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Project RED CELL, better known simply as Red Cell, were a division within the Office of Naval Intelligence's Section One that operated in the latter stages of the Insurrection and the first few years of the Human-Covenant War as a covert intelligence-gathering and infiltration unit. Initially part of a military think tank designed at preventing terrorist attacks in the Inner Colonies in the early 2500s, Red Cell would locate and exploit weaknesses in the security of important civilian and military installations and occasionally staged false attacks to highlight how these places could be properly defended.
Red Cell would see a great deal of success in the 2520s, and despite some criticism for their methods were regarded as an effective force to assist counter-terrorism units. After the outbreak of the Human-Covenant War Red Cell would continue to operate without change for several years even as the Insurrection gradually died off, and had begun to incorporate new and risky strategies into their playbook by the time the Covenant attacked Sansar in 2532 and destroyed their headquarters.
Believed to have been completely wiped out during the glassing of Sansar, Red Cell were written off by ONI and soon forgotten about as all attention turned to waging war against the Covenant. However, a group of survivors led by Red Cell's new leader Derek-142 would continue to operate in secrecy for years after, deliberately refusing to contact their superiors and using their link to ONI's network via an experimental program named OVERSIGHT to covertly requisition supplies as they shadowed friendly fleets and engaged in many unsanctioned operations throughout the war. Red Cell acted alone until the war's end, recruiting new personnel from battlefields across multiple systems and falsifying records to cover all trace of their existence as time went by.
While the group went unnoticed for decades, this would begin to change as they began to engage in increasingly dangerous and illegal activities, stealing resources and killing any who would reveal their existence. While this would strain the slowly-dwindling unit as Derek-142 became increasingly tyrannical, Red Cell's final operation would involve using their resources to radically change the Office of Naval Intelligence from within and supplant its leadership in an attempt at reforming the supposedly overstretched organisation. This conspiracy would soon unravel as direct action by the UNSC's Special Forces and internal strife caused the Red Cell group to implode in mid-2558 after its failure to change ONI turned into a self-destructive attempt at widespread sabotage.
As the Insurrection against the Unified Earth Government grew bloodier in the 2490s and terrorist attacks became a near-common occurrence even in well-protected Inner Colony worlds, the Office of Naval Intelligence would form a number of think tanks to devise proper security measures and prevent further civilian casualties. While an initial mix of Smart AI and counter-terrorism experts would convene to strategize and provide counsel to the military for several years, the decision was made in 2511 to create Red Cell as an active unit under Section One.
Drawing its recruits primarily from the Marine Corps and Navy at first, the initial Red Cell group comprised of twenty-three special forces personnel, with a system of support staff and other experts based out of an ONI-run bunker on Sansar. While a more militarised world like Reach was considered for Red Cell's base, Sansar's position in the Outer Colonies and its relative remoteness would allow the group to plot and execute their infiltration missions without interference from the rest of the military. They would be provided with a number of civilian starships and a single Halberd-class Destroyer, the UNSC Kuwabara, to assist them in their subsequent missions.
Red Cell would embark on its first 'exercise' in January of 2512, with six of its members travelling to Cygnus with false identities on a civilian transport with the intention of infiltrating an important air base belonging to the UNSC Air Force. The group were not only able to smuggle several small arms past customs without being detected, but gained entry to the air base by posing as catering staff after entering through the laxly-guarded front gate. From there, they successfully gained access to a restricted area of the base meant for the testing of prototype units and even took the commanding officer hostage without raising an alarm, recording everything as they went. After planting several 'dummy' explosives by the base reactors, the six infiltrators then commandeered a Pelican using the officer's credentials and escaped without incident.
This mission would not only serve as a massive embarrassment to local UNSC forces, but proved Red Cell's worth as a capable, professional unit who could have caused irreversible damage to the base if they had indeed been Insurrectionist operatives. They would not only receive a massive increase in funds, but were then given a long list of potential targets to 'attack' in subsequent months. While not every mission was a resounding success, with Red Cell operatives occasionally being caught or getting into brief firefights with surprised security teams, their accomplishments far outpaced any failures in spite of some criticism from certain military figures who saw their actions as needlessly dangerous.
By 2525 Red Cell had garnered quite the reputation within the military community, having been responsible for preventing almost as many attacks as they had carried out. By this point its initial commander had been promoted, leaving the unit under the command of Captain Cynthia Hale, a seasoned Naval officer with years of service under NAVSPECWEP. After taking charge, Hale would petition for Red Cell's expansion and would be a major proponent in the development of Project OVERSIGHT, a massive database that would give those who possessed it near-total access to ONI's data network. Intending to use OVERSIGHT to better-prepare itself for future exercises, Red Cell would be among a handful of groups with permission to use the incredibly powerful tool once it became active.
The following year, Red Cell would receive a new recruit after a transfer under CINCONI's direct orders. This was Lieutenant Derek-142, a member of a sub-division of the secretive SPARTAN-II Program. With his origins revealed only to Hale, the supersoldier proved to be an indispensable asset for Red Cell and would soon prove his worth tenfold in subsequent operations, even managing to carry out the kidnapping of two military officials from a poorly-defended outpost on Reach itself without backup. The Spartan would quickly become Red Cell's second in command and like Hale, sought to use OVERSIGHT after it was fully developed. However, the unit's planned expansion was denied in early 2532 due to an increased focus on fighting the Covenant. To make matters worse, a set of orders soon arrived from ONI's Section Chiefs to immediately terminate the OVERSIGHT project, which had finally gone active mere weeks before.
The day before Red Cell was to cease its usage of OVERSIGHT, a large Covenant fleet arrived over Sansar and quickly destroyed its meagre defences. Unable to flee the planet aboard the Kuwabara, Red Cell's members were forced to hide within their bunker as the alien invaders ruthlessly bombarded Sansar's surface with plasma strikes before glassing most of the planet. It was during this attack that most of Red Cell's bunker collapsed, killing a number of personnel and trapping the others underground for nearly a month. Cynthia Hale and most of her command staff were also killed during the collapse, leaving Derek-142, now a Commander, in charge of Red Cell.
After waiting for the Covenant to depart from Sansar, the surviving members of Red Cell were able to load up their Destroyer and leave the planet, following the commands of the young Spartan. While protocol dictated that they were to return to UNSC-controlled space, Derek would give the order for Red Cell to continue their operations without assistance from ONI or the UNSC. While this was an act of desertion, the crew chose to obey the Spartan's orders as Red Cell officially went rogue with the last remaining OVERSIGHT program as its trump card.
Under Derek's leadership, Red Cell would begin to travel throughout the colonies, using OVERSIGHT to locate and access military bases and supply depots without arousing suspicion. The Kuwabara spent many months tailing UNSC fleets, occasionally attaching itself to larger battlegroups under the pretence of being an ONI vessel under classified orders. While they collected resources for some time, certain members of the crew would begin to have second thoughts about Derek's command, wanting to return to their families. To prevent a mutiny, the Spartan would begin engaging in risky operations to rescue UNSC personnel in the aftermath of skirmishes against the Covenant, recruiting them into the crew and slowly replacing the original members of Red Cell with these newcomers. By 2540, only Derek knew of Red Cell's original purpose, having done his best to indoctrinate those he had press-ganged aboard to either aligning with his beliefs or falsifying documents to make them believe that they had joined a deep-cover unit under orders from the Commander in Chief of Naval Intelligence.
While they remained undetected for years, Red Cell were never able to score any particularly big hits against the Covenant, though with OVERSIGHT they were able to recover lost equipment and save a number of lives, all while acting without any authority from the military. In 2543, the group had an incredible stroke of luck when they recovered a 'Smart' Artificial Intelligence from the partly-glassed colony world of Boros. The intelligence, they discovered, was actually a pair of AI sharing the same data centre; a rare combination that involved one fragmenting itself every few years while the other took control to stave off rampancy. The first, Merope, was sympathetic to the rogue unit and agreed to aid them in the plot to push Derek into a position of power within ONI and spent a year augmenting the Kuwabara's systems before she was forced to fragment. The second half of the AI, Maia, was less kind to Red Cell, and though she assisted them and refused to betray them often suggested that they turn themselves in to the military during her seven-year tenure.