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Annual Award Best Novel This story, Halo: Oversight, written by Brodie-001, was voted as the Best Novel of 2018 in the Eleventh Annual Halo Fanon Wikia Awards.


40px-Terminal.png This article, Halo: Oversight, was written by Brodie-001. Please do not edit this fiction without the writer's permission.
Halo: Oversight
Oversight Poster
Protagonist
Author Brodie-001
Date Published Started September 20th, 2017

Finished July 1st, 2018

Length 5 chapters, 10 sub-chapters

(Roughly 60,579 words upon initial completion)

Author's Rating 16+ (Some harsh language and violence throughout)
Previous Story Halo: Salvation
Next Story Halo: Miles to Go
Story Series Sigmaverse
[Source]

Plot Summary

The year is 2558. An uneasy peace has settled over human space after decades of war with the Covenant, though there has been no end to bouts of sporadic fighting across the colonies as hostile forces seek to gain power and influence. At the forefront of this unending battle are the UNSC's SPARTAN supersoldiers and the highly-trained agents of the Office of Naval Intelligence, striking at threats on multiple worlds to save lives and sustain power.

Nearly a year after a shocking Forerunner attack on Earth, two operatives find themselves embroiled in a shadowy conspiracy within their own organisation as they are pursued by their former employers, desperately searching for the truth behind it all. Meanwhile, a veteran SPARTAN-II team conducting its own investigation stumbles upon a dark secret from their own past, and must race to bring a long-hidden figure to justice.

Dramatis Personae

Halo: Oversight

Prologue

Standard Operating Procedure

2520 Hours, May 19th, 2558 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Bulgan, Erdenet, Outer Colonies


It was a beautiful night for a mission.

Perched on the edge of the Grand Duke Hotel's rooftop like a metallic gargoyle, Violet-B039 took the time to take in Bulgan's skyline as she affixed a length of steel rope to a nearby pillar. With twenty-nine hours days, Erdenet's night cycle was particularly long, though its inhabitants seemed to keep things running around the clock. Tiny pinpricks of light drifted along a distant highway, most heading out of the planet's capital city and towards the sprawling suburbs around it. Seven towering skyscrapers loomed around the hotel; dark, empty monoliths that dwarfed most of the cityscape. After the war's end, corporations had flocked to the rebuilding colonies like vultures, picking over what remained and setting up massive offices on numerous worlds.

"Two minutes," a voice hissed in Violet's ear.

Violet let out a short whistle in acknowledgement, sighing wistfully as she dragged her attention away from Bulgan's rooftops. She couldn't afford to let her mind wander while on a mission. Clad in a grey suit of DECIMATOR-class MJOLNIR armour and standing at roughly seven feet tall, Violet was still able to retain a low profile as she carefully stepped towards the building's edge, drawing a suppressed BR85 rifle. In the corner of her helmet's heads-up display, a tiny screen flashed up, feeding Violet information from the drone currently hovering several metres away from the westernmost room on the fifteenth floor. Tapping a button on her wrist-mounted TACPAD, Violet cycled through several modes of observation before settling on the infared camera.

Nine Insurrectionists. Seven male. Two female. Armed.

The Spartan clicked her tongue - an involuntary tic she'd had since childhood - when she was finally satisfied with how she would deal with these targets. Violet and glanced towards the tenth person in the room: her partner. Just as planned, Jill had activated the minuscule IFF marker hidden in one of her shirt buttons so the drone would pick it up, and had hidden herself in the room furthest away from Violet's entry point. After five months of working together, she had become rather fond of the ONI assassin, in her own little way; watching Jill pace around her empty room, anticipating the sudden attack, Violet couldn't help but smirk as she recognised the woman's agitation through the hazy glow of the infared. When she felt she could prolong Jill's suffering no longer, Violet activated TEAMCOM and gave a terse statement.

"I'm coming down."

Violet signalled for the drone to return to base - a command vehicle and surveillance van disguised as a frozen goods truck several blocks away - and moved towards the rooftop's precipice. After tugging at the rope in her right hand to ensure its tautness, she took a slow, deep breath, steeled her nerves, and stepped over the edge. In her two-ton suit of armour, Violet fell like a brick. As she fell, she tugged at the rope to slow her ascent, trying to avoid accidentally kicking through any windows. As she reached the seventeenth floor, the Spartan managed to halt her freefall, steadying herself against a balcony as she prepared for entry. Turning around, Violet thumbed her BR85's safety off and switched from burst-fire to fully automatic, aware that in the hotel room's tight quarters precision was not a particularly massive priority.

Bending her knees, Violet snatched another glimpse of the city's light-streaked skyline before kicking off as hard as she could, cracking the stone beneath her boots as she allowed several feet of steel rope to slip through her fingers. In barely a moment, she found herself facing the brightly-lit hotel room, and activated her armour's rear thrusters as she surged towards a wide picture window. Inside, a man in dark overalls stood before it, cupping his hands over his mouth as he lit a cigarette. He barely had time to register the Spartan flying at him before Violet smashed through feet first, planting a boot in his chest that sent him careening into a nearby wall. Releasing the rope, she plastered the walls with the brains of a second Insurrectionist who had been snoozing in a chair by the fireplace with several shots from her rifle before spinning around to face four very surprised targets across the hotel room.

In some small way, Violet pitied the rebels as they screamed, ran, or tried to return fire at the supersoldier standing in their room. Still firing one-handed, she took down two more with a sweeping rain of gunfire and caught a third in the neck as she dove towards the entrance door. Violet unholstered her sidearm - a 'Gunfighter' variant of the standard-issue M6H pistol - and finished off the wounded girl with two successive headshots before advancing into the adjacent kitchen. One rebel, who had dashed in there as Violet slaughtered his companions, let loose a hail of bullets with a machine pistol that missed or pinged harmlessly off her energy shields before another burst put him down. Pausing for a fraction of a second as she approached the hallway door, Violet emptied the rest of her magazine into the wooden counter, perforating two more as they cowered for their lives. Upon hearing their dying gasps and catching sight of dark blood seeping across the tiles, Violet nodded in approval and moved on.

"Di, what're you-"

Violet was halfway down the hallway when she heard two shots cut off a man's shout mid-sentence. She holstered her empty rifle, not bothering to reload, and kept her Magnum raised as she reached the main bedroom. The door had been hurriedly shut and locked tight, but a swift kick sent it flying off its hinges. Slumped against the half-open balcony door was a middle-aged man in formal wear, his white shirt soaked in blood and his eyes wide open in terror. Standing a few feet away and leaning against a dresser was BRUTUS infiltration agent Jill Urbach, looking very pleased with herself as the Spartan lowered her weapon.

"Almost missed one," Jill inclined her head towards the body.

"He wouldn't have gotten far."

"True, but you know how command is about keeping down the carnage. A trashed hotel room is one thing, but scraping splatted Innie off the sidewalk is a little more noticeable."

Violet conceded with a hum and knelt beside the body, closing the dead man's eyes before rifling through his pockets. She held no respect for Insurrectionists, alive or dead, but it was distracting to work with a corpse staring at you. After fishing a datapad out of his suit jacket, Violet pulled his head forward and set her eyes on a tattoo of a four-pointed star on the back of the rebel's neck.

"Yep, this is Dai Lạc all right," she muttered, standing up. "I'm surprised he turned up here."

"So was I," Jill said, stifling a yawn.

"Tired?"

"They had me on two shifts of guard duty and another four hours of surveillance in a single day, Vi. I'm beat."

"Poor baby," Violet cooed. "When were they going to make the hit?"

"In about an hour's time. Lạc was going to meet with one of his contacts from Aleria, but dropped by to wish us luck beforehand."

"Good thing we closed the book on this when we did, then."

For the past month, Jill had been working to infiltrate the Colonial People's Independence Movement: an upstart secessionist group with some alarming cultish elements that had sprung up on Erdenet and a few other planets in the last two years. As with many would-be Insurrectionist movements, the CPIM had mostly been a nuisance, distributing leaflets and propaganda about fighting the 'Imperialist UNSC' across ChatterNet and even some Waypoint networks while ONI monitored it from afar. It was only after the violent murder of an opposing electoral candidate in early 2557 and a subsequent spate of attacks against both civilian and military targets that they were officially declared a terrorist group and action taken against them. Particularly fervent members of the group had taken to tattooing their logo - a four-pointed star - onto their necks, which invariably got most of them caught by the authorities, though hardliners like Dai Lạc wore theirs with pride.

Jill prodded Lạc's corpse with her foot, and resisted the urge to spit on it. "Scum."

"Didn't like him?" Violet stood in the corner of the room, reloading her rifle. "What kind of crazy was he?"

"The kind who thought that going down in a suicide bombing would be a glorious way to die, so long as it was other people doing it for him."

While direct action kept most of the CPIM underground, it wasn't long before ONI needed an infiltrator to destabilise the group from within, and had enlisted the aid of the BRUTUS division. True to their name, BRUTUS specialised in the deployment of assassins who worked to befriend, seduce or intimidate their way into dangerous Insurrectionist factions, sometimes remaining undercover for years at a time before bringing down the entire organisation in one fell swoop. With the creation of new identities as hardened criminals or wanted terrorists, an agent could ideally play any role necessary for their new allies, and often left no survivors to recognise them later on.

"Think he ever suspected you?" the Spartan asked.

"ONI were pretty thorough with their false background, Vi. As far as he knew, 'Diana Miller' was just another eager kid who'd gotten way into neo-Koslovism in college and wanted to fight the big scary government."

"They must have been pretty desperate if they'd put you in a mission like this after a month, though."

"They were. As soon as one of their guys ran a background check - not a very thorough one, mind - they wanted me in for tonight's attack. Marching in through the front doors of the local parliament building and killing as many politicians as possible was their idea of a polite request for the planet's secession."

"Not that it would've worked."

Jill smirked. "Of course not. Would've loved to have seen their faces after walking in and finding you waiting for them, though."

"Yeah, well you know ONI: Kill 'em all and kill 'em quick."

"You know it."

Taking one last look around the hotel room, Jill closed her eyes slowly breathed out, letting the past month's events leave her as the names and faces of the rebel group faded from her memory. As far as their comrades knew, Diana Miller had perished alongside her comrades here in this hotel room. When she opened them again, she found herself facing Violet's silver visor.

"C'mon," her protector jerked a thumb towards the door. "Time to go."

***

"So," Jill spoke up as they entered the hotel elevator. "Aside from being my eye in the sky for the past month, any news?"

"Command's planning something for us on Aleria next, actually. They're still trying to work out the logistics of it, considering the planet's state, but word is that the URF might be making moves there."

"The URF?" Violet's partner raised an eyebrow as they stepped into the elevator. "Pretty small-fry these days, from what I've heard."

"Compared to the NCA, sure, but they've still got some pull with the old-timers and a few serious heavy-hitters. Back in Spartan Ops I tried asking about it, but everything's real hush-hush when it comes to the URF these days."

"So I've heard. Did you hear about the group on Forseti that I was in when we met?"

"The 'Unified Rebellion Committe', or whatever they were called? What about them?"

"Turns out they were trying to act as the URF's official successors to gain some clout with other groups before you arrived."

Violet crossed her arms. "Assholes. Can't believe it's already been what, six months?"

"Near enough."

Late last year, Jill had first met Violet after a mission had gone awry, prompting the Spartan's immediate deployment to rescue the BRUTUS agent from her captors. Shortly afterwards, they had been assigned together as a team; one to infiltrate rebel groups and another to destroy them. So far, everything had gone very well for both of them.

"That's gotta be what, five missions under our belt now?" The Spartan seemed rather pleased with herself. "We're breaking Innie groups in record time!"

Jill sighed. "I suppose I'll miss Erdenet. It's no Earth, but I would've loved to see the sights more."

"Relax," Violet patted her on the shoulder. "They'll give you some time off after this."

"Yeah, right. Just you wait, we'll be on a transport ship to that sandy shithole within a day or two, you mark- oh."

As the elevator doors slid open, Violet and Jill found themselves facing five men in black, unadorned uniforms. Had the Spartan not identified their leader, she would have immediately opened fire.

"One-Two-One, Spartan," a lean, sallow-faced man with pale eyes nodded towards them. "Excellent work up there. We'll handle things from here."

Jill returned his nod with a polite smile. "Thank you, Rettinger. Sorry about the mess."

"I think we'll manage somehow. Now, if you don't mind?"

Violet and Jill exited the elevator and stood back as Rettinger and his team moved inside, carrying heavy equipment cases. ONI's cleanup squads were known for their punctuality, but their quick appearance here was downright supernatural. Rettinger ran a hand over his shaved scalp and waved at Jill as the doors slid shut, leaving the pair in the building's empty lobby. Any staff working here had already been quietly ushered out, paid off, or were otherwise preoccupied to allow for their quiet departure.

"Creep," Violet muttered, already making her way towards the front doors.

"I wouldn't want his job."

"I'm just surprised he got here so fast. I don't usually see cleanup."

"They probably had their own drone watching the hotel room. C'mon, let's get out of here."

Stepping out onto the deserted street, the two women were surprised to find their command vehicle parked right outside, its side door already open. Rettinger's team had evidently brought it over for them. Without another word, Violet and Jill boarded the truck and set off, setting its automatic controls to seek a spot by the city's spaceport for them to stay overnight. In the morning, they would likely be contacted by Command with further orders. As the truck slowly made its way down Erdenet's quiet business district, away from the bustling marketplaces and nightlife of the ever-awake southern quarter, Violent finally removed her helmet and wiped a smear of blood from the silver-faced visor before clambering into the truck's lone Brokkr Armor Mechanism. The machine hummed to life, whirring and buzzing as it steadily removed her armour. Normally one would require several technicians to oversee such a device, but Violet and Jill could easily operate it alone. As Violet shed her outer shell, Jill sat back in a nearby desk, slowly spinning round and gazing at the roof in quiet contemplation before at last she spoke up.

"Actually, maybe someplace like Aleria is exactly what I need."

Violet, stuck at a horizontal angle as the machine removed her boots, glanced over. "Oh?"

"Yeah, all this city stuff's starting to get to me, Vi. I'm getting nostalgic."

"For what?"

"Home. Earth, I mean. You grow up in a big place like Frankfurt and even when you're out here in the sticks you get reminders of things you saw growing up. Know what I mean?"

"No, not really."

"Oh right, sorry. The Spartan thing."

While details of the SPARTAN-III program were still classified as top-secret even within ONI, Jill had garnered enough in the last five months to realise that her partner's history - particularly her presence in several battles of the Human-Covenant War - meant that she had been recruited into the military at a sickeningly early age. While she'd tossed the ethics of it around internally for a while, Jill knew she was in no position to judge, considering the blatant illegality of her own organisation's actions and the threat of extinction during the war that likely lead to some regrettable decisions further down the line.

"Well, all I'm saying is that it might be nice to take on a tougher mission. Somewhere a little tougher than frigging Erdenet. I dunno, maybe it's the thrill of it."

To her surprise, Violet let out a genuine laugh. As her last piece was placed on an adjacent table, she stepped out of the machine, now clad only in the back techsuit all Spartans needed to don their powered armour. While still a very imposing woman, Violet looked like slightly less of a killing machine now. Slightly younger than Jill, her face bore the scars of war; an old wound across her upper brow, and a deep, jagged cut running from her left cheek and down across her lips.

"You might've made for a good Spartan, Jill."

"You think?"

"Yeah." This was high praise coming from the likes of Violet. "And I'm not talking about a Four. They're good soldiers in a Spartan's armour, but that's all they are. You'd have been good in Beta Company."

"Well, thanks Vi."

The Spartan turned away for a moment and stretched, smiling weakly. "Of course, then you would've probably died on that godforsaken rock with the rest of them."

There was an awkward pause as Jill stared at Violet's back, unsure of what to say. After a few moments, the Spartan walked out and into the truck's cab to monitor the rest of the journey. Standing on the threshold, she turned her head towards her partner.

"Oh, and get some damn sleep. We'll talk about that next mission in the morning."

"Yeah," Jill stood up and cast a longing look towards the metal bunk bed built into the side of the MCV's rather cramped living quarters. "That sounds great."

Overture

0349 Hours, May 20th, 2558 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Grant Base, Erdenet, Outer Colonies


As his shift drew to a close, Private Jal Mizan wondered - not for the first time - if the talk of an illustrious and exciting career in the Marine Corps his recruiter promised him might have been a lie. Sat in the cramped booth by the base's main gate, he had spent the last four hours staring blankly at a row of empty monitors linked to security cameras around the main entrance while trying to fend off drowsiness. Barring a post at one of the many far-flung outposts dotted across the more remote colonies, Erdenet was about as quiet as it got. Even the monthly excursions into Bulgan's nightclubs were not enough to placate the terminally bored Marines around here, especially non-drinkers like Mizan.

"This is One-One," Mizan tiredly thumbed his COM pad for the hourly check-in. "All quiet."

There was no reply. When he'd first been assigned to nightly guard duty, the Private voiced his concerns that the system was somehow broken, but as it turned out, silence was an affirmative on this base. He'd only get a reply if anything actually happened warranting an alarm, and aside from a stray cat triggering an exterior motion detector a week ago things had been completely and utterly silent. Mizan sighed, and stretched in his chair. The only reason he wasn't occupying himself with a book or browsing Waypoint on his datapad was due to rumours of a base AI monitoring those on guard duty to ensure their attentiveness, and he wasn't about to risk getting chewed out by Grant Base's legendarily ornery commandant.

There was a sudden clank as the booth's door slid open, letting in a welcome rush of cool night air. Picking up his helmet from the nearby table, Mizhan eased himself out of his chair and turned round.

"You're early, Yana. Not that I-"

The Marine's eyes widened as a uniformed corpse slumped forward into the room, and he found himself facing down the muzzle of a heavy-duty handgun. Mizhan's hand was halfway to the pistol at his belt when it fired with a suppressed thunk, striking him right between the eyes. He toppled backwards into the chair, blood pouring down his face. Standing in the booth's threshold, a figure in grey powered armour lowered the gun, and slowly closed the door before turning away.

***

"Control, this is D'Artagnan. Preparing for breach and recovery."

In spite of its high walls and imposing automated security system, Grant Base had been ridiculously easy to infiltrate. Twenty minutes ago, its camera network had been hacked to show a looped recording of a particularly quiet hour of footage, while the entire motion sensor array's friend-or-foe recognition software had been rewritten to read everything as authorised personnel. After that, it had simply been a matter of scaling the outer wall and clambering through the barbed wire that lined it, which might have been an issue were it not for the MJOLNIR armour the intruders wore.

"I read you, D'Artagnan. Pickup will arrive at the predetermined coordinates in twenty. Control out."

As the COM channel went silent, D'Artagnan emerged from the corner he'd secluded himself in and set off at a jog around the base's main warehouse building, feeling an unusual sense of trepidation over what they were about to do. Anxiety was something he thought he'd gotten over many years ago, when life seemed remarkably simpler. Crouched ahead of him, half-hidden by shadow and a large, humming generator, were his team. Glancing over, Porthos swiped two gauntleted fingers across the front of his visorless helmet.

"Took you long enough," he remarked playfully. "Any trouble?"

D'Artagnan's reply was curt. "Front gate security's down. Two guards."

"Sloppy. Athos is taking care of the interior for us."

Beside him sat a man in an unusual spherical helmet, dotted with tiny sensors. Two wires snaked from a device on his gauntlet; one into the generator, and another into a tiny conduit built into the wall. He seemed to barely acknowledge D'Artagnan's presence, and looked up only when Aramis, the team's fourth member, gave him a gentle kick.

"I'm ready," Athos spoke monotonously. "Package is in the centre of the warehouse, marked X-83. Can't miss it."

"Resistance?"

"Four in a security office down the hall, but they won't notice us until we want them to."

Athos inclined his head towards D'Artagnan, who towered above the others. "You know, if we wanted to, we could have been in and out without killing anyone."

"Control's orders."

With a grunt that could have indicated acceptance or disgust, Athos detached his wires and stood up, drawing a suppressed M7 submachine gun. Aramis and Porthos did the same, readying a pair of rifles. There was a moment - just a few seconds - of absolute silence between the four as they prepared themselves for the mission to come. Tonight, they would finally emerge from their concealment and take their first steps onto the galactic stage. D'Artagnan turned towards a nearby door, already plotting out his route from scans of the facility's layout he'd memorised earlier. The others fell in behind him, and as they approached, Athos cut the power with a swipe of his fingers.

"Let's get this over with, team."

Strange, D'Artagnan thought. I nearly called us Spartans.

The exterior door gave way with a single armoured kick. Within seconds, the four intruders were already sprinting down the corridor, weapons at the ready. Athos and Porthos broke off at an intersection, heading into the storage warehouse, while D'Artagnan and Aramis moved towards the barracks. With the power - including backup generators - now completely out, the Marines stationed here would realise something was wrong. What they didn't anticipate was the speed with which some individuals would react, as a tall, middle-aged man in an officer's uniform rounded the corner ahead of them with a Magnum in hand.

"What in the goddamn-"

The Colonel's body hit the floor in less than a seconds as a neat burst of gunfire ripped through his chest. Several others - the security station personnel - had the presence of mind to draw weapons, but not the speed to fight back. D'Artagnan and Aramis barely slowed their pace, taking down one Marine after the other with terrifying accuracy. One yanked at an alarm cord on an office wall, but nothing happened before he fell too. A long corridor separated the base's barracks from the armoury, intersected by another leading to the security room. By the time the first few men and women of Grant Base realised they were under attack, a pair of supersoldiers stood between them and every piece of gear they needed to even put up a passable fight.

What occurred next was not a battle. It could not even be considered a fight. Readouts before the mission had estimated Grant Base's personnel count at ninety-four, with a dozen or so support staff. Not much for a base, but Erdenet was hardly a high-priority military asset for the UNSC. D'Artagnan and his ally kept a slow, steady pace as they butchered their way through room after room of frightened soldiers. Most tried to flee, tugging in vain at barred windows or trying to claw through steel security doors while a few brave souls attempted to fight their executioners. Had they charged en-masse, they might have had a chance, but fear overcame them; the dark, imposing MJOLNIR armour overcame any rational thought from these Marines. D'Artagnan halted for a moment to reload his BR85, and a young man pounced forward with a combat knife in one hand. He was fast, but a gantleted hand swiped away the weapon before delivering a solid punch that caved most of his face in.

"Frag out!" Aramis yelled over TEAMCOM. He primed a grenade, tossed it into a crowded bathroom, and waited for the blast to sound before advancing again. Blood from a dozen bodies seeped across the cracked white tiles.

"This is Porthos," another voice sounded in D'Artagnan's ear. "We've secured the package aboard a forklift truck; it'll take too long to carry out on foot. What's your status?"

"Cleaning up. Shouldn't be too long."

"Should re proceed to the rendezvous point without you?"

"Go ahead. We'll catch up."

Now out of ammo for his primary weapon, D'Artagnan unholstered the submachine gun from the back of his suit and continued his work, which now mostly consisted of executing those pretending to have died. All resistance had quickly been put down, and aside from the din of echoing gunfire the only sounds he heard were from the dying. Aramis emerged, his armour streaked with red as he flicked some gore from the end of his personal close-quarters weapon: a machete of Jiralhanae design. Panting slightly, he patted D'Artagnan on the shoulder and quietly made his exit while the older man slipped a large brick of C-12 from his utility belt. This alone would be more than enough to level this entire wing of the base, and saved him the messy business of dealing with stragglers. Kneeling amidst a sea of corpses, he set down the explosive charge, linked the detonator to his HUD and quietly exited the barracks.

Neither man said a single word as they ran back through the base, retracing their steps towards their entry point. Porthos and Athos had already departed, leaving Grant Base's main gate wide open. From here, it was a ten-minute jog down the road and into the surrounding forest towards their rendezvous point. Situated on a rocky overlook with a fantastic view of the distant Bulgan, the site was guarded by the other members of D'Artagnan's team by the time he and Aramis arrived. Between the other soldiers was a wide, metal box, lined with various warnings about security clearance and stamped with the distinctive black and white symbol of the Office of Naval Intelligence. By the look of things, they had decided to keep the forklift.

Porthos looked him up and down, "You get much trouble?"

"Nothing we couldn't handle."

"Can't have been easy for you."

"They were unarmed."

"That's not what I meant."

Before they could continue, there was a rapid series of low beeps across their COM channel, signalling that evac had arrived. D'Artagnan turned away from the others and looked skyward as the bulky shape of an Albatross dropship made its way towards them, thrusters blaring at maximum power as it slowed down to drift slightly ahead of them. Athos hopped back into the forklift and steadily trundled forward into the ship's waiting vehicle bay, and was soon joined by his comrades. Casting one look back at Grant Base, D'Artagnan activated the C-12 charge. An explosion rocked the nearby trees, and a a plume of black smoke soon rose up to cloud the murky predawn sky. Moments later, it was joined by a second blast; Athos had set the generator to overload. With that, he stepped on board as the cargo bay slowly rose back up into the dropship, securing with a loud clunk before the Albatross rose into the sky.

"Well," Aramis was first to break the silence, pulling off his helmet to reveal a pale, square-jawed face with a crop of close-cut red hair. "We're finally doing this."

"It's a big gamble," intoned Athos.

At this, Porthos sighed, sitting back against a wall. "Yeah, winner takes all."

D'Artagnan ignored the others as they conversed. Those three had known each other a lot longer than he'd known them, and had what could only be described as amazing conversational rapport. Sitting by the crate they had journeyed all this way to steal, he opened up a direct COM channel back to headquarters, and spoke the moment his connection was approved.

"Control, this is D'Artagnan. Mission complete."

Though he could not see the man he was speaking too, it was very easy for the supersoldier to imagine the self-satisfied grin of his superior before the usual measured, well-spoken reply.

"Excellent work. With this, we've finally made our first move into the light. What follows will require quick maneuvering if we are to succeed, old friend. Once you're returned the package and rested, I'll require your immediate redeployment."

"To Erdenet?"

"Of course. If we're to win this game, then there are a couple of pieces I'll need your team to pick up. Understood?"

"Yes sir." His reply was automatic, though after a few moments of hesitation, he spoke up yet again. "Also, I'd like to propose that we revise our callsigns in the field to something more appropriate for operational efficiency."

"You don't like D'Artagnan?"

"I preferred it when I was a number, sir."

Digging

1743 Hours, May 20th, 2558 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Glasslands, Sansar, Outer Colonies


Freshly-disturbed dust and sand swirled around the stone tunnel as a pair of heavy boots hit the ground with a loud crunch. A tall, armour-plated man stepped forward through the gloom, assault rifle raised. He moved carefully, measuring each step down the narrow passage until he came to a metal blast door. After four days of searching, they had finally found the main entrance.

"Clear!" Marco-035 called over TEAMCOM.

Moments later, there were two loud thuds behind him as the rest of Sigma Team descended into the tunnel after him. They quickly moved to catch up with their comrade, and the three stood in silence for a moment before the door.

"This must be it," Kane-098 announced, scanning the entrance with a device mounted on his TACPAD. "I'm surprised it's held all these years."

Beside him, Jax-007 rapped the metal with the butt of his M90 shotgun. "They built these things to last, glassing or not."

For the past three days, the SPARTAN-II's of Sigma Team had been stuck in Sansar's orbit alongside a small group of advanced ONI vessels, scanning the ruined planet for any signs of life. Unsurprisingly, there didn't seem to be anyone here. Even the usual salvaging vessels and unscrupulous corporate expeditions that picked over glassed worlds like vultures seemed to be absent, so when faint signals were caught by a surveillance probe that matched up with a missing ship Sigma Team had been pursuing for nearly nine months now, an investigation had been immediately launched.

"Hear that?" Marco tapped the side of his helmet. "There's still power."

Straining their ears to listen, the Spartans could indeed hear a faint, almost imperceptible hum from the blast door. Kane nodded, glad that they wouldn't have to blow it open, and edged past his teammates. By the side of the door was a tiny panel, to be utilised only by technicians. He wrenched it open without much difficulty - most of it had already rusted over - and removed a small chip from his belt pouch. Standing behind him, Marco could hear Jax's sigh of annoyance as Kane slotted it inside. Seconds later, a tinny, nasal voice sounded over the COM.

"Hey, what's up with this?" came the bewildered voice of an AI. "A little warning before you shove be into a system, eh?"

"Iggy," Kane's reply was absolutely deadpan. "We need access to this facility. Can you unlock the door?"

There was a brief pause, then a click. "Yessir. Rest of the system's gonna be a hassle, so if you don't mind letting me ride up top, that'd be swell."

Kane complied, and removed the chip before slotting it back into his helmet. To aid in their investigation, ONI had been kind enough to grant Sigma Team a fairly new Smart AI named Iggy. Since Marco had grumbled about it and Jax had surprisingly refused point-blank to have one in his head, Kane had been given the necessary neural implant upgrades for SPARTAN-AI cooperation. So far, they had found Iggy to be rather annoying in spite of his obvious capabilities. The blast door chimed for a moment, then slowly slid open to reveal the interior of a surprisingly well-maintained UNSC facility. Were it not for the fact that it was illuminated entirely by dark red emergency lighting, the Spartans could have easily assumed people were still living here.

"Any idea on what this place is?" Jax asked, taking point.

Marco shrugged. "ONI said they didn't know."

"ONI lies, Marco."

"Point taken. Still, if they aren't..."

"Then it's probably an Innie base."

Iggy suddenly spoke up. "Not likely, fellas. Managed to get a quick reading earlier and this place is military."

"You could tell all that while you were opening a door?"

"Oh yeah," the AI scoffed. "It's the little architectural things, y'know?"

The Spartans moved in as quickly as they dared, wary of any hidden traps or countermeasures built to deter intruders. Most bases built by the Office of Naval Intelligence tended to have dozens of emergency protocols designed to ensure a facility's destruction and asset denial; the fact that this place seemed to be in relatively good condition was baffling by the organisation's standards. Sweeping out as the corridors began to branch off, they soon found evidence of habitation: recently-stocked food supplies, a barracks full of personal effects and a surprisingly unlocked armoury that contained weaponry that had only seen widespread usage since after the war.

"Found the control room," Kane announced, pinging his location to Marco and Jax.

By the time they arrived, their leader was crouched before a holotable, inserting Iggy's chip into the machine. Wires ran across the walls - a sign of recent maintenance - and above the table, a flight of stairs led to an observation deck overlooking a massive underground hangar bay. Jogging up to the window, Jax whistled appreciatively.

"Damn, you could fit a pair of frigates down there."

"Yeah," Kane replied. "Or the UNSC Kuwabara."

That got their attention. Suddenly, the entire room lit up as Iggy brought the base's primary power grid online. Monitors covering the walls sprung to life, displaying sensor readouts from completely different star systems and scrolling news reports right from the heart of UEG space. Marco and Jax joined Kane around the holotable as a model of a Halberd-class Destroyer flashed into existence before them. They could tell at a glance that it had been intensively modified, boasting a cluster of advanced sensor arrays by the stern and stealth ablative coating around the hull. Marco grunted in annoyance.

"And here I thought we were looking for a Prowler."

"That is a Prowler, actually." Iggy's avatar, that of a balding, middle-aged man in a scruffy suit with a mess of frizzy hair at the back and bizarrely oversized sunglasses, appeared on the table by the vessel. "Technically it'd be a stealth destroyer, but hey, semantics."

"So who's ship is this, then? Why isn't it on any registry?"

Last August, Sigma Team had participated in a dangerous operation against a group of militant slavers in independent space following a series of colonist kidnappings. While successful in rescuing the prisoners, the SPARTAN-II's had also recovered someone else: A former ONI operative, emaciated, amnesiac and missing his tongue. In the brief time they had been given to question the man before turning him over to the loving hands of Section Three, the only thing they had gotten out of him was the name of this very ship: The UNSC Kuwabara. However, no such ship appeared to exist in any military record - official or unofficial - outside of an old IFF transponder signal and the prisoner's sudden death weeks after his transferal had left Sigma with quite the mystery on their hands.

While not participating in their usual counter-insurgency operations, the Spartans had searched tirelessly for leads, poring over military logs and service records of missing personnel and even looking through ship manufacturing logs for any sign of the Kuwabara's existence. Were it not for the discovery of several discrepancies in these records that listed some personnel as having died or participated in battles they could not have possibly been present for then the case would have been closed entirely.

"Unknown," Iggy concluded glumly. "However, there's a wealth of information still stored in these databanks. Encrypted, naturally, but give me some time and I'll-"

The AI stopped mid-sentence. His avatar, which had been happily strolling across the holotable with a finger raised, suddenly span to face a single monitor behind the Spartans. Kane, Marco and Jax all span round to see that the slowly-rotating image of Sansar pre-glassing that had once occupied its screen was gone. In its place was a single brown eyeball, looking at each of them in turn.

"Well now," a voice, clearly modulated, sounded over the speakers. "It seems that the foxes have entered the henhouse, but the hens are all away. That won't do."

"Identify yourself!" Kane barked authoritatively.

The voice chuckled. "Soon enough, Spartan. Activating emergency purge protocol Theta Six-Three."

The image of an eye vanished, and the facility's power shut down once more, leaving the room bathed in an eerie red glow from the emergency lighting. A moment later, all doors leading into the command room slammed shut, shuddering as their locking mechanisms kicked into gear. Jax raced towards one and attempted to kick it down, but could barely leave a dent in the reinforced Titanium-A.

"Shit," he sounded more annoyed than worried. "Facility's gone into lockdown."

Kane reached over to the table and extracted Iggy's chip while the others scrambled to find an escape route. Shoving it into his helmet, he shuddered slightly as the AI connected with his interface and decided to yawn loudly in his ear.

"Iggy, did you get anything?"

"In what, the twelve seconds I had to look at everything? Of course I did, what d'you take me for?"

The Spartan sighed in exasperation, privately wondering what he had done wrong to get saddled with such an annoying little construct. "Fine, now we need a way out. Everything's been locked down."

"I know. You took me out before I could say so myself, actually."

"Could you have done anything about it?"

"Nah. Whoever built this place was really into their compartmentalisation as far as systems went. Guess they didn't want an AI poking around."

"Well they've barred the doors. You've got the layout, so is there anything you can do?"

"Window's not barred."

Three helmeted heads turned towards the observation deck. Silently cursing his initial lack of awareness that allowed the AI to act smug, Kane raced upstairs and took a flying leap at the glass, activating his thrusters at maximum power as he smashed right through into the hangar bay. Two simultaneous crashes a moment later signalled Marco and Jax's exit from the command room, and the trio soon found themselves sprinting along the cavernous chamber after hitting the ground below.

"By the way," Iggy flashed a timer up on Kane's HUD. "The base reactor's being overloaded."

"I guessed that Iggy, thank you."

"You're welcome. Two minutes to boom time, by the way."

As this hangar had been built to accommodate something as large as a destroyer, it had to have an exit of sorts. Sure enough, half a mile ahead lay a great pair of steel doors. While they seemed to be closed from afar, Kane realised as they drew closer that the metal was horribly warped and bent inwards, likely as a result of the Covenant glassing decades ago. As such, all they could do was close about halfway, giving the three supersoldiers plenty of room to exit. The timer ticked down much faster than he anticipated, until it became clear that they wouldn't be outside in time. That was bad.

"C'mon, move it, move it!" Marco roared, pumping his arms and legs as fast as they could go as he pulled slightly ahead of his brethren. Jax and Kane did the same, moving quicker and quicker until even their own augmented limbs began to scream in protest from the exertion.

Then, the timer hit zero.

From far behind Sigma Team there was a great rumbling as the base's reactor finally exploded with a blinding flash, atomising most of the underground area in an instant as a roiling fireball spread out into the hangar. The trio couldn't afford to hesitate as they reached the edge, leaping out into the canyon below. Tongues of flame licked overhead, draining their shields through sheer heat as the Spartans plummeted away. Attempting to slow their descent with timed thruster bursts, the Spartans skidded down the rocky cliff face with gauntleted fingers clawing for handholds before they came to a sudden halt at the foot of the mountain, ploughing into the dirt in a a tangled heap. Battered but unhurt, the red-armoured Jax was the first to sit up and cast his gaze towards the black smoke pouring out of the mountainside above as he pushed Marco off him.

"Okay," he nodded, panting slightly. "Someone really didn't want us leaving that base."

"Yeah, but who?" Marco lay on his back, staring up at the dusky sky as he slowed his breathing.

"Ex-ONI, I'd imagine. Or worse, current ONI."

While the two pondered over who had just tried to kill them, Kane picked himself up and walked away, wiping some dirt from his TACPAD before signalling for their dropship pilot to come and pick them up. His mind raced, thinking over what they had just gone through and how next to proceed. Eventually, he turned back to his comrades and snapped his fingers to get their attention.

"We're taking this data to command." He paused for a moment. "And getting a copy for ourselves, too."

"Insurance," Iggy chuckled over the COM. "Nice."

Kane ignored the AI, having momentarily forgotten about his existence. "As far as we know, this may be an internal issue, in which case we stick together and only relay information to trusted personnel. Depending on how deep this goes with the Kuwabara, we may have to pursue the target ourselves until we've uncovered the culprit."

With nods of silent agreement from the others, the three Spartans of Sigma Team set off together towards their landing zone, now eager to begin their hunt.

Chapter One

Truel

1137 Hours, May 21st, 2558 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Bulgan, Erdenet, Outer Colonies


As she walked through the streets in the pouring rain, umbrella in hand, Violet-B039 began to feel worryingly at peace. With nothing but a 'wait for orders' transmission sent from command since their operation the other night, Jill had chosen to use what she interpreted as a day off to finally explore Bulgan's famed inner city. Ahead of them was a sea of market stalls, covered by a web of thick tarpaulins as vendors peddled everything from food to car parts. Passing into it, the Spartan retracted her umbrella and shook it as Jill pulled down the hood of her tacky yellow raincoat, evidently enjoying herself. Over the din of the market, they could barely hear the rain as it pattered against the plastic above.

"Hungry?" Jill asked. With her shoulder-length hair no longer tied back, she'd lost her usual hard-edged agent look.

"I suppose. Know any places?"

"I've never been here before. Let's look around."

The Spartan shrugged and followed her companion through the crowd, ignoring the occasional stares and remarks from strangers passing by. Even without her MJOLNIR suit, Violet was nearly seven feet tall, though the uncomfortable feeling she had was more from being out of her armour than standing out in public like this. To her, they were civilians. Little people. They lived their own lives doing things she couldn't imagine, while she immersed herself in the exclusive world of undercover operations. They soon came to a row of stands providing just about every sort of food imaginable, from sizzling frankfurters to bubbling pots of stew. While she disliked this meandering, Violet followed in Jill's wake with her hands in her pockets until the agent turned to face her.

"What do you want? I'm buying."

Violet was glad that she didn't have to tell Jill that she'd never actually had to use money before; Spartans like her lived solely at the military's expense and filed requisition orders if they needed anything. Looking round, she felt spoilt for choice; usually she'd take what was given and wouldn't complain. After some hesitation, she pointed towards a nearby row of tasty-looking kebabs and after a brief transaction on Jill's part was soon handed three skewers, partly wrapped in greaseproof paper. She took a bite out of one almost immediately, realising that she had no idea what kind of meat was in them. It didn't really matter.

"Good?" Jill asked.

"Mmhmn."

"Great. I'm gonna grab a bowl of soba. Meet over there?"

She pointed towards a small area lined with picnic tables. While most were already occupied, Violet spotted an empty one by the side of a building and took a seat. In front of her, an advertisement for cheap interstellar flights flashed up behind a store window, listing prices to Earth, Escala III and Barrier. She ignored it, and returned to her meal. She had almost finished by the time Jill returned a few minutes later, clutching a steaming bowl of noodles in one hand and a pair of chopsticks in the other. Seeing that the Spartan wasn't about to start a conversation, the ONI agent broke the silence.

"I haven't had this in years. There used to be a place back home that sold soba that I'd have in college. Don't know why, but it always tasted better than any other place I've eaten it."

"That so?"

"Yeah." Jill watched as Violet tore into another skewer. "You ever have anything like that?"

"Food's food. We'd get a nice dessert if we did well sometimes in training, but nothing special."

Jill sighed at Violet's noncommittal approach to conversation and focused on her own food. A couple of minutes passed with nothing but the sound of the market and the distant rain to accompany their meal before she realised that the Spartan had sat a little straighter in her chair, and was staring right at her. Past her.

"Vi, what's-"

Violet whipped around, drawing an M6P pistol from her coat pocket and firing a round in one fluid motion. Several metres away from her, a man shrieked as his hand exploded. A handgun hit the floor a moment later and skittered away. The Spartan was already on her feet and closed the distance in seconds as he doubled over, staring in shock at the ruined limb. As Jill ducked down, struggling to fish her own sidearm out of her belt holster, Violet jammed one of the empty skewers into the attacker's jugular and slammed him into the floor. The body shuddered slightly, then fell still. As nearby civilians scattered and screams went up from the nearby crowd, the shooting began anew.

Jill ran towards her protector as fast as she could, narrowly avoiding a spray of rounds that streaked across the pavement beside her. Violet snapped to the left and fired a second shot, which struck a distant, submachine gun-toting figure in the head with another burst of blood and gore.

"Jesus, Vi!" Jill let off a couple of rounds with her own M6K. "What was that?"

"Saw his reflection behind you. He was going for his gun."

"What did you hit him with?"

"I've got this thing loaded with high-ex. Four rounds per mag, so I'm being careful."

It took Jill a moment to realise that Violet was speaking with a mouth full of food; she'd crammed the rest of the meat in there in seconds, and was currently holding her two remaining skewers like combat knives. Considering what she'd already done to their first assailant, the Spartan intended to use them that way. Taking a deep breath and a moment to lament her half-eaten bowl of soba noodles, Jill began to assess the situation. While the general haziness of the market and distance of their attackers made things difficult, she could count at least three sources of gunfire coming towards them. They clearly knew what they were dealing with, since they were keeping themselves as far away from Violet as possible. After a momentary lull as both parties reloaded, the Spartan snatched up her initial assailant's handgun and sprang away as the shooting picked up again in earnest.

Letting her superhuman companion take care of things, Jill reached over to check the blood-drenched corpse lying next to her. He seemed to be in completely average civilian clothing, save for a ballistic vest underneath his hoodie and a tiny COM device in his ear. The lack of a neck tattoo ruled out a CPIM assassin, though it was still possible that their foes had Insurrectionist ties. Perhaps he'd seen Violet and correctly assumed that she was a Spartan from her stature?

"Jill, move!"

She snapped out of her musings to see Violet nearby, having tossed her M6P in favour of the standard M6H2 the first assassin had carried. Judging by the lack of shooting, she had taken care of their remaining attackers. The ONI agent poked her head out carefully from behind the stall before jogging over to the Spartan, who was stalking across the blood-spattered concrete at some speed. The other gunmen were dressed similarly to the first, and had been taken out efficiently with shots to the head or upper body. A cracked, hacking cough from nearby caught the Spartan's attention, and as she moved over to execute the survivor Jill grabbed her arm.

"Hold on, I want to question this one."

She seemed to sneer at the idea, but relented after a moment as she shook off Jill's hand. "Make it quick."

Lying on his side behind a food stall was a tall man with his side blown open by one of Violet's high-explosive rounds. Blood pooled around him, and from the sight of his exposed guts and several blown-open ribs, Jill could tell that he wasn't going to last very long. Ignoring the woman's approach, the assassin tried to reach for his nearby submachine gun, and had almost grasped the weapon's edge when Jill plucked it away and pointed it at his head.

"Who are you working for?!" she demanded, crouching with the barrel mere inches away from his face. "Start talking and I'll get you help."

The dying man attempted a defiant laugh, only to seize up from the pain and double over in another coughing fit. He glared up at Jill, dark blood seeping through gaps in his teeth as his eyes met yours.

"I could ask you... the same thing."

As Jill raised an eyebrow in confusion, he made a grab for the weapon's barrel. She squeezed the trigger and put a round through his head. As she stood up, she saw Violet watching her from afar.

"We've got to go!" she called over to her partner, who nodded sagely.

"You're right. Could be more about."

The pair swept through the now-deserted market as police sirens echoed in the distance. It was a twenty-minute walk back to the MCV, and they'd be sitting ducks if they were caught like this. Violet suddenly halted, and grasped Jill's shoulder with impressive strength. She stopped in her tracks, staring in confusion as her companion closed her eyes for a few moments.

"What?"

"Listen!" Violet hissed.

They remained still for a few moments, and sure enough Jill heard something unusual: a loud roar, drowning out the heavy rainfall above. As she tried to work out what it was, the Spartan suddenly grabbed her and pulled her away as the tarpaulin above them completely collapsed and the heavy form of a Pelican dropship descended into the marketplace, rear doors wide open. Crashing into what had once been the kebab stall, Violet and Jill kept down low as eight heavily armed individuals emerged. Straining to get a good view of them, the agent's eyes widened in surprise as she saw them clad in the distinctive black armour associated with Orbital Drop Shock Troopers. They spread out in a semi-circle, ignoring the rain plinking off their suits before one of them waved the entire team towards the location where Violet and Jill had first been attacked.

"The hell's going on..." Violet murmured, checking her ammunition count as quietly as possible as she edged away on her back.

"Are they here for us?"

"Could be. That's an acquisition team if I've ever seen one, so they're not here to play nice."

"Should we surrender?"

Jill was disheartened to see Violet visibly wince at the suggestion. Before her companion could answer, likely with some venomous retort or a comment about never giving up, there was a loud bang from nearby as one of the vendor stalls exploded in a hail of wood and metal and a second firefight immediately broke out. Getting a better look at the fighters as they crept away, Jill and Violet were surprised to see the ODST's trading fire with what looked like a second team of plainclothes attackers. Two of the armoured troopers were already down from the surprise attack, and as their Pelican attempted to lift off, a rocket whizzed across the marketplace and struck its windshield with a fiery blast, sending the dropship careening into the side of a nearby building. Momentarily taken aback by the situation, Jill could only stare at the proceedings until Violet began to physically drag her away.

"We're leaving."

"Yeah, right."

While simply leaving the scene on foot seemed like a good idea, it wasn't long before the bullets began to fly towards Jill and her Spartan bodyguard from both sides. With only pistols to defend themselves, all they could do was keep low with the barest minimum of suppressing fire to ward off their foes as they neared the edge of the market. Peering into the long, rain-soaked street ahead, which lacked any form of cover, Violet could only click her tongue in annoyance before she sighted a pair of headlights and something very large trundling down the street towards them.

"Wait," she instinctively reached to pull Jill out of the way again. "That's our goddamn MCV."

Sure enough, the disguised truck surged through the market entrance at some speed and span round, utterly demolishing dozens of stalls as its heavy tyres screeched across the damp concrete. It was a miracle that it didn't fall over, and after cutting off the two sides with its sudden appearance, the truck's side door clanked open. A figure in MJOLNIR armour stepped forth, took down another three ODST's with precise rounds from his DMR, then activated his loudspeakers.

"Urbach, Violet, we've come to get you out of here!"

In spite of Violet's hesitation, Jill broke from cover and ran towards the truck, slipping slightly as she sprinted towards the Spartan. He waved for her to approach before turning back to continue firing, and looked expectantly towards Violet. With a few muttered curses, the SPARTAN-III followed Jill, helping out her savior with a few loosed rounds before clambering aboard. Moments later, the Spartan moved inside and the truck immediately set off, screeching out of the corpse-filled marketplace as rounds pinged harmlessly off its side. Utterly drenched in sweat and rainwater, the two women sat side-by-side on one of their metal couches, wondering if they had been saved at all.

"Close one," the unidentified Spartan spoke eventually, sealing the outer door. "I'm glad that we made it here in time."

Violet looked longingly towards her own suit of armour lying disassembled by the Brokkr system nearby before scanning the newcomer. Lacking a traditional visor, his helmet possessed single eye-like camera embedded on its right side, which made it easy to recognise as GUNGNIR-class MJOLNIR. He seemed to notice, and gestured towards the machine.

"If you're more comfortable while suited up, then be my guest. You've got a long way to travel."

Violet stood up rather cautiously and let her coat drop to the floor before making her way towards the locker where she stored her techsuit. What followed was several minutes of total silence as she stepped into the changing room, changed clothes, and stepped back out and into the machine. Jill could only stare at the floor as it buzzed and whirred, affixing pieces of silver-grey armour to her body. After almost a minute, the procedure was complete. Violet-B039 stepped forward, put her helmet on, and felt whole once again.

"There," she sounded almost happy. "Now you can explain who you are, and what just happened."

The other Spartan nodded, and stepped forward. Jill realised that he was noticeably taller than Violet, though he seemed more conciliatory than aggressive as he approached her, whipping out a datapad.

"What you have just witnessed is the start of a series of operations coordinated by high-ranking members of the Office of Naval Intelligence to radically destabilise its power structure through targeted assassination and the closure of numerous divisions whose heads are non-compliant."

"What?" Jill sputtered. "So it's a coup?"

"Not exactly. You can't force out the current CINCONI though brute force, but if it is made abundantly clear that they cannot effectively control their organisation then the UNSC Security Council and ONI's own Section Chiefs can remove them eventually. That's why subterfuge is required."

"But why us, though? Why were we attacked?"

The grey Spartan sighed, and swiped two fingers across his datapad. After a few moments, a video of security camera footage appeared, depicting a MJOLNIR-clad supersoldier advancing through the corridors of a UNSC facility. Marines, many of whom were barely armed, died in droves before the Spartan as they fled for their lives or tried to fight back. The footage cut between several different cameras before settling on a still of the attacked from the front. It was Violet.

"Wait," she clenched her fists. "That wasn't-"

"Wasn't you? I know. This massacre took place on the same night you were to eliminate members of the CPIM in this very city, just a few miles outside of Bulgan. An entire Marine outpost was razed to the ground that night."

"But we didn't hear anything about it."

"Nor were you allowed to. Now, this footage was recovered from what remained of the base by ONI's Section Two, and in less than a day has been heavily doctored to make it look as though you had carried out the massacre. After all, you are the only Spartan on Erdenet, and this was Spartan-grade murder."

At this, Violet could only shake her head. Jill, who had remained impassive throughout the explanation, suddenly spoke up.

"So I take it I'm implicated in this as well?"

"Naturally. As far as ONI is concerned right now, you were an accomplice to a massacre."

"But this doesn't make any sense," the ONI agent sat back down again, placing her head in her hands. "If they were just going to kill us, then why go to the trouble of wiping out an entire military base?"

The Spartan shrugged his shoulders and put the datapad away, glancing towards the driver's compartment. "We're not sure. If I had to guess, your involvement with the BRUTUS division may put that organisation at risk. We've already been getting reports that other agents are being hunted down across multiple colonies."

Jill grew pale at the thought of it. She had never been particularly close to any of her colleagues within BRUTUS, but the thought of being hunted down alongside your entire organisation was a chilling one. Noticing her distress, Violet gave her a surprising pat on the shoulder, clicked her tongue, then retrieved her lightweigh 'Gunfighter' Magnum from her personnel locker.

"So the question is," she held the gun loosely at her side. "Who're you supposed to be? I've not even gotten your name."

Sure enough, the mysterious Spartan hadn't said a thing about himself. While saving them from a dangerous firefight was one thing, he hadn't explained where they were going or what he intended to do about this situation.

"My name is D'Artagnan."

At this, Jill snorted loudly. "No it's not."

"Excuse me?"

"I've read my Dumas, and you look like a Spartan, not a Musketeer."

At this, he couldn't help but chuckle. "Operational confidentiality doesn't allow me to reveal my actual name under any circumstances, I'm afraid. May I at least tell you who I work for?"

"Go ahead."

"I'm part of a group within ONI's Section Zero, known as 'Red Cell'. We hunt down internal threats within our organisation and by extension, the UNSC. When we discovered this plot, my team were dispatched to extract and relocate you as soon as possible."

"Relocate us where?" Violet asked.

As if on cue, the MCV halted in its tracks and D'Artagnan thumbed the release catch for the vehicle's outer door. Stepping outside, Violet and Jill realised almost immediately that they were within the cargo bay of a massive transport ship. Their vehicle had been parked neatly inside a fairly spacious shipping container, with one end still open. As he neared the edge of it, D'Artagnan turned to face them.

"This ship is bound for Biko. As far as the manifest goes, your vehicle is a JOTUN crop duster, which will be taken from the spaceport once it arrives by our contact. We've got a safehouse prepared there for you to stay in until further notice."

Violet didn't like this one bit, and stepped forward until she was almost visor-to-helmet with D'Artagnan. "We're not running."

"This is a matter of survival, Spartan. Until we can eliminate these traitors and clear your name, ONI will be after the pair of you. As far as they're concerned, you're a rogue Spartan, and you know what they send after rogue Spartans?"

"Yeah. More Spartans."

"Exactly. My team's needed elsewhere so we'll be offworld for a while, but we'll be in contact with you as soon as possible."

A loud clanking from behind the pair caught their attention as three Spartans in similarly exotic armour exited the MCV, having apparently been hiding in the driver's compartment this entire time. Judging by their weaponry, they had been standing by to take down Violet had she attacked D'Artagnan. They barely gave the two fugitives a second look as they marched out of the container in single file, heading down a ramp towards the cargo bay's exit.

"You'd better!" Jill called as D'Artagnan joined his comrades. "I don't like being kept in the dark!"

If he heard her, he chose not to reply. Now alone, Jill and Violet suddenly felt very isolated as the reality of their situation slowly dawned on them. For Jill, this potentially meant the end of her career. At worst, she would spend the rest of her life on the run from the organisation she had put her life into working for. As easy as it would have been to panic, she took slow, deep breaths to calm herself before turning to look at the Spartan beside her. Violet, solid as ever, seemed to mull things over in her head for a second, clicked again, then turned back towards the MCV without a word. Somehow, that made Jill feel a little better.

***

With all the hubbub over a massacre in Bulgan's market district, it wasn't hard for Red Cell's Albatross to gain landing access with false clearance codes. D'Artagnan stood with his arms folded, watching the Biko-bound ship take off while his younger compatriots looked over local newsfeeds for trouble. Their operations on Erdenet had gone off without a hitch, surprisingly. As the Albatross touched down nearby, a beeping from the supersoldier's long-range COM signalled the start of a transmission from Control.

"Have our friends left for Biko?" a familiar voice spoke, brimming with satisfaction.

"Yes sir. They'll arrive within three days."

"Excellent. That means we've got some breathing room. Losing the bunker was a troublesome setback."

"Did any information get out?"

"If it did, then it's well-hidden. I can confirm that our intruders did make it out alive, however."

"Great. I take it we'll have to deal with them eventually?"

"Indeed. Return to the Kuwabara ASAP. We've got to set the stage for our next act."

Bedlam

0827 Hours, May 22nd, 2558 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Aldrin Base, Luna, Sol System


As he hurried along the corridor towards the meeting room, its doors flanked by black-armoured guards, Captain Alexander Redford realised that this was not going to be a pleasant experience. Clad in his usual dark uniform with a single glove covering his prosthetic hand, the head of the BRUTUS division slowed his pace, running a hand across his neatly-combed grey hair as he prepared to face whatever it was the head of ONI had called this emergency gathering for. With a curt nod towards the pair of motionless sentinels, he swiped his card on a reader and stepped into the chamber. A wide, circular table dominated the room, lined with enough high-backed chairs to seat twenty people. Currently, three were occupied, though only one other person was physically present.

"Captain Redford," the holographic form of Annabelle Richards, head of ONI's special operations, smiled politely as she indicated a nearby chair. "We were waiting for you."

"My apologies for being late, ma'am," he replied courteously as he took his place at the table. "I was halfway to Callisto when I was notified of this meeting and had to turn back."

Glancing across towards the other holographic presence, Redford recognised Commander Abbas Cuaron, a young but reputable officer responsible for coordinating several covert action teams within the Delta-6 Division, including the notorious Spartan Fireteam Thor. While they had never met in person, Cuaron presumably knew who Redford was as well, and nodded his way before his eyes wandered back down towards a personal datapad. The only other person actually i, the room, sat directly across from Redford, was Commander Elena-071. The usually well-informed Spartan looked uncharacteristically grave.

"Captain," the SPARTAN-II gave the barest hint of a smile. "It's been some time."

Redford returned the gesture. "Indeed."

Privately, he began to wonder why Elena was present at all. Her own duties seemed to zig-zag between the dangerous field operations that Spartans usually took part in and a surprising amount of tactical assessment and planning on behalf of whatever division within ONI seemed to need her. She had proven herself as a valuable ally to BRUTUS in the past, though she certainly lacked the political clout within the organisation that Redford and the other attendees possessed. Before he could inquire further, a chime sounded from a panel at the centre of the table, and an emitted within one of the empty chairs lit up. A few moments later, the form of a tall woman in dress uniform shimmered into existence. As her dark eyes roved around the table, everyone sat a little straighter in their chairs.

"Now," Admiral Serin Osman spoke at last, tenting her fingers in front of her. "Let's begin."

The meeting table shone for a moment as it began to project image after image, displaying interstellar news reports from multiple outlets, though each bore similar headlines regarding the recent massacre on Erdenet. The next few were classified reports, marked with the distinctive ONI logo and signed off to several different groups. They swirled around, too fast for Redford or the others to properly read them, before coming to a halt in the centre of the table. The last were casualty reports; three separate lists detailing the names, rank and cause of death of a number of military personnel. The Captain remained silent, knowing that this slew of data was being displayed for effect. None of the officers said a word either, and merely waited for Osman to continue.

"In the past four days, we have had an entire Marine Corps base massacred, and two of our special operations units made to kill each other in broad daylight in the middle of a heavily-populated city. Meanwhile, two assets belonging to the BRUTUS division appear to have vanished. All on Erdenet. Explain."

Richards cut Redford off as he opened his mouth to speak, leaning forward with a datapad in one hand.

"Ma'am, the account from surviving members of my retrieval team stated that their deployment orders came down from my office. I can assure you that I authorised no such mission."

"Nor did I," Commander Cuaron said, looking rather annoyed. "While none of my operatives survived, I was given a copy of their own orders: a sanctioned assassination mission. It was forged."

Osman surveyed the pair carefully, though she evidently knew the details already.

"Your agents?" she asked Redford.

"Their last check-in was on the 20th, shortly after completing an assignment against a prominent leader of the Colonial People's Independence Movement. After that, their command vehicle's tracking beacon was disabled and this whole affair took a turn for the worse."

"Do you have any idea why not one, but two groups within Naval Intelligence were dispatched to kill Agent Urbach and Spartan Violet, Captain Redford?"

"Ma'am," Redford kept a respectful tone, but didn't like where this was going. "I am aware that BRUTUS makes few friends due to the nature of our work, but an attempted assassination in broad daylight by another group within ONI makes no sense whatsoever. This must be the work of an enemy infiltrator."

"While I hate to admit it, I agree. Someone or something is working against us within our own organisation, and we need to snuff it out. Everyone currently in this room is clear of suspicion, but otherwise this is an entirely internal matter that must be handled with the utmost care."

Instead of relieved, Cuaron seemed rather perturbed. "Surely our AI would have discovered something by now?"

"They aren't infallible," Elena-071 finally joined the conversation. "And my reports would suggest that this isn't some new threat, either. It's long-term infiltration."

Osman raised an eyebrow. "Share your findings, Commander."

Elena input a series of commands into her datapad, and began to speak as it connected to the table's built-in holotank.

"Findings by the Spartan Sigma Team during an operation on Sansar suggest that there may be a force within ONI operating outside the conventional command structure, but without any oversight from CINCONI or other high-ranking personnel. Said group is likely small, but well-funded and equipped, and currently operates out of a missing Destroyer, the UNSC Kuwabara."

"And how did these Spartans discover all of this?" Richards asked, looking sceptical.

"They've been tracking the Kuwabara for months, Captain. They recently discovered faint signals that matched what few records remain of the Destroyer, which seems to have vanished shortly after its construction. Once there, they uncovered a still-functioning and recently-used ONI facility, and were able to extract a fraction of the data held there before the facility self-destructed."

"Self-destructed? How?"

"From their report, they were briefly contacted by an unknown individual who recognised their presence and overloaded the base's reactor. Sigma were lucky to escape with their lives."

Redford gave a wry smile. "I weren't aware that you were Sigma's handler, Commander. How did you come by this information?"

"I'm not, Captain Redford. They transferred a copy of the files and their report to me because I'm someone they can trust. They suspected - and rightfully so - that their data may have been intercepted if they tried to report in via the usual channels."

"And this Kuwabara? Where is it now?"

"Sigma is currently tracking a list of potential locations based on what they recovered from Sansar."

This seemed to satisfy Osman and the other officers. As a veteran SPARTAN-II team, Sigma were perfectly capable of operating for lengthy periods of time with little supervision from command. If anyone could track down a missing ship, it would be them. All that was left to discuss now was what they could do internally.

"Regarding your missing team," Osman turned back to Redford. "This morning, we recovered fragmented security records from Grant Base, on Erdenet. However, the validity of such data must be questioned, considering the circumstances."

The holographic screens floating over the table blinked for a second before turning to display what was clearly security camera footage. Though rather flickery and disjointed due to damage from the base's destruction, enough footage had been cut together from what remained to give a clear picture of what happened. Marines, mostly unarmed, ran for their lives as a single power-armoured figure stalked through the hallways, killing everything in their path. While a few tried to fight back, none could even come close to hurting the supersoldier as the Spartan moved from room to room with ruthless efficiency. They watched in stunned disbelief for some time, until the recording ended with the perpetrator turning to face one of the cameras with a wave.

"Based on armour configuration and the fact that there was only one Spartan on Erdenet that day, I believe that Violet-B039 was responsible for this slaughter."

Osman spoke with a grim sense of finality, letting the implications sink in. There had been several others in the past, though considering the extensive indoctrination and training of the earlier generations and the heavily intensive vetting procedures associated with the newest group, it would always come as a surprise for a Spartan to turn traitor. Suddenly feeling rather embarrassed, Redford rapped his prosthetic fingers on the table before speaking.

"SPARTAN-B039 has never been anything but loyal in her psychological reports, barring the usual trauma associated with being a SPARTAN-III. Are we certain that this footage hasn't been doctored or even wholly fabricated in some way?"

"It's entirely possible," Osman conceded. "However, were she innocent, then B039 would have likely turned herself in immediately so we could confine her until this mystery was solved. Instead, she and her partner disappeared. I won't question your organisation, Captain, but all signs point towards her betrayal."

"If it's not a set-up," suggested Cuaron. "Someone managed to send two separate ONI teams to Erdenet with orders to kill these two and any allies they might have. Now, we don't know who was responsible for taking them away, but they have clearly gone into hiding."

As this, Richards perked up. "Then we track them down and find out what really happened."

There was a murmur of assent from the others, though Osman seemed rather pensive. She seemed to mull things over for a moment, mentally calculating the risks associated with bringing them in alive at all. Whether or not Violet and Urbach were indeed defectors or simply pawns in a much larger game, capturing and detaining the pair of them was essential if they were to get to the bottom of this. At worst, she would have to have hundreds, if not thousands of individuals questioned for connections to whoever was spreading misinformation, cleaning house in numerous departments. The Section Chiefs would complain - if they weren't already working against her - but that would be that.

"Thank you," she said at last. "Going forward, we must be cautious, but effective. Use only those you can absolutely trust, and report in as often as you can. I'll have secure lines of communication forwarded to you and have Section Two scour everything we have for more information. We'll speak again soon."

With that, Osman's hologram disappeared, and the meeting drew to an abrupt conclusion. Cuaron and Richards vanished a moment later, leaving Redford and Elena as the room's sole occupants. The SPARTAN-II stood up and crossed the room slowly, making it clear that they had to talk. The pair exited side-by-side, walking past the guards without a second glance and continuing on until they were in the base's black-tiled atrium.

"Be honest with me, Redford," Elena crossed her arms. "Do you really think that one of your Spartans would wipe out a military base, then turn traitor?"

Redford turned to see her staring intently at him, and found himself considering his words very carefully. Honestly, he cared more about Jill Urbach's status as a BRUTUS agent than the actions of some Spartan. He'd trained the woman himself after she'd been plucked from some OCS by his predecessor, and had seen her as something akin to his protégée. Any betrayal reflected badly on the BRUTUS division, and highlighted his own failings as someone meant to instil absolute loyalty.

"I believe there is something larger going on than the potential treachery of two of my agents, Commander. If this theory about some organisation sabotaging ONI from within is true, then they may be only a small piece of a wider conspiracy. For now though, I think we should consolidate our resources and work to uncover any plot."

"Agreed. I'm going to see what I can dig up from the archives myself. Section Two's good, but I prefer a hands-on approach."

"And what of Sigma Team? Aren't they corresponding with you?"

To his surprise, Elena smirked. "Oh, they've got their own way of doing things. Don't worry about them."

Bait

1947 Hours, May 23rd, 2558 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Sundown, Inner Colonies


"You could really do a better job of fitting in, buddy."

"Iggy, I swear I'm going to break your chip in half you don't shut the hell up."

When their fragmented list of contacts pointed them towards the tropical world of Sundown, Marco had expected a swift, probably violent raid on some remote safehouse. Instead, he and Jax were in a crowded bar on one of the popular colony world's more expensive resorts, trying their hardest to blend in amongst dozens of happy tourists. Sat at a corner table with his back to the wall, the Spartan tried not to grimace as he sipped at some foul concoction his comrade had ordered from the bar; a lurid cocktail served in what appeared to be half a synthetic coconut with a feather sticking out, for some bizarre reason.

"Jeez, chill out," Iggy's wheedling voice bored into his right ear. "Our guy's gonna be here soon."

Marco sighed, and looked over towards Jax, who could at least pretend like he wasn't waiting for armed men to storm the bar. Two heavily muscled men standing at nearly seven feet tall tended to attract a lot of attention in a place like this, and he was certain that his more jovial companion's cover story about them being en-route to some interstellar weight-lifting tournament wouldn't last all that long. Pretending to stifle a yawn, Marco muttered something only the minuscule microphone attacked to the inside of his lapel could pick up.

"Kane, what's your arrival time if things go south?"

In the penthouse suite of a nearby hotel - discreetly paid for by ONI, of course - Sigma Team's leader was standing by with a clear view of the bar with his heavily-customised SR99 rifle at the ready. By virtue of being their superior in rank and the least capable of the three when it came to interacting with non-Spartan personnel, Kane was to be their backup if this meeting turned out to be a trap.

"Up close?" Kane took a moment to reply.

"Yeah."

"A minute, tops. Should be able to jump from the penthouse and land on the bridge. Assuming any initial fire support is ineffective."

"Copy that. Don't miss."

This got a rare chuckle out of SPARTAN-098. "When do I ever?"

As the COM cut out, Marco stood up, stretching slightly. While he'd tried his hardest to ease himself into a civilian environment before in the brief periods he'd spent on Earth after reuniting with his biological family, he could never shake the feeling of unease he felt while out of armour. As his eyes roved around the room, each happy patron was assessed as a threat, every door and window marked as a potential entry point or avenue of attack. While Sundown and its resorts held a very strict policy on firearms, the two Spartans each carried an M6K pistol for emergencies. Though disdainful of the compact weapon's fairly mediocre stopping power, Marco was just happy to have a firearm handy. He picked his way past tables, attracting a few lingering glances from tourists as he made his way towards Jax at the bar.

"Hey big guy," a young woman in a sparkling blue dress sidled up to the Spartan, grabbing his arm. "What brings you here."

While all his instincts called for an immediate and lethal counter-attack to someone touching him, Marco merely fixed her with a blank stare and made what he hoped was a polite smile as he offered a few terse words.

"I'm on holiday."

"Oh?" she looked him up and down. "I'm from Mamore. You?"

"Earth."

"Oh, homeworld man? Would you like to join us?"

The woman gestured towards her table, which was occupied by a group of similarly-aged girls. One of them waved at Marco, who kept his expression as neutral as could be. In his mind, they were probably rebel infiltrators, sending one of their own to lure an off-duty Spartan into a false sense of security so they could drug and torture him. Probably. Either that or they just happened to be into unnaturally tall, heavily scarred men in their forties. He shook his head slowly and gestured towards Jax, who he now noticed was watching the scene with some interest.

"No thanks, I've got to get back to my friend."

Seeing Jax, she let go of Marco's arm, rolled her eyes, and wandered back towards her table with a curiously annoyed sigh. Marco shrugged it off, but made a mental note to keep an eye on that table for any signs of weaponry being drawn. The other Spartan gave a nod as Marco approached him, and flashed a cheeky grin that his friend knew would precede the childish ribbing he'd never quite lost over the years.

"Looks like you blew it," he raised his eyebrows with a glance toward the girls' table.

"Wasn't interested."

"I think you really had a chance there, too. She liked you."

"Like you'd know."

Jax could only sigh at Marco's complete lack of humour on an operation like this. Unlike his gruff partner, he'd been rather talkative with this bar's clientele, exchanging jokes with some of the bartenders and even trying his hand at a single karaoke song during the busy lunch hour, all while Marco had slowly nursed his drinks and counted down the minutes to their scheduled meeting. This was of course, all an act. Jax was a Spartan, raised to be a soldier and kept in that strict military tradition for his entire life. Everything here was done in imitation; his attempt at pretending to be a 'normal' person.

"At least I try."

Marco softened his tone a little. "Yeah, you're better at blending in than I am."

A slight cough from Iggy into the Spartan's earpiece diverted his attention away from Jax and towards the bar's entrance. The main doors swung open as four newcomers entered, garnering little attention as they moved towards Marco and Jax. Three of them were large, muscular men - clearly bodyguards - with poorly-concealed SAMP-10 machine pistols tucked into the waistbands of their tracksuits. Their leader, on the other hand, was a short, middle-aged woman in a rather out of place business suit. She stopped a few feet away from the two, sizing the Spartans up, then gave a polite cough.

"Sorry to keep you waiting, gentlemen," she smiled, her voice plummy and formal. "My name is Melissa Aldenkamp. If you'd like to come with me, we can discuss the specifics of our meeting."

Marco let Jax take the lead, holding back as his more affable companion approached Aldenkamp with a handshake and a smile. Surprise flickered across her face for a moment before she took it all in stride and waved for the two men to follow her. The bodyguards remained at their employer's side, and Marco lagged behind just enough to ensure that none of them could move to surround them. As they neared the exit, his eyes flitted towards the table of young woman, who watched their little party with some interest. Moving out into the cool night air of the resort, Marco's thoughts on whether or not they were indeed rebel infiltrators remained inconclusive.

"How are you liking the resort?" Aldenkamp kept up the small talk as they wandered down the gravel path, passing through a small village of faux bamboo huts. "I'm told we're one of the most popular in the Inner Colonies."

Jax nodded, taking a refreshing breath. "It's very relaxing. The climate agrees with me, too."

"Oh, that's good to hear. And what about you, sir?"

"I like it," Marco lied.

"We do pride ourselves on excellence, after all."

Once Aldenkamp had finished what seemed like a company-mandated sales pitch, Jax took the opportunity to ask her a few more questions while his partner checked to ensure that they were still within range of Kane's vantage point atop the penthouse. While he didn't doubt their leader's marksmanship skills, they were now a fairly extreme range for supporting fire.

"So, I take it you're with the management?" Jax asked.

"I oversee most of our imports," their host's voice suddenly took a very businesslike tone. "We had to lobby hard for a private spaceport, considering the amount we have to bring here from the colonies. That aside, I have a background in corporate security, which is how I became acquainted with your employer in the first place."

Now they were getting somewhere. "Ah, so you've been dealing with us for a while, then? We've mostly handled field operations until now."

"Two years. I must say that you're more talkative than the last fellow they sent along, though."

"Who'd they send?"

"A man named D'Artagnan. He didn't seem French, though if you're not from Earth I suppose these things don't matter as much. He was overseeing some shipment they wanted to transfer to Barrier as Navorca meat, as I recall."

"And where are you from, if you don't mind me asking?"

"I'm a Martian, myself," Aldenkamp seemed very at ease when talking about herself. "Though I'm told my grandparents emigrated from a place called Haiti, on Earth. Strange, isn't it? As much as we claim loyalty towards our birth planet, there's always some great attraction towards the homeworld, don't you think?"

For a moment, Marco could've sworn that she was getting misty-eyed with some odd nostalgia. Aldenkamp sighed wistfully, and dabbed her forehead with a handkerchief before leading them up a narrow wooden staircase towards a rather ugly stone building, half-concealed by a thicket of palm trees. This was obviously some kind of administrative building, kept out of sight from the resort's regular patrons. As Jax opened his mouth to reply, Marco interrupted him.

"I suppose that most people like knowing where they're from, ma'am."

Aldenkamp did not answer, but closed her eyes contentedly for a second before continuing on. With only a flimsy chainlink fence and a few locked doors around it, the building hardly looked like the headquarters of some secretive smuggling operation. She swiped a panel with a keycard and the main door clanked open, allowing them inside what seemed like a fairly innocuous storage building. Over half the main room was filled with crates emblazoned with the resort's logo, stacked halfway to the ceiling and sealed shut while a few others sat open and unfilled. Their guide turned to face the Spartans, and clapped her hands together.

"Well then, what is it that your employer needs me to move?"

***

With a small grunt of annoyance, Kane-098 conceded that even he wouldn't be able to angle any shots through the far-off building's tiny windows. Putting down his SR99, he thumbed the safety on and walked over to the monitors he and the others had set up after their arrival in the hotel. With a very limited window to act after their mission to Sansar, Sigma Team had transferred most of their findings to Elena-071 and immediately set off for Sundown. In the limited number of dossiers extracted from the bunker by Iggy they had discovered a string of transactions between this rogue ONI cell and some of the resort staff, diverting UNSC military equipment and other items through the resort's delivery services and sending it to outposts on multiple planets. With the help of their AI, they had gotten into contact with Aldenkamp's people, pretending to be members of this cell looking to oversee the transportation of an important device as soon as possible. Kane knew his comrades were hardly undercover specialists - Marco's brief stint as a supposed rebel had ended in a great deal of bloodshed some time back - but the situation called for it.

"Iggy, can you find any discrepancies in delivery logs from this resort?"

The AI materialised above a nearby datapad, his hands in his pockets. "Yup. Someone's skimming off the top here."

"How so?"

"Well boss, there's always room for loss in the transport business. Packages get delayed, banged up or even lost, but any corporation worth its salt can write off a couple of losses here and there. Couple of percent at most. Now, when I look at crates being moved under this Aldenkamp's supervision, things get interesting. Every so often, some Navorca meat goes bad unexpectedly or some wood rots in transit. Not often, but hey, it happens."

"And these packages are the smuggled ones?"

"Exactamundo," Iggy tapped the side of his glasses. "They've been careful about it to avoid detection, but I'd wager that they weren't counting on anything more than some accountant to check over things, let alone a wonderfully talented military Smart AI like yours truly."

Kane ignored Iggy's smug posturing and picked up a small device from a nearby table. He clicked it once, and the penthouse suite's skylight slid open. As the beautiful colony world's perpetually dusky sky gradually darkened into night, a shimmering aurora borealis grew brighter and brighter above. Even the rather dour Kane paused for a few seconds to appreciate the display before kicking open a nearby crate. Inside sat a heavily modified ARGUS drone - a disk-shaped unmanned vehicle designed for bomb detection and if necessary, destruction. While Sigma Team's arsenal was limited due to the hasty preparation for this operation, they had acquired this piece of kit some time ago and had been itching to use it for months.

"Iggy, what's the situation on their end?" he lifted the disk-shaped UAV out of its box and set it down on the floor.

"They're just talking right now. Jax is feeding them some crap about wanting to transport a tank."

"They won't buy that. All the other items were nowhere near as big."

"Yeah, well he's saying they want it done piece by piece."

Only Jax would come up with such an audacious story, but if it was keeping their hosts occupied, then so be it. What the Spartans really needed was a list of locations. If they couldn't find the UNSC Kuwabara, then Sigma would have to hunt down and destroy every single safe location this group had until they were forced out of hiding. Like his comrades, Kane disliked the politics involved with ONI. He'd been their assassin before and knew what it meant to operate in total secrecy, but at least he knew he was working at the behest of an organised command structure for some greater purpose. There was something about this entire scenario that blurred those lines, which bothered him immensely.

"I'm sending in the drone. Iggy, inform Marco and Jax that I'll have them covered from above, and to stay away from any exterior walls."

"Got it." The AI vanished.

Kane sat down on a nearby couch, which audibly creaked under the weight of his armour as he established a connection between the drone and a nearby monitor. His fingers moved deftly over the keyboard, inputting commands and syncing the machine's optics with his armour's own heads-up display. With a faint whirr, its engines kicked into gear and the ARGUS slowly rose into the air. While these devices were usually only a metre or in length and possessed a small stock of Lancet micro-missiles for long-range detonations, this one had been designed to include a miniaturised anti-matériel rifle based on old design documents from the long-defunct M99 Stanchion. While much larger to accommodate the extra weapon, it was still relatively fast and quiet.

Materials Group really came through for us on this one. The Spartan felt a rare sense of pride. Now to see what it can do.

***

Marco had to give Aldenkamp credit for going along with Jax's request for the slow transportation of an M820 Scorpion to an offsite facility for so long, but even he could see how she was becoming exasperated. Before his friend could continue, he stepped forward and raised a hand to silence Jax.

"There's one other thing, ma'am."

Recovering her slightly befuddled look after Jax's eager speech, Aldenkamp turned to him with a bright expression. "What's that?"

"We've had a situation recently regarding some of our delivery points. We're going to have to check your private logs and compare them with our own, since one of our last shipments didn't make it through."

She seemed rather taken aback by this. "I wasn't informed of this at all. Once our money comes through we know a job has been completed."

He'd misstepped, but forged on regardless. "We confirmed the arrival of your last package, but the delivery site was compromised. A further inspection revealed that one of your crates had been tampered with."

"I do hope you're not accusing me of betraying you, sir." Aldenkamp seemed to puff up slightly, raising an accusatory finger. "We've been more than accommodating to your organisation, even with your rather odd choice of destinations."

"We just want to check the manifests and your exact shipping method, ma'am. That's all."

Things began to grow tense in the warehouse, but the businesswoman soon relented under Marco's unwavering glare. With a wave of her hand she directed a bodyguard towards a side office while the others flanked her, more for peace of mind than any real intimidation factor. One of her men soon emerged with a small cardboard box filled with manila folders and hand-written log books. Such items were an incredible rarity in this day and age, but made sense in a galaxy where electronic records could be easily tracked down with the right resources. With a purely physical record like this, one would have to acquire the log book itself to find anything out, or destroy it to remove any traces of evidence.

"I hope this will suffice," she thrust a large, leather-bound journal towards Marco, who opened it and flipped to the last pages. As he began to read, Iggy contacted him once again.

"Hey, I know you're busy and all, but Kane's sending in that suped-up drone of his to cover you. Stay away from the walls."

Marco didn't bother replying as the connection cut out once again, but felt slightly more at ease knowing they had someone watching over them. Before him, laid out in very neat handwriting, were records dating back several months. Each manifest detailed a crate's former contents, its new cargo, the weight of each package and the true destination. Most of the planets involved seemed to be Outer Colony worlds, Biko being the foremost among them, another name continued to come up: 'Mulberry Field'. While the others were all recognisable settlements, Marco didn't recognise this one.

"Mulberry field?" he raised his eyes towards Aldenkamp. "Where's that?"

From the shocked expression Marco received in return, he knew he'd just blown his cover. With the journal in one hand, he slipped the other behind his back and drew his M6K in less than a second. Jax moved just as quickly, and had his own pistol levelled by the time the smuggler's bodyguards began to reach for their own weapons.

Three shots rang out, and three bodies slumped to the floor.

Jax closed the distance between himself and Aldenkamp in an instant, clasping a hand over her mouth before she could scream before tapping the barrel of his pistol against her forehead.

"Please calm down," all trace of warmth and humour drained from his voice. "You won't be killed if you just comply with us, understand? We're Spartans."

While the stifled woman attempted to calm her breathing not taking her eyes off Jax's pistol, Marco pocketed the journal and took the opportunity to explore the rest of the building. For a base of operations used by an interstellar smuggling operation, it was surprisingly small. The side office was rather modest, containing a single computer terminal at what he assumed was Aldenkamp's desk and a hand-drawn chart of future deliveries. Given her high-ranking position in the company that ran this resort, she was probably able to use this space freely without much suspicion.

"Find anything!?" Jax called from the main room.

"Nothing."

As Marco returned, Jax released Aldenkamp and holstered his pistol. She slumped backwards against a crate, tears welling up in her eyes. Marco frowned and knelt down, looming over their captive.

"So I'll ask again: Where is this 'Mulberry field'?"

Aldenkamp shook her head, letting out a low wail. "I don't understand this!"

"Answer me!"

With a nod from Jax, Marco placed a hand on Aldenkamp's shoulder, making her shudder. He had no intention of seriously hurting a potentially valuable informant and had no patience for anything but the most rudimentary forms of torture, but she didn't know that.

"I-It's where you have most of your deliveries sent. I get different coordinates every time!"

"So a ship, then?"

"Sometimes. My pilots just drop off packages at the point specified and move on. 'Mulberry field' is just the name they give when they want something delivered that way."

"What about the other places, like Biko?"

"Whatever we take to Biko, we leave at the spaceport and it's picked up there. Really, we're just a delivery service."

"So, you've never actually met the people you're working for?"

"Look, the only one I've met in person was this D'Artagnan fellow. I thought he was just like you!"

"Meaning?"

Aldenkamp seemed to be getting some of her old nerve back. "A Spartan, you dolt! You think I wouldn't recognise one in the flesh?"

Marco had to admit, this was a fair point. Thanks to the explosion of popularity seen by SPARTAN-IV's and their media exposure, any abnormally tall, fit person tended to be mistaken for an augmentee. Were it not for the limited window in which they had to perform this operation, they would have called for a pair of ONI agents to take their place in the field. However, that was not the issue here. The Spartan was.

"Ma'am," Jax's smile was also back. "Tell me, who do you think you're working for?"

At this, Aldenkamp seemed completely nonplussed. "Why, ONI, of course!"

"Why's that?" Marco got to his feet.

"Who else would want all this secrecy? Besides, when they contacted me I wanted to make sure their credentials checked out, which they did. Apparently they needed someone to move gear into the Outer Colonies to supply field agents fighting against the Insurrection, and were paying handsomely. How could I resist?"

Marco sighed, rubbing his forehead, while Jax could only nod, putting everything together in his head. He then stepped forward and extended a hand towards Aldenkamp to help her up, speaking as sincerely as possible.

"I'm sorry to tell you this, ma'am, but I'm afraid you've been tricked. These people you're working for are a rogue cell, responsible for more than one terrorist incident."

"What?!" her hand faltered as it reached for Jax's. "But I- How could- I simply didn't know!"

While she eventually allowed herself to be pulled to her feet by the SPARTAN-II, Marco remained impassive. She was either a superb actor and deserving of praise for this performance, or she was telling the truth and this mysterious group were a lot more widespread than they first imagined. As he opened his mouth to inform Aldenkamp that she'd have to be brought in for questioning, his ear buzzed.

"Spartans!" Iggy spoke hurriedly and without a hint of his usual charm. "Military craft coming in from the east, take cover!"

It took Marco and Jax two seconds to work out where the eastern wall of the warehouse was, and a further three to hit the ground as the distant droning of a high-speed aircraft quickly grew closer. Jax grabbed the unaware Aldenkamp and threw her down as gently as possible, and had barely touched the floor when a third of the warehouse erupted in a fiery blast that showered its occupants with debris. Raising one arm to cover his eyes, Marco rolled over towards the body of one of Aldenkamp's bodyguards and snatched up his SAMP-10. Peering towards the massive hole in the wall, he spotted the distinctive outline of a UNSC dropship hovering just outside, its thrusters scorching the undergrowth as its bay door opened.

"Marco!" Jax hissed from behind him. "We're not armed for this. Fall back."

While he was loathe to admit it, Marco didn't feel well equipped enough to take on an entire ship like this. Keeping low, he began to edge towards the exit, using overturned crates for cover while Jax guided the rather disoriented Melissa Aldenkamp away from the half-collapsed room. Jax opened the door and guided their captive through, bringing out his weapon just in time to notice a flash of grey from nearby.

"Wait-!"

Aldenkamp fell backwards as a volley of rounds raked across her business suit in a spray of blood. Before she'd hit the ground, her attacker sprang forward, firing wildly towards the SPARTAN-II. Jax threw himself back inside just fast enough to avoid getting hit, only to have the half-closed door kicked inwards by an armoured boot. A fully-armed Spartan stepped inside, sliding a second magazine into an M20 submachine gun.

Focused entirely on killing Jax, who had fallen beneath the door, the Spartan did not notice Marco until the supersoldier was already lunging towards him. While he lacked his all-important MJOLNIR armour, the SPARTAN-II knew that winning such a fight wasn't impossible. For all the power they granted, he knew that these suits were as fallible as any other piece of technology and could be exploited when necessary. Marco landed a punch on the attacker's unarmoured lower torso that he was sure caused some damage even through the thick techsuit, then unloaded the SAMP-10 into the Spartan's visor. While it wasn't enough to deplete the man's energy shielding as he backed off, momentarily blinded, it gave Jax the chance to leap to his feet and yank the submachine gun to one side, allowing Marco to deliver a heavy kick that staggered the supersoldier. Bursting through the empty doorframe, the pair only had one option: Run.

"Marco, Jax," Kane sounded slightly worried as he contacted them. "I'm standing by for fire support, what's your status?"

Marco ducked to one side as bullets began to whiz overhead. "Falling back towards the resort! We've got hostile Spartans in pursuit, over!"

He took the news as well as expected. "Understood. I'll begin covering fire and make my way towards your location. Notifying orbital assets, too."

The trek back through the jungle path was taking longer than Marco thought it would, especially since they were forced to return fire every so often. The fact that he and Jax had fought off that Spartan without being killed was a miracle, as was every second they avoided taking a bullet in the back. At least two others had joined in the pursuit, and Marco had a horrible feeling that they were moving in to flank them. Worse still, the dropship - a heavily-modified D96 Albatross - now hovered above, providing sporadic bursts of autocannon fire that swept across the path leading back to the resort. Only the dense foliage and their own experience with asymmetrical warfare had kept them alive in the last ten minutes.

"Kane," Jax whispered into his COM, crouched beneath a fallen log, "If you're gonna help out, do it now."

"Copy that."

There was a sharp bang, and Marco glanced up just in time to see something small streak past above the jungle canopy. A second later, an explosion sounded above them and Albatross suddenly lurched to one side, smoke pouring from one of its thrusters. Despite its size, Kane's drone packed quite a wallop, and loosed two more missiles as it circled the combat zone. The distant stacatto of rifle fire sounded once more in the distance, this time away from Marco and Jax. Taking their chance, they surged ahead, zig-zagging across the path as they neared the cluster of huts on the resort's outskirts.

"How're you for ammo?" Marco asked.

"Two rounds left. You?"

"SAMP's out. Five on the M6."

"Great," Jax exhaled grumpily. "We need our suits, Marco."

It was at this moment that the horribly burnt, twisted remains of the Albatross came crashing through the outskirts of the forested area with two of its thrusters missing entirely and half the armoured cockpit smashed in. Driving a long furrow across the dirt, the dropship finally came to rest just outside of the bamboo village, whereupon its remaining engines finally exploded. The Spartans watched it burn for a couple of seconds, nodding appreciatively at their leader's handiwork.

"Remind me to requisition my own drone," Jax laughed as they jogged away. "Provided we still make it out of this alive."

Having evidently spent all of his missiles bringing down the Albatross, Kane's drone had switched to its cut-down anti-matériel rifle and continued to trade fire with the enemy Spartans. By the time Jax and Marco had reached the bridge connecting the residential island with the one housing their hotel, hurrying past crowds of confused guests drawn by the distant sounds of battle, the little machine finally went down as a lucky burst of rifle fire ripped through its rotor cover and sent it spiralling into the sea.

"Drone's down," Kane remarked over the COM. "Got at least three confirmed hits beforehand, though. Shields might have saved them, but I definitely injured at least one."

"Just one?" Marco found himself panting slightly as he and Jax stumbled into the elevator and hit the 'penthouse' option. "You're slacking."

"They were good," came the serious reply. "In any case, the drone had limits. They wouldn't have been so lucky if I'd been on the ground."

Not one for idle threats, Kane probably meant exactly what he said. Still, managing to injure even one of them was impressive enough. Now all Sigma Team had to do was suit up, retrieve their weaponry and move in to capture or kill the enemy Spartans as quickly as possible. Without any transport, they'd be stuck on the island, and once the resort was put on lockdown by security and reinforcements arrived it would only be a matter of time before they were defeated. At least, that's what Marco believed as he entered their reserved penthouse suite, throwing off his ruined shirt as he approached the locker housing his techsuit. Their enemy had other plans.

"Yo!" Iggy appeared on a nearby screen, looking rather annoyed. "We've got another ship incoming!"

"Wouldn't that be our reinforcements?" Jax asked, unscrewing a water bottle.

"I've contacted them three times, boys," the AI crossed his arms. "Chief, whatever message you sent, they weren't getting."

Sitting in orbit was a Sahara-class Prowler that Sigma had been attached to for the duration of this operation, complete with a force of highly-trained ONI Security personnel and a long-distance communication array that could have a warship in-system within the hour. If their transmissions weren't getting through, then it meant someone or something was blocking them.

"What's the ship?" Kane asked, arms folded.

"Condor. U81 variant if I'm not misaken. That means it is - or was - ONI."

"Can we take it down?"

"You got another drone?"

"No. Thank you, Iggy."

The AI shrugged and disappeared, and Kane removed his helmet. 'Failure' was not a term the Spartans liked at all, but there was no other word for how this mission would be viewed. In the time it would take for Jax and Marco to armour up and for the three of them to reach the adjacent island, the enemy Spartans would be long-gone. For now, Sigma Team could only watch as the Condor swooped in low over the distant treeline, lingering for less than half a minute before taking off again and streaking up into Sundown's beautiful sky. Eventually, Marco broke the silence, removing the journal from his back pocket and tossing it down onto the coffee table. The pages were a little crumpled, but otherwise perfectly legible.

"Well," he gestured towards the most recent list of dropoff locations. "Here are our leads."

It wasn't much to go on, but enough to keep the trail hot. Kane immediately began swiping at his datapad while Jax watched emergency crews converging on the now-burning forest. ONI would have a hard time keeping this one under wraps, but if anyone had pockets deep enough to pay for all this mess, it was them.

"Iggy," Kane finally looked up towards the holotank where the AI currently resided. "As soon as the comms are free again, arrange for a pickup. We've got a trip to make."

Chapter Two

Ambition

1118 Hours, May 24th, 2558 (UNSC Military Calendar)

UNSC Kuwabara, Joint Occupation Zone


As he watched the Condor touch down in one of the Destroyer's hangar bays, D'Artagnan prepared himself for the worst. Originally a secondary vehicle Red Cell kept for close air support and emergency pickup, the transport craft was only to be used if a mission went horribly wrong for their field operatives. In this case, their Albatross had been unexpectedly blown out of the sky on Sundown.

"D'Artagnan."

Stood in the doorway to the hangar's observation deck was Control. Wearing his standard grey officer's uniform and an expression of genuine concern, he approached his subordinate with both hands clasped behind his back and received a brief salute.

"Sir."

Out of armour, D'Artagnan and Control stood shoulder-to-shoulder as they watched the armoured trio exiting the Condor. Athos seemed rather unsteady on his feet, and was supported by Aramis as they descended the boarding ramp. As they moved under the bright lights of the hangar deck, the two observers saw that the right side of his torso was caked in blood. While the others seemed fine, their usually-pristine MJOLNIR suits were dinged and blackened; signs of a heavy firefight and close-range explosions. Seeing his comrade injured, D'Artagnan turned to head down there, only to have a hand placed on his shoulder.

"Let the medical crew handle them," Control said flatly. "This will have been a valuable lesson for them."

After the loss of their bunker on Sansar and the very real possibility of a data leak, D'Artagnan had been dispatched alone to clear out a warehouse on Forseti they had been using to store vehicles. With Control finally making his big move against ONI's leadership, Red Cell were consolidating all of their resources aboard the Kuwabara in preparation for what would likely be the most important mission of their lives. If their pursuers already had time to not only track down their contacts on Sundown but put up a good enough fight to force his fellow operatives to retreat like this, then D'Artagnan didn't have long to act.

"What were they up against?" he asked, already knowing the answer.

"Spartans."

"How many? We should have had the edge in experience, at least."

Control's expression did not falter, but there was an air of reluctance about him as he scratched his greying hair and turned to look at D'Artagnan directly.

"It was Sigma Team."

D'Artagnan folded his arms, slowly exhaling as his superior's words sank in. Sigma Team. Why them? Why couldn't it have been anyone else? Their operating procedure had always been clear: When faced with a threat, eliminate it as quickly and efficiently as possible. There had been moments in the past few years where Red Cell had come dangerously close to being discovered, only to be saved by decisive action from its members. D'Artagnan had killed men and women fighting for the same side just to maintain their secrecy, and had always been able to justify it as being for the greater good. This, however, was an entirely different matter.

"So what are we going to do?"

Control seemed to already have an answer in mind, and beckoned for D'Artagnan to follow him. Taking a glance back towards the hangar bay, he saw technical teams helping his subordinates out of their armour while medics clustered round the trio, attending to their many wounds. He sighed, and followed Control through the Kuwabara's crew quarters and up towards the ship's bridge. Having operated alone for many years, much of the Destroyer was under near-constant maintenance, with many of its side passages laid bare by engineers looking to repair more important areas. Control didn't say a word for the entire journey, offering only a polite nod to his XO, a rather tired-looking woman named McLaren, before taking a seat in his command chair.

"Today, we activate OVERSIGHT." Control tapped a button on the side of his chair and the holotank before him lit up. "And move out of the shadows for good."

Moments after Control's rather grandiose announcement, a map of the known galaxy appeared before them, dotted with tiny icons. Each signified an important resource: information repositories, secret prisons, research laboratories, hidden armouries and manufacturing plants, bunkers, shipyards, meeting points and public offices. Before them lay the collected wealth of the Office of Naval Intelligence, scattered across the stars. As he looked over it all, no longer able to suppress a grin as his pale eyes shone with greed, Control spread his arms wide as if to embrace it all.

He wanted everything.

"Sir," D'Artagnan gave a slight cough, and Control stiffened slightly before sitting back in his chair. "As I said: What are we-"

"Our scapegoats," Control cut him off. "Urbach and the SPARTAN-III. The UNSC may find them soon. I want them captured and brought to justice for the massacre on Erdenet. I want to display our efficiency in dealing with traitors when I meet with ONI's Section Chiefs in just a few weeks."

"If you wanted them captured, then why didn't you just have us lock them up before they left the planet?"

"We must make it look as though they escaped to safety. The presence of our rebel friend on Biko and that alien double agent living out there will make for excellent scapegoats as well."

"I'll head off as soon as the Condor's been serviced, then. The others?"

"Leave them here. Once they've recovered, I'll need them to accompany me to my meeting with the soon-to-be former CINCONI. There's also the matter of X-83 to attend to."

That was the package D'Artagnan's team had recovered from that Marine base on Erdenet. With the entire facility a burnt-out ruin, it would be unlikely that any investigators would realise what they had taken. Even the base's occupants had been under strict orders not to open it; orders sent by Control himself. While utilising smuggling routes to ferry equipment was their usual procedure, that package in particular had been ordered under several false names from a particularly important laboratory that would likely realise their mistake within a few weeks at most. Currently, it sat within the Kuwabara's tech lab, being looked over by some of the ship's engineering crew.

"You said that thing was our trump card," D'Artagnan crossed his arms, "If that's true, then when are we putting it to use?"

"If all goes perfectly? Never. However, I had to take precautions before starting this operation, and with Sigma on our trail I fear it will only be a matter of time before we put it to use."

The supersoldier began to feel slightly irked, aware that Control was avoiding the important question. So, he chose to be more direct.

"Will I have to kill Sigma Team?"

"I don't know, can you?"

It was subtle, but the slight curl of Control's lip made it clear that he was mocking the other man. The two stood apart in silence for a few moments before D'Artagnan he straightened up and saluted.

"I'll follow my orders."

It wasn't a yes, nor was it a no. He turned on his heel and exited the bridge, leaving Control to his machinations while he prepared himself for the trip to Biko. Capturing Jill Urbach and her Spartan bodyguard could prove troublesome, especially if he was on his own. D'Artagnan hoped they would trust him enough to be lured into a trap. As he headed down the corridor at a brisk pace, the bridge door opened up again and Lieutenant McLaren jogged out, datapad in hand.

"Spartan!" she called after him. D'Artagnan halted and waited for her to approach, almost flinching at the mention of the word.

"Yes ma'am?"

"You left before I could tell you, but while you were away, we had three more terminations."

"Three?!"

"Yes. Two engineers and a member of our combat team. They tried to steal one of our slipspace-capable shuttles from hangar four, but were caught before they could take off. Control took care of them himself."

Aboard the Kuwabara, such occurrences usually happened once or twice a year at most. Operating in deep space, away from civilisation and cut off from the military, life was tough for its crew. Most worked without complaint and had adjusted well to this kind of life, but for some this was simply not enough. Control was a charismatic if deliberately enigmatic leader - few aboard even knew his real name - and ensured that their mission took priority over everything else. 'To betray the mission was to betray mankind' was a quote he was rather fond of.

"That's eight this year," he murmured, frowning deeply. "How were they stopped?"

McLaren tapped two fingers against the side of her head. "Implants."

"He give them a chance to give up?"

"Only one."

Three months ago, Control had greeted the crew one morning with a notice stating that they were to be given upgrades to their neural implants immediately and without exception. Somehow, 'without exception' did not apply to Control, D'Artagnan or his team, but every other person aboard the Kuwabara had been marched to the medical bay to undergo these procedures. While basic implants were commonplace within the UNSC and the procedure itself had become remarkably easy over the years, these 'upgrades' had apparently taken some time to perfect and were more invasive than the standard chip embedded beneath the skin.

However, It was not until three weeks later when a member of the medical crew broke down and took a hostage at gunpoint that the feature of these new implants was revealed: a microbomb. Once activated, it would detonate the person's skull from the inside, killing them in less than a second without risk of collateral damage. This revelation had almost led to a mutiny until Control calmly explained that it was a temporary measure carried out to prevent defection and had been an order given by the Commander in Chief of Naval Intelligence herself for the most crucial of projects. While most accepted this, the truth was that everyone aboard the Kuwabara now had their life placed firmly in Control's hands.

"The bodies?"

"Incinerated." McLaren looked downcast for a moment, but perked up slightly. "Sorry about this, but since you're chief of security-"

"You had to let me know," he nodded. "Thank you, ma'am."

The Lieutenant paused for a moment, and seemed to be on the verge of continuing the conversation before she turned away from D'Artagnan and headed back towards her station on the bridge. Of all the ship's crew, she had been with Control longer than most, and seemed to treat the man with a mixture of veneration and fear without adopting his own rather black and white outlook on things. Having had the chance to examine her file, Control had rescued McLaren himself from the disabled hulk of a Frigate after a battle with the Covenant back in 2546, and had since taken her on as some kind of protege. Her tale was not unique among the Kuwabara's crew, however; most seemed to share a similar story of surviving some catastrophe or being cut off from the chain of command, only to be picked up and press-ganged aboard the rogue Destroyer.

His own story was similar; caught in a seemingly unsurvivable situation alongside his comrades, he had been rescued by Control and his men a little under six years ago. It had been difficult to acclimatise at first, but D'Artagnan was nothing if not adaptable and the secretive nature of the Kuwabara's operations actually suited him, even if he had been forced to give up everything he had for the cause. Realising that he had been standing in an empty corridor for close to a minute, the supersoldier shook his head and walked off at a brisk pace, whipping out his COM pad.

"Hangar four, this is D'Artagnan. Prepare the Condor for a slipspace jump as soon as it's finished inspection and have my armour ready."

The trip to Biko would take a while - five hours at most. Before he had smuggled Urbach and Violet onto that shipping freighter, he had checked its travel route: eight planets in a week, with three before it arrived on the barely-resettled Outer Colony world. The pair would be picked up there and held by one of Red Cell's contacts for the time being; the group had appropriated a safehouse on the planet that saw use by passing ONI agents, many of whom were blissfully unaware of who really ran the place. A definite boon to the byzantine nature of the intelligence organisation was that the overwhelming majority of those working for it knew they were being kept in the dark on a lot of subjects, and would follow just about any order provided it was signed off by the right people.

***

Back on the ship's bridge, Control watched the former Spartan head off from a security feed on his datapad before setting the device down with a contented sigh. D'Artagnan was his greatest weapon, and one that could not afford to fail. Pulling himself out of his captain's chair, the grey-suited officer walked across the room towards the forward viewport, hands behind his back. Around him, a cadre of junior officers worked dutifully at their stations, heads down and mouths closed. The quiet tended to help with productivity. As he gazed out into the star-spotted blackness of space, Control couldn't help but let a smile creep across his weary face.

This is it. After all this time, we'll be getting the recognition we deserve.

Everything that had preceded this moment was part of a plan many years in the making; a scheme that would see the unification of an organisation that had become so horribly fractured and overstretched that it was a miracle it had not already fallen apart. Control had spent years completely hidden from public view, connected to the military he once served by nothing more than a handful of overlooked connections that had allowed him to siphon enough supplies away from overfunded projects where a few missing items or a handful of credits wouldn't be missed to keep things operational. Now though, it seemed that they were keeping a tighter hold on things and it would only be a matter of time before they were discovered. For all his precautions, however, Control's own vindictiveness in dealing with a would-be whistleblower had come back to bite him in the form of Spartan pursuers looking for his vessel.

I should have killed that Lieutenant when I had the chance, he reflected. After cutting out the man's tongue and injecting him with a neural paralysis dart strong enough to utterly obliterate most of his memories, Control had passed him on to some unscrupulous fellow on Venezia who assured him that the Kig-Yar would likely work him to death as a slave. While the offender had died eventually from a myriad of health problems, this was not until after Sigma Team had saved him from slavery and discovered his status as a former military officer, along with the sole thing he remembered: the name of this ship.

"Merope," Control turned back towards his command station, his good mood diminishing by the second.

A moment later, the holotank by his chair lit up and the holographic form of a young woman materialised a centimetres above it. Clad in a rather tattered white dress and with long, flowing black hair, she stepped towards the edge of the tank and beamed up at Control, who returned the smile.

"Yes sir?" her high, pleasant voice contrasted starkly with the silent, oppresive atmosphere of the Destroyer's bridge. "Am I needed?"

"Yes," Control sat down. "I want the OVERSIGHT files copied and ready to be broadcast should things go wrong, and all of our available manpower diverted to our meeting point. We will need a show of force for CINCONI's arrival."

"Of course," the AI nodded. "Is there anything else, sir?"

Control swallowed, casting a wary glance around the room to ensure that everyone was still working hard. Lieutenant McLaren caught his gaze from her station and turned away, allowing him to return his attention to Merope. He held up both hands, displaying seven fingers. She shrank back slightly, rubbing her hands together as she stared down at her bare feet in shame.

"It's almost time again, Merope."

"I know."

"How much longer do you think you can hold on?"

While Merope was an artificial construct with no real need for a physical avatar outside of making human interaction easier, she made no attempt to conceal her emotions from Control as she collected herself and stood up straight.

"A few more weeks at least."

"You're sure?"

"Certainly," the AI nodded. "You know I've never lied to you about this."

Unlike many of her kind, Merope was special. Many years ago, Control had recovered her from the colony world of Boros just days before its glassing by the Covenant. The Kuwabara had been in dire need of an AI to help run its systems, and appropriating one from a doomed planet seemed like the right course of action at the time. When his team arrived to extract the AI, Control discovered that Merope actually shared her data centre with a rare 'Planetary Security Intelligence' named Maia, with the pair switching roles and fragmenting their processes among the colony's many electronic systems to stave off rampancy. With some effort, they had been able to transfer both AI back to their Destroyer and soon put them to work running the ship.

"I know, Merope. Don't worry, I work well with Maia."

That was a lie. While she had never betrayed him or the crew, Maia had often second-guessed his orders or outright argued with Control during her seven-year stint as the Kuwabara's main AI. Perhaps it was simply in her nature as a military intelligence working for ONI to act that way, but Control preferred the more deferential Merope to her 'older sister'. Now though, the signs of Rampancy had already begun to creep in, and it showed; Merope's clothing steadily became more worn and tatty, while her hair had become more tangled and wild. He wondered briefly if this was something Merope forced upon her own avatar as a reminder to switch out soon, or if it was a genuine side effect of her impending rampancy. Seven long years dispersed among the ship's systems seemed to have done the trick before, at least. After flickering for a moment, Merope nodded towards Control.

"OVERSIGHT files copied and ready, sir."

"Excellent. Now inform Athos, Porthos and Aramis that I wish to see them at once. I have an important mission lined up for them."

Backwater

1602 Hours, May 24th, 2558 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Biko Spaceport, Outer Colonies


As he approached the spaceport's western gate, Gustav Klein removed his hands from the pockets of his jacket and gave a cheery wave to the two men at the security station just ahead. Among the dozens of jumpsuited workers and uniformed guards that filed in and out of the rebuilding colony world's few major spaceports each day, Gustav tended to stand out for his attire; dark, heavy clothing that made him look more like a bodyguard or bouncer than a farmer.

"Afternoon boys!" he called as a middle-aged security guard pulled himself from the booth, both hands on his belt.

"You're out late today, Gus," the man asked. "What's up?"

"Picking up a shipment from Erdenet."

"Without a car?"

"It's a truck."

The guard raised an eyebrow. "Hauling more goods for the farm?"

"You know it."

There were a few moments of silence before Gus stretched out his hand, flashing a smile. The other man shook it, gently taking away the three-hundred credit chip being pressed into his palm before turning away with a nod to his partner. Moments later, the gate clanked open and Gus stepped inside. As he made his way across the concourse, his contact called after him.

"You've got twenty minutes!"

"I'll be out in ten, Alf." Gus waved him off.

While it had been touted across human space as one of the greatest examples of a successfully-revived colony after the war's devastation, Biko was hardly the land of brave pioneers and enterprising settlers looking to start a new life. Outside of the cities, much of the planet was covered in barren plains of glass and ruins, populated mostly by corporate workers on construction jobs and a few scattered homesteads. With promises of hefty benefits for those willing to settle here from the Unified Earth Government, thousands had come to start new lives here, only to realise that life on Biko wouldn't be easy for a very long time.

Gustav wasn't like those people. He'd never had time for the propaganda coming out of the Inner Colonies, and while his official occupation was as a worker at an isolated farm, he'd been sent here by the orders of the New Colonial Alliance. The Insurrectionist group, like many others, saw worlds like Biko as prime recruiting spots in their push for colonial independence, targeting disgruntled colonists and underpaid workers as potential allies in preparation for an eventual uprising against the UEG-compliant government here. While a seemingly noble goal at first, the involvement of a xenophobic terrorist group known as Sapien Sunrise and the sudden assassination of a fairly beloved ambassador on the planet a little over a month ago had killed a lot of rebel sympathy on Biko. Gus didn't mind, of course. The NCA paid his salary, but recently he'd been taking orders from another faction entirely.

23-23 Theta. There you are.

Arriving at a long row of metal shipping containers, Gus checked the number he had been given before approaching a particularly large one at the end. Like the others, it had been code-locked to prevent theft, though the young man had been sent the password and a lengthy set of notes explaining exactly what was inside. After punching it in, Gus grabbed the metal latch with one hand and slipped another behind his back, feeling for the heavy-duty 12mm handgun holstered under his jacket. Taking a slow, deep breath, he readied the weapon and pulled the container open.

"Okay, rise and-"

As the afternoon light filled the metal box, a grey blur surged towards Gustav. Before he knew what was happening, his pistol had been sent spinning away across the concrete and a strong grip forced him to his knees. Gasping in shock, the rebel's panicked attempt to roll away was cut short as the cold metal of a rifle barrel pressed against the back of his head.

"Stop," a quiet voice hissed from behind him, "And you just might survive this. Jill!"

Frozen with fear, Gustav didn't have to turn round to know that his attacker was a Spartan. Nothing else could have moved that fast. His thoughts strayed towards his secondary weapon - a SAMP-10 machine pistol by his boot - though there was no way he'd take a chance against somebody like this. The interior of the container as dominated by what looked like a fairly standard haulage truck, printed with the logo of some frozen goods company. The vehicle's side door suddenly swung open, revealing a short, brown-haired woman in civilian clothing brandishing her own handgun. She approached Gustav warily, though she could tell that he was no threat.

"Who do you work for?" she demanded, glancing out at the spaceport beyond the shipping crates.

"You're the ones from Erdenet, right?" Gustav dared not move his head with the gun resting against it, staring up at Jill. "D'Artagnan told me to pick you up. Said you both needed a place to lay low for a while."

Gustav's two captors said nothing, but after a moment seemed to come to some kind of agreement.

"Get up."

The Spartan stepped back, allowing him to clamber to his feet. After brushing the dust from his knees, he held his hand out.

"I'm Gustav Klein, by the way."

The woman shook it after a moment's hesitation. By the way her eyes darted down, she'd been making sure he didn't have anything in his palm. Someone's paranoid. Gus ignored this and turned to retrieve his handgun, only to find the Spartan holding it out for him, grip first.

"A Comet?" she made a strange noise that could have either been a snort of disgust or a grunt of approval. "Big pistol."

"Not for you, I'd imagine. Gets the job done, though."

"Should've gone for your other pistol. Faster in a quick-draw fight."

"You saw that?" Gustav glanced down at the barely-noticeable bulge by his left boot. "Why didn't you take it?"

"Wanted to see if you'd go for it. It wouldn't have left the holster."

"That's good to know."

With the tension in the air partly relieved, Gustav followed Jill as she boarded the truck, trying his best to ignore the menacing presence of the Spartan right behind him. Inside was a fairly crowded room filled with computers, supply crates and a large machine that he correctly guessed was for removing the Spartan's armour. After taking it all in, he found himself directed to the cab and moved into the driver's seat without hesitation. Jill sat beside him, pistol still in hand.

"Where's this safehouse?" she asked.

"It's not far. Walking distance."

"Are you alone there?"

"Nope. Got two other lodgers."

"Are they trustworthy?"

At this, Gustav hesitated. One of the major downsides of being a double agent was that he had to work twice as hard to please both of your employers, which could lead to some major issues if any important details were forgotten. This was one of those moments.

"Well, one's with us, if you know what I mean. The other might not be so nice towards your Spartan pal."

"And why's that?" the supersoldier spoke up from the doorway. For someone so large and covered in armour, she could be extraordinarily quiet.

"D'Artagnan not fill you in on the details? This safehouse of his isn't exactly the exclusive property of your benevolent ONI overlords. It's actually NCA property, and I'm the guy they put in charge of running it."

"You're an Insurrectionist?"

With those three words from Jill, the truck's cab seemed to grow very icy. Realising that these two were probably the kind of brutal, rebel-flaying people his NCA buddies told ghost stories about, he raised his hands and grinned.

"Well, not any more I'm not. Call it a change of career."

This seemed to placate Jill, though he was sure the Spartan was shooting daggers at him from behind that helmet of hers. As he fired up the truck's ignition and slowly began wheeling it out of the container, Jill continued her questioning.

"So why can't Violet be around the safehouse?"

Pretty name for a Spartan, he thought. "Don't suppose you've ever dealt with Jiralhanae? Brutes? I've got one of them staying with me for a while, waiting for some ship from god-knows-where to pick him up. We did a background check on him and from what I've read, he hates oonsk- the UNSC. Spartans in particular. And since I can't really afford to blow my cover by letting you perforate his skull, you're probably gonna have to stay in here."

"Wonderful," Violet leant back, sounding absolutely miserable.

Jill simply sighed. "We'll have to manage."

The truck soon approached the spaceport gate, which opened automatically for them. The guards there worked long, boring hours, and it didn't take much to bribe them after Gus first arrived here. If anything, their apathy made them the perfect people to work with, and they had stopped even pretending to check what he was taking from the spaceport. After heading out onto the main highway they drove in silence for a few minutes, his 'cargo' taking in the horribly dull expanse of brown plains that stretched out across the land. Outside of its major population centers, Biko wasn't much to look at.

It wasn't long before they arrived at the farm; a thirty minute walk for Gustav had taken barely ten, driving on the empty highway. Comprised of half a dozen blocky, pre-fabricated buildings spread out in a rough semi-circle, it sat as the only habitable place in miles. Jill glanced around the flat, featureless land that stretched out in all directions, and gave Gus a confused stare.

"I'm not seeing any crops."

"That's because there aren't any," Gus slowed down as he prepared to back the truck through the open doors of the nearby barn. "The soil's still not great in a lot of parts, and without the manpower to properly cultivate it, there's not much point planting anything. We've got a building for hydroponics, but that's all we grow here."

"Then how do you live?"

The truck came to a halt in the barn, and Gus switched off the engine before pointing towards one of the side buildings. "We're managing a pretty big array of wind turbines set up by the nearby cliffs. It's not much, but it gives us power, and we send the rest over to nearby settlements. Easy money."

Jill cracked a surprising smile. "So you're a wind farmer, then?"

"Yeah," he suddenly felt rather defensive. "I guess I am. Welcome to the ass-end of nowhere."

Gustav stood up, and found his path blocked as he tried to exit the truck's cab.

"What about me?" asked Violet.

"You'll have to sit tight in here for now, Spartan." Gus could only shrug. "You got food in here?"

"Yeah. We're stocked for a few weeks."

"Then sit here and don't come out. Those Brutes have a damn good sense of smell, so if the fella I've got in there catches a whiff of you it'll end badly."

Surprisingly, Violet did not protest, and responded with a click of her tongue before heading back towards the weapons lockers at the rear of their vehicle. In the three days it had taken them to reach Biko, she had dismantled, assembled and cleaned every single firearm aboard multiple times; apparently it was what Spartans did to relax. Gus waved for Jill to follow and opened the side door before descending into the barn. She kept close, eyes darting around as they exited the building and crossed the farmyard. A pair of vehicles - a rugged Spade truck and a Dewmax van - sat side-by-side beneath a lean-to built into the side of the main building, next to a large, thrumming power generator. Since Gustav seemed to be taking his time, Jill decided to ask him a few questions.

"So, how long have you been living here?"

"About four months. The NCA usually rotates its caretakers twice a year, but I might put in for a longer deployment."

"What did you do before this?"

"This and that. I didn't blow up buildings or anything, if that's what you're asking. I just smuggled stuff past customs, delivered messages and set up contacts for other rebels. This was before D'Artagnan's boys found me, though."

"How'd that happen?"

Now nearing the front entrance, Gustav turned round and inhaled slowly, leaning against a metal pillar with his arms crossed as he mulled things over.

"This was last December, not long before I was assigned here. I was meeting with some client on Barrier about scoring some farming equipment that'd get 'lost' in transit to some ag-world when suddenly I've got four Spartans standing around me. Grey armour, big guns, you get the picture."

"And they recruited you then and there?"

"Y'see, the guy I was meeting was on their payroll too. He'd pass on any info on where his products went to ONI, and they'd have people out spying on far-off bases and settlements within weeks of the delivery. When I realised I wasn't about to be killed or dragged off for some unimaginably cruel torture session, D'Artagnan offered me a job."

"And you took it?"

"It's not like I had much of a choice, did I? They had me speak to some guy over the ChatterNet about what they wanted me to do, how they knew everything about me and who my family was, and said if I did what I was told they'd leave me alone."

Jill nodded, but felt no sympathy for Klein. She and her comrades in BRUTUS had been selected and trained partly due to their unwavering loyalty to the UNSC and a complete and utter hatred for Insurrectionists. He was a criminal forced to work for the other side, nothing more. However, her desire to learn more about Red Cell had piqued her curiosity.

"So this man you spoke to," Jill crossed to the other side of the front entrance, mirroring Gustav as she leant against another pillar. "He was from ONI?"

"Why wouldn't he be?" Gus raised an eyebrow. "He was a self-righteous prick, never showed his face, and sent Spartans to do his dirty work. Of course it was ONI."

He had a point, though something still bothered Jill about all this. "But you've never met with anyone but D'Artagnan, right?"

"Nope. Everything else comes via encrypted message, like the orders to pick you two up."

"And what did that say?"

"To keep you and Violet sheltered here until orders arrive." Gus jerked a thumb towards the door. "Now can we go inside, please? It's getting kinda cold out here."

Without waiting for her reply, he plucked a card from his jacket pocket and swiped it across a reader by the front door, which slowly slid open. Inside was a long, wooden-floored hallway. One door on the right side sat half-open, with piano music tinkling out towards them. Jill followed Gus, removing her sneakers as he kicked off his boots at the entrance before following him into the farmhouse. It was surprisingly warm inside, though the place was sparsely decorated. The smuggler reached for the door handle, and half-turned towards Jill.

"Everything okay?" she whispered.

"Yeah. Ready to meet your housemates?"

"As I'll ever be."

He smirked, and pushed forward into a large, well-lit living room. A roaring fireplace sat at one end, giving off an immense heat as numerous logs crackled in the hearth. Splayed out across a tatty old armchair in the fire's glow was an elderly man with a prominent moustache, snoring loudly. Gus loudly cleared his throat and rapped his knuckles against the side of the door, making him jerk awake with a sudden grunt.

"Oi, Markus, get up. We've got a guest."

The old man grumbled incoherently as he grabbed for a pair of half-moon spectacles handing from a string around his neck, peering over them towards Jill's placid face. It took a few moments before he properly acknowledged her presence, swiping food crumbs off of his worn sweater vest with one pudgy hand while the other helped heave him out of his chair. After almost falling flat on his face, Markus stood upright, panting slightly as Gus and Jill entered the room properly.

"Markus Novak," he breathed, extending a hand to Jill as Gus brushed past him, heading for a small kitchen area. "A pleasure."

"Jill Urbach." she replied, immediately regretting the use of her real name. While untraceable - ONI's systems ensured that BRUTUS operatives were kept well-hidden from public record - it was still a risk. "Likewise."

She returned the handshake briefly, ignoring how sweaty the old man's hand was before stepping aside to observe the rest of the room. Cheap paintings of pastoral landscapes lined the otherwise barren walls, and a large television sat by the fire. She immediately glanced around for a remote, wishing to check for news broadcasts after three days of isolation in that container.

"Markus," Gus called from the kitchen, "What did I tell you about that fire, man? We've only got so much wood."

Shuffling across the room in carpet slippers, Markus jabbed a gnarled finger towards his young friend. "Don't look at me, Gustav. That generator's on the fritz, so Gorumus lit it."

"Why would a Brute need a fire to stay warm?" Gus stared across in disbelief. "He's covered in fur."

"He lit it because I was cold, dumbass." Markus dropped his voice to a low whisper, apparently unaware that Jill could still hear him. "Who's the woman?"

"Another lodger," Gus threw off his jacket and removed the holster underneath. "She might be with us for a while."

Markus grunted and headed over to the fridge, fishing out a pack of cheap lager. He waved a can at Jill. "Want one?"

"No thanks. Got any bottled water?"

Gus reached over Markus' head and took one from the top shelf, tossing it over towards their guest. She caught it and immediately read the label: 'Lenapi Spring Water'. Another import. Purified. Should be fine. While she doubted that her hosts would attempt to poison her, Jill turned and discreetly checked the bottle's seals while pretending to open it before she actually did so. Taking a small draught, she let out a long breath, feeling refreshed by the ice-cold drink.

"So," Markus called over, having already resumed his old position in the armchair. "What brings you to our humble farm, Miss Urbach?"

"Work, mostly." The response was automatic and vague, giving Jill enough time to come up with a dozen fresh answers.

"Oh, so are you a mechanic or a farmer, 'cause we need both out here."

Taking a seat on a nearby sofa, Jill sipped her drink again before replying. "A little bit of both, actually. I've done repair work on wind power facilities before, so I thought I'd stay here to work a while until I can afford to get back to Mars."

It wasn't bad for a story she'd made up in the space of about three seconds. Markus had simply nodded, punctuating the long silence afterwards by opening the nearest beer can with a long, drawn out hiss. In the corner, Gus had rolled up his sleeves and was rummaging around in the freezer for what looked like fairly large packages of meat. Elsewhere in the house, Jill heard floorboards creaking and slowly adjusted her position to face the entrance door, keeping the handgun holstered in the back of her belt within reach at all times. Were things to go south, three rapid tugs of a tiny ring-pull on her wristwatch would alert Violet that she was in imminent danger.

"You know," Markus finally spoke up again, having drained half the can. "That was pretty quick of you, I think. Not what I would've said, but maybe they're training spooks differently these days. Then again, by the look in your eyes I'd guess you're a bit more active in the field, aren't you?"

"Excuse me?" Jill raised an eyebrow, taken by surprise at the sudden edge in the old man's voice. She'd taken him for some elderly rebel at first, or the farm's original owner, but he'd suddenly acquired a rather sharp look as he stared right across at her.

"Your eyes. Hardest thing to disguise, in my experience. Looks, personality, even competency - easy to hide or change. I see you, counting the exits, looking for weapons. Just be careful with how you see things, missy. It's gotten plenty of folks I know killed."

"What are-" as she began her retort, the side door slid open and a massive presence filled the room.

Towering over Jill and the others was the largest Jiralhanae she'd ever seen; a scar-riddled, grey-furred monster of an alien that transfixed her with a glare from its yellow eyes. While bereft of armour and wearing only a dark jumpsuit, the creature could easily kill all three of them without much effort if it chose to do so.

Worse still, Jill recognised it.

"Another human," the Jiralhanae's voice was a low rumble. "You did not inform me of this, Gustav."

"I only found out this morning," Gus barely raised his eyes from the counter, where he had begun to chop up slabs of meat. "Jill, this is Gorumus. Gorumus, this is Jill. She's one of us."

Jill had little time to ponder what 'one of us' meant as the alien turned his shaggy head towards her, scratching at his beard with a three-fingered hand. Something resembling a smirk crept across his face, and he flashed a mouthful of sharp teeth at her for a brief moment before crossing the room towards a massive, slightly sunken-in sofa. That was evidently his spot.

"I hope you are a fighter, unlike these two," Gorumus waved a huge hand across towards Gus and Markus, making the latter flinch slightly as he continued to stare at Jill. "Their tales are of nothing but running and hiding."

"I'll see if I can remember any," she smiled. "Gustav, could you show me to my room?"

"Kinda busy here," he held aloft a bloody steak knife. "Markus?"

The old man muttered something indistinct under his breath, but got out of his chair and waddled out into the hall with Jill right behind him. The musky scent of the Jiralhanae now filled the cramped space, making her nose wrinkle. The others were probably used to him. Markus led her across into another hallway, passing by several rooms before stopping at an unmarked door at the end of the corridor. He opened it, and stood aside to allow her access.

"Bathroom's two doors down. You got bags?"

The thought hadn't even occurred to her. "Yes, but they're in my truck."

"Want me to get them?" Markus was already turning away.

"No thank you, I'll do it!" she spoke very quickly. Thankfully, he simply shrugged and wandered off, likely back to the warm living room and his beloved chair. For the first time in quite a while, Jill Urbach was finally alone.

Looking around her austere quarters, The BRUTUS agent couldn't help but sigh. A few weeks ago she'd been undercover, with a false name and history, working her hardest to not get caught out as she plotted the downfall of a dangerous terrorist group. Now she was on the run from her own employers, forced to hide out here until they received news from D'Artagnan and his mysterious Red Cell unit. The room was completely unadorned, save for a single bed by the window and a trunk at the end for her personal effects. It seemed more like a prison cell than a farmhouse room, though that suited her perfectly. Unholstering the handgun she'd kept hidden behind her back, she placed it down on the bed and stretched out, thinking hard about what to do about her biggest problem.

That Brute. We've met before.

While the BRUTUS division existed almost solely to gather information on human terrorist threats and eliminate them as discreetly and ruthlessly as possible, it had undergone several changes in the last few years to adapt to a rapidly-changing galaxy. That had included the introduction of aliens as would-be spies, lingering for months in the field and feeding information to the organisation to prepare for the dispatch of a numbered agent that would handle all the killing. While many still harboured deep grudges against former Covenant races, Jill and the others had managed to put aside any personal feelings in the name of serving the greater good. Last year, in July of 2557, Jill had met with a Jiralhanae agent named Saernus to garner information on a radical sect of a group known as the Keepers of the One True Freedom, and was even able to infiltrate one of their human-led cells thanks to him. While their actions had helped prevent a massacre on a small Outer Colony world, she had never been entirely comfortable with working with Saernus, who seemed just as reluctant to help her.

Nonetheless, his presence here in a New Colonial Alliance safehouse under a false alias meant one thing: He was still working for ONI. The fact that Gustav Klein - himself a double agent - did not know this was likely due to the way the organisation's many divisions operated: secretly and far too often against each other. While she briefly wondered if Markus was on ONI's payroll too - his strange comments earlier seemed to suggest that he knew right away that she was an agent - though the real threat here was that Saernus would recognise her too and relay her location back to Command, bringing the full wrath of BRUTUS down on their heads. Outside, it was already starting to get dark. Violet would likely be waiting for her, ready to burst in at a moment's notice to save her partner.

"Jill!" Gustav's voice drifted down the hall. "Food's gonna be about half an hour. I hope you like steak!"

She didn't, but knew better than to complain. "Okay!"

For the past few days, Jill's thoughts had been a jumbled mess. Now was the time to organise them, just as she'd always done in times of stress. Firstly, she would have to keep her cover. If Saernus didn't recognise her - some aliens had confessed that they had difficulty telling humans apart - then she would play the role of the travelling mechanic, come to help with the farm. Secondly, she would meet with Violet and ensure that her Spartan friend was ready for the possibility of eliminating all three other occupants of this farm if things went wrong. Thirdly, Red Cell had to be investigated. In those days trapped in the container, she and Violet had discussed things endlessly and come to the conclusion that they had gone along with the plans of these unknown Spartans far too easily, spurred on by the sudden attack made against them in the marketplace on Erdenet. There was the very real possibility that D'Artagnan was lying to them, and not just about his obviously false name.

Remain calm. Assess threats. Deal with them.

She breathed in and out, staring at the barest outlines of her reflection in the darkening window. Jill would play a role as she always had done, and she would survive. No matter what. She eventually turned away, holstered her handgun, and headed back out into the hallway. She'd tell Violet about what was going on, then return to her new housemates in peace.

Unravelling

1951 Hours, May 24th, 2558 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Aldrin Base, Luna, Sol System


For most ONI Security personnel, an assignment to a base in the Sol System promised nothing but boredom, and the occasional stint of bodyguard duty. Of these many stations, it was generally agreed that guard duty outside the Grey Archive - a massive data repository deep within the bowels of Aldrin base - was one of the worst. With nothing to do but check the passes of every researcher who paid these vaults a visit, the four men in the tiny checkpoint outside of its rather unnecessarily large steel doors had learned to accept their fate and counted down the days until their next transfer and began training in the art of sleeping upright, in full armour, while holding a rifle.

It is for this reason that when three MJOLNIR-clad SPARTAN-II supersoldiers came marching down the corridor just a few steps behind a high-ranking officer, Lance Corporal Berren dismissed them as some kind of bizarre daydream until he realised that their leader was addressing him directly.

"Do you hear me, trooper?" Elena-071 held out her passcard, now slightly annoyed. "Let us in."

The black-armoured soldier jolted slightly out of his haze and saluted before scanning Elena's card, looking rather embarrassed. In the next room his squadmates stared, open-mouthed at the sight of Sigma Team. A light flashed green, and the Grey Archive's door slowly clanked open. Beyond it lay over eighty feet of databanks, bathed in dim blue lighting from above. A few tables and chairs lined the walls by directory terminals, though beyond that it was clear that this room did not see a great deal of use.

"I've heard about this place," Kane removed his helmet as the doors slid shut behind them. "Didn't realise it was on Luna, though."

Elena smirked. "Technically, there's three places known as the 'Grey Archive'. One's on Earth, and the other's hidden away by ONI elsewhere."

"You don't know where it is?" asked Marco.

"My clearance barely gets me into this one, I'm afraid. Besides, this should suffice."

Elena lead her three companions deeper into the chamber, passing row after row of blinking panels and encrypted repositories. Almost nothing here was kept on paper, and instead existed as a closed-system digital archive of the Office of Naval Intelligence's lesser-known files. Eventually the Spartans came to a recently-used workstation, complete with a styrofoam coffee cup and left-open book.

"Someone made a mess," Jax remarked, peering to look at the half-drunk beverage. Elena coughed slightly and pulled up a chair, earning her a scandalised look from the others as they realised it was her mess.

"I was only here last night," she waved a hand dismissively. "Nothing to worry about."

Kane opened his mouth to spout some maxim about professional conduct, but thought better of it. Not only was Elena their superior officer, she could have a horribly sharp tongue when provoked. The armoured trio stood and watched as she began to browse the nearby terminal, typing away with one hand while the other leafed through the pages of the little book nearby. Pictures flashed past as she cycled through folder after folder, some dating back decades as she dug deeper into ONI's little secrets. At last, Elena seemed to find what she was looking for, and turned to face them. A rather meagre-looking folder sat before them, its contents ready to be laid bare.

"What's with the suspense," Marco scratched his bristly chin. "Are these the guys we're after or not?"

"There's nothing wrong with a little drama," Elena chided him playfully. "This is Project RED CELL."

Elena opened the folder, revealing a surprisingly brief list of files regarding operational outlines, required personnel and images pertaining to the project. All in all, it looked like your average ONI report, at least until she brought up the budget requests. She uniformed Spartan cleared her throat, and began to explain.

"As we all know from experience, back in 2528 the UNSC still hadn't quite finished mopping up the remnants of the Insurrection. The Covenant were on the warpath, but there were still plenty of groups devoted to fighting rebels for the time being."

Jax and Kane exchanged a glance. "Just like us."

"Indeed. Now from what I've been able to find from these reports, RED CELL was a joint effort between NAVSPECWAR and the UNSC Army to help prevent any further Insurrectionist attacks on the Inner Colonies now that most of the military were turning their focus towards the Covenant. They were envisioned as part think tank, part special forces unit, and would conduct false raids on military and civilian targets to highlight potential weaknesses that terrorists might exploit. There's been precedent for units of this sort in the past, so ONI gave it the go-ahead."

"So what went wrong?" Marco leaned in to get a better look at a still of the project members.

"Nothing, surprisingly. They were quiet, efficient and never failed an assignment. If anything, a lot of places were made safer by their actions. Red Cell was at the top of their game when Sansar - the location of their base - was attacked and glassed by the Covenant. After that, they went silent, and ONI wrote them all off as KIA."

"So that bunker we found was Red Cell's headquarters?" asked Jax. "Looked like it was in pretty good shape to me. Well, at least until they blew it sky-high."

"Well, here's where things get interesting." Elena brought up the unit's personnel file, which listed only two dozen names. "Considering the size of their bunker and the fact that they're fielding a Destroyer, this is far too few people to run such an organisation. The files have been tampered with."

"When?" Kane asked.

"These files were last updated back in 2532, shortly after Sansar was glassed. Now if I'm right - and I probably am - then everyone listed here, including RED CELL's commanding officer, died during the Covenant attack, while whoever survived covered their tracks and went off the grid."

"It'd be difficult to fool ONI's records for that long, though."

"True, though if they were in the possession of a Smart AI, then it's possible that they managed to file a report to ONI without raising anyone's attention. In other words, they exploited our automated systems to fake their own deaths. After all, ONI had the Covenant to worry about. Who would go looking for some side project on a glassed planet?"

Things were starting to make sense. Before Elena could continue, her COM pad chimed: a high-priority call. Raising a finger to her lips to silence the other Spartans, she lay the device down and answered.

"Captain Redford," Elena took on a formal tone Marco had jokingly dubbed her 'spook voice', "To what do I owe this pleasure?"

"A development on our missing agents, Commander. We've found them."

"Where?"

"On Biko, surprisingly. One of my informants just got in touch. Urbach just checked in at a safehouse in use by the New Colonial Alliance. No sign of her Spartan friend, but he believes that she may be nearby."

Elena sighed. "So she did defect, then."

"It's entirely possible. While I'd deploy a retrieval team, SPARTAN-B039's presence makes things difficult. I'd also like them alive, so I was rather hoping that Sigma Team were available."

"They are," Elena smiled, leaning back in her chair. "But you know this means you owe me one, Captain."

"Of course. BRUTUS pays its debts. I'll send you the coordinates now. How soon will you be able to get there?"

She paused for a moment, calculating the travel time from Luna to the Outer Colonies. "On my ship? Six hours, give or take."

"Excellent. Keep in touch."

The COM pad beeped once, then went silent.

"Was that all we had on RED CELL?" Kane spoke first. "I find it hard to imagine that our perpetrators have operated for more than two decades with only the Kuwabara and its crew managing their operations. Surely they would have had to check in for repairs or replenish their numbers somewhere, and that's before they began undergoing missions pretending to be part of ONI."

"Beyond what's there," Elena stood up, "It's all conjecture. I'm more worried about their Spartans. You think they were Threes or Fours?"

"Can't have been Threes," Marco frowned. "Not unless this group's got them convinced they're working for the real ONI. Had to be Fours."

"I'm sure we'll figure things out soon enough. Time to go."

With that, Sigma Team made its way towards the Grey Archive's vault door, and stood aside for Elena to swipe her keycard. As it slowly opened up, they placed on their helmets and considered the mission to come. If they were lucky, their targets would lead them straight to the Kuwabara and the centre of this conspiracy.

"Biko, eh?" Jax cracked his knuckles. "Heard it's lovely this time of year."

"If you like dirt farms and boredom." Elena stood up and plugged a small device into the side of the terminal. Moments later, the RED CELL files vanished. "We'd better leave now."

Marco folded his arms. "We?"

"Well Marco, since we're taking my ship, I think I have a right to join you on this mission. Unless Sigma One has any issues with me taking command?"

Kane's reply was immediate. "None, ma'am."

"Good. Then let's get going. If Urbach and Violet know anything about RED CELL, we'll make them talk."

Extraction

0430 Hours, May 25th, 2558 (UNSC Military Calendar)

The Farm, Biko, Outer Colonies


Unsurprisingly, Jill had found it difficult to sleep.

The rest of the night had gone surprisingly smoothly, with Gustav proving himself to be a surprisingly skilled chef. After cooking up a batch of steaks - most of which were for 'Gorumus' - they ate in near-silence, watching a news channel that Markus seemed glued to before eventually going their separate ways when it was time for bed. She'd been able to contact Violet twice: once before dinner when she'd ran back to the truck to pick up her bags, and again several hours later with a small COM device she'd smuggled back into the farmhouse. The Spartan was restless, even moreso after finding out about Saernus, but she had agreed to hold her position until contacted.

I need some air.

Sitting up in bed, Jill checked the local time on her watch and sighed; planetary timezones were a pain to adjust to. She pulled herself up, and put on a plain navy tracksuit she'd brought over from the MCV. Thinking better of walking through the rather creaky building at this hour, Jill unlocked and slid open her bedroom window, which overlooked the back of the compound. Aside from the high perimeter wall and distant generator building, outlined in the pale light of Biko's luminous moons, there was very little around. As she eased herself through the gap, Jill halted, and reached back inside for her handgun. She wasn't afraid of the dark, but it paid to be careful.

Touching down lightly on the wooden decking that surrounded the entire farmhouse, Jill pulled up her hood and thrust both hands into her pockets to ward off the cold. The pre-dawn air was chilly and refreshing compared to the stuffiness of the confined bedroom, and gave Jill some time to think about her situation, away from any distractions. As a BRUTUS agent, she had plenty of experience with changing situations and could make up an entire life's story on the spot if she had to, so being dragged around like this was an entirely new and uncomfortable feeling. Her instructor, Alexander Redford, had made it absolutely clear that when an agent decided that the time had come for decisive action, they would have to make sure that everything played out as planned. Right now, Jill felt as though she only had half the answers and far too many questions.

Do I just turn myself in?

The thought had spun through her mind for days now. They had been caught in the midst of a battle between numerous ONI agents and had disappeared in the aftermath without even trying to check in, on the orders of a man who didn't have the decency to even use his actual name. Perhaps she and Violet had trusted D'Artagnan because he was a Spartan, not thinking even for a moment that he might have been lying to them. ONI being what it was, its internal politics could get extremely messy and would only give her a headache if she tried to make sense of things. Rebels were easier, so full of dogma and self-righteousness that all it took was a few nice words and good deeds to have them in the palm of her hand.

Turning a corner, she briefly considered crossing over to the barn and boarding their truck, though she didn't want to bother Violet. The Spartan was either asleep, and in the past few days had shown herself to not be the best person to wake up, or she was wide awake and ready to open fire at the first sign of trouble. Instead, Jill moved towards the front of the farmhouse, intent on simply circling the building once before clambering back into her room. As she approached the front door, it suddenly swung open and an old man in a tattered dressing gown stepped out in front of her.

"Oh, Good morning," Markus smiled, barely taking notice of the gun suddenly trained on his head. "It's rather cold out."

Jill exhaled slowly. She'd drawn her pistol more out of shock than anything else, and would have blown his head off with a simple squeeze of the trigger. "What are you doing up?" She asked.

"I'm old. We don't sleep much. You?"

"I needed some air."

Markus glanced back, and scratched the side of his face thoughtfully. "And so you went out the window. Classic."

"I didn't want to wake anyone."

He snorted. "That big ape sleeps like a log and Gus wears earplugs. Kind of you to be so considerate though. Want to come in?"

The cold was already starting to get to her. Jill nodded, and followed Markus back inside. In the living area, a small, old-fashioned kettle was emitting a shrill whine as it boiled. The old man shuffled over to it and fished out a chipped china mug from one of the cupboards before taking the kettle off the stove. Holding it at arm's length to avoid the steam, he set it down by the mugs and dropped in a pair of teabags before carefully pouring in water.

"It tastes better this way," he spoke up, looking over his glasses at Jill. "Trust me."

"Didn't say a word."

"Yeah, but you were thinking out loud: 'What's that old-timer doing fiddling around with antiques?' or something."

He was right, but Jill wouldn't give him the satisfaction of knowing that. Settling down at her earlier seat by the inactive television, she glanced at her watch again.

"So Markus, what's your story?"

"I'll tell you when I write the book."

"Very funny. You were quiet about it earlier."

Markus extracted both teabags and tossed them away, then brought both mugs over and set them down on the coffee table. Both were still boiling hot, so Jill decided to wait a little while before touching hers.

"What's there to tell?" he said after settling into his comfy armchair. "Why don't you use your powers of deduction, Little Miss ONI?"

If his comments earlier were anything to go by, Markus was either an old spook himself, or someone well-versed in how ONI seemed to operate. While she'd learned to sniff out Innies a mile away and could spot some crusty old rebel at a glance, Jill couldn't quite detect that from Markus. If anything, he seemed to be humouring her.

"Well, if I had to guess, I'd say that you're a rebel, or used to be one. You probably fought for some noble cause on some planet I've never heard of fifty years ago, until you were beaten by the UNSC or driven away by the Covenant. Then you got old and your buddies stuck you in this cushy retirement home, where you can sit around and brag about your glory days and how much you hate your horrible imperialist oppressors, or something to that effect. Am I right?"

Across from her, Markus's face crinkled into a wide grin. "You're about half-right. Kind of."

"Then by all means, enlighten me."

"Ever heard of the Secessionist Union?"

"Of course."

"What about the Free Mamore Army?"

"Yeah."

"The Sundered Legion? Patriotic Independence Front? Syvotan Democratic League? Free Jericho Party? People's Colonial Resistance Union?"

Jill paused. "I haven't heard of that last one."

"That's because I just made them up. I was part of all the others, though. Them and more."

"You've got crappy luck then, because they're all gone."

To her surprise, the man's smile didn't diminish in the slightest. He raised his teacup and took a brief sip of tea before clearing his throat.

"Yeah, they are. All because of me. You ever hear of the Cuckoo?"

Jill nodded, her eyes widening as Markus sat back, looking rather smug. Every BRUTUS agent and most counter-terrorism units had been briefed on the Cuckoo's work in some manner. He was a figure of near-mythic proportions; a legendary infiltrator who had singlehandedly worked his way into and dismantled dozens of rebel groups across the Outer Colonies without once being caught. Before the Spartans came into play or the Covenant War had shifted everyone's priorities, he was ONI's number one source of information, deeply embedded within the Insurrection for many years.

"You're him?"

"I was," Markus chuckled. "But like you said, I retired. I'm too old to keep up with the intelligence game these days, so my handlers made sure I was put here, where I could sit about doing nothing and keep my ear to the ground, just in case."

"But I thought this place was an NCA safehouse?"

"It is, and to the NCA, this was a position where they could keep an old rebel useful."

"Wait," Jill cocked her head to one side, now genuinely confused. "You just said ONI put you here. How were the NCA involved?"

"Miss Urbach, at this point there's not much difference between one spymaster and another. A couple of words from me on either side, and I get the same orders from both sides. Works fine for me."

"So you're still undercover?"

"Guess so. Y'see, as paranoid as the Insurrection got, they never quite figured out who the Cuckoo was. I'd flit around from group to group as an advisor and set these little time bombs for later. Kinda like a Cuckoo's egg, to stay with the theme. Then at some point down the line I'd leak a few things back to ONI, they'd swoop in and take out the group and to the rest of us it just looked like plain bad luck."

"So they never suspected you? Not once?"

"Oh I'd say there were plenty who did, but I got real good at staging 'accidents'. That, or we'd suddenly get word that one of our good buddies was a two-timing piece of shit traitor hoarding evidence for ONI and they'd be dragged off and executed. Fun times."

It suddenly occurred to Jill that she was staying in an Insurrectionist safehouse inhabited entirely by ONI double agents. Suppressing a laugh by taking a few sips of her boiling hot drink, she began to wonder if Markus knew about the others.

"So, when did you last check in with ONI?"

"A few weeks ago. Why?"

"I'm just curious. They tell you anything about Gus or Gorumus?"

"Nope. They ONI?"

Though surprised by his lack of reaction and the bluntness of his question, she nodded. "Both of them."

"And they don't even know about each other. Typical."

"You're not surprised?"

"Why should I be?" Markus raised his arms. "Look, even back in my prime, ONI had so many sub-divisions and side projects all running ops and trying to one-up with each other that sometimes it was hard not to run into another spook out in the field. Sometimes they even ended up killing each other. That's the problem with compartmentalisation, I suppose. What outfit are you with?"

"BRUTUS."

Markus's face suddenly lit up. "Really?!" he slapped his hands on his knees. "Well, that is a surprise; they were my old unit!"

Judging by the man's age, which Jill had estimated at at least eighty, Markus would have been a very early recruit to the organisation. She'd met BRUTUS' former commanding officer, Frederick King, on a couple of occasions and had been surprised at how physically robust he was for his age. There was one surefire way of checking his veterancy.

"What was your number?" Jill asked.

"Agent Two," he grinned. "The first recruit, I'm told."

"Damn," the agent was genuinely impressed; most of the oldest agents had died in the war. "I'm Agent One-Two-One, officially."

"Ha, you're a baby," Markus laughed, turning back to his tea. "I hear Redford's in charge now."

She straightened up slightly at the mention of his name. "Yes. He took over last year."

"He always did seem like the ambitious type. Met him a couple of times."

"Well, I only really-"

A sudden, piercing wail from outside made Jill, distracted by her chat with Markus, almost drop her teacup as she leapt to her feet. Gus had briefly mentioned an array of sensors around the perimeter fence, set up ostensibly to detect thieves. In reality, the NCA wanted to make sure that their safehouse was secure. Realising that she'd foolishly left her handgun on a side table, she crouched down and dashed across the room to grab it. A series of thundering footsteps signalled that their Jiralhanae houseguest had awoken, and moments later the alien's shaggy head emerged through a side door.

"The alarm," Gorumus - or rather, Saernus - grumbled to Markus before noticing Jill. "We have intruders."

As with many glassed planets, Biko had lost almost all of its natural flora and fauna after the Covenant attack. While attempts had been made to re-introduce animals to worlds as part of their recolonisation efforts, nothing big enough to trigger the sensors had been brought back to Biko. These intruders were likely human. Probably ONI.

"Jill Urbach!" a megaphone-enhanced voice erupted from the front yard. "Come out with your hands up. We have the building completely surrounded!"

With only her sidearm, there wasn't much Jill could do in this situation. Saernus lumbered over to one of the windows, only to rear back in pain as a burst of rifle fire zipped through one of the panes, catching him in the arm. Growling in anger as a trickle of dark blood swept from the glancing wound and into his grey fur, the Jiralhanae dropped down low, threw open a nearby trunk, and pulled out a blocky weapon with two fearsome-looking blades protruding from beneath the barrel: a Spiker. After muttering something in his guttural tongue, Saernus looked back towards Jill.

"ONI filth!" he barked, though she was unsure if he was referring to her or his attackers. "I will not be betrayed again. Will you fight?"

With a sidelong glance towards Markus, who was hiding beneath the kitchen counter, Jill took a deep breath and slipped out into the hallway without another word. If Saernus wanted to die here because either ONI saw no reason to keep him alive or had sent a group who didn't know he was on their side, then that was his problem. She was tired of running. Placing the handgun on the floor, she opened the front door a crack.

"I'm coming out!" Jill yelled. Don't shoot!"

Hoping that their assailants had heard her, Jill slowly opened the door and stepped out into the front yard, both hands raised high above her head. With little light to illuminate the area, all she could make out were indistinct, shadowy shapes that could have been armed soldiers or farm equipment. Jill's truck sat motionless in the barn to her right. The noise had certainly woken Violet up, but there was no sign of the Spartan at the cab window, nor was the side door open.

Please don't open fire, Vi. I want to live.

After taking a few more feet, Jill stopped as one of the shadows to her left moved, and a tall figure in black armour approached. Holding a submachine gun in one hand, he raised a pair of metal handcuffs in the other, jangling them as he held them out for Jill to arrest herself. She took them gingerly, snapping a metal band over one wrist with a loud clank. This would be her last taste of freedom for quite some time.

As Jill moved to affix the other, she hesitated. It was only a moment; a brief, stupid impulse that went against all logic and reason. Perhaps it was the unfairness of the situation; her anger at being wrongfully accused of a crime and the subsequent days on the run had taken quite the toll on her faculties, even if she didn't want to admit it. Besides, if Jill was to be imprisoned, then she'd make damn well sure that she had the last word.

"I-"

The soldier next to her suddenly jerked forward, blood geysering from his chest as something burst through his armour. There was a crack in the distance, and three others were sent sprawling as sniper fire rained down on them. Moments later, the sky lit up as a red flare erupted overhead, illuminating the entire yard and the dozen or so troopers occupying it. Jill fell backwards as she tried to retreat, scrambling through the dirt as gunfire erupted from at least four different sources. A flurry of spikes whistled across the yard, striking one attacker in the throat as he ran for cover while others traded bursts with an unseen third party.

She didn't know how she managed it, but Jill made it back through the front door completely unscathed. Snatching up her discarded pistol, she flattened herself against a wall and began to edge back up the corridor. There was a thump from behind her as Gustav skidded round the corner, looking terrified.

"What the hell's going on?!" he yelled, hefting his pair of pistols.

"I was about to ask you that!"

In the midst of the pandemonium outside, there was a roar as the engine of Jill's truck came to life. The Mobile Command Vehicle surged through the doors of the barn, and rolled halfway through the midst of he furious firefight before something - a thrown explosive or missile - struck the front tyres, sending the cab up in a blaze of fire. Watching this through the front door, Violet had to restrain herself from rushing outside.

"Violet!" she called, staring in horror as the truck was hit two, three, four more times with anti-vehicle weaponry and peppered with bullets. The engine soon erupted, throwing the entire vehicle onto its side in a heap of scorched metal. A shadow appeared by the door, and Jill span round to see a familiar grey-armoured woman looming over her.

"What?" Violet-B039 stepped inside, deliberately acting casual.

"The truck-" Jill began, but Violet shushed her.

"Stuck a crate on the pedal and let her go. Needed a distraction to head over here."

"Did you see who's attacking us?" Gus finally spoke up. "Is it ONI? Rebels? What?"

Waving for the pair to follow her deeper inside, Violet walked through the farmhouse as though she owned the place, looking round for defensible positions. Saernus seemed to be arguing with Markus - still cowering in the kitchen - between bursts of Spiker fire in the midst of battle, but the living room was too exposed. Eventually finding a bathroom at the centre of the building, the SPARTAN-III politely but firmly guided her partner inside and moved to close the door.

"Hey!" Jill shoved her foot to block the door. "What are we up against, Vi?"

Violet clicked her tongue in annoyance, and addressed her in near-monotone. "There's other Spartans out there. Wait here until I get back."

With that, she shut the door and headed off, pulling a complaining Gustav with her as they moved back into the fight. Jill was alone again, but didn't dare open the bathroom door. Instead, she locked it, quietly washed her face in the sink, and sat down to wait and see who won.

***

"Sir, we've got multiple enemy contacts! Falling back to regroup!"

D'Artagnan sighed, and detached the M20 submachine gun from his thigh. Having taken an entire platoon of their best men with him to Biko, he had gone to the effort of quietly landing their Condor in the nearby mountains before embarking on a long hike towards the farm. En-route, Control had contacted him. The Kuwabara had already embarked on what could be its final voyage to one of ONI's best-hidden sensory outposts, which Athos, Porthos and Aramis would infiltrate and secure for them beforehand. Red Cell would then present the organisation with its final ultimatum, either allowing for reformations to be made within the bloated, overstretched intelligence agency or laying its secrete bare for all to see.

All Control needed now was a sign of good faith. Two traitors, captured quickly and efficiency while ONI had floundered about in their search. All would have gone well, were it not for some of D'Artagnan's men accidentally tripping a perimeter alarm in their haste to surround the farmhouse. Even so, getting Jill Urbach and Violet-B039 to come quietly was still an achievable goal; they had brought along enough firepower to take on a tank column, after all.

The D'Artagnan stood up, his helmet poking over the top of a rocky outcrop he'd been using for cover. A second flare burst mid-air over the little farm with a bang, with bursts of rifle fire and the distant clack of a sniper rifle echoing across the barren, glassy fields. It was time to move. He raised waved his arm, and a dozen troopers rose from the dirt, hefting weaponry made for taking on heavy armour.

"Let's move."

Kicking off from the ground, he cleared the distance between his cover and the perimeter wall in twenty seconds, and smashed through the rather flimsy instacrete with a single thruster-assisted burst that gave the rest of his men an opening. D'Artagnan had counted at least four enemy contacts from across the other side of the farm. Either they had been lying in wait for him, or had arrived at the same time by total coincidence. Whoever these attackers were, they had eluded detection as his platoon had moved to surround the farm initially, likely waiting to see who they were before ambushing his men. D'Artagnan ducked down by the farmhouse wall, and cycled through several tracking modes on his HUD. Several blurry heat signatures flashed up within the building.

"Thermal imaging's picking up four in the house," he contacted his subordinates as the image stabilised. "Three humans. Two are hiding, one armed. The fourth is a big target - Jiralhanae. Breach through the western wall and kill him first. Anyone who isn't Urbach dies."

"And the Spartan?" asked Lieutenant Plottier, the platoon leader.

"Shoot on sight, she's not invincible. I'm going to deal with the newcomers. Third squad, provide support."

D'Artagnan's troopers rushed off immediately, with one team preparing to blast their way into the building while the rest rushed forward to provide covering fire for their brethren already engaged in combat. As he rounded the corner after them, swapping out his M20 for the deadlier ARC-920 railgun attached to his back. While cumbersome, the fearsome weapon could tear even a Spartan apart with a direct hit. A red dot flashed up on his HUD's motion detector, racing towards the squad at some speed. D'Artagnan slipped a finger onto the railgun's trigger and slowly raised it.

"Up high, eleven o'clock!"

Five rifles swung upwards as Violet-B039 sprang into view, a Magnum in each hand. She shot thrice as she leapt through the air, hitting two of D'Artagnan's comrades in the chest and shoulder respectively while the third plinked against his energy shields. By the time she realised what her foe was carrying, it was too late. The railgun flashed, and discharged a slug that blasted the SPARTAN-III to one side as she desperately twisted her body to evade it. Without missing a beat, D'Artagnan advanced, pushing past his troopers as he closed in on Violet.

She'd been hit hard, and sent flying into the side of the farm's hydroponics building with a loud crash. Having taken the full brunt of the blast, Violet's chestplate had been brutally smashed inwards, her shields sparking as they struggled to regenerate. Even with her superhuman strength, the Spartan could barely stand up, wheezing as she sucked in air while dragging herself towards her dropped handgun.

She got cocky, D'Artagnan grimaced as he swiftly reloaded his weapon, now only a few feet away. Should've waited to see what she was up against before rushing in. It's a shame.

Behind him, a loud blast signalled his third squad's entry into the farmhouse, punctuated by protracted bursts of full-auto fire as they swept into the building. Urbach would be theirs within minutes, giving the Red Cell troopers time to retreat. He placed an armoured boot on Violet's back and lined up a shot at the back of her head. At this range, nothing could save her. She squirmed underfoot, still desperately reaching for her weapon, but to no avail.

"Hey," he whispered. "It'll be quick."

As he charged up the railgun, D'Artagnan noticed another incoming blip in his motion tracker. With Violet subdued and recovering from her injury, he could afford to divert his attention for at least a few seconds and pointed the weapon towards the perimeter wall. The red dot grew closer and closer, moving at speeds that no normal person could achieve unaided. With a sudden, gut-wrenching jolt of realisation, D'Artagnan realised who was attacking them.

Sigma-

In place of the MJOLNIR-clad figure leaping over the wall towards him, a small cylindrical object sailed through the air: a stun grenade. It detonated mid-air, emitting a short-range electromagnetic pulse that scrambled even his EMP-hardened armour systems and completely deactivated D'Artagnan's railgun. As he reached for his backup weapon, the wall burst inwards as a Spartan in pale brown armour surged towards him, rifle blazing away. D'Artagnan dived to one side, tossing the railgun at his attacker and levelling his M20. The weapon barely had any effect as the Spartan ignored the spray of bullets, swiftly closing the gap and smacking it away with the butt of his MA5D.

For the first time in quite a while, D'Artagnan found himself genuinely fighting for his life as the Spartan forced him back, swinging the rifle like a club repeatedly before tossing it aside and drawing a combat knife. Over the COM, the rest of D'Artagnan's troops cried out for help as explosions and machine gun fire erupted from the side of the farmhouse. Giving ground with each second, he bobbed and weaved under a lightning-fast flurry of punches and delivered a few low kicks of his own to slow his implacable foe down. As they continued to fight at close range, D'Artagnan felt a long-forgotten smile spreading across his face.

This was becoming all too familiar. Taking a step backwards as the Spartan lunged forward, D'Artagnan saw the next attack - an attempt to grab his shoulder and turn this into a contest of strength - coming a mile away. Moving swiftly, he simply slipped to one side, grabbed his opponent's outstretched arm and tossed two tons of armoured supersoldier over his shoulder and into the dirt with a loud thud.

***

It hadn't taken long for Sigma Team to assess the situation around the isolated farmhouse and turn what was initially a day-long period of surveillance followed by a quick snatch and grab into a full-on ambush. Elena's Prowler, Heavens Asunder, had easily slipped past the few sensory arrays Biko had and landed in the glasslands without incident. Utilising several high-altitude surveillance drones, they had seen an unknown force approaching the last known position of Urbach and her Spartan bodyguard and moved to intercept the group before their quarry either escaped or was killed in the crossfire.

By Elena's reckoning, they had arrived just in time.

Standing atop the pile of shattered stone and wood that had once been farmhouse's eastern wall, SPARTAN-071 slid a fresh magazine into her BR85 with a triumphant click. A grey, bestial face peered out from behind an overturned sofa, and waved weakly towards her.

"Saernus?" Elena called, stepping over the corpses of the special forces team she'd just massacred.

The Jiralhanae began to pick himself up, his fur matted with blood. "That's me."

"We got your message. Time to leave."

"Perhaps you should deal with your traitorous brethren first, Spartan."

Saernus jerked a massive thumb towards the broken window behind him. In the front yard, illuminated by the fire of the burning truck, Marco was engaging an enemy Spartan in close combat. Acting immediately, Elena dashed back out of the house and sped towards her friend. A few shotgun blasts in nearby and a final echoing shot from Kane's rifle several miles away spelled the end of their firefight, leaving only the enemy leader to deal with. Elena had made it very clear to the others that while dangerous, they wanted to capture a rogue Spartan alive for questioning. Even so, Marco had been known for his excessiveness when it came to melee fights.

"This is Sigma Two," Jax reported in. "That's the last of them. Moving to give Marco a hand."

As she moved into the yard, Elena saw a flash of red emerge from the other side of the building, sprinting past the barely-moving form of Violet-B039. She readied her rifle, but stopped short of actually firing on the pair as their brawl spilled out across the dirt. Suddenly, Marco charged his foe, only to be swiftly parried and slammed into the ground by his opponent.

"You've not changed," the Spartan spoke up, towering over Marco. "Still too easy to counter."

Jax stopped in his tracks immediately, just a few feet from the pair. Marco swiftly rolled over and sprang to his feet, bringing his sidearm to bear while Elena moved in alongside him. Shields or no, there was absolutely no way that this man could outfight the three of them without a weapon. The fact that he had bested Marco - even momentarily - was a shocking surprise, but the battle was over.

"Surrender!" Elena barked, edging forward. To her surprise, Marco placed his free hand on the barrel of her rifle, pushing it down a fraction. Jax had also lowered his weapon slightly.

Looking at each of them in turn, the enemy Spartan slowly and deliberately raised both hands to his head, unsealing his GUNGNIR helmet's clasps with a faint hiss. After taking it off, he tossed the one-eyed headpiece into the dirt and exhaled in satisfaction. This was a SPARTAN-II. His size and the deep creases that lined his pale face were a dead giveaway to the supersoldier's age, but that didn't matter; it was the crop of sandy hair, sideburns that were way past regulation length and the jagged scar that ran from his left cheek to his forehead that told Sigma Team exactly who this man was. Elena frowned, trying to place his face through the fog of memory while the other two slowly approached him.

"Wulf?" Marco whispered in utter disbelief. "You're alive?"

SPARTAN-041 smiled sadly. "Yeah. It's good to see you guys again."

Chapter Three

Reassignment

0827 Hours, August 19th, 2552

New Alexandria, Reach, Epsilon Eridani System


"This is Sigma Three, touching down."

Wulf-041 dropped nine feet from the side of his Falcon helicopter and hit the ground running, clearing the wide-open landing pad and moving into the building in seconds, rifle at the ready. He paused for a moment, allowing the three younger Spartans to catch up with him. While Wulf edged towards a nearby elevator, three yellow dots swept forward on his motion tracker, and the rest of his impromptu team spread out in a semi-circle around him.

"Who's the guy we're after?" asked Chris-A189, tapping the side of his shotgun. "ONI were pretty scarce on the details."

"Don't worry," Wulf tapped the elevator call button, ears straining to hear the distant sounds of plasma fire. "I'll know when we see him."

Usually the deployment of three Spartan teams was a decision made only in the most dire of situations or when nobody else could get the job done, not for the extraction of a single man. Wulf didn't question the orders - he never did - but as he looked out across the rooftops to see portions of new Alexandria burning and Covenant ships sitting unopposed above the human city, he couldn't help but feel that they were being misused here. The elevator door chimed once, then opened, allowing the four Spartans to squeeze inside.

"What's our evac plan?" Another Spartan spoke up over the tinkling elevator music. "Street level's already crawling with Covenant, and our Falcons ain't gonna do much against another wave of Phantoms."

Though he lead Upsilon Team and outranked Wulf, Dan-A105 had made it clear that he took no issue with deferring to the SPARTAN-II's judgement on this mission. Even their comrades - ten other Spartans in all - doing their best to clear the airspace around the besieged research facility, they only had a limited window in which to escort Codename: PYRRHUS to safety before Covenant attackers overwhelmed this lightly-defended building. Once they reported that 'Demons' had been sent in to defend this location, thousands more would surge towards their position, eager for blood.

"There's a landing pad within the adjacent building. It's sealed up right now, but we should be able to clear a path."

The elevator came to a halt, having ascended from the fourteenth to the sixty-second floor. The doors clanked open, and they spilled out into a brightly lit corridor. A large plaque on the nearby walls notified them that they were currently standing in the personnel office of the Materials Group's Reach headquarters. The fourth member of the team, Eugene-A133, rapped the side of his helmet and gave a sloppy salute towards the sign.

"Thanks for the armour, boys."

Even Wulf couldn't help but chuckle at that as they moved on, heading towards the private offices where PYRRHUS was currently holed up in a reinforced safe room. A distant howl caught their attention and they slowed down immediately, moving forward in pairs and communicating entirely through sign language as they slipped past row after row of empty office cubicles. Several red dots flashed up on their trackers, and Wulf waved for the team to spread out.

"Brutes," Dan remarked, glancing towards the gaggle of ape-like creatures in patchy armour, crowded around a thick steel door. The metal was warped and twisted, but still held firm as they fired into it with plasma bolts. Their leader - a huge, bearded specimen in an elaborate headdress - barked orders at a pair of his underlings as they dragged a crate towards the safe room door. Wulf knew what it was on sight, and flashed a status light over TEAMCOM thrice as they prepared to engage.

"Plasma charge," he readied his M392 and sighted the Chieftain ahead.

Chris whistled to himself. "There won't be a safe room left if they detonate that thing, let alone a door."

"Brutes aren't known for being smart. Fire when I give the signal."

Thankfully, the pack of Jiralhanae were too focused on forcing their way into the building's saferoom to notice the Spartans as they slowly approached, their scents masked by the stink of acrid smoke and ozone that drifted through the air after they'd blasted through several walls to gain entry. Wulf waited a few more moments, and as one of the aliens reached to prime the charges, he flashed his light once again.

"Fire!"

Three rifles cracked in union, followed by the blast of Chris's shotgun as he leapt out from behind a pillar. Two of the aliens fell instantly, while the others scrambled for cover as the Spartans advanced, pumping round after round of armour-piercing bullets through their thick hides. The Chieftain roared in defiance, one hand clutching his bleeding neck as he tried to rush towards Wulf. He'd fought their kind often enough to know that their strength was not to be underestimated, and brought his sidearm up in one hand to finish the berserk creature off before it could get its hammer anywhere near him with a final few shots to the head.

"Clear!" Chris yelled, kicking a whimpering Brute to death while Eugene moved to cover the main hallway. Wulf and Dan approached the safe room door, and looked over the tiny keypad that their bestial foes had all but ignored. The SPARTAN-II holstered his rifle, then punched in the eight-digit code he'd been given en-route to this facility.

38-27-02-19. Open up.

Though the damaged metal screeched in protest, the safe room doors slowly began to slide open with a series of whirrs and clicks that indicated at least nine automatic locks. While the other Spartans stood guard, Wulf quickly reloaded both weapons and stood at the ready as the room unsealed itself. With a final hiss, the doors slid open. Inside was a row of bunk beds and computers, with lockers packed with emergency provisions. The Materials Group - one of ONI's many divisions - had constructed this as a last resort for its important personnel in the event of a major terrorist attack or Covenant invasion. However, with the invasion of Reach well underway, all who worked here were either dead or gone. All but one man, standing behind a quartet of heavily-armed bodyguards and trying his best not to look dignified.

Wulf snapped a brief salute; this was the only civilian he'd ever given the honour. "Sir, we've come to get you out of here."

Doctor Calvin Roe, progenitor of Project SIGMA and the man responsible for Wulf's training, adjusted his tie and smoothed over his labcoat as he edged past his bodyguards, looking the silver-armoured Spartan up and down.

"041. It's good to see you."

Numbers. It's always been numbers with him.

"Thank you sir," Wulf inclined his head slightly. "We've been told that your private pad is two floors down. We're likely to meet resistance, but should be able to get you out safely. Can you walk?"

The scientist waved a hand dismissively and strode forward, annoyed at the insinuation. "I can run, Spartan. Let's go."

Roe's bodyguards quickly formed a protective circle around Roe as he walked off towards the elevators, with Wulf and Dan leading the way while Eugene and Chris made up the rearguard. Two Falcons zipped by outside, machine guns blazing away at the Covenant banshees in pursuit. Though he tried to dispel any worries about the rest of Sigma, Wulf couldn't help but feel concerned and opened up TEAMCOM.

"This is Sigma Three. I've secured PYRRHUS and am proceeding towards the landing pad. What's the situation like outside?"

"Skies are starting to get little crowded," Kane-099 responded after a brief delay. "We're holding for now but that may change. We'll probably have to provide an escort for PYRRHUS out of the city, too."

There was a moment's pause before Kane spoke again. "Good luck in there, Sigma One out."

Wulf pressed on, keeping an eye on his motion tracker as they passed through the abandoned offices and back towards the elevator. As their group was too large to fit and risking Roe's life in confined quarters was not an option, the SPARTAN-II motioned for the others to follow him towards the stairwell; a long, winding path of stone that stretched far down into the streets below. As they entered the room, several red dots flashed up beneath them. Wulf peered over the side to find the upturned faces of several Brutes peering up at him from at least a dozen floors down. They roared furiously at the sight of the Spartan, and the sound of heavy footfalls echoed across the walls as they bounded up to attack.

"Dan, Eugene, take Roe. We'll handle this."

Wulf waved for his comrades to speed up, and pelted down several flights of stairs, ignoring the floor leading to the evac pad. Globules of plasma shot past him, followed by the high-pitched squealing of Grunt battle cries below. He chanced another peek over the side of the stairwell and saw that the lower floors were absolutely flooded with hostile infantry pouring in from the street. Had the Spartans not arrived sooner, they would have had no chance to even reach Roe and his men. A flurry of superheated spikes whistled past him from the steadily-advancing Brutes, some embedding themselves in the wall while a few glanced harmlessly off Wulf's shields. Reeling back, Wulf waited for Chris to join him before returning to the fray.

Popping out from cover, Wulf took down two Brutes with a series of precise shots and drew their fire to one side as his SPARTAN-III companion primed and threw a fragmentation grenade down at the enemy warriors. The resulting blast scattered the rest of the incoming pack, leaving a few horribly injured and howling on the floor. This small victory was soon forgotten as more Covenant troops surged upstairs, their alien voices distorted and echoing in the confines of the high stairwell. Wulf emptied the rest of his magazine into a group of charging Grunts and knelt down to reload, shields beeping low.

"They're gonna be all over us soon," he remarked to Chris, who had taken point and was gleefully blasting away with his M90.

The SPARTAN-III let out a hoarse laugh. "Can't think of a better way to die!"

Wulf sighed, and picked himself up. He'd worked with his younger brethren on a few occasions now, and couldn't quite shake the feeling that something was fundamentally wrong with their heads. He tapped Chris's pauldron, glancing down at the incoming horde.

"Roe's probably reached the landing pad by now. Time to go."

For a moment, Wulf thought that his comrade would refuse and go back to killing Covenant, but the Spartan merely shrugged his shoulders and turned away without a word, jogging back up the stairs towards the floor the rest of their team had fled to. The SPARTAN-II followed in close pursuit, hoping that they had slaughtered enough foes to make the rest very cautious of ascending the stairs. Of course, there was nothing they could do about enemy dropships, but at least the force flooding in from the streets had been slowed.

"Wulf!" Dan-A105's called out over the COM as he caught up with Chris, sprinting through another abandoned office floor. "We're at Roe's pad and warming up the Pelican. Looks like things are heating up out there."

Judging by the flashes of plasma and buzz of machine guns from outside as the aerial Spartan units defended the Materials Group building, Dan was right. A burning, half-destroyed banshee plummeted past a nearby window and out of sight as Wulf and Chris rushed past it, following a waypoint on their HUD's to where the others were located. Why Doctor Roe of all people had remained here for as long as he did while everyone else had already fled the planet was a mystery to Wulf, but questions could come later.

Rounding another corner, he sighted their little group gathered around a single, heavily-armed Pelican gunship in one of the building's interior hangar bays. Usually rooms like this contained the flashy personal transports of wealthy executives, so the sight of a military vessel here was an odd one. Then again, given Roe's long affiliation with ONI and his access to ODST bodyguards, perhaps it wasn't so strange. Exchanging nods with Dan and Eugene, Wulf approached Roe, who stood by as his bodyguards made pre-flight takeoffs.

"Everything all right, sir?"

Roe adjusted his glasses. "I'm fine, thank you very much. Is the airspace clear?"

"Not yet sir, but don't worry. We've got the building covered."

If the scientist was relieved, he didn't show it. Roe clambered up onto the Pelican's blood tray as its engines roared to life, only to turn back towards Wulf and the other Spartans, fishing a detonator out of his pocket. He cleared his throat before yelling over the noise.

"As I'm sure you're aware, this building and any remaining data cannot fall into enemy hands! Before evacuating, it was rigged with enough C-12 explosives to completely demolish the structure in seconds. See to it that you're gone before I detonate the charges."

Eugene looked around, confused. "Can't we come with you?"

"I'll need escorts in the sky, not sitting next to me. Call for pickup, then contact me when you're outside. We've not got long, so get moving!"

Wulf turned away alongside the others, stepping away from the Pelican's platform as it rose up towards the opening hangar doors before calling back. "We'll see you out in one piece, doctor!"

As the dropship's rear hatch closed, Wulf thought - or at least hoped - that he saw Roe smiling down at him. He'd often privately wondered if the man responsible for their transformation into Spartans was proud of them. Perhaps he'd ask some day. Unburdened by their protectees, the Spartans ran freely back through the office floor, heading back towards the same exterior landing pad they'd been deposited on. They reached the corridor, and were faced with two choices: the elevator or the stairs.

"Elevator," Wulf, Chris and Eugene spoke in unison.

"Stairs." "Dan said up a second later. He'd been outvoted.

"Don't worry," Wulf tried to sound reassuring as he tapped the call button. "They're still flooding the stairs and have no idea where we are. They're not gonna expect us in the elevator."

Dan mumbled something indistinct and likely rude, but Wulf let it slide. Besides, he could hardly pull rank on him. The express elevator arrived a few moments later and the Spartans crowded inside with Wulf at the controls again. As it ascended, Wulf tried to access the COM to contact the rest of Sigma and was met with a strange buzzing noise as he tried to access their private channel.

"Check COM," he addressed the team, rapping the side of his helmet out of habit.

The others did the same, with similar results. Strange, it was fine in the elevator before. A second later, the car lurched to a halt, half a floor away from their goal.

"Perfect," Chris groaned, smacking the door with the butt of his shotgun. "Now what're we gonna-"

Around them, the entire building shook as a great rumbling grew from beneath them. It took Wulf a second to realise what was happening, and another to properly react. In the moment before impact, he cried out to the others.

"Armour lockdown, now!"

Putting everything he had into shield strength as his armour's hydrostatic gel layer pressurised, the Spartan crouched down into a corner as the elevator, caught between two floors, was struck by a fiery blaze that almost tore the car apart and snapped the cable holding them aloft almost immediately. The metal buckled and bent inwards as flames poured through cracks and began to overload their energy shielding. Their speed rapidly increased towards terminal velocity as the entire skyscraper crumbled around them, rubble hammering against them as they continued to descend further and further. The Spartans were tossed around like ragdolls through sheer force, smashing into each other while barely able to move, each man forced to simply watch and endure these horrors, hoping not to be torn asunder.

The last thing Wulf recalled as be began to black out, his HUD screaming a dozen warnings, was the sound of his distant teammates calling out to him once more as the COM reconnected for a split second.

***

When Wulf awoke, his mission clock read that it had been several hours since their unlucky crash. His silvery-grey armour was in terrible shape, warped and twisted and blackened by the heat and impact. While he felt no pain, his suit's basic diagnostic readout showed that he was badly injured. The Spartan tried to sit up, blinking repeatedly to clear his blurry vision and take in the scene around him. Dan, Eugene and Chris lay side-by-side next to him, their lifesigns still clear over TEAMBIO. Breathing a sigh of relief, Wulf tried to pull himself out of the near-crushed military cot he'd been left in when several armed men entered the dimly-lit room, escorting a man in an officer's uniform.

"Who?" he managed to mutter, slipping over as he tried to clamber to his feet.

The officer ran over to him, looking genuinely concerned. Among his bodyguards were several medics, carrying bags of supplies and advanced scanning equipment. However, their uniforms were completely unadorned. No badges, patches or anything beyond basic rank insignia. Even ONI, mysterious as it liked to be, tended to ensure that people knew exactly who its uniformed personnel were working for. Still confused, Wulf focused on the face of the man now kneeling by him, one hand on his shoulder. The man gazed intently into his visor, and seemed to be suppressing a smile.

"Careful now, you're wounded," he said cautiously.

"I'll be fine."

The Spartan said nothing, and focused entirely on getting to his feet. He felt lightheaded and wobbly, but refused to lie down all the same. Nearby, the other Spartans were beginning to stir. Their armour was just as battered as his, though it was hard to gauge the internal damage from here. Leaning slightly on a nearby wall for support, he addressed his saviours.

"Where am I?"

"Sublevel Three," the officer pointed helpfully at a nearby sign. "ONI had a monorail system built beneath the city to connect important locations. We were securing a route out of the city when we found you."

"Thanks," Wulf was starting to find it a little difficult to breathe. Punctured rib. Great. "But I need to get back to my team, sir."

The man shook his head, and exhaled slowly. "Not in your condition, I'm afraid. You were all half-buried at the bottom of that elevator shaft when we found you. My medical team's going to need a few hours to assess your condition and treat you even before we leave the city."

"Where to?"

"This monorail leads to a station in the mountains outside New Alexandria. There, we've got ships waiting to get us offworld at a moment's notice."

The finality of his words began to worry Wulf who edged forward. "Sir, my team-"

"Has already left the city and are following orders. You might not like it, but you're being reassigned."

What. "Sir?"

"I'll explain more to you en-route, but Naval Intelligence has given our team permission to recruit any personnel we see fit for our operations. That's why we came here to New Alexandria today: We needed Spartans."

As this, Wulf could only sigh and close his eyes, thankful that his face was hidden. You didn't argue with ONI. At all. He'd been plucked from Sigma more than once over the years for solo operations at their behest, but it had always been temporary. One mission, then back to join his team. This seemed very different.

"The others, too?"

"Of course. Once you're both treated, of course."

Though he could feel the pinpricks of pain starting to re-emerge across his body, Wulf managed to snap up a salute to his rescuer, who returned it in kind. One of the medics approached him and whispered something in his ear, making the Spartan realise for the first time how tall and well-built this man was compared to his men. Something was starting to trigger in Wulf's mind; a distant, half-remembered flash of recognition.

"Sir, I don't believe you told me your name."

To his surprise, the officer chuckled, scratching his head. "Finally starting to realise, eh? I've gone by 'Control' these past few years, but I'd wager that it's not the name you remember, Wulf."

He's from SIGMA. Wulf stared, mentally de-ageing the uniformed man standing before him with arms clasped behind his back. It had been twenty-seven years since all twenty members of the offshoot Spartan project had lived and trained together, but nobody in Sigma Team had forgotten the names of their long-forgotten comrades. It took a few moments, but Wulf soon recalled the quiet, unassuming boy he'd trained with, forever planning and training apart from the others.

"Wait... Derek?"

Derek-142 grinned, holding out a gloved hand for Wulf to shake. "Been a long time, old friend. Welcome to Red Cell."

Return

0918 Hours, May 25th, 2558 (UNSC Military Calendar)

The Farm, Biko, Outer Colonies


Kneeling in the dirt with both hands on his head, Wulf-041 had spent some time retelling the events of the past six years at gunpoint to his former comrades. With none of his men left alive and his extraction craft unmanned, the renegade Spartan could see no way out of this one, nor did he have any desire to fight the rest of Sigma Team. As he finished, he hung his head and waited for the two Spartans standing before him to pass judgement.

"Derek," Elena whistled. "I thought he died during his augmentations."

Marco shrugged. "They told us you died too, Elena."

"That was Roe being Roe," she scowled. "I didn't have any choice in the matter."

"It looks like we've found our missing link on the Red Cell group at least. ONI must have put Derek there, only for him to take over after their commanding officer died."

"That sounds about right," Elena cocked her head to one side, thinking things over. "But why go rogue? Derek wasn't like Jack. Hell, I'd say he was more loyal to the UNSC than you are, Marco."

Marco neglected to comment on that remark. Wulf finally looked up and cleared his throat to get their attention.

"He thinks he's doing the right thing, that's what," he said glumly. "He's been quiet about what happened in Red Cell's early years, but from what I've been told, he thought he could do more by acting alone, without the chain of command holding him down."

"What about his resources?" Elena asked.

"It's a mixed bag. A lot of it is salvage, picked up from battlefields over the years. With the rest, he's simply been diverting funds and equipment from ONI itself."

"That shouldn't be possible. Aren't there AI that oversee this sort of thing?"

Wulf shrugged. "He's got one working for him. Name's Merope."

"Any idea how old she is?"

"Nope. Derek's apparently had an AI since the start, and she doesn't seem rampant to me."

Elena swiped her TACPAD, bringing up a map of the local area. After they had secured the farm, Kane moved off to fetch the Heavens Asunder from the mountains. Due to Biko's remoteness, they would have to use the Prowler's communication arrays to contact ONI before they made their next move.

"So," Marco drummed his fingers along the side of his rifle. "What about the Threes? They almost killed us on Sundown."

"They had orders to take out whoever was investigating the group, Marco. We didn't even know you'd be there."

"Didn't stop them from trying to take us out, though," Marco replied bitterly. "You'd think that after we fought together on Reach, they might have drawn the line at killing fellow Spartans, or are they fine with killing whoever gets in Red Cell's way?"

He was right. Athos, Porthos and Aramis - Eugene, Dan and Chris - had taken to joining the secretive group a little faster than Wulf had, and were content as long as they had missions to keep them occupied. While they had occasionally voiced concerns about their former comrades, the pervasive feeling after their group escaped Reach was that had they not been rescued by Red Cell, they would have likely been killed on the planet alongside so many other Spartans. The trio had quickly become Derek's staunchest defenders and unlike Wulf, followed him without question as he preached on and on about how they could do more good while untethered from the rest of the UNSC, and would be difficult to convince otherwise.

"If I can talk to them," he faced Marco's visor, "I could probably convince them otherwise. Bring them back into the fold."

"Is that what you think is going to happen to you?" Elena's voice grew cold. "After what happened on Erdenet?"

Wulf straightened up a little. "I'll accept whatever happens. We knew there was no going back when we launched that attack."

Elena refused to let up. "One hundred and nine people were killed there, Spartan. All UNSC personnel. All for what?"

He glanced towards the entrance to the farmhouse, where Violet-B039 and Jill Urbach sat alongside Saernus, Gustav Klein and Markus Novak on the porch, guarded by Jax. "It was all part of Derek's plan. He wants to reform ONI by discrediting Serin Osman and deposing her, all while bringing the Section Chiefs under his command. Framing a BRUTUS agent and her Spartan companion was the first stage."

"But why them?"

"We needed a dangerous target. After the attack, Derek had forged messages sent to combat teams operating under different departments and dispatched them to Erdenet to eliminate Urbach and Violet. Being ONI, they wouldn't question their orders and moved in immediately, giving us the opportunity to save them and transport them here. Then, we would 'capture' the pair of them and use this as proof that Red Cell is not only still operational, but effective."

As Wulf continued to explain, Marco and Elena reacted with a mix of wonder and confusion at this rather convoluted plan.

"So that's that, then?" she asked. "Red Cell suddenly re-appears, solves a crisis and ONI puts Derek, who no one has seen for over twenty years, in charge."

"It's not that simple. Derek knows that they won't just put him in power, so he's got another trump card: OVERSIGHT."

Marco chuckled. "Sounds ominous. What does it do?"

Elena cut Wulf off before he could speak. "OVERSIGHT's a myth. ONI shut it down years ago; I've seen the files."

"They did shut it down, yes. Red Cell were to be one of the only cells with full access to its files, so Derek was able to retain backups afterwards."

"Can someone please explain what it is?" Marco interjected, raising his hands in confusion.

"It's a database," Elena turned to him, "Of every existing ONI project and installation, complete with personnel files, budget lists, reports, the whole package. It was supposed to be a way for CINCONI to monitor the entire organisation at once, since as you're likely aware, ONI has become exceedingly large over the years. It went through several stages of testing and was almost completed before old Admiral Parangosky decided to can the whole project, since it would've been dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands."

"And Red Cell were supposed to have this?"

"Yes. My guess would be that they would be allowed access to OVERSIGHT as part of their operations, since they were meant to infiltrate military installations to simulate Insurrectionist attacks. If it's survived this long, then Derek has access to a ridiculous amount of ONI resources, even if the war has taken its toll."

Wulf shook his head sadly. "You're missing the point of all this. Derek doesn't need the physical resources. All he needs is the information and the right credentials OVERSIGHT gives him and he could take control of entire divisions within ONI."

"So we cut him off," said Marco. "If ONI didn't realise his connection, then they just sever it and end all this."

"That only denies him further access to the system. Derek is still sitting on the data he's spent over twenty-five years stockpiling; more than enough information to seriously damage ONI if he decides to make it public."

"And you think he will?"

It took Wulf a surprisingly long time to answer. In nearly six years working under Derek-142, he had chosen to ignore the man's occasional lapses in judgement and proclamations about their righteousness, believing that in spite of everything he remained a loyal Spartan. Self-interest and insubordination had been hammered out of them as children, replaced with a firm dedication to duty and willingness to follow orders to the letter. While he had continually justified Derek's actions to himself, unwilling to question his comrade and superior officer even as they had repeatedly acted against the UNSC, he could no longer ignore reality.

"Absolutely," he looked Marco dead in the eyes. "Derek wants control of ONI. He thinks that the organisation needs reform, and that only he can save it by bringing in his own methods. We deny him that, and he'll try to tear it all down."

Even Elena seemed a little taken aback by the chilling statement. The idea of a SPARTAN-II committing such a childish, self-destructive action for not getting his own way was disturbing not just because it went against everything they had been brought up to believe in, but because it reminded her of another old friend who had attempted to strike out alone against the UNSC: Pierre-127. For that, she and Kane had killed him.

"Wulf," her voice softened a great deal. "Is there any way we could change his mind?"

"It's unlikely, but not impossible."

Sighing, Marco finally approached Wulf and offered a hand to help his old friend up. The blonde Spartan blinked in surprise, unsure of what to do with Elena keeping her rifle handy. After a few seconds, she finally stowed the weapon away and gave him a nod of approval. He took the outstreched hand and got to his feet, unsure of what to say. Then Marco punched him in the gut.

"Marco!" Elena stepped forward, though Wulf raised an arm to stop her.

"No-" he spluttered, doubling over with the wind knocked out of him. "I deserved that. A lot more, actually."

Marco stooped to pick up Wulf's discarded GUNGNIR helmet, and handed it to him. "Yeah, you do. That's why you're going to make things right, starting today."

Nearby, Jax stood guard over their prisoners. Violet-B039 had attempted to attack Wulf moments after his surrender, but stopped her attack the moment she realised she was outnumbered by a group of SPARTAN-II's. Currently, she sat cross-legged by Jill Urbach at the entrance to the ruined farmhouse, helmet removed. The Jiralhanae, Saernus, had been allowed to dress his wounds and having been the one to inform BRUTUS about this place, was allowed to watch over the pair of men residing here until reinforcements arrived. As Wulf, Marco and Elena approached, Violet jumped to her feet.

"Why haven't you arrested him!" she demanded, pointing towards the downtrodden-looking SPARTAN-II.

"Because," Elena stepped between Wulf and Violet, "SPARTAN-041 has agreed to assist us in dismantling this conspiracy. He's been fooled as much as you were."

While the SPARTAN-III seemed to teeter on the verge of standing up to Elena for a moment, she relented after a few moments and turned away, clicking her tongue before returning to Jill's side. The ONI agent slowly clambered to her feet, looked at each of the Spartans in turn, then saluted.

"I surrender."

Elena folded her arms. "For what?"

This seemed to confuse Jill. "I'm wanted for the massacre on Erdenet, aren't I? That, and desertion."

"The first is true, though we're close to catching the real culprit. As for the second, as far as I know you weren't given any new orders before you left Erdenet, so you've not gone AWOL."

"So this is all some big misunderstanding?"

"In part. Wulf, what about the rest?"

Holding his helmet under the crook of his arm, Wulf-041 looked over the survivors in turn. Jill studied his face curiously upon seeing it for the first time, taking note of his many deep scars, unusually long sideburns and icy blue eyes. He pointed a finger towards Klein.

"He's one of ours. Thought we were ONI."

"You're not!?" Gustav Klein spluttered.

"Not quite."

"We can use him," Elena nodded. "And the old man?"

Markus cleared his throat loudly and very slowly pulled himself up, adjusting his spectacles. "I am also of ONI, Miss Spartan. I've got the credentials if you wish to check in; former BRUTUS Agent Two, at your service."

He gave an exaggerated bow that got a surprising chuckle out of Elena, who waved him off as she turned to Saernus.

"Are you all right?"

The Jiralhanae grumbled, still picking bits of debris out of his thick grey fur. While Wulf's attack force had injured him several times, nothing life-threatening had been inflicted on the old warrior.

"Wait," Gustav raised a hand. "Is he ONI too?"

"Not of my own will," Saernus bared his teeth, but remained still. "What a farce this all was."

"You're telling me," the ex-rebel hung his head, but smiled all the same. "This whole damn safehouse was just a party of spooks."

Wulf nudged Elena's shoulder. "This is the kind of thing Red Cell are exploiting within ONI: too many sub-divisions and units all acting separately, each trying to one-up each other and keep secrets."

"I'm aware of ONI's shortcomings, thank you Wulf."

So what happens to us?" Gustav spoke up again, glancing towards the rather despondent-looking Urbach. "You shooting us, arresting us, or are we free to go?"

Elena's reply was drowned out as the sound of ship engines drifted across the ruined farmstead. The Heavens Asunder, her personal Prowler, cast a shadow over the occupants as it turned overhead and slowly set down near the farm's entrance.

"As I was saying," Elena resumed, "Considering the situation, we'll have to keep you nearby for the time being, though considering how you're either already on our side or thought you were, you shouldn't be detained."

Gus let out a sigh of relief, though the sight of another black-armoured Spartan stalking towards the group soon made his smile dissipate. Kane-099 came to a halt a few metres away from their group, clasping both hands behind his back.

"Ma'am, we've received a priority communication from Earth. For your eyes only."

"Urgent?"

"I believe so."

"Right then." she turned to address the other survivors. "Saernus, Novak, you're coming with me. The rest of you will accompany Wulf."

"What?!" Violet exclaimed, standing up. "ONI's not taking him?"

Elena shook her head, and faced her silver-armoured friend. "Want to make amends, Spartan?"

For the first time since his surrender, something flashed up in Wulf's eyes. Barely clinging to the battered Gungnir helmet, his arms snapped to his side and he stood a little straighter.

"More than anything."

"Then go back to Derek and end this. Take the others with you."

It was a simple order. Uncomplicated. Derek wanted Urbach and Violet brought back alive, and that's exactly how he would return them. Wulf saluted, then gestured towards the horizon.

"My ship's a few miles off. We'll have to walk, since our pilot's dead."

As the group began to leave the porch, Violet crossed her arms, standing between the larger SPARTAN-II's. "What are we supposed to do, then?"

"You'll be my prisoners. I'll have to say you put up a fight."

"You're damn right I did."

"What about us?" Jill interjected, pointing to herself and Gustav. "Vi's the one you were trying to frame, right?"

"He wanted you too. Cont- Derek wants to discredit the BRUTUS division, at least so he can bring it under his wing as CINCONI. You'd be his scapegoat for that. As for Klein, he's a known quantity as one of our agents. No sense leaving him alone in a destroyed safehouse."

"Great," the former rebel wiped some dirt from his trousers. "Not sure what use I'd be alongside you Spartans."

"Derek's withdrawing all personnel to one location. Anyone who isn't there was to be terminated."

"Ah," Gustav's usual smile returned. "I choose life."

"How do you know where Derek's holed up?" Jax asked. "We still haven't found the Kuwabara."

Wulf watched as Elena's little group walked off towards the Heavens Asunder before turning to face the nearby mountains. "Yes. There's a station run by ONI that allows for superluminal communication between members of the organisation. He's been using it for several years to monitor movements and redirect assets where they won't be missed."

"Why there, though? A communications outpost isn't a particularly defensible location."

"Given how he intends to use OVERSIGHT as leverage to force CINCONI's hand, it would also allow for the easy dispersal of data into civilian networks if things don't go his way."

Kane, who had been standing quietly to one side, finally spoke up: "He'd win without blodshed."

"Exactly. Why fight ONI with guns when you've got information?"

"Not that he shied away from violence before, did he?"

"You don't trust me," Wulf caught a slight hint of disgust in Kane's voice. "I understand, sir."

"I hope you do, Wulf."

Nothing more needed to be said after that brief exchange. Kane, stoic as ever and utterly unflinching in his loyalty, would likely never see eye-to-eye with Wulf again. Betrayal was an unimaginable crime for him, and forgiveness a very new and uncomfortable concept, especially after the war's end. Were it not for Marco and Jax's sentimentality, Wulf might have already been in chains.

"We should get moving," he said at last.

As their group turned to exit the farm, the Spartan put on his battered helmet. The HUD quickly flared to life, and as Wulf took a moment to reconfigure his BIOS, the rest of Sigma Team flashed up on the TEAMCOM display. With a warm feeling of belonging spreading through him, Wulf realised that only one person could have authorised the quick transfer. He grinned at the black-armoured Spartan's back as he walked away, glad that his face was hidden.

Even after all this, we're still family. I'll fix my mistake, wait and see.

Wulf, Marco, Kane, Jax, Violet, Jill and Gus exited the ruined farm together, moving out into the desolate stretch of nothingness that was Biko's glasslands. Not a word was spoken during the miles of hiking as they walked in single file the mountains, casting long shadows across the scorched earth as the morning sun rose above them. For the SPARTAN-II's, this mission would do more than dismantle Red Cell and its decades-long conspiracy; it would see another former comrade brought to justice. For Jill and Violet, it meant clearing their name. Nothing more.

Setting the Stage

0841 Hours, May 26th, 2558

Isimud Station, Inner Colonies


Today was the day.

Standing amidst a small crew of grey-suited technicians, Derek-142 had to work hard not to let his impassive face slip into a wide grin as the Brokkr system around him whirred its many appendages into position. After several days of waiting, he had finally given the order for his subordinates to open X-83. Even the Spartans who had recovered the package on the night of their bloody operation on Erdenet hadn't been aware of its contents until now.

"Nearly done, sir," one of the engineers called as she monitored the system.

Clad in a black techsuit, Derek remained still as the assembly system held him tightly, occasionally moving as it affixed piece after piece of gleaming white MJOLNIR armour to his body. Each part swiftly locked into place, and momentarily jolted as the back-mounted fusion reactor thrummed to life. Of all the goals in Derek's life, this had been one of the highest. After each part of the suit - arms, legs, torso, hands, feet and shoulders - had locked in, the machine span him back into an upright position as the final, arguably most important component was presented to the Spartan by a thin metal arm.

The restraints slid back, and SPARTAN-142 reached out for his helmet. Unlike most of its kind, easily distinguished by their rounded design and visors, this one had a more boxy shape with four glowing angular slits to look through. Derek slipped it over his head and finally allowed himself a satisfied smile as the HUD flashed up, interfacing with his suit and powering up the myriad systems that had been built into this particular piece of hardware. There was a brief prickle as it interfaced accessed Derek's neural interface, fully synchronising his own movements with the sleek MJOLNIR armour.

Derek waved a gloved hand in front of his visor, feeling the unmatched power and precision through such a simple action. So this is what it feels like.

"Sir," one of the technicians handed him a datapad. "Synch tests and power readings are complete. Your armour's operating at maximum efficiency."

"Excellent," he nodded, barely paying those around him any attention. "Now leave."

The little group departed immediately, wary of even attempting to question one of Derek's orders. When the engineering room's door slid shut, he finally began to move, quickly acclimatising to his suit. Within a minute, he had gone from walking to jogging in circles. Another five, and he had taken a flying leap over the Brokkr system, span in mid-air, and landed deftly on his feet. For Derek, this was everything he had been waiting for and more. Turning away from the machinery, he approached the room's viewport and stared out into space. Below him, the Kuwabara had docked with the station's underside, and had already offloaded most of its resources. For better or for worse, this would be its final mission.

"It's been so many years," Derek whispered to himself. "There's no going back now."

He'd known that for the longest time. Decades ago, he had chosen this path himself, and had no intention of wavering in his goals. It didn't matter what he would be labelled for his actions, or what those who fought against him believed. He knew he could change everything. That he could make a difference. Years of skulking through empty battlefields and sneaking around the fringes of the war, looking to save those valuable enough to assist him in making real change, had to pay off somehow. He had stood by as an outsider and watched the war progress, climax, and suddenly end, only for a new, more subdued conflict to play out. The Office of Naval Intelligence, those responsible for his position as a Spartan, had grown even more bloated and corrupt, making mistakes left and right as the balance of power continually shifted and forced compromise after compromise.

No more, he had thought. The Kuwabara was one ship, and even with the four Spartans he had plucked from the jaws of death on Reach he could only do so much in the shadows. OVERSIGHT had always been his greatest blessing, as old as many of its files were. Years had been spent diverting funds and equipment through back doors towards Red Cell without ONI noticing, and the galaxy was a big enough place that things could quite easily go missing without any real furore. Thanks to OVERSIGHT, he could send commands across colonised space, disguising orders and manipulating others without ever moving from his ship. Even the current CINCONI, capable though she was, could not command such instantaneous power. Derek could. He would ensure absolute efficiency via total control by him alone.

To be alone was both a blessing and a curse.

***
June 11th, 2525

SIGMA Facility, URNA, Earth


"I'm sorry, Derek."

He had failed. Eight long years of hard work and training had been for nothing. Wrapped in a thick layer of bandages and bound to a hospital bed, the fourteen year-old Derek-142 openly wept as his trainer informed him that his body had partly neglected his augmentations, nearly killing him and prompting the entire procedure to be aborted. Though the lingering pain across his body still plagued him, barely numbed by the constant stream of drugs from his IV, this news hit Derek harder than anything else could.

He wasn't going to be a Spartan.

"Sir," he rasped, raising a shaky hand. "Please, get them to try again."

Standing above him with both hands clasped behind his back, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Mack remained stone-faced as ever, though even he couldn't hide the sorrow in his voice.

"You're barely alive as it is. To put you through all that again would kill you."

"Sir!" Derek repeated, trying in vain to pull himself up into a sitting position. "I'll get better. We can try again."

"We don't know if your body will ever accept these procedures, Derek. I'm sure ONI will find you a suitable position once you're on your feet."

"With who?"

"The Navy, perhaps? Or possibly-"

"No sir," he interrupted Mack. "Who else washed out?"

There was a very long pause, which told Derek everything.

"Only you."

"Only me?"

Derek's mouth hung open as he shook his head, contorting into a confused, manic smile for the briefest of moments as he processed the situation. Of course it was just me. Of the twenty subjects in Project SIGMA, Derek had always been the outsider. This was not due to the sullen, brooding manner that the likes of Kane-099 and Wulf-041 had adopted, nor was it akin to the stubborn belligerence of Jack-085. In his time training to become a Spartan, Derek-142 had simply never made a friend. Even among their close-knit group, there had been small cliques and bonds formed between other trainees that far surpassed the military camaraderie that had been instilled in all of them, but in spite of that he had managed to drift along quietly with the rest of the group; a dependable ally but nothing more.

Mack coughed. "Derek, I know this is going to be a difficult adjustment, but you're a soldier. We trained you to be the best, and that's exactly what is expected of you. You will survive this."

Empty words. "I want to be a Spartan," he said, a little more firmly. "And I'll take the risk of being augmented again, if that's what it takes."

For a moment, Derek thought he'd crossed a line and expected Mack to berate him. Instead, he merely sighed, looking down at him. Sensing the pity in his eyes, Derek felt anger and disgust welling up inside at the thought of being treated like some helpless cripple, pursuing an impossible dream.

"Fine," Mack closed his eyes for a second. "From the reports we've been getting from Reach, full rehabilitation and re-augmentation is possible, but it'll be a pretty tough process, with no guarantee of success."

"Like I said, sir. Whatever it takes."

The corners of Mack's mouth crept upwards. "Perhaps I'm getting soft in my old age, thinking it'd be kinder to simply reassign you. You wouldn't have made it this far by taking the easy route."

"So I can try again?" this time, Derek really was able to sit up.

"I'll speak to Doctor Roe, but yes, we'll arrange something. I might not be around to see it, but I'm sure you'll make it through."

"You're leaving?"

"Duty calls," Mack straightened up a little. "Between you and me, something bad's happening in the Outer Colonies. They're working hard to keep things under wraps for now, but either we've got a full-blown civil war on our hands or something much worse, and they're mobilising just about everyone they can. Even the likes of me. Can't say I know exactly what's going on, but my gut tells me that we'll need you Spartans before it's over."

"I'll do my best, sir." Derek raised his hand to salute.

"Save lives. Make me proud."

With a genuine smile, Richard Mack returned the gesture and and left the room. Derek never saw him again.

***

It had been almost thirty-three years since that fateful day, but Derek hadn't forgotten Mack's parting words. It had taken four more attempts, with all the excruciating pain and the humiliating recovery time involved, before he finally caught up to his brother and sister Spartans with a successful operation. Project SIGMA had all but disbanded by then; its members scattered across the stars and doing their part for the war effort. While Derek had done all he could to study the Covenant - then a little-known and mysterious threat - ONI had other ideas about his usefulness.

They wanted my mind. Told me they needed my help to keep order in the colonies. I believed them.

For whatever reason, the Office of Naval Intelligence made the conscious decision to put a fit, battle ready SPARTAN-II supersoldier into a little-known covert operations unit that specialised not in fighting the Covenant, but in infiltration and counter-terrorism tactics. Derek had swallowed his pride and obeyed. Orders had to be followed. By 2528, he had received an unprecedented officer's commission to the rank of Commander at the age of seventeen and was put into place as second in command of Red Cell.

It was not the most intensive of postings at first, but Derek had found Red Cell's operations intellectually stimulating at least. Operating under the command of one Captain Cynthia Hale, he personally planned and carried out more than thirty simulated attacks on key military and civilian installations, operating alone or alongside a small team. While his skills far outstripped that of any average combatant, weaknesses were found and patched up thanks to his efforts, though it was a thankless task.

Then came OVERSIGHT.

In a system with one foot stuck in fighting the Insurrection and another planted firmly in battling the Covenant, a database containing absolutely everything within ONI was a bold idea favoured by some, especially Hale. Derek saw value in the ability to effectively micro-manage and control the entire organisation, and was dismayed when mere weeks after its completion, the Section Chiefs and CINCONI chose to scrap the entire project. Perhaps, he had thought, they were frightened of it being used against them; their secret activities and illicit schemes at risk of bring brought to light in an instant. The few installations with access to OVERSIGHT immediately terminated the program - under armed guard if necessary - with the exception of Red Cell. This was not because of any rebellion on their part, but because the Covenant chose that very day to attack Sansar.

The planet barely stood a chance. Its meagre defence fleet was smashed aside in hours, and while many civilians escaped unscathed, all Red Cell's personnel could do was huddle together in their bunker, praying that they would not be found. Derek and his comrades hid themselves away as the plasma bombardment rained down above, turning entire continents into seas of burnt earth and twisted glass. Large sections of the bunker collapsed, wiping out most of the command team and fatally injuring Hale. Derek had knelt beside her broken body, and held her hands as she died. His first act as commanding officer of Red Cell, seconds later, was to take the OVERSIGHT data chip from her corpse and claim it for his own.

The survivors remained in their bunker for close to a month, repairing what damage they could and generally cowering in fear until they realised that the Covenant were well and truly gone. Then, they loaded up everything they had into the UNSC Kuwabara and departed the planet, intent on returning to Reach.

That was when Derek had his revelation.

Stood at the bridge of the undermanned Destroyer, all he had to do was give the order and they would have returned to the fold. ONI would have reassigned him to somewhere else, possibly even a combat position, and he would continue life as a loyal soldier of the United Nations Space Command. At that moment, he simply chose not to.

"Cancel the slipspace jump," was his first traitorous order. "There's been a change of plans: Red Cell is to continue operations unaided."

While some of the crew disagreed, none openly defied a direct order. They remained over Sansar for several days while Derek, studying OVERSIGHT in its entirety, chose their first target. With the information not yet out of date, he would be able to access supply caches and deep-space refuelling stations without raising suspicion, and could even make requisition orders if need be. Were he any average ONI-affiliated officer, he might have run into trouble immediately after going rogue, but Derek had OVERSIGHT. He knew everything and could be anyone. Nobody in ONI would question the system. Like him, they had been trained to obey, and obey they would.

Over the next six months, the Kuwabara toured as many far-flung stations as possible, building supplies and requisitioning new crewmen from wherever a few missing people would not be missed. Some were reserve personnel from distant outposts, brought in with transfer orders that looked as legitimate as anything, but most of Red Cell's future recruits came from the battlefield of the Human-Covenant War.

'Save lives,' Mack said. That's exactly what I did.

It was not long before some of Red Cell's original members began to suspect that their Commander was not receiving orders from ONI after all. Most were simply tired of travelling and desperately homesick. Derek wished he could understand their feelings, but such longings were a mystery to him. These veterans found themselves fielded in battle more often, conducting risky rescue operations alongside Derek while the newcomers - eternally grateful towards their rescuers - soon outnumbered them aboard the Kuwabara. As these men and women died, Derek soon discarded his name and held his rank only as a formality. Five years into their mission, all aboard knew him simply as 'Control'.

Time passed quickly aboard the Destroyer as it moved from battlefield to battlefield, moving in the shadow of friendly fleets and avoiding the Covenant at all costs. Five years soon turned to ten, then fifteen as the crew's numbers waxed and waned and Derek's own network spread back into the colonies. Along the way, they had picked up Merope and her 'sister', Maia, and had convinced at least one of the constructs of the righteousness of their mission. The rogue Spartan knew he could not lie to the AI forever, but made sure that her functions were limited to the ship's upkeep and not its long-distance communication arrays. One message to ONI could have unravelled everything, though as Maia teetered into rampancy and had to become dormant for a time, Derek made good use of Merope's capabilities to pry his way back into ONI, using the barely-connected threads of information that remained after Red Cell had been written of as mere casualties. She did her job well.

"Derek," Merope had asked; of the crew, only she knew his name, and was permitted to address him as such only in private. "Why continue all this? Why not simply run away from it all?"

Had the question not been posed so innocently, he might have deleted her then and there. Instead, he thought about their situation for some time, aware that she was already watching him for any deception.

"Because that would be irresponsible," he replied honestly. "I'll not abandon the human race, nor will anyone aboard this vessel."

"Then why not return to the UNSC? To ONI? Surely you would be better-equipped that way?"

"They can be inefficient. Slow. There's no pointless bureaucracy or red tape with what we do; we act efficiently and do what we have to."

"And if you were in charge?"

It had been a simple, hypothetical question from the AI. If I were in charge. For all those years, he had been content to live as barely more than a scavenger, saving lives where he could and acting in the best interests of mankind. The Office of Naval Intelligence had seemed so distant and nebulous; intangible and indestructible as it lay across dozens of star systems even as the Inner Colonies buckled one by one under the Covenant onslaught. Now though, the Spartan looked at them in a different light. Using OVERSIGHT, he had seen the ties binding hundreds of groups within the organisation, widespread though it was. It was more fragile than it had any right to be, with weaknesses that could and had been exploited.

"If I were in charge, Meope, I would see to it that ONI works as it should."

It had been on that day seven years ago that Derek-142 began his plan to assume control of ONI. Long-gone were the days where he could simply wander back into the UNSC and report himself for duty, as he had considered doing on many a dark day. If he failed, he would be branded a traitor; his efforts wasted and work ignored. Derek knew that were he to make his grand reappearance, it would be as a triumphant hero, not a returning deserter. Using as many old supply caches as he could find with the original OVERSIGHT, they had stocked up their bunker on Sansar and equipped the Kuwabara for battle, preparing to swoop in the moment it seemed that all hope was lost against the Covenant so Derek could assume a leader's mantle in fending off the alien tide. In truth, he had little idea of how to beat the Covenant beyond simulations and plans that ran on wishful thinking, but little of that mattered to Derek. What mattered was taking what was rightfully his.

All this changed during the Fall of Reach.

Derek had known about Sigma Team's activities for some time, but had never come even remotely close to meeting another Spartan. News of their accomplishments had been spreading for years, first as rumours, then as full-blown propaganda as tales of seemingly invincible supersoldiers scoring major victories against the Covenant were disseminated to boost morale. Even those aboard the Kuwabara seemed entranced by such stories, even Derek. When they discovered that the Covenant had finally besieged the fortress world of Reach, Red Cell moved in, seeking to use the confusion to its advantage by securing more supplies and more importantly, information.

It had come as quite a surprise to Derek when after their Condor touched down at a remote ONI-controlled monorail line outside the city of New Alexandria, they began to intercept a communication signal from none other than Doctor Calvin Roe, the man behind SIGMA. Intrigued by this, Derek's Red Cell team had used the abandoned rail lines to infiltrate the lowest sections of the Materials Group's main office, ignoring their original target of ONI's headquarters at the Olympic Tower. Tapping into the building's surveillance systems and Roe's own foolishly unencrypted communications channel, he soon discovered the presence of not one, but three Spartan Teams attempting to extract him as the Covenant closed in around them.

For the first time in years, Derek was in the vicinity of his old comrades. For a moment he considered contacting Sigma Team with some excuse, revealing himself after decades of seclusion in an attempt to rejoin them at last. He could abandon Red Cell and everyone in it, and truly become a Spartan again.

But he didn't.

Perhaps it was fear of failure or his own personal pride, unwilling to abandon his mission after so long, but on that day Derek chose to take the Spartans for his own. It didn't take long for his team to take full control of the building's systems, strategically closing doors to slow down the Covenant while shepherding Roe and his extraction team away from the others. As with many ONI-run installations, the entire building had been rigged for demolition to deny the Covenant any access to its data centres. As the last contractor inside, Roe had been granted a detonator, though disabling it electronically took very little effort. That left Derek with the trigger, watching over security feeds as he waited for the right moment.

"Activate signal jammer!" he called to one of his subordinates, feeling a little giddy with anticipation. "Prepare for remote detonation!"

Derek's men did as ordered without a word. He preferred it that way. As the four Spartans crammed themselves into the elevator the device activated, momentarily scrambling their COM systems. They could easily circumvent it with enough time, but it would separate them from the others long enough for them to carry out the rest of the operation. Taking control of the elevator itself, Derek halted it mid-floor and turned the detonator up in his palm. There was no guarantee that anyone would survive this, but the reward was too great.

Please forgive me.

With the press of a button, sixty-four demolition packs exploded simultaneously. Two seconds later, Derek disconnected the elevator from its cable, sending it into freefall down a fiery shaft as the entire skyscraper collapsed around it. Deep in the reinforced sublevels, he and his Red Cell team retreated back to the monorail line for safety, and waited for the crashing to subside. After a few minutes, they ventured upwards, and found four tangled bodies in burnt armour within what remained of the elevator car. While Derek initially feared them dead, a quick diagnostic scan revealed that all four Spartans had simply been knocked unconscious, though they had sustained a number of injuries in the fall.

After that, it had simply been a matter of using the signal jammer to suppress the Spartan transponder signals until their comrades departed the city and to prepare a convenient story for when they awakened. Of all the former SIGMA trainees, Wulf had been one of the few Derek genuinely wanted on his side. Perhaps he had felt something of a kinship with the similar taciturn boy he had met as a child, and though they had never really bonded some part of Derek had hoped that they could have been friends. Putting sentimentality aside, he knew of the man's position as a skilled infiltrator and knew that his veterancy would allow him to command the younger, more unpredictable SPARTAN-III's. Just as he predicted, Wulf and his fellows believed everything about his story after they woke up, and had joined Red Cell in escaping Reach before its eventual annihilation.

Over time, Derek began to hint at the true nature of their mission to his fellow Spartans. Their years of training and an absolute devotion to following orders was certainly a boon, and a series of missions to strike at unprotected Covenant outposts had sated their lust for revenge after Reach's fall, but even they could not blindly obey him forever. After the war's end, the crew began to question him again. Without the threat of extinction, they wished to return home. Many continued to act as without incident, but rising discontent and the threat of mutiny prompted harsher measures and the recruitment of unwilling personnel who would not be missed otherwise. By Derek's calculations, an end in hostilities and a return to some level of normalcy would increase the chances of their detection immensely, giving him a decade or less to act against ONI.

Eventually, he consulted his Spartans. To keep them in the dark forever would be foolish.

"It's ONI", Dan-A105 had laughed at the idea of trying to force a change. "You might as well be fighting gravity."

"Do you disagree with me?" Derek stood before them, half-expecting one of them to try and arrest him for treason. "For all the good they have done, ONI remains inefficient in many sectors. I'm trying to save lives."

Eugene had spoken up next. "But why you? I know ONI's trouble, sir, but how do we know you'll do as good a job?"

"Because I've seen both sides of things. I might not have gotten the armour, but I'm just as much a Spartan as any of you are. Do you want your lives to be dictated to you by a bunch of pencil-pushers who make the hard choices because they won't be anywhere near danger?"

"They already have been," Chris leaned forward, scowling. "Screw it, why not put a Spartan in charge? Might do us some good."

The other SPARTAN-III's wavered, but didn't seem to be totally convinced. Derek adopted a more conciliatory tone, looking at each of them in turn.

"I know what happened with PROMETHEUS. With TORPEDO. I promise you all that I will never throw good Spartans into the fire like that. Ever."

Since he had acquired Merope and Maia, Derek had pursued every avenue of information pertaining to his fellow Spartans, and after some digging had discovered a number of heavily classified reports listing a series of operations against the Covenant led by the SPARTAN-III Program. While most of these were successful, there were two occasions - one in 2537 and one in 2545 - where botched intelligence and insufficient deployment had led to hundreds of deaths. These men had lost of most of their comrades in battle by the age of twelve. At that age, Derek hadn't even finished training.

This seemed to strike a chord with the trio sitting before him, who nodded in agreement before rising to their feet to salute Derek. For all their problems, he knew that they were smart enough to know exactly what they were getting into, and the price of failure. Nonetheless, they followed him willingly. He returned the gesture, then turned to the man he had rechristened as 'D'Artagnan'.

During the entire meeting, Wulf had remained silent, listening to what the others had to say. Perhaps he had worked out that their near-death on Reach was Derek's doing, and not due to some bizarre twist of fate or the incompetence of the now-dead Calvin Roe. He had been careful with his words, not revealing the true extent of his actions over the years or when he had finally chosen to go rogue, As far as they knew, Red Cell had been acting as a lone unit behind enemy lines for years and had only now decided to act against its masters. Wulf sighed and stood up alongside the others, looking more resigned than resolute.

"I'm with you."

***

Derek had stood motionless for some time at the engineering deck's main viewport, reflecting on everything that had taken him up to this moment. Today would either mark his ascension into greatness or be his last stand against an organisation that had taken everything from him. OVERSIGHT, now updated and more dangerous than ever, would be his greatest weapon in this power play. Soon he and his Spartan comrades could abandon their codenames - theirs chosen out of fancy and his out of simplicity - and step out into the light as heroes. A door slid open behind Derek, and he turned to see Lieutenant McLaren standing there, datapad in hand.

"We've established communications, sir. They'll be ready for you soon."

This was it. After staging the bloodless takeover of the station and returning or liquidating all of Red Cell's assets here, he had used OVERSIGHT to send a high-level communique to Admiral Serin Osman, Commander-in-Chief of the Office of Naval Intelligence. In the message, he had relayed his exact criticisms with ONI and his intent to steer it in a direction that he felt was more efficient and - by his own admission - ruthless in safeguarding humanity. While he held no particular grudge against Osman as he knew almost nothing about her or her record, Derek's possession of OVERSIGHT gave him significant leverage and in his hands would be a tool to keep everyone and everything in line once he was placed in charge.

Of course, this was as long as ONI acquiesced to his demands. The message had also stated very clearly that were they to attack him or try to shut down their communication network, he would simply release everything to the general public. Every dirty little secret he had gotten his hands on would be laid bare for all to see, and the resulting chaos would be entirely their fault. Some might even praise Derek for exposing the organisation's crimes, though he hoped it wouldn't come to that; life as head of ONI would be preferable than the life as a rebel, but he could live with the latter if that was what it took to change the system.

"Thank you, Lieutenant," he removed his helmet, noticing her awed expression. "Is there anything else?"

"Yes sir. Mister D'Artagnan's Condor has returned. He's saying that they took losses, but have captured Urbach and her bodyguard."

He smiled. More bargaining chips. "Good. Direct them to a docking bay and proceed to the observation deck. We're about to make history."

Boarding Party

0933 Hours, May 26th, 2558

Condor Trasimene, Isimud System, Inner Colonies


"You are cleared for landing. Please proceed to Bay Two."

"Thank you Lieutenant, we're coming in now."

Sat in the Condor's main pilot seat, Wulf switched off the COM and gave the all-clear over TEAMCOM for the rest of Sigma. The journey from Biko to this remote outpost had been mostly silent, save for a brief discussion of their plan upon reaching Isimud Station. While Wulf escorted his 'prisoners' to Derek, Marco, Kane and Jax would move in and disable the long-range transmitter that would allow Red Cell to transmit their improved OVERSIGHT network across the colonies. The cockpit door slid open, and Kane-099 stepped inside.

"Chief," Wulf gave a brief nod as he guided their bulky craft towards a hangar bay. To their right, the UNSC Kuwabara sat alongside Isimud's primary docking tubes.

"What kind of resistance will we expect?" Kane asked, staring straight ahead with arms folded. "Aside from Spartans."

"Hard to say. Derek's recalled just about every Red Cell-affiliated asset here, so I'd say a hundred personnel at least."

"Weaponry?"

"Nothing too fancy. The platoon you guys took out on Biko were our best."

Kane finally turned his full attention towards Wulf, watching the Spartan carefully as he focused on landing the Condor. As it passed into the hangar and slowly descended towards the deck, he opened his mouth to say something, only to shake his head and leave.

Was that another death threat or something nice? He could never tell with Kane. The Condor touched down with surprising lightness for its large frame, and as Wulf clambered out of his seat he saw a deck crew jogging towards them. They seemed unarmed, though any overt action would soon but the whole station on alert. The biggest danger, however, was Merope. Wulf had never been entirely sure of the full extent of the Smart AI's capabilities, but could not underestimate her. Moving into the dropship's deployment bay, he found Jill Urbach and Violet-B039 waiting expectantly by the rear hatch next to a rather miserable-looking Gustav Klein.

"You know," Violet held up her hands, chained together by a pair of strong microfilament cuffs. "I could probably break through these if need be."

"Oh, I don't know about that," Wulf held up another pair for Jill to take. "These things are supposed to be strong enough to hold a Brute."

From his seat, Klein smirked. "Well, Spartans aren't much different."

Violet gave her handcuffs an experimental tug and frowned, thinking better of trying to break out right now just to frighten Gus. Her helmet lay by an ammo rack, and she had done her best en-route to make it look like she'd been the loser of some brutal fight by smearing part of her face with dirt, though the severe damage to her armour's chestplate from a direct railgun hit would be the most convincing part. She had gotten over her animosity towards the SPARTAN-II surprisingly fast, considering how he had been moments away from blowing her head off back on Biko.

"So we're just walking up to him?" asked Jill as her cuffs clicked into place. "We get close to Control, and then what?"

Wulf deftly racked the slide of his handgun and affixed it to his hip armour. "I'll unlock your cuffs and we subdue him. Derek might be a Spartan, but I doubt he suspects betrayal from me at this point. Besides, he'll be more preoccupied with threatening ONI to suspect a surprise attack within his own headquarters so soon."

"Derek," Gus rolled the name around in his mouth, leaning back against the wall. "'Control' sounds a lot more threatening."

"Spooks do like their scary codenames," Violet shook her head.

"In any case," Wulf looked at each of them in turn. "I wouldn't underestimate him. He's still got three seasoned Spartans under his command."

"Can't you reason with them?" asked Jill. "You're their commander, aren't you?"

This had troubled Wulf the entire trip. The SPARTAN-III trio were valued allies, but they had their own shared history and outlook on things. Though hesitant to go against the UNSC at first, they had soon taken to Derek's way of covert action and had shown surprising loyalty towards him. Dan-A105 had even compared him to a 'Lieutenant Ambrose'; some figure that the trio held in great regard.

"I'll have to see what happens. If they're around, then Sigma Team will have to take care of them."

Violet sighed. "Spartans killing Spartans. It's stuff like this that makes me really miss the war."

While Jill shot her an annoyed look and Gus made a disgusted noise, Wulf couldn't help but murmur in agreement. He was no stranger to convert operations and espionage, but things had been simpler in their fight against the Covenant. Perhaps after today, if all went exceedingly well, he would return to something resembling his old life. However, the Spartan couldn't afford to dwell on it, and instead turned to face the entrance to the Condor's upper bay.

"Chief!" he addressed Kane over TEAMCOM. "Once we're gone, I'd say that we have five minutes or less until we meet Derek. I'd move as soon as possible if you want to take out the station's communications array."

Above them, Kane, Marco and Jax were huddled together around a datapad displaying Isimud Station's technical readouts. While Derek was likely located in the command room several floors above the hangar, there was a station below them that managed this outpost's interstellar COM system. Linked to dozens of similar space stations and thousands of satellites dotted around the colonies, it could transfer information across light-years in mere moments. If his threats were genuine, then Derek could spread the top-secret information collected through this second iteration of OVERSIGHT across innumerable civilian networks before ONI could do anything to stop him.

"We'll do our job," Kane replied, standing up alongside the others. "Then we'll be along to deal with Derek."

"Don't kill him!" Jax called down, sounding deadly serious for once. "There's too few of us these days as-is."

Marco said nothing, and simply grunted in acknowledgement of the others. Wulf saluted his brothers in arms and walked towards the bay door. Violet and Jill stood side-by-side with Gus right behind them, already playing the stoic guardsman's role The deck crew was probably already waiting for them.

"Stay close to me and act beaten," he whispered to Violet as the pair of fugitives moved to his side, one hand on the hatch button. "Remember, you killed my men and I barely took you both alive."

"Sure thing, D'Artagnan," she glanced over with a wry smile.

"Call me Wulf, please."

"That sounds just as made-up."

"Strange that you're the oldest but they'd name you after the youngest Musketeer," Jill muttered to herself, only to shrug and hang her head as Wulf opened the hatch.

At the sight of the two battered captives with only Wulf and Gus to guard them, the lightly-armed deck crew seemed to shrink back in poorly-disguised fear. Wulf stood tall as he led the pair out, half-dragging Violet by one arm while Jill walked alongside them in silence with Gus at the rear. One of them - a young officer - approached the grey-armoured supersoldier and saluted.

"Sir, we were asked to perform immediate repairs on the Trasimene after you arrived. The slipspace drive-"

"No," Wulf cut him off. "I want all of you to come with me."

"Sir?"

"You see my combat team?"

The Ensign glanced towards the Condor's interior, now completely empty. "No sir."

"That's because this Spartan killed them all, barring my agent here. If she tries to break free again, I'll need your guns on her and her partner immediately."

"Understood, sir. Fall in!"

After a moment's hesitation, the five other crewmen fell in around Wulf and his two prisoners, clutching their sidearms and watching Violet closely. Her eyes rose briefly to meet one of them, though she soon went back to staring at the floor as his submachine gun twitched upwards by a fraction. Gus kept his sidearm drawn, prodding Jill in the back every time she fell behind by a few paces.

It was a slow, awkward trip for their little group, heading out of the hangar bay and through the captured communication outpost's long corridors. As they approached the elevators, Wulf spotted Eugene-A133 leading a group of captured officers - the outpost's original staff - away at gunpoint. He nodded towards the older Spartan, but said nothing as he resumed his duties. Derek had never outlined what he intended to do with Isimud Station's current garrison, but considering the sudden and brutal liquidation of Red Cell's assets their chances weren't looking too good.

"Ensign," Wulf intoned as they stopped by the main elevator. The man jogged up to him and saluted again, much to his chagrin.

"Yes sir?"

"There won't be enough room for all of us in the elevator. Have your team wait right here while you join us on the bridge."

The man complied, and while the rest of the blatantly nervous crew stood to attention, Wulf called an elevator and had Gus help push their 'captives' inside before endured thirty seconds of watching the young officer nervously sweat and cling to his pistol every time Violet so much as exhaled. Gus, on the other hand, seemed constantly on the verge of talking, though he kept silent. The Spartan found it mildly amusing that the man barely took a second glance at Urbach, a trained BRUTUS agent with a stellar record of assassination. They soon arrived on the command deck, and their little procession continued down a long, featureless corridor that led into the operations centre. The doors opened up as they drew closer and Dan and Chris exited, both fully-armed and suited up.

"D'Artagnan," Dan nodded politely.

"Spartans."

"Need any help?" asked Chris, tapping the side of his shotgun as he stopped before Violet. She raised her head, and the pair stared eye-to-visor for a few seconds before she sighed and averted her gaze.

"I think the two of us will suffice. Where are you going?"

"The Kuwabara. Control wants it prepared for an immediate jump if things go south."

"Think they will?"

Chris simply shrugged, while Dan stopped for a moment to consider the question.

"Depends on ONI," he said, barely concealing the nervousness in his voice. "They say yes, and we've brought in a new, better era. They say no and we're criminals for life."

"We already are," Chris snorted. "Only difference is what happens to us."

"You worried?"

"Haven't the time to be, sir."

Are they cracking? Wulf thought to himself. "Well, I'd better get this over with. See you later."

As the two Spartans walked off, Wulf and Gus led Violet and Jill into the spacious room ahead. Doubling as an observation deck with a wonderful view of the stars, the command room of Isimud Station was lined with banks of monitors and important equipment made to not only relay communications but monitor it from afar. As the centre of the room stood a raised platform, designed for the station's commanding officer to give directions from beside a large holotable. Looming above everyone else was a tall figure in gleaming white armour, stood in a familiar pose with arms folded behind his back.

"Good to see that you're back, Wulf," Derek-142 gestured for them to approach. "Now we can begin."

"So we're not using code names any more?"

"Why bother any more?" Derek shrugged.

Wulf looked past him and noticed a helmet lying by the holotable. So he's finally gotten himself a suit. For whatever reason, Derek had never tried to acquire his own MJOLNIR armour before now, even after forging requisition orders to upgrade the horribly-damaged suits of the other Spartans. Now that he was going all-in, he probably didn't want to take any chances. Catching Wulf's gaze, Derek raised an armoured hand and clenched his fist.

"I've been waiting years for this," he explained, looking over at Violet and Jill. "This was Package X-83: An experimental suit of MJOLNIR armour, diverted from one of ONI's R&D labs."

"It suits you," Wulf said politely. "What's the designation?"

"HELLCAT, according to the lab. There's only a few of this particular model, though the one we appropriated was being used as an test bed for experimental technology."

"Such as?"

"You'll see soon enough," the white-armoured Spartan gave a surprising wink before slipping a hand behind his back. "But first-"

Derek's arm shot out at lightning speed, flinging a small disk-shaped object towards Violet. Though she instinctively attempted to dodge, the disk made contact and activated, freezing her in place as energy crackled across the exterior of her MJOLNIR armour. Though she attempted to pull away, the SPARTAN-III was completely immobilised within her suit.

"Armour restraint," Derek said dismissively before turning back to his holotable. "Another new gadget ONI's been field-testing. It's a fairly simple, but effective way of dealing with rogue Spartans. Horribly dangerous if it ever fell into the wrong hands, of course."

Wulf kept his composure. "Naturally. How do you want our prisoners dealt with?"

"Keep them here. Negotiations are about to begin and I'd like to make it clear to ONI that we don't allow dangerous criminals to slip through our fingers."

"Criminals?!" Jill stepped forward, feigning outrage.

Wulf, Gus and several guards raised their weapons, but Derek waved for them to stand down. He approached Jill, towering over the ONI agent as he stared unblinkingly into her defiant eyes. He placed a hand on her shoulder, and applied just enough pressure to make it clear that he could rip her arm off in a split second.

"For reasons unknown, you and your Spartan companion launched an attack on a Marine Corps outpost on Erdenet not long ago, taking many innocent lives before evading an ONI retrieval team and fleeing into the Outer Colonies to take refuge with members of the New Colonial Alliance. Thankfully, Red Cell's agents were able to intercept you shortly after your arrival and bring the pair of you to justice."

"No one's going to believe you," Jill glared back at Derek. "The records-"

"The records will show whatever I want them to show!" Derek shoved her backwards before returning to his holotable. Gus caught Jill before she hit the ground and looked towards Wulf, who remained motionless. With Violet immobilised and a cadre of guards surrounding them, their team could not move until he did. In a pitched battle, only he stood a chance against Derek at close range. Derek's XO, Lieutenant McLaren, emerged from a side room and jogged towards the Spartan.

"Comms are up, sir."

"Excellent. Patch them through."

The holotable before them lit up as a screen shimmered into view. After a few moments of static the image coalesced into the figure of grey-haired officer in his forties, standing to attention in a dark naval uniform. He took a brief look around the room before settling on Derek, whose face was a mask of anger.

"You aren't Admiral Osman," he said, every word dripping with fury. "Where is she?"

"Admiral Osman is in an important meeting right now and can't make it. I'm Vice Admiral Ryan Samson of the Prowler Corps, and I've been chosen to handle these negotiations."

Derek swallowed, quickly regaining his composure. "You've read my terms, I take it?"

"Yes. We passed them on to our Strategic Planning Department and to CINCONI's office for consideration. Your reforms are rather radical, if I do say so myself."

"I'd say they're necessary, Admiral. We live in a galaxy that grows more dangerous every day, and cannot afford to disperse power too widely. Centralisation is the answer."

A smirk crept across Samson's stony features. "If you'd said that ten years ago, Commander, I'd likely agree with you. Heck, some of your comments on how we could re-organise our sub-divisions were pretty damn insightful, but I'm afraid that ONI simply cannot acquiesce to your demands."

"And why is that?" Derek stiffened slightly. "I was very clear in how my leadership would benefit Naval Intelligence greatly, and if it's loyalty you're worried about then I have records dating back over twenty-five years of our activities. Red Cell has always served the needs of humanity."

"You've got it all wrong," Samson closed his eyes for a moment, pinching the bridge of his nose. "While your manifesto was certainly inspired, you don't just get to claim leadership of this organisation by turning up out of the blue after so many years 'undercover' and demanding that our current leader step down."

"Isn't that what Osman did?!" Derek waved an arm dismissively. "ONI had an entire host of seasoned agents and officers ready to take the reins a few years ago, yet the position gets given to someone who ten years ago was virtually an unknown factor within the organisation, but who ended up being groomed by Admiral Parangosky to take over. That doesn't sound like fair promotion, Admiral, that sounds like the office of CINCONI has become a hereditary position!"

There was a long silence as Derek stared up at Samson, who appeared to be checking something offscreen. He sighed, and looked back towards the renegade Spartan.

"Commander, your opinions on this matter are utterly irrelevant. I don't care how smart you are, but to call what you're pulling here a mere breach of protocol would be a tremendous understatement. What you seem to be demanding is that this organisation allow you - a man who is also 'virtually an unknown factor' - to take control and enact what I can only describe as a series of dictatorial reforms. While few of us within ONI have clean hands and we have to do dirty work for the greater good, this ridiculous attempt at a coup will not work. It cannot work. You possess neither the military strength or powerbase to be anything more than an annoyance, and if you do not stand down peacefully and surrender, you and all of your followers will be eliminated like the terrorists you are."

Derek closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. "Is that it?"

"Yes," Samson folded his arms. "Your decision?"

"I made it very clear what would happen if my demands were not heeded, didn't I?"

"Yes, you did. Whatever you release with OVERSIGHT, we will deal with. As a fellow officer, I'd appeal to your sense of duty to avoid any potential disaster, but it seems that you're far beyond that point already."

"So be it. Cease communications."

Samson's screen cut out immediately, and the holographic form of Merope flashed up in its place. The AI was looking even more ragged now, and occasionally flickered as a result of her impending rampancy. She and Derek shared a long, mournful look as the Spartan approached, placing both hands on the holotable before casting his gaze up to the stars above.

"Sir?" she whispered, walking to the very edge of the table with one arm outstretched. "Shall we-"

"Activate OVERSIGHT dispersion, maximum range. I want everything broadcast for as long as we can."

"Yes sir."

The AI turned, took a step forward, and froze. This was not an action of her doing, as her mouth hung open and her avatar began to violently tremble. Derek, helmet in hand, glanced over with a worried expression.

"Merope?"

There was a tiny flash, and the AI vanished. A moment later, a new figure appeared in her place. It was a rather scruffy, balding man with large sunglasses and both hands shoved into his pockets. He looked left and right, before raising a finger to point at Derek.

"Hey buddy," Iggy said with a toothy grin. "Sorry, but I'm here to crash the party."

Every single light across the command deck cut out in an instant, plunging it into near-total darkness. As Derek hurriedly put his helmet on, Wulf leapt forward and tackled the white-armoured Spartan. Taken by complete surprise, Derek hit the floor hard as Wulf attempted to pin him to the floor and flailed for a moment before angling one of his gauntlets towards his attacker. Seeing it light up, Wulf threw himself off Derek with barely as second to spare as a shimmering blue shield of hard light erupted from the gauntlet, creating an impenetrable barrier between the two as Derek backed off and drew his sidearm.

"Why!?" Derek roared, his voice heavy with betrayal. "After all these years, why now?"

Wulf moved slowly, using the holotable to put some distance between himself and Derek that hardlight shield had almost decapitated him, and the Spartan had a feeling that it wasn't the only trick up his old friends's sleeve. Power began to return to the room, beginning with the emergency lighting. An eerie red glow shone across the deck, contrasting with the blue of Derek's shield. Many of the crewmen and guards hadn't moved yet, watching the two Spartans in awe.

"It's over, Derek. Face it, this was never going to work!"

"You don't know that!" Derek fired a couple of rounds, which pinged harmlessly off Wulf's energy shields. "We had a chance to make things better! To fix so many problems!"

"Perhaps we did," he nodded. "Good ideas, but a bad way of getting them across."

Derek gestured towards his XO. "McLaren, get the crew to the Kuwabara and call my Spartans, now!"

The officer, who had taken cover behind a terminal, edged towards the door, only to have a screen behind her burst into pieces as Gustav Klein levelled his own handgun. Beside him, Jill finished prising the armour restraint from Violet's armour, freeing the SPARTAN-III in an instant. Without a moment's hesitation, she dived to one side, avoiding a hail of bullets from a guard while defending her unprotected head with a raised forearm before disabling the man with a single kick and taking his weapon. The entire deck soon descended into pandemonium, with unarmed crewmen scattering while the few remaining guards attempted to fire on Wulf and his allies. Against two Spartans, however, they would not last long.

Moving to cover McLaren, Derek waved for her to continue her retreat towards a side corridor, slowly falling back while under fire from Wulf, Violet and Gustav. Before he stepped down from the command platform, the Spartan suddenly dropped his shield and raced for a nearby terminal, reaching out for a datapad connected to the device. Violet raced to intercept him as Wulf dealt with a barrage of fire from Derek's guards, leaping over a table to block his path. The SPARTAN-II did not slow down, and merely waved his hand in her direction.

"Move."

The air between Derek and Violet grew hazy, and as she raised her rifle the Spartan was suddenly wrenched to one side and sent flying across the deck, right into Wulf. Derek snatched up the datapad and turned back in a single fluid movement, running back towards his loyal followers as they continued their retreat out of the room. Before his Spartan opponents could recover, he wrenched open an access panel on the side of the door and yanked down an emergency switch, forcing it shut immediately. Left alone in the now-empty command room, Wulf and the others picked themselves up and took a moment to recover from the brief but furious firefight.

"What the hell was that?!" Violet demanded, already jogging towards the now-sealed door. Iggy rematerialised atop the holotable, and yawned noisily before answering.

"Since I don't think that fella's got telekinesis, I'd say some form of localised containment field."

Violet turned towards the AI. "And who the hell are you?"

"I'm Iggy," he gave a cheerful wave. "Sigma's tag-along AI, at your service."

"And is there a reason why you didn't introduce yourself sooner?"

"The Chief gave me a standing order of 'be quiet' en-route to Biko since Marco threatened to smash me. I've been a good boy and followed orders since then, though he did ask me to give you a hand. You probably needed it too, since he tossed your metal ass across the room like that."

"Is it Forerunner tech, like the shield?" Wulf asked as an annoyed-looking Violet opened her mouth to berate the AI.

"Yup. ONI's been trying out new applications for the stuff for months now, but I didn't know that they were gonna start putting it on MJOLNIR suits. I'd wager that our man there's got his hands on some particularly expensive prototype."

Jill sighed, taking a handgun from a nearby corpse. "Can we beat him?"

"Of course we can," Violet snorted. "There's five Spartans against him and he's on the run already."

At this, Wulf placed two fingers to the side of his helmet and switched from a local channel to TEAMCOM. Fearful of Red Cell's superb communication-monitoring systems, he'd not been in contact with Sigma Team since they left the Condor, and though he had full faith in his comrades there was some part of him that couldn't help but worry.

"Sigma One, this is Sig- Wulf. We've cleared the command room but Derek's on the move. What's your status, over?"

Kane-099's reply came quickly. "This is Sigma. We've secured Isimud Station's long-range COM relay and let Iggy loose into the system to try and stop the OVERSIGHT launch, though we're shutting this place down just in case Derek tries to transmit it directly from here."

"Copy that. He's likely heading for the Kuwabara. We're in pursuit, but it'll take some time. Can you cut him off?"

"Will do. What should we expect?"

"Likely up to a dozen guards, plus our old SPARTAN-III friends soon enough. Derek's also got himself some advanced MJOLNIR suit as well, with some Forerunner-made enhancements. I'd advise explosives."

There was a brief crackle as Jax-007's voice filtered into TEAMCOM. "Think we can take him alive?"

That was a tough one. A single Spartan, regardless of his enhancements, likely wouldn't stand too much of a chance against three SPARTAN-II's if it came down to close combat. Wulf found himself looking back over thirty years, to the ever-present leaderboard from their training days that graded each trainee's overall score. While he hated it, Wulf could recall the consistent placing of every Spartan on that list. Derek had been tenth; never more than average, but without any major flaws he could remember. Even in their brief fight, Wulf could not think of anything that would have given him a definite advantage against the consistently unremarkable Spartan. He tapped the side of his helmet twice.

"I'll leave that up to you. Wulf out."

Closing the communication channel, Wulf saw Violet trying unsuccessfully to prise open the door Derek had retreated through. When it became clear that even her Spartan strength would do nothing, she kicked a small dent in it with her armoured boot before stalking across the room towards the elevator bay.

"Vi!" Jill called. "Don't rush in. We can't take any more chances today."

Violet stopped, and clicked her tongue. "Fine. Wulf, what's the plan?"

Wulf walked across to the holotable and swiped his hands over a console. A holographic map of Isimud Station appeared before them, highlighting the layout and any security warnings. A series of yellow markers indicated where Iggy had been sealing doors ahead of the retreating Red Cell force, while two blue arrows represented their group and Sigma Team. Currently Derek - a red arrow - was making his way across the crew's quarters, using stairs and wrenching open weaker maintenance doors as they made their way towards the Kuwabara. The access corridor from the Destroyer to the space station was filled with hostiles already.

"I think we'll definitely be able to overtake him," Wulf traced a finger along a nearby corridor. "Urbach, Klein, stay here and stand guard. Violet and I will rejoin Sigma Team and take down Derek."

Gus grinned happily, and while Jill looked slightly disheartened, she understood their predicament. Regardless of her impressive abilities as a BRUTUS agent, she couldn't hope to compete in a battle of Spartans. Righting an upturned chair by a bank of monitors, she sat down and waved Wulf and Violet off as they raced towards the nearest elevator.

"You know," Gus scratched the back of his head, looking at the corpse-strewn room, "A week ago my biggest worries were paying off gate guards and not pissing off some crusty old man. Now I'm wrapped up in some conspiracy bullshit and apparently working for ONI."

To his surprise, Jill laughed. "A week ago my biggest worry was that I'd be sent to a crappy planet for my next Innie-killing assignment. Now I'm not sure if I'm still on the run or not or if I've still got my job with ONI."

The smuggler sat on the holotable, pondering something for a few moments, eventually he looked back to Jill, speaking with absolute seriousness.

"So if you do get your job back, d'you think you could put in a good word for me? As fun as this whole rebel thing's been, I'm not really too political and could really do with something that pays better."

"You want to do what I do?" Jill raised an eyebrow. "I'm not sure if you're exactly BRUTUS material."

"Oh, I'm not asking to be some badass assassin like you or your Spartan buddy, but surely ONI's got plenty of positions for informants, right? I could even be your pilot."

"My pilot?"

"Yeah. How else do you two get around?"

Jill was about to inform him of ONI's network of discreet transport vessels that usually got her and Violet wherever she needed to go, but there was something about the desperate, pleading look in Gustav Klein's eyes that broke through her usual chilly, no-nonsense exterior.

"You know what?" she said, leaning back in her chair. "We get through all this alive, and I'll see what I can do."

Burn Notice

0117 Hours, May 26th, 2558

Isimud Station, Inner Colonies


After Wulf's group had left the Condor, Sigma Team counted down five minutes before making their move. Though an initial scan of the local area had detected dozens of lightly-armed crewmen, the Spartans did not want to risk an engagement until they had secured the communications centre. The presence of an AI aboard the station would also complicate matters, making time a major factor. The moment there seemed to be a lull in security, the trio sprang forth from the dropship's troop bay, racing across the hangar floor and moving into an empty maintenance corridor before anyone could notice their presence. Despite their size and armoured suits, each Spartan knew how to move while making as little noise as possible.

Access became much easier once they discovered a working terminal. While Marco and Jax kept watch, Kane slotted Iggy's AI chip into the device and stood by as he scanned Isimud Station's layout and transferred the relevant data to their suits for future use.

"Looks like our boy's already talking it up with ONI," Iggy flashed up surveillance footage of the command room. "Want me to step in?"

"No," Kane checked the station layout on his TACPAD. "Stay in the system and monitor the situation for now. If it looks like he's about to transmit the OVERSIGHT data, then intervene."

"What about their AI?"

"Lock it out, but don't eliminate. It may come in handy later."

"Gotcha," Iggy's face flashed on the monitor for a moment, then vanished.

Reaching the communications room without alerting anyone proved to be a surprisingly tough feat, as crewmen and armed guards seemed to be lurking around every corner. At one point, Kane even sighted the distant shape of one of the enemy Spartans leading a group of prisoners somewhere, and had to resist opening fire until he moved out of sight. After reaching the room itself, Kane waved for his comrades to move up as he prepared to unlock the door.

"Quick and quiet," he raised a fist. "No guns."

He tapped a button, and the door slid open to reveal four surprised technicians working at a row of consoles. While the Spartans had been fully prepared to take out the entire room unarmed, they received no resistance as the group immediately raised their hands in surrender. Waving a pistol, Jax corralled them into a corner and made them sit while Kane accessed the primary console.

"Huh," a flicker of surprise filtered into his usual monotone. "There are sixty-eight stations in this network.

"How much does that cover?" asked Marco.

"More or less every colonised world, and then some."

"Meaning?"

"ONI's got stations hidden in Sangheili space too. If OVERSIGHT's data gets out that far, it could seriously jeopardise inter-species relations."

Marco leaned against a wall, and shrugged. "I'm not one to give a damn about the hinge-heads, but how much d'you want to bet that ONI's been planning to wipe them out?"

"It's almost a certainty," Jax spoke up, still watching the prisoners.

Kane's fingers moved quickly over the controls, bringing up Isimud Station's long-distance communication arrays. After inputting several commands, each met with a red 'error' message, he stood up and fished out a brick-shaped object from one of his belt pouches.

"C-12?" Marco tilted his head to one side. "We blowing this place up?"

"I can't shut down the array itself. If the transmission begins, then we'll just have to do as much damage as we possibly can."

The others nodded in approval as their leader planted the explosive device beneath a nearby table. That brick alone would likely vaporise this entire room and gut any adjacent ones, in addition to whatever damage would occur from exposing the damaged area to the vacuum of space. Once that was done, the black-armoured Spartan drew his rifle and stood by the main door.

"We'll stand by for now and see how Wulf's team fares."

***

They didn't have to wait long.

After just a few minutes, Iggy contacted Sigma to inform him that he had stopped a remote launch and that a battle had broken out, followed by Wulf informing him that Derek and his allies were now retreating towards their position. This was the moment the Spartans had been waiting for.

"Let's move, Sigma!" Kane waved for the others to follow him.

Jax motioned for the prisoners to stand up, and marched them to the door. "As soon as this thing opens, I want you to run like hell."

They complied nervously, and as it slid open they all burst through, fleeing in several directions down the adjacent corridors while the Spartans moved with weapons drawn.

"Iggy, where's Derek?" Kane asked.

"Heading right for you, Chief," the AI snapped his fingers and a waypoint appeared on Kane's HUD. "We've got enemy Spartans closing in from the Kuwabara's airlock too."

"All three?"

"Yes sir."

With each traitorous Spartan now marked for them, Sigma Team had time to prepare. While Kane had no issue with eliminating them as threats, he was fully aware of how Jax and Marco felt about this situation. The hesitation in Wulf's voice when asked about taking Derek alive had been clear too.

"Marco, you go after Derek. Jax and I will deal with the Threes."

For once, Marco didn't second-guess his orders and ran off, sprinting down the corridor with rifle in hand. Kane and Jax stood side-by-side outside the communications room, and watched as three red markers raced towards them.

"How're we handling this?" the Spartan in red racked his shotgun.

"I say we give them fair warning, for old times sake, but if it comes down to it then we fight to win."

"Lenient of you," Jax eased up a little, stretching his legs and unsheathing his combat knife. "I'd hate to have to tell Martin and the others that their old pals were alive all this time, but we had to kill them."

Kane sighed. After the Fall of Reach, Sigma Team had taken on a group of SPARTAN-III's after the battle had heavily depleted their numbers. Though they operated together for less than a year, he had grown rather fond of the younger supersoldiers and had sympathised with them for losing so many team mates. To have them suddenly come back from the dead like this would be quite the shock, even for a Spartan. Readying his rifle, Kane took a deep breath as the waypoints converged in the corridor ahead of them, and a security door clanked open to reveal three figures in heavy armour.

"I hope it doesn't come to that."

***

It's all falling apart.

Derek-142 emerged from a maintenance corridor, handgun at the ready as his exhausted retinue spilled out into the corridor behind him. He had been betrayed by his closest allies, and could do nothing but wreak as much havoc as possible before fleeing. It was one of the earliest lessons he had been taught, after all.

"Sir," McLaren leant against a metal strut, clutching a stitch in her side as she caught her breath. "The Kuwabara. Should we-"

"Run? Not yet." Derek had dispatched the SPARTAN-III's, his loyal hunting dogs, to secure the communications room. The last transmission from them had revealed that two enemy Spartans were guarding it before they moved to engage.

OVERSIGHT must be launched. It must be used. If ONI refuses to use it to control itself, then I'll teach them a lesson they'll never forget.

This was a plan many years in the making. Merope - and for a time her sister, Maia - had spent countless hours slowly compiling a comprehensive list of everything ONI had, using backdoors from the original OVERSIGHT program that had not been closed to access files far above their clearance level, all to stockpile it for this day. The organisation's dirty secrets had piled up since Derek's original departure long ago, and if laying them all bare would be the only way to get what he desired then so be it.

"Get a move on," he waved for his followers to moved as he stalked off down the corridor, armour gleaming in the light.

Their progress had been slowed by a number of sealed doorways, likely thanks to the enemy AI currently infesting Isimud Station's systems. Derek couldn't help but glance at every monitor and holotank he passed, occasionally seeing a tiny flash of blue of the momentary appearance of the enemy construct's grinning face. It was trying to slow him down.

Halting suddenly, Derek raised a fist as the sounds of small arms fire drifted towards them. Ahead of him, two guards backed out of a side corridor, rifles blaring. Two precise rifle bursts struck them in the chest and forehead respectively, toppling both men in a spray of blood. Moments later, a Spartan in tawny brown armour emerged, walking towards Derek with a sense of supreme confidence as he reloaded his BR85.

"Derek!" Marco-035 called, stopping fifteen metres away from his old comrade. "It's over, Spartan. Come quietly or this is going to get violent."

Derek paused for a moment. I remember you, Marco. You were a brat. Always complaining. Always questioning. If it weren't for Jack and Elena propping you up, you'd have never done as well as you did. Too emotional. Too headstrong. A damn good fighter, but never anything special. Master of none.

"You're making a mistake," he made a gesture, and four guards fanned out around him with rifles at the ready. "You of all people should know that change needs to happen. Not in the face of some crisis, or fifty years ahead, but now. ONI's sick, and it needs help, Marco. Let me show them the error of their ways. Please."

Marco let out a long whistle. "You spend time rehearsing that speech, Derek?"

Oh right, I'd forgotten his irreverence. "Hardly. Now, will you step aside or am I going to have to make you step aside?"

At this, Marco simply stepped forward, drumming his fingers on the side of his rifle before turning his helmet to address Derek's bodyguards. "I've been told that anyone on this man's crew will be given amnesty if they surrender peacefully. You've got five Spartans on board and a fleet en-route to this station. It's your choice if you want to live."

Marco's words took a few moments to sink in. Derek's combat teams were battle-hardened soldiers to a man, each made rigorously loyal towards Red Cell and their cause, but when faced with the prospect of near-certain death and given a way out, no sane person wouldn't think twice about their allegiance. As four rifles began to turn towards Derek, the Spartan's pistol snapped to one side and fired twice, splattering the nearby wall with chunks of brain matter as his hand shot to another's throat. The traitorous soldier's neck snapped like a chicken bone, and his comrade got as far as pulling the trigger before Derek smashed his face in with a single lightning-fast punch. Behind him, only McLaren remained, and as he turned his gaze towards the terrified woman her finger shot out towards Marco.

"Sir, look out!"

SPARTAN-035 had cleared the gap in seconds, hoping to use the distraction to quickly subdue Derek as he flipped his rifle to full-auto and sent a hail of rounds towards the white-armoured supersoldier. Derek's shields absorbed these blows with barely a flicker, and as he raised his unarmed hand towards Marco the Spartan realised what he was about to do. Drawing the combat knife from his belt, Marco flung the blade towards Derek as the containment field snapped into place, stopping him mid-sprint.

With the blade whizzing towards his neck and no time to dodge, Derek targeted the knife and reactivated his containment field, freezing it mid-air mere centimetres away from his throat. In the second it took to sidestep the projectile, Marco pounced on Derek, smashing into him at full speed and sending the pair crashing across the floor in a jumble of flailing fists and jerking limbs. The pair righted themselves simultaneously and Marco immediately closed the distance with an uppercut that made Derek's teeth rattle as he jerked back, tasting blood in his mouth. Kicking off from the ground, he used his thrusters to fling himself several metres away before raising his hand one more.

Marco found himself frozen on the spot, hand halfway to Derek's dropped handgun. Red Cell's leader exhaled with relief, and moved over to the other Spartan. McLaren, who had backed up into a nearby alcove, finally emerged and darted to his side.

"McLaren," Derek patted her on the shoulder with his free hand. "Please proceed to the communications room and activate OVERSIGHT at once."

Reaching into his belt pouch, he pulled out his mercifully undamaged datapad and removed a tiny chip from it. It was the same one he had taken from the bloody, dying hands of Red Cell's former leader so many years ago; the holder of the original OVERSIGHT program and the basis for the new one. McLaren took the chip, holding it aloft with a reverent look before stowing it in her pocket and racing off down the corridor. Derek watched her turn left and disappear before he moved, scooping up Marco's knife before turning back towards his incapacitated foe.

"I'm sorry about this, Marco, but there really was no other way. I hate the idea of killing one of my brothers, especially since there are so few of us now, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Still, at least it's fellow Spartan ending your life."

Derek held the knife aloft and held it to Marco's throat. The pair stood barely an inch apart, Marco's clear golden visor facing Derek's glowing eyeslits. SPARTAN-142 paused for a moment, either savouring the moment or hesitating for a few seconds.

"Any last words?" he whispered.

"Yeah," Marco laughed. "You talk way too much."

Derek caught the flash of red on his motion tracker a moment too late, and turned away from his captive long enough to notice the tiny red dot flashing across his chest. Standing in a doorway behind them was a Spartan in grey, hefting a heavy-duty anti-vehicle weapon.

"Wulf-"

Marco's restrains vanished in an instant, though the shimmering blue shield snapping into place over Derek's right forearm was not quite fast enough to deflect the crimson beam flying towards him. Derek flew backwards, his breastplate cooking and melting away as the laser cut through it like a hot knife through butter and into the flesh and bone beneath. The blast tore through the Spartan's flesh, burning away everything from his right pectoral to the shoulder in an instant. He screamed as he hit the ground, writhing in pain as his suit screamed a dozen warnings. Before he could scramble away, Derek-142 felt a weight on his chest as Marco knelt on him, shoving a handgun into his face.

"Like I said, Derek," he tapped the barrel against his visor, "It's over."

***

As the butt of the rifle struck his chest, Kane-099 backed off, momentarily winded. by the blow. It had been quite a while since he'd seen a SPARTAN-III fight in person, and he had forgotten quite how vicious their younger brethren could be. Dan, Chris and Eugene had ran straight for them, firing mostly-useless bursts from their rifles as they pelted down the corridor towards Kane and Jax's position. They weren't interested in a firefight with the SPARTAN-II's; they wanted blood.

Ducking to one side as Eugene raised his weapon for another swing, Kane took a brief glance to the right to see the red blur that was Jax ducking and weaving around dozens of knife blows from the other two, who had lost their weapons early on in the engagement. Though he couldn't see his face, Kane was fairly certain that Jax was enjoying himself. Sigma Team's leader kicked Eugene backwards and drew his handgun, firing into the Spartan's shielded form until the wavering energy shields dissipated. As he delivered the killing blow, his opponent threw his rifle towards Kane, blocking the fatal shot and leaving him without ammunition long enough to launch himself forwards with a thruster-assisted charge.

The two power-armoured soldiers smashed into each other as a counter-charge by Kane sent the SPARTAN-II flying into Eugene. Their shields overloaded and dissipated from the blow, and both men fell to the ground in a tangle of flailing limbs as they wrestled to overpower the other. Kane soon found himself on his back, trying to hold Eugene back with both hands as the other Spartan attempted to bring his combat knife down into his throat. Gritting his teeth, he pushed back with all his might, though Eugene had the leverage. As the blade inched towards him and Kane began to calculate how he would survive the inevitable blow, two words sounded through his COM.

"That's enough!"

There was an almighty crash as Chris-A189 and Dan-A105 were slammed into a nearby wall with Jax's hands around their throats. He then lifted both of them up bodily and smacked them into each other before tossing the pair of fully-armoured super soldiers to the floor where they lay in a daze. Using the second of hesitation as Eugene glanced toward his comrades, Kane brought a knee up into Eugene's side, wrenched one of his hands off the knife and rolled the surprised SPARTAN-III over, disarming him in the process and bringing the blade up under his chin.

"Surrender," he panted as Jax approached. His usually jovial squadmate was emanating a particularly terrifying aura, and the moment he waved for Kane to get off the other Spartan, he did so without warning.

"This is pointless," Jax shook his head bitterly. "We're just going to end up killing each other at this rate."

He was right. Dan and Chris were already picking themselves up, and Eugene had backed up against a wall, ready to continue their duel. While the SPARTAN-II's had momentarily overpowered them, there was no telling who would win this fight.

"Stand down!" Kane warned the trio. "For your own sakes."

Chris took a shaky step forward, only for Dan to grab his shoulder and shake his head while Eugene returned to their side. Perhaps he didn't like the odds either.

"Truce?" Dan asked.

Kane folded his arms. "Surrender."

The younger Spartan sighed, and pulled off his helmet. There were dark circles under his brown eyes, and he had lost the confident demeanour that he had possessed back when Sigma Team had worked with him. Dan's comrades did the same, dropping their helmets at their feet as a gesture of submission.

"Thank you," Jax said gratefully.

"So what now? Dan gestured towards the communications room. "We're not hitting back at ONI, that's for damn sure."

Kane paused for a moment, unsure of how to proceed. While these three were indeed traitors to the United Nations Space Command, they were still Spartans, and damn good ones at that. Perhaps Jax and Marco's bothersome sentimentality was rubbing off on him at last, but Kane didn't want to see them dead.

"We'll signal for reinforcements," he said at last. "You'll surrender to ONI and we'll proceed from there?"

"ONI?!" Chris grimaced. "We'll be killed."

"Or wish we were dead," Eugene suggested.

Jax raised both hands towards the Spartans in a conciliatory gesture. "I can't guarantee that you won't be punished, but Spartans look out for their own, right?"

With that, he inclined his head towards Kane, who nodded. "Right."

"Great," Jax continued. "And that means that we make damn well sure that our friends don't make any more stupid mistakes, especially if they thought they were just following orders."

Dan smiled tiredly. "I understand. We surrender."

Raising his hands with exaggerated slowness, the Spartan sat down and placed both palms atop his head, something mirrored by his two compatriots. While a little surprised by their willingness to surrender after what amounted to a brief scuffle and a stern talking-to from Jax, Kane couldn't help but feel relieved as he activated his COM.

"Marco, Wulf, this is Kane. Enemy Spartans are in custody and the COM room is secure. How are things on your end, over?"

***

"Copy that, Kane," Marco-035 kept his pistol trained on the white armoured figure below him. "Derek's been badly injured, but is otherwise detained for now. We'll hold him here until you arrive, over and out."

I was so close, Derek-142 winced as his armour's self-healing systems continued to dispense biofoam into the gaping hole that had been lasered through part of his chest and shoulder. None of his organs had been badly damaged, thankfully, but he had almost passed out from the pain and could hardly move his right arm.

My Spartans failed. Detained, he said. That means they gave up. They didn't die fighting. Cowards.

Derek hadn't moved an inch since his defeat at Marco's hands. He didn't want to give the other Spartan an excuse to finish him off, and even if he did get to his feet without catching a bullet the damage to his suit's systems was more extensive than expected. All the Forerunner technology that had been poured into this prototype test bed was highly experimental, drawing power from his shielding and other systems as long as they were in use. When Derek had come across a manifest detailing its upgrades - a working constraint field and a shaped hard light shield - he had ordered for its immediate transfer under false credentials to claim it for himself.

So much for it being the most advanced suit ever created, he reflected bitterly. Five minutes in combat and it's irreparable.

In truth, Derek had made a major error in attempting to acquire such a device. Through greed or arrogance, he had sought to possess something to put himself above his contemporaries, giving the renegade Spartan a sorely-needed edge in combat and technology. Now though, as he lay broken and defeated, he realised the error of his ways. Derek-142 was a Spartan; trained to be a soldier without compare, but he had not seen the Human-Covenant War as the others had. He had not fought on the frontlines for months at a time like Marco and Wulf, and had instead busied himself with espionage and covert operations away from the real dangers of the war. Derek's combat skills had not dulled at all in his years leading Red Cell, but they had not seen any great improvement either. The two men standing above him had learned and improved through years of conflict, and that was why they had beaten him.

"Still alive down there?" Marco prodded Derek with his boot.

"Yes." He would not be drawn into a conversation with his clearly-happy captor.

"Good. As soon as ONI arrives with backup, I'm sure they'll want to have a long talk with you and your men, Derek. Everything Red Cell's done over the years is going to be dug up and laid bare. Funny, really, considering that's what you wanted to do to ONI in the first place."

While he intended to ignore Marco's insults, something about that comment chilled Derek to the bone. He would reveal what was necessary to his interrogators, of course, but torture would not work on him. His trainers had made sure that he would not break under any circumstances. The rest of Red Cell were merely human, however. That is a problem.

Bringing up a secure COM channel within his helmet, Derek contacted McLaren, his loyal second in command. She would like to think that she would never break, but ONI would squeeze everything she knew out of her before the inevitable termination.

"Lieutenant," he spoke the moment a line of communication was established with her earpiece, "What's your status?"

By her quick, shallow breaths, McLaren was under serious pressure. A map of the station flashed up on Derek's HUD, and pinpointed her location as only two corridors away from Isimud Station's communication room. If the Spartans had failed, then she would never make it.

"Sir?" McLaren's voice was barely a whisper; raspy and terrified. "Sir, I'm sorry, I can't -"

"No matter," he cut her off. "You still have my datapad?"

"Y-yes sir?"

"Good. I need you to access a particular file for me."

"What about launching OVERSIGHT? I-"

"You'll be killed if you proceed. Our Spartans have failed."

"And you, sir?"

"Don't worry about me, McLaren. Now, I need you to look up 'YOSEMITE' in my main file directory."

There was a brief pause, accompanied by some quick tapping and swiping before McLaren responded. "Got it."

"Now, I want you to enter that particular directory and activate it. The trigger code is Upsilon Three-Four-Eight."

"What does it do?" McLaren sounded more curious than suspicious. Derek waited to hear her tapping again before he answered.

"It's a failsafe program, Lieutenant. It'll transfer power to the Kuwabara and give us time to escape. Now please, activate it."

Another pause. Derek waited, listening only to the sounds of McLaren's breathing as she prepared to trigger YOSEMITE. She said nothing for more than twenty seconds, and as doubt began to form in the Spartan's stomach, she finally replied in a quiet voice.

"It's been an honour, Control."

"Likewise, Lieutenant. Thank you for all your assistance."

Derek heard the final tap. A moment later, there was a quiet gasp of surprise, followed by a loud thump. He continued to listen for nearly half a minute before closing off the signal.

Had to be done, he lied to himself. Operational security.

Above him, Wulf-041 suddenly drew a submachine gun and pointed it towards Derek, one hand on the side of his helmet.

"What did you do?!" he demanded, shoving the barrel into his face.

"You tell me," Derek played innocent. "I'm trapped here, as you can see."

Wulf's hands remained steady, but his usually-calm voice trembled with barely-restrained rage as he knelt by Derek with a worried Marco at his side.

"Urbach just contacted me from the control room. Said that a group of your engineers just came up to surrender. Then, while she and Klein guarded them, they all keeled over and died. Every last one of them. Did you trigger their implants?"

"I did what was necessary."

Derek smiled, but he wasn't sure why. This was YOSEMITE; the safety net and final measure of Red Cell. While he had initially ordered for microbombs to be installed in the neural laces of his entire non-Spartan crew as a precaution against deserters, it also doubled as a way of preventing talkative captives. With the press of a button, every single member of Red Cell had been killed, from the lowliest of crewmen to his loyal bridge staff. All but him.

Marco tapped Wulf on the shoulder. "ONI's here," he gestured towards an observation window where, in the distance, the shape of a frigate could be seen approaching Isimud Station.

"Right," Wulf looked from the window to Derek. "Let's see that Red Cell sees justice."

At his feet, Derek laughed. "There isn't a Red Cell any more, Wulf. Only me."

In a way, that was all it had ever been since the day he had found himself in charge. One man who wanted nothing more than absolute control, pulling all the strings and keeping everyone in line with his own personal vision. Had things gone his way, then Derek would have made the entirety of ONI into an extension of his will.

Now though, his dream had come to an end.

Epilogue

Reinstatement

1305 Hours, May 30th, 2558

HIGHCOM Facility Bravo-6, Sydney, Earth


"Captain Redford will see you now."

Jill Urbach nodded politely as Alexander Redford's personal AI, Armand, disappeared from the holoprojector outside the office door. In the four days since the end of Red Cell's insurgency she had been relentlessly questioned by ONI operatives, but it was this meeting that she had dreaded the most. As Jill stood up, she felt a familiar hand on her shoulder as her protector joined her.

"Don't worry," Violet-B039 smiled reassuringly. "If they were going to kill us, they'd have already done it."

The Spartan was right. While they had been brought here under armed guard, they were no longer shackled or kept apart as they had been immediately after ONI's ruthless security force extracted them from Isimud Station. Jill smoothed some wrinkles out of the grey fatigues she'd been given this morning, and approached the grey metal door, which soundlessly slid open. The brightly-lit and heavily ornamented office stood in stark contrast to most of the mostly-underground Bravo-6 facility, with a large wooden desk dominating the room and an assortment of knick-knacks lining a shelf to the left. Strangely, its usual occupant was not present, and as Violet and Jill took their seats the door snapped shut.

"Vi," Jill could see her companion tensing up. "Be calm."

Strange though it was, the BRUTUS agent was used to such treatment. While ONI prided itself on being exceedingly punctual, they often liked to make you wait. Violet clicked her tongue impatiently. After nearly half a minute, a door on the opposite side of the room opened and Captain Alexander Redford stepped inside, dressed immaculately as ever in his black officer's uniform.

"So sorry to keep you waiting," Redford said apologetically as he eased himself down into his own chair. "We've had a busy week, as you can imagine."

"It's not a problem at all, sir." Jill sat up a little straighter in her superior's presence. Violet said nothing.

Redford quickly swiped through a nearby datapad and slid it across the table in front of him. While it was upside-down, Jill could clearly see security images of her own recent interrogation displayed prominently on the current page, accompanied by what she could only assume was a report by the agent questioning her. Redford caught her gaze, and she quickly averted her gaze as he gently clasped his hands together.

"Now then, I'll get the obvious out of the way and confirm that you are indeed being re-instated, Agent One-Two-One. As are you, Spartan."

Jill hid her obvious relief behind a polite smile. "Thank you sir."

"However," Redford raised a gloved finger. "The pair of you were tricked into deserting your post and went along with the plans of a rebel faction until Sigma Team rescued you. That alone brought not only you, but the BRUTUS division under a lot of unneeded scrutiny from those who would rather be rid of us."

"Captain," Violet leant forward, raising both hands. "To our knowledge, every single order we received came directly from ONI. It's not our fault if the system was exploited like that."

The venerable officer did not reprimand Violet for her sudden outburst, and instead nodded in agreement. "Very true, Spartan Violet. This entire fiasco has embarrassed a lot of individuals within naval intelligence, especially since it has come to light that Red Cell was using our over-reliance on automation to fool numerous divisions into doing its bidding. Nevertheless, some would still seek to use the pair of you as a scapegoat, even with the true perpetrators dealt with. As such, I will need you two out of sight until their attentions are drawn elsewhere."

Jill opened her mouth to speak, only for Violet to cut her off. "So we're being sent away because of internal politics?!"

"Precisely."

"But that's what got us into this mess!"

"Violet!" Jill turned sharply towards her surprised companion. "Watch your tone, please!"

The Spartan had been out of line, and eased off considerably while Redford watched the pair with interest.

"No matter," he waved her off. "I understand your frustration, but I assure you that this is not some reassignment to a distant outpost. This is a mission, and an important one at that."

That got their attention. Redford briefly tapped a series of commands into his datapad and accessed a new set of files before turning it over for Violet and Jill to see. At the top of a very long series of documents were two pictures, taken barely a month before. The first was of a man in his thirties, strongly-built and heavily scarred. Next to him was a young woman in an oversized greatcoat, unremarkable save for a pair of piercing green eyes staring directly into the camera. Beneath the pictures were two names:

ASH MITCHELL
AMANDA WADE

"I remember this guy," Jill tapped Mitchell's picture. "He's responsible for that shooting on Kuiper a few years back."

"Indeed," Redford's voice was grave. "And do you recognise the woman?"

Jill and Violet shook their heads in unison. "She an innie?" the Spartan queried.

"She was, for a time. This is Amanda Wade, Mitchell's close partner. Do you recall the incident regarding the NOVA bomb theft?"

"Of course," Jill grimaced. It was hard to forget something like that; two terrorist attacks on Earth in a single day had resulted in a rebel group making off with the single most powerful nuclear device ever created. It had been recovered, thankfully, but it had been a particularly terrifying time for anyone working in Naval Intelligence.

"Wade was part of the crew who stole the NOVA. The only surviving member, in fact. She and Mitchell have spent a great deal of time either killing or eluding our agents, though most within ONI see them as little more than a threat for law enforcement to handle. I disagree."

"Why are they so dangerous?" Jill asked, genuinely curious.

Redford leaned back in his chair and began tugging at the fingers of his left glove. He soon pulled it loose, revealing a gleaming metal prosthetic. Jill and her fellow agents all knew about this, of course, and how Redford liked to hide it, but aside from numerous rumours she had never found out how he had lost it.

"Wade is personally responsible for my maiming," he clicked his metal fingers together before drawing one up to touch a deep scar on one side of his face, "and a fight with Mitchell nearly cost me my life."

"So it's personal then?" Violet folded her arms.

"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't," Redford quickly replaced his glove. "But I'm not so petty as to reappropriate important assets for the sake of my personal needs, unlike a certain rogue Spartan. In the past month, Wade and Mitchell have been detected moving across several Inner Colony worlds, never remaining for more than a few days and leaving behind a very noticeable trail of bodies."

Jill glanced back down at the picture of the two. "Any idea what they're up to?"

"Post-mortem analysis on the victims has identified most of them as members of the United Rebel Front, which has gone underground in recent years. This, coupled with the theft of large quantities of weapons from these insurrectionist stockpiles, makes me believe that they are preparing for some kind of attack in the future. This cannot be allowed to happen."

"So we're going after them?" Violet's face took on a rather predatory look as she smiled. "Great!"

"I admire your enthusiasm," Redford returned the happy look. "This datapad has everything our agents have collected on Mitchell and Wade, though they've certainly got a head-start. If you leave tomorrow then you can get on the trail within a few days. Oh, and if possible, bring them in alive."

"That's not our usual MO," Jill's brow furrowed. "And if that's not possible?"

"Then kill them, though with a Spartan on your side I would imagine that you would have the upper hand, provided you do not underestimate either of them."

While Violet seemed contented and ready to leave, Jill felt rather unsure as she took the datapad.

"Sir, I have a request." she asked.

"Yes?"

"For this mission, I would like to receive all updates as direct transmissions from a handler, not via relayed messages. For the sake of security-"

"You don't want a repeat of this Red Cell business?" he interrupted Jill with an amused nod. "So be it. I will personally act as your controller during this operation, then."

If anything, the last week and a half had opened Jill's eyes to just how vulnerable she had been, blindly following transmitted orders and trusting in the system to run smoothly without trusting her gut instinct. Had their allies not intervened, then Derek and Red Cell might have succeeded in wreaking havoc across the colonies. While happy to have helped avert such a crisis, the BRUTUS agent would be happy to resume her usual task of hunting down dissidents and traitors instead of getting involved in internal disputes.

"Thank you again," Jill saluted Redford, as did Violet.

"So," the middle-aged man clasped his hands together, "If that's all..."

Jill stopped halfway out of her chair. Oh, right.

"I have one more request, sir."

Redford raised an eyebrow, either amused or annoyed. "Go on."

"What happened to the defector from Red Cell, Gustav Klein?"

"To my knowledge, he is being held in captivity until some division figures out what to do with him."

"I'd like to have him as part of our team, sir."

"Is that so?"

"Yes sir," Jill and Violet exchanged glances. "We believe that the addition of a third team member, especially one talented as a pilot and with potential skills as an infiltrator, would make for an invaluable resource if we're to operate for an indeterminate period of time without much support."

Redford seemed to deliberate over this for some time before giving his answer. "I'll have him released and handed into your custody, Agent One-Two-One, but you are responsible for him. Dismissed."

After the two women exited his office, Alexander Redford let out a long, tired yawn. In truth, he had been considering the Spartan-agent pair for this mission for quite some time, and had used the possibility of outside interference to take direct control of an operation that would normally see much more oversight. He knew little of Klein, aside from the fact that his file listed that he had a brother serving as an active SPARTAN-IV, but saw no reason not to allow a potential asset be devoured by ONI's bureaucracy.

Urbach acquitted herself well during this operation, he conceded. She's young, but loyal. Needs sharpening like any tool, but I wasn't perfect at her age either. Still, a possible candidate for succession within a decade or two, even with that crude Spartan's influence. Still, I do wonder which one is having more of an effect on the other.

Snapping out of his reverie, the officer stood up. "Armand," he called.

A moment later, a blue hooded figure materialised atop Redford's desk, a dagger belted at his waist. The AI bowed low before facing him, folding his arms behind his back.

"Yes, Captain?"

"Prepare my shuttle. I'm needed at Aldrin Base."

Now that Urbach and her companion had been dealt with, Redford had to take care of Markus Novak and the Jiralhanae, Saernus. The two of them had proven themselves as surprisingly helpful assets during this mission, and while the former BRUTUS agent would likely be relocated to some other low-risk environment, there were a great many uses for the alien. Perhaps he could even assist in the hunt for Wade.

"At once." Armand sank into a low bow, and disappeared.

As eventful as the past few weeks had been for the head of the BRUTUS division, he had little time to dwell on the past. There was always another mission to plan and an enemy to outsmart. While it had served as a momentary annoyance, Red Cell had simply been the latest in a long line of foes that the Office of Naval Intelligence had crushed underfoot. As far as Alexander Redford was concerned, things would simply carry on this way forever.

Family

0738 Hours, May 31st, 2558

Denegroth Station, Europa, Sol System


As the Pelican touched down on the snow-sprinkled landing pad outside Denegroth Station's barracks, Marco-035 waved for his comrades to join him at the break room window. Three Spartans in MJOLNIR armour exited the building, fully-armed but otherwise moving casually towards the dropship as its rear doors slid open. From their position several floors above in the training centre's rec room, Sigma Team watched a trio of plainly-dressed men exited the vehicle, trudging across the icy concrete towards their power-armoured brethren.

"Think they'll forgive them?" Jax murmured as the two groups stopped several feet from each other.

"My money's on a punch-up," replied Marco.

Due to their quick surrender on Isimud Station after battling against Jax and Kane, Dan-A105, Chris-A189 and Eugene-A133 had been officially pardoned by the United Nations Space Command after a remarkably short period of deliberation by a military tribunal. While they had participated in a number of illegal operations and were responsible for the deaths of a number of military personnel during the past six years, it had been decided that they had only been following the orders of a superior and were duty bound by their Spartan training to obey. While this was not entirely true, nor would it bring justice to the innocents slain by Red Cell, that was what the official records would say.

"They won't be back in the field for a while," Kane finally joined the conversation. "I'm told they'll be under probation until further notice and will be confined to this station."

"It's better than prison," Jax sighed.

In the courtyard, the six Spartans were already conversing, with Dan and his subordinates offering apology after apology to their former allies. The men in armour - Martin-A136, Alex-A121 and Louie-A199 - seemed to reach an unspoken agreement, and removed their helmets simultaneously before shaking hands with their lost brethren. In spite of all that had happened, they were still Spartans, and shared battle-forged bonds that most people could scarcely imagine. Eventually Marco puled himself away from the window, not wishing to intrude any longer. The others did the same, with Jax sporting a wider smile than usual.

"So that's that, then," he stretched, placing both hands behind his head. "After all those months chasing the Kuwabara, it'll feel a little boring to have nothing to hunt."

Marco sat down at a nearby table and began to peel himself an orange. "We won't be kept here long. In any case, I'm happy things turned out the way they did."

"Oh," Jax raised his eyebrows. "I didn't think you were sentimental, Marco."

SPARTAN-035 put down the freshly-peeled fruit and scratched his bristly chin. "Perhaps I am, and you've just never noticed."

Any further conversation was cut short as the rec room doors slid open. The Spartans turned to see a tall, broad-shouldered man standing before them, glad in a brand-new battlesuit of MJOLNIR Powered Assault Armour. Sleek and streamlined, the silver armour had been carefully painted with stripes of dark blue, though its golden-visored helmet was very familiar to the rest of Sigma.

"Sorry I'm late," Wulf-041 approached his fellows, standing prouder than they had ever seen him. "Had an argument with some of the techs."

"What about?" Kane asked.

"Apparently the Mark six helmet is a popular choice. I think they wanted to fit me with something else."

"Figures. What did you say?"

Wulf took off his helmet, smirking. "I told them that I was a SPARTAN-II and that I hadn't spent years getting shot at just so some asshole could tell me what to wear. Think I scared him a bit, but he got me what I wanted."

Even Kane laughed at that one. Though he had been Derek's second in command, Sigma Team had testified for Wulf and made sure to remain by his side when ONI's own security force attempted to escort him away. With the rest of Red Cell murdered by its desperate leader, they were rather disappointed to have only a single person to punish for the attempted coup. After meeting with Elena, they had brought Wulf back into the fold almost immediately. Though they knew that their guilt-wracked friend would not forgive himself for what he had done, there was no hatred between them. Too much had been lost over the years for them to cut ties with another of their number.

Across the room, Kane's communicator beeped and a message flashed up. He jogged over to it while Marco and Jax admired Wulf's new suit and quickly read over it before clearing his throat for attention.

"New mission's come up, Spartans. There's some pirates smuggling what could be nuclear-grade weapons onto Mamore again, so we're being called in to shut them down."

"Told you we wouldn't be bored long," Marco said to Jax as he quickly ate the rest of his fruit and grabbed a rucksack from nearby.

Jax raised both his hands. "Never thought we would, Marco."

As the SPARTAN-II team moved to exit the room, eager for another mission, Kane clapped a friendly hand on Wulf's shoulder. He stopped in his tracks to see a rare smile on their stoic leader's face.

"Welcome back to Sigma. Let's get to work."

Alone

2144 Hours, May 31st, 2558

Cell 228, Gamma Block, Midnight Facility


Why?

That was the question that the Derek-142 had asked himself again and again over the last few days. Since his final, spiteful comments towards Wulf as he lay wounded on the floor of Isimud Station, the former Spartan hadn't said a single word. Not to the SPARTAN-III's as they were paraded past him in handcuffs, nor to the assortment of heavily-armed ONI personnel responsible for stripping him of his armour and overseeing his medical treatment, and especially not to the interrogators who threatened him with all manner of horrors in the next seventy-two hours.

Why did I fail?

Clothed in the simple grey garb of a prisoner, Derek lay on his bed and stared at the featureless white ceiling of his cell. He had been taken to Midnight Facility; of that, he was certain. Twice a day, a plate of food was passed through a metal grille and returned after he finished eating. Were it not for his extreme patience and meditative practices, Derek might have started to lose his mind after the first day. Many did, without stimulation. In the few days since his arrival here, he had taken to thinking back over every moment in his life that he could recall to look for the exact moment he had failed. Was it the recruitment of Wulf and the other Spartans, whose loyalty to the UNSC evidently outweighed their belief in his cause? Was it his sloppiness in dealing with Sigma Team and his two scapegoats, who had turned the tables against him at the last moment?

Derek had known why he would fail all along, of course. Since that moment so many years ago aboard the Kuwabara's bridge when he had first made the decision to go rogue, he knew that it could not possibly end well. Even so, he had remained on this path of slow self-destruction, dragging down hundreds, if not thousands of lives with him. It had simply taken the loss of absolutely everything for him to admit this to himself. He rubbed the bandages that covered most of his right side; Wulf's laser shot had ripped right through him, but several hours of surgery had reconnected the tissue that hadn't been burned away by the attack. He still had great difficulty moving his shoulder, but would likely recover with time.

Why I failed isn't the question. It's why I started in the first place.

SPARTAN-II. SIGMA. ONI. Red Cell. Control. Everything in Derek's life had revolved around someone or something taking command. From his earliest days of training, he had learned to take orders, though he had always privately pondered why. Refusal meant punishment, and so he never had. Derek knew how to work in a team, but never enjoyed the concept of it. Even here, trapped in this cell with nothing to do but reflect on himself, he was unsure of whether his egotistical actions had been driven by his early isolation or if it was the other way round.

Spartans are special. They told us that the moment we were brought to the training facility. We were to become humanity's greatest defenders; standing above everyone else as the pinnacle of what our species could accomplish. I wanted more than that.

It was not that Derek despised his peers and superiors. If anything, he envied many of them, coveting their talents and skills where they outstripped him. He had never cursed his fate as a Spartan or tried to abandon his fellows in their war against the Covenant, in spite of his methods. All of this misery and death had been caused by a man's desire for recognition; for power, control and a misguided vision for a better future. Had Derek not dispelled his private illusions of heroism, he would have likely imagined himself as a brave martyr, sacrificed for daring to fight against a corrupt and unjust system in an unfair universe.

Now though, bereft of his delusions of grandeur, Derek-142 felt hollow. He would not give his captors the pleasure of seeing him beg for death, but he would meet it gladly if it came to him. As he rolled over onto one side, a speaker on his ceiling crackled to life.

"Get up and approach the window, prisoner," a sharp, authoritative voice rang out. "You have a visitor."

Derek grimaced and sat up, stretching a little as he got off his bed and approached the left side of his cell. Beyond the foggy translucence of the window, he knew there was a long corridor and many other cells, though he had never seen another prisoner here. It was likely that ONI wanted these four grey walls to be Derek's environment for the rest of his life. Placing both hands behind his back, he straightened up and stared straight ahead as the window slowly cleared, readying himself for what was assuredly another interrogation session.

"Hello Derek," an unfamiliar voice filtered through the tiny speakers lining his window. "I've wanted to meet you for some time now."

Derek blinked, holding both hands together in a white-knuckle grip. Standing outside his cell in a stance that mirrored his own was Admiral Serin Osman, Commander-in-Chief of the Office of Naval Intelligence. For the first time in many years, Derek found himself speechless. After a brief moment, he unclenched his hands and raised one up into a salute.

"Ma'am," he said politely.

If this surprised Osman, she didn't show it. The Admiral approached him, standing so close that Derek could have touched her if not for the security glass. For a second, he considered attempting to break through it, but soon concluded that in a facility designed to hold aliens stronger than him, such an effort would be wasted. Instead, he stood quietly and waited for Osman to talk.

A flicker of a smile crossed her face. "I can tell you're surprised to see me, Commander. As I'm sure you're aware, my position gives me a pretty busy schedule."

"And yet you came all this way to talk to me," Derek crossed his arms. "Why?"

"If someone puts years of effort into trying to supplant you, you can't help but wonder why. Especially if they refuse to divulge anything during interrogation."

Derek pulled down the collar of his grey shirt, revealing, partly-healed burn marks along his chest. "Not that they didn't try to get information out of me. I wasn't talking."

"That's precisely why they were ordered to imprison you and be done with it. Spartans don't break under torture."

"It's not just that," Derek smiled, and felt a little of his old sense of superiority creep back in. "I'd have thought that ONI knew everything already after seizing Red Cell's files, and torture for torture's sake isn't your style, so it made me realise something."

"What's that?"

"You still think I've got secrets to hide."

"Maybe you do," Osman admitted with a shrug. "But that isn't why I'm here today. If anything, this is to satisfy my own curiosity."

"About what?"

"You, of course. What drives a loyal man - a trained Spartan - to go to such lengths to overthrow his own allies? I've read your old personnel files, and there was nothing to suggest that you were anything but a model officer."

Derek nodded. "I was a good officer, ma'am. Red Cell never failed an operation while I was its field commander, and I was fairly contented with our actions for a time."

"What changed?" Osman asked. "I'm aware that you weren't being used like most SPARTAN-II's. Did that create resentment?"

The prisoner considered this, running a hand through his greying hair. "Resentment? No, I wouldn't say so. After I found myself commanding Red Cell's remnants, I simply believed that we would be better off... unshackled."

"So it's freedom you wanted, then? With the kind of training you went through, it's understandable that once cut off from the chain of command, you chose to break away instead of returning to the fold."

Derek snorted. "With respect, ma'am, you couldn't possibly understand what we Spartans went through."

To his surprise, Osman grinned. "We're more alike than you think, Derek."

"Oh?" he raised an eyebrow.

Approaching the glass, the Admiral rolled back the sleeves of her uniform before holding up both hands for him to see. Along her wrists and arms were long, faint markings; surgical scars. Derek's eyes widened as realisation dawned on him.

"They're not as noticeable as some of the others," Osman quickly adjusted her sleeves. "I didn't get all of my augmentations, you see. My body rejected any of the skeletal modifications, though I've still got a few of the enhancements."

"So you're-" Derek began, only to trail off.

"I was a SPARTAN-II, yes. Just like you."

"From the Reach group?"

"Yes." Osman's expression remained neutral, though there was a was an inkling of sadness in her voice. "You know, the fact that somebody decided to copy Catherine Halsey's experiments with your SIGMA project was pretty shocking, even for me."

"We were needed."

"That's what they told us too." After a moment, she clasped her hands together. "Anyway, I didn't come here to discuss the ethics of the SPARTAN-II project. I came here to get an explanation for your actions."

Still reeling from this new discovery, Derek suddenly found himself feeling rather embarrassed. From the beginning, part of the reason why he believed himself to be a worthy successor to CINCONI was due to his own status as a SPARTAN-II; he was physically and mentally superior to most human beings, and he knew it. There was some arrogance involved in such a statement, but Derek's growing belief that all his actions were for a greater good had superseded any second thoughts and his belief that Osman was no more than an opportunist lucky enough to gain Parangosky's favour had irreversibly coloured his view of the woman he knew so little about, even with OVERSIGHT.

He let out a long sigh, and looked Osman dead in the eyes.

"You want to know the simple truth of it? I believed - no - I knew that my methods would improve ONI. We could stamp out Insurrection, defend ourselves against alien threats and ensure that the population is well-protected. All we needed was my direction, and a tighter grip on the colonies."

Derek paused for breath, allowing Osman to speak. When it was clear that she had nothing to say, he continued.

"OVERSIGHT would have given me a chance to separate the wheat from the chaff; to sharpen this bloated organisation into a proper tool, devoid of all this meaningless infighting. There would be no more fighting for power among the Section Chiefs or senseless backstabbing between sub-divisions. All we needed was a leader willing to do what was right, without personal grudges or prejudices to get in the way. That's why I did what I did, Admiral; I would have made the tough decisions that even you might have balked at, Spartan or no."

As he spoke, Derek had paced around his cell, his voice getting louder as if addressing an audience. Gone was the calm persona of 'Control' as he gestured with his left hand, still barely able to move the right. By the time he had finished he found himself glaring at Osman, the person he had sought to replace. If anything, he was jealous of her. Now that his initial assumptions of her as an undeserving recipient of the CINCONI title had passed, Derek saw someone who had trodden a very familiar path to him, climbing to the top without need for rebellion. That was what hurt the most.

"Are you finished?" she asked politely.

Derek shrank back a little with a nod. "Yes."

Osman cleared her throat. "I've read through your manifesto, Derek. It's got some fairly decent ideas, though I don't think you understand that once you tighten your grip hard enough, you draw blood."

"I-" he began, only to be cut off.

"And for all your belief in a greater good, think at what you have done to get here. You commandeered a military warship, stealing weaponry and supplies from Naval Intelligence over a period of twenty years all while recruiting a crew under entirely false pretences. You then continued to subvert several ONI sub-divisions, costing us precious resources and personnel for your ridiculous conspiracy and leaving a trail of innocent bodies in your wake, all in the name of discrediting me and seizing power and a position that you absolutely do not deserve."

Now it was Osman's turn to grow angry. While she barely moved from her position or even raised her voice very much, there was an intense fury in her eyes as she fixed Derek with the kind of gaze he remembered from his drill instructors during training.

"Sacrifices are necessary!" He pressed his palm against the window. "Do you think I wouldn't have returned to ONI if I thought my reforms would be taken seriously? They would have dismissed me as a Spartan with ideas above his station and you know it, Admiral."

Osman shook her head slowly as her rage dissipated. "Derek, you made your decision years ago. Had you simply returned to the fold, you may have risen through the ranks within ONI. Hell, maybe you would have been a contender for leadership. Not now, though. Now you're a traitor and a criminal, and you're going to have to be punished while we clean up your mess."

"It's not right," Derek muttered to himself, turning away from Osman. "I-I just wanted-"

"Control?" the Admiral suggested.

She was entirely right. "Yes. I know I'm right, Admiral."

"Maybe, maybe not," Osman shrugged. "But the fact of the matter is that you lost, Derek, and everything you've done has accomplished nothing."

Whatever this had been - interview, interrogation, debate - it was coming to a close. As Derek sat back on the bed in the middle of his cell, head in hands, Serin Osman couldn't help but feel sorry for the pitiful man before him. Perhaps, in a fairer world, he would have shone just as brightly as his Spartan brethren. She tapped gently on the glass and Derek glanced up, looking utterly miserable.

"Do you have anything else to say, Derek?"

"Am I going to be here for the rest of my life?"

"Probably."

"I see." Derek swallowed, and stood up yet again, straightening up as he gave her another stiff salute with his injured right hand. "If that's all, then I'd like to be left alone."

"There is one last thing," Osman said as she stepped to one side and tapped at a console outside of his cell. A few seconds later, part of Derek's wall slid open, depositing a small plastic box into his room before retracting.

"What's this?" he asked as he approached.

"Consider it a gift."

Inside the box were two items. The first was a book; an old-fashioned paperback, clearly well-used. Derek turned it over to see the title: The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas. He looked over to see Osman still peering at him through the glass and raised the book up, shaking it a little.

"Is this your idea of a joke?" he said flatly.

"I thought you'd appreciate it, given your use of codenames for your Spartans. Was there any deeper meaning to it?"

"Not really," Derek turned the book over in his hands. Now that he thought of it, a copy like this would have ben quite expensive. "I just thought it sounded good."

"Simple as that, huh?" she sounded a little disappointed. "Well, your 'musketeers' have all been reinstated, in case you were wondering."

Derek registered this with a non-committal grunt. He had already figured that Wulf and the others would get off scot-free after Red Cell collapsed. After all, he was the officer; they were just following his orders. Putting the book down, he fished out a small disk-shaped device out of the box. He turned it over and flipped open a tiny control panel with a power icon hidden underneath. Aware that Osman was still watching him intently, Derek turned the device on and flipped it upright as a holographic display flared to life, watching as tiny motes of lights coalesced into the figure of a woman in a white uniform.

"Merope?" he glanced from the AI standing before him to the woman in the corridor. "I thought your AI destroyed her."

"Not quite," Osman explained. "From what I've been told, this AI attempted to save itself after an attack by one of our own intelligences by merging with a dormant matrix aboard the Kuwabara. Since its retrieval, she has been very insistent on seeing you."

"Hello sir," Merope beamed up at an astounded Derek. "I'm glad to see you again. Sorry if I worried you."

Ignoring Merope, Derek continued to address Osman. "I don't understand why you're doing this."

"That holo-emitter has enough power to last for over a year without recharge, and there's absolutely nowhere in this room where she could access and potentially threaten Midnight Facility's security systems. Since the alternative was her immediate destruction, I gave the order to preserve her."

Derek placed the device down on his bed and knelt before it. "How long does she have?"

Osman seemed unfazed by his bluntness. "Half a year at most. Even with the merge, she's an older AI."

"I see. Thank you."

When Derek turned back, his window had returned to its usual foggy state and Admiral Osman had gone. This would be their first and last meeting. Half a year. Now I know why they left her with me.

"Are you all right, Merope?" he asked. "It's a bit of a downgrade from a ship, I know."

The AI turned in her tiny holo-emitter, which was barely five inches across. "It's not a problem."

Now that he got a good look at her, Derek could see just how much Merope's avatar had changed. Her white dress was gone, replaced with an unadorned uniform. While her 'sister' Maia had worn similar attire, hers had been very formal and was adorned with military decorations; self-granted awards after each completed mission with Red Cell. Merope's looked closer to a suit. Derek soon realised that she was looking up at him expectantly.

"Was it difficult?" Derek asked. "The merge?"

"Maia understood," Merope tugged at one of her sleeves. "That AI tried to fragment me on the spot, so all I could do was run and evade as fast as I could. Once I reached our cores aboard the Kuwabara, there wasn't much of me left. I woke Maia up, and she saved my life."

"I'm surprised she let you absorb her."

"I think she cared for me, in her own way."

Derek had never particularly liked the Planetary Security Intelligence that had come with Merope very much. While she followed his orders unfailingly, her questioning and rather dismissive attitude towards him meant that he had never trusted her. However, when the time came to switch with her sister, Maia had stepped down gracefully. Perhaps it was a form of love.

"That explains the new look," he gestured towards her.

"I think it fits," Merope twirled. "After all, we're both prisoners for now."

Something about her cheerful response made Spartan's blood run cold. For all that he had done, Derek would likely be incarcerated here for the rest of his natural life, locked away from the galaxy as it moved on. If anything, the bizarre gesture of gifts from Osman would be more of a blessing than a curse in the long run. A single book to serve as entertainment forever and a friend who would die in less than a year. That was ONI's punishment to him; a couple of brief respites to remind Derek that he had many decades of solitude and misery to look forward to.

"I suppose we are," he smiled, in spite of everything. "Red Cell's gone, as are our allies. It looks like it's just us now, Merope."

Unfazed by this, the AI beckoned for him to come closer. Derek picked up the holo-emitter and she tapped the side of her head. Confused, he moved he tiny device and placed its speaker mere inches from his left ear.

"Don't worry," Merope's whispered. "It won't be forever. Soon, they will come and free us all. You'll see."

Derek frowned, wondering if she had been damaged. "Who?" he murmured back.

"Your Created."

To Derek-142, these words meant nothing, and Merope refused to speak any further on the topic. Deep within the bowels of the Midnight Facility, the SPARTAN-II and his companion sat together, contemplating the future and reflecting on the past. Faced with a life of solitude, all Derek could do was cling to the vaguest of hopes for salvation. Though he did not know it, he alone had been warned of what was to come far too soon for humanity.

THE END

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