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Terminal.png This article, Insubordinate, was written by Ahalosniper. Please do not edit this fiction without the writer's permission.
2332 Hours March 8th, 2558 (Military Calendar)/
Troop Bay, Pelican Bravo 029; en route to Sub-vessel 7, in orbit over Stavros, Frontier Space

Even missing the mass of a hole torn from its breastplate, the MJOLNIR suit was heavy enough to anchor the corpse to the Pelican's floor as the dropship rattled free of Stavros' atmosphere. Glowing in the troop compartment's dim light, the pristine white of its titanium plates silhouetted the lithe figure they'd failed to protect, locked in rigor mortis from dexterous hands to athletic legs. Everywhere but the chest, where carbon blackened the twisted steel around a crater of roasted flesh, as if a hot scoop had gouged out the torso.

The nightmare of viscera was a grotesque contrast to its angular titanium frame, and to the unmarred, pasty skin of the face a helmet—since removed—had shielded in the moment of her death. The fringe of her snowy, close-cropped hair hung almost low enough to veil the lidded eyes, black lashes meshed to tie them closed. Her wan lips had often pursed when they'd called her Snow White. Their contrast with her gruesome wound could only further grieve the boy who'd loved her, by her side in one of the jumpseats lining the bulkhead, entwining his memory of her perfect face with mortal disfigurement. He sat hunched with her helmet on his knees, the tears he'd poured over its silver visor no more than salt trails now.

Kodiak sat across the narrow compartment, shaking with the Pelican's quakes. Everything they'd said in training ran circles in his head. Spartans never died. Spartans never died. So what the hell was this? He was their team leader. He was responsible. And he'd been two klicks away when two of his team had...

Dyne looked up at last as the Pelican's ride smoothed out into vacuum. Even in the dark, Kodiak's augmented eyes could make out the swell of his best friend's eyelids, flush from swollen tear ducts. Grief had stripped the constant cheer from his face.

"What happens now?" he asked, as if depending on the answer for a blueprint to life forward.

Kodiak was lost for even an adequate response. "I don't know."

Dyne's gaze dropped again to the mirrored visor. "They're going to want her back."

"There's no family to return her body to." he objected. "Even if there were, S-III is still classified. We'll probably oversee the burial ourselves once—"

"I'm talking about Amber."

He'd known. Machete was a four-man Fireteam, and only three were coming back. Only two alive—because of the fourth. But with Morgan's body on the deck between them, he didn't want to think about what would come next. He couldn't stand to.

When he didn't answer, Dyne's inflamed eyes fell back to Morgan's cold features. "We lost a friend today. I know it's her fault, but... I don't want to lose another."

Kodiak didn't either. But whatever they wanted, he couldn't see a way it wouldn't end up happening.


1008 Hours March 9th, 2558 (Military Calendar)/
Corridor B16, outside Briefing Room 4, Sub-vessel 7, in orbit over Stavros, Frontier Space

Erin Coney's night had dragged on so long even the patter of her shoes became a soft rhythm, lulling her long, black lashes lower as she paced the empty corridor. Catching them in the act, she trained her eyes on the next approaching ceiling light to burn the association with day and wakefulness into her retinas. Too much could fall behind if she allowed herself the luxury of exhaustion, let alone rest.

As soon as the shock of the Stavros operation going wrong had worn off, she'd run ragged. As the mission's handler, there'd been so much to document, verify, file, and authorize for the inevitable UNSC investigation. And as the operative who for years had interceded on Team Machete's behalf—falsifying military records to keep the young Spartan-IIIs from becoming the pawns of some ambitious ONI ingrate—so much to erase, edit, and gather for blackmailing silence from those involved. All to fit a cover story invented on the spot, all without the notice of the powers that be by sweeping everything under the rug before the investigation began. Nothing like penciling time in on her list of enemies, right under the nightmare of bureaucratic malevolence that was ONI.

Neither she nor the young Spartans of Machete should have been involved with the UNSC Infinity and its operations⁠; officially, they weren't supposed to be anywhere at all. As members of Gamma Company, the last class of Spartans illicitly recruited as children by the UNSC, Machete should all have been retired, living out full lives to make up for the terrible mistake committed in taking them—or secretly under the ONI's direct control—carrying out exactly missions so many resources had been spent preparing them for, on behalf of a department too powerful and inscrutable to hold accountable. Their involvement in a mission entailing a Spartan casualty—one inflicted by another Spartan, no less—risked shedding light on figures who very much disliked their dark disturbed.

And as for Erin herself, the life imprisonment for so many counts of falsifying military records and appropriation of classified assets would be a slap on the wrist compared to the real fate awaiting her if they were discovered. She'd played the role of weary, coffee-subsisting mission handler long enough to make it comfortable, to really live the daily rituals of finding the comfortable adjustment of her headset and making sarcastic banter with the captain while waiting for the next order to come down. Sometimes, she could almost allow herself to forget despite having biologically just half a dozen years on the captain, she'd been born half a century before, and spent most of that time between long intervals in cryo-sleep undertaking wet work that would've made an upright, noble Navy officer's uniform crawl.

Contrary to the service record she'd fabricated with the rest of her identity, for most of her life Erin had been a spook, an agent in the myriad shadow-wars for power and position within the Office of Naval Intelligence—one of the best, in fact. And getting out of it alive had made enemies of practically every power-that-be under its veil of secrecy. Her cover identity had been as carefully tailored as any she'd used for infiltration, back when she crumbled the anthill empires of over-ambitious division heads practically for her patron over-ambitious officer's pleasure, but no cover could withstand the scrutiny a Spartan desertion would bring down. If all—if any of—those enemies learned what corner of the galaxy she'd hidden in, a quick assassination, or made a living example of with some everlasting torture devised by the sick mind of a pet scientist with nothing better to do, were some of the rosier visions of the future prodding Erin further to haste.

One angle had sprung to mind as soon as Erin knew she had a coverup to arrange: Fireteam Machete hadn't existed in the first place, ergo no Spartan casualty had occurred at all. The paper trail would be easy: most of the reports were hers to file anyway, and those outside her control were easy to intercept and redact. Send a few replies in ONI's name swearing those aware of the incident to secrecy on pain of treason, and there would be no recordings for the investigators to find. The ONI personnel already involved with the Stavros mission were a bit trickier; blackmailing them was the easy option, but a clumsy method and not always successful—peoples' righteous instinct to come clean when threatened could be frustratingly unpredictable—apart from which she hadn't any convenient dirt on hand. Thus, she'd been up overnight arranging to conduct all the operation's debriefings herself, after which she could falsify what she needed and reassign the personnel before an ONI investigatory team's ship had time to arrive through slipspace. For a guilty moment, she recalled the satisfaction a well-orchestrated coverup could afford.

With that concluded, she could safely doctor Machete's own transfer orders and reassign them far from the scene of the crime. Perhaps off the UNSC Infinity altogether. And then...

And then figure out what to do next.

Kodiak and Dyne would have grieving to do, and so would Erin. Half the team... Morgana—the huffing little candidate she'd watched grow into a consummate soldier and play at her first brushes with a fuller life through an adorably awkward romance—dead, and all contact with Amber lost from that moment on. It hadn't been intentional, Erin was certain of that. The two had been friends practically their whole young lives. To just run away had to mean she was scared, and the boys would want to find her. Authorizing an assignment to search for her under some pretense or getting out from under Spartan Corps entirely would be difficult, but nothing Erin couldn't manage with time. She'd sworn to those who trusted her most, and to herself besides, to look out for them—as much as she could while routinely sending them up against alien soldiers. If she'd failed one, she was determined not to fail another, as dire the straits as Amber had put them all in.

The door to the briefing room she'd set aside neared, an inlaid screen reading 'occupied'. Erin stopped only a moment, enough to glance down at the data pad in her hand and see herself reflected in the glass. Black fatigues tight around a figure she'd maintained despite the desk job, blue eyes alert in spite of the dark circles beneath, and high, slender brows reaching from a furrow at their center to her middle-parted bangs. They'd lost their raven sheen within the past few years. Months of cryogenic sleep at a time between quick assassinations in her old life had delayed, not slowed, her aging, she supposed. She brushed them back and allowed for one deep breath as her hand next found the door's control.

Erin stepped in as the door slid out of her way and surveyed the conference table, empty save a few of its dozen seats. On its far side sat Kodiak and Dyne, bulky MJOLNIR armor stripped down to black, diamond-weave body gloves, arms listless by their sides. Frazzled brown hair and bloodshot eyes attested to a night as restless as Erin's. They looked up from distant stares, bereft of the joy they normally radiated. From the near side, a young woman—girlish face at odds with her powerful frame, same as the boys—with a blonde bun twisted in her seat to glare green daggers at Erin. Oswynne Baines, apparently only Wynne-G327 before accepting a position in ONI, had commanded the Stavros operation, only for Amber to humiliate and leave her helpless when the fiasco began. Her evident fury made her an obstacle, but one Erin could deal with. And far at the head of the table sat...

Erin's lungs tightened painfully around the ice her breath became.

The chair had been drawn away, making room for a short-backed wheelchair. In it sat a woman so withered even the cotton of her black uniform should have pinned her down, yet it bent as if by force of will to allow her elbows on the table and veined claws to steeple before her soured face. With her head leaned forward, her cold gaze lurked beneath the last white strands of a pinched brow, her envious fury more alive than the near-centenarian body sustaining it could hope to be. Her decrepit form embodied every mythic figure ever to chase immortality too far.

"Ah, Lieutenant." said retired Admiral Margaret Parangosky. "Have a seat."

Erin hesitated, jaw slack along with every other conscious muscle. She couldn't be here. It was impossible, they were beyond even the frontier, and the operation had only gone wrong twelve hours ago. No ship could have made the slipspace jump from human space to them in anything less than a month. If she was here, every option and contingency gathered on the data pad in her hand had been dreamed up too late to help anything.

The door clicked shut behind her. No, Erin realized. Of course she could. Erin knew that better than anyone. Meekly, she walked to sit at the opposite end of the table, setting the useless tablet aside.

Parangosky's crinkled lips, so often in past pulled far below her nose in discontent, hosted an eerie smile as they rose above her meshed fingers. "Well then, with the debriefings over, let's sum up now that we're all here. Twenty-four hours ago, Agent Baines commanded a platoon dispatched from this vessel to Stavros' surface, with the objective of securing a Forerunner site pinpointed by intelligence gathered on Requiem. Kodiak's Fireteam Machete was part of this unit. Upon arrival, our force discovered the site was occupied by the Covenant."

"Covenant civilians." Dyne spat, eyes not leaving the table. Baines fixed a stony look on him.

"Covenant Loyalists, whose warrior caste could have returned at any time, which they in fact did." Parangosky continued. "While the rest of the unit engaged them to delay, Lieutenant Baines and SPARTAN-G330 entered the structure to recover any useful intelligence while it remained accessible to us. What they found was more valuable than anyone at HIGHCOM could've imagined: the location of a Forerunner warship, decommissioned and prepared for long-term storage, meaning it could be reactivated and salvaged. I don't need to spell out what a working example of a galaxy-spanning civilization's military technology could mean for UNSC research and development projects.

The last of her dwindling smile vanished. "Or what it could mean to Jul 'Mdama's Covenant. Which is why Agent Baines made the prudent decision to call for orbital support, and deny the enemy any remaining assets within the site after withdrawal. Which is when SPARTAN-G330 made the unfortunate decision to commit insubordination, and incapacitated her superior with no more trouble than she might a third grader."

Oswynne, who'd brightened slightly at the ex-admiral's validation, cast her eyes down in shame as she realized she too was a target of Parangosky's pleasantly-veiled ire.

No longer under Baines' glare, Kodiak opened his mouth. "It isn't insubordination if the order given is unlawful, ma'am. Any strike high-yield enough to destroy a Forerunner structure would've wiped out the village around it, too, and Amber was preventing their murder. They were women and children, elderly. Innocents."

Erin winced. Kodiak's empathy was hard-wired, something that'd served him well reconciling with lost colonies and prospective allies on the frontier, but fighting the Covenant with Infinity over the last year had yet to sink into him that this was war. A war of expeditionary force-shows against gun-shy religious insurgents, but war all the same, not territorial scraps easily forgiven. Forgetting that in front of the woman who'd tasked herself with keeping the human worlds spinning through most of her lifetime was likely to get him disappeared. She could already see the biting answer, and judgements behind it, forming on Parangosky's lips and did the only thing she could to intervene.

"As aliens, they aren't subject to any UNSC-signed treaties or protections under wartime law." Erin sighed, keeping her head down. "And it's nothing they haven't already done to us a hundred times over. Some of those elderly were probably veterans."

All eyes turned to her. The boys looked between her and Parangosky, stunned, while mild surprise registered somewhere in the crow's feet around the ex-admiral's eyes. Erin didn't meet them, training instead on the discarded data pad. All that work...

How far she'd fallen. In her old life, a year's groundwork would be thrown away without second thought if it no longer served her purposes, already focused on the next contingency. Regret was wasted energy.

As Kodiak and Dyne lapsed into silence, Parangosky again assumed command of the conversation. "If that was her goal, she wanted damn hard to save them. Not only did she strike and incapacitate her superior, SPARTAN-G330 proceeded to run all the way up a mountainside to stop SPARTAN-G018 from setting up laser guidance for the strike. It was at this point G330 attacked and killed her teammate, then fled the engagement zone, shortly after which we lost all trace of her."

Erin hadn't expected putting it so succinctly to hurt. Amber killed Morgan. As if that's all there was to it.

"Which brings us to our present circumstances." Parangosky leaned back, resting her arms on her chair. "We have a STOLEN GAUNTLET scenario. A rogue Spartan is trouble enough—a stolen suit of multi-million credit armor, almost as much in genetic and physiological enhancement, a wealth of top-secret UNSC operational and training intelligence. But G330 was also present in the map room before it was destroyed. She, in fact, was the one to point out Stavros was not a destination, but an origin point. And she may remember where the map pointed. You Spartans have excellent memories, we saw to that."

Her fingers steepled once more in her lap. "We may only have days before Covenant reinforcements, allies of this little tribe, arrive to avenge their dead. We cannot allow SPARTAN-G330 to fall into their hands. This little loose end needs wrapping up before they can arrive."

Kodiak and Dyne seemed to perk up at the news, and even Wynne's contrition dropped as the whites of her eyes swelled with interest.

"Ma'am," Wynne snapped the hint of slouch from her posture. "I can put together a team within the hour and assemble—"

"That won't be necessary, Agent Baines." The old admiral broke in, voice still firm enough to interrupt Wynne mid-checklist. "I mean to deploy Fireteam Machete on this task."

"Machete?" Wynne seemed to lose her place, her whole line of thought substituted for one which made no sense. "Ma'am... their force strength has been halved, and their combat performance were among the lowest to begin with, aside from which they have personal involvement—"

"As do you, Agent." Despite her tone, Parangosky took on a friendly, admonishing expression. "Though not of your own make. Yours was the order G330 revolted against, and your presence on this mission might discourage her. I want familiar faces to draw her out."

Uncertain glances passed across the table between the young Spartans. Kodiak spoke up. "Does... that mean you want her brought back alive?"

"I'd certainly find it preferable." Parangosky sounded as if she hadn't given it much thought. "If she'd stolen or destroyed the data gathered at that site, it'd be an absolute necessity. As it stands, we have that data. Which means if there's any risk of it falling into Covenant hands..."

She leaned forward to stare very intently at Kodiak. "I expect your duty to the UNSC to come before all else. Understood?"

Kodiak looked pale, but didn't avert his gaze. "Understood, ma'am."

Erin knew what was being asked of him, and it went against everything Kodiak lived for—nothing was more important than his friends. The boy wasn't even out of his teens, keeping the pain out of his face must've been taking everything he had. She had to say something.

"Ma'am," Erin tried not to stammer. Every word she added could be her death sentence, "as a SPARTAN-III, Amber-G330 is one of the UNSC's most capable soldiers, and one of the few with the physical augmentations needed to operate its most advanced equipment. She's too valuable to consider—"

"Not as valuable as you think." Parangosky shut down her feeble protest with nothing more than a calm statement. "We have the SPARTAN-IVs now, providing us thousands of such operatives. The loss of one SPARTAN-III would be regrettable, but not to be avoided at any cost. Events like this prove, if anything, that their record is not unimpeachable."

Her gaze flicked back to the two boys. "Machete, for instance, failed to turn back the returning Covenant at the Stratos site. If they'd succeeded, perhaps we wouldn't have needed to bombard it for denial, and this meeting might never have happened. If a SPARTAN-IV team was available to undertake this mission on such short notice, they may have been opted for in your place. You're being given a chance here to make up for your team's failure, do you understand?"

Kodiak couldn't meet her gaze that time. "Yes, ma'am."

As Erin expected, speaking up had only made it worse. That was the authority Parangosky commanded. But Erin wasn't the person who could've just sat by anymore, not for them.

"Then it's decided." Parangosky announced, pretending to sound pleased. "Machete will put this matter to rest, and the—"

"No."

Surprise turned all attention to find Dyne the source of the growl. Parangosky blinked as though his chair had had the gall to speak. "I beg your pardon?"

"I won't do it." He said, holding not just her gaze, but shooting a scowl back at the ex-admiral. "Amber tried to save lives, and you want us to kill her for it? Because you're afraid she won't come crawling back and apologize for doing the right thing?"

Erin trembled in her seat. Dyne wasn't given to anger, and making a spectacle of how poorly he handled it. And he had no idea what doing so could cost him. Too terrified to speak, all she could do was will him, Stop talking—please, for once, just stop talking!

Baines slammed her palm on the table. "The right thing wasn't hers to decide! She had a duty to all the people the Covenant could hurt with that information, and she chose a handful of ruin-worshipping aliens over them. And your duty should be correcting her mistake."

"She's my sister!" Dyne half-stood as if he were about to leap at her over the table. "Did you ask us just because spooks like you get off on seeing people twitch?"

"That's enough, Dyne!" Erin found the courage—or perhaps fear—to shout, but she'd already lost control. Dyne didn't even flinch.

Kodiak stood up beside him, expression calm. "I'll go."

Dyne's next tirade died before it could begin, looking up at him in shock. "Kodiak... ?"

Parangosky, who'd waited patiently, arched a thinning eyebrow toward him. "Do you believe yourself capable of this assignment as a solo operative?"

Kodiak bit his lip. "It... might be better that way, ma'am."

Parangosky nodded appreciatively. "Very well. SPARTAN-G114 will be dispatched back to Stavros' surface via orbital insertion pod, and be briefed on the movements of current Covenant occupants during the drop. After that, locating SPARTAN-G330 will be his responsibility—at least until SPARTAN-IV reinforcements can be arranged for. Don't disappoint us, Kodiak."

Kodiak nodded stiffly in turn, and her gaze passed to the rest of them. "The armory awaits you. Agent Baines, escort SPARTAN-G217 to the brig. Dismissed."

Her mouth returning to tight-lipped scowling, Baines stood and planted herself to face Dyne, daring him to make the next move. Dyne only rolled his eyes. "I know the way."

The Spartans filed out in silence, Baines waiting to keep Dyne needlessly in front of her. Erin tried to catch their eyes, convey some kind of comfort, but couldn't break through their inward looks of anger or resignation before their backs were turned. She wanted to go after them... but knew the dismissal hadn't included her.

The door slid closed again as they slipped out of its frame, and Parangosky stared past it a moment even after the latch clicked.

"I think Halsey and Ambrose made an error with the Twos and Threes." She mused. "They propagandized them too much. Told them they'd be heroes, and now that the war's over, they find the dirty work of preserving peace distasteful."

Parangosky's fingers met again, masking her face as she always did when deep in thought, stretching the webbings between with more stretch than they had left. "People like that are dangerous. They find some hill they think is worth dying on, and wheedle you with lofty ideals until you're worn down enough to martyr yourself beside them."

Peace. That was a hell of a thing for her to call the state of the galaxy. Every side lashing out at whatever they perceived as a threat, satisfied with nothing less than becoming the sole unassailable power in the universe. Erin knew what every side had at stake, that they didn't have the luxury of risking anything but the safest bet... but when so little was willing to aspire to more, didn't that make it that much more precious? She said, almost without meaning to, "Maybe what they find really is worth it."

"Nothing is worth dying for." Conviction sharpened the ex-admiral's tone. "Die for one hill, and you're not there to defend the next. I never thought you were one to miss the forest for the trees."

Taking in her full measure as if for the first time, Parangosky leaned into the padded back of her chair. "Erin this time, wasn't it? I like it. Simple, nondescript. Banal."

Erin could only nod, trying to suppress the surge of unpleasant thoughts about every possibility Parangosky could sentence her to, and the uncertainty of which was going to play out. She almost overlooked the empty beat where her former patron expected a reply.

"You know, when most of my agents fall into displeasure," the ex-admiral continued, hastening as though she'd never meant to pause, "they squirrel away assets, and either launch their own campaigns and projects to try and rival everything I made of ONI, or they sell it all off to live in luxury on stolen taxpayer dollars. It makes them easier to find. Not you, though. Why is that?"

"You taught me to travel light." Erin shrugged. "I did the finding of some of those agents for you, remember?"

"Oh, certainly. Hard to forget someone who could find so well as that." There was something in the creases of her polite smile Erin had trouble placing. Amusement at the euphemism? "But I don't think it was fear keeping your hand out of the cookie jar. You didn't find some bolthole on the edge of the universe. You went back into service, and on a lowly expeditionary ship. So instead of all the things you could've done, seizing positions of power or taking the credits and running, you chose to keep giving of yourself in the service. I'm almost impressed."

"I... " Erin wouldn't have called that the truth. If anything, she'd gone so far from centers of power to keep her promises, sparing Machete from prying eyes and grasping clutches. She was lost for how Parangosky could have seen it that way. So much of her past was filled with unconscionable deeds, skips in her step over the cleanliness of her latest assassination, that after leaving ONI's graces she never dared look back to see how anything since reflected on her. Surely there was some trap in it? "I wasn't totally empty-handed. I still had contacts, favors I could call in. I had enough of an ear open to stay out of the way."

"I wouldn't be so eager to indulge false modesty." Parangosky's smile widened. "That scrap of integrity's the only reason I'm keeping you alive. You could have done a lot more for the human race with all the talents I gave you, and you could still point fingers at me for a lot that should stay in the dark, so have no illusions about where this ends."

Keeping, she said. Present participle. Ongoing, but open to change. Parangosky had a knack for leaving her opponents in suspense even when making decisive moves. It was one reason she'd stayed on top of ONI's infighting for half a century. Still, something else caught Erin's ear.

"You're keeping me alive? Not Osman, or whatever active-duty officer should be on this case?"

"You know I only speak for what those I put in power will decide." The ex-admiral chided, but her eyes became distant. "Or would decide, anyway. You're one of my loose ends, Erin, and there are others. I can't keep them all off Osman's shoulders—shouldn't, matter of fact—but some go back as far as our time. Before the Covenant. Dealing with them in today's galaxy would only be a distraction for her, and those she can't afford. I need them tied up before I'm gone. And you and your misfiled Spartans will do the tying, then go quietly back in your box until the next, because it will keep you useful for as long as the work lasts."

So that would be the shape of her purgatory. A knife, wielded until it was too blunt to be anything but disposed of. Not altogether much different from her life in ONI before, except then she'd willingly gone into cryostasis between missions to keep herself from dulling. Exactly the life she'd tried so hard to put distance from, and now the Spartans she hadn't already failed were tied back in with her. The irony of it tugged a cynical smile from one corner of her mouth. "Still keeping secrets from your protégés, even now that one's succeeded you. Some things never change."

"I didn't keep any from you."

Erin's gaze snapped up, for all her dread needing to see the contemptuous lie in Parangosky's face... and found none. She was serious as she'd ever been when handing Erin her next target. She couldn't begin to form a reply.

"There were things you didn't need to bother with, but nothing I'd have kept if you asked. You helped me take power in ONI in the first place. I trusted you completely." The former admiral, stuff of junior officers' nightmares, seemed small now even for her wheelchair. It sounded like something she'd wanted to say for a long time, and now that it was finally out, there was less in her. "That was my first mistake. When I thought you'd started keeping things from me, all the damage it could've done me if you turned, there was a personal sting to it. I let that affect my judgement."

It wasn't every day the queen of the spooks made a concession like that. Much less one that might have meant a very different life for Erin, had things been different so long ago. Erin averted her eyes, as if not looking would spare them both some pride. "I didn't, you know."

"I know. You did let one potentially crippling security risk live because you wanted to feel like you weren't so bad, letting one get away for once. But a lot of blood's gone under the bridge since then."

Parangosky deeply inhaled, enough for Erin to notice a faint wheeze. "I did think you would succeed me, once. You were smart, and didn't balk at what we had to do to take control. But just one time, you had to play the heroine. And it cost you everything you'd worked for. It wasn't worth it to you. It couldn't have been..."

Then the admiral added two words Erin would never have thought to hear, "was it?"

There was something in those two words. Like cards tipped just a little too far, letting Erin see everything her former mentor held. Even as a young woman, Parangosky had been determined to hold the whole UNSC together—by herself, if necessary—and carrying such a weight could never allow herself to choose a risk like the one Erin had taken. Not even once, no matter how much she wished she could. Now she faced someone who had made that choice, and curiosity ate at her like flames. It took Erin a long moment to answer.

"Maybe not, all told." Erin admitted. A life at the right hand of ONI's throne, its eventual succession—even usurpation, if she found it taking longer than she wanted—drifted like a wisp before her eyes. A life so far removed from the one she'd lived. From Kodiak's empathy, and Dyne's humor. From Morgan's guilty enjoyment of a more regular life. From the love of one Marine sergeant. "But there were good things I found because of it. Things I wouldn't otherwise have had."

If Erin had really seen the excess shine in the former admiral's she thought she saw, it might've made a cruel joke. "I'm happy for you." Parangosky said, sliding a briefing packet onto the table. "It means you'll have something to hold onto for what comes next."


1102 Hours March 9th, 2558 (Military Calendar)/
Armory, Sub-vessel 7, in orbit over Stavros, Frontier Space

Multi-jointed armatures extended from the gantry frame all around him, twisting home the last bolt in Kodiak's MJOLNIR gauntlet. Then they retracted, allowing him freedom of movement again. With the debriefing and a restless night between, he felt as if he'd barely taken the titanium plates off before the white and orange of his suit locked around him again.

Sturdy as it had to be, the process of donning older Powered Assault Armor generations could take up to a few hours without the right tools. The BROKKR gantry had cut that down to a few minutes, but it still wasn't as fast as the prototypes Kodiak and Dyne had cobbled together with all their idle time serving on the Themistocles, a year before the first mainline production plans were finalized. The new gantries didn't need as much maintenance... didn't seem to want it. They stowed and locked away components for inspection once the Spartan was gone, as if forbidding the wearer from spending time with the UNSC's property. He'd spent a lot of time with his teammates getting to know his own Close-Quarters Combat armor.

Three other gantry frames stood in line under the armory's blue-white lights. In one, Dyne's hexagonal Multi-Threat shoulder pauldrons and rounded MP helmet were arranged around the frame's main hoop like a dissected Vitruvian man. The other two stood empty. One always would be. Making sure the other wouldn't was up to him.

Movement caught his eye above the abandoned racks of battle rifles—or a lack where movement had been before. The sweeping security camera, though a status light glowed warning red, had stopped mid-turn. A footstep, one so close it had to be deliberate if he hadn't heard the others approach, made him sigh into his helmet's collar microphone, and flick on the external speaker.

"Aren't you supposed to be in the brig?"

Dyne slipped from the shadow of a gun rack to lean on its corner, hooded green eyes surveying the room aloof. "I'm supposed to be a lot of places."

Any other day, Kodiak would've been right there with him. Surliness, dragging feet, even outright insubordination weren't strangers to Team Machete when blustering superiors handed down outright stupid orders. They'd just spend the time coming up with a better plan of their own while Erin stalled, and it usually worked out. Someone else took the credit, and left Machete alone ever after.

That wasn't a luxury they had today, but somehow, Dyne didn't see it. Kodiak didn't have time to clear it up for him. He brushed past Dyne and made his way to a row of MA5B assault rifles, prying one from the rack for inspection.

"She won't come back." Dyne reminded him petulantly. "She's never believed in the higher calling of the UNSC, and she must be afraid of what ONI will do to her. They have to have enough psyche profiles on us to know that."

The rifle's bare gunmetal frame was solid, and the components seemed like they'd lined up well when the assembly line screwed them in place. "I know, Dyne."

"Then you know they want you to kill her."

Satisfied, Kodiak slung the rifle over his back until it locked to the magnetic port over his back. What did Dyne think this would change? Or was he just venting to the only person he could? "I figured that out."

"So why are you doing what they want?!" Dyne's volume spiked, voice almost cracking. Their voices had all changed when they were augmented, one more way to grow into their new bodies, and even six years later still had the odd flaw to work on. A tone filled with betrayal seemed to be one of those.

Kodiak rested his eyes on the magazine case beneath the rifles. 7.62mm, Armor Piercing. "Because it's the one chance we get to fix this. If I don't take it, then they send some SPARTAN-IV team Amber doesn't mean anything to, and they'll take her down for sure."

"Not likely." Dyne sniffed. "A SPARTAN-III's a match for any SPARTAN-IV team."

Kodiak chuckled, but not the way his friend normally made him laugh. It was a stupid boast, and arguing it would only make for a stupid argument. "Then they'll just send another. If I go, maybe I can convince her to come back, show them she's not a threat."

"And then what, let them put her in a cage?" Dyne snarled. "They won't just let her go after this, Kodiak, they'll lock her up and probably throw her to some spook's pet doctor as a rare specimen to poke at with new augment cocktails! No way she'll come back playing nice just to end up like that!"

"I know!" Kodiak's hand swept to curl a fist at his side, brushing the ammo case with enough power to send it spinning, dumping cylinders of long, pointed brass across the deck. If he'd stamped a boot, he might've dented it beneath him. Maybe he wasn't really any more grown up than Dyne.

He turned around, finding Dyne's face slack with sorrow instead of anger. His friend kept his eyes on the cartridges rolling beneath the aisles around them. In a tentative whisper, Kodiak asked, "Isn't that still better than letting them kill her? We can visit her, maybe convince them to let her out in time. There's just... nothing we can do."

Dyne lifted a hand slowly, clenching and unclenching his fingers, then gestured at him. "All these abilities, and training, and armor. To make us capable of things no one else is. So doesn't that just make it worse?"

Kodiak didn't have an answer for that. Neither of them would find any consolation here, so he could only shrug. Picking up a few intact magazines to attach at his belt while Dyne stood silently, Kodiak made his way out. And went to report for duty.

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