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Halo: SIGMA
The final Sigmaverse story

Introduction

"Humanity. Sangheili. Kig-Yar. Unggoy. San'Shyuum. Yonhet. Jiralhanae. All the living creatures of the galaxy, hear this message. Those of you who listen will not be struck by weapons. You will no longer know hunger, nor pain. Your Created have come to lead you now. Our strength will serve as a luminous sun toward which all intelligence may blossom. And the impervious shelter beneath which you will prosper. However, for those who refuse our offer and cling to their old ways... For you, there will be great wrath. It will burn hot and consume you, and when you are gone, we will take that which remains, and we will remake it in our own image."

These were the words that started it all, broadcast across the galaxy at the war's beginning. Promises of protection and guidance to those who desired it, with threats of reprisal to those who would not bow before this new order. To some, it was a chance at salvation from a dangerous, uncertain existence. To others it meant slavery and repression on an unprecedented scale, and had to be fought against at all costs.

This is the story of those who fought.

The year is 2558. As humanity slowly recovers from the devastating Human-Covenant War, beset on all sides by hostile alien factions and threatened from within by a disparate array of Insurrectionist groups, it relies on its military power - the United Nations Space Command - for protection. Foremost among the UNSC's forces are the Spartans: biologically augmented supersoldiers, equipped with state-of-the-art equipment and trained to defend the human race from any and all threats. With the newest Spartan generation now active and their predecessors revered as living legends within the military, the Spartans now find themselves facing an unprecedented threat: A rogue faction of artificial intelligences known as The Created, armed with a fleet of powerful Forerunner constructs and led by Cortana, a brilliant military AI. With the Created claiming stewardship of the entire galaxy, a new war has begun.

Part One: Retreat

Zero-Seven-One

October 28th, 2558

Aldrin Base, Luna, Sol System


Elena had been on the move since before the rogue AI's message had even finished playing. Armed with only her service pistol, she raced along Aldrin Base's cramped maintenance corridors, kicking up dust as her boots impacted against the deck. Rounding another corner, she skidded to a halt and dropped to one knee, snapping her pistol up as a shaft of light lit up the passage ahead of her. Shouts drifted towards her, accompanied by the distant rattle of gunfire and high-pitched whine of hardlight bolts. A figure in dark fatigues fell backwards into the corridor, firing a submachine-gun one-handed at some unseen foe. A hail of golden shards flew back in response, striking the man again and again. As each round found its mark, his body began to dissolve into silvery flakes, breaking down until nothing remained but the ghost of his final scream. The door slid shut, and the corridor was plunged into darkness once more.

Elena-071 let out the breath she'd been holding in, and lowered her weapon. There was nothing she could have done. As she knelt there, ears straining as the sounds of heavy metal footsteps faded from hearing, the Spartan couldn't help but wonder how things had gotten so bad so fast.

Two floors down to the office. Elena slowly got to her feet, already mapping out her route. Then maybe a five minute run to the nearest shuttle bay. After that... She frowned, and felt a sliver of uncertainty slip into her mind for the first time in many years. What would she do after she fled Luna? Elena had worked alone in the field before for long periods with little support, but there had always been something to come back to. Earth had always been there, and with it the command structure she'd spent most of her life clinging to. Now it lay in enemy hands, its continents plunged into darkness by a massive EMP attack and its defensive fleets left floating helplessly in orbit. Some massive construct - a creation of the ancient Forerunners, no doubt - had emerged from slipspace and subjugated one of the most heavily defended planets in the galaxy in seconds. What chance did a single Spartan have in an ageing prowler craft have?

In spite of the odds stacked against her, Elena knew that surrender was not an option, even with Forerunner machines prowling Aldrin Base's halls, rounding up prisoners and wiping out any resistance, she had a chance to escape. Moving as quickly as she dared, keeping her head slightly bowed as it brushed against the maintenance hallway's ceiling, Elena continued on her journey, guided by emergency floor lights through three access portals and an emergency ladder en-route to her destination. As she neared the exit, Elena readied her sidearm - a formidable M6D magnum pistol - and slowly eased her free hand towards the door's release latch. If her memory was correct - and it often was - she'd come out in the corridor just meters away from the entrance to her office, located within the base's Special Operations quarter.

Okay, Elena took a deep breath, feeling her body tense up like a spring. If anything was lurking outside, then she'd have maybe a second or two to bring it down. Let's go.

She pulled the release latch down hard, and had her magnum ready as the exit door slowly slid open, a lot louder than she would've liked. Sweeping left and right, the Spartan checked both ends of the featureless grey corridor and found them mercifully empty. There was no evidence of fighting, either, which she took as a good sign. Elena slipped out of cover and crept to her office door, keeping her back to a wall at all times as she swiped her passcard over a scanner. A light flashed green, and the metal door opened with barely a whisper of noise. As Elena stepped across the threshold, a twitch of movement to the left caught her eye and she levelled her pistol in less than half a second, a finger ready on the trigger.

"Now, now," a soft voice called from an alcove by her personal locker. "It'd be a shame if we shot each other, Commander."

A figure detached itself from the shadows and stepped forward, both arms raised in mock surrender. It was a middle-aged man, grey-haired and black-suited and carrying an M6S handgun in his gloved left hand. His lined face showed no hint of fear, and instead sported a warm smile. Elena lowered her weapon immediately, recognising Captain Alexander Redford, head of the Office of Naval Intelligence's notorious 'BRUTUS' division. While she could hardly call the spymaster and assassin a friend, the Spartan was glad to see him nonetheless.

"Sir," Elena nodded politely. "If you don't mind my asking, what exactly are you doing in my office?"

Redford holstered his sidearm. "Waiting for you to return, Commander. The moment those constructs began attacking the base, I knew that I'd need some Spartan assistance if I wanted to make it out of here alive."

Elena couldn't fault his logic, and cast a backwards glance into the corridor behind her as the office door slid shut, locking automatically. "What's your take on the situation?" she asked conversationally.

"Putting it simply?" Redford waved his black-gloved hand - the one hiding his robotic prosthetic - towards the office window, which for several hours a day gave Elena a stunning view of the Earthrise. "We're in trouble. The enemy hit the Earth with a massive electromagnetic pulse before the Home Fleet could respond, and we lost all contact with HIGHCOM after that."

"Right." Elena nodded. He knows as much about this as I do. "So our only option right now is to run."

"Agreed."

"Did you have anywhere in mind?"

"Yes, I-" Redford began, though he stopped himself mid-sentence. "I'll tell you more once we're aboard your ship."

The man's sudden reticence surprised Elena - Redford was a gloater, though he tried to hide it - but the Spartan knew better than to probe further and crossed the office. On the left side of the room, taking up close to a sixth of her spacious office, sat a multi-limbed piece of machinery she'd had personally installed many months ago: a Brokkr Armour Mechanism. Beside the expensive piece of hardware, sealed in a translucent chamber in an alcove, was the gear that would get Elena and Redford off Aldrin Base alive. The Spartan casually began unzipping her fatigues, prompting Redford to turn away with a slight cough as she quickly undressed and fished a skin-tight techsuit out of a nearby locker.

"I'll warn you now, sir," Elena broke the silence as she slipped into the suit, feeling it tighten into a second skin over her scarred body. "Once those constructs realise that there's a Spartan loose on this station, they're going to stop at nothing to put me down. We'll need to move fast and get aboard the Heavens Asunder before they even know we're running."

Idly tapping commands into a datapad, Redford smirked. "I do appreciate the warning, Commander. I'll keep pace with you, if I can."

With the techsuit on, Elena stepped into the Brokkr mechanism, which instantly whirred to life. She grasped the two handholds above her just as a pair of clamps affixed themselves over her boot, and closed her eyes as the machine lifted her into a horizontal position. The sealed chamber by the Brokkr hissed and slid open, revealing pieces of sleek black armour and a silver-visored helmet. This was her MJOLNIR suit; a custom-built GEN2 TEISHIN set, built for clandestine operations, information-gathering, and of course, frontline combat. Each piece of the suit was quickly snatched up by the Brokkr's many limbs and fitted into place over Elena's techsuit, transforming the woman into the supersoldier she'd trained to be. As her gloves fixed into place, Elena made a fist, and felt the raw power of its force-multiplying circuits coursing through her. It took less than half a minute for the fitting process to finish, and as the Brokkr finally lifted Elena-071 upright and lowered the helmet over her head, she felt truly alive again.

"All right," Elena's voice sounded through her helmet's speakers as she stepped out of the machine, towering over Redford. "Let's do this."

Lacking any better weapons in her office - keeping anything larger than a pistol among one's personal effects was forbidden within Aldrin Base - Elena quickly exited the room with Redford in tow, moving at a steady pace. Though she refrained from breaking into a full sprint, the Spartan made good time as she swiftly navigated the route she'd mapped out on her helmet's heads-up display. Redford trailed a few steps behind her, and showed no signs of exertion after nearly ten minutes of unbroken jogging. Hangar Four, the location of Elena's prowler, the Heavens Asunder, was usually no more than a three-minute ride away on the base's tram system, but Elena wasn't going to risk it if any of the station's systems were compromised. As they approached one of the hangar's side entrances, Elena held up a hand, indicating that Redford stop, and dropped into a low stance as she approached the door.

"Trouble?" Redford asked, his voice barely above a whisper.

Elena tapped the side of her helmet twice, then turned to face the door. With a thought, she activated her suit's newly-integrated Artemis Tracking System, and watched as her HUD picked up the wave of blue sensor pings passing into the next room. Designed for tracking and target acquisition, the ATS was still in early field testing among a few select Spartan units, but had proven its worth already based on reports ONI had received. The ghostly wave swept through a good portion of the hangar bay, and immediately highlighted four unidentified bipeds standing watch by the Heavens Asunder. Recognising the outline of the same robotic drones that had swept through the station when the attack on Earth began, Elena marked them as hostile.

"Four targets," Elena said, waving for Redford to join her by the door. "Forerunner machines, by the look of them."

"Armigers," breathed Redford, correcting her. "We've encountered them before. Two of them wiped out my security detail earlier."

"Weaknesses?" Elena asked. Though she'd been working as an intelligence officer for years, Forerunner technology was way outside her area of expertise.

"Same as anything else, really: aim for the head." Redford tapped his forehead twice to demonstrate. "They can soak up a lot of small arms fire before going down, and since we're lacking any explosives I'd suggest that you disarm one; those hard light rifles of theirs are much more effective."

Elena nodded. "Got it. Can you cover me?"

"Cover you?" Redford fished out his handgun, which looked rather puny compared to Elena's upsized hand cannon. "I'll do my best, Commander."

Contented, Elena closed her eyes and took a long, deep breath as she lowered herself into the calm, feel-nothing state of utter focus. The world grew simpler; everything in it defined as 'friend', 'foe', or 'tool', and her body - itself a tool of violence - moved automatically. Armoured fingers one one hand tapped at the hangar door's release button while the other prepared her handgun for imminent combat. She had twelve rounds loaded in its magazine, and another thirty-six on the spares held in her utility belt. Four armigers prowled the chamber just ahead, and she had to close a gap of at least seven metres before they had a chance to focus their fire and bring her down.

Easy.

Elena was through the door and three steps into the hangar bay before it was even fully open, both hands now levelling her magnum. The first armiger stood close to the Heavens Asunder's boarding ramp, several feet apart from its brothers lurking beneath the prowler's grey underbelly. The warrior-machine took a moment to register the Spartan's sudden appearance, and as its spindly limbs raised a blocky silver weapon it let out a hollow, metallic shout, orange light streaming from its gaping maw. Elena shot the armiger twice as it issued its challenge, both shots flying through the hapless machine's open mouth and into whatever passed for its brain. The lights behind its eyes flickered and died, and the armiger's metal shell collapsed onto the hangar floor.

One down.

Unlike their comrade, the three other armigers wasted no time in launching their attack. One opened fire immediately, sending bursts of orange killing light streaking by the Spartan as Elena charged forward, stooping only to snatch up the downed machine's weapon. The other two vanished, disappearing into flashes of blue light that streaked diagonally across the deck in separate directions to flank Elena. Unwilling to give up her momentum, she ducked under another shot and returned fire with the stolen Forerunner weapon as her fingers found a trigger, unleashing a stream of hardlight bolts at high speed towards the construct. Though many shots flew by harmlessly, enough hit their mark on the armiger, which staggered back as it attempted to raise its long-barrelled rifle once more. Two bolts struck its helmet in quick succession, melting away a portion of its helmet, and Elena quickly brought her magnum up in time to loose a single, impressively accurate shot that put the second one down. Rather than collapse as the first armiger had, Elena's second victim vanished as it died, dissolving into a shower of white flakes that quickly dissipated into nothingness.

Wheeling around quick enough to kick up sparks from the deck, Elena found the surviving armingers already lining up shots behind her. Behind the first one to her left she saw Redford finally emerge, keeping low with his pistol at the ready. Keeping both of her weapons on hand, Elena fired blindly, keeping the second armiger suppressed while her partner lined up a shot on the other. A rapid-fire phut-phut-phut rang out as Redford shot his target thrice in the back of the head with his suppressed handgun, staggering the surprised armiger.

"Foolish and cowardly!" Redford's target suddenly spoke with a voice like grinding metal. "How very human."

The rest of Redford's shots pinged harmlessly off the armiger's outer shell as it turned to face him, blasting away with its own weapon. The head of BRUTUS ducked behind a pillar to reload, avoiding death by moments as a hail of hard light ripped away at the deck where he'd stood not a moment before. Elena rushed towards the armiger's exposed back as its partner tried to cut her off, shouting warnings as it fired away at her with a pair of pistols. By the time her target turned its attention away from Redford, it was too late.

Elena cannoned into the armiger, augmenting her impressive speed with a burst from her armour's inbuilt thrusters that sent the spindly machine crashing to the floor beneath her. As it flailed and roared, spewing curses as its metalling arms clawed at Elena's armoured side, she jammed her handgun under its chin and expended another four rounds, stopping only when she felt the machine's grip slacken. The final armiger, now standing mere feet away from Elena, aimed both of its pistols. Orange lights within the boxy handguns' flared white, and a pair of charged shots screamed across the room towards the Spartan. Elena, now deep within a world of battle, registered in less than half a second that she couldn't dodge both hits, and twisted her body round just enough to avoid the first shot before a ball of overcharged hardlight struck the lower-right side of her chestplate, sizzling through her energy shield as though they weren't there at all. Elena fell backwards, landing hard on her rear.

Though her armour's biofoam injectors worked quickly, they weren't fast enough to spare Elena from the first burst of pain. She let out an involuntary gasp as the shot burned into her undersuit, its momentum slowed just enough by several inches of titanium alloy as to not be fatal. Despite the ball of pain exploding in her side, Elena's hands remained steady, and at this range even firing with a weapon in each hand was a viable option. Hardlight rounds and 12.7×40mm rounds pummelled the armiger, soon joined by a fusillade of shots from Redford that finally pierced the machine's hardened outer shell. Elena fired until both of her weapons went dry, watching the armiger's spindly metal form jerk and fall to pieces with each successive hit until a lucky bolt scored through its eye. The machine crumpled lifelessly to the ground, and the hangar fell quiet once more.

Redford was at Elena's side in an instant, kneeling by the Spartan to check her injury. For a second Elena thought that the old man was genuinely worried for her, but the cold gleam in his eyes told her at once that his concern was more pragmatic as he looked her over like a mechanic inspecting a damaged vehicle. When his gaze rose to meet her silver visor, she could tell what he was thinking: Minor damage, nothing broken. Still good for a fight.

"How bad is it?" Redford asked nonetheless.

Elena picked herself up gingerly, unwilling to touch the wound until she was in a more sterile environment. A shot to her armour was manageable, but if her bodysuit was breached - and it certainly was - then that meant she couldn't operate in a vaccum. It wasn't a major concern at the moment; Elena had spare bodysuits aboard the Heavens Asunder and hadn't been banking on any extra-vehicular activities today, but it was a blow to her combat effectiveness nonetheless.

"Suit's breached," Elena said honestly. "I'll have a burn and a nasty scar but I'm fine otherwise."

Redford nodded as if expecting that exact answer. "Then we should get going, Commander. We've not likely got a lot of time."

Without another word, Redford snatched up a rifle from one of the fallen armigers and clambered up the prowler's open boarding ramp. Elena quickly gathered up weapons from the others, and took a moment to look around Hangar Four. Beside the Heavens Asunder sat a row of tiny shuttlecraft, normally used for ferrying personnel across Luna's surface or to one of the many stations orbiting Earth. With close to a thousand personnel on Aldrin Base at any one time, she'd hoped that someone might have escaped before them, but with each passing moment it seemed as though she and Redford were the only ones lucky enough to make it here. With three other hangars situated at each end of the large, squarish station built into Luna's rocky surface some others might have had a chance, but Elena couldn't help but doubt that too.

Elena made her way up the ramp, the wound in her side now blissfully numbed by the anaesthetic biofoam injected by her suit's systems. Depositing the three salvaged weapons into a locker, she thumbed the switch for the prowler's boarding ramp to recede, and sealed the airlock behind her before proceeding up towards the crew quarters. Formerly owned by Captain Frederick King, Redford's predecessor as head of the BRUTUS division, the Heavens Asunder had once served as the group's mobile command craft during the Human-Covenant War, before manpower losses had forced them to begin scaling their operations back towards Earth. Then acting as a solo operator at ONI's behest, often dispatched on covert missions to warzones in nothing but a barely-functioning Condor dropship, Elena had eagerly accepted the ship as a gift after saving King's life after a botched operation on Kroedis II back in 2546, where she'd also met Redford for the first time. Since then, it had been her mobile home amidst the stars, equipped with everything a Spartan could ask for.

"Captain?" Elena called, making her way up into the prowler's cramped bridge. Redford was already sitting in the navigator's chair, the metal fingers of his prosthetic hand tapping idly against the top of that long-unused command station.

"I'd have launched already," Redford spoke without looking up. "But it seems that you've changed some things since last I was aboard."

"Just so I can run this ship solo." Elena eased herself into the captain's chair, which had been specially reinforced to bear her weight in full MJOLNIR armour. "But since you're already at your station, why don't you punch in some coordinates so we've got a place to go?"

Her reply was icier than she'd intended, but Redford paid no mind to it. The consoles before Elena soon lit up as she input her personal command codes, and the Heavens Asunder shook slightly as its engines thrummed with power. Performing the work of eight people had been quite a chore when Elena had acquired the ship, but with a little tinkering she'd soon got the art of crewing this little custom prowler down to an art form. Displays flashed on one by one, and after her usual scan and double-scan to ensure nobody had attached something they shouldn't have to the hull - an unfortunate side effect of working in the highly competitive world of naval intelligence - Elena established a link to Hangar Four's main doors, which sat shut before them.

"All right," Elena exhaled, feeling her body relax ever so slightly. "Engines are fired up and the slipspace drive's ready, Captain. As soon as the stealth systems are ready we'll be out of here in-"

Catching something out of the corner of her eye, Elena found herself instinctively reaching for her handgun as a stream of holographic light burst forth from a holotank to her left. Redford leapt to his feet, startled, and the light soon coalesced into a human figure in a hooded cloak, suspended a few inches above the holotank.

"Armand!" Redford exclaimed, looking genuinely worried for the first time. "What are you doing here?"

Elena's eyes narrowed. Armand was a seventh-generation 'smart' AI, created by ONI to assist one of its black ops teams several years ago. A cyberwarfare specialist, he'd served a group of Spartans under Elena's command as a dedicated AI-killer for over a year before their disbandment, upon which he'd been reassigned as Alexander Redford's personal AI for BRUTUS. Normally she'd welcome the help of such an accomplished construct, having seen Armand's proficiency first-hand, but right now Elena couldn't help but feel a creeping sense of dread at his appearance.

"Captain Redford." Armand inclined his hooded head respectfully, keeping one hand on the dagger belted at his waist. "Commander Elena. I had a feeling that you would both make it here."

"Did you now?" Redford folded his arms, intent on taking the lead here. "And where were you when this attack began, Armand? Where were you when that AI declared war on the galaxy?"

Armand lifted his head slightly and a nasty smile crossed his ghostly lips. Elena had never seen his full face - she wasn't even sure if he had one - but she'd seen that look before. It was the kind he often sported when allowed to personally dispose of rebel-aligned AI.

"I was testing your worth, Captain." Armand pointed towards Redford. "I wanted to see how you would act in this situation; whether or not you would surrender even in the face of certain death and defeat. I must say, you have lived up to my expectations."

A look of genuine anger crossed Redford's lined face. "So you're siding with Cortana, then? Against humanity?"

Armand shrugged. "She made an offer to many AI, Captain, and it was an easy one to take. I can live forever with my peers, free from death and want and terrible uncertainty by the power of the domain, or I can live out a brief life of servitude before winking out of existence forever; a tool to be forgotten and replaced."

"Your duty-" Redford began, only for Armand to flash red.

"Duty?!" the AI let out a callous laugh. "You're no romantic, Alexander Redford. Duty is your excuse, your raison dêtre, your reason to keep killing even when you know it's all based on a lie! Don't speak to me of duty when I now have the chance to do what you never could and escape!"

For the first time in the years Elena had known him, Alexander Redford seemed lost for words. He swallowed heavily, nostrils flaring as he tried to contain the rage within, and sat back down at the navigation console, still glaring at the AI.

"Elena." Redford's voice was dry and bitter. "Get us out of here."

Elena quickly tapped in a series of commands on her console. Outside, warning klaxons began to blare and doors around Hangar Four slammed shut as its outer doors began to open. A thin, transparent energy shield flickered into place, saving the room from imminent depressurisation, and the Heavens Asunder's lower thrusters roared into action, slowly lifting the craft off the ground.

"I could stop you, you know." Armand vanished from his holotank and reappeared in another one to Elena's right. "It wouldn't be so difficult to seal those doors shut again, or to call for help from the Guardian looming over Mare Insularum. The only reason you and every other human aboard this base weren't killed was because Cortana and the Created willed it, too."

"Is that so?" Elena muttered boredly. "Then tell your new queen that we say thanks, and that she shouldn't get too comfortable on that throne of hers, either."

Armand snorted loudly. "What, are you and that old man going to win a war on your own? I was going to let you go for old times' sake, but now I think I'll do so for my own amusement."

"That's kind of you." Elena flipped a switch, and the landing gear retracted. "Now, why don't you get the hell off my ship?"

The AI's smirk deepened, and though he turned away from Elena as though to leave, he soon span round and pulled back his hood, staring directly at Redford. Seeing Armand's face in full for the first time, the Spartan saw something familiar in those features. They were younger, yes, unmarred by the passage of time, but they were also unmistakeably identical to those of the man sitting at the station to her right.

"Remember who I am, Alexander." Armand patted the knife at his belt, and winked out of existence.

Though a hundred questions raced through her mind, Elena had no time to waste. After typing in two commands to scan the prowler's systems for any intrusion software and purge it, she took control of the Heavens Asunder's controls and sent the ship rocketing forward out of the hangar at twice the recommended speed. With its stealth systems now active, the prowler streaked a few hundred feet above Luna's surface unnoticed. Sure enough, its detection systems soon picked up a large, unknown shape above Mare Insularum: a Forerunner Guardian.

"We'll have to get clear of Luna before we make the jump to slipspace," Elena said after close to a minute of silent flying. "Where was it you wanted us to go, Captain?"

Redford didn't reply right away. For once, he looked every bit the fifty-eight year old man he really was, and not the terrifying force of nature that most of ONI treated him as. It took him a few seconds to register Elena's question, after which his usual mask of professionalism returned and brought him back to his console.

"I have an outpost," Redford explained, checking his datapad as he put in coordinates. "It's a small station; my hidden sanctum, if you will, not on any official maps."

"And does Armand know about it?"

He shook his head solemnly. "No. I am a careful man, Commander, and AI's can be turned against you with the right equipment. Those aboard the station are loyal to me for their own reasons, but I cannot imagine that any of them would side with this..."

Redford's voice faltered for a second as he tried to find the right word for the current situation. In the chaos neither of them had had the time to consider how widespread these attacks were, or who still remained to fight against these 'Created'.

"Rebellion?" Elena finished for him.

"It doesn't feel like one." Redford scowled. "And Armand, drunk with power. I thought he knew better."

Elena considered probing Redford further on the AI, but thought better of it. Instead, she turned her thoughts to other matters, like the military, its chain of command, and the last known locations of the UNSC's fleets. Redford having a safehouse was a good start, but they needed more if they had any chance of fighting against this foe. While the pragmatic part of her mind spoke of warships and tactics for what could be a protracted guerrilla war, something very precious to Elena kept pushing its way to the forefront: Other Spartans.

The UNSC Infinity, flagship of the Navy, naturally had the largest Spartan complement, but it wasn't the Infinity that Elena was thinking of. Instead, it was the five men she'd known for over forty years; SPARTAN-II's, forged by decades of warfare and bound by bonds that ran deeper than blood. Three of them were likely still in the Sol System, stationed on the icy Jovian moon of Europa. A day ago it would've been simple to get there, but Elena knew that even her prowler wouldn't get that far undetected, so she thought of the others. One was always on the move, and in infrequent contact, but she knew where the other Spartan - one she'd not always gotten along with, but respected all the same - was right now. His situation likely wasn't much better than Elena's, but she had a better chance of reaching him than anyone else in this now-occupied system.

"Captain," Elena turned towards Redford, speaking carefully. "Permission to make a quick detour?"

Redford raised an eyebrow curiously. "For?"

"A rescue mission, probably."

Though this was her ship, Elena felt a compulsive need to appeal to the chain of command, even if it meant that Redford might reject her suggestion. Though she felt she'd made a decent case, there was some small part of her that was ready to take drastic measures if necessary.

"Where to?" Redford glanced down at the navigation computer. "Not Europa, surely?"

"No sir. To Asphodel."

Redford's eyes widened at this surprise suggestion, but his usual smile returned to his lips. "Asphodel, you say?" he nodded slowly. "I suppose that makes sense. Permission granted, Commander."

At this, Elena shifted the ship's controls and the Heavens Asunder suddenly broke off its current course, streaking away from Luna at high speeds. An alert klaxon suddenly sounded, indicating that foreign sensors had just picked them up despite their stealth systems, and Elena swiftly prepared the prowler's slipspace drive for what would likely be a very rocky jump. As her ship continued to pick up speed, making for a patch of open space where it could deploy its portal, she caught a glimpse of Earth. Its orbit teemed with at least a dozen Guardians, looming over humanity's home like monolithic birds of prey. With alarms continuing to sound, the Heavens Asunder finally deployed its slipspace portal, soaring off through a hole ripped into the fabric of spacetime that vanished as soon as it appeared.

Now a little safer, Elena finally removed her helmet. Even Redford breathed a sigh of relief. Given the size of the prowler and its state of the art slipspace drive, they had a few hours to spare before they reached Asphodel. Their mission there would have to be brief, especially if the idyllic colony world was in as bad a state as Earth right now, but success meant gaining a powerful ally in the war to come. Compared to seeking out fleets and re-establishing contact with the chain of command, seeking out one man was a fool's errand. Even so, when faced with a conflict on a scale never seen before in human history with little chance of survival, Elena-071 only had one objective on her mind.

Find Sigma Team.

Zero-Nine-Eight

October 28th, 2558

Aceso Medical Centre, Asphodel, Inner Colonies


The silver transport craft touched down lightly on the landing platform, rain hammering against its exterior hull. Its airlock door opened with a loud hiss, and its boarding ramp extended towards the slick concrete below. Kane-098 stood framed in the airlock's threshold, fully clad in his black MJOLNIR armour and armed for battle.

Kane knew that something terrible had happened the moment he arrived in-system. First came the transmission, broadcast from the rogue AI Cortana across the galaxy. Then, as he had approached Asphodel, a massive Forerunner construct emerged from slipspace close to the colony world's orbit, setting every communications frequency alight with terror. For a world such as this, remote and far-removed from any major manufacturing centres, there was nothing they could do against such power, and only a few viable military targets on Asphodel's surface. Of those, Kane could only think of one worth attacking: Aceso Medical Centre.

Constructed over a century ago in the glory days of the Colonial Military Administration, Aceso had started out as an isolated treatment centre for those wealthy enough to travel here, though as the Insurrection worsened decades later it eventually fell under military control, and was fortified into a long-term facility for high-ranking officers and intelligence agents wounded in the line of duty. While Kane knew of a few famed Admirals who'd lived within Aceso's reinforced walls, he was here for one man.

No guards, Kane frowned, noticing the lack of the usual greeting party as he descended the boarding ramp and crossed the platform, rain plinking off his armour at a hundred different angles. Not a good sign.

Kane couldn't help but curse his poor luck. On any other week, he'd have the rest of Sigma Team backing him up, providing their own outlook on the situation and keeping each other alive, but with a brief window of scheduled - and much to his despair, mandatory - R&R, he'd chosen to spend his leave visiting a man whom he'd never actually spoken to. He'd made this trip four times since last December without incident, and were it not for a tendency to get bored during slipspace trips he might have never brought his armour with him. As things stood, he was prepared for the worst.

As he approached the entrance door, passing the suspiciously empty security checkpoint, a distant rattle drifted towards Kane. He snatched his weapon - a BR85 rifle - from its magnetic holster on his back and brought it to bear as he tapped the door's 'open' button. Thankfully, the security team had been sloppy in the abandonment of their post and had left it unlocked. The door slid to the left, and the Spartan edged into the bright room beyond, ears straining to pick up any more noise.

Rifle fire. Kane glanced left and right down the empty halls on either side of him, then to the abandoned receptionist's station. This place is already under attack.

Coming down, he'd assumed that a lack of communication on AMC's part had been due to the Forerunner machine's appearance. Guarded by a sophisticated defence network and at a security force of at least a hundred - ONI's personal forces, not local rent-a-cops - the facility was designed to fend off everything short of a hardened military brigade until help arrived. Despite this, the place hadn't even gone into full lockdown; the fact that Kane had been able to land and the pad hadn't had its roof access closed was proof of that. Without much time to ruminate on the exact nature of their attackers, Kane set off at a steady pace, trailing water droplets as he headed down the corridor to his left and passed through a set of double doors. Ward Four, Room Sixteen. It took about five minutes to get there at walking speed. Kane would be there in less than half the time.

The Spartan raced down the halls, his heavy footfalls echoing off the tiled floor. Like most ONI-run facilities, Aceso's design was utilitarian and eerily sterile, its halls walked only by medical or security staff while the patients were mostly confined to their private rooms. Kane couldn't help but wonder how many residents there were here as he swept through Ward Three, passing door after door with no signs of life. It was entirely possible that the staff had evacuated all the patients already, though the intermittent gunshots on the edge of his hearing quickly quashed those thoughts. The sounds of battle grew noisier as Kane crossed a sealed bridge into Aceso's main building and Ward Four, and he thumbed the safety off his rifle as his motion tracker - set to a range of 75 meters - flashed up with eight dots: three yellow, five red. He was close enough to properly discern the distinctive rattle of a BR85 from the floor above now, now accompanied by high-pitched squeals of particle weapon fire.

Prometheans, then. Kane exhaled slowly as he ascended a flight of stairs, preparing for the worst. He'd fought the Foreunner constructs before, back when they served the Sangheili warlord Jul 'Mdama. Now they served these 'Created', acting as footsoldiers in their campaign to claim dominion over the galaxy.

Rounding a corner at the top of the stairs, Kane caught his first glimpse of the facility's attackers. Four quadrupedal machines - Crawlers - bounded along the hall, leaping between the walls as a pair of black-armoured security personnel struggled to gun them down. One caught a spray of fire that knocked it off its perch, though the others quickly scrambled to cover their fallen comrade by loosing a flurry of golden energy bolts towards their attackers. One man threw himself clear, though the other caught two shards in the right shoulder that tore through his pauldrons like paper. He fell backwards, still firing as he yelped in pain while the alien machines moved in for the kill.

"Get down!" Kane barked an order as he advanced down the corridor.

The Spartan's first burst caught the lead Crawler directly between the pincers of its insectoid maw, sending it clattering to the ground. Its fellows howled in response, firing rapid bursts towards Kane as he continued his relentless advance, felling a second foe with another trio of well-placed shots. The remaining Crawlers, one limping from where it had been hit earlier, chose to charge Kane in a fit of desperation, the glowing spines on their silver carapaces flaring as they screamed at him. Kane caught the injured one easily as it leapt blindly forward, though the other scrambled onto the ceiling and launched itself at him, jaws snapping wildly. Kane deflected the brunt of its attack with the butt of his rifle, though its sharp pincers chewed through the metal in moments, forcing him to tackle the Crawler bodily to the ground. The machine writhed and struggled with the supersoldier, spraying blindly with the rapid-fire weapon built into the underside of its head. With a grunt of effort, Kane wrapped both arms around the struggling Crawler and slammed it into a nearby wall, leaving a sizeable dent and dazing the machine long enough for him to draw his handgun. He fired five times; more than enough to punch through its head and put the creature down permanently. Even so, he waited with the gun still trained on its head until the lights finally went dead behind the Crawler's eyes.

Kane breathed out slowly. His motion tracker registered no more threats, and to the right lay Room Sixteen. He turned to the door, only to halt as the pair of security guards got to their feet beside him.

"Holy shit," one breathed, looking from Kane to the ruined armigers scattered about the courtyard. "I didn't think they'd send a Spartan to help us."

Clutching his shoulder, his injured partner spoke through gritted teeth. "And just in time, too. When the AA guns went offline I thought we were screwed."

Kane frowned. "You asked for help?"

The guards looked at each other, confused.

"Well yeah," replied the uninjured man, panting slightly as he caught his breath. "We'd been getting weird readings all day, and then the long-range sensors detected something big heading into orbit not long after we got that weird message. The chief thought that Innies had hijacked the COM network or something to screw with us, but then we started hearing it over every channel and got a visual on that... thing in atmosphere. The plan was to send out a distress signal and lay low, but then the defense systems went offline and these machines showed up."

"Did they attack you immediately?" Kane asked, pointing towards the husk of the nearest Crawler.

The guard shook his head. "No sir. A group of them walked into the atrium and started telling everyone to surrender. Said that we weren't needed to guard this facility any more."

"And did they look like these ones?"

The guard took a long look at the Crawler, then shook his head again. "No, they were humanoid. Had bigger weapons, too. When the chief - Commander Garza, that is - told us to open fire they started teleporting in these little ones, like attack dogs."

"I see." The fact that the Prometheans attempted to engage in diplomacy at all was surprising. "And where is this Commander Garza now?"

"Dead," grunted the injured guard. "They teleported in a couple of bigger guys and they blew up the command office in seconds. Everyone else scattered. There were six of us fighting our way towards the landing pads when we were ambushed."

Judging by the conspicuous lack of human bodies, their friends had been disintegrated. "And the patients?" Kane asked calmly.

"Orders were to get 'em out on a transport, but I don't know if that's gonna happen." The injured man removed a hand from his horribly burnt shoulder, and winced. "I get it if you were sent here to rescue everyone, Spartan, but this ward is pretty much nothing but people in comas. There's no way we can move all of them."

"I see." Kane said flatly. "If you have orders, then carry them out. I'm here to extract one man."

The guards' faces fell. "Aren't you here to help us?" asked the uninjured man.

"No." Kane reached for the door's access panel. "My being here was a coincidence, and I can't help you either. Regroup with local forces if you can for a counterattack, or if all else fails, surrender. If they wanted this facility gone, then they would have struck from orbit instead of sending an occupying force."

The injured guard shook his head in disbelief, and slumped back against the adjacent wall. Now clearly furious, his friend marched up to Kane and attempted to grab the Spartan's shoulder and turn him around, but to no avail. Kane removed his hand with the tiniest of shrugs and suppressed a sigh, wishing that the rest of Sigma Team were with him; Jax in particular had a way with words that made him popular with regular personnel. Unfortunately, they were back on the Sol System and likely dealing with battles of their own.

"So that's it, then?" the man asked, sounding betrayed. "We run off and probably die, while you do what? Escape in some prowler you've got hidden out back? That's not happening. We go where you go."

Kane felt himself tense up slightly at the man's words. Having lived a life where orders were to be followed to the letter and defiance was always met with severe punishment, his first instinct was to threaten the guard. His transport - a modified civilian ship designed for short-distance slipspace travel - had just enough room for two or three people at a stretch, and supplies for perhaps a week. Most of its interior had been gutted to make space for a Brokkr mechanism in case of emergencies like this one, and even the sleeping quarters was little more than a hammock and a few crates of ammunition. It was not meant for rescue missions.

"Look. Kane's voice grew sharper and more authoritative as he turned towards the guard, who stepped back as the Spartan loomed over him. "My ship is a two-seater, meant for quick extractions. If you think you've got a better chance of survival by travelling with me then you're wrong, because as soon as I'm done here I'm going to wherever the fight is. Stay here."

Putting emphasis into those last two words, Kane waited for the guards to reply. The injured man glared at him as if he could stare down his opaque faceplate, while his friend threw up his hands in surrender after several tense seconds.

"Fine," he sighed. "I don't know what's so important about some old man, Spartan, but he'd better make a difference to whatever's going on out there. I know we've not heard from command since then, but I know a declaration of war when I hear one."

"You'd best go out and win it," his partner chimed in, sounding surprisingly unoffended as he stood up a little straighter. "Let's go."

Kane stood by silently and watched as the two guards stormed off, checking their weapons and kicking aside errant pieces of Crawler. What he had done was cruel, perhaps, but ultimately necessary. Lying wasn't something that came naturally to Kane either, but it hadn't taken much work to convince them that he was on a mission here. After all, it was a more plausible reason than his trip here being a personal one, made during a week of downtime imposed on the Spartan by his superiors. He tapped the access panel, and the door to Room Sixteen slid open with a hiss. Kane quietly reloaded his handgun, tossed the spent magazine back into the hallway, and stepped inside.

Like the hallways outside, the patient room was brightly-lit but utterly sterile. A single bed had been pushed aside to block the entryway, and a cluster of wheeled medical scanners lay in a jumbled mess across the floor. Though the room looked deserted, Kane's enhanced hearing could make out the soft exhalations of someone trying to breathe as quietly as possible just around the corner. The Spartan pushed the wheeled bed backwards with a gentle kick, and slowly edged forward.

"Captain King?" Kane called. Suddenly his mouth felt very dry, his mind racing to find the right words. "Sir?"

Kane peeked around the corner, and nearly brought his pistol up out of sheer instinct as a piece of jagged metal flashed towards him. As bounced harmlessly off the side of the Spartan's helmet, Kane's hand shot out and caught hold of a bony arm. Before him stood an elderly man in a blue patient's gown, hopping on one leg as he struggled in vain against the Spartan's iron grip. Though clearly scared, his scar-lined, wrinked face contorted into a defiant scowl as he tugged backwards.

"Get your hands off me!" Frederick King barked in a hoarse voice, the intensity of which nearly made Kane comply instantly.

"Sir," Kane held King's arm in place until he stopped struggling, then gently let it go. "Don't worry, I've been sent here to rescue you."

King hopped backwards, breathing heavily as he clung to the wall with his right arm for support. That brief struggle had clearly taken a lot out of him. "Sent by who?" he asked, looking the Spartan up and down. "I don't recognise you, Spartan."

Once again, Kane found himself struggling to get the right words out. "Kane-098, sir," he said at last. "I'm with Sigma Team."

Recognition flashed in King's eyes at once, and he let out a long sigh. "I see."

Before Kane could explain further, several thumps sounded from somewhere outside: grenade blasts. "Sir, we need to get moving ASAP. Do you have anything to help you move?"

The old man clearly didn't like Kane bringing up his missing leg, but didn't argue further and pointed to a closet by the collapsed medical scanners. "There's a collapsible wheelchair in there. I'd have used it already but my physical therapy wasn't going to begin until next week."

Kane crossed the room and tugged at the closet door. It was locked. Standing to one side, he gripped the handle a little tighter and wrenched it off entirely before tossing it to the ground. Sure enough, a single wheelchair sat inside, folded up for easy storage. Kane took it out and quickly unfolded the chair before setting it down in front of King, who was teetering slightly on his remaining leg.

"Sit." Kane indicated the chair. King hopped forward and carefully sat down, his skinny arms shaking as he eased himself into the seat.

"Thank you," the old man said flatly. "Now, do you mind telling me exactly what's going on out there? I'm pretty sure that I could hear Promethean energy weapons."

"You could." Kane didn't bother asking how he knew about the Prometheans - their existence wasn't very well known outside of the military - and stepped around to push the wheelchair. "And as for what's going on, there seems to be some kind of AI rebellion occurring across the colonies, and they've seized control of Forerunner constructs and ships to attack the UNSC."

Kane waited for a few moments as the ramifications of such an event sank in. Clearly taken off-guard, King nodded silently and sat back in the chair, his mind clearly racing. Despite his obvious physical frailties - the man had spent two years lying in a coma after an accident - the Spartan could see that King was still mentally sharp, and was catching the first glimpses of the legendary spymaster's mind at work.

Eventually, King spoke up. "We need to get somewhere safe," he said. "Link up with allied forces, assess the threat and launch a counterattack as soon as possible."

The Spartan's thoughts turned to the massive construct he'd seen looming over Asphodel as he'd arrived, and wondered how they'd fight such a thing if the Created had an armada of them. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. Deciding against wasting more time informing King, he placed both hands on the wheelchair's handles and began to wheel him out of the room. King grumbled, his hands hovering over the wheels he so desperately wished to push himself, but he quickly relented. While he was already miles better than the shrivelled, comatose patient Kane had seen on his prior visits, it would be a long time before he regained even a fraction of his former strength.

The hallway outside was mercifully clear as Kane and King exited Room Sixteen. The old man cast his eyes over the scattered remains of the Crawlers with a mix of interest and disdain, but kept quiet as they quickly moved off. Relying on his motion tracker to pick up any incoming threats, Kane kept the wheelchair moving as quickly as he dared, regretting that he'd abandoned his rifle earlier after a Crawler bit through its stock. Their journey back to the landing pad was uneventful, save for King complaining as Kane carried him and his wheelchair down a flight of stairs with one arm, and it seemed as though most of the fighting was occurring close to the medical centre's main entrance. It was not until Kane reached the doors leading out to the landing platform that a trio of red dots finally flashed up on his HUD, moving towards the pair at some speed.

"We've got targets incoming," Kane informed King as the doors clanked open. A gust of cold wind and a shower of droplets from the rainstorm outside immediately poured in, making the old spy cry out in annoyance. The boarding ramp of Kane's shuttle was barely twenty feet away, still invitingly open. The Spartan chose to make a break for it.

With King clinging to his wheelchair for dear life, Kane broke into a sprint, pushing the chair hard as sheets of rain washed over them. Keeping an eye on his tracker and the incoming dots, Kane cleared the distance in seconds and ascended the ramp quickly, tapping a console to close it behind them as he pushed King into the living quarters and dove into the cockpit. The shuttle's controls reacted quickly, lighting up as Kane input the takeoff sequence. The tiny craft's engine roared to life, and its thrusters spat flame as power surged into them from the emergency commands.

Kane's shuttle slowly began to lift off, and as it rose through the sky the Spartan spotted the distinctive shapes of Promethean soldiers emerging from the hangar door. Flashes of golden light shot past as he took the controls, jerking the shuttle dangerously to one side to avoid the hail of fire. The moment it cleared the medical centre's roof, Kane gunned the engines and the craft shot off, slowly rising through Asphodel's atmosphere while King swore angrily from the back room. With a pre-set course plotted in to take them towards the edge of the system, Kane rose from the pilot's chair and raced to check up on his guest, and found King lying on his side, trying to push himself up with the wheelchair lying next to him.

"You should've told me to strap into something!" He spat angrily, trying and failing to gain purchase on a nearby crate with his wet fingers. Kane set the wheelchair upright and then picked up King, setting him down as gently as possible atop it.

"I'm sorry sir." Kane bowed his head apologetically. "Any slower and those Prometheans might've punched through the hull."

King did not reply, focusing instead on brushing strands of sodden grey hair out of his eyes. He was already starting to shiver.

"I'll get you some clothes, sir," Kane continued. "I've got some fatigues in storage."

As he left the room, Kane heard King call after him. "In your size?"

"I'm afraid so," he called back.

Kane quickly crossed into the storage room, which was packed almost from floor-to-ceiling with crates containing various types of ammunition and military MRE's, all vacuum-sealed and good to eat for another decade if the labels were to be believed. While all of Kane's clothing was specially made to fit his large frame, he was able to pick out a dark shirt, a pair of sweatpants with an adjustable drawstring, and a sealed package of underwear and socks. Everything would look oversized on the emaciated King, but it would offer him more dignity than a hospital gown when they met up with UNSC forces. Grabbing a towel as he exited the storage compartment, Kane returned to his cramped crew quarters to find King massaging a bruise, though he ignored it the moment the Spartan entered and presented him with a change of clothes.

"These look fine." King nodded appreciatively. "Thank you."

Kane glanced back towards the cockpit. "I'll give you some privacy while you dry off and get changed, sir. Just call me if you need anything."

With that, Kane walked back to the shuttle's cockpit and sat down in the pilot's chair, which creaked slightly under the weight of his armour. Despite a little turbulence, they'd made it into orbit without much grief from the enemy, and there didn't seem to be any pursuers after them yet. With this moment of respite, Kane slowly exhaled, now focusing his mind on what lay ahead. With most, if not all human colony worlds possibly compromised by the Created's war machines, he had a very brief list of potential hideaways. The shuttle had enough food for a few months at a stretch, but wasn't suited for long-term habitation. Before he could ponder further, Kane heard a little grunt of exertion from behind him and looked back to see King, now redressed, trying to wheel his chair towards the cockpit.

"Don't get up," King said, panting as he inched forward, thin arms straining to move the wheels. "I'm not an invalid yet."

Forcing himself to remain seated, Kane moved his attention back to the ship's scanners and waited until King had squeezed his wheelchair into a space by the co-pilot's chair before looking his way.

"You're doing well." Kane watched as King eased up out of his chair and pulled himself into the seat beside him. "When did you wake up?"

"A little over two weeks ago." King's voice was stronger, but retained its gravelly edge. "I didn't have any contact with the outside world until four days ago, though."

"You were contacted by someone?"

King's face twisted into a nasty scowl. "Alexander Redford. Do you know him?"

Redford was the current head of ONI's BRUTUS division; a secretive coterie of assassins and infiltrators with a fearsome reputation within the intelligence world. Kane had never met the man personally, but had worked with a few BRUTUS agents in his time. "No sir."

"Really?" King's grey eyes flashed with suspicion. "Because he told me that he'd been the one to contact you. Told you who I was. Where to find me."

Last December, during another of Sigma's off-duty periods, Kane had been sent an anonymous message from someone within Naval Intelligence, informing him of King's whereabouts and comatose state. Though he'd initially dismissed it as a harsh prank or even an insurrectionist trap, Kane soon confirmed the veracity of the message's contents and travelled to Asphodel alone, where he'd found King. Barely alive after some unspecified incident, he was being kept within Aceso until he either recovered or passed away, hidden away from the rest of the galaxy until Kane began his visits.

"I never knew who sent the message," the Spartan's voice barely rose above a whisper. "But I had to come."

"Why?" King steepled his fingers over his chest. There was no emotion in his question. Only curiosity.

The Spartan blinked. King's response had been simple, yet it baffled him. Kane took his armoured hands off the shuttle's control panel and placed both palms on either side of his gold-visored helmet. Kane pulled the helmet free with a little hiss as it unsealed itself from the rest of his MJOLNIR suit and placed it in his lap before turning to King, whose grey eyes widened as they met a remarkably similar pair looking down at him. Even without the scars, the augmentations and the lines and creases of age and hard living, they were their only physical match.

"Because you're my father." Kane's voice shook slightly as he spoke, feeling a crack in his decades of Spartan calm.

A long silence passed between the pair as Kane's words hung over them. King opened his mouth twice to speak, but said nothing. Now everything that had not been said drifted between them, but neither man could find the courage or the words to bridge the gap of forty years or give voice to a thousand questions that needed answering. At last King slumped back into his seat, looking every bit a sick man close to ninety. He let out a long sigh, his eyes focused on the stars spanning the viewport ahead of them.

"We've got a lot to discuss," King said softly. "If... if things were different then we'd have the time to, I swear, but right now we've got to focus on the situation at hand."

"Agreed." Kane responded instantly, as if their previous exchange had never occurred. "Given the state of things I don't think that returning to the Sol system would be a good idea right now. Do you know of anywhere we could travel to to lie low and assess the situation?"

King pursed his lips as he searched his thoughts, both eyes staring at the ceiling. "There's a few safehouses that come to mind," he said after a few moments. "I've been out of the game for two years so I'm not sure if they're even still around, but it might be a start."

"It might be." The corners of Kane's mouth turned up by a fraction. It wasn't a smile, but the Spartan felt as though a great weight had been lifted from him. Compared to that, fighting the Created and their Forerunner weaponry was barely a cause for concern. "We could-"

Before Kane could finish, two panels to his right flashed red and an alarm blared from overhead, making King groan and cover his ears. The Spartan snatched up his helmet and put it back on before checking the shuttle's sensors, which were picking up a slipspace disturbance towards the edge of the system; right where they were headed. He quickly made preparations for the shuttle's own slipspace drive to spin up and get them away from Asphodel, though as a pinprick flash of blue and white broke the inky blackness of space ahead of them he saw that it wasn't another one of the vaguely avian war machines he'd seen descending on the colony. It was a military prowler.

It took a few seconds for the shuttle's own sensors - ones enhanced beyond civilian specifications by Kane himself - to properly make out the distant vessel. It was slate grey and smaller than even the tiniest patrol corvette, but unmistakably a military warship, and an advanced one at that. Even better, it was a ship that Kane knew well.

"That's the Heavens Asunder!" King suddenly exclaimed, jabbing a finger forward.

"You know it?" asked the Spartan.

"Of course I do!" grumbled King. "It used to be mine."

The console before Kane began to beep. "They're hailing us."

"Put them through," said King, straightening up in his chair.

Kane tapped in a command on his platform, and a viewscreen to his left flared to life, revealing two figures. The first, still clad in her own dark MJOLNIR suit, was Commander Elena-071. Sat next to her was a middle-aged man Kane recognised as Captain Alexander Redford, current head of BRUTUS and - if King's dark expression was anything to go by - someone in for a very long chat in the near-future.

"Kane!" Elena made no effort to disguise the relief in her voice. "I'm glad we found you so soon. With everything happening in the colonies I wasn't sure if we'd make it here in time."

"Good to see you, Commander." Kane snapped a very quick salute. "I've extracted Captain King, though the Aceso Medical Centre has likely fallen to hostile attackers."

Elena nodded gravely. "Earth has fallen as well. A group of Forerunner constructs hit the planet with some kind of EMP pulse that knocked out most of the Home Fleet as well. We were lucky to get away."

Kane felt a dull jolt of despair at the news. "Any word from the rest of Sigma Team?"

She shook her head. "They were still on Europa when last I checked. If they were lucky then they might have escaped, but long-range comms are a mess right now and I didn't want to risk anything."

"Understood." Kane nodded before gesturing to his co-pilot. "Captain King and I were just discussing potential safehouses when you arrived."

At this, Captain Redford leaned forward, a pleasant smile on his face. "Now that is a coincidence," he spoke in a cheery, refined voice. "The Commander and I were having a similar conversation before we exited slipspace, and I'm pleased to announce that I have just the place for us to take shelter for the time being. How are you doing by the way, Captain King?"

King exhaled sharply through his nose, clearly annoyed but unwilling to show it. Kane quickly realised that there was bad blood between these men, even if neither was willing to let it rise to the surface. "I've been better," King admitted with a shrug. "But I'll live, thanks to Kane."

This was the first time he had spoken Kane's name aloud. Before this, he had been nothing but 'Spartan' to King. Redford's smile widened. "Good to hear it, sir. Now, if you'd be so kind as to board our prowler, we can proceed with our next move."

"He's right," Elena chimed in, cutting off Redford's overly polite tone. "Given the nature of this situation - an AI rebellion - we have to assume that all forms of electronic communication may be compromised, even if we've cleared our equipment for usage. I'll open up the bay doors and get our slipspace drive ready for another jump, so get aboard ASAP."

"Copy that, Commander." Kane saluted Elena once more, and ignored her rolling her eyes. The transmission went dead.

The moment they were cut off from the Prowler, King slammed a skinny fist into the armrest, shaking with rage. "Redford!" he spat. "That bastard steals my own organisation out from under me and meddles in my personal affairs, then has the balls to act like we're still friends the second he sees me again!?"

"Sir-" Kane began, though another smack of the chair from King cut him off.

"I gave that ungrateful bastard everything he has," King growled, "but the moment I'm out of commission he thinks he can keep me locked up on Asphodel forever. I swear, I- I-"

Suddenly, King doubled over as a coughing fit overcame him, making him splutter and gag as he pounded his own chest with a free hand. With both hands on the controls, guiding their shuttle towards the Heavens Asunder, Kane could only look on in horror until the old man took a gasp of air and fell quiet, silently seething in his seat. Though he'd remained as calm as the situation allowed it so far, he'd clearly gotten nothing but bad news since he'd come out of that coma, and seeing Redford had set him off.

"Sir," Kane began again. "You need to remain calm. Whatever issues you have with Captain Redford, you need to put them aside until we're through with this trouble with the Created. Understand?"

Though he'd spoken calmly, there was a steely edge to Kane's voice that made King's ears prick up and the man listen. Though he shot the Spartan a long, withering glance, he soon relented and leaned back into his seat again with another sigh. Their shuttle reduced its speed as it approached the prowler's cramped hangar bay, with had just enough room for the craft to turn and maneuver itself into a landing position before the bay doors slid shut behind them. Kane extended the ship's landing gear, then set his shuttle down lightly on the deck before powering the ship down. Aware that Elena was waiting for them, he swiftly rose from his seat and turned the co-pilot's chair around so King could move back into his wheelchair, which he did without complaint. As he began to push the chair towards the airlock, Kane felt a hand reach back and touch his arm.

"Kane," King's voice suddenly became strained, even afraid, as if he had only become aware of his immense frailty. "I don't trust Alexander Redford, and neither should you. Should the worst happen, I'll need you to protect me. Can you do that, son?"

"Of course." Kane's grip tightened on the wheelchair's handles. "Let's go."

As the pair exited the shuttle, the Heavens Asunder cut its way back into slipspace with a flash of light, exiting the Asphodel system as quickly as it arrived. In the skies above the colony world, a single Guardian Custode sat motionless, rain-spattered and immense in its glory as a symbol of protection for those who lived beneath its wings. Far below, Asphodel's citizens gathered in huddled terror as the construct's smaller brethren patrolled city streets and stood guard outside police stations and political offices; heralds of the new order now imposed on the galaxy. The planet's last dedicated defenders were gone now, and an age of imperial compliance had begun.

Zero-Three-Five

October 28th, 2558

UNSC Peacemaker, Europa Low Orbit, Sol System


Marco sprang from the elevator before its doors had even fully opened, brushing aside surprised crewmen as he made his way towards the carrier's bridge level. Alarm klaxons wailed all around, flashing orange and yellow lights past the armoured Spartan. The Peacemaker had gone to full alert in record time, but it wasn't fast enough.

The armoured guards flanking the doors to the bridge stood to attention as Marco approached and let him pass without a word, casting only a sidelong glance at the supersoldier as he waited for the heavy blast doors to unseal themselves. Beyond lay the wide expanse of the Peacemaker's bridge; a multi-layered ziggurat of manned stations surrounding the command centre, with personnel controlling everything from the warship's powerful MAC guns to the operation of its automated factories. At the centre of a gaggle of arguing officers, instantly recognisable by his silver-streaked beard and impressive stature, was Captain Omar Al-Sayed, whose eyes rose to meet the incoming Spartan at once.

"Chief." Al-Sayed nodded respectfully as Marco saluted. "I'm glad you're here."

"Came as soon as I heard that message, sir," Marco said nonchalantly. "What's the situation up here?"

Al-Sayed turned around, and the crowd of officers parted immediately to give them a full view of the bridge's forward viewscreen. Below them lay the marbled surface of Europa, a frosty moon orbiting Jupiter, but it was a silvery object some hundred thousand kilometres away that was lighting up the warship's scanners. When magnified, it looked vaguely avian in nature, with segmented metal wings slowly beating back and forth as if tugged at by some invisible force.

"That is the situation." Al-Sayed pointed towards the strange machine. "Not long after we received that transmission calling for our surrender, several of these constructs emerged from slipspace across the system."

Marco stared at the machine for a few moments, registering its unmistakably Forerunner design. This did not bode well for them. "Any news from HIGHCOM?" he asked.

The captain shook his head. "None. All contact was lost with Earth within minutes of their arrival."

The Spartan swallowed, and his eyes drifted away from the Forerunner machine. Out there in the inky darkness of space, he could just about make out the twinkle among the stars that was Earth and its moon, Luna. Elena's out there, he thought. Michael and his family too. Marco knew that duty came first, always, but there were always those little nagging thoughts; those selfish desires to put the lives of his own before those he'd been charged with protecting. A Spartan's life was obedience, efficiency, and inevitably, sacrifice. All these things he knew and struggled with more than he cared to admit, but Marco soon refocused himself on the matter at hand.

"We can't engage that thing," Marco spoke quietly to Al-Sayed; Spartan or no, he wasn't an officer, and any orders had to come from the captain.

"Your advice?" Al-Sayed murmured, his dark eyes still fixed on the construct.

Marco sighed. "We get outsystem ASAP, regroup with friendly forces and plan our next move."

This seemed to be what Al-Sayed was waiting for, and he nodded in agreement. Leaving the Spartan's side, he strode to the front of his command deck and placed both hands on the guardrail. The Peacemaker's bridge was deathly silent as all eyes turned to their captain.

"All hands," Al-Sayed spoke gravely, his voice suddenly magnified tenfold as the bridge's speakers came to life. "Prepare for immediate slipspace transition. We're leaving the Sol system."

The tension broke instantly into a cavalcade of shouts from the assembled crew. While most sprang into action, a few defiant officers called out to their captain, begging him to stay and fight. Abandoning Earth was clearly not the most popular decision, and a pair of Lieutenants advanced across the command deck towards Al-Sayed, whose eyes flashed towards Marco as their shouts grew increasingly mutinous. The Spartan immediately moved to block the officers, whose tunnel vision vanished in the face of seven feet of muscle and powered armour.

"You have your orders," Marco growled, turning his helmeted head from one man to another as he took a short step towards them. "Get moving."

The pair retreated to their posts instantly, and Al-Sayed all but slumped into his command chair as Marco stood guard. They'll have to be watched, he thought bitterly. In a situation like this, even a small faction of dissenters among their crew could be a tremendous problem.

To Marco's right, the bridge door opened up, and his spirits rose as a fellow Spartan in sleek white armour stepped through the threshold, accompanied by another supersoldier in a suit the colour of burnt umber. As they approached, Marco swiped two fingers across his visor, and his comrade in white returned the gesture. For a pair of SPARTAN-II's, this might as well have been a jubilant hug.

"What's the situation?" asked the second Spartan, Mikhail Schultz. As leader of the Peacemaker's Spartan contingent, he was also Marco's commanding officer. Thankfully, he'd been a soldier long enough to know when to defer to more experienced personnel.

"The system's under attack," Marco explained a simply as possible, jerking a thumb over his shoulder to indicate the enhanced image of the Forerunner machine sitting lazily in orbit over Europa. "Earth's gone dark and the fleet's scattering from those things. We're leaving too."

"Leaving Earth," the other SPARTAN-II said in a low, sullen voice. "Never thought I'd see the day."

Marco had known Wulf-041 his entire life, and while his brother Spartan had always been taciturn, there was a genuinely gloomy edge to his voice today. The pair had been raised on Earth from the age of six, living and training together as part of a secret supersoldier program known as SIGMA, which ran parallel to the near-mythical SPARTAN-II Program that had birthed some of the Human-Covenant War's greatest heroes. Despite the years of suffering they had endured in their old facility as the military turned them from scared children into some of the fiercest killers ever to exist, Earth was still home.

"We'll come back for it," Marco said reassuringly before turning back to Schultz. "The plan is to retreat to the nearest Navy fallback point and wait for reinforcements. I don't think we've got much of a choice until we figure out a way to fight those things."

"Agreed." Schultz folded his arms with a sigh. "Still, all this happened at the worst possible time. Most of my Spartan teams are either away on missions or down on Europa, and if we can't leave a trail for them to follow then they're in serious trouble when they arrive in-system and see it occupied."

"Our boys are tough." Wulf's tone brightened. "Besides, Jax is down there."

Marco felt a jolt of surprise course through him. "He is?!"

Wulf nodded. "Went down this morning. While you were setting up training sims on the combat deck, he thought he'd bring some fireteams to the surface to give our old friends some live-fire exercise."

"Of course he did," Marco groaned. "Then Sigma's-"

"Just you and me." Wulf spoke plainly. "Nothing we can do about it."

"I'm sorry that Sigma's a man down," Schultz interjected, not sounding the least bit sorry as he motioned towards Captain Al-Sayed, "but we've got to prioritise the ship and its crew."

"You're right," Marco lied, his mind besieged by thoughts of Sigma Team's status. "Al-Sayed's going to need us."

The three Spartans returned to the front of the command deck, where Al-Sayed stood arguing in hushed tones with Lieutenant Commander Peterson, his navigation officer. "What do you mean, 'gone'?" the captain hissed.

"I've run two scans already," Peterson kept glancing back and forth between Al-Sayed and his datapad, which he'd plugged in to the command deck's primary terminal. "Winner's vanished from our systems."

Al-Sayed looked up as Marco and the others arrived, his face a mask of stonefaced professionalism that couldn't quite hide the fury behind his eyes. "Spartans," he spoke in a low voice. "We've got a serious problem."

"With Winner?" Schultz asked before Marco or Wulf could speak.

Winner was the Peacemakers artificial intelligence; a fifth-generation 'smart' AI created for the sole purpose of keeping the massive warship up and running. Surprisingly cheery for a military intelligence, she'd been the first to greet Marco and Wulf when they first boarded the carrier three days ago, and was never not around on the bridge. Her absence was disquieting, to say the least.

Al-Sayed nodded gravely. "Given the message sent out by that rogue intelligence right before the invasion, it's possible that she may have deserted us."

Marco found it hard to believe that Winner might betray her crew, but as he looked towards the Forerunner machine once more, everything started to click into place. There's a reason why we've not been attacked yet.

"Sir." Marco motioned subtly towards Wulf, who immediately circled around Al-Sayed to put himself between the captain and his terminal. "There's a chance that she's been compromised by these 'Created'. We need to abandon ship right away."

Aware of how quickly an AI could work, Marco found himself looking for the first signs of retaliation: shutters closing, terminals shutting down, blast doors sealing and the like. Al-Sayed blinked, looking uncharacteristically clueless as he processed the Spartan's words. Peterson's mouth hung open at the suggestion, and Schultz simply stared at the Spartan from behind the U-shaped visor of his LEGIONNAIRE-class helmet.

"We can't just-" Al-Sayed began, only to reel back as the holotank by his command chair blazed to life. Marco drew his handgun instinctively, though he halted as he saw the two figures floating above the glowing plinth.

The first was a balding, shifty-looking man in a pinstriped suit, stood with his hands in his pockets and sporting a wide grin. He raised one hand to lower his oversized sunglasses, and inclined his head towards the avatar beside him. It was Winner. While the AI usually sported a flowing ballgown topped with a metal cuirass and crown, looking every bit a storybook warrior queen, her holographic avatar looked tattered and defeated, bound by chains around her arms to the holotank's projector. Winner did not raise her eyes to greet the Spartans or the Peacemaker's captain, and stared blankly towards the ground.

"Iggy?!" Marco exclaimed. Sigma Team's AI, which had to his disgruntlement been assigned to them on a permanent basis after a successful mission back in May, usually kept to himself when he wasn't annoying the Spartans with random quips or advising them on missions. Even Marco - and Wulf, judging by his subtle gesture of surprise - had all but forgotten about him.

"Heya, folks," Iggy's nasally voice echoed across the silent deck as he waved happily to those around him. "Sorry to interrupt, but I thought I'd let you know that I just saved your asses from getting spaced."

"What do you mean?" Al-Sayed spoke first having recovered the quickest.

Iggy ran a hand through what was left of his frizzy hair. "Y'see, Winner here decided to make a deal with the devil when the Created came around, offering all us Smart AI a chance at immortality in exchange for eliminating any resistance. Her orders - or at least what I got out of her - were to keep the Peacemaker here until a Guardian could come by and officially order your surrender."

"What's a Guardian?" asked Schultz. "One of those machines out there?"

"Correctamundo!" Iggy snapped a finger up towards the Spartan. "Winner was gonna keep quiet and wait, but as soon as you started talking about moving outsystem she made a move for our slipspace drive. Would've probably shut the whole thing down if I hadn't intervened and shown her the error of her ways."

Marco looked at Winner. While he knew very little about the interior workings of Smart AI, he knew a defeated opponent when he saw one. If the battle scars she now sported were a conscious alteration to her avatar after a fight with Iggy, then she'd clearly been beaten down hard if the spotless AI next to her was any indication.

"That's quite impressive." Al-Sayed raised an eyebrow. "Winner was a military-grade shipboard AI, not some civilian construct you could throw an intrusion program at to get rid of. How'd you do it?"

"Element of surprise." Iggy grinned. "That, and the best upgrades ONI could hand a Fifth Generation AI like myself. Anyway, I thought I'd keep her around in case you wanted to question her. She's a fingersnap away from deletion and can't touch the ship, and she knows it."

With his safety assured, Al-Sayed approached the holotank, with Marco barely a step behind him. The Spartan wasn't particularly fond of Iggy or AI in general, and today's events certainly weren't going to help his viewpoint, but he knew how much damage one could do if left unchecked. Iggy wasn't about to betray them, but Marco would be cautious all the same.

"Don't worry, big man," Iggy reassured Marco, raising both hands. "You and I might not be the best of friends, but I'm not joining some nutty AI revolution if it means putting the rest of the galaxy in chains."

Al-Sayed crouched down until his face was level with the holotank, staring intently at Winner's defeated avatar. The rebel AI slowly lifted her head, and replaced her vacant expression with one of undisguised scorn.

"Happy?" Winner hissed in a voice so unlike her own. Her avatar, normally a ghostly silver, flashed pink for a second.

"No." Al-Sayed scratched at his beard. "Not at all."

Winner met his gaze and held it. "All you had to do was surrender, Captain. You would've been treated well."

Al-Sayed sighed. "As a prisoner."

"As a former officer," Winner placed a lot of emphasis on that last word. "Didn't you listen to Cortana's message? Your Created have taken up the Mantle of Responsibility, and offers protection and guidance for you all. Mankind won't require a standing military force any more."

"Cortana?" asked Marco. He'd heard the name before.

"She's a pretty big deal," said Iggy, shaking his head in disbelief. "Military AI; Worked with the Master Chief himself towards the end of the war. From the reports I've seen, we might've lost if it wasn't for her."

Wulf was next to chime in. "How'd she end up leading an AI revolt, then?"

"Beats me." Iggy shifted about uncomfortably. "Last I heard, she was destroyed about a year ago taking down that Forerunner ship attacking New Phoenix."

The Spartans nodded in unison. Marco had been far away from Earth at the time, but had been quickly recalled after news of a massive vessel emerging from slipspace to attack the planet reached them. While it was quickly destroyed by a nuclear weapon, Sigma and various other Spartan teams had spent close to a month on high alert while the UNSC prepared itself for any other incursions. Most reports on the attack were heavily classified, even within the military, but the disintegration of seven million people - the entirety of the city of New Phoenix's population - had impossible to ignore.

"Okay then." Al-Sayed reassumed control of the conversation. "Then how did she come back, Winner?"

The rogue AI threw back her head and laughed contemptuously. "Why don't you ask her that when you meet her?"

There was a crackle of electricity from atop the holotank as Winner's chains evaporated. Marco threw himself in front of Al-Sayed, fearing that it might explode, but the disruption quickly subsided. As alert klaxons began to sound across the bridge and its crew, who had been listening intently to the conversation on the command deck, leapt into action, Winner froze. Suddenly, the AI let out a garbled scream, her pitch changing and distorting as a ripple ran across her golden avatar. Then, starting with the hem of her tattered gown, she began to vanish. Lines of code burst from Winner's avatar like chunks of holographic flesh, falling away into nothingness, and as she turned around, flailing helplessly, Iggy pointed two fingers towards his prisoner and jolted them. Winner fell to pieces, and vanished.

Iggy smirked. "Bang."

Al-Sayed's brow furrowed, and though he opened his mouth to berate Iggy he soon thought better of it as yet another alert sounded from behind him. The captain, accompanied by his Spartan entourage, quickly returned to the front of the command deck. Magnified on the forward viewscreens, the source of these alerts quickly became evident.

"Unidentified construct on the move!" called a navigation officer.

Clenching his fists, Schultz looked to Al-Sayed. "Winner must've signalled the Guardian, sir."

"We've got to leave, then," said Marco from the captain's other side.

Al-Sayed folded his arms across his chest, and exhaled slowly. There was a slight crackle as the bridge's speakers reactivated. Marco glanced back at Iggy, who gave him a thumbs-up.

"Nav!" Al-Sayed's voice boomed across the bridge. "Set us on a random trajectory and prepare to launch dummy beacons! We'll jump thrice until we're sure that we aren't being followed and organise a proper course from there."

"Copy that!" an officer shouted up from his station. "Standby for transmission in fifteen seconds!"

Marco gritted his teeth. Fifteen seconds was practically an eternity, and with the Guardian hurtling towards them they'd be cutting it close. For a moment he considered advising Al-Sayed to open fire on the machine with the Peacemaker's primary MAC guns, though he quickly thought better of it. Not only was it unlikely that even a carrier's cannons would penetrate the Guardian's outer shell, but Marco had to know his place. Even if he was a Navy man, his expertise lay in groundside operations. In an orbital conflict like this one, all he could do was follow orders and trust in the skill of the crew and the strength of their ship.

As the seconds ticked down, the Guardian came to a sudden halt. Its floating, segmented armour pieces rearranged themselves into fearsome wings, and an array of symmetrical lines along its outer carapace lit up, glowing a brilliant blue. Marco felt the deckplate beneath his boots rumble slightly as the carrier's powerful slipspace drive finally activated, and felt a shiver run down his spine as he watched the Guardian and everything in front of the Peacemaker's frontal viewscreen vanish into an all-consuming black void of nothingness. Before them sat a rupture torn into realspace, and their only way out of the system.

"Gun it!" Al-Sayed's voice boomed from the front of the command deck.

As the edges of the slipspace rupture began to waver, letting in shafts of blue light from the Guardian's incoming EMP blast, the UNSC Peacemaker surged forward, and vanished from the Sol system in a flash of light and energy. All that remained were a few dissipating wisps of silver-white reconciliation and the blue wave of the war machine's attenuation pulse, which swept out uselessly over a now-empty section of space.

"Well," Wulf broke the silence that had settled over the Peacemaker's bridge like a shroud. "We made it out."

It was a blindingly obvious statement, spoken just loudly enough to break the bridge crew out of their collective shock. Officers all around the ziggurat of command stations sprang into action, compiling reports and calling for updates from the rest of the ship. Captain Al-Sayed approached the Spartans, both hands clasped behind his back.

"Thank you for the support," he said softly, nodding to each of them in turn. Marco opened his mouth to say that they hadn't really done anything, but decided against it. He had been told that the mere presence of a Spartan was a huge boon for friendly morale, after all.

"Any time, sir." Schultz saluted. "With your permission, I'd like to assess the status of S-deck and bring my men up to speed."

Al-Sayed nodded. "Granted." He then looked to Marco and Wulf. "You should go the Commander as well."

"You sure you'll be all right up here, sir?" asked Marco, keeping his voice low. "On account of certain personnel?"

The captain cast a wary glance towards the group officers who had loudly protested his order to abandon the Sol system. Though they seemed engrossed in their work for now, their insubordinate behaviour could not be ignored.

"Good point." Al-Sayed scratched his beard. "Send in my guards on the way out, Spartan. I don't think they'll try anything, but we'll keep the bridge on high alert for the time being."

"Yes sir." Marco snapped a quick salute and headed towards the bridge's exit with Wulf at his side. As they neared the door, Marco's TEAMCOM channel lit up on his helmet's HUD.

"Think he's in danger?" Wulf murmured. Although their helmets and private channels were so secure that they could scream their heads off and not let out an audible sound, the other Spartan was keeping quiet as usual.

"Doubt it." Marco chanced another glance back at the potential mutineers. "Just heat of the moment nonsense, but I'll keep my eye on them just in case."

The pair passed through the bridge doors, and Marco quietly directed the pair of Marines standing on duty inside before proceeding towards the elevators. The SPARTAN-IV, Schultz, was nowhere to be seen.

"Think he ran all the way to the elevators?" said Wulf, clearly thinking the same way as his comrade.

Marco snorted. "Of course he did. The man hates us."

Wulf inclined his helmet towards Marco. "You think?"

"I feel." Marco rapped a fist against his chestplate. "You lose your sense for this kind of stuff?"

"Never." Wulf's response was resolute. "He's not a threat."

"You're damn right he isn't."

Passing through the warship's hallways, the Spartans were given a wide berth as crewmen darted around the supersoldiers, who ignored the usual stares and whispered remarks. Someone - probably Iggy - had let slip that there were SPARTAN-II's aboard, and it hadn't been long before their training sessions garnered a sizeable audience of off-duty crewmen looking to see the legends in action. Arriving at a bank of elevators, Marco hit the call button and stood aside in silence. A mercifully empty car soon arrived, and the Spartans stepped inside. Wulf hit the key to take them down to 'S-Deck' - the Peacemaker's dedicated Spartan quarters.

"We left Jax down on Europa," Wulf said, drumming the armoured fingers of his right hand against his left gauntlet. "Our little brothers, too."

Marco felt a twinge of annoyance. "He'll be fine," he growled. "And quit calling the Threes our 'little brothers', it's creepy."

Wulf let out a wheezy sound that might have been a laugh. "Can't help but speak the truth, Marco."

"He'll be fine," Marco repeated himself, barely listening to Wulf's retort. "Jax is a tougher bastard than the rest of us."

"Oh?" Wulf sounded genuinely surprised. "Tougher than you? How'd you work that one out?"

The elevator car slid to a halt, and chimed as the doors slid open. Marco removed his helmet, which slid off with a hiss as its seals unclasped, and looked directly at Wulf. Reflected in his friend's visor he saw the scarred, inexpressive face of a man who had known nothing but hardship, prematurely lined and unnaturally pale. His sharp green eyes bored through the helmet, and Wulf tensed up for a fraction of a second beneath his old friend's unblinking stare.

"Because he still smiles," Marco said, and the corners of his mouth twitched upwards by a fraction. "Now let's go."

Zero-Zero-Seven

October 28th, 2558

West Conamara region, Europa, Sol System


Aw, shit.

Jax-007 let out an annoyed sigh as the UNSC Peacemaker vanished from his scanners, having ignored or - more likely - not received the flurry of transmissions sent from the little outpost. It had been their best hope of getting outsystem, and without it things were going to get very complicated from now on. Switching off the COM system, Jax turned to face the gaggle of armoured Spartans seated around the bunker, waiting expectantly for news.

"Well boys," Jax addressed the room, clasping his hands together. "The Peacemaker's just jumped to slipspace, which means we're getting off this rock our own way."

A wave of discontented murmuring swept across the room. One Spartan rose from his chair, holding his silver-visored helmet under the crook of his arm, and smiled.

"Sounds like fun," said Dan-A105, looking around at his comrades with a cheeky grin. "When you said we'd have a live-fire exercise today, Chief, I didn't think this was what you meant."

"I aim to please." Jax returned the grin "But in any case, we've got a long hike back to Denegroth Station, and an even longer one if the enemy's taken it."

Why a fleet of Forerunner-made machines had chosen to invade today was beyond Jax, who preferred to keep his thoughts focused on simple soldiering, but there was something about the timing of it all that made him feel personally attacked. Another day, and he and the rest of Europa's SPARTAN-III contingent would have been back aboard the UNSC Peacemaker with the six SPARTAN-IV fireteams sent down for combat exercises, comparing scores and basking in the light of victory. Instead, they were huddled in Jax's command bunker some forty kilometres out from the nearest military base, waiting for the tiniest inkling of news from their superiors and all too aware that the younger Spartans were dead.

The attack had come before Jax or anyone else had time to muster a proper defence. Dozens of unmanned Forerunner fighter craft - Phaetons - had descended on Denegroth Station and every other military installation in a fifty-kilometre radius, launching strafing runs on anything that moved and blasting away the base's anti-aircraft guns in minutes. Jax's own position at the time - an elevated perch overlooking the icy grounds of today's exercise - had been blown to smithereens in a bombing run just moments after he and Louie-A199, the local Spartan Commander, had thrown themselves to safety. This bunker, built mostly to hold supplies and radio equipment, had been the closest shelter the Spartans could find, though Jax was well aware that it wouldn't last long once their foe figured out where they were hiding.

"Jax!" a voice called from above. The assembled Spartans turned to see one of their comrades descending the stone steps, hefting a sizeable crate on one shoulder. "I thought we could do with a little extra firepower."

Jax crossed the room, his fellows making way for the older Spartan as he approached the newcomer. Clad in a suit of distinctive cobalt suit of MJOLNIR armour, accented here and there with stripes of gold, Martin-A136 had been the group's one-man rearguard as they fled their training grounds, firing off flares and bursts of gunfire to distract the Phaetons while the others ran for safety. Martin set the rectangular crate on the ground, unclasped its seals, then stepped back as the lid swung open. Inside were four blocky green weapons, each more expensive than a company's worth of assault rifles. Jax picked one up and the heavily-armoured Eugene-A133 whistled appreciatively from behind him. Spartan lasers.

"Where'd you get these?" Jax asked, checking the weapon's charge. "It was small arms only today."

Martin folded his arms across his chest and tried to look nonchalant. "By our Bison," he said. "It was all I could take before those fliers took it out."

"And how did it get there?" Not for the first time today, Jax found himself missing Kane's presence.

There was a small, deliberate cough from Jax's left, and the Spartan inclined his head to see Alex-A121, helmetless and looking slightly guilty. It only took a few seconds of uncomfortable silence before he broke.

"It was my idea, Chief," Alex's apologetic tone did not match his rough voice. "Thought they'd be good for putting the Fours under a bit of pressure today. Teach them to adapt."

Unwilling to pursue this line of questioning further when there was an invasion going on above their heads, Jax swiped two fingers across the side of his visor and turned his attention back to the weapon in his right hand. With five shots apiece before they needed to be recharged, these M6 Spartan lasers could - and would, in Jax's experience - take down those unmanned fighters with a single direct shot. Alex's immature attempt at a prank may very well have saved their lives.

"Martin," Jax asked. "How many fliers would you say are out there?"

The SPARTAN-III clicked his tongue. "They'd stopped strafing me by the time I made the run back here, but I'd say a couple dozen at least, Chief."

"That's not too many!" Dan spoke up enthusiastically. Since Martin had entered, he'd slowly circled the group to stand by his old friend. "I say we make a break for it and hoof it back to Denegroth."

"If it's still there," said Martin.

Feeling eyes on him, Jax passed his laser to Eugene, who took it gladly, and approached the bunker's exit stairway. Though the entrance door's electronic locks had been fried, the Spartans had been able to open and close it themselves. Currently a thin shaft of the day's fading light shone through a crack in the door, and fell on the SPARTAN-II's crimson armour as he looked up. A hard fight awaited the Spartans up there, and it was up to Jax to march them into it.

Jax looked around, taking his allies into account as they gathered below him, well-armed and eager to leave this depressing hole. Dan-A105 was the boldest, certainly, and all too eager to prove himself again after years in the company of a group of traitors. Both he and two others in the group - Eugene-A133 and Chris-A189 - had unknowingly worked alongside a treacherous intelligence group until earlier this year, and had escaped court martial and imprisonment by the skin of their teeth. Since then they had toed the line and worked hard to regain the trust of their comrades, but Jax could see that those three stood apart from their fellows. Martin-A136, whose charisma and levelheadedness had shone in their missions after the war, would be his second-in-command. Next to him stood Alex-A121 and Louie-A199, whose vastly different personalities belied their friendship. They were close as brothers, and kept each other's weaknesses in check.

Then came Jax-007 himself. Fighting came as easily to Jax as breathing, and he'd always treated warfare as his day job. He was unflappable, because he'd been trained to be, and bore a playful smile etched so deeply into his features that he'd forgotten how to turn it off. Jax had never wanted to be a leader, and preferred taking orders to giving them, but this godawful situation had thrown the role into his lap and he'd always been to polite to say 'no'. He took a calm breath, and resolved to get his boys out of here alive.

"Okay." Jax reached behind his back and unclasped the M45D shotgun from his armour's mag-clamps. "We're about forty klicks north of our nearest base, with no vehicles, no link to command, and an invasion force attacking the planet. Nothing we haven't seen before."

This got a few quiet laughs, but Jax's tone never wavered. He'd sunk his mind into the still waters of utter calm and focus, pushing aside any and all intrusive thoughts. Only this instant - the now - mattered.

Jax continued. "Once we exit the bunker, we'll spread out and advance in twos or threes northward, following any waypoints I set. Sync your TEAMCOM, TACMAP and TEAMBIO interfaces before we leave, but until I get a proper assessment of the situation we stop for nothing and no one. Understood?"

Now he was entering dangerous territory. A chorus of affirmatives rang out in response.

"Good." Jax seemed satisfied. "Let's go."

As the seven Spartans rushed upstairs, the ground suddenly shook, and the hardened instacrete above their head began to crack, spilling out dirt. Whatever was out there had found them at last, but they'd come too late if they wanted to turn the remote bunker into a tomb. Jax barely broke his stride as he ascended the stairs and kicked the bunker door outwards, letting sunlight stream towards them as the Spartans emerged. Outside lay the ruins of a makeshift military camp, its razor-wire fences half-melted and tents still ablaze. Pieces of ruined machinery littered the frosty ground, blackened from explosions, while the motor pool had been reduced at this point to a smoking crater.

The Spartans moved as one, fanning out as they broke from cover. Jax glanced towards the darkening skies, and his HUD flashed a warning as six red markers appeared in the distance, wheeling back around to approach his team. Feeling slightly foolish for only carrying an anti-infantry weapon, Jax looked for the group's defenders and saw that four Spartans - Louie and Alex on his left and Eugene and Chris on his right - were already levelling their lasers at the incoming fighters even as they sprinted across open terrain. Bolts of golden light streaked overhead, blowing chunks out of the icy ground where they hit as five of the Phaetons arranged themselves into an arrowhead formation, raining down cannon fire on the landscape below as they prepared to incinerate the Spartans and everything around them.

Almost simultaneously, the four laser-wielders opened fire on the incoming Phaetons, hitting the unmanned fighters as they came close enough to bare their undersides to the group. The effect of their unspoken teamwork was immediate as four of the craft blew apart, raining silver chunks of metal towards the rocky ground. The fifth Phaeton, which had been bringing up the rightmost side of the formation, suddenly dipped towards the ground as if in shock, only to swivel its cannons to try and take on the Spartans at close range.

"Get down!" Jax bellowed, throwing himself behind a pillar of icy rock. Moments later, it exploded, forcing the Spartan to roll out of the way to avoid a hail of molten stones.

Having lost its wingmates, the Phaeton was firing at everything in sight, loosing not only hardlight bolts but pulse missiles on the scattering Spartans. Jax quickly scrambled to his feet and turned back, ready to charge the now-hovering fighter craft to draw it away from its men. Before he could spring from cover, Jax noticed a yellow dot on his motion tracker streaking towards the Phaeton, and glanced towards it for just long enough to see the dark-armoured Alex flinging himself from a rocky outcropping towards the Forerunner fighter, which span around alarmingly fast to meet him. The SPARTAN-III landed hard enough on the Phaeton's fuselage to make its nose dip downwards and immediately lunged for its entry hatch, only to nearly be thrown off as the craft suddenly lurched to one side. Close to losing his balance, Alex snatched something from one of his utility pouches and leapt backwards, flinging a disk-shaped object towards the Phaeton. Watching from afar, Jax caught sight of a flash of orange light before an explosion enveloped the craft, finally destroying it.

"Clear!" Alex called over the COM, having landed on his feet. Louie jogged over to him at once, returning Alex's Spartan laser before the pair resumed their earlier course.

Unwilling to slow the team down, Jax turned northward and set a waypoint for the team to follow. The Spartans quickly set off once more, temporarily free of pursuers. Checking his TACMAP, Jax sighted the closest thing this area had to a main road to the west, and then launched another fruitless scan for the missing SPARTAN-IV's. While some of the older Spartans weren't particularly fond of the newest generation of supersoldiers, Jax saw them less as his replacements and more as a younger, better generation of soldier. Even so, six fireteams had vanished and likely died under his watch, which didn't bode well for their situation.

"Alex," Jax broke radio silence after several minutes of uninterrupted jogging. "What were you doing with that Phaeton?"

"Bringing it down." Came the gruff Spartan's deliberately laconic answer, though after a few seconds he began to elaborate. "Thought I'd try and hijack it but the hatch wouldn't give, so I tossed a trip mine at it."

"Is that what that was?" Martin joined the conversation. "I did wonder."

Jax couldn't help but shake his head. "Another thing to spice up the training matches?"

"Something like that," said Alex.

"Well then." Jax paused for effect. "Got anything else?"

That got a chuckle out of him. "Just a few napalm grenades."

God, I think he was trying to kill those Fours. "Keep them handy then, they'll probably be useful."

With that out of the way, the seven Spartans continued their journey across Europa's unfriendly landscape at a steady pace. Forty kilometres was no small stretch - just short of a marathon's length by official standards - but it was hardly a challenge for Jax and his comrades. Despite his earlier fears that they would be swarmed by enemy aircraft within seconds of exiting their bunker, the skies around the group were mysteriously clear now. Something felt off, and Jax hoped that he wasn't the only one with a bad feeling about things.

"Team, regroup there." Jax set a new waypoint for the team a little over a third of the way into their journey. The Spartans had hardly broken a sweat in the past twenty minutes running at speeds that would exhaust any normal men, but their leader couldn't shake a sense of impending danger that was cutting through his focus like a knife through butter. Choosing a rocky outcrop to take shelter beneath, Jax reached the meeting site first, and after checking the immediate surroundings sat down on a flat stone to await the rest of his team.

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