|Time 21:44:93:17 (Accuracy 1/10 to that of Forerunner), sixteenth sunrise shift of the fifth month (Sanghelios Time Unit), 4th Age of Amendment (Covenant Time Unit, based on Forerunner Time Unit)
Location: Planet Sanghelios
|2350 Hours, February 27th, 2559 (UNSC Military Calendar)
"Where did you say they were?" asked Sona.
"Over here," Autel said. "By this group of rocks, Felix told me one of the Spartans saw something."
"We'll take a look around," the Ultra said. He ordered his squad to spread out, and look for anything that could be an opening. Everyone remained camouflaged, however, so the next few minutes consisted of blurs moving back and forth among the cluster of boulders. Some bodies were still present, as well as weapons and equipment scattered on the bloodied ground.
Autel knew they didn't have much time before the trial began, and decided to look for anything that could prove that they had no allegations with the Fallen. Since a great number of Sangheili had believed otherwise, he was unsure of whether his own squad did so as well, so he found someone he could trust. Sona selected some of his subordinates who he knew for a fact trusted greatly in the humans.
A low sound caught everyone's attention. It was not natural, like the scraping of stones or hooves moving on the rocks. It was the whirring of a mechanism.
"There," whispered 'Antinr, pointing at a tall but seemingly normal outcrop of boulders. It was emanating from there. The squad froze, watching as a door of the exact same colour as the surrounding rock opened, and a separatist stepped out.
The others were undoubtedly eyeing the hidden entrance, but knew that there wasn't enough time for everyone to enter undetected before it closed.
"Remain here," Autel said to Sona over the COM, and without waiting for a reply, he slipped in as the door closed behind him. The passage was dimly lit but surprisingly roomy, and snaked downward. Careful to remain as silent as he could, the Special Operations Major soon reached the other end, one that was much more illuminated than the passageway.
He must be deep underground. The air in the hallway was chilly, where even the heat of Sanghelios' climate couldn't penetrate. The corridor was musty and worn-out. It possibly once served a role in their war against the San'Shyuum long ago. And now, it might hold a more ominous purpose.
The hallway was lined with old stone doors, and Autel spotted a ladder on the far side. This underground corridor must be very old indeed. Remembering how new the door hidden in the rock cluster was, he knew the Fallen had likely repurposed this place for something else.
The closest door to the right was ajar. He heard the sound of conversation from inside the room. Silently moving inside, he saw a pair of Sangheili sitting next to a large control mechanism, and where an energy tube protruded into the ceiling. The machine's appearance was in clear contrast to the older objects placed around the room, from the hand-made tools carelessly placed on tables to the wooden chairs the guards were sitting on.
One of the Sangheili stood up. "I must go," he said. "Tell his Excellency when he returns that I have left the map fragment in his room."
"It will not make up the fact that we lost one of the other fragments to the traitors," said the other one.
With a nasty smile, the first said, "It will be of little consequence. I have heard that the humans were taken into custody by the military. It looks like they have taken the bait. It will not be long before the humans are executed. After this is finished, we can find the other fragments."
"They had already found the false transmissions in the factory," the Sangheili operating the mechanism said. "The military is thoroughly convinced that we are working with the humans." He gave a laugh, and added, "The thought of it is disdainful to me, but it does give them something to think about while we carry out our plans." He watched a ceiling-mounted camera showing the other separatist walking up the passageway. When he reached the top, the former switched to external cameras, and took no alarm as his eye didn't catch the half-dozen blurs hovering around the rocks. Tapping one of the holographic buttons, the hidden door slid open in response.
Autel waited for it to open completely, and made his move. Pulling out an energy garrotte, he coiled it around the other Sangheili's throat, and clenched it tightly. The enemy spluttered silently, grasping at the weapon. He rolled onto the floor, twitched once, and was silent. Stepping over the body and the blood pooling from it, the Special Operations Major said into his COM, "Sona, come down the passageway. Remain camouflaged." After watching the blurs move through the door, he closed the door behind them so as to avoid suspicion. Leaving the room, he waited for the squad to enter the hallway, and they regrouped.
"There is a way up over there," the albino Sangheili said, pointing to the end of the corridor. "I think I may know where it leads, but first we should see what is in these rooms."
Sona gave a nod, and slowly pushed open one of the doors.
A pair of Fallen were standing inside, looking bored. But they caught the slight movement of the door, and raised their weapons.
Sona ignited his Energy Sword, and lunged at one of them, easily cutting him down. The other didn't have time to react before Autel smashed his Plasma Rifle hard into his spine.
"That was not as silent as I hoped," he said. "The others may be alerted to our presence."
But the Ultra was staring at something. The former followed his gaze, and saw a series of jet-black cubes placed inside the room. Both of them immediately knew what was inside.
"Newborns," Sona said, moving towards them. Autel put a hand on his shoulder.
"Wait, Sona. We cannot bring them with us right now. We should find out everything and come back for them later. I know there is something of importance nearby."
Fira's cousin looked torn, but they were interrupted by the arrival of more enemies. They had come down the hallway to investigate.
"Disengage camouflage!" he ordered, his voice changing immediately to that of a leader during combat. "If we must fight, then we will make it a fair one."
The room made it hard to move around, but they made the best of it. Autel didn't even bother to aim as he cut down the separatists one by one. The team didn't take a single injury as they made quick work of the Fallen. When it became silent again, the albino Sangheili unclipped something from his armour and turned to Sona. He held it out to him.
"Take this," he said. "It is a recording of everything from the location of our entrance to an important conversation I just overheard. It is the evidence we need to prove the humans were set up by the Fallen."
The Ultra looked perplexed. "Why are you giving this to me?"
"I am fairly certain that the ladder over there leads into the Vadum Keep. As you know, we are forbidden to enter it without their permission. But there is something I need to retrieve from inside, and it is best I go alone. It would be less conspicuous, and should I fail..." He paused. "...it will be up to you to find these newborns again. You must also ensure that the humans are not executed."
"Are you telling me to leave you?" Sona asked. "Autel, you are asking me to commit a great dishonour. Fira would stay by your side, and I must as well."
"Sometimes," Autel said quietly. "We need to put our honour aside to do the right thing. Someone of great wisdom told me that once before during a time of turmoil, like the one we have now, and he is correct. Please, we cannot give this opportunity up because of honour. It is something that has obstructed us for so long, and our allies are counting on us. We cannot compromise that."
Fira's cousin blinked. "You are right. Very well, I wish you luck." Taking the recording device, he said, "I hope to see you at the trial." The Special Operations Major returned to the control room and opened the door as the former led them back up the passageway, their cloaking devices bringing them back into invisibility.
Taking one last look at the cube units, Autel vaguely wondered if Isto kidnapped newborns from his own lineage during his raids. I would not put it past him, he thought, engaging his camouflage. He would do anything to avoid suspicion. He left the room and quickly ran to the other side of the hall. Looking up, he saw that the ladder wasn't very long, and that a trapdoor was closed over it. He began to climb it when he heard a faint clicking behind him. It sounded like it came from the passage. It could just be Sona's team, but could also be the Fallen. He quickly reached the top and pushed the trapdoor open. The albino Sangheili clambered out, looked around for enemies, and quietly shut the opening behind him.
The room he was in was old like the corridor, but a lot cleaner. It looked like it was recently vacated. Almost certain he was in the Vadum Keep, Autel found the staircase and quietly headed up each floor, checking each room for anything of interest. To his surprise, he saw that all of them were not only unoccupied, but completely empty. Everyone must have been moved to safety or into combat. He soon reached the ground floor, and the upper levels. There were still no guards. It would be too obvious if there were Fallen wearing armour and brandishing weapons walking around the Keep.
It was not until Autel reached the second floor that he saw something interesting. Inside one of the rooms, he saw that it was not empty like the other ones. There were a series of magenta-silver devices laid on a table. One of them resembled the map fragment he saw 'Oltem examining in the Special Operations facility.
Autel grabbed some of the storage devices and stored them in his armour, and was holding the map fragment when one of Fallen entered the room. Seeing the object seeming hovering in midair, he opened fire immediately, joined by two more enemies.
The albino Sangheili hastily placed the fragment into his armour slot, and returned fire. But his few seconds of vulnerability had cost him. His shields were nearly drained, and he knew he could not kill all the enemies by himself without being overwhelmed.
Suddenly there was the sound of plasma fire echoing through the hall, accompanied by the sound of shouting. Someone was coming up the stairs as well. Had Sona and his squad come back?
One of the separtists gave a roar of surprise as something glowing adhered to his back. Knowing what it was, Autel immediately moved away as the plasma grenade exploded, killing all three of the guards in the confined space and blowing the doorway apart. Disbelievingly, he saw a pair of Sangheili decloaking in front of him. He recognized them immediately.
"Good throw, Zehr'tul," Taszar said. "But never mind keeping quiet now, the others will find us unless we leave soon." Looking over at his stepbrother, he asked, "You have everything of importance? Good, let's get to the roof. 'Pyron is picking us up."
"Taszar, how did you find me?" the Special Operations Major asked incredulously as they made their way up the stairs, ignoring the stray plasma fire that occasionally brushed them.
"We followed you. We would have entered sooner, but the doors closed before we could get in. When they opened again, I thought I saw someone moving up a ladder, so we came to see what Sona and his squad were doing here."
They reached the rooftop, and Zehr'tul quickly jammed the door in the ceiling shut with his Energy Sword handle as the sound of guards rushing after them was heard.
An invisible Phantom was waiting for them there, its turbines humming silently. As it decloaked and the three Sangheili quickly climbed in, the sound of someone banging on the door was heard. The dropship quickly took off, not even bothering to shut the hatches or wait for its camouflage to come into full effect. Taszar gave a triumphant laugh as the Fallen broke through the trapdoor and desperately fired at them.
"Fly carefully," he advised, as they left the Keep behind. "The last thing we need is an anti-aircraft cannon interrupting our departure."
'Pyron did not smile. "You never know with the Fallen. And I have had experiences with being shot down before."
The Sangheili minor turned his gaze to Autel. "Well done. I think our enemies will not be pleased with what you have taken from them."
The albino Sangheili was unsure of what to say. Taszar had just saved his life, but he himself couldn't help but remember their last conversation. It was really the things you weren't proud of that really stuck in your mind, he thought. He could see now that his stepbrother never suspected the humans of treachery. We cannot allow this confusion to divide us. "Taszar, I..."
"We can discuss what just happened later," Taszar said, who didn't seem to notice his discomfort. "Our entrance into the Vadum Keep will be the least of Isto's worries. For now, we need to ensure that we bring the navigation charts back for examining."
Autel trailed off into silence. There would be time to say everything he wanted to when they settled everything with the humans. He felt considerably more relaxed as he leaned back against the Phantom's wall. This wasn't over yet, but he was certain he would be able to prove that the Fallen had set this whole affair up. Afterward, assuming the others believed him, the Sangheili would have the chance to sort out this entire mess.
The Special Operations Major's thoughts drifted. He had put Fira's predicament out of his mind for a while, but remembered the sight of all his horrific injuries. Whether he would recover from his wounds or succumb to them, he knew his friend would want them to make sure everything was made right. It was what he had be willing to die for.
Cyla was still ill. She was clearly worried about her newborns, and as haunted by Isto's actions as he himself was. After the humans were accused of aiding the Fallen, Autel had seen how she had gone from outrage into a bitter, dejected blankness. The last few days had seeped an unshakable weariness into the Sangheili. Even the more fiery warriors were becoming subdued over time.
He hoped that once the humans were cleared they would feel hope again. The separatists could easily crush a group of defeated, burned-out soldiers, but would be fighting for their lives should they find the determined and honourable species the Sangheili once were, eager to bring the Fallen their long-awaited judgement.
"This hearing of the humans is now in session."
Hafsa looked around. They had been given the chance to put forward four representatives to defend themselves, and they'd chosen Felix, John, Commander Montrose, and himself.
The hearing hall was large, with the four humans in their own cubicle, and the tribunal up in their own personal ones encased with an energy barrier, with the Arbiter on the highest, without the barrier. The witnesses were waiting in individual units. It looked more technologically advanced than a human court, and was spherical rather than cubical, and everyone else was below them in a single large unit.
Around all of this were large, arena-like stands, packed with angry Sangheili. He knew they'd been searched, but Hafsa reckoned that at least a few had weapons.
The elder that was convinced they were guilty was standing. "You are all suspected of the atrocity of aiding and abetting our sworn enemy, the Fallen, and for the kidnapping of Sangheili children. What is your statement?"
The Lieutenant Commander, who they'd elected to be the main spokesperson for them, stood. "Not guilty."
There was a slight rumble from the onlookers. Some Sangheili looked a bit puzzled by the words that were considered the normal way of announcing in any human court. The Arbiter stood. "We shall begin with the presentation of evidence against your claim."
The elder on the right, the wild card in this situation, rose. "Tono 'Kamul, come forward."
One of the Sangheili from the cluster of witnesses drifted his cubicle forward, and the tribunal began to question them.
The Arbiter started. "Start from the beginning, if you would."
The Special Operations Commander nodded. "Yes. I got my first suspicions when I arrived at Earth to ask for help. Upon meeting the officers, I observed the response of the human superiors. They were not happy to help, and at first hesitated to do so. When pressed, I noticed they sent the best of them to our planet, as if to get them out of the way. During this time I've seen these humans do naught but plan on how to fight the Fallen, and nothing on how to get our young ones back."
The wild card elder stood. "You described the reaction of the human superiors as 'hesitant'. Could you elaborate?"
The witness nodded again. "I have video and audio of them, and it does show them seeming to want to somehow shirk this plea."
The main holographic screen lit up, and everyone could see the inside of the Eagle's Nest ops centre from a Sangheili's eye level. 'Kamul was seen standing in front of the camera.
"They were recording that?" hissed Montrose indignantly.
"There is not much time," the recording of the alien officer said. "As you already heard, we require your immediate assistance in this matter. Our ship is in orbit awaiting departure, and we will need as many of your forces as you can spare."
"I don't know," said Fleet Admiral Terrence Hood uncertainly. "We're a bit busy at the moment."
"Do you mean to refuse us?" 'Kamul asked, his voice raising slightly. The camera shifted. "After our agreement during the Schism? We had come to your aid when you were under threat of the Forerunners, and now you do are saying that you would turn us away."
"I'm not saying anything of the sort. It's just that your arrival was unexpected, and we need to think about something like this, and at such short notice, it could take a while—"
"Listen, Admiral," the Special Operations Commander said impatiently. "We did not journey all the way from Sanghelios just so you would leave us to deal with this crisis. Our newborns are being kidnapped as we speak. The Fallen think in ways completely different from ours, so we cannot hope to overcome them on our own."
"Alright," Hood said, cutting across him. Turning to one of the technicians in the room, he ordered, "Inform Commander Montrose that he needs to ready his frigate, and locate SPARTAN-116. Tell him to rally the Spartans—"
"You do not have a lot of Spartans at your disposal," 'Kamul remarked.
The Admiral sighed. "Our Marines are dealing with something else at the moment. I don't think your allies will find them very helpful anyway." The statement sounded almost accusing. Before the alien could respond, however, Hood added, "You will bring your ship into the frigate. We have recently improved our Slipspace drives, so the return trip will be faster."
The video faded. The Sangheili below muttered amongst themselves. Montrose looked exasperated. Hafsa looked somewhat outraged.
Without comment, Thel gestured toward the humans. "And now to discuss with the accused."
John and Felix exchanged a glance, and the Spartan officer stood.
"Did you think about what the humans are undergoing during your time of 'crisis'?"
'Kamul shook his head. "I do not understand."
"You know how many humans remain alive, don't you?"
"Of course, you tout it over our heads."
"And why not? Two hundred million humans from more than a hundred billion that we had a mere three decades ago. We're trying to rebuild, and our resources are spread thin. We're war-weary as we have never been. Of course we'd be hesitant to help anyone, allies or not. We're having enough problems of our own trying to solve."
"Then why send you?"
"Because Spartans are not suited to rebuilding a nation. What we need are engineers, workers, scientists, not fighters. So this was the perfect place to put us, where we'd be doing nothing but fighting."
"Then how do you justify planning to only fight the Fallen, and not rescue our young ones?"
"Think strategy. The young ones are already gone to Earth, and the Fallen are all around you. Would your young ones have a home to come back to if you got overrun? We can't focus on one problem, we'll have to split our attention, which we were planning. You called us here because the Fallen think differently from you, and so do we. So I was under the impression that you would trust our decision."
This set 'Kamul back a bit. Felix sat, and the Special Operations Commander drifted back to the witnesses.
And on it went, Sangheili standing and speaking their piece against the humans, all with similar stories. Each time the Spartan officer overcame their arguments with his own, the rumblings in the onlooking stands got louder.
Then, finally, it was time for them to defend themselves.
First was Sona 'Demal. He spoke his piece well, telling of how the humans had fought the Fallen on every possible front. He added a new element, that being that he knew they were keeping a close eye on information pertaining to the Fallen's plans for the young ones.
The elder on the left chuckled, and the enhanced hearing of the Spartans allowed him to hear the "hearsay". Felix and John looked at each other, smiling.
Several more Sangheili vouched for the humans and finally, it was Autel's turn. Sona handed the albino Sangheili something, and the latter pulled something else out from under his unit.
"During a mission where I returned to Isto 'Vadum's aircraft factory, I found this and had someone hack into its contents. He unlocked a series of logs that showed Isto's communications with Earth, and a series of plans that were very disturbing to us. The humans were taken into custody on account of this, and many believed they are not actually intending to help us."
He gave the storage device to Thel, who placed it into the projector. A long line of text appeared on the holographic screen. Montrose's expression tensed, and he frowned in confusion.
"This is the reason why my Commander thought that the humans were treacherous," Autel continued. "But I believed otherwise, and went to find out whether they were guilty or not. I returned to a location where the Spartans had been previously, and one of them told me she saw something hidden at a rock cluster. This is what I discovered upon further investigation." Handing his recording device to the Arbiter, everyone watched as the recording showed the albino Sangheili entering the passageway, and later the conversation between two of the Fallen. Montrose looked more relieved at this new evidence.
"As you have all heard, this has all been a set-up. We never would have expected any of our own species to be so deceptive, but we must not forget how the Fallen would put their honour aside so others would take the blame for their actions.
"They know that we cannot defeat them unless we have unity, and they do everything they can to break that. The Fallen have sworn allegiance against us and against the humans for heresy. They swear allegiance to the Covenant, which slaughtered more than a hundred billion humans in twenty seven years and turned on us after a millenia of our blood was spent to them. The Covenant burned human planets, killed their children, destroyed their civilization. And you have the gall to accuse them of helping the Covenant, when they willingly move to help us? It is we who should be helping them, for we are the ones who burned them, who killed them, who tried to destroy their rightful existence.
"I am most ashamed to be a Sangheili this day."
The tribunal left to deliberate on what they'd heard. Autel's words had caused a great stir of guilt all around the chamber. The humans had been returned to their holding cell to await the verdict.
Autel entered later, and the four human representatives stood forward. Felix noticed how downcast he looked, and how there was that hint of weariness in his expression that wasn't there before this entire crisis.
"That was quite a speech," the Spartan officer said.
The albino Sangheili shook his head. "Speeches mean nothing to us."
Montrose laughed. "They mean more than you think, whether your culture says they do or not!"
The Sangheili warrior smiled as the escorts entered, and he looked slightly happier. "Yes, I suppose they do." And he walked out.
"The tribunal has come to a verdict, The Arbiter will make the announcement."
"After reviewing the evidence, we have come to the conclusion that the evidence of the humans' supposed guilt is considered null to that of more recent discoveries. We find them innocent."
None of the humans smiled just yet. Some of the Sangheili looked unsatisfied and still suspicious, and Felix was glad the others didn't say anything or show their open relief. As they were collected their equipment and walked out of the building.
Raphael rearranged his shoulder sling for his Assault Rifle to a more comfortable situation as he sat down near the front of the Pelican.
Reynolds sat in the back, near the hatch. The fourteen-man team jumbled into the dropship, with four left standing.
Raphael's mirrored visor kept the rest from seeing his grin. Sitting next to the hatch was not fun during an op, and standing was least desirable, as anti-aircraft fire tended to shake them around a bit.
The dropship lifted off the deck of the super carrier Advent and glided out of the hangar.
"Who's the CO of that ship?" a Private asked, checking the ammo in his sniper rifle.
"Captain Warren." Reynolds supplied.
"He's a dick." Bail said bluntly, and the rest laughed alongside him. Reynolds was silent.
"So what's the scoop on this drop?" The Private spoke up again.
"You need to pay attention at the briefings, Jake!" Borengo answered. "This is just a standard defencive action. We take a hill and hold it."
"Damned nice if they'd just have us take a planet, and not a hill." The Lance Corporal said.
Jake slapped his magazine into the sniper rifle. "Have fun sending fourteen Marines to take a planet."
"The Spartans do." Raphael challenged.
The junior ODST snorted. "No one's heard about the Spartans in years. My guess is they're dead."
The Corporal didn't respond, as he knew Jake wasn't around when Reynolds' squad had witnessed the Forerunners' brief arrival at Earth three years ago. However, Bail answered for him.
"Spartans don't die, remember? None are listed as it."
"Well yeah? Then why'd they disappear from the news almost overnight?" Jake retorted.
"Hey boys, we got a problem here." The pilot's voice crackled over the PA system.
They all got quiet, and Raphael hit the COM button. "What's up?"
"Port yaw controls are jerking up. See if you can find out what's up, sensors are showing nothing."
Raphael stood and scooted his way to the back. "I'll get it." He knew that another would grab his seat, but he didn't care. Unlike most people, he liked holding on by his hands and feet to a ship travelling over 40,000 meters above the ground.
He opened the hatch and activated the magnetic clamps in his gauntlets and boots. Folding his body double, he leaned out the port side of the Pelican and slapped his hands against the hull and pulled him head around to look. Sometimes Drones liked to fly up and clamp on the Pelicans for a fast ride. When they did this they usually shot the hell out of whatever systems they could reach.
But what Raphael found himself looking at was definitely not a Drone.
The ODST pushed himself off the hull and back into the troop hold, slamming the hatch shut with the control panel next to the outermost seats.
"What's going on, Marine?" the pilot asked.
"Bomb on the port wing! Brace!"
Without replying, the pilot put the Pelican into a dive, and a second later the bomb exploded, shredding through the armour of the dropship like a hot knife through butter. The ship lurched as it was embroiled in fire, and began a steep ascent.
The pilot's voice crackled in their earpieces, his voice calm like that of many Navy pilots in the face of death. "Yaw and pitch controls are offline, PA system is out, and my copilot's down. Brace for hard impact!"
The safety jets on the underside fired, slowing the Pelican's descent to the surface.
Raphael reached over and caught Jake as he fell from his seat, patting him as the fire spread across his body, attempting to put the flames out. The other ODSTs were buckling in tight, and Raphael grabbed the unconscious Marine and slammed him into a seat, strapping him in.
Reynolds roared orders. "All those able to stand and jump, grab drop chutes, we're going in hard! The rest of you buckle down and wait for us on the surface!"
Raphael grabbed a chute and hurriedly strapped it on, and jumped after the others. The Pelican shot away from him as he dropped, wind buffeting him left and right, up and down. At the proper height he hit the trigger and the body chute popped out and expanded. His rate of descent slowed, and he and the rest of the jumpers hit the ground a few seconds before the Pelican slammed nose first into the hillside.
The Corporal hit another button and his chute detached, and he ran flat out for the Pelican.
Borengo was there first, and she and Raphael were able to pull the crushed hatch open as Reynolds rushed up.
"Get 'em all out!" And the ODSTs got down to the job of pulling the injured out. Only one in the Pelican had landed uninjured, and was the last out.
The uninjured Helljumper, who'd had his helmet torn off and his face dirtied by smoke, reported to Reynolds. "Lance Corporal Bail's KIA, sir. So is the pilot, he crashed the ship nose first to save us."
Raphael dragged Jake out of the wreckage and examined him. The private was covered in severe burns. "Sir, you might want to call for medevac!" Then the Corporal checked the injured Marine's vitals.
Shit. No heartbeat.
Raphael began CPR as Reynolds radioed for another dropship.
The Corporal who'd reported to Reynolds rushed over with a defibrillator, and they tried to get Jake's heart going again as a Pelican appeared in the distance.