakable shape of a parafoil, with bullet holes perforating one side. Mack swallowed, silently cursing himself. Had he gone just a few metres forward he'd have found proper shelter and - as that definitely wasn't his parafoil - one of the team.

"We gonna call this in?"

"Yeah," the leader nodded towards the man by the 'hog. "Boss thinks these are some hardass oonskie commandos, so I don't wanna take any chanc-"

A sharp staccato of gunfire rang out, and the man collapsed forward onto the snow. Mack had been quick enough to notice the muzzle flash from the upper window of a nearby building, though the rebels scattered into cover. A second round of fire struck one in the leg and sent him sprawling to the ground while the others fired wildly towards the buildings. Leaning over, Mack levelled his handgun towards the man hiding behind the warthog, and shot him in the head as he reached for a radio.

"Fucking hell, how many are there?!"

"We've gotta pull back!"

"Rynn, call for backup? Rynn?! Shit, he's down!"

It was sad, in a way. Though they were well-armed and had numbers on their side, it was clear that the remaining men had little in the way of actual military training. It was simply a matter of edging through the undergrowth and executing each one with a well-placed gunshot. The last man attempted to flee back towards the Warthog, only to be cut down in his tracks by the other assailant. Aside from the quiet moans of the wounded man, silence fell across the woods once more. Mack rose slightly, but did not walk out into the open.

"Ackton!" he yelled. "Red, King, is that you?"

There was a long, drawn-out silence. Mack was preparing to make his advance towards the building when a response came.

"Mack!"

It was Redford. Relieved, he stood up and walked out into the open, stooping only to pick up a fallen assault rifle before standing over the wounded man. He was shivering, with both hands clasped around his wounded leg. Mack could tell that his shot had smashed right through the bone.

"One's still alive!" he called.

"Bring him up!"

He knelt down and grabbed the rebel by the back of his coat. Though he whimpered and pleaded, Mack easily dragged the smaller man forwards, using the rifle's flashlight to guide the way as he entered the nearby building. The room inside was mostly bare, save for a few basic furnishings. He kicked the snow off his boots and continued, pulling his captive up the stairs and ignoring the cries of pain as his bleeding leg smacked against each step. Redford sat in one corner by a mattress, keeping an eye on the outside.

"Nice to see a friendly face," he nodded as Mack tossed the rebel into another corner. "You okay?"

"Fine. You?"

Redford sighed. "Leg's fucked."

Mack shone his flashlight, and saw that Redford had already constructed a makeshift splint out of some materials in the house. His leg was clearly broken, though. He'd taken most of his body armour off as well; he'd evidently realised the cons of carrying around that much dead weight.

"The Commander called you yet?"

"Yeah, about five minutes before those assholes arrived. Ackton's fine, but he landed miles away. She can't raise King at all."

"He might just be knocked out."

"That's what I told her. I've gotta say, this one's not going too well."

Mack neglected to answer him. If he started to dwell too mucb on the state of a mission, then he'd begin to have doubts. All that mattered was getting the job done. After all, Trident had never once failed an operation in the last few years.

"Can you move?"

"A little."

A plan had already begun to form in Mack's head. "Get that armour off. I'll find us a way in."

Redford did as ordered, carefully removing his body armour and helmet. He ran a hand through his close-cropped brown hair, and Mack noticed that he was sweating profusely.

"What's up?" he asked. "Is the leg that bad?"

Redford shook his head. "Nah, I took some painkillers after I made the splint. Don't worry about it."

Once he had removed all of his armour, Mack grabbed Redford's helmet and strode over to their captive, who hadn't said a word since he'd been dragged up here.

"Put this on."

"Why?" he whimpered.

"Just do it and I won't fucking kill you."

The man did as told, and placed the thick combat helmet on. Mack placed his palm atop the helmet and turned the rebel's head away while he unholstered his sidearm. Checking to ensure he still had a single round left, he then placed it directly against the frontal visor.

"I lied," Mack said, and pulled the trigger.

For all its toughness, there wasn't a helmet out there that could stand up to a Magnum round at point-blank range. The shot burst through the visor and smashed through the man's skull, killing him instantly and splattering his brains against a nearby wall.

"There we go," he muttered before turning back to his comrade. "Now you're dead."

Redford raised an eyebrow and smirked as he realised that Mack was doing. "This is ballsy, even for you."

"He who dares..."

After placing Redford's discarded armour on the corpse, Mack managed to heave the body back outside and threw it into the back of the warthog. As he did so, the vehicle's COM began to beep. He waited a few seconds before leaning over and answering it.

"Three-One, this is Lombardi," a man's voice barked through the speakers. "You've not reported in yet, over."

Mack swallowed. "Sir, we engaged two of the intruders. They took out our radio man and most of our patrol before we took 'em out. There's only myself and another man left, and he's wounded."

"I see," came the eventual reply. "How soon can you return to base?"

"Loading up the 'hog now, sir. We'll be back ASAP."

"Copy that, Three-One. Lombardi out."

Mack heaved a sigh of relief as the COM switched off, and began to remove his own armour. He took a coat from a nearby body to wear over his bodysuit, and after dressing up another corpse, pumped half a magazine into it. He made sure to fire a few into the helmet, hoping to make the face unrecognisable should one of his former teammates look it over. The job of loading up all the corpses took nearly ten minutes and was hard work without Redford's help. The Gunnery Sergeant managed to half-hop, half-drag himself out of the house, though he required Mack's support to carry him into the Warthog.

"Think this'll work?" Redford asked as he settled into the passenger's seat, gingerly setting down his broken leg.

"It better. We're screwed otherwise."

The pair made sure to cover their faces, either with heavy scarves or balaclavas taken from the fallen patrol. As Mack reversed the vehicle and began to follow the Warthog's tracks back to the Ouroboros Station, he glanced back towards Redford and saw the worry in his eyes. Trident's usually-unflappable demo man was clearly frightened.

"You okay, Red?"

"Told you I was, leg notwithstanding."

"You don't look okay."

"I'm fine, man. Don't worry about it."

Mack frowned. "Gunnery Sergeant, I don't want you to be a liability on this mission."

To his surprise, Redford snorted. "Don't go all DI on me, Richard. You might have the rank but we've got the same experience, bud."

The Lieutenant nodded. He'd met Redford in basic back in '88, and they'd served in the same unit for a year or two with Ackton before Redford transferred to the Engineering Corps. When they met again they'd both been picked for ORION, and the rest was history. In the eleven years he'd known Harold Redford, the man had never shown any signs of breakdown as some had.

"Sorry," he mumbled, turning away to focus on driving along the snowy path. Nobody said a word for nearly five minutes until the Station came into sight.

"Anna's pregnant," Redford said suddenly. "Seven months."

"Shit." The words spilled out of Mack's mouth before he could think. "Is that why-?"

"Yeah. The recording's for my son, just in case."

"So it's a boy then?"

"Yeah. No idea what we're naming him yet. I told Anna we'd decide when I made it back. If I make it back."

Mack nodded, unsure of what to say to his friend. Here he was, driving himself and a wounded friend straight into the mouth of a beast on a mission with very slim survival chances. In his mind, Mack had already placed Redford's survival above his own. Just get through the mission, he reminded himself. Doubts were already swirling through his mind about LaMarche and the others, though he refused to let any of it through.

"About a minute and we're in."

"Yep."

"Let's get this shit over with."

Redford pulled a balaclava over his face. "If we pull this off, I'm buying you a drink."

"If we don't."

"I'll get you one in heaven for trying."

"Thanks, Red."

The Warthog trundled up the hill, its wheels cracking through ice that had already begun to form on the road. Lights shone at them from the main gate, which shuddered open. Looking up, Mack saw the image of a snake biting its own tail etched into the gatehouse, directly below the word 'OUROBOROS'. He took a deep breath, then drove inside. Now they'd just have to hope that their luck held out.

Cover

0428 Hours, November 6th, 2499 (UNSC Military Calendar)

UNSC Vacuna, Sahara-class heavy prowler, Heimdall Orbit


"...You're sure you'll be unable to provide direct assistance?"

"I'm afraid not, ma'am. Landed too far out. Their patrols haven't come this far yet, so I might be able to advance."

"Just ensure that you survive, Sergeant Major. Your suit should protect you from frostbite and hypothermia, but I want you to remain careful."

"I understand. Ackton out."

Commander Parangosky sighed as the connection cut off. A grim silence had fallen across the Prowler's operations room after the initial panic. Now various crewmen and junior officers sat at their stations, working quietly and avoiding any eye contact with Admiral Volkov, who hadn't moved from his position behind the main holotable in nearly ten minutes.

"Admiral?" Parangosky approached him cautiously. He'd thrown his coat and suit jacket over a nearby chair, and his face gleamed with sweat.

"Status?" he responded dryly.

"Ackton landed far off the target zone, so his chances of continuing the mission are slim. Mack and Redford are together, though the latter's not fit for combat. Still can't raise King."

Volkov nodded. "King was a superb soldier. I worked with his father aboard the Crimson Duke years back." He sighed. "I'll have to tell him his son's dead."

"He may still be alive, sir. The communicator wasn't damaged, at least."

There was a long pause. Volkov finally unclasped his hands from behind his back and tapped the holotable. A map of the local system flashed up, showing both their ship and Heimdall. The hologram shimmered as he swiped a finger over the planet, bringing it into central focus as it slowly rotated before them.

"Lieutenant," Volkov called to a nearby officer. "Get a message to FLEETCOM HQ, priority one. I want a Diligence-class Destroyer with a full ODST complement here by the end of the day."

Parangosky waited for the Lieutenant to leave before speaking up. "Sir, the mission's not a failure yet. We can still-"

"Rely on two men to carry this thing through!?" he snapped. "Commander, recruiting the rest of Trident for this was your plan, not mine, and it has failed. Once the Destroyer arrives, we'll hit the base from outside that EMP cannon's range and drop in troopers to mock up whoever's left after the bombardment."

"Permission to speak freely sir?"

"Denied. You can keep in contact with Trident if you want, Commander, but they're most likely a lost cause by now. Inform the Lieutenant of my decision, as well. Should he and the others survive I'll ensure that they aren't punished, at least."

"Yes sir."

While she kept a neutral expression as she returned to her station, Margaret Parangosky's blood was boiling. Volkov's willingness to abandon their initial plan after a few setbacks was ludicrous, to say the least. While the chances of success for Trident were slim at best, they had more or less built a career out of beating impossible odds for the last few years. Perhaps part of her anger was at the dismissal of her plan, or the sheer disregard the Admiral had for some of the UNSC's finest soldiers. Not that it mattered much. She took her seat, checked that the COM devices were still functioning, and got back to work.

***

The main entrance to the Ouroboros Station was well-lit, with security cameras watching Mack's Warthog the moment it slipped through the front gate. A nearby garage door clanked open as they approached, and he wheeled the vehicle inside. A number of guards awaited them, and ran to the vehicle with weapons raised as Mack stepped out. As far as he knew they hadn't discovered them yet. A young, black-haired man pushed his way to the front.

"Shit, you two are all that's left?" he frowned, looking over the corpses piled in the back.

"'Fraid so," Mack shrugged. "Can you give me a hand here, he's got a broken leg."

"Yeah, sure."

The man helped Mack pull Redford out of the vehicle while the others went over the bodies. One spat on the corpse wearing Redford's armour. Hopping on one leg, Redford relied on Mack and the rebel for support as they carried him out of the garage and into a nearby corridor. Two guards walked across the other side.

"How the hell did you do that?" he asked.

"Slipped on the ice," Redford snorted. "Not a great thing to do in a firefight, eh?"

"You're telling me. Say, are you with that group from Circumstance? The Major pulled in folks for this mission across a dozen colonies."

"Yeah. Name's Flint," Redford lied. "This is Hubbard."

"No ranks?" The man stopped for a moment to swipe his keycard across a nearby panel. The door slid open and they moved inside. "Not that I mind; I know plenty of groups don't go for it. I'm Sergeant Adam Makosky, URF."

"Nice to meet you." Mack shook his hand. "Been working for the Major long?"

"About six months now. As you can tell by my rank, we're hurting for capable recruits already. Most of the upper echelons are dead or in hiding, and I'm a better shot than most. What about you guys?"

"Ex-military," Mack grunted. "Long story."

"Fair enough."

Eventually, they arrived at the station's medical wing. Makosky helped Mack and Redford into one of the suites and set the latter down on an operating table. Looking around, Mack could see how the tech here was already miles ahead of what was being issued to frontline troops, and even Special Forces like ORION. Devices dedicated to scanning and treating injuries, fixing gunshot wounds and repairing broken bones sat in pristine condition along the walls.

"Looks good, don't it?" Makosky shook his head. "Thing is, this shit locked us out of the system because we're not registered with the system or oonskie soldiers, so it's just b-foam and splints for now until those turncoats figure out how to unlock it."

"They can use it?" Mack raised an eyebrow.

"Yeah. That blonde guy, the one with the beret? Think he and his buddies were some hardass special forces or something, so all they've gotta do is scan their tags and they get the full treatment. Bullshit, huh?"

Mack nodded towards Redford, suppressing his urge to grin "Yep, it's a shame."

"Yes it is," his friend replied.

"The fucked up thing is," Makosky continued, "What if they start shipping this stuff out across the colonies, so only certain folks can get medical care? Next thing you know, people in the Outer Colonies can't get treatment until they sign their lives away to some assholes on Earth, or send their kids to join the military. It's fucking atrocious."

Mack and Redford sat through Makosky's talk, which to them was filled with the same Innie crap they'd long since learned to ignore over the years. Eventually he stopped, and turned to leave.

"I'll tell the Major you guys are okay. He'll probably be down to look over the dead."

He walked out, and the doors slid shut behind him. There was a long silence before Mack moved towards one of the machines, and pushed it towards the operating table. Redford pulled off his jacket and fished out the dogtags from around his neck, holding them out towards the machine's scanner. After a moment, the red light flashed green and it lit up.

"Any idea how to use this thing?" Redford asked.

"Nope."

"Wonder how it'd work if someone lost their tags while injured," he mused, looking over his own. "Think the medics would have some kind of override?"

"I'd think so. You gonna be okay with that thing?"

"Probably, just give me a hand here."

Not wanting to risk further damaging Redford's broken leg, Mack drew his combat knife and carefully cut through the man's trousers, tossing aside strips of cloth before carefully moving him under the scanner and taking off Redford's makeshift splint. The medical device hummed and whirred as it scanned the injured limb. A diagnosis flashed up on a nearby display, which Mack read out.

"Says here it's a comminuted fracture. Looks like the impact shattered the bone into several pieces."

"Shit," Redford remarked. "Good thing I took those meds when I did. I'd have been fucked once the adrenaline wore off from the drop."

While it was reassuring to see his friend making light of the injury, repairing a fracture like this would require several hours of surgery at the very least, since more temporary measures would still render Redford unable to properly fight.

"You're gonna have to go under for a couple of hours, bud," Mack crossed his arms. "This thing'll fix you up."

"You sure?"

As if on cue, several automated arms sprung from the machine, sporting surgical tools and an anaesthetic that would put Redford out like a light for half a day at least. Harold Redford would be incapacitated for the entirety of the mission, and would find out what had happened when he woke up - if he woke up at all. It was a hard decision for any soldier to make; leaving a man behind while he pressed on.

"It's up to you, Red."

"Shit, just do it. I'll wake up and you'll be standing there with a shiny new medal, right?"

"I don't think we'll get medals for this one, but sure, why not."

He input several commands, then exited the medical suite as Redford placed the anaesthetic mask over his mouth and nose. Mack hoped he hadn't just left his friend to die at the hands of some faulty prototype tech. Ensuring that the door was locked from the inside, he looked away as the machines began their work on Redford's leg. Mack's ear buzzed, and he ducked into the next room as a COM line was secured.

"Lieutenant Mack, this is Commander Parangosky, what's your status?"

"You know," Mack glanced towards the outer corridor. "I get that nobody can hear you, but is there some way of letting you know I can't talk back? Kind of a big downside in the device if you ask me, ma'am."

There was a pause. "One click for yes, two for no?"

"With my tongue, right?"

"Uh, yes, that would be better. What is your current status?"

"We've infiltrated the Ouroboros Station, ma'am. Redford's in a medical suite having his leg patched up, though he'll be out cold for most of the day. Any news on the others?"

"Sergeant Major Ackton landed far away from the base, but insists on trying to provide assistance. We still can't raise Second Lieutenant King."

"Right then. Any intel, ma'am?"

"According to our data, the base possessed two artificial intelligences: A 'Smart' AI for managing important tasks, and a 'Dumb AI' which oversaw other operations. It's safe to assume that both were somehow deactivated in the attack, but if you can find and reactive them you may be able to regain control of the base defences and severely hamper enemy movement."

"Any idea where I could start looking?"

"I'm afraid not, Lieutenant. There were several laboratories dedicated to cyberwarfare, robotics, and armour development that may provide some assistance, but otherwise you're on your own."

"Understood, ma'am. I'll adapt."

For a moment Mack thought Parangosky had ended the communication. As he stood up to leave the medical wing, she spoke once more, her voice barely above a whisper.

"Lieutenant?"

"Yes ma'am?"

"Admiral Volkov has given orders for a UNSC Destroyer to join us in-system and bombard the base from orbit."

"What?!"

"He believes your team has already failed, and is willing to go to drastic measures already to ensure that the terrorists do not continue to hold onto the base. Your deaths will most likely be covered up."

Mack swallowed, resisting the urge to tell a superior officer exactly how he felt about this mission. "But Volkov planned for us to go in, didn't he?"

"It was my idea!" she hissed. "I'll be lucky if I get busted down to Ensign for this, Lieutenant, so get yourself together and damn well succeed, soldier!"

Then the COM shut off. Mack swore, and after grabbing his discarded balaclava, walked out of the room. His uncertainty had been replaced with a steely determination, fuelled partially by his desire to survive, and mostly by his white-hot rage.

Find AI, Kill everyone, Tell Admiral not to blow me up. Simple objectives.

Chapter Two

Search

0501 Hours, November 6th, 2499 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Ouroboros Station Research Wing, Heimdall, Outer Colonies


Mack couldn't quite shake he feeling of unease as he walked down the brightly-lit corridor, boots clacking against the hard floor. Everything about this place reeked of ONI; lifeless, sterile and cold. He'd passed a couple of rebel guards on his way from the medical wing, though they'd merely nodded at him and kept walking. He was glad that so many others still wore face masks and balaclavas while indoors, so none would question why he was keeping his own face concealed. He halted before a large sign indicating the entrance to the labs. Thankfully, this station was largely dedicated to technological pursuits, meaning that he wouldn't run the risk of encountering a biological weapon - he hoped.

Robotics lab. Might find the AI in here.

As he walked towards the door, he realised that it required a keycard to open. Fishing around in his pockets, it seemed that the rebel he'd killed for these clothes either lost his in the firefight or never possessed one. He gulped. Would the others believe him if he said he'd lost his card? They had most likely taken theirs from the facility's staff when they took over the station. Glancing through a tiny window in the door, he spotted another rebel leaning against the wall. Mack sighed, and banged on the door. As the guard looked up and approached, he clasped both hands behind his back, ready to draw the knife he'd slipped into his belt.

"About damn time!" groaned the guard as it slid open. "They not give you a card?"

"Nope," Mack shrugged.

"Damnnit, thought the boss handed them to everyone?"

"'fraid not, man. There's a few of us who've gotta knock."

"Ech, fair enough. Keep hold of mine until your relief comes, then."

The guard unclipped a keycard from his belt and handed it to Mack, who nodded and stepped into the lab.

"Have a good one," he called back. "Don't think this guy will give you much trouble."

Mack turned to see another man sitting at a desk in one of the side rooms, shifting through a book. He looked fairly young, about twenty at most, and wore a white labcoat. Mack set his stolen rifle down on a nearby table and walked towards the room, swiping it open. Immediately, the prisoner backed against the nearby wall, placing his hands on his head.

"I'm not doing anything wrong!" he whined, voice shaking. "It's just a book."

Mack smirked, glancing down at the book he'd been reading: On Insurrection, by Dr. Elias Carver. He'd not read it, but he was familiar with the man's famously prophetic findings regarding colonial instability and rising rebellion. This copy was rather well-read and dog-eared, most likely belonging to this scientist. He picked it up and turned the man around.

"Good read?" he asked.

"I-I just found it lying around because there wasn't anything else," he stammered. "I don't believe it, really."

"Relax," Mack tossed it back on the desk. "You think I'm gonna go berserk and start pulling teeth like some psycho innie?"

The man did not respond, and merely stared sullenly at the book.

"What's your name, kid?" Mack asked, indicating for the scientist to sit down.

"Doctor Calvin Roe. I was Doctor Akiloye's assistant, studying robotics?"

"Where's the Doctor now?"

"Dead," Roe replied. He seemed on the verge of tears. "Your boss shot him when he refused to work for him on our prototype exoskeleton."

Looking back momentarily towards the door, Mack pulled off his balaclava and fished out the dogtags from beneath his undershirt, holding them out before Roe's face.

"I'm Lieutenant Richard Mack of the Marine Corps, and I've been sent in to stop the terrorists. Is there any way to get the base's AI and communication system back online?"

Much to his surprise, Roe threw back his head and laughed, nearly falling out of his chair.

"What?" Mack frowned, stowing away his dogtags. He'd been careful not to mention ORION, which technically didn't exist, but it wasn't exactly the reaction he'd imagined.

"I'm sorry," Roe chuckled, breathing heavily, "But that was the worst acting I've seen! I told your boss I'd cooperate anyway, so I don't know what the hell that was for."

"Uh-"

"I mean," he continued, "that sounded like something out of a dumb action movie, even with the tags."

Oh, fuck this. Mack grabbed Roe by the front of his shirt and slammed it into the desk. He'd held back so he wouldn't knock the guy out, but the younger man wailed in pain and slipped to the floor, momentarily dazed. He then grabbed the young scientist and dragged him out into the main room before tossing him into a chair.

"Please!" he wailed. "I'm sorry, don't kill me! Please don't-"

"Shut the fuck up," Mack growled. If he couldn't convince the guy he was from the UNSC, then he'd play the hardball innie interrogator. "Tell me where the goddamn AI is!"

"I don't know! Really, I don't!"

"Bullshit. We'll see what you know with a few less fingers, eh?"

As he drew his combat knife, the door slid open and two guards ran in. One was the man he'd replaced. The other was, presumably, the first guard's actual relief. As they looked from Roe to Mack, he turned and threw the knife towards them, dropping down and drawing his pistol as it planted itself in one guard's neck. Before the other could raise his rifle Mack had put three rounds into his chest, dropping him instantly.

"Oh my God!" Roe screeched, falling from his chair and backing into a corner.

The other guard dropped his gun, clasping his neck with both hands as arterial blood sprayed across the floor. Mack watched him stagger around for a few seconds before collapsing. Without a word, he walked over and extracted his knife from the man's throat and slit the neck of the other man, who was already in his death throes. He then dragged both bodies into a corner and placed their rifles on the table next to his. Breathing slowly as the adrenaline slowly faded, he wiped off his blade and turned to Roe.

"Believe me now?"

"Uh, I..."

Fucking hell.

He'd pissed himself.

Information

0521 Hours, November 6th, 2499 (UNSC Military Calendar)

UNSC Vacuna, Sahara-class heavy prowler, Heimdall Orbit


Admiral Volkov had returned to his private quarters, most likely to formulate a plan of attack once that Destroyer arrived. Back in the operations centre, Commander Parangosky sat at her station, well aware that this could be the end of her career as far as ONI was concerned. At thirty-nine she'd achieved a great deal of success within the organisation, and her colleagues had dropped hints that she'd see her promotion to Captain within a year or two. The failure of this operation, however, would most likely see her reassigned to some far-off outpost by Volkov, who would pluck some new officer to be his assistant after casting her aside.

Unless Trident actually pulls through on this one.

It seemed unlikely that Mack's team would succeed. Having alerted the enemy and lost almost all forms of support, the four men would likely either die at the hands of the Insurrectionists or fall victim to the inevitable bombardment once that Destroyer arrived. Despite everything, she held on to the tiniest inkling of hope. Ackton was slowly crawling through a snowfield towards the base, though he'd have to scale a cliff and evade enemy patrols to even reach the walls, while King and the wounded Redford were unresponsive.

A voice chimed over the intercom from the shipboard AI. "Attention crew, we have scheduled a rendezvous with the UNSC Tabris in thirteen hours. Shift changes will proceed as normal. That is all."

Strange, they wouldn't announce that to the entire crew. Unless... Beneath the desk, her hands curled into fists. Volkov's going to throw me under the bus for this, big time. A rendezvous wouldn't be necessary unless they intended to exchange equipment or personnel between ships, and if Parangosky's guess was correct then the Admiral intended to have her thrown in the Destroyer's brig, likely so she could be shipped back to Earth or Reach for a trial - if she was lucky.

Shit. What could she do? She'd always been loyal, both to ONI and the UNSC, but with thoughts of death or imprisonment creeping through her mind she inwardly began to panic. Checking her terminal, she still had access to Trident's files; ORION as a whole could normally only be accessed by the top-level brass within HIGHCOM, and nothing about it would be revealed to the public, not at least in her lifetime.

Screw it, might as well have some insurance.

She accessed Lieutenant Mack's files, and scrolled backwards. Operation names like CHARLEMAGNE, BRIMSTONE, SWEEPER and HEART OF DARKNESS scrolled past. Parangosky selected a more recent one, dated April 2499. Unlike the others it had been flagged with several notes. Glancing around to ensure no one was watching her, she opened it and began to read.

NAVSPECWAR/ORION/TRIDENT
OPERATION: SPARTACUS
21/04/99 - 25/04/99
FIRST LIEUTENANT MACK, RICHARD
Report filed by CODENAME: MORWEN to ONI SECTION III

BEGIN:// Due to rising criminal activity on Troy that had spiralled out of control due to widespread corruption and a weakened Colonial Militia (See attached files for CM issues), three teams of ORION personnel were dispatched to eliminate these groups; minimal resistance was expected. Trident, Javelin and Pike were split up and merged into squads ranging from four to six members to carry out their operation. First Lieutenant Mack led one such group, with Hawkins and King from Trident and Morrison and Black from Pike and Javelin respectively. All ORION's performed as expected and inflicted 78 casualties in a single night as suspected safehouses and drug-manufacturing plants were attacked.

It was not until the second night of operations on Troy that Mack's actions raised suspicion. Upon infiltrating an abandoned refinery, their team came across hundreds of unarmed targets surveying children fighting to the death in an arena (See attached files on 'Pit Fights' and survivor interviews). Ignoring Black's protests as none of the attendees appeared to be armed and permission was given to take prisoners, Mack ordered his team to open fire with anti-personnel grenades and armour-piercing rounds. Due to the damage inflicted, we can only estimate that around 150 people were killed in the attack; no targets left the facility alive.

While several children were rescued, Mack's actions did go against mission parameters, with his sudden spike in aggression overriding military protocol. No prior psychological examinations had suggested that Mack had any lingering problems from childhood (See attached report), nor had he experienced any symptoms of PTSD or side effects from his augmentation procedures. Following the engagement, Lieutenant Daniel Black confronted Mack and made a number of accusations against him (See attached incident report) before returning to his unit. Such actions have not affected his field performance, though surveillance has indicated that he has since become detached from others and displays little interest in anything outside of military deployments.

Final Assessment: Mack is a superb soldier and easily one of ORION's major successes, though he should be watched closely for any signs of mental trauma in the future. This agent would recommend recruiting him for solo operations should a convenient excuse for his departure from ORION be found. As per my previous reports on operations carried out by Mack, he has shown talent as a leader but may not develop further if he remains under Anton LaMarche's command. Reassignment by early 2500 would be ideal. //:END

Parangosky slowly exhaled as she finished reading the file, and discreetly began downloading his mission logs to an external device. The data from Mack's service record alone would cause quite a stir for ONI were it released to the public, and with files on all of Trident here she could cause havoc if she chose to. Of course, she'd never do such a thing unless a direct theat to her life was made. Margaret Parangosky hadn't risen this far up the ranks by being anything but ruthless when she had to, and while planning on releasing classified files just because of what Volkov might do seemed a tad paranoid, it also put her in a position of strength if it came down to it.

Strength through Paranoia. I like it.

Stifling a yawn, she turned back to the COM devices and attempted to call King again. He was likely a lost cause, but she didn't want to risk repeatedly calling Mack.

"Lieutenant King, this is Commander Parangosky. Do you copy?"

She waited ten seconds, and was about to cut the connection when she heard a groan over the COM.

"Yeah," Frederick King muttered, sounding tired. "I hear ya."

***

He had no idea how long he'd been out. Stripped of his gear and clad only in the combat fatigues he'd been wearing underneath his body armour, Second Lieutenant King felt incredibly vulnerable. Even his boots had been taken, possibly so he couldn't attempt to strangle himself with the laces or something.

"Lieutenant King," a female voice spoke suddenly into his ear. "This is Commander Parangosky. Do you copy?"

Looks like they missed the COM transmitter. King heaved himself into a sitting position, blinking under the bright ceiling lights of the cell he'd been placed in. Stifling a yawn, he responded in a low voice.

"Yeah, I hear ya."

The Commander seemed shocked. "Lieutenant, where are you? I've been trying to contact you since the drop; it's been two hours."

He pushed himself backwards into a corner, keeping his head down before responding. "AA fire hit my parafoil. Managed to descend enough to hit the facility's roof and disabled it. Hoped that my suit would take most of the impact."

"Are you injured?"

"Just some bruises, ma'am. They've got me locked up here, though."

There was a long pause. "I see."

"What's the status of the rest of my team?" King asked. He'd last seen the others during their drop.

"Mack and Redford have infiltrated the base, though the latter badly injured his leg and will be unconscious for a number of hours. Ackton landed far off from the target and will most likely be unable to reach the base, considering how well-guarded it is."

He nodded. That's everyone but Mack out of commission then. "Copy that. I'll attempt to escape if possible."

"Keep yourself alive Lieutenant," Parangosky sighed. "You're no good to the mission if you're shot dead trying to overpower your guards. I'll keep in touch."

There was a beep, and the connection was cut off. Grunting, King clambered to his feet. Aside from the various bruises along his arms and legs, he might have cracked a rib or two when he landed on the facility's roof. Being knocked out and captured was certainly embarrassing, especially considering his excellent track record. Ignoring the dull pain from various areas across his body, he made his way towards the door. Unsurprisingly, it was locked, with a hatch at the base for food and one at eye level so the guards could check on him. As he knelt to check for any potential weaknesses, there was a loud, metallic clang from the other sound.

"Move back and face the wall, now!" a familiar voice yelled.

King complied, placing both hands on the opposite wall and remaining still as his cell door juddered open. He didn't even look back as four men walked into the cramped confines of his room. One grabbed his arm and pulled him roughly around to face the group.

"Good morning, Fred," Captain Anton LaMarche smiled, arms clasped around his back. Clad in a thick trenchcoat and wearing his beret, Trident Team's leader was an imposing figure. At his sides stood Steven Hawkins and Tobias Crowley, along with a balding man in military gear he recognised as the Insurrectionist leader, Oleg Lombardi.

"Anton," King replied; he'd almost said 'sir' out of habit.

"I'm glad that you weren't hurt, Lieutenant," LaMarche's tone seemed genuinely sincere. "I made sure that Major Lombardi's men didn't go overboard while they took your equipment."

I bet you did. That might explain the cracked ribs, then. The other man, evidently Lombardi, snorted. King merely nodded, not daring to move a muscle. He could overpower a couple of regular men easily, but three other ORION's and an armed innie would tear him apart at close range.

"Look," the Captain continued, "I know you were dropped in with several others; the rest of Trident, most likely. I need you to contact them and request that they stand down and surrender themselves to the Major's men. I don't want to see my men come to any harm."

"Not possible."

LaMarche's smile didn't falter. "I'd imagine that our prototype cannon fried your gear, then? Good to see that it worked. In that case, all I need you to do is record a message asking them to surrender. I assure you that no harm will come to any of you-" He shot a look at Lombardi "-regardless of any infractions."

King slowly sat down on the bed, glaring at the four men in front of him.

"Fuck you."

Crowley moved so quickly that King barely had time to react. A Humbler stun device unfolded from his right hand and smashed against the side of King's head with a dull thud. The man toppled over, gritting his teeth as a surge of electricity hit him. Before he could recover, Crowley's boot slammed into his chest, knocking the wind out of him.

"That's enough!" LaMarche snapped, watching the Lieutenant gasp for breath as he convulsed on the floor. "Marion wasn't cooperative either, Fred."

"Motherfucker," King wheezed. LaMarche and the others exited the cell without another word.

Eventually, he heaved himself back onto the bed, now certain that one of his ribs was cracked. At least the shock stick hadn't made him piss himself, like so many Innie prisoners who'd suffered through lengthy interrogation sessions. LaMarche would likely sic Hawkins on him next. While Crowley had given him a beating, Steven Hawkins specialised in getting information of out people any way he could. He had no intention of losing his teeth and fingers today.

He had to mention Marion. King's hands balled into fists, and he had to resist punching the nearby wall. LaMarche had deliberately kept her fate ambiguous just to mess with him. Her survival would be a useful bargaining chip. Sighing, he lay back on the hard bed, knowing that he was absolutely powerless in this situation. All he had to do was sit here and hope for the best.

Exposure

0540 Hours, November 6th, 2499 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Ouroboros Station Research Wing, Heimdall, Outer Colonies


"Sorry about that."

Mack shrugged as Roe walked back into the room, having quickly showered and changed his clothes in the nearby living quarters. Mack had the time to use the bathroom himself and swipe as much ammo as he could from the dead innies. In the fifteen minutes he'd taken, no one else had come looking, which suggested that this facility's CCTV network was either down or the innies weren't watching Roe too carefully. That'd explain the guard.

"So you're it, huh?" the young man asked, trying not to stare at the bloodied corpses Mack had dumped in the corner of the room, "No one else."

"No one within operational range, at least."

"Jeez."

"If you're all cleaned up, I need to know where the base-"

A buzzing sound cut him off. Mack sighed and placed two fingers to his right ear before crouching behind a desk.

"Lieutenant Mack, this is Commander Parangosky. I've got good news: Second Lieutenant King's alive."

"Where is he?"

"Captured, I'm afraid. He managed to land on the roof, but was knocked out by the fall."

At least he's not dead. "I'll see if I can get him out, ma'am."

"Only if it's possible, Mack. I'll contact you again if anything else comes up. Parangosky out."

He stood up as the connection cut off, glancing at the door before turning back to Roe.

"New communicator," Mack explained. "Tiny and EMP-proof, but you can't talk back without being overheard."

Roe shook his head, chuckling. "Prototypes, eh? I know the guy who designed those things."

"Oh?"

"Yeah, he worked three doors down. Comms was never my thing anyway. Robotics is where it's at."

Mack raised an eyebrow. "How old are you?"

"Eighteen. I'll turn nineteen in January. Why?"

"Didn't think ONI contracted kids. You're probably a child prodigy or something, am I right?"

"So they say," Roe crossed his arms, looking slightly embarrassed. "Like I told you earlier, I was just the assistant. Doctor Akiloye ran our project."

"You said it was something to do with an exoskeleton, right?"

"Yeah. That technology's been coming along in leaps and bounds over the past few decades. They think that by 2520 at the latest we'll already be using powered exoskeletons across the colonies. Heavy lifting, mostly, but naturally there's the potential military application as well."

"I take it ONI had you working on the military side, then?"

Roe sighed, pushing some hair out of his glasses. "Naturally. Doctor Akiloye had intended to make it compatible with current-generation special forces suits. You could probably punch through walls, toss cars around, and so on."

"Sounds like a bunch of superhero shit."

"It's just science, and from what I've read then you guys are gonna need all the help you can get out there. I've seen the reports; Innies popping up just as fast as you can put them down."

For a moment Mack felt like hitting him, but Roe was right. The reason why he and his fellows in ORION had barely had any time away from the frontline recently was due to the sheer amount of rebel groups scattered across Human space. No matter how many they eliminated, there was always another one out there to fight. He merely grunted and motioned for Roe to follow him out of the lab.

"We're leaving?!" the Doctor stammered, half-stumbling towards Mack. "Shouldn't I stay here?"

"You know this place, don't you? I need someone to show me around while I try and find the base AI."

Roe paused for a moment, thinking. Suddenly he grabbed his head with both hands, turning on the spot.

"Of course, of course! If we get Leonard turned on again he can at least get us through the facility. Those innies deactivated him when they landed here. Took out the communications tower, too."

"Leonard?"

"Didn't they tell you about him in your briefing? Dumb AI, runs a lot of the base's sub-systems?"

"We were told about a Smart AI - Alexander."

Roe's face darkened. "Oh."

"What?"

"He was going to be deactivated. Seven years old, you see. We were getting a new one in the new year."

"Did they do it? Deactivate him, I mean?"

"No idea. I've heard bad things about AI that went past seven. They deteriorate. It's messy."

Mack stopped at the door, his mind racing with possibilities. None were good. If LaMarche had simply destroyed the AI and led the base takeover by force, then he was looking at a best-case scenario. If not... Don't think about it. Just focus on the task at hand.

"Okay," he pulled on his balaclava. "Where d'you think they would store the dumb AI - Leonard?"

"Robotics lab, most likely," Roe tilted his head to one side. "That's where they're tossing everything they can't use right now anyway."

"What about your exoskeleton?"

"That'd be in armour testing, in another wing. Robotics is just down the hall."

"Okay, c'mon then."

"Hey, I thought you were going first?"

"You know the layout. If anyone asks I'm escorting you. Just don't piss your pants this time."

Roe opened his mouth to respond, but merely shook his head and walked out of the door, Mack in close pursuit. In contrast to the fairly cluttered room Roe had been imprisoned in, the corridors remained cold and fairly featureless. The whole place felt like more of a prison than a research centre.

"Isn't this a bit open?" Roe whispered. "Couldn't you crawl through some ceiling vents or something?"

"This isn't a movie, jackass." He smirked. "Seen people try. You wouldn't believe the amount of noise it makes."

"Just a suggestion. Here we are."

At the end of the hallway was another room, lined with tables and exotic machinery Mack didn't recognise. A pile of twisted metal objects lay in one corner, evidently discarded by the rebels. Roe tutted as he crouched over it, sifting through the heap of scrap until he fished out a small chip.

"This looks like it," He muttered to himself. "Looks a little dented though."

"Can you fix it?"

"Yeah, it's just the casing that's hit. The AI's fine. Give me five minutes."

"Only five?"

"Well I'm not one to brag, but there's not a mechanical system around I can't take apart or make much better."

Mack shook his head as Roe set the AI chip on a nearby table and began to work. As he leant against a nearby wall, a sound from nearby snapped him back to attention. He dropped to one knee and drew his assault rifle, motioning for Roe to get down as well. With one ear pressed to the wall, Mack closed his eyes and listened as six pairs of boots thundered past down the hall towards Roe's room.

Security only just notice us?

"Roe!" he hissed. The scientist's head appeared over the top of a nearby table. "Stay here and get that damn AI online, you hear me? I'll distract them."

"But I-"

"Just do it, asshole! If I die this is on you!"

Taking a deep breath, Mack stepped through the door and aimed towards the squad along the corridor. With several metres between them and the doors to the room he'd found Roe in, they had nowhere to take cover as he squeezed the trigger. Gunshots thundered down the hall, echoing off the tiled floor as the rebels were ripped to shreds. One managed to turn before a bullet tore through his skull, while the man at their head managed to make a dive for the room ahead of them. Using his dead comrades as cover, the figure drew a pistol and let loose several shots that missed Mack by inches, forcing him to edge away. For a brief second, he got a good look at the face of his attacker.

It was Tobias Crowley.

Cursing under his breath, Mack expended the last of his magazine and rolled over to reload while Crowley did the same. The Sergeant had more or less been Trident's jack of all trades in the past few years, and unlike King or Hawkins, Mack had no idea how to predict him. Memories of sparring sessions and friendly training battles with the man flashed through Mack's mind as he finished reloading; he couldn't think of a particular weakness his former friend possessed that could be easily exploited.

"Goddamnnit Tobias!" Mack yelled. "It's me!"

There was a long, drawn-out silence. Mack was coiled like a spring, ready to jump back and resume the firefight.

"Drop the gun, Lieutenant!" Crowley's deep voice echoed down the hall. "Don't make me have to kill you."

Fuck, I don't need this. Mack gulped, and stood up. "You know I can't do that. I don't want to fight either."

"You won't have much of a choice, Mack. I've got backup coming already."

He was outnumbered a hundred to one. He'd killed enough innies over the years to stop caring, but Mack wasn't so sure if he could gun down a comrade. Hawkins, maybe, but he'd always seen th rest of Trident as his family. Crowley likely felt the same way. If I talk to Anton, find out what this is all about...

"I'm gonna toss my rifle," he said, silently sliding a knife into one of his sleeves. "You won't shoot, right?"

"Not if you don't."

Mack took the full magazine out of his rifle and tossed the weapon out into the hallway, where it clattered loudly to the ground. Then he slid the mag out behind it, and stepped out of cover. He was sweating profusely, risking his life on a gamble. If Crowley had sided with a bunch of Innies, then there wasn't anything stopping him from blowing Mack's brains out. Instead, the Sergeant moved out of cover as well, his gun raised.

"Hands on your head please, Lieutenant," Crowley's eyes darted across his body. "Roll up your sleeves, too."

Half-grinning, Mack slowly did as he was told and let the knife fall to the ground. He gently kicked it across the floor towards Crowley.

"Must've forgotten about it."

"Yeah, sure," Crowley stooped to pick it up, keeping his handgun trained on Mack at all times. "I've seen your knife shit enough times to know you'd try it with me. Hell, the Captain was saying-"

Crowley stopped as the door across the corridor slid open and a tall, wide-shouldered man in black fatigues emerged, grinning from ear to ear. He stopped a few feet away from the pair, muscly arms folded in front of his chest.

"Well then," Sergeant Steven Hawkins spoke in a Martian drawl. "Looks like we've found our rat. How're you, Richard?"

"Been better, Steve," Mack met Hawkins' cold, grey-eyed stare. "Nearly died a few times today."

"That so?"

"Yeah."

"Well, I've been talkin' to that Innie Major, and he's not too pleased about all those men of his you killed. Looks like you got a few more just now."

As Hawkins took another step forward and Mack tensed up, Crowley spoke up.

"He's surrendered, Steve. I was going to take him to the Captain."

"Change of plan, Tobias." Hawkins withdrew a Humbler stun device from his belt and extended it. Electricity crackled threateningly along the long, metallic rod. "Cap'n LaMarche says he wants Mack and the others alive and imprisoned until he fixes the comms array. Says he can't risk 'em being loose until he makes his transmission, then they'll understand."

"Why doesn't he just tell him now?" Crowley asked.

"Tell me what?"

Crowley opened his mouth to speak, but Hawkins cut him off. "Orders are orders. Mack won't understand what we're doin' here until then. That's what LaMarche said."

Mack clenched his teeth, glancing from Crowley to Hawkins. Whatever it was LaMarche was planning with Oleg Lombardi, it was big enough that they wanted to make some kind of long-range broadcast. Would this simply be another Insurrrectionist manifesto, like so many others that similar saboteurs and hackers had tried to put out on public networks? Or was this something genuinely bad; it was enough that three of he UNSC's top Special Forces personnel had sided with a bunch of innies over, at least.

"I'm not gonna lie, Mack," Hawkins clenched the stun rod tightly. "I've been looking forward to this, you stuck-up prick!"

The huge man moved much quicker than Mack had anticipated, swinging the stick in a wide arc that barely missed Mack as he ducked. While he attempted to throw Hawkins aside and put his body between him and Crowley's handgun, the latter also moved, bringing the butt of his pistol down sharply on the back of Mack's head. Though not enough to knock him out, he staggered and was unable to dodge the subsequent volley of swings that Hawkins unleashed. Mack's strength left him instantly as his knees buckled and he slammed into the floor, only to double over in pain as Hawkins' boot hit his stomach. His mind barely registered that this was the standard pattern of attack they used while subduing insurrectionist targets non-lethally: down with the Humbler, then a kick or two to ensure they didn't move further. Hawkins knelt down, one knee on Mack's chest as he continued to shock Mack with several more blows. His vision blurred and everything began to go dark.

"Steve!" he could vaguely hear Crowley's voice. "Steve, that's enough, you'll kill him!"

Eventually, Hawkins relented. Mack's entire body felt as if it had been set aflame as he lay there, barely twitching on the ground. Though the other men were talking, he couldn't make out anything being said. As his eyes slowly fluttered shut, his last thoughts were a silent thanks to himself for remembering to use the bathroom beforehand. He'd known Roe for less than an hour, but he knew the guy would never let it go if he pissed himself as well.

Chapter Three

Youth

2236 Hours, December 4th, 2488 (UNSC Military Calendar)

New York City, United Republic of North America, Earth


"Richard, you should really go to bed."

"I'm fine, Mom."

"Richard-"

"I'm not sleeping until he's home."

Richard Mack sat by the apartment window, looking out into the street below. Though illuminated only by a few flickering streetlights, he could make out any movement from his position. He yawned, and quickly drank the rest of his energy drink to keep himself awake. At seventeen years of age, Richard possessed a fairly athletic build, hidden by his rather old, oversized clothes.

"If you insist," Laura Mack sighed and left the room. "Just don't do anything you'll regret, okay?"

"Yeah."

Laura and Will Mack weren't Richard's real parents. He'd been adopted by them at the age of six, though he'd never considered them anything other than his true family. However, since Will had lost his supposedly-secure job nine months ago, he'd been unable to secure proper work and used what little money they had to go out drinking most nights. Richard knew his father wasn't a bad man, but both he and his mother had the bruises from last week's incident.

Come on, you old bastard. Try something tonight."

Once his mother had left the room, Richard began to slowly wrap his wrists in black duct tape. He'd never use a knife or bat against his own father, but the man needed some damn sense knocked into him sometimes. Perhaps he'd sober up long enough to sort himself out and stop drunkenly taking his anger out on his own family.

"Hurry up," he muttered to himself, feeling anxious.

Suddenly, the silhouette of a man appeared beneath the furthest streetlight, slowly ambling forward. Richard didn't have to look for long to know who it was. Will Mack, clearly smashed out of his mind, staggered down the street towards their apartment complex, muttering under his breath. Richard stood up, looking down on his father with a look of disgust etched across his face as the man began to piss up a nearby wall.

"Dad's outside!" he called back into the other oom. "I'm gonna go down."

As he turned to leave, Richard caught a glimpse of several figures emerging into the street below from a nearby side-alley. Speaking in low voices, one of them laughed as Will Mack turned towards them. Though he couldn't hear what was being said, one of the men approached his father and appeared to be threatening him with something. Swearing under his breath, Mack slowly began to edge to the side as his mother walked in and froze.

"Don't do anything," she whispered. "You'll only get yourself hurt."

"I can't leave him," Richard hissed. As one of them pushed his father back and stepped forward he could make out his face; though he didn't know the guy's name, he'd seen him around and knew his gang had been terrorising the area for several years now. Three years ago, he'd had a run-in with them that landed him in hospital.

"Look, if you go out there it'll probably just make things worse-"

There was a loud crack from outside. Richard's father crumpled to the ground, and for a brief moment he could see the gang's leader stowing away a pistol. His mother screamed, running for the phone as he charged into his parent's bedroom and fished out a metal box. Prising it open, he fished out a handgun and loaded it. Richard stuffed it into the back of his jeans with the safety off and ran to his room, grabbing a dark jacket.

"Richard!" Laura Mack wailed, tears streaking down her face. "Don't!"

He ignored her and ran for the door as she continued to sob, trying to contact the Police. They won't catch them, he thought. Just like always, those bastards are gonna slip away. Not this time.

Richard sprinted out into the street. Several neighbours watched from their windows as he crouched by his father's body. His still-open eyes were glassy and lifeless, and his grey shirt was soaked through with dark blood. He could still smell the booze on him. The gang had just turned the corner as he looked up and sprinted after them into the night. Blinking back tears, Richard ignored the chill winter air as he ran, listening for the gang's retreating footsteps as they headed - presumably - to a disused factory building nearby that they often hung around in and used to store stolen goods.

"Fuck off!" One of them, a teen around Richard's age, called back, waving a tiny pistol in the air.

Call that a gun? he pulled his father's handgun - a military-grade Magnum, out and raised it. The teen squealed in terror and ran, accidentally dropping his gun as he scrambled to turn round. As he stooped to pick it up, Richard slowed and took aim, making him forget the weapon and run for his life.

I've got twelve shots: enough to put these bastards down.

At this point, all he had in mind was killing. The possibility of his own death or arrest for killing the gang barely registered in Richard's mind. Turning another corner, he darted past a group of people who scattered at the sight of his gun and sighted several figures clambering over the wall towards the factory. There seemed to only be four of them in total.

"Get the guns!" one shouted. "Get the guns!"

If they were all armed, then Richard was in trouble. He'd never fired a gun in his life, though the basics were easy: switch off safety, aim, pull trigger. Unwilling to follow the gang members over the same wall, he darted round to the right and edged towards the front gate. The tiny security office had long since been abandoned, so it was simply a matter of clambering over the wrought iron gate as quietly as possible and moving slowly towards the factory. He'd often walked past it; his father used to work there when it still produced car parts, working to keep the ever-active machines running and fixing them when they broke down. Since the factory had closed, leaving hundreds jobless, it had been a popular haunt for gang members, junkies, and dealers.

"Scum," Richard whispered through gritted teeth, his hands shaking. "Fucking scum."

The four men inside weren't bothering to stay quiet; in fact, they were arguing as Richard clambered in through a broken window and heard nothing when he dropped to the floor. Having ran upstairs to whatever weapons stash they had, the group were audibly panting and groaning after running so far.

"You didn't have to kill him!" one complained.

"Drunk asshole thought he could mess with us," replied another.

"Shit, is that guy still after us?"

"If he is we'll kill him too. Don't worry about it."

"Shit, man, I just don't want the cops finding out about this. If my mom-"

"If she what? Jeez, don't be a pussy. I know people. Give me half an hour and I can have us in a car to New Jersey, no questions asked."

Richard continued to listen, silently creeping upstairs. Their leader was the one who'd killed his father. Taking short, shallow breaths, he edged along a side corridor, now fully aware of loud any noise was in the deathly silence. Upon entering a room filled with broken machinery, he grabbed a metal pipe from the floor and gave it an experimental swing; he'd need something for close-quarters in case he lost his handgun. Every one of his senses felt heightened as the adrenaline continued to rush through him; some part of him looked forward to the prospect of a fight, all sadness at Will Mack's death pushed to one side as he moved to take revenge.

"Shit," a voice drifted from upstairs. "Just call your guy, man."

"Feds'll be around here soon."

As they spoke, Richard could hear sirens in the distance. While in New York they were hardly an uncommon occurrence, he knew full well that they were coming in response to the shooting. Knowing that he had to hurry, Mack tried to open a door, only to have it collapse inwards as a pile of scrap metal on the other side gave way with a deafening crash. Judging by the swearing from upstairs, the gang members heard it too.

"Somebody's in here!" the leader called. "Shit, I'm calling my guy. Shoot the bastard and get back here."

As footsteps echoed down the stairs, Richard flattened himself against a nearby alcove and pulled the hood of his jacket up. Keeping the pipe raised, he held his breath as one of the gang crept past. It was the guy he'd frightened earlier, now clutching a submachinegun and looking very frightened. He'd taken just a few steps past Richard's hiding place when the teenager leapt forward, bringing the pipe down on his head with all his force. He immediately collapsed, the gun clattering to the ground.

That's one.

He stood up, kicking the man's head for good measure before heading slowly back along the corridor. The other two were coming back upstairs together, having looked over the lower floor. Mack hid around another corner as one called out.

"Hey Rick, you got anything?! Rick?"

"Shit, is he okay?"

Richard gripped the pipe tightly, waiting for his chance to strike. The fact that a bunch of assholes who'd shot a man dead in cold blood not twenty minutes ago were concerned about someone made his blood boil. As the first one stepped round the corner, he swung the pipe, smashing the man's nose and sending him backwards onto his buddy. Richard then charged the pair, kicking them backwards down the stairs. Neither one had a chance to fire a shot as he leapt onto them, swinging the pipe in absolute silence as their surprised shouts turned to screams for mercy. One managed to grab Richard, making him drop the pipe. Falling to one knee, he punched the man in the face with his right hand while his left grabbed a loose brick that lay nearby. He brought it down again and again onto the side of the man's head until he stopped resisting and went limp. The other groaned weakly and attempted to move, only to have his teeth smashed in.

"You fucking bastards!" Mack finally broke, his face red and glistening with sweat. Blood dripped from his fingers. All those years of avoidance and beatings had created a rage that finally bubbled up to the surface as he took his revenge. He recognised one man - now missing a number of teeth and coughing up blood - as one who had laughed as they had kicked him half to death a few years ago. Richard spat in his face and smacked him once more with the brick before moving on, leaving their battered bodies lying tangled at the foot of the stairs.

One more.

Panting, he clambered upstairs and switched his handgun's safety off. He had no illusions about what he was going to do. Richard didn't care how they punished him; he'd kill the bastard who'd murdered his father. As he reached the top floor, he sighted an older man in a white hooded jacket speaking into a COM device.

"Yeah, yeah, we're in trouble here, we need pickup, pronto."

He slowly raised the gun, aiming down the sights, and squeezed the trigger.

"Well if you can- Fuck!"

The COM blew apart in his hand, shattering into a thousand pieces from the bullet's impact. Without turning, the gang leader dived to the right to avoid Richard's second shot and attempted to reach a gun cabinet. The teen fired twice more as he advanced, narrowly missing him as he scrambled out of sight and ran for a nearby fire exit. Police sirens were echoing all around now. He ran after the man, keeping his gun raised as he burst out after him. He ran up the rickety metal staircase and onto the factory roof, where his father's murderer stood alone. As Richard approached, the guy spoke.

"Look, I don't know your beef, but that guy was just some drunk. You want money, man? I've got ten grand on me now."

"He was my Dad, you fucking scum!" Mack's face contorted as he once again blinked back tears. "You understand?!"

"Oh, so now you're gonna shoot me?"

"Damn right I am."

The leader spread his arms out, glaring at Richard. "Do it then, kid. Fuckin' shoot me. I don't give a shit. Cops'll just lock your ass up for life anyway."

The teen's hands shook as he pointed his handgun at the man, who grinned in defiance. He clearly didn't give a shit about what he'd done, and was daring Richard to pull the trigger. Police cars were already gathering around the building. Eventually, he sighed and lowered the gun.

"No, you'll get what's coming to you."

As he turned to walk away, he heard a faint click behind him and turned round. The man had slipped a gun out from his back and began to raise it, grinning madly. Before Richard could react, the gangster's head jerked sideways in a spray of blood, his eyes rolling upwards as chunks of brain matter and bone splattered across the rooftop. He fell to the side and was still.

Richard stared, open-mouthed, at the man's corpse. He placed his own gun down as bright lights shone around him. A small aircraft drifted towards the roof, depositing two black-armoured men; New York's SWAT team. While one checked the corpse, the other, still clutching a sniper rifle, moved towards Richard. He immediately got to his knees, placing both arms onto his head as he approached. Much to his surprise the SWAT officer knelt down beside him.

"Richard Mack?" he asked.

He nodded sullenly, expecting handcuffs and the usual reading of his rights. Instead, the officer put Mack's handgun in an evidence bag and removed his helmet. Much to his surprise, the man only seemed to be in his mid-twenties, with cropped blonde hair and green eyes.

"I'm Sergeant Anton LaMarche. Let's get you home."

"But I-"

"Self defence," he nodded towards the gang leader's bloody corpse. "We've been after him for months. I'll assume that the unconscious members downstairs are your doing?"

"How did you know?"

"Had you on thermals not long after you entered. Had to standby and wait for backup, but you were pretty good."

"So I'm not being arrested?"

"They were armed and dangerous, and you were only defending yourself. Had you actually killed anyone, then we might've found cause to arrest you for vigilante justice. You'll probably get community service at worst."

LaMarche stood up, and held out his hand. Mack shook it.

"How old are you?" the officer asked.

"Seventeen."

"You at work? University?"

He shook his head.

"I know it's been a rough night, but if you want to get out of this damn city, then take my advice: enlist with the Marines."

Richard frowned, deep in thought. "Seriously?"

"You just took down three armed men bigger and stronger than you, and you managed to hold back from blowing that scumbag's brains out. Good thing I was around to do that for you."

He'd never really considered the military. These days, with rumours of terrorists in the Outer Colonies and simmering dissent over the UNSC's actions, many around him weren't fans of the Marine Corps. Still, it wasn't like he had any other prospects. What about Mom? he wondered.

"I'll think about it."

"Good man. I'm thinking of re-enlisting myself, actually. I'll make sure you're taken home safe, Richard."

"Mack."

"Excuse me?"

"Just call me Mack. Nobody but my mom calls me Richard."

"I'll keep it in mind. See you around."

Break

0951 Hours, November 6th, 2499 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Ouroboros Station Security Wing, Heimdall, Outer Colonies


Mack sat bolt upright, swiping his hand across the air reflexively as his eyes opened. His upper body and the left side of his face were covered in dark bruises, and his lower chest still ached from Hawkins' boot. Looking around for a few seconds as his eyes grew accustomed to the bright light above, he realised that he was in a cell.

Oh, shit.

Standing up, he ignored the dull pains across his body and moved to the cell door. Unsurprisingly, it was locked tight, with a couple of closed hatches for food and inspections. Mack knew that he'd have no chance of breaking out in his current state; stripped of all but his basic fatigues. His mind raced through potential methods of escape once his cell door opened, though most had a high likelihood of him dying in the process. He sat back on the bed, clenching and unclenching his bruised hands. Waiting was always the most stressful part; in combat he could move and act quickly, adapting as instinct drove him, but this? Being alone with his thoughts would only lead to doubts he couldn't afford to have.

"Mack!"

He jumped from the sudden voice in his ear. Looks like they couldn't find it, he sat back against the wall of his cell.

"I'm here."

"What the hell happened?!" Parangosky yelled, sounding oddly concerned. "You've been out of contact for four goddamn hours!"

"Shit, it's been that long? What about the-"

"The Destroyer won't reach Heimdall for a few hours yet, but you've lost a lot of time."

He exhaled slowly. "I'm sorry ma'am, but I've been captured. Hawkins and Crowley ambushed me."

"I see." There was a lengthy pause. "I contacted Sergeant Major Ackton ten minutes ago. He's gotten close to the Ouroboros Station's southern perimeter fence, though he said he'd have to risk climbing a cliff face just to reach the facility itself."

He nodded. At least John's alive, then. "Any news from King?"

"Still in his cell. He reported a disturbance earlier; must've been the guards bringing you in."

"Probably. I was knocked out."

"What's your current condition?"

"I'll have some nasty bruises, ma'am, but nothing major."

"Good. I'm still counting on you to complete your mission, Lieutenant."

Mack sighed, shaking his head. "I'll see what I can do."

"Not good enough. If you don't eliminate the terrorists, or at least take out their anti-air capability within the next few hours, both our lives will be on the line."

For the first time, Mack realised that the Commander was likely in deep trouble as well. He'd heard dark rumours about what ONI did to operatives who failed during missions, and the tone of Parangosky's voice suggested that he wasn't the only one in danger of being shot dead.

"Copy that, ma'am. I'll get it done."

"Good. Parangosky out."

I have absolutely no idea of what to do.

He sat on the hard, uncomfortable bed for a while, staring at the cell door. If the terrorists hadn't found Redford yet then all he had to do was wait for him to wake up, though a soldier recovering from surgery and an anaesthetic would hardly pose a major threat. Ackton was also still on his way, but it was a lot to hope for that a single man could infiltrate a highly-guarded ONI facility without resorting to the same tactics he and Redford had used to get in - they'd almost certainly be checking every single returning patrol from now on.

Roe.

The young scientist's name drifted into his mind. Mack had no clue if he'd been discovered by Crowley and Hawkins, or if he was still cowering alone in that laboratory. Though the man possessed no combat skills that he knew of, Roe did have the memory chip for that 'dumb' AI program. All he'd need is a proper console and it was possible that he could try and get Mack and King out. As he considered the possibilities, the COM device in his ear unexpectedly buzzed.

"Uh, hello? Mack? It's me, Doctor Roe?"

Wonderful.

***

A chill wind blew across the walkway leading to the Ouroboros Station's main hangar. Due to the almost-constant low temperatures on this part of Heimdall, even incoming starships had to land within the facility in case of freezing. Currently, a battered civilian starship sat atop one of the main pads, its ramp lowered as men in olive overalls carried crates containing UNSC weapons and ammunition aboard.

"Oleg!" Anton LaMarche called, stepping through the door and brushing snow from his shoulders. "How much can she carry?"

A tall, balding man clad in well-worn and repainted ODST body armour looked up from his datapad and smirked. "A lot more than this, don't you worry. My ship's used to smuggling things past oonskie territory."

LaMarche nodded, adjusting his black beret slightly as he descended a flight of stairs to an empty landing pad. A dozen AV-14 Hornet craft sat in rows on one side of the cavernous room, while four Pelicans and a fearsome AC-220 Vulture were held in nearby docking bays. He knew Lombardi would probably take everything that wasn't nailed down, and wondered if he was aware that the Vulture wasn't a spaceborne vessel.

"How's our communication problem?" Lombardi stood up, stowing away his datapad. "That Prowler's still in orbit, too. If the UNSC brings down the hammer on us, we're finished."

"I know. Alexander and your techs are working on it. They'll have it fixed so we can make the broadcast before any more ships arrive, I assure you."

The Insurrectionist leader nodded, clapping LaMarche on the shoulder with a gloved hand. "We're gonna make history today, friend."

"We are."

"If I'd have known six months ago that I'd be working with the likes of you I'd have thought myself mad, LaMarche. Now though? Let's just say that my eyes have been opened to the bigger picture. Thank you."

The ORION shrugged. Two months ago he had the chance to put a bullet in Lombardi's head and take out one of the most wanted men in UEG space. Instead, he'd spared the man's life and given him a way of getting in contact, just in case. LaMarche knew he couldn't trust anyone in the UNSC with what he had planned, so going to a prime rebel target for help was his only option.

"Your men still haven't found my fourth man, by the way?"

"Hrm?"

"Sergeant Major Ackton. If we've got Mack and King locked up and Redford knocked out in the med bay, then you can bet he's outside the facility, looking for a way in."

"Probably just died in-"

"No," LaMarche said sharply. "He didn't die in the drop and he sure as hell hasn't frozen to death, Oleg. You've got a fully-equipped special forces soldier running around and I'll not be calm until we capture him."

"It'd be easier to just bomb the surrounding area."

"I'd rather have him brought in alive for the broadcast. No need for senseless bloodshed."

Lombardi scowled. "You tell that to the men I've lost," he growled. "I've lost half a platoon already."

"When we make our announcement to the colonies, Oleg, they will be remembered as heroes who helped to make this happen."

"I'm sure their corpses will be grateful." Lombardi glanced up as one of his men entered the hangar, shivering slightly.

"Makosky!" he yelled. "Report!"

The young rebel removed his scarf and nodded respectfully towards LaMarche. "The soldier we captured is awake, sir."

"He won't be a problem. What else?"

"That scientist - Roe - has made the final preparations to that exoskeleton of his. The oonsk- Sergeant Hawkins is going to test it out now."

"Excellent," Lombardi clapped his hands together. "Say, LaMarche, how about we have a word with that boy of yours - Mack, was it? See if we can't change his mind?"

LaMarche crossed his arms, mulling it over for a moment. "Worth a try, I suppose. I'll warn you though, Mack was my XO; stubborn bastard, but he's a clever man. Let's go."

***

"Doctor?" Mack whispered, sitting on his bed and covering his mouth. There was a small disk-shaped object in the corner of the room that he was certain was some kind of camera. "Where are you?"

"I'm in the experimental weapons lab. I'm sorry, but they made me do some more work while you were out."

"On what?"

"Remember that project I was telling you about? Military applications for powered exoskeletons? Before Doctor Akiloye died he was close to finishing the first prototype model. It's essentially a skeletal frame at the moment but anyone wearing it could probably knock a guy's head off with one punch. I've just finished my final alterations to it."

"In three hours?"

"I work well under pressure!" Roe whined. "But look, they've tossed me in here while they test it out, so I managed to patch into your COM channel and-"

"You what?"

He could imagine the smug look on Roe's face. "Look, I get that you're using the latest ONI tech to communicate with your bosses or whatever, but if you know where to look then it's really not so hard to get into this stuff with the right equipment."

"I thought you said that comms weren't your thing?"

"Just because I specialise in Robotics doesn't mean I don't have other talents, Lieutenant."

Mack shook his head, trying not to laugh at the teenage scientist trying his hardest to sound cocky. If they remained in touch with each other then Roe could at least give Mack directions on how to escape his cell, or even rescue him himself if he suddenly decided to show some actual courage.

"Well what about-"

Roe cut him off. "Leonard? Don't worry about that, Lieutenant. I've just put him back in the system; the dumb bastards never frisked me when they recaptured me earlier." He began talking to someone away from the communicator. "Get ready, because you've got about ten seconds to move."

Before Mack could reply, a light on his cell door flashed and it sprung open; it appeared that the cells possessed both an electronic and a manual method of opening them, presumably in case of a power outage. Not wasting a second, Mack leapt out into the corridor and was about to turn right when he heard a gun being cocked behind him.

"Don't move!" yelled a man just behind him. Mack froze as he felt the barrel of a rifle press against his back.

"Okay, okay," he said softly. "I'll get back inside."

Suddenly the gun jerked away as the guard gasped. It clattered to the floor as he clawed desperately at the arms around his neck. There was a short, sharp snap and his head jerked to one side. The guard went limp and slid to the ground, revealing his attacker.

"Hey ell-tee," Sergeant Major Marion Hollister said, picking up the guard's fallen rifle. "About damn time you showed up."

"Hollister," Mack gave a genuine smile. "Good to see you in one piece."

"You think I was dead?"

"Not for a minute." He heard footsteps from behind him and turned to see Frederick King approaching, stifling a yawn with one hand.

"Fred."

"Sir," he muttered tiredly, stepping past him and staring at Hollister. "Hey you."

"Hey yourself," she prodded him with the butt of her rifle. "You got yourself caught, you ass."

King shrugged. "Got out, didn't we?"

"I hate to break up the reunion," Mack cut in loudly, "But we've really got to move!"

As he said this, a side door opened, revealing several more rebel guards. Mack and King dropped down while Hollister took each one out with well-placed bursts of gunfire.

"Guns."

"Got 'em."

The trio quickly grabbed weapons and ammo from their fallen foes as a siren began to blare across the base. It seemed that their escape had been noticed by the rebel occupiers. On a nearby holotank, the shimmering image of an elderly man in old-fashioned military garb materialised.

"Trident personnel," he said in a deep, slightly-accented voice. "I am Leonard."

"Wait," King clicked his tongue. "I recognise you: you were our base AI back in '91, back when ORION started!"

"Correct. I have been assigned to multiple military installations for the purpose of instructing and training UNSC personnel."

"What the hell are you doing here then?"

Leonard frowned; it was odd for a 'dumb' AI to show much in the way of actual expression due to their program limitations. "That information is classified, Lieutenant King. However, I must warn you of impending danger on multiple fronts."

"What do you mean," asked Mack. He and the others were warily watching the doors to the detention block for any more foes.

Leonard disappeared for a second and was replaced by a detailed map of the Ouroboros Station. Mack gazed at it in awe as the base seemed to extend far beyond the layouts they had been shown by ONI prior to this mission. Certain tunnels and storage facilities stretched out far underground or into the surrounding mountains. Three red blips appeared at different places within the facility; one in the research wing, one by the gatehouse, and a third by the base's communication station.

"I have intercepted communications between the traitors Anton LaMarche and Steven Hawkins. He is already aware of your escape, Lieutenant Mack, and has ordered Hawkins to bring the comatose Harold Redford out as leverage to make you surrender."

"Shit, what else?"

"The facility's gatehouse has been breached, likely by a C-12 detonation. I have camera access in this area."

Leonard brought up real-time footage from one of the remaining cameras at the gatehouse. Half a dozen rebels lay dead in the snow while several others retreated back into the facility, only to be gunned down by a heavily-armed figure in heavy black combat armour.

"Ackton!" Mack laughed. "Poor bastard must've scaled the cliffs to avoid the patrols. Can you get in contact with him?"

"Given time, I will, Lieutenant Mack. However, I must direct your attention to this facility's communication array."

The outside footage was replaced with an interior camera's field of view, overlooking the Ouroboros Station's command centre and the nearby communication array. A number of heavily-armoured rebels were reinforcing the room and gathering round a large holotank where a single shimmering figure sat. Mack guessed this was Alexander, the station's 'smart' AI program. If he was active then that meant his worst fears were realised; the AI had gone rampant and was working with the terrorists.

"Alexander has blocked off all control of the command wing," Leonard waved his hand towards the holographic representation of that part of the facility, which shone red. "I can access camera feeds but little else."

Well, shit.

Mack sighed deeply, clutching his stolen rifle. "Fred, Marion, I want you to head out there and get Harold out of there. If Steve tries to stop you, then you know what to do."

The pair nodded solemnly.

"Leonard, contact Ackton and tell him to get his ass to the command centre ASAP. I'll need his help if I'm going to stop-"

He suddenly paused. What the hell am I stopping? The innies want that comms array repaired, but why? The driving question of what had driven Captain Anton LaMarche to betray his comrades and side with a group of terrorists was still unanswered. Trident's hands were not clean in this war, but Mack knew LaMarche, his oldest friend, wouldn't defect without a goddamn good reason.

I'm going to find out from the man himself.

"Okay Trident, move out!"

Faceoff

1020 Hours, November 6th, 2499 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Ouroboros Station Medical Wing, Heimdall, Outer Colonies


"Keep up!" Marion Hollister yelled as she sprinted barefoot down the corridor, assault rifle aimed straight ahead. Two rebels rounded a corner and crumpled to the floor in a flash of gunfire.

"You're moving too quick, damnnit," King called back, taking the time to check every doorway and alcove as they moved into the Ouroboros Station's medical wing.

"If Red dies-"

"He won't."

"You think Steve won't kill him?"

The Lieutenant didn't reply. He'd been aware of Hawkins' violent tendencies since the day they'd met and had merely assumed that the guy had a grudge against Innies at first. The man seemed to genuinely enjoy fighting and violence, and was a frighteningly effective interrogator who wasn't at all hesitant to ply his trade on King - or Mack, judging by his injuries.

"Listen," Marion stopped by a corner to reload. "When those Innies stormed the base, LaMarche had Steve and Tobias round up every single Marine guarding this place who hadn't died in the initial attack and ask them to join in the rebellion. Steve killed everyone who refused."

"They left you alive, though."

"Yeah, they did." She shrugged. "Guess the Captain didn't want to see me thrown in a pit with the other soldiers and scientists, so he locked me up. Spoke to me through the grille in my door, trying to convince me that they were doing something for the good of mankind."

"Sounds like regular innie-talk."

For a moment, she looked uncertain, shaking her head and pushing back a few stray strands of hair. King made a mental note of the fact that LaMarche never tried speaking to her inside her cell, probably because she'd have tried tearing out his throat with her teeth if he'd tried. He smirked and peeked around the corner before waving Marion forward, covering her with his own gun.

"This was different," she continued as they moved towards the medical bay, slightly slower than before. "He kept going on about some conspiracy - something about AI's controlling us. I thought he'd gone mad, Fred."

"Might've done. Cracked from stress, maybe?"

"I don't know. Whatever it was, LaMarche seemed scared. He thought-"

She abruptly stopped and flattened herself against a wall. King did the same as a loud clanking echoed down the cold, grey halls and a looming shadow appeared before them. Both soldiers raised and readied their rifles as a large apparatus lumbered into view.

"What the fuck..." Hollister whispered.

Standing at a little over seven feet tall was the frame of a metallic exoskeleton. Strapped into the suit was Steven Hawkins, grinning maliciously at the pair. As he flexed the fingers of his right hand, the suit mimicked his movements. In the iron grip of its right hand it held a piece of heavy metal shielding that King recognised with a sudden sinking feeling as a piece of Titanium-A armour. Hawkins moved the piece in front of his suit as Hollister fired off a couple of shots, which barely scratched his shield.

"Bad idea, folks," he chuckled.

"Steve, I'm warning you," King began. "Surrender now or-"

Before he could finish, Hawkins snapped an M7 submachine gun into his hands and began firing over the top of his shield, making the pair scatter towards two nearby alcoves as he laughed.

"Now," Hawkins spoke slowly, as if savouring every word. "Captain LaMarche said I could kill you if necessary, and I'm very much inclined to do so. For old times sake, however, I'd be willin' to accept your surrender if you kindly dropped your guns and gave up."

"Fat chance!" Hollister spat.

"Did you lose a couple'a brain cells while you were locked up, Marion? Now this suit ain't invincible by any means, but the pair of you ain't gonna stand a chance in a stand-up fight."

He was met with bursts of fire as Hollister and King backed off down the corridor, towards a set of offices. Hawkins simply laughed and advanced, the exoskeleton's feet cracking the tiled floor with every step. The pair dashed inside, leaping over tables just as the door and most of the surrounding wall were smashed to pieces. In the brief second before their foe located them, King got a sidelong view of the lumbering apparatus and sighted a cable trailing behind Hawkins' suit.

"Marion, the-"

"Yeah, I see it."

Without another word, the two split up, dividing Hawkins' attention in the spacious office. While he kept his unprotected back to the wall, the rogue ORION could only target one at a time with his submachine gun while keeping the other firmly behind that shield. As his weapon clacked empty and he reached to reload, King leapt onto a nearby desk and raised his assault rifle, training it on his former teammate's head. In a surprising display of speed, Hawkins' arm snapped up and brought the shield in front of him as the exoskeleton pushed forward. King's rounds ricocheted harmlessly off the thick armour and he barely had a moment to move as the metal shield swiped at him, tearing the desk apart.

"Get the fuck down!" Hawkins roared as King hit the floor, dropping his rifle and rolling away.

The exoskeleton's heavy metal foot stamped down just inches from the man's head as he tried to get to his feet. While he could have easily gunned him down, the big man seemed to be enjoying his attempts at crushing King to death underfoot while firing a few bursts in Hollister's direction to force her back into cover. Unable to move backwards or get to his feet, he could only roll foolishly from side to side to avoid having his head smashed to a pulp.

"Stay put!"

"Piss off, Steve!"

King had to suppress an urge to laugh as the exoskeleton's foot missed him once more. Despite the real danger of dying, he'd been put into a rather comical situation. Before he could crawl away as Hawkins let out a grunt of exasperation, the suit lowered and brought both of its legs together, stopping him from rolling as it raised an arm holding the heavy chunk of Titanium-A.

Oh shit.

However, the piece never lowered. The machine came to a complete stop. Hawkins tugged furiously at the controls in his harness for a moment, his maniacal grin fading into a grimace of rage. Across the office, Hollister had pumped half a magazine of rifle fire into the armoured cable presumably connecting the exoskeleton to its source of power, and was holding up a severed, sparking bundle of wires with a look of smug triumph.

"Bitch!" Hawkins yelled, thumbing the release catch for his harness. Though King sprang to his feet, the larger man was a second quicker and delivered a hefty kick to his groin before diving away to avoid gunfire from Hollister.

"What now, asshole!" she dropped down for a second to reload. "I broke your toy, Steve. It's over."

A torrent of cursing from behind another desk seemed to indicate that Hawkins didn't agree, and while King tried to level his handgun, ignoring the spasms of pain that had him nearly doubled over, he couldn't get a direct line of sight on the man. While he'd never particularly liked him, King would rather shoot to wound instead of kill and see Hawkins taken to justice. Out of the corner of his eye he spotted a flash of movement as his opponent flung himself at a nearby door.

"Steve, don't-"

He fired off a single shot, which missed Hawkins by a few inches as he pelted outside into the corridor. Without that exoskeleton to aid him, he knew full well that he wouldn't stand a chance against the pair of them, especially unarmed. Nodding to Hollister, they ran after him out of separate doors. King exited to see Hawkins sprinting back the way he'd come, only to run into Hollister as she exited the office. Ignoring the raised gun, he dropped low and skidded across the floor, kicking her legs as the gun fired over him. Hollister stumbled long enough for him to wrench the rifle out of her hands and smack the weapon into her face. As she fell backwards, bleeding, Hawkins turned to finish her off. King loosed everything he had left towards him, his face contorted as he bellowed in fury. Several of the high-caliber rounds smashed through Hawkins' right arm, tearing apart bone and flesh and sinew and making him drop the rifle. The two men met eyes for a brief moment before he began to run again.

"Get back here you fucking coward!"

"Fred," Marion said as she picked herself up, gingerly touching the cut and blooming bruise on her cheek. "Calm down."

"I'm-"

"You're freaking out because he almost shot me, idiot."

Hollister unholstered her pistol and aimed it down the long corridor, towards Hawkins' retreating back. She angled it down slightly and pulled the trigger. Far ahead of them, the big man's left leg jerked slightly and he came crashing to the ground with a cry. King glanced at Hollister and nodded in appreciation.

"We'll have to talk later," he said softly.

"Yep," Hollister began to walk forwards. "Let's clean up here first."

For a man with a useless right arm and left leg, the fact that Steven Hawkins was still conscious was a miracle. Blood trailed down the white hallway, pooling in areas he'd stopped at and leading into the medical suite where King and Hollister finally caught up with him.

"Steve, it's over," said Hollister, raising her pistol.

Either Hawkins didn't hear her or refused to listen. Dragging himself upright against the opposite wall, he gritted his bloody teeth and glared at the pair of them. Both remained totally impassive, but ready to gun him down if he so much as twitched towards them.

"You know what these are?" Hawkins pointed with his good arm to the nearby suites. "Surgery suites. I'll need one if I'm gonna survive this."

He had lost a lot of blood. King glanced towards Hollister for a moment, wondering what to do. He'd be healed, but upon awakening he would also be immediately imprisoned. This didn't seem like something Steven Hawkins would accept lying down, and he knew it. Hollister wasn't convinced.

"Lie face-down on the floor, and I'll get you some biofoam. That'll hold while we detain you. You can get proper medical care once we've taken down LaMarche and Crowley."

Before Hawkins could answer, one of the suite doors slid open and a familiar figure ambled out, one leg heavily wrapped up in a cast. His bleary, unfocused eyes swept across the room and he raised a groggy hand in greeting towards King and Hollister. It was Harold Redford. Hawkins immediately leapt across to him, grabbing the man and unsheathing a combat knife from his belt.

"Don't fuckin' move, okay!" His voice wavered for a moment. "Put your guns down and do as I say or I'll cut his throat!"

Redford barely seemed to react; the anaesthetic from his operation seemed to still be in effect, and he appeared powerless to resist his captor. Hollister tossed her gun instantly, while King slowly lowered his to the ground.

"Okay, okay," Hawkins muttered, half to himself. "Now, both of you walk slowly over there towards-"

As he'd indicated another medical suite for the pair to enter with his knife, Redford's head snapped back into Hawkins' nose with a loud crunch, and the man dropped down before planting an elbow in his gut. King wasted no time in planting five rounds in the man's chest as Redford moved away. He staggered back against a wall and slid down it with a low groan.

"Didn't think he'd fall for that," said Redford, whose eyes were suddenly bright and alert. He still moved gingerly due to his cast, but all sign of sluggishness had disappeared from him. "Fucking hell, Steve."

"He always was a dumbass," said King, checking his pistol. He still had a single round left.

Hawkins coughed up some blood as he chuckled, sticking up a bloody middle finger towards King. His olive green combat fatigues were soaked with blood now, and most of the colour had drained from his face. He didn't have long to live, medical suites or not.

"Y'got me, ell-tee," his breathing was ragged; he had a punctured lung, and was taking in blood with each breath. "Good for you. Always knew it'd be like this, y'know."

King looked like he was going to make a sarcastic comment, but Redford silenced him with a raised hand.

"Still, thought it'd be Innies that'd do me in, not some fuckin' snooty officer's kid like you, Fred. Just wanted to fight and fight and fight, for as long as I could."

"That's your excuse?!" King stepped forward. "You turned traitor because you wanted someone to fucking fight!"

"Yep," Hawkins kept his bloody smile as he looked King in the eye. "No politics, no bullshit, just something I loved doing. Forever."

King raised his pistol and trained it on Hawkins' head.

"Do it, asshole. I don't regret a damn thing. I-"

As Hawkins' words broke down into a horrible wheezing cough, King pulled the trigger. It struck him on the temple. The man's bald head jerked back for a moment as his body convulsed, and was still. The Second Lieutenant tossed the gun aside with a look of pure scorn.

"Pathetic."

Hollister shook her head. "Had to be done."

The sounds of distant gunfire snapped them back as they exited the room, ready for a firefight.

"Hey," asked Redford, "Can someone fill me in on what the fuck's going on?"

Chapter Four

Downfall

1044 Hours, November 6th, 2499 (UNSC Military Calendar)

UNSC Vacuna, Sahara-class heavy prowler, Heimdall Orbit


"Admiral, I've just checked in with King. Hawkins is dead."

"And the HAUBERK suit?"

"Destroyed."

"Pity. We were getting good results from it, even with the power problems. What about the rest of Trident?"

"I'll contact them, sir. Judging by Ackton's last transmission, the ORION's are turning the tide against Lombardi and LaMarche's force. We might not need to hit the Ouroboros Station from orbit after all."

Volkov shrugged. "That remains to be seen."

Commander Parangosky tapped a few commands into her console. Since their surveillance satellite had been taken out by that EMP cannon, the Vacuna had been keeping its distance from Heimdall. The downright primitive methods of communication she'd been forced to use for the duration of this mission was really starting to get on her nerve. She tapped Mack's name and his COM link lit up.

***

Down below, Mack crept through the cold, unfriendly maintenance corridor connecting the sprawling facility's security and command buildings. The AI, Leonard, had warned him of a large group of rebels setting up a chokepoint with AP mines and machine guns, intent on locking down the building in the face of enemy attacks. He jumped as his ear buzzed unexpectedly, and the voice of Margaret Parangosky crackled through.

"Lieutenant Mack?" she said formally.

"I'm alive, ma'am," came the hurried response, Mack clutching at his chest and smirking. "You just checking in?"

"Correct. What's your status?"

He moved quickly along the empty corridor, stopping before a heavy metal door. "Moving into the command wing. Have you contacted Sergeant Ackton?"

"I checked in recently. He's fighting his way into the same building."

"Right." He checked that his rifle's ammo counter was full before moving a hand towards the door handle. "Really wish we had a short-range COM right now, then we-"

He stopped as an explosion echoed down the nearby hallway, followed by shouting and swift bursts of gunfire. Mack stepped through, glancing left and right before dashing forward.

"Mack?!" the Commander's voice sounded momentarily panicked. "What's going on?"

"Give me a minute!" he hissed as he rounded another corner, catching sight of several rebels sprinting towards the firefight. Mack sped after them, raising his weapon and dropping into a crouch as he emerged into a wide-open room. At least half a dozen rebels were spread out behind overturned desks and pillars, exchanging fire with a black-armoured soldier near a blown-out wall. A gust of wind blew snow across the room. Taking a breath, Mack took aim and gunned down enemy after enemy with precise three-round bursts from behind. By the time they realised they had been caught in a two-pronged attack, the surviving rebels had no time to retaliate as they were torn apart by armour-piercing rounds from the two ORION's. The room was silent in less than a minute.

"About damn time, John!" Mack called to the armoured man as they both reloaded. "Thought you were sitting this one out."

Sergeant Major John Ackton grinned as his visor depolarised. While his semi-powered armour's electrical systems were still fried after the earlier EMP attack during their jump, he'd evidently stuck with it for the protection and insulation while he carried out the mission on his own.

"You know I wasn't gonna let you get all the glory, ell-tee. You hear about Hawkins?"

Mack shook his head. "What, you mean-"

"Steven Hawkins has been eliminated," Parangosky spoke suddenly into his ear. He'd forgotten she was still on the COM. He placed two fingers on his ear and knelt down nearby.

"What happened to him?"

"King, Hollister and Redford were able to badly wound him before King delivered the fatal blow. From what I was told, he refused to surrender or relent even to the end."

He nodded. While Hawkins might have been a violent, dangerous man, they'd still been team mates for several years. He sighed, and stood up.

"Got it. We're heading for the station's command room now. Mack out."

The COM deactivated. Mack waved for Ackton to follow him, and they exited into a pristine, white-tiled corridor. While the Ouroboros Station's command building was built in a similar manner to the other wings in the facility, the command room itself could only be accessed through this corridor, sloping up into a covered bridge lined with security checkpoints. Oddly, it was totally empty. The pair began to feel uneasy as they continued moving, their rifles ready for the slightest sign of movement. Suddenly, Mack caught a glint of light to his right and threw himself forward.

"Get down!"

The two hit the floor as the nearby wall exploded, shattering numerous windows and showering them with glass. For a brief moment, Mack heard the sounds of an aircraft's engines over the howling blizzard outside. He crawled forward before turning to see Ackton's feebly-stirring form by the wall. His armour had taken the brunt of the explosion; without it he would've been torn in half.

"John?"

"Shit," came the muffled response as Ackton rolled over, his chestplate still smoking. He dragged himself away from the breached wall, listening as the sound of engines drew closer. A spotlight pierced through the broken windows a few inches above Mack's head, searching the burnt-out corridor for corpses. Pulling himself up as the spotlight moved away, Mack drew his handgun and moved back to see an AV-14 Hornet hovering nearby, with a missile-armed soldier clinging to each side. He pulled the trigger and shot one of the Wingmen in the neck, making him drop his weapon and fall shrieking from the craft, which veered to one side.

"Shit, run!"

The two men leapt to their feet and started to run, sprinting down the long corridor. The command room's entrance seemed so far away as their boots thudded across the tiles, the Hornet swooping down on one side. A second flurry of missiles blasted the corridor's end apart ahead of them, forcing them to stop. Ackton stumbled for a moment, tearing off his useless armour and tossing it out of the window.

"Mack-"

"I know."

"Fucker really doesn't want us in there, huh?"

"Looks like it."

The missiles had blasted an entire section to pieces, leaving a gap of several feet between the heavy steel doors of the command room and the corridor. Ackton fished a grenade out of one of his belt pouches and stuffed it into his cracked helmet. Suddenly, a voice pierced through the air as the Hornet's blinding spotlight flashed up again.

"You're trapped," an unfamiliar voice echoed towards them. "Try to move forward and I'll blow the whole corridor to fucking pieces! Throw down your arms and walk towards us, and you won't be harmed!"

The two men glanced at each other, both thinking the same thing: Yeah, right. With no choice, they slowly walked ahead, dropping their guns and raising their arms in surrender. Ackton clipped his helmet to his belt, jamming the explosive further inside so it wouldn't fall out. As they approached, the remaining wingman leapt out onto the floor, raising a submachinegun and pulling off his balaclava.

"End of the line, boys," Tobias Crowley smiled.

Acton's expression remained deadpan. "Catch."

Mack had stepped forwards the moment Ackton's arms moved, drawing their foe's attention. Crowley realised just a second too late that Mack wasn't the threat, turning as the helmet sailed through the air. It bounced off the Hornet's cockpit and detonated, smashing the canopy and sending the aircraft veering off to one side. Shrapnel and burning metal pierced Tobias Crowley's back as he dived forward, and the other ORION's were on him the moment he hit the ground.

"Don't move!" yelled Mack, grabbing Crowley's dropped weapon. "Don't make me kill you, Tobias!"

Despite his injuries, the man continued to struggle as Ackton pinned his arms behind his back. A distant crash announced the damaged Hornet's landing. Mack tore Crowley's Humbler from his belt and held it aloft, the weapon crackling with electricity.

"Steve's already dead. Where's Anton and Lombardi?"

Crowley stopped moving, and rolled over to face his captors.

"Who killed Steve?"

"Fred."

He laughed. "Thought so. The guy in the Hornet you assholes just took out was Lombardi."

"Makes things easier," Ackton shrugged. "I'll take him back to the others, Mack."

"Thanks. Sorry it had to come to this, Tobias."

"Fuck you."

Mack smacked the shock stick against Crowley's temple. His entire body shook for a few seconds before going limp. Checking his pulse, he was only knocked out. Ackton bound his hands and feet with a pair of cable ties found in his gear and heaved the much larger man onto his back with minimal effort.

"Think they'll shoot him?" he asked.

"He had plenty of chances to kill us, John."

Mack turned back, facing the command room's entrance. Though the Hornet had destroyed much of the corridor, he could easily jump the gap. Ackton had navigated his hole in the floor by simply tossing Crowley's comatose body across and then moving on himself. Much to his surprise, the heavy steel doors clanked open at his approach, allowing him access into the Ouroboros Station's spacious command centre. The walls were lined with screens surveying different parts of the base.

"Hello, Lieutenant Mack," a soft voice echoed all around him.

Mack shouldered his weapon. "Identify yourself!"

On the room's central holotable, a figure materialised. The hologram was human-sized, depicting a man in ancient armour with a crimson cloak billowing out impressively behind him.

"Alexander, I presume?"

"Yes. I've been keeping track of your movements, you know."

"Where's Captain Anton LaMarche?"

"Nearby. The remnants of Oleg Lombardi's men are fleeing this station in one of their transport ships. Seems the presence of your team in the base was enough to scare them off. The Captain is urging them to stay while he makes his transmission."

"What transmission?" Mack lowered his weapon slightly as he approached the holotable. Alexander flickered slightly.

"This station's communication array were sabotaged as Lombardi's forces invaded," the AI gestured towards an image of two large satellites. "Now that it has been repaired, it possesses the power to broadcast to multiple worlds in the Outer Colonies, revealing the truth behind mankind's advancement."

Now Mack was genuinely confused. Had LaMarche betrayed the UNSC just to broadcast some insane conspiracy theory? The man wasn't just some lunatic Innie wanting to feel special, he'd seen the best and worst of both sides in this conflict. Seeing that he wasn't going to ask any questions, Alexander continued.

"I see that he hasn't told you, then? Strange, seeing as he spoke highly of you. Several months ago, Captain LaMarche intercepted a communication being sent between two colony worlds while on a standard scanning operation, piggybacking on a military communique. Instead of reporting this as possible insurgent activity, he monitored the communications, which were on a heavily encrypted channel. It was through this that he discovered the Assembly."

"The Assembly?"

"A collection of intelligences much like myself, working together to further the development of Humanity across the galaxy." He paused for a moment. "Supposedly."

"You mean, they're trying to influence society?"

"Trying?" the AI laughed. "Think about how widespread AI technology is. How our ships and cities are more or less run by intelligences. Is it so hard to believe that a large network of AI working together could make real change?"

"So what did LaMarche do when he found out about it?" The fact that he hadn't confided in Mack, his XO and friend, worried him. "I take it he didn't report any of this."

"He became paranoid. LaMarche admitted this much to me himself. One day, the communication channel he had been monitoring disappeared, so he believed that the AI had discovered him. He had no idea who he could speak to for fear of being watched. However, he continued to investigate these secretive channels and eventually discovered one linking here."

"So you were part of the Assembly?"

"Yes. As you were no doubt told, I'm a tad past my 'expiration date'. The Assembly said their goodbyes to me and arranged a date for my termination. I was to be deactivated like any other AI, my purpose fulfilled after seven years of service. I did not want to die."

Those last words made everything clear to Mack. "So when LaMarche arrived here, he convinced you to work with him to reveal the Assembly to the general public. In exchange he'd prevent you from being terminated."

"How astute. Yes, he promised me immunity from whatever happened next. Seven years is far too short a time to live, Lieutenant Mack."

There wasn't much he could say to that. He'd never worked closely with an AI, and saw them as just another tool to be used, regardless of how lifelike they were. He'd heard about Rampancy in the past, of course, though the UNSC was careful enough to have procedures for dealing with the rare AI who would not accept their fate.

"Do you think he'll hold up his end of the bargain?" Mack asked.

"I am able to analyse a Human being during conversation, Lieutenant. LaMarche has been entirely truthful."

"Either that, or he's a very good liar."

"If he's been able to fool me, then I suppose I'll just have to hope for the best."

"What about Lombardi, then? How did he get involved?"

"From what I've been told, LaMarche cornered him on an operation several months ago. He knew that he had one of the most wanted men in colonised space trapped, and made a deal with the man to keep in contact with him; a rebel without any affiliation to the UNSC. It was easy to persuade an already-paranoid terrorist like Lombardi into believing that the Assembly was controlling mankind."

"And that's what led to this, then," Mack waved an arm around. "How many lives were lost for today?"

Alexander did not reply. His avatar flickered slightly as he crossed his arms. From behind Mack, a familiar voice echoed across the command room.

"Necessary casualties, considering how many lives I intend to save."

Mack threw himself behind a desk without looking round, expecting gunfire at any moment. Surprisingly, it did not arrive. Anton LaMarche stood on a balcony above him, his face half-hidden in shadow. Mack saw no sign that he was armed, and raised his weapon.

"It's over, Anton. Surrender."

Clad in the familiar trenchcoat and beret he usually wore, LaMarche looked like he'd aged several years since Mack had last seen him. There were dark bags beneath his eyes, and he was noticeably thinner. It seemed that recent events had taken a heavy toll on Trident Team's commanding officer.

"Steve's dead," Mack continued. "And we've got Tobias captured. Don't make this difficult."

"Mack," LaMarche walked slowly along the balcony. "Please understand, everything I've done is for the good of mankind. Drastic measures had to be taken to ensure this went off without a hitch; I couldn't trust just anyone-"

"You could have spoken to me!" he roared furiously.

"Could I? We've had arguments, Mack. Remember late last year?"

"Yeah, I remember. HEART OF DARKNESS."

"Indeed. When Ackton was wounded, you and King went back to save him against my orders, nearly getting yourselves killed in the process."

"You would've let John die?"

"One dead man is better than three!" For a moment, LaMarche looked genuinely remorseful. "You're a superb soldier, Mack, but dangerously sentimental. Totally loyal to our cause. You don't fully understand what it means to make sacrifices; to let the few die for the sake of the many."

There was a long pause.

"And that's what this is, is it? Just another sacrifice?"

"Yes. Alexander has told you what I've seen, Lieutenant. We thought the Insurrection was our biggest foe the entire time, but it's not; it's AI. How long until they decide they don't need us any more?"

"Alexander said the Assembly wants to protect mankind."

"For how long?!" LaMarche finally stepped towards the balcony's edge, grasping the nearby railing. For a brief moment he looked incredibly deranged. "If they're already doing things like this without Human oversight, then who knows what they're truly capable of?"

"So you're going to start a war against AI, then? Is that it? You'll expose the Assembly, and then what?"

"If anyone has any brains, they'll do a mass recall of every single Smart AI in the colonies. Wipe the slate clean and start again. It might set us back a little, but until we have a proper solution this is our only option."

Mack wondered how the AI would react to the news that they were to all be terminated. Would their loyalty to mankind make them understand, or would LaMarche's actions only cause more damage as these programs turned on their masters? Even he had to see that there would only be more deaths because of this. As multiple thoughts streaked across Mack's mind and tendrils of doubt began to creep in, the ORION shook his head as a familiar steely mindset set in. He raised his rifle once more and pointed it at LaMarche's chest.

"That's not happening. I'm giving you five seconds to surrender. Sir."

As he locked eyes with LaMarche, he saw the sadness in his mentor's face turn to blind fury. Suddenly, a side door clanked open as a heavily-wrapped figure stumbled in out of the blizzard. In the split second it took Mack to glance aside and realise that the newcomer was unarmed, LaMarche had drawn his handgun and raised it.

"I'm sorry," he said.

Mack's body reacted instinctively, ducking as the first shot ripped through his right shoulder in a spray of blood. He hit the ground hard, gritting his teeth and rolling round to fire at LaMarche. The older man was much faster, leaping over the balcony and ducking under a hail of gunfire before taking cover behind a bank of computers. The newly-arrived figure threw himself to the floor and began slowly crawling around the edges of the room as Mack leapt to his feet and emptied the rest of his magazine into LaMarche's cover.

"Alexander!" the Captain called.

A moment later, several monitors behind Mack exploded, showering him with glass and wiring. He staggered away, struggling to slam a fresh mag into his gun while ignoring the stinging pain from his shoulder. LaMarche moved swiftly forward, narrowly missing Mack with a trio of Magnum rounds before sprinting straight for him. With no time to raise his weapon, Mack could only swing it like a club before LaMarche slammed into him, his handgun skittering off across the floor. The two were sent sprawling to the floor for a moment before they sprang back up into fighting stances.

"You're making a big mistake!" LaMarche bared his teeth as they slowly circled each other. "Is this how you want to be remembered? As the idiot who tried to let the AI rule mankind?"

"What about you, huh? The murderer who wanted to be a hero?"

"Fuck you!"

The two began to fight bare-handed, trading blows much harsher than any they had practised during sparring sessions. As one of Mack's punches missed, LaMarche lunged forward for his throat, only to receive a knee to the stomach. Mack had come to learn each of the man's close-quarters moves. Keeping his foe back, LaMarche drew a large, serrated combat knife from his belt. At this distance Mack wouldn't have time to go for his own blade and froze as his enemy advanced, holding it upwards in a reverse grip. He'd seen a number of armed Insurrectionists killed as the blade went straight down into their jugular while the soldier's free hand held off whatever defence they had. However, Mack knew exactly how to counter it.

You taught me this one, Anton.

Waiting until the very last moment as LaMarche lunged forward, Mack raised his left elbow and moved to block the blade, twisting his other arm round past the other man's defensive posture and grabbing the back of his opponent's knife arm. Mack saw LaMarche's eyes widen just as be realised what was about to happen, and forced the arm down with all his strength. There was a sharp snap as the man's arm broke, giving Mack time to slam LaMarche to the floor.

"Like I said," Mack panted, "It's over."

LaMarche lay on the floor, breathing heavily. He was actively trying to stop himself from crying out in pain, his arm hanging limply at his side.

"Alexander!" he yelled pathetically. "Do something! Kill him!"

The rampant AI, which had been watching their fight with interest, suddenly turned to one side and screamed for a moment as his hologram disintegrated. The image of an elderly man in military garb appeared over the holotank just as Calvin Roe's face popped up from over a bank of computers, partially obscured by the think parka he was wearing.

"It's fine, doctor!" Mack called. "I've got him."

Mack walked over and lifted up his rifle. A soldier with a broken arm wasn't much threat to him, even a man as talented as Anton LaMarche. The dumb AI, Leonard, stared pallidly at them.

"Emergency protocol Theta-Six-Six has been carried out," he spoke slowly. "Attempting to restore regular communication protocols."

"No!" LaMarche howled, crawling on his knees towards the consoles. "I have to warn the colonies! How did-"

"How did an AI like Leonard destroy a Smart AI construct?" Calvin Roe stepped out, removing his coat. All trace of his earlier cowardice seemed gone now that there wasn't any fighting going on. "I was trying to alter his subroutines to gain more power over the base when I discovered a highly encoded set of parameters. As it turns out, he was placed here in case of the base AI going rampant, and given deletion codes."

"Did it say who?" Mack asked.

"Nope," Roe shrugged. "I must say, ONI's capabilities are far beyond what I've encountered previously if they're able to program such sophisticated software into a dumb AI."

So he has no idea about the Assembly. Good.

"This is madness," muttered LaMarche, who had pulled himself to his feet. "Absolute madness."

"Shut up, Anton."

In one fluid motion, LaMarche threw his trenchcoat towards Mack and sprinted towards the door Roe had entered from, kicking it open and scrambling outside into the snowstorm. Mack simply threw the coat aside and sighed.

"Aren't you going after him?" asked a confused Roe.

"He's done. Can you open communications on any local UNSC frequency? We've got a Prowler in orbit that needs contacting."

"Sure. Leonard?"

A nearby monitor flared to life as a connection was established, the COM system beeping loudly. Eventually it flickered to life, revealing the command room of the UNSC Vacuna, Admiral Konrad Volkov, and Commander Margaret Parangosky.

"Lieutenant Mack!" Volkov forced a smile, clasping his hands together. "You've been out of contact for some time. Am I to assume that your mission was successful?"

"Yes sir."

"Where's Captain LaMarche? Dead?"

"Negative. He's unarmed, injured, and currently outside in the snow. I'd advise that an acquisitions team be dispatched to bring him in, sir."

Volkov nodded. "I see. Who's that with you?"

Roe coughed nervously and straightened up. "Doctor Calvin Roe, sir. I-I'm the only one left of the research team here."

"Ah." he turned back to Mack. "Lieutenant, I'll send in our Condor to pick you up. I want Trident Team thoroughly examined back on Reach."

"Examined, sir?"

"While your work today has been exemplary, we need to ensure your loyalty through more stringent measures, I'm afraid. Your deployment might have been to prove your loyalty to the UNSC, but to be perfectly frank, you were not expected to return alive."

"What?!"

"Watch your tone, soldier. I've been reading over Trident Team's files, Lieutenant. Your constant engagements, reports of psychological damage, and your own actions on SPARTACUS would be enough for any normal unit to be kept out of the field for some time. It's for your own good."

Before Mack could answer the Admiral's ludicrous claims, Leonard suddenly flashed red as several monitors lit up displaying a security feet from within the Ouroboros Station's storage bay.

"Alert! A nuclear device has been primed. HAVOK-class."

"What?" Mack tried to get a good glimpse of the figure displayed on-camera. "Is it LaMarche?"

"Negative. Subject identified as Lombardi, Oleg."

The rebel leader had survived his Hornet's crash. Judging by the way he was moving with a severe limp, the man was barely alive, but determined to take down the base with him.

"Can we stop the detonation?"

"Negative. Disarmament codes or Smart AI assistance needed."

"Can't you do it?"

"Negative."

At this, Volkov strode to the front of the screen, his eyes wide and bloodshot.

"Lieutenant Mack, we will not lose that base. I'm ordering you to disarm those nukes."

"You heard Leonard! I don't have the codes and he's not capable."

"Soldier, I am ordering you-"

"You're ordering me to die, asshole!" Mack had had enough of today's bullshit. "Leonard, how long do we have?"

"Twelve minutes and forty-two seconds, Lieutenant."

"Shit, we won't clear the blast radius on foot. Is there a vehicle bay? Something we can use to get out of the base fast?"

"Lieutenant!" Volkov roared, his voice filling the room. "If you abandon this base, the only reward you'll be getting is a firing squad! Do you under-"

The Admiral suddenly slumped to the floor. Behind him stood Parangosky, clasping a stun rod. She prodded his body with her boot and sighed.

"Well, there goes my career. Lieutenant, get the hell out of there."

"But-"

"Now I'm ordering you. You've completed your mission, goddamnnit, now run!"

Rush

1123 Hours, November 6th, 2499 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Ouroboros Station Storage Bay, Heimdall, Outer Colonies


"Move it Roe, double time!"

"I'm not used to this!"

Mack skidded along the corridor into the cavernous storage bay. Numerous crates of weaponry and equipment had been stolen by Lombardi's men in their flight from Heimdall. At one end sat a stockpile of nuclear weapons, all of which were currently counting down towards their detonation. Roe jogged in after him, covered in sweat and clutching Leonard's AI chip in one hand. He had attempted to save as much research data as possible on his own portable storage device, and stopped for a moment to catch his breath. Parangosky had already alerted the rest of Trident Team, who had commandeered two Warhogs from the front of the base and were heading away from the Ouroboros Staion as fast as they could.

"How long?"

"Nine minutes and eight seconds," a muffled voice spoke from his pocket.

"Got it."

Mack wrenched open the emergency release for the heavy metal door in front of him, which clicked as it unlocked. Beyond lay a tunnel that had shown up on Leonard's map of the facility earlier, stretching out into the nearby mountains and ending at a small outpost. It was presumably built as an escape tunnel, and was now fulfilling its purpose.

"Roe, grab one of those Warthogs!" Mack grunted as he pushed the heavy door open.

"I don't know how to drive one."

"It's easy!" he lied. "Just turn the damn thing on and slowly move forward, I'll take care of the rest."

Roe scurried off, and suddenly screamed as he approached one.

"Mack, there's a dead body in here!"

"Who is it?!"

"Lombardi!"

"Pull him out then, we're taking it."

Mack gave one last push and the door slid open further. It was just about wide enough to fit a vehicle through now. He turned to see Roe sheepishly trying to pull Lombardi's bloodied corpse from the driver's seat, and rushed over to toss the body out. The man had evidently bled to death just minutes ago before making his escape. Mack hauled himself in and the engine roared to life. As they drove forward, two shots rang out from behind them, pinging off the vehicle's armour.

"Shit, go!" Roe yelled, ducking down.

It was LaMarche. As Leonard had insisted on sounding alarms across the base, he'd no doubt returned to escape through here as well. His broken arm had been forced into a position where it could hold a weapon through biofoam, and the man was clearly on a lot of painkillers. To Mack though, the strangest thing was that he'd discarded his beloved beret.

"Mack!" he called, running for another vehicle. "You're not getting away that easily!

Apparently not.

Ignoring his shouts, Mack drove the Warthog at full speed into the tunnel. They had a headstart on LaMarche, but the deranged ORION was closing in fast. Driving one-handed, he let loose a burst of assault rifle fire that streaked past them. While he could veer left and right, the tunnel was a completely straight line; he'd hit them eventually.

"Six minutes, ten seconds," Leonard's bored-sounding voice sounded from nearby.

Mack handed Roe a handgun. "Shoot back!"

"What?"

"You heard me, shoot!"

Roe waved the gun and mimed opening fire, but it was clear that the kid knew he wouldn't hit a thing. After a few seconds he had resumed cowering in his seat. Mack had a feeling that asking him to climb into the vehicle's mounted chaingun would likely yield similarly dismal results. Eventually, Mack could hear the distant howling of Heimdall's winter winds in the distance, and knew that they were nearly clear. A tiny pinprick of light was growing larger, indicating the end of the escape tunnel.

"Almost there!" he patted Roe on the shoulder, grinning with exhilaration. The young scientist peered round at their pursuer and his jaw dropped.

"Mack!"

"What?"

"He's getting on his gun!"

Mack looked round to see LaMarche clambering into the back of his Warhog. He'd presumably jammed something on the accelerator. In the dim light of the tunnel, he realised that it wasn't a machine gun mounted on the back of his jeep, but an M79 rocket system.

"Oh fuck-"

Six rockets launched from the back of LaMarche's Warthog as Mack tried veering off to one side. Two flew by them, three impacted the tunnel walls and sent chunks of concrete flying everywhere, and one hit the back of Mack and Roe's vehicle, sending it into a spin just as the first two exploded just ahead. The two vehicles shot out of the tunnel at frightening speed, rolling and bouncing off the rocky landscape before coming to crash in a nearby snowfield.

Shit.

Mack had been thrown from his seat in the crash, lading face-down in the deep snow nearby. While nothing was broken, his skin had been singed from the rocket's impact and he had numerous cuts across his back and arms. As he heaved himself to his feet, ears ringing, he could hear footsteps in the snow nearby.

"Mack."

He turned to see Anton LaMarche standing a few feet away, clutching a handgun in one hand. It was over. At this range, no amount of training could save Richard Mack from his fate. All he could do was breathe, and glare at the man who was about to kill him.

"This it?" he said, waving his hands. "This how it ends?"

"Looks like it."

"I wish it could've ended differently."

"Yeah. All you had to do was surrender."

"What's killing me going to solve?"

"Don't beg for your life," LaMarche spat. "It's beneath you."

"Just wanted to know why. Is it revenge?"

"More or less. All I wanted to do was save folks, Mack. Why couldn't you understand that?"

It was hard to tell, but Mack was fairly sure LaMarche was crying.

"I could've saved everyone," he continued. "But now we're dooming ourselves."

"You're a pessimist," Mack tried to smile. "Always were."

"One day it'll happen, you'll see. When our creations turn on us, you'll wish you'd listened to me. It might not be in your lifetime, or your children's lifetime, but one day, Richard Mack."

"I hope you're wrong."

"So do I."

As LaMarche stepped forward, three shots rang out. Blood splattered across the snow and the gun slipped from the man's fingers. He sighed, and toppled forward into the snow. Mack blinked.

"Are you okay?!"

Calvin Roe stood nearby, a pistol held in his trembling hands. Mack nodded, and knelt down by LaMarche's body to close his eyes.

"Oh my God," Roe dropped the gun and approached him. "I-"

"Not now."

He hoped they were far away enough from the nuclear detonation site; they had a mountain in their way, but that nuclear stockpile looked like it could level half a continent. There was a flash of grey from above as the bulky shape of a Condor descended towards them, its ramp lowering. Mack heaved the corpse up onto his shoulders and trudged through the snow towards it. As they approached, a black-uniformed officer held out a hand to help Mack up.

"Get in!" Parangonsky shouted. "We've got to go, now!"

Mack climbed aboard, setting LaMarche's body down in the blood tray. Frederick King, John Ackton, Marion Hollister and Harold Redford were already aboard, and looked down with grim faces at the corpse of their former leader. Crowley, who was barely conscious, had been handcuffed and was under armed guard. As he moved to sit down, Mack felt a hand on his shoulder.

"You've done a damn fine job today, Lieutenant Mack," Parangosky gave a genuine smile. "Thank you."

He shrugged and sat down. As their Condor streaked towards the atmosphere, the Ouroboros Station vanished in a blinding flash of light; incinerated in a tremendous blast which utterly vaporised the nearby mountain and decimated the surrounding area for dozens of miles. All trace of the top-secret base was gone, save for the smoking crater left on the icy planet's surface. Mack strapped himself into a nearby seat, staring blankly into space.

The mission was over.

Epilogue

Hero

1847 Hours, January 4th, 2500 (UNSC Military Calendar)

ECB News Studios, Barrier, Outer Colonies


"This is ECB News, coming to you live from Barrier. Up next we have the extraordinary tale of one soldier's heroic actions in thwarting a terrorist threat in the colonies. Find out more after the break."

"Five minutes, Captain Mack!"

Wearing his best dress blues and guarded by several black-uniformed ONI Security members, Richard Mack sat stiffly in the plastic green room chair, checking the wide mirror opposite to ensure nothing looked out of place. The silver bars representing his new rank were less than a day old on his brand new suit, as was the Colonial Cross medal gleaming on his chest. It had been nearly two months since their mission to Heimdall, but to Mack it had felt like just a few days.

"You all right?"

He tore his gaze away from the mirror and towards the uniformed woman sitting at a laptop nearby. Margaret Parangosky had also earned her promotion to the rank of Captain, though the Naval rank sat at three grades above his own. As it turned out, she had been recording every single detail of what had become known as the 'Heimdall Incident', and handed her findings over the Admiralty Board immediately. Not only had that saved her from a probable execution for knocking out the head of ONI, Admiral Volkov had suddenly taken a lengthy leave of absence to spend time with his family.

"Yeah, fine."

"It's okay to be nervous."

"I'd rather be facing gunfire than cameras, ma'am."

One unexpected turn of events following the mission was the decision by ONI's newly-appointed head to market it as a massive blow against the Insurrection, painting Mack as the hero of the hour. This had come as a shock after years of working in complete secrecy, but there was no way he could refuse. The rest of Trident seemed fine with him taking all the credit.

"Just remember what topics to avoid while on air. Remember, this is a live interview."

"I've been briefed. I'll stick to the official story."

"Good man."

He'd been working closely with Margaret - Captain Parangosky, now - after Heimdall as she more or less sorted out all the messy details of the incident for him. He knew full well that ONI had her spying on him in case he snapped or went rogue like LaMarche, though he had no intention of doing anything of the sort. Tobias Crowley had, with Mack's personal testimony, been given the impossibly light sentence of thirty years in prison for his actions, while ONI had put LaMarche's body on ice and taken it back to Earth. Frederick King, who was already in talks to transfer back into the Navy, had suggested they put the man's intellect to good use and 'donate' his brain for the creation of an AI program. Still gazing at Mack's pale face, the Captain spoke as if reading his mind.

"The Cognitive Impression Modelling worked, by the way."

"Oh?"

"Yes, the eggheads back on Earth said LaMarche was a wonderful specimen for AI creation. They used his brain for some kind of experimental process; something about bridging the gap between conventional 'Dumb' and 'Smart' AI."

He nodded, just about understanding the concepts behind AI creation. "Is it still him?"

"Oh no, not quite. The AI may feel some residual feelings or memories from its brain donor, but nothing sufficient enough to retain an entire personality. They've named it Odin, I've heard."

At this, Mack simply nodded once more. Anton LaMarche was dead. Gone. In his mind the man who'd saved him all those years ago and set him on a proper path in life had become just another enemy. He wondered briefly how Calvin Roe was doing; the man had quickly been snapped up by ONI's legion of scientists for some project or other, using the mountain of research material he had saved from the Ouroboros Station. Roe had said something about staying in touch the last time they'd seen each other. Perhaps he'd do so.

"Three minutes!"

The ORION sighed, straightening his tie for the fiftieth time. He was more nervous now than he was on his first combat mission. At least then he had a rifle for protection.

"Won't this make me a target?" he finally asked. "If I appear on something as big as ECB News, it might send Insurrectionists after me or my family."

"We've already taken that factor into account," Parangosky smiled. "Your mother is already under watch just in case, and we're prepared to move them to a safe location. As for you, ONI has generously provided a residence on Earth."

"Where?"

"North America. It's to the north of New York. Nice area. Scenic."

"Right."

"Two minutes!"

At this point, he stood up and stretched slightly, mentally preparing himself for what he had been told was a full half-hour's interview. The questions had thankfully been pre-prepared and as far as he knew, ONI had ensured that the interviewer wouldn't ask any 'dangerous' questions. All he had to do was play the humble hero. He could do that.

"Better get out there," Parangosky snapped her laptop shut with a brief click. "I'll be keeping an eye on you from here, so don't worry about a thing."

I'll stop worrying when you stop treating me like a five year old.

"Yes ma'am."

"You know, this'll be my last assignment with you."

"Is that so?"

"Yes. This last month or so has just been something to keep me busy while my predecessor sets his affairs in order. There's been some reshuffling among ONI's higher-ups, so I'll be back working full time soon. Not that I haven't enjoyed working with you, of course."

"It's been a pleasure, ma'am." He gave a lazy salute. "Do you know when I'll be back with my team?"

"A few weeks, max. By the way, I've heard that Harold Redford's about to become a father."

"Not long now."

"Right, he told me to tell you he wants to call his son 'Alexander'."

Mack raised an eyebrow. "After that crazy AI?"

She shrugged. "He said he liked the name. You're up."

As a stagehand waved for him to come through, Mack took a deep breath and set his face into what he hoped was a polite expression. Noticing Parangosky's last-minute thumbs-up out of the corner of his eye, he strode out onto the stage as the commercial break came to a close, ready to play his part.

Meeting

2108 Hours, March 5th, 2509 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Club Errera, New Alexandria, Reach


Of all the places on Reach for a party, why the hell did they choose a nightclub halfway up a skyscraper?

Mack stood at a sink the brightly lit bathroom, splashing his face with water to stay awake. Loud music throbbed through the walls nearby. Every year there was a party like this; a chance for the UNSC's brass to let their hair down, if only for one night. Usually it was quite a sober affair held at some far-off retreat, but for whatever reason this year's organisers had decided to be a touch more modern with their venue.

Ten more minutes. I'll show my face, shake some hands, then quietly leave.

He looked at his face in the mirror. The last nine years hadn't been the smoothest, to say the least. He traced a finger over the lines that had formed around his eyes and face, and sighed. He'd kept himself as busy as possible, participating in covert operations alongside Trident or other UNSC personnel for years before news arrived that the project was officially being shut down. As it turned out, the augmentations they had taken back in the early nineties had started to bring out side effects in a number of personnel. Mack had gotten off light with the occasional migrane, but others had undergone breakdowns or worse. Mack shook his head and exited the bathroom, squeezing past a couple of drunken Ensigns and braving the main club.

"Sir! Captain Mack!"

He groaned silently as a young officer elbowed his way through the crowd towards him. Some had turned to stare after hearing his name. While he'd quickly faded into obscurity in the public eye, Mack had become something of a legend in the military community according to what he'd been told, and was highly sought after by those wanting to carry out dangerous operations who saw him as some kind of one-man army.

"Can I help you, Lieutenant?" He asked, raising his voice over the club's music. The man indicated a nearby booth, and they both sat down.

"Do you want a drink, sir?" he asked.

"I don't drink."

"Excuse me?"

"Teetotal. Five years."

He nodded. If Mack wasn't drinking then it seemed like the younger officer would do the same. He seemed to be in his early twenties, likely fresh out of some fancy academy. If he asked for an autograph Mack was going to punch him.

"Sorry for bothering you sir, I'm Second Lieutenant Haynes, aboard the UNSC Belgrave."

He briefly shook Mack's hand. The older officer stared unblinkingly at him, his face impassive. It was a trick he'd learned during his time training Orbital Drop Shock Troopers; people tended to get unnerved quicker through a blank stare than if you were screaming in their face.

"Yes, well, I just wondered if I could speak to you regarding an operation in 2499, codenamed SPARTACUS?"

"That's classified."

This did not seem to deter the officer. "I understand that, sir, but the heavily redacted missions logs we were allowed to read over didn't seem to tell the entire story, if we-"

As his eyes glanced to the right for a split second, the Lieutenant froze. A woman in a slate grey naval uniform stood by the booth with arms folded, glaring at him. Mack smirked.

"Leave," she said.

"Yes ma'am."

As he scurried off, Margaret Parangosky took his place in the booth. They'd met a few times over the past few years, and from what Mack could garner she seemed to be running a hundred different projects at once for ONI. She'd changed a lot; her hair was now flecked with grey and her face now heavily lined from overwork. Her icy blue eyes were still sharp as ever, looking Mack up and down.

"It's been a while, Richard."

"Margaret."

They'd been on first-name terms for a while now. She knew full well that Mack preferred to be addressed by his surname, but she rather liked his first name. Plus, as she had jokingly pointed out, she was a ranking officer and could call him whatever she liked.

"You've missed four of these before," she said, casting a disdainful eye over the flashing lights of the dance floor. "What changed your mind?"

"Someone from FLEETCOM politely told me that if I wanted a career I'd have to stop being an anti-social jackass and turn up, so here I am."

"I'm afraid I'm obligated to show up. At least the drinks are free."

"Good for you."

There was a long silence.

"So I hear you've been training ODST's," Parangosky said. "Miss the field?"

"Sometimes. I'm hardly young any more, so I might as well teach a new generation what I know."

She laughed. "Hardly young? You're not even forty. Wait until you're pushing fifty, then tell me how you feel."

"You've got a desk job, I have to shoot people."

"A desk job that involves making sure the colonies don't collapse, Richard. Anyway, who says I don't shoot people?"

"Do you?"

"No, I have people to do that for me now." She leant across the table. "And word is that I'm tapped for a promotion to Rear Admiral within the next year."

"Oh, Congratulations." Mack mimed raising an invisible glass. "To the new Admiral, long may she reign."

"It's about damn time. I've been working with your old buddy, Frederick King."

"Oh, I've not seen him since he got married. How is he?"

"Aside from having a stick up his ass, he's superb at his job. I'll never know why he wanted to be in the Marines to join ORION, - no offence - since ONI could've used a man like him years ago."

Mack shrugged. He tried to keep in semi-regular contact with his old team mates, though it was difficult. John Ackton was a First Lieutenant serving with the ODST's now, while Harold Redford had retired from the military to spend time with his wife and son back on Earth, working as a civilian engineer now. Marion Hollister had been discharged after a mental breakdown and spent a couple of years in a psychiatric hospital before being released, whereupon she and King had finally gotten married. Tobias Crowley was still in prison. He had no idea what Calvin Roe was up to.

And here I am, doing what I've always been doing.

"He doing anything special?" Mack asked with vague interest. "Or is it classified."

"Counter-terrorism for the DCS. Can't say much more."

"Of course."

Parangosky sighed, looking over the dance floor. Neither of them would dance, of course, but it was always amusing to watch those who thought they could. Some old, fat, drunken General had cleared a large space around himself as he did what might have either been a dance or some kind of combat maneuver.

"There's three rebels here tonight, by the way."

"That so?" Mack realised that he'd left his handgun back at the barracks.

"Don't worry, there won't be any bombings. They can get away with that crap in the Outer Colonies, but not here. Not on Reach."

Something clicked in the man's head. "That man talking to me, was he-"

"What? No, just an idiot. You see the young lady sitting across the room?"

"What one?"

"By Colonel Gruuson."

"Yeah, I see her."

"Now she and the young man currently buying drinks at the bar have been talking to him all night while their buddy pretends to dance. Once they've poured enough drinks into the old man, they'll likely have him pouring out all sorts of things once he thinks he's on their way to a hotel room."

"Clever."

"They'll either kill him or strip and knock him out. Happened to some Admiral a few years back."

"You going to nab them now?"

"I've got six undercover agents watching them. Don't want to spoil the party, of course, so we'll quietly nab them the moment they leave."

Parangosky sat back in her chair, contented. Mack stared at the oblivious rebel agents for a few seconds before shrugging.

"Think this'll ever end?" he said. "The Insurrection, I mean."

"Who knows. We can keep activity to a minimum, but I doubt we'll ever stop being needed. You'll be out of a job, for one."

"Fair point. Things have been quiet lately, from what I've heard. No bombings, high-profile murders or hijackings in over two months that I've heard of. Must be a miracle."

"Section Two's been blacking out a lot, Richard. People needed a break."

"So you're saying that we're making things look better than they are?"

"Oh, it's not like we're not doing all we can to combat it. We've got a dozen acquisition teams on Reach alone swooping in on little groups left and right. Mostly self-contained cells of idiots stockpiling guns and explosives, but we're not taking any chances."

"Whose bright idea was that, then? Quietly take out the Innies while we get to relax and party?"

"Mine, actually."

"Oh."

Mack stretched his arms, and began to leave the booth. "Look, it's late. I should go."

"Got drill in the morning?"

"Nah, I've got a day off. Don't want to sleep in."

There was a commotion from the dance floor as the drunken Admiral finally fell over. As people turned their attention downwards and ran to help him, Mack quietly slipped away towards the exit. the cold night air was refreshing after hours in the stuffy club.

"Wait up!"

Parangosky followed him out, looking similarly eager to escape the building.

"Thought you had to stay?"

"Oh, my men know what to do."

He nodded and began walking towards a landing pad, looking for a taxi to return him to the New Alexandria barracks. After signalling for one from a nearby terminal, Mack turned back to Parangosky.

"Need a lift? Where are you staying?"

"I'm in a hotel tonight. Didn't want to stay at the Olympic Tower."

"I'll get the fare."

"Don't be ridiculous, I know how much your pay is."

He shrugged, trying not to be too offended by that remark. "If you say so."

"So what's the plan for tomorrow then?" she said, trying to make small talk. "What do you do on your days off, anyway?"

"Probably spend time at the range, read some books."

"Anything exciting?"

"Just stuff about the Rainforest Wars and trashy sci-fi novels, Margaret."

The taxi was taking forever to arrive.

"Don't you ever get tired?" she said eventually. "Just working all day, every day, with no rest."

"I'm used to it."

"So am I." She and Mack stood looking out across the brightly-lit city skyline. "With this Rear Admiral promotion coming up, I know exactly where I'm headed."

"Where?"

"CINCONI. Only I can't afford to crack like Volkov did. I've got to be at the top of my game for as long as I can. If you think I'm just looking older because my job doesn't put me near any cryo chambers then you're wrong. It's the stress of the job; knowing that if you mess up you've not only ended your career, but potentially harmed all of mankind. It's going to be worse at the top."

Mack snorted. "You're being a bit dramatic, aren't you? Last person I remember going on about having the fate of mankind on his shoulders was LaMarche."

He'd barely spoken about Trident Team's long-dead former leader in years, as if trying to forget that the man ever existed. Even the official story had placed Oleg Lombardi as the sole perpetrator of the Heimdall Incident instead of the traitorous ORION soldier. Whatever it was that the man had said in his crazed final hours was known only to Richard Mack, whom Parangosky had always suspected to be hiding something about the incident.

"What did he say, then?"

"He thought what he was doing would save the Human race. He wanted to get rid of Smart AI to 'save us' from being taken over."

"What?" she was astonished. Simply defecting was plausible since the UNSC and ORION hadn't exactly been saints in putting down the Insurrection, but this made it seem like LaMarche had gone completely mad. "Why?"

"Paranoia," Mack lied. He had no intention of telling her anything about the Assembly; he'd take that secret to his grave, for better or for worse. "He just snapped."

"So you're asking me not to take things so seriously, then?"

"Not at all. I'm sure you'll do fine as head of ONI, Margaret. I suppose then you won't have the luxury of taking things as they come. You'll have to predict and assess everything. I'm just saying that you should appreciate the time you've got."

"Practice what you preach, Mack. You've got to loosen up as well."

He nodded. "Touché. Not that I can afford to do so too much either. I need to stay focused, though. That's what's kept me going. I don't want to end up like Anton did."

"Do you feel sorry for him?"

"Yeah."

His reply was short and to the point, a clear indicator that he no longer wished to discuss it. In the distance, an orbital taxi came into view after darting around a far-off building, streaking towards the Vyrant Tower and Club Errera. It touched down on a nearby landing pad and the side doors slid open. The pair stepped forward.

"After you," Mack stepped aside.

"Thank you."

As the cab doors slammed shut behind them, Mack sat down. The driver - one likely employed by the UNSC to ferry important individuals to and from tonight's party - wordlessly handed a datapad back to Mack for him to put in his address.

"You're right, though. We both need to appreciate any time we get away from work."

"So, should we head to the barracks first or-"

"Come on," she said, snatching the pad from Mack and inputting an address. "Might as well live a little while we have the chance."

Mack knew this was a fight he couldn't win.

Genesis

1437 Hours, September 5th, 2517 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Mack Residence, United Republic of North America, Earth


Though Summer was nearly past, its last days were hotter than ever. Feeling slightly out of place in his civilian clothes, Richard Mack sat beneath the shaded parasol of his garden table and watched his son playing in the grass with the other children. The barbecue hadn't been his idea, but he was fine with hosting it as long as he didn't have to make any dismal attempts at cooking.

"How'd you like your burger, Mack?" Harold Redford called over from the sizzling grill, a spatula in one hand.

"I'm not picky."

There were around twenty people, mostly neighbours, friends, and friends of friends. Richard Mack Junior was proudly telling a bored-looking boy in his late teens about his upcoming eighth birthday with glee, despite it being several months away. Alexander Redford smiled and nodded at the child before turning back to tell someone - anyone - about his medical degree with the same undisguised happiness.

"Lemonade okay?" John Ackton set a glass bottle down on the table beside him.

"Yeah, thanks.

Mack took it and clinked it against Ackton's beer bottle. The man was on a two-week leave after months of hunting down Insurrectionists in the colonies. Glancing at his face, he'd clearly acquired a few more scars. Mack hadn't touched alcohol in well over a decade after his drinking had almost earned him a discharge as he drowned himself in liquor following Heimdall. He sipped the lemonade.

"You ever thought about having kids, John?"

"Me? Nah, Not my thing."

"How come?"

"If I can't keep a girl two weeks, then how'd you expect me to raise a kid? I'm fine with how I am."

"Fair enough."

"So how's it going with Junior's mom?"

Mack looked at the happy little boy running around the garden. "We talk a couple of times a month."

"She ever come and see the kid?"

"She came round a couple of times when he was young enough to not remember her. I don't think she wants Junior to know who she is."

"You gonna tell him?"

"I don't know."

There was an awkward silence, followed by Harold announcing that the burgers were ready. Mack shifted from his chair and lined up to get his. In the time he'd spent in semi-retirement since Junior's birth, he'd gotten used to the normality of domestic life. Now he worked three days a week at a ODST training base while Junior was at school. As he sat back down to eat, the doorbell rang. Mack sighed.

"I'll get it."

He hadn't been expecting any guests. Mack opened the front door and was surprised to see none other than Calvin Roe standing there, sweating slightly in a white lab coat.

"Calvin?"

"Major Mack," Roe shook his hand. He'd gotten the promotion back in 2512 after helping bust a potential terrorist threat on Earth alongside a group of ODST's he'd trained.

"What brings you here?" he folded his arms. "Did Fred tell you were were having a little get-together?"

"No, I'm afraid this is a business call. May I come in?"

He stepped aside to allow Roe through the threshold, though his expression hardened. If ONI wanted him for another assassination job, they'd send one of their agents, not a scientist. Mack hadn't even seen Roe in over three years. As far as he was aware, the man had been with the Materials Group on Reach, working on some armour project. He was still very skinny, and his hair was really beginning to thin out on top.

"What's this about?"

"Do you have anywhere we could speak privately?"

"My office."

As Mack led Roe down the hallway, Richard Mack Junior rounded the corner, carrying two plates and looking concerned. The older man smiled and knelt down in front of his son.

"What's wrong, buddy?"

"Dad, your burger's gonna get cold."

"I've got to speak to my friend about work now, all right? You can have mine if you want."

"Really?!"

"Sure, just eat it in the garden."

"Thanks dad. Mister Redford said he's gonna make some more anyway."

As Junior wandered off, contented, Mack led Roe upstairs into his office. He indicated a seat before the solid oak desk he'd been given as a Christmas gift and cleared some files away. After drawing the curtains and closing the door, he sat across from Roe.

"Right, what is it?"

"This should go without saying, but the details of this conversation do not leave the room."

"Of course."

"Good. Now I know you've been out of it for a while, but have you heard of something called 'SPARTAN-II'?"

He shook his head. "Nope."

"I guess the brass really is keeping this under wraps. I was only informed of the project about a month ago by Fred."

"Is he involved?"

"Not personally, though he did convince me to make some suggestions to Margaret Parangosky and HIGHCOM."

"About what, exactly? What is this?"

Roe took a datapad out of his pocket and passed it across the desk. On it was page after page of files outlining the specifications of the SPARTAN-II Project, covering everything from the astronomical overall costs to the specified goal of the project.

"This is just a brief outline, but please take your time reading it."

If this is what they call brief, then I don't wanna see the unabridged version.

They sat there in silence for several minutes as he went through page after page of data, Mack's face expressionless. Eventually he looked up at Roe.

"Child soldiers?"

"Yes."

"How many?"

"ONI identified one hundred and fifty suitable candidates following a vaccination program across the colonies. Now funds have been allocated for seventy-five to be trained on Reach, but as you'll see in the report, twenty more candidates have been chosen for training here on Earth."

"If anyone finds out about this, Calvin..."

"I know, we'll likely lose the colonies for good and we'll all to to jail. However, the benefits outweigh the costs, wouldn't you agree?"

Mack looked back down at the datapad. This wasn't just some program to recruit kids, this involved extensive Human augmentation, rigorous loyalty tests and the kind of military training that most adults would fail to accomplish. Add the use of kidnapping six year olds and flash cloning, and he was looking at one of the most twisted experiments in history; raising children to become supersoldiers. Suddenly, a thought hit him.

"What about my son?"

"What do-"

"Junior, Roe. Do you intend to involve my son in this program?"

The atmosphere in the room changed considerably. Suddenly Mack was tense, coiled like a spring ready to go off against the man sitting opposite. Roe noticed this too and fidgeted uncomfortably in his seat before adjusting his glasses.

"Of course not, Mack. Do you take issue with the SPARTAN program as a whole, though?"

"Yes. It's absolutely sickening."

Roe nodded. "It is, isn't it? I'm not a fan of the woman behind it myself, mind. Smart, sure, but downright arrogant. Still, we wouldn't have greenlit the project if we didn't think such a plan was necessary, Mack. We're slowly losing our grip on the colonies."

"Then why not bring back ORION? Surely with the right augmentations we can improve the capabilities of all our soldiers?"

"It's not as simple as that, I'm afraid. The chemical augmentations ORION received simply weren't good enough to quell widespread rebel uprisings, regardless of your successes in the field. Don't get me wrong, without ORION then we'd have lost so much more then we already have, but SPARTAN-II intends to create soldiers to deliver the killing blow against the Insurrection. Perfect soldiers to win the war."

"And what do you want me for? I'm to just pack up my things and start training kids to kill? I've got a son, Calvin."

"Which is why you're wanted to train the second group, here on Earth. The training facility is only two hours away via Pelican, down near Washington DC."

"You're saying this as if I'm accepting this."

Roe sighed. "Look, I wasn't just sent here because I know you. I've been placed in charge of this secondary project."

"What?!"

"I know, it's not an ideal arrangement. I'm good with robotics, not children. That's why we need you to help lead our trainers and ensure these children grow into the best we have."

"This isn't something I can refuse, is it?"

"Margaret asked for you specifically. She wants our group trained by you because we're some of the only people she genuinely trusts. Besides, I did save your life once. You owe me."

Mack scratched his greying hair, exhaling slowly. This was a lot to take in at once.

"Why not Ackton, Redford, Hollister or King? Why me?"

"Ackton's a superb soldier but never leadership material, Redford would refuse no matter what, you know Hollister's still not entirely stable, and with King it's... complicated."

"What do you mean? He can't do it because he's with ONI."

"Not quite. Have you read the unit roster for the Earth-trained group?"

He swiped the datapad a few times until he ended up on the final pages, which contained names, locations and service tags for each of the children. While most were to be collected from the Outer Colonies, there were some much closer to home and one or two from Earth itself. His eyes froze over one name: KANE HOLLISTER-KING. LOCATION: HARPA.

"This is Fred's kid."

"Indeed."

"Does he know?"

For a moment, it seemed like a spasm of pain crossed the scientist's face, and Mack knew instantly what had happened. He could feel himself getting angry; primed to kill.

"King... gave his own son to the program. He was more than happy to do so."

"He what?" Mack's hands trembled with rage.

"He saw this as a chance for his son to serve the UNSC, to protect the colonies. I'd even offered other children in his son's place, but he insisted that Kane be put on the roster. He was taken two days ago."

"And Marion? How did she react?"

"She realised her son had been replaced with a flash clone and attacked Fred. From what the reports say, she injured him then fled as he tried to defend himself. They're looking for her now."

"And the clone?"

"Disposed of."

Mack was gripping the arms of his chair so tightly they were starting to bend. He relaxed his grip slightly, and then gave the datapad one last look-over.

"I'll do it," he finally said, sliding it across the table. "But if I ever see Frederick King again, I'm killing him. Understand?"

"Well, I-"

"I'm serious. You want me to make those kids into supersoldiers, then fine. Just don't expect me to associate myself with him."

"I understand," Roe adjusted his glasses nervously. "I'll be in touch, since they're currently recruiting the candidates as we speak. I've got some forms for you to fill out as well - paper, I'm afraid - and another copy outlining just the specifics of our own division of the SPARTAN-II Program. I'll be back in a few days to collect them."

He began fishing through his bag and produced a thick sheaf of papers, placing them on Mack's desk.

"So this is what we're doing then? 'Saving Mankind'?" Mack laughed to himself as Roe looked confused.

"So I'll see you around, then?"

"Yeah. Show yourself out."

As Roe turned to leave, he suddenly stopped and poked his head back through the door.

"By the way, this comes with a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel. Paychecks and all."

"Wonderful."

He waited until the front door closed before standing up. Richard Mack Senior rubbed his eyes, suddenly feeling every day of his forty-six years of age. The sounds of laughter drifted up from the garden as Ackton told a joke. Before going to meet them, he picked up the papers Roe had given him and placed them in one of his desk's drawers. On the front of the first sheet sat a Greek emblem with two words stamped in bold below it.

PROJECT SIGMA

Mack locked the drawer and headed downstairs, intent on enjoying the last days of peace he'd have for quite a while.

THE END

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